The quarter 2 UK GDP growth figures were published at the end of July. They show that real GDP grew by a mere 0.2% over the quarter, or 0.7% over 12 months. These low growth figures follow 2010Q4 and 2011Q1 growth rates of –0.5 and 0.5 respectively, giving an approximately zero growth over those six months. The recovery that seemed to be gathering pace in early 2010, now seems to have petered out, or at best slowed right down. According to an average of 27 forecasts, collated by the Treasury, GDP is expected to grow by just 1.3% in 2011 – below the potential rate of economic growth and thus resulting in a widening of the output gap.
With such a slow pace of recovery, current forecasts suggest that it will be 2013 before the economy returns to the pre-recession level of output: just over five years after the start of the recession in 2008. This chart from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research compares the current recession with previous ones and shows how the recovery is likely to be the slowest of the five recessions since the 1930s.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in its latest Economic Forecast says that the economic outlook has become more challenging.
The intensification of euro area sovereign debt pressures has added to the downside risks facing the UK economy – although the agreement reached at the recent summit appears to represent an initial step towards resolving the issues.
Meanwhile the global economy is going through a soft patch, partly as a result of the previous surge in commodity prices, which has put pressure on household budgets and raised costs for businesses.
Against this backdrop confidence appears to have wilted somewhat.
The opposition blames the slow pace of recovery on the austerity measures imposed by the government. The depressing of aggregate demand by cutting government expenditure and raising taxes has depressed output growth. The problem has been compounded by a lack of consumer spending as real household incomes have been squeezed by inflation and as consumers fear impending tax rises and cuts in benefits. And export growth, which was hoped to lead the country’s recovery, has been hit by weak demand in Europe and elsewhere.
With weak growth, the danger is that automatic fiscal stabilisers (i.e. more people claiming benefits and lack of growth in tax revenues) will mean that the government deficit is not cut. This may then force the Chancellor into further austerity, which would compound the problem of low demand. The opposition has thus been calling for a (temporary) cut in VAT to stimulate the economy.
The government argues that rebalancing the budget is absolutely crucial to maintaining international confidence and Britain’s AAA rating by the credit rating agencies, Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor’s (S&P). Any sign that the government is slacking in its resolve, could undermine this confidence. According to George Osborne, while other countries (including the USA and many eurozone countries) are facing a lot of instability, “Britain is a safe haven. We have convinced the world that we can deal with our debts, bring our deficit down, and that’s meant that interest rates, for British families, for British businesses, are lower than they would otherwise be; it means that our country’s credit rating has been affirmed … and it means that we have that crucial ingredient of any recovery – economic stability.”
What is more, the government claims that the essence of the UK’s problem of low growth lies on the supply side. The focus of growth policy, it maintains, should be on cutting red tape, improving efficiency and, ultimately, in reducing taxes.
What we are witnessing is a debate that echoes the Keynesian/new classical debates of the 1980s and earlier: a debate between those who blame the current problem on lack of aggregate demand and those who blame it on supply-side weaknesses, including weaknesses of the banking sector.
So what should be done? Is it time for a (modest) fiscal expansion, or at least a reining in of the fiscal tightening? Should the Bank of England embark on another round of quantitative easing (QE2)? Or does the solution lie on the supply side? Or should policy combine elements of both?
UK economy grows by 0.2% BBC News (26/7/11)
Economic growth stalls – and slump will carry on until 2013 Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/7/11)
GDP figures mean Britain will miss its economic growth targets Guardian, Julia Kollewe (26/7/11)
UK GDP figures show slower growth of 0.2% BBC News (26/7/11)
UK growth forecast looks unrealistic after GDP fall Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/7/11)
UK set for low growth as the mood ‘darkens’ Independent, Sean O’Grady (1/8/11)
No sign of a U-turn – but there may be a minor course change Scotsman, John McLaren (27/7/11)
George Osborne vows to stick with ‘plan A’ despite UK GDP growth slowdown The Telegraph, John McLaren (27/7/11)
Weak growth may force Chancellor into further austerity The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (26/7/11)
UK households squeezed harder than US or Europe The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick, and Emma Rowley (30/7/11)
UK Government will have to act if growth remains weak, warns CBI The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/8/11)
UK economy GDP figures: what the experts say Guardian, Claire French (26/7/11)
My plan B for the economy Guardian, Ed Balls, Ruth Lea, Jonathan Portes, Digby Jones and Stephanie Blankenburg (27/7/11)
Not much of a squeeze The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (26/7/11)
Some safe haven The Economist (30/7/11)
UK growth – anything to be done? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (26/7/11)
IMF report on UK: main points The Telegraph, Sarah Rainey (2/8/11)
Families to be £1,500 a year worse off, IMF warns The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (2/8/11)
IMF casts doubt on UK deficit plan, Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/8/11)
Data and reports
GDP Growth (reliminary estimate) ONS
Gross domestic product preliminary estimate: 2nd Quarter 2011 ONS (26/7/11)
World Economic Outlook Update IMF
OECD Economic Outlook No. 89 Annex Tables OECD (see Table 1)
United Kingdom: IMF Country Report No. 11/220 IMF (2/8/11)
Prospects for the UK economy National Institute of Economic and Social Research (3/8/11)
- What special ‘one-off’ factors help to explain why the underlying growth in 2011Q2 may have been higher than 0.2%?
- Why is the output gap rising? How may supply-side changes affect the size of the output gap?
- Why is the recovery from recession in the UK slower than in most other countries? Why is it slower than the recovery from previous recessions?
- How may automatic fiscal stabilisers affect (a) economic growth and (b) the size of the public-sector deficit if the output gap widens?
- Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side causes of the slow rate of economic growth in the UK.
- Compare the likely effectiveness of demand-side and supply-side policy measures to stimulate economic growth, referring to both magnitude and timing.