Category: Essentials of Economics: 8e Ch 13

Rishi Sunak delivered his 2021 UK Budget on 3 March. It illustrates the delicate balancing act that governments in many countries face as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic persist and public-sector debt soars. He announced that he would continue supporting the economy through various forms of government expenditure and tax relief, but also announced tax rises over the medium term to begin addressing the massively increased public-sector debt.

Key measures of support for people and businesses include:

  • An extension of the furlough scheme until the end of September, with employees continuing to be paid 80% of their wages for hours they cannot work, but with employers having to contribute 10% in July and 20% in August and September.
  • Support for the self-employed also extended until September, with the scheme being widened to make 600 000 more self-employed people eligible.
  • The temporary £20 increase to Universal Credit, introduced in April last year and due to end on 31 March this year, to be extended to the end of September.
  • Stamp duty holiday on house purchases in England and Northern Ireland, under which there is no tax liability on sales of less than £500 000, extended from the end of March to the end of June.
  • An additional £1.65bn to support the UK’s vaccination rollout.
  • VAT rate for hospitality firms to be maintained at the reduced 5% rate until the end of September and then raised to 12.5% (rather than 20%) for a further six months.
  • A range of grants for the arts, sport, shops , other businesses and apprenticeships.
  • Business rates holiday for hospitality firms in England extended from the end of March to the end of June and then with a discount of 66% until April 2022.
  • 130% of investment costs can be offset against tax – a new tax ‘super-deduction’.
  • No tax rises on alcohol, tobacco or fuel.
  • New UK Infrastructure Bank to be set up in Leeds with £12bn in capital to support £40bn worth of public and private projects.
  • Increased grants for devolved nations and grants for 45 English towns.

It has surprised many commentators that there was no announcement of greater investment in the NHS or more money for social care beyond the £3bn for the NHS and £1bn for social care announced in the November Spending Review. The NHS England budget will fall from £148bn in 2020/21 to £139bn in 2021/22.

Effects on borrowing and GDP


The net effect of these measures for the two financial years 2020 to 2022 is forecast by the Treasury to be an additional £37.5bn of government expenditure and a £27.3bn reduction in tax revenue (see Table 2.1 in Budget 2021). This takes the total support since the start of the pandemic to £352bn across the two years.

According to the OBR, this will result in public-sector borrowing being 16.9% of GDP in 2020/21 (the highest since the Second World War) and 10.3% of GDP in 2021/22. Public-sector debt will be 107.4% of GDP in 2021/22, rising to 109.7% in 2023/24 and then falling to 103.8% in 2025/26.

Faced with this big increase in borrowing, the Chancellor also announced some measures to raise tax revenue beginning in two years’ time when, hopefully, the economy will have grown. Indeed, the OBR forecasts that GDP will grow by 4.0% in 2021 and 7.3% in 2022, with the growth rate then settling at around 1.7% from 2023 onwards. He announced that:

  • Corporation tax on company profits over £250 000 will rise from 19% to 25% in April 2023. Rates for profits under £50 000 will remain at the current rate of 19%, with the rate rising in stages as profits rise above £50 000.
  • Personal income tax thresholds will be frozen from 2022/23 to 2025/26 at £12 570 for the basic 20% marginal rate and at £50 270 for the 40% marginal rate. This will increase the average tax rate as people’s nominal incomes rise.

The policy of a fiscal boost now and a fiscal tightening later might pose political difficulties for the government as this does not fit with the electoral cycle. Normally, politicians like to pursue tighter policies in the early years of the government only to loosen policy with various giveaways as the next election approaches. With Rishi Sunak’s policies, the opposite is the case, with fiscal policy being tightened as the 2024 election approaches.

Another issue is the high degree of uncertainty in the forecasts on which he is basing his policies. If there is another wave of the coronavirus with a new strain resistant to the vaccines or if the scarring effects of the lockdowns are greater, then growth could stall. Or if inflation begins to rise and the Bank of England feels it must raise interest rates, then this would suppress growth. With lower growth, the public-sector deficit would be higher and the government would be faced with the dilemma of whether it should raise taxes, cut government expenditure or accept higher borrowing.

What is more, there are likely to be huge pressures on the government to increase public spending, not cut it by £4bn per year in the medium term as he plans. As Paul Johnson of the IFS states:

In reality, there will be pressures from all sorts of directions. The NHS is perhaps the most obvious. Further top-ups seem near-inevitable. Catching up on lost learning in schools, dealing with the backlog in our courts system, supporting public transport providers, and fixing our system for social care funding would all require additional spending. The Chancellor’s medium-term spending plans simply look implausibly low.

Articles and Briefings

Official documents and data

Questions

  1. Assess the wisdom of the timing of the changes in tax and government expenditure announced in the Budget.
  2. Universal credit was increased by £20 per week in April 2020 and is now due to fall back to its previous level in October 2021. Have the needs of people on Universal Credit increased during the pandemic and, if so, are they likely to return to their previous level in October?
  3. In the past, the government argued that reductions in the rate of corporation tax would increase tax revenue. The Chancellor now argues that increasing it from 19% to 25% will increase tax revenue. Examine the justification for this increase and the significance of relative profit tax rates between countries.
  4. Investigate the effects on the public finances of the pandemic and government fiscal policy in two other countries. How do the effects compare with those in the UK?
  5. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks at poverty in the UK and policies to tackle it. It set five tests for the Budget. Examine its Budget Analysis and consider whether these tests have been met.

Bubbles

Speculation in markets can lead to wild swings in prices as exuberance drives up prices and
pessimism leads to price crashes. When the rise in price exceeds underlying fundamentals, such as profit, the result is a bubble. And bubbles burst.

There have been many examples of bubbles throughout history. One of the most famous is that of tulips in the 17th century. As Box 2.4 in Essential Economics for Business (6th edition) explains:

Between November 1636 and February 1637, there was a 20-fold increase in the price of tulip bulbs, such that a skilled worker’s annual salary would not even cover the price of one bulb. Some were even worth more than a luxury home! But, only three months later, their price had fallen by 99 per cent. Some traders refused to pay the high price and others began to sell their tulips. Prices began falling. This dampened demand (as tulips were seen to be a poor investment) and encouraged more people to sell their tulips. Soon the price was in freefall, with everyone selling. The bubble had burst .

Another example was the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Here, shares in the South Sea Company, given a monopoly by the British government to trade with South America, increased by 900% before collapsing through a lack of trade.

Another, more recent, example is that of Poseidon. This was an Australian nickel mining company which announced in September 1969 that it had discovered a large seam of nickel at Mount Windarra, WA. What followed was a bubble. The share price rose from $0.80 in mid-1969 to a peak of $280 in February 1970 and then crashed to just a few dollars.

Other examples are the Dotcom bubble of the 1990s, the US housing bubble of the mid-2000s and BitCoin, which has seen more than one bubble.

Bubbles always burst eventually. If you buy at a low price and sell at the peak, you can make a lot of money. But many will get their fingers burnt. Those who come late into the market may pay a high price and, if they are slow to sell, can then make a large loss.

GameStop shares – an unlikely candidate for a bubble

The most recent example of a bubble is GameStop. This is a chain of shops in the USA selling games, consoles and other electronic items. During the pandemic it has struggled, as games consumers have turned to online sellers of consoles and online games. It has been forced to close a number of stores. In July 2020, its share price was around $4. With the general recovery in stock markets, this drifted upwards to just under $20 by 12 January 2021.

Then the bubble began.

Hedge fund shorting

Believing that the GameStop shares were now overvalued and likely to fall, many hedge funds started shorting the shares. Shorting (or ‘short selling’) is where investors borrow shares for a fee and immediately sell them on at the current price, agreeing to return them to the lender on a specified day in the near future (the ‘expiration date’). But as the investors have sold the shares they borrowed, they must now buy them at the current price on or before the expiration date so they can return them to the lenders. If the price falls between the two dates, the investors will gain. For example, if you borrow shares and immediately sell them at a current price of £5 and then by the expiration date the price has fallen to $2 and you buy them back at that price to return them to the lender, you make a £3 profit.

But this is a risky strategy. If the price rises between the two dates, investors will lose – as events were to prove.

The swarm of small investors

Enter the ‘armchair investor’. During lockdown, small-scale amateur investing in shares has become a popular activity, with people seeking to make easy gains from the comfort of their own homes. This has been facilitated by online trading platforms such as Robinhood and Trading212. These are easy and cheap, or even free, to use.

What is more, many users of these sites were also collaborating on social media platforms, such as Reddit. They were encouraging each other to buy shares in GameStop and some other companies. In fact, many of these small investors were seeing it as a battle with large-scale institutional investors, such as hedge funds – a David vs. Goliath battle.

With swarms of small investors buying GameStop, its share price surged. From $20 on 12 January, it doubled in price within two days and had reached $77 by 25 January. The frenzy on Reddit then really gathered pace. The share price peaked at $468 early on 28 January. It then fell to $126 less than two hours later, only to rise again to $354 at the beginning of the next day.

Many large investors who had shorted GameStop shares made big losses. Analytics firm Ortex estimated that hedge funds lost a total of $12.5 billion in January. Many small investors, however, who bought early and sold at the peak made huge gains. Other small investors who got the timing wrong made large losses.

And it was not just GameStop. Social media were buzzing with suggestions about buying shares in other poorly performing companies that large-scale institutional investors were shorting. Another target was silver and silver mines. At one point, silver prices rose by more than 10% on 1 February. However, money invested in silver is huge relative to GameStop and hence small investors were unlikely to shift prices by anything like as much as GameStop shares.

Amidst this turmoil, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a statement on 29 January. It warned that it was working closely with other regulators and the US stock exchange ‘to ensure that regulated entities uphold their obligations to protect investors and to identify and pursue potential wrongdoing’. It remains to be seen, however, what it can do to curb the concerted activities of small investors. Perhaps, only the experience of bubbles bursting and the severe losses that can result will make small investors think twice about backing failing companies. Some Davids may beat Goliath; others will be defeated.

Articles

Data

Questions

  1. Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation.
  2. Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate destabilising speculation.
  3. Explain how short selling contributed to the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see Box 2.7 in Economics (10th edition) or Box 3.4 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition)).
  4. Why won’t shares such as GameStop go on rising rapidly in price for ever? What limits the rise?
  5. Find out some other shares that have been trending among small investors. Why were these specific shares targeted?
  6. How has quantitative easing impacted on stock markets? What might be the effect of a winding down of QE or even the use of quantitative tightening?

In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.

As the notes to the programme state:

The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?

The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.

It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.

Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?

The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.

Podcast

Questions

  1. In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
  2. What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
  3. To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
  4. How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
  5. How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
  6. How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
  7. How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
  8. Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
  9. How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
  10. How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
  11. Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
  12. How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
  13. How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
  14. In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?

The BBC podcast linked below looks at the use of quantitative easing since 2009 and especially the most recent round since the onset of the pandemic.

Although QE was a major contributor to reducing the depth of the recession in 2009–10, it was barely used from 2013 to 2020 (except for a short period in late 2016/early 2017). The Coalition and Conservative governments were keen to get the deficit down. In justifying pay restraint and curbing government expenditure, Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May both argued that there ‘was no magic money tree’.

But with the severely dampening effect of the lockdown measures from March 2020, the government embarked on a large round of expenditure, including the furlough scheme and support for businesses.

The resulting rise in the budget deficit was accompanied by a new round of QE from the beginning of April. The stock of assets purchased by the Bank of England rose from £445 billion (the approximate level it had been since March 2017) to £740 billion by December 2020 and is planned to reach £895 billion by the end of 2021.

So with the effective funding of the government’s deficits by the creation of new money, does this mean that there is indeed a ‘magic money tree’ or, indeed, a ‘magic money forest’? And if so, is it desirable? Is it simply stoking up problems for the future? Or will, as modern monetary theorists maintain, the extra money, if carefully spent, lead to faster growth and a reducing deficit, with low interest rates making it easy to service the debt?

The podcast explores these issues. There is then a longer list of questions than normal relating to the topics raised in the podcast.

Podcast

Questions

  1. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows?
    (a) Money
    (b) Income
    (c) The total amount people save each month
    (d) The money held in savings accounts
    (e) Public-sector net debt
    (f) Public-sector net borrowing
    (g) National income
    (h) Injections into the circular flow of income
    (i) Aggregate demand
    (j) Wealth
  2. How do banks create money?
  3. What is the role of the Debt Management Office in the sale of gilts?
  4. Describe the birth of QE.
  5. Is raising asset prices the best means of stimulating the economy? What are the disadvantages of this form of monetary expansion?
  6. What are the possible exit routes from QE and what problems could occur from reducing the central bank’s stock of assets?
  7. Is the use of QE in the current Covid-19 crisis directly related to fiscal policy? Or is this use of monetary policy simply a means of hitting the inflation target?
  8. What are the disadvantages of having interest rates at ultra-low levels?
  9. Does it matter if the stock of government debt rises substantially if the gilts are at ultra-low fixed interest rates?
  10. What are the intergenerational effects of substantial QE? Does it depend on how debt is financed?
  11. How do the policy recommendations of modern monetary theorists differ from those of more conventional macroeconomists?
  12. In an era of ultra-low interest rates, does fiscal policy have a greater role to play than monetary policy?

On 25 November, the UK government published its Spending Review 2020. This gives details of estimated government expenditure for the current financial year, 2020/21, and plans for government expenditure and the likely totals for 2021/22.

The focus of the Review is specifically on the effects of and responses to the coronavirus pandemic. It does not consider the effects of Brexit, with or without a trade deal, or plans for taxation. The Review is based on forecasts by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). Because of the high degree of uncertainty over the spread of the disease and the timing and efficacy of vaccines, the OBR gives three forecast values for most variables – pessimistic, central and optimistic.

According to the central forecast, real GDP is set to decline by 11.3% in 2020, the largest one-year fall since the Great Frost of 1709. The economy is then set to ‘bounce back’ (somewhat), with GDP rising by 5.2% in 2021.

Unemployment will rise from 3.9% in 2019 to a peak of 7.5% in mid-2021, after the furlough scheme and other support for employers is withdrawn.

This blog focuses at the impact on government borrowing and debt and the implications for the future – both the funding of the debt and ways of reducing it.

Soaring government deficits and debt


Government expenditure during the pandemic has risen sharply through measures such as the furlough scheme, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and various business loans. This, combined with falling tax revenue, as incomes and consumer expenditure have declined, has led to a rise in public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) from 2.5% of GDP in 2019/20 to a central forecast of 19% for 2020/21 – the largest since World War II. By 2025/26 it is still forecast to be 3.9% of GDP. The figure has also been pushed up by a fall in nominal GDP for 2020/21 (the denominator) by nearly 7%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.)

The high levels of PSNB are pushing up public-sector net debt (PSNB). This is forecast to rise from 85.5% of GDP in 2019/20 to 105.2% in 2020/21, peaking at 109.4% in 2023/24.

The exceptionally high deficit and debt levels will mean that the government misses by a very large margin its three borrowing and debt targets set out in the latest (Autumn 2016) ‘Charter for Budget Responsibility‘. These are:

  • to reduce cyclically-adjusted public-sector net borrowing to below 2% of GDP by 2020/21;
  • for public-sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling in 2020/21;
  • for overall borrowing to be zero or in surplus by 2025/26.

But, as the Chancellor said in presenting the Review:

Our health emergency is not yet over. And our economic emergency has only just begun. So our immediate priority is to protect people’s lives and livelihoods.

Putting the public finances on a sustainable footing

Running a large budget deficit in an emergency is an essential policy for dealing with the massive decline in aggregate demand and for supporting those who have, or otherwise would have, lost their jobs. But what of the longer-term implications? What are the options for dealing with the high levels of debt?

1. Raising taxes. This tends to be the preferred approach of those on the left, who want to protect or improve public services. For them, the use of higher progressive taxes, such as income tax, or corporation tax or capital gains tax, are a means of funding such services and of providing support for those on lower incomes. There has been much discussion of the possibility of finding a way of taxing large tech companies, which are able to avoid taxes by declaring very low profits by diverting them to tax havens.

2. Cutting government expenditure. This is the traditional preference of those on the right, who prefer to cut the overall size of the state and thus allow for lower taxes. However, this is difficult to do without cutting vital services. Indeed, there is pressure to have higher government expenditure over the longer term to finance infrastructure investment – something supported by the Conservative government.

A downside of either of the above is that they squeeze aggregate demand and hence may slow the recovery. There was much discussion after the financial crisis over whether ‘austerity policies’ hindered the recovery and whether they created negative supply-side effects by dampening investment.

3. Accepting higher levels of debt into the longer term. This is a possible response as long as interest rates remain at record low levels. With depressed demand, loose monetary policy may be sustainable over a number of years. Quantitative easing depresses bond yields and makes it cheaper for governments to finance borrowing. Servicing high levels of debt may be quite affordable.

The problem is if inflation begins to rise. Even with lower aggregate demand, if aggregate supply has fallen faster because of bankruptcies and lack of investment, there may be upward pressure on prices. The Bank of England may have to raise interest rates, making it more expensive for the government to service its debts.

Another problem with not reducing the debt is that if another emergency occurs in the future, there will be less scope for further borrowing to support the economy.

4. Higher growth ‘deals’ with the deficit and reduces debt. In this scenario, austerity would be unnecessary. This is the ‘golden’ scenario – for the country to grow its way out of the problem. Higher output and incomes leads to higher tax revenues, and lower unemployment leads to lower expenditure on unemployment benefits. The crucial question is the relationship between aggregate demand and supply. For growth to be sustainable and shrink the debt/GDP ratio, aggregate demand must expand steadily in line with the growth in aggregate supply. The faster aggregate supply can grow, the faster can aggregate demand. In other words, the faster the growth in potential GDP, the faster can be the sustainable rate of growth of actual GDP and the faster can the debt/GDP ratio shrink.

One of the key issues is the degree of economic ‘scarring’ from the pandemic and the associated restrictions on economic activity. The bigger the decline in potential output from the closure of firms and the greater the deskilling of workers who have been laid off, the harder it will be for the economy to recover and the longer high deficits are likely to persist.

Another issue is the lack of labour productivity growth in the UK in recent years. If labour productivity does not increase, this will severely restrict the growth in potential output. Focusing on training and examining incentives, work practices and pay structures are necessary if productivity is to rise significantly. So too is finding ways to encourage firms to increase investment in new technologies.

Podcast and videos

Articles

OBR Data

Questions

  1. What is the significance of the relationship between the rate of economic growth and the rate of interest for financing public-sector debt over the longer term?
  2. What can the government do to encourage investment in the economy?
  3. Using OBR data, find out what has happened to the output gap over the past few years and what is forecast to happen to it over the next five years. Explain the significance of the figures.
  4. Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side policies. How would you characterise the policies to tackle public-sector net debt in terms of this distinction? Do the policies have a mixture of demand- and supply-side effects?
  5. Choose two other developed countries. Examine how their their public finances have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the policies they are adopting to tackle the economic effects of the pandemic.