We have examined inflation in several blogs in recent months. With inflation at levels not seen for 40 years, this is hardly surprising. One question we’ve examined is whether the policy response has been correct. For example, in July, we asked whether the Bank of England had raised interest rates too much, too late. In judging policy, one useful distinction is between demand-pull inflation and cost-push inflation. Do they require the same policy response? Is raising interest rates to get inflation down to the target rate equally applicable to inflation caused by excessive demand and inflation caused by rising costs, where those rising costs are not caused by rising demand?
In terms of aggregate demand and supply, demand-pull inflation is shown by continuing rightward shifts in aggregate demand (AD); cost-push inflation is shown by continuing leftward/upward shifts in short-run aggregate supply (SRAS). This is illustrated in the following diagram, which shows a single shift in aggregate demand or short-run aggregate supply. For inflation to continue, rather than being a single rise in prices, the curves must continue to shift.
As you can see, the effects on real GDP (Y) are quite different. A rise in aggregate demand will tend to increase GDP (as long as capacity constraints allow). A rise in costs, and hence an upward shift in short-run aggregate supply, will lead to a fall in GDP as firms cut output in the face of rising costs and as consumers consume less as the cost of living rises.
The inflation experienced by the UK and other countries in recent months has been largely of the cost-push variety. Causes include: supply-chain bottlenecks as economies opened up after COVID-19; the war in Ukraine and its effects on oil and gas supplies and various grains; and avian flu and poor harvests from droughts and floods associated with global warming resulting in a fall in food supplies. These all led to a rise in prices. In the UK’s case, this was compounded by Brexit, which added to firms’ administrative costs and, according to the Bank of England, was estimated to cause a long-term fall in productivity of around 3 to 4 per cent.
The rise in costs had the effect of shifting short-run aggregate supply upwards to the left. As well as leading to a rise in prices and a cost-of-living squeeze, the rising costs dampened expenditure.
This was compounded by a tightening of fiscal policy as governments attempted to tackle public-sector deficits and debt, which had soared with the support measures during the pandemic. It was also compounded by rising interest rates as central banks attempted to bring inflation back to target.
Monetary policy response
Central banks are generally charged with keeping inflation in the medium term at a target rate set by the government or the central bank itself. For most developed countries, this is 2% (see table in the blog, Should central bank targets be changed?). So is raising interest rates the correct policy response to cost-push inflation?
One argument is that monetary policy is inappropriate in the face of supply shocks. The supply shocks themselves have the effect of dampening demand. Raising interest rates will compound this effect, resulting in lower growth or even a recession. If the supply shocks are temporary, such as supply-chain disruptions caused by lockdowns during the pandemic, then it might be better to ride out the problem and not raise interest rates or raise them by only a small amount. Already cost pressures are easing in some areas as supplies have risen.
If, however, the fall in aggregate supply is more persistent, such as from climate-related declines in harvests or the Ukraine war dragging on, or new disruptions to supply associated with the Israel–Gaza war, or, in the UK’s case, with Brexit, then real aggregate demand may need to be reduced in order to match the lower aggregate supply. Or, at the very least, the growth in aggregate demand may need to be slowed to match the slower growth in aggregate supply.
Huw Pill, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, in a podcast from the Columbia Law School (see links below), argued that people should recognise that the rise in costs has made them poorer. If they respond to the rising costs by seeking higher wages, or in the case of businesses, by putting up prices, this will simply stoke inflation. In these circumstances, raising interest rates to cool aggregate demand may reduce people’s ability to gain higher wages or put up prices.
Another argument for raising interest rates in the face of cost-push inflation is when those cost increases are felt more than in other countries. The USA has suffered less from cost pressures than the UK. On the other hand, its growth rate is higher, suggesting that its inflation, albeit lower than in the UK, is more of the demand-pull variety. Despite its inflation rate being lower than in the UK, the problem of excess demand has led the Fed to adopt an aggressive interest rate policy. Its target rate is 5.25% to 5.50%, while the Bank of England’s is 5.25%. In order to prevent short-term capital outflows and a resulting depreciation in the pound, further stoking inflation, the Bank of England has been under pressure to mirror interest rate rises in the USA, the eurozone and elsewhere.
Blogs on this site
Information and data
- How may monetary policy affect inflationary expectations?
- If cost-push inflation makes people generally poorer, what role does the government have in making the distribution of a cut in real income a fair one?
- In the context of cost-push inflation, how might the authorities prevent a wage–price spiral?
- With reference to the second article above, explain the ‘monetary policy conundrum’ faced by the Bank of Japan.
- If central banks have a single policy instrument, namely changes in interest rates, how may conflicts arise when there is more than one macroeconomic objective?
- Is Russia’s rise in inflation the result of cost or demand pressures, or a mixture of the two (see articles above)?
The Autumn Statement was announced by Jeremy Hunt in Parliament on Thursday 17th November. This was Hunt’s first big speech since becoming Chancellor or the Exchequer a few weeks ago. He revealed to the House of Commons that there will be tax rises and spending cuts worth billions of pounds, aimed at mending the nation’s finances. It is hoped that the new plans will restore market confidence shaken by his predecessor’s mini-Budget. He claimed that the mixture of tax rises and spending cuts would be distributed fairly.
What is the Autumn statement?
The March Budget is the government’s main financial plan, where it decides how much money people will be taxed and where that money will be spent. The Autumn Statement is like a second Budget. This is an update half a year later on how things are going. However, that doesn’t mean it is not as important. This year’s Autumn Statement is especially important given the number of changes in government in recent months. The Statement unfortunately comes at a time when the cost of living is rising at its fastest rate for 41 years, meaning that it is going to be a tough winter for many people.
It was expected that the Statement was not going to be one to celebrate, given that the UK is now believed to be in a recession. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that the UK economy will shrink by 1.4% next year. However, Hunt said that his focus was on stability and ensuring a shallower downturn. The Chancellor outlined his ‘plan for stability’ by announcing deep spending cuts and tax rises in the autumn statement. He said that half of his £55bn plan would come from tax rises, and the rest from spending cuts.
The Chancellor plans to tackle rising prices and restore the UK’s credibility with international markets. He said that it will be a balanced path to stability, with the need to tackle inflation to bring down the cost of living while also supporting the economy on a path to sustainable growth. It will mean further concerns for many, but the Chancellor argued that the most vulnerable in society are being protected. He stated that despite difficult decisions being made, the plan was fair.
What was announced?
The government’s overall strategy appears to assume that, by tightening fiscal policy, monetary policy will not have to tighten as much. The hopeful consequence of which is that interest rates will be lower than they otherwise would have been. This means interest-rate sensitive parts of the economy, the housing sector in particular, are more protected than it would have been.
The following are some of the key measures announced:
- Tax thresholds will be frozen until April 2028, meaning millions will pay more tax as their nominal incomes rise.
- Spending on public services in England will rise more slowly than planned – with some departments facing cuts after the next election.
- The state pensions triple lock will be kept, meaning pensioners will see a 10.1% rise in weekly payments.
- The household energy price cap per unit of gas and electricity has been extended for one year beyond April but made less generous, with typical bills then being £3000 a year instead of £2500.
- There will be additional cost-of-living payments for the ‘most vulnerable’, with £900 for those on benefits, and £300 for pensioners.
- The top 45% additional rate of income tax will be paid on earnings over £125 140 instead of £150 000.
- The UK minimum wage (or ‘National Living Wage’ as the government calls it) for people over 23 will increase from £9.50 to £10.42 per hour.
- The windfall tax on oil and gas firms will increase from 25% to 35%, raising £55bn over the period from now until 2028.
The public finances
A key feature of the Autumn Statement was the Chancellor’s attempt to tackle the deteriorating public finances and to reduce the public-sector deficit and debt. The following three charts are based on data from the OBR (see data links below). They all show data for financial years beginning in the year shown. They all include OBR forecasts up to 2025/26, with the forecasts being based on the measures announced in the Autumn Statement.
Figure 1 shows public-sector current expenditure and receipts and the balance between them, giving the current deficit (or surplus), shown by the green bars. Current expenditure excludes capital expenditure on things such as hospitals, schools and roads. Since 1973, there has been a current deficit in most years. However, the deficit of 11.5% of GDP in 2020/21 was exceptional given government support measures for households and business during the pandemic. The deficit fell to 3.3% in 2021/22, but is forecast to grow to 4.6% in 2022/23 thanks to government subsidies to energy suppliers to allow energy prices to be capped. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)
Figure 2 shows public-sector expenditure (current plus capital) from 1950. You can see the spike after the financial crisis of 2007–8 when the government introduced various measures to support the banking system. You can also see the bigger spike in 2020/21 when pandemic support measures saw government expenditure rise to a record 53.0% of GDP. It has risen again this financial year to a predicted to 47.3% of GDP from 44.7% last financial year. It is forecast to fall only slightly, to 47.2%, in 2023/24, before then falling more substantially as the tax rises and spending cuts announced in the Autumn Statement start to take effect. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)
Figure 3 shows public-sector debt since 1975. COVID support measures, capping energy prices and a slow growing or falling GDP have contributed to a rise in debt as a proportion of GDP since 2020/21. Debt is forecast to peak in 2023/24 at a record 106.7% of GDP. During the 20 years from 1988/89 to 2007/8 it averaged just 30.9% of GDP. After the financial crisis of 2007–8 it rose to 81.6% by 2014/15 and then averaged 82.2% between 2014/15 and 2019/20. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)
The government has been keen to stress that Mr Hunt’s statement does not amount to a return to the austerity policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, in office between 2010 and 2015. However, Labour Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said Mr Hunt’s Autumn Statement was an ‘invoice for the economic carnage’ the Conservative government had created. There have also been some comments raised by economists questioning the need for spending cuts and tax rises on this scale, with some saying that the decisions being made are political.
Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has commented on the plans, stating that the British people ‘just got a lot poorer’ after a series of ‘economic own goals’ that have made a recovery much harder than it might have been. He went on to say that the government was ‘reaping the costs of a long-term failure to grow the economy’, along with an ageing population and high levels of historic borrowing.
Disapproval also came from Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who criticised the government’s tax increases. He raised concerns about the government’s plans to increase taxation when the economy is entering a recession. He said, ’You would normally expect there to be some fiscal support for an economy in recession.’
High inflation and rising interest rates will lead to consumers spending less, tipping the UK’s economy into a recession, which the OBR expects to last for just over a year. Its forecasts show that the economy will grow by 4.2% this year but will shrink by 1.4% in 2023, before growth slowly picks up again. GDP should then rise by 1.3% in 2024, 2.6% in 2025 and 2.7% in 2026.
The OBR predicts that there will be 3.2 million more people paying income tax between 2021/22 and 2027/28 as a result of the new tax policy and many more paying higher taxes as a proportion of their income. This is because they will be dragged into higher tax bands as thresholds and allowances on income tax, national insurance and inheritance tax have been frozen until 2028. Government documents said these decisions on personal taxes would raise an additional £3.5bn by 2028 – the consequence of ‘fiscal drag’ pulling more Britons into higher tax brackets. The OBR expects that there will be an extra 2.6 million paying tax at the higher, 40% rate. This is going to put more pressure on households who are already feeling the impact of inflation on their disposable income.
However, this pressure on incomes is set to continue, with real incomes falling by the largest amount since records began in 1956. Real household incomes are forecast to fall by 7% in the next few years, which even after the support from the government, is the equivalent of £1700 per year on average. And the number unemployed is expected to rise by more than 500 000. Senior research economist at the IFS, Xiaowei Xu, described the UK as heading for another lost decade of income growth.
There may be some good news for inflation, with suggestions that it has now peaked. The OBR forecasts that the inflation rate will drop to 7.4% next year. This is still a concern, however, given that the target set for inflation is 2%. Despite the inflation rate potentially peaking, the impact on households has not. The fall in the inflation rate does not mean that prices in the shops will be going down. It just means that they will be going up more slowly than now. The OBR expects that prices will not start to fall (inflation becoming negative) until late 2024.
The overall tone of the government’s announcements was no surprise and policies were largely expected by the markets, hence their muted response. However, this did not make them any less economically painful. There are major concerns for households over what they now face over the next few years, something that the government has not denied.
It has been suggested that this situation, however, has been made worse by historic choices, including cutting state capital spending, cuts in the budget for vocational education, Brexit and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget. It is evident that Britons have a tough time ahead in the next year or so. The UK has already had one lost decade of flatlining living standards since the global financial crisis and is now heading for another one with the cost of living crisis.
- Autumn Statement 2022: Key points at-a-glance
BBC News (17/11/22)
- Autumn statement 2022: key points at a glance
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Aubrey Allegretti (17/11/22)
- Next two years will be ‘challenging’, says Chancellor Jeremy Hunt – as disposable incomes head for biggest fall on record
Sky News, Sophie Morris (18/11/22)
- What the Autumn Statement means for you and the cost of living
BBC News, Kevin Peachey (17/11/22)
- Autumn Statement: Jeremy Hunt warns of challenges as living standards plunge
BBC News, Kate Whannel (17/11/22)
- Autumn Statement: BBC experts on six things you need to know
BBC News (17/11/22)
- Autumn statement 2022: experts react
The Conversation (17/11/22)
- Autumn Statement Special: Top of the Charts
Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell (18/11/22)
- Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement is a poisoned chalice for whoever wins the next election
The Conversation, Steve Schifferes (18/11/22)
- UK households face largest fall in living standards in six decades
Financial Times, Delphine Strauss (17/11/22)
- How the autumn statement brought back the ‘squeezed middle’
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/11/22)
- The British people ‘just got a lot poorer’, says IFS thinktank
The Guardian, Anna Isaac (18/11/22)
- Autumn Statement: Hunt has picked pockets of entire country, Labour says
BBC News, Joshua Nevett (17/11/22)
- UK government announces budget; country faces largest fall in living standards since records began
CNBC, Elliot Smith (17/11/22)
- The first step to Britain’s economic recovery is to start telling the truth
The Observer, Will Hutton (20/11/22)
- Autumn Statement 2022 response
Institute for Fiscal Studies, Stuart Adam, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Heidi Karjalainen, Peter Levell, Isabel Stockton, Tom Waters, Thomas Wernham, Xiaowei Xu and Ben Zaranko (17/11/22)
- Help today, squeeze tomorrow: Putting the 2022 Autumn Statement in context
Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell, Mike Brewer, Molly Broome, Nye Cominetti, Adam Corlett, Emily Fry, Sophie Hale, Karl Handscomb, Jack Leslie, Jonathan Marshall, Charlie McCurdy, Krishan Shah, James Smith,
Gregory Thwaites & Lalitha Try (18/11/22)
- What do you understand by the term ‘fiscal drag’?
- Provide a critique of the Autumn Statement from the left.
- Provide a critique of the Autumn Statement from the right.
- What are the concerns about raising taxation during a recession?
- Define the term ‘windfall tax’. What are the advantages and disadvantages of imposing/increasing windfall taxes on energy producers in the current situation?
The OECD has recently published its six-monthly Economic Outlook. This assesses the global economic situation and the prospects for the 38 members of the OECD.
It forecasts that the UK economy will bounce back strongly from the deep recession of 2020, when the economy contracted by 9.8 per cent. This contraction was deeper than in most countries, with the USA contracting by 3.5 per cent, Germany by 5.1 per cent, France by 8.2 per cent, Japan by 4.7 per cent and the OECD as a whole by 4.8 per cent. But, with the success of the vaccine roll-out, UK growth in 2021 is forecast by the OECD to be 7.2 per cent, which is higher than in most other countries. The USA is forecast to grow by 6.8 per cent, Germany by 3.3 per cent, France by 5.8 per cent, Japan by 2.6 per cent and the OECD as a whole by 5.3 per cent. Table 1 in the Statistical Annex gives the figures.
This good news for the UK, however, is tempered by some worrying features.
The OECD forecasts that potential economic growth will be negative in 2021, with capacity declining by 0.4 per cent. Only two other OECD countries, Italy and Greece, are forecast to have negative potential economic growth (see Table 24 in the Statistical Annex). A rapid increase in aggregate demand, accompanied by a decline in aggregate supply, could result in inflationary pressures, even if initially there is considerable slack in some parts of the economy.
Part of the reason for the supply constraints are the additional barriers to trade with the EU resulting from Brexit. The extra paperwork for exporters has added to export costs, and rules-of-origin regulations add tariffs to many exports to the EU (see the blog A free-trade deal? Not really). Another supply constraint linked to Brexit is the shortage of labour in certain sectors, such as hospitality, construction and transport. With many EU citizens having left the UK and not being replaced by equivalent numbers of new immigrants, the problem is likely to persist.
The scarring effects of the pandemic present another problem. There has been a decline in investment. Even if this is only temporary, it will have a long-term impact on capacity, unless there is a compensating rise in investment in the future. Many businesses have closed and will not re-open, including many High Street stores. Moves to working from home, even if partially reversed as the economy unlocks, will have effects on the public transport industry. Also, people may have found new patterns of consumption, such as making more things for themselves rather than buying them, which could affect many industries. It is too early to predict the extent of these scarring effects and how permanent they will be, but they could have a dampening effect on certain sectors.
So will inflation take off, or will it remain subdued? At first sight it would seem that inflation is set to rise significantly. Annual CPI inflation rose from 0.7 per cent in March 2021 to 1.5 per cent in April, with the CPI rising by 0.6 per cent in April alone. What is more, the housing market has seen a large rise in demand, with annual house price inflation reaching 10.2 per cent in March.
But these rises have been driven by some one-off events. As the economy began unlocking, so spending rose dramatically. While this may continue for a few months, it may not persist, as an initial rise in household spending may reflect pent-up demand and as the furlough scheme comes to an end in September.
As far as as the housing market is concerned, the rise in demand has been fuelled by the stamp duty ‘holiday’ which exempts residential property purchase from Stamp Duty Land Tax for properties under £500 000 in England and Northern Ireland and £250 000 in Scotland and Wales (rather than the original £125 000 in England and Northern Ireland, £145 000 in Scotland and £180 000 in Wales). In England and Northern Ireland, this limit is due to reduce to £250 000 on 30 June and back to £125 000 on 30 September. In Scotland the holiday ended on 31 March and in Wales is due to end on 30 June. As these deadlines are passed, this should see a significant cooling of demand.
Finally, although the gap between potential and actual output is narrowing, there is still a gap. According to the OECD (Table 12) the output gap in 2021 is forecast to be −4.6 per cent. Although it was −11.4 per cent in 2020, a gap of −4.6 per cent still represents a significant degree of slack in the economy.
At the current point in time, therefore, the Bank of England does not expect to have to raise interest rates in the immediate future. But it stands ready to do so if inflation does show signs of taking off.
- United Kingdom Economic Snapshot
OECD Economic Outlook (May 2021)
- UK growth forecast upgraded but pandemic economic ‘scar’ will be worst of all G7 nations, says OECD
Sky News, Ed Conway (31/5/21)
- OECD Predicts UK Economic Growth Amid Vaccine Success And Lockdown Easing
Minutehack Emma Bowden (1/6/21)
- UK growth upgraded, but OECD warns of deepest economic scar in G7
The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (31/5/21)
- UK set for stronger post-Covid recovery, says OECD
BBC News (31/5/21)
- British exports worth billions have faced EU tariffs since Brexit
BBC News, Faisal Islam (28/5/21)
- Post-Brexit: Businesses hit by labour shortages call for Brexit rules to be relaxed
Channel 4 News, Paul McNamara (2/6/21)
- Bank of England monitors UK housing boom as it weighs inflation risk
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/6/21)
- House prices jump 10.9% as ‘race for space’ intensifies
BBC News (1/6/21)
- Global food prices post biggest jump in decade
Financial Times, Emiko Terazono and Judith Evans (3/6/21)
- Why house prices are rising so fast in a pandemic
BBC News, Kevin Peachey and Daniele Palumbo (2/6/21)
- Inflation: why it could surge after the pandemic
The Conversation, Ian Crowther (23/4/21)
- Inflation might well keep rising in 2021 – but what happens after that?
The Conversation, Brigitte Granville (31/5/21)
- Slack in the Economy, Not Inflation, Should Be Bigger Worry
Institute for New Economic Thinking, Claudia Fontanari, Antonella Palumbo, and Chiara Salvatori (19/5/21)
Data, Forecasts and Analysis
- What determines the rate of (a) actual economic growth; (b) potential economic growth?
- What is meant by an output gap? What would be the implications of a positive output gap?
- Why are scarring effects of the pandemic likely to be greater in the UK than in most other countries?
- If people believed that inflation was likely to continue rising, how would this affect their behaviour and how would it affect the economy?
- What are the arguments for and against having a stamp duty holiday when the economy is in recession?
On 10 March, the House of Representatives gave final approval to President Biden’s $1.9tr fiscal stimulus plan (the American Rescue Plan). Worth over 9% of GDP, this represents the third stage of an unparalleled boost to the US economy. In March 2020, President Trump secured congressional agreement for a $2.2tr package (the CARES Act). Then in December 2020, a bipartisan COVID relief bill, worth $902bn, was passed by Congress.
By comparison, the Obama package in 2009 in response to the impending recession following the financial crisis was $831bn (5.7% of GDP).
The American Rescue Plan
The Biden stimulus programme consists of a range of measures, the majority of which provide monetary support to individuals. These include a payment of $1400 per person for single people earning less than $75 000 and couples less than $150 000. These come on top of payments of $1200 in March 2020 and $600 in late December. In addition, the top-up to unemployment benefits of $300 per week agreed in December will now continue until September. Also, annual child tax credit will rise from $2000 annually to as much as $3600 and this benefit will be available in advance.
Other measures include $350bn in grants for local governments depending on their levels of unemployment and other needs; $50bn to improve COVID testing centres and $20bn to develop a national vaccination campaign; $170bn to schools and universities to help them reopen after lockdown; and grants to small businesses and specific grants to hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, airlines, airports and rail companies.
Despite supporting the two earlier packages, no Republican representative or senator backed this latest package, arguing that it was not sufficiently focused. As a result, reaction to the package has been very much along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it is supported by some 90% of Democrat voters and 50% of Republican voters.
Is the stimulus the right amount?
Although the latest package is worth $1.9tr, aggregate demand will not expand by this amount, which will limit the size of the multiplier effect. The reason is that the benefits multiplier is less than the government expenditure multiplier as some of the extra money people receive will be saved or used to reduce debts.
With $3tr representing some 9% of GDP, this should easily fill the estimated negative output gap of between 2% and 3%, especially when multiplier effects are included. Also, with savings having increased during the recession to put them some 7% above normal, the additional amount saved may be quite small, and wealthier Americans may begin to reduce their savings and spend a larger proportion of their income.
So the problem might be one of excessive stimulus, which in normal times could result in crowding out by driving up interest rates and dampening investment. However, the Fed is still engaged in a programme of quantitative easing. Between mid-March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the Fed’s portfolio of securities held outright grew from $3.9tr to $7.2tr. What is more, many economists predict that inflation is unlikely to rise other than very slightly. If this is so, it should allow the package to be financed easily. Debt should not rise to unsustainable levels.
Other economists argue, however, that inflationary expectations are rising, reflected in bond yields, and this could drive actual inflation and force the Fed into the awkward dilemma of either raising interest rates, which could have a significant dampening effect, or further increasing money supply, potentially leading to greater inflationary problems in the future.
A lot will depend what happens to potential GDP. Will it rise over the medium term so that additional spending can be accommodated? If the rise in spending encourages an increase in investment, this should increase potential GDP. This will depend on business confidence, which may be boosted by the package or may be dampened by worries about inflation.
Additional packages to come
Potential GDP should also be boosted by two further packages that Biden plans to put to Congress.
The first is a $2.2tr infrastructure investment plan, known as the American Jobs Plan. This is a 10-year plan to invest public money in transport infrastructure (such as rebuilding 20 000 miles of road and repairing bridges), public transport, electric vehicles, green housing, schools, water supply, green power generation, modernising the power grid, broadband, R&D in fields such as AI, social care, job training and manufacturing. This will be largely funded through tax increases, such as gradually raising corporation tax from 21% to 28% (it had been cut from 35% to 21% by President Trump) and taxing global profits of US multinationals. However, the spending will generally precede the increased revenues and thus will raise aggregate demand in the initial years. Only after 15 years are revenues expected to exceed costs.
The second is a yet-to-be announced plan to increase spending on childcare, healthcare and education. This should be worth at least $1tr. This will probably be funded by tax increases on income, capital gains and property, aimed largely at wealthy individuals. Again, it is hoped that this will boost potential GDP, in this case by increasing labour productivity.
With earlier packages, the total increase in public spending will be over $8tr. This is discretionary fiscal policy writ large.
- Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill wins final approval in House
Reuters, Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice (10/3/21)
- Biden’s Covid stimulus plan: It costs $1.9tn but what’s in it?
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (6/3/21)
- Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Challenge: End the Coronavirus Crisis Faster
New York Times, Jim Tankersley and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (22/3/21)
- Joe Biden writes a cheque for America – and the rest of the world
The Observer, Phillip Inman (13/3/21)
- Spend or save: Will Biden’s stimulus cheques boost the economy?
Aljazeera, Cinnamon Janzer (9/3/21)
- After Biden stimulus, US economic growth could rival China’s for the first time in decades
CNN, Matt Egan (12/3/21)
- Larry Summers, who called out inflation fears with Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, says the US is seeing ‘least responsible’ macroeconomic policy in 40 years
Business Insider, John L. Dorman (21/3/21)
- With $1.9 Trillion in New Spending, America Is Headed for Financial Fragility
Barron’s, Leslie Lipschitz and Josh Felman (30/3/21)
- Biden unveils ‘once-in-a generation’ $2tn infrastructure investment plan
The Guardian, Lauren Gambino (31/3/21)
- Biden unveils $2tn infrastructure plan and big corporate tax rise
Financial Times, James Politi (31/3/21)
- The Observer view on Joe Biden’s audacious spending plans
The Observer, editorial (11/4/21)
- Draw a Keynesian cross diagram to show the effect of an increase in benefits when the economy is operating below potential GDP.
- What determines the size of the benefits multiplier?
- Explain what is meant by the output gap. How might the pandemic and accompanying emergency health measures have affected the size of the output gap?
- How are expectations relevant to the effectiveness of the stimulus measures?
- What is likely to determine the proportion of the $1400 stimulus cheques that people spend?
- Distinguish between resource crowding out and financial crowding out. Is the fiscal stimulus package likely to result in either form of crowding out and, if so, what will determine by how much?
- What is the current monetary policy of the Fed? How is it likely to impact on the effectiveness of the fiscal stimulus?
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
- Initial reaction from IFS researchers on Spending Review 2020 and OBR forecasts
IFS Press Release, Paul Johnson, Carl Emmerson, Ben Zaranko, Tom Waters and Isabel Stockton (25/11/200
- Rishi Sunak is likely to increase spending – which means tax rises will follow
IFS, Newspaper Article, Paul Johnson (23/11/20)
- Economic and Fiscal Outlook Executive Summary
- UK’s Sunak says public finances are on ‘unsustainable’ path
Reuters, David Milliken (26/11/20)
- Rishi Sunak warns ‘economic emergency has only just begun’
BBC News, Szu Ping Chan (25/11/20)
- UK will need £27bn of spending cuts or tax rises, watchdog warns
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/11/20)
- What is tomorrow’s Spending Review all about?
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (24/11/20)
- Spending Review 2020: the experts react
The Conversation, Drew Woodhouse, Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi, Jonquil Lowe, Anupam Nanda, Alex de Ruyter and Simon J. Smith (25/11/20)
- 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?
- What can the government do to encourage investment in the economy?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.