Tag: aggregate supply

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.

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  1. How may monetary policy affect inflationary expectations?
  2. 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?
  3. In the context of cost-push inflation, how might the authorities prevent a wage–price spiral?
  4. With reference to the second article above, explain the ‘monetary policy conundrum’ faced by the Bank of Japan.
  5. 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?
  6. Is Russia’s rise in inflation the result of cost or demand pressures, or a mixture of the two (see articles above)?

In her bid to become Conservative party leader, Liz Truss promised to make achieving faster economic growth her number-one policy objective. This would involve pursuing market-orientated supply-side policies.

These policies would include lower taxes on individuals to encourage people to work harder and more efficiently, and lower taxes on business to encourage investment. The policy would also involve deregulation, which would again encourage investment, both domestic and inward investment from overseas. These proposals echoed the policies pursued in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

On September 23, the new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, presented a ‘mini-Budget’ – although the size of the changes made it far from ‘mini’. This, as anticipated, included policies intended to boost growth, including scrapping the 45% top rate of income tax, which is currently paid by people earning over £150 000 (a policy withdrawn on 3 October after massive objections), cutting the basic rate of income tax from 20% to 19%, scrapping the planned rise in corporation tax from 19% to 25%, scrapping the planned rise in national insurance by 1.25 percentage points, a cut in the stamp duty on house purchase and scrapping the limit placed on bankers’ bonuses. In addition, he announced the introduction of an unlimited number of ‘investment zones’ which would have lower business taxes, streamlined planning rules and lower regulation. The policies would be funded largely from extra government borrowing.

Theoretically, the argument is simple. If people do work harder and firms do invest more, then potential GDP will rise – a rise in aggregate supply. This can be shown on an aggregate demand and supply diagram. If the policy works, the aggregate supply curve will shift to the right. Real GDP will rise and there will be downward pressure on prices. In Figure 1, real GDP will rise from Y0 to Y1 and the price level will fall from P0 to P1. However, things are not as simple as this. Indeed, there are two major problems.

The first concerns whether tax cuts will incentivise people to work harder. The second concerns what happens to aggregate demand. I addition to this, the policies are likely to have a profound effect on income distribution.

Tax cuts and incentives

Cutting the top rate of income tax would have immediately given people at the top of the income scale a rise in post-tax income. This would have created a substitution effect and an income effect. Each extra pound that such people earn would be worth more in post-tax income – 60p rather than 55p. This would provide an incentive for people to substitute work for leisure as work is now more rewarding. This is the substitution effect. On the other hand, with the windfall of extra income, they now would have needed to work less in order to maintain their post-tax income at its previous level. They may well indeed, therefore, have decided to work less and enjoy more leisure. This is the income effect.

With the diminishing marginal utility of income, generally the richer people are, the bigger will be the income effect and the smaller the substitution effect. Thus, cutting the top rate of income tax may well have led to richer people working less. There is no evidence that the substitution effect would be bigger.

If top rates of income tax are already at a very high level, then cutting then may well encourage more work. After all, there is little incentive to work more if the current rate of tax is over 90%, say. Cutting them to 80% could have a big effect. This was the point made by Art Laffer, one of Ronald Reagan’s advisors. He presented his arguments in terms of the now famous ‘Laffer curve’, shown in Figure 2. This shows the total tax revenue raised at different tax rates.

If the average tax rate were zero, no revenue would be raised. As the tax rate is raised above zero, tax revenues will increase. The curve will be upward sloping. Eventually, however, the curve will peak (at tax rate t1). Thereafter, tax rates become so high that the resulting fall in output more than offsets the rise in tax rate. When the tax rate reaches 100 per cent, the revenue will once more fall to zero, since no one will bother to work.

If the economy were currently to the right of t1, then cutting taxes would increase revenue as there would be a major substitution effect. However, most commentators argue that the UK economy is to the left of t1 and that cutting the top rate would reduce tax revenues. Analysis by the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2012 suggested that t1 for the top rate of income tax was at around 48% and that cutting the rate below that would reduce tax revenue. Clearly according to this analysis, 40% is considerably below t1.

As far as corporation tax is concerned, the 19% rate is the lowest in the G20 and yet the UK suffers from low rates of both domestic investment and inward direct investment. There is no evidence that raising it somewhat, as previously planned, will cut investment. And as far as individual entrepreneurs are concerned, cutting taxes is likely to have little effect on the desire to invest and expand businesses. The motivation of entrepreneurs is only partly to do with the money. A major motivation is the sense of achievement in building a successful business.

Creating investment zones with lower taxes, no business rates and lower regulations may encourage firms to set up there. But much of this could simply be diverted investment from elsewhere in the country, leaving overall investment little changed.

To assess these questions, the government needs to model the outcomes and draw on evidence from elsewhere. So far this does not seem to have happened. They government did not even present a forecast of the effects of its policies on the public finances, something that the OBR normally presents at Budget time. This was one of the reasons for the collapse in confidence of sterling and gilts (government bonds) in the days following the mini-Budget.

Effects on aggregate demand

Cutting taxes and financing them from borrowing will expand aggregate demand. In Figure 1, the AD curve will also shift to the right and this will push up prices. Inflation is already a serious problem in the economy and unfunded tax cuts will make it worse. Higher inflation will result in the Bank of England raising interest rates further to curb aggregate demand. But higher interest rates, by raising borrowing costs, are likely to reduce investment, which will have a negative supply-side effect.

The problem here is one of timing. Market-orientated supply-side policies, if they work to increase potential GDP, will take time – measured in years rather than months. The rise in aggregate demand will be much quicker and will thus precede the rise in supply. This could therefore effectively kill off the rise in supply as interest rates rise, the exchange rate falls and the economy is pushed towards recession. Indeed, the mini-Budget immediately sparked a run on the pound and the exchange rate fell.

The rising government debt may force the government to make cuts in public expenditure. Rather than cutting current expenditure on things such as nurses, teachers and benefits, it is easier to cut capital expenditure on things such as roads and other infrastructure. But this will have adverse supply-side effects.

Effects on income distribution

Those advocating market-orientated supply-side policies argue that, by making GDP bigger, everyone can gain. They prefer to focus on the size of the national ‘pie’ rather than its distribution. If the rich initially gain, the benefits will trickle down to the poorest in society. This trickle-down theory was popular in the 1980s with politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and, more recently, with Republican presidents, such as Goerge W Bush and Donald Trump. There are two problems with this, however.

The first, which we have already seen, is whether such policies actually do increase the size of the ‘pie’.

The second is how much does trickle down. During the Thatcher years, income inequality in the UK grew, as it did in the USA under Ronald Reagan. According to an IMF study in 2015 (see the link to the IMF analysis below), policies that increase the income share of the poor and the middle class do increase growth, while those that raise the income share of the top 20 per cent result in lower growth.

After the mini-Budget was presented, the IMF criticised it for giving large untargeted tax cuts that would heighten inequality. The poor would gain little from the tax cuts. The changes to income tax and national insurance mean that someone earning £20 000 per year will gain just £167 per year, while someone earning £200 000 will gain £5220. What is more, the higher interest rates and higher prices resulting from the lower exchange rate are likely to wipe out the modest gains to the poor.

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Questions

  1. Distinguish between market-orientated supply-side policies and interventionist ones. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  2. Explain why bond prices fell after the mini-Budget. What was the Bank of England’s response and why did this run counter to its plan for quantitative tightening?
  3. How might a tax-cutting Budget be designed to help the poor rather than the rich? Would this have beneficial supply-side effects?
  4. Find out about the 1972 tax-cutting Budget of Anthony Barber, the Chancellor in Ted Heath’s government, that led to the ‘Barber boom’ and then rampant inflation. Are there any similarities between the 1972 Budget and the recent mini-Budget?


Aggregate demand has been booming as the world bounces back from the pandemic. At the same time, aggregate supply is severely constrained. These supply constraints are making potential national income smaller – at least temporarily. The result is that many countries are heading for recession.

At the same time, supply constraints are causing prices to rise, especially energy and food prices. This cost-push inflation is made worse by the rises in aggregate demand.

The result is ‘stagflation’ – a recession, or stagnation, accompanied by high inflation. In the UK, the latest Bank of England Monetary Policy Report forecast that by the end of 2022, CPI inflation would be 13.1% and that in 2023, real GDP would fall by 1.5%.

This effect of an adverse supply shock accompanied by relatively buoyant aggregate demand (at least initially) can be illustrated with an aggregate demand and supply diagram. The supply shock is illustrated by an upward shift to the left of the short-run aggregate supply curve (SRAS). (If the shock is a direct rise in prices, then it can be seen as a vertical upward shift. If it is a fall in the total amount supplied, then it can be seen as a horizontal leftward shift.) In the diagram, aggregate supply shifts from SRAS1 to SRAS2. The price level rises from P1 to P2. If costs go on rising or supply goes on falling then the curve will go on shifting upwards to the left.

If the government responds by increasing benefits or reducing taxes, then, other things being
equal, aggregate demand will rise. In the diagram, the AD curve will shift to the right, e.g. from AD1 to AD2. Real GDP only falls to Y3 not Y2. However, the price level rises further: from P2 to P3.

Why has aggregate supply fallen?

There are several factors that have contributed to the fall in aggregate supply/rise in costs.

  • Stretched supply chains, which had been adversely affected by Covid. Congestion at container ports has led to delays, with warehouses and shops being short of stock.
  • Labour shortages, with many people not returning to the labour force after being laid off or furloughed, or only returning part time, leaving firms needing more people. The problem has been particularly acute in the UK, with many EU citizens having returned to the EU after Brexit and the UK having to rely increasingly on staff from outside the EU.
  • The war in Ukraine. This has had a major impact on the supply of natural gas and oil. The war has also led to a fall in grain and other food supplies from Ukraine, as ports have been blockaded and there have been disruptions to planting and harvesting.
  • Climate change is causing more severe weather events, such as droughts in Europe and western USA. The droughts of 2022 will compound the problem of food shortages and food price inflation.
  • In the UK, Brexit costs, such as increased administrative burdens and difficulties in both exporting and importing, have dampened production and hence adversely impacted on aggregate supply.
  • Increased industrial action. As the cost of living soars, unions are demanding pay increases to match the rise in the cost of living. Pay rises further increase firms’ costs – and the bigger the pay rises, the bigger the rise in costs.

The problem with a fall in aggregate supply is that it reduces real GDP. People as a whole are poorer. To use a common analogy, the national ‘pie’ has shrunk. Giving everyone a bigger knife and fork (i.e. a rise in nominal aggregate demand) will not make people better off. It just compounds the problem of rising prices, as the diagram shows.

In the short term, with GDP shrinking, there is a major issue of distribution. If the poor are to be given help so that they are not made even poorer, then other people will have been made worse off. In other words, their nominal incomes must rise more slowly than prices.

Monetary policy

Central banks generally have a mandate of keeping inflation close to 2% over the medium term. Their levers are changes in interest rates, underpinned by changes in the money supply – in extreme times by quantitative easing (creating money by buying assets with newly created money) or quantitative tightening (withdrawing money from the economy by selling assets). Central banks, faced by soaring inflation, have been raising interest rates. The Fed has recently raised the Federal Funds rate by 0.75 percentage points (75 basis points) and the Bank of England and the European Central Bank by 0.5 percentage points (50 basis points).

Raising interest rates reduces inflation by dampening aggregate demand. In the diagram, the AD curve shifts to the left (or shifts to the right less quickly). This will dampen inflation, as falling real demand will force firms to cut prices. But it will also force them to cut output and employment, thereby worsening the recession.

Central banks recognise this dilemma, but also recognise that if inflation is not brought rapidly under control, it could spiral upwards, with wages and prices chasing each other in a wage–price spiral, which only gets worse as inflationary expectations rise. The short-term pain of falling real income is a price worth paying for getting inflation under control.

Fiscal policy

In the short term, there is little that fiscal policy can do to raise real GDP. The focus, as it was during the pandemic, must therefore be in providing relief to those most in need.

In the UK, the energy price cap set by Ofgem will see likely energy bills for the typical household quadruple in just a year, from a little over £1000 per annum at January 2021 prices to over £4200 in predicted January 2023 prices. These higher prices partly reflect rising wholesale energy costs and partly the need for energy companies, in a process known as ‘backwardation’, to recoup hedging costs they have incurred so as not to be forced out of business.

Relief for consumers can be in various forms. For example, the government could pay subsidies to energy suppliers to cap prices at a lower level, perhaps just for the poorest households. Or it could pay grants to help people with their bills. Again, these could be targeted to the poorest families, or paid on a sliding scale according to income. Or VAT on gas and electricity could be scrapped.

Generally the more people are entitled to help, the more expensive it is for the government and hence the less generous the help per family is likely to be.

Then there is the question of whether such measures should be accompanied by a rise in broadly-based tax, such as income tax, or whether the government should borrow more, which would be likely to push up interest rates and increase the cost of servicing government debt.

One topic of debate in the Conservative leadership contest is whether taxes should be cut to help people struggling with the cost of living. Whilst such a policy, if carefully targeted to investment, might increase aggregate supply over the longer term, in the short term it will increase aggregate demand and will add to inflationary pressures.

Targeting tax cuts to the poor is difficult. Cutting income tax rates has the opposite effect. The rich pay more income tax than the poor and will benefit most from a cut in rates. An alternative is to raise personal allowances. This will provide a bigger percentage help to income taxpayers on lower incomes, but provides no help at all for the poorest people who currently pay no income tax.

Conclusion

The supply shocks are making countries poorer. The focus in the short term, therefore, needs to be on income distribution and how to help those suffering the most.

To end on a note of optimism: the energy shocks are causing governments to invest in alternative sources, such as wind, solar and nuclear. When these come on line, it is expected that energy prices will fall.

As far as overall inflation is concerned, although the Bank of England is forecasting CPI inflation of 13.1% by Q4 2022, it is also forecasting that this will have fallen to 5.5% by Q4 2023 and to just 0.8% by Q3 2024. Fingers crossed.

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Questions

  1. What are the most efficient policies for helping those in energy poverty?
  2. Why is inflation forecast to fall later in 2023?
  3. What determines the shape of the short-run aggregate supply curve?
  4. What government policies would support (a) labour productivity; (b) investment?
  5. How might the market solve the problem of supply shortages?

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.

Inflation

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.

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Questions

  1. What determines the rate of (a) actual economic growth; (b) potential economic growth?
  2. What is meant by an output gap? What would be the implications of a positive output gap?
  3. Why are scarring effects of the pandemic likely to be greater in the UK than in most other countries?
  4. If people believed that inflation was likely to continue rising, how would this affect their behaviour and how would it affect the economy?
  5. What are the arguments for and against having a stamp duty holiday when the economy is in recession?

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.

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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.