Tag: automatic fiscal stabilisers

The debts of many countries in the eurozone are becoming increasingly difficult to service. With negative growth in some countries (Greece’s GDP is set to decline by over 5% this year) and falling growth rates in others, the outlook is becoming worse: tax revenues are likely to fall and benefit payments are likely to increase as automatic fiscal stabilisers take effect. In the light of these difficulties, market rates of interest on sovereign debt in these countries have been increasing.

Talk of default has got louder. If Greece cannot service its public-sector debt, currently standing at around 150% of GDP (way above the 60% ceiling set in the Stability and Growth Pact), then simply lending it more will merely delay the problem. Ultimately, if it cannot grow its way out of the debt, then either it must receive a fiscal transfer from the rest of the eurozone, or part of its debts must be cancelled or radically rescheduled.

But Greece is a small country, and relative to the size of the whole eurozone’s GDP, its debt is tiny. Italy is another matter. It’s public-sector debt to GDP ratio, at around 120% is lower than Greece’s, but the level of debt is much higher: $2 trillion compared with Greece’s $480 billion. Increasingly banks are becoming worried about their exposure to Italian debt – both public- and private-sector debt.

As we saw in the news item “The brutal face of supply and demand”, stock markets have been plummeting because of the growing fears about debts in the eurozone. And these fears have been particularly focused on banks with high levels of exposure to these debts. French banks are particularly vulnerable. Indeed, Credit Agricole and Société Générale, France’s second and third largest banks, had their creidit ratings cut by Moody’s rating agency. They have both seen their share prices fall dramatically this year: 46% and 55% respectively.

Central banks have been becoming increasingly concerned that the sovereign debt crisis in various eurozone countries will turn into a new banking crisis. In an attempt to calm markets and help ease the problem for banks, five central banks – the Federal Reserve, the ECB, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank – announced on 15 September that they would co-operate to offer three-month US dollar loans to commercial banks. They would provide as much liquidity as was necessary to ease any funding difficulties.

The effect of this action calmed the markets and share prices in Europe and around the world rose substantially. But was this enough to stave off a new banking crisis? And did it do anything to ease the sovereign debt crisis and the problems of the eurozone? The following articles explore these questions.

Articles
Central banks expand dollar operations Reuters, Sakari Suoninen and Marc Jones (15/9/11)
Europe’s debt crisis prompts central banks to provide dollar liquidity Guardian, Larry Elliott and Dominic Rushe (15/9/11)
From euro zone to battle zone Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Evans (17/9/11)
Global shares rise on central banks’ loan move BBC News (16/9/11)
Geithner warns EU against infighting over Greece BBC News (16/9/11)
How The European Debt Crisis Could Spread npr (USA), Marilyn Geewax (15/9/11)
No Marshall Plan for Europe National Post (Canada) (16/9/11)
Central banks act to help Europe lenders Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, Richard Milne and Alex Barker (15/9/11)
Central Banks Seeking Quick Fix Push Dollar Cost to August Lows Bloomberg Businesweek, John Glover and Ben Martin (15/9/11)
Central banks act to provide euro zone dollar liquidity Irish Times (15/9/11)
Central banks pump money into market: what the analysts say The Telegraph (15/9/11)
Central banks and the ‘spirit of 2008’ BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (15/9/11)

Central Bank statements
News Release: Additional US dollar liquidity-providing operations over year-end Bank of England (15/9/11)
Press Release: ECB announces additional US dollar liquidity-providing operations over year-end ECB (15/9/11)
Additional schedule for U.S. Dollar Funds-Supplying Operations Bank of Japan (15/9/11)
Central banks to extend provision of US dollar liquidity Swiss National Bank (15/9/11)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by debt servicing.
  2. How may the concerted actions of the five central banks help the banking sector?
  3. Distinguish between liquidity and capital. Is supplying extra liquidity a suitable means of coping with the difficulties of countries in servicing their debts?
  4. If Greece cannot service its debts, what options are open to (a) Greece itself; (b) international institutions and governments?
  5. In what ways are the eurozone countries collectively in a better economic and financial state than the USA?
  6. Is the best solution to the eurozone crisis to achieve greater fiscal harmonisation?
  7. What are the weaknesses of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) as currently constituted? Should it be turned into a bank or special credit institution taking the role of a ‘European Monetary Fund’?
  8. Should countries in the eurozone be able to issue eurobonds?

The quarter 2 UK GDP growth figures were published at the end of July. They show that real GDP grew by a mere 0.2% over the quarter, or 0.7% over 12 months. These low growth figures follow 2010Q4 and 2011Q1 growth rates of –0.5 and 0.5 respectively, giving an approximately zero growth over those six months. The recovery that seemed to be gathering pace in early 2010, now seems to have petered out, or at best slowed right down. According to an average of 27 forecasts, collated by the Treasury, GDP is expected to grow by just 1.3% in 2011 – below the potential rate of economic growth and thus resulting in a widening of the output gap.

With such a slow pace of recovery, current forecasts suggest that it will be 2013 before the economy returns to the pre-recession level of output: just over five years after the start of the recession in 2008. This chart from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research compares the current recession with previous ones and shows how the recovery is likely to be the slowest of the five recessions since the 1930s.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in its latest Economic Forecast says that the economic outlook has become more challenging.

The intensification of euro area sovereign debt pressures has added to the downside risks facing the UK economy – although the agreement reached at the recent summit appears to represent an initial step towards resolving the issues.

Meanwhile the global economy is going through a soft patch, partly as a result of the previous surge in commodity prices, which has put pressure on household budgets and raised costs for businesses.

Against this backdrop confidence appears to have wilted somewhat.

The opposition blames the slow pace of recovery on the austerity measures imposed by the government. The depressing of aggregate demand by cutting government expenditure and raising taxes has depressed output growth. The problem has been compounded by a lack of consumer spending as real household incomes have been squeezed by inflation and as consumers fear impending tax rises and cuts in benefits. And export growth, which was hoped to lead the country’s recovery, has been hit by weak demand in Europe and elsewhere.

With weak growth, the danger is that automatic fiscal stabilisers (i.e. more people claiming benefits and lack of growth in tax revenues) will mean that the government deficit is not cut. This may then force the Chancellor into further austerity, which would compound the problem of low demand. The opposition has thus been calling for a (temporary) cut in VAT to stimulate the economy.

The government argues that rebalancing the budget is absolutely crucial to maintaining international confidence and Britain’s AAA rating by the credit rating agencies, Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor’s (S&P). Any sign that the government is slacking in its resolve, could undermine this confidence. According to George Osborne, while other countries (including the USA and many eurozone countries) are facing a lot of instability, “Britain is a safe haven. We have convinced the world that we can deal with our debts, bring our deficit down, and that’s meant that interest rates, for British families, for British businesses, are lower than they would otherwise be; it means that our country’s credit rating has been affirmed … and it means that we have that crucial ingredient of any recovery – economic stability.”

What is more, the government claims that the essence of the UK’s problem of low growth lies on the supply side. The focus of growth policy, it maintains, should be on cutting red tape, improving efficiency and, ultimately, in reducing taxes.

What we are witnessing is a debate that echoes the Keynesian/new classical debates of the 1980s and earlier: a debate between those who blame the current problem on lack of aggregate demand and those who blame it on supply-side weaknesses, including weaknesses of the banking sector.

So what should be done? Is it time for a (modest) fiscal expansion, or at least a reining in of the fiscal tightening? Should the Bank of England embark on another round of quantitative easing (QE2)? Or does the solution lie on the supply side? Or should policy combine elements of both?

Articles
UK economy grows by 0.2% BBC News (26/7/11)
Economic growth stalls – and slump will carry on until 2013 Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/7/11)
GDP figures mean Britain will miss its economic growth targets Guardian, Julia Kollewe (26/7/11)
UK GDP figures show slower growth of 0.2% BBC News (26/7/11)
UK growth forecast looks unrealistic after GDP fall Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/7/11)
UK set for low growth as the mood ‘darkens’ Independent, Sean O’Grady (1/8/11)
No sign of a U-turn – but there may be a minor course change Scotsman, John McLaren (27/7/11)
George Osborne vows to stick with ‘plan A’ despite UK GDP growth slowdown The Telegraph, John McLaren (27/7/11)
Weak growth may force Chancellor into further austerity The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (26/7/11)
UK households squeezed harder than US or Europe The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick, and Emma Rowley (30/7/11)
UK Government will have to act if growth remains weak, warns CBI The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/8/11)
UK economy GDP figures: what the experts say Guardian, Claire French (26/7/11)
My plan B for the economy Guardian, Ed Balls, Ruth Lea, Jonathan Portes, Digby Jones and Stephanie Blankenburg (27/7/11)
Not much of a squeeze The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (26/7/11)
Some safe haven The Economist (30/7/11)
UK growth – anything to be done? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (26/7/11)
IMF report on UK: main points The Telegraph, Sarah Rainey (2/8/11)
Families to be £1,500 a year worse off, IMF warns The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (2/8/11)
IMF casts doubt on UK deficit plan, Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/8/11)

Data and reports
GDP Growth (reliminary estimate) ONS
Gross domestic product preliminary estimate: 2nd Quarter 2011 ONS (26/7/11)
World Economic Outlook Update IMF
OECD Economic Outlook No. 89 Annex Tables OECD (see Table 1)
United Kingdom: IMF Country Report No. 11/220 IMF (2/8/11)
Prospects for the UK economy National Institute of Economic and Social Research (3/8/11)

Questions

  1. What special ‘one-off’ factors help to explain why the underlying growth in 2011Q2 may have been higher than 0.2%?
  2. Why is the output gap rising? How may supply-side changes affect the size of the output gap?
  3. Why is the recovery from recession in the UK slower than in most other countries? Why is it slower than the recovery from previous recessions?
  4. How may automatic fiscal stabilisers affect (a) economic growth and (b) the size of the public-sector deficit if the output gap widens?
  5. Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side causes of the slow rate of economic growth in the UK.
  6. Compare the likely effectiveness of demand-side and supply-side policy measures to stimulate economic growth, referring to both magnitude and timing.

The government is sticking to its deficit reduction plan. But with worries about a lack of economic recovery, or even a double dip recession, some economists are calling for a Plan B. They back up their arguments by referring to the lack of consumer confidence, falling real incomes and rising commodity prices. Without a slowing down in cuts and tax rises, the lack of aggregate demand, they claim, will prevent a recovery.

The government maintains that sticking to the cuts and tax rises helps maintain international confidence and thereby helps to keep interest rates low. Also, it argues, if the economy does slow down, then automatic stabilisers will come into play. Finally, even though fiscal policy is tight, monetary policy is relatively loose, with historically low interest rates.

But will there be enough confidence to sustain a recovery? Economists are clearly divided. But at least the IMF seems to think so. In its latest assessment of the UK economy, although it has cut the growth forecast for 2011 from 2% to 1.5%, that is still a positive figure and thus represents a recovery, albeit a rather fragile one.

Articles
Coalition’s spending plans simply don’t add up Observer letters, 52 economists (5/6/11)
Is George Osborne losing his grip on Britain’s economic recovery? Guardian, Heather Stewart and Daniel Boffey (4/6/11)
George Osborne plan isn’t working, say top UK economists Guardian, Heather Stewart and Daniel Boffey (4/6/11)
How are the Coalition fixing the economy? The Telegraph, Tim Montgomerie (28/5/11)
Cameron’s new cuts narrative The Spectator, Fraser Nelson (27/5/11)
The changing narrative of Chancellor George Orborne Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (17/5/11)
The UK could be leading with a new economic approach, instead we follow Guardian, Will Hutton (4/6/11)
The coalition’s strategy is courting disaster Observer, (5/6/11)
Government faces fresh calls for a Plan B BBC News (5/6/11)
‘Serious debate’ needed on economy BBC Today Programme, Stephanie Flanders (6/6/11)
IMF cuts UK growth forecast for 2011 BBC News, John Lipsky (Deputy Director of the IMF) (6/6/11)
IMF says hope for best, plan for worst BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (6/6/11)
IMF set out a ‘Plan B’ for George Osborne BBC News, Paul Mason (6/6/11)
How to rebalance our economy Independent, Sean O’Grady (6/6/11)
IMF maps out a Plan B for the UK economy The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (6/6/11)
A long and hard road lies ahead for the British economy Financial Times, Martin Wolf (6/6/11)

IMF Report
United Kingdom – 2011 Article IV Consultation Concluding Statement of the Mission (6/6/11)

Forecasts
OECD Economic Outlook 89 Annex Tables (June 2011): see especially Annex Table 1
Output, prices and jobs The Economist

Questions

  1. Explain what is likely to happen to each of the components of aggregate demand.
  2. Is monetary policy loose enough? How could it be made looser, given that Bank rate is at the historically low level of 0.5% and could barely go any lower?
  3. What are automatic fiscal stablisers and how are they likely to affect aggregate demand if growth falters? What impact would this have on the public-sector deficit?
  4. What is meant by the ‘inventory cycle’? How did this impact on growth in 2010 and the first part of 2011?
  5. What is likely to happen to inflation in the coming months and why? How is this likely to impact on economic growth?
  6. Referring to the economists’ letter (the first link above), what do you think they mean by “a green new deal and a focus on targeted industrial policy” and how would this affect economic growth?

There has been much in the news recently about the attempts of governments around the world to tackle two problems: (a) soaring deficits and debt and (b) a slow recovery and a possible slide back into recession. As the previous news item, Over stimulation? Trying to prevent a double dip as Japan’s debt soars, reported, Japan’s approach has been to tackle the second problem first and to give a massive fiscal boost to the economy. Its debt can be tackled later as the economy, hopefully, recovers.

The Irish government, by contrast, in its Budget on 9 December announced sweeping cuts in government expenditure. This included substantial pay cuts for public-sector employees. Getting the public-sector deficit down (projected to be 11.6% of GDP in 2010) was the government’s major priority.

Greece too is under tremendous pressure to cut its public-sector deficit and debt. Forecast to be 125% of GDP in 2010, its public-sector debt is the highest in the eurozone. There are serious worries as to whether Greece will be able to fund the debt.

Meanwhile in the UK, Alistair Darling presented the government’s pre-Budget report. This took a mid-course between the two objectives. He announced modest increases in tax, including a 1% increase in national insurance contributions from 2010, and modest increases in benefits. The overall effect was pretty neutral, leaving the projected public-sector deficit at around 12.6% of GDP in 2010/11, hopefully falling to around 4.4% by 2014/15 as economic growth increases tax revenues. So was this the best compromise: not too tough so as to stifle recovery and not too expansionary so as to cause a soaring of debt and difficulty in funding the necessary borrowing?

So what is the correct balance? Are the situations very different in the four countries or have they merely chosen to prioritise them differently? Should countries make cuts early in order to get their deficits down and avoid a collapse in confidence, but risk falling back into recession? Or should they get growth firmly established before tightening fiscal policy? The following articles look at the issues.

The UK
Key points: The pre-Budget report at-a-glance BBC News (9/12/09)
Alistair Darling to borrow more this year (including video) BBC News (9/12/09)
Walking the line BBC News, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders’ blog (10/12/09)
Larry Elliott’s analysis on the pre-budget report (video) Guardian, Larry Elliott and Mustafa Khalili (9/12/09)
Pre-budget report: All boxed in Guardian (10/12/09)
Tax and mend Economist (9/12/09)
Darling defends economic forecasts (including video) Financial Times, Chris Giles and George Parker (9/12/09)
Prevarication and Newspeak will not fix our finances Financial Times, Willem Buiter (9/12/09)
Is UK government debt really that high? BBC News, Richard Anderson (22/12/09)

The measures announced in the pre-Budget report along with a video of the speech, press releases and the full report as a PDF document can be found at the Treasury’s Pre-Budget Report 2009 site.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has a part of its site dedicated to the pre-Budget report. This contains briefings and analysis. See Pre-Budget Report 2009

Greece
Why Greece Could Be the Next Dubai Time, Adam Smith (9/12/09)
Greece’s debt crisis signals problems for the European Central Bank Guardian, Nils Pratley (8/12/09)
Greek stocks fall 6% on fears over the country’s debt BBC News (8/12/09)
Greek stocks fall 6% on fears over the country’s debt (video) BBC News (8/12/09)
Greece threatens bankruptcy, and the eurozone The Atlantic, Megan McArdle (8/12/09)
Greece Struggles to Stay Afloat as Debts Pile On New York Times, Rachel Donadio and Niki Kitsantonis (11/12/09)
Greece ‘worthy’ of eurozone place BBC News (14/12/09)
Greek PM to unveil steps to allay deficit fears Forbes, Dina Kyriakidou (14/12/09)
Default lines The Economist (3/12/09)
Greeks denying gifts BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (29/1/10)
Davos 2010: Greece denies a bail-out is needed BBC News (28/1/10)

Ireland
Ireland suffers harshest budget in decades Financial Times, John Murray Brown (9/12/09)
Strong medicine fails to soothe Irish Financial Times, John Murray Brown (9/12/09)
Irish Wince as a Budget Proposal Cuts to the Bone New York Times, Sarah Lyall (9/12/09)
A time to grin and bear it Irish Times (10/12/09)

Germany
German government heads for record debt BBC News (29/12/09)
German minister warns of fiscal crackdown Financial Times, Bertrand Benoit (17/12/09)
Goverment’s draft budget includes record debt levels Deutsche Welle (16/12/09)

General
The banking crisis: Till debt us do part Times Online, David Smith and Jenny Davey (13/12/09)
Sovereign debt burdens keep traders on red alert Fiinancial Times, David Oakley (12/12/09)

Questions

  1. Are the objectives of tackling recession and getting the public-sector deficit and debt down contradictory aims, or is it merely a question of sequencing?
  2. To what extent are the situations in the UK, Japan and Ireland similar? Should they be following similar macroeconomic policies?
  3. Why does it matter if a country has a rising public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP?
  4. Distinguish between a cyclical deficit and a structural deficit. Why has the UK’s structural deficit got worse? Will it fall as the economy recovers, or will it be only the cyclical deficit that falls?
  5. Why does Greece’s debt crisis signal problems for the European Central Bank?
  6. What determines a country’s sovereign credit rating?