Public finances aren’t in a great state – that’s no secret. However, what is remaining a secret is exactly how and when the main political parties intend to reduce the budget deficit. The UK’s credit-rating is under pressure and with the election approaching, we can expect government finances to come under increasing scrutiny. Whichever party forms the government will face the unenviable task of having to pull Britain out of a recession, while trying to reduce: 1) a forecast budget deficit for 2009/10 of £167 billion (about 13% of GDP), 2) a government debt of 68.6% of GDP, with 3) £73.8 billion alone going on interest payments and 4) a trade deficit of £8 billion. Who would be a politician?!
Phoney deficit wars BBC News, Stephanomics (26/3/10)
- What is the structural deficit?
- A fall in government spending may improve public finances, but why may it adversely affect the UK’s recovery?
- Outline the main proposals by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties to tackle public finances. Are any of their proposals viable?
- Why is the UK’s credit-rating under pressure? If the UK is down-graded, what could this mean?
Is there finally cause to celebrate? Government borrowing is lower than expected. Initially, public sector net borrowing for 2009-2010 was forecast in the Pre-budget Report to be £178bn, but official public figures have reduced this to £170 bn. The fall in government revenues has not been as big as predicted and as a result, borrowing this year is likely to be between £5bn and £10bn less than expected. But, let’s not crack open the champagne quite yet, as February’s figures for public sector net borrowing are still about 41% higher in 2010 than in the same month last year.
Whilst the UK is predicted to under-shoot its public-sector net cash requirement made in the Pre-Budget Report for 2009-2010, government borrowing remains at a record high and the level of the deficit is still a worrying 12% of GDP. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the European Commission wants the UK to bring its deficit down faster than the current government plans – and the Commission is not alone. There is considerable debate at the moment between those who want the government to bring the deficit down quicker to appease the market and those who want the government to start taking strong measures only when the recovery is well established. Their fear, very much in the Keynesian school, is that cutting too soon, by reducing aggregate demand, would push the economy back into recession.
If government spending is to be restrained, can we rely on export-lead growth? The fall in the value of our currency over the past two years should have meant a boost for exports. With a weaker pound, export growth was expected to be strong and allow us to export our way out of recession. See the news blog Expecting too much from exports. However, with figures in January 2010 showing the biggest trade deficit since August 2008 (£3.8bn) and with the volume of exports down by 8%, this may not be the case. Whilst the credit rating of the UK remains at AAA, experts say that the government should be aiming to reduce the deficit more quickly in order to retain this rating. So, although there is some good news (government borrowing will only be £170bn!) and exports are likely to increase as the global economy recovers from recession, significant problems in the UK economy still remain.
Row over leaked EU deficit report AFP news (17/3/10)
Government borrowing less than forecast BBC News (18/3/10)
Borrowing update cheers Treasury Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/3/10)
UK trade deficit widens to biggest in 17 months BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (9/3/10)
Government borrowing: what the economists say Guardian (18/3/10)
Darling to use higher revenues to cut debt Financial Times, Chris Giles and Jean Eaglesham (19/3/10)
Public sector finances. February 2010 Office for National Statistics
- Why have government revenues been falling?
- What is the difference between the public-sector net cash requirement and public-sector debt?
- Why is a weak pound good for exports?
- As the global economy recovers, UK exports should begin to rise. Illustrate this idea with a circular flow of income diagram for the UK and the rest of the world.
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against reducing the government deficit now?
- Should the Treasury be celebrating these latest figures, or is the UK economy still in a bad way?
Over the past week, Greece has been hogging the headlines when it comes to debt crisis. However, there is concern that there are a number of other countries ‘where credit defaults swaps are unusually high, suggesting there is risk in terms of default’. Greece’s deficit stands at 12.7% (£259bn), which is over 4 times higher than EU rules allow and its debt levels are expected to reach 120% of GDP this year if help is not given. Furthermore, if Greece’s debt problems are not tackled, there is a worry that other countries with big deficits, such as Portugal and Spain will become vulnerable. Public spending in Greece had been rising for some time but the tax revenue hadn’t increased to match this. As government spending rose and tax revenues fell, the growing debt was inevitable.
What is just as concerning is the cost of servicing this debt. This is costing Greece about 11.6% of GDP and the Greek government has estimated that it will need to borrow €53bn this year to cover budget shortfalls. Strikes by public-sector workers have also affected the country, as figures show that the unemployment rate has increased to 10.6%.
However, there are now reports that an agreement has been reached at the EU summit to rescue Greece and help it tackle its debt problems. Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s President, said that an agreement had been reached. The news was immediately welcomed by jittery markets, with the euro regaining some of its losses. Initially, it was thought that British taxpayers would be a part of any bailout package, but Alistair Darling, said there was no plan to use UK taxpayers’ money to support Greece. When asked about the comparison of the UK with Greece, Alistair Darling commented that:
“I don’t think you can compare the UK with Greece. We have different policies. We have a very good track record and, most importantly, the maturity of UK debt is much longer.”
The EU summit was officially meant to cover medium-term European economic strategy, but it was dominated by the Greek crisis. Germany and France are likely to stand together and pledge to come to Athens’s aid by guaranteeing Greek solvency, but only time will tell whether this will happen or will work.
EU leaders reach deal to rescue Greece from debt crisis, President Barroso says Telegraph, Bruno Waterfield (11/2/10)
Mervyn King on Greece, Britain’s deficit and a hung Parliament Telegraph (10/2/10)
FTSE rises amid Greece rescue hopes The Press Association (11/2/10)
Greece’s unemployment rate hits 10% BBC News (11/2/10)
Debt crisis: Experts see more skeletons tumbling News Center (11/2/10)
EU deal ‘agreed’ on Greece debt woes BBC News (11/2/10)
Greek bailout deal reached at EU summit Guardian, Ian Traynor and Graeme Wearden (11/2/10)
Greek bailout would hurt Eurozone – Germany’s Issing Reuters (29/1/10)
Greece must meet deficit target to get aid Reuters (11/2/10)
Could bailout be on the cards for Greece BBC News (10/2/10)
Germans must start buying to save Europe’s stragglers Financial Times, Martin Wolf (10/2/10)
Thinking the unthinkable BBC News Blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (11/2/10)
Angela Merkel dashes Greek hopes of rescue bid Guardian, Ian Traynor (11/2/10)
Greece faces devaluation, default or deflation. Next stop the IMF Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/2/10)
Germany demands austerity, not bailout, for spendthrift Athens Guardian, Ian Traynor (11/2/10)
See also the Guardian podcast in the news item, Debt and the euro
See too the news item from October 2008, The eurozone – our economic saviour?
- What is the cause of Greece’s debt problems?
- According to the European Central Bank chief economist Otmar Issing, a Greek bailout would weaken the euro and hurt the reputation and image of the eurozone. How can we explain this?
- What do we mean by servicing a debt?
- How could Greece’s debt problems cause problems for other countries with large debts, such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain?
- Which country is better off: the UK or Greece?
- Who will be the loser from a bailout?
- Are the EU rules about debt and deficit levels a good thing or are they too restrictive to be helpful?
- What are the arguments for and against the ECB increasing its target rate of inflation, say to 4%, as a means of stimulating recovery?
In 2008, as the economy was on the verge of recession, the UK Prime Minister said that we would ‘spend our way out of it’ despite rising levels of public-sector debt. In recent weeks, however, the focus has been much more on tackling the debt, which has now increased to over £800 billion (58% of GDP) – it was £500 billion at the end of 2006 (37% of GDP).
Although the current level of general government debt in the UK as a proportion of GDP is still one of the lowest of the G8 countries, it is rising the fastest. In other words, the general government deficit as a proportion of GDP is the highest (see Table A8 in IMF World Economic Outlook, Statistical Appendix A). The IMF’s forecasts suggest that, by 2014, government debt could be as much as 92% of GDP – the highest since World War II – and lower only than Japan (144%) and Italy (126%) of the G8 countries (although the USA, Germany and France are forecast by then each to have government debt over 80% of GDP).
Gordon Brown has said that public spending will have to be cut back once the recession is over, mainly by cutting out waste in the public sector. Conservatives too are looking to make substantial cuts in public expenditure if they come to office next year and have talked of an era of austerity.
But will such cuts be too little too late? Has government spending on saving the banks and trying to boost the economy by cutting VAT actually damaged our recovery prospects and are the British people going to be the ones to suffer? Or should the fiscal stimulus be retained for some time yet to prevent a lurch back into recession? The following articles look at the public debt situation, which poses some interesting policy questions, especially with the Party Conferences!
£805,000,000,000: UK’s monstrous debt The Mirror (19/9/09)
Osborne gambles with cut plans BBC News (6/10/09)
Governments will have legal obligation to reduce UK’s debt Telegraph (28/9/09)
We’ll spend our way out of recession Independent (20/10/08)
Public sector borrowing soaring BBC News (18/9/09)
Govt spending cuts ‘could help pound’ Just the Flight (21/9/09)
Deficit danger worries Cameron BBC News (4/10/09)
Public debt hits £800 billion – the highest on record Times Online (19/9/09)
Pay freeze ‘to protect UK services’ The Mirror (6/10/09)
This recession demands that we employ logic and spend our way out of it Telegraph (11/1/09)
Cuts and pay freezes ‘just the beginning’, Tories admit Telegraph (7/10/09)
Robert Stheeman: So what’s worrying the banker in charge of our £1trn debt? Independent (8/10/09)
Has Darling or Osborne the best plan for cutting the deficit? Observer (11/10/09)
This public-spending squeeze will be much tighter than people expect Independent on Sunday (11/10/09)
Tax and spending squeeze will keep Bank rate low Sunday Times (11/10/09)
UK rates ‘to stay low for years’ BBC News (11/10/09)
- According to economic theory, how does increasing government spending or reducing taxation aim to boost the economy?
- What do we mean by a budget deficit or budget surplus? How does a budget deficit differ from national debt?
- What is the ‘golden rule’ for fiscal policy? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such a rule-based approach to fiscal policy.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a policy of ‘spending our way out of a recession?’
- With spending cuts looming, many will be affected. How will cuts in government spending affect the UK’s ability to recover from the recession? Will you be affected and, if so, how?
- Last year £85.5 billion was spent by the government on bailing out banks. Do you think this was money well spent, or is it the main cause of the current spending cuts that could see the recession worsen?