The UK economy is suffering from a lack of aggregate demand. Low spending in real terms is preventing the economy from growing. A simple solution would seem to be to stimulate aggregate demand through fiscal policy, backed up by even looser monetary policy. But this is easier said than done and could result in undesirable consequences in the medium term.
If increased borrowing were to be used to fund increased government expenditure and/or cuts in taxes, would any resulting growth be sufficient in the medium term to reduce the public-sector deficit below the initial level through automatic fiscal stabilisers? And would the growth be sustainable? The answer to this second question depends on what happens to the supply side of the economy. Would there be an increase in aggregate supply to match the increase in aggregate demand?
This second question has led many economists to argue that we need to see a rebalancing of the economy. What is needed is an increase in investment and exports, rather than an increase in just consumer expenditure funded by private borrowing and government current expenditure funded by public borrowing.
But how will exports and investment be stimulated? As far as exports are concerned, it was hoped that the depreciation of the pound since 2008 would give UK exporters a competitive advantage. Also domestic producers would gain a competitive advantage in the UK from imports becoming more expensive. But the current account deficit has actually deteriorated. According to the EU’s AMECO database, in 2008 the current account deficit was 1% of GDP; in 2012 it was 3.7%. It would seem that UK producers are not taking sufficient advantage of the pound’s depreciation, whether for exports or import substitutes.
As far as investment is concerned, there are two major problems. The first is the ability to invest. This depends on financing and things such as available land and planning regulations. The second is the confidence to invest. With not little or no growth in consumer demand, there is little opportunity for the accelerator to work. And with forecasts of sluggish growth and austerity measures continuing for some years, there is little confidence in a resurgence in consumer demand in the future. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart. Note that the 2013 plots are based on AMECO forecasts.)
So hope of a rebalancing is faint at the current time. Hence the arguments for an increase in government capital expenditure that we looked at in the last blog post (The political dynamite of calm economic reflection). The problem and the options for government are considered in the following articles.
Budget 2013: Chancellor’s rebalancing act BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (11/3/13)
Why George Osborne is failing to rebalance the economy The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/13)
Economy fails to ‘rebalance’ Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (27/2/13)
Analysis – Long haul ahead for Britain’s struggling economy Reuters, William Schomberg (3/3/13)
Can banks be forced to lend more? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/3/13)
Budget 2013: What the commentators are saying BBC News (13/3/13)
UK Trade, January 2013 (ONS) (12/3/13)
Business investment, Q4 2012 ONS (27/2/13)
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the effects of a successful policy to increase both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. What will determine the effect on the output gap?
- For what reasons has the UK’s current account deteriorated over the past few years while those of the USA and the eurozone have not?
- Using ONS data, find out what has happened to the UK’s balance of trade in (a) goods and (b) services over the past few years and explain your findings.
- Why are firms reluctant to invest at the moment? What policy measures could the government adopt to increase investment?
- With interest rates so low, why don’t consumers borrow and spend more, thereby aiding the recovery?
The second estimate of UK output for Q1 2010 from the Office for National Statistics reports that the economy grew by 0.3%. The first estimate, based on limited data, put growth in Q1 at 0.2%. But, it appears that more recently available data picked up evidence of stronger growth in the latter stages of the quarter, particularly in the production industries, such as manufacturing, as well as in capital spending by firms.
When analysed in terms of the composition of demand for our firms’ goods and services, there has been something of a rebound in investment expenditure. This follows a marked collapse during 2008 and the first half of 2009. In 2010 Q1 investment volumes increased by 4.2% on the back of a 2.4% rise in the last quarter of 2009.
This rebound in the investment figures across the last two quarters has partly been driven by firms running down their stockpiles of finished goods at a considerably slower rate. When firms build up their stocks of inventories for sales in future periods they are deemed to be engaging in investment. When firms then ‘tap into’ these inventories, as they have been since Q4 2008, they are disinvesting. It is now the case that the pace of disinvestment through running down inventories is slowing. This reflects a pick up in the demand for firms’ goods and services and, hopefully, an expectation of stronger future demand.
More encouragingly, the rebound in investment volumes in Q1 also reflected an increase in gross fixed capital formation, i.e. an increase in the purchase of non-financial fixed assets used in production, such as machinery. Gross fixed capital formation increased in Q1 by 1.5%. This was the first quarter since Q2 2008 in which there has been an increase in the volume of capital purchases by firms. Again, this is likely to reflect increased optimism about future demand since these assets are purchased to do one thing – to produce goods and services!
The improvement in the investment numbers is such that the volume of investment in Q1 2010 was 0.6% higher than it was in Q1 2009. This is largely the impact of a slower rate of disinvestment by firms through running down inventories since despite the rise in gross capital formation in Q1 2010 it still came in 5.7% lower than in Q1 2009. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the recent improvement in the UK’s investment numbers is maintained as we go forward.
Of particular concern is whether the volume of capital purchases can continue to grow. Can these purchases help to both boost growth now and our economy’s potential output in the medium term? Some of the key issues in determining the answer to this are likely to include: (i) the extent to which aggregate demand grows; (ii) the impact of fiscal consolidation measures on both firms and consumers; (iii) sentiment (confidence) across firms – especially of their own medium-term prospects; and (iv) the ability of firms to access credit from financial institutions. One can undoubtedly add many other issues to this list. One thing is for sure, these are very uncertain times indeed!
The economy: GDP growth revised up The Times, Grainne Gilmore (26/5/10)
Manufacturing pushes up economic growth The Independent, Sarah Arnott (26/5/10)
UK economic growth revised up to 0.3% BBC News (25/5/10) )
Economy tracker: GDP BBC News (25/5/10)
Boost for UK as GDP growth revised up Telegraph, Edmund Conway (25/5/10)
UK GDP growth revised upwards to 0.3% Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott (25/5/10)
UK first-quarter GDP revised higher Wall Street Journal, Natasha Brereton (25/5/10)
Latest on GDP growth Office for National Statistics (25/5/10)
UK output, income and expenditure, Statistical Bulletin, 1st Quarter 2010 Office for National Statistics (25/5/10)
UK Output, Income and Expenditure, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission
- Why do the National Accounts record a positive change in inventories as investment and a negative change in inventories as disinvestment?
- What factors might explain the running down of inventories across firms in the UK since Q4 2008? Why didn’t this start in Q2 2008 when the UK economy went into recession?
- In Q1 2010 the running down of inventories was worth, at 2005 prices, some £1.347 billion. This was considerably less than the £4.883 billion in Q3 2009 and the £2.596 billion in Q4 2009 (again at 2005 prices). Why might the pace of disinvestment be slowing?
- Of what importance do you think, firstly, the change in inventories and, secondly, gross capital fixed formation are for an economy’s potential output?
- What arguments do you think there are for distinguishing between different types of investment goods and services when considering our future economic growth?