With all the concerns recently about Greek and Italian debt and about the whole future of the eurozone, you would be forgiven for thinking that the problems of the UK economy had gone away. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Problems are mounting and pessimism is growing.
First there is the problem of a contracting eurozone economy. This will directly impact on the UK as almost half of UK exports go to eurozone countries. Second there is the impact of the government expenditure cuts, most of which have still not taken effect yet. Third there is the fact that, with the combination of inflation over 5% and nominal pay typically rising by no more than 2%, real take-home pay is falling and hence too is the volume of consumer expenditure. Fourth, there is the increasingly pessimistic mood of consumers and business. The more pessimistic people become about the prospects for their jobs and incomes, the more people will rein in their spending; the more pessimistic businesses become, the more they will cut back on investment and economise on stock holding.
Forecasts for the UK economy have become considerably bleaker over the past few weeks. These include forecasts by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the accountancy network BDO, Ernst & Young’s ITEM Club and the CBI in its SME Trends Survey and November Economic Forecast. The Treasury’s latest Forecasts for the UK Economy, which brings together forecasts by 29 different organisations, also shows a marked increase in pessimism from September to October.
So is it now time for the government to change course to prevent the economy slipping back into recession? Do we need a Plan B? Certainly, it’s something we’ve considered before on this news site (see Time for a Plan B?). The latest call has come from a group of 100 leading academic economists who have written to the Observer. In their letter they spell out what such a plan should contain. You’ll find a link to the letter below and to other articles considering the proposals.
We economists have a Plan B that will work, Mr Osborne Observer letters (29/10/11)
Plan B: the ideas designed to restart a stalled UK economy Observer, Daniel Boffey and Heather Stewart (29/10/11)
Plan B could have been even more aggressive, but it would definitely work Observer, Will Hutton (29/10/11)
The economy: we need Plan B and we need it now Observer editorial (30/10/11)
If tomorrow’s growth figures disappoint, Plan B will be a step closer, whatever David Cameron says The Telegraph, Daniel Knowles (31/10/11)
Plan B to escape the mess we are in Compass, John Weeks (7/11/11)
Plan B; a good economy for a good society Compass, Edited by Howard Reed and Neal Lawson (31/10/11)
- What are the main proposals in Compass’s Plan B?
- How practical are these proposals?
- Without a Plan B, what is likely to happen to the UK economy over (a) the coming 12 months; (b) the next 3 years?
- Why might sticking to Plan A worsen the public-sector deficit – at least in the short term?
- What are the main arguments for sticking to Plan A and not easing up on deficit reduction?
- Find out what proportion of the UK’s debt is owed to non-UK residents? (See data published by the UK’s Debt Management Office (DMO).) How does this proportion and the average length of UK debt affect the arguments about the sustainability of this level of debt and the ease of servicing it?
- If you had to devise a Plan B, what would it look like and why? To what extent would it differ from Compass’s Plan B and from George Osborne’s “Plan A”?
The growing interdependence of economies has never been more true than over the past few years. The credit crunch began in the US and gradually spread to the rest of the world. As the saying goes, ‘when America sneezes, the world catches a cold’. The US economy is the largest in the world and with such a close relationship to the UK, its economic situation is critical. GDP growth in the first quarter was a mere 0.4% and in the second quarter, it was revised down from the US Commerce Department’s original estimate of 1.3% to just 1%. This was attributed to weaker growth in business inventories, a fall in exports and less spending from the state and local governments. Personal consumption expenditure and exports did rise, but the increase in the former was hardly noticeable (0.4%) and in both cases, the second quarter increase was significantly down on that in the first quarter.
With GDP growth remaining low, there’s not much better news when it comes to US unemployment, which remained at 9.1% from July. It was expected that a further 70,000 jobs would be created in August, but the latest figures suggest that no new jobs were created. It seems that the data on growth and the components of aggregate demand are enough to bring consumer and investor confidence down. Virginie Maisonneuve said:
‘Companies that are overall doing OK are hesitating to hire and invest further, creating some fragility for the economy… We will need some help from the Fed and the government to avoid a recession.’
President Obama is due to make a speech in which he will outline a new plan to boost economic growth. Crucial to this will be restoring confidence, as without it, businesses will not invest, consumers will save rather than spend, jobs will not be created and growth will remain sluggish. This will do nothing to help the still weak economies of Europe. Indeed, following news of the US job situation, stock markets across the world fell, as fears of recession set in. The Dow Jones opened 2% down, the FTSE 100 ended 2.3% down (although this was also affected by a weakening in the construction sector), markets in Germany, France and Spain were down by over 3% and in Italy by over 4%.
US GDP revised down to 1pc in second quarter as growth stalls Telegraph (26/8/11)
US economy: no new jobs added in August BBC News (2/9/11)
Jobs data confirm US growth fears Financial Times, Robin Harding and Johanna Kassel (2/9/11)
Markets fall on weak U jobs data BBC News (2/9/11)
FTSE falls after weak US jobs data The Press Association (2/9/11)
European stocks knocked by dire US jobs data Reuters (2/9/11)
Fears over US economy cause world market route Economic Times (2/9/11)
FTSE 100 extends losses after poor US non farm payroll figures Guardian (2/9/11)
- What is aggregate demand? Which component is the biggest engine of growth for an economy?
- Why did markets decline following the data on US jobs?
- Why is the economic situation in America so important to the economic recovery of other countries across Europe?
- Why are there suggestions that the US is underestimating its inflation?
- Why is the US economic data for the second quarter of 2011 so much worse than that of the first quarter? What could have caused this downturn?
- What action could the government and the Fed take to boost confidence in the US economy and stimulate economic growth? Can any of this be done without causing inflation?
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.
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)
United Kingdom – 2011 Article IV Consultation Concluding Statement of the Mission (6/6/11)
OECD Economic Outlook 89 Annex Tables (June 2011): see especially Annex Table 1
Output, prices and jobs The Economist
- Explain what is likely to happen to each of the components of aggregate demand.
- 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?
- 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?
- What is meant by the ‘inventory cycle’? How did this impact on growth in 2010 and the first part of 2011?
- What is likely to happen to inflation in the coming months and why? How is this likely to impact on economic growth?
- 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 is no bigger purchase than a house. Ask most individuals who have at some point in their life purchased a house and they will tell you about the considerable time they devoted to making the decision to purchase. It’s not like rushing to a supermarket and purchasing a kilo of sugar. The decision to purchase a property is not taken lightly: the mood music has to be right. Consumer confidence is therefore an important ingredient for an active housing market. The latest mortgage approval data from the Bank of England suggest the music is not right!
April’s mortgage approval numbers continue to demonstrate the on-going fragility of the UK housing market and, in turn, of British households. April saw 45,166 mortgages approved for house purchase. What makes this figure particularly noteworthy is that it is the lowest level recorded in the month of April since the Bank of England figures started back in 1993. It is also 9% lower than April 2010. Some commentators have argued that the number of public holidays in April contributed to the fall in activity. But, 138,756 approvals over the period from February to April was 4.3% lower than over the corresponding period last year. This would suggest that we can’t lay the blame for low levels of mortgage approvals solely on hot cross buns and Kate Middleton!
The weakness in mortgage approvals data has been regular news for some time. Over the past two years the number of approvals per month has been close to 50K compared to about 89K over the past ten years. What makes the latest figures troubling is that there is no indication of recovery any time soon. Rather, the figures show that housing demand may be weakening yet again. If we exclude December’s low of 42,772, when housing market activity was hit by the harsh winter conditions, April’s figure is the lowest since March 2009.
The weakness in the demand for housing can in large part be attributed to the poor mood music: economic growth remains fragile, average real incomes have been declining and unemployment levels are expected to rise over the coming months. Furthermore, households are naturally reluctant to purchase property is they think house prices may fall further. All in all, we can expect the weakness in housing demand to persist for some time. The question seems to be one of just how weak housing demand will be. The next few months promise to be very interesting to say the least. Keep listening to the music!
UK mortgage approvals hit record low in April Telegraph, Emma Rowley and Harry Wilson (2/6/11)
Mortgage approvals fall to record April low Guardian, Mark King (1/6/11)
Mortgage approvals fall to two-year low Financial Times, Norma Cohen (1/6/11)
Mortgage approvals hit new low, Bank of England reports BBC News (1/6/11)
UK mortgage approvals drop to lowest in four months on lower confidence Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton (1/6/11) )
Pound drops on weak UK manufacturing PMI and mortgage approvals data RTT News (6/1/11)
Mortgage approval numbers and other lending data are available from the Bank of England’s statistics publication, Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) (See Table A5.4.)
- How sensitive do you think mortgage approval numbers are likely to be both current and future economic conditions?
- Are there any other types of purchases which households make which you might expect to be especially sensitive to economic conditions?
- Is it just the weakness in the demand for housing which explains the current low levels of mortgage approvals? Explain your answer
- Do weak mortgage approval numbers mean that we should expect house prices to fall in the months ahead? Use demand and supply diagrams to help explain your answer.
The debate about how much and how fast to cut the deficit has often been presented as a replaying of the debates of the 1920s and 30s between Keynes and the Treasury.
The justification for fiscal expansion to tackle the recession in 2008/9 was portrayed as classic Keynesianism. The problem was seen as a short-term one of a lack of spending. The solution was seen as one of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. There was relatively little resistance to such stimulus packages at the time, although some warned against the inevitable growth in public-sector debt.
But now that the world economy is in recovery mode – albeit a highly faltering one in many countries – and given the huge overhang of government deficits and debts, what would Keynes advocate now? Here there is considerable disagreement.
Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, argues that Keynes would have supported the deficit reduction plans of the Coalition government. He would still have stressed the importance of aggregate demand, but would have argued that investor and consumer confidence, which are vital preconditions for maintaining private-sector demand, are best maintained by a credible plan to reduce the deficit. What is more, inflows of capital are again best encouraged by fiscal rectitude. As he argued in the New Statesman article below
One plausible explanation, from Olivier Blanchard of the IMF, is that the Keynesian model of fiscal policy works well enough in most conditions, but not when there is a fiscal crisis. In those circumstances, households and businesses react to increased deficits by saving more, because they expect spending cuts and tax increases in the future. At a time like this, fiscal multipliers decline and turn negative. Conversely, firm action to reduce deficits provides reassurance to spend and invest. Such arguments are sometimes described as “Ricardian equivalence” – that deficits cannot stimulate demand because of expected future tax increases.
Those on the other side are not arguing against a long-term reduction in government deficits, but rather that the speed and magnitude of cuts should depend on the state of the economy. Too much cutting and too fast would cause a reduction in aggregate demand and a consequent reduction in output. This would undermine confidence, not strengthen it. Critics of the Coalition government’s policy point to the fragile nature of the recovery and the historically low levels of consumer confidence
The following articles provide some of the more recent contributions to the debate.
Keynes would be on our side New Statesman, Vince Cable (12/1/11)
Cable’s attempt to claim Keynes is well argued — but unconvincing New Statesman, David Blanchflower and Robert Skidelsky (27/1/11)
Growth or cuts? Keynes would not back the coalition – especially over jobs Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/1/11)
People do not understand how bad the economy is Guardian, Vince Cable (20/5/11)
The Budget Battle: WWHD? (What Would Hayek Do?) AK? (And Keynes?) PBS Newshour, Paul Solman (29/4/11)
Keynes vs. Hayek, the Rematch: Keynes Responds PBS Newshour, Paul Solman (2/5/11)
On Not Reading Keynes New York Times, Paul Krugman (1/5/11)
Would a More Expansionary Fiscal Policy Be Effective Right Now? Yes: On the Invisible Bond Market and Inflation Vigilantes Once Again Blog: Grasping Reality with a Prehensile Tail, Brad DeLong (12/5/11)
Keynes, Crisis and Monopoly Capitalism The Real News, Robert Skidelsky and Paul Jay (29/4/11)
- What factors in the current economic environment affect the level of consumer confidence?
- What are the most important factors that will determine whether or not a policy of fiscal consolidation will drive the economy back into recession?
- How expansionary is monetary policy at the moment? Is it enough simply to answer this question by reference to central bank repo rates?
- What degree of crowding out would be likely to result from an expansionary fiscal policy in the current economic environment? If confidence is adversely affected by expansionary fiscal policy, would this represent a form of crowding out?
- Why may fiscal multipliers have ‘turned negative’?
- For what reasons might a tight fiscal policy lead to an increase in aggregate demand?
- Your turn: what would Keynes have done in the current macroeconomic environment?