There seems to be consensus among most politicians on both sides of the Atlantic that there needs to be a reduction in government deficits and debt as a proportion of GDP. But there is considerable debate as to how such reductions should be achieved.
Conservatives, Republicans and centre right parties in Europe, such as Greece’s Νεα Διμοκρατια (New Democracy) party, believe that there should be tough policies to reduce government expenditure and that the deficit should be reduced relatively quickly in order to retain the confidence of markets.
Politicians on the centre left, including Labour, many Democrats in the USA and centre-left parties in Europe, such as François Hollande’s Socialists, argue that the austerity policies pursued by centre-right governments have led to a decline in growth, which makes it harder to reduce the current deficit.
Then there is debate about what is happening to the structural deficit – the deficit that would remain at a zero output gap. Politicians on the centre right argue that their austerity policies are leading to a rapid reduction in the structural deficit. This, combined with the supply-side policies they claim they are implementing, will allow growth to be resumed more quickly and will increase the long-term growth rate (i.e. the growth in potential output).
Politicians on the centre left argue that deep cuts, by reducing short-term growth (even making it negative in some cases, such as the UK), are discouraging investment and construction. This in turn will lower the growth in potential output and make it harder to reduce the structural deficit.
The following podcast and articles consider these arguments – arguments that are often badly put by politicians, who often use ‘questionable’ economics to justify their party line.
A grand economic experiment (also at) More or Less: BBC Radio 4 (first part), Tim Harford (4/5/12) (Programme details)
The fine art of squeezing: Britain vs America BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/5/12)
The Slippery Structural Deficit Wall Street Journal (blog), Matthew Dalton (11/5/12)
The right kinds of austerity policy Financial Times (1/5/12)
We can fix up the old status quo to get out of this mess The Olympian, David Brooks (11/5/12)
Europe’s austerity drive is a misdiagnosis of its problems Gulf News, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/12)
How Nick Clegg got it wrong on debt Guardian, Polly Curtis (9/5/12)
Ten Reasons Wall Street Should Be (Very) Worried About The U.S. Debt Forbes, Bruce Upbin (4/5/12)
- Distinguish between the structural and cyclical budget deficit.
- Explain the distinction between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: (a) public-sector deficit; (b) public-sector debt; (c) public-sector net cash requirement; (d) debt reduction; (e) a bank’s balance sheet?
- Under what circumstances will a reduction in the public-sector deficit lead to: (a) a reduction in the public-sector debt (total); (b) a reduction in the public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP?
- How would you decide what is the desirable level of the public-sector deficit: (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
- Explain and comment on the following statement from the Stephanie Flanders article: “What is clear is that America has been able to ‘cut its debt (sic) further and faster’ than Britain – but this has not been the result of any closet commitment to austerity. Quite the opposite.”
The UK is officially back in recession: or to be more accurate, a double-dip recession.
The generally accepted definition of a recession is two or more quarters of negative growth in real GDP. According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics, the UK economy shrank by 0.2% in quarter 1, 2012, having shrunk by 0.3% in quarter 4, 2011.
(Click on the following link for a PowerPoint of the above chart: Double dip 2)
As you can see from the chart (click chart for a larger version), these declines are tiny compared with the recession of 2008/9. Nevertheless, with the eurozone economy slowing (Britain’s largest export market), and with cuts to government expenditure set to bite harder in the coming months, there are worries that there may be more quarters of negative growth to come.
So what are the causes of this double-dip recession? Are they largely external, in terms of flagging export markets; or are they internal? Is the new recession the direct result of the tight fiscal policy pursued by the Coalition government?
And what is to be done? Is there no option but to continue with the present policy – the government’s line? Or should the austerity measures be reined in? After all, as we saw in the last blog post (Economic stimulus, ‘oui’; austerity, ‘non’), the mood in many European countries is turning against austerity.
The following articles explore the causes and policy implications of the latest piece of bad news on the UK economy.
Double-dip recession a terrible blow for George Osborne Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/4/12)
Double-dip recession figures mark another bad day for George Osborne Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/4/12)
UK double-dip recession: what the economists say Guardian (25/4/12)
Feared double dip recession becomes reality as British economy contracts again in first quarter of 2012 Daily Record (25/4/12)
Britain in double-dip recession as growth falls 0.2pc The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan and Szu Ping Chan (25/4/12)
Did the eurozone crisis cause the double-dip recession? Guardian, Polly Curtis (25/4/12)
UK’s double-dip recession Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/4/12)
UK is in ‘double dip’ recession FT Adviser, Rebecca Clancy and John Kenchington (25/4/12)
Flanders explains GDP figure BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (25/4/12)
No recovery for UK: No let up for ONS BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (25/4/12)
Double-dip recession: There’s always fantasy island BBC News, Paul Mason (25/4/12)
UK double-dip recession to drag on into summer, economists warn The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (26/4/12)
George Osborne can stop the rot, but only by spending as he slashes The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (25/4/12)
Double dip has arrived – and Osborne is running out of escape routes Independent, Ben Chu (26/4/12)
Britain’s bosses tell the ONS: it’s bad, but not a recession Independent, Tom Bawden, Lucy Tobin , Gideon Spanier (26/4/12)
The Chancellor received plenty of warning Independent, David Blanchflower (26/5/12)
Gross Domestic Product: Preliminary Estimate, Q1 2012 ONS (25/4/12)
Preliminary Estimate of GDP Time Series Dataset 2012 Q ONS (25/4/12)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (17/4/12)
Business and Consumer Surveys (for all individual EU countries and for the EU as a whole) European Commission: Economic and Financial Affairs
Consumer Confidence Nationwide Building Society
- Assess the current state of the UK economy and its likely course over the coming few months.
- Why may looking at the business surveys provide a truer picture of the state of the UK economy than the official measure of GDP?
- Why has the UK economy gone back into recession?
- Compare the policy approaches of the Coalition government with those of the Labour opposition.
- How important is it for the UK to retain its AAA credit rating?
Now the details of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) are known, the comments are coming thick and fast. As we saw in the last news blog, Taking sides in the war of the cuts, economists are divided over whether the cuts will be compensated by a rise in private expenditure or whether overall aggregate demand will fall, driving the economy back into recession. As you will see in the articles below, they are still as divided as ever.
At least we know the details of the cuts. The plan is for an average cut across government departments of some 19 per cent over four years, although the size will vary enormously from department to department. The government is predicting that the effect will be about 490,000 fewer jobs in the public sector. In addition to the cuts, the retirement age is to rise to 66 for both men and women by 2020 and regulated rail fares will rise by 3% above RPI inflation for three years from 2012.
Examine the details of the measures in the articles below and consider what the effects are likely to be, both on the macro economy and on income distribution.
Spending Review: Osborne wields axe BBC News (20/10/10)
Spending Review: Q&A – what does it mean? BBC News (20/10/10)
Main points from the Comprehensive Spending Review Independent (20/10/10)
Osborne swings the welfare axe Independent, Oliver Wright (20/10/10)
Chancellor spells out austerity gamble Financial Times (20/10/10)
Easier said than done The Economist (20/10/10)
Julian Callow Sees Consolidation in Europe Bloomberg Podcasts, Tom Keene interviews Julian Callow, chief European economist at Barclays Capital (21/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: Business leaders urge clearer strategy for growth Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (20/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: George Osborne leaves markets unmoved Telegraph (20/10/10)
Spending review: Osborne gambles with the economy Guardian, Larry Elliott (20/10/10)
Larry Elliott on George Osborne’s spending review Guardian video (20/10/10)
Spending review: What the economists think Guardian (20/10/10)
Spending review: The work of a gambler Guardian editorial (20/10/10)
Spending review: economists and other experts respond Guardian, various economists (20/10/10)
Comprehensive spending review: We deserve an explanation. This wasn’t it Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty (20/10/10)
Spending review: the winners and losers Guardian, Sam Jones (20/10/10)
All in it together? BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (20/10/10)
The sack: Lessons for government BBC News blogs, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (20/10/10)
A gamble on the economics Financial Times, Philip Stephens (20/10/10)
Q&A: the devil in the details Financial Times, Chris Giles (20/10/10)
Spending Review: Poorest Take Biggest Hit Sky News, Miranda Richardson (20/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: ‘More cuts could be needed’ Telegraph, Andy Bloxham (21/10/10)
Cuts ‘will push UK close to recession’ BBC Today Programme, Martin Wolf and Ken Rogoff (21/10/10)
Spending review cuts ‘are regressive’ BBC Today Programme, Tim Harford (21/10/10)
Spending review is a full stop but history lesson is vital in economics Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/10/10)
The Spending Review document
Spending Review 2010 HM Treasury (20/10/10)
Link to HM Treasury Spending Review site
Briefing and analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies
Opening remarks IFS, Carl Emmerson (21/10/10)
Link to briefing presentations (PowerPoint) IFS (21/10/10)
Analysis of fiscal consolidation by the IMF
Will It Hurt? Macroeconomic Effects of Fiscal Consolidation World Economic Outlook, Chapter 3, IMF (Oct 2010)
- What is the distribution of cuts between government departments?
- To what extent can it be said that there will be a real increase in health expenditure?
- What will be the effect of the cuts and tax increases on the distribution of income?
- What will determine whether the effect of the cuts will be to stimulate or dampen economic growth (or even drive the economy back into recession)? Which do you think is most likely and on what do you base your judgement?
- Trace through the multiplier effects of the measures.
- If the effect of the cuts is to drive the economy back into recession, what should the government’s ‘Plan B’ be?
In the run-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review a battle is raging. On one side are those who argue that cuts are necessary to secure long-term growth and to maintain confidence on the UK economy. These people include leaders of 35 major companies in the UK who wrote a letter to the Telegraph (see below) suppporting George Osborne’s policy of cuts.
On the other side are those who maintain that the cuts will drive the economy back into recession or, at least, will hamper economic recovery. The Federation of Small Businesses warns that “Some small firms rely on public-sector contracts for 50 or 60 per cent of their turnover. If the cuts are swingeing and overnight, these companies will be lost to the UK economy forever.”
Read the following articles to get a clear understanding of the arguments on both sides. Hopefully this will then put you in a better position to assess the cuts and their impact.
Osborne’s cuts will strengthen Britain’s economy by allowing the private sector to generate more jobs Telegraph, letter from 35 business leaders (18/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: cut now or pay later, say business leaders Telegraph, Andrew Porter, and Robert Winnett (17/10/10)
35 business leaders back Osborne’s cuts BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (17/10/10)
Prominent Tory donors among business leaders who backed Osborne’s cuts Independent, Andrew Grice (19/10/10)
On the tight side The Economist (30/9/10)
History will see these cuts as one of the great acts of political folly Observer, Will Hutton (17/10/10)
Osborne has taken the coward’s route Guardian, David Blanchflower (18/10/10)
Osborne reading Christian Andersen, claims economist The Herald, Ian McConnell (19/10/10)
Time to broaden the debate on spending cuts Guardian, Ha-Joon Chang (19/10/10)
Slugging it out over spending cuts Independent, Sean O’Grady (19/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: We should all fear the darkness, David Cameron included Telegraph, Mary Riddell (18/10/10)
Spending cuts: Molehill and mountain BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (19/10/10)
Does fiscal austerity boost short-term growth? A new IMF paper thinks not The Economist (30/9/10)
Spending Review: Forecasts rely on ‘heroic assumptions’ BBC News (20/10/10)
Spending cuts: City divided on whether cuts are good for recovery Yorkshire Evening Post (20/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: Spending cuts will hit small businesses hardest Telegraph, James Hurley (20/10/10)
Rebalancing the Economy Speech by Mervyn King, Bank of England Governor (30/9/10)
Mervyn King warns of 1930s-style collapse (Extract from above speech) BBC News, Mervyn King (19/10/10)
- What are the main arguments for making large-scale cuts to government spending at the present time?
- What are the main arguments against making large-scale cuts to government spending at the present time?
- To what extent should the government’s poplicy on the size and timing of the cuts be influenced by international economic relations?
- What role might the ‘inventory cycle’ play in the economic recovery?
- Why may the government “pay heavily unless it learns to temper its bloody cuts with humanity”?
- How will large-scale spending cuts impact on (a) consumer confidence; (b) business confidence; (c) the confidence of international financiers?
- Will monetary policy allow fiscal policy to be tightened without causing a recession? Explain the effectiveness of monetary policy in these circumstances.
National debt has increased rapidly over the past few years. In 2006/7 general government debt was £577.8bn or 42.9% of GDP. In 2009/10 it was £1000.4bn or 71.3% of GDP. It is set to go higher, with government debt forecast to be around 87% of GDP in 2011. This compares with forecasts of 82% for Germany, 87% for France, 103% for the USA, 134% for Greece and 195% for Japan.
Getting the deficit and debt down has, not surprisingly, become an issue in many countries. In the UK it has become the major current pre-occupation of the Coalition government and on 20 October it is set to announce major public spending cuts as a means of achieving this.
To get a flavour of the government’s thinking and the message that ministers are putting out to the electorate, the following are quotes from the Prime Minister’s and then the Chancellor’s speeches to the Conservative Party Conference:
This year, we’re going to spend £43 billion pounds on debt interest payments alone. £43 billion – not to pay off the debt – just to stand still. Do you know what we could do with that sort of money? We could take eleven million people out of paying income tax altogether. We could take every business in the country out of corporation tax. That’s why we have acted decisively – to stop pouring so much of your hard-earned money down the drain. We are already paying £120m of interest every single day thanks to the last Labour government. (David Cameron)
It’s the borrowing that doesn’t go away as the economy grows, and we have £109bn of it. It’s like with a credit card. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets. You pay more interest. You pay interest on the interest. You pay interest on the interest on the interest. We are already paying £120m of interest every single day thanks to the last Labour government. Millions of pounds every day that goes to the foreign governments we owe so they can build the schools and hospitals for their own citizens that we aren’t able to afford for ours. How dare Labour call that protecting the poor? (George Osborne)
Let’s unpick this a bit. Who earns the interest? The answer is that it is paid to holders of government debt in the form of government bonds (gilts), national savings certificates, premium bonds, etc. In other words it is paid to savers, whether individuals or pension funds or companies.
Does it all go abroad? In fact 29% of gilts are held abroad. The rest are held by British residents. Thus some 70% of the interest rate paid on government debt goes to British residents and supports pensions and savers. It can thus be seen as a transfer from taxpayers to savers.
Because of the record low interest rates many pensioners who rely on savings interest have seen their incomes fall dramatically. Others draw income from a ‘self-invested personal pension’. The amount that can be drawn each year is based on tables according to a person’s age and the current 15-year Treasury gilt yield (currently 3.45%). Thus the lower the rate of interest, and the less the yield, the less that can be drawn.
So who are the gainers and losers from high general government debt and attempts to get it down? Read the following articles and look at the data and then try answering the questions.
Britons have donated £7m to help pay off the national debt (but that’s a drop in the ocean) Mail Online, Daniel Martin (9/10/10)
A trillion and rising: Britain’s £1,000,000,000,000 debt means it is now paying as much in interest as it does for defence Mail Online, Hugo Duncan (1/10/10)
Spending cuts “not enough”, say small firms Telegraph, James Hurley (8/10/10)
UK public finances post record August deficit Guardian, Julia Kollewe (21/9/10)
Another paradox of thrift The Economist, Buttonwood (16/9/10)
The gilt market UK Debt Management Office
Gilt market data UK Debt Management Office
Overseas gilt holdings UK Debt Management Office
Public sector: current position ONS (30/9/10)
Public sector finances ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/9/10)
Government deficit and debt under the Maastricht Treaty ONS Statistical Bulletin (30/9/10)
Contributions to the government deficit and debt ONS Statistical Bulletin (31/3/10)
- Explain the difference between central government, general government and public-sector deficits and debt.
- Who loses from a rising public-sector debt? Who gains?
- Conduct an international comparison of (a) the level of the government deficit and debt and (b) their rate of growth over the past few years.
- What is meant by the ‘yield’ on a particular gilt?
- If gilt yields fall, does this mean that the government pays less on existing gilts? Is it likely to pay less on new gilt issues? Explain.
- How do cuts affect the distribution between savers and borrowers?