On February 14, the Sunday Times published a letter by 20 eminent economists calling on the next government to cut the public-sector deficit more rapidly than that planned in last December’s pre-Budget report.
In order to minimise this risk and support a sustainable recovery, the next government should set out a detailed plan to reduce the structural budget deficit more quickly than set out in the 2009 pre-Budget report.
The exact timing of measures should be sensitive to developments in the economy, particularly the fragility of the recovery. However, in order to be credible, the government’s goal should be to eliminate the structural current budget deficit over the course of a parliament, and there is a compelling case, all else being equal, for the first measures beginning to take effect in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Then on 18 February the Financial Times published two letters, between them from more than 60 economists, backing Alistair Darling’s policy of delaying cuts until the recovery is firmly established. They openly disagreed with the 20 economists who wrote to the Sunday Times.
… while unemployment is still high, it would be dangerous to reduce the government’s contribution to aggregate demand beyond the cuts already planned for 2010-11 (which amount to 1 per cent of gross domestic product). Further immediate cuts – even supposing they are practicable – would not produce an offsetting increase in private sector aggregate demand, and could easily reduce it. History is littered with examples of premature withdrawal of the government stimulus, from the US in 1937 to Japan in 1997. With people’s livelihoods at stake, a responsible government should avoid reckless actions.
… A sharp shock now would not remove the need for a sustained medium-term programme of deficit reduction. But it would be positively dangerous. If next year the government spent less and saved more than it currently plans, this would not “make a sustainable recovery more likely”. The weight of evidence points in the opposite direction.
So why do such eminent economists have apparently such divergent views on tackling the public-sector deficit? Is there any common ground between them? What does the disagreement imply about the state of macroeconomics? Read the letters and articles and then try answering the questions.
Tories right on cuts, say economists Sunday Times, David Smith (14/2/10)
Letter: UK economy cries out for credible rescue plan Sunday Times, 20 economists (14/2/10)
Economists reject calls for budget cuts Financial Times, Jean Eaglesham and Daniel Pimlott (18/2/10)
Letter: First priority must be to restore robust growth Financial Times, Lord Skidelsky and others (18/2/10)
Letter: Sharp shock now would be dangerous Financial Times, Lord Layard and others (18/2/10)
Economists urge swift action to reduce budget deficit BBC News (14/2/10)
Economists back delay on government spending cuts BBC News (19/2/10)
Economists back delay on government spending cuts BBC News (19/2/10)
Men of letters III BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (19/2/10)
Daily View: When to cut spending? (including podcast) BBC News blogs, Clare Spencer (19/2/10)
Cautious economists and cutters battle it out in print Guardian (20/2/10)
The great economics rift reopens Guardian, Gavyn Davies (19/2/10)
Focus on growth. Don’t argue about cuts Times Online, Eamonn Butler (20/2/10)
Recession’s ruins hide plenty of spare capacity Sunday Times, David Smith (14/2/10)
- To what extent is the disagreement between the two sets of economists largely one of the timing of the cuts?
- Is the disagreement the result of (a) different analysis, (b) different objectives or (c) different interpretation of forecasts of the robustness of the recovery and how markets are likely to respond to alternative policies? Or is it a combination of two of them or all three? Explain your answer.
- How would new classical economists respond to the Keynesian argument that it is necessary to focus on aggregate demand if the economy is to experience a sustained recovery?
- How would Keynesian economists respond to the argument that rapid cuts will reassure markets and allow private-sector recovery to more than compensate for reduced public-sector activity?
- Why is the effect of the recession on the supply-side of the economy crucial in determining the sustainability of a demand-led recovery?
- Distinguish between the cyclical and structural deficits. How would the policies advocated by the two groups of economists impact on the structural deficit?
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.
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
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 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)
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)
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)
- 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?
- To what extent are the situations in the UK, Japan and Ireland similar? Should they be following similar macroeconomic policies?
- Why does it matter if a country has a rising public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP?
- 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?
- Why does Greece’s debt crisis signal problems for the European Central Bank?
- What determines a country’s sovereign credit rating?