With the UK parliament in Brexit gridlock, the Labour opposition is calling for a general election. Although its policy over Brexit and a second referendum is causing splits in the party, the Labour party is generally agreed that pubic expenditure on health, education and transport infrastructure needs to increase – that there needs to be an end to fiscal austerity. However, to fund extra public expenditure would require an increase in taxes and/or an increase in government borrowing.
One of the arguments against increasing government borrowing is that it will increase public-sector debt. The desire to get public-sector debt down as a percentage of GDP has been central to both the Coalition and Conservative governments’ economic strategy. Austerity policies have been based on this desire.
But, in the annual presidential address to the American Economics Association, former chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, criticised this position. He has argued for several years that cutting government deficits may weaken already weak economies and that this may significantly reduce tax revenues and potential national income, thereby harming recovery and doing long-term economic damage. Indeed, the IMF has criticised excessively tight fiscal policies for this reason.
In his presidential address, he expanded the argument to consider whether an increase in government borrowing will necessarily increase the cost of servicing government debt. When the (nominal) interest rate (r) on government borrowing is below the nominal rate of economic growth (gn), (r < gn), then even if total debt is not reduced, it is likely that the growth in tax revenues will exceed the growth in the cost of servicing the debt. Debt as a proportion of GDP will fall. The forecast nominal growth rate exceeds the 10-year nominal rate on government bonds by 1.3% in the USA, 2.2% in the UK and 1.8% in the eurozone. In fact, with the exception of a short period in the 1980s, nominal growth (gn) has typically exceeded the nominal interest rate on government borrowing (r) for decades.
When r < gn, this then gives scope for increasing government borrowing to fund additional government spending without increasing the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, if that fiscal expansion increases both actual and potential income, then growth over time could increase, giving even more scope for public investment.
But, of course, that scope is not unlimited.
- What do you understand by ‘fiscal illusion’?
- What is the justification for reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- What are the arguments against reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Explain the significance of the relationship between r and gn for fiscal policy and the levels of government debt, government borrowing and the government debt/GDP ratio.
- Under what circumstances would a rise in the budget deficit not lead to a rise in government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Does Blanchard’s analysis suggest that a combination of both loose monetary policy and loose fiscal policy is desirable?
- Under Blanchard’s analysis, what would limit the amount that governments should increase spending?
In the Perils of snow and stamp duty blog here on the Sloman Economics News site we noted two particular influences that may have contributed to February’s reported fall in UK house prices: the end of the stamp duty holiday and the poor winter weather. Here we ponder a little more on the recent relationship between the economic and house prices cycles and, more generally, on the significance and causes of the recent imbalances between housing demand and supply.
What is particularly interesting about February’s house price fall (the Halifax put the fall at 1½% and the Nationwide at 1%) is that it is happening just after the economy reportedly grew by 0.3% in the last quarter of last year. But, then again, the house price fall is a reversal of an upward trend that started back in the summer of 2009 when the economy was still contracting! One’s gut reaction might be that cycles in house prices and economic growth ought to coincide. One reason for this is that the growth in income of the household sector will reflect the phase of the business cycle that the economy is in. For instance, during the slowdown or recessionary phase, like the period during 2008/9, the household sector’s income is likely to be shrinking and this will impact on housing demand. The magnitude of the effect on demand will depend on the sensitivity of housing demand to changing incomes – something that economists refer to as the income elasticity of demand.
We can, despite what might appear to be the recent puzzling behaviour of UK house prices, apply the concepts of demand and supply to gain some insight into what has been driving house prices. One way of thinking about the concepts of housing demand and supply is to relate them respectively to the number of ‘instructions to buy’ and the number of ‘instructions to sell’ on an estate agent’s book. We can then try and think of factors which might influence, in a given period, the number of instructions to buy and sell.
One possible explanation of the house price growth of last year is that despite the household sector’s shrinking income there were in fact a number of relatively cash-rich households out there, partly because the lowering of interest rates meant that the debt-servicing costs on variable rate mortgages fell. This left some households with more discretionary income to spend or to use to increase their housing investment by trading-up between one housing market and another. The key point here is if there is not a similar increase in the number of instructions to sell then the imbalance between the flow of instructions to buy and instructions to sell results in upward pressure in prices. In those markets where the imbalance between demand and supply is greatest price pressures are most acute. This appears to have been especially true last year in particular markets in the south of England.
So what of February’s fall? Well, again we have to think about the balance between instructions to buy and sell. What appears to have happened is that the demand pressures that built up in some markets lessened. And, as we consider elsewhere on this site, it is perhaps even the case that the wonderful British weather ‘played a hand’ by discouraging some households from looking to buy and adding to our estate agents’ lists of instructions to buy.
UK housing recovery running out of steam CITY A.M., Jessica Mead (5/3/10)
UK house prices ‘lose momentum’, say Nationwide BBC News (26/2/10)
UK house prices see first fall since June, says Halifax BBC News (4/3/10)
Fears grow of double dip for UK housing market The Independent, Sean O’Grady (5/3/10)
Halifax House Price Data Lloyds Banking Group
House Prices: Data Download Nationwide Building Society
- What do economists mean by the income elasticity of demand? How income elastic do you think owner-occupied housing demand is likely to be?
- How important do you think current house prices are likely to be in affecting the number of instructions to buy and instructions to sell in the current period?
- How important do you think expectations of future house prices are in affecting the number of instructions to buy and sell in the current period?
- What role might financial institutions, like banks and building societies, play in affecting UK house price growth in 2010? How might their influence compare with that in the period 2008/9?
- Rather than economic growth affecting house prices, is it possible that house price growth could affect economic growth?