The Autumn Statement, delivered annually by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in late November or early December, is rather like a second Budget. In his statement, the Chancellor presents new forecasts for the UK economy by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and announces various policy changes in the light of the forecasts.
So what does this OBR say? Its headline reads, “Government borrowing revised higher as weaker economy hits revenues” and this is followed by the statement:
The OBR has revised up its forecasts for public-sector borrowing over the next five years, as a weaker outlook for the economy reduces tax revenues. As a result, the Government no longer seems likely to achieve its target of reducing public-sector net debt in 2015–16.
The chart shows OBR forecasts for public-sector net borrowing made in June 2010 (its first forecast after the OBR was formed by the Coalition government), in March 2012 and in December 2012. The current forecast clearly shows borrowing set to decline more slowly than in the earlier forecasts. Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart. (Note that the effects of transferring the pension assets of the Royal Mail to the Treasury and the effects of not paying interest to the Bank of England on government bonds purchased under quantitative easing programmes have not been included in order to make the three forecasts consistent.)
So with a weaker economy and slower recovery than previously forecast, what are George Osborne’s options? He and his colleagues, along with various economists, argue for sticking to Plan A. This means continuing with austerity measures in order to get the public-sector deficit down. But with government borrowing having fallen more slowly than forecast, this means further government expenditure cuts, such as reductions in benefits, cuts in grants to local authorities and reductions in pensions relief. Even so, achieving his two targets – (1) eliminating the cyclically adjusted current (as opposed to capital) budget deficit by 2015/16 (the so-called ‘fiscal mandate’), and (2) public-sector debt falling as a proportion of GDP by 2015/16 – will both be missed. They were extended by a year in the Budget last March. They have now been extended by a further year to 2017/18.
The opposition and many other economists argue that Plan A has failed. Austerity has prevented the economy from growing and has thus meant a slower reduction in the deficit as tax revenues have not grown nearly as much as hoped for. A more expansionary policy would allow the deficit to be reduced more quickly, especially if extra government expenditure were focused on infrastructure and other capital spending.
It could be argued that George Osborne’s Autumn Statement moves some way in this direction – a Plan A+. He is making deeper cuts in welfare and government departmental spending in order to divert monies into capital spending. For example, there will be £1bn of extra expenditure on roads; £1bn extra on schools; £270m on FE colleges; and £600m extra for scientific research. Also, by extending the period of austerity to 2017/18, this has meant that he has not had to make even deeper cuts. What is more, he is increasing income tax allowances and cutting the rate of corporation tax by 1% more than originally planned and scrapping the planned 3p per litre rise in road fuel duty. He hopes to make up any lost tax revenue from these measures by HMRC clamping down on tax evasion.
But by sticking to his broad austerity strategy, and with many parts of the global economy having weakened, it looks as if the UK economy is in for several more years of sluggish growth. Winter is going to be long.
Webcasts and Podcasts
Autumn Statement: George Osborne scraps 3p fuel duty rise BBC News, Carole Walker (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: OBR says deficit ‘shrinking more slowly’ BBC News, Robert Chote (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Headlines from George Osborne’s speech BBC News, Andrew Neil (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Flanders, Robinson and Peston reactio BBC News, Stephanie Flanders, Nick Robinson and Robert Peston (5/12/12)
Boosting the British Budget CNN, Jim Boulden (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012: key points – video analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott, Jill Treanor, Patrick Collinson and Damian Carrington (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012: the full speech The Telegraph (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Benefit squeeze as economy slows BBC News (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: At-a-glance summary of key points BBC News (5/12/12/)
Austerity to last until 2018, admits George Osborne Independent, Oliver Wright
Autumn statement: George Osborne reveals benefits cut Channel 4 News (5/12/12/)
Autumn Statement 2012: Cut welfare, create jobs – a very Tory statement The Telegraph, Damian Reece (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012: economy weaker than expected, Osborne says The Guardian, Heather Stewart (5/12/12)
Analysis: Even the ‘autumn’ bit seemed optimistic BBC News, Chris Mason (5/12/12)
George Osborne’s autumn statement 2012: reaction The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (5/12/12)
Candid Osborne avoids political risk Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (5/12/12)
Autumn statement: Why George Osborne’s Budget won’t be a game changer The Telegraph, Allister Heath (4/12/12/)
Autumn statement 2012: expert verdict The Guardian, Richard Murphy, Dominic Raab, Ann Pettifor, Gavin Kelly, Prateek Buch and Mark Serwotka (5/12/12/)
The alternative autumn statement Channel 4 News (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012: man cannot live by deficit reduction alone The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (5/12/12)
Autumn statement: cuts are just a sideshow The Guardian, John Redwood (5/12/12)
What does the Autumn Statement mean for business? Economia, David Mellor (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement Reaction: UK AAA ‘safe for today’ Investment Week (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: A wintry statement of reality BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/12/12)
What has changed? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (6/12/12)
UK warned on debt ‘credibility’ over AAA rating BBC News (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012 in charts The Guardian, Simon Rogers (5/12/12/)
Who suffers most from Britain’s austerity? How the figures stack up The Guardian, Tom Clark (5/12/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook charts and tables – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook supplementary economy tables – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM-Treasury
OBR, Treasury and IFS links
Economic and fiscal outlook – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012 HM Treasury (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012 IFS
- Distinguish between ‘stocks’ and ‘flows’. Define (a) public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) and (b) the public-sector net debt (PSND) and explain whether each one is a stock or a flow.
- Summarise the measures announced by George Osborne in his Autumn Statement.
- What are his arguments for not adopting a more expansionary fiscal policy?
- Assess his arguments.
- What is meant by the ‘output gap’? What are the OBR’s forecasts about the output gap and what are the implications?
- How has quantitative easing affected PSNB and PSND?
- Distinguish between the cyclical and structural deficit. What implications does this distinction have for fiscal policy?
In its report A Distorted Debate: the need for clarity on Debt, Deficit and Coalition Aims, the Centre for Policy Studies claims that the public is confused by economic terminology surrounding the government’s finances. We try and understand this confusion and offer a bath-time solution!
In a survey conducted for the Centre for Policy Studies only 10 per cent of Britons knew that despite cuts to parts of the government’s spending plans, the stock of public sector debt (also known as the national debt) is expected to rise by a further £60 billion by 2015. Rather, 47 per cent of respondents thought that debt would have fallen by this amount.
The confusion is not terribly surprising because there are two important core economic concepts that can confuse: stocks and flows. To try to help we will show how reference to a bath tub can hopefully eliminate the confusion. However, first, let us considerthe Coalition government’s principal fiscal objective. Its so-called fiscal mandate is for the cyclically-adjusted current budget to be in balance by 2015/16. In simple terms, the government wants to be able afford its day-to-day expenditures by this date, after taking into account where the economy is in the business cycle. In other words, if the economy’s output was at its sustainable or potential level in 2015-16 the government should be able to raise sufficient taxes to meet what it refers to as current expenditures. This would still allow the government to borrow to fund investment expenditure, e.g. infrastructural projects, which are enjoyed or consumed over a period of time.
An important thing to note about the fiscal mandate is that the government can expect to need to borrow money in order to afford its current expenditures up to 2015/16. Even beyond this date, assuming that the mandate can be met, it is likely to need money to afford capital expenditures. This is where we introduce the bath tub. Think of government spending as water coming through the bath taps while the taxes that government collect are water leaving through the plug hole. Therefore, spending and tax receipts are flows. If the water pouring into the bath (spending) is greater than the water leaving the bath (tax receipts), the level of water in the bath will rise. You can think of the water level in the bath as the stock of national debt. Therefore, if government is spending more than it receives it needs to borrow money. Borrowing is therefore a flow concept too. As it borrows, the stock of debt (the amount of water in our bath tub) rises.
So we know that government will continue to borrow in the near future. What it is hoping to be able to do, year by year, is begin to borrow less. It wants the deficit to fall. Then, if it can meet its target, it will at least be able to afford current expenditure (after adjustment for where the economy is in the cycle) by 2015/16. As the deficit begins to decline then the stock of debt will rise less quickly. But, the bath tub will continue to fill because more is flowing through the taps than is leaving through the plug hole. However, it will fill less quickly.
What our use of the bath tub analogy demonstrates is the confusion that can be caused when economic terminology is misused. It is important that the terms debt and deficit be used carefully and correctly. Therefore, the next time you are sitting in bath see if you can be the next Chancellor by understanding these key economic concepts.
Don’t know your debts from your deficit? You’re not alone Independent, Andrew Johnson (27/8/12)
Government unlikely to meet deficit targets, warns CPS Telegraph (27/8/12)
Coalition ‘most unlikely’ to meet key economic goals by next election Guardian, Andrew Sparrow (27/8/12)
Public ‘don’t know their debt from their deficit’ Public Finance, Vivienne Russell (28/8/12)
George Osborne ‘still failing to stop rising deficit’ Daily Express (28/8/12)
- Explain the difference between the concepts of government deficits and government debt?
- Explain what will happen to both the size of the government’s deficit and to its stock of debt if borrowing begins to decline.
- Can the stock of government debt fall if the government continues to borrow? Can the ratio of the stock of government debt fall relative to GDP (i.e. Debt/GDP), if government continues to borrow?
- With examples, explain the differences between the government’s current and investment (capital) expenditures.
- What are the economic arguments for trying to cut the deficit quickly or more slowly?
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.”
Keynes referred to the ‘paradox of thrift’ (see, for example, Box 17.5 on page 492 of Sloman and Wride, Economics, 7th edition). The paradox goes something like this: if individuals save more, they will increase their consumption possibilities in the future. If society saves more, however, this may reduce its future income and consumption. Why should this be so? Well, as people in general save more, they will spend less. Firms will thus produce less. What is more, the lower consumption will discourage firms from investing. Thus, through both the multiplier and the accelerator, GDP will fall.
What we have in the paradox of thrift is an example of the ‘fallacy of composition’ (see Sloman and Wride, Box 3.7 on page 84). What applies at the individual level will not necessarily apply at the aggregate level. The paradox of thrift applied in the Great Depression of the 1930s. People cutting back on consumption drove the world economy further into depression.
Turn the clock forward some 80 years. On 26/27 June 2010, leaders of the G20 countries met in Canada to consider, amongst other things, how to protect the global economic recovery while tackling the large public-sector deficits. These deficits have soared as a result of two things: (a) the recession of 2008/9, which reduced tax revenues and resulted in more people claiming benefits, (b) the expansionary fiscal policies adopted to bring countries out of recession.
But the leaders were divided on how much to cut now. Some, such as the new Coalition government in the UK, want to cut the deficit quickly in order to appease markets and avert a Greek-style crisis and a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to service the debt. Others, such as the Obama Administration in the USA, want to cut more slowly so as not to put the recovery in jeopardy. Nevertheless, cuts were generally agreed, although agreement about the timing was more vague.
So where is the fallacy of composition? If one country cuts, then it is possible that increased demand from other countries could drive recovery. If all countries cut, however, the world may go back into recession. What applies to one country, therefore, may not apply to the world as a whole.
Let’s look at this in a bit more detail and consider the individual elements of aggregate demand. If there are to be cuts in government expenditure, then there has to be a corresponding increase in aggregate demand elsewhere, if growth is to be maintained. This could come from increased consumption. But, with higher taxes and many people saving more (or reducing their borrowing) for fear of being made redundant or, at least, of having a cut in their incomes, there seems to be little sign that consumption will be the driver of growth.
Then there is investment. But, fearing a ‘double-dip recession’, business confidence is plummeting (see) and firms are likely to be increasingly reluctant to invest. Indeed, after the G20 summit, stock markets around the world fell. On 29 June, the FTSE 100 fell by 3.10% and the main German and French stock market indices, the Dax and the Cac 40, fell by 3.33% and 4.01% respectively. This was partly because of worries about re-financing the debts of various European countries, but it was partly because of fears about recovery stalling.
The problem is that cuts in government expenditure and rises in taxes directly affect the private sector. If government capital expenditure is cut, this will directly affect the construction industry. Even if the government makes simple efficiency savings, such as reducing the consumption of paper clips or paper, this will directly affect the private stationery industry. If taxes are raised, consumers are likely to buy less. Under these circumstances, no wonder many industries are reluctant to invest.
This leaves net exports (exports minus imports). Countries generally are hoping for a rise in exports as a way of maintaining aggregate demand. But here we have the fallacy of composition in its starkest form. If one country exports more, then this can boost its aggregate demand. But if all countries in total are to export more, this can only be achieved if there is an equivalent increase in global imports: after all, someone has to buy the exports! And again, with growth faltering, the global demand for imports is likely to fall, or at best slow down.
The following articles consider the compatibility of cuts and growth. Is there a ‘paradox of cuts’ equivalent to the paradox of thrift?
Osborne’s first Budget? It’s wrong, wrong, wrong! Independent on Sunday, Joseph Stiglitz (27/6/10)
Strategy: Focus switches from exit to growth Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/6/10)
Once again we must ask: ‘Who governs?’ Financial Times, Robert Skidelsky (16/6/10)
Europe’s next top bailout… MoneyWeb, Guy Monson and Subitha Subramaniam (9/6/10)
Hawks hovering over G20 summit Financial Times (25/6/10)
G20 applauds fiscal austerity but allows for national discretion Independent, Andrew Grice and David Usborne (28/6/10)
To stimulate or not to stimulate? That is the question Independent, Stephen King (28/6/10)
Now even the US catches the deficit reduction habit Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (28/6/10)
George Osborne claims G20 success Guardian, Larry Elliott and Patrick Wintour (28/6/10)
G20 accord: you go your way, I’ll go mine Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/6/10)
G20 summit agrees on deficit cuts by 2013 BBC News (28/6/10)
IMF says G20 could do better BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (27/6/10)
Are G20 summits worth having? What should the G20’s top priority be? (Economics by invitation): see in particular The G20 is heading for a “public sector paradox of thrift”, John Makin The Economist (25/6/10)
Why it is right for central banks to keep printing Financial Times, Martin Wolf (22/6/10)
In graphics: Eurozone in crisis: Recovery Measures BBC News (24/6/10)
A prophet in his own house The Economist (1/7/10)
The long and the short of fiscal policy Financial Times, Clive Crook (4/7/10)
The G20 Toronto Summit Declaration (27/6/10) (see particularly paragraph 10)
- Consider the arguments that economic growth and cutting deficits are (a) complementary aims (b) contradictory aims.
- Is there necessarily a ‘paradox of cuts’? Explain.
- How is game theory relevant in explaining the outcome of international negotiations, such as those at the G20 summit?
- Would it be wise for further quantitative easing to accompany fiscal tightening?
- What is the best way for governments to avoid a ‘double-dip recession’?
After each Budget, the Institute for Fiscal Studies analyses its effects. Given the highly charged political environment, with an election looming and the prospects of considerable public expenditure cuts to come, dispassionate analyses of the Budget are hard to find. The IFS’s analysis is a major exception.
The IFS summarises the Budget as being largely neutral. As Robert Chote, Director of the IFS, says in the opening remarks to the Post Budget Briefing:
In a Pre-Election Budget, perhaps the most that we can expect of any Chancellor is that he should observe the key tenet of the Hippocratic Oath and “above all, do no harm”. Judged against that modest yardstick, the broadly neutral stance of this Budget passes the test.
But, the Budget avoided giving details of the cuts which are planned for the future. None of the political parties are saying just how they will achieve the necessary reductions to the deficit, although the Liberal Democrats have given some details.
Judged against the more testing yardstick of providing a detailed picture to voters and financial market participants of the fiscal repair job in prospect beyond the election, the Budget will have fallen short of many people’s hopes. There are an awful lot of judgements still to be made, or revealed, notably with regards public spending over the next parliament. This greater-than-necessary vagueness allows the opposition to be vaguer than necessary too.
The articles below look at the Budget and at the IFS’s assessment of it. There are also links to the sections of the IFS report. It is worth reading them if you are to be able to make the ‘cool’ judgements that economists can provide – even if they do not always agree!
Budget leaves questions unanswered – IFS Reuters (25/3/10)
Budget 2010: IFS warns transport and housing spending has to be cut Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/3/10)
Labour ‘has cost the rich £25,000 every year’ Independent, Sean O’Grady (26/3/10)
The pain to come The Economist (25/3/10)
Chancellor’s ‘difficult balancing act’ BBC Today Programme (24/3/10)
Pain deferred until the polls close Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/3/10)
IFS Report: Budget 2010
Links to the various supporting articles and the opening remarks can be found here.
Details of the Budget
See references in Darling and a case of fiscal drag? for details of the Budget measures.
- What do you understand by the ‘structrual’ deficit and the ‘cyclical’ deficit?
- Why do cyclical deficits rise during a recession?
- Why has the structural deficit risen during this recession? Is this an example of hysteresis? (Explain.)
- What is the Fiscal Responsibility Act and why does the government now expect to over-achieve the requirements of the Act?
- What elements of government spending are likely to be cut most? Is this a wise distribution of cuts?
- Use the links to the PowerPoint presentations from the IFS Budget Report site to (a) analyse the state of the public finances; (b) summarise the main tax changes in the Budget.