Tag: discretionary fiscal policy

On 10 March, the House of Representatives gave final approval to President Biden’s $1.9tr fiscal stimulus plan (the American Rescue Plan). Worth over 9% of GDP, this represents the third stage of an unparalleled boost to the US economy. In March 2020, President Trump secured congressional agreement for a $2.2tr package (the CARES Act). Then in December 2020, a bipartisan COVID relief bill, worth $902bn, was passed by Congress.

By comparison, the Obama package in 2009 in response to the impending recession following the financial crisis was $831bn (5.7% of GDP).

The American Rescue Plan

The Biden stimulus programme consists of a range of measures, the majority of which provide monetary support to individuals. These include a payment of $1400 per person for single people earning less than $75 000 and couples less than $150 000. These come on top of payments of $1200 in March 2020 and $600 in late December. In addition, the top-up to unemployment benefits of $300 per week agreed in December will now continue until September. Also, annual child tax credit will rise from $2000 annually to as much as $3600 and this benefit will be available in advance.

Other measures include $350bn in grants for local governments depending on their levels of unemployment and other needs; $50bn to improve COVID testing centres and $20bn to develop a national vaccination campaign; $170bn to schools and universities to help them reopen after lockdown; and grants to small businesses and specific grants to hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, airlines, airports and rail companies.

Despite supporting the two earlier packages, no Republican representative or senator backed this latest package, arguing that it was not sufficiently focused. As a result, reaction to the package has been very much along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it is supported by some 90% of Democrat voters and 50% of Republican voters.

Is the stimulus the right amount?

Although the latest package is worth $1.9tr, aggregate demand will not expand by this amount, which will limit the size of the multiplier effect. The reason is that the benefits multiplier is less than the government expenditure multiplier as some of the extra money people receive will be saved or used to reduce debts.

With $3tr representing some 9% of GDP, this should easily fill the estimated negative output gap of between 2% and 3%, especially when multiplier effects are included. Also, with savings having increased during the recession to put them some 7% above normal, the additional amount saved may be quite small, and wealthier Americans may begin to reduce their savings and spend a larger proportion of their income.

So the problem might be one of excessive stimulus, which in normal times could result in crowding out by driving up interest rates and dampening investment. However, the Fed is still engaged in a programme of quantitative easing. Between mid-March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the Fed’s portfolio of securities held outright grew from $3.9tr to $7.2tr. What is more, many economists predict that inflation is unlikely to rise other than very slightly. If this is so, it should allow the package to be financed easily. Debt should not rise to unsustainable levels.

Other economists argue, however, that inflationary expectations are rising, reflected in bond yields, and this could drive actual inflation and force the Fed into the awkward dilemma of either raising interest rates, which could have a significant dampening effect, or further increasing money supply, potentially leading to greater inflationary problems in the future.

A lot will depend what happens to potential GDP. Will it rise over the medium term so that additional spending can be accommodated? If the rise in spending encourages an increase in investment, this should increase potential GDP. This will depend on business confidence, which may be boosted by the package or may be dampened by worries about inflation.

Additional packages to come

Potential GDP should also be boosted by two further packages that Biden plans to put to Congress.

The first is a $2.2tr infrastructure investment plan, known as the American Jobs Plan. This is a 10-year plan to invest public money in transport infrastructure (such as rebuilding 20 000 miles of road and repairing bridges), public transport, electric vehicles, green housing, schools, water supply, green power generation, modernising the power grid, broadband, R&D in fields such as AI, social care, job training and manufacturing. This will be largely funded through tax increases, such as gradually raising corporation tax from 21% to 28% (it had been cut from 35% to 21% by President Trump) and taxing global profits of US multinationals. However, the spending will generally precede the increased revenues and thus will raise aggregate demand in the initial years. Only after 15 years are revenues expected to exceed costs.

The second is a yet-to-be announced plan to increase spending on childcare, healthcare and education. This should be worth at least $1tr. This will probably be funded by tax increases on income, capital gains and property, aimed largely at wealthy individuals. Again, it is hoped that this will boost potential GDP, in this case by increasing labour productivity.

With earlier packages, the total increase in public spending will be over $8tr. This is discretionary fiscal policy writ large.

Articles

Videos

Questions

  1. Draw a Keynesian cross diagram to show the effect of an increase in benefits when the economy is operating below potential GDP.
  2. What determines the size of the benefits multiplier?
  3. Explain what is meant by the output gap. How might the pandemic and accompanying emergency health measures have affected the size of the output gap?
  4. How are expectations relevant to the effectiveness of the stimulus measures?
  5. What is likely to determine the proportion of the $1400 stimulus cheques that people spend?
  6. Distinguish between resource crowding out and financial crowding out. Is the fiscal stimulus package likely to result in either form of crowding out and, if so, what will determine by how much?
  7. What is the current monetary policy of the Fed? How is it likely to impact on the effectiveness of the fiscal stimulus?

Rishi Sunak delivered his 2021 UK Budget on 3 March. It illustrates the delicate balancing act that governments in many countries face as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic persist and public-sector debt soars. He announced that he would continue supporting the economy through various forms of government expenditure and tax relief, but also announced tax rises over the medium term to begin addressing the massively increased public-sector debt.

Key measures of support for people and businesses include:

  • An extension of the furlough scheme until the end of September, with employees continuing to be paid 80% of their wages for hours they cannot work, but with employers having to contribute 10% in July and 20% in August and September.
  • Support for the self-employed also extended until September, with the scheme being widened to make 600 000 more self-employed people eligible.
  • The temporary £20 increase to Universal Credit, introduced in April last year and due to end on 31 March this year, to be extended to the end of September.
  • Stamp duty holiday on house purchases in England and Northern Ireland, under which there is no tax liability on sales of less than £500 000, extended from the end of March to the end of June.
  • An additional £1.65bn to support the UK’s vaccination rollout.
  • VAT rate for hospitality firms to be maintained at the reduced 5% rate until the end of September and then raised to 12.5% (rather than 20%) for a further six months.
  • A range of grants for the arts, sport, shops , other businesses and apprenticeships.
  • Business rates holiday for hospitality firms in England extended from the end of March to the end of June and then with a discount of 66% until April 2022.
  • 130% of investment costs can be offset against tax – a new tax ‘super-deduction’.
  • No tax rises on alcohol, tobacco or fuel.
  • New UK Infrastructure Bank to be set up in Leeds with £12bn in capital to support £40bn worth of public and private projects.
  • Increased grants for devolved nations and grants for 45 English towns.

It has surprised many commentators that there was no announcement of greater investment in the NHS or more money for social care beyond the £3bn for the NHS and £1bn for social care announced in the November Spending Review. The NHS England budget will fall from £148bn in 2020/21 to £139bn in 2021/22.

Effects on borrowing and GDP


The net effect of these measures for the two financial years 2020 to 2022 is forecast by the Treasury to be an additional £37.5bn of government expenditure and a £27.3bn reduction in tax revenue (see Table 2.1 in Budget 2021). This takes the total support since the start of the pandemic to £352bn across the two years.

According to the OBR, this will result in public-sector borrowing being 16.9% of GDP in 2020/21 (the highest since the Second World War) and 10.3% of GDP in 2021/22. Public-sector debt will be 107.4% of GDP in 2021/22, rising to 109.7% in 2023/24 and then falling to 103.8% in 2025/26.

Faced with this big increase in borrowing, the Chancellor also announced some measures to raise tax revenue beginning in two years’ time when, hopefully, the economy will have grown. Indeed, the OBR forecasts that GDP will grow by 4.0% in 2021 and 7.3% in 2022, with the growth rate then settling at around 1.7% from 2023 onwards. He announced that:

  • Corporation tax on company profits over £250 000 will rise from 19% to 25% in April 2023. Rates for profits under £50 000 will remain at the current rate of 19%, with the rate rising in stages as profits rise above £50 000.
  • Personal income tax thresholds will be frozen from 2022/23 to 2025/26 at £12 570 for the basic 20% marginal rate and at £50 270 for the 40% marginal rate. This will increase the average tax rate as people’s nominal incomes rise.

The policy of a fiscal boost now and a fiscal tightening later might pose political difficulties for the government as this does not fit with the electoral cycle. Normally, politicians like to pursue tighter policies in the early years of the government only to loosen policy with various giveaways as the next election approaches. With Rishi Sunak’s policies, the opposite is the case, with fiscal policy being tightened as the 2024 election approaches.

Another issue is the high degree of uncertainty in the forecasts on which he is basing his policies. If there is another wave of the coronavirus with a new strain resistant to the vaccines or if the scarring effects of the lockdowns are greater, then growth could stall. Or if inflation begins to rise and the Bank of England feels it must raise interest rates, then this would suppress growth. With lower growth, the public-sector deficit would be higher and the government would be faced with the dilemma of whether it should raise taxes, cut government expenditure or accept higher borrowing.

What is more, there are likely to be huge pressures on the government to increase public spending, not cut it by £4bn per year in the medium term as he plans. As Paul Johnson of the IFS states:

In reality, there will be pressures from all sorts of directions. The NHS is perhaps the most obvious. Further top-ups seem near-inevitable. Catching up on lost learning in schools, dealing with the backlog in our courts system, supporting public transport providers, and fixing our system for social care funding would all require additional spending. The Chancellor’s medium-term spending plans simply look implausibly low.

Articles and Briefings

Official documents and data

Questions

  1. Assess the wisdom of the timing of the changes in tax and government expenditure announced in the Budget.
  2. Universal credit was increased by £20 per week in April 2020 and is now due to fall back to its previous level in October 2021. Have the needs of people on Universal Credit increased during the pandemic and, if so, are they likely to return to their previous level in October?
  3. In the past, the government argued that reductions in the rate of corporation tax would increase tax revenue. The Chancellor now argues that increasing it from 19% to 25% will increase tax revenue. Examine the justification for this increase and the significance of relative profit tax rates between countries.
  4. Investigate the effects on the public finances of the pandemic and government fiscal policy in two other countries. How do the effects compare with those in the UK?
  5. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks at poverty in the UK and policies to tackle it. It set five tests for the Budget. Examine its Budget Analysis and consider whether these tests have been met.

In his 2016 Autumn Statement, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced that he was abandoning his predecessor’s target of achieving a budget surplus in 2019/20 and beyond. This was partly in recognition that tax revenues were likely to be down as economic growth forecasts were downgraded by the Office for Budget Responsibility. But it was partly to give himself more room to boost the economy in response to lower economic growth. In other words, he was moving from a strictly rules-based fiscal policy to one that is more interventionist.

Although he still has the broad target of reducing government borrowing over the longer term, this new flexibility allowed him to announce increased government spending on infrastructure.

The new approach is outlined in the updated version of the Charter for Budget
Responsibility
, published alongside the Autumn Statement. The government’s fiscal mandate would now include the following:

 •  a target to reduce cyclically-adjusted public-sector net borrowing to below 2% of GDP by 2020/21;
 •  a target for public-sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling in 2020/21.

It also states that:

In the event of a significant negative shock to the UK economy, the Treasury will review the appropriateness of the fiscal mandate and supplementary targets as a means of returning the public finances to balance as early as possible in the next Parliament.

In the Autumn Statement, the new approach to fiscal policy is summarised as follows:

This new fiscal framework ensures the public finances continue on the path to sustainability, while providing the flexibility needed to support the economy in the near term.

With his new found freedom, the Chancellor was able to announce spending increases, despite deteriorating public finances, of £36bn by 2021/22 (see Table 1 in the Autumn Statement).

Most of the additional expenditure will be on infrastructure. To facilitate this, the government will set up a new National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) to channel government spending to various infrastructure projects in the fields of housing, transport, telecoms and research and development. The NPIF will provide £23bn to such projects between 2017/18 and 2021/22.

But much of the additional flexibility in the new Fiscal Mandate will be to allow automatic fiscal stabilisers to operate. The OBR forecasts an increase in borrowing of £122bn over the 2017/18 to 2021/22 period compared with its forecasts made in March this year. Apart from the additional £23bn spending on infrastructure, most of the rest will be as a result of lower tax receipts from lower economic growth. This, in turn, is forecast to be the result of lower investment caused by Brexit uncertainties and lower real consumer spending because of the fall in the pound and the consequent rise in prices.

But rather than having to tighten fiscal policy to meet the previous borrowing target, the new Fiscal Mandate will permit this rise in borrowing. The lower tax payments will help to reduce the dampening effect on the economy.

So are we entering a new era of fiscal policy? Is the government now using discretionary fiscal policy to boost aggregate demand, while also attempting to increase productivity? Or is the relaxation of the Fiscal Mandate just a redrawing of the rules to give a bit more flexibility over the level of stimulus the government can give the economy?

Videos

Autumn Statement 2016: Philip Hammond’s speech (in full) GOV.UK (23/11/16)
Philip Hammond’s autumn statement – video highlights The Guardian (23/11/16)
Key points from the chancellor’s first Autumn Statement BBC News, Andrew Neil (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: higher borrowing, lower growth Channel 4 News, Helia Ebrahimi (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Chancellor’s growth and borrowing figures BBC News (23/11/16)
Markets react to Autumn Statement Financial Times on YouTube, Roger Blitz (23/11/16)
Hammond’s Autumn Statement unpicked Financial Times on YouTube, Gemma Tetlow (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016: The charts that show the cost of Brexit Sjy News, Ed Conway (24/11/16)
BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed on the Autumn Statement. BBC News (23/11/16)
Autumn statement: debate Channel 4 News, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jane Ellison, and Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Clive Lewis (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Workers’ pay growth prospects dreadful, says IFS BBC News, Kevin Peachey and Paul Johnson (24/11/16)

Articles

Autumn Statement 2016: Expert comment on fiscal policy Grant Thornton, Adam Jackson (23/11/16)
Philip Hammond loosens George Osborne’s fiscal rules to give himself more elbow room as Brexit unfolds CityA.M., Jasper Jolly (23/11/16)
Britain’s New Fiscal Mandate Opens Way To Invest For Economic Growth Forbes, Linda Yueh (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016: experts respond The Conversation (23/11/16)
Chancellor’s ‘Reset’ Leaves UK Economy Exposed And Vulnerable Huffington Post, Alfie Stirling (23/11/16)
Britain’s Autumn Statement hints at how painful Brexit is going to be The Economist (26/11/16)
Chancellor’s looser finance targets highlight weaker UK economy The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/11/16)
Hammond’s less-than-meets-the-eye plan that hints at the future Financial Times, Martin Sandbu (23/11/16)
Economists’ views on Philip Hammond’s debut Financial Times, Paul Johnson, Bronwyn Curtis and Gerard Lyons (24/11/16)

Government Publications
Autumn Statement 2016 HM Treasury (23/11/16)
Charter for Budget Responsibility: autumn 2016 update HM Treasury

Reports, forecasts and analysis
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016 analysis Institute for Fiscal Studies (November 2016)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between discretionary fiscal policy and rules-based fiscal policy.
  2. Why have forecasts of the public finances worsened since last March?
  3. What is meant by automatic fiscal stabilisers? How do they work when the economic growth slows?
  4. What determines the size of the multiplier from public-sector infrastructure projects?
  5. What dangers are there in relaxing the borrowing rules in the Fiscal Mandate?
  6. Examine the arguments for relaxing the borrowing rules more than they have been?
  7. If the economy slows more than has been forecast and public-sector borrowing rises faster, does the Chancellor have any more discretion in giving a further fiscal boost to the economy?
  8. Does the adjustment of borrowing targets as the economic situation changes make such a policy a discretionary one rather than a rules-based one?

What have been, and will be, the monetary and fiscal responses to the Brexit vote in the referendum of 23 June 2016? This question has been addressed in speeches by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and by George Osborne, Chancellor the Exchequer. Both recognise that the vote will cause a negative shock to the economy, which will require some stimulus to aggregate demand to avoid a recession, or at least minimise its depth.

Mark Carney stated that:

The Bank of England stands ready to provide more than £250bn of additional funds through its normal facilities. The Bank of England is also able to provide substantial liquidity in foreign currency, if required.

In the coming weeks, the Bank will assess economic conditions and will consider any additional policy responses.

This could mean that at its the next meeting, scheduled for 13/14 July, the Monetary Policy Committee will consider reducing Bank Rate from its current level of 0.5% and introducing further quantitative easing.

In a speech on 30 June, he went further:

I can assure you that in the coming months the Bank can be expected to take whatever action is needed to support growth subject to inflation being projected to return to the target over an appropriate horizon, and inflation expectations remaining well anchored.

Then in a speech on 5 July, introducing the latest Financial Stability Report, he said that the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee is lowering the required capital ratio of banks, thereby freeing up capital for lending to customers. The part being lowered is the ‘countercyclical capital buffer’ – the element that can be varied according to the state of the economy. Mark Carney said:

The FPC is today reducing the countercyclical capital buffer on banks’ UK exposures from 0.5% to 0% with immediate effect. This is a major change. It means that three quarters of UK banks, accounting for 90% of the stock of UK lending, will immediately have greater flexibility to supply credit to UK households and firms.

Specifically, the FPC’s action immediately reduces regulatory capital buffers by £5.7 billion and therefore raises banks’ capacity to lend to UK businesses and households by up to £150 billion. For comparison, last year with a fully functioning banking system and one of the fastest growing economies in the G7, total net lending in the UK was £60 billion.

Thus although there may be changes to interest rates and narrow money in response to economic reactions to the Brexit vote, the monetary policy framework remains unchanged. This is to achieve a target rate of CPI inflation of 2% at the 24-month time horizon.

But what of fiscal policy?

In its Charter for Budget Responsibility, updated in the Summer 2015 Budget, the government states its Fiscal Mandate:

3.2 In normal times, once a headline surplus has been achieved, the Treasury’s mandate for fiscal policy is:
   a target for a surplus on public-sector net borrowing in each subsequent year.

3.3 For the period outside normal times from 2015-16, the Treasury’s mandate for fiscal policy is:
   a target for a surplus on public-sector net borrowing by the end of 2019-20.

3.4 For this period until 2019-20, the Treasury’s mandate for fiscal policy is supplemented by:
   a target for public-sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling in each year.

The target of a PSNB surplus by 2019-20 has been the cornerstone of recent fiscal policy. In order to stick to it, the Chancellor warned before the referendum that a slowdown in the economy as a result of a Brexit vote would force him to introduce an emergency Budget, which would involve cuts in government expenditure and increases in taxes.

However, since the vote he is now saying that the slowdown would force him to extend the time for reaching a surplus beyond 2019-20 to avoid dampening the economy further. But does this mean he is abandoning his fiscal target and resorting to discretionary expansionary fiscal policy?

George Osborne’s answer to this question is no. He argues that extending the deadline for a surplus is consistent with paragraph 3.5 of the Charter, which reads:

3.5 These targets apply unless and until the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) assess, as part of their economic and fiscal forecast, that there is a significant negative shock to the UK. A significant negative shock is defined as real GDP growth of less than 1% on a rolling 4 quarter-on-4 quarter basis. If the OBR assess that a significant negative shock:

occurred in the most recent 4 quarter period;
is occurring at the time the assessment is being made; or
will occur during the forecast period

then:

  if the normal times surplus rule in 3.2 is in force, the target for a surplus each year is suspended (regardless of future data revisions). The Treasury must set out a plan to return to surplus. This plan must include appropriate fiscal targets, which will be assessed by the OBR. The plan, including fiscal targets, must be presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to Parliament at or before the first financial report after the shock. The new fiscal targets must be approved by a vote in the House of Commons.
  if the shock occurs outside normal times, the Treasury will review the appropriateness of its fiscal targets for the period until the public finances return to surplus. Any changes to the targets must be approved by a vote in the House of Commons.
  once the budget is in surplus, the target set out in 3.2 above applies.

In other words, if the OBR forecasts that the Brexit vote will result in GDP growing by less than 1%, the Chancellor can delay reaching the surplus and thus not have to introduce tougher austerity measures. This, in effect, is what he is now saying and maintaining that, because of paragraph 3.5, it does not break the Fiscal Mandate. The nature of the next Budget, probably in the autumn, will depend on OBR forecasts.

A few days later, George Osborne announced that he plans to cut corporation tax from the current 20% to less than 15% – below the rate of 17% previously scheduled for 2019-20. His aim is not just to stimulate the economy, but to attract inward investment, as the rate would below that of any major economy and close the rate of 12.5% in Ireland. His hope would also be to halt the outflow of investment as companies seek to relocate in the EU.

Videos and podcasts

Statement from the Governor of the Bank of England following the EU referendum result Bank of England (24/6/16)
Uncertainty, the economy and policy – speech by Mark Carney Bank of England (30/6/16)
Introduction to Financial Stability Report, July 2016 Bank of England (5/7/16)
Osborne: Life will not be ‘economically rosy’ outside EU BBC News (28/6/16)
Osborne takes ‘realistic’ view over surplus target BBC News (1/7/16)
Why has George Osborne abandoned a key economic target? BBC News (1/7/16)

Articles

Mark Carney says Bank of England ready to inject £250bn into economy to keep UK afloat after EU referendum Independent, Zlata Rodionova (24/6/16)
Carney Signals Rate Cuts as Brexit Chaos Engulfs Political Class Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton (30/6/16)
Bank of England hints at UK interest rate cuts over coming months to ease Brexit woes International Business Times, Gaurav Sharma (30/6/16)
Carney prepares for ‘economic post-traumatic stress’ Financial Times, Emily Cadman (30/6/16)
Bank of England warns Brexit risks beginning to crystallise BBC News (5/7/16)
Bank of England tells banks to cut buffer to boost lending Financial Times, Caroline Binham and Chris Giles (5/7/16)
George Osborne puts corporation tax cut at heart of Brexit recovery plan Financial Times (3/7/16)
George Osborne corporation tax cut is the wrong way to start EU negotiations, former WTO boss says Independent, Hazel Sheffield (5/7/16)
George Osborne abandons 2020 UK surplus target Financial Times, Emily Cadman and Gemma Tetlow (1/7/16)
George Osborne scraps 2020 budget surplus plan The Guardian, Jill Treanor and Katie Allen (1/7/16)
Osborne abandons 2020 budget surplus target BBC News (1/7/16)
Brexit and the easing of austerity BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (1/7/16)
Osborne Follows Carney in Signaling Stimulus After Brexit Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy (1/7/16)

Questions

  1. Explain the measures taken by the Bank of England directly after the Brexit vote.
  2. What will determine whether the Bank of England engages in further quantitative easing beyond the current £385bn of asset purchases?
  3. How does monetary policy easing (or the expectation of it) affect the exchange rate? Explain.
  4. How effective is monetary policy for expanding aggregate demand? Is it more or less effective than using monetary policy to reduce aggregate demand?
  5. Explain what is meant by (a) capital adequacy ratios (tier 1 and tier 2); (b) countercyclical buffers. (See, for example, Economics 9th edition, page 533–7 and Figure 16.2))
  6. To what extent does increasing the supply of credit result in that credit being taken up by businesses and consumers?
  7. Distinguish between rules-based and discretionary fiscal policy. How would you describe paragraph 3.5 in the Charter for Budget Responsibility?
  8. Would you describe George Osborne’s proposed fiscal measures as expansionary or merely as less contractionary?
  9. Why is the WTO unhappy with George Osborne’s proposals about corporation tax?
  10. What is the Nash equilibrium of countries seeking to undercut each other’s corporation tax rates?

During the 1970s, commentators often referred to the ‘political business cycle’. As William Nordhaus stated in a 1989 paper. “The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power.”

In the past, politicians would use fiscal, and sometimes monetary, policies to manipulate aggregate demand so that the economy was growing strongly at the time of the next election. This often meant doing unpopular things in the first couple of years of office to allow for popular things, such as tax cuts and increased government transfers, as the next election approached. This tended to align the business cycle with the election cycle. The economy would slow in the early years of a parliament and expand rapidly towards the end.

To some extent, this has been the approach since 2010 of first the Coalition and now the Conservative governments. Cuts to government expenditure were made ‘in order to clear up the mess left by the previous government’. At the time it was hoped that, by the next election, the economy would be growing strongly again.

But in adopting a fiscal mandate, the current government could be doing the reverse of previous governments. George Osborne has set the target of a budget surplus by the final year of this parliament (2019–20) and has staked his reputation on achieving it.

The problem, as we saw in the blog, Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets is that growth in the economy has slowed and this makes it more difficult to achieve the target of a budget surplus by 2019–20. Given that achieving this target is seen to be more important for his reputation for ‘sound management’ of the public finances than that the economy should be rapidly growing, it is likely that the Chancellor will be dampening aggregate demand in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, in the latest Budget, he announced that specific measures would be taken in 2019–20 to meet the target, including a further £3.5 billion of savings from departmental spending in 2019–20. In the meantime, however, taxes would be cut (such as increasing personal allowances and cutting business rates) and government spending in certain areas would be increased. As the OBR states:

Despite a weaker outlook for the economy and tax revenues, the Chancellor has announced a net tax cut and new spending commitments. But he remains on course for a £10 billion surplus in 2019–20, by rescheduling capital investment, promising other cuts in public services spending and shifting a one-off boost to corporation tax receipts into that year.

But many commentators have doubted that this will be enough to bring a surplus. Indeed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme said that “there’s only about a 50:50 shot that he’s going to get there. If things change again, if the OBR downgrades its forecasts again, I don’t think he will be able to get away with anything like this. I think he will be forced to put some proper tax increases in or possibly find yet further proper spending cuts”.

If that is the case, he will be further dampening the economy as the next election approaches. In other words, the government may be doing the reverse of what governments did in the past. Instead of boosting the economy to increase growth at election time, the government may feel forced to make further cuts in government expenditure and/or to raise taxes to meet the fiscal target of a budget surplus.

Articles

Budget 2016: George Osborne hits back at deficit critics BBC News (17/3/16)
George Osborne will have to break his own rules to win the next election Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (17/3/16)
Osborne Accused of Accounting Tricks to Meet Budget Surplus Goal Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell and Robert Hutton (16/3/16)
George Osborne warns more cuts may be needed to hit surplus target Financial Times, Jim Pickard (17/3/16)
6 charts that explain why George Osborne is about to make austerity even worse Independent, Hazel Sheffield (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: Osborne ‘has only 50-50 chance’ of hitting surplus target The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
How will Chancellor George Osborne reach his surplus? BBC News, Howard Mustoe (16/3/16)
Osborne’s fiscal illusion exposed as a house of credit cards The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
The Budget’s bottom line: taxes will rise and rise again The Telegraph, Allister Heath (17/3/16)

Reports, analysis and documents
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: documents HM Treasury (16/3/16)
Budget 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies (17/3/16)

Questions

  1. Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
  2. Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
  3. For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
  4. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.