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
- Budget 2021: Key points at-a-glance
BBC News (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021: Full round-up of what Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced
MoneySavingExpert, Callum Mason (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021 at a glance: The key points from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech
This is Money, Alex Sebastian (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021
- Rishi Sunak delivers spend now, tax later Budget to kickstart UK economy
Financial Times, Jim Pickard, Chris Giles and George Parker (3/3/21)
- Swifter and more sustained? What did we learn about the UK’s economic outlook from Rishi Sunak’s Budget?
Independent. Ben Chu (3/3/21)
- Spending fast, taxing slow: Briefing Note
Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell, Mike Brewer, Nye Cominetti, Karl Handscomb, Kathleen Henehan, Lindsay Judge, Jack Leslie, Charlie McCurdy, Cara Pacitti, Hannah Slaughter, James Smith, Gregory Thwaites & Daniel Tomlinson (4/3/21)
- JRF Spring Budget 2021 analysis and briefing
Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Dave Innes and Katie Schmuecker (4/3/21)
- NHS, social care and most vulnerable ‘betrayed’ by Sunak’s budget
The Guardian, Robert Booth ,Patrick Butler and Denis Campbell (3/3/21)
- Spend now, pay later: Sunak flags major tax rises as Covid bill tops £400bn
The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (3/3/21)
- Rishi Sunak digs in for battle against financial cost of Covid
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (3/3/21)
- Tax and spending experts say Sunak’s budget doesn’t add up
The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart (4/3/21)
- Budget 2021: Prepare for a dramatic rollercoaster ride after chancellor’s give-then-take budget
Sky News, Ed Conway (3/3/21)
Official documents and data
- Assess the wisdom of the timing of the changes in tax and government expenditure announced in the Budget.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
At its meeting on 6 May, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee decided to keep Bank Rate at 0.1%. Due to the significant impact of COVID-19 and the measures put in place to try to contain the virus, the MPC voted unanimously to keep Bank Rate the same.
However, it decided not to launch a new stimulus programme, with the committee voting by a majority of 7-2 for the Bank to continue with the current programme of quantitative easing. This involves the purchase of £200 billion of government and sterling non-financial investment-grade corporate bonds, bringing the total stock of bonds held by the Bank to £645 billion.
The Bank forecast that the crisis will put the economy into its deepest recession in 300 years, with output plunging 30 per cent in the first half of the year.
Monetary policy and MPC
Monetary policy is the tool used by the UK’s central bank to influence how much money is in the economy and how much it costs to borrow. The Bank of England’s main monetary policy tools include setting the Bank Rate and quantitative easing (QE). Bank Rate is the interest rate charged to banks when they borrow money from the BoE. QE is the process of creating money digitally to buy corporate and government bonds.
The BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) sets monetary policy to meet the 2% inflation target. Maintaining a low and stable inflation rate is good for the economy and it is the main monetary policy aim. However, the Bank also has to balance this target with the government’s other economic aims of sustaining growth and employment in the economy.
Actions taken by the MPC
It is challenging to respond to severe economic and financial disruption, with the UK economy looking unusually uncertain. Activity has fallen sharply since the beginning of the year and unemployment has risen markedly. The current rate of inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), declined to 1.5% in March and is likely to fall below 1% in the next few months. Household consumption has fallen by around 30% as consumer confidence has declined. Companies’ sales are expected to be around 45% lower than normal and business investment 50% lower.
In the current circumstances, and consistent with the MPC’s remit, monetary policy is aimed at supporting businesses and households through the crisis and limiting any lasting damage to the economy. The Bank has used both main monetary tools to fulfil its mandate and attempt to boost the economy amid the current lockdown. The Bank Rate was reduced to 0.1% in March, the lowest level in the Bank’s 325-year history and the current programme of QE was introduced in March.
What is next?
This extraordinary time has seen the outlook for the all global economies become uncertain. The long-term outcome will depend critically on the evolution of the pandemic, and how governments, households and businesses respond to it. The Bank of England has stated that businesses and households will need to borrow to get through this period and is encouraging banks and building societies to increase their lending. Britain’s banks are warned that if they try to stem losses by restricting lending, they will make the situation worse. The Bank believes that the banks are strong enough to keep lending, which will support the economy and limit losses to themselves.
In the short term, a bleak picture of the UK economy is suggested, with a halving in business investment, a near halving in business sales, a sharp rise in unemployment and households cutting their spending by a third. Despite its forecast that GDP could shrink by 14% for 2020, the Bank of England is forecasting a ‘V’ shaped recovery. In this scenario, the recovery in economic activity, once measures are softened, is predicted to be relatively rapid and inflation rises to around the 2 per cent target. However, this would be after a dip to 0.5% in 2021, before returning to the 2 per cent target the following year.
However, there are some suggestions that the Bank’s forecast for the long-term recovery is too optimistic. Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK, fears the UK economy could shrink even more sharply than the Bank of England has forecast.
Despite the stark numbers issued by the Bank of England today, additional pressure on the economy is likely. Some social distancing measures are likely to remain in place until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus, with people also remaining reluctant to socialise and spend. That means recovery is unlikely to start in earnest before sometime next year.
There are also additional factors that could dampen future productivity, such as the impact on supply chains, with ‘just-in-time’ operations potentially being a thing of the past.
There is also the ongoing issue of Brexit. This is a significant downside risk as the probability of a smooth transition to a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU in January is relatively small. This will only increase uncertainty for businesses along with the prospect of increased trade frictions next year.
The predictions from the Bank of England are based on many assumptions, one of which is that the economy will only be gradually released from lockdown. Its numbers contain the expectations that consumer and worker behaviour will change significantly, and continue for some time, with forms of voluntary social distancing. On the other hand, Mr Bailey expects the recovery to be much faster than seen with the financial crisis a decade ago. However, again this is based on the assumption that measures put in place from the public health side prevent a second wave of the virus.
It also assumes that the supply-side effects on the economy will be limited in the long run. Many economists disagree, arguing that the ‘scarring effects’ of the lockdown may be substantial. These include lower rates of investment, innovation and start ups and the deskilling effects on labour. They also include the businesses that have gone bankrupt and the dampening effect on consumer and business confidence. Finally, with a large increase in lending to tide firms over the crisis, many will face problems of debt, which will dampen investment.
The Bank of England does recognise these possible scarring effects. Specifically, it warns of the danger of a rise in equilibrium unemployment:
It is possible that the rise in unemployment could prove more persistent than embodied in the scenario, for example if companies are reluctant to hire until they are sure about the robustness of the recovery in demand. It is also possible that any rise in unemployment could lead to an increase in the long‑term equilibrium rate of unemployment. That might happen if the skills of the unemployed do not increase to the same extent as they would if they were working, for example, or even erode over time.
What is certain, however, is that the long-term picture will only become clearer when we start to come out of the crisis. Bailey implied that the Bank is taking a wait-and-see approach for now, waiting on the UK government to shed some light about easing of lockdown measures before taking any further action with regards to QE. The MPC will continue to monitor the situation closely and, consistent with its remit, stands ready to take further action as necessary to support the economy and ensure a sustained return of inflation to the 2% target. Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, suggested that the central bank is signalling that ‘more QE is coming, if not in June, then in August’.
Bank of England publication
- How could the BoE use monetary policy to boost the economy?
- Explain how changes in interest rates affect aggregate demand.
- Define and explain quantitative easing (QE).
- How might QE help to stimulate economic growth?
- How is the pursuit of QE likely to affect the price of government bonds? Explain.
- Evaluate the extent to which monetary policy is able to stimulate the economy and achieve price stability.
A general election has been called in the UK for 12 December. Central to the debates between the parties will be their policy on Brexit.
They range from the Liberal Democrats’, Plaid Cymru’s and Sinn Féin’s policy of cancelling Brexit and remaining in the EU, to the Scottish Nationalists’ and Greens’ policy of halting Brexit while a People’s Vote (another referendum) is held, with the parties campaigning to stay in the EU, to the Conservative Party’s policy of supporting the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration negotiated between the Boris Johnson government and the EU, to the DUP which supports Brexit but not a version which creates a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to the Brexit Party and UKIP which support leaving the EU with no deal (what they call a ‘clean break’) and then negotiating individual trade deals on a country-by-country basis.
The Labour Party also supports a People’s Vote, but only after renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, so that if Brexit took place, the UK would have a close relationship with the single market and remain in a customs union. Also, various laws and regulations on environmental protection and workers’ rights would be retained. The referendum would take place within six months of the election and would be a choice between this new deal and remain.
But what are the economic costs and benefits of these various alternatives? Prior to the June 2016 referendum, the Treasury costed various scenarios. After 15 years, a deal would make UK GDP between 3.4% and 7.8% lower than if it remained in the EU, depending on the nature of the deal. No deal would make GDP between 5.4% and 9.5% lower.
Then in November 2018, the Treasury published analysis of the original deal negotiated by Theresa May in July 2018 (the ‘Chequers deal’). It estimated that GDP would be up to 3.9% lower after 15 years than it would have been if the UK had remained in the EU. In the case of a no-deal Brexit, GDP would be up to 9.3% lower after 15 years.
When asked for Treasury forecasts of the effects of Boris Johnson’s deal, the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, said that the Treasury had not been asked to provide forecasts as the deal was “self-evidently in our economic interest“.
Other forecasters, however, have analysed the effects of the Johnson deal. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the UK’s longest established independent economic research institute, has estimated the costs of various scenarios, including the Johnson deal, the May deal, a no-deal scenario and also a scenario of continuing uncertainty with no agreement over Brexit. The NIESR estimates that, under the Johnson deal, with a successful free-trade agreement with the EU, in 10 years’ time UK GDP will be 3.5% lower than it would be by remaining in the EU. This represents a cost of £70 billion. The costs would arise from less trade with the EU, lower inward investment, slower growth in productivity and labour shortages from lower migration. These would be offset somewhat by savings on budget contributions to the EU.
Under Theresa May’s deal UK GDP would be 3.0% lower (and thus slightly less costly than Boris Johnson’s deal). Continuing in the current situation with chronic uncertainty about whether the UK would leave or remain would leave the UK 2% worse off after 10 years. In other words, uncertainty would be less damaging than leaving. The costs from the various scenarios would be in addition to the costs that have already occurred – the NIESR estimates that GDP is already 2.5% smaller than it would have been as a result of the 2016 Brexit vote.
Another report also costs the various scenarios. In ‘The economic impact of Boris Johnson’s Brexit proposals’, Professors Anand Menon and Jonathan Portes and a team at The UK in a Changing Europe estimate the effects of a decline in trade, migration and productivity from the various scenarios – again, 10 years after new trading arrangements are in place. According to their analysis, UK GDP would be 4.9%, 6.4% and 8.1% lower with the May deal, the Johnson deal and no deal respectively than it would have been from remaining in the EU.
But how much reliance should we put on such forecasts? How realistic are their assumptions? What other factors could they have taken into account? Look at the two reports and at the articles discussing them and then consider the questions below which are concerned with the nature of economic forecasting.
- UK’s new Brexit deal worse than continued uncertainty – NIESR
Reuters, David Milliken (30/10/19)
- Brexit deal means ‘£70bn hit to UK by 2029′
BBC News, Faisal Islam (30/10/19)
- Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal worse for economy than Theresa May’s, new analysis shows
Politics Home, Matt Honeycombe-Foster (30/10/19)
- Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal ‘would cost UK economy £70bn’
The Guardian, Richard Partington (30/10/19)
- UK economy suffers ‘slow puncture’ as general election is called
ITV News, Joel Hills (30/10/19)
- Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal ‘would deliver £70bn hit to economy by 2029’
Sky News, Ed Conway (30/10/19)
- Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal won’t cost Britain £70bn by 2029
The Spectator, Ross Clark (30/10/19)
- Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal would make people worse off than Theresa May’s
The Guardian, Anand Menon and Jonathan Portes (13/10/19)
- How Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit would hit the UK economy
Financial Times, Chris Giles (13/10/19)
- Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is worse for the UK economy than Theresa May’s, research suggests
CNBC, Elliot Smith (19/10/19)
- What are the arguments in favour of the assumptions and analysis of the two recent reports considered in this blog?
- What are the arguments against the assumptions and analysis of the two reports?
- How useful are forecasts like these, given the inevitable uncertainty surrounding (a) the outcome of negotiations post Brexit and (b) the strength of the global economy?
- If it could be demonstrated beyond doubt to everyone that each of the Brexit scenarios meant that UK GDP would be lower than if it remained in the EU, would this prove that the UK should remain in the EU? Explain.
- If economic forecasts turn out to be inaccurate, does this mean that economists should abandon forecasting?
There have been many analyses of the economic effects of Brexit, both before the referendum and at various times since, including analyses of the effects of the deal negotiated by Theresa May’s government and the EU. But with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October under the new Boris Johnson government, attention has turned to the effects of leaving the EU without a deal.
There have been two major analyses recently of the likely effects of a no-deal Brexit – one by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and one by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).
The first was in April by the IMF as part of its 6-monthly World Economic Outlook. In Scenario Box 1.1. ‘A No-Deal Brexit’ on page 28 of Chapter 1, the IMF looked at two possible scenarios.
Scenario A assumes no border disruptions and a relatively small increase in UK sovereign and corporate spreads. Scenario B incorporates significant border disruptions that increase import costs for UK firms and households (and to a lesser extent for the European Union) and a more severe tightening in financial conditions.
Under both scenarios, UK exports to the EU and UK imports from the EU revert to WTO rules. As a result, tariffs are imposed by mid-2020 or earlier. Non-tariff barriers rise at first but are gradually reduced over time. Most free-trade arrangements between the EU and other countries are initially unavailable to the UK (see the blog EU strikes major trade deals) but both scenarios assume that ‘new trade agreements are secured after two years, and on terms similar to those currently in place.’
Both scenarios also assume a reduction in net immigration from the EU of 25 000 per year until 2030. Both assume a rise in corporate and government bond rates, reflecting greater uncertainty, with the effect being greater in Scenario B. Both assume a relaxing of monetary and fiscal policy in response to downward pressures on the economy.
The IMF analysis shows a negative impact on UK GDP, with the economy falling into recession in late 2019 and in 2020. This is the result of higher trade costs and reduced business investment caused by a poorer economic outlook and increased uncertainty. By 2021, even under Scenario A, GDP is approximately 3.5% lower than it would have been if the UK had left the EU with the negotiated deal. For the rest of the EU, GDP is around 0.5% lower, although the effect varies considerably from country to country.
The IMF analysis makes optimistic assumptions, such as the UK being able to negotiate new trade deals with non-EU countries to replace those lost by leaving. More pessimistic assumptions would lead to greater costs.
Building on the analysis of the IMF, the Office for Budget Responsibility considered the effect of a no-deal Brexit on the public finances in its biennial Fiscal risks report, published on 17 July 2019. This argues that, under the relatively benign Scenario A assumptions of the IMF, the lower GDP would result in annual public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) rising. By 2021/22, if the UK had left with the deal negotiated with the EU, PSNB would have been around £18bn. A no-deal Brexit would push this up to around £51bn.
According to the OBR, the contributors to this rise in public-sector net borrowing of around £33bn are:
- A fall in income tax and national insurance receipts of around £16.5bn per year because of lower incomes.
- A fall in corporation tax and expenditure taxes, such as VAT, excise duties and stamp duty of around £22.5bn per year because of lower expenditure.
- A fall in capital taxes, such as inheritance tax and capital gains tax of around £10bn per year because of a fall in asset prices.
- These are offset to a small degree by a rise in customs duties (around £10bn) because of the imposition of tariffs and by lower debt repayments (of around £6bn) because of the Bank of England having to reduce interest rates.
The rise in PSNB would constrain the government’s ability to use fiscal policy to boost the economy and to engage in the large-scale capital projects advocated by Boris Johnson while making the substantial tax cuts he is proposing. A less optimistic set of assumptions would, of course, lead to a bigger rise in PSNB, which would further constrain fiscal policy.
- What are the assumptions of the IMF World Economic Outlook forecasts for the effects of a no-deal Brexit? Do you agree with these assumptions? Explain.
- What are the assumptions of the analysis of a no-deal Brexit on the public finances in the OBR’s Fiscal risks report? Do you agree with these assumptions? Explain.
- What is the difference between forecasts and analyses of outcomes?
- For what reasons might growth over the next few years be higher than in the IMF forecasts under either scenario?
- For what reasons might growth over the next few years be lower than in the IMF forecasts under either scenario?
- For what reasons might public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) over the next few years be lower than in the OBR forecast?
- For what reasons might PSNB over the next few years be higher than in the OBR forecast?
It is impossible to make both precise and accurate forecasts of a country’s rate of economic growth, even a year ahead. And the same goes for other macroeconomic variables, such as the rate of unemployment or the balance of trade. The reason is that there are so many determinants of these variables, such as political decisions or events, which themselves are unpredictable. Economics examines the effects of human interactions – it is a social science, not a natural science. And human behaviour is hard to forecast.
Nevertheless, economists do make forecasts. These are best estimates, taking into account a number of determinants that can be currently measured, such as tax or interest rate changes. These determinants, or ‘leading indicators’, have been found to be related to future outcomes. For example, surveys of consumer and business confidence give a good indication of future consumer expenditure and investment – key components of GDP.
Leading indicators do not have to be directly causal. They could, instead, be a symptom of underlying changes that are themselves likely to affect the economy in the future. For example, changes in stock market prices may reflect changes in confidence or changes in liquidity. It is these changes that are likely to have a direct or indirect causal effect on future output, employment, prices, etc.
Macroeconomic models show the relationships between variables. They show how changes in one variable (e.g. increased investment) affect other variables (e.g. real GDP or productivity). So when an indicator changes, such as a rise in interest rates, economists use these models to estimate the likely effect, assuming other things remain constant (ceteris paribus). The problem is that other things don’t remain constant. The economy is buffeted around by a huge range of events that can affect the outcome of the change in the indicator or the variable(s) it reflects.
Forecasting can never therefore be 100% accurate (except by chance). Nevertheless, by carefully studying leading indicators, economists can get a good idea of the likely course of the economy.
Leading indicators of the US economy
At the start of 2019, several leading indicators are suggesting the US economy is likely to slow and might even go into recession. The following are some of the main examples.
Political events. This is the most obvious leading indicator. If decisions are made that are likely to have an adverse effect on growth, a recession may follow. For example, decisions in the UK Parliament over Brexit will directly impact on UK growth.
As far as the USA is concerned, President Trump’s decision to put tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from a range of countries, including China, the EU and Canada, led these countries to retaliate with tariffs on US imports. A tariff war has a negative effect on growth. It is a negative sum game. Of course, there may be a settlement, with countries agreeing to reduce or eliminate these new tariffs, but the danger is that the trade war may continue long enough to do serious damage to global economic growth.
But just how damaging it is likely to be is impossible to predict. That depends on future political decisions, not just those of the recent past. Will there be a global rise in protectionism or will countries pull back from such a destructive scenario? On 29 December, President Trump tweeted, ‘Just had a long and very good call with President Xi of China. Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!’ China said that it was willing to work with the USA over reaching a consensus on trade.
Rises in interest rates. If these are in response to a situation of excess demand, they can be seen as a means of bringing inflation down to the target level or of closing a positive output gap, where real national income is above its potential level. They would not signify an impending recession. But many commentators have interpreted rises in interest rates in the USA as being different from this.
The Fed is keen to raise interest rates above the historic low rates that were seen as an ’emergency’ response to the financial crisis of 2007–8. It is also keen to reverse the policy of quantitative easing and has begun what might be described as ‘quantitative tightening’: not buying new bonds when existing ones that it purchased during rounds of QE mature. It refers to this interest rate and money supply policy as ‘policy normalization‘. The Fed maintains that such policy is ‘consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective over the medium term’.
However, many commentators, including President Trump, have accused the Fed of going too fast in this process and of excessively dampening the economy. It has already raised the Federal Funds Rate nine times by 0.25 percentage points each time since December 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart). What is more, announcing that the policy will continue makes such announcements themselves a leading indicator of future rises in interest rates, which are a leading indicator of subsequent effects on aggregate demand. The Fed has stated that it expects to make two more 0.25 percentage point rises during 2019.
Surveys of consumer and business confidence. These are some of the most significant leading indicators as consumer confidence affects consumer spending and business confidence affects investment. According to the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook, an influential survey of Chief Financial Officers, ‘Nearly half (48.6 per cent) of US CFOs believe that the US will be in recession by the end of 2019, and 82 per cent believe that a recession will have begun by the end of 2020’. Such surveys can become self-fulfilling, as a reported decline in confidence can itself undermine confidence as both firms and consumers ‘catch’ the mood of pessimism.
Stock market volatility. When stock markets exhibit large falls and rises, this is often a symptom of uncertainty; and uncertainty can undermine investment. Stock market volatility can thus be a leading indicator of an impending recession. One indicator of such volatility is the VIX index. This is a measure of ’30-day expected volatility of the US stock market, derived from real-time, mid-quote prices of S&P 500® Index (SPXSM) call and put options. On a global basis, it is one of the most recognized measures of volatility – widely reported by financial media and closely followed by a variety of market participants as a daily market indicator.’ The higher the index, the greater the volatility. Since 2004, it has averaged 18.4; from 17 to 28 December 2018, it averaged 28.8. From 13 to 24 December, the DOW Jones Industrial Average share index fell by 11.4 per cent, only to rise by 6.2 per cent by 27 December. On 26 December, the S&P 500 index rallied 5 per cent, its best gain since March 2009.
Not all cases of market volatility, however, signify an impending recession, but high levels of volatility are one more sign of investor nervousness.
Oil prices. When oil prices fall, this can be explained by changes on the demand and/or supply side of the oil market. Oil prices have fallen significantly over the past two months. Until October 2018, oil prices had been rising, with Brent Crude reaching $86 per barrel by early October. By the end of the year the price had fallen to just over $50 per barrel – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) Part of the explanation is a rise in supply, with shale oil production increasing and also increased output from Russia and Saudi Arabia, despite a commitment by the two countries to reduce supply. But the main reason is a fall in demand. This reflects both a fall in current demand and in anticipated future demand, with fears of oversupply causing oil companies to run down stocks.
Falling oil prices resulting from falling demand are thus an indicator of lack of confidence in the growth of future demand – a leading indicator of a slowing economy.
The yield curve. This depicts the yields on government debt with different lengths to maturity at a given point in time. Generally, the curve slopes upwards, showing higher rates of return on bonds with longer to maturity. This is illustrated by the blue line in the chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) This is as you would expect, with people requiring a higher rate of return on long-term lending, where there is normally greater uncertainty. But, as the Bloomberg article, ‘Don’t take your eyes off the yield curve‘ states:
Occasionally, the curve flips, with yields on short-term debt exceeding those on longer bonds. That’s normally a sign investors believe economic growth will slow and interest rates will eventually fall. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has shown that an inversion has preceded every US recession for the past 60 years.
The US economy is 37 quarters into what may prove to be its longest expansion on record. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect gross domestic product growth to come in at 2.9 percent this year, up from 2.2 percent last year. Wages are rising as unfilled vacancies hover near all-time highs.
With times this good, the biggest betting game on Wall Street is when they’ll go bad. Barclays Plc, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and other banks are predicting inversion will happen sometime in 2019. The conventional wisdom: Afterward it’s only a matter of time – anywhere from 6 to 24 months – before a recession starts.
As you can see from the chart, the yield curve on 24 December 2018 was still slightly upward sloping (expect between 6-month and 1-year bonds) – but possibly ready to ‘flip’.
However, despite the power of an ‘inverted’ yield in predicting previous recessions, it may be less reliable now. The Fed, as we saw above, has already signalled that it expects to increase short-term rates in 2019, probably at least twice. That alone could make the yield curve flatter or even downward sloping. Nevertheless, it is still generally thought that a downward sloping yield curve would signal belief in a likely slowdown, if not outright recession.
So, is the USA heading for recession?
The trouble with indicators is that they suggest what is likely – not what will definitely happen. Governments and central banks are powerful agents. If they believed that a recession was likely, then fiscal and monetary policy could be adjusted. For example, the Fed could halt its interest rate rises and quantitative tightening, or even reverse them. Also, worries about protectionism may subside if the USA strikes new trade deals with various countries, as it did with Canada and Mexico in USMCA.
- A jarring new survey shows CEOs think a recession could strike as soon as year-end 2019
Business Insider, Joe Ciolli (17/12/18)
- 4 Recession Indicators to Watch Now
Barron’s, Campbell Harvey (20/12/18)
- 9 Reasons the US Will Have a Recession Next Year
24/7 Wall St, Douglas A. McIntyre (26/12/18)
- The global economy is living dangerously – but don’t expect superpowers to follow the 2008 script
Independent, Ben Chu (3/1/19)
- Could a recession be just around the corner?
The Conversation, Amitrajeet A Batabyal (6/12/18)
- The US is on the edge of the economic precipice – Trump may push it over
The Guardian, Robert Reich (23/12/18)
- US prepares to hit the wall as reckless Trump undoes years of hard work
The Guardian, (Business Leader) (23/12/18)
- The first signs of the next recession
New Statesman, Helen Thompson (23/11/18)
- Is a Recession Coming? CFOs Predict 2019 Recession, Majority Expect Pre-2020 Market Crash
Newsweek, Benjamin Fearnow (12/12/18)
- Trade slowdown coming at worst time for world economy, markets
Reuters, Jamie McGeever (19/12/18)
- How to spot the next recession
The Week, Jeff Spross (27/11/18)
- What Is a Recession, and Why Are People Talking About the Next One?
New York Times, Niraj Chokshi (17/12/180
- For the American Economy, Storm Clouds on the Horizon
New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (28/11/18)
- Don’t Take Your Eyes Off the Yield Curve
Bloomberg Businessweek, Liz McCormick and Jeanna Smialek (16/11/18)
- What to expect from 2019’s ‘post-peak’ economy
CNN, Larry Hatheway (19/12/18)
- Worried about the next recession? Here’s what to watch instead of the yield curve
Quartz, Gwynn Guilford (17/12/18)
- Leading Economic Indicators and How to Use Them
The Balance, Kimberly Amadeo (10/9/18)
Surveys and Data
- Define the term ‘recession’.
- Are periods of above-trend expansion necessarily followed by a recession?
- Give some examples of leading indicators other than those given above and discuss their likely reliability in predicting a recession.
- Find out what has been happening to confidence levels in the EU over the past 12 months. Does this provide evidence of an impending recession in the EU?
- For what reasons may there be lags between a change in an indicator and a change in the variables for which it is an indicator?
- Why has the shape of the yield curve previously been a good predictor of the future course of the economy? Is it likely to be at present?
- What is the relationship between interest rates, government bond prices (‘Treasuries’ in the USA) and the yield on such bonds?