Moody’s, one of the three main international credit rating agencies, has just downgraded the UK’s credit rating from the top Aaa rating to Aa1. The other two agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may follow suit as they have the UK’s triple A rating on ‘negative outlook’.
The reason for Moody’s decision can be see in its press statement:
The key interrelated drivers of today’s action are:
1. The continuing weakness in the UK’s medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody’s now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;
2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government’s fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;
3. And, as a consequence of the UK’s high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government’s balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.
The direct economic consequences of Moody’s action are likely to be minimal. People were excpecting a downgrade sooner or later for the reasons Moody’s quotes. Thus stock markets, bond markets and foreign exchange markets already reflect this. Indeed, in the first seven weeks of 2013, the sterling exchange rate index has depreciated by over 6%.
The political consequences, however, are likely to be significant. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Orborne, has put considerable emphasis on the importance of maintaining a triple A rating. He has seen it as a sign of the confidence of investors in the government’s policy of focusing on cutting the public-sector deficit and, ultimately, of cutting the public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP. His response, therefore, has been that the government will redouble its efforts to reduce the deficit.
Not surprisingly the Labour opposition claims the downgrading is evidence that the government’s austerity policies are not working. If the aim is to cut the deficit/GDP ratio, this is difficult if GDP is falling or just ‘flat lining’. A less aggressive austerity policy, it is argued, would allow growth to recover and this rise in the denominator would allow the deficit/GDP ratio to fall.
Latest forecasts are that government borrowing is set to rise. The average of 24 independent forecasts of the UK economy, published by the Treasury on 13/2/13, is that public-sector net borrowing will rise from £90.7bn in 2012/13 to £107bn in 2013/14. And the European Commission forecast of the UK economy is that the general government deficit will rise from 5.9% of GDP in 2012/13 to 7.0% of GDP in 2013/14.
So what will be the economic and political consequences of the loss of the triple A rating? What policy options are open to the government? The following articles explore these questions. Not surprisingly, they don’t all agree!
Downgrading Britain: The Friday night drop The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (23/2/13)
Rating downgrade: Q&A The Observer, Josephine Moulds (24/2/13)
Downgrade is Osborne’s punishment for deficit-first policy The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/2/13)
Britain’s downgraded credit rating: Moody’s wake-up call must trigger a change of course The Observer (24/2/13)
Editorial: AAA loss is a sign of failure Independent (24/2/13)
It’s not the end of the world – but it’s the end of any false complacency Independent, Hamish McRae (24/2/13)
Moody’s downgrade will stiffen George Osborne’s resolve The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (23/2/13)
UK AAA downgrade: Budget is now George Osborne’s make or break moment The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/2/13)
Britain’s credit downgrade is a call to live within our means The Telegraph, Liam Halligan (23/2/13)
Britain will take years to earn back AAA rating, says Ken Clarke The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (24/2/13)
- How important are credit agencies’ sovereign credit ratings to a country (a) economically; (b) politically? Why may the political effects have subsequent economic effects?
- Explain the meaning of the terms ‘exogenous’ and ‘endogenous’ variables. In terms of the determination of economic growth, are government expenditure and tax revenue exogenous or endogenous variables? What are the implications for a policy of cutting the government deficit?
- Identify the reasons for the predicted rise in the public-sector deficit as a proportion of GDP. Which of these, if any, are ‘of the government’s own making’?
- In the absence of a change in its fiscal stance, what policies could the government adopt to increase business confidence?
In our blog article IMF warns of the long-term need for fiscal consolidation we highlighted the concerns that the IMF had about the size of public debt-to-GDP ratios in those countries with weak fiscal credibility. Since 1997 the UK has undertaken a series of measures designed to enhance the credibility of fiscal policy and, in particular, to dispel the notion that fiscal policy is unduly sensitive to political needs. Firstly, we have seen the introduction of a Code for Fiscal Stability which outlines a series of principles which should underpin fiscal policy measures. Secondly, in response to the worsening state of the public finances, we have seen the introduction of a Fiscal Responsibility Act which requires governments to outline plans for delivering sound public finances and places a duty on them to deliver them.
The new UK coalition government is now introducing a new independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) which will have responsibility for assessing the public finances and the economy, including the generation of forecasts, and for assessing the public-sector balance sheets (i.e. the sector’s assets and liabilities). The OBR will begin its work immediately in readiness for an ‘emergency Budget’ on the 22nd June. According to the HM Treasury press release on 17 May the OBR will be headed by Sir Alan Budd, an economist who was a founder member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England. Sir Alan will head a 3-member Budget Responsibility Committee (BRC) which will be supported by economists and public finance experts currently working in HM Treasury, but who in the longer-term will redeployed from the Treasury. Legislation will be drawn up in order to establish the OBR on a permanent statutory basis.
In arguing the case for the OBR, the government points out that all Budget forecasts since 2000 of public borrowing for more than ‘1 year ahead’ have underestimated borrowing. For instance, the average error for ‘2 year ahead’ forecasts since 2000 is £29.5 billion, i.e. borrowing for the financial year after next has, on average, turned out to be £29.5 billion higher than predicted. Of course, we would expect shorter-term forecasts to be more accurate. The evidence presented shows the average error for ‘1 year ahead’ forecasts since 2000 to be £6 billion, i.e. actual borrowing in the following financial year has, on average, been £6 billion higher than forecast. But, more than this, since 2000 four Budgets – those in 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2009 – have produced ‘1 year ahead’ forecasts that over-predicted levels of borrowing.
While it will certainly be fascinating in the years ahead to assess the accuracy of the OBR’s own crystal ball in forecasting, the creation of the OBR is undoubtedly an interesting development in the way in which fiscal policy is both designed and implemented in the UK.
HM Treasury Press Notice
Chancellor announces policies to enhance fiscal credibility HM Treasury (17/5/10)
Osborne braced for cuts Financial Times, Lionel Barber, George Parker and Chris Giles (17/5/10)
Chancellor launches audit of government spending Independent, Andrew Woodcock (17/5/10)
Osborne gives up power to forecast Financial Times, Chris Giles (17/5/10)
Why the Office for Budget Responsibility Matters BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (17/5/10)
Osborne confirms new U.K. budget watch dog MarketWatch, William L Watts (17/5/10)
Osborne warns of ‘disastrous consequences’ for economy BBC News, Ben Wright (17/5/10)
Chancellor announces new fiscal watchdog BBC News (17/5/10)
Robert Chote on new OBR BBC Daily Politics, Robert Chote (17/5/10)
George Osborne discovers the joys of kitchen-sinking Telegraph, Tracey Corrigan (17/5/10)
George Osborne tackles Labour’s toxic handover Guardian,
Larry Elliott (17/5/10)
Mixed reaction to Office for Budget Responsibility Public Finance, Jaimie Kaffash (17/5/10)
- What do you understand by the concept of fiscal credibility?
- How important do you think the new OBR will be in enhancing the UK’s fiscal credibility?
- In what other ways have UK governments attempted to enhance the UK’s fiscal credibility in recent years?
- What do you see as the potential economic benefits of enhancing fiscal credibility?
- One of the first things that the incoming Labour Chancellor, Gordon Brown, did in 1997 was to make the Bank of England independent and create a Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to set interest rates. What parallels do you see between the MPC and the newly created Budget Responsibility Committee (BRC)?