According to the first estimates by the Office for National Statistics, real UK GDP rose by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2011. In the House of Commons, David Cameron claimed that “it’s clearly a success the economy is growing”, while Ed Balls, Shadow Chancellor, countered this by stating that the economy “flat-lined in the last six months with no growth at all”.
So who is right? According to the statistics both are, in the sense that the economy grew by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2011 after shrinking by 0.5% in the fourth quarter of 2010. But what bigger picture do the figures paint? Is the economy now in recovery mode? Or is the fact that growth is so small a sign that the economy is still fragile? Could it easily dip back into recession as the tax increases and government expenditure cuts begin to bite?
And what of the policy implications? Do the latest figures make a rise in Bank Rate more or less likely in the near future? And how will the figures impact on confidence? Are they more or less likely to stimulate investment? Will consumers feel more confident that recovery is under way and their jobs are therefore more secure?
The following articles assess the situation and look ahead at the prospects for the UK economy.
UK economy ‘on a plateau’ as 0.5pc GDP rise disappoints The Telegraph, Emma Rowley and Philip Aldrick (28/4/11)
GDP figures: Cameron accused of complacency over economy Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (27/4/11)
Low growth figure suggests economy is stagnating – at best Independent, Sean O’Grady (28/4/11)
A matter of interpretation but nobody’s happy at the latest news Scotsman, Terry Murden (28/4/11)
UK economy grows by 0.5% in first quarter of 2011 BBC News (27/4/11)
Britain ‘on the edge of a double dip recession’ The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (27/4/11)
British GDP grows by 0.5 per cent Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (27/4/11)
GDP: Slow but not stagnant BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (27/4/11)
GDP figures: Despite meagre growth, we must hold our nerve The Telegraph (27/4/11)
The economic gamble looks ever more reckless Independent (28/4/11)
If George Osborne thinks this is the road to recovery, he needs a new satnav Guardian, Heather Stewart (27/4/11)
GDP figures: the verdict Guardian, Michael Burke, Eamonn Butler, Frances O’Grady, Ian Brinkley (27/4/11)
UK GDP grows 0.5pc: reaction The Telegraph, various commentators (27/4/11)
GDP growth ONS
GDP preliminary estimates ONS
Forecasts for Output, Prices and Jobs The Economist
Forecasts for the UK economy: a comparison of independent forecasts HM Treasury
- What are the causes of short-term economic growth?
- Why has UK growth been lower than that of most other developed economies?
- What are the arguments for and against the government using fiscal policy at the current time to increase aggregate demand?
- Why has the construction sector performed so badly while the manufacturing sector has performed relatively well?
- How might the growth figures impact on consumer and business confidence? Why is this difficult to predict?
- What impact are the growth figures likely to have on interest rate decisions by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee?
Business leaders and politicians pay a great deal of attention to economic forecasts. And yet these forecasts often turn out to be quite wrong. Very few economists predicted the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent credit crunch and recession. And the recently released 2010 Q4 growth figures for the UK economy, which showed a decline in real GDP of 0.5%, took most people by surprise.
What is more, forecasters often disagree. If, for example, you look at the forecasts made by various panel members for Consensus Forecasts, you can see the divergence between their various predictions.
So why is economic forecasting so unreliable? Is it the fault of economic models? Or are there too many unpredictable factors that can impact on economies – factors such as business and consumer confidence, or political events, or natural disasters, such as the recent floods in Australia, South Africa and Brazil? Will economic forecasting always be a very inexact science?
Davos 2011: Why do economists get it so wrong? BBC News, Tim Weber (27/1/11)
Popular Semi-Science Slate, Robert J. Shiller (24/1/11)
Fed Often Gets It Wrong In Its Forecasts on US Economy American Public Media, Justin Wolfers (26/1/11)
Don’t bet on economic forecasting CNBC, Jeff Cox (21/9/10)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM Treasury
Econ Stats: The Economic Statistics and Indicators Database Economy Watch (large database of worldwide annual statistics, including forecasts to 2015)
World Economic Outlook IMF (follow link in right-hand panel)
OECD Economic Outlook: Statistical Annex OECD
European Economic Forecasts European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs DG
- For what reasons may economic forecasts turn out to be wrong?.
- To what extent is economic forecasting like weather forecasting? Which is harder and why?
- Wo what extent can the poor accuracy of economic forecasts be blamed on the application of the ‘wrong type of economics’?
- How much variation is there in the independent forecasts of the UK economy reported by the Treasury (see HM Treasury link above)?
- Using the HM Treasury link, compare the forecasts made of 2010 in January 2010 with those made of 2010 in January 2011. Attempt an explanation of the differences.
Under its terms of reference the new Office for Budget Responsibility is required to provide updated forecasts for the economy and the public finances at the time of each Budget in order take into account the impact of those measures contained in the Budget. Here we consider those economic forecasts contained in the June 2010 OBR Budget Forecast relating to economic growth. In particular, we consider the OBR’s interpretation of how growth is likely to be affected by the policy measures unveiled by George Osborne in his first Budget as Chancellor of Exchequer on 22 June.
The OBR forecasts that the UK economy will grow by 1.2% in 2010 and by a further 2.3% in 2011. These estimates are lower than those published by the OBR in its Pre-Budget Forecast published on 14 June. The Pre-Budget Forecasts predicted growth of 1.3% in 2010 and 2.6% in 2011. The downward revisions reflect the OBR’s assertion that the Budget’s measures to meet the Government’s fiscal mandate and, hence the resultant fiscal consolidation package, will weaken aggregate demand.
In terms of the components of aggregate demand, the fiscal consolidation will mean restraints on government spending (G) and, if the OBR is right, lower growth in household consumption (C). Lower consumption growth is expected as a result of reduced growth in household incomes and the rise in the standard rate of Value Added Tax next January from 17½% to 20%.
The OBR now forecasts that real household consumption will grow by just 0.2% in 2010, following last year’s contraction of 3.2%, and by 1.3% in 2011. General government final consumption – the Government’s expenditure on current goods and services – is forecast to grow in real terms by 1.7% this year before falling by 1.1% next year. The forecasts for general government capital spending are for a real fall of 4.9% this year, following last year’s rise of 15.7%, followed by a sizeable 19% decline in 2011.
A more positive note emerging from the OBR forecasts relates to capital expenditure by businesses. The measures to reform corporation tax, which include a reduction in the main rate of corporation tax from 28 per cent to 24 per cent over four years beginning with a one per cent reduction from April 2011, are predicted to have a favourable effect on investment. Business investment is forecast to rise in real terms by 1.4% this year, following last year’s fall of 19.3%, and to rise again in 2011 by 8.1%.
The projections for growth from 2013 are now stronger than in the OBR’s Pre-Budget Forecast with the economy portrayed as adjusting more quickly at this point towards its potential output. Potential output is the level of output level when the economy’s resources are operating at ‘normal capacity utilisation’. But, in 2015, which is at the end of the OBR’s five year forecast period, the UK economy is still forecast to be experiencing a negative output gap. In other words, actual output will still be less than potential output.
To help paint a picture of how the economy’s output will adjust towards its potential level consider the OBR estimates for the output gap. The OBR estimates that in financial year 2009-10 the economy’s output was 4.1% below its potential. This negative output gap is now expected to be reduced to 3.7% of potential output in 2010-11, to 2.8% in 2012-13 and to 0.9% of potential output in 2015-16.
Office for Budget Responsibility
OBR home page
Office for Budget Responsibility Terms of Reference
Budget Forecast June 2010 OBR (22/6/10)
Pre-Budget Forecast June 2010 OBR (14/6/10)
Budget 2010 HM Treasury (22/6/10)
OBR endorses Budget but faces questions over its own predictions Telegraph, Philip Alrdrick (23/6/10)
UK growth forecasts could be revised again, says Sir Alan Budd Citywire, Deborah Hyde (23/6/10)
OBR says growth will take bigger hit Financial Times, Norma Cohen (22/6/10)
Budget 2010: Government cuts will slow economic recovery, says watchdog Telegraph, James Kirkup (23/6/10)
Highlights from the Budget BBC News (22/6/10)
Budget statement: George Osborne’s speech in full BBC Democracy Live (22/6/10)
- What do you understand by the concept of aggregate demand?
- What are the component expenditures of aggregate demand? Which of these do you think is the largest in value terms?
- The OBR is forecasting the household sector’s disposable income to grow in real terms this year by 0.2% and by 1.2% next year. Why then is the OBR identifying weaker consumer demand as a result of the Budget measures as a major reason for revising down its predictions for economic growth?
- The OBR argues that the fiscal consolidation measures will have a ‘direct effect’ on household incomes and so on spending, but that this will be ‘partially offset by a decline in saving’. Why might the OBR be arguing that a fiscal consolidation will lead to a decline in saving? Evaluate the OBR’s arguments.
- What do you understand by the concept of an output gap? What does a negative output gap signify?
- To see the sorts of problems that forecasters commonly face, try identifying reasons why the output gap could be eliminated more quickly or less quickly as a result of the Budget measures.
As one of his first acts, the new UK Coalition government’s Chancellor, George Osborne, set up an independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) (see Nipping it in the Budd: Enhancing fiscal credibility?. The role of the OBR is to provide forecasts of the economy and the data on which to base fiscal policy.
On 14 June, the OBR produced its first forecast in time for the Budget scheduled for 22 June. It has some bad news and some good news. First the bad news: it forecasts that growth for 2011 will be 2.6% – down from the 3–3.5% forecast by Labour in its last Budget in March. But now the good: it forecasts that the public-sector deficit in 2010/11 will be 10.5% of GDP – down from the 11.1% forecast by Labour; and that public-sector debt will be 62.2%, not the 63.6% forecast by Labour. These forecasts are before any policy changes announced in the Budget on 22 June.
Meanwhile, the accountants BDO have published a survey of business confidence. This shows the largest drop since the survey began. Talk by the government of cuts and worries that this will impact directly on the private sector have caused many businesses to cut investment plans. The worries are compounded by fears of a decline in export demand as countries abroad also make cuts.
So what does the future hold? Should we put any faith in forecasts? And should we be more worried about a double-dip recession or by failure to make sufficient inroads to deficits to calm markets?
Growth forecast is cut but borrowing improves Guardian, Phillip Inman and Hélène Mulholland (14/6/10)
UK watchdog slashes growth forecasts Financial Times, Chris Giles (14/6/10)
Fiscal watchdog downgrades UK growth forecast BBC News (14/6/10)
OBR UK growth forecast downgraded BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (14/6/10)
‘Sorry it is so complicated’ BBC Daily Politics, Stephanie Flanders (14/6/10)
Britain’s new economic forecasts: what the analysts say Guardian (14/6/10)
Spending cuts under fire amid new borrowing forecasts Independent, Russell Lynch (14/6/10)
The self-fulfilling deficit spiral Guardian, Adam Lent (14/6/10)
UK business confidence sees ‘record drop’ BBC News (13/6/10)
Britain to avoid double dip but recovery will be weak, CBI warns Independent, David Prosser (14/6/10)
A winding path to inflation The Economist (3/6/10)
Is inflation or deflation a greater threat to the world economy? The Economist: debate (1/6/10)
A question for chancellor Osborne Financial Times, Martin Wolf (11/6/10)
Fiscal conservatism may be good for one nation, but threatens collective disaster Independent, Joseph Stiglitz (15/6/10)
Hawks v doves: economists square up over Osborne’s cuts Guardian, Phillip Inman (14/6/10)
Data and forecasts
Pre-Budget forecast Office for Budget Responsibility (14/6/10)
Pre-Budget Report data Google docs (14/6/10)
Forecast for the UK economy: a comparison of independent forecasts HM Treasury (May 2010)
- How reliable is the OBR’s forecast likely to be? What factors could cause the forecast for economic growth to be (a) an overestimate; (b) an underestimate?
- What is likely to happen to aggregate demand over the coming months? Explain.
- What is meant by the ‘structural deficit’. Why might the structural deficit fall as the economy recovers? Would you explain this in terms of a shift or a movement along the short-term aggregate supply curve?
- Which is the greatest threat over the long term: inflation or deflation?
- Do you agree that the debate about cutting the deficit is merely a question of timing, not of the amount to cut?
- Why may policies of fiscal tightening, if carried out generally around the world, involve the fallacy of composition?
- Is there any common ground between the fiscal ‘hawks’ and fiscal ‘doves’ (see the last Guardian article above)?
Is there finally cause to celebrate? Government borrowing is lower than expected. Initially, public sector net borrowing for 2009-2010 was forecast in the Pre-budget Report to be £178bn, but official public figures have reduced this to £170 bn. The fall in government revenues has not been as big as predicted and as a result, borrowing this year is likely to be between £5bn and £10bn less than expected. But, let’s not crack open the champagne quite yet, as February’s figures for public sector net borrowing are still about 41% higher in 2010 than in the same month last year.
Whilst the UK is predicted to under-shoot its public-sector net cash requirement made in the Pre-Budget Report for 2009-2010, government borrowing remains at a record high and the level of the deficit is still a worrying 12% of GDP. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the European Commission wants the UK to bring its deficit down faster than the current government plans – and the Commission is not alone. There is considerable debate at the moment between those who want the government to bring the deficit down quicker to appease the market and those who want the government to start taking strong measures only when the recovery is well established. Their fear, very much in the Keynesian school, is that cutting too soon, by reducing aggregate demand, would push the economy back into recession.
If government spending is to be restrained, can we rely on export-lead growth? The fall in the value of our currency over the past two years should have meant a boost for exports. With a weaker pound, export growth was expected to be strong and allow us to export our way out of recession. See the news blog Expecting too much from exports. However, with figures in January 2010 showing the biggest trade deficit since August 2008 (£3.8bn) and with the volume of exports down by 8%, this may not be the case. Whilst the credit rating of the UK remains at AAA, experts say that the government should be aiming to reduce the deficit more quickly in order to retain this rating. So, although there is some good news (government borrowing will only be £170bn!) and exports are likely to increase as the global economy recovers from recession, significant problems in the UK economy still remain.
Row over leaked EU deficit report AFP news (17/3/10)
Government borrowing less than forecast BBC News (18/3/10)
Borrowing update cheers Treasury Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/3/10)
UK trade deficit widens to biggest in 17 months BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (9/3/10)
Government borrowing: what the economists say Guardian (18/3/10)
Darling to use higher revenues to cut debt Financial Times, Chris Giles and Jean Eaglesham (19/3/10)
Public sector finances. February 2010 Office for National Statistics
- Why have government revenues been falling?
- What is the difference between the public-sector net cash requirement and public-sector debt?
- Why is a weak pound good for exports?
- As the global economy recovers, UK exports should begin to rise. Illustrate this idea with a circular flow of income diagram for the UK and the rest of the world.
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against reducing the government deficit now?
- Should the Treasury be celebrating these latest figures, or is the UK economy still in a bad way?