The UK government has made much of its spending commitments in the UK Budget and Spending Review delivered on 27 October 2021. Spending on transport infrastructure, green energy and health care figured prominently. The government claimed that these were to help achieve its objectives of economic growth, carbon reduction and ‘levelling up’. This means that government expenditure will be around 42% of GDP for the five years from 2022 (from 1988 to 2000 it averaged 36%). Although it temporarily rose to 52% in 2020/21, this was the result of supporting the economy through the pandemic. But does this mean that the government is now a ‘Keynesian’ one?
When the economy is in recession, as was the case in 2020 with the effects of the pandemic, increased government expenditure financed by borrowing rather than taxation is the classic Keynesian remedy to boost aggregate demand and close the output gap. The increased injection of spending works through the multiplier process to raise equilibrium national income and reduce unemployment.
But is this the objective of the extra spending announced in October 2021? To answer this, it is important to look at forecasts for the state of the economy with no change in government policy and at the balance of government expenditure and taxation resulting from the Budget. The first chart shows public sector net borrowing from 2006/7 and forecast to 2026/7. The green and red lines from 2021/22 onwards give the PSNB forecasts with and without the October 2021 measures.
As you can see, there was a large increase in the PSNB in 2020/21, reflecting the government’s measures to support firms and workers during the pandemic. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) This was very much a Keynesian response, where a large budget deficit was necessary to support aggregate demand. It was also to protect the supply side of the economy by enabling firms to survive.
But could the October 2021 announcements also be seen as a Keynesian response to the macroeconomic situation? If we redraw Chart 1, focusing just on the forecast period and adjust the vertical scale, we can see that the measures have a net effect of increasing the PSNB and thus acting as a stimulus to aggregate demand. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) The figures are shown in the following table, which shows the totals from Table 5.1 in the Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 document:
Effects of Spending Review and Budget 2021 on PSNB (+ = increase in PSNB)
At first sight, it would seem that the Budget was mildly expansionary. To see how much so, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) measures the ‘fiscal stance’ using the ‘cyclically adjusted primary deficit (CAPD)’. This is PSNB minus interest payments and minus expenditures and tax revenues that fluctuate with the cycle and which therefore act as automatic stabilisers. The OBR’s forecast of the CAPD shows it to be expansionary, but decreasing over time. In 2021/22, there is forecast to be a net injection of around 3.2% (excluding ‘virus-related’ support), falling to 2.7% in 2022/23 and then gradually to around 0.6% by 2026/27. So it does seem that fiscal policy remains expansionary throughout the period, but less and less so.
But this alone does not make it ‘Keynesian’. A Keynesian Budget would be one that uses fiscal policy to adjust aggregate demand (AD) according to whether AD is forecast to be deficient or excessive without the Budget measures. To operate a Keynesian Budget, it would be necessary to forecast the output gap without any policy measures. If was forecast to be negative (a deficiency of demand, with equilibrium output below the potential level), then an expansionary policy should be pursued by raising government expenditure, cutting taxes or some combination of the two. If it was forecast to be positive (an excess demand, with equilibrium output above the potential level), then a contractionary/deflationary policy should be pursued by cutting government expenditure, raising taxes or some combination of the two.
So what is the forecast for the output gap? The OBR states that, after being negative in 2020
(–0.4% of potential GDP), it has risen substantially to 0.9% in 2021 with the rapid bounce back from the pandemic. But it is forecast to remain positive, albeit declining, until reaching zero in 2025. This is illustrated in Chart 3. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) So fiscal policy remains mildly expansionary until 2025, after having provided a considerable stimulus in 2021.
This is not normally what a Keynesian economist would recommend. Fiscal policy should be designed to achieve a zero output gap. With the output gap being substantially positive in 2021, there is a problem of excess demand. This can be seen in supply-chain difficulties and labour shortages in certain areas and higher inflation, with CPI inflation predicted by the OBR to rise to 4.4 per cent in 2022. The combination of higher prices, the rise in national insurance from April 2022 by 1.25 percentage points and the freezing of income tax personal allowances will squeeze living standards. And the cancelling of the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and no increase in its rate for the unemployed will put particular pressure on some of the poorest people.
The government is hoping that the rise in government expenditure will have beneficial supply-side effects and increase potential national income. The aim is to create a high-wage, high-skilled, high-productivity economy though investment in innovation, infrastructure and skills. As the OBR states, ‘The rebounding economy has provided the Chancellor with a Budget windfall that he has added to with tax rises that lift the tax burden to its highest since the early 1950s’.
It remains to be seen whether the extra spending on education, training, infrastructure and R&D will be sufficient to achieve the long-term growth the Chancellor is seeking. The OBR is forecasting very modest growth into the longer term when the bounce back has worked through. Real GDP is forecast to grow on average by just 1.5% per year from 2024 to 2026. What is more, the OBR sees permanent scarring effects of around 2% of GDP from the pandemic and around 4% of GDP from Brexit.
- What do you understand by ‘fiscal stance’?
- What are ‘automatic fiscal stabilisers? How might they affect GDP over the next few years?
- If the government had chosen to pursue a zero output gap from 2022/23 onwards, how would this have affected the balance between total government expenditure and taxation in the 2021 Budget and Spending Review?
- Provide a critique of the Budget from the left.
- Provide a critique of the budget from the right.
- Was this a ‘Green Budget’?
- Is the Budget following the ‘golden rule’ of fiscal policy?
- Look through Table 5.1 in the Budget and Spending Review document (linked below). Which of the measures will have the most substantial effect on aggregate demand?
With many countries experiencing low growth some 12 years after the financial crisis and with new worries about the effects of the coronavirus on output in China and other countries, some are turning to a Keynesian fiscal stimulus (see Case Study 16.6 on the student website). This may be in the form of tax cuts, or increased government expenditure or a combination of the two. The stimulus would be financed by increased government borrowing (or a reduced surplus).
The hope is that there will also be a longer-term supply-side effect which will boost potential national income. This could be through tax reductions creating incentives to invest or work more efficiently; or it could be through increased capacity from infrastructure spending, whether on transport, energy, telecommunications, health or education.
In the UK, the former Chancellor, Sajid Javid, had adopted a fiscal rule similar to the Golden Rule adopted by the Labour government from 1997 to 2008. This stated that, over the course of the business cycle, the government should borrow only to invest and not to fund current expenditure. Javid’s rule was that the government would balance its current budget by the middle of this Parliament (i.e. in 2 to 3 years) but that it could borrow to invest, provided that this did not exceed 3% of GDP. Previously this limit had been set at 2% of GDP by the former Chancellor, Philip Hammond. Using his new rule, it was expected that Sajid Javid would increase infrastructure spending by some £20 billion per year. This would still be well below the extra promised by the Labour Party if they had won the election and below what many believe Boris Johnson Would like.
Sajid Javid resigned at the time of the recent Cabinet reshuffle, citing the reason that he would have been required to sack all his advisors and use the advisors from the Prime Minister’s office. His successor, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak, is expected to adopt a looser fiscal rule in his Budget on March 11. This would result in bigger infrastructure spending and possibly some significant tax cuts, such as a large increase in the threshold for the 40% income tax rate.
A Keynesian stimulus would almost certainly increase the short-term economic growth rate as inflation is low. However, unemployment is also low, meaning that there is little slack in the labour market, and also the output gap is estimated to be positive (albeit only around 0.2%), meaning that national income is already slightly above the potential level.
Whether a fiscal stimulus can increase long-term growth depends on whether it can increase capacity. The government hopes that infrastructure expenditure will do just that. However, there is a long time lag between committing the expenditure and the extra capacity coming on stream. For example, planning for HS2 began in 2009. Phase 1 from London to Birmingham is currently expected to be operation not until 2033 and Phase 2, to Leeds and Manchester, not until 2040, assuming no further delays.
Crossrail (the new Elizabeth line in London) has been delayed several times. Approved in 2007, with construction beginning in 2009, it was originally scheduled to open in December 2018. It is now expected to be towards the end of 2021 before it does finally open. Its cost has increased from £14.8 billion to £18.25 billion.
Of course, some infrastructure projects are much quicker, such as opening new bus routes, but most do take several years.
The first five articles look at UK policy. The rest look at Keynesian fiscal policies in other countries, including the EU, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore and the USA. Governments seem to be looking for a short-term boost to aggregate demand that will increase short-term GDP, but also have longer-term supply-side effects that will increase the growth in potential GDP.
- Illustrate the effect of an expansionary fiscal policy with a Keynesian Cross (income and expenditure) diagram or an injections and withdrawals diagram.
- What is meant by the term ‘output gap’? What are the implications of a positive output gap for expansionary Keynesian policy?
- Assess the benefits of having a fiscal rule that requires governments to balance the current budget but allows borrowing to invest.
- Would there be a problem following such a rule if there is currently quite a large positive output gap?
- To what extent are the policies being proposed in Russia, the EU, Malaysia and Singapore short-term demand management policies or long-term supply-side policies?
On election to office in May 2015, the UK’s Conservative government set new fiscal targets. These were set out in an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility. As Box 12.3 in Essentials of Economics (7th edition) states:
The new fiscal mandate set a target for achieving a surplus on public-sector net borrowing by the end of 2019/20. More controversially, government should then target a surplus in each subsequent year unless real GDP growth falls below 1 per cent … Meanwhile, the revised supplementary target for public-sector debt was for the net debt-to-GDP ratio to fall each year from 2015/16 to 2019/20.
What is more, the Charter requires the government to set a cap on welfare spending over a five-year period. Such spending includes spending on pensions, tax credits, child benefit and unemployment benefit. In July 2015 the Chancellor set this cap at £115bn for 2016/17, a reduction of £12bn.
Whether or not such a tight fiscal target is desirable, the government has been missing the target. In November last year, the Chancellor had to backtrack on his plans to make substantial reductions in tax credits and as a result the welfare cap has been breached, as the following table from page 5 of the December 2015 House of Commons briefing paper shows.
Also, with the slowing of economic growth, the Chancellor has stated that he will miss the requirement for a fall in the net debt-to-GDP ratio unless further cuts in government spending are made, equivalent to 50p in every £100.
But, if the economy is slowing, is it right to cut government expenditure? In other words, should there be some discretion in fiscal policy to respond to economic circumstances? There are two issues here. The first is whether the resulting cut in aggregate demand will be detrimental to growth. The second is who will bear the cost of such cuts. Critics of the government claim that it will largely the poor who will lose if the cuts are made mainly from benefits.
The articles below examine the public finances, the difficulties George Osborne has been facing in sticking to his fiscal mandate and the options open to him.
Budget 2016: Osborne’s economic fitness regime BBC News, Andy Verity (14/3/16)
Budget 2016: George Osborne fuels speculation of nasty shocks The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Anushka Asthana (14/3/16)
Charter for Budget Responsibility: Summer Budget 2015 update HM Treasury (July 2015)
OBR publications, including ‘Economic and fiscal outlook’ and ‘Fiscal sustainability report’ Office for Budget Responsibility
- Outline the main points of the Charter for Budget Responsibility (CBR).
- What are the arguments for sticking to fiscal rules, such as those in the CBR?
- What are the arguments for using discretion to adjust fiscal policy as economic circumstances change?
- Compare the Conservative government’s fiscal mandate with the newly announced approach to fiscal policy of the Labour opposition?
- How does the Labour Party’s new approach differ from the Golden Rule followed by Gordon Brown as Chancellor in the Labour government from 1997 to 2007?
- What factors will determine whether or not the government will return to meeting the rules set out in the Charter for Budget Responsibility?
In his annual Mansion House speech to business leaders on 10 June 2015, George Osborne announced a new fiscal framework. This would require governments in ‘normal times’ to run a budget surplus. Details of the new framework would be spelt out in the extraordinary Budget, due on 8 July.
If by ‘normal times’ is meant years when the economy is growing, then this new fiscal rule would mean that in most years governments would be require to run a surplus. This would reduce general government debt.
And it would eventually reduce the debt from the forecast ratio of 89% of GDP for 2015 to the target of no more than 60% set for member states under the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. Currently, many countries are in breach of this target, although the Pact permits countries to have a ratio above 60% provided it is falling towards 60% at an acceptable rate. The chart shows in pink those countries that were in breach in 2014. They include the UK.
Sweden and Canada have similar rules to that proposed by George Osborne, and he sees them as having been more able to use expansionary fiscal policy in emergency times, such as in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8, without running excessive deficits.
Critics have argued, however, that running a surplus whenever there is economic growth would dampen recovery if growth is sluggish. This makes the rule very different from merely requiring that, over the course of the business cycle, there is a budget balance. Under that rule, years of deficit are counterbalanced by years of surplus, making fiscal policy neutral over the cycle. With a requirement for a surplus in most years, however, fiscal policy would have a net dampening effect over the cycle. The chancellor hopes that this would be countered by increased demand in the private sector and from exports.
The rule is even more different from the Coalition government’s previous ‘fiscal mandate‘, which was for a ‘a forward-looking target to achieve cyclically-adjusted current balance by the end of the rolling, five-year forecast period’. The current budget excludes investment expenditure on items such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools. The fiscal mandate was very similar to the former Labour government’s ‘Golden rule’, which was to achieve a current budget balance over the course of the cycle.
By excluding public-sector investment from the target, as was previously done, it can allow borrowing to continue for such investment, even when there is a substantial deficit. This, in turn, can help to increase aggregate supply by improving infrastructure and has less of a dampening effect on aggregate demand. A worry about the new rule is that it could lead to further erosion of public-sector investment, which can be seen as vital to long-term growth and development of the economy. Indeed, Sweden decided in March this year to abandon its surplus rule to allow government borrowing to fund investment.
The podcasts and articles below consider the implications of the new rule for both aggregate demand and aggregate supply and whether adherence to the rule will help to increase or decrease economic growth over the longer term.
Video and audio podcasts
George Osborne confirms budget surplus law Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon (10/6/15)
Osborne To Push Through Budget Surplus Rules Sky News (10/6/15)
OECD On Osborne’s Fiscal Plans Sky News, Catherine Mann (10/6/15)
‘Outright fiscal madness’ Osborne’s Mansion House Speech RT UK on YouTube, Harry Fear (11/6/15)
A “straightjacket” [sic] on future government spending? BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston; Nigel Lawson (11/6/15)
Thursday’s business with Simon Jack BBC Today Programme, Gerard Lyons (12/6/15)
Osborne seeks to bind successors to budget surplus goal Reuters, David Milliken (10/6/15)
George Osborne to push ahead with budget surplus law The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (10/6/15)
Osborne Wants U.K. to Build Treasure Chest During Good Times Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (10/6/15)
Questions over Osborne’s Victorian-era budget plans BBC News (10/6/15)
Years more spending cuts to come, says OBR BBC News (11/6/15)
Is Chancellor right to want surplus in normal times? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/6/15)
George Osborne Unveils New Budget Surplus Law, But Critics Warn It Means Needless Cuts Huffington Post, Paul Waugh (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s fiscal handcuffs are political, but he does have a point Independent, Hamish McRae (11/6/15)
Osborne’s budget surplus law follows UK tradition of moving goalposts Financial Times, Chris Giles (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s budget surplus rule is nonsense and it could haunt Britain for decades Business Insider, Malaysia, Mike Bird (10/6/15)
To cut a way out of recession we need growth, not austerity economics Herald Scotland, Iain Macwhirter (11/6/15)
George Osborne moves to peg public finances to Victorian values The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Frances Perraudin (10/6/15)
The Guardian view on George Osborne’s fiscal surplus law: the Micawber delusion The Guardian, Editorial (10/6/15)
Academics attack George Osborne budget surplus proposal The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/6/15)
Osborne plan has no basis in economics Guardian letters, multiple signatories (12/6/15)
Is there an optimal debt-to-GDP ratio? Vox EU, Anis Chowdhury and Iyanatul Islam
No basis in economics Mainly Macro, Simon Wren-Lewis (16/6/15)
- Explain what is meant by a ‘cyclically adjusted current budget balance’.
- How does the speed with which the government reduces the public-sector debt affect aggregate demand and aggregate supply?
- What are the arguments for and against running a budget surplus: (a) when there is currently a large budget deficit; (b) when there is already a budget surplus? How do the arguments depend on the stage of the business cycle?
- Do you agree with the statement that ‘the biggest issue with the UK economy right now is not the government deficit’. If so, what bigger issues are there?
- How could public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP decline without the government running a budget surplus?
- How might the term ‘normal times’ be defined? How does the definition used by the Chancellor affect the rate at which the public-sector debt is reduced?
- How sustainable is the current level of public-sector debt? How does its sustainability relate to the interest rate on long-term government bonds?
- If there is a budget surplus, such that G – T is negative, what can we say about the balance betwen (I + X) and (S + M)? What good and adverse consequences could follow?
- Why do George Osborne’s plans for budget surpluses ‘risk a liquidity crisis that could also trigger banking problems, a fall in GDP, a crash, or all three’?
This podcast is from the BBC’s Today Programme on Radio 4. With government debt set to rise from around 45 per cent in 2007 to around 85 per cent by 2010, is there a danger that the UK might find it difficult, or even impossible, to fund the debt through the necessary issuing of bonds and other government securities? In the podcast, Richard Portes, Professor of Economics at London Business School, and Gerard Lyons, Chief Economist at Standard Chartered Bank, discuss the question.
Could the UK default on its debt? BBC Today Programme (20/8/09)
For data on general government debt in OECD countries, see OECD Economic Outlook No. 85 Annex Tables 62 and 32. See also tables 27 to 30 for data on general government deficits.
Public sector borrowing soaring BBC News (20/8/09)
Public sector finances, July 2009 ONS (20/8/09)
- Compare the UK’s general government debt with that of other major countries. Consider both the level of debt and its changes in the past three years and projected changes over the next two years.
- Why, according to Professor Portes, is there virtually no chance that the UK will default on its debt?
- What is the most likely route by which the level of debt will be reduced over the coming few years?
- What are the implications for long-term interest rates if the UK government debt remains at high levels?