With the UK parliament in Brexit gridlock, the Labour opposition is calling for a general election. Although its policy over Brexit and a second referendum is causing splits in the party, the Labour party is generally agreed that pubic expenditure on health, education and transport infrastructure needs to increase – that there needs to be an end to fiscal austerity. However, to fund extra public expenditure would require an increase in taxes and/or an increase in government borrowing.
One of the arguments against increasing government borrowing is that it will increase public-sector debt. The desire to get public-sector debt down as a percentage of GDP has been central to both the Coalition and Conservative governments’ economic strategy. Austerity policies have been based on this desire.
But, in the annual presidential address to the American Economics Association, former chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, criticised this position. He has argued for several years that cutting government deficits may weaken already weak economies and that this may significantly reduce tax revenues and potential national income, thereby harming recovery and doing long-term economic damage. Indeed, the IMF has criticised excessively tight fiscal policies for this reason.
In his presidential address, he expanded the argument to consider whether an increase in government borrowing will necessarily increase the cost of servicing government debt. When the (nominal) interest rate (r) on government borrowing is below the nominal rate of economic growth (gn), (r < gn), then even if total debt is not reduced, it is likely that the growth in tax revenues will exceed the growth in the cost of servicing the debt. Debt as a proportion of GDP will fall. The forecast nominal growth rate exceeds the 10-year nominal rate on government bonds by 1.3% in the USA, 2.2% in the UK and 1.8% in the eurozone. In fact, with the exception of a short period in the 1980s, nominal growth (gn) has typically exceeded the nominal interest rate on government borrowing (r) for decades.
When r < gn, this then gives scope for increasing government borrowing to fund additional government spending without increasing the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, if that fiscal expansion increases both actual and potential income, then growth over time could increase, giving even more scope for public investment.
But, of course, that scope is not unlimited.
- What do you understand by ‘fiscal illusion’?
- What is the justification for reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- What are the arguments against reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Explain the significance of the relationship between r and gn for fiscal policy and the levels of government debt, government borrowing and the government debt/GDP ratio.
- Under what circumstances would a rise in the budget deficit not lead to a rise in government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Does Blanchard’s analysis suggest that a combination of both loose monetary policy and loose fiscal policy is desirable?
- Under Blanchard’s analysis, what would limit the amount that governments should increase spending?
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.
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)
- Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
- Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
- For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
How much does the UK spend on welfare? This is a highly charged political question, with some arguing that benefit claimants are putting great demands on ‘hard-working tax payers’. According to information being sent by the government to all 24 million income tax payers in the UK, the figure of £168bn being spent on welfare is around 24.5% of public spending. But what is included in the total? Before you read on, try writing down the categories of government expenditure included under the heading ‘welfare’.
The heading does not include spending on certain parts of the ‘welfare state’, such as health and education. These are services, the production of which contributes to GDP. The category ‘welfare’ does not include expenditure on produced services, but rather transfer payments. The way the government is using the term, it does not include state pensions either, which account for 11.6% of public expenditure. So does the 24.5% largely consist of payments to the unemployed? The answer is no.
The category ‘welfare’ as used by the government includes the following elements. The percentages are of total managed expenditure (i.e. government spending).
||Public service pensions, paid to retired public-sector employees, such as teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses
||Other support for the elderly, including pension credit, winter fuel allowance, bus passes, etc.
||Sickness and disability benefits, including long-term care for the elderly, sick and disabled
||Support for families and children, such as child benefit and child tax credits
||Social exclusion, including income support and housing benefit
||Unemployment benefits, including Job Seekers Allowance
Lumping all these together under a single heading ‘welfare’ can be highly misleading, as many people have strongly held preconceptions about who gets welfare. In fact the term is used pejoratively by many who resent their taxes being given to those who do not work.
But, as you can see from the figures, only a small proportion goes to the unemployed, the majority of whom (around 65%) are unemployed for less than a year as they move between jobs (see). The bulk of benefits goes to children, the retired and the working poor.
Another preconception is that much of welfare spending goes to fraudulent claimants. But, as the article by Professor Hills states:
Just 0.7% of all benefits was over-paid as the result of fraud, less than the amount underpaid as a result of official error. For the main benefit for unemployed people, Jobseeker’s Allowance, estimated fraud was 2.9%, or an annual total of £150million.
It is also important to consider people’s life cycle. The same people receive benefits (via their parents or guardians) as children, pay taxes when they work and receive benefits when they retire or fall sick. Thus you might be a net contributor to public finances at one time and a net beneficiary at another. For example, the majority of pensioners were net contributors when they were younger and are now mainly net beneficiaries. Many unemployed people who rely on benefits now were net contributors when they had a job.
The message is that you should be careful when interpreting statistics, even if these statistics are factually accurate. How figures are grouped together and the labels put on them can give a totally misleading impression. And politicians are always keen to ‘spin’ statistics to their advantage – whether in government or opposition.
Annual Tax Summary: TUC and MPs on spending information BBC Daily Politics, Jo Coburn (3/11/14)
Osborne’s tax summary dismissed as propaganda by the TU BBC News (3/11/14)
The truth about welfare spending: Facts or propaganda? BBC News, Brian Milligan (4/11/14)
Its Cost Is Just One of the Myths Around ‘Welfare’ Huffington Post, John Hills (12/11/14)
Welfare spending summary criticised Express & Star (4/11/14)
Data and Reports
Public Expenditure: Statistical Analyses (PESA) 2014 HM Treasury (see Table 5.2)
DWP annual report and accounts 2013 to 2014 Department of Work and Pensions (see Table 2)
Welfare trends report – October 2014 Office for Budget Responsibility
What is welfare spending? Institute for Fiscal Studies (4/11/14)
- What benefits do you receive? How would you expect this to change over your lifetime?
- What are the arguments for (a) reducing and (b) increasing welfare payments. In each case, under which categories of welfare would you decrease or increase the level of benefits?
- Referring to Table 5.2 in the PESA data below (the table used for the government’s calculations), which of the categories would be classified as expenditure on goods and services and which as transfer payments?
- Assess the arguments of the IFS for the reclassification of the categories of ‘welfare’ payments.
- Referring to the pie chart above, also in the BBC video and articles and Table 5.2 in the PESA data, assess the arguments about the size of the UK’s contributions to the EU budget.
At the end of January 2014, we looked at the problem of deflation and in particular at the fortunes of Japan, as its CPI was rising. As the blog explained, the Japanese economy, rather than being plagued by high inflation has been plagued by deflation and many suggest this is even worse.
In December 2013, Japan’s core consumer prices were growing faster than expected. The data gave the economy a much needed boost, following increases in government spending aimed at stimulating aggregate demand. This in turn pushed up prices, such that they achieved their fastest rate of growth in 5 years. Now, more recent date from May 2014 shows that the trend has continued. Prices in Japan have now increase at their fastest rate in 23 years, rising 3.2% and beating the forecasts of 3.1%. This means that prices have no risen in Japan for 11 consecutive months. Numerous policies have contributed towards this impressive trend for an economy plagued by deflation for 2 decades. Boosts in the money supply, increases in government spending, a rise in sales tax are just some of the contributing factors.
Although the economy is certainly over the problem of deflation, some are now concerned that such price rises may reduce consumer spending. An ironic twist, given that barely a year ago the concern about low consumer spending was due to deflation. The next 12 months will be a key indicator of how consumers will respond to this unusual inflation data – after all inflation and high prices have been pretty uncommon. The following articles consider the update on the Japanese economy.
Japan inflation rate hits 23 year high (including video) BBC News (30/5/14)
Japan April core CPI rises to 23-year high after sales tax rise Reuters (29/5/14)
Japan inflation accelerates Wall Street Journal, Takashi Nakamichi (30/5/14)
Japan’s consumer inflation set to reach five year high The Guardian (18/4/14)
Japan’s inflation at highest rate for 23 years The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (30/5/14)
Japan inflation quickens to fastest since 1991 Bloomberg, Toru Fujioka (30/5/14)
Japaense inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years at 1.3% in December 2013 Independent, Russel Lynch (31/1/14)
- Why is deflation a problem?
- Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
- Japanese policies have helped create a rise in the CPI. Which policies have been effective in creating rising prices?
- Explain how the sales tax has contributed towards higher prices.
- With prices rising, there are now concerned that consumer spending may decline. Using a diagram, explain why this may be the case.
- In the previous blog, we analysed the Indian economy and said that high inflation was something that was contributing towards lower growth. How is that low inflation or deflation can also contribute towards low growth?
Rising inflation: not normally a cause for celebration, but that’s not the case for Japan. Having been subject to the spectre of deflation for many years, the 22-year high for the CPI at 2.7% is a welcome figure, even it is slightly lower than expected. This surge in prices is partly the result of a growth in domestic demand and a sign, therefore, that output will expand in response to the rise in demand.
The Japanese economy has experienced largely stagnant growth for two decades and a key cause has been falling prices. Although consumers like bargains, this has been problematic for this large economy. Deflation creates continuously falling prices and this means consumers hold back from purchasing durable goods, preferring to wait until prices have fallen further.
In the blog, Japan’s recovery, we looked at inflation data showing Japanese consumer prices growing at a faster rate than expected. This ‘positive’ trend has continued.
When it comes to inflation, expectations are crucial. If people think prices will rise in the future, they are more likely to buy now to get the lower price. This can therefore help to stimulate aggregate demand and it is this that has been the target for Japan. Part of the growth in the CPI is down to the sales tax rise from 5% to 8%. This was the first time in 17 years that the sales tax had increased. Further increases in it are expected in 2015. There were concerns about the impact of this rise, based on the depression that followed the last rise back in 1997, but so far the signs seem good.
Monetary easing was a key component in ending the downward trajectory of the Japanese economy and, following the sales tax rise, many believe that another round of monetary easing may be needed to counter the effects and create further growth in the economy and in the CPI. As the Bank of Japan Governor said:
There are various ways to adjust policy. We will decide what among these measures is appropriate depending on economic and price developments at the time … For now, we can say Japan is making steady progress toward achieving 2 per cent inflation.
One of the ‘three arrows‘ of the government’s policy has been to boost government spending, which should directly increase aggregate demand. Furthermore, with signs of the CPI rising, consumers may be encouraged to spend more, giving a much needed boost to consumption. The economy is certainly not out of the woods, but appears to be on the right path. The following articles consider the Japanese economy.
Japan CPI rises less than expected Wall Street Journal, Takashi Nakamichi (25/4/14)
Japan inflation may beat BOJ forecast Reuters, Leika Kihara (22/4/14)
Tokyo consumer price growth at 22-year high BBC News (25/4/14)
Japan inflation quickens to over 5-year high, output rebounds Reuters, Leika Kihara and Stanley White (31/1/14)
Japan’s consumer inflation set to reach five-year high Guardian (18/4/14)
Tokyo inflation hits 22-year high, inching toward BOJ goal Reuters, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Leika Kihara (25/4/14)
Tokyo’s core CPI got 2.7% lift in April from tax hike The Japan Times (25/4/14)
Is Japan winning the war against deflation? CNBC, Ansuya Harjani (25/4/14)
- Why is deflation a problem?
- Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
- Use the same diagram to explain how expectations of rising prices can help to boost AD.
- Why is the sales tax expected to reduce growth?
- Why is another round of monetary easing expected?
- What government policies would you recommend to a government faced with stagnant growth and falling prices?