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:
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.
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IFS Newspaper Article Paul Johnson (25/10/21)
BBC News (29/10/21)
BBC News (28/10/21)
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Larry Elliott (28/10/21)
Financial Times (29/10/21)
The Conversation, Steve Schifferes (26/10/21)
The Conversation, various academics (27/10/21)
The Conversation, Kevin Albertson (28/10/21)
- Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021
- Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021: documents
- Economic and Fiscal Outlook
HM Treasury (27/10/21)
Office for Budget Responsibility (27/10/21)
- Public finances databank – October 2021 (and other data)
- 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?