During the pandemic, millions of people’s wages in the UK were paid by the government to prevent the closure of businesses and a surge in unemployment. The furlough scheme officially came to an end in September 2021. However, with the spread of the Omicron variant and the fear of further restrictions being put in place, there has been a call by many to re-introduce the furlough scheme.
The furlough scheme
The furlough scheme began when the government brought in, what was officially called the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in early 2020. This was when the pandemic first forced businesses across the country to close. The scheme worked by paying part of employees’ wages, preventing the need for businesses to make their staff redundant, therefore avoiding a rapid rise in unemployment along with the associated costs. It also avoided the financial and emotional costs of firing and then rehiring workers post pandemic. Under the scheme, furloughed workers received 80% of their wages, up to £2500 a month, if they couldn’t work because of the impact of coronavirus. Employees were able to maintain the security of employment and the payments helped furloughed workers pay their bills.
The scheme saw billions of pounds spent paying the wages of employees whose firms were forced to close temporarily. It could be argued that the expense of the scheme was a huge disadvantage. However, the alternative would have been for the government to pay unemployment-related benefits. Despite the furlough scheme being deemed necessary, it was not without its drawbacks for the structure of businesses. Rather than businesses adapting to changes in the economy and consumer demands, they could decide to claim the money and avoid the need to restructure. There was also concern about the length of the furlough scheme and the ability of businesses to bounce back post-pandemic.
Since the start of the scheme, the specifics of what was paid and who received it changed over time, especially once the economy started opening again. Initial steps were made to allow part-time return to work and the scheme started to wind down over the summer of 2021, with the government covering less of the wages and businesses covering more. From July, employers had to provide 10% of the wages of their furloughed staff, with the government paying the rest. This then increased to 20% in August with the CJRS coming to a complete end on 30 September 2021. At this point, there were around 1.6 million employees still receiving payment from the scheme.
Impact on Employment
With the end to the furlough scheme in September 2021, there were concerns that this would lead to a large number of redundancies. However, data indicate that has not happened and there is a record number of job vacancies. Official figures show that UK employment rose in October, confirming the strength of the labour market. The Office for National Statistics stated that the employment rate rose to 75.5% in the three months to October, up 0.2 percentage points on the previous quarter. This is believed to be driven by a rise in part-time work, which had dropped sharply during the pandemic. However, it is important to note that the strength in these numbers was prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant.
In November, the government had ruled out once again bankrolling people’s wages at enormous expense. However, the Chancellor is now under pressure to respond to the latest announcements around the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. The fast-spreading mutation of the Covid-19 virus, Omicron, is posing a fresh threat to the economy.
On the 8 December, the Prime Minister announced new ‘Plan B’ Covid rules for England. As part of these new rules to limit the spread of Omicron, people are being asked to work from home again if possible and face masks are compulsory in most public places. Covid passes or a negative Covid test result are also needed to get into nightclubs and large venues.
Scotland and Wales have brought in further restrictions. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has asked people to limit socialising to three households at a time in the run-up to Christmas. Shops and hospitality venues in Scotland must bring back physical distancing and screens. In Wales, nightclubs will close after 26 December and social distancing will be reintroduced in shops.
Although the hospitality industry and retail sector remain open, they are facing a slump in trade thanks to the new restrictions and worries among the general public. With the work-from-home guidance and advice from health officials that people should limit their social interactions, pubs and restaurants have seen widespread cancellations in the run-up to Christmas. Trade is suffering and these mass cancellations come at a time when these sectors were hoping for bumper trade after a dismal last couple of years.
In light of these concerns, ministers are now being urged to guarantee support in case businesses have to shut. Despite the indication that it would be highly unlikely that the UK would experience a full return to the restrictions seen at previous stages of the crisis, the International Monetary Fund has stated that the UK government should be drawing up contingency plans. The IMF has called for a mini-furlough scheme in the event that the Omicron variant forces the government to close parts of the economy. The idea is that the mini-furlough scheme would see a limited version of the multi-billion-pound job subsidy scheme being rolled out if firms are forced to close.
There are strong calls for there to be targeted support, which this mini-furlough scheme could offer. The Resolution Foundation argued in mid-December that a furlough scheme tied solely to the hospitality industry would help prevent job loses in an industry that is currently suffering once again. It calculated that the cost of a hospitality-only furlough scheme would be £1.4 billion a month if it were pitched at the original level of 80% of wage support. If a January to March sector-specific scheme were to be introduced it is estimated to cost around £5 billion, a small cost in comparison to £46 billion spent on furlough so far.
Any reintroduction of a furlough scheme would be a jolt for the government. This would mean a return to the 2020-style arguments around protecting livelihoods and businesses, a contrast to the recent messaging from the Treasury of restoring public finances. There is also concern about how this will all impact on current growth predictions and inflation concerns. The IMF expects the growth of the UK economy to be 6.8% in 2021 and 5% in 2022. However, the drawback from this is that the recovery would also be accompanied by rising inflation. It has been suggested, therefore, that interest rate increases from the Bank of England would be needed to keep inflation under control, while at the same time being not so great as to kill off growth.
It was widely expected that the Bank of England would again put off a rate hike in order to wait to see the economic impact of Plan B restrictions. However, on Thursday 16 December, interest rates were raised for the first time in more than three years. Despite the fears that Omicron could slow the economy by causing people to spend less, Bank Rate was raised from 0.1% to 0.25% . This came in the wake of data showing prices climbing at the fastest pace for 10 years.
Government finances would take another huge hit if the furlough scheme were revived. But a version of such a scheme is likely to be necessary to avert an unemployment crisis and the attendant costs.
However, in resisting further measures, the government has argued that it has already acted early to help control the virus’s spread by rapidly rolling out booster jabs, while avoiding unduly damaging economic and social restrictions.
The government also argues that some of the measures from the total £400 billion Covid support package since the start of the pandemic will continue to help businesses into Spring 2022. Such measures include government-backed loans for small- and medium-sized businesses until June 2022, a reduction in VAT from 20% to 12.5% until March 2022 and business rates relief for eligible retail, hospitality, and leisure businesses until March 2022. Talks are ongoing with hospitality and and other business organisations directly affected by Covid restrictions.
The British Chambers of Commerce has argued that current measures are not enough and has called for VAT on hospitality and tourism to be cut back to its emergency rate of 5% and for the 100% business rates relief for retailers to return. The CBI has also called for any unspent local authority grants to be spent now to help affected firms and that further help, including business rates relief, should be on the table if restrictions continue after the government’s 5 January review date. The IMF said that with strong policy support, the economy had proved resilient, but it stressed that a return of some of the measures that prevented mass unemployment and large-scale business failures might soon be needed.
Infections caused by the new Omicron variant are rising rapidly, doubling every two to three days. It is expected to become the dominant variant in the UK soon with health officials warning it may be the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic. However, it is not yet known what the full extent of the impact of this new variant on the NHS will be, leaving the severity of future restrictions uncertain.
But what is evident is that the course of the pandemic has changed and there is a growing case for the government to start planning for new support packages. Although a reintroduction of the furlough scheme was hoped not to be needed on the path out of the pandemic, a short detour may be required in the form of a mini-furlough scheme. The size and reach of any support put in place will depend upon any further restrictions on economic activity.
- Should the level of support for business return to the levels in place earlier in 2021?
- What measures could a government put in place to curtail the spread of the Omicron variant that have only a minimal impact on business and employment?
- Compare the UK measures to curtail the spread of the virus with those used in some other European countries.
- What are the arguments for and against (a) re-introducing the furlough scheme as it was earlier in 2021; (b) introducing a version restricted to the hospitality sector?
We’ve considered Keynesian economics and policy in several blogs. For example, a year ago in the post, What would Keynes say?, we looked at two articles arguing for Keynesian expansionary polices. More recently, in the blogs, End of the era of liquidity traps? and A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics, we looked at whether Donald Trump’s proposed policies are more Keynesian than his predecessor’s and at the opportunities and risks of such policies.
The article below, Larry Elliott updates the story by asking what Keynes would recommend today if he were alive. It also links to two other articles which add to the story.
Elliott asks his imaginary Keynes, for his analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 and of what has happened since. Keynes, he argues, would explain the crisis in terms of excessive borrowing, both private and public, and asset price bubbles. The bubbles then burst and people cut back on spending to claw down their debts.
Keynes, says Elliott, would approve of the initial response to the crisis: expansionary monetary policy (both lower interest rates and then quantitative easing) backed up by expansionary fiscal policy in 2009. But expansionary fiscal policies were short lived. Instead, austerity fiscal policies were adopted in an attempt to reduce public-sector deficits and, ultimately, public-sector debt. This slowed down the recovery and meant that much of the monetary expansion went into inflating the prices of assets, such as housing and shares, rather than in financing higher investment.
He also asks his imaginary Keynes what he’d recommend as the way forward today. Keynes outlines three alternatives to the current austerity policies, each involving expansionary fiscal policy:
||Trump’s policies of tax cuts combined with some increase in infrastructure spending. The problems with this are that there would be too little of the public infrastructure spending that the US economy needs and that the stimulus would be poorly focused.
||Government taking advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. “Governments could do this without alarming the markets, Keynes says, if they followed his teachings and borrowed solely to invest.”
||Use money created through quantitative easing to finance public-sector investment in infrastructure and housing. “Building homes with QE makes sense; inflating house prices with QE does not.” (See the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy and Global warning).
Increased government spending on infrastructure has been recommended by international organisations, such as the OECD and the IMF (see OECD goes public and The world economic outlook – as seen by the IMF). With the rise in populism and worries about low economic growth throughout much of the developed world, perhaps Keynesian fiscal policy will become more popular with governments.
Keynesian economics: is it time for the theory to rise from the dead?, The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/12/16)
- What are the main factors determining a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?
- What are the benefits and limitations of using fiscal policy to raise global economic growth?
- What are the benefits and limitations of using new money created by the central bank to fund infrastructure spending?
- Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
- Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
- Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
- Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
- What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
- What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?
Here are two thought-provoking articles from The Guardian. They look at macroeconomic policy failures and at the likely consequences.
In first article, Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s Economics Editor, argues that Keynesian expansionary fiscal and monetary policy by the USA has allowed it to achieve much more rapid recovery than Europe, which, by contrast, has chosen to follow fiscal austerity policies and only recently mildly expansionary monetary policy through a belated QE programme.
In the UK, the recovery has been more significant than in the eurozone because of the expansionary monetary policies pursued by the Bank of England in its quantitative easing programme. ‘And when it came to fiscal policy, George Osborne quietly abandoned his original deficit reduction targets when the deleterious impact of an over-aggressive austerity strategy became apparent.’
So, according to Larry Elliott, Europe should ease up on austerity and governments should invest more though increased borrowing.
‘This is textbook Keynesian stuff. Unemployment is high, which means businesses are reluctant to invest. The lack of investment means that demand for new loans is weak. The weakness of demand for loans means that driving down the cost of borrowing through QE will have little impact. Therefore, it is up to the state to break into the vicious circle by investing itself, something it can do cheaply and – because there are so many people unemployed and businesses working well below full capacity – without the risk of inflation.’
In the second article, Paul Mason, the Economics Editor at Channel 4 News, points to the large increases in both public- and private- sector debt since 2007, despite the recession. Such debt, he argues, is becoming unsustainable and hence the world could be on the cusp of another crash.
Mason quotes from the Bank for International Settlements Quarterly Review September 2015 – media briefing. In this briefing, Claudio Borio,
Head of the Monetary & Economic Department, argues that:
‘Since at least 2009, domestic vulnerabilities have developed in several emerging market economies (EMEs), including some of the largest, and to a lesser extent even in some advanced economies, notably commodity exporters. In particular, these countries have exhibited signs of a build-up of financial imbalances, in the form of outsize credit booms alongside strong increases in asset prices, especially property prices, supported by unusually easy global liquidity conditions. It is the coincidence of the reversal of these booms with external vulnerabilities that should be watched most closely.’
We have already seen a fall in commodity prices, reflecting the underlying lack of demand, and large fluctuations in stock markets. The Chinese economy is slowing markedly, as are several other EMEs, and Europe and Japan are struggling to recover, despite their QE programmes. The USA is no longer engaging in QE and there are growing worries about a US slowdown as growth in the rest of the world slows. Mason, quoting the BIS briefing, states that:
‘In short, as the BIS economists put it, this is “a world in which debt levels are too high, productivity growth too weak and financial risks too threatening”. It’s impossible to extrapolate from all this the date the crash will happen, or the form it will take. All we know is there is a mismatch between rising credit, falling growth, trade and prices, and a febrile financial market, which, at present, keeps switchback riding as money flows from one sector, or geographic region, to another.’
So should there be more expansionary policy, or should rising debt levels be reduced by tighter monetary policy? Read the articles and then consider the questions.
I told you so. Obama right and Europe wrong about way out of Great Recession The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/11/15)
Apocalypse now: has the next giant financial crash already begun? The Guardian, Paul Mason (1/11/15)
- To what extent do the two articles (a) agree and (b) disagree?
- How might a neo-liberal economist reply to the argument that what is needed is more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies?
- What is the transmission mechanism whereby quantitative easing affects real output? Is it a reliable mechanism for policymakers?
- What would make a financial crash less likely? Is this something that governments or central banks can influence?
- Why has productivity growth been so low in many countries? What would increase it?
The rate of growth in India has fallen to its lowest level since the first three months of 2009 – the period when many countries were plunging into recession. Although the annual rate was still 4.4% in Q2 2013 (a rate most Western governments would love to achieve!), it had averaged 8.2% from 2003 to 2007 and 9.5% from 2010 to 2011 (see).
And the rupee has been falling in value (see chart below). The exchange rate of the rupee to the dollar has depreciated by 21% since the start of the year and by 14% since the beginning of August (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). This has pushed up the price of imports and raised fears that inflation, already approaching 10%, will rise.
There have also been concerns about the health of India’s banking sector, with worries over the possible rise in bad loans.
One result of all these factors is that the confidence of investors has been shaken. Bond prices have fallen and so too have share prices. The Mumbai Sensex index fell by 11.5% from 22 July to 27 August. Worried about possible capital flight, the Indian government imposed capital controls on Indian residents on 14 August. It has, however, since ruled out limiting the outflow of funds by foreign investors.
The following articles and videos look at the causes of the current economic problems and what can be done about them.
India’s sliding economy Aljazeera (24/8/13)
Economic woes grow for Indians as rupee continues to slide BBC News, Sanjoy Majumder (30/8/13)
What is behind the Indian economy’s fall from grace? BBC News, Yogita Limaye (30/8/13)
Indian rupee: How onions reflect health of economy BBC News, Nitin Srivastava (30/8/13)
The rise and fall of India’s economy NDTV (20/8/13)
Is the Indian economy heading for a doom? NDTV, Dr Arvind Virmani, Adi Godrej, P N Vijay, Sanjay Nirupam and Prakash Javadekar (20/7/13)
Can Rajan stabilise India’s economy? FT Video, Stuart Kirk and Julia Grindell (7/8/13)
India in trouble: The reckoning The Economist (24/8/13)
PM warns of short term shocks, attacks BJP for stalling Parliament The Economic Times of India (31/8/13)
External global factors led to rupee slide: Manmohan in Lok Sabha Hindustan Times (30/8/13)
India seeks allies to defend rupee as growth skids to four-year low Reuters, Manoj Kumar and Frank Jack Daniel (30/8/13)
Rupee charts in uncharted territory Reuters, Saikat Chatterjee and Subhadip Sircar (30/8/13)
Indian Prime Minister Says Rupee Crisis Will Only Make Country Stronger Time World, ilanjana Bhowmick (30/8/13)
Is India in danger of another crisis? BBC News, Linda Yueh (8/8/13)
India’s GDP shows continuing slowdown BBC News (30/8/13)
Slowest India Growth Since 2009 Pressures Singh to Support Rupee Bloomberg, Unni Krishnan (30/8/13)
- Why has the rupee fallen in value so dramatically? Is there likely to have been overshooting?
- What are the economic consequences of this large-scale depreciation? Who gain and who lose?
- What factors are likely to affect the rate of growth in India over the coming months?
- Why is the Indian economy more vulnerable than many other Asian economies?
- What economic policies are being pursued by the Indian government? How successful are they likely to be?
An excellent learning exercise for students of economics is to take a journal article that uses data to model the economy and then try to replicate the authors’ results. You may well be given an assignment like this in future years of your degree.
One such exercise is used on the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s doctoral programme in economics. Thomas Herndon is a student on that degree and chose to examine a well-known and highly influential paper, Growth in a Time of Debt by Carmen Reinhart then of the University of Maryland and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University and former chief economist of the IMF. Professors Reinhart and Rogoff used new data on 44 countries spanning about 200 years.
A key finding of their paper, published in 2010 in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, is that once a country’s government debt exceeds 90% of GDP, growth rates fall considerably: the median across countries by about 1% and the mean considerably more.
The paper has been hugely influential. It has been used to justify the austerity programmes being pursued in many countries, including the UK and the eurozone. Cutting the government deficit to GDP ratio, and ultimately the government debt to GDP ratio, has been seen as a way of achieving higher growth over the longer term, and justifies the adverse effect on short-term growth from the dampening of aggregate demand.
Well, this seemed an interesting paper for Thomas Herndon to examine, and he was keen to show just how Reinhart and Rogoff’s data led to their conclusions. But try as he might, he could not replicate their results. His initial reaction was to think he had made an error, but each time he checked he came back with the same conclusion: they must have made errors in their calculations.
His supervisor at Amherst, Professor Michael Ash, after Thomas had checked and checked again, realised that something was wrong. He encouraged Thomas to write to Reinhart and Rogoff to request sight of their dataset. They duly obliged and it was then that Thomas spotted various errors. These are explained in the articles below, but the overall effect was to alter the conclusion. Although high debt may undermine growth to some extent, the effect is much less than Reinhart and Rogoff concluded, and there are several exceptions to this rule.
On 15 April 2013, Thomas, along with his supervisor, Michael Ash and his colleague, Robert Pollin, published a response to the Reinhart and Rogoff paper. In the abstract to their paper, Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff they state that:
… coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics lead to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and GDP growth among 20 advanced economies in the post-war period. They find that when properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not –0:1 percent as published in Reinhart and Rogoff. That is, contrary to RR, average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically different than when debt/GDP ratios are lower.
The authors also show how the relationship between public debt and GDP growth varies significantly by time period and country. Overall, the evidence we review contradicts Reinhart and Rogoff’s claim to have identified an important stylized fact, that public debt loads greater than 90 percent of GDP consistently reduce GDP growth.
So could this be you in the future? Will you take a famous paper and, by re-examining and reworking the data, find that its conclusions are wrong? Could you end up changing the world? Exciting stuff!
Austerity: A Spreadsheet Error? BBC, More or Less, Tim Harford (20/4/13)
Austerity justification study ‘inaccurate’ BBC Today Programme, Robert Pollin (18/4/13)
UMass Student Exposes Serious Flaws in Harvard Economists’ Influential Study The Atlantic Wire, J.K. Trotter (18/4/13)
Shocking Paper Claims That Microsoft Excel Coding Error Is Behind The Reinhart-Rogoff Study On Debt Business Insider, Mike Konczal (16/4/13)
How a student took on eminent economists on debt issue – and won Economic Times of India (19/4/13)
Meet the 28-Year-Old Grad Student Who Just Shook the Global Austerity Movement New York Magazine, Kevin Roose (19/4/13)
An economist’s mea culpa: I relied on Reinhart and Rogoff Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal blog, Miles Kimball (22/4/13)
The Rogoff-Reinhart data scandal reminds us economists aren’t gods The Guardian, Heidi Moore (18/4/13)
Reinhart, Rogoff… and Herndon: The student who caught out the profs BBC News Magazine, Ruth Alexander (20/4/13)
George Osborne’s case for austerity has just started to wobble The Guardian, Polly Toynbee (18/4/13)
The error that could subvert George Osborne’s austerity programme The Guardian, Charles Arthur and Phillip Inman (18/4/13)
The Excel depression Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Krugman (19/4/13)
Europe: Retreat from austerity BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (23/4/13)
Guest post by Thomas Herndon
The Grad Student Who Took Down Reinhart And Rogoff Explains Why They’re Fundamentally Wrong Business Insider, Thomas Herndon (22/4/13)
Growth in a Time of Debt NBER working paper, Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff (January 2010)
Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff PERI Working Paper 322, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin (April 2013)
- What were the particular errors made by Reinhart and Rogoff?
- How has their paper been used as a basis for the design of macroeconomic policy?
- What are the limitations of using even accurate time-series data as the basis for policy measures?
- How might the work of Herndon change the direction of future macroeconomic policy?
- In his guest post in Business Insider (see link above), Herndon wrote: ‘The implication for policy is that, under particular circumstances, public debt can play a key role in overcoming a recession.’ What might this role be?
- Why might we have to be cautious in drawing policy conclusions from Herndon’s work?