Tag: OBR

Since 2019, UK personal taxes (income tax and national insurance) have been increasing as a proportion of incomes and total tax revenues have been increasing as a proportion of GDP. However, in his Autumn Statement of 22 November, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced a 2 percentage point cut in the national insurance rate for employees from 12% to 10%. The government hailed this as a significant tax cut. But, despite this, taxes are set to continue increasing. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), from 2019/20 to 2028/29, taxes will have increased by 4.5 per cent of GDP (see chart below), raising an extra £44.6 billion per year by 2028/29. One third of this is the result of ‘fiscal drag’ from the freezing of tax thresholds.

According to the OBR

Fiscal drag is the process by which faster growth in earnings than in income tax thresholds results in more people being subject to income tax and more of their income being subject to higher tax rates, both of which raise the average tax rate on total incomes.

Income tax thresholds have been unchanged for the past three years and the current plan is that they will remain frozen until at least 2027/28. This is illustrated in the following table.

If there were no inflation, fiscal drag would still apply if real incomes rose. In other words, people would be paying a higher average rate of tax. Part of the reason is that some people on low incomes would be dragged into paying tax for the first time and more people would be paying taxes at higher rates. Even in the case of people whose income rise did not pull them into a higher tax bracket (i.e. they were paying the same marginal rate of tax), they would still be paying a higher average rate of tax as the personal allowance would account for a smaller proportion of their income.

Inflation compounds this effect. Tax bands are in nominal not real terms. Assume that real incomes stay the same and that tax bands are frozen. Nominal incomes will rise by the rate of inflation and thus fiscal drag will occur: the real value of the personal allowance will fall and a higher proportion of incomes will be paid at higher rates. Since 2021, some 2.2 million workers, who previously paid no income taxes as their incomes were below the personal allowance, are now paying tax on some of their wages at the 20% rate. A further 1.6 million workers have moved to the higher tax bracket with a marginal rate of 40%.

The net effect is that, although national insurance rates have been cut by 2 percentage points, the tax burden will continue rising. The OBR estimates that by 2027/28, tax revenues will be 37.4% of GDP; they were 33.1% in 2019/20. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

Much of this rise will be the result of fiscal drag. According to the OBR, fiscal drag from freezing personal allowances, even after the cut in national insurance rates, will raise an extra £42.9 billion per year by 2027/28. This would be equivalent of the amount raised by a rise in national insurance rates of 10 percentage points. By comparison, the total cost to the government of the furlough scheme during the pandemic was £70 billion. For further analysis by the OBR of the magnitude of fiscal drag, see Box 3.1 (p 69) in the November 2023 edition of its Economic and fiscal outlook.

Political choices

Support measures during the pandemic and its aftermath and subsidies for energy bills have led to a rise in government debt. This has put a burden on public finances, compounded by sluggish growth and higher interest rates increasing the cost of servicing government debt. This leaves the government (and future governments) in a dilemma. It must either allow fiscal drag to take place by not raising allowances or even raise tax rates, cut government expenditure or increase borrowing; or it must try to stimulate economic growth to provide a larger tax base; or it must do some combination of all of these. These are not easy choices. Higher economic growth would be the best solution for the government, but it is difficult for governments to achieve. Spending on infrastructure, which would support growth, is planned to be cut in an attempt to reduce borrowing. According to the OBR, under current government plans, public-sector net investment is set to decline from 2.6% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.8% by 2028/29.

The government is attempting to achieve growth by market-orientated supply-side measures, such as making permanent the current 100% corporation tax allowance for investment. Other measures include streamlining the planning system for commercial projects, a business rates support package for small businesses and targeted government support for specific sectors, such as digital technology. Critics argue that this will not be sufficient to offset the decline in public investment and renew crumbling infrastructure.

To support public finances, the government is using a combination of higher taxation, largely through fiscal drag, and cuts in government expenditure (from 44.8% of GDP in 2023/24 to a planned 42.7% by 2028/29). If the government succeeds in doing this, the OBR forecasts that public-sector net borrowing will fall from 4.5% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.1% by 2028/29. But higher taxes and squeezed public expenditure will make many people feel worse off, especially those that rely on public services.

Videos

  • Fiscal drag
  • Sky News Politics Hub on X, Sophy Ridge (22/11/23)

  • Fiscal drag
  • Sky News Politics Hub on X, Beth Rigby (22/11/23)

Articles

Report and data from the OBR

Questions

  1. Would fiscal drag occur with frozen nominal tax bands if there were zero real growth in incomes? Explain.
  2. Examine the arguments for continuing to borrow to fund a Budget deficit over a number of years.
  3. When interest rates rise, how much does this affect the cost of servicing public-sector debt? Why is the effect likely to be greater in the long run than in the short run?
  4. If the government decides that it wishes to increase tax revenues as a proportion of GDP (for example, to fund increased government expenditure on infrastructure and socially desirable projects and benefits), examine the arguments for increasing personal allowances and tax bands in line with inflation but raising the rates of income tax in order to raise sufficient revenue?
  5. Distinguish between market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies? Why do political parties differ in their approaches to supply-side policy?

The Autumn Statement was announced by Jeremy Hunt in Parliament on Thursday 17th November. This was Hunt’s first big speech since becoming Chancellor or the Exchequer a few weeks ago. He revealed to the House of Commons that there will be tax rises and spending cuts worth billions of pounds, aimed at mending the nation’s finances. It is hoped that the new plans will restore market confidence shaken by his predecessor’s mini-Budget. He claimed that the mixture of tax rises and spending cuts would be distributed fairly.

What is the Autumn statement?

The March Budget is the government’s main financial plan, where it decides how much money people will be taxed and where that money will be spent. The Autumn Statement is like a second Budget. This is an update half a year later on how things are going. However, that doesn’t mean it is not as important. This year’s Autumn Statement is especially important given the number of changes in government in recent months. The Statement unfortunately comes at a time when the cost of living is rising at its fastest rate for 41 years, meaning that it is going to be a tough winter for many people.

Statement overview

It was expected that the Statement was not going to be one to celebrate, given that the UK is now believed to be in a recession. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that the UK economy will shrink by 1.4% next year. However, Hunt said that his focus was on stability and ensuring a shallower downturn. The Chancellor outlined his ‘plan for stability’ by announcing deep spending cuts and tax rises in the autumn statement. He said that half of his £55bn plan would come from tax rises, and the rest from spending cuts.

The Chancellor plans to tackle rising prices and restore the UK’s credibility with international markets. He said that it will be a balanced path to stability, with the need to tackle inflation to bring down the cost of living while also supporting the economy on a path to sustainable growth. It will mean further concerns for many, but the Chancellor argued that the most vulnerable in society are being protected. He stated that despite difficult decisions being made, the plan was fair.

What was announced?

The government’s overall strategy appears to assume that, by tightening fiscal policy, monetary policy will not have to tighten as much. The hopeful consequence of which is that interest rates will be lower than they otherwise would have been. This means interest-rate sensitive parts of the economy, the housing sector in particular, are more protected than it would have been.

The following are some of the key measures announced:

  • Tax thresholds will be frozen until April 2028, meaning millions will pay more tax as their nominal incomes rise.
  • Spending on public services in England will rise more slowly than planned – with some departments facing cuts after the next election.
  • The state pensions triple lock will be kept, meaning pensioners will see a 10.1% rise in weekly payments.
  • The household energy price cap per unit of gas and electricity has been extended for one year beyond April but made less generous, with typical bills then being £3000 a year instead of £2500.
  • There will be additional cost-of-living payments for the ‘most vulnerable’, with £900 for those on benefits, and £300 for pensioners.
  • The top 45% additional rate of income tax will be paid on earnings over £125 140 instead of £150 000.
  • The UK minimum wage (or ‘National Living Wage’ as the government calls it) for people over 23 will increase from £9.50 to £10.42 per hour.
  • The windfall tax on oil and gas firms will increase from 25% to 35%, raising £55bn over the period from now until 2028.

The public finances

A key feature of the Autumn Statement was the Chancellor’s attempt to tackle the deteriorating public finances and to reduce the public-sector deficit and debt. The following three charts are based on data from the OBR (see data links below). They all show data for financial years beginning in the year shown. They all include OBR forecasts up to 2025/26, with the forecasts being based on the measures announced in the Autumn Statement.

Figure 1 shows public-sector current expenditure and receipts and the balance between them, giving the current deficit (or surplus), shown by the green bars. Current expenditure excludes capital expenditure on things such as hospitals, schools and roads. Since 1973, there has been a current deficit in most years. However, the deficit of 11.5% of GDP in 2020/21 was exceptional given government support measures for households and business during the pandemic. The deficit fell to 3.3% in 2021/22, but is forecast to grow to 4.6% in 2022/23 thanks to government subsidies to energy suppliers to allow energy prices to be capped. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)

Figure 2 shows public-sector expenditure (current plus capital) from 1950. You can see the spike after the financial crisis of 2007–8 when the government introduced various measures to support the banking system. You can also see the bigger spike in 2020/21 when pandemic support measures saw government expenditure rise to a record 53.0% of GDP. It has risen again this financial year to a predicted to 47.3% of GDP from 44.7% last financial year. It is forecast to fall only slightly, to 47.2%, in 2023/24, before then falling more substantially as the tax rises and spending cuts announced in the Autumn Statement start to take effect. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)

Figure 3 shows public-sector debt since 1975. COVID support measures, capping energy prices and a slow growing or falling GDP have contributed to a rise in debt as a proportion of GDP since 2020/21. Debt is forecast to peak in 2023/24 at a record 106.7% of GDP. During the 20 years from 1988/89 to 2007/8 it averaged just 30.9% of GDP. After the financial crisis of 2007–8 it rose to 81.6% by 2014/15 and then averaged 82.2% between 2014/15 and 2019/20. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)

Criticism

The government has been keen to stress that Mr Hunt’s statement does not amount to a return to the austerity policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, in office between 2010 and 2015. However, Labour Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said Mr Hunt’s Autumn Statement was an ‘invoice for the economic carnage’ the Conservative government had created. There have also been some comments raised by economists questioning the need for spending cuts and tax rises on this scale, with some saying that the decisions being made are political.

Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has commented on the plans, stating that the British people ‘just got a lot poorer’ after a series of ‘economic own goals’ that have made a recovery much harder than it might have been. He went on to say that the government was ‘reaping the costs of a long-term failure to grow the economy’, along with an ageing population and high levels of historic borrowing.

Disapproval also came from Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who criticised the government’s tax increases. He raised concerns about the government’s plans to increase taxation when the economy is entering a recession. He said, ’You would normally expect there to be some fiscal support for an economy in recession.’

Economic Outlook

High inflation and rising interest rates will lead to consumers spending less, tipping the UK’s economy into a recession, which the OBR expects to last for just over a year. Its forecasts show that the economy will grow by 4.2% this year but will shrink by 1.4% in 2023, before growth slowly picks up again. GDP should then rise by 1.3% in 2024, 2.6% in 2025 and 2.7% in 2026.

The OBR predicts that there will be 3.2 million more people paying income tax between 2021/22 and 2027/28 as a result of the new tax policy and many more paying higher taxes as a proportion of their income. This is because they will be dragged into higher tax bands as thresholds and allowances on income tax, national insurance and inheritance tax have been frozen until 2028. Government documents said these decisions on personal taxes would raise an additional £3.5bn by 2028 – the consequence of ‘fiscal drag’ pulling more Britons into higher tax brackets. The OBR expects that there will be an extra 2.6 million paying tax at the higher, 40% rate. This is going to put more pressure on households who are already feeling the impact of inflation on their disposable income.

However, this pressure on incomes is set to continue, with real incomes falling by the largest amount since records began in 1956. Real household incomes are forecast to fall by 7% in the next few years, which even after the support from the government, is the equivalent of £1700 per year on average. And the number unemployed is expected to rise by more than 500 000. Senior research economist at the IFS, Xiaowei Xu, described the UK as heading for another lost decade of income growth.

There may be some good news for inflation, with suggestions that it has now peaked. The OBR forecasts that the inflation rate will drop to 7.4% next year. This is still a concern, however, given that the target set for inflation is 2%. Despite the inflation rate potentially peaking, the impact on households has not. The fall in the inflation rate does not mean that prices in the shops will be going down. It just means that they will be going up more slowly than now. The OBR expects that prices will not start to fall (inflation becoming negative) until late 2024.

Conclusion

The overall tone of the government’s announcements was no surprise and policies were largely expected by the markets, hence their muted response. However, this did not make them any less economically painful. There are major concerns for households over what they now face over the next few years, something that the government has not denied.

It has been suggested that this situation, however, has been made worse by historic choices, including cutting state capital spending, cuts in the budget for vocational education, Brexit and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget. It is evident that Britons have a tough time ahead in the next year or so. The UK has already had one lost decade of flatlining living standards since the global financial crisis and is now heading for another one with the cost of living crisis.

Articles

Videos

Analysis

  • Autumn Statement 2022 response
  • Institute for Fiscal Studies, Stuart Adam, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Heidi Karjalainen, Peter Levell, Isabel Stockton, Tom Waters, Thomas Wernham, Xiaowei Xu and Ben Zaranko (17/11/22)

  • Help today, squeeze tomorrow: Putting the 2022 Autumn Statement in context
  • Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell, Mike Brewer, Molly Broome, Nye Cominetti, Adam Corlett, Emily Fry, Sophie Hale, Karl Handscomb, Jack Leslie, Jonathan Marshall, Charlie McCurdy, Krishan Shah, James Smith,
    Gregory Thwaites & Lalitha Try (18/11/22)

Government documentation

Data

Questions

  1. What do you understand by the term ‘fiscal drag’?
  2. Provide a critique of the Autumn Statement from the left.
  3. Provide a critique of the Autumn Statement from the right.
  4. What are the concerns about raising taxation during a recession?
  5. Define the term ‘windfall tax’. What are the advantages and disadvantages of imposing/increasing windfall taxes on energy producers in the current situation?

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 and entered an 11-month transition phase during which previous arrangements largely applied. On 30 December 2020, the UK and the EU signed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) (see also), which set out the details of the post-Brexit trading arrangements between the UK and the EU after the ending of the transition period on 31 December 2020. The new arrangements have been implemented in stages so as to minimise disruption.

A major change was implemented on 1 January 2022, when full customs controls came into effect on imports into the UK from the EU. Later in the year a range of safety and security measures will be introduced, such as physical checks on live animals.

Not surprisingly, the anniversary of the TCA has been marked by many articles on Brexit: assessing its effects so far and looking into the future. Most of the articles see Brexit as having imposed net costs on the UK and the EU. They reflect the views of economists generally. As the first FT article linked below states, “The debate among economists on Brexit has rarely been about whether there would be a hit to growth and living standards, but rather how big a hit”.

The trade and GDP costs of Brexit

The Office for Budget Responsibility in October 2021 attempted to measure these costs in terms of the loss in trade and GDP. In October 2021, it stated:

Since our first post-EU referendum Economic and Fiscal Outlook in November 2016, our forecasts have assumed that total UK imports and exports will eventually both be 15 per cent lower than had we stayed in the EU. This reduction in trade intensity drives the 4 per cent reduction in long-run potential productivity we assume will eventually result from our departure from the EU.
 
…the evidence so far suggests that both import and export intensity have been reduced by Brexit, with developments still consistent with our initial assumption of a 15 per cent reduction in each.

This analysis is supported by evidence from John Springford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank. He compares the UK’s actual performance with a ‘doppelgänger’ UK, which is an imaginary UK that has not left the EU. The doppelgänger used “is a subset of countries selected from a larger group of 22 advanced economies by an algorithm. The algorithm finds the countries that, when combined, create a doppelgänger UK that has the smallest possible deviation from the real UK data until December 2019, before the pandemic struck.” According to Springford, the shortfall in trade in October 2021 was 15.7 per cent – very much in line with the OBR’s forecasts.

Explanations of the costs

Why, then, have have been and will continue to be net economic costs from Brexit?

The main reason is that the UK has moved from being in the EU Single Market, a system of virtually friction-free trade and factor movements, to a trade agreement (the TCA) which, while being tariff and quota free for goods produced in the UK and the EU, involves considerable frictions. These frictions include greatly increased paperwork, which adds to the cost of trade. This has affected small businesses particularly, for whom the increased administrative costs generally represent a larger proportion of total costs than for large businesses.

Although EU tariffs are not imposed on goods wholly originating in the UK, they are imposed on many goods that are not. Under ‘rules of origin’ regulations, an item can only count as a British good if sufficient value or weight is added. If insufficient value is added, then customs charges are imposed. Similar rules apply from 1 January 2022 on goods imported into the Great Britain from the EU which are only partially made in the EU. The issue of rules of origin was examined in the blog A free-trade deal? Not really. Goods being moved between Great Britain and the EU are checked at ports and can only be released into the market if they have a valid customs declaration and have received customs clearance. This involves considerable paperwork for businesses. As the article below from Internet Retailing states:

UK and EU importers need to be able to state the origin of the goods they trade between the UK and EU. For some goods, exporters need to hold supplier declarations to show where they were made and where materials came from. From January 1, those issuing statements of origin for goods exported to the EU will need to hold the supplier declarations at the time that they export their goods, whereas up till now the those declarations could be supplied later.

Brexit has had considerable effects on the labour market. Many EU citizens returned to their home countries both before and after Brexit, creating labour shortages in many sectors. Also, it has become more difficult for UK citizens to work in the EU, with work permits required in most cases. This has had a major effect on some UK workers. For example, British touring musicians and performers find it difficult to tour, given the lack of an EU-wide visa waiver, ‘cabotage’ rules that ban large UK tour vehicles from making more than two stops before returning to the UK and new paperwork needed to take certain musical instruments into the EU.

Another issue concerns investment. Will greater restrictions in trade between the EU and the UK reduce inward investment to the UK, with international companies preferring to locate factories producing for Europe in the EU rather than the UK as the EU market is bigger than the UK market? So far, fears have not been realised as inward investment has held up well, partly because of the rapid bounce-back from the pandemic and the successful roll-out of the vaccine. Nevertheless, the UK’s dominance as a recipient of inward investment to Europe has been replaced by a three-way dominance of the UK, France and Germany, with France being the biggest recipient of the three in 2019 and 2020. It will be some years before the extent to which Brexit has damaged inward investment to the UK, if at all, becomes clear.

The TCA applies to goods, not services. One of the major concerns has been the implications of Brexit for financial services and the City of London. Before Brexit, financial institutions based in the UK had ‘passporting rights’. These allowed them to offer financial services across EU borders and to set up branches in EU countries easily. With the ending of the transition period in December 2020, these passporting rights have ceased. The EU has granted temporary ‘equivalence’ to such institutions until June 2022, but then it comes to an end and there is no prospect of deal on financial services in the near future. Indeed, the EU is actively trying to encourage more financial activity to move from the UK to the EU. Several financial institutions have already relocated all or part of their business from London to the EU.

The articles below examine these costs and many give examples of specific firms and how Brexit has impacted on them. As you will see, there are quite a lot of articles and you might just want to select a few. Or if this blog is being used for classes, the articles could be assigned to different students and used as the basis for discussion.

The future

Whilst the additional costs in terms of trade restrictions and paperwork are clear, it is too soon to know how well firms will be able to overcome them. Many of those who support Brexit argue that the UK now has freedom to impose lighter UK regulations on firms and that this could encourage economic growth. Other supporters of Brexit, however, argue that Brexit gives the UK government the opportunity to impose tougher environmental, safety and employment protection regulations. Again, it is too soon to know what direction the current and future governments will move.

Then there is the question of trade deals with non-EU countries. How many will there be? When will they be signed? What will their terms be? So far, the deals signed have largely been just a roll-over of the deals the UK previously had with these countries as a member of the EU. The one exception is the deal with Australia. But the gains from that are tiny – an estimated gain of between 0.02 and 0.08 per cent of GDP from 2035 (compared with the estimated 4 per cent loss from leaving the EU’s Single Market). Also there are fears by the UK agricultural sector that cheaper food from Australia, produced under lower standards, could undercut UK farmers, especially after the end of a 15-year transitional period. So far, a trade deal with the USA seems a long way off.

Then there are uncertainties about the Northern Ireland Protocol, under which there is an effective border between Great Britain and the EU down the Irish Sea, with free trade across the Northern Ireland–Republic of Ireland border. Will it be rewritten? Will the UK renege on its treaty commitments to impose checks on goods flowing between Northern Ireland and Great Britain?

Difficulties with the Northern Ireland Protocol, highlight another uncertainty and that is the political relationships between the UK and the EU, which have come under considerable strain with various post-Brexit disputes. Could these difficulties damage trade further and, if so, by how much?

What is clear is that there is considerable uncertainty about the future, a future that for some time is likely to be affected by the pandemic and its aftermath in both the UK and the EU. As the OBR states:

It is too early to reach definitive conclusions because:

  • The terms of the TCA are yet to be implemented in full, meaning trade barriers will rise further as more of the deal comes into force. For example, the introduction of full checks on UK imports has recently been delayed until 2022.
  • The full effect of the referendum outcome and higher trade barriers will probably take several years to come through, with businesses needing considerable time to adjust.
  • The pandemic has delivered a large shock to UK and global trade volumes over the past 18 months, making it difficult to disentangle the separate effect of leaving the EU.
  • Finally, trade data tend to be relatively volatile and are revised frequently, rendering any initial conclusions subject to change as the data are revised.

Analysis

Articles

Survey

Questions

  1. Summarise the reasons why the volume of trade between the UK and the EU is likely to be below the level it would have been if the UK had remained in the Single Market.
  2. How can economists disentangle the effects of Brexit from the effects of Covid? How is the ‘doppelgänger UK’ model used for this purpose?
  3. Are there any economic advantages of the UK’s exit from the EU? If so, what are they and how significant are they?
  4. The OBR forecasts that there will be a long-term reduction of 15 per cent in both UK imports from the EU and UK exports to the EU. What might cause this figure to be (a) greater than 15 per cent; (b) less than 15 per cent?

There have been many analyses of the economic effects of Brexit, both before the referendum and at various times since, including analyses of the effects of the deal negotiated by Theresa May’s government and the EU. But with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October under the new Boris Johnson government, attention has turned to the effects of leaving the EU without a deal.

There have been two major analyses recently of the likely effects of a no-deal Brexit – one by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and one by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

IMF analysis

The first was in April by the IMF as part of its 6-monthly World Economic Outlook. In Scenario Box 1.1. ‘A No-Deal Brexit’ on page 28 of Chapter 1, the IMF looked at two possible scenarios.

Scenario A assumes no border disruptions and a relatively small increase in UK sovereign and corporate spreads. Scenario B incorporates significant border disruptions that increase import costs for UK firms and households (and to a lesser extent for the European Union) and a more severe tightening in financial conditions.

Under both scenarios, UK exports to the EU and UK imports from the EU revert to WTO rules. As a result, tariffs are imposed by mid-2020 or earlier. Non-tariff barriers rise at first but are gradually reduced over time. Most free-trade arrangements between the EU and other countries are initially unavailable to the UK (see the blog EU strikes major trade deals) but both scenarios assume that ‘new trade agreements are secured after two years, and on terms similar to those currently in place.’

Both scenarios also assume a reduction in net immigration from the EU of 25 000 per year until 2030. Both assume a rise in corporate and government bond rates, reflecting greater uncertainty, with the effect being greater in Scenario B. Both assume a relaxing of monetary and fiscal policy in response to downward pressures on the economy.

The IMF analysis shows a negative impact on UK GDP, with the economy falling into recession in late 2019 and in 2020. This is the result of higher trade costs and reduced business investment caused by a poorer economic outlook and increased uncertainty. By 2021, even under Scenario A, GDP is approximately 3.5% lower than it would have been if the UK had left the EU with the negotiated deal. For the rest of the EU, GDP is around 0.5% lower, although the effect varies considerably from country to country.

The IMF analysis makes optimistic assumptions, such as the UK being able to negotiate new trade deals with non-EU countries to replace those lost by leaving. More pessimistic assumptions would lead to greater costs.

OBR analysis

Building on the analysis of the IMF, the Office for Budget Responsibility considered the effect of a no-deal Brexit on the public finances in its biennial Fiscal risks report, published on 17 July 2019. This argues that, under the relatively benign Scenario A assumptions of the IMF, the lower GDP would result in annual public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) rising. By 2021/22, if the UK had left with the deal negotiated with the EU, PSNB would have been around £18bn. A no-deal Brexit would push this up to around £51bn.


According to the OBR, the contributors to this rise in public-sector net borrowing of around £33bn are:

  • A fall in income tax and national insurance receipts of around £16.5bn per year because of lower incomes.
  • A fall in corporation tax and expenditure taxes, such as VAT, excise duties and stamp duty of around £22.5bn per year because of lower expenditure.
  • A fall in capital taxes, such as inheritance tax and capital gains tax of around £10bn per year because of a fall in asset prices.
  • These are offset to a small degree by a rise in customs duties (around £10bn) because of the imposition of tariffs and by lower debt repayments (of around £6bn) because of the Bank of England having to reduce interest rates.

The rise in PSNB would constrain the government’s ability to use fiscal policy to boost the economy and to engage in the large-scale capital projects advocated by Boris Johnson while making the substantial tax cuts he is proposing. A less optimistic set of assumptions would, of course, lead to a bigger rise in PSNB, which would further constrain fiscal policy.

Articles

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Questions

  1. What are the assumptions of the IMF World Economic Outlook forecasts for the effects of a no-deal Brexit? Do you agree with these assumptions? Explain.
  2. What are the assumptions of the analysis of a no-deal Brexit on the public finances in the OBR’s Fiscal risks report? Do you agree with these assumptions? Explain.
  3. What is the difference between forecasts and analyses of outcomes?
  4. For what reasons might growth over the next few years be higher than in the IMF forecasts under either scenario?
  5. For what reasons might growth over the next few years be lower than in the IMF forecasts under either scenario?
  6. For what reasons might public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) over the next few years be lower than in the OBR forecast?
  7. For what reasons might PSNB over the next few years be higher than in the OBR forecast?

In delivering his Budget on 22 November, Philip Hammond reported that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility had revised down its forecasts of growth in productivity and real GDP, and hence of earnings growth.

Today, median earnings are £23,000 per annum. This is £1500 less than the £24,500 that the median worker earned in 2008 in today’s prices. The OBR forecasts a growth in real household disposable income of just 0.35% per annum for the next four years.

With lower growth in earnings would come a lower growth in tax revenues. With his desire to cut the budget deficit and start eventually reducing government debt, this would give the government less scope for spending on infrastructure, training and other public-sector investment; less scope to support public services, such as health and education; less scope for increasing benefits and public-sector wages.

The normal measure of productivity, and the one used by the OBR, is the value of output produced per hour worked. This has hardly increased at all since the financial crisis of 2008. It now takes an average worker in the UK approximately five days to produce the same amount as it takes an average worker in Germany four days. Although other countries’ productivity growth has also slowed since the financial crisis, it has slowed more in the UK and from a lower base – and is now forecast to rebound less quickly.

For the past few years the OBR has been forecasting that productivity growth would return to the trend rate of just over 2% that the UK achieved prior to 2008. For example, the forecasts it made in June 2010 are shown by the grey line in the chart, which were based on the pre-crash trend rate of growth in productivity (click on chart to enlarge). And the forecasts it made in November 2016 are shown by the pale green line. Yet each year productivity has hardly changed at all. Today output per hour is less than 1% above its level in 2008.

Now the OBR believes that poorer productivity growth will persist. It is still forecasting an increase (the blue line in the chart) – but by 0.7 of a percentage point less than it was forecasting a year ago (the pale green line): click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.

We have assumed that productivity growth will pick up a little, but remain significantly lower than its pre-crisis trend rate throughout the next five years. On average, we have revised trend productivity growth down by 0.7 percentage points a year. It now rises from 0.9 per cent this year to 1.2 per cent in 2022. This reduces potential output in 2021-22 by 3.0 per cent. The ONS estimates that output per hour is currently 21 per cent below an extrapolation of its pre-crisis trend. By the beginning of 2023 we expect this to have risen to 27 per cent.

Why has there been such weak productivity growth?
Weak productivity growth has been caused by a mixture of factors.

Perhaps the most important is that investment as a percentage of GDP has been lower than before the financial crisis and lower than in other countries. Partly this has been caused by a lack of funding for investment as banks have sought to rebuild their capital and have cut down on riskier loans. Partly it has been caused by a lack of demand for investment, given sluggish rates of economic growth and the belief that austerity will continue.

And it is not just private investment. Public-sector investment in transport infrastructure, housing and education and training has been lower than in other countries. Indeed, the poor training record and low skill levels in the UK are main contributors to low productivity.

The fall in the pound since the Brexit vote has raised business costs and further dampened demand as incomes have been squeezed.

Another reason for low productivity growth has been that employers have responded to weak demand, not by laying off workers and thereby raising unemployment, but by retaining low-productivity workers on low wages. Another has been the survival of ‘zombie’ firms, which, by paying low wages and facing ultra-low interest rates, are able to survive competition from firms that do invest.

Why is weak productivity growth forecast to continue?
Looking forward, the nature of the Brexit deal will impact on confidence, investment, wages and growth. If the deal is bad for the UK, the OBR’s forecasts are likely to be too optimistic. As it is, uncertainty over the nature of the post-Brexit world is weighing heavily on investment as some businesses choose to wait before committing to new investment.

On the other hand, exports may rise faster as firms respond to the depreciation of the pound and this may stimulate investment, thereby boosting productivity.

Another factor is the effect of continuing tight Budgets. There was some easing of austerity in this Budget, as the Chancellor accepted a slower reduction in the deficit, but government spending will remain tight and this is likely to weigh on growth and investment and hence productivity.

But this may all be too gloomy. It is very difficult to forecast productivity growth, especially as it is hard to measure output in much of the service sector. It may be that the productivity growth forecasts will be revised up before too long. For example, the benefits from new technologies, such as AI, may flow through more quickly than anticipated. But they may flow through more slowly and the productivity forecasts may have to be revised down even further!

Articles

The OBR’s productivity “forecast” Financial Times, Kadhim Shubber
U.K. Faces Longest Fall in Living Standards on Record Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy and Thomas Penny (23/11/17)
Britain’s Productivity Pain Costs Hammond $120 Billion Bloomberg, Fergal O’Brien (22/11/17)
OBR slashes Britain’s growth forecast on sluggish productivity and miserly pay The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (22/11/17)
Budget 2017: Stagnant earnings forecast ‘astonishing’ BBC News (23/11/17)
Economists warn Budget measures to lift productivity fall short Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Gill Plimmer (22/11/17)
Why the economic forecasts for Britain are so apocalyptic – and how much Brexit is to blame Independent, Ben Chu (24/11/17)
Growth holds steady as economists doubt OBR’s gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (23/11/17)
Britain’s debt will not fall to 2008 levels until 2060s, IFS says in startling warning Independent, Lizzy Buchan (23/11/17)
Philip Hammond’s budget spots Britain’s problems but fails to fix them The Economist (22/11/17)
Debunking the UK’s productivity problem The Conversation, Paul Lewis (24/11/17)
Budget 2017: experts respond The Conversation (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Forecasts Mean ‘Longest Ever Fall In Living Standards’, Says Resolution Foundation Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (23/11/17)
It May Just Sound Like A Statistic, But Productivity Growth Matters For All Of Us Huffington Post, Thomas Pope (24/11/17) (see also)
UK prospects for growth far weaker than first predicted, says OBR The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (22/11/17)
UK faces two decades of no earnings growth and more austerity, says IFS The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/11/17)
Age of austerity isn’t over yet, says IFS budget analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/11/17)

Summary of Budget measures

Budget 2017: FT experts look at what it means for you Financial Times (24/11/17)

Official Documents

Autumn Budget 2017 HM Treasury (22/11/17)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2017 Office for Budget Responsibility (22/11/17)

IFS analysis

Autumn Budget 2017 Institute for Fiscal Studies (23/11/17)

Questions

  1. What measures of productivity are there other than output per hour? Why is output per hour normally the preferred measure of productivity?
  2. What factors determine output per hour?
  3. Why have forecasts of productivity growth rates been revised downwards?
  4. What are the implications of lower productivity growth for government finances?
  5. What could cause an increase in output per hour? Would there be any negative effects from these causes?
  6. What policies could the government pursue to increase productivity? How feasible are these policies? Explain.
  7. Would it matter if the government increased borrowing substantially to fund a large programme of public investment?