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?
The Brexit vote has caused shockwaves throughout European economies. But there is a potentially larger economic and political problem facing the EU and the eurozone more specifically. And that is the state of the Italian banking system and the Italian economy.
Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone after Germany and France. Any serious economic weaknesses could have profound consequences for the rest of the eurozone and beyond.
At 135% of GDP, Italy’s public-sector debt is one the highest in the world; its banks are undercapitalised with a high proportion of bad debt; and it is still struggling to recover from the crisis of 2008–9. The Economist article elaborates:
The adult employment rate is lower than in any EU country bar Greece. The economy has been moribund for years, suffocated by over-regulation and feeble productivity. Amid stagnation and deflation, Italy’s banks are in deep trouble, burdened by some €360 billion of souring loans, the equivalent of a fifth of the country’s GDP. Collectively they have provisioned for only 45% of that amount. At best, Italy’s weak banks will throttle the country’s growth; at worst, some will go bust.
Since 2007, the economy has shrunk by 10%. And potential output has fallen too, as firms have closed. Unemployment is over 11%, with youth unemployment around 40%.
Things seem to be coming to a head. As confidence in the Italian banking system plummets, the Italian government would like to bail out the banks to try to restore confidence and encourage deposits and lending. But under new eurozone rules designed to protect taxpayers, it requires that the first line of support should be from bondholders. Such support is known as a ‘bail-in’.
If bondholders were large institutional investors, this might not be such a problem, but a significant proportion of bank bonds in Italy are held by small investors, encouraged to do so by tax relief. Bailing in the banks by requiring bondholders to bear significant losses in the value of their bonds could undermine the savings of many Italians and cause them severe hardship, especially those who had saved for their retirement.
So what is the solution? Italian banks need recapitalising to restore confidence and prevent a more serious crisis. However, there is limited scope for bailing in, unless small investors can be protected. And eurozone rules provide little scope for government funding for the banks. These rules should be relaxed under extreme circumstances. At the same time, policy needs to focus on making Italian banking more efficient.
Meanwhile, the IMF is forecasting that Italian economic growth will be less than 1% this year and little better in 2017. Part of the problem, claims the IMF, is the Brexit vote. This has heightened financial market volatility and increasead the risks for Italy with its fragile banking system. But the problems of the Italian economy run deeper and will require various supply-side policies to tackle low productivity, corruption, public-sector inefficiency and a financial system not fit for purpose. What the mix of these policies should be – whether market based or interventionist – is not just a question of effectiveness, but of political viability and democratic support.
The Italian Job The Economist (9/7/16)
IMF warns Italy of two-decade-long recessionThe Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/7/16)
Italy economy: IMF says country has ‘two lost decades’ of growth BBC News (12/7/16)
What’s the problem with Italian banks? BBC News, Andrew Walker (10/7/16)
Why Italy’s banking crisis will shake the eurozone to its core The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (16/8/16)
If You Thought Brexit Was Bad Wait Until The Italian Banks All Go Bust Forbes, Tim Worstall (17/7/16)
In the euro zone’s latest crisis, Italy is torn between saving the banks or saving its people Quartz, Cassie Werber (13/7/16)
Why Italy could be the next European country to face an economic crisis Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/16)
Forget Brexit, Quitaly is Europe’s next worry The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/7/16)
Italy IMF Country Report No. 16/222 (July 2016)
Economic Outlook OECD (June 2016) (select ‘By country’ from the left-hand panel and then choose ‘Italy’ from the pull-down menu and choose appropriate time series)
- Can changes in aggregate demand have supply-side consequences? Explain.
- Explain why there may be a downward spiral of asset sales by banks.
- How might the principle of bail-ins for undercapitalised Italian banks be pursued without being at the expense of the small saver?
- What lessons are there from Japan’s ‘three arrows’ for Italy? Does being in the eurozone constrain Italy’s ability to adopt any or all of these three categories of policy?
- Why may the Brexit vote have more serious consequences for Italy than many other European economies?
- Find out what reforms have already been adopted or are being pursued by the Italian government. How successful are they likely to be in increasing Italian growth and productivity?
- What external factors are currently (a) favourable, (b) unfavourable to improving Italian growth and productivity?
In a recession, the government’s budget will go into cyclical deficit as tax revenue falls and government spending on unemployment and other benefits rises. Provided the deficit is purely cyclical, it can be seen as desirable since it acts as an automatic fiscal stabiliser, boosting aggregate demand and helping to pull the economy out of recession. Once the economy returns to potential national income (i.e. a zero output gap), the deficit would disappear. At potential national income (Yp), government expenditure (including benefits) will equal tax revenue. The budget is in balance.
Again, provided that the deficit is only cyclical, discretionary expansionary fiscal policy that further deepens the deficit will not be a problem for public finances in the future. Once the economy pulls out of recession, the discretionary policy can be relaxed and the higher national income will eliminate the cyclical deficit.
But the problem the Chancellor of the Exchequer faced in the Budget (on 22/4/09) was not just one of tackling the recession. The UK economy has seen a massive growth in the structural deficit. His forecast is for the total deficit to be £175bn in 2009. But, according to calculations by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, even when the recession is over and the output gap has been closed, there will still be an annual deficit of around £140bn. This is not cyclical; it’s structural.
So why is there this huge structural deficit? And what is the solution? Will the solution slow down recovery? The following articles look at the issues.
Budget 2009: Tightening the Squeeze? Institute for Fiscal Studies (23/4/09)
We should start by admitting we’ve failed as an economy: Hamish McRae Independent (22/4/09)
Budget 2009: Experts cast long shadow over Darling’s sunny outlook Guardian (23/4/09)
Budget 2009: Economist warns of spending cuts and tax rises Guardian (23/4/09)
The chancellor’s Budget dilemma: Stephanie Flanders BBC News (23/4/09)
For a global perspective on structural deficits, see:
Why the ‘green shoots’ of recovery could yet wither Financial Times (22/4/09)
Outlines of the main Budget measures can be found at:
Budget 2009: Need to know Times Online (23/4/09)
At-a-glance: Budget 2009 BBC News (22/4/09)
Full details for the Budget can be found from the Treasury’s Budget site
- Explain the terms ‘cyclical deficit’ and ‘structural deficit’.
- Draw a diagram showing how government expenditure (including benefits) and tax revenue vary with national income. The diagram should show the sitation with no structural deficit: i.e. the two lines should cross at potential national income. Illustrate (a) a cyclical deficit where actual national income is below potential national income (a negative output gap) and (b) a cyclical surplus where actual national income is above potential income (a positive output gap).
- Now, on the same diagram, shift the two lines to illustrate a situation of structural deficit.
- Consider whether the government should attempt to increase or reduce the budget deficit at a time of recession.
- Why has the structural deficit become so severe over the past year?
- How quickly should the government set about tackling the structural deficit?