In its report A Distorted Debate: the need for clarity on Debt, Deficit and Coalition Aims, the Centre for Policy Studies claims that the public is confused by economic terminology surrounding the government’s finances. We try and understand this confusion and offer a bath-time solution!
In a survey conducted for the Centre for Policy Studies only 10 per cent of Britons knew that despite cuts to parts of the government’s spending plans, the stock of public sector debt (also known as the national debt) is expected to rise by a further £60 billion by 2015. Rather, 47 per cent of respondents thought that debt would have fallen by this amount.
The confusion is not terribly surprising because there are two important core economic concepts that can confuse: stocks and flows. To try to help we will show how reference to a bath tub can hopefully eliminate the confusion. However, first, let us considerthe Coalition government’s principal fiscal objective. Its so-called fiscal mandate is for the cyclically-adjusted current budget to be in balance by 2015/16. In simple terms, the government wants to be able afford its day-to-day expenditures by this date, after taking into account where the economy is in the business cycle. In other words, if the economy’s output was at its sustainable or potential level in 2015-16 the government should be able to raise sufficient taxes to meet what it refers to as current expenditures. This would still allow the government to borrow to fund investment expenditure, e.g. infrastructural projects, which are enjoyed or consumed over a period of time.
An important thing to note about the fiscal mandate is that the government can expect to need to borrow money in order to afford its current expenditures up to 2015/16. Even beyond this date, assuming that the mandate can be met, it is likely to need money to afford capital expenditures. This is where we introduce the bath tub. Think of government spending as water coming through the bath taps while the taxes that government collect are water leaving through the plug hole. Therefore, spending and tax receipts are flows. If the water pouring into the bath (spending) is greater than the water leaving the bath (tax receipts), the level of water in the bath will rise. You can think of the water level in the bath as the stock of national debt. Therefore, if government is spending more than it receives it needs to borrow money. Borrowing is therefore a flow concept too. As it borrows, the stock of debt (the amount of water in our bath tub) rises.
So we know that government will continue to borrow in the near future. What it is hoping to be able to do, year by year, is begin to borrow less. It wants the deficit to fall. Then, if it can meet its target, it will at least be able to afford current expenditure (after adjustment for where the economy is in the cycle) by 2015/16. As the deficit begins to decline then the stock of debt will rise less quickly. But, the bath tub will continue to fill because more is flowing through the taps than is leaving through the plug hole. However, it will fill less quickly.
What our use of the bath tub analogy demonstrates is the confusion that can be caused when economic terminology is misused. It is important that the terms debt and deficit be used carefully and correctly. Therefore, the next time you are sitting in bath see if you can be the next Chancellor by understanding these key economic concepts.
Don’t know your debts from your deficit? You’re not alone Independent, Andrew Johnson (27/8/12)
Government unlikely to meet deficit targets, warns CPS Telegraph (27/8/12)
Coalition ‘most unlikely’ to meet key economic goals by next election Guardian, Andrew Sparrow (27/8/12)
Public ‘don’t know their debt from their deficit’ Public Finance, Vivienne Russell (28/8/12)
George Osborne ‘still failing to stop rising deficit’ Daily Express (28/8/12)
- Explain the difference between the concepts of government deficits and government debt?
- Explain what will happen to both the size of the government’s deficit and to its stock of debt if borrowing begins to decline.
- Can the stock of government debt fall if the government continues to borrow? Can the ratio of the stock of government debt fall relative to GDP (i.e. Debt/GDP), if government continues to borrow?
- With examples, explain the differences between the government’s current and investment (capital) expenditures.
- What are the economic arguments for trying to cut the deficit quickly or more slowly?
On 30 August, Japan’s opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), won a landslide victory in the Japanese election. Although there are signs that the Japanese economy is beginning to pull out of recession (see Green shoots as autumn approaches), deep economic problems remain. Unemployment is at record highs; it has the highest national debt as a proportion of GDP of any of the G8 countries (see OECD Economic Outlook Statistical Annex Tables; consumer spending remains subdued; deflation seems entrenched; exports have slumped; bureaucracy is deeply embedded in government; and it has a rapidly ageing population.
So what is expected of the new government and what can it do? The following articles address these questions.
Japan’s Hatoyama sweeps to power (video) BBC News (31/8/09)
New Japanese government seeks a strategy for growth The Nation (Thailand) (1/9/09)
Japan’s new leader faces tough task Radio Australia (1/9/09)
Hatoyama faces daunting economic task BBC News (31/8/09)
DPJ needs to reinvigorate domestic economy of Japan China View (1/9/09)
Analysts worry DPJ’s policies may be a bane to Japan’s economy Channel NewsAsia (31/8/09)
Hamish McRae: Post election, what do the Japanese really want to do with their country? Independent (1/9/09)
Japan’s Government: Five Ways to Fix the Economy Time (1/9/09)
The vote that changed Japan The Economist (3/9/09)
- Paint a brief picture of the current state of the Japanese economy.
- What policies are advocated by the new government and what difficulties lie in the way of achieving the policy goals?
- What supply-side policies would you recommend for Japan and why?
This podcast is from the BBC’s Today Programme on Radio 4. With government debt set to rise from around 45 per cent in 2007 to around 85 per cent by 2010, is there a danger that the UK might find it difficult, or even impossible, to fund the debt through the necessary issuing of bonds and other government securities? In the podcast, Richard Portes, Professor of Economics at London Business School, and Gerard Lyons, Chief Economist at Standard Chartered Bank, discuss the question.
Could the UK default on its debt? BBC Today Programme (20/8/09)
For data on general government debt in OECD countries, see OECD Economic Outlook No. 85 Annex Tables 62 and 32. See also tables 27 to 30 for data on general government deficits.
Public sector borrowing soaring BBC News (20/8/09)
Public sector finances, July 2009 ONS (20/8/09)
- Compare the UK’s general government debt with that of other major countries. Consider both the level of debt and its changes in the past three years and projected changes over the next two years.
- Why, according to Professor Portes, is there virtually no chance that the UK will default on its debt?
- What is the most likely route by which the level of debt will be reduced over the coming few years?
- What are the implications for long-term interest rates if the UK government debt remains at high levels?
The early part of the current recession, dating from April 2008, had much in common with the Great Depression dating from June 1929. But the Great Depression lasted three years. So does this grim prospect await the world this time round? Or have we learned the lessons of the past and will the policies of giving economies a large fiscal stimulus, combined with bank rescues and quantitative easing, help to pull the world out of recession this year? The following articles look at the issues.
The recession tracks the Great Depression Martin Wolf, Financial Times (16/6/09)
A Tale of Two Depressions Barry Eichengreen, Kevin H. O’Rourke, Vox (4/6/09)
Economics: How the world economy might recover its poise Financial Times (15/6/09)
Weak recovery in sight but damage from crisis likely to be long-lasting, says OECD OECD (24/6/09)
OECD sees strongest outlook since 2007 Financial Times (24/6/09)
Press Release Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve System (24/6/09)
You might also like to watch the following two videos. The first uses historical footage to examine the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. The second is an interview with Joseph Stiglitz about whether the recession of 2008/9 is heading for another Great Depression.
The 1929 Crash (1 of 6) Nibelungensohn, YouTube (27/2/09). Note that you can link to the other five parts of this from this link.
Joseph Stiglitz: ‘This is worse than the Great Depression’ NBC Nightly News (10/2/09)
- Why may the past be a poor guide to the present and future?
- What dangers are there from the policies of expanding aggregate demand through fiscal and monetary policies?
- Explain why the ‘race to full recovery is likely to be long, hard and uncertain.
US national debt has got so large that the national debt clock in Time Square has run out of zeroes and they have had to order a new one. UK national debt is also set to rise in the current financial crisis as government borrowing rose sharply in September. The impact of greater public spending and the part-nationalisation of the banks is all likely to lead to a rapid rise in public borrowing and therefore national debt, but is this sustainable for the UK economy?
How the bank crisis hits Britain’s public finances Guardian (14/10/08)
National debt clock runs out of zeroes – new larger clock ordered Guardian (9/10/08)
Banks’ bail-out: ‘The money’s being spent on buying bank shares, so it shouldn’t hit public borrowing’ Guardian (14/10/08) (podcast)
Rescue plan underlines likelihood of tax rises and spending cuts Guardian (9/10/08)
Darling must spend now Times Online (20/10/08)
Public borrowing hits record high Times Online (20/10/08)
Gordon Brown defends level of national debt Guardian (20/10/08)
UK borrowing hits a 60-year high BBC News Online (20/10/08)
Crisis ‘to double UK borrowing’ BBC News Online (22/9/08)
Deep pockets The Economist (9/10/08)
||Explain the relationship between the level of public borrowing and the national debt.
||Examine the reasons why public spending has risen.
||Discuss whether this increase in aggregate demand will be sufficient to prevent the UK economy falling into recession.