As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, delivers his first Autumn statement, both the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) have published updated forecasts for government borrowing and government debt.
They show a rise in government borrowing compared with previous forecasts. The main reason for this is a likely slowdown in the rate of economic growth and hence in tax revenues, especially in 2017. Last March, the OBR forecast GDP growth of 2.2% for 2017; it has now revised this down to 1.4%.
This forecast slowdown is because of a likely decline in the growth of aggregate demand caused by a decline in investment as businesses become more cautious given the uncertainty about the UK’s relationships with the rest of the world post Brexit. There is also likely to be a slowdown in real consumer expenditure as inflation rises following the fall in the pound of around 15%.
But what might be more surprising is that the public finances are not forecast to deteriorate even further. The OBR forecasts that the deficit will increase by a total of £122bn to £216bn over the period from 2016/17 to 2020/21. The NIESR predicts that it will rise by only £50bn to £187bn – but this is before the additional infrastructure spending and other measures announced in the Autumn Statement.
One reason is looser monetary policy. Following the Brexit vote, the Bank of England cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% and introduced further quantitative easing. This makes it cheaper to finance government borrowing. What is more, the additional holdings of bonds by the Bank mean that the Bank returns to the government much of the interest (coupon payments) that would otherwise have been paid to the private sector.
Then, depending on the nature of the UK’s post-Brexit relationships with the EU, there could be savings in contributions to the EU budget – but just how much, no-one knows at this stage.
Finally, it depends on just what effects the measures announced in the Autumn Statement will have on tax revenues and government spending. We will examine this in a separate blog.
But even though public-sector borrowing is likely to fall more slowly than before the Brexit vote, the trajectory is still downward. Indeed, the previous Chancellor, George Osborne, had set a target of achieving a public-sector surplus by 2019/20.
But, would eventually bringing the public finances into surplus be desirable? Apart from the dampening effect on aggregate demand, such a policy could lead to underinvestment in infrastructure and other public-sector capital. There is thus a strong argument for continuing to run a deficit on the public-sector capital account to fund public-sector investment – such investment will increase incomes and social wellbeing in the future. It makes sense for the government to borrow for investment, just as it makes sense for the private sector to do so.
Autumn Statement: Why the damage to the public finances from Brexit might not be as bad as some think Independent, Simon Kirby (22/11/16)
Three Facts about Debt and Deficits NIESR blogs, R Farmer (21/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Big increase in borrowing predicted BBC News, Anthony Reuben (23/11/16)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (23/11/16)
- Why have the public finances deteriorated?
- How much have they deteriorated?
- What is likely to happen to economic growth over the next couple of years? Explain why.
- How has the cut in Bank Rate and additional quantitative easing introduced after the Brexit vote affected government borrowing?
- What is likely to happen to (a) public-sector borrowing; (b) public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP over the next few years?
- Why is a running a Budget surplus neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for reducing the government debt to GDP ratio.
- What are the arguments for (a) having a positive public-sector debt; (b) increasing public-sector debt as a result of increased spending on infrastructure and other forms of public-sector capital?
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?
During the 1970s, commentators often referred to the ‘political business cycle’. As William Nordhaus stated in a 1989 paper. “The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power.”
In the past, politicians would use fiscal, and sometimes monetary, policies to manipulate aggregate demand so that the economy was growing strongly at the time of the next election. This often meant doing unpopular things in the first couple of years of office to allow for popular things, such as tax cuts and increased government transfers, as the next election approached. This tended to align the business cycle with the election cycle. The economy would slow in the early years of a parliament and expand rapidly towards the end.
To some extent, this has been the approach since 2010 of first the Coalition and now the Conservative governments. Cuts to government expenditure were made ‘in order to clear up the mess left by the previous government’. At the time it was hoped that, by the next election, the economy would be growing strongly again.
But in adopting a fiscal mandate, the current government could be doing the reverse of previous governments. George Osborne has set the target of a budget surplus by the final year of this parliament (2019–20) and has staked his reputation on achieving it.
The problem, as we saw in the blog, Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets is that growth in the economy has slowed and this makes it more difficult to achieve the target of a budget surplus by 2019–20. Given that achieving this target is seen to be more important for his reputation for ‘sound management’ of the public finances than that the economy should be rapidly growing, it is likely that the Chancellor will be dampening aggregate demand in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, in the latest Budget, he announced that specific measures would be taken in 2019–20 to meet the target, including a further £3.5 billion of savings from departmental spending in 2019–20. In the meantime, however, taxes would be cut (such as increasing personal allowances and cutting business rates) and government spending in certain areas would be increased. As the OBR states:
Despite a weaker outlook for the economy and tax revenues, the Chancellor has announced a net tax cut and new spending commitments. But he remains on course for a £10 billion surplus in 2019–20, by rescheduling capital investment, promising other cuts in public services spending and shifting a one-off boost to corporation tax receipts into that year.
But many commentators have doubted that this will be enough to bring a surplus. Indeed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme said that “there’s only about a 50:50 shot that he’s going to get there. If things change again, if the OBR downgrades its forecasts again, I don’t think he will be able to get away with anything like this. I think he will be forced to put some proper tax increases in or possibly find yet further proper spending cuts”.
If that is the case, he will be further dampening the economy as the next election approaches. In other words, the government may be doing the reverse of what governments did in the past. Instead of boosting the economy to increase growth at election time, the government may feel forced to make further cuts in government expenditure and/or to raise taxes to meet the fiscal target of a budget surplus.
Budget 2016: George Osborne hits back at deficit critics BBC News (17/3/16)
George Osborne will have to break his own rules to win the next election Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (17/3/16)
Osborne Accused of Accounting Tricks to Meet Budget Surplus Goal Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell and Robert Hutton (16/3/16)
George Osborne warns more cuts may be needed to hit surplus target Financial Times, Jim Pickard (17/3/16)
6 charts that explain why George Osborne is about to make austerity even worse Independent, Hazel Sheffield (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: Osborne ‘has only 50-50 chance’ of hitting surplus target The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
How will Chancellor George Osborne reach his surplus? BBC News, Howard Mustoe (16/3/16)
Osborne’s fiscal illusion exposed as a house of credit cards The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
The Budget’s bottom line: taxes will rise and rise again The Telegraph, Allister Heath (17/3/16)
Reports, analysis and documents
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: documents HM Treasury (16/3/16)
Budget 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies (17/3/16)
- Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
- Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
- For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
On election to office in May 2015, the UK’s Conservative government set new fiscal targets. These were set out in an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility. As Box 12.3 in Essentials of Economics (7th edition) states:
The new fiscal mandate set a target for achieving a surplus on public-sector net borrowing by the end of 2019/20. More controversially, government should then target a surplus in each subsequent year unless real GDP growth falls below 1 per cent … Meanwhile, the revised supplementary target for public-sector debt was for the net debt-to-GDP ratio to fall each year from 2015/16 to 2019/20.
What is more, the Charter requires the government to set a cap on welfare spending over a five-year period. Such spending includes spending on pensions, tax credits, child benefit and unemployment benefit. In July 2015 the Chancellor set this cap at £115bn for 2016/17, a reduction of £12bn.
Whether or not such a tight fiscal target is desirable, the government has been missing the target. In November last year, the Chancellor had to backtrack on his plans to make substantial reductions in tax credits and as a result the welfare cap has been breached, as the following table from page 5 of the December 2015 House of Commons briefing paper shows.
Also, with the slowing of economic growth, the Chancellor has stated that he will miss the requirement for a fall in the net debt-to-GDP ratio unless further cuts in government spending are made, equivalent to 50p in every £100.
But, if the economy is slowing, is it right to cut government expenditure? In other words, should there be some discretion in fiscal policy to respond to economic circumstances? There are two issues here. The first is whether the resulting cut in aggregate demand will be detrimental to growth. The second is who will bear the cost of such cuts. Critics of the government claim that it will largely the poor who will lose if the cuts are made mainly from benefits.
The articles below examine the public finances, the difficulties George Osborne has been facing in sticking to his fiscal mandate and the options open to him.
Budget 2016: Osborne’s economic fitness regime BBC News, Andy Verity (14/3/16)
Budget 2016: George Osborne fuels speculation of nasty shocks The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Anushka Asthana (14/3/16)
Charter for Budget Responsibility: Summer Budget 2015 update HM Treasury (July 2015)
OBR publications, including ‘Economic and fiscal outlook’ and ‘Fiscal sustainability report’ Office for Budget Responsibility
- Outline the main points of the Charter for Budget Responsibility (CBR).
- What are the arguments for sticking to fiscal rules, such as those in the CBR?
- What are the arguments for using discretion to adjust fiscal policy as economic circumstances change?
- Compare the Conservative government’s fiscal mandate with the newly announced approach to fiscal policy of the Labour opposition?
- How does the Labour Party’s new approach differ from the Golden Rule followed by Gordon Brown as Chancellor in the Labour government from 1997 to 2007?
- What factors will determine whether or not the government will return to meeting the rules set out in the Charter for Budget Responsibility?
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?