In their manifestos, the parties standing for the UK general election on May 7th state their plans for fiscal policy and, more specifically, for reducing public-sector net borrowing and public-sector net debt. The degree of detail in the plans varies, especially with regards to where cuts will be made, but there are nevertheless some very clear differences between the parties.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has examined the public finance plans of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and SNP and has published a briefing note (see link below) and an accompanying press release. It accuses all four parties’ plans of being short on detail over specific cuts (especially the Conservatives), and over borrowing requirements (especially Labour):
None of these parties has provided anything like full details of their fiscal plans for each year of the coming parliament, leaving the electorate somewhat in the dark as to both the scale and composition of likely spending cuts and tax increases. In our analysis we have used the information provided in each manifesto, plus in some cases some necessary assumptions, to shed light on the four parties’ plans.
But despite the lack of detail, the IFS claims that there are big differences in the parties’ plans. These are illustrated in the following three charts from the IFS Briefing Note.
According to Carl Emmerson, IFS deputy director:
“There are genuinely big differences between the main parties’ fiscal plans. The electorate has a real choice, although it can at best see only the broad outlines of that choice. Conservative plans involve a significantly larger reduction in borrowing and debt than Labour plans. But they are predicated on substantial and almost entirely unspecified spending cuts and tax increases. While Labour has been considerably less clear about its overall fiscal ambitions its stated position appears to be consistent with little in the way of further spending cuts after this year”.
So what would be the implications of the plans of the various parties for fiscal policy and what, in turn, would be the implications for economic growth and investment? The various videos and articles look at the briefing note and at what is missing from the parties’ plans.
Voters ‘in the dark’ over budgets BBC News, Robert Peston (23/4/15)
Election 2015: Main parties respond to IFS deficit claims BBC News, James Landale (23/4/15)
Election 2015: ‘Not enough detail’ on deficit cut plans, says IFS BBC News, Paul Johnson (23/4/15)
IFS: Electorate ‘left in the dark’ by political parties ITV News, Chris Ship (23/4/15)
Voters Left In Dark Over Spending Cuts, Says IFS Sky News (23/4/15)
Post-election austerity: parties’ plans compared Institute for Fiscal Studies, Press Briefing (23/5/15)
IFS: election choice is stark Economia, Oliver Griffin (23/4/15)
Election 2015: Voters ‘left in the dark’, says IFS BBC News (23/4/15)
The huge choice for voters BBC News, Robert Peston (23/4/15)
IFS manifesto analysis: fantasy island of Tory deficit reduction plan The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/4/15)
Tories have £30bn black hole in spending plans, says IFS The Guardian, Heather Stewart (23/4/15)
Ed Miliband will leave Britain an extra £90bn in debt, IFS finds The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (23/4/15)
IFS despairs as it finds no party’s imaginary numbers add up The Guardian, John Crace (23/4/15)
Reality Check: Why should we trust the IFS? BBC News, Sebastian Chrispin (23/4/15)
IFS: Households can expect lower incomes, whoever wins the election BBC News, Brian Milligan (28/4/15)
Post-election Austerity: Parties’ Plans Compared Institute for Fiscal Studies, Briefing Note BN170, Rowena Crawford, Carl Emmerson, Soumaya Keynes and Gemma Tetlow (April 15)
Taxes and Benefits: The Parties’ Plans Institute for Fiscal Studies, Briefing Notw BN 172, Stuart Adam, James Browne, Carl Emmerson, Andrew Hood, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Helen Miller, David Phillips, Thomas Pope and Barra Roantree (April 2015)
- What detail is missing about cuts in the Conservative plans?
- What detail is missing in the Labour plans on borrowing requirements?
- How do (a) the Liberal Democrat plans and (b) the SNP plans differ from Conservative and Labour plans?
- Find out the public finances plans of (a) the Green Party; (b) UKIP; and (c) Plaid Cymru. How different are these plans from those of other parties?
- Define ‘austerity’.
- How would a tightening of fiscal policy affect economic growth (a) in the short term; (b) in the long term?
- How would an expansion of the economy affect the budget balance through automatic fiscal stabilisers?
- What is meant by the structural deficit? How could this be reduced?
- Would the structural deficit be affected by austerity policies and the resulting size of the output gap, or is it independent of such policies? Explain.
Since coming to office two years ago, Shinzo Abe’s government has been determined to revive the Japanese economy. The policy has involved ‘three arrows‘: expansionary fiscal policy, expansionary monetary policy and supply-side reforms. But figures just out show that the Japanese economy is back in recession. The economy shrank by 0.4% in quarter 3, having shrunk by 1.9% in quarter 2.
This has come as a huge disappointment for Mr Abe, who has staked his political reputation on escaping from deflation and achieving sustained economic growth. In response, he has called a general election to put a revised economic plan to the electorate.
The main cause of the reversal into recession has been an increase in the sales tax on all goods, which has dampened spending. The tax rise, planned by the previous government, was to help reduce the deficit and start tackling the huge public-sector debt, which, at over 230% of GDP, is by far the highest in the developed world. Another rise in sales tax is due in October 2015 – from 8% to 10%. Mr Abe hopes to cancel the rise and it is this that he may put to the electorate.
So what is the outlook for Japan? Will quarter 4 show economic growth, or will pessimism have set in? Will the Bank of Japan introduce even more quantitative easing, or will it wait for the latest increase in QE to take effect (see the blog post, All eased out: at least for the USA and UK)?
The following articles look at the implications of the latest news, both for Japan and globally, and at the options for the government and central bank.
Japanese economy falls into surprise recession Independent, Maria Tadeo (17/11/14)
Japan’s economy makes surprise fall into recession BBC News (17/11/14)
Coming to a crunch: Time is running out for Abenomics The Economist (20/11/14)
Japan’s economy: Delay the second consumption tax hike The Economist (17/11/14)
Defying Expectations, Japan’s Economy Falls Into Recession New York Times, Jonathan Soble (16/11/14)
Japan shocks as economy slips into recession CNBC, Li Anne Wong (17/11/14)
Japan Unexpectedly Enters Recession as Abe Weighs Tax: Economy Bloomberg, Keiko Ujikane and Toru Fujioka (17/11/14)
The world should be wary: Japan’s economic woes are contagious The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/11/14)
Why is Japan heading to the polls? BBC News (18/11/14)
Previous news items on this site
A new economic road for Japan? (January 2013)
A J-curve for Japan? (May 2013)
Japan’s three arrows (June 2013)
Abenomics – one year on (December 2013)
Japan’s recovery (January 2014)
Japan’s CPI: An Update (May 2014)
All eased out: at least for the USA and UK (November 2014)
Quarterly Estimates of GDP Japanese Cabinet Office
Japan and the IMF IMF Country Reports
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD
- Give details of the Japanese government’s three arrows.
- Discuss the pros and cons of the rise in the sales tax. Is it possible for the rise in the sales tax to increase the size of the public-sector deficit?
- What have been the effects of Japanese government policies on (a) prices of goods and services; (b) living standards; (c) asset prices?
- Who have been the gainers and losers of the policies?
- How is the Japanese situation likely to effect the value of the yen? How is this, in turn, likely to affect its trading partners? Could this set off a chain reaction?
The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.
The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.
And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.
So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?
There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.
The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.
Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.
This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.
There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.
As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Statistics database European Central Bank
- What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
- How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
- What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
- Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
- What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
- Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
- How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
The linked article below from The Guardian paints a disturbing picture of the long-term problem of servicing both private-sector and public-sector debts.
With interest rates at historical lows, the problem has been masked for the time being. But with interest rates set to rise within a few months, and significantly over the coming years, the burden of debt servicing is likely to become severe. This could have profound effects both on long-term economic growth and on the distribution of income.
As the author, Phillip Inman states:
The funding gap is growing and with deficits on so many fronts, it is hard to see how promises to pensioners and health service users can be met without a dash for growth that is unsustainable, a switch to dramatic cost-cutting in other areas or higher taxes on those who came through the recession relatively unscathed.
You are probably facing the problem of growing debt yourself. How long, if ever, will it take you to repay your student loans? What impact will this have on your ability to spend and to have a ‘decent’ standard of living? Will you be able to afford a mortgage large enough to buy a reasonable house or flat? Will you be able to afford to do a masters degree or PhD without support from your parents or relatives or without a scholarship? And even if you manage to secure a well-paid job, will you be able to afford a reasonable pension for when you eventually retire?
The article looks at the nature of the problem and its causes. It concludes by saying:
Britain has become expert at putting off decisions and hoping for something to turn up. Without a return to ultra-cheap commodities, another technological/productivity revolution, or a return to more modest living and delayed gratification, it’s a plan that is running out of time.
Trouble in store: the grave future of British public and private debt The Guardian, Phillip Inman (20/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report – Executive summary Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report – Supplementary data series Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
- Why is public-sector debt likely to continue rising significantly over the coming years unless there is a concerted policy to make cuts in public expenditure?
- What factors are likely to lead to a rise in private-sector debt over the coming years?
- What factors have caused a redistribution from the younger to the older generation?
- How have ultra low interest rates affected the distribution of income?
- What is likely to happen to the gap in wages between ‘graduate’ jobs and ‘non-graduate’ jobs? Identify the factors likely to influence this gap?
- What is meant by ‘hire purchase’? Are leasing schemes for car purchase a form of ‘hire purchase? Are there similar schemes in the housing market?
- Does it matter if a country’s debts rise (either public or private) if the creditors are in the same country? Explain.
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?