Moody’s, one of the three main international credit rating agencies, has just downgraded the UK’s credit rating from the top Aaa rating to Aa1. The other two agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may follow suit as they have the UK’s triple A rating on ‘negative outlook’.
The reason for Moody’s decision can be see in its press statement:
The key interrelated drivers of today’s action are:
1. The continuing weakness in the UK’s medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody’s now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;
2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government’s fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;
3. And, as a consequence of the UK’s high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government’s balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.
The direct economic consequences of Moody’s action are likely to be minimal. People were excpecting a downgrade sooner or later for the reasons Moody’s quotes. Thus stock markets, bond markets and foreign exchange markets already reflect this. Indeed, in the first seven weeks of 2013, the sterling exchange rate index has depreciated by over 6%.
The political consequences, however, are likely to be significant. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Orborne, has put considerable emphasis on the importance of maintaining a triple A rating. He has seen it as a sign of the confidence of investors in the government’s policy of focusing on cutting the public-sector deficit and, ultimately, of cutting the public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP. His response, therefore, has been that the government will redouble its efforts to reduce the deficit.
Not surprisingly the Labour opposition claims the downgrading is evidence that the government’s austerity policies are not working. If the aim is to cut the deficit/GDP ratio, this is difficult if GDP is falling or just ‘flat lining’. A less aggressive austerity policy, it is argued, would allow growth to recover and this rise in the denominator would allow the deficit/GDP ratio to fall.
Latest forecasts are that government borrowing is set to rise. The average of 24 independent forecasts of the UK economy, published by the Treasury on 13/2/13, is that public-sector net borrowing will rise from £90.7bn in 2012/13 to £107bn in 2013/14. And the European Commission forecast of the UK economy is that the general government deficit will rise from 5.9% of GDP in 2012/13 to 7.0% of GDP in 2013/14.
So what will be the economic and political consequences of the loss of the triple A rating? What policy options are open to the government? The following articles explore these questions. Not surprisingly, they don’t all agree!
Downgrading Britain: The Friday night drop The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (23/2/13)
Rating downgrade: Q&A The Observer, Josephine Moulds (24/2/13)
Downgrade is Osborne’s punishment for deficit-first policy The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/2/13)
Britain’s downgraded credit rating: Moody’s wake-up call must trigger a change of course The Observer (24/2/13)
Editorial: AAA loss is a sign of failure Independent (24/2/13)
It’s not the end of the world – but it’s the end of any false complacency Independent, Hamish McRae (24/2/13)
Moody’s downgrade will stiffen George Osborne’s resolve The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (23/2/13)
UK AAA downgrade: Budget is now George Osborne’s make or break moment The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/2/13)
Britain’s credit downgrade is a call to live within our means The Telegraph, Liam Halligan (23/2/13)
Britain will take years to earn back AAA rating, says Ken Clarke The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (24/2/13)
- How important are credit agencies’ sovereign credit ratings to a country (a) economically; (b) politically? Why may the political effects have subsequent economic effects?
- Explain the meaning of the terms ‘exogenous’ and ‘endogenous’ variables. In terms of the determination of economic growth, are government expenditure and tax revenue exogenous or endogenous variables? What are the implications for a policy of cutting the government deficit?
- Identify the reasons for the predicted rise in the public-sector deficit as a proportion of GDP. Which of these, if any, are ‘of the government’s own making’?
- In the absence of a change in its fiscal stance, what policies could the government adopt to increase business confidence?
New data released on 25/7/12 by the Office for National Statistics showed that the UK economy shrank by a further 0.7% in the second quarter of 2012. This makes it the third quarter in a row in which GDP has fallen – and it is the steepest fall of the three. Faced with this, should the government simply maintain the status quo, or does it need to take new action?
The construction sector declined the most steeply, with construction output 5.2% down on the previous quarter, which in turn was 4.9% down on the quarter previous to that. The output of the production industries as a whole fell by 1.3% and the service sector fell by 0.1%. (For a PowerPoint of the following chart, click here.)
The immediate cause of the decline in GDP has been a decline in real aggregate demand, but the reasons for this are several. Consumer demand has fallen because of the squeeze on real wages, partly the result of low nominal pre-tax wage increases and partly the result of inflation and tax rises; the government’s austerity programme is holding back a growth in government expenditure; export growth has been constrained by a slowing down in the global economy and especially in the eurozone, the UK’s major trading partner; and investment is being held back by the pessimism of investors about recovery in the economy and difficulties in raising finance.
So what can be done about it?
Monetary policy is already being used to stimulate demand, but to little effect (see Pushing on a string. Despite record low interest rates and a large increase in narrow money through quantitative easing, broad money is falling as bank lending remains low. This is caused partly by a reluctance of banks to lend as they seek to increase their capital and liquidity ratios, and partly by a reluctance of people to borrow as individuals seek to reduce their debts and as firms are pessimistic about investing. But perhaps even more quantitative easing might go some way to stimulating lending.
Fiscal policy might seem the obvious alternative. The problem here is that the government is committed to reducing the public-sector deficit and is worried that if it eases up on this commitment, this would play badly with credit rating agencies. Indeed, on 27/7/12, Standard & Poor’s, one of the three global credit rating agencies, confirmed the UK’s triple A rating, but stated that “We could lower the ratings in particular if the pace and extent of fiscal consolidation slows beyond what we currently expect.” Nevertheless, critics of the government maintain that this is a risk worth taking.
The following articles look at the causes of the current double-dip recession, the deepest and most prolonged for over 100 years. They also look at what options are open to the government to get the economy growing again.
Britain shrinks again The Economist (25/7/12)
Shock 0.7% fall in UK GDP deepens double-dip recession Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/7/12)
UK GDP figures: expert panel verdict Guardian, Frances O’Grady, Will Hutton, Sheila Lawlor, Vicky Pryce and John Cridland (25/7/12)
GDP shock fall: UK growth in 2012 ‘inconceivable’, warn economists The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (25/7/12)
UK recession deepens after 0.7% fall in GDP BBC News (25/7/12)
UK economy: Why is it shrinking? BBC News (25/7/12)
UK GDP: A nasty surprise and a puzzle BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (25/7/12)
Tough choices for Mr Osborne BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (26/7/12)
David Cameron in pledge to control UK’s debt Independent, Andrew Woodcock and James Tapsfield (26/7/12)
David Cameron defends economic policies BBC News (26/7/12)
The GDP number is awful – and it’s the product of the Government’s amateur policies, not the euro crisis The Telegraph, Thomas Pascoe (25/7/12)
UK recession: have we heard it all before? Guardian, Duncan Weldon (25/7/12)
US economic growth slows in second quarter BBC News (27/7/12)
GDP data trigger debate on economy Financial Times, Norma Cohen and Sarah O’Connor (25/7/12)
Does weak UK growth warrant more QE? Financial Times (25/7/12)
The recession: Osborne’s mess Guardian editorial (25/7/12)
Gross Domestic Product, Preliminary Estimate, Q2 2012 ONS (25/7/12)
Preliminary Estimate of GDP – Time Series Dataset 2012 Q2 ONS (25/7/12)
- What are the causes of the deepening of the current recession in the UK?
- Search for data on other G7 countries and compare the UK’s performance with that of the other six countries (see, for example, the OECD’s StatExtracts.
- Compare the approach of George Osborne with that of Neville Chamberlain in 1932, during the Great Depression.
- Does weak UK growth warrant more quantitative easing by the Bank of England?
- To what extent can fiscal policy be used to stimulate the economy without deepening the public-sector deficit in the short term?
- What is meant by ‘crowding out’? If fiscal policy were used to stimulate demand, to what extent would this cause crowding out?
The UK is officially back in recession: or to be more accurate, a double-dip recession.
The generally accepted definition of a recession is two or more quarters of negative growth in real GDP. According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics, the UK economy shrank by 0.2% in quarter 1, 2012, having shrunk by 0.3% in quarter 4, 2011.
(Click on the following link for a PowerPoint of the above chart: Double dip 2)
As you can see from the chart (click chart for a larger version), these declines are tiny compared with the recession of 2008/9. Nevertheless, with the eurozone economy slowing (Britain’s largest export market), and with cuts to government expenditure set to bite harder in the coming months, there are worries that there may be more quarters of negative growth to come.
So what are the causes of this double-dip recession? Are they largely external, in terms of flagging export markets; or are they internal? Is the new recession the direct result of the tight fiscal policy pursued by the Coalition government?
And what is to be done? Is there no option but to continue with the present policy – the government’s line? Or should the austerity measures be reined in? After all, as we saw in the last blog post (Economic stimulus, ‘oui’; austerity, ‘non’), the mood in many European countries is turning against austerity.
The following articles explore the causes and policy implications of the latest piece of bad news on the UK economy.
Double-dip recession a terrible blow for George Osborne Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/4/12)
Double-dip recession figures mark another bad day for George Osborne Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/4/12)
UK double-dip recession: what the economists say Guardian (25/4/12)
Feared double dip recession becomes reality as British economy contracts again in first quarter of 2012 Daily Record (25/4/12)
Britain in double-dip recession as growth falls 0.2pc The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan and Szu Ping Chan (25/4/12)
Did the eurozone crisis cause the double-dip recession? Guardian, Polly Curtis (25/4/12)
UK’s double-dip recession Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/4/12)
UK is in ‘double dip’ recession FT Adviser, Rebecca Clancy and John Kenchington (25/4/12)
Flanders explains GDP figure BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (25/4/12)
No recovery for UK: No let up for ONS BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (25/4/12)
Double-dip recession: There’s always fantasy island BBC News, Paul Mason (25/4/12)
UK double-dip recession to drag on into summer, economists warn The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (26/4/12)
George Osborne can stop the rot, but only by spending as he slashes The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (25/4/12)
Double dip has arrived – and Osborne is running out of escape routes Independent, Ben Chu (26/4/12)
Britain’s bosses tell the ONS: it’s bad, but not a recession Independent, Tom Bawden, Lucy Tobin , Gideon Spanier (26/4/12)
The Chancellor received plenty of warning Independent, David Blanchflower (26/5/12)
Gross Domestic Product: Preliminary Estimate, Q1 2012 ONS (25/4/12)
Preliminary Estimate of GDP Time Series Dataset 2012 Q ONS (25/4/12)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (17/4/12)
Business and Consumer Surveys (for all individual EU countries and for the EU as a whole) European Commission: Economic and Financial Affairs
Consumer Confidence Nationwide Building Society
- Assess the current state of the UK economy and its likely course over the coming few months.
- Why may looking at the business surveys provide a truer picture of the state of the UK economy than the official measure of GDP?
- Why has the UK economy gone back into recession?
- Compare the policy approaches of the Coalition government with those of the Labour opposition.
- How important is it for the UK to retain its AAA credit rating?
Friday 5 August 2011 saw the end of a very bad fortnight for stock markets around the world. In Japan the Nikkei 225 had fallen by 8.2%, in the USA the Dow Jones had fallen by 9.8%, in the UK the FTSE 100 was down 11.6% and in Germany the Dax was down 14.9%. In the first five days of August alone, £148 billion had been wiped off the value of the shares of the FTSE 100 companies and $2.5 trillion off the value of shares worldwide.
But why had this happened and what are likely to be the consequences?
The falls have been caused by the growing concerns of investors about the health of the global economy and the global financial system. There are worries that the European leaders at their summit on 21 July did not do enough to prevent the default of large countries such as Spain and Italy. There are concerns that the US political system, following the squabbling in Congress over raising the sovereign debt ceiling for the country, may not be up to dealing with the country’s huge debts. Indeed, the rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, downgraded the USA’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. This is the first time that the USA has not had top rating.
Then there are worries about the general slowing down of the world economy and how this will compound the problem of sovereign debt as it hits tax revenues and makes it harder to reduce social security payments. Underlying all this is the fear that the problem of indebtedness that contributed to the banking crisis of 2007/8 has not gone away; it has simply been transferred from banks to governments. As Robert Peston states in his article, linked to below:
The overall volume of indebtedness in the economy is therefore still with us – although it has been shuffled from financial sector to public sector.
And if you took the view four years ago that the quantum of debt in the system was unsustainably large, then you would argue that by propping up the banks, the day of reckoning was being postponed, not cancelled.
… just like the awakening in 2007 to the idea that many of the housing loans and associated financial products were worthless, so there is a growing fear that a number of financially overstretched governments, especially in the eurozone, will not be able to repay their debts in full.
Which brings us to the consequences. Key to the answer is confidence. If governments can reassure markets over the coming days and weeks that they have credible policies to support highly indebted countries in the short term and to sustain demand in the global economy (e.g. through further quantitative easing in the USA (QE3)); and if they can also reassure markets that they have tough and credible policies to reduce their debts over the longer term, then confidence may return. But it will not be an easy task to get the balance right between sustaining recovery in the short term and fiscal retrenchment over the long term. Meanwhile consumers are likely to become even more cautious about spending – hardly the recipe for recovery.
Markets turmoil: What you need to know BBC News, Jonty Bloom (5/8/11)
Turmoil on stock markets persists as share prices fall BBC News, Robert Peston (5/8/11)
Global stock market crash – video analysis Guardian, Larry Elliott and Cameron Robertson (5/8/11)
S&P downgrade US AAA credit rating BBC News, Marcus George (6/8/11)
U.S. loses AAA credit rating Reuters, Paul Chapman (6/8/11)
U.S. loses AAA credit rating from S&P CNN (5/8/11)
US loses AAA rating ITN (6/8/11)
Shares slump amid euro fears Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (4/8/11)
What triggered the turmoil? Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor and Edward Hadas (5/8/11)
Fears eurozone woes will spread BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (5/8/11)
FTSE 100 tumbles in worst week since height of the crisis The Telegraph, Richard Blackden (5/8/11)
Global recession fears as stock markets tumble to nine-month low The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (3/8/11)
Global markets on the brink of crisis Guardian, Larry Elliott (5/8/11)
A week of financial turmoil: interactive Guardian, Nick Fletcher, Paddy Allen and James Ball (5/8/11)
Turmoil on stock markets persists BBC News (5/8/11)
Bank worries bring echoes of 2008 BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (5/8/11)
The origins of today’s market mayhem BBC News, Robert Peston (5/8/11)
Time for a double dip? The Economist (6/8/11)
Rearranging the deckchairs The Economist (6/8/11)
High hopes, low returns The Economist (4/8/11)
The debt-ceiling deal: No thanks to anyone The Economist (6/8/11)
Six years into a lost decade The Economist (6/8/11)
Debt crisis Q&A: what you need to know about Standard & Poor’s credit rating The Telegraph, Richard Tyler (6/8/11)
U.S. Will Roll Out QE3 After S&P Rating Cut, Li Daokui Says Bloomberg (6/8/11)
China flays U.S. over credit rating downgrade Reuters, Walter Brandimarte and Gavin Jones (6/8/11)
US credit rating downgraded to AA+ by Standard & Poor’s Guardian, Larry Elliott, Jill Treanor and Dominic Rushe (5/8/11)
Reaction to the US credit rating downgrade Guardian (6/8/11)
Market turmoil and the economics of self-harm Guardian, Mark Weisbrot (5/8/11)
Week ahead: Markets will sort through credit downgrade Moneycontrol (6/8/11)
S&P statement on lowering US long-term debt to AA+ Guardian (6/8/11)
Stock market indices
FTSE 100: historical prices, 1984 to current day Yahoo Finance
Dow Jones Industrial Average: historical prices, 1928 to current day Yahoo Finance
Nikkei 225 (Japan): historical prices, 1984 to current day Yahoo Finance
DAX (Germany): historical prices, 1990 to current day Yahoo Finance
CAC 40 (France): historical prices, 1990 to current day Yahoo Finance
Hang Seng (Hong Kong): historical prices, 1986 to current day Yahoo Finance
SSE Composite (China: Shanghai): historical prices, 2000 to current day Yahoo Finance
BSE Sensex (India): historical prices, 1997 to current day Yahoo Finance
Stock markets BBC
- Why have share prices been falling?
- Does the fall reflect ‘rational’ behaviour on the part of investors? Explain.
- Why does ‘overshooting’ sometimes occur in share price movements?
- Why has the USA’s credit rating been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s? What are the likely implications for the USA and the global economy of this downgrading?
- How is the downgrading likely to affect the return on (a) existing US government bonds; (b) new US government bonds?
- Why might worries about the strength of the global recovery jeopardise that recovery?
- To what extent has the debt problem simply been transferred from banks to governments? What should governments do about it in the short term?
The quarter 2 UK GDP growth figures were published at the end of July. They show that real GDP grew by a mere 0.2% over the quarter, or 0.7% over 12 months. These low growth figures follow 2010Q4 and 2011Q1 growth rates of –0.5 and 0.5 respectively, giving an approximately zero growth over those six months. The recovery that seemed to be gathering pace in early 2010, now seems to have petered out, or at best slowed right down. According to an average of 27 forecasts, collated by the Treasury, GDP is expected to grow by just 1.3% in 2011 – below the potential rate of economic growth and thus resulting in a widening of the output gap.
With such a slow pace of recovery, current forecasts suggest that it will be 2013 before the economy returns to the pre-recession level of output: just over five years after the start of the recession in 2008. This chart from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research compares the current recession with previous ones and shows how the recovery is likely to be the slowest of the five recessions since the 1930s.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in its latest Economic Forecast says that the economic outlook has become more challenging.
The intensification of euro area sovereign debt pressures has added to the downside risks facing the UK economy – although the agreement reached at the recent summit appears to represent an initial step towards resolving the issues.
Meanwhile the global economy is going through a soft patch, partly as a result of the previous surge in commodity prices, which has put pressure on household budgets and raised costs for businesses.
Against this backdrop confidence appears to have wilted somewhat.
The opposition blames the slow pace of recovery on the austerity measures imposed by the government. The depressing of aggregate demand by cutting government expenditure and raising taxes has depressed output growth. The problem has been compounded by a lack of consumer spending as real household incomes have been squeezed by inflation and as consumers fear impending tax rises and cuts in benefits. And export growth, which was hoped to lead the country’s recovery, has been hit by weak demand in Europe and elsewhere.
With weak growth, the danger is that automatic fiscal stabilisers (i.e. more people claiming benefits and lack of growth in tax revenues) will mean that the government deficit is not cut. This may then force the Chancellor into further austerity, which would compound the problem of low demand. The opposition has thus been calling for a (temporary) cut in VAT to stimulate the economy.
The government argues that rebalancing the budget is absolutely crucial to maintaining international confidence and Britain’s AAA rating by the credit rating agencies, Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor’s (S&P). Any sign that the government is slacking in its resolve, could undermine this confidence. According to George Osborne, while other countries (including the USA and many eurozone countries) are facing a lot of instability, “Britain is a safe haven. We have convinced the world that we can deal with our debts, bring our deficit down, and that’s meant that interest rates, for British families, for British businesses, are lower than they would otherwise be; it means that our country’s credit rating has been affirmed … and it means that we have that crucial ingredient of any recovery – economic stability.”
What is more, the government claims that the essence of the UK’s problem of low growth lies on the supply side. The focus of growth policy, it maintains, should be on cutting red tape, improving efficiency and, ultimately, in reducing taxes.
What we are witnessing is a debate that echoes the Keynesian/new classical debates of the 1980s and earlier: a debate between those who blame the current problem on lack of aggregate demand and those who blame it on supply-side weaknesses, including weaknesses of the banking sector.
So what should be done? Is it time for a (modest) fiscal expansion, or at least a reining in of the fiscal tightening? Should the Bank of England embark on another round of quantitative easing (QE2)? Or does the solution lie on the supply side? Or should policy combine elements of both?
UK economy grows by 0.2% BBC News (26/7/11)
Economic growth stalls – and slump will carry on until 2013 Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/7/11)
GDP figures mean Britain will miss its economic growth targets Guardian, Julia Kollewe (26/7/11)
UK GDP figures show slower growth of 0.2% BBC News (26/7/11)
UK growth forecast looks unrealistic after GDP fall Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/7/11)
UK set for low growth as the mood ‘darkens’ Independent, Sean O’Grady (1/8/11)
No sign of a U-turn – but there may be a minor course change Scotsman, John McLaren (27/7/11)
George Osborne vows to stick with ‘plan A’ despite UK GDP growth slowdown The Telegraph, John McLaren (27/7/11)
Weak growth may force Chancellor into further austerity The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (26/7/11)
UK households squeezed harder than US or Europe The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick, and Emma Rowley (30/7/11)
UK Government will have to act if growth remains weak, warns CBI The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/8/11)
UK economy GDP figures: what the experts say Guardian, Claire French (26/7/11)
My plan B for the economy Guardian, Ed Balls, Ruth Lea, Jonathan Portes, Digby Jones and Stephanie Blankenburg (27/7/11)
Not much of a squeeze The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (26/7/11)
Some safe haven The Economist (30/7/11)
UK growth – anything to be done? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (26/7/11)
IMF report on UK: main points The Telegraph, Sarah Rainey (2/8/11)
Families to be £1,500 a year worse off, IMF warns The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (2/8/11)
IMF casts doubt on UK deficit plan, Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/8/11)
Data and reports
GDP Growth (reliminary estimate) ONS
Gross domestic product preliminary estimate: 2nd Quarter 2011 ONS (26/7/11)
World Economic Outlook Update IMF
OECD Economic Outlook No. 89 Annex Tables OECD (see Table 1)
United Kingdom: IMF Country Report No. 11/220 IMF (2/8/11)
Prospects for the UK economy National Institute of Economic and Social Research (3/8/11)
- What special ‘one-off’ factors help to explain why the underlying growth in 2011Q2 may have been higher than 0.2%?
- Why is the output gap rising? How may supply-side changes affect the size of the output gap?
- Why is the recovery from recession in the UK slower than in most other countries? Why is it slower than the recovery from previous recessions?
- How may automatic fiscal stabilisers affect (a) economic growth and (b) the size of the public-sector deficit if the output gap widens?
- Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side causes of the slow rate of economic growth in the UK.
- Compare the likely effectiveness of demand-side and supply-side policy measures to stimulate economic growth, referring to both magnitude and timing.