Labour’s Chancellor, Alistair Darling, delivered his last budget on the 24th March 2010. However, with the new Coalition government planning to make more substantial cuts and with George Osborne and other ministers claiming to find ‘black holes’ in the budgets left by Labour, an emergency budget will take place on the 22nd June 2010. The Coalition government has agreed to make £6 billion of spending cuts in the current year in a bid to reduce the UK’s substantial budget deficit, which stands at nearly 12% of GDP. Vince Cable told the Times:
I fear that a lot of bad news about the public finances has been hidden and stored up for the new government. The skeletons are starting to fall out of the cupboard.
There are plans to reform capital gains tax, possibly increase VAT to 20% and remove tax credits from some middle-income families. In Alistair Darling’s budget, it was middle-income families who were among the ‘losers’, with tax rises of around £19 billion, and it looks as though middle-income families may be hit again. Throughout the election all parties pledged to continue to help the poorest families, but there appears to be a lot of uncertainty ahead for middle-income families. They are likely to face reduced benefits and higher taxes as the Coalition government tackles the £163 billion deficit.
Despite critics of spending cuts arguing that it could cause a double-dip recession, the government is confident that cutting spending now is the right thing to do. As Osborne told GMTV:
I am pretty clear that the advice from the Governor of the Bank of England was that [cutting spending now] was a sensible thing to do, and if there is waste in Government that people at home are paying for with their taxes, let’s start tackling that now.
Chancellor launches audit of government spending Independent, Andrew Woodcock (17/5/10)
Osborne to give details of £6bn spending cuts next week (including video) BBC News (17/5/10)
Savings cuts to ‘hit middle class families’ BBC News (15/5/10)
Osborne to deliver emergency budget on June 22nd Times Online, Susan Thompson (17/5/10)
David Cameron declares war on public sector pay Telegraph, Rosa Prince (16/5/10)
All eyes on the emergency Budget Financial Times, Matthew Vincent (14/5/10)
Tax rises likely under Coaliation government, says Institute of Fiscal Studies Telegraph, Edmund Conway (13/5/10)
- What will be the likely impact on middle-income families if proposed spending cuts go ahead? How might this affect the recovery?
- What are the arguments for a) cutting spending now and b) cutting spending later?
- In the future, the Coalition government plans to limit bonus payments. How might this policy affect jobs and recruitment?
- What is the likely impact of the future increase in personal tax allowance? Who will it benefit the most?
- How are the proposals for corporation tax and capital gains tax likely to affect the economic recovery?
- Is a rise in VAT a good policy? Who will it affect the most? Will it reduce consumption and hence aggregate demand or is it likely simply to raise tax revenue? (Hint: Think about the type of tax that VAT is.)
Greece’s public deficit currently stands at 13.6% and the UK isn’t that far behind. Austerity measures are planned to reduce the Greek deficit to less than 3% of GDP by 2014. This will be achieved through a variety of spending cuts and tax rises. This is the price that Greece will have to pay to receive a £95 billion bailout. Wages are likely to be frozen, cuts will be evident throughout the economy in areas such as education and pensions and the general population may see a tax rise.
In response to these proposals, on which Parliament will vote by the end of the week, the Greek economy has suffered from widespread strikes. Flights were grounded, trains stopped, schools shut, hospitals closed their doors, offices closed for business and those close to retirement are considering resignation before the measures are passed.
As life almost comes to a stop in Greece, could the UK follow suit? It’s no secret that the UK deficit is enormous – £163 billion or about 12% of GDP. Nor is it a secret that spending cuts and tax rises are inevitable. Furthermore, over the past two years, there have been several high profile strikes. (See article The Winter of Discontent: the sequel? and Turbulence in the air). A spokesman from The Public and Commercial Services Union said:
“If the cuts are anything like what is being suggested, industrial action by the unions is not only likely, it’s inevitable”.
The bailout of Greece may avert one Greek tragedy, but another one could be just around the corner and that’s not just for Greece.
Greece brought to half over general strike over cuts BBC News (5/5/10)
Greek strikes test government austerity plans Reuters (4/5/10)
Bank of England Governor: poll winner will be out of power for a generation Independent, Andrew Grice and Colin Brown (30/4/10)
Flights grounded, shops shut in Greek strike Channel 4 News, Kris Jepson (5/5/10)
Greek strikers hit Athens streets over austerity plan BBC News (4/5/10)
Greek strikes test government austerity plans The Economic Times (4/5/10)
- What is the purpose behind the strikes? How effective are they likely to be?
- What are the costs of strikes to a) consumers b) businesses c) the wider economy?
- Why is collective bargaining more effective than individual bargaining?
- Why could the Greek picture be a possible forecast of the UK economy after the May election?
- Are strikes a price worth paying if the government is to reduce its debt?
The final debate between the three party leaders was mainly on the economy. A key issue under debate was how each party would cut the huge budget deficit and how households and businesses would be affected. Something that we may see in the future is a banking levy and possibly new powers given to the Bank of England to ‘ration credit in boom years’. Spending cuts and tax rises are inevitable, but there were differences between the parties as to the extent of these changes and when they are likely to occur. The articles below consider these important issues, as the election entered the final 72 hours.
The broadcast debate
Prime Ministerial Debate: The Economy BBC Election 2010
Articles and podcasts
Economic debate: Banks and a balanced economy BBC News, Peston’s Picks (29/4/10)
General Election 2010: a fact checker for the leaders’ debate on the economy Telegraph (29/4/10)
Tim Harford on the truth behind leaders’ claims BBC Today Programme (30/4/10)
- It is not unusual for countries to have a budget deficit, so why is the UK’s receiving so much attention in the election?
- What is the difference between retail and investment banking?
- What do you think David Cameron meant by giving the Bank of England power ‘to call time on debt in the economy’?
- What is the difference between the budget deficit and national debt?
- What are the arguments for and against cutting the budget deficit now, as the Conservatives want to do and cutting it in the next financial year, as Labour is suggesting?
After each Budget, the Institute for Fiscal Studies analyses its effects. Given the highly charged political environment, with an election looming and the prospects of considerable public expenditure cuts to come, dispassionate analyses of the Budget are hard to find. The IFS’s analysis is a major exception.
The IFS summarises the Budget as being largely neutral. As Robert Chote, Director of the IFS, says in the opening remarks to the Post Budget Briefing:
In a Pre-Election Budget, perhaps the most that we can expect of any Chancellor is that he should observe the key tenet of the Hippocratic Oath and “above all, do no harm”. Judged against that modest yardstick, the broadly neutral stance of this Budget passes the test.
But, the Budget avoided giving details of the cuts which are planned for the future. None of the political parties are saying just how they will achieve the necessary reductions to the deficit, although the Liberal Democrats have given some details.
Judged against the more testing yardstick of providing a detailed picture to voters and financial market participants of the fiscal repair job in prospect beyond the election, the Budget will have fallen short of many people’s hopes. There are an awful lot of judgements still to be made, or revealed, notably with regards public spending over the next parliament. This greater-than-necessary vagueness allows the opposition to be vaguer than necessary too.
The articles below look at the Budget and at the IFS’s assessment of it. There are also links to the sections of the IFS report. It is worth reading them if you are to be able to make the ‘cool’ judgements that economists can provide – even if they do not always agree!
Budget leaves questions unanswered – IFS Reuters (25/3/10)
Budget 2010: IFS warns transport and housing spending has to be cut Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/3/10)
Labour ‘has cost the rich £25,000 every year’ Independent, Sean O’Grady (26/3/10)
The pain to come The Economist (25/3/10)
Chancellor’s ‘difficult balancing act’ BBC Today Programme (24/3/10)
Pain deferred until the polls close Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/3/10)
IFS Report: Budget 2010
Links to the various supporting articles and the opening remarks can be found here.
Details of the Budget
See references in Darling and a case of fiscal drag? for details of the Budget measures.
- What do you understand by the ‘structrual’ deficit and the ‘cyclical’ deficit?
- Why do cyclical deficits rise during a recession?
- Why has the structural deficit risen during this recession? Is this an example of hysteresis? (Explain.)
- What is the Fiscal Responsibility Act and why does the government now expect to over-achieve the requirements of the Act?
- What elements of government spending are likely to be cut most? Is this a wise distribution of cuts?
- Use the links to the PowerPoint presentations from the IFS Budget Report site to (a) analyse the state of the public finances; (b) summarise the main tax changes in the Budget.
On February 14, the Sunday Times published a letter by 20 eminent economists calling on the next government to cut the public-sector deficit more rapidly than that planned in last December’s pre-Budget report.
In order to minimise this risk and support a sustainable recovery, the next government should set out a detailed plan to reduce the structural budget deficit more quickly than set out in the 2009 pre-Budget report.
The exact timing of measures should be sensitive to developments in the economy, particularly the fragility of the recovery. However, in order to be credible, the government’s goal should be to eliminate the structural current budget deficit over the course of a parliament, and there is a compelling case, all else being equal, for the first measures beginning to take effect in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Then on 18 February the Financial Times published two letters, between them from more than 60 economists, backing Alistair Darling’s policy of delaying cuts until the recovery is firmly established. They openly disagreed with the 20 economists who wrote to the Sunday Times.
… while unemployment is still high, it would be dangerous to reduce the government’s contribution to aggregate demand beyond the cuts already planned for 2010-11 (which amount to 1 per cent of gross domestic product). Further immediate cuts – even supposing they are practicable – would not produce an offsetting increase in private sector aggregate demand, and could easily reduce it. History is littered with examples of premature withdrawal of the government stimulus, from the US in 1937 to Japan in 1997. With people’s livelihoods at stake, a responsible government should avoid reckless actions.
… A sharp shock now would not remove the need for a sustained medium-term programme of deficit reduction. But it would be positively dangerous. If next year the government spent less and saved more than it currently plans, this would not “make a sustainable recovery more likely”. The weight of evidence points in the opposite direction.
So why do such eminent economists have apparently such divergent views on tackling the public-sector deficit? Is there any common ground between them? What does the disagreement imply about the state of macroeconomics? Read the letters and articles and then try answering the questions.
Tories right on cuts, say economists Sunday Times, David Smith (14/2/10)
Letter: UK economy cries out for credible rescue plan Sunday Times, 20 economists (14/2/10)
Economists reject calls for budget cuts Financial Times, Jean Eaglesham and Daniel Pimlott (18/2/10)
Letter: First priority must be to restore robust growth Financial Times, Lord Skidelsky and others (18/2/10)
Letter: Sharp shock now would be dangerous Financial Times, Lord Layard and others (18/2/10)
Economists urge swift action to reduce budget deficit BBC News (14/2/10)
Economists back delay on government spending cuts BBC News (19/2/10)
Economists back delay on government spending cuts BBC News (19/2/10)
Men of letters III BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (19/2/10)
Daily View: When to cut spending? (including podcast) BBC News blogs, Clare Spencer (19/2/10)
Cautious economists and cutters battle it out in print Guardian (20/2/10)
The great economics rift reopens Guardian, Gavyn Davies (19/2/10)
Focus on growth. Don’t argue about cuts Times Online, Eamonn Butler (20/2/10)
Recession’s ruins hide plenty of spare capacity Sunday Times, David Smith (14/2/10)
- To what extent is the disagreement between the two sets of economists largely one of the timing of the cuts?
- Is the disagreement the result of (a) different analysis, (b) different objectives or (c) different interpretation of forecasts of the robustness of the recovery and how markets are likely to respond to alternative policies? Or is it a combination of two of them or all three? Explain your answer.
- How would new classical economists respond to the Keynesian argument that it is necessary to focus on aggregate demand if the economy is to experience a sustained recovery?
- How would Keynesian economists respond to the argument that rapid cuts will reassure markets and allow private-sector recovery to more than compensate for reduced public-sector activity?
- Why is the effect of the recession on the supply-side of the economy crucial in determining the sustainability of a demand-led recovery?
- Distinguish between the cyclical and structural deficits. How would the policies advocated by the two groups of economists impact on the structural deficit?