There is a huge hole in public finances that needs to be filled and protestors are arguing that part of the deficit can be financed by companies that manage to avoid or indeed evade taxation. Sunday 30th January was marked by many as the day of action against this alleged tax avoidance by companies who choose to register in so-called tax havens. These countries offer much lower tax rates and hence provide an attractive environment for companies and savers.
However, protests by the campaign group Uncut have been targeting companies such as Boots, Vodafone and Top Shop, accusing them of depriving the UK economy of billions of pounds of tax revenue, which could be used to plug the hole in Britain’s finances and put the economy on the road to recovery. While these concerns have been around for a long time, they have been brought to the forefront by the government’s spending cuts in areas such as higher education, public sector pensions and the planned closures of libraries. There are numerous strikes planned by workers facing job losses, pay cuts and pension cuts. However, George Osborne has said:
“I regard these people as the forces of stagnation, when we are trying to get the British economy competitive again, moving forward again.”
With more and more spending cuts expected and households being squeezed could this tax avoidance really fill the gap? It is not known how much tax revenue is lost through tax avoidance and evasion, but HM Revenue and Customs estimated that the size of the tax gap could lie somewhere between £3.7 billion and £13 billion. The Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated a gap of £8.5 billion and the TUC at around £12 billion. A pretty wide divergence on estimates I grant you, but an indication of the sheer volume and value of tax avoidance that takes place. Clamping down on this may not plug the hole, but it would certainly help!
Analysis: UK Uncut- The true costs of tax avoidance Ethical Corporation 2009 (28/1/11)
Tax protestors stage Boots sit-in The Press Association (30/1/11)
Weekend of protests planned over tax cuts Guardian, Matthew Taylor and Jessica Shepherd (28/1/11)
Unions are “forces of stagnation”, says Osborne BBC News (28/1/11)
Day of action against tax avoiders The Press Association (28/1/11)
Firms’ secret tax avoidance schemes cost UK billions Guardian, Tax Gap Reporting Team (2/2/09)
- Why is the UK running such a large budget deficit?
- What is the point of tax avoidance?
- What are the arguments for companies such as Boots registering in other countries? Are these reasons ever in the interests of consumers?
- How are companies able to reduce their tax burdens by registering in countries like Switzerland?
- Why does George Osborne argue that trade unions and strike action are the ‘forces of stagnation’?
- What are the costs of striking to (a) workers, (b) consumers, (c) firms and (d) the economy?
- Would clamping down on tax avoidance be of benefit to the UK economy in the short and long run?
Reforms and budget cuts seem to be the norm across the world. In the UK, we’ve seen announcements about substantial cuts in government spending and reforms to our welfare state, including child benefit and pension reforms. But how will people react? Perhaps, we should look to France to see what could be to come. People across the country are protesting against the plan to raise the pension age from 60 to 62.
Workers at French oil refineries have ceased work and, as as a result, shortages of petrol across France look set to continue. There has been mass disruption to various transport markets, including cancelled flights and lorry drivers using ‘go-slow tactics’.
Furthermore, it’s not just workers at oil refineries who are on strike. Rubbish remains uncollected; oil tankers are floating off the coast; rail strikes and postal strikes have disrupted daily life; and even the school system has been affected. But, what are the costs of these strikes? Will the French economy suffer? Will economic growth be affected? It’s certainly an inefficient use of resources and will undoubtedly cost money.
Yet, despite these strikes, the President has said that the reforms will still go ahead, as he looks forward to a Senate vote on the pension bill. But what are the problems necessitating pension reform, not just in France, but across the world? And will it be France’s turn to experience a ‘winter of discontent’?
French strikes force petrol stations to shut BBC News (18/10/10)
Defiant Marseille, heart of France’s social unrest Reuters (18/10/10)
French Fuel Crisis: Protests turn violent Sky News, Huw Borland (18/10/10)
JPMorgan says French strike will cut demand for oil next year Bloomberg, Grant Smith (18/10/10)
French strikes hit airlines, trucking, gas pipes Philippine Star (19/10/10)
French riot police clash with students as petrol stations run dry Telegraph, Henry Samuel (18/10/10)
French based for another day of strike action Guardian, Angelique Chrisafis (18/10/10)
France strike: flights cancelled, airlines told to carry enough fuel for return journey Telegraph (18/10/10)
- What action other than striking is open to workers? What are the costs and benefits of each?
- Why are strikes by groups of workers likely to be more effective than protests by individual workers?
- Illustrate on a diagram the effect of a trade union entering an industry. How does it affect equilibrium wages and equilibrium employment? Is there any difference if the trade union faces a monopsonist employer of labour?
- What are the efficiency arguments against strike action?
- How are oil prices determined? What will be the impact on oil prices of these strikes in France? Will there be an impact on the rest of the world?
- What are the key issues necessitating pension reform? Are these issues worth the price of the strikes?
‘Austerity’ seems to be the buzzword, as more and more countries across Europe make steps towards reducing substantial budget deficits. The UK has implemented £6.2 billion of cuts, with cuts of £50 billion expected by 2015 to tackle a budget deficit of over 10% of GDP. Portugal’s deficit stands at 8% of GDP and this will be tackled with rises in income, corporate and VAT tax, together with spending cuts aimed at halving the budget deficit by next year. Ireland’s austerity package includes public-sector pay cuts of up to 20%, plus reductions in child benefit, tax rises, and several key services facing cuts in employment, including emergency service and teachers. And, of course, we can’t forget Greece, with a budget deficit 12.2% of GDP, a national debt of 124.9% of GDP, and a forecast to remain in recession this year and the next. The Greek economy faces hard times with a huge austerity drive, including 12% civil service pay cuts, a large privatisation programme, and substantial pension cuts.
Greece is already in receipt of a €110bn rescue package. The Hungarian economy has already received €20bn aid from the EU, IMF and World Bank and spending cuts have been implemented, as markets began to fear that Hungary would become the next Greece. Germany is the most recent country to announce austerity measures, including plans to cut €10 billion annually until 2016.
But, what does this all mean? For years, many countries have spent beyond their means and only with the global recession did this growing problem really rear its ugly head. The only way to eliminate the budget deficit and restore confidence in the economy and ensure future prosperity is to raise taxes and/or to implement spending cuts. As the German Finance Minister said: “The main concern of citizens is that the national deficit could take on immeasurable proportions”. Unfortunately, this has already happened in some counties.
Although austerity measures are undoubtedly needed over the medium term in order to get deficits down, the impact of them is already being felt across the EU. Strikes have already occurred in massive proportions across Greece in response to the austerity package and tens of thousand of workers in Spain and Denmark also took to the streets in protest. There was anger from industry, trade unions and the media in response to €86 billion of cuts ordered in Germany between 2011 and 2014. The UK has already seen a number of strikes and more could be to come with further spending cuts in the pipeline. The Public and Commercial Services Union is threatening to re-launch strikes which began in March involving 200 000 civil servants (the action was suspended for the election.) A spokesman said: “If the cuts are anything like what is being suggested, industrial action by the unions is not only likely, it’s inevitable.”
EU governments have announced public spending cuts of €200 billion, together with a €500 billion safety blanket for the euro. Although these cuts are unlikely to have any positive effects for the everyday person for perhaps many years to come, in order to restore confidence and ensure a future economy that is both prosperous and stable, these austerity measures are deemed by many as essential. As Guy Verhofstadt (the former Belgian Prime Minister) said: “We’re entering a long period of economic stagnation. That will be the main problem for years. Europe is the new Japan.”
But will reduced aggregate demand resulting from the cuts lead to a double-dip recession and a (temporarily) worsening deficit from automatic fiscal stabilisers? We wait with baited breath.
EU austerity drive country-by-country BBC News (7/6/10)
Europe embraces the cult of austerity but at what cost? The Observer, Toby Helm, Ian Traynor and Paul Harris (13/6/10)
Germany joins EU austerity drive with €10bn cuts Guardian, Helena Smith (6/6/10)
G20 to endorse EU crisis strategy Reuters (28/5/10)
The Global recovery? It’s each state for itself Guardian, Jonathan Fenby (9/6/10)
Austerity angers grow in Europe AFP (9/6/10)
Austerity Europe: who faces the cuts? Guardian, Ian Traynor and Katie Allen (12/6/10)
Is this the end of the European welfare state? New Statesman (10/6/10)
- Are spending cuts or tax rises the best method to reduce a budget deficit? Explain your answer.
- What are the economic costs of the austerity packages across Europe?
- Who is likely to gain from the debt crisis in Europe?
- If austerity packages had not been initiated to the extent that they have, how do you think the rest of the world have reacted?
- Using the BBC News article and the Guardian article ‘Austerity measures: who faces the cuts?’, which country do you think is (a) in the best state and (b) in the worst state?
- How will you be affected by the austerity measures?
Fears of growing debt problems in the EU have caused global stock markets to plummet. On 25th May, the FTSE was down by 2.6%, Germany’s Dax index fell by 2.34% and in France the Cac 40 was also down 2.74%. Shares across Asia fell, including those in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand. On top of this, there are concerns of rising military tensions between North and South Korea. This has only added to the pessimism of investors.
Then came the rescue of the Spanish bank Cajasur by the Bank of Spain, which did little to restore confidence in the world economy. The Spanish deficit has reached 11% of GDP, which is nearly 4 times higher than eurozone rules allow. Spain is also suffering from unemployment of more than 20%, which has led the IMF to call for massive structural reform in the country. The euro has also weakened, as investors sell the currency, because of growing fears of debt default amongst the eurozone countries.
Amid concerns of possible default by Greece, Spain and other countries, the IMF and the members of the European Union have agreed an emergency package of €750 billion (£650 billion). €250 billion comes from the IMF, with €440 billion available as loan guarantees for struggling nations and €60 billion from emergency European Commission funding. We can only wait to see how effective this rescue package will be in restoring confidence in the Eurozone economies.
Global stock markets see sharp falls BBC News (25/5/10)
Spain must make wide ranging reforms, weak recovery – IMF Reuters (24/5/10)
FTSE falls another 2.5% after Europe’s debt crisis sparks fears in Asian markets Mail Online (25/5/10)
IMF raises fresh concerns about the Spanish economy BBC News (24/5/10)
IMF Chief Economists – doubts over Greek aid remain Reuters, John Irish (24/5/10)
Markets still tense over eurozone debt Independent, Ian Chu (21/5/10)
FTSE falls below 5,000 due to eurozone crisis Telegraph (21/5/10)
FTSE plunges nearly 3% in opening seconds (including video) Sky News (25/5/10)
The contagion of austerity BBC News blogs: Gavin Hewitt’s Europe (25/5/10)
Europe debt crisis threatens recovery, OECD warns BBC News (26/5/10)
In graphics: Eurozone in crisis BBC News (24/5/10)
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission (especially sections 1, 6, 16 and 18)
- Using a diagram, illustrate why the euro has weakened.
- Explain why stock markets have fallen across the world.
- What type of reforms are needed in Spain?
- What factors are likely to determine the effectiveness of the IMF emergency package?
- Are the austerity measures in the Spanish economy likely to lead to the similar outcomes that we saw in Greece, such as widespread strikes?
- Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the rescue package. Does rescue involve a moral hazard?
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?