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 Autumn Statement, delivered annually by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in late November or early December, is rather like a second Budget. In his statement, the Chancellor presents new forecasts for the UK economy by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and announces various policy changes in the light of the forecasts.
So what does this OBR say? Its headline reads, “Government borrowing revised higher as weaker economy hits revenues” and this is followed by the statement:
The OBR has revised up its forecasts for public-sector borrowing over the next five years, as a weaker outlook for the economy reduces tax revenues. As a result, the Government no longer seems likely to achieve its target of reducing public-sector net debt in 2015–16.
The chart shows OBR forecasts for public-sector net borrowing made in June 2010 (its first forecast after the OBR was formed by the Coalition government), in March 2012 and in December 2012. The current forecast clearly shows borrowing set to decline more slowly than in the earlier forecasts. Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart. (Note that the effects of transferring the pension assets of the Royal Mail to the Treasury and the effects of not paying interest to the Bank of England on government bonds purchased under quantitative easing programmes have not been included in order to make the three forecasts consistent.)
So with a weaker economy and slower recovery than previously forecast, what are George Osborne’s options? He and his colleagues, along with various economists, argue for sticking to Plan A. This means continuing with austerity measures in order to get the public-sector deficit down. But with government borrowing having fallen more slowly than forecast, this means further government expenditure cuts, such as reductions in benefits, cuts in grants to local authorities and reductions in pensions relief. Even so, achieving his two targets – (1) eliminating the cyclically adjusted current (as opposed to capital) budget deficit by 2015/16 (the so-called ‘fiscal mandate’), and (2) public-sector debt falling as a proportion of GDP by 2015/16 – will both be missed. They were extended by a year in the Budget last March. They have now been extended by a further year to 2017/18.
The opposition and many other economists argue that Plan A has failed. Austerity has prevented the economy from growing and has thus meant a slower reduction in the deficit as tax revenues have not grown nearly as much as hoped for. A more expansionary policy would allow the deficit to be reduced more quickly, especially if extra government expenditure were focused on infrastructure and other capital spending.
It could be argued that George Osborne’s Autumn Statement moves some way in this direction – a Plan A+. He is making deeper cuts in welfare and government departmental spending in order to divert monies into capital spending. For example, there will be £1bn of extra expenditure on roads; £1bn extra on schools; £270m on FE colleges; and £600m extra for scientific research. Also, by extending the period of austerity to 2017/18, this has meant that he has not had to make even deeper cuts. What is more, he is increasing income tax allowances and cutting the rate of corporation tax by 1% more than originally planned and scrapping the planned 3p per litre rise in road fuel duty. He hopes to make up any lost tax revenue from these measures by HMRC clamping down on tax evasion.
But by sticking to his broad austerity strategy, and with many parts of the global economy having weakened, it looks as if the UK economy is in for several more years of sluggish growth. Winter is going to be long.
Webcasts and Podcasts
Autumn Statement: George Osborne scraps 3p fuel duty rise BBC News, Carole Walker (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: OBR says deficit ‘shrinking more slowly’ BBC News, Robert Chote (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Headlines from George Osborne’s speech BBC News, Andrew Neil (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Flanders, Robinson and Peston reactio BBC News, Stephanie Flanders, Nick Robinson and Robert Peston (5/12/12)
Boosting the British Budget CNN, Jim Boulden (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012: key points – video analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott, Jill Treanor, Patrick Collinson and Damian Carrington (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012: the full speech The Telegraph (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Benefit squeeze as economy slows BBC News (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: At-a-glance summary of key points BBC News (5/12/12/)
Austerity to last until 2018, admits George Osborne Independent, Oliver Wright
Autumn statement: George Osborne reveals benefits cut Channel 4 News (5/12/12/)
Autumn Statement 2012: Cut welfare, create jobs – a very Tory statement The Telegraph, Damian Reece (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012: economy weaker than expected, Osborne says The Guardian, Heather Stewart (5/12/12)
Analysis: Even the ‘autumn’ bit seemed optimistic BBC News, Chris Mason (5/12/12)
George Osborne’s autumn statement 2012: reaction The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (5/12/12)
Candid Osborne avoids political risk Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (5/12/12)
Autumn statement: Why George Osborne’s Budget won’t be a game changer The Telegraph, Allister Heath (4/12/12/)
Autumn statement 2012: expert verdict The Guardian, Richard Murphy, Dominic Raab, Ann Pettifor, Gavin Kelly, Prateek Buch and Mark Serwotka (5/12/12/)
The alternative autumn statement Channel 4 News (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012: man cannot live by deficit reduction alone The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (5/12/12)
Autumn statement: cuts are just a sideshow The Guardian, John Redwood (5/12/12)
What does the Autumn Statement mean for business? Economia, David Mellor (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement Reaction: UK AAA ‘safe for today’ Investment Week (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: A wintry statement of reality BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/12/12)
What has changed? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (6/12/12)
UK warned on debt ‘credibility’ over AAA rating BBC News (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012 in charts The Guardian, Simon Rogers (5/12/12/)
Who suffers most from Britain’s austerity? How the figures stack up The Guardian, Tom Clark (5/12/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook charts and tables – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook supplementary economy tables – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM-Treasury
OBR, Treasury and IFS links
Economic and fiscal outlook – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012 HM Treasury (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012 IFS
- Distinguish between ‘stocks’ and ‘flows’. Define (a) public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) and (b) the public-sector net debt (PSND) and explain whether each one is a stock or a flow.
- Summarise the measures announced by George Osborne in his Autumn Statement.
- What are his arguments for not adopting a more expansionary fiscal policy?
- Assess his arguments.
- What is meant by the ‘output gap’? What are the OBR’s forecasts about the output gap and what are the implications?
- How has quantitative easing affected PSNB and PSND?
- Distinguish between the cyclical and structural deficit. What implications does this distinction have for fiscal policy?
There seems to be consensus among most politicians on both sides of the Atlantic that there needs to be a reduction in government deficits and debt as a proportion of GDP. But there is considerable debate as to how such reductions should be achieved.
Conservatives, Republicans and centre right parties in Europe, such as Greece’s Νεα Διμοκρατια (New Democracy) party, believe that there should be tough policies to reduce government expenditure and that the deficit should be reduced relatively quickly in order to retain the confidence of markets.
Politicians on the centre left, including Labour, many Democrats in the USA and centre-left parties in Europe, such as François Hollande’s Socialists, argue that the austerity policies pursued by centre-right governments have led to a decline in growth, which makes it harder to reduce the current deficit.
Then there is debate about what is happening to the structural deficit – the deficit that would remain at a zero output gap. Politicians on the centre right argue that their austerity policies are leading to a rapid reduction in the structural deficit. This, combined with the supply-side policies they claim they are implementing, will allow growth to be resumed more quickly and will increase the long-term growth rate (i.e. the growth in potential output).
Politicians on the centre left argue that deep cuts, by reducing short-term growth (even making it negative in some cases, such as the UK), are discouraging investment and construction. This in turn will lower the growth in potential output and make it harder to reduce the structural deficit.
The following podcast and articles consider these arguments – arguments that are often badly put by politicians, who often use ‘questionable’ economics to justify their party line.
A grand economic experiment (also at) More or Less: BBC Radio 4 (first part), Tim Harford (4/5/12) (Programme details)
The fine art of squeezing: Britain vs America BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/5/12)
The Slippery Structural Deficit Wall Street Journal (blog), Matthew Dalton (11/5/12)
The right kinds of austerity policy Financial Times (1/5/12)
We can fix up the old status quo to get out of this mess The Olympian, David Brooks (11/5/12)
Europe’s austerity drive is a misdiagnosis of its problems Gulf News, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/12)
How Nick Clegg got it wrong on debt Guardian, Polly Curtis (9/5/12)
Ten Reasons Wall Street Should Be (Very) Worried About The U.S. Debt Forbes, Bruce Upbin (4/5/12)
- Distinguish between the structural and cyclical budget deficit.
- Explain the distinction between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: (a) public-sector deficit; (b) public-sector debt; (c) public-sector net cash requirement; (d) debt reduction; (e) a bank’s balance sheet?
- Under what circumstances will a reduction in the public-sector deficit lead to: (a) a reduction in the public-sector debt (total); (b) a reduction in the public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP?
- How would you decide what is the desirable level of the public-sector deficit: (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
- Explain and comment on the following statement from the Stephanie Flanders article: “What is clear is that America has been able to ‘cut its debt (sic) further and faster’ than Britain – but this has not been the result of any closet commitment to austerity. Quite the opposite.”
Twice a year, directly after the government’s Spring Budget and Autumn Statement, the Institute for Fiscal Studies gives its verdict on the performance of the economy and the government’s economic policies – past and planned. This year is no exception. After the Chancellor had delivered his Autumn Statement, the next day the IFS published its analysis. And what grim reading it makes.
• Real average (mean) incomes in 2011 will have fallen by 3%.
• Between 2009/10 and 2012/13, real median household incomes will have fallen by 7.4%
• Over the same period, real mean household income will have fallen by 4.7% – easily the biggest 3-year drop since records began in the mid 1950s.
• Real mean household incomes will be no higher in 2015/16 than in 2002/03.
• The poorest will be hardest hit by the measures announced in the Autumn Statement.
• Infrastructure spending of £4bn to £5bn will only go some way offsetting the effects of £17bn capital spending cuts over the Parliament.
• The economy will be 3.5% smaller in 2016 than thought in March.
• The structural budget deficit is 1.6% higher than thought in March.
• That will extend to 6 years the period over which total spending will have been cut year on year.
Referring to this last point, Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, said in his Opening Remarks, “One begins to run out of superlatives for describing quite how unprecedented that is. Certainly there has been no period like it in the UK in the last 60 years.” Referring to the fall in real incomes, he said, “Again we are running out of superlatives to describe just how extraordinary are some of these changes.”
Commentators have referred to the “lost decade” where the average Briton will not have seen an increase in real income.
Autumn Statement 2011: Families face ‘lost decade’ as spending power suffers biggest fall since 1950s, says IFS The Telegraph, Matthew Holehouse (30/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011: IFS talks down George Osborne’s growth plan The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (30/11/11)
Autumn statement study by IFS predicts lost decade for UK living standards Guardian, Katie Allen and Larry Elliott (30/11/11)
Britons Enduring 13-Year Squeeze on Living Standards, IFS Says Bloomberg Businessweek, Gonzalo Vina (30/11/11)
The UK now faces a ‘lost decade’ Financial Times, Martin Wolf (29/11/11)
Warning of seven-year squeeze Independent, James Tapsfield, Andrew Woodcock (30/11/11)
Osborne’s impact laid bare: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer Independent, Ben Chu, Oliver Wright (1/12/11)
Incomes to fall 7.4% in three years, says IFS BBC News (30/11/11)
No growth in income for 14 years, warns IFS BBC News, IFS director Paul Johnson (30/11/11)
UK economy: Third worst year since the war BBC Today Programme, IFS director Paul Johnson (29/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011 and the OBR Economic and Fiscal Outlook IFS (30/11/11)
- Why is it likely that the median real income will have fallen by more than the mean real income?
- Why is the structural deficit now estimated to be some 1.6 percentage points higher than was estimated by the OBR back in March 2011?
- How could the structural deficit be affected by a prolonged recession? Is this a case of hysteresis?
- What are the government’s fiscal rules?
- Is the IFS predicting that the rules will be met? What might adversely affect this prediction?
- If technological progress is allowing a continuous increase in potential real GDP, why will median real incomes have fallen over the 13 years between 2002/03 and 2015/16? What might have affected long-term aggregate supply adversely?
On Tuesday 29 November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered his Autumn Statement. This presented the outlook for the UK economy, with forecasts supplied by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). It also contained details of government fiscal measures to tackle various macroeconomic problems, including economic slowdown and high levels of national debt.
The outlook for the UK economy came as no surprise. Things are looking much bleaker than a few months ago. The OBR, along with other forecasters, has downgraded its predictions of the UK’s growth rate. Although it is still forecasting positive growth of 0.9% this year and 0.7% in 2012, these rates are well below those it predicted just eight months ago. In March it forecast growth rates of 1.7% for 2011 and 2.5% for 2012.
To make things worse, its growth forecasts are based on the assumptions that the eurozone crisis will be resolved with little or no effect on the UK. But even if that were so, the debt reduction plans in the eurozone are likely to drive the eurozone back into recession. This, in turn, will impact on UK exports, more than 50% of which go to eurozone countries.
The OBR forecasts that national debt will be 67% of GDP this year and will rise to 78% by 2014/15 but then start to fall. Government borrowing is forecast to be £127bn this year, falling to £120bn in 2012/13 and then more substantially each year after that to £24bn in 2016/17.
So what measures were included in the Autumn Statement? These are detailed in the articles below, but the key ones were:
• a programme of credit easing, which will underwrite up to £40bn in low-interest loans for small and medium-sized businesses.
• £5bn of public money to be invested in infrastrucuture projects and a further £5bn in the next spending round. Agreement had been reached with two groups of pension funds to invest a further £20bn of private money in infrastructure projects.
• an additional £1.2bn for capital investment in schools.
• A cap on public-sector pay increases of 1% per year for the two years after the current two-year pay freeze.
The following videos and articles give details of the forecasts and the measures and give reactions from across the political spectrum.
George Osborne: Key points from chancellor’s speech BBC News, Andrew Neil 29/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011: George Osborne – my plan to ‘see Britain through The Telegraph on YouTube (29/11/11)
UK economy slows to crawl Reuters (29/11/11)
George Osborne’s autumn statement – video analysis Guardian, Larry Elliott (29/11/11)
Autumn Statement: Osborne reveals state of UK economy BBC News, Nick Robinson (29/11/11)
Autumn Statement: Why is the deficit not shrinking? BBC News, Hugh Pym (29/11/11)
Autumn Statement: Robinson, Flanders and Peston analysis BBC News, Nick Robinson, Stephanie Flanders and Robert Peston (29/11/11)
Can the UK economy be ‘re-balanced’? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (29/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011: main points The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper (29/11/11)
The Autumn Statement at a glance WalesOnline, Rhodri Evans (30/11/11)
Autumn Statement Summary 2011 TaxAssist Accountants (29/11/11)
Into the storm The Economist (3/13/11)
A battalion of troubles The Economist (3/12/11)
Weapons of mass construction The Economist (3/12/11)
Mr Osborne’s unwelcome statement BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (29/11/11)
£30bn of extra cuts keep Osborne on track, just BBC News, Paul Mason (29/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011: Commentators give their verdict The Telegraph (30/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011: concern remains but ‘Plan A-plus’ welcomed The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (29/11/11)
Autumn statement: George Osborne’s cutting fantasy is over Guardian, Robert Skidelsky (29/11/11)
Hoarding for the apocalypse? I really wouldn’t blame you Guardian, Zoe Williams (30/11/11)
Reports and data
Autumn Statement 2011 – documents HM Treasury (29/11/11)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2011 Office for Budget Responsibility (29/11/11)
Autumn statement 2011: the key data you need to understand George Osborne’s speech Guardian DataBlog (29/11/11)
How much will the autumn statement cost and how will the economy change? Guardian DataBlog (29/11/11)
- Compare the OBR’s March and November 2011 forecasts.
- What factors explain the differences in the two sets of forecasts?
- For what reasons might national debt in the future turn out to be higher or lower than that forecast by the OBR?
- What will be the impact on aggregate demand of the measures announced in the Autumn Statement?
- What will be the impact on aggregate supply of the measures announced in the Autumn Statement?
- Why may a recession impact not just on aggregate demand but also on long-term aggregate supply?
- Why may increased pessimism by both consumers and producers make it more difficult for the government to meet its macroeconomic objectives?