Monday, December 07, 2009

A letter appears in today's Financial Times from 12 economists, urging the Chancellor of the Exchequer not to rush to cut government spending. I am one of the signatories.

To be sure, the government's budget deficit has risen alarmingly over the last couple of years. It has needed to do so in order to mitigate the effects of recession. And it has, beyond doubt, reached levels that, at around 15% of Gross Domestic Product, are not sustainable in the long term. But we should not forget that the deficit is a flow measure - it represents the gap between government spending and tax revenues in just one year. If we live beyond our means year after year, then that is not good; but if we save in some years in order to spend in difficult times, then that is not bad. At the moment, things are difficult, and thanks to some fairly prudent housekeeping in years gone by (not as prudent as it might have been perhaps - but still prudent enough) the national debt - the relevant stock measure - remains fairly modest. To be precise, the national debt in the UK (according to the latest OECD estimates) amounts to around 75% of Gross Domestic Product - less than that in the Euro area, less than that in the United States, and considerably less than that in Japan.

The government will need to tackle the budget deficit at some stage, and it should not wait too long before doing so. But to be aggressive in doing so now would be premature. The data for the last quarter showed the UK still in recession. Other countries will be tightening their budgets and this will likely result in, at best, slow recovery of global demand. So any recovery in the UK will be fragile over the coming year. If spending cuts were to throw the economy back into reverse, tax revenues would fall further, thus exacerbating - not curing - the problem of a high budget deficit.

Perhaps the foot should come off the accelerator a little. But it's too early to slam it on the brake. Like good comedy, it's just a matter of... timing.