Monday, December 20, 2010

The Conferderation of British Industry has lowered its growth forecast for the coming quarter; it now forecasts quarter-on-quarter growth of just 0.2 per cent over the period from January to March 2011. It does, however, still expect growth of 2 per cent over the coming year.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide consumer confidence index fell further in November, and is now close to the low point that it reached in January 2009. (The index stands at 45 in November; it was 43 in January of last year.)

I have, on a couple of occasions over the last few months, reported the predictions of a neural network forecasting model. Over the coming 18 months, that model is currently predicting modest growth for the UK, and suggests that the danger of a double-dip is receeding. It should, however, be borne in mind that this model is based on output data (monthly data on industrial production, to be precise); the model may not adequately allow for the threats to the economy that come from sluggish consumer spending, fragile overseas demand, and government austerity packages. Nonetheless, the model offers a little festive cheer.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported on the government's proposals for student finance. Its findings cast some useful light on a debate that has been dominated by political spin. An important conclusion is that 'graduates from the poorest 30% of households would (under the government's proposals) pay back less than under Lord Browne's proposed system, but more than under the current system'. Many politicians would have you believe otherwise.

Browne's proposals, which involved a 'soft' cap on tuition fees at £6000, with universities being allowed to raise fees above that level while being subjected to a steeply rising tax, have been replaced by a 'two cap' system - where the cap is either £6000 or £9000 conditional on widening participation. Both Browne and government proposals involve a loan for tuition fees and maintenance that is repaid once the student graduates and is earning £21000 or more per year. Concessions made by the government include the annual uprating of this £21000 figure, and tuition fee discounts to students from the poorest families.

The media has portrayed this as a three-fold increase in tuition fees, indicating an expectation that many universities will pitch their fees at or near the higher cap. Indeed, it is quite possible that, by introducing the higher cap, the government will already have encouraged some institutions to set fees higher than they would otherwise have chosen. This would appear to be good for neither students not public finances, and appears to have been driven by a political need to retain a cap of some sort. Yet surely it is almost inevitable that the cap will go some day, and Browne's suggestion of protecting students and the taxpayer by imposing taxes on universities that charge high tuition fees was eminently sensible. In this respect, politics seems to have trumped common sense.

The universities, meanwhile, will suffer severe cuts to their teaching budgets from the coming tax year (which starts before the end of the current academic year), and will - if the legislation goes through - be able to charge higher tuition fees only from academic year 2012-13. They will face a more robust competitive environment, and will need to innovate rapidly - and constantly - if they are to prosper. These are interesting times indeed in higher education.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

'Nudge' is the title of an influential book written a couple of years ago by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The thesis of the book is that small actions by government can be used to trigger large changes in behaviour amongst the population at large - government can 'nudge' people in a particular direction. The idea comes from the insights of behavioural economists who have combined research results from the disciplines of psychology and economics.

Nudge is now influential in policy circles. Indeed the new white paper on health policy, 'Healthy Lives, Healthy People', contains many ideas based on nudge. It talks of the need to harness 'the latest insights from behavioural science, and emphasises that 'top down inititiatives and lectures from central government about the risks are not the answer' to health issues.

Good. But let us hope that the solutions will be based on research, and that nudge is not used as an excuse for doing (and spending) too little when more needs to be done.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has raised its forecast for growth in 2010 to 1.8%. This is in response to the higher than expected figure for third quarter growth. At the same time, the OBR's forecast for growth in 2011 has been cut - from 2.3% to 2.1% - following the VAT hike (from 17.5% to 20% in January of next year) and the planned cuts in government expenditure.

The outlook for the world economy remains very uncertain, with recent events surrounding the Irish economy merely serving to highlight the continued fragility of the financial sector. Weakness in the UK's main export markets continues to suggest that the risks remain on the downside. If the economy fares as well as the OBR expects in 2011, I would be pleasantly surprised; given the severity of the government's austerity measures, and the imposition of similar measures elsewhere, a growth rate of one point something seems to me to be more likely.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The government has launched an initiative to create an index of happiness. Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that purely economic measures of prosperity, such as Gross Domestic Product, provide too narrow a metric of our wellbeing. No doubt he is right.

Composite measures of wellbeing are not a new thing. The United Nations has calculated a Human Development Index which, since 1990, has evaluated wellbeing in terms of people's educational attainment, life expectancy and income. The UK comes 26th in this ranking.

But what about happiness? A lot of recent work on happiness uses standard survey questions such as this: 'All things considered, how satisfied are you with life as a whole these days?' Respondents give a response, usually on a 5 point scale. The results correlate strongly with more objective measures of average happiness across countries - like suicide rates, addiction rates and so on. So perhaps there is something in this idea of a happiness index.

We know that stable familes, good health, active leisure time, high levels of employment, a relatively equal distribution of income, freedom and democracy all positively influence happiness. If these insights lead to the adoption of policies that are family friendly, that are health enhancing, that encourage active leisure and so on, then that is all to the good.

So far, so good. But there is an inconvenient paradox lying in wait. Much of the work that has been done on happiness indicates that happiness has not risen over time - even though we are now much richer than we were in the past. However, we also know that our happiness is determined largely by a comparison of our own income with that of other people. So if we see other countries getting richer while our own does not, we become less happy.

Like it or not, the question of economic prosperity will always come to the surface.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

There is the deficit, and there is the debt. The deficit is a flow (like water flowing into a bath) - and it only make sense to talk of a flow as a measure of volume per period. The deficit tells us how much is being added to the debt per year. The debt, on the other hand, is a stock (like the amount of water that is actually in the bath). We pay interest on the national debt, and if the national debt rises too high we squander too much of our resource on these interest payments.

Clearly the flow and the stock are related. Keep the tap on too long and the tub overflows. The deficit does need to be reduced. But this chart, published by the Financial Times, is useful in putting things in context.

Relative to many other countries, the UK started out from a good place. Its policy response to the recession was aggressive (and, given the economy's reliance on financial services, it needed to be). We are left with a high deficit that needs to be cut. But the national debt remains in a place which gives the government some discretion (not much, but some) about how fast it should go in making the cuts.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Output growth in the third quarter of this year, at 0.8%, was faster than many commentators expected. This is good news, clearly.

It is unlikely, however, that such a rate of growth could be sustained into the future - even in the absence of tough government budget cuts. While the latest data give some encouragement that the economy is stronger than we thought, the prospects for continued growth over the next couple of years remain very modest.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A few months ago, I reported the results of a simple forecasting model that I tried out on UK data, looking ahead over the next year or so. It's time for an update. There is good news and bad news: the model is no longer predicting a nosedive for late 2011. However it does predict extremely sluggish growth, barely above zero in most months and dipping slightly below zero on occasion.

This is not the type of model that allows consideration to be taken of policy announcements - it's simply based on the time series of a single variable. What we know about the likely trajectory of the economy, even in the absence of policy shifts that are themselves deflationary, is that the scope for growth is very limited.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The cuts to public spending announced in today's spending review were well heralded in advance. That said, the expectations management of the government has not been terribly sophisticated - there is no room for celebration that the cuts have turned out to be less severe than feared.

The cuts amount to £81 billion per year by 2014-15. This is in addition to £29 billion additional tax revenues that the government hopes to bring in from policies announced earlier. This will much more than wipe out the structural deficit (on any reasonable calculation of what the structural deficit is), and suggests that the government is seeking to leave itself scope for tax cuts later in the parliament. Unfortunately the economy needs the breaks (and certainly not the brakes) now, not in four years time.

The phasing of the cuts is gradual - with around £20 billion extra being taken off the total spend in each of the next four years. In view of the current fragility of the economy a more phased ramping up of the cuts would likely have been prudent. It is not clear that the patient can easily stomach the medicine in the immediate future - we should now expect growth (if indeed there is to be any growth) to be very sluggish indeed over the medium term.

Since cuts of around £80 billion were heralded in the emergency budget, none of the above is terribly new. What is new is the detail about where the cuts will come from. Of the really big spending departments, the hardest hit are to be local government and (as part of the Business, Innovation and Skills budget) the universities. For the latter, the increase in tuition fees proposed by last week's Browne report serves as a useful stealth tax. For the former, the cut will have to be managed by people outside central government. Easy targets, then, that allow the policy makers to say there is a plan when in fact the plan is to let others work out a plan.

Health spending has been protected, as (largely) has education (below the tertiary level). These would, of course, have been tough targets.

A total of almost half a million public sector jobs are set to disappear. The government hopes that the private sector will grow to compensate for this, and cites the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility as evidence. It will be interesting to see if the OBR continues to be so sanguine as time unfolds. I see little reason to share their optimism.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

After rising somewhat in August, consumer confidence in September continued its downward trajectory. This should be seen as further evidence to suggest that caution is needed before cutting back too fast on public spending.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The plethora of stories about the future of higher education funding in the UK is multiplying fast, as we await publication of the Browne reivew on 12 October. Over the weekend, it appeared that the interest rate charged on loans would vary positively with graduates' incomes. The media today are full of a somewhat simpler proposal - namely that all but those on the lowest incomes would pay a flat rate of interest.

If, as seems likely, the Browne review recommends either the removal of the cap on tuition fees or a substantial rise in the cap, then charging a flat interest rate equal to the market interest rate would be sensible. Removing the cap (or raising it substantially) gives universities the right to set their own fees for undergraduates - and, since these fees are currently paid upfront by the government with students repaying them using a subsidised loan, this has implications for government expenditure. In effect, the co-existence of a free market in tuition fees and subsidised interest rates means that government would cede control of its own spending. Given its stance on the budget deficit, the current government is hardly likely to do that.

If the cap is removed (or substantially raised) and market interest rates are charged on student loans, the problem is largely solved. To be sure, the government would need to find the money to pay the fees upfront. But, with market interest rates being charged, it could pass this problem on to the private sector. Government could bundle together individual students' debt, and sell packages of the debt to the banks. It needs to do so at a discount in order to make the package attractive, but, with a real interest rate, the discount would need to be much smaller than it is at present.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In 10 days time, we will know the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. Cuts of the order of 25% have been mooted as the government attempts to tackle its budget deficit. It is not clear where the 25% figure comes from - government spending is currently running at around £660 billion per year, and a 25% cut in this would more than wipe out the entire deficit - not just that part of the deficit that is 'structural'.

Around a half of the deficit is due to the shortfall in economic growth over the years of recession and early recovery. During downturns, the government's revenues from tax automatically fall, and government spending rises - both because benefit payments increase and because discretionary policies are put in place to stimulate the ailing economy. This bias towards deficit in a recession is not a long term problem, and that part of the deficit that is due to such factors is not part of the 'structural' deficit that the government is aiming to cut.

It seems, therefore, that the 25% figure is a rather crude attempt at expectations management. At least, one hopes so.
The latest noises about the reform of higher education funding in the UK suggest that the government is considering a move to charge higher interest on student loans to those graduates in higher earning groups.

A side-effect of such a scheme would be that, at a certain level of income, graduates would take home less pay if they worked more. At the trigger point for the higher interest rate, working a little more would cause higher interest to be charged, presumably, on the whole of the loan, thus making the graduate worse off. This is what is sometimes called a 'poverty trap' (though the terminology is ill-suited to the case of high earning graduates).

The government is, rightly, trying to simplify the welfare system so that such poverty traps are eradicated. It would be perverse of it to introduce a poverty trap into the student funding system.

The Liberal Democrats are concerned to ensure that student funding is progressive. As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, it is, however, the progressivity of the whole tax system that matters - not the progressivity of the student loans system alone.

Monday, October 04, 2010

There have to be cuts, and, if cuts there have to be, it is as well to introduce reforms alongside them. In my blog post of 23 June this year, I suggested that a quick win would be to limit the availability of child benefit to those parents who most need it. Today's announcement that child benefit will no longer be available to those households where there is a higher rate taxpayer is therefore welcome.

Also welcome are some of the noises about welfare reform. The government's proposals in this area remain thin on detail - and the detail will matter. But one idea that has been mooted is that benefit claimants taking on a job would be allowed to keep claiming their benefit for a fixed period in addition to their earned income. This would mean that no-one could claim to be made worse off by taking on employment. The length of the fixed period matters, of course. But this would appear to be an idea with some merit.

That said, it is not a policy that should be expected to work miracles in reducing unemployment in the short term. The recovery from recession is likely to be slow, unemployment is likely to rise, and the reason for that will be that the economy's demand for labour remains weak. The welfare reform may well improve people's willingness to supply their labour when the economy is approaching capacity constraints. But that time is quite a long way ahead of us.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The International Monetary Fund has published its latest report on the UK economy. It is not clear from the report whether the authors thought that our glass is half full or half empty. The report begins with a statement that 'the UK economy is on the mend', and the view is expressed that 'the government's strong and credible multi-year fiscal deficit reduction plan is essential'. That finding should not be too surprising in light of the way these reports are compiled.

However, the report also makes the points that

'fiscal tightening will dampen short-term growth', that

monetary policy should remain expansionary and will 'need to be nimble if risks materialize', and that

'an adverse scenario where major new shocks—arising from either external forces or domestic ones—trigger another extended contraction in output cannot be ruled out.'

This, then, paints a somewhat unclear picture. The suggestion that a tough and credible deficit reduction plan is needed is not exactly news. The real debate is about how fast this should happen.

Friday, September 24, 2010

For many students of economics, an early encounter with the elegant and sometimes magical nature of the subject comes in the form of the 'multiplier'. The idea of the multiplier is that an autonomous increase in spending in an economy can ultimately bring about a change in national income that is greater than the initial stimulus. The increased spending that kicks off the whole process might come from government - either in the form of increased government expenditure, or as a result of cuts in tax that allow consumers to spend more.

The mechanism that underpins the multiplier is simple. Suppose the government increases spending by engaging in more construction projects. Builders are hired, and they earn incomes. They then spend those incomes - and these expenditures become an increase in someone else's income. And these other people spend their increases in income, thus passing added income on to yet more people. And so on. Ultimately, because we tend not to spend all of any increase in our pay, this process fizzles out, but (at least in the simple cases studied in the textbooks) not before national income has increased by more than the initial increase in spend.

People, understandably, tend to be suspicious when conjurers pull rabbits out of hats. Likewise, many are suspicious about the multiplier. It does, after all, have something of a 'money for nothing' feel about it. In many circumstances, the suspicions are well founded. If the economy is working close to capacity, then the idea of people doing more, generating more income, is misleading. You can't do more if you're already at capacity. In this case, the expansionary effect of the extra spending tends to produce not more output, but simply higher prices. This being so, then beneficial effects of the extra spending get wiped out - or at least reduced. Economists like to talk about increases in government spending being 'crowded out', and this is one form of that.

But there are times when the economy is not working close to capacity. Right now is an example. What about the multiplier at times like now? Two recent papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research - one by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko, the other by Robert Gordon and Robert Krenn - tackle this question. And both studies find, convincingly, that the multiplier is much larger during recessions than at other times. Indeed, during recessions, the multiplier may be as high as 2.5. In other words, extra government spending of £100m can generate an increase in the national income of as much as £250m. During recessions, the risk of such fiscal expansion having a detrimental effect on inflation is minimal.

All of this means that fiscal expansion is a sensible policy to follow during recessions. In a dynamic world, we have to keep an eye on the implications of the policy for our ability to pay back government debt - of course. But the evidence we now have suggests that fiscal policy is much more effective (at times like these) than sceptics once suggested.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Vince Cable has, somewhat confusingly, now rejected his own graduate tax proposal as unworkable, but still wants to retain an element of progressivity in graduates' repayment of their student loans. The question is: why?

Progressivity is very laudable (now there's a value judgement for you). But surely it's the progressivity of the tax and benefits system as a whole that matters, not the progressivity of one little bit of it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In his speech to the TUC today, Mervyn King provided a pretty fair assessment of the state of play. Global imbalances led to cavalier behaviour on the part of the financial institutions, which in turn led to the near collapse of the financial system, needing huge fiscal stimulus to avert a major depression - leaving us with the challenge of a large fiscal deficit.

King states that 'there is a perfectly reasonable debate about the precise speed at which to reduce the deficit. Indeed, I supported the extra fiscal stimulus to the economy provided in the immediate wake of the crisis. And there is a further question about how the deficit should be reduced - the balance between raising taxes and cutting spending. That is not for me to say; that is for you and the politicians to debate.'

It is, as King argues, 'vital for any government to set out and commit to a clear and credible plan for reducing the deficit'. The present government appears to be engaged in an exercise designed to manage people's expectations. While government departments have been asked to prepare for 25% cuts in spending, such drastic cuts far exceed what is needed in order to eliminate the structural deficit. Nevertheless, the cuts will be severe. Their phasing over the next 4 years or so is critical. The Bank of England's own forecasts do not rule out the possibility of a double dip, and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts are somewhat less sanguine. Given changes in the state of the US economy since these forecasts were produced, the outlook is, if anything, less favourable. So, while the time to start reducing the deficit is indeed coming up soon, caution will be needed in judging the right speed at which to go.

The plan should not only be 'clear and credible', it should be sensible too - and that means that it should not involve all guns in blazing from the off.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The annual meeting of the Trades Union Congress takes place this week. Delegates will hear calls for an attack on the government's agenda for cuts. This attack includes the possibility of 'joint industrial action'.

The phasing of necessary cutbacks is certainly a matter of debate. I have consistently argued that the cuts should kick in around the early part of next year, conditional on the recovery being sustained, and not before (see, for example, my post on 14 February this year). Interviews with Nick Clegg and George Osborne last week suggest that there is still ongoing debate within the governmnet about this phasing. Until we know the outcome of this debate - when the spending review is announced next month - any threat of militancy looks impetuous.

Friday, September 03, 2010

A lot of media coverage has been given today to an interesting study about the effects of using a lottery in the allocation of pupils to secondary schools in the Brighton area. Lotteries have long been proposed as a means of reducing the social segregation that can result from a system of catchment areas.

Unfortunately, much of the media coverage has oversimplified the results. A curious feature of the Brighton scheme is that catchment areas (which have traditionally served to allocate pupils to schools on the basis of where, in relation to the school, they reside) have continued to exist. Alongside the introduction of the lottery scheme, the catchment areas were however redefined. So a lot of things that might affect the allocation of pupils to schools happened at once.

The evidence provided in the research suggests that the lottery scheme has led to some convergence across schools in the characteristics of pupils that they attract. This is as we would expect. The redrawing of catchment areas has, however, meant that this experience is uneven across the city, with outcomes after the reform being worse (than they would otherwise have been) for some pupils who were previously (but who are no longer) in the catchment area of a good school. None of this is terribly surprising - demonstrating that strange things get into the news during the silly season.

(To reinforce the last point, the front page headline of the Times newspaper on each of the last two days has told us the news that... apparently something didn't happen 14 billion years ago!)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Consumer confidence continues to sink, and house prices are now once more on a falling trend. The latter, at least, is not all bad news. The acceleration in house prices up to July had been something of a puzzle since the earlier fall had not been sufficient to burst the bubble. While I have not been amongst those economists predicting a 30% or more fall in house prices from their peak, I did expect the recovery in prices to be sluggish. Initially it wasn't, raising fears of more boom and bust in that market, and in this context the slowing down that we have seen over the summer is something to be welcomed.

The news on consumer confidence is more disturbing, and I await the August figures with interest.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The rate of growth of GDP accelerated sharply in the second quarter of 2010, with output in that quarter being 1.1% higher than in the first three months of the year. This is clearly very encouraging news. If the strength of the recovery is maintained over the remainder of the year, the economy could be better placed to withstand the government's plans for deficit reduction than appeared to be the case only a short time ago.

The world remains an uncertain place, however. Simultaneous fiscal retrenchment in many countries (including some of our important trading partners), a fragile housing market, the threat of renewed ossification in the banking sector (as evidenced by a rising LIBOR) all point to downside risks that remain significant.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It looks as though Vince Cable's graduate tax proposal, on which I commented in my last blog post, has been mercifully short lived. It is attractive to some because of the property that lifetime repayments rise with lifetime income. But, of course, if you want more progressivity, you can let the income tax system alone take care of that without recourse to graduate taxes.

The downside of the proposal would likely have been a cumbersome bureaucracy making controversial decisions on differential financial allocations to universities. And why, when the market could work out the appropriate resource allocations for free? To thrive, the higher education sector needs more freedom from bureaucracy, not another dose of Stalinism.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

University funding is back in the limelight. Vince Cable is to speak in favour of replacing the current system of undergraduate tuition fees with a graduate tax. In many respects, this is not a radical change - students' loan repayments are already proportional to their income. In some ways, a move to a graduate tax might even be welcome - it has the rather nice property of being progressive.

In other ways, though, a shift to a graduate tax might pose problems. Like it or not, it is difficult to see how the UK can, in future, fund world class universities without funding them differentially. It would be reasonably straightforward to achieve this with a system of differential fees - where students who attend the best universities pay a premium (which would have to be covered by a loan). Universities could set their own fees according to their perception of where they stand in the market. This is not so easy to achieve with a graduate tax. For sure, the government could fund the best universities more generously than others - but would those students attending universities that are lower down the food chain be happy to see their graduate tax payments used, in effect, to subsidise students attending universities higher up the rankings? Suddenly the tax no longer seems so progressive. It might, of course, be possible to set differential rates of graduate tax - a lower rate for students attending institutions that offer two year degrees perhaps (such degrees being another proposal doing the rounds) - but that seems dreadfully clunky. And does the government really know better than the market which are the best providers?

As ever with these mechanisms, the devil is in the detail.

It is curious that any government minister should have chosen to preempt the outcome of the Browne review at this stage. That, in itself, suggests that there is a long way still to go on the politics of this issue.
The latest consumer confidence figures from the Nationwide do not make pleasant reading. Consumer confidence has been falling since February, and the worsening state of the index on expectations is particularly striking.

In February, some 39% of respondents expected that, within 6 months, the economic situation in the UK would have improved; only 15% expected the situation to worsen. But the corresponding figures for June are 27% and 24% respectively.

These prospective indicators have a track record of predicting actual fluctuations in the economy rather well. A downturn in confidence and expectations does not necessarily foreshadow a downturn in the real economy. But these figures should give us plenty of reason to be cautious about the sustainability of the present recovery.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Olivier Blanchard and Carlo Cottarelli have published their 'ten commandments for fiscal adjustment'. These are instructive. Commandment 2, which counsels against front-loading the fiscal adjustment, is particularly pertinent to the current debate in Britain.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The G20 summit in Toronto has finished. The limited extent of agreement achieved at the meeting is well encapsulated by the rather novel concept of a 'growth friendly fiscal consolidation plan'. If for nothing else, the authors of the document are to be congratulated on creating the illusion of consensus.

They claim, with some justification that 'efforts to date have borne good results'. The world economy is recovering. But there may be troubles ahead in the form of the dampening impact that is sure to come from simultaneous fiscal consolidation across many countries. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund's report on the summit paints a downside picture that is far from rosy. The markets today reflect some of this gloom. Coordination of policy across countries has never been more important.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Yesterday I wrote about the phasing of the fiscal retrenchment announced in the budget. Today I shall write about the extent of the retrenchment. For sure, a severe correction is needed - nobody questions that. Much of the debate centres around the size of the structural deficit - the bigger that deficit, the greater the consolidation has to be.

The Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) has estimated the size of the structural deficit by, first, estimating the output gap (how far output is from what it would be if the economy were operating at full capacity), and then working out what the balance of government spending would be if the economy were at full capacity. Its estimate of the output gap depends in part on estimates of how much premature scrapping of capital equipment has been going on during the recession. If its estimate of this is too high (and it may well be), its estimate of the structural deficit and of the extent of fiscal consolidation that is needed will also be too high. Until we see how fast the budget deficit shrinks as the economy recovers, we will not know for sure how big is the structural deficit. This provides another reason to think that the phasing of the consolidation needs to be carefully constructed.

Yesterday's budget effectively put off a lot of the real decisions until the autumn statement on spending. But it is clear that the government is looking for 25% cuts over the next 4 years. The public sector pay freeze will go some way towards achieving this, but there will be much ground left to be recovered. There are some quick wins - why, for example, do well-off parents receive child benefit? We shall see in the autumn how economics and politics mix in determining where the cuts fall.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A week ago, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) reckoned there was less than a 10% chance of Britain falling back into recession. Today's new estimates suggest that there is about a 20% chance of this happening by 2015. At the same time, the central growth forecast has been downgraded from 2.6% to 2.3%. This is all in the course of a week. The change is, of course, the result of the new measures announced in today's budget.

The deflationary nature of the budget has come as no surprise - expectations were well managed in advance of the event. If the OBR's forecasts are in the right ballpark, then the policies announced in the budget make a great deal of sense. By 2014-15, the government is planning to have phased in a reduction of the deficit amounting to £113 billion per year - half as much again as was planned by the previous government. In itself that may or may not be inappropriate; of course it makes sense to for the government to spend when times are tough, but rein in that spending as the economy improves. Whatever the merits of the extent of retrenchment, the way that it is phased is a matter of great debate.

The plan set by both this government and its predecessor has been to introduce the consolidation gradually, so that about one third of the total deficit reduction (that is, one third of £73 billion in Labour's case, one third of £113 billion in the case of the current government) comes in over the next two years. This means that the cuts announced by the present government over the next couple of years amount to taking £15 billion more out of the economy in 2011-12 (and £8.1 billion - most of which had already been announced) in the current financial year. That is tough medicine for an economy that is still in a fragile state.

To use Donald Rumsfeld's famous terminology, there are 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns'. While one may not wish to argue too much with the central forecast, the risks from the unknowns that do not feature in the OBR model - or in the pretty fan charts - appear to be on the down side. While any budget has to be built on a forecast of how many chickens will hatch, in this particular case the risks of getting it wrong are greater than usual.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An interesting feature of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility's Pre-Budget Forecast concerns the calculation of the 'output gap'. This is the difference between actual output in the economy and the output that would be possible if spare capacity were fully utilised. During a recession, the output gap tends to rise - some firms reduce hours of work so that capital equipment is underutilised, some firms close down leaving premises and other resources unused. At the same time, pulling in the other direction, some capital might be scrapped. It is difficult to get a handle on how much capital scrapping takes place.

In trying to evaluate how the balance of demand and supply factors has affected the output gap over the course of the recent recession, the OBR has had to come to a judgement about (amongst other things) the reduction in capacity. This leads it to estimate that the output gap is currently around 4% of Gross Domestic Product.

This looks like an underestimate. According to the OBR's own figures, that would make the output gap smaller than it was in the 1980s recession.

Does that matter? The smaller the output gap is believed to be, the less potential is there for expansionary monetary and fiscal policies to promote economic growth without resulting in inflation. And the smaller the output gap is believed to be, the higher the proportion of the government budget deficit that is labelled 'structural' rather than 'cyclical'. Both of these are contentious issues.

In general in its report, the OBR has done an admirable job of documenting the uncertainty that attaches to its forecasts. Its estimate of the current output gap is subject to some uncertainty too, is highly policy-relevant, and - as it feeds into next week's budget - carries some danger.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The newly created Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has produced its estimates of growth for next year. In the Budget earlier this year, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer predicted that the economy would grow by at least 3% in 2011. The forecasts released today by the OBR suggest that that was too high an estimate. Indeed the OBR expects growth of just 2.6% - well below the previous 3% estimate, albeit higher than some observers had expected.

Whether this correction reflects the fact that the forecasters were subject to political influence before the election or the possibility that they are still (whatever the rhetoric) subject to such influence now is moot. But conjecture on that issue should not hide the fact that, in many respects, the economic picture is not rosy. The austerity measures introduced in other European countries (needed though they are) do little to encourage confidence in growth over the next couple of years.

The good news (inasmuch as there is any) is that the last government did not run up as large a deficit over the last year as had been expected. To some extent this will cancel out the detrimental impact on the public finances of the slower than expected growth over the next 18 months.

A double dip should be avoidable. But the guardians of our public finances are walking a difficult tightrope. They need to be careful not to believe too much of their own political rhetoric.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

In a presentation given in London today, John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) predicts that unemployment will rise close to 3 million by the end of 2012, and that it will stay at roughly that level for a further three years. This represents a marked increase in the CIPD forecast of unemployment, following the announcement of the government's fiscal deficit reduction plans.

An optimistic outlook for the next few years is for slow growth - certainly below the rate required to maintain unemployment at a steady level - so Philpott's forecasts have the ring of truth about them.

Monday, June 07, 2010

If there were to be a double dip, would this be caused by fiscal retrenchment or fiscal profligacy? Curiously, a mix of both. For some countries - Greece has been the most prominent - debt is a serious issue and there have been real concerns about the prospect of those countries honouring that debt. In consequence interest rates on their debt have risen, and there has been nervousness about their ability to raise further borrowing - thereby setting in motion a viscious spiral of concern. If these countries default, their creditors in other countries will lose out. If they do not default, substantial support is nevertheless likely to be needed from other countries. Either way, the sovreign debt problems of certain countries will have an impact on the public finances of other countries, most notably on the engine rooms of the European economy. This will almost inevitably dampen growth in the major European economies over the next couple of years. Those countries that have themselves engaged in significant fiscal retrenchment may find that they are tipped back into recession by the double whammy of tight tax and spend policies alongside the fallout from the sovreign debt problems of other countries.

Where does the UK fit into this? We sit uncomfortably somewhere in the middle. Fiscal retrenchment is needed, but since government borrowing in the UK has been longer term than in some other countries, the need is not quite so immediate, and premature contractionary fiscal policy might still cause a lot of damage. We clearly cannot rely too heavily on growth in Europe helping us out. Yet if a double dip were to happen, we would be hopelessly bereft of policy options - interest rates are virtually zero, quantitative easing would do little but generate inflation, and there would be no further scope for fiscal relaxation. Better to manage a long, slow recovery - but therein lies a real tightrope walk.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Studying time series of a single variable can be a hazardous activity - as indeed can any forecasting exercise. But a reasonable forecast of the 2008 recession could have been made using a neural network analysis of the index of industrial production. (I tried with 24 lags of the dependent variable, 2 neurodes in the hidden layer, and a hyperbolic tangent squasher, using monthly data that go back to 1968 - just in case you wanted to know.) This same model predicted the recovery quite well too. The same model shows the recovery in industrial output stalling somewhat from now onwards, staying at just above zero growth over the next 15 months. But then the forecast indicates a nasty dive in the last quarter of 2011.

One should not place too much confidence in long range forecasts that come out of such a simple model. But we know enough about the general macroeconomic environment to know that we are far from being out of the woods just yet. The growth rate of the Eurozone economies is likely to be severely dampened by the need to address fiscal deficits of the southern states - and the UK trades a lot with (and so its fortunes depend a lot on) the Eurozone. At the same time, the deficit reduction policies being implemented at home will themselves have a deleterious impact on growth. On balance, I would still expect the next few years to be characterised by a long, slow recovery. But a double dip cannot be ruled out, and is, if anything, getting to look more rather than less likely.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In this month's Inflation Report, the Bank of England argues 'that the
recovery in economic activity is likely to gather strength over the
next year or so. But the downside risks to growth in the near
term have increased somewhat, reflecting in particular
heightened market concerns about the prospects for fiscal
consolidation' - here and around the world. Specifically in the UK context, the Bank notes that the pace of the
'recovery will be dampened by several factors: the need for a
substantial fiscal tightening; further strengthening in the
balance sheet of the UK banking sector; and the private sector’s
desire for higher savings in an environment of increased
uncertainty'. Put simply: proceed with care.
There are now reports that the Liberal Democrats have won from the Conservatives a concession that the £6b spending cut will not go ahead in full this year if signs develop that the economy is weakening. If the reports are correct, then we have some unambiguously good news.
It has taken some time for the various negotiations to come to a conclusion, but we now have a new government in the UK. The Liberal Democrats succeeded in gaining some concessions from the Conservatives, but these have overwhelmingly been in the area of political reform. On economic policy, there will now be an accelerated fiscal retrenchment, with £6bill spending reductions this year. This risks tipping the economy back into recession before the recovery gets fully under way.

For sure, the budget deficit needs to be addressed - and over the course of a parliament more needed to be done than Labour were offering. But the timing of this is potentially critical. Accelerating retrenchment by only a few months could have a major detrimental impact.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The markets appear to like the deal that the EU and IMF have reached to prevent the debt crisis in Greece from spreading to other southern European states. The deal involves the Eurozone countries in guaranteeing 440b in loans, with a further 250b coming from the IMF. In addition, the European Commission is injecting 60b of emergency funding (some of which will, of course, come from non-Eurozone EU members such as the UK). The scale of this deal is impressive, and is a measure of the political ambition that underpins the Euro. It will involve a not insubstantial shift of political power from the weaker economies to the centre of Europe.

The numbers are big. They need to be in order to build a sufficiently secure tidal wall; this needs to resist the pressure of market forces that are speculating against the weaker economies by failing to buy their debt. The question remains: tidal wall or Cnut?

Friday, May 07, 2010

The economic scenario facing Greece is difficult. The country has accessed international support and its parliament has approved a tough set of austerity measures. These measures will not be easy to implement. The current government, or a different government, may be left with little option other than to withdraw from the euro. This would allow the new Greek currency to depreciate, improving competitiveness and disguising (through inflation due to higher import prices) the real impact of the austerity measures on the Greek population.

Portugal and Spain, and to a lesser extent Italy, have been identified as other Eurozone countries facing difficulties. It looks increasingly as though the Eurozone was never an optimal currency area. The northern countries might more reasonably have formed one such area while the southern countries formed another. Political aspiration ran ahead of economic reality.

In the UK, the decision to stay out of the euro was motivated by political considerations rather than economic analysis - a proper cost-benefit study was never conducted. That being so, the fact that we, unlike Greece, are not straitjacketed by the euro appears to be more a matter of good luck than good judgement.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

An interesting contribution to the election debate has been published by Tullett Prebon. It argues for substantial cuts in public expenditure, making the following claim:

'When anyone calls for cuts in public spending, there are howls of protest, and grim warnings that slashing spending would inflict unacceptable damage on the public services that are required by a civilised society. This is bunkum. In 2009-10, the government spent £674bn. If this were reduced by £50bn, it would remain higher than the inflation-adjusted total for 2007-08, when the public services were hardly under-funded. Even a £100bn reduction would only take real spending back to the 2004-05 level.'

This is a pretty dramatic claim. But it is spurious. To make a sensible comparison, it is necessary to adjust the figures to allow for the fact that the three years were at different points in the business cycle. Spending was high in 2009-10 precisely because the economy was in deep recession. This meant that spending on things like benefits (unemployment benefit, income support etc.) was high. And spending on projects was brought forward in order to mitigate the worst effects of the recession. Comparing this spending with that which obtained in 2004-05 is frankly ridiculous.

This does not mean that there is no scope for efficiency savings - there always is. But the Tullett Prebon report does show just how careful one has to be in reading claims made during an election period. In some measure, recovery will automatically bring about a cut in public expenditures. And in some measure a reduction of the UK's structural budget deficit is necessary. But without waiting for the recovery to take place, a £50b or £100b cut in public expenditure would cause untold damage.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, has ruled that BSkyB must make two of its premier sports channels (Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 2) available to other distributors of television services at a reduced price. The regulator's concern is that BSkyB is abusing its monopoly position as a broadcaster of premier sports events.

In fact there is some competition. ESPN (another pay-TV operator) has the rights to certain premiership football matches, while other football competitions are broadcast by BBC, ITV and Channel 5. A reasonable amount of rugby is broadcast by BBC. Cricket's superb IPL competition is broadcast by ITV. The Hotbird satellite carries a huge amount of European sport free to air. But there is nonetheless widespread feeling that Sky does some cherry-picking. In this, Sky are supported by the sports bodies that themselves benefit from the broadcaster's financial clout.

Pricing in broadcasting is tricky. The general principle that welfare is maximised when price is set at marginal cost cannot be applied here - at least not without some modification. The marginal cost associated with a new subscriber is (virtually) nothing. If the subscription price were set at nothing, the broadcaster would receive no revenues and would not produce anything - unless, along the lines of a public service broadcaster, it were subsidised. So rules that are inevitably somewhat ad hoc have to take the place of general economic principles.

What, then, are the issues that need to be considered? The sports bodies gain from higher prices - up to a point. Much of the resultant surplus, ultimately, goes into athletes' pay. Likewise BSkyB benefits in terms of higher profits from the higher prices which, after all, it chooses to charge. Telecommunications firms that buy access to the premium sports channel in order to sell on to consumers would, however, benefit from lower charges, since this makes their package more attractive. Likewise, consumers would benefit from lower charges. Any consideration of the price that is best for society as a whole involves balancing these competing interests.

But the key is this: there are doubtless many consumers who would be willing to pay something for premium sport but who are not willing to pay current prices. If BSkyB could offer them discounted prices without alienating its current customer base, it would do so. The status quo is therefore inefficient because trades that ought to be made are not being made. This is what we call market failure, and such a situation is precisely what regulation is there to sort out.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An interesting article by Joseph Stiglitz argues against premature cutting of the budget deficit. Stiglitz suggests that 'prospects of a robust recovery are, at best, year or two away' and that at this stage 'reducing governemnt spending is a risk not worth taking'.

He notes that there is a difference between different types of expenditure, and that investment spending (on education, for instance) can lead to reductions in the budget deficit in future years. He also notes - and here is a crucial point - that the 'risks (associated with different policies on the budget deficit) are asymmetric: if these forecasts are wrong, and there is a more robust recovery, then, of course, expenditures can be cut back and/or taxes increased'.

Interestingly, Stiglitz makes specific comment on the UK: 'The UK's weaker performance is not the result of worse policies; indeed, compared to the US, its bank bailouts and labor market policies were, in many ways, far better.'

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O'Rourke have been keeping tabs on the recession that started in 2008, comparing it with the Great Depression. Their early analyses suggested that the paths of the two events looked alarmingly similar. Their most recent update, available here, suggests that the global economy has pulled out of recession and that the pattern of economic activity now looks very different from that observed in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Eichengreen and O'Rourke argue that 'policy deserves considerable credit' for the recovery. Moreover, they note that 'considerable excess capacity remains in a number of important economies. Exiting now from policies of stimulus in those countries would therefore be premature.'

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Association of Graduate Recruiters has published a new 'manifesto' for graduate recruitment. Its calls to action include the abolishment of the 50% target age participation rate for higher education, and a lifting of the cap on undergraduate tuition fees.

The manifesto has met with a mixed response, and has been criticised by both unions and government - not least because these groups see the economy as dependent on high skills, and so they support the 50% target.

A further recommendation in the manifesto is that tax breaks should be introduced for the employers of new graduates. The case is not well argued. Breaks given to employers conditional on the adoption of certain recruitment practices have often backfired, with employers shedding labour of other kinds in order to increase their hiring of the subsidised type of labour.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The headline in today's Times states that the 'shock deficit threatens UK recovery'.

On the same day, more than 60 economists have signed letters published in the Financial Times, arguing that moves to reduce the deficit should not be rushed since this would risk a return to recession.

The deficit (that is, borrowing over the year) is large, but the debt (the sum of deficits accumulated over the years) is not. For sure the deficit needs to be tackled sometime soon, otherwise the debt will grow, and ultimately servicing that debt would become a problem. But, in comparison with many other countries, the UK has started out from a good place.

Ponder for a moment why the deficit has grown. National income has declined by over 6% during this recession. During normal times, it grows by an average of about 2.5% per year, so national income is now around 10% lower than it would be had we experienced trend rates of growth over the last couple of years. As national income falls, tax revenues to government automatically fall. This fall has been of the order of £45-50 billion. At the same time, government spending on benefits automatically rise as the recession takes hold. Add to this a variety of special measures that have been taken, and which are time limited - the cut in VAT, the preponing of major construction projects and so on. This all suggests that a substantial proportion of the budget deficit is due to the recession (automatic stabilisation policy) and to deliberate attempts to minimise the impact of that recession (discretionary stabilisation policy). The deficit is there, in large measure, precisely to bring about UK recovery - not to threaten it.

This means that the Times headline is 'through the looking glass' economics.

For sure, books need to balance over the long term. The best thing to do to bring that balance about is to support the recovery. Once the recovery is properly under way, public sector cuts will be needed, and those cuts will hurt. The patient needs to be strong enough to take the medicine. Supporting the recovery calls for careful treatment, not knee-jerk reaction.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The CPI inflation rate rose to 3.5% in January. Since this is above the 3% threshold, the Governor of the Bank of England must write a letter of explanation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He should not find this task too daunting. The rate of VAT rose back to 17.5% in January following its temporary reduction to 15%. As a result, for the next 12 months, the headline inflation figure will be artificially high.

Far from inflation and overheating, the threat that the UK economy continues to face comes from a recovery that is, as yet, still very weak. The danger of a return to recession is a real threat, and the temporary blip in inflation should not serve to disguise that fact.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A letter in today's Sunday Times, written by a group of eminent economists, argues for early implementation of government spending cuts. I was a signatory to an earlier letter in the Financial Times that argued the opposite. What should we believe?

There is, for sure, a substantial government budget deficit - currently around £140 billion over a year. A significant part, somewhat more than a half, of this is due to the operation of so-called automatic stabilisers - the tendency for tax revenues to fall, and government spending to rise, during a recession. More is due to the deliberate rescheduling of government spending on projects - bringing them forward so that the economy can benefit from an early injection of spending. This being so, the public finances can be expected, in some measure, to 'rise with the tide' as the economy recovers.

Nonetheless, there will be a need for substantial cuts - nobody disputes that the structural budget deficit is indeed large. Timing is of the essence. While the economy remains fragile, cuts will be premature. Yet confidence in the public sector's ability to manage its debt depends critically on a credible plan being put in place. What is needed quickly is the promise of such a plan; the cuts themselves should wait a while until the recovery is more secure. If we can achieve growth of 1.5% this year, then there will be scope.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sir Michael Marmot's review on health inequalities in the UK has just been published. The inequalities that are highlighted are startling, and in themselves call for action.

One of the review's proposals refers to the minimum wage. The review cites work by which argues that a full-time worker on the minimum wage enjoys earnings that are insufficient to meet public expectations of an 'acceptable minimum standard of living'. It then argues for 'the coordination of social support, tax systems and minimum wage levels necessary to enable full implementation of minimum income for healthy living standards'.

This raises several issues. First, the link between the minimum wage and household incomes is tenuous. Workers who receive the minimum wage are not necessarily the chief income earners of a household. Even if they are, they may be in minimum wage employment for short spells in between longer spells of more remunerative work. Many workers who receive minimum wages work part-time. In many cases, young people work in jobs paying the minimum wage, either on a part-time basis or while they are searching for better jobs elsewhere. Put simply, the minimum wage is a blunt instrument in targeting poverty.

Where the chief income earner in a household is being paid minimum wages, for sure the income of the household is low. But the support of households in this position is not limited to the minimum wage - benefits, based on household income, kick in. These benefits are far better at targeting poverty.

Raising the minimum wage can of course help some people in poorly remunerated jobs; that's what they're there for. But it also raises the price of labour for employers. Under some circumstances this is no bad thing - it can prevent exploitation of workers in a situation where the employer has a lot of market power. But substantially to raise the minimum wage during tough economic times would most likely have deleterious effects on employment. It is a policy that would hurt the very people that Marmot is seeking to protect.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

So that's that then. The UK has emerged out of recession, with growth of 0.1% in the last quarter of last year. This is not a spectacular bounce back, and the receovery is set to be fragile for some time to come. The restoration of VAT to 17.5% at the start of this year may have led some people to prepone major purchases, so there could be a downward blip in demand during the current quarter. And while political considerations have delayed the announcement of savage public expenditure cuts (and - given that the patient is still in intensive care - that is probably just as well), such cuts will surely come.

While the unemployment rate fell last month, this was surprising. Over the longer term, expect the economy to have to grow by 2-2.5% per year before seeing a sustained decline in unemployment. In light of the pressure on public finances, it could well be another two years, at least, before this is achieved.

We're out of recession, but not out of the woods.