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.