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.