The news in the UK this week has been dominated by the Comprehensive Spending Review. This is the first attempt within the OECD to match financial planning with the rhetoric of deficit reduction. There is much that still has to come out of the review, but the broad shape of the deficit reduction can now be discerned.
To start with, there has been the decision to place a far greater reliance upon cuts in public spending than tax increases to eliminate the deficit. In measures previously announced, about £20 bn tax increases will start to have an effect in the current fiscal year. Of those, the greater proportion will be increases in taxes on consumption rather than on income and savings. A ratio of 4:1 (£4 in spending cuts for every additional £1 raised in taxes) is a bit unusual. Normally we would expect a ratio of 3:1.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (our quaint title for our Finance Minister) announced about £80 bn in spending cuts. Whilst all departments will face some degree of financial restraint, the bulk of the spending reductions have been directed to the welfare budget (the old and the poor) and spending on local public services (social care, local education, the police, libraries, and climate resilience). Leaving on one side whether the politics of these makes sense, the objective of the cuts is to enhance our future prosperity and the more pressing question is whether or not the policy will work.
In a paper delivered to the Post Keynesian Study Group at the University of Cambridge, Victoria Chick presented evidence to suggest that for every 1% reduction of government expenditure as a percentage of GDP, there would be a corresponding rise of 0.6% in the level of public debt as a percentage of GDP. The mechanism by which this happens is quite obvious. As government expenditure falls, employment levels fall (over 80% of public expenditure is on salaries). As employment levels fall, income tax receipts fall and unemployment benefit payments increase, leading to an increase in the deficit. We can see why the government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility have warned that there is a 40% chance that more deficit reduction measures will be needed in the near future.
Of course, this begs the question of how the deficit reduction plan is supposed to work. The workings all hinge around expectations. If, it is supposed, the public were to believe that the policy would work, and that they see as credible a permanent reduction in taxes, then they would increase their consumption expenditures accordingly. The private sector – having been crowded out by the public sector – would then increase to satisfy this demand, triggering further growth. The key to this plan is an improvement in household and business confidence. Unfortunately, recent evidence points in the opposite direction. Businesses are confident that their sales will fall as public sector workers are made redundant. Households are confident that a better use of their resources is to build their precautionary balances, and so the savings rate rises.
And this is Mr Osborne’s Gamble. He has bet that the recovery in household and business confidence will trigger growth at a rate to offset the deflationary impact of public sector redundancies. The Chancellor estimated that just under half a million public employees would be displaced by 2014-15. However, there will also be a knock on effect in the private sector. The OBR estimates that a further half million private sector jobs will be lost as a direct result of the spending reductions (much of the public sector is currently delivered by the private sector). If we add to that the half million jobs lost since the onset of recession, for the plan to work, the private sector will need to create at least one and a half million jobs within four years. The Treasury calculates that the private sector has the capacity to create two million jobs in this time frame. However, having the capacity to create jobs is one thing and actually creating them is another.
We shall see how Mr Osborne’s Gamble plays out. If he is right, then we will have a muted recovery for half a decade. If he is wrong, we may well have a muted recovery for at least a decade. Either way, when I look at scenarios with a ten year horizon, I will need to look for the assumptions about Mr Osborne’s Gamble. This will take on a greater significance with an international dimension when it is recalled that the UK is the first actor in OECD to detail the cuts. As other economies in Europe follow suit, so the process will gather momentum internationally.
The position of the US is more interesting than usual. At present, the White House is disinclined towards fiscal tightening. However, if the polls are correct and the Tea Party candidates rise to prominence in the Mid-Term Elections, then deficit reduction plans will take a more central role in the US. However, that is a story best left for another week.
© The European Futures Observatory 2010