The first reckoning for any Budget is when the Office for Budget Responsibility releases its estimates of the fiscal and economic impact of the measures. The second is when the Chancellor appears in front of the Treasury Select Committee and explains the reasoning behind the Budget. George Osborne’s Summer Budget appearance happened yesterday and shed light on a number of his more controversial fiscal policies. This is my summary of his answers, presented without comment. Read more
I’ve been pointed to a very useful review of NZ’s fiscal policy that explains how the country manages so well with neither a fiscal rule nor a fiscal council. The NZ government is required by law to maintain ‘prudent levels’ of public debt but, beyond that, it is left to individual governments to decide what that means. Accountability and scrutiny is achieved largely through transparency and “broad social consensus on fiscal responsibility” and, so far, that has largely worked. The weakness identified by the review is that the government pursues time-inconsistent policy and saves too little in booms to offset the expenditure in recessions. The UK, despite a series of fiscal rules, suffers from similar problems.
The review considers whether a numerical fiscal rule might help and makes the point that
..it might weaken the Government’s ‘ownership’ of the debt target, and its preparedness to save revenue windfalls… It might create incentives for governments to comply with the rule through policies that would weaken other parts of the balance sheet.
In other words, once there is a rule then the game is compliance with the letter, not the spirit, and that can actually weaken fiscal governance. Read more
Yesterday I wrote that the consequence of a fiscal rule with a short horizon has been austerity, which delayed the UK’s economic recovery. Of course, that analysis misses a very important element of the recent recession, which is that the UK’s monetary policy was at the ZLB. That greatly increased the effect of fiscal policy on GDP in a way that wouldn’t happen in normal times. It’s also why Portes and Wren-Lewis recommend that any fiscal rule be suspended during periods where monetary policy is at the ZLB. So why am I really worried about a growth cost that is only realised in very unusual circumstances?
If the ideas about secular stagnation turn out to hold water then we may be hitting the ZLB far more often in the coming decades. Even if that doesn’t eventuate, real interest rates have been trending down for a long time, which has led some people to recommend a higher inflation target to avoid the ZLB in future. The upshot is that, unless there are changes to the standard monetary policy regime–flexible targeting of 2 per cent inflation–high fiscal multipliers and fiscal activism may become a regular occurrence. If it does then the government’s fiscal rule had better work during those times, too.
Last week I discussed the importance of good fiscal rules for sustainability, but the recent mess in the UK has demonstrated how poor rules can inhibit growth. When the Government took office in 2010 it faced a startlingly high deficit. It promised to eliminate that within five years, which happens to be the length of a Parliament in the UK. That’s probably not a coincidence. As Portes and Wren-Lewis point out in their paper, Governments like operational targets that they can achieve within their term of office. If you face a big hole in your budget then promising to fix it within the decade is no good if you might only be in power for half that time.
That has important consequences for the way surpluses and deficits are dealt with. It means that governments tend not to save surpluses beyond their term because they reap little benefit from it. They also attempt to close deficits within the term, which can be too rapid when the deficit is large. The recent recession in the UK is a textbook example of the latter problem. Read more
Getting the debt to GDP ratio to fall at some stage is a good idea, but having a target for a specific year is silly. It is not optimal because if some shock hits the economy before 2016/7 which means debt tends to rise relative to GDP, it is crazy to try and counteract that to meet the target in such a short space of time. It is not effective because it can be gamed by the government fiddling the timing of expenditures.
Having a five year rolling target for the deficit allows fiscal policy plenty of time to adjust to shocks. We saw this in action over the last few years, as the Chancellor was able to reduce the pace of fiscal consolidation from 2012 when the economy failed to recover as quickly as he had hoped. Changing this mandate from five to three years gives any Chancellor less time to adjust, which is why it is a backward step.
The first reason is that the current trajectory of public spending is unsustainable, but not in the sense that the Government means it. Sustainability in public spending should be measured over decades, not a single Parliament. The question is whether the current policy settings can be maintained indefinitely.
- I have not used the OBR’s central projections here, which assume that health productivity more than doubles for the next fifty years. Instead, I have used the scenario that assumes productivity remains at historical levels. ↩