Sunday, April 26, 2015
The budget black hole still matters in this election
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It was a big week for the public finances, both where we have been and where we might be going. We can now make a judgment on the past five years and say something meaningful about the next five, though through the murk that passes for serious political debate on debt and the deficit.

Let me start with the record of the past five years. Though the numbers for the public finances are prone to revision – usually downwards in the case of the budget deficit – the Office for National Statistics’ latest figures, released on Thursday, tell the story reasonably well of the past five years.

Public sector net borrowing in 2014-15 was £87.3bn, £3bn less than was expected in last month’s budget. In five years the deficit has come down from £153.5bn, the 2009-10 figure the coalition inherited. That is a drop of 43%, though relative to gross domestic product it has fallen from 10.2% to 4.8%, a fall of more than half.

What about the debt? Public sector net debt at the end of March – the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year – was £1,484bn, 80.4% of GDP, compared with £956bn at the end of 2009-10.

It has thus increased significantly under the coalition, as it was bound to do; you cannot eliminate a £150bn-plus deficit overnight. Nigel Farage keeps saying that debt has doubled under this government, which is wrong; the rise is 55%, though it did more than double in the previous five years under Labour, rising from £448bn in 2004-5 to £956bn in 2009-10, an increase of 113%.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015
Parties obsess about "costings", while ignoring the elephants in the room
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

I would not want anybody to think a theme is developing here but, having warned last week that we should take economists’ views on austerity with a pinch of salt, this week I have another warning about this kind of thing.

When you see the words “fully funded” or “properly costed” attached to the plans of political parties, take great care.

Be also sceptical about fake precision. I know why it made the headlines but the difference between an International Monetary Fund forecast that there would still be budget deficit of £7bn in 2020 and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s prediction of a £7bn surplus is margin of error territory.

The IMF predicts a deficit of 0.3% of gross domestic product in five years’ time, the OBR a surplus of a similar amount. This is small change, even when you factor in the possibility that we may have a government in place which is not even aiming to eliminate the overall budget deficit.

The IMF produces its fiscal monitor every six months. The 0.6% of GDP difference between it and the OBR’s projections is not untypical of the size of the IMF’s six-monthly forecast revisions for Britain’s deficit –in either direction – not for five years’ time but for the coming year. Until they have quite a lot of monthly data to go on, forecasters struggle to get within £10bn of the deficit for the current fiscal year, let alone what it will be in 2020. The difference between a small surplus and a small deficit in five years is, as the IMF managing director Christine Lagarde has pointed out, fake precision.

This is not to say that we should just allow the political parties to say what they like, without any nod in the direction of fiscal reality. This may be good enough for those at the fantasy end of the spectrum, like the Greens and the Scottish Nationalists, but neither are going to form a government and, it is to be hoped, will have little influence on the government that is formed.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015
On austerity, take economists with a pinch of salt
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Should you listen to economists during this election campaign? I say that in the full knowledge that it may encourage some to stop reading now, and that the excellent work done by economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and other bodies is rightly used as a check on the claims and counter-claims of the parties.

No, I ask because of a survey of mainly academic economists published a few days ago by the Centre for Macroeconomics, which is based at the London School of Economics but which also encompasses researchers from the Bank of England, Cambridge University and other institutions.

The survey asked two questions. One was whether the coalition’s policies had been good or bad for growth over the past five years. The second was whether the outcome of the election would make any difference to growth and employment over the next five years.

The answer to the first question was clear-cut. Two thirds of the economists questioned said that coalition policies – “austerity” – had been bad for growth. The answer to the second question was slightly less clear but the majority view was that the slower the pace of deficit reduction – the less the austerity - the better it would be for economic activity.

I know this survey because each month I take part in it, on a range of different questions. This one got noticed more than usual because of the timing and because it was picked by Robert Peston of the BBC. It was quoted during the televised party leaders’ debate.

I disagreed with the majority verdict. The coalition had been for good growth, I said, because it had pulled Britain back from the abyss and away from a fiscal crisis that could have been hugely damaging.

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Sunday, April 05, 2015
The economy's doing better - have voter memories of past chaos faded too?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A landmark has been passed, and sooner than expected. Living standards, measured in the conventional way, are higher than they were than the coalition took office, as George Osborne was quick to pick up on a few days ago.

Now, the last thing you want to read is somebody slapping themselves on the back but it has long been my expectation – rehearsed here on a number of occasions – that this parliament would not see the first fall in living standards in living memory, as some repeatedly said, but a rise.

The danger was that we would not know about this rise until after the election – had the recovery in real household disposable income per head to spring 2010 levels come in the first quarter of the year rather than the final quarter of 2014 the figures would not have been available until June – so it would have been a forecast rather than a cat. It is now a fact.

Of course, based on current data, the rise since May 2010 – the second quarter of 2015 – is minuscule, just 0.2%. In the circumstances, however, even that is a considerable achievement. It was always the case that the financial crisis was going to make us poorer, as was the task of tackling a record peacetime budget deficit that resulted from a combination of crisis-induced recession and the public spending splurge of the 2000s.

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IEA's shadow MPC votes 7-2 to hold rates
Posted by David Smith at 08:59 AM
Category: Independently-submitted research

Continuing its recent trend, the Shadow MPC has voted to keep rates on hold in April.

There was a variety of reasons offered for holding. Some members felt the economy remained weak. Others felt that the economy was going well and there was no good reason to change anything. Others argued that it was difficult to justify raising rates when inflation is so far below target. One member felt there should be no change until post-General Election uncertainties are resolved.

Those advocating raising rates maintained their familiar position that rates have been held too low for two long and normalisation is long past warranted.
The SMPC is a group of economists who have gathered quarterly at the IEA since July 1997. That it was the first such group in Britain, and that it gathers regularly to debate the issues involved, distinguishes the SMPC from the similar exercises carried out elsewhere. To ensure that nine votes are cast each month, it carries a pool of ‘spare’ members.

This can lead to changes in the aggregate vote, depending on who contributed to a particular poll. As a result, the nine independent and named analyses should be regarded as more significant than the exact overall vote. The next two SMPC polls will be released on the Sundays of 3rd May and 31st May 2015, respectively.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015
Don't forget asset prices. Cutting rates is not the right response to zero inflation
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A big fat zero. No inflation at all. Though it is not guaranteed, a run of deflation – prices lower than a year earlier – seems highly likely in the next 2-3 months.

For many people this is uncharted territory. Though retail price inflation fell to zero in February 2009, and was negative for the following eight months, this reflected the sharp reductions in interest rates of the time. Inflation measured by the consumer prices index (CPI) remained positive throughout.

No, you have to go back 55 years, I suspect before many readers were born, for anything like this. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has usefully modelled the current CPI back to January 1950. It shows that inflation last fell to zero in December 1959, and was negative by 0.5%-0.6% for three months.

Zero inflation is proving to be good news for the economy. Retail sales volumes rose by 0.7% last month and were a booming 5.7% up on a year earlier. As far as retailing is concerned, deflation is not merely on the way. It has been with us for some time.

So what the ONS describes as average store prices fell by 3.6% in the 12 months to February, a record. Stores include petrol stations, so much of this reflected the drop in fuel prices over the past year. But prices were also modestly lower for both food and non-food stores. Falling prices genuinely are putting money into people’s pockets.

At this point it is customary to warn that, while a temporary bout of deflation is a good thing, you would not want to make a habit of it. Indeed.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015
No roller coaster - but the tail wagged the dog in a curious budget
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

This is a strange world, and we have just had a rather strange budget. There was some jam today, though it was spread pretty thinly. There was also less austerity tomorrow, as suggested here last week. But the overall impression was odd.

George Osborne had two aims: to demonstrate that only he can be trusted on the deficit and debt, and to kill the silly idea that he was planning, if re-elected, to cut public spending to the levels of the 1930s.

The fact that achieving both of these aims means, at this stage, merely ensuring consistency with the forecasts of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – which even its best friends would say has a forecasting record that leaves a lot to be desired – added to the Alice in Wonderland quality of all this.

We have policy driven by forecasts which will almost certainly turn out to be wrong and, perhaps even worse, we have a fiscal watchdog, the OBR, which has produced a “rollercoaster” projection for spending by government departments over the next few years (down very steeply then up), which no sane person thinks is remotely likely.

How did it come to this? How did the forecasting tail come to wag the policy dog? Why did the OBR, having given us that 1930s’ comparison after the autumn statement in December, give us the rollercoaster this time?

For Osborne, having determined that he would not fight the election with a giveaway but by reinforcing his reputation as the man who brought Britain back from the fiscal brink, it was necessary to resort to a few gimmicks to achieve his original aim of having public sector debt falling as a percentage of gross domestic product by the end of the parliament.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015
No giveaways - but one or two gimmicks
Posted by David Smith at 04:30 PM
Category: Thoughts and responses

George Osborne stuck to his "no giveaways" pledge in the final Budget before the election - there is actually a modest fiscal tightening of £745m for 2015-16.

That did not stop him sprinkling a few crowd pleasers through his Budget, including cuts in beer, cider and spirits duty and a further freezing of the duty on petrol and diesel. There was the expected pledge to increase the income tax personal allowance, but not immediately. It will go up to £10,600 in April and then to £10,800 and £11,000 respectively over the following two years. The higher rate threshold will also rise.

The main message of the Budget was, as expected, sticking to the long-term plan. Achieving his original 2010 aim of having debt falling as a percentage of gross domestic product was clearly important to Osborne. It is duly achieved, on the Office for Budget Responsibility's new projections, but mainly by selling assets acquired - including the stake in Lloyds Bank - in the banking rescues of 2007 and 2008. As far as debt is concerned, the old distinction between the level including the rescues (financial transactions) and excluding them has usefully gone away, enabling this to happen.

Another important, if odd, priority was to get rid of the 1930s' spending comparisons, which emerged after the autumn statement in December. So 2018-19 will apparently mark the end of austerity, when spending is down to 36% of GDP - slightly higher than the low point under Gordon Brown in 2000 - after which it can rise in line with GDP. 36%, rather than 35.2%, will mark the low point.

It is all a bit silly, and it is all a very long way off, but then so were the 1930s' comparisons. In December Osborne wanted a 1% of GDP budget surplus by the end of the decade. Now he is apparently happy with 0.3%, or maybe has had that imposed on him by Davivd Cameron.

As for public spending generally, the combination of a coalition government, an OBR given the decisions late, and the fact that a joint policy can only be presented for the first year of the next parliament means that very little that is useful can be gleaned from today's Budget and the OBR analysis accompanying it.

The Treasury says the OBR's numbers for deep departmental cuts in 2016-17 and 2017-18 can be disregarded because a Tory government would make savings on welfare and from clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance (again). The Institute for Fiscal Studies will try to make sense of it tomorrow and we will also have the Liberal Democrats' separate projections. But it is all a bit of a mess.

Living standards will be a battleground in the election. Osborne laid stress on the OBR's projection of a rise in real household disposable income per capita in this parliament. As I noted at the time, this was also what the OBR was predicting in December, though it did not get much picked up. In practice, the debate between Labour - real wages are falling - and the coalition, real incomes are up, is just likely to give statistics a bad name.

On Thursday March 19, I gave a presentation on the budget at Reed Global's annual post-budget breakfast in the City. The presentation and accompanying article can be found here.