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We need to learn that the real economic gamble is sometimes too little government borrowing – not too much

Even if we were to accept that the economy is running roughly at capacity, an output gap could easily open up again if we have a chaotic Brexit

Ben Chu
Sunday 04 November 2018 15:07 GMT
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Louise Thomas

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With his dad jokes and fetish for spreadsheets, Philip Hammond does not fit the stereotype of a “gambler”. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) nevertheless argues that the chancellor rolled the dice in last week’s Budget and took a rather risky wager.

Instead of using his lower borrowing projection “windfall” from the official independent forecaster to reduce the deficit more rapidly, Hammond essentially spent it all on the health service, while leaving the overall path of government borrowing more or less unchanged.

He could have had a projected budget surplus in five years’ time, but instead there’s still set to be around £20bn of borrowing in 2023-24.

Virtually the entire UK news media took up this “gambler” theme in their headline coverage of the aftermath of the Budget. Yet we should be extremely wary of this framing. Because it obscures the crucial truth that, in economics, the gamble is sometimes borrowing too little, not too much.

The IFS, to be fair, was using the phrase in a narrow sense of the chancellor jeopardising his chances of meeting his own self-imposed fiscal rules.

Those Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) borrowing downgrades – whose origins remain mysterious given the official forecaster hasn’t upgraded its nominal GDP or growth forecasts which would be the most obvious explanations for higher than expected tax receipts lately – could very well be reversed in future budgets.

Since 2010, most underlying borrowing revisions have been negative (implying more borrowing than previously expected) rather than positive for the public finances.

What the lord of forecasting (in this case OBR director Robert Chote) giveth, he can also taketh away. He even warned as much last week. And what would happen then?

Would Mr Hammond really try to hike taxes while the government is walking the tightrope of a hung parliament? Would he cut public spending when the prime minister has told the country that austerity has ended? Isn’t it more likely that the result would be more borrowing? And what would happen to his fiscal rules then?

All this raises the question of whether or not the chancellor’s fiscal rules are sensible. If a man had resolved to jump off a building, we wouldn’t describe a decision to place obstacles between himself and the ledge as a “gamble” because it might mean him not achieving his suicidal goal.

Hammond’s rules, including a deficit below 2 per cent of GDP in 2020-21, are not suicidal. They are far less economically destructive than those of his predecessor George Osborne, who was insisting on running an absolute budget surplus in 2019-20, ignoring the advice of just about every independent public finance expert.

Yet there are other fiscal rules available. There is no reason to believe Hammond’s represents perfection. Indeed, it’s quite possible for a country to borrow indefinitely and still see the debt stock as a share of GDP decline provided (roughly) that the growth rate is higher than the deficit as a share of output.

Labour’s own fiscal rule targets a day-to-day budget surplus in five years’ time with a suspension if interest rates are still stuck close to zero, meaning monetary policy and the Bank of England cannot reliably help to boost growth if we go into recession.

That’s a perfectly reasonable rule, consistent with stable public finances, and one which requires less consolidation – and allows more near term borrowing – than the Chancellor’s.

And then there’s the state of the overall economy to consider. The OBR judges that there is now no slack in the UK economy, suggesting any additional borrowing would be inflationary. But the OBR may well be wrong about that. Several other credible forecasters think there remains an output gap. Oxford Economics puts it at more than one per cent.

And even if we were to accept that the economy is running roughly at capacity, an output gap could easily open up again if we have a chaotic Brexit. At that stage additional public spending will be an economically stabilising influence, just as it was during the last recession.

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But the media’s wholesale adoption of the “gamble” framing from the IFS briefing, and the failure to put it in the specific context of the chancellor’s own chosen fiscal rules and the neglect of all questions of macroeconomic management, is evidence of what the Oxford professor and magisterial economics blogger Simon Wren-Lewis has rightly called “mediamacro”.

A key element of mediamacro is the naive assumption that higher government borrowing is inherently dangerous and that lower borrowing is always praiseworthy.

This is a rule of thumb used by far too many political journalists, commentators, presenters, editors and producers. Some of them do it for ideological reasons, out of their desire for a smaller state and tax cuts. Some lazily accept the framing of politicians. But most ubiquitous and dangerous are those who consider themselves to be neutral and non-partisan yet still drift into looking at fiscal policy through this distorting prism.

It’s depressing and really rather shameful that after a decade of well-documented macroeconomic mistakes across the western world, it’s apparently still necessary to restate the truth that a national economy cannot be usefully compared to a household, and that the only kind of economic “gamble” some seem able to recognise is the one where the risk is more borrowing.

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