Word of the day: Hysteresis

Too long in a slump, and the slump starts to get permanent.

The Financial Times reports this morning that the Olympics don't seem to be leading to quite the tourist boom expected:

The games have attracted as many as 100,000 foreign visitors [per day] to London – more than in previous Olympics. But, on its own, that number significantly lags behind the estimated 300,000 foreign tourists [per day] who could be expected in a typical year.

As Richard Murphy points out, this means that one of the great hopes for bringing the country out of recession appears to be fading away. Which means the word of the day is hysteresis.

In general terms, hysteresis is similar to intertia; it is the concept that some things which are hard to get going may then require little input to maintain, and even more effort to reverse.

In specific economic terms, it is the theory that persistent levels of high unemployment raise the "natural" rate of unemployment, also known as NAIRU, the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemploymet. This is the level of unemployment at which, under neo-classical economics, inflation stays low and steady. (As a side-note, yes, neo-classical economics holds that a certain amount of unemployment is good. "Full employment" is thus a bad thing, because it leads to spiralling inflation)

Although it's not specifically related to GDP, it is always a fear when dealing with persistent unemployment and long periods of stagnation and recession. The cause of the phenomenon comes when layoffs in a particular sector increase the bargaining power of the remaining workers. as there are fewer of them left, they can demand higher wages, which become "sticky" in nominal terms, if the period of unemployment lasts long enough. If, at the end of the recession, the business then wants to hire new employees, they have to pay them the new, high wage. In practice, this means that either unemployment stays high permanently, or inflation goes up until the value of the high wage is back, in real tems, to where it was.

It doesn't look like we are seeing the "increased wages" part of the problem yet (since wages are very much stagnating), but that hasn't stopped Citigroup's Ajai Chopra warning everyone:

Our analysis of such hysteresis effects shows that the large and sustained output gap, the difference between what an economy could produce and what it is producing, raises the danger that a downturn reduces the economy’s productive capacity and permanently depresses potential GDP.

A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.