IMF: “A plague on both your houses”

Funded stimulus will take real political leadership to pull off.

Yesterday’s IMF country report for the UK had something for everyone in the debate about fiscal policy and growth.

There were two headline conclusions. The first was that evidence from non-eurozone countries suggests that, in the UK, low Gilt yields are an indicator of weak growth prospects. As Jonathan Portes has long argued, they aren’t a market vote of confidence in the Government’s fiscal strategy. So the benefits of Plan A aren’t nearly as great as the Government likes to claim. Loosening up on Plan A would indeed raise the Government’s cost of borrowing, but only because prospects for growth in the private sector would improve. So much for Plan A fundamentalism.

So Plan B it is then? Well not quite. At the same time as challenging the benefits of Plan A, the report’s second conclusion cast doubt on the gains from easing-up on deficit reduction.

The benefits of slowing the pace of the cuts depend upon your view of how the impact of government spending on output varies with the state of the economy. Does a pound of government spending boost GDP by more when output is below its potential – or in a recession - than it does in normal times? The IMF sets out three scenarios.

First, that the timing of spending makes no difference in the long-run. Plan B would therefore be a prescription for lower-intensity pain for longer, while Plan A is more of a short, sharp shock. But in the long-run, the negative impact on the potential of the UK and its workers would be no different under either plan.

Second, it could be that each pound of spending has more impact when output is below its potential, as it is now. In this case slowing the pace of cuts would be a good idea, saving thousands of people from being permanently disadvantaged in the labour market.

Third, it might be that government spending has its greatest impact when the economy is actually shrinking, and less impact when it’s growing. If slower cuts fed through just as growth picked up, then Plan B might even be worse than Plan A on this view.

So for Plan B to be effective, we need to be in the second of these worlds. And a lot of microeconomic evidence strongly suggests that we are. Yet the IMF casts some doubt on that, citing a study that “finds a weak relationship between the output gap and multipliers in the UK”. For the IMF, if not for most labour market economists, the benefits of Plan B are uncertain for the UK (although you might also argue that there’s nothing to lose from trying it).

So we have a situation where Plan B might not cause a panic, but it might also not help. The risks of both plans may be less than their respective opponents claim, but their benefits too may be oversold. So what to do?

In all this discussion of the impact of government spending on output, the IMF, along with most commentators, generally talks in terms of the average effect of government spending. But one thing we know with more certainty is that spending on things like public infrastructure is far more beneficial for output than, say, fiscal incentives for people to lock money away in a pension for 30 years. As I argued in Osborne’s Choice, the composition of government taxation and spending matters far more than most of the macroeconomic debate suggests. That’s why the only way to reduce the damage wrought by a stagnant economy with any certainty is to rejig spending from low- to high-growth areas. And this is an important part of what the IMF proposed yesterday.

The Fund points out that neither Plan A nor Plan B are free lunches. But in economic terms, a funded stimulus is about the cheapest lunch you can get. The catch is that it takes real political leadership to pull it off. The growth crisis demands nothing less.

Ian Mulheirn is Director of the Social Market Foundation.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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