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.