The most important paragraph in the IMF World Economic Outlook

68 words of wonkishness.

The IMF's World Economic Outlook (pdf) – a 230-page tome detailing predictions on nearly every aspect of the world's economy collated by the international organisation – always gets attention for the calls it makes.

The October edition downgrades expected global growth for 2013 from 3.9 per cent to 3.6 per cent, and also cuts predictions for China (down to 8.2 per cent for 2013), the US (expected to grow by 2.1 per cent in 2013, down from 2.3 per cent in July's prediction) and the UK (now expected to grow by just 1.1 per cent next year, and to contract by 0.2 per cent this year).

But the predictions are not the most important passages in this edition of the Outlook. Those are found in a short box-out titled Are We Underestimating Short-Term Fiscal Multipliers?

The fisc§al multiplier is the effect government spending has on GDP. Money spent by the government doesn't disappear – it is respent, again and again. If a teacher gets a pay rise, their consumption is likely to rise in line with it; if all teachers get pay rises, that increase in consumption may be enough to affect the aggregate demand in the economy. In an economy which isn't being stretched to its limits – that is, one without full employment, or serious capital equipment shortages – that increase in aggregate demand will result in an increase in GDP.

The existence of the fiscal multiplier is a matter of fact, but the magnitude of it is contested. And that's where the IMF enters the scene, on page 42:

The main finding, based on data for 28 economies, is that the multipliers used in generating growth forecasts have been systematically too low since the start of the Great Recession, by 0.4 to 1.2, depending on the forecast source and the specifics of the estimation approach. Informal evidence suggests that the multipliers implicitly used to generate these forecasts are about 0.5. So actual multipliers may be higher, in the range of 0.9 to 1.7.

Emphasis mine. When deciding how much to spend, governments have been assuming that every pound they spend increases GDP by 50p – but it may increase it by as much as £1.70.

The reason this is so very important is that fiscal multiplier is usually appealed to not when deciding how much to spend, but how much to not spend. When governments are planning austerity packages, they have to be wary of the fact that large cuts to government spending will inevitably cause a decrease in output, and so they either have to be prepared to take that hit, or come up with a reason why slashing spending will cause an increase in output through some other mechanism.

That is easy enough to do if you are trying to account for a fiscal multiplier of 0.5: you can make the arguments, which Osborne and Cameron rehearsed repeatedly, that the public sector is crowding out the private; that the government spending which is being cut is particularly inefficient; or that the confidence fairies will reward your thriftiness with growth.

When there is the chance that the fiscal multiplier is three times that, austerity becomes much more likely to involve damaging drops in output.

There was once a time when the government pegged its credibility to that of the IMF – back when George Osborne was proud about Britain's credit ratings, and the international community was behind his plans. Those days are gone, and have been since Christine Lagarde made her own attack on austerity. But the economists at the treasury may be more inclined to listen to the wonkish findings of the World Outlook than the political interventions of the fund's leader. We can only hope they are prompted to re-do the sums.

The IMF headquarters. 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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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