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
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.