The public sector deficit through the looking-glass

The government is ignoring the flip side of the its deficit reduction targets: they require us all to spend more.

Reducing the public sector deficit has been the Coalition's number one economic goal from the start. Inheriting a record deficit in 2009/10 – Labour’s last year – equal to almost 11 per cent of GDP, no new government, even if had wanted to, could have done anything else. 

The underlying reasoning – that a deficit this big is a sign of a something seriously amiss in the economy – was and is completely correct. Since the late 1980s, this deficit had averaged 2.5 per cent. In that period, the biggest it ever got was 7.5 per cent in 1993/4 as the economy began its recovery from the early 1990s recession.

But the approach of trying to reduce that deficit by cutting spending and putting up taxes alone is wrong. The reason why is that the public sector deficit does not exist in isolation. Instead, it is part of a chain of 'imbalances' linking the public sector with the household, corporate and overseas sectors. By definition (and measurement errors aside), these four imbalances, some surpluses and some deficits, always add up to zero.

The graph below shows the public sector deficit as a percentage of GDP, year by year from 1993/4 (the previous record deficit year). The figures up to 2011/12 are actual figures. Those for 2012/3 and beyond are the OBR’s latest forecast published last week. The odd-looking 2012/3 figures themselves are due to some one-off financial transfers between the corporate and public sectors. In the big picture they can be ignored.

Sources: ONS Quarterly National Accounts (to 2011/2) and Office for Budget Responsibility, March 2013 Economy Supplementary Tables, table 1.8, (from 2012/3)

Since there is nothing on the graph labelled ‘public sector deficit’ how can it be a picture of it? On the face of it, the graph shows the other three sector balances, with surpluses above the line and deficits below it. The public sector deficit is the total of these three. In years when all three are themselves surpluses, the public sector deficit is measured by the top of the bar stack: for example, just under 11 per cent in 2009/10. In years when one or more of the other balances is itself a deficit, this has to be subtracted from the top of the stack to get the measure of the public sector: for example, just under 7 per cent in 2008/9. This is a picture of the public sector deficit as Alice might find it, through the looking-glass.

This picture provokes questions. Let’s take three of them here. First, if the public sector deficit has this double life, as both itself and as this mirror image of the other three sectors, can we say which causes which? In simple terms, the answer is no; both sides of the mirror have a life of their own. This answer is enough to undermine the basic idea of ‘austerity’; that if only a government bears down on the public sector hard enough, all, eventually, will be well.

Second, what should we make of the economy in 2017/8, the last year of the OBR’s forecast? With a public sector deficit projected at 2.5 per cent (the long term average) and (though this cannot be seen in the graph) public sector debt at last falling as a percentage of GDP. Osborne would regard this as vindication. But by looking at the reflection of the deficit in the mirror, we see that 2017/8 bears an unfortunate resemblance not to the boom years either side of 1997 but to 2002/3, the year when things started going wrong under Labour as the economy came to be sustained by public and household borrowing. 

Third, if this is where austerity gets us, where do we need to go instead? The answer is that we must concentrate as well on the problematic surpluses, both the chronic corporate sector surplus (into its consecutive 16th year by the end of the OBR forecast) and overseas surplus with the UK – better known as ‘our’ balance of payments deficit. To the extent that there is a debate about alternatives to austerity they are for the most part about how to ‘kick start’ the economy. Without a programme for dealing with the twin surpluses, however, kick-start may turn into stop-start before we get anywhere near a sufficient level of economic activity.

And she looked from Tweedledum to Tweedledee, and from Tweedledee to Tweedledum, and from Tweedledum to Tweedledee again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.