Why good news for GDP isn't necessarily good news for the Chancellor

The output gap is a strange and unpredictable beast, writes Nida Broughton.

The Coalition came into Government in 2010 with a plan to repair the public finances and set itself a target to eliminate the structural deficit. The ONS today published figures showing that GDP in the second quarter of this year is even higher than we thought, rising by 0.7 per cent rather than 0.6 per cent. But it isn’t clear if this is good or bad news for the Chancellor’s deficit strategy, because the structural deficit – and therefore the billions of cuts that George Osborne is pencilling in – is determined by small changes in a very slippery measure of the state of the economy: the output gap.

The Government’s structural deficit target is carefully worded to take into account the fact that part of the deficit – the “cyclical” part – will automatically disappear as the economy recovers. From a theoretical point of view, this makes sense: there is little point on focusing efforts on areas of spending that are going to fall anyway. The non-cyclical, “structural” part of the deficit – the part that will remain even when the economy is back on track is surely the part to be concerned about. 

So since 2010, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), whose remit is to report on Government’s performance against its fiscal targets, has set about trying to measure the “output gap” – a measure of how far the economy has to recover.  The output gap is the difference between actual GDP and “potential” GDP. Potential GDP is the level of GDP that the economy could achieve if it were operating at “full capacity”.

But it has become increasingly clear that in practice, the output gap is just too difficult to measure. The OBR’s twice-yearly reports always show a comparison of the OBR’s estimate of the output gap against those made by other forecasters – including banks and independent forecasting houses. This provides a useful sense-check of the OBR’s figures. 

The last OBR report in March, showed, as it always has done, the huge range that different forecasters have come up with in measuring the output gap – ranging from -7.3 per cent to -0.9 per cent for 2013. To put this into context, just a two percentage point difference in the output gap estimate is enough to change the forecast structural deficit in the Government’s target year of 2018 by around £28bn – no small amount when the Government is looking to cut around £33bn after the election.

Earlier this month, the Bank of England, searching for a way to measure the state of the economy as part of its Forward Guidance, decided against the output gap, saying that:

“The output gap is unobservable and difficult to explain, and any estimate would be subject to substantial uncertainty.”

Instead, it plumped for unemployment as a measure. And now even as the economy is showing some signs of life, independent forecasters still can’t agree among themselves on what the positive growth figures mean for the output gap, as shown in the chart below. Of those releasing estimates after July’s surprise good news on growth from the ONS, two thought this meant the economy was now closer to potential. One thought that it was now further away – presumably taking the good news on GDP to be a sign of underlying productivity improvements that mean that the economy’s potential has expanded. And two kept their output gap estimate unchanged. 

Chart: Forecasts of the output gap in 2013

HM Treasury, Forecasts for the UK economy: a comparison of independent forecasts, August 2013

The question has to be asked: how useful is a public spending target that depends on such an uncertain measure of the economy? Perhaps recognising this, or perhaps because it made for a better statistic, George Osborne omitted to mention the “structural deficit” at all in his last Spending Review speech in June, referring instead to the overall deficit. And even though the structural deficit – on OBR forecasts - is due to go into surplus by 2016-17, George Osborne’s planned cuts stretch out to 2018. So does the Chancellor himself still believe in the usefulness of his target?

The Chancellor. Photograph: Getty Images

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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