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.

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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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