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.

India Bourke
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Pegida UK: the new face of Britain’s far-right movement, and how to challenge it

“Let them drink tea,” Birmingham tells Islamophobes.

“Spooky,” is how Pegida UK – the latest branch of a global, anti-Islam, protest group  chooses to describe its silent march on the outskirts of Birmingham. 

“Islam is Nazism incarnate,” announces its new leader, Paul Weston, to a few hundred soggy, sober, brolly-clad protesters waving “Trump is Right” placards. 


Pegida UK protestors march through the rain. Photos: India Bourke

Such numbers are a far cry from the tens of thousands who attended the movement’s inaugural rallies in Germany in 2014, in response to the perceived “Islamisation” of Europe. And they would be derisory if the cheers Weston receives from his supporters weren’t quite so chilling, nor echoed so far.

For Pegida UK is not alone. From Calais to Canberra, thousands marched in the name of the movement’s toxic platform of anti-immigration and anti-Islam last weekend. I went to see the Birmingham rally to find out why such a protest is taking place in Britain.

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"Today is the first of many European wide demonstrations that will bring people together like never before,” Tommy Robinson, UK founder and ex-EDL leader, tells the assembled crowd. “It's planting the seed of something huge.”

Robinson hopes to exploit a gap within Britain’s far-right. Traditional groups are fractured: the British National Party was decimated at the last election, standing just eight of a previous 338 candidates. In its place, a swell of smaller, extremist bodies – from the Sigurd Legion to National Action – are pressing an ever more militant agenda. Pegida hopes to scale back the hooliganism in order to garner a wider appeal, but it shares these groups’ confrontation with Islam, and each may spur the other on.

“With Pegida we’re seeing the rise of a seminal new threat,” says Birmingham MP Liam Byrne. “In the rise of Isis and politicians like Donald Trump, you have forces determined to promote a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. Pegida is trying to surf that wave and make sure it crashes on our shores.

Opponents hope the movement will suffer the same implosion that felled the BNP and EDL, with both leaning  too much on their leaders’ personal brands. Robinson certainly seems as adolescent as ever: laughing as he swipes away a photo of a scantily-clad blonde on his iPhone screen to show me the international Pegida leadership’s “hidden” Facebook group.

Their new apparently "suited and booted" middle-class following is also less than wholehearted. One pin-striped IT executive I speak to seems embarrassed by the whole affair: “I’m just a cowardly family man who can’t see a solution being offered by mainstream politicians. I’d be sacked if they knew I was here,” he says, declining to give his name. 


A Pegida protestor poses in front of the main stage.

As long as such hesitation prevails, Pegida UK will struggle. Still, there’s a sense more needs to be done to ensure its demise.

Matching protest with counter-protest is the traditional leftwing response, and this weekend saw thousands of Pegida opponents take to the streets across Europe. Yet, in some cases, direct confrontation can risk drowning out – even alienating – the very voices it seeks to win over.

“Smash the facists into the sea,” instructed the Twitter account of the North London Antifa group ahead of last weekend’s far-right, anti-immigration protest in Dover, where injuries were sustained by demonstrators on both sides.

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Instead, many now believe a better answer begins with that most British of pastimes: tea and a chat.

On the day before the Birmingam march, hundreds of the city’s cross-party leaders, religious figures and citizens gathered together at Birmingham Central Mosque to share their concerns over shortcake and jalebi.

“Groups like Pegida are parasites on the real concerns people have,” says John Page from the anti-extremism group Hope not Hate. “So we have to listen to these issues to close the cracks.

Initiatives around the city will attempt to take this approach, which sets a welcome lead not just for the UK, but Europe too.

The blanket smearing by groups like Pegida of Islam as a religion of sexist, homophobic Jihadi Johns places the burden of action disproportionately on the city’s Muslims. “It is our turn now to suffer these attacks,” says Mr Ali, Birmingham Central Mosque’s 42-year-old administrator. “It was the Irish, then the Jews, and now it is the time for us. But we are proud to be British Muslims and we will do what we can to defend this country.” 

A permanent visitors gallery, Visit-my-Mosque events, and publications that condemn Isis, are just some of the ways the community is challenging demonisation. It is even hosting a documentary crew from Channel 4 – a bold move in a city still reeling from Benefits Street.


Birmingham resident, Luke Holland, at a peaceful counter-protest in the city centre.

Mr Ali says: “The extreme right know nothing about Islam, but neither do many Muslim extremists.” The mosque is therefore in the process of formulating a “code of conduct”, making clear that hate speech of any kind is unacceptable.

"We have to help young people become the next Chamberlains and Cadburys and Lucases of this city," regardless of background, says Labour councillor Habib Rehman. Instead of letting them slip into despair and extremism of any kind, "we have to tell them: 'Yes You Khan!’”

Tea and talk is not the most dramatic response to Pegida’s claim it will have “100,000 decent people on the street” by the end of the year. But, in Birmingham at least – the city of Typhoo, where bhangra is as familiar as Bournville, and “No dogs, no Irish!” still sits heavy on the collective mind – tea, for now, means hope.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.