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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Philip Hammond's house gaffe is a reminder of what the Tories lost when David Cameron left

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's blunder confirmed an old fear about the Conservative Party. 

Philip Hammond got into a spot of bother this morning describing the need for a transitional agreement with the European Union by comparing it to moving into a house, saying: "you don't necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day you buy it”.

This immediately surprised a lot of people, because for most people, you do, in fact, move all of your furniture in on the first day you buy a house. Or rent a house, or a flat, or whatever. Most people who buy houses are part of housing chains – that is, they sell their house to raise some of the capital to buy another one, or, if they are first-time buyers, they are moving from the private rented sector into a house or flat of their own.

They don’t, as a rule, have a spare bolthole for “all their furniture” to wait around in. Hammond’s analogy accidentally revealed two things – he is rich, and he owns more than one home. (I say “revealed”. Obviously these are things you can find out by checking the register of members’ interests, but they are, at least, things that are not immediately obvious hearing Hammond speak.)

That spoke to one major and recurring Conservative weakness: that people see them as a party solely for the rich. Focus groups conducted by BritainThinks consistently showed that when people were asked which group of TV families might vote Conservative, the only one that people consistently picked were the “posh couple” from GoggleBox.

David Cameron’s great achievement as Conservative leader was in winning two elections – the first, in 2010, the most successful night for the Conservatives since 1931, with 97 gains overall, the second, their first parliamentary majority for 23 years – despite being a graduate of Eton and Oxford leading a party that most voters fear will only look out for the rich.

He did it by consistently speaking and acting as if he were significantly less well-to-do than he was. Even his supposed 2013 gaffe when asked what the price of bread was – when he revealed that he preferred to use a breadmaker – projected a more down-to-earth image than his background suggested His preferred breadmaker cost a hundred quid and could easily have been found in any upper-middle class home in any part of his country. One of Cameron’s great successes was in presenting himself as an affable upper-middle-class dad to the nation, when he was in fact, well-to-do enough to employ a literal breadmaker had he so chosen.

This is slightly unfair on Philip Hammond who went to a state school in Essex and is by any measure less posh than Cameron. But his gaffe speaks to their big post Cameron problem (and indeed their big pre-Cameron problem) which is that while many conservative ideas are popular, the Conservative Party isn’t. Most of their big politicians are a turn-off, not a turn-on.

And until they can find a genuine replacement for David Cameron, miserable results like 2017 may become the norm, rather than the exception. 

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

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