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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The post-Brexit power vacuum is hindering the battle against climate change

Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead.

“The UK will not step back from that international leadership [on clean energy]”, the Secretary for climate change, Amber Rudd, told a sea of suits at Wednesday's summit on Business and the environment.

The setting inside London’s ancient Guidlhall helped load her claims with a sense of continuity. But can such rhetoric be believed? Not only have recent events thrown the UK's future ability to lead on climate change into doubt, but a closer look at policy suggests that this government has rarely been leading to start with.

Rudd’s speech came just 24 hours before she laid the order of approval for the UK’s fifth Carbon Budget. This budget will set our 2028-2032 emissions target at a 57 per cent reduction on 1990 levels – in line with the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change. And comes amidst a party-wide attempt to reassure green business that Britain is open as normal: "I think investors now should feel they have a very clear path ahead," Andrea Leadsom has insisted.

In some respects, those wanting to make the case for an independent UK, could not have wished for a better example than the home-grown carbon budget. The budget is the legal consequence of the UK’s ground-breaking domestic 2008 Climate Change Act, which aims to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. And the new 57 per cent interim target also appears to put the UK ahead of European efforts on the matter - exceeding the EU goal of a 40 per cent emissions reduction.

The announcement will thus allow David Cameron to argue that he has fulfilled his husky-loving promise to provide leadership on the environment. He may even make it the basis for an early ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement, ahead of the European bloc as a whole.

Yet looked at more closely, the carbon budget throws the UK’s claims to climate leadership into serious doubt.

In the short term, its delayed, last moment, release is a dispiriting example of Westminster’s new power-vacuum. Business leaders, such as those at yesterday’s conference, are crying out for “consistent, coherent and predictable national policies” on climate change and emissions reductions. Yet today’s carbon budget can only go so far to maintaining the pretence of stability.

Earlier this week, Amber Rudd responded to a parliamentary question into how Brexit will effect the UK’s climate ambitions with a link to none other than the Prime Minister’s resignation speech. And while concrete progress on policy will have to wait for party-political power struggles politics to run their course, historic Tory hostility to green policy makes progressive change far from certain.

Supporters of Brexiteer Boris Johnson may have played down his opposition to action on climate change in recent days, quipping that he would sooner be “kebabbed with a steak knife over the dining room table” by his environmentalist father. But the recent appointment of UKIP’s Mark Reckless, from a party notorious for its climate scepticism, as the new chairman of the Welsh committee on climate change has sent shock waves through the environmental community and will do little to help allay investor fears.

More concerning still is the 47 per cent shortfall between emission targets and present reality. A progress report released today is damning evidence of the Conservative's long-term neglect of the underlying issues.

Such censure builds upon the findings of a recent study from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. Far from leading Europe’s major nations on issues of energy and climate change, their research finds the UK to be distinctly middle of the pack. “Of the ‘Big Five’ economies with comparable levels of population size, GDP, ect., Britain ranks third, behind France and Spain but ahead of Italy and Germany”, write authors Matt Finch and Dr Jonathan Marshall.

A significant number of incentives for government action – such as fines for not meeting interim targets on energy efficiency – would also be nullified in the instance of Brexit. And it cannot even be claimed that our long-term ambition is greater than Europe’s: the UK’s target is an 80 per cent cut between 1990-2050, and the EU’s is 80-95 per cent.

News that the manufacturing giant Siemens is suspending new investment into its UK-based offshore wind operations could thus be set to prove symptomatic of a wider trend. And ministers must act fast to turn promises into policy.

Even  Michael Gove - the man who once wanted to take climate change off the curriculum – now describes as one of the world’s greatest challenges. While according  to the new shadow secretary for energy and climate change, Barry Gardiner: “The government can no longer wait until December to publish its Carbon Plan. It must do so now.”  

Included in such a plan should be clarification of the UK’s relationship to European emissions trading, the development of a Carbon Capture & Storage strategy, and urgent action on heating and transport efficiency. The 5th Carbon Budget is an important step towards this process but Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead. Nor from the damning fragility of Cameron’s environmental legacy to date.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.