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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.