Today’s Autumn Statement was a strange creature. The Chancellor has gone to great lengths to implement a bunch of expensive supply side measures to help the economy grow. But at the same time, the Office for Budget Responsibility appears to have gone in the opposite direction, suggesting that it’s the demand side, not the supply side of the economy that is where the problem lies. That would imply a rather different set of measures to the ones we saw today.
In the run-up to today, the government set a few hares running about how it was going to reallocate current to capital spending to boost growth. Since capital spending tends to raise economic output by more than current spending, building schools and roads could provide a sorely needed boost to the stagnant economy. Just what the doctor ordered. And such a shift was exactly the sort of thing the Social Market Foundation advocated last February as a way to provide a fiscal stimulus without deviating from the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan.
In the event, the investment is a pretty paltry £2.3bn next year and £3bn after that. On its own, that might boost output by about the same amount: a piddling 0.1 per cent of GDP in each year. Unfortunately, even this microscopic growth measure is all but cancelled out by where the funds have been raised from. The decision to uprate benefits by just 1 per cent for three years will suck demand out of the economy from next April, all but off-setting any stimulus effect of the investment plan. Quite apart from the fairness debate, if you need to save money from the welfare bill, it would have been far wiser to wait until the economy is back on its feet.
By contrast, one bright spot – and it was only a spot – was the decision to raise £600m from limiting pension tax relief for top earners. Cutting spending on measures that encourage people to take money out of the economy is an excellent example of a demand-friendly cut. Well done the Lib Dems. They should have done more.
Unsurprisingly, then, for all the infrastructure investment chat, the OBR estimates that the measures in the Autumn Statement will increase output by a meagre 0.1 per cent. This was no ‘Autumn Statement for growth’, whatever the rhetoric.
What this statement was really about was supply side measures, and here the Chancellor has really pulled out the stops. Raising the personal allowance and capping fare rises will make work pay more for the middle classes. Eroding benefits will sharpen work incentives by making life more uncomfortable for those out of work or on low wages. The populist fuel-duty give-away will cut the costs for firms and families. And the corporation tax cut will marginally encourage investment. But it is very unlikely that these measures will do anything to stimulate growth, in the short-term at least.
And here the OBR seems to be saying that the Chancellor has misdiagnosed the problem. Last month the SMF replicated the OBR’s models for estimating how much of the current deficit will remain once the economy gets back to normal. Had the OBR stuck to its models, they would have said that the demand shortfall in the economy was relatively minimal. In that world, supply side policies might make some sense. But today, the OBR junked its models wholesale, adopting a totally different technique. Now they’re saying that the economy is suffering from a large and increasingly persistent shortfall in demand.
The biggest threat to the supply side of the UK economy is from a yawning output gap. Weak demand means that unemployed workers will slip into permanent inactivity, while capital will depreciate. Incentives to invest will remain weak, and banks will see no advantage to calling time on their zombie company clients. This is all very bad news for our future prosperity and our society. But action on demand from the Chancellor has been entirely rhetorical today. Frenetic activity on the supply side looks like fiddling while Rome burns.