George Osborne stands behind the bar during a visit to officially re-open The Red Lion pub following a major refurbishment in Westminster on February 25, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images
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How big is Osborne's black hole? The problem is we don't know

The level of austerity required varies hugely depending on how much growth is thought possible.

Today's FT story on George Osborne's "£20bn black hole" might appear puzzling at first. With the British economy growing faster than that of any other major western country (albeit after three years of stagnation), shouldn't the public finances be getting better, not worse? On one level they are: borrowing for 2013-14  is currently £4bn lower than last year. But the problem for the Chancellor is that the models used by the Office for Budget Responsibility (the budgetary watchdog he founded in 2010), which the FT has replicated, deem this improvement to be almost entirely cyclical (temporary), rather than structural (permanent). While the body's short-term forecasts have improved, its long-term forecasts have worsened. Osborne's cuts have permanently dented the economy's growth potential. The result is that the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that exists regardless of the level of growth) is now estimated to be even bigger than first thought, and that means even more austerity will be needed to balance the books. 

The problem with all of these forecasts is that they hinge on one highly uncertain judgement: the size of the output gap. The output gap (or the level of "spare capacity") is the difference between current and potential growth. If the gap is thought to be large, then a significant chunk of the deficit can be eliminated over time through growth, rather than spending cuts and tax rises. But if it is thought to be small (the OBR puts it at 1.8 per cent), then even greater austerity is needed. At present, the OBR estimates that the structural deficit will be £85bn this year, while the total deficit will be £111bn (meaning £26bn of austerity is avoided). But the FT''s updated forecasts suggest that the difference between the two might be smaller than thought, hence the warning of a "£20bn black hole". 

The complication for Osborne (and Ed Balls, who has pledged to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament) is that economists are hugely divided over the potential for higher growth (the Independent's Ben Chu has a useful graph of their differing forecasts here). The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee is even more pessimistic than the OBR; it estimates that the output gap is just 1-1.5 per cent, meaning that austerity of £91-97bn will be needed to Osborne to meet his target of running a budget surplus by 2018-19. But the market, on average, is more optimistic than both; it assumes an output gap of 2.7 per cent, meaning the level of austerity required falls to £77bn. Others are even more optimistic. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) puts the output gap at 4.3 per cent, with £60bn of austerity required, at least £30bn less than assumed by the Bank of England. 

The danger highlighted by some economists is that an overly pessimistic estimate could lead to austerity being applied more severely than necessary. As Andrew Goodwin, senior economist at Oxford Economics, has said: "Oxford Economics analysis suggests that the economy has a significantly larger amount of spare capacity than the OBR estimates which, in turn, suggests that the medicine of austerity could end up being applied in a dose higher than the patient actually needs."  This calculation matters as much for Labour as it does for the Tories. The level of growth thought possible will determine the amount the party can spend on its priorities - housing, childcare, employment, skills, health and social care - while meeting its tough deficit reduction targets. If it follows Osborne and uses the OBR's pessimistic forecasts, it could end up with a minimalist manifesto it later regrets. 

Wonkish it might be, but the output gap is probably the most important number in British politics. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.