Borrowing is much higher than it should be. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Government borrowing: the numbers don’t add up

There is less scope in the years ahead for our current levels of borrowing to be eliminated by further economic growth. 

Friday’s public spending figures brought some small comfort to the Chancellor. In September, borrowing for the year was 10 per cent higher than the previous year; the gap has now narrowed to 6 per cent. But that is very small comfort indeed when borrowing was supposed to fall by around 12 per cent this year.

The initial signs looked good: GDP growth for 2014 is expected to come in at around 3 per cent, higher than the OBR forecast back in March. But poor wage growth has continued to hold tax receipts down. The result is that borrowing is much higher than it should be. 

At the same time, economic forecasters are putting the higher than expected growth down to a faster recovery rather than an improvement in the underlying health of the economy. This means that there is less scope in the years ahead for our current levels of borrowing to be eliminated by further economic growth. 

This has serious consequences for fiscal targets in the next parliament. The Conservatives have said that if they win the next election, they would seek to generate an overall surplus by 2018-19. 

On the plans set out back in March, that looked feasible. With £38bn of cuts to government departments after 2015-16, the OBR forecast that by 2018-19, the next government would have eliminated borrowing and would in fact be running a surplus of just over £1 billion. 

The SMF’s calculations, based on the latest economic forecasts, shows that this is no longer likely to be the case. Instead, even with the £38bn of cuts, borrowing will still be at around £14bn. To hit their targets, the Conservatives would have to bring the total cuts after 2015-16 to £52bn.

Since 2010, the deadline for completing the deficit reduction programme has had to be repeatedly postponed. In large part, thisis because the state of the economy has disappointed. In the next parliament, as with this one, the performance of the economy will make the difference between success and failure in meeting any of the main political parties’ fiscal targets. If, for example, it were possible to repeat the sustainable growth era of the early 2000s, the need for further cuts after 2015-16 would disappear. By contrast, if we see a repeat of poor underlying productivity growth seen in recent years, the size of the cuts required could balloon.

The next government must have an ambitious plan to boost long-term growth, and repairing the UK economy must be seen and treated as an integral part of any public spending strategy. This means that areas of spending that have growth enhancing-benefits must be prioritised.

The spending cuts programme was expected to be over in time for the 2015 general election. Instead, the next incoming government will have an even bigger challenge on its hands than in 2010: making further fierce cuts to spending when the easiest savings have already been made.

Nida Broughton is Chief Economist at the Social Market Foundation 

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.