Yesterday Anatole Kaletsky argued that the US has enjoyed a better recovery over the last two years than the UK because the US pressed on with large deficit financed spending plans whilst the UK went in for austerity and cuts.
I thought Mr Kaletsky, a respected commentator, would trouble to read the figures coming out of London and Washington before making his statement. Let me share with him some of the latest official statements from the two sides of the Atlantic about GDP growth and public spending:
The last quarter figures for GDP in London did indeed show a small fall in the fourth quarter. They also included the following statements: “the UK Q4 seasonally adjusted index of government and other services increased by 0.4% compared to 0.6% in the previous quarter. ….Q4 2011 was 2.5% higher than Q4 2010.”
Meanwhile, the fourth quarter 2011 US figures which showed better GDP growth contained the following: “Real federal government consumption expenditures and gross investment decreased 7.3% in Q4….Real state and local government consumption expenditures and gross investment decreased 2.6%”.
So Mr Kaletsky is right that the US grew faster, but completely wrong on the trends of public spending. The US grew faster despite- or because- public spending was being cut hard, whilst the UK failed to grow despite or because the public sector spending was continuing upwards in cash terms at a time of little public sector wage growth.
Where Mr Kaletsky was nearer the mark was in comparing UK and US tax policies. The end of last year in the US saw more of a surge in activity because some favourable tax breaks remained in place for those months, whilst the UK was paying the full increases from the higher rates of Income Tax, CGT and VAT imposed by the outgoing and the incoming administration.
The divergence in growth between the US and the UK to me is based on two major differences. The first is US banks have recovered more than RBS or HBOS and can finance more of a recovery. The second is the tax regime is more benign, helped by tax breaks that should expire this year pulling forward new activity and investment. I will avoid being provocative by suggesting that the deeper cuts in US public spending are also part cause of superior performance. Anyone who has been to the US over the last year will have heard of the political and trade union struggles over spending cuts at the local and state level.
As I have repeatedly argued, the UK recovery is meant to be based on a public sector squeeze and a private sector expansion, to rebalance the eocnomy. In the first year and a half of the plan tax increases, energy price rises and broken banks impaired the private sector recovery, whilst public spending continued to rise. It is interesting that the high and rising levels of public spending and the sustained high levels of public borrowing did not trigger better growth as some suggest they should.