The Office of Budget responsibility and the Bank of England have been famous for getting their forecasts of growth and inflation wrong in recent years. They do so for a common reason.
They both believe that the UK has a trend rate of growth similar to that before the 2007-8 financial crisis, of more than 2% per annum. They therefore believe that the current level of output is well below what it should be – there are “missing years” since the crisis hit. As a result they conclude that the economy can be given extra demand through borrowing and printing money without causing inflationary pressure. The OBR has also believed that there would be a “normal” cyclical recovery from the large downturn, to get the economy back to its “trend”.
So far none of this has come true. Inflation has been obstinately high in the UK, hitting more than 5.2% on one occasion at a time when the Bank said it should be much closer to the 2% target owing to large unused capacity. Growth is now forecast by the OBR to be only half the level this Parliament of its 2010 forecast, and that is still optimstic by the standards of other forecasters.
Two of the main points I argued in the Conservative Economic Policy Review published shortly before the crash were that the Uk reached an unsustainable level of activity based on excess borrowing in 2007, and that its future trend growth rate would be around 1% lower than the post war average. The big figure for future trend growth would be 1, not 2. I hope I was not too optimistic.
The trend rate of growth is lower and is likely to remain lower for two important reasons. The first is demand and output was buoyed up by a massive extension of credit in both the private and public sectors prior to 2008. The Central Bank induced crunch makes sustaining the levels of private sector credit impossible, leading to a deflation in the private sector. Few want to return to the excesses of private sector lending and borrowing prior to 2008, though it would be good if a new generation could have access to mortgages and business finance on a sensible scale.
All political parties agree there is a limit on how much extra debt the public sector should take on. The outgoing government pledged to halve the deficit between 2010 and 2015. The incoming government first pledged to eliminate the structural deficit over this time period. Both have had to suggest delaying adjustment, but neither say the public sector can or should go on adding to its borrowing at recent rates.
The second is government raised the proportion of the economy represented by public sector activity to a peak of 50%. The public sector in the UK has a very poor productivity record, so a larger public sector holds back growth which rests on productivity advances. In large parts of the public sector there was no productivity growth in the first decade of this century, whereas manufacturing as a sector has sustained a lively rate of productivity growth. When manufacturing only represents 10% of the economy this has limited impact on our general living standards.
In subsequent posts I will examine what if anything can be done to raise demand in the economy. I will also look at the productivity issue. We can only get richer on average by working smarter and adopting productivity raising technology. How is it going to be done?