Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 23 April 2015

Mediamacro myth 3: the 2007 boom

The only way you can sustain the myth that Labour was fiscally profligate is by suggesting that immediately before the recession the UK was experiencing a massive boom. In an economic boom tax receipts are high and spending on transfers low, so the budget should be in surplus. If it is in fact in significant deficit, that indicates serious fiscal laxity.

There are two half-truths here. First, everyone remembers talk of a housing boom, and a housing boom sounds pretty similar to a more general economic boom. But more seriously, the idea that there was a huge boom in 2007 appears to be backed up by data from the IMF and OECD. Let us take each in turn.

This chart of house prices clearly shows a housing boom in the middle of the last decade. But does it indicate a general economic boom in 2007? There are two problems: there is clearly an underlying trend in the data, and house prices rose most rapidly at the beginning of the decade. When you take any trend into account, the middle years of that decade look like a plateau.

The upward trend in house prices is likely to be due to two factors: a growing mismatch between demand (encouraged in part by inward migration) and supply (very few new houses being built), and lower real interest rates. (The reason why low rates are important is explained here, and the link with demand and supply here.) As all these factors can also vary in the short term, this indicates that the house price cycle need not always be correlated with the more general economic cycle. The clearest indication of this is what has happened to London and South East house prices over the last two years, which are now well above 2007 levels. Does that mean the region is in the middle of an even more massive boom? Of course not.

If you look at both the OECD and IMF’s current measures of the output gap (the difference between actual output and the level that would keep inflation constant), they suggest a large positive gap for the UK in 2007. (3.5% in the latest OECD Economic Outlook.) That is a pretty large boom. The problem here is that in 2007, the OECD only thought the output gap at the time was less than 0.5%, which is no boom at all. Why the change in view? The answer is the recession, and the UK’s slow recovery. To cut a long story short, the OECD in effect retrospectively fit a gradually moving trend through the data (for productivity rather than output, but it comes to the same thing), so the longer the UK fails to catch up with its pre-recession trend, the more the OECD has to bend that trend over the past. The more it bends the trend, the more 2007 looks like a boom.

Could the OECD be right now and wrong back in 2007? The big problem here is that none of the more reliable measures behaved in 2007 as you would expect in a large boom. Inflation was happily bobbing around the Bank’s 2% target. Interest rates were rising, but not rapidly. Unemployment was a little higher than a couple of years before. Consumer debt was rising, but mainly because of rising house prices and mortgages. As the Bank’s Ben Broadbent points out, in the subsequent recession “losses on most domestic loans have actually been unexceptional. Instead, it is UK banks’ substantial overseas assets that caused much of the damage.”

This gets us to the key point as far as Labour profligacy is concerned. What is relevant to this issue is not what we think about the 2007 UK economy today, but what the general consensus was at the time. As we have already noted, the 2007 OECD Economic Outlook thought at the time that the UK economy was pretty close to trend. As far as I can see, this was a consensus view. The IFS Green Budget for 2007 had an output gap of effectively zero. The IMF’s Article IV assessment published around Budget time in 2007 came to a similar conclusion. The reason this was the consensus view is the data noted in the previous paragraph.

One final look at the numbers. If we assume real growth of 2.5% (again a consensus view at the time) and 2% inflation, then a debt to GDP ratio of 40% would imply that the sustainable deficit was 1.8% of GDP. As the estimate of the output gap at the time was around zero, there was no reason to adjust this for the state of the cycle. The actual deficits for financial years 2006-7 and 2007-8 were slightly over 2.5% of GDP. The difference is what I call mild imprudence, and would have been fairly easily to correct in subsequent budgets. By 2009-10 the deficit had risen to 10.2% of GDP because of the recession. So the deficit in 2010 was a consequence of the recession, not Labour profligacy before the recession.

And if you cannot shake off that idea that Gordon Brown was profligate, one final set of figures. Between financial years 1979 to 1996 (the 18 years of Conservative government), the deficit averaged 3.2% of GDP. From 1997 to 2007 it was 1.3%. Now maybe the Conservatives were a bit unlucky with having two recessions on their watch, so the equivalent cyclically adjusted figures are 2.6% and 2.1%. One last time: Labour fiscal profligacy is as mythical as the unicorn.

Previous posts in this series

My New Statesman article that provides a summary of this series is also now available online.


  1. If the Conservative record is assessed throughout their years in power, why does the analysis of Labour's performance stop at 2007?

    1. The purpose of the article, if you hadn't realized, was to discuss Labour fiscal policy prior to the financial crisis.

    2. My comment was directed at the last paragraph, its declared purpose being to assess whether Gordon Brown was profligate. How convenient that the comparison excludes Brown's disastrous last couple of years, yet includes the entire period the Conservatives were in office.

    3. So GB showed no signs of profligacy until the global financial crisis, but because the deficit increased as a result of that crisis he was profligate. That is just silly.

    4. Indeed that would be silly, but no such inference can possibly be drawn from my previous comment. I was just hoping for a fair comparison between the two parties records.
      Although you make the point that the UK economy in 2007 was "pretty close to trend" surely such an uncommonly long period of expansion might have given rise to caution? Of course that wouldn't apply if you believe you have abolished "boom and bust."
      Also noteworthy is the fact that government tax receipts declined markedly in 2008/9 & 2009/10. This does not seem to have occurred in the recessions of the early 80s and 90s. Is that not evidence that tax receipts (in 2007/8) were particularly high based on an unsustainable level of contribution from a then booming financial sector?

  2. Stephen, Brown was attempting to run a Keynesian stimulus during a severe economic downturn; that is not gratuitous spending. You can argue against Keynesian or Hicksian principles but not attack Brown for spending without reason.


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