Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 8 November 2019

The differences between Labour and the Conservatives on fiscal policy

The Conservatives have learnt the lesson of 2017, and have ditched austerity in order to offer higher spending to the electorate.They hope voters decide that there isn't much difference between the two parties on this score. But voters would be wrong to do so. In Labour's case the extra spending is sustainable, whereas for the Tories it will not be. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the Tories are not proposing large tax increases, while Labour almost certainly will - in the last election corporation taxes and taxes on high earners. (In 2017 the IFS suggested their match between extra current spending and higher taxes wasn’t perfect, but they agreed Labour would keep within its fiscal rule, which is what matters.) That means for a given fiscal stance Labour should have more money to spend on non-investment public spending than the Conservatives. And, assuming there is no collapse in demand ahead, their fiscal stance is now similar. (If there is a collapse, see below).

The second reason is Brexit. The Tories have negotiated a very hard Brexit, leaving the Customs Union and Single Market. I have argued that Brexit will not happen under Labour, but even if it did a much softer Brexit means less economic damage. Soft or no Brexit means higher incomes under Labour which in turn means higher taxes, and so higher spending.

What the Tories are counting on is that analysis by the IFS and others of the two party's programmes will ignore the second difference, and use a common baseline (as the Resolution Foundation does here). Once you factor in Brexit, the Tories extra spending is unlikely to be sustainable. They willl be forced to raise taxes or cut spending to keep to their current balance target. It will be even worse if Johnson throws in some last minute tax cuts in a desparate attempt to ensure he gets a majority. The OBR might have shown all this in its budget forecast, but the budget was conveniently postponed.

Not only will Labour spend more on day to day government expenditure, but they also plan a much more radical increase in public investment spending. Whether you think that is a good idea will depend on how seriously you take the need for a Green New Deal, how much you want to reduce regional inequalities and how much social housing you want the government to build, among other things. That will mean more borrowing under Labour, but public investment of this kind should be financed by borrowing. No one should argue we cannot invest to reduce climate change because it means borrowing more!

Those are the headlines from yesterday. The rest is only of interest to those who worry about fiscal rules. For the details of what each party's new rules are I'm relying on this account by the Resolution Foundation.

1) Both Conservaives and Labour are now targeting the current balance: the deficit minus net public investment. The Tories have given up Osborne's foolish move to target the total deficit, and like Labour's Fiscal Credibility rule will not constrain investment in the deficit part of the rule. There are two differences. Labour targets the current balance five years ahead using a rolling target, whereas the Tories will target it three years ahead with no rolling target. I argue in my paper with Jonathan Portes that in a mature economy with a fiscal council like the OBR a rolling 5 year target makes more sense, because it is more robust to shocks just at the end of the target period.

2) Labour's Fiscal Credibility Rule departed from the suggestions in that paper by having a target for debt. The big change in this election is that this is replaced by a target that includes government assets as well as liabilities, a suggestion that both the Resolution Foundation, INET and the IFS’s Green Budget have made. If you are going to have a stock target (see below) this type of target makes more sense. The Tories have a weak and conventional 'falling debt/GDP' target.

3) Both rules appartently include limits for debt interest in relation to taxes. I'm even less keen on these than debt targets, but they have been suggested by others.

4) Labour’s Fiscal Credibility Rule has a knockout that occurs when interest rates hit their lower bound. This was a key proposal in my paper with Jonathan Portes, and as a result Labour's rule was ahead of its time. When interest rates hit their lower bound, the fiscal rule would be temporarily suspended and fiscal policy would focus on an economic recovery. When John McDonnell launched his rule in 2016 one BBC reporter called the knockout a loophole, despite the fact that it would have created a much faster and quicker recovery and avoided austerity! Other than that mediamacro hardly discussed the knockout.

Since 2016, however, first the IPPR, then INET and then the Resolution Foundation have suggested very similar knockouts, reflecting a growing consensus that fiscal stimulus will be needed for the next recession. In another post I might discuss the small differences between these different knockouts, but the principle is the same and kind of obvious - if conventional monetary policy can no longer do its job fiscal policy should take over. But as we are not yet at this lower bound, Labour were quite right in 2017 not to base policy on the knockout happening, and I suspect they will do the same again in this election. As far as I know there is no knockout in what the Conservatives' propose.

The difference between the rule suggested in Portes and Wren-Lewis and the Fiscal Credibility Rule is that the latter initially contained a target for total debt, and now contains a target for public sector net wealth. While the latter is a definite improvement on the former, I personally think targets for any kind of stock in a fiscal rule are a bad idea. The reason to target the deficit rather than debt is basic to fiscal rules. Adjustment of taxes and spending should as far as possible be done slowly.

Suppose some temporary fiscal shock raises both the deficit and debt. Because the shock is temporary, there will be no impact on future deficits. At most debt interest payments may rise slightly, requiring some very tiny increase in taxes or cut in spending. Debt will gradually fall back to its pre-shock level. That is smooth adjustment. However with a debt target you need a much bigger adjustment in taxes or spending to get the debt stock down within the target period. Exactly the same logic applies to permanent fiscal shocks.

This is the basic logic of preferring deficit target to debt targets This is not to say that the debt ratio or some other stock measure are not important, but they should guide what deficit targets should be, and not be targets themselves. An analogy is a road trip where you are delayed by some congestion. A sensible person does not start taking risks by driving very fast to make up for lost time as quickly as possible, but instead think how they can make up the time gradually over the entire journey. As no one has any good idea of what the optimum level of debt is, the journey in this case is decades not 5 years.

There is a technical argument that you should target both if your deficit target is the current balance, which excludes investment. If that is so, and it should be so, then in theory without some form of debt target the government could increase debt without limit by keeping investment very high. My response is that, if this really is a worry (has it ever happened in the UK over the last 50+ years?), have a target or limit for the investment to GDP ratio, as the new Conservative fiscal rule does. In this one respect I think their rule is better than Labour's, if you ignore their silly change in debt target! An investment target would avoid the dangers of having a stock target.

It would be much more sensible in my view to have just a current balance deficit target, which is occasionally revised after suggestions by the OBR in light of movements in various measures of government debt and wealth. In their recent Green Budget the IFS are very pessimistic, suggesting fiscal rules will never last a long time. I think there is a simple reason for this, and that is that rules generally contain some form of debt target. But they seem very popular with politcians in all countries, and many of those that advise them, which alas may mean fiscal rules may not be as robust as they could be.

Postscript (12/11/19)

I saw it suggested yesterday that you could ignore the points I make here because I once advised the Labour party (that role ended in 2016). Over the last decade I have advised all three of the main parties on various issues. I believe it is an economist's duty to give politicians their expertise if asked, with very mild conditions set out here. Giving that advice on technical issues should never be mistaken for being partisan, just as economists should never let their own political views influence the advice they give on these issues. 

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