Unemployment Down but a Rate Rise Unlikely

Two macroeconomic stories have adorned the main headlines on the BBC website in the last 24 hours.

First, Mark Carney, current Governor of the Bank of England, ruled out interest rate rises in the near future – highly unlikely in 2016, it seems. Then this morning the news is that unemployment, the number of people not in work but seeking work (hence counted as part of the labour force) is at its lowest level since 2005.

As with many economic variables, a change in any direction is not unambiguously a good thing; for interest rates, which have been low for many years now, this is good for borrowers (for example, people with mortgages to buy houses), but bad for savers. This is because the rate the Bank of England sets heavily influences the rates set by banks around the country, so borrowers will continue to have to pay back their loans on lower interest rates, but savers will continue to earn very little interest on their savings.

The reality that the Bank doesn’t think a rate rise is likely implies the Bank thinks the prospects for economic growth are not so great; this comes on the back of the Chancellor’s warning about a dangerous cocktail of factors affecting UK growth in the coming year. Prospects for growth have reduced.

This comes, though, in stark contrast to the good news from the labour market. That unemployment is falling is generally a good thing – it’s hard to think of particularly convincing reasons why it wouldn’t be. Sometimes people point out that the fall might be based only on workers going into short-term or zero-hours contracts, or part-time or self-employment, all of which are seen as less secure jobs for workers, and signs not of high confidence amongst employers.

It may also be that some are back to work, but the 5% that remain have been out of work for a long time and are starting to become discouraged. If people have stopped looking for work, they stop being classed as unemployed and hence the unemployment rate can fall due to this. It is quite standard that after recessions the number of long-term unemployed increases, and while this does not excuse the reality or make light of it, it does present a problem for the government in attempting to find policies to get such people back into the workforce.

Macroeconomic Uncertainty

Today’s BBC headline is the Chancellor warning about a “‘dangerous cocktail’ of economic risks” facing the UK economy in 2016, suggesting this year will be the toughest since the financial crisis. It’s more politics than economics as one reads what the Chancellor actually said in a BBC Radio 4 interview this morning, representing expectations management: after all the positive talk about the economy by the Conservatives before the election and since, things have changed somewhat in recent months to challenge that outlook.

One of those things was that GDP growth for 2015Q3 was revised down – not by a huge amount, from 0.5% to 0.4% – but a downward revision nonetheless, and along with other downward revisions has meant that the UK grew significantly less in 2015 than was previously thought.

Another is the continued low oil price which, while great at the petrol pump for the paying customer, has mixed impacts on the UK economy which does export oil.

Perhaps most interest, however, is to also consider the Independent’s take on the Chancellor’s recent actions (as well as rhetoric): it talks about the role that economic forecasts played in the Chancellor’s budget giveaway in the Autumn Statement in November, noting that they might have been “potentially unreliable”. We noted here at the time that the budget giveaway did rely heavily on forecasts for GDP growth: governments need forecasts of economic growth in order to project the tax receipts they will get, and the amounts of benefits they’ll have to pay out, which heavily influences the level of the budget deficit/surplus. If growth now comes in lower than was forecast, this will almost certainly mean that the budget deficit will be worse than expected, casting doubt on the ability of the UK economy to meet the Chancellor’s new Fiscal Charter: to balance the budget in normal economic times.

As well as lecturing Introductory Macroeconomics this term and hence covering issues mentioned here in greater depth, I’ll also be lecturing a third year course on forecasting, where we will discuss the kinds of methods that are used to produce the kinds of forecasts that underly government budget decisions like these. Many of our undergraduate students take placements and graduate roles with the Government Economic Service, which could see them being placed in the Treasury, hence right in the centre of the process of generating those forecasts. What you are doing here as a student could play a crucial role in shaping the future of our country!

Fiscal Plans and Fiscal Outcomes: The Importance of Forecasting

Next term we’ll learn about the difference between fiscal plans, and fiscal outturns, or outcomes. Fiscal plans are the ones set out today by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement. Fiscal outturns are what we’ll see over the next four years.

Probably the most spectacular differences between plans and outcomes come when recessions come unexpectedly, like with the 2008 financial crisis which put paid to Gordon Brown’s Golden Rule (not borrowing for current consumption over the “cycle”). The outcomes, as we all know, were very large deficits, up to 10% of GDP.

What is perhaps most striking is that for all the anticipation of where the cuts would fall, instead the news is all about what cuts didn’t happen: tax credit cuts cancelled, police, international development, healthcare and defence budgets all protected, with a list of additional goodies thrown in.

How was all this possible? Without resorting to cynicism about politicians dressing up the good news and hiding the bad news (hint: local government and various tax rises hidden in the small print), this Guardian analysis makes it clear what changed: an upward adjustment in forecasts for growth and hence tax receipts.

The idea is this: as the independent Office for Budget Responsibility provided a very positive forecast for growth and hence tax receipts (we pay more tax when we earn more and spend more), this meant that in order to keep to his fiscal plans to eliminate the deficit, Osborne had to do much less – growth would do the hard work for him.

But the main point is this: all of this is based on economic forecasts, rather than actual events – it’s plans, not outcomes. We have to wait until 2020 to see what the outcomes are like. It shows just how hugely important economic forecasts are, however – and why you should think about taking my forecasting module when you get to your third year 🙂