(I know this might sound rather boring but the facts are actually a bit incredible…)
The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) is a benchmark interest rate used broadly all over the world and affects trillions of dollars of loans worldwide – mortgage loans, small-business loans, personal loans. ‘The Libor is not based on an objective measure of the interest for bank-to-bank loans. It is the average of a daily poll of the Association’s member banks, who give an estimate of the interest rate they think they would pay if they sought to borrow from another bank. It is supposed to be the way the financial system assesses the overall health of the financial system.’ It has now been discovered that a substantial number of banks were manipulating their estimates of the interest rate to their own advantage.
Rep. Denis Kucinich, U.S. Representative from Ohio’s 10th District on the LIBOR-participating banks: “We don’t know just how deep this scandal goes. But the fact is that if a fundamental component of our financial system has been or is being manipulated, we have the right to know about it.”
In May 2010, the coalition decided to place the structural budget deficit at the heart of its fiscal policy, and George Osborne’s argument for his ‘austerity’ programme depends largely on his assertion that it is necessary to completely eliminate it. Initially, clearing the deficit was projected to occur within the course of one parliament but the time-span has been extended repeatedly, and estimates currently seem to be somewhere between 2017 and 2020.
So given its central importance for the coalition’s policies, we need to know what is a structural deficit? How is it calculated? And is it a valid measure justifying the coalition’s draconian austerity programme?
A budget deficit that results from a fundamental imbalance in government receipts and expenditures, as opposed to one based on one-off or short-term factors. 
A government budget deficit occurs when a government spends more than it receives in tax revenue. It is called a structural deficit when the ‘spending-exceeding-income’ state persists for a period of time. This causes concern to mainstream economists because they argue that if the deficit is actually over and above the ability of the country to repay, then a government can only clear it by cutting spending, defaulting, or by deflating the debt through engineering a high inflation rate.
Clearly these last two options alarm lenders, and since in a neoliberal world, governments can only borrow from the markets, governments worry that if there is a crisis of confidence, the bond markets will impose very high interest rates or yields …. which in turn, will increase the structural deficit still further! This is what is supposed to have happened in Greece and Spain.
At its simplest, the Structural deficit is calculated by finding the difference between government spending and the amount it receives in the form of tax … but nothing about economics is ever that straightforward. The important thing to take on board is that if tax revenue falls, as it did in the 2007 recession, there will be an increase in the budget deficit without there having, to have been any increase, or change, in government spending. Nevertheless, since job losses occur in a recession, government spending will inevitably rise because of paying out in unemployment benefits.
Budget Balance = Revenue – Spending.
Budget Balance = (Tax Revenue + Other Revenue) – (Welfare Payments + Other Spending)
We know that Tax Revenue and Welfare Payments move inversely with respect to each other, with the latter rising when GDP growth falls and the former rises with GDP growth. These components of the Budget Balance are the so-called automatic stabilizers (2)
Furthermore, the ability to pay off the deficit is assessed by a country’s deficit relative to its GDP. Therefore, without any change in absolute size, the deficit becomes a proportionately bigger percentage of GDP when the economy is contracting (as in a recession) and proportionately smaller when the economy is growing. Hence:
‘Before the financial markets went into meltdown in the summer of 2007, it was assumed the structural deficit was about 2-3% of GDP; Osborne’s plans are based on estimates from the Office for Budget Responsibility that the structural deficit is actually more like 5-6% of national output.’ (3)
In other words, the structural deficit grew as a percentage of GDP because the economy contracted in the summer of 2007, but in addition, it also actually increased because of falling tax receipts and increased welfare spending.
‘…. the drastic nature of the government’s deficit-reduction plan is explained by the belief that the economy suffered severe permanent loss to its productive potential as a result of skills being lost, capital being scrapped and the closing down of entire bits of the financial system. According to this view of the world, the fact that inflation has been well above its target for the past 18 months suggests that there is little or no spare capacity in the economy despite the severity of the recession.’ (3)
The words, ‘productive potential’ and ‘inflation’, are the nub of complications in calculating the revenue part of the structural deficit.
The ‘productive potential’ is an estimate of what the tax revenues would be if there were ‘full employment’. In fact, the structural deficit used to be called the Full Employment or High Employment Budget. Professor Bill Mitchell says “The change in nomenclature is very telling because it occurred over the period that neo-liberal governments began to abandon their commitments to maintaining full employment and instead decided to use unemployment as a policy tool to discipline inflation.”(2)
The puzzle is, that in a neoliberal world, ‘full employment’ is not what you think … For most of us, full employment’ is ‘an economy that delivers as many jobs as there are people wanting them and hours of work consistent with the desired hours of the workers.’ But in the neoliberal world of OECD, the IMF et al, ‘conceptions of full capacity are ideologically-loaded by the NAIRU concept and are frankly … a total joke. (2)
From the 1970s, the concept of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (the NAIRU) became a central plank in the front-line attack on the use of discretionary fiscal policy by governments. ‘It was argued, erroneously … that full employment occurred when the unemployment rate was at the level where inflation was stable.’(2) Estimates of NAIRU are just that… ‘estimates’… and the standard errors of these estimates can vary between 3 and 13 percent in some studies. Clearly, such a large range for error means that an estimate of the structural deficit based on the NAIRU, or some derivation of it, is highly questionable.
Nevertheless, these estimates are used to compute the tax and spending that would occur at the so-called ‘full employment’ point. But, according to Bill Mitchell, because it ignores 5% (usually) of the working-age population ‘it severely underestimates the tax revenue and overestimates the spending and thus concludes the structural balance is more in deficit (less in surplus) than it actually is.’ (2)
The significance of the statement, ‘the fact that inflation has been well above its target for the past 18 months suggests that there is little or no spare capacity in the economy despite the severity of the recession’ (3), is that… given full employment is defined as that point where inflation is stable,… there is an assumption that the current tax revenue is more or less at full capacity. (Madness or what?)
In June 2012, the official unemployment rate was 8.2% of the economically active population. This means that there were 2.61 million unemployed people, but there was also another 9.23 million economically inactive people aged from 16 to 64. (4)
It seems that government ‘believes’ that this is the new ‘full employment’ because the economy is supposed to have ‘suffered severe permanent loss to its productive potential as a result of skills being lost, capital being scrapped and the closing down of entire bits of the financial system.’ (3)
This is turning common sense on its head. In an economy that is designed for the whole population, and not just the wealth of the 0.014%, there are a multitude of jobs that need doing, a ‘green revolution is required… and if there is still not enough employment, cut back the number of hours that each person works and reduce the pension age. This would pump demand back into the system, balance the economy and potentially mitigate the looming energy disaster.
I can almost hear the cries of ‘we can’t afford it, there’s no money left’. But quite apart from the obvious course of increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations and the shutting down of tax havens, £31 billion is currently sitting unused in HMT’s Debt Management Office; £1 billion from TV licenses paid 6m in advance and so on… not to mention the fact that Quantitative Easing has poured 375bn into the banks and that may well be increased to 500bn in the future (5). And to complete the heresy…. there is no reason why governments cannot afford to run a bigger debt and structural deficit, than we currently enjoy, in order to create real full employment.
But to get back to the structural deficit – tax revenue is not only derived from individual employment, there are also taxes paid by companies and corporations. So what has George Osborne done? He has cut corporation tax from 28% in 2010 to 23% in 2012, with the aim of eventually reducing it to 20% or less. He has made it easier to put wealth into tax havens and removed the requirement on UK companies to pay tax to British authorities on overseas earnings. Furthermore, he has cut the top tax rate for individuals from 50% to 45%, on the basis of the improbable Laffer curve.
The Office for National Statistics said the data for July 2012 heightens concerns that the government will miss its deficit reduction target.
The ONS said the total deficit since April had reached £47.2bn – up £11.6bn on 2011 – excluding financial interventions and a one-off boost after assets from the Royal Mail’s pension fund were transferred to the Treasury… At this rate, borrowing for 2012/13 overall will massively overshoot the Office for Budget Responsibility‘s forecast of £120bn, excluding Royal Mail effects, by over £35bn…”we think that the government will struggle to cut borrowing at all next year.” Government spending, meanwhile, grew 5.1% on the previous year, mostly on welfare payments…. (6)
Richard Murphy suggests that George Osborne should take the blame for July’s dramatic fall in tax receipts:
‘… this loss can simply in part be due to a deliberate government give away at a time when it could not be afforded… some companies may now be anticipating the impact of new controlled foreign company rules in their payments on account. The Treasury said in Budget 2011 that these would cost £210 million in lost revenue this yearand I have always thought this a massive underestimate. This encouragement for companies to abuse tax havens to hide their profits may already be costing us dear. (7)
Putting it simply, George Osborne says one thing and has done the opposite in many instances. He has reduced the amount of money coming into government by the loss of tax caused by cutting jobs, tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, including through tax haven legislation. He has increased the spending on welfare payments by 5.1% because of the increased unemployment resulting from his austerity programme. And this is notwithstanding either the extra expenditure on the reorganization of the NHS, education, the courts and so on, or the cuts in expenditure on benefits which came into force in April.
Budget Balance = (Tax Revenue + Other Revenue) – (Welfare Payments + Other Spending)
And now, on the basis that the deficit is rising not falling, there is talk of more cuts being introduced in the November Spending Review … more cuts on top of those already scheduled. For example an additional 10bn from the Welfare budget.
Chris Dillow wrote in November 2011 after the last Spending review:
. Forecasts of the structural deficit rest upon two huge uncertainties – and it’s not clear that they offset each other: an uncertain estimate of the output gap (and sensitivities of spending and revenues thereto); and the usual uncertainties surrounding any fiscal forecast. I’m with Simon Ward on this: “it is troubling that the fiscal framework pivots on a concept subject to huge empirical uncertainty.”
I suspect that the notion of a structural deficit is playing an ideological role… (8)
Chris Giles of blogs.ft.com (9) agrees that the use of the ‘structural budget’ as a fiscal target leaves a lot of room for games. And as an example, Simon Ward reported that:
The Chancellor and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) have, in effect, traded assumptions. The OBR has cut its guess about potential output, implying that a larger proportion of the current deficit is structural. The Chancellor has retaliated by assuming that he will be able to cut public spending by 0.9% a year in real terms in 2015-16 and 2016-17, thereby putting the structural budget position back on track. (10)
To be frank, all of George Osborne’s approaches are consistent with, and have striking parallels, with the last 30 years of disastrous Republican ‘neoliberal’ or plutonomic economic strategy ‘Has George Osborne been taking Trans-Atlantic lessons from Jude Wanniski and the Republicans?’
So to sum up as to why the Structural Deficit reminds me of Libor:
The Libor is a fundamental component of our financial system, and the structural deficit is a fundamental component of the coalition government’s programme.
‘‘The Libor is not based on an objective measure of the interest’ and the structural deficit is not based on an objective measure of potential tax revenue… both are more or less ‘guess-timates’. Yet Libor is ‘supposed to be the way the financial system assesses the overall health of the financial system’ and the structural deficit is used by the coalition government to assess the health of the UK economy. Both the Libor and the structural deficit ‘guess-timates’ have a direct impact on the lives of millions of ordinary people.
It has been admitted that the Libor was manipulated in the interests of the banks, and the structural deficit is clearly open to being used to justify the unjustifiable… for example, in terms of dismantling/privatizing the welfare state, and cutting benefits to those who are disabled, unable to work, unemployed, low waged or suffering from high rents.
As Denis Kucinich says ‘If a fundamental component of our financial system has been or is being manipulated, we have the right to know about it.’ The same holds for government economic strategy. Bill Mitchell calls Structural deficits – the great con job!
The structural deficit is ‘the problem’ in the neoliberal ideological construct of the world. But in the ‘real’ world, the problem is the lack of demand, a global ‘out of control’ banking system, and the level of private sector debt. According to Michael Meacher:
‘…. the first forecasts of the newly formed OBR in 2010, the government was expecting the level of private household debt, already £1.57 trillion, to rise to a staggering £2.13 trillion by 2014-5. It should be emphasised that this was not something they feared would happen or were simply allowing to happen, but rather it was a deliberate aim of monetary policy that it should happen. The plan was that the deficit provided the perfect excuse to squeeze the public sector, shrink the Welfare State, but ever-increasing private household debt would provide the extra demand to maintain at least some modestly decent growth. The opposite has happened.
In the private corporate sector deleveraging (i.e. paying off debt) has gathered pace because the corporates are sitting on mountains of cash (at least £70bn) but not investing because demand is being squeezed. Equally in the private domestic sector households are being forced to pay down their debts and cut their consumption as rapidly as they can as the only way to get by. The effect is massive private debt deflation, which is the real cause of the slump. (11)