I have been thinking further about the prospects in 2012 and beyond for both Scotland and the rest of the UK economies. The latest outturn and survey data suggest that growth weakened further in the final quarter of last year. Consumer price inflation (CPI) is now clearly reducing as predicted. Today's CPI figures for the year to December indicate a rate of 4.2%, a sharp fall on the 4.8% increase to November. Christmas discounting in clothing stores and supermarkets plus the softening of fuel prices played a big role. But whether directly or indirectly, the slowing of inflation reflects a weakening of demand in the domestic and global economies.
The November 2011 forecast from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts weak growth of 0.9% this year followed by a bounce back to 2.1% in 2013, almost to trend. Forecast growth strengthens thereafter to 2.7% in 2014 and 3% in both 2015 and 2016.
What is more interesting than the aggregate forecast is the contribution to GDP change of the key expenditure components - see first chart.
So which components contribute the most to recent growth and to forecast growth?
The bounce in inventories in 2010 was a temporary influence on growth. Further adjustments might be expected if companies' expectations of demand are not met. But the OBR is not expecting much impact on forecast growth.
Between 2010 and 2011 there are two key narratives.
First, there was a switch from domestic demand to external demand as the main driver of growth. Private consumption went from 0.7% growth to a contraction by the same percentage. Business investment similarly went from 0.1% growth to a fall of -0.1%.
Secondly, government consumption and investment expenditures contributed positively to growth in both years by 0.4% points and 0.3% respectively. "Hang on!" I hear you say. "I thought the economy was suffering from the effects of fiscal consolidation. What is going on?"
A good question.
It is important to be clear about what is happening. Even amongst people who should know better there is a tendency to present the slowdown in the recovery as being unrelated to the government's fiscal austerity programme. So in their recent analysis in the FT Chris Giles and Andrew Bounds suggest that
A core problem has been deficient growth, which has persistently fallen short of expectations and kept unemployment well above the levels of most of the 1990s and 2000s. ..... Most economists see the fierce political arguments as of little relevance to the question of why the economy has disappointed expectations so greatly. The Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent body charged with advising on the public finances, explains its forecast downgrades not with reference to spending cuts or tax increases but by "higher than expected inflation squeezing household incomes and consumption".
It would be easy to read this and conclude that fiscal austerity is not slowing the economy and that the slowdown is due to a reduction in real personal disposable incomes due to higher inflation than expected.
Of course Giles and Bounds are not talking about the slowdown in the recovery per se. They are actually discussing why the OBR got its forecasts for 2011 badly wrong. This is a different issue. The following chart, again from the OBR, shows the outturn and OBR's forecast for the contribution of government spending to UK GDP growth in subsequent forecasting rounds.
What is clear from this is that government spending in 2010 made half the contribution to growth as in 2009. In 2011, which contains a forecast for the fourth quarter and outturn for the first 3 quarters, government spending again made a positive contribution to growth, all be it somewhat less than in 2010. The reduced contribution of government spending to growth represents the direct effect of the fiscal spending consolidation so far.
It seems probable that the positive contribution to growth in 2011, when the OBR had previously been forecasting a negative government spending contribution, is the result of the effect of automatic stabilisers on spending. The effect of automatic stabilisers is usually considered in terms of transfer payments such as unemployment benefit and tax receipts but there is academic research evidence that current spending on goods and services by government also has a counter-cyclical element.
The other side of this coin is the OBR's failure to forecast accurately the contribution of household demand or private consumption to GDP growth in 2011 as this chart shows:
The large negative contribution of private consumption to growth in 2011 may have been heavily influenced by "higher than expected inflation squeezing household incomes and consumption." But the drop in household spending may also have been due to the net effect of tax rises, such as the VAT increase, on real incomes.
The OBR's forecasts for 2012 to 2016 envisage a recovery mainly in private consumption, business and dwellings investment, with net trade contributing weakly to growth over the period. The switch from domestic demand to external demand appears temporary - see first chart. The direct effect of fiscal austerity on spending is forecast to bite from this year and gets progressively worse to 2015 and 2016. But the forecast deploys assumptions about private consumption, which, even with inflation falling back to a target 2%, seem 'heroic'.
I expect that the radical difference between the OBR's forecast and the outturn for private consumption seen in 2011 may be seen again over this forecast horizon if the present fiscal policy stance persists.