As we saw in unit 12, fiscal policy is one of the tools that governments have to keep the economy on a steady path. The two main components of fiscal policy arc changes to the tax system and changes in government spending. But what changes can governments make in these two areas, and how do changes affect the growth of the economy?
Let's look first at the tax system, and in particular at income tax. Income tax is one of the biggest sources of income for a government. Many governments operate a system called progressive taxation. This means that the more you earn, the more tax you pay. People are usually allowed to keep some of their income without paying any tax. This is called the personal allowance. The rest of their income is then taxed using the progressive system. For example:
Income Personal Tax to pay
before tax allowance after allowance
£2,000 - £29,999 £5,000 22%
£30,000 and over 40%
Governments can decide to change the size of the personal allowance, or change the percentage that each income group has to pay. If the economy is growing too fast, and demand for goods and services is more than the economy can supply, the government will want to slow down spending.
To do this, they can decrease the personal allowance, or they can increase the percentage to pay in tax. This will mean people have less disposable income, and spending will slow down. If the economy is slowing down too much, governments can do the opposite.
What about government spending? How does that affect economic growth? The key to this is something called the multiplier effect. To understand how this works, let's look at an example. Imagine that the economy is not growing. This will make aggregate demand fall. In turn, productivity falls. This situation means that the nation's resources are not all being used. In other words, there are surplus raw materials, machines are not being used and workers are unemployed. What the economy needs is a pull in demand for goods and services.
The government can provide this pull by spending a large amount of money on public projects. For example, imagine that the transport department decides to spend £200 million on building a new motorway. This will give work to building companies and jobs to unemployed workers. In other words, more resources are being used and the nation's productivity is increased.
Companies and workers on the motorway project will save some of the money they earn, but also spend some. The money they spend will be income for others in the economy. If half of the £200 million is spent, then the total national income has grown by this much:
£200 million + (0.5 x £200 million)
Each time a proportion of the income is passed on, the economy grows again:
£200 million + (0.5 x £200 million) + (0.5 x £100 million), etc.
In theory, the multiplier effect will continue until there is full employment and the nation's resources are being used to their fullest extent.
Monetary policy is another tool that governments use to control the economy. Monetary policy mainly involves making changes to the interest rate. It can also involve changing the amount of money that circulates round the economy. However, this second kind of monetary policy isn't used very often because it can lead to inflation. Changing interest rates, on the other hand, is a method that is used quite frequently for slowing down or speeding up the economy. So how does it work?
Basically, commercial banks - the ones that you and I use to keep our savings in and to borrow from - borrow their money from the country's central bank. This is the national or government bank, and it has the power to set interest rates. The interest rate of the central bank will influence the rates commercial banks set for their customers. When interest rates go up, borrowing money becomes more expensive. When they go down, it becomes cheaper.
People get loans from banks for all sorts of reasons, but the biggest loan most people take out is to buy a house. This kind of loan is called a mortgage. When interest rates increase, mortgages become more expensive. People who already have a mortgage will need to pay more on their repayments, and will have less money to spend on other things. Fewer people will want to buy new houses and house prices will fall.
In turn, home owners will feel less confident about their own wealth and will spend less. As a result, the economy slows down. A fall in interest rates will have the opposite effect on the house buying chain.
Consumers also buy other things using borrowed money. This is called buying on credit, and interest rates will also affect how much people spend on credit. Purchases made using credit cards are now a huge proportion of total spending in many countries. This means that interest rate changes have a big impact on consumer spending and the economy as a whole.
Companies, too, are affected by interest rate changes. When interest rates are low, they feel more confident about investing in order to expand their business. Low interest rates will encourage them to take out loans in order to build factories, buy machines and increase production. All of this increases the size of national output. Again, higher interest rates will have the opposite effect.
Finally, interest rates can have an effect on the amount of exports a country sells. This is because the value of a currency (the exchange rate) often falls when the interest rate falls. When the value of a currency falls, a nation's products and services become cheaper for customers from other countries. This increases export sales, and more money comes into the economy. And, of course, a rise in interest rates will mean a rise in the exchange rate. This will reduce export sales, and reduce the total output of the economy.
Interest rates and the money market
Economic growth is a plus, but, like all good things, it's best not to have too much at once. If the economy grows too rapidly, the result can be inflation. Steady growth is best, and governments use fiscal and monetary policy tools to achieve this. For example, they set interest rates in order to control borrowing and investment. However, the government can't just state, 'today's interest rate is four per cent' and expect all the other banks to follow. As usual, things are a bit more complicated!
The interest rate is not really set by the government at all, but by the levels of demand and supply of money in the money market. Imagine that money is like any other commodity, and the price of money is the interest rate. Banks can charge any interest rate that customers are willing to pay. If there is a limited amount of money available, the suppliers (the banks) will charge a higher price (the interest rate) as demand for money increases. Demand comes from the public who want to spend money to buy things and from businesses who want to invest money in order to grow. Just like other commodities, demand for money will fall as the price (interest rate) rises. The interest rate will be set by the market. It will be where the demand and supply curves meet - the equilibrium point. You can see this relationship shown in figure 1 on page 78.
Also, just like other markets, there can be shifts in the demand and supply curves. When shifts happen, the equilibrium point (the interest rate that is set) changes. This new interest rate may be above or below the government's target. What can they do about it? One thing they can do is to influence the supply of money in the market.
What exactly is the money supply and how can the government influence it? Obviously, the money supply includes all the notes and coins in purses, pockets and cash tills. Some of this money will be money that has been borrowed from banks, so loans form part of the money supply too. The supply also includes money that people and companies have in bank accounts, and the money that banks have in their reserve accounts in the central government bank.
Remember that banks lend most of the money that customers deposit. When customers want to make withdrawals, the bank takes cash from its reserve account with the central government bank. If the commercial bank has a shortage of cash in its reserve account, it is obliged to borrow from the central bank. When a commercial bank borrows from the central bank, it must borrow at the government's rate of interest. This is how the government can influence the interest rate equilibrium point of the market.
However, the government needs to ensure that at the end of each day the commercial banks have a shortage of cash. And, of course, they have ways of doing this!
Governments try their best to control economic growth, but there are some things that nobody can control. For example war, political unrest in another country or simply a change in the weather can all affect an economy in unexpected ways. Sometimes the effect of these events will cause a sudden shift in aggregate demand or aggregate supply. This is an economic shock.
The causes of demand-side shocks may be events in the local economy (domestic demand) or events abroad (external demand). An example of domestic demand was when house prices in the UK dropped suddenly in the late 1980s. Because a home is one of the largest assets most people have, homeowners suddenly felt that they were not as wealthy as they had been. As a result, people started to spend less. This had a knock-on effect on the rest of the economy. Aggregate demand fell sharply and the gross national product fell with it.
External demand-side shocks happen when a country relies heavily on exports or on foreign investment. The Great Depression in the 1930s is a classic example of this. At the time of the Great Depression, many countries exported their goods to the USA, and many other countries relied on American money for investments to help their industries grow. When the American economy collapsed, it had disastrous effects for other economies, too.
Supply-side shocks occur when the supply of goods is disrupted. If the commodity is an important raw material for many industries, then the supply from these industries will drop dramatically. When raw materials are in short supply, they become more expensive. This will cause an increase in manufacturers' variable costs. Manufacturers will then have to increase their prices.
Imagine, for example, that miners in the iron industry went on strike. The supply of iron and steel to manufacturers would be disrupted. This would mean a drop in supply of all sorts of goods, from teaspoons to aeroplanes. As you can see from figure 2 below, the sudden drop in supply will cause a shift in the supply curve. As a result, prices rise even though aggregate demand stays the same. This unfortunate situation is called stagflation.
The good news, however, is that sometimes positive supply-side shocks happen. These occur when there is a sudden increase in supply while demand stays the same. This can happen when new technology makes the production of materials or products much easier or more efficient. The result - prices fall and output grows.
Inflation is an overall increase in prices over a certain period of time. It's also a worry for anybody who's trying to make ends meet, and a headache for many governments. The rate of inflation is often in the headlines. However, inflation isn't really news. In most of Europe, for example, prices have risen year after year for at least the last 50 years. Deflation (overall decrease in prices) docs happen occasionally, but the trend is mostly for the cost of living to increase.
There are lots of ways to measure inflation. One of the most popular ways is the retail price index. This is calculated by recording increases in price for a range of goods and services. This is sometimes called a basket of goods. Some of the goods are weighted more heavily than others because they are more important. For example, food will be weighted more than the cost of a cinema ticket, because a 5% increase in food is more important than a 10% increase in the cost of seeing a film. Inflation is worked out from an average of all the price increases in the basket.
Inflation can happen for a number of reasons, but economists say there are two main culprits. These are demand-pull inflation and cost-push inflation. Demand-pull inflation can happen when the economy is growing fast. Aggregate demand begins to grow faster than suppliers can cope with. This causes a shortage, and prices rise. At first, customers may be able to pay the higher prices, and demand grows again. This forces prices up even more, and the cycle continues.
One of the characteristics of demand-pull inflation is that there is often too much money going round the economy. This is explained by the quantity theory of money. This theory uses the following equation:
money supply x velocity = average price x transactions
Velocity is the speed that money is passed on from one person to another. Some economists say that velocity and the number of transactions don't really change. The only things that change in this equation are the money supply and average prices. This means that when the money supply increases, prices will increase too. For this reason, printing money is rarely a solution for economic crises.
Cost-push inflation, on the other hand, occurs when prices rise without an increase in demand. This happens when suppliers' variable costs increase sharply. For example, workers may demand higher wages or raw materials may become more expensive. Producers then pass these increases on to consumers by raising prices. So, as usual, we are the ones who pay!
There will always be a certain amount of unemployment in the economy. When economists talk about full employment they mean that everyone who can work and wants to work has got a job. Able workers who are not working are simply not happy with the salaries that are offered - or just can't be bothered!
However, economies rarely reach full employment. There are a number of reasons for this, and a number of different types of unemployment. One of these is cyclical unemployment. This type of unemployment varies with the growth and recession cycle of the economy. As the economy grows, demand for labour grows and unemployment falls. As the economy contracts, unemployment grows.
A second kind of unemployment is structural unemployment. This occurs when changing public tastes or advances in technology cause a fall in demand for some types of work. For example, computer technology has revolutionised the printing industry, and many traditional printers' jobs have become obsolete. Sometimes whole regions of a country suffer from high structural unemployment. The north-east of England, for example, was famous for many years for its shipbuilding industry. Competition from abroad forced many shipyards to close. This caused huge unemployment in the region.
How long structural unemployment lasts will depend on two things. Firstly, how easily the workforce can retrain for new jobs. This may be difficult for older workers who find it hard to learn new skills. There is also the question of who pays for the training. The second issue is mobility. Workers who are able to relocate easily to another part of the country will find new jobs more quickly.
There are two other kinds of unemployment which we should mention here. These are less serious, perhaps, but they are still difficult for governments to get rid of. The first is frictional unemployment. This is a natural kind of unemployment that occurs when someone leaves a job and is looking for another one that suits them. Frictional unemployment often happens because people want to leave their job in order to change careers. Few people walk straight into another job. However, when the economy is in recession, frictional unemployment will be more common because jobs are harder to find.
The second kind is seasonal unemployment. Some industries have busy periods and periods where there is no work at all. Some freelance farm workers, for example, get most of their work in the spring and summer. Like structural unemployment, seasonal unemployment can affect whole regions of a country. Areas that rely on summer tourism, for example, suffer serious unemployment during the autumn and winter months.
Many millions of people enjoy a quality of life today that previous generations could not have dreamed of. Home ownership, private cars and holidays are now standard for most families in industrialised countries. And yet at the same time, billions of people in other countries live without even clean drinking water. How can this be? The answer is that the fortunate few live in countries with sustained economic growth.
An economy is growing when the gross national product is increasing year after year. When economists calculate economic growth, though, they must take into account the effects of inflation. For example, imagine that the gross national product of a country increased from $500 billion to $510 billion from one year to another. That's an increase of two per cent in output. Very impressive! However, if the rate of inflation was two per cent, then there has been no real growth at all.
The other thing to remember about economic growth is that not all growth is good. Governments want steady, sustainable growth. Sudden, sharp increases in growth - a boom - can cause the economy to overheat and fall into recession. For many economies, the long run growth over many years is steady, but the short run is a roller-coaster ride of boom and depression. For instance, the long run growth of the UK economy since 1950 has been a steady 2.5% per year. However, if you look closely at any decade you'll see that there is a cycle of growth, recession and recovery. The truth is, steady growth in the short term is very hard to achieve.
Nevertheless, many countries are still struggling to achieve any kind of growth at all. Why is this? What is necessary for growth to happen? Many economists have tried to find the answer to this question, and there are plenty of theories to choose from. However, most economists agree that three things are essential for economic growth to occur: capital growth, savings and technological progress.
Capital refers to the factories and machinery that the labour force uses to turn raw materials into products. More workers and more raw materials will only lead to a certain amount of growth. Eventually, the economy needs more capital for the labour to use. Capital growth can also include training and education for the labour force. This makes the workforce more efficient, creative and productive.
Of course, someone has to pay for the new machines and training. In other words, capital growth needs investment. Money for investment needs to be borrowed from banks. Banks can only lend if customers make savings. This is why savings are so important for growth. However, the economy will not grow if everyone is saving and no one is spending. Getting the right balance between consumption and saving is another part of the challenge of economic growth.
But above all, technology is the real miracle worker of economic growth. An advance in technology can increase productivity from the same amount of capital and resources: just what the chancellor ordered!
The business cycle
In the long term, over many years, an economy will grow at a steady rate. However, the climb up the hillside of economic growth is actually quite rocky. Long-term growth is made up of many short-term steps. Each short-term step may last for five or ten years. Over this short-term period the economy goes through a cycle of growth and recession. This is called the trade or business cycle, and it has four stages: boom, slump, recession and recovery.
During a boom, everything is good. Demand for goods and services is high and business is going well. To meet demand, companies need to take on more staff, so unemployment is low. Confidence is in the air! Consumers feel confident about spending because their jobs seem secure. What's more, interest rates are reasonable, so people take out loans and use their credit cards. Low interest rates also encourage companies to invest in new capital, and businesses grow. Governments are happy too, because tax revenues are increasing. However, the government has to be careful. Boom economies are always in danger of overheating. Demand-pull or cost-push inflation will eventually bring the good times to an end.
When the slump comes, the economy continues to grow, but not so fast. Once inflation starts to rise, confidence falls. The government have probably put up interest rates to slow down borrowing. People with mortgages have to spend more money to pay off their debt, so they have less to spend on other things. Higher interest rates discourage business investment. Things are moving slowly, and people just hope that the economy will improve again. But will it?
If the government have not acted quickly enough, its fiscal and monetary policy changes may be too late. In this case, recession is inevitable. Some economists say a recession exists when the current rate of growth falls below the long-term rate of growth. Others say a recession is when there is no growth at all, and the economy actually shrinks. Whatever it is, a recession is bad news. Companies have to reduce costs because turnover is so low. The first thing they do is to lay off staff. If the recession is very bad, some companies may even go bankrupt and close. When this happens, thousands of workers may lose their jobs. As unemployment rises, the government needs to spend more on providing unemployment benefit for those who are out of work. In the worst recessions, these conditions can last for a number of years.
Eventually, with good government policy and a demand for goods or services from healthier economies abroad recovery will come. Slowly, confidence returns, investment grows and the cycle begins again.
The open economy
All through history, people from one society have been trading with people from another. Three thousand years ago, for example, the Phoenicians of the Mediterranean built an economy almost completely on foreign trade. In the jargon of economics, the Phoenicians had an open economy, and almost every economy since theirs has been open too.
When an economy is open, this basically means that it imports and exports goods and services. What are the benefits of doing this? First of all, if you trade with other economies, you can import goods that do not exist in your economy. These may be products that your economy cannot manufacture, but they may also be raw materials. With a wider range of raw materials, an economy is able to use its capital and labour to produce a wider range of products. In this way, importing can actually help an economy grow. What's more, if you allow imports from other countries, then you will have trading partnerships. This means that you can export to countries. If you have customers all over the world, your economy will grow faster.
Open economies are good for consumers, too. If the economy allows imports from abroad, there will be a greater variety of goods available locally. When products are available locally, imports of the same products should help to keep prices down and quality high. This is because local companies will have to compete with foreign companies, and more competition will mean better quality and greater value for money.
Economists describe imports and exports of material products as visible - because you can really see and touch them. Examples of visible exports and imports are food stuffs, furniture and electronic equipment. However, there are also invisible imports and exports. These are mainly services, but can include all sorts of things. Examples of invisible exports and imports include banking services, insurance products, educational courses and tourism.
Opening up economies, however, does bring problems. One of the main difficulties is keeping a good balance of trade. Every time a country manages to sell a product or service abroad, this means money will flow into the economy. On the other hand, every time someone buys from abroad, money flows out of the country. Over time, if the flow of money out of the economy is greater than the flow of money into the economy, then there is a trade deficit. This is not a good situation to be in. The challenge for governments is to keep the flow of trade equal in both directions, or to achieve a trade surplus. This is when total exports are greater than total imports.
The UK has sterling, the USA has dollars and Russia has the rouble. Almost every country has its own currency. Some countries in an economic zone share a currency, for example the 13 European countries that share the euro, but this is quite rare. If I live in a Eurozone country and I want to buy something from the UK, I must buy it using UK sterling. To do this I need to exchange my euros for sterling. The amount of sterling I can swap for each euro depends on the exchange rate.
For example, if the exchange rate is £1 = ˆ1.50 and the camera I want to buy is worth £100, then to buy the camera I must spend 100 x 1.5 = ˆ150. Similarly, if someone in the UK wants to buy something from a Eurozone country, they must exchange their sterling for euros. If the computer they want to buy costs ˆ500, then they must spend 500 x 0.75 = £375.
Most exchange rates, however, do not stay the same. They are changing all the time. Imagine that a few days later the exchange rate changes to £1 = ˆ1.45. This would make the camera cheaper for me, but the computer more expensive for the buyer in the UK. In other words, sterling has got weaker against the euro and the euro has got stronger against sterling.
But what makes the exchange rate change? To understand this, just think of the exchange rate as the price of the currency. Just like any other commodity, the price of a currency is decided by supply and demand in the market. The rate set will be the equilibrium point where supply and demand meet.
Where does demand for a currency come from? Let's take the euro, for example. Exports from the Eurozone need to be paid for in euros. This means the buyers of those exports need to buy euros to make their purchases. So the demand for euros increases. Also, investors from outside the Eurozone may want to invest their money there because they think they will make a profit. To do this, they must buy euros, and again the demand for euros increases. The supply of euros on the international money markets comes from people who want to sell euros. If people want to buy imports from countries outside the Eurozone, or if they want to invest in countries outside the Eurozone, they must sell their euros to buy other currencies. So the supply of euros increases.
A change in the exchange rate of a currency can have a big impact on the economy. For example, it can have a big impact on the economy's balance of payments. As we saw in the example earlier, when a currency gets stronger, imports become cheaper. But at the same time, exports to overseas customers get more expensive. This will probably mean that more money will flow out of the economy than in.