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Economy: Effect of US “Fiscal Cliff” Solution

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effect of the “fiscal cliff” solution in the United States on the United Kingdom economy.

My Lords, the Office for Budget Responsibility based its December 2012 forecasts for the UK economy on the assumption that fiscal policy would be tightened in the US by between 1% and 2% of US GDP. This is what is now happening. The Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the American Taxpayer Relief Act, the measure agreed by Congress last week, is that it will produce a fiscal tightening of 1.7% of US GDP.

Of course, my Lords, the cliff-edge solution did not solve any fundamental problem, any more than our fundamental problem in this country has been solved. That problem requires us to achieve sustainable growth. The Government are taking a few steps in that direction with their infrastructure plans but none of those will do anything now, and urgent action is needed now. Does the noble Lord accept that one way of doing that would be for the Government to find some modest capital, comparatively speaking, because companies are simply not willing to borrow, whether under guarantee or not? The Government will have to kick-start infrastructure if they want to see growth start. Does he agree that that would be a way forward?

My Lords, the noble Lord will recall that in the Pre-Budget Statement my right honourable friend the Chancellor announced another £5.5 billion of additional capital spending on roads, science infrastructure and schools, and that earlier in the autumn we passed an Act providing guarantees for £40 billion for infrastructure and another £10 billion for housing. The Government are making considerable efforts to increase the amount of infrastructure activity.

My Lords, as a life-long opponent of the death penalty, I might make an exception for whoever—I hope it was not an economist—invented the expression “fiscal cliff”. Do the Government accept the analysis that if the US goes more deeply into recession it will have devastating adverse effects on the whole of the European economy and no policy envisaged by this Government would be any use whatever?

I think the noble Lord slightly overstates it. The fiscal cliff—elegant or inelegant—has been avoided and the expectations and the forecast for the US are that it will see relatively modest, but substantive, growth in 2013. As the noble Lord will know, the latest employment figures in the US suggest that there has been a significant addition to the number of people employed. Therefore, the chances of the kind of meltdown in the US economy that he is worried about look extraordinarily remote.

My Lords, the US faces an even worse fiscal cliff in seven weeks. As the British Government are unlikely to have much impact on Republicans infused by the Tea Party, I suggest that it would be a better strategy for this Government to put their efforts into getting formal negotiations on EU/US trade in order to take away the technical barriers that the US is using at the moment to limit UK exports in pharmaceuticals, medical services and advanced electronics. That might be a more positive way forward.

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Baroness. That is why the Prime Minister has set promoting a US/EU trade agreement as one of his top priorities for the G8, as well as moving forward on other trade agreements, such as that with Canada, which are already a long way down the pipeline.

My Lords, will the noble Lord consider answering the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Barnett? He asked what the assessment was of the impact of the fiscal cliff solution on the UK economy. As the noble Lord said, this had led to a 1.7% increase in the fiscal burden on GDP, and the debt ceiling debates in seven weeks’ time referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, may add further burdens to the US economy. Is this good or bad for Britain?

Whether it is good or bad for Britain, it is what is happening in the US. What I said in my original Answer was that the estimates, which were published by the ONS at the time of the Autumn Statement, were based on an assessment of what was likely to happen, which is exactly what has happened. The Bill passed last week is having an impact of 1.7% on US GDP. The ONS assumed that the Bill passed last week would have an impact of about 1.7% on US GDP. We factored that into our calculations and the growth forecast produced for this year will be unchanged because what has actually happened is what we thought was going to happen.