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Capacity constraints are softer than some would have us believe

Authors: Professor Geraint Johnes Professor Geraint Johnes

05 March 2014

The size of the output gap is critical for determining the appropriate stance of fiscal policy, yet it has been the subject of considerable debate amongst economists. Some new data from the Office for National Statistics provide some instructive information.

On every measure bar one (the exception being long term unemployment) the extent of spare capacity in the UK economy has narrowed over the last year. Measures based on qualitative survey data from firms tend to suggest a narrower gap than do quantitative measures such as employment data. The qualitative data are, by their very nature, harder to interpret; while they likely reflect practitioner perceptions quite accurately, it is difficult to explain why they should differ so much from the quantitative indicators.

Of the latter, it is particularly noticeable that the proportion of part-time workers who are unable to find full-time work remains high - as does youth unemployment. To the extent that such indicators reflect spare capacity in the labour market, the constraints (such as they are) appear more likely to be related to capital. Given the low levels of investment in the UK economy in recent years, this should hardly be surprising. As, with the recovery, investment picks up, so should capacity - this means that the potential level of output that is used in calculating the output gap is something of a movable feast.

In a nutshell, the capacity constraints faced by the UK economy are much softer than some observers would have us believe.