UK’s downgrade: Only spending cuts left to try

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Draw an X on Britain’s economy and win a Mini Metro*

The central, simple fact of British economic and political life is its government’s deficit of £119 billion, about 8 percent of GDP. As I wrote recently, “That works out at about £326 million pounds added to Britain’s national debt every single day, £13.6 million every single hour, £226,000 every single minute, or £3,766 every single second of fiscal year 2012/2013.”

Yet, so far, we have been able to finance this growing mountain of debt incredibly cheaply. As this debt has multiplied, yields on British gilts, the interest rate the government pays to borrow, have been hitting record lows.

There are broadly two schools of thought on this paradox. One, roughly Keynesian, says that these low yields reflect a strong appetite for British government debt in preference to investment in business or spending on consumption. The outlook of investors is, on this view, so pessimistic that they want to stash their wealth in the safe haven of gilts and it is the British government’s job to spend these savings via deficits so as to avoid a collapse of aggregate demand.

Another school of thought is more sceptical. It sees the source of the strong demand for gilts as the Bank of England, which bought up £375 billion worth of them (about a third of the national debt) under its Quantitative Easing program. On this view such fiscal wriggle room comes at the expense of monetary manipulation which would, if continued, lead to even higher inflation.

As esoteric as this might sound it is a debate that matters for all of us. The British government is accumulating so much debt that even with record low interest rates the amount it spent on debt interest increased by 8.7 percent in 2011/2012 to £48.2 billion, more than it spends on defence. Just imagine what would happen to that figure if gilt yields were to rise.

This is not a problem say some, many, though not all, from the Keynesian tradition. The British government never has to worry about whether it can pay back debt denominated in sterling, they say, because it can just get the Bank of England to produce as much new sterling as it needs to cover it.

The idea of George Osborne and Mark Carney running the printing presses to pay their bills might fill you with worries about inflation. Nonsense, the ‘Keynesians’ reply, if anyone thought inflation would be a problem this would be reflected in rising gilt yields and, as we’ve seen, yields are low.

When the coalition came to power in 2010 it rejected the Keynesian thinking and applied four tools to reduce the deficit; First there would be some tax rises; second, some spending cuts (while talking a lot about ‘austerity’ and ‘tough choices’); third, monetary policy, it was tacitly agreed with the Bank of England, would remain exceptionally easy.

But, fourth, most of the heavy lifting would be done by economic growth. In March 2012 the Office of Budget Responsibility predicted that growth would be chugging along at 0.7 percent for 2012 and 2 percent in 2013. George Osborne claimed that low yields on British gilts reflect the bond markets faith in this strategy.

And yet Britain’s economy has stubbornly refused to grow. In December the OBR downgraded its growth forecasts to -0.1 percent for 2012 and 1.2 percent for 2013. This has blown a hole in the coalition’s economic strategy.

The deficit, originally slated for extinction by 2015, will, on revised predictions, be with us until at least 2017. It looks likely that borrowing for 2012/2013 could turn out to be even higher than it was in 2011/2012.

And since the New Year this news, coupled with the Bank of England’s persistent failure to deal with above target inflation, seems to be causing some investors to reconsider Britain’s credit worthiness. Sterling has slumped to its lowest level since summer 2010. In the last six months yields on 10-year index-linked gilts have risen from 2.4 percent to 3.2 percent. The only surprise about Moody’s downgrade on Friday was that they waited this long.

In their bid to stave off the nightmare scenario of soaring yields, policymakers increasingly find their hands tied. Taxes cannot be raised, the failure of the 50p tax rate shows that our heads are bumping up against the Laffer Curve already. Spending to boost growth, which some are, incredibly, still advocating, simply risks immediate disaster. And with inflation stubbornly stuck above target Osborne cannot expect much help from Mervyn King or Mark Carney.

This just leaves spending cuts which have barely been tried so far. Osborne and King have run out of short term fiscal and monetary sticking plasters. Radical surgery cannot be postponed. Just under a year ago I wrote that “The British economy is walking a tightrope. On the one hand it has deficits the size of Greece; on the other it has interest rates as low as Germany.” We might be about to find out which it is that goes.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

* Not legally binding

Ground control to Major Krugman


Paul Krugman was ill/The Day the Earth Stood Still…

One of the standard charges against believers in smaller government is that we are all fans of Ayn Rand and imagine ourselves as John Galt. I get this thrown at me despite the fact that I have never read a single thing Rand wrote.

Indeed, Paul Ryan got a roasting for his admiration of Rand from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who called Rand “a very unserious, unreasonable novelist”. And maybe Krugman is right? Perhaps basing your political and economic philosophy on an old science fiction novel is the height of weirdness.

But hang on, what’s this? In an article for the Guardian titled ‘Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics‘, Krugman writes, “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.”

It’s worth reading that again and remembering that it’s from the same man who quotes the well-worn joke about Atlas Shrugged and Lord of the Rings; “the unrealistic fantasy world portrayed in one of those books can warp a young man’s character forever; the other book is about orcs.” If nothing else, at least Krugman’s suggestion that a fake alien invasion could rescue the economy makes a little more sense now.

For those who haven’t waded through Isaac Asimov’s several Foundation novels, Krugman explains:

In Foundation, we learn that a small group of mathematicians [including Krugman’s hero Hari Seldon] have developed ‘psychohistory’ (a) rigorous science of society. Applying that science to the all-powerful Galactic Empire in which they live, they discover that it is in fact in terminal decline, and that a 30,000-year era of barbarism will follow its fall. But they also discover that a carefully designed nudge can change that path…The novels follow the unfolding of that plan

There’s only one brief description of a space battle – and the true purpose of the battle, we learn, is not the defeat of an ultimately trivial enemy but the creation of a state of mind that serves the Plan

There are a series of moments in which the fate of the galaxy seems to hang in the balance… Each of these crises is met by the men of the hour, whose bravery and cunning seem to offer the only hope. Each time, the Foundation triumphs. But here’s the trick: after the fact, it becomes clear that bravery and cunning had nothing to do with it, because the Foundation was fated to win thanks to the laws of psychohistory. Each time, just to drive the point home, the image of Hari Seldon, recorded centuries before, appears in the Time Vault to explain to everyone what just happened.

You can see how Krugman pictures himself. He is one of a small band of Psychokeynesians who possess an insight, the IS/LM model, which enables them to predict the future of economies and gives them the tools – vast deficits and credit expansion – to steer them.

Anything that supports the Psychokeynesian analysis is evidence; anything that doesn’t is simply a ruse. And when the next bit of corroborating evidence floats along, Hari Krugman emerges from a Time Vault to say “told you so”.

But there’s a problem. It’s true that Krugman spotted the housing bubble in 2005 but then he had been calling for it in 2002. This might lead you to question Krugman’s omnipotence. Or you might want to wait for Hari Krugman to appear and explain how this crafty Knight’s Move is actually part of The Plan.

Hari Krugman celebrates his clairvoyance:

The IS-LM model (don’t ask) told us that under depression-type conditions like those we’re experiencing, some of the usual rules would cease to apply: trillion-dollar budget deficits wouldn’t drive up interest rates, huge increases in the money supply wouldn’t cause runaway inflation. Economists who took that model seriously back in, say, early 2009 were ridiculed and lambasted for making such counterintuitive assertions. But their predictions came true.

But considering that they also predicted that this mountain of debt and avalanche of new money would lead to economic recovery then no, their predictions didn’t come true.

Remember former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors Christina Romer’s prediction that President Obama’s Keynesian stimulus would see American unemployment peak at 8 percent in late 2009 and fall to a little over 5 percent today? Remember that American unemployment actually peaked at over 10 percent in late 2009 and stands at 7.9 percent today?

This doesn’t worry Hari Krugman a bit. In the course of a spat with economist Robert P. Murphy, Krugman wrote:

[I]t’s really important to distinguish between fundamental predictions of a model and predictions that an economist happens to make that don’t really come from the model… [T]he unfortunate Romer-Bernstein prediction of a fairly rapid bounceback from recession reflected judgements about future private spending that had nothing much to do with Keynesian fundamentals, and therefore sheds no light on whether those fundamentals are correct. In short, some predictions matter more than others.

Quite so Paul. Apparently the predictions that come true matter; those that don’t, don’t.

In his Guardian piece Krugman excitedly writes of “the possibility of a rigorous, mathematical social science that understands society, can predict how it changes, and can be used to shape those changes.” Well, looking at the record it’s clear that Hari Krugman hasn’t found it.

Or maybe he has, and we mere mortals simply need to wait for his shimmering likeness to appear from the Time Vault and say “told you so.”

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The Workfare case

Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson objected to their placements on the Coalition’s flagship workfare schemes

“I haaaaaaate you, that is sooooooooo unfair”

A fair bit has been said about today’s appeals court decision that the government’s Workfare scheme is illegal. Much of it has been rather wide of the mark.

First, the plaintiff, Cait Reilly, does not have a problem with performing unpaid work. She was, after all, volunteering unpaid in a museum. The problem was that Ms Reilly liked working in the museum. She didn’t like working in Poundland.

Well, welcome to the real world Ms Reilly. Most of us do not spend our days doing what we would enjoy if we had the choice, that is why the world is not full of Premiership footballers and ballerinas.

The fact is that in the future the sorts of jobs Britain is likely to generate will be in Poundlands. Our economy discourages the capital investment and our education system wrecks the human capital which enable people to work more productively and it is that, not minimum wage legislation, which dictates whether wages will rise.

Secondly, Workfare worked in Ms Reilly’s case. She says “I now work part time in a supermarket” Ask yourself; when Tesco’s were interviewing her which experience do you think impressed them most? The museum or Poundland? In this case Workfare worked.

Is the Conservatives’ economic trump card warranted?

Let’s roll

It is part of Conservative Party mythology that it is repeatedly elected to clean up Labour’s economic messes. Indeed, 1931, 1951, 1979, and 2010 saw Labour bequeath the Conservatives a steaming pile to deal with. The only possible exception was 1970 when, following the calamitous sterling devaluation of 1967, Roy Jenkins wielded the austerity axe and got the British government’s finances into something approaching order.

Yet, truthfully, Britain has been plagued with economic mismanagement from both sides of the Commons and Labour could make much the same complaint of the Conservatives.

In 1929 Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour took over an economy wrecked by the attempt of Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government to peg sterling to gold at pre-World War One parity. In both 1964 and 1974 Harold Wilson inherited the messy aftermath of pre-election booms engineered by Conservative chancellors Reg Maudling and Anthony Barber respectively. In 1987 the Conservatives inherited the messy aftermath of a pre-election boom they themselves engineered.

The Conservatives’ playing of their economic competence trump card always required a fair bit of bluff.

Recent developments suggest that George Osborne might think of delving into the same old bag of Conservative chancellors’ tricks as Maudling, Barber and Lawson. This government has nailed itself to the mast of the economy. Put simply, if the economy is growing healthily come 2015 the Conservatives will win. If not they are toast.

So far it’s not looking good. News that GDP contracted by 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013 meant that the UK economy continues to flat line. This is nothing to do with so called ‘austerity’ but the entirely predictable and unavoidable consequence of a massively indebted economy trying to reduce its indebtedness.

Either way, whether the dreaded ‘triple dip’ is avoided or not, it is looking increasingly unlikely that GDP growth in 2015 will be of the magnitude necessary to bring re-election.

So with 2015 approaching, Cameron and Osborne might come to look favourably on incoming Bank of England governor Mark Carney consummating his flirtation with Nominal GDP Targeting (NGDPT).

NGDPT starts from the observation that money supply targets proved a poor rudder for monetary policy due to problems of defining the money supply and changes in velocity, and inflation targeting proved unable to prevent asset price inflation. With NGDPT the idea is that the central bank sets a path for nominal GDP growth and manipulates the money supply sufficiently to achieve it.

So, if it’s decided that nominal GDP should grow by 5 percent a year, and nominal GDP looks to be increasing above that rate, the monetary authority engages in the sale of securities so as to suck money out of the economy to get nominal GDP growth back on target.

Likewise, if nominal GDP was growing at a rate below 5 percent, the situation we are currently in, the monetary authority engages in the purchase of securities so as to pump money into the economy and get nominal GDP growth back on target.

NGDPT and the market monetarists who propose it have faith in the power of monetary policy. Austrian liquidation or Keynesian liquidity traps can be blasted out of existence with a sufficient charge of base money. Or, as Ben Bernanke put it in one of market monetarism’s foundational statements:

“the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services. We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.”

You can see the attraction of all this to Cameron and Osborne but will they be allowed to get away with it? The mass production of sterling dictated by NGDPT in our current predicament would, in theory, have the effect of reducing sterling’s value on the exchange markets which will make imports into Britain more expensive and Britain’s exports to everywhere else cheaper.

In practice this is exactly what has been happening. The massive expansion of its balance sheet by the Bank of England has seen sterling crash by 15 percent since 2008 which has propped up British exports (it is this avenue which wasn’t open to Ireland).

But if you devalue to boost your exports of goods and services, any increase in those exports is matched by a reduction in someone else’s. This is why the competitive devaluations of the 1930s, as countries scrambled for a share of diminishing world trade, became known as ‘beggar they neighbour’.

And it looks unlikely that our neighbours are going to let themselves be beggared by Britain’s NGDPT. The Federal Reserve continues to buy $85 billion of bonds each month. In Japan Shinzo Abe is pushing an inflation target of 2 percent in a bid to boost its flagging exports. This will come at the expense of German exports which might cause policymakers in Berlin look more kindly on François Hollande’s calls for a devaluation of the euro. The race is on to see who beggars who first.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Ludwig von Mises on socialists and nanny staters

Still right after all these years

Every now and then you read something written some time in the past and almost literally double take at how relevant it remains. Check out the below – written in 1926 – by Ludwig von Mises in The Nationalization of Credit? from his Critique of Interventionism

“Guided by central authority according to central plan, a socialistic economy can be democratic or dictatorial. A democracy in which the central authority depends on public support through ballots and elections cannot proceed differently from the capitalistic economy. It will produce and distribute what the public likes, that is, alcohol, tobacco, trash in literature, on the stage, and in the cinema, and fashionable frills. The capitalistic economy, however, caters as well to the taste of a few consumers. Goods are produced that are demanded by some consumers, and not by all. The democratic command economy with its dependence on popular majority need not consider the special wishes of the minority. It will cater exclusively to the masses.

But even if it is managed by a dictator who, without consideration for the wishes of the public, enforces what he deems best — who clothes, feeds, and houses the people as he sees fit — there is no assurance that he will do what appears proper to “us.” The critics of the capitalistic order always seem to believe that the socialistic system of their dreams will do precisely what they think correct. While they may not always count on becoming dictators themselves, they are hoping that the dictator will not act without first seeking their advice. Thus they arrive at the popular contrast of productivity and profitability. They call “productive” those economic actions they deem correct. And because things may be different at times, they reject the capitalistic order, which is guided by profitability and the wishes of consumers, the true masters of markets and production. They forget that a dictator, too, may act differently from their wishes, and that there is no assurance that he will really try for the “best,” and, even if he should seek it, that he should find the way to the “best.””

Read the full thing here

Meme madness

This appeared on my Facebook feed yesterday…


There are three things to note –

1 – It lumps tax avoidance (legal) and tax evasion (illegal) together

2 – Any estimate of either benefit fraud or tax evasion (ex ante) and tax avoidance are pretty much arbitrary

3 – It gives two different figures for “Tax avoided, evaded and uncollected one of which is four times the size of the other (yet is represented by a circle eight times bigger)

The moral of the story? Let’s focus on figures which aren’t plucked out of thin air.






When stimulus fails to stimulate

Beats him

Last week’s news that US GDP had shrunk by 0.1 percent presented some with a problem. The United States, with its apparently indefinite commitment to trillion dollar deficits, has been held up by Ed Balls among others as the Keynesian poster boy in comparison to the ‘austerity’ which, it is claimed, is ravaging Europe’s economies.

In December, John Cassidy of the New Yorker wrote: “It’s official: Austerity doesn’t work”, contrasting the growth in US GDP with the miserable stagnation of Britain’s. And here it was shrinking.

Duncan Weldon, the TUC’s resident economist, took to Twitter to explain that the “Primary reason for US GDP fall is govt spending cuts…This enhances rather than disproves case for stimulus.” Does it?

The first thing to note is that GDP is a measure of spending which is used as a proxy for measuring the much more elusive concept of economic wellbeing. As such, getting it to rise or fall is child’s play; a fool could do it as Gordon Brown proved. As Cassidy writes:

“Before the last election there, which took place in May, 2010, the U.K.’s economy appeared to be slowly recovering from the deep slump of 2008-09 that followed the housing bust and global financial crisis. Just like the Bush Administration (2008) and the Obama Administration (2009), Gordon Brown’s Labour government had introduced a fiscal stimulus to help turn the economy around. G.D.P. was growing at an annual rate of about 2.5 per cent.”

Indeed, but that was achieved simply by the spending of 160 billion borrowed pounds in one year. To repeat, if you borrow and spend lots of money you will see an increase in a measure of spending, GDP. This is not rocket science.

And just as this should be obvious, so it should also be obvious that such a strategy has limitations. Governments cannot keep adding to their debts indefinitely especially when, as the Labour government did in Britain, they were doing so during the growth years as well.

Secondly, let us ask what the point of ‘stimulus’ is. It is, as obviously as anything else, to stimulate economic growth, as measured by rises in GDP. Think of it like stabilisers on a child’s bike, they exist to keep the economy upright until such time as it can cycle off on its own.

But what if stimulus doesn’t actually stimulate anything?  What if, even after years riding his bike with stabilisers, your kid still can’t keep his balance unaided?

That is what the US GDP figures showed. Four years of unprecedented trillion dollar deficits have boosted GDP, an effect a sufficient level of spending is guaranteed to have on a measure of spending. But reduce government spending and GDP drops. The economy is still incapable of standing on its own two feet. The stimulus has failed to stimulate.

This suggests two things. First, the extra six and a bit trillion dollars of debt the Democrats have gleefully piled on their kids has failed to achieve its stated aim. Second, those Europeans with their ‘austerity’ might not be as daft as people like Cassidy say. After all, what’s the point in stimulus if it doesn’t stimulate?

This article originally appeared at The Commentator