French lessons for Miliband and Balls

“Take it from me mate, don’t…”

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” wrote Wordsworth in middle age, reflecting on the euphoria his younger self felt at the French Revolution. Ed Miliband felt a similar sense of elation when François Hollande was elected President of France in May 2012 albeit expressed in slightly more prosaic terms.

Mr Miliband said that President Hollande’s campaign “has shown that the centre-left can offer hope and win elections with a vision of a better, more equal and just world”. Mr Miliband declared “This new leadership is sorely needed as Europe seeks to escape from austerity” and assured us that “I know from our conversations in London earlier this year and from [Mr Hollande’s] victory speech tonight of his determination to help create a Europe of growth and jobs”

Alas, since he spoke of President Hollande’s “determination to help create a Europe of growth and jobs” French unemployment has risen from 10.2% to 10.9% and Britain’s has fallen from 8% to 7.1%. The French economy has averaged growth of 0.13% per year while Britain’s has averaged 0.16% a year.

Mr Hollande’s strategy was to tax and spend France back to prosperity. A raft of new taxes, most notoriously a 75% top rate of income tax, would pay for the hiring of 60,000 new teachers, the creation of 150,000 subsidised jobs, and a reduction in the retirement age. This strategy has failed. Like Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which flooded east London with entrepreneurial Huguenots, Mr Hollande has simply driven the French men and women who can afford to leave out of the country. Those who can’t are left stuck with unemployment and stagnation, Mr Miliband’s “better, more equal and just world”.

Yet, just as Mr Hollande abandons this strategy in favour of a €30 billion payroll tax cut and €50 billion worth of spending cuts in the next two years, ‘austerity’ if you like, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party are committing themselves to it afresh. Last Friday Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls made one of his increasingly rare appearances and committed a post-2015 Labour government to eliminating the deficit by 2020. The tool with which he intends to achieve this is a reintroduced 50 per cent top rate of income tax.

Mr Balls apparently needs to learn the lesson so painfully learned by France; that as per the Laffer Curve, beyond a certain level increasing tax rates ≠ increasing tax revenues. Indeed, in the last two years of the 50 per cent rate, 2011/2012 and 2012/2013, top rate taxpayers paid £41.3bn and £41.6bn in tax respectively. Under the 45 per cent rate that amount has risen to £49.36bn. Ed Balls was immediately in the unusual position of having to explain how he would fund a tax rise.

This presents the Conservatives with an opportunity. David Cameron and George Osborne should be pointing across the Channel and saying that Hollande’s abandoned France of high taxes, high government spending, rising unemployment, and falling growth, is Miliband’s Britain.

Ultimately the high ideals of the French Revolution were drowned in the blood of the Terror, replaced by the dictatorship of Napoleon, and a disillusioned Wordsworth retired to the Lake District and Romantic poetry. What will it take to educate Mr Miliband?

Advertisements

Deficit and debt: Does anyone know the difference?

“OK, so there’s the water in the tub…”

In a recent conversation, a Labour Party member told me that the coalition was “borrowing more than we did in power”. I pointed out that this was wrong, that the deficit, what we are “borrowing”, is, in fact, down by a third under this government. He replied: “The deficit may be but the current government is still borrowing more money than the last government.”

You could write this off as simply the pig-headed economic illiteracy of a paid-up member of the party that helped us into the current mess. After all, Ed Balls, Labour’s man on the economy, can stand up in front of Parliament and say “The national deficit is not rising…er…is rising, not falling” (he was right the first time). But then you hear Nick Clegg say that the coalition is working to “wipe the slate clean for our children and our grandchildren”. Even David Cameron himself announced that “We’re paying down Britain’s debts”.

You begin to wonder if anyone knows what they are talking about. I’ve addressed the issue of what exactly is happening to the British government’s finances before but it seems it needs repeating.

We have two concepts here: a stock and a flow. Think of it like a bathtub. The stock is the water in the bathtub, the flow is the water either flowing in or out of the tub through the taps or plughole.

In this analogy the debt is the stock, the water in the tub; the deficit is the flow, the water pouring in from the tap (if our government was running a budget surplus water would be flowing out through the plughole but we’re some way off worrying about that). In other words, the deficit (flow) is the amount by which the debt (stock) is increasing.

Thus, it is possible to have a situation like we have now where the debt is increasing while the deficit is decreasing (imagine yourself turning off the tap and seeing the flow of water dwindle – water is still flowing into the tub). Borrowing is down, what has been borrowed is up.

In the final year of the last Labour government Alistair Darling borrowed £156 billion. In 2012 George Osborne borrowed £99 billion. The deficit had fallen but while ever there is any deficit at all debt will be rising. Another way of putting it is to say that in his last year Darling increased the debt by £156 billion and last year Osborne increased it by £99 billion.

This is why you can have a chart like this…

showing falling deficits coexisting with a chart like this…

showing rising debt.

This might all sound a rather long-winded way of stating the obvious but a ComRes poll late last year found that 49 percent of people wrongly think “The Coalition Government is planning to REDUCE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015”. The correct answer, that “The Coalition Government is planning to INCREASE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015”, was given by just 6 percent.

The British government’s out of control spending is the central issue in British politics today yet there is mass ignorance as to what is really going on with it. In large part this can be attributed to the misleading statements pumped out by the sloppy Cameron and Clegg and the dishonest Balls.

What actually is happening to the British government’s finances under Cameron and Clegg is that the debt is growing and will continue to grow but the pace at which it grows, the deficit, is declining. This is simple stuff even if our politicians struggle with it.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

In defence of Reinhart and Rogoff

Ba-ba272a_qanda_g_20121123195546

Facepalm, as they say

Academic economic papers rarely receive the sort of mass reception that brings coverage in the Guardian and the Telegraph so by the standards of its field ‘Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff was something of a blockbuster.

The eponymous Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff are economists who, in a 2010 paper,  ‘Growth In a Time of Debt‘ found that “whereas the link between growth and debt seems relatively weak at ‘normal’ debt levels, median growth rates for countries with public debt over roughly 90 percent of GDP are about one percent lower than otherwise; (mean) growth rates are several percent lower.”

These results, fleshed out to book length for the successful ‘This Time Is Different’, have been quoted by George Osborne, Paul Ryan, and Olli Rehn in support of their measures to get spiralling government debts under control.

Last week’s paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts Amherst claimed to have proved this wrong. They had recreated Reinhart and Rogoff’s results and found that the pair had reached their figure of a GDP ‘growth’ rate of -0.1 percent per annum for economies with government debt of over 90 percent of GDP thanks to “coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics.” Most embarrassingly, the ‘coding error’ was a proper schoolboy error; Reinhart and Rogoff missed some of the numbers out of their calculations.

In truth the idea that there was an Iron Law such that an economy would shrink as soon as it’s government debt hit 90 percent of GDP, the ‘strong form’ of Reinhart and Rogoff (pushed more by the political practitioners than them it ought to be said), was always iffy. It smacks of the sort of bogus causation derived from correlation which is the basis for much modern macroeconomics.

There are, for example, different types of debt. Advocates of higher spending often point to the 260 percent of GDP the British government owed in 1816, the 180 percent it owed in 1919, or the 220 percent it owed in 1945. This, they tell you, proves that Britain’s economy can bear an even greater burden of debt than the 70 percent of GDP it has doubled to in the last five years.

But you don’t have to be David Starkey to know that in 1816, 1919, and 1945 Britain had run up that debt to pay the cost of defeating a tyrant and as soon as that was done we stopped. It was an expense we had to meet and defray over time, the wartime borrowing was classic ‘consumption smoothing’.

To put it another way, when the British government started spending heavily in 1792, 1914, or 1939 there was a definite endgame for this spending: the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, the defeat of the Kaiser, the overthrow of Hitler. The very moment those goals were accomplished spending would fall rapidly.

Our current level of government spending, by contrast, is not being undertaken to safeguard this country and its neighbours from conquest but to maintain a public sector and welfare state grown fat on borrowing and tax revenue from an unsustainable bubble in the absence of that bubble and those tax revenues. We are not smoothing consumption, we are sucking it out of tomorrow. And, unlike Pitt the Younger, Herbert Asquith, or Neville Chamberlain, present day advocates of higher spending cannot give an endgame for their proposed accrual of debt.

The point of this for evaluating Reinhart and Rogoff’s work is to note that one load of debt is not necessarily the same as another. There ought to be a little nuance to the picture, there are no magic numbers.

But even with that said it can still be argued that Reinhart and Rogoff have been hard done to this last week. They are, as they say in ‘This Time Is Different’, involved in the on-going process of growing their data set (which, rather unwisely, they have been quite proprietary about) and since 2010 they have revised their conclusions in the light of new data which Herndon, Ash, and Pollin had access to.

As Reinhart and Rogoff wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in a 2012 paper with Vincent Reinhart they found GDP growth rates of 2.4 percent for economies with government debt over 90 percent of GDP, pretty close to the 2.2 percent calculated by Herndon, Ash, and Pollin.

Indeed, and despite what some excitable commentators have proclaimed, Herndon, Ash, and Pollin have not found no correlation between high debt and low growth. They have found a weaker one than Reinhart and Rogoff in 2010 and about the same as they found in 2012, but they have still found one.

As page 21 of their paper states: if debt is below 30 percent GDP growth comes in at 4.2 percent, if debt is between 30 percent and 60 percent of GDP growth comes in at 3.1 percent, if debt is between 60 percent and 90 percent of GDP growth comes in at 3.2 percent, and if debt is over 90 percent of GDP growth comes in at 2.2 percent. Even on Herndon, Ash, and Pollin’s figures higher debt is correlated with lower GDP growth.

And there is perhaps a more profound point to note. Reinhart and Rogoff have fessed up to the coding error but the “selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics” which Herndon, Ash, and Pollin accuse them of is, in fact, the very stuff of modern macroeconomics.

The ‘facts’ which dominate and guide our economic lives such as GDP, the CPI, or even unemployment, are not objectively given but are constructed using just such subjective methods, a prime example are the nonsensical unemployment figures of the United States. If this furore provokes a little scepticism so much the better, but it should spread much further than one paper.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Why is David Blanchflower so scared of the truth?

1296054853024_photo-blanchflower-david-02

The Michael Howard of economics

A couple of weeks back I took David Blanchflower of the New Statesman to task over the failure of his recent attempt to justify his infamous 2009 prediction that “unemployment could easily reach four million”. Blanchflower responded on Twitter: “If spending cuts are made too early and the monetary and fiscal stimuli are withdrawn “if crucial- buffooonery” (sic).

In fairness to Blanchflower he did preface his 2009 doomsday scenario with exactly those words. But let’s look a little more closely at Blanchflower’s warnings of the twin evils of tight money and spending cuts.

First, monetary policy. Who, in 2009, was advocating the tightening monetary policy? Possibly a few Austrians (though not all of them). Not many others. Certainly, as far I recall, no one in the Conservative Party as Blanchflower claimed. If I am wrong (and I have scoured the internet) and there were leading Conservatives advocating monetary tightness in 2009 then please, let me know.

But if, as I’m pretty sure is the case, nobody in the Conservative Party was advocating the early withdrawal of monetary stimuli then why on earth did Blanchflower waste anyone’s time warning them about it?

And what about the fiscal side of Blanchflower’s prediction? He loudly and regularly makes the point that ‘Slasher’ Osborne (I know, not much as nicknames go) has cut government spending and plunged Britain into renewed recession. I asked Blanchflower once or twice (or thrice) by how much ‘Slasher’ Osborne has cut government spending to send us into recession.

The answers I got ranged from “go and look it up yourself” to “go back into your hole” and “If you want to hire me to do consulting work for you I will bill at my normal high rates min 3hrs half up front”. How sad that when given a chance to engage and educate, a man who holds a teaching position chose instead to act in such a petulant and childish manner. How terrifying that someone so shifty, evasive, and brittle under pressure, was once a member of the Monetary Policy Committee.

Well, I went and looked up the numbers and the reasons for Blanchflower’s reticence quickly became apparent. In the fiscal year ending April 2010, Labour’s last in office, the British government spent £660.8 billion and in the year ending April 2012 it was £688 billion: an increase of 4.1 percent. Over the same period, however, we have had above target inflation which has given us a real terms cut in government spending of of 2.7 percent.

That’s it. After a decade which saw Labour double government spending in real terms it has been pruned by 2.7 percent. Hardly ‘slashing’ and all delivered by Mervyn King and his failure to keep inflation at 2 percent. If he had we’d have had a very slight real terms increase in spending; but that, presumably, really would have meant the monetary tightness Blanchflower was wailing about back in 2009.

I don’t suppose the monikers ‘Slasher King’ or ‘Trimmer’ Osborne would be much LOLZ for the Prof on Twitter. You can see why he was desperate to avoid giving a straight answer; his whole shtick would collapse if he did.

Blanchflower might argue that some areas of government spending have been cut quite drastically but there are two points to be made there. First, The Master himself, John Maynard Keynes, famously said that it didn’t matter too much what you spent your fiscal stimulus on, whether it’s Pyramids, wars, or burying old bottles full of cash and digging them up again. The key thing was to get the money spent.

Second, you have to wonder what else Blanchflower expects. Even with record low interest rates, British government debt, for which we are all liable, has risen so vertiginously that by 2015 it is estimated that we will be spending £70 billion a year on debt interest, up from £31 billion in 2008. To some extent we are seeing spending on welfare being cut so we can give the money to bond investors instead. Don’t like it? Don’t run up a load of debt.

Of course, Blanchflower would argue that we don’t actually need to worry. We just keep printing and borrowing the money we need. The £450 billion the coalition will have added to the national debt by April 2013 is too stingy; the doubling of the national debt over its lifetime too miserly. With views like that you can understand why Blanchflower runs scared from any rational discussion.

So, back in 2009, Blanchflower was warning us about something that wasn’t going to happen. After trying and failing to exonerate his 2009 prediction his argument now is that he wasn’t wrong, just irrelevant. But then you might find yourself asking why we should pay much attention to a slippery peddler of irrelevancies. Why indeed.

With his affected rudeness and terror of reasonable discussion with anyone who might disagree with him, Blanchflower is a sort of pound store Paul Krugman. But, without a bestselling book, a Nobel Prize, and with a column in the Independent rather than the New York Times, that’s a bit like comparing Donovan to Bob Dylan.

Labour and the public finances

The guilty men

The bad economic news which surrounded the budget yesterday seems to have given Ed Balls the confidence to tour the studios telling all and sundry that he has been ‘vindicated’. What’s worse, some intelligent people appear to be falling for this obvious rubbish.

To remember just how obvious and just how rubbish this is I’d refer to this previous blogpost. But I’d also refer you to this, an election briefing from 2010 from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The whole thing is worth a read but I’ll quote the summary in full…

Total public spending is forecast to be 48.1% of national income in 2010−11, up by 8.2% of national income from the 39.9% Labour inherited from the Conservatives. This would be the highest level of public spending as a share of national income since 1982−83.

• Most industrial countries have increased public spending as a share of national income since 1997. But between 1997 and 2007 – prior to the financial crisis – the UK had the 2nd largest increase in spending as a share of national income out of 28 industrial countries for which we have comparable data. Over the period from 1997 to 2010 – including the crisis – the UK had the largest increase. This moved the UK from having the 22nd largest proportion of national income spent publicly in 1997 to having the 6th largest proportion spent publicly in 2010.

• Spending on public services has increased by an average of 4.4% a year in real terms under Labour, significantly faster than the 0.7% a year average seen under the Conservatives from 1979 to 1997. This is largely due to increases in spending on the NHS, education and transport. Since 2000–01 public investment spending has increased particularly sharply and is now at levels not seen since the mid to late 1970s. Despite large increases in the generosity of benefits for lower income families with children and lower income pensioners social security spending has grown less quickly than it did under the Conservatives.

• Estimates from the Office for National Statistics suggest that public services have improved considerably over the period from 1997 to 2007 with measured outputs suggesting a one third increase in the quantity and quality of public services. But this increase in measured public service outputs is less than the increase in inputs over the same period; in other words productivity has fallen. The relative price of these inputs has also risen, so we find that the “bang for each buck” that we get from spending on public services (output per pound spent, adjusted for whole economy inflation) has fallen more than productivity.

• If the Government had managed to maintain the “bang for each buck” at the level it inherited in 1997, it would have been able to deliver the quantity and quality of public services it delivered in 2007 for £42.5 billion less. Alternatively, it could have improved the quality and quantity of public services by a further 16% for the same cost. But perhaps service quality has improved in ways not captured by the ONS’s measures. Or perhaps we were to bound to see diminishing returns to additional spending when it was increasing so rapidly. To the extent that additional spending boosts output fully only with a lag, we may not yet have seen the full benefit.

How can you say the people responsible for that have been ‘vindicated’?

Cyprus: The ghost of the West yet to come

Get used to it

When the European Union (with German money) mounted its most recent bailout of Greece, one of the conditions was a 75 percent write down of Greek government debt. For the Cypriot banks, which had made loans to the Greek government totalling 160 percent of Cyprus’s GDP, this was disastrous.

With their capital bases smashed the Cypriot government felt obliged to bail them out. Lacking the funds to do so (in 2011 the IMF reported that the assets of Cypriot banks totalled 835 percent of GDP) it turned to the European Union (in reality Germany again) for a bailout.

The Germans are reluctant to lend money without conditions. If the terms of the bailout are accepted by the Cypriot parliament, in return for the €10 billion corporation tax will rise from 10 percent to 12.5 percent and interest on bank deposits will be subject to a withholding tax.

But the most controversial aspect is the proposal that bank deposits will be subject to a one off “solidarity levy”, amounts under €100,000 at a rate of 6.75 percent and those over €100,000 at 9.9 percent.

This is the eurozone crisis at its most extreme but it only differs from events in Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, by degree. And in as far as  government eventually has to tailor its outgoings to suit its income it is really just an extreme version of the situation which will also eventually face Japan, Britain, and the US, probably in that order.

So what lessons does Cyprus hold for those who still have all this to come?

The first concerns the relationship between banks and our politicians. Over the last few years politicians elected to represent the people have rarely missed an opportunity to dump debts on those people in the interests of saving banks and other financial institutions which have hit trouble. We have been told that banks occupy a unique position in our economy such that the laws of economics don’t apply to them as they apply to Woolworths or Blockbuster. They are too vital, we are told, too big to fail.

Functioning banks certainly are a key part of a modern financial system but why should the same be said of the toxic zombies who are blundering round the current financial landscape?

And how did these rotten banks get so big in the first place? It’s because governments and central banks prop them up. Bad banks rarely go out of business, they just lumber on, soaking up and destroying more wealth. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan were bailed out five times in the 20 years before 2008.

The second lesson is that there really is no such thing as private property. In extremis the government considers itself entitled to any amount of your property it desires even if, as in the Cypriot case, it means revoking its own commitments to protect bank deposits.

But then this is the logical outcome of taxation. If you think that a shortage of government revenue can be solved by the government simply helping itself to someone else’s revenue you really can’t have a philosophical problem with this. If you believe in the 50p tax rate this is where you end up.

The third lesson is the limits of democracy. The Cypriot Prime Minister, Nicos Anastasiades, ran at the last election on a promise to protect depositors. Now he stands behind a lectern explaining why he cannot protect depositors. The greater a country’s debts the fewer are its options and in the euro, with no possibility of devaluation, this problem is exacerbated.

The Cypriots will probably feel much as the Irish or Portuguese did to have their economic policy decided by the Troika of the EU, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank. They may feel a touch like the Spanish or French did when they elected an anti-austerity candidate only to find that they get some measure of austerity anyway. They may end up feeling like the Greeks or Italians who skipped these intermediary steps and went straight to having their governments foisted upon them by the European Union.

This isn’t just a lesson for eurozone members. Labour currently lead in British opinion polls, appealing to soft-headed types who think that we can back to the big spending and even bigger borrowing days of Gordon Brown if only we tick the right box on a ballot slip. In the United States Barack Obama won re-election last year on the promise that the Chinese will continue to lend the US the money to live it up.

British and American voters might not have been slapped in the face with reality in the same way as the bottom half of the eurozone has thanks to their ability to trash their currencies, but it will come. Sooner or later they will be faced with the fact that a country cannot indefinitely live beyond its means and that voting for snake oil salesmen who tell you there is, is a sure fire recipe for disappointment.

The final lesson though, and perhaps the scariest, is that those in charge are no smarter than the average bloke in the street. It is difficult to find the words for the stupidity of trying to shore up Cypriot banks with a policy which will cause a run on those very same banks.

Cyprus offers a grim glimpse of a possible future for the wider western world: politicians who will sacrifice the people for banks, the expropriation of private property to pay for it, the diminishing options offered by the political process, and idiots in charge. Let’s hope they aren’t coming to a crisis near you.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The humility of David Blanchflower

2013021097913

“So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view” – Obi-Wan Kenobi

In 2004 the theoretical physicist John Preskill proved that, contra what Stephen Hawking had said, information could escape from a black hole. There was, thus, no ‘information paradox’ and the laws of quantum mechanics were confirmed. Hawking took a look at the evidence and said “I was wrong”.

This sort of humility has always been lacking in the ‘soft’ social sciences. David Blanchflower, Economics Editor of the New Statesman, gave a good example of this last week.

Back in 2009 Blanchflower famously predicted that

“If spending cuts are made too early and the monetary and fiscal stimuli are withdrawn, unemployment could easily reach four million… If large numbers of public sector workers, perhaps as many as a million, are made redundant and there are substantial cuts in public spending in 2010, as proposed by some in the Conservative Party, five million unemployed or more is not inconceivable.”

Of course, since then we have seen a veritable employment boom. As Martin Vander Weyer writes in The Spectator

“Since 2008, we have had ten quarters of growth and ten of shrinkage; last year, when most of us thought recovery was imminent, we had no net growth at all despite a euphoric post-Olympic blip. And yet there were 580,000 more people in employment by December than a year earlier, taking the total UK workforce to a record 29.7 million. That’s roughly 24 million in the private sector, which added 627,000 jobs in the year to September; the public sector shed 128,000 and has now shrunk all the way back to its 2002 numbers, before Gordon Brown went mad.

“So we have an economy that is rebalancing itself favourably between tax generators and tax spenders while creating 2,000 jobs per working day”

That notorious 2009 prediction has hung round Blanchflower’s neck like a necklace made of cat poo, Daniel Hannan bringing it up again recently.

Blanchflower could, like Hawking, have held his hands up and said “I got it wrong”. Instead, with Stirling University economics professor David Bell in tow, he set out to prove that the prediction had actually been correct.

Sure, unemployment might have played out totally differently to Blanchflower’s predictions, but by concocting a measure of underemployment, they might finally locate the dark truth that simply must lay behind Blanchflower’s famous prognostication and vindicate him.

And they found… not very much actually.

Source: New Statesman

As you’d expect Blanchflower and Bell’s underemployment is higher than unemployment. When Blanchflower states that the first conclusion from his data is that “underemployment consistently adds to the measured excess labour capacity in the UK labour market” he is simply stating the obvious.

But it is his second conclusion which is more questionable, where he states that “since the start of the recession, underemployment has been contributing an increasing share of overall excess labour capacity in the UK”.

Well, that’s true, but not by very much. We do not have the data yet so these are rough estimates, but taking the figures from each January of 2001 to 2012 we can see that between 2001 and 2008 underemployment was, on average, 2.73 percent higher than unemployment. And we also see that, from 2009 to 2012, underemployment has been higher than unemployment by 3.32 percent on average. A rise, yes, but not much of one.

Yet on these slim pickings Blanchflower hangs the claim that “It is clear that the coalition is bad for jobs”. And with one bound he is vindicated!

You sympathise with Blanchflower. Faced with the comical failure of his 2009 prediction he set out to fashion a new statistic which would prove that he had, in fact, been correct. And it didn’t. One thing is clear from all this: a desperate desire to exonerate your crackpot predictions is bad for economic inquiry.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

UK’s downgrade: Only spending cuts left to try

File:Toilet with flush water tank.jpg

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

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

Meme madness

This appeared on my Facebook feed yesterday…

meme

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.