Category Archives: Economics & Finance

Reflections on economics, investment and the financial world

Slow growth is not bad. If that means debt default, so be it. The world must change

Inflation expecationsThe state of the world economy is worrying economists. GDP growth is lacklustre in the developed world, which in turn poses problems for the developing world. That’s bad enough, but the economist’s nightmare of deflation – prices dropping rather than rising – now beckons around the world. And yet the prescriptions of most economists are shaped by a way of looking at the economy that belongs to the past. A paradigm shift is needed. Debt is at the heart of it, not GDP growth.

For a clear, conventional analysis of the issue read this week’s Economist.  Here’s a brief summary. The developed world economies are suffering from deficient demand. In other words, the economies could easily churn out more goods and services, using existing capital and labour, but don’t because people aren’t asking for the stuff or can’t pay for it. Another way of putting this is that the amount of investment (people spending money on building capital rather than the immediate consumption of goods and services) is less than the amount of saving (the amount by which people’s income exceeds the goods and services they consume). This leads to low growth rates. Now inflation is falling and deflation threatens. Deflation is bad, at least when low demand is its cause, because it makes debts more difficult to repay, and this gunges up the financial system, which makes matters worse.

The conventional answer to this problem, which also goes under the name of “secular stagnation”, is to reduce the prevailing rate of interest. This will encourage people to invest more since the returns to investment, compared to simply sitting on piles of money, would then be higher. But deflation, or low inflation, makes this impossible, because it raises the floor – the lowest real (after inflation) interest rate it is possible to charge. Answer: you raise the level of inflation. The method of doing this is to increase the money supply, since inflation is a monetary phenomenon. All sorts of ingenious ways are then dreamt up of how to do this. But this is all the product of a conventional way of thinking based on aggregate economic statistics, rather than what is really happening in developed societies.

There a number of challenges to make:

  1. Stagnation, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing in the developed world. Surely the current level of consumption of goods and services is sufficient, in aggregate, to secure perfectly decent wellbeing for everybody – and economic growth is not the most efficient way to securing improvement to that wellbeing. And as we judge the potentially catastrophic impact of man’s demands on the planet it is clear that a system based on ever increasing consumption cannot end well. We need to make better choices about what we consume, and distribute the consumption more evenly. But economists seem to worry about the speed of the train, rather than where it is going, or even whether it has arrived at where the passengers want it to go.
  2. Inflation in the modern, developed world does not work in the way the economic textbooks suggest. In particular the rate at which monetary wages rise has become detached from the rate of increase of consumer prices. Macro-economic policies, like monetary policy, aimed at increasing inflation may feed through to consumer prices without doing much for wages. This completely undermines the supposed benefits of a little bit of inflation.
  3. Things are no better in capital markets. Reducing interest rates seems to have little effect on levels of genuine, productive investment. Such investment is driven much more by zeitgeist than interest rates. Excess money either chases a relatively fixed pool of existing assets (land and buildings and shares), or it simply piles up in bank accounts. This makes conventional monetary policy very hard.

We can look beyond these challenges to recognise some issues that might be behind these challenges. Interestingly, these are, for the most part, not particularly controversial amongst modern economists – it is just that they seem unable to accept the implications:

  • Distribution of wealth and income matters more than aggregates. This is the complete opposite of  late-20th century conventional economic wisdom. The problem is that wealthy people have too much income to meat their needs, and that there are inadequate channels to invest the surplus productively (as opposed to bidding up property values, etc.). To try and balance out the deadening impact of this, the answer has been to get poorer people to consume more by piling up debt. That would be fine if those poorer people turned into rich people later in their lives – but that is not what is happening. This is unsustainable – and yet most conventional economic advice boils down to cranking this system around one more time.
  • Modern businesses require much less capital investment than previously. The modern business giants of Microsoft, Apple and Google never needed much debt and did not need much capital to get going. This is simply the way that technology has evolved. There remains demand for public infrastructure: railways, hospitals, power stations and so on, but the risks and returns, and their often monopolistic nature, makes this a difficult area for private businesses, as opposed to governments, to lead. This is one aspect of what economists refer to as “Baumol’s disease” – the paradox that the more productive the efficient areas of an economy become, the more the lower-productivity areas predominate in the economy as a whole.
  • Globalisation has changed economic dynamics profoundly. Amongst other things it has weakened the bargaining power of workers – one reason that prices and wages are becoming more detached from each other. Also,  less talked about and perhaps controversially, I believe that globalised finance means that developed world governments have less control over their currencies and monetary policies. This is one reason why it is more difficult to use monetary policy to manage inflation. It is also the reason that Europe’s currency union makes much more sense than conventional economists allow – but I digress.
  • Technology is changing the way the jobs market is working. Many middle-range jobs, in both manufacturing and services, are disappearing. This week Britain’s Lloyds Bank announced the loss of 9,000 such jobs in its branches and back office. This, and not the flow of immigrant labour, is the reason why the labour market has turned against so many.
  • And finally, I think that many consumers appreciate that additional consumption, and the income to support it, are not the answer to improved wellbeing. It is better to stop earning and pursue low-cost leisure activities. I notice this most in middle-aged middle-class types like me – who are retiring early. It is perfectly rational. And yet economists can’t seem to understand why reduced consumption and income might be a rational choice for an individual. There is a tendency to tell us to go out and spend more for the good of the economy. This is a perfectly liberal and rational downward pressure on national income – which surely should be encouraged for the sake of the planet.

Some of the consequences of these trends are straightforward. Redistribution of income and wealth are now at the heart of political and economic policy, rather something that can be ignored. A much greater proportion of economic investment must be government-led, which imposes a massive challenge for political management. Governments and central banks trying to tweak the inflation rate by a few percentage points is a fool’s errand. Also trying to revive the economy by getting the banks to lend more money to poorer people is unsustainable, even if the lending is collateralised on residential property. The appeal by many economists, such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, that developed country governments should borrow more to invest in infrastructure makes a lot of sense. Using monetary policy to help finance such investment makes sense too. Making sure this investment is directed sensibly is a bigger problem than most allow, though.

And the conventional economists are right to worry. A world of stagnant growth and low to negative inflation creates major problems. In particular many debts, in both private and public sector, will not be repayable. At some point there will be default, since the other options, inflation and growth, are off the table. Or to put it another way, much of the financial wealth that many people currently think is quite secure is anything but, in the longer term. This may a problem for many pension and insurance schemes, as well as wealthy individuals and corporations.

The consequences of this are quite profound. Our society must break its addiction to debt. The banks and the financial sector must shrink. “Leverage” should be a rude word in finance. If low growth is the result, or if a new financial crisis is hastened, then so be it. Let us learn to manage the consequences better. Borrowing to support genuine productive investment (not excluding the building of new houses where they are needed) is to be encouraged, including government borrowing to finance public infrastructure. But other borrowing must be discouraged. Taxation should increased, especially on the wealthy. If that causes a loss of productivity, then so be it – this should be compensated by more efficient financial flows from rich to poor. Political reform must run in parallel to ensure that public investment is conducted efficiently, rather than just disappearing into the pockets of the well-connected.

This is a daunting programme. Stagnating national income and deflation are not inevitable consequences – since these policies do address some of the causes of deficient demand. But we must not think that these statistics are the lodestars of public policy. We need a much more nuanced appreciation of the wellbeing of our planet and the people that live on its surface, and put it at the heart of economics.

Such sound eco

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Why has the public bought the Tory narrative on the economy? Labour hubris

Opinion polls show that the Conservatives are the most trusted party on the economy. This gives them a big advantage over the Labour opposition, which they are trying to exploit by promising reckless tax cuts. The Tories say that the crisis was caused by the recklessness of the previous Labour government, which necessitated firm austerity policies, which in turn have led to a strong recovery. Labour supporters are sore about this, but their party leaders seem forced to meekly accept the Conservative economic narrative – and promise strict fiscal discipline. And yet economics writer Ha-Joon Chang writes in the Guardian that the Tory narrative is a fairy tale. Why aren’t the political class trying to challenge the narrative?

I am tempted to pick apart Mr Chang’s own narrative. He denies that the record of the previous Labour government was irresponsible, with the crisis in public finances simply inflicted by changes to the world economy. He further suggests that the coalition’s austerity policies to meet the crisis were misguided, and that the current recovery is not as good as it is made out to be. A lot of his claims are tendentious, and there is some sleight of hand with the numbers. But it is perfectly literate in an economic sense, and there is deal of truth in his claims, alongside the disingenuousness. This sort of argument tends to a turn-off for many of my readers. I would like to address the question he raises more directly: “Why did Britain’s political class buy the Tories’ economic fairytale?”

The first point is that we should remember the sense of shock that both the public and the political class felt as the scale of the economic crisis became plain in 2008 and 2009. This followed nearly 15 years of continuous growth in Britain. The political class felt that the economic problem had been cracked by Labour’s policymakers (though the first part of the growth period was under the Tory John Major). Gordon Brown, the Labour Chancellor in their part of the growth period, declared “no more boom and bust”. That caught the zeitgeist. Political thinktankers argued over how to distribute the proceeds of growth, which was assumed to be in the region of 2-3% for the foreseeable future. Mr Brown believed his claim; he was inclined to lecture political leaders from other countries (especially other European countries) on how wonderful his economic leadership was. And so when the economic performance proved to be so vulnerable, even if we accept that the shocks came from outside Britain, it was more than shocking. Our whole outlook on the British economy collapsed. And it must be pointed out that the scale of the economic crash in Britain was worse than in any other major developed economy. Labour’s claims were based on hubris. Any narrative that does not acknowledge this hubris (and Mr Chang’s does not, in this article at least) will not be politically credible. This trumps the fact that Tory claims about Labour’s recklessness are overdone or misplaced (e.g. because they criticise welfare policy rather than cutting income tax rates).

And that leads to a critical question. Why was the British economy so vulnerable? Was is really just a slightly bigger blip on a standard economic cycle, or were there elements to the pre-crash economy that were unsustainable? There are plenty of reasons to think it might be the latter. Inflation had been kept in check by cheap imports and a high pound, and yet there was a large trade deficit. The tax system had been tilted towards property transactions and capital gains, and away from ordinary income tax – which meant that the bust hit revenues very hard, and were difficult to revive in the recession that followed. The economy as a whole depended heavily on bubbly international finance and oil (whose price had just rocketed); amongst other things this gave a false perspective on productivity. Productivity based on fake profits in finance is not the same as the majority of workers steadily increasing their output. If you believe that there were substantial unsustainable elements to the economy, then you also believe that simple Keynesian stimulus would not be a path out of the crisis – this would be flogging a dead horse. That still leaves room for a respectable Keynesian critique of coalition government policy (especially if stimulus is concentrated on investments), but it also points to austerity policies being inevitable at some point.

And then there are the secular trends. There are the technology changes that, for now at least, seem to push economic rewards into minorities who either have the right skills or who own capital. That is a global trend. There are demographic changes; it is a boon that people are living longer – but that does imply structural changes to the way society works, and especially the tax and benefits system. And there is the growing up of the developing world economies, especially in China, which are no longer a source of ever cheaper imports. With such trends – and I could go on – is it any wonder that economic performance has been weak?

And so it should become clear why the Tory narrative is left to hold the field. An alternative narrative is very difficult to construct. To be credible such an alternative must contain challenging elements – that we can’t just bounce back to 2% growth by reversing cuts to public expenditure, as some on the left appear to believe. It has to acknowledge failings in the pre-crash British economy, and that strong well-distributed growth will be difficult to obtain in the future. Labour do not want to develop such a clear narrative, because they are reluctant to face up to their own hubris. In fact, as I have argued, Labour’s need to hold together its fragile coalition means that it does not want to develop a clear economic narrative at all.

And if Labour won’t produce the alternative narrative, who will? The Lib Dems are part of the coalition, and as such are happy to go along with most of the Tory version. They would emphasise that the austerity policies were not as austere as billed, and that borrowing for investment would be a good idea – but they do not challenge the main thrust. Ukip have decided to base their narrative on opposition to the EU and immigration – and as a result their economic policies have no coherence – they do not want to upset their own coalition of the angry. The Greens have decided to be the “Ukip of the left”, and blame all our troubles on failed neo-liberalism. They are against austerity policies, and yet want to rebalance the economy towards green growth, which surely implies a leaner public sector. This is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it stance, which will not stand up to close public scrutiny.

A credible alternative to the Tory narrative is hard to construct, and no political party wants to take the job on, because it would undermine their own wider political strategy. Mr Chang himself seems to acknowledge the problem in his rousing penultimate paragraph:

The country is in desperate need of a counter narrative that shifts the terms of debate. A government budget should be understood not just in terms of bookkeeping but also of demand management, national cohesion and productivity growth. Jobs and wages should not be seen simply as a matter of people being “worth” (or not) what they get, but of better utilising human potential and of providing decent and dignified livelihoods. Ways have to be found to generate economic growth based on rising productivity rather than the continuous blowing of asset bubbles.

Amen to that. But what chance do our humble politicians have of constructing such a wonderful narrative, when this poses so many unanswered questions? Might I suggest that Mr Chang spend more time suggesting “ways… to generate growth based on rising productivity” and not just joining the whinge-fest about our inadequate politicians?

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Is austerity an economic failure or a fact of life?

The British Labour Party conference proved a bit of an anti-climax. After the excitement of the last week’s Scottish referendum this was probably inevitable. All the more so since the Labour leadership did not want to talk about the important issues that referendum has raised on for the British constitution. But this conference marked in important stage in the evolution of the Labour leadership’s policy platform. They have finally, publicly and unequivocally accepted austerity as the centrepiece of their economic policy. This is rather muted, of course. The right wing press, who still set the country’s news agenda, do not want to give Labour any credit for this. Labour’s left wing supporters still think that austerity is a failed economic strategy, promoted by a “neoliberal” elite as a means of shrinking the power of government. These supporters do not want to be too vocal this close to a General Election; besides they were soothed by some diversionary promises regarding Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) and the minimum wage. But this left wing critique of austerity bears further examination.

It is expounded with some clarity in today’s Guardian by the journalist Seumus Milne: Austerity has failed, and it isn’t only Labour’s core voters who want change. To start with Mr Milne points out that Labour’s core voters, working class people, are unhappy and Labour can’t take them for granted. In Scotland they defected en masse to the SNP’s Yes campaign – and its claim that Scottish independence meant that they could roll back austerity. In England Ukip is making inroads into Labour’s core vote. Labour can’t simply take these voters for granted and then go after the “centre ground” voters who are liable to be swayed by the right wing press. This is perfectly true, of course, but not very helpful in its own right.

He then goes on to the familiar critique of austerity (cutting back public expenditure), which is that it has failed both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. In Britain, growth is based on shallow foundations: unfunded consumer expenditure; average living standards are still sinking and many poorer people are suffering real hardship. In other European countries, notably France, there is no growth at all. This critique builds on that of Keynesian economists. In the earlier years of the government’s austerity programme they suggested that by cutting demand, or refusing to stimulate it, austerity simply created a doom-loop of shrinkage – or failed to ignite a virtuous circle of positive demand. The cuts were simply too early. This critique was eagerly seized on by the left. The trouble is that in Britain it has been overtaken by events. Growth has returned, mainly as the result of increased consumer borrowing, but also through higher business investment. There is not need to use public money to stimulate the economy further. Now is the “later” that the Keynesians were talking about when they said the cuts should be made later. It is does not matter that the initial spurt of growth was based on shallow foundations, as Keynesian fiscal stimulus is open to exactly the same criticism.

In fact the government’s application of austerity never lived up to the rhetoric. The cuts have been relatively modest, and as a result the deficit (excess of government expenditure over taxes and other income) has not been reduced by anything like as much as the original plans. The government finances still look very shaky and unsustainable. To a large extent things have been propped up by the Bank of England buying up government debt (“Quantitative Easing”, or “printing money” as some economists would have it). This only works when inflation is not a serious threat, and the Bank has indicated that continued purchases are no longer sustainable.

Things get worse when you look at the details more closely. The Economist points out that the country’s tax revenues are not keeping up with the country’s growth rate, making the deficit harder to cut. The reasons are not entirely clear, but two contributory factors should cause those on the left to worry. The first is that the government has been rapidly advancing tax free allowances, a flagship policy of the Liberal Democrats. This has helped relieve the economic pressure on the oft-forgotten marzipan layer of Britain’s poor. Those who are working and do not qualify for state benefits. But it also means that if wages are stagnant the government sees little benefit from growth. The second, related, factor is that Britain’s tax take is heavily dependent on the very rich. The Economist says that the top 1% of earners are thought to contribute 28% of income tax receipts. The position of other taxes may not be so very different. That means that pressure on the very rich, and notably the banking sector, is choking off tax receipts. All this suggests that raising taxes without hurting the ordinary working classes will be very difficult to achieve.

The serious economic case against austerity is not quite dead, though. The FT’s Martin Wolf, for example, suggests that prolonged fiscal (and trade) deficits may be required to counterbalance the insistence of some countries, notably China, to run export surpluses, and so create a surplus of savings. But his suggestion is that state funded investment is the best way of achieving this, not the continued propping up of the benefits system and a high volume of public services. That still leaves the most painful aspects of austerity intact.

The fact is that some very powerful forces, global and local, are bearing down on economic growth. These include demographics, the evolution of the Chinese economy (reducing the supply of cheap exported manufactured goods – so important to developed world living standards in the 1990s and 2000s) and (perhaps) by a focus amongst the slightly better-off on quality of life rather than income maximisation. It was once thought that any well-functioning developed economy could grow at 2% a year. That now looks infeasible. Which makes the management of government debt (and private debt for that matter) a serious long-term problem. It gets worse, as to achieve any sort of growth requires the economy to become more efficient, not least in public services. This involves the sort disruptive changes that the left’s core supporters hate most of all.

To be fair on the left, though, one of the causes of low growth is the excessive accumulation of wealth by the very rich – and this can only be tackled using an agenda that looks leftwards. But chasing down this wealth is increasingly a global problem, that needs global solutions, and not socialism in one country. This is ironic, as one of the symptoms of working class disillusion is a rejection of internationalism. It is no coincidence that the right wing press is happy to undermine international institutions, though.

Mr Milne calls for some kind of post capitalist economic reform, with increased state intervention. It is hugely unclear what this reform agenda would comprise, and whether it could work. The last country to vocally reject capitalism was Venezuela, whose oil wealth allowed it to cock a snook at the capitalist world. That is ending in utter economic and social disaster. Starvation and oppression in North Korea, and terminal economic stagnation in Cuba offer no better way forward.

The world is changing, and many Britons hate it. But with large trade and fiscal deficits Britain must embrace change or face economic catastrophe. That is the truth that Labour’s leaders are facing up to – and it is not a spineless surrender to the forces of big business.

 

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The revenge of the 50-somethings. Is this why productivity is sinking?

Last weekend I met up with a number of other 50-somethings. Only one of us was still working. The universal advice to her was that she should stop as soon as she could. It wasn’t worth it. Anecdote is no substitute for serious analysis, but it can offer some interesting insights. Economists usually ignore the idea of satiation – that enough is enough – because this wrecks their mathematical models. But it is a growing fact of life in the developed world, and one reason why it is unrealistic to expect everlasting economic growth.

Of course, many 50-somethings are not as lucky as me and my friends. They have inadequate pensions and other savings; they are forced to keep working, and may well have to do so long after their state pension kicks in at 65 to 67. There were two common factors to our group: no children and property ownership – though by no means all of us had had well-paid jobs. There are plenty of others in the same boat, even if we are a minority.

What was striking was how we had found that work had become demoralising, across a spectrum that covered high-flying project management through to ordinary clerical. And looking for new jobs is even worse. The youngsters are pushing ahead, with all their politics and superficiality. Competence and people skills are devalued compared to bluff and fast-talking. Age prejudice is rife in recruitment markets, but impossible to prove case by case. Such sentiments are largely “grumpy old man” (though most of us were female…), rather than substantive; no doubt our predecessors felt the same about us. But work used to be the centre of our lives, providing us with purpose, a social life and the wherewithal to consume.

But now we’d rather move on. Even if that means constraining our consumption somewhat – though our generation are the ones sitting on high value property, which helps quite a bit. We will retire early if we can. Many of us are winding down, into part-time work, often thinly disguised as self-employment. This pattern of reduced work level can continue until well into the 60s and even beyond.

Is this showing up in the economic statistics? This is difficult to say. Overall workforce participation is increasing, including the older age groups. This suggests that the number of people who have dropped right out of the workforce is less than those who struggle on after retirement. But the number of self-employed has been rising sharply, and we have what economists call the productivity puzzle. Labour productivity is not rising in the way technological progress suggests it should. Perhaps the winding-down of the 50-somethings is part this.

Economists stress about this. They had assumed that steady economic growth, arising from improved productivity, was simply a law of nature. When growth fails to materialise, they condemn this as a policy failure, looking to fiscal or monetary policy to correct it. But when low growth arises from free choices made by the public to produce and consume less, this is not a policy failure. But it does create policy problems – especially over the affordability of debt. It would be better for all if economists would stop whinging and help us to understand and address these policy challenges. Low growth future is here to stay. Because that’s what people want.

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Rethinking Liberalism 2: economics

The discipline of economics pervades all reflection on public policy. This is only right, as it is this discipline that tries to reconcile supply and demand for resources, and present a rational framework for choices. But it can be pernicious. It can frame the policy debate in the wrong way. As we refresh liberal policy ideas so as to put sustainability and human needs at the heart of public affairs, this is becoming a major problem. Liberals must challenge many tenets of conventional thinking.

First of all, let me say what I’m not going to talk about. There has been much heated debate on the value of austerity policies in tackling the recent economic crisis. I have read some liberals who say that “Keynesianism” is a core liberal belief, something given added resonance by the fact the Maynard Keynes was a Liberal. These tended not to be professional economists, who are careful not to label their beliefs with the name a of a dead economist, however inspirational. And it is based on a misunderstanding that Keynesian policies implied free public expenditure at all times, rather than being a temporary measure in response to a short term crisis. The problem that I have with economics applies as much to conventional, liberal “Keynesian” economists, such as Paul Krugman, as it does to the neoclassical ideologues – though the liberals are the more pragmatic, and the more likely to support changes to the conventions of the discipline. Having said which, I am sure Keynes would have recognised the value of what I am trying to say.

The problem that I want to deal with lies at the boundary of what professionals call “positive” economics, which refers to the factual or “scientific” side, and “normative” economics, which deals with policy recommendations, and where personal value judgements play a role. Much normative economics is presented as if it positive. Policy makers have taken simplifying assumptions used in positive economics, and used them as the basis of concealed value judgements.

I need to get more specific. These are the sorts of things I mean:

  • Economic growth is good for a society and should be an objective of public policy.
  • High productivity, the key to economic growth, is therefore a critical policy objective.
  • Free trade promotes economic welfare and drives economic growth forward, and should therefore be maximised.
  • The more people consume the better off they are, and the healthier an economy is, provided that spending does not outreach income.

I could keep going. The issue is not that these assumptions are wrong – they have served policy makers well – it is that life is not as simple as that, and we should always question them before using them in the decision-making process. And increasingly they are taking us in the wrong direction.

To be fair, economics does not stand still. I did not put on that list that aggregated income is the critical measure of success, and how it is distributed is of secondary importance. Economists (some of them at least) are at last seeing through that idea, which had been universally accepted. Also a worship of open market mechanisms for allocating resources is coming under question. And indeed, you can have perfectly sensible conversations with professional economists in which it is clear that they understand the limitations of their discipline. But when they get back to their desks and analyse policy options, the same old things keep coming up.

The result is that policymakers are trying to push the economy in a direction that it does not want to go. Growth remains obstinately slow, distribution becomes more skewed, public services struggle for funding. We worship highly centralised, “efficient” and specialised models of business and public services that are failing to meet human needs. And we are heading in slow motion for an environmental disaster.

Economics needs to adapt to the modern world. To do so it must start to take on board ways of thinking. Consider the following, none of which are particularly wacky in terms of economic theory, but all of which undermine the conventional wisdom of public policy making.

  1. Wealth must circulate for a healthy economy. This is the main idea of George Cooper’s book Money, Blood and Revolution. If wealth is accumulated by a rich elite, it drains the life out of an economy because they don’t spend it, or don’t spend it efficiently. They save too much, and the bulk of their saving goes into unproductive assets and speculation, and not enough into productive investment. Worse, they use their accumulated wealth to skew the workings of society in their favour. This presents an economic argument for progressive taxation and the taxation of wealth – as well for trying other interventions which distort the way incomes are set.
  2. Consumption should be optimised, not maximised. Once basic human needs are met, the utility of consumption rapidly diminishes, and often gets tangled in a zero-sum game of status competition. This challenges the idea that economic growth is the be-all and end-all, as well as bringing distributional issues to the fore.
  3. Don’t confuse the acquisition of wealth with its realisation. This is a related point. The conventional wisdom, based on the gods of maximising consumption and productivity, is that we should go out in the world and work as hard as possible for the common good. But what if somebody wants to work less and consume less? Or if she prefers to consume less goods, but which are made in a less “efficient” way (organic vegetables, say rather than mass farmed ones, for example). Provided that she does not consume more than she produces, does this really matter? What is the point of piling up wealth if we can’t use it in the way that we want? Economists frown on organic vegetables as they reduce productivity, but the ability to choose such low productivity goods is a sign of a wealthy society. They are confusing the creation of wealth with its realisation. This suggests that the more developed a society becomes, the less worried it should be about productivity and income growth.
  4. Trade is a means to an end, not an end in itself. No human activity has done more to banish poverty than trade. Yes we should celebrate it, and yes protectionism usually ends badly. But there comes a point when its uses diminish. Trade between the developed world and China had economic benefits when China had a pool of very unproductive agricultural labourers who could be used to make cheap industrial goods. But these benefits diminish as China catches up, and as this happens, it is more than likely that the volume of trade (and its benefits to the developed world) will diminish. That’s economics. Don’t panic. The party was fun while it lasted. Globalisation remains key in the world of information and ideas. Trade of physical things remains is important to helping undeveloped countries to develop (though the locus of that trade is likely to be mainly with middle income countries rather than developed ones, as these bulk larger). But trade of physical things over huge distances is not so important for the sustained progress of developed economies.

Liberals should believe that an economy should develop based on free human choices, long term sustainability and a degree of human solidarity which diminishes with distance. Increasingly human preferences, technology and world development will take us away from the mass-produced, high productivity, high consumption, global trading society that policy makers favour, guided by economic conventional wisdom. It isn’t what people want (free human choices), it isn’t sustainable (carbon emissions and world resources) and it is less needed for human solidarity (developing countries are increasingly able to look after themselves, while the need for more localised solidarity grows). The discipline of economics needs to catch up.

 

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The complacency of salt-water economists

In his recent book on economics (reviewed by me here), George Cooper presented the discipline as being an irretrievably fracture, in need of a radical step change. There is an alternative view. This is that in fact the profession is split between two orthodoxies, with a diverse bunch of heterodox economists on the fringe, unable to get serious traction. The two orthodoxies are often given the names “salt-water” and “fresh-water”, because the former are popular in U.S. universities on the east and west coasts, and the latter with those in the Midwest – especially Chicago. This is worth picking apart.

Followers of each of the orthodoxies assume that criticism of economics is directed mainly at the other orthodoxy, and not at them. The heterodox say that the whole lot is in a mess. The fresh-water school do seem be in eclipse. This school, often termed “neoliberals” outside the US, believe that free markets are the fairest way of allocating economic resources, and that government interference almost always makes things worse. Many assume that they were cheerleaders for the rampant excesses of the financial sector before the crash, and hence have had their come-uppance. This criticism is wide of the mark, however. The banking boom arose at least as much from lop-sided government intervention as it did from “light-touch” deregulation. Fresh-water economists can plausibly blame the crisis on government intervention, not its absence – and in particular the crazy desire of politicians to boost property lending to all and sundry.

In fact there are other fatal problems for fresh water economists. First is that they opposed serious government intervention once the bubble blew. This was self-evident nonsense, ignored to a greater or lesser degree by practically everybody – except where government borrowing presented a practical problems. There have been loud arguments over austerity that have been so loud, but these have been on degree of intervention (big or massive?) and on completely different territory to that advocated by non-interventionists. A second problem is posed by what is usually called “inequality” – whereby it appears that the benefits of growth in developed economies go predominantly to the rich – and that most people in the US have seen little or no benefit from decades of economic growth. It is a central facet of fresh-water thinking that distribution of wealth and income is not an important concern for economists and policymakers. They have almost nothing to say here. And people are starting to notice that in countries with minimal governments (Somalia, say), the economy tends to be in pretty bad shape. Of course fresh-water economists remain well funded, as their views provide convenient support to many vested interests, and they are not about to go extinct. But you don’t hear very much from them these days.

Unlike the salt-water types. These are popularly referred to as “Keynesians”, and are now very well entrenched right across the political establishment. Their most visible cheerleader is Nobel Laureate and columnist Paul Krugman. They were as wrong-footed by the crisis as any of them, but quickly found the groove again. They provided the intellectual heft required to support government intervention after the crisis, though they usually complain that this intervention was inadequate.

Salt-water types do not consider that the crisis showed that their thinking was seriously flawed. Consider this piece a few weeks ago by Mr Krugman. He simply suggests that salt-water economists were a bit misinformed – because they underestimated the practice of shadow banking. Shadow banking, in this context, refers to the practice of banks hiding their dodgier lending by creating off-balance sheet entities to take them. To be fair on Mr Krugman, in the run up to crisis his writing was hardly cheerleading for the supposed economic miracle – though that seemed to derive from his hatred of the then Republican establishment, and their attachment to fresh-water thinking.

I can understand some of Mr Krugman’s frustration with the so-called heterodox economists. They tend to be pretty unconstructive – picking at the orthodox modelling assumptions (incidentally, largely shared across both orthodoxies), without suggesting much that could replace them in a useful way, to give the discipline a better predictive power. The beauty of the salt-water orthodoxy is that it finds it easy to tack on new ideas and integrate them – they have done this quite spectacularly with many of Milton Friedman’s ideas (on money, inflation and unemployment), even though he is one of the spiritual fathers of fresh-water thinking. They are now trying to do so with ideas on inequality, an issue that they acknowledge. Thomas Piketty, the French economist who is making a splash on inequality, looks more like somebody extending the salt-water orthodoxy, rather than challenging it.

For me this is much too complacent. Regular followers of this blog will not be surprised to read that Exhibit A for the prosecution is thinking on monetary policy. Salt-water economists inhabit a world where the ideas of money supply, demand, interest rates and inflation interact in a relatively predictably way, to form an important way of regulating economic growth. Thus there is talk of raising inflation a bit, so that negative real interest rates can be implemented, which in turn will boost demand and get the economy growing. It is not that I think this line of reasoning is entirely mistaken, it is that it is an oversimplification that is more likely to lead to policy mistakes than insights.

Take Japan. This country is probably further down the path of accepting salt-water economics than any other. It has drastically loosened monetary policy (through a process of quantitative easing) with the aim of raising inflation, which in turn will help the process of managing interest rates and boosting sagging demand. But there is a snag: while prices are rising to a degree, wages are not keeping pace. Employers will consider giving employees a temporary bonus, but not raising basic pay. Without raising pay, all the nice things that are supposed to arise from inflation – like making debt easier to bear – will not happen. Economists simply assume that if inflation gets going in consumer prices, wages are bound to follow. But this does not seem to be true of a modern, globally integrated developed economy. There are plenty of other pitfalls in Japan’s strategy too.

The people at the heart of the salt-water school, like Mr Krugman, are a clever bunch. Heterodox economists do not seem to be unsettling their intellectual grip. Perhaps they are right that the orthodoxy must evolve rather than make a step-change. But if so it surely needs to evolve a lot faster.

 

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Does money really grow on trees?

A few months ago David Cameron, the Prime Minister, defending the government’s austerity policy said that “Money doesn’t grow on trees!”, a well used expression when discussing household budgets. The Financial Times economics columnist Martin Wolf responded that money did indeed grow on trees, and the money tree went was the Bank of England. Can Mr Wolf be right?

Mr Wolf was referring to the Bank of England’s policy of buying government bonds, known as Quantitative Easing or QE. One arm of the government, the Treasury issues bonds to pay for government spending; another, the Bank of England, buys them by simply adding to its reserves – creating money. Actually, the Bank doesn’t buy the exact same bonds, it buys others that had been issued earlier – but it amounts to nearly the same thing. The extra money ends up in the accounts of major investors such as insurance companies or pension funds, at home and abroad. Government spending has been financed by the creation of money. Hence money seems to grow on trees.

This type of financing is associated in the public imagination with disaster – such as the hyperinflation in Germany and Austria after the First World War, or more recently in Zimbabwe. In conventional economic theory an increase in money supply, if not matched by expansion of the economy, leads to inflation. But there is no increase in inflation in either Britian or the USA, which are both practising QE, and in Japan, where increasing inflation is actually a policy objective of QE, the increase in inflation is anaemic. So what is going on?

There are three problems with the conventional economic theory of money. First is that only trivial amounts of money are represented by notes and coins, whose circulation is controlled by the government. Instead we use bank accounts provided by commercial banks. Economists have tried to understand this type of money in equivalent terms to notes and coins. People bank money and the banks then lend it; the banks do not create money, though the central bank may. But further reflection reveals that this is not the way it works, as the Bank of England has recently admitted. It is the other way round: banks create money by lending it to people. With this more realistic idea of what money is, we can see that far from the money supply expanding with QE, it is shrinking as banks reduce their balance sheets after the boom years when they created money freely. You could then argue that QE is simply offsetting the shrinkage of credit from the banks, balancing the whole thing out. All will be well until the banks turn the corner and start creating money again.

But there is a the second problem. The overall supply of money, as far as it can be measured, does not strongly correlate with either the size of the economy or inflation, as monetary theory predicts. That’s because money doesn’t flow round the system at a constant speed. If you print banknotes, and people simply stuff the new notes under the their mattresses, the real economy doesn’t change. The electronic equivalent is people holding bank deposits which they don’t spend. That’s been happening a lot. Standard monetary theory, such as that put forward by people like Milton Freidman, is based on the idea that money circulates at a reasonably constant speed. But in fact people don’t behave that way.

But even if they did, there’s the third problem. Excess monetary expenditure does not necessarily lead to inflation; in fact in a modern developed economy it rarely seems to. Instead of people raising consumption which pushes up consumer prices and then pay, people spend it on assets or imported goods. Asset prices don’t seem to behave in a rational way, being subject to a price bubbles. In the modern globalised economy it is easy to import goods to satisfy any increase in consumer demand. And in any case the link between consumer prices and levels of pay has been broken. The wage-price spiral, at the heart of the way economists view the world, does not seem to happen in developed, globally integrated economies. Incidentally this is the problem that the recent aggressive monetary expansion in Japan (“Abenomics”) has bumped into; prices are edging up but companies remain reluctant to let wages follow suit, so that inflation simply makes people poorer. The concept of central banks targeting inflation as their main objective, the big idea of the 1990s, has simply led to complacency.

So the theory of monetary economics is in ruins. That does not stop usually quite economically sane publications. like The Economist, discussing whether central banks should adjust their inflation targets from 2% to 3%, or use nominal GDP as their reference point instead of inflation. This is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic (apologies for the over-used metaphor). Fortunately central bank professionals are highly pragmatic and they don’t seem to be letting the vacuum in economic theory lead them into being too dangerous, with the possible exception of Japan.

And the upshot is that in many developed economies, including the British one, governments can get away with the monetary financing of government spending, without much in the way of immediate adverse consequences. Money really does grow on trees! How on earth to understand this – and any not so benign consequences?

Well you have to recognise that money is simply a means to an end: a social construct to enable economic activity and regulate societal relationships. It often helps when thinking about an economy to take the money away and see what is going on in what economists call the real economy.

Let’s look at the real economic flows, which are at the heart of Mr Wolf’s analysis. The government is consuming more resources than it is receiving from taxation. This deficit must be supported from outside (you can’t print money in the real economy), and in general terms this is from two places: the private sector and outside the economy. The private sector, as a whole, is consuming less resources than it is producing and this surplus, in various direct and indirect ways is helping to support the government deficit. This is partly because people are working off their debts, but also because private businesses are hanging on to profits. Also the economy (in Britain and the USA in particular) as a whole is in deficit with the outside world: importing more than it exports. The government can safely run, or even increase, its deficit because it is balanced by surpluses by the private sector and the outside world.

But this is not sustainable in the long term, because persistent deficits lead to excessive debts, and the monetary economy breaks back into the real one. If the  government has cleverly got out of financing its deficit with debt, it is simply passing on the affordability problem to somebody else. The assets being accumulated by the private sector and foreigners are not worth as much as they think. The government has avoided the risk of a solvency crisis by increasing the risk of a currency crisis or an asset price collapse. This may be localised, or it may be part of a gathering global financial crisis.

But if by running a deficit the government is staving off a wider economic disaster, or even bringing the country back to the path of economic growth, it is opting for a lesser evil. Mr Wolf argues for continued government deficits, financed by QE if necessary, on just these grounds. Austerity will simply precipitate the economic crisis rather than buying time to fend it off. He has a strong belief in a “trend rate” of economic growth of about 2% per annum which can be readily unlocked and get us out of jail.

That’s where I disagree. That trend rate may sound a small number, but it is in fact a very large one for an economy that is fully developed (China can grow faster because it is catching up). A special set of circumstances combined in the period 1945 to about 1990 or 2000 to make it seem normal – but we are in a slow growth world now.

So keeping government deficits going using QE to bypass the bond markets caries risks. The main priority for governments is to reduce their countries’ vulnerability to future crises and improve their resilience. That means rebalancing. Between public expenditure and tax; between rich and poor; between imports and exports; between financial engineering and productive investment; between young and old; between environmental degradation and restoration.

Government deficits may or may not play a role in this rebalancing process. For what it is worth I think the British  government has it more or less right in terms of its overall austerity policies. QE may or may not be helping. But any money plucked from trees will, to mix metaphors, go off if it isn’t spent wisely.

 

 

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Reinventing liberal economics

CooperIn a recent post I expressed frustration that conventional economics seems to have survived the meltdown of 2008 almost unscathed, as evidenced the chatter around the discussion of monetary policy. I mentioned one book, George Cooper’s Money, Blood and Revolution, that sought challenge it. On the strength of that the publisher sent me a review copy – and I have read it. It is interesting because the paradigm shift Mr Cooper advocates gives coherence to the idea of liberal economics, after its original conception turned out to mean libertarian economics.

Mr Cooper’s main thesis is that economics is a science that is in crisis (as opposed to the alternative view that it should not be considered scientific at all). He compares it to four specific cases of sciences in crisis: astronomy before Copernicus, anatomy before William Harvey established the principles of blood circulation, biology before Darwin/Wallace’s idea of evolution by natural selection; and geology before the acceptance of continental drift. Nearly a third of the book is devoted to developing this idea, before he gets to the discipline of economics itself.

The geology example is close to my heart. My father is a geologist, and I studied it at my first stint at university, at Cambridge in 1976-78 (I studied History in my final year – another story). My father had accepted the idea of continental drift – the notion that the continents are moving across the surface of the earth – by the 1960s, before the scientific establishment completely accepted it. By 1976 the idea of plate tectonics was conventional wisdom, and continental drift was treated as an obvious fact. What had made the difference (actually not mentioned by Mr Cooper) is that mapping of the ocean floor showed that the oceans were spreading, neatly illustrated by stripes of different magnetic polarity, following reversals in the earth’s magnetic field when the ocean crust was formed. It was new, killer evidence.  Mr Cooper rather suggests that it was looking at existing evidence in a new way that led to the revolution. But that is a minor quibble – there was growing opinion behind the continental drift idea before the oceanographic evidence emerged.

The book is not a heavy read. It is less than 200 pages and it goes at quite a clip. It is well written, apart from a couple of quibbles. He uses the word “experimental” in place of “empirical” for real-world evidence. Perhaps his publisher advised him it was more accessible, but in my book experimental means carrying out experiments. There is a branch of experimental economics, but it is tiny. Empirical evidence in economics is gleaned from examining the shape of the real world, only rarely with controlled studies – a bit like astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology, in fact. His use of “principle” when he means “principal” looks accidental but I counted two instances.

This lightness of touch has advantages and disadvantages. It will help him with general readers; it will leave professionals picking holes. His focus is on the former since he judges that the demand for a paradigm shift is likely to be strongest from those outside the discipline. But we still need people in the discipline to flesh out the new ideas.

Moving on from the idea of scientific revolutions, Mr Cooper then explores the state of current economics, describing all the main schools of thought, each with ideas incompatible with others. I found this section illuminating and enjoyable. He could perhaps have brought out more the capacity for professional economists to engage in double-think – for the same people to hold incompatible ideas in their own heads, never mind the presence of warring factions who look on the same facts in different ways.

But Mr Cooper rightly says that it is not enough to prove the existing ideas wrong; you have to replace them with new ideas that work better. He outlines a new system of thought, based on two new concepts: competition and circulation of wealth.

Economists have much to say about competition, but it turns out that what they mean by the word is an artificial, anaemic version of the concept, operating within tightly constrained rules, where the object is to maximise individual welfare. The real human competition that drives human behaviour is about survival and status; it is about getting ahead of the other guy and staying there. Crucially it is about relative position and not absolute wealth. If competitive behaviour dominates, then human society will tend to stratify into a feudal system with a hereditary elite maintaining its dominance by force. Since such feudal societies are very common, including in newly developed social systems like that of North Korea, it is clear that such competition often dominant. It undermines the idea of libertarianism, which advocates minimal government and regulation, since these last two are required to counteract the tendency to feudalism.

Cooper’s second idea, that of circulation, stems from the observation that feudal societies are economically inefficient (look at North Korea again). Once the ruling elite have secured their status, they hold the rest of society in a static position so as not to present a threat. Economies are drained of vitality because the poor have no spending money, and the elite tend to hoard their wealth rather than spread it around. Democratic societies, on the other hand, have developed institutions, like progressive taxation, universal welfare and so on that recycle wealth from the wealthy to the rest, and competitive elections that ensure that political elites are recycled too. This creates a productive tension. Competition gives people the motivation to build successful businesses (and political careers) and innovate; governments recycle the wealth thus generated to prevent it from stifling the system.

This is a very liberal view. The right sees only a limited role for government and taxes, and does not accept that the presence of a very wealthy elite stifles the wellbeing of society. The left thinks that competition is destructive and tries to stifle it through excessive government. Liberals understand that people must be free to compete, but that government institutions are required to prevent all the power accumulating to the wealthy.

What does that mean in policy terms? Mr Cooper is particularly critical of the idea of monetarism – the management of the economy through regulating money and credit in the economy as a whole. He thinks this idea is largely to blame for the crisis, and it won’t help us out of it. The extra spending power it creates goes to the wrong people, i.e. the very wealthy. They either let the new cash fester unspent, or use it to create an asset bubble. Spending power needs to go the other end of society, which means Keynesian stimulus, focusing especially on productive investment. This sounds quite sensible. I am personally deeply sceptical of monetarism, though I don’t take the argument quite as far as Mr Cooper does.

How to take this new paradigm forward? It is starting to happen. Politicians and economists are talking a lot more about the distribution of wealth; this needs to be put back at the heart of macroeconomics – as it was two centuries ago with the ideas of Thomas Malthus. The publication of and interest generated by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is big step in the right direction. This adds a lot of flesh to the high level analysis, and may provide the first evidence of magnetic stripes on the ocean floor.

But there is a problem at the heart of economics which Mr Cooper barely considers, and which has to fixed. It is the public’s insatiable desire for economic forecasts, both to gauge the general economic weather, and to answer what-if scenarios (such as global warming). So far the only practical way of delivering these is through the use of neoclassical models using the ideas of independent, rational agents, optimising behaviour and equilibrium. The whole infrastructure of these ideas has to be taught to economics students to satisfy this demand. It is no use just saying that forecasting is going to be more difficult. If the discipline is to be regarded as a science, then new methods must be developed. I suspect that economics has much to learn from weather forecasting – another system that is never allowed to achieve equilibrium. Weather forecasts require very big computers which are able to model complex interactions between many component parts. Work is needed on something similar – massive multi-agent models, using insights into real human behaviour.

Beyond that, I would like to see ideas on human behaviour, such as tendencies to cooperation and competition, developed in a much more realistic and nuanced context, harnessing the disciplines of anthropology, sociology and psychology – replacing the rather crude Darwinism that Mr Cooper advances.

That said, liberals everywhere should take Mr Cooper’s ideas seriously.

 

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Pensions, savings: sensible steps forward

This week’s UK Budget has revealed the usual muddle amongst politicians, journalists and the public over the whole issue of pensions and savings – with opinion strongly favouring several flavours of having your cake and eating it. This masks some profound and sensible reforms carried out by the coalition government.

First version of the cake. We like people to save. But we want them to spend to promote economic growth. We worry that a large part of the population will become dependent on the state and taxes because they save too little. But when they do, as in the early part of the 2008/09 crisis, we bemoan that fact that people aren’t spending and so causing economic slump. So interest rates crash to the floor in an attempt to reduce savings and increase consumption (alongside the vain hope that companies will be encouraged to invest more).

Next version. We want people to save more to not be dependent on the taxpayer, but we also want target state spending on the less well off, and tax the rich to pay for it. So we encourage people to save, and then confiscate the proceeds.

Another version of this is that we love the idea of exempting pension saving from tax but think that people who have accumulated sufficient savings for a reasonable pension (a million pounds for a pension of £35,000, for example) are part of a rich elite whose broad backs should carry the largest burden.

There is a genuine dilemma at the heart of this of course. For that reason a lot of hope resides in get-out-of- jail-free cards. One of these is strong economic growth. But that requires lots of people to work – which means retiring later and allowing immigration. We are clearly entering an era of low growth, thanks to demographics, personal preferences (i.e. people choosing unpaid leisure over work) and the changing nature of technological advance and the global economy. Remarkably few people have tried facing up to the consequences of this. Even some intelligent economists think that “trend growth” is a law of nature. Another get-out-of-jail-free card is that rising property values will compensate for lack of saving. Collectively this cannot make sense, but it has worked for many individuals, who therefore don’t engage with wider worries about the future.

Now let’s consider some difficult facts. I have already mentioned that economic growth is likely to be much lower in future. The next difficult fact is that private pension saving has collapsed in the last 25 years. Generous final salary schemes have been replaced by inadequate money-purchase schemes. It is now use just blaming Gordon Brown’s tax raid on pension schemes in the later 1990s for this (or Mrs Thatcher’s ill advised liberalisation of pension selling before that) and some are prone to do when you mention this. This at worst mildly accelerated a growing trend. The economics of businesses supporting these pension schemes became toxic even without the tax changes. This means that, as a generality, most people will not now have adequate private sector pensions. Instead as they approach retirement they will have accumulated a few tens of thousands of pounds in probably several schemes.

The next difficult fact is that the economics of long-term saving are toxic for all but the very well off (liquid assets of over £0.5m, say). The poor face the prospect of losing entitlements to state benefits if they accumulate wealth. Everybody will see any savings eaten away by costs which, even without a host of rip-offs, will always weigh most heavily on those with smaller savings. It becomes perfectly rational for a lot of people to not to bother with pensions savings – unless you count trying to own your own home.

When you consider all this, the attraction of tax funded state pensions become clear. That is why the current government has been right to make it reasonably generous, notwithstanding criticism form the right that we can’t afford it. It was also right to make this pension independent of private saving.

Now, what about the tax treatment of savings? To simplify, there are three groups of tax privileged savings. The first is domestic property. To buy your own home you pay out of taxed income and stamp duty on the purchase price, but the gain is exempt from tax. The second is Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs), which, like property, are paid for out of taxed funds (subject to an annual limit) but income and capital gains are tax free. And third are pension plans, for which contributions are exempt from income tax, but it is taxable on drawdown.

The first and last of these are problematic. Domestic property because its tax exempt status has made it a highly attractive investment – but instead of this fuelling much in the way of building new, efficient property, it has simply driven prices up, making ownership out of reach for many younger people and driving a wedge between families with property and those without. Pensions are a problem because that particular route for providing tax exemption makes for maximum complexity. In fact they have become so hedged about in rules that most people don’t understand them.

ISAs, on the other hand, have an elegant administrative design which makes them easier to own than even taxed assets. They also have more chance of channelling investment into more productive parts of the economy.

Here’s why this week’s proposed reforms make sense. Currently money purchase pensions are forced to buy annuities, except in some carefully crafted circumstances, which tend only to apply to the better off savers. The original fear behind this annuity rule was the worry than pensioners would blow their savings quickly and then throw themselves into the arms of the state. But the state of private pensions is such that most people will rely on the state anyway, and most pension pots are so small that the amount of income that would be derived from an annuity would be derisory (and, presumably, a lot of value would be lost in administration costs). And those with larger pots are likely to be prudent with their wealth. If done properly, this will simplify the pension system, and make private pensions more attractive.

Extending the ISA allowance is more controversial. Many simply view this as benefiting the wealthy, as nobody else can save up to the £15,000 a year limit. There is some truth to this, but it will help level the playing field between financial investments and owning your own property. Since it is unthinkable to tax capital gains on homes, it may help to make other assets comparable in their tax status.

A lot of nonsense has been uttered as commentary: fears over people blowing money on cruises and fast cars – or rushing into buying property. My main worry is that the reforms will make it easier for better off people to save for their children, to pass on at death. This could reinforce the effect of inherited wealth, which is already growing. There may be mounting pressure to reduce Inheritance Tax.

But overall this looks a sensible step forward – and actually quite brave. It is surely no accident that unlike its predecessors the current government’s Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, really knows his stuff, and has been kept in post for the whole period. Liberal Democrats can take pride that he is one of theirs. There is strong political consensus in his reforms, and no party political benefit. But it is nice to feel that our party has contributed something useful to the process of government.

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Economics is in denial. A new crisis builds

When the financial meltdown of 2008 to 2009 occurred, most people said that the science of economics was in state of collapse. And yet conventional economics ploughed on with barely a wobble. To see this you only have to listen to the commentary around central banks, which uses language from old text books, with only slight adjustments to modern jargon, such as “forward guidance” and “quantitative easing”. And this in spite of the fact that monetary economics was at the heart of the failure of economics in 2008. This is leading to false optimism about the prospects for the world economy. It is the economics of denial.

The story so far. The collapse in 2008  exposed gaping holes in textbook economics. Standard microeconomics, with people regarded as welfare-maximising, rational agents, had long been a laughing stock, unless you had to use it to pass exams or get academic papers published. But the crisis showed that macroeconomists were not paying much attention to the financial system – and yet the crisis that unfolded had finance at its heart.  And the question of how wealth and income was distributed was treated as an afterthought, with the real attention being on how aggregated statistics (like GDP and inflation) behaved. For these reasons, most economists failed to see the crisis coming, and they failed to understand how long-lasting the following recession would be.

To be fair, many at the fringes of economics are asking deeper questions. I get a glimpse of these through The Economist’s Buttonwood column (written by Philip Coggan). In this week’s print edition he reviews a book by fund manager George Cooper which tries to rethink economics. Mr Cooper sees the world in terms of social competition – which has the virtue of putting wealth distribution at the heart of the narrative. I am debating as to whether to buy this book- but I have been disappointed in this genre of writing on economics – long on criticism of conventional wisdom, short on substantive new ideas.

But on Monday Mr Coggan looked at another book, Capital in the  21st Century by the French economist Thomas Piketty.  This book, published in French last year, with an English version about to be released, is in a different league. It has the weight of data behind it, and some serious thinking. It could conceivably change the direction that conventional economics takes. It puts distributional issues at the heart of economics – which is surely where it should be. Mr Piketty suggests that if economic growth slows down, the elites who own productive assets accrue a disproportionate share of the wealth. We are in just such a slow growth era now in the developed world, mainly because of demographics, but also because technological advance does not seem to be translating into higher economic productivity in the way that it used to. I am rather afraid that I will have to buy Mr Piketty’s book, even though I already have a substantial backlog of reading.

But none of this stops the incessant chatter around monetary policy and growth statistics. The narrative is now that growth in the developed economies has returned, so that we can get back to familiar old track of steady economic growth (about 2% a year). Asset prices have jumped. And yet the fundamental problems that led to the last financial crisis have not been fixed.

Now let me develop my personal take on the world economy, building on some of the ideas that these authors have raised.

The fundamental problem of the developed world economy is that a disproportionate share of the wealth is accruing to a small elite. This may be because of globalisation and newer technology. It may just be a fundamental law of economics that was concealed by temporary factors in the 60 years after 1945 (as Mr Piketty seems to be suggesting).

Many would consider this to be problem in its own right. But it also creates a wider problem. The rich elite does not spend all that it earns. This, as going back to the circularity of economic flows that forms the basis of macroeconomics, will cause the economy as a whole to shrink. The textbook way in which that shrinkage is prevented is if the surplus earnings (aka savings) are channelled into investments; indeed basic economics holds that savings equal investment as a law of nature (with the dread qualification of “in equilibrium”). But this investment involves giving people jobs to do real things – like building ships or factories or even just houses. It does not work if the investment is simply a financial merry-go-round chasing speculative profits – or bidding up the prices of pre-existing assets such as land. But this is exactly what is happening, and a burgeoning industry has been created to support it.

But there are two other ways to stop surplus savings from causing the economy to shrink. The first is to lend money to the not-so-well-off to support a lifestyle beyond their financial means. We have witnessed this, strikingly in the USA, since the 1990s. The second is for the government to make up the shortfall in demand by running large deficits. This is what took over after the crisis. The trouble is that neither path is ultimately sustainable. Both cause the build-up of debt that cannot be repaid, and onto a crisis of default, involving the mass destruction of financial assets. That process of default comes in quite a few guises: hyperinflation, revolution, depression – with war often associated. This is what the developed world experienced between 1914 and 1945. The wealth of the elite is destroyed, with substantial collateral damage on the poor. And then we start the process all over again.

Is disaster inevitable? No. A conventional economist would offer two ways out. First we could switch those savings from the merry-go-round to real, productive investment. Second we could generate economic growth through increased productivity and further globalisation, and with new wealth generated outside the property-owning elite.

But I’m afraid there is a fairy-tale quality to these ideas. There is only a limited amount of potential commercially-worthwhile investment out there. It is difficult to understand how rapid productivity growth can happen in developed economies. This leaves us with the need for tough political action, to pre-empt disaster by forced redistribution of the elite’s income and assets.

Once conventional economists start recommending these sorts of strategy, rather than treating them as suicidal, we will know that they are making the transition. This is happening only at the fringes at the moment. Meanwhile we are sailing serenely into the next financial crisis.

It will probably take this next crisis to shake things up, and finally break the world of denial that most politicians and financial professionals currently inhabit.

 

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