Category Archives: Economics & Finance

Reflections on economics, investment and the financial world

Is Britain about to go bust?

The debate about Britain’s economic policy rumbles on, with a speech by the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls last week.  In previous posts I have dismissed the claim made by some that the government’s cuts are unnecessary, and most commentators, including Mr Balls, seem to accept this, even if they don’t say so explicitly. But there is a furious debate about how quickly the cuts should be implemented: 5 years as the government plans, or 8 years as Labour suggests, apparently including Mr Balls, though in the past he has been suggested longer.  An impressive array of economists seem to support the Labour argument.

The basis of the critics’ argument rests on conventional macroeconomics, and runs that cutting too fast creates needless unemployment and risks a spiral of lower demand which will make things worse.  This argument is open to challenge on its own terms (see The Economist’s Buttonwood column here, or Bagehot here), but the government’s defenders don’t generally try; instead they trump it with an argument about unsustainable levels of government debt.  I want to look at the macroeconomic argument in a future post.  Today I will consider whether unsustainable debt really is such a risk.

If government debt gets too high, it can derail the whole economy.  A default, when governments renege on the terms of their debt, can be absolutely catastrophic.  The problem is that if governments can’t raise the money then all the functions of government are threatened.  For countries like Greece who are part of the Euro, this means that they literally can’t pay the bills – salary payments are stopped and so on.  This is such a frightening prospect that there are strong incentives for other members of the zone to organise a rescue.  Countries like the UK do have another option: they can debauch their currency by paying bills with newly created money.  That’s how hyperinflation starts; the most recent example is Zimbabwe, and its implications are hardly less disastrous than default.

So what are the risks for Britain?  The good news is that before the crisis struck overall debt was modest by international standards at a shade over 50% of GDP.  Even better, the maturity profile of this debt, i.e. how soon it has to be rolled over, was long term – longer than any other major economy.  The bad news is the massive size of the current deficit – 11% in 2009, and the fact that 8% is “structural” or won’t bounce back with the economic cycle.  That means that total debt is increasing rapidly; by the end of 2010 it was already 75% of GDP. This gives two main problems.

The first problem is that debt risks spiralling out of control.  Few think that the current economy is capable of more than modest growth, austerity or not, which means that extra wealth is not being generated fast enough to get us out of trouble.  And debt comes with an interest bill.  There are some classic economic models of this, and on these the warning lights are flashing red furiously.  At some point lenders (characterised as the “bond markets”, but potentially including you and me) refuse to lend, or at least start to put the rate of interest up, making things worse.

The second problem is more subtle.  If total national debt levels off at a high level, this will drag down the whole economy for a long while to come, as we spend too much resource servicing the debt.  One study suggested that serious problems start to happen when debt reaches 90% of GDP – less than two years away at the current trajectory.  Taking longer to eliminate the deficit means that overall debt will level off at a higher amount, unless the aggressive option really does lead to meltdown.

There are three further overlapping problems for the UK.  Debt markets are very open; there is a degree of dependence on overseas support; and the pound is a floating currency.  Government debt problems are much easier to handle if there is ready access to lenders who are effectively forced to lend to you; this has helped such high debt countries as Japan and Italy.  Superficially the UK seems to look this way: pension funds are massive, and traditionally hold lots of government debt (gilts) for actuarial reasons.  But such funds are aggressively and independently managed, helping to make our financial services industry internationally competitive.   That means they switch away from buying gilts as soon as they think it is not such a good deal.  Dependence on overseas investors appears to be relatively modest, as buyers of gilts are overwhelmingly domestic (or so I believe).  But the country still runs a significant current account deficit (unlike Japan, and even Italy), meaning that the economy as a whole does need foreign lenders.  The floating pound is often presented as a get out of jail free card – but the benefits of being able to devalue are two edged.  Foreign investors will be wary of sterling if they think it will devalue; domestic investors will likewise increase their overseas exposures in the same event, reducing their ability to buy gilts (unless these are  issued in foreign currency, but let’s not go there).

But, the government’s critics maintain, there’s no sign of trouble, and never has been.  The government has had no trouble selling gilts, at very low interest rates.  The trouble with this argument is that markets can turn in an instant, and you won’t know until too late.  An investment decision depends on a judgement looking far into the future, and this can move very quickly.  Government ministers seem to have got a genuine fright in May 2010 with the Greek crisis.  By and large the closer a commentator actually is to the debt markets, the less sanguine they are about the whole thing.  There are just too many risk factors.

So what to think?  The Labour plan is probably viable, if backed by a real determination to follow it through (and Alistair Darling, the outgoing Labour chancellor would have been an excellent figurehead, unlike Mr Balls).  But it undoubtedly takes more risks with catastrophe.  Whether it is worth doing so does come back to your view on the macroeconomic risks.  If you think that the austerity programme really will lead to meltdown, then this has real power.  But neither is the government argument implausible.  It’s about the risks you are prepared to run.

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Who is to blame for the UK’s economic mess?

As time passes it is clear that the UK’s economic crisis is amongst the worst of the major developed economies, though Japan may beat it on some measures.  It’s not in the league of some smaller economies, like Ireland or Greece, although a comparison with Portugal may be more nuanced.  Some people (notably Labour politicians) struggle to accept just how bad things are; others don’t get much beyond railing deficits and the National Debt.  It’s worth pausing to consider what went wrong, and to try and attribute responsibility.

What happened?  Until 2007, the UK had an astonishingly consistent record of economic growth.  This started with the departure from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism under John Major in 1992, and continued until early 2008.  Economists had taken an average annual growth rate of 2.5% for granted.  Unemployment fell, and most people felt better off, though the very wealthy did much better than the rest.  Public expenditure rocketed, with massive investment in the NHS in particular.  A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that poverty was reduced, largely because of increased benefits and tax credits.

And then bang!  GDP shrank by 6% in a year, stayed flat for the year after that, before struggling to a bit under 2% growth in the year after that (taking the year to the 1st quarter from the ONS).  Forecasts are for consistently anaemic growth. This is striking.  When economies hit a recession due to a temporary shock, they bounce back quite sharply, as temporarily unused capacity comes back on stream; this is what has happened in Germany this time.  Not for us; a good 7% of the economy has vanished never to return.  What makes this particularly bad is that this 7% produced an awful lot of taxes, while public expenditure carried on regardless (with benefits increasing due to the extra unemployment and hardship).  This has left the country with a “structural deficit” of about 8%.  This is the excess of public expenditure over taxes after you strip out temporary factors; the actual deficit was much larger (it reached 11% and has now dropped to 10% per annum).  Now I’m not sure how we ended up with an 8% structural deficit after losing just 7% of GDP, of which presumably no more than half would will have been taxed.  The government was already running a bit of a deficit when disaster struck; I think that capital taxes must account for the difference, now that the property boom has disappeared.

What this comes down to is that a lot of the pre-crisis growth was not for real, and government finances were built on unsustainable foundations.  What was happening?  This phantom growth seems to have been related to a boom in personal borrowing to finance property purchases and good old fashioned consumption.  Symptoms included an over-sized finance industry (in earnings if not jobs) and unsustainable levels of consumption.

Who was to blame?  The three commonly cited answers are everybody-and-nobody/events-beyond-our-control, bankers, or the Labour Government.  Some Labour politicians still seem to subscribe to the first idea.  It was an international storm (I never want to hear the phrase “perfect storm” again) and we were caught in it; nobody was seriously criticising government policy before the crisis.  As the economy has failed to bounce back, this has become unsustainable; why are we having so much difficulty when other countries caught by the crisis are having an easier time?  Of course some try to say this is because of Coalition policies over the last year.  But almost all of the many critics of the Coalition policies accept that we were in a terrible mess in the first place.

So the critics shift to another target: Britain’s bankers.  These are an easy target, paying themselves handsomely while their organisations required government bailouts.  There is also a widespread conception that the bailouts cost a lot of money, and that this is one of the reasons that government debt is a problem.  Actually the government has largely got away with it, for which Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling deserve some credit (contrast the terrible hash that the Irish government has made).  A lot of government money was put at risk, yes, but the banks were charged for it, and the money lent will largely be repaid, and the guarantees not called on.  Where the bankers were culpable was in rampant lending, supporting excessive consumption and a property bubble.  But the lending was nothing like as reckless as in the US (or Ireland for that matter).  If the government had awakened to the idea that consumer lending needed restraint, something could have been done.  Let me be clear; the banks were reckless; we need to regulate them much better – but they were not the fundamental cause of the crisis.  We had a narrow escape.

Could the government have seen the vulnerability of the British economy?  There were not many prominent critics at the time, though Vince Cable was clear enough, for exactly the right reasons.  But it was a matter of undergraduate economics to see that economic policy was on an unsustainable path.  Literally.  As a second year economics undergraduate at UCL in early 2007 my macroeconomics lecturer, Professor Wendy Carlin, used the UK economy as a case study to illustrate her model for an open economy.  It was also used as an exam question.  Was the UK’s strong economic performance due to increasing economic efficiency or excess aggregate demand, she asked.  It was clearly the latter: the giveaways being the appreciating real exchange rate, and a large current account deficit (the economy as a whole consuming more than it was spending).

What should the government have done?  The first thing should have been to raise interest rates and tighten monetary policy much earlier.  Unfortunately this was genuinely difficult, because this was the Bank of England’s main target was inflation, and not the general standing of the monetary system. And the inflation rate seemed benign (thanks in large part to the overvalued pound).  The second thing would have been to regulate the banks harder, to restrain lending.  This was the FSA’s job, although the degree of independence of this agency is less strong.  Finally the government could have tightened fiscal policy to reduce the level of demand in the economy, through expenditure cuts or tax increases.  Nominally the government’s policy was to run a zero structural deficit, but it chose to fiddle with the statistics on the economic cycle so as to argue that it did not have to do anything.  The government was not egregiously profligate, as Coalition politicians like to suggest, but it was pushing the wrong way.

What comes over, above all, is a failure of leadership, especially from Gordon Brown, as a formidably powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer.  The tripartite arrangement for managing the financial system (between Treasury, Bank of England, and FSA) did not help, but it is very clear that if in doubt it was the Treasury’s job to lead.  They didn’t.  They could have leant on the FSA and Bank of England, as well as tightening fiscal policy directly.  But Mr Brown either refused to recognise the gravity of the situation, or his political courage failed him.  Given his constant level of denial about the seriousness of the crisis, I suspect it was mainly the former.  He could not face admitting that so much of economic achievement was unsustainable.  It is invidious to blame one man, when the hands of many were involved.  But Gordon Brown had the authority; there was enough evidence for him to act on; and he made things worse not better.  A career in the Treasury that had started so brilliantly ended catastrophically.

My next topic on the economy: is the Coalition economic policy making matters worse or better?

 

 

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Upside down economic thinking

Couldn’t resist commenting on this story in yesterday’s FT.  This behind the paywall, but this summary from City AM is a good start:

PACE OF UK GROWTH UNDER THREAT
Britain’s economy is unlikely to grow as fast as before the financial crisis because its most productive sectors have been hardest hit, jeopardising government plans to cut the deficit. A Financial Times analysis of the sectorial performance of the economy before and after the crash highlights how much banks and insurance companies boosted economic growth between 2000 and 2008.

What it says is that the finance industry contributed a lot to measured GDP up to the crisis, but not to jobs.  In that sense the finance industry is said the be “productive”.  But these industries bore the brunt of the crash. The article also says that this is one of the main reasons why unemployment did not rise as much as the fall in GDP suggested.   Because finance is unlikely to recover fast, since the burden of accumulated (private sector) debt still has to be worked off, then we can’t expect to repeat the pre-crash growth rates.  Bad news.

This is the kind of thinking that takes hold when you accept GDP as the ultimate arbiter of progress.  Let’s look at in another way.  A lot of the growth prior to the crash was down to financial services which created few jobs and which was based on expanding indebtedness, not supplying services that people actually wanted or needed.  It was illusory, in other words.  Highly productive is hardly the right description.

In one sense the article is right.  The finance industry contributed a lot of taxes, whose disappearance is one of the causes of our massive structural deficit.  We can’t hope for illusory growth to rescue our tattered public finances, so it could be a long grind.

This type of upside down thinking is one of the reasons why we need to supplement GDP with other measures that aren’t so affected by such illusory “production”.  Cue the forthcoming Lib Dem policy paper on Quality of Life to be published later this year (which yours truly is helping to write…).

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Are the cuts necessary?

In the latest issue of Liberator magazine there is a letter from Peter Wrigley, a retired economics teacher who blogs as KeynesianLiberal.  It’s actually about a review of David Laws’s book, but it contains a wonderful statement that summarises why some people think the the government’s strategy of cuts is wrong-headed.  It is deeply flawed, but it strikes me how very little attempt is made to explain the UK’s economic plight beyond shallow sound bites.  I will try make a small contribution to correcting this.  But first, the quote from Mr Wrigley’s letter:

Distinguished economists and commentators, including David Blanchflower, Martin Wolf, Jospeh Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and William Keegan, have all pointed out that Britain’s debts are not historically high (in fact the debt-to-GDP ratio is quite modest by comparison with many similar economies); that Labour’s expenditure was reasonably prudent up to 2008, the year of the crisis; and that the current deficit is a result of falling revenues arising from the recession rather than profligate expenditure.  Above all, we are not Greece, are not and never have been in danger from “the markets”, which are, after all, largely institutions within our own economy, including many pension funds, lending to their own government.  Clearly, the “savage cuts” are far from a matter of necessity but are ideologically driven.

The interesting thing is that the facts cited in the statement are not widely out, if you separate them from the opinions.  But the last sentence is a glaring non-sequitur. Of the various people he cites in support, all are critics of the government’s policy, but I have only followed the writings of two: Martin Wolf (of the FT) and Paul Krugman (Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist).  Mr Krugman has not made any commentary on the British economy to anything like the detail that Mr Wrigley implies, or not that I have seen – but he does seem to come to the same conclusion – that Britain’s austerity is madness and not an example for the US to follow.  But it is the US that is his interest.  Mr Wolf has given some excellent, clear analysis (such as this article, behind the paywall I am afraid).  I don’t think he would describe Labour’s expenditure up to 2008 as “reasonably prudent”.  He actually says of the deficit before the crisis struck:

The deficit was surely too large for that stage of the cycle, even on what was then thought about prospects. But it was not a disaster.

A quibble, perhaps, since coalition politicians certainly imply it was a disaster.

Britain’s debts are indeed not frighteningly large. Yet.  But the same cannot be said about the deficit – i.e. the rate at which we are adding to the debt.  Over 10% per annum will soon take the debt up to the 90% level where most commentators suggest it really starts to weigh the economy down.  The frightening element is the estimate that 8% of the deficit is structural; in other words such a deficit won’t disappear as the economy bounces back.  This is the point that Mr Wrigley appears not to have understood, or perhaps not to have accepted.

That 8% number is truly astonishing because it suggests that much of the economy pre-crisis was built on air, and has been lost never to return.  We can’t just bounce back.  Remarkable, but it isn’t seriously disputed.  Certainly not by Labour’s last Chancellor, Alistair Darling, and not Mr Wolf either.  I can’t speak for the other commentators.  In a later post I will return to how this situation arose.

It will be necessary to close this deficit – and nobody denies that either.  A lot of people are suggesting that the government is doing so too quickly and too aggressively (and I’m sure that goes for all the distinguished names cited).  It hardly follows that the cuts “are far from a matter of necessity”.  To understand the problem it is necessary to put aside the timing issue, and to ask how will the finances be put straight when they are eventually addressed.  There are three ways: growth, taxes and cuts.

Let’s think about growth first.  To claw back 8%, the economy has to grow by at least 16% (though 20% is probably more realistic).  If we can get the economy to grow by about 4-5%pa this looks reasonably feasible, perhaps.  But if you accept the view that there is not a lot of spare capacity, then a growth rate of 2.5% is more realistic, and this, or close to it, is already built into the government’s plans.  The government can’t stimulate such high growth rates by increasing the deficit – because ultimately this growth must come from the productive part of the economy.  The argument about austerity is about the government not making things worse, not about stimulating a boom.

So how about higher taxes?  Many on the left hope that the UK can move to a more Scandinavian style of economy with perhaps 50% of income taken in taxes, rather than the typical 40% odd typical of the British economy.  Many hope this can be done by just taxing the rich more.  Actually it is hard to see how this last can be done, beyond what the government already has.  Not much money can be made from corporate taxes, contrary to popular belief, because there just aren’t enough taxable profits around.  The various soft targets postulated don’t look so soft closer up, and wouldn’t make enough difference anyway.  It is a game of diminishing returns: the more you tax, the less incremental revenue you get – and there are costs to the wider economy.  It gets worse, since if you actually succeed you become over-dependent on rich people and big corporations to fund government.  There is clearly a problem that companies are making too much money, and that a lot of people are being paid too much; but taxing this inequality even further not a sustainable solution to the country’s fiscal problems – even if you think it is right to do anyway.  To raise taxes sustainably you have to aim lower.  At the “squeezed middle”.  There are two problems.  First that this may be economically inefficient, by reducing incentives to work; so you keep having to raise the bar.  Second, and more certain, it is politically toxic.  To say the least we do not have the necessary political consent across society.

Which leaves cuts as carrying the main burden.  This seems to be what the last Labour government concluded.  And if you are going to make big cuts, to public services, and to benefits, there is a lot to be said for getting on with it to let people get used to it and move on – rather than leave the Sword of Damocles dangling – and especially with public services.

But what if you think the government is cutting the deficit too quickly?  The best thing to have done would have been to delay the increase to VAT.  The second thing would be to delay cuts to benefits.  But benefit cuts have been pretty limited so far, and may yet take place slower than planned.  Perhaps other tax cuts might be considered.  The logic of the public service cuts is powerful, I am afraid.

Which leaves with two questions.  How did we get into this mess?  And is the government right to move so quickly?  More of that another day.

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Why I won’t invest in gold

Want to see the world’s financial system at its most dysfunctional?  Visit a gold mine.  Huge expenditure of human and physical energy; destruction of landscape; poisoning of local people with its polluting by-products; lots of horrid, dangerous jobs.  All for what?  Digging up something that the world doesn’t need, and adds no value to anything.

Gold has real value as a decoration.  It is soft and easy to work; best of all it is inert and does not lose its shine in the air; it is virtually indestructible.  But most of the world’s gold is not used for decoration; it sits unseen in vaults.  It is used as money.  And the thing about money is that producing more of it (printing paper money or digging gold out of the ground) does not make the world any richer.  It is just an attempt by one person to pull a fast one on somebody else.

Money is a confidence trick, literally.  Things can only act as money by mutual agreement and confidence.  Money has no intrinsic value of itself.  Gold has been used as money since Croesus in 550BC, with widespread acceptance in both Europe and Asia.  But not everywhere.  In the American cultures found by European explorers gold was valued as a decorative resource, but not as money.  The explorers could not buy anything with gold coin.  In the modern age of paper and electronic money, there is no good reason why gold should fulfil this  role.  Its advocates point out that, unlike these modern forms, its supply is physically limited, with just those hateful mines and the melting down of works of art adding to supply.  Some suggest that it is real money compared to potentially valueless “fiat” money.  Well yes, but how to value it?  Just what law of nature says how much wheat, or wine, or how many haircuts an ounce of gold should buy?  At least proper money is hardwired into a mass of contracts; and the fact that we can regulate its supply more easily is a benefit, as well as a risk.  Gold as money is obsolete.  Or, as economist Willem Buiter put it (in his days as an FT blogger) Gold is a 6,000 year old bubble, with no more inherent value than cowrie shells (though according to Neil MacGregor of 100 objects fame it is only been going 2,500 years) .

Gold is an emotional investment.  Its advocates feel some sort of connection with the ancients who originally started to use it as money.  It is in the Bible.  My emotions are at least as strong.  Gold is the essence of evil when used for anything other than its beauty.  And that view has plenty of biblical support too.  I will not pay real money to invest in the stuff.

As gold shoots through $1,500 an ounce it is time to question what it is for.  Let’s stop using it as money. Let all central banks sell off their stocks for use as jewelry and gold leaf.  The world would be a much better place.

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Vickers Commission: so far, so good

I have deliberately paused before commenting on the interim report of the Vickers Commission on UK banking reform.  I wanted to read more about it; it didn’t help that the post office delivered my Economist several days late.  Unfortunately I still have not had time to read the report itself; let me come clean on that.  Most of the commentary seems to be that the banks have largely got away with it, and are heaving a sign of relief.  My answer is “not necessarily”.  It may be clever politics not to go for the more totemic ideas, like a full split between retail and investment banking, since that clears the path for the reforms that really matter.

The report primarily concerns itself with two things: preventing a future UK government being forced into bailing out or underwriting banks, and increasing competition between the banks.  The latter was behind one of the more controversial recommendations: the breakup of Lloyds Bank.  But I don’t think that’s the main battle.  I despair about the lack of competition in UK retail banking, but I don’t see that the costs to the economy are that large.  The main game is preventing the next bailout.

The suggested strategy makes plenty of sense.  Ring-fence retail banks, force them to hold more capital, and leave investment banks to their own devices.  The significance of the second part of that proposition needs to sink in (as this article from John Gapper in the FT (£) makes plain).  An investment bank may be “too big to fail” in global terms, but the UK government will say is that this is somebody else’s problem, so long as our retail banks are protected.  This is an entirely realistic admission that the UK government is now just a bit part part player in the world of global banking.  If one our big investment banks fails, then we don’t mind if it is bought up by foreigners.  This is a striking contrast to the approach taken by the Swiss government.

But it leads to an obvious issue.  How do you prevent a meltdown in investment banking infecting the supposedly ring-fenced retail banks?  The collapse of Lehman’s in 2008 caused such chaos not because it was so big and important in its own right, but that it was too entangled with banks that had big retail deposit bases.  A retail bank will gather in lots of retail deposits; the question is where does all this money go?  If the bank is to make money it needs to get lent out.  If this lending gets into fancy investment banking products, then the ring-fencing has failed.  There must be some pretty heavy restrictions; the assets don’t need to be absolutely safe, but we want to insulate these banks from the complexities of the investment banking melee.  This will not be easy, as John Kay points out (in another FT paywall article, I’m afraid); all that is needed is an oversized treasury department, which is supposedly there just to oil the wheels of the machine.  Mr Kay knows this from bitter experience; he saw (as a non-exec director in the earlier days) how a runaway treasury department at the former building society The Halifax took that institution down a route that led first to demutualisation and eventually its own destruction; each step presented as innovative and sensible.  The detail must be subject to intense scrutiny.

But what of those excessive bankers’ bonuses and all the outrage that goes with them?  To the extent that this is a retail banking problem, the Vickers reform surely deals with it adequately.  The only way of tacking with it properly is to turn these banks into less profitable, lower risk utility organisations which can’t afford to pay big bonuses.  That is what ring-fencing and higher capital requirements should achieve.

But the bigger problem is investment banking.  This is an international issue, and Vickers is really about damage limitation.  As I have said before, the answer is not directly regulating remuneration, but cutting the profits.  This industry must be made much smaller and less profitable.  The two most important ways are through increased capital requirements and choking off its finance (or “leverage” as they like to call it).  The Basel committee is already making headway on the first.  Retail ring-fencing, if it is done properly, will help a lot with the latter.

Banking reform is a long hard road.  There is a danger that we have “wasted a good crisis”, and the passing of the crisis’s worst peak means that the pressure on politicians to deliver has eased.  But the crisis has not passed, though many financial types waving graphs seem to disagree.  A lot of banks are still in a shaky condition – and so are many governments’ finances, including those of the USA and UK.  There may well be a steady stream of aftershocks to remind our leaders that the journey is not over.  So far the Vickers Commission is playing its part.

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Off balance

The think tank Reform is a master of guerilla tactics.  It claims to be one of the most influential of right-wing think tanks, but it cannot be described as heavyweight.  It flits from one subject to the next, making eye-catching claims and recommendations based on very thin research.  Its reports contain thought-provoking insights alongside assertions based on air, amid lots of right-wing waffle.  Its most recent offering Off Balance, which looks at economic growth, is a case in point.  Based on its headline claims, I had intended to use it as base to blog on the subject of the conflict between economic growth and the pursuit of happiness.  But there was nothing in the report that I could get any traction on.  I’m afraid this doesn’t say much for the quality of national debate on the economy.

That’s a pity because the report does contain a very interesting idea, on monetary policy, in its final chapter.  The muddle and confusion within which this gem is set will unfortunately detract from it.  This idea is that interest rates have been set too low in the US, UK and Euro zone (for different reasons), which distorted the market for savings and investment, and that this was the prime cause of both the financial crisis and the unbalanced world economy.  Because interest rates were too low, there was too much borrowing, too much consumption, asset bubbles, and not enough proper investment in the developed economies.  Interest rates will need to be higher if our economies are ever to rebalance properly.  This means that the conduct of monetary policy over the last two decades, including the development of inflation targeting, has been fundamentally flawed.  Loyal followers of this blog will recognise something like this case being advanced by this humble undergraduate economist (Time to rethink the Bank of England).  Unfortunately the report’s authors have little to say on how monetary policy should be conducted in the future, beyond better prudential regulation of financial services.

What of the the rest of the report?  At headline level it all sounds quite sensible: we need more free market policies, with three priorities in particular: reducing the deficit, reforming public services, and a better business environment.  Sensible, but potentially highly contentious in each case – but you won’t find much in the text that takes the debate forward.  In particular there is a deep confusion over the concept of competitiveness, most apparent in its airy claim that:

The future competitiveness of the UK economy demands a move to a high-wage, high productivity workforce.

This is candyfloss economics; its reasoning collapses as soon as you touch it.  Businesses compete; countries don’t (except warfare and sport).  If the country’s productivity stagnates, for example because our system of education is weak, then overall living standards will suffer: we will be able to consume less.  Period.  The exchange rate takes care of competitiveness.  The are very good reasons to improve our education system (the context of this quotation), but competitiveness is not among them.

I could go on, but honestly the report isn’t worth it.  At a turning point in our economy it is such a pity that so much of our debate about the subject is so lightweight.

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Get ready for a big fight over bank reform

The recent shenanigans over the government deal with the banks (project Merlin) now make more sense, following Anthony Hilton’s revelation in the Evening Standard (reported here in Lib Dem Voice).  The deal was weak on the banks because the banks did not get what they really wanted – which was to emasculate the Independent Commission on Banking Reform.  George Osborne was quite happy to oblige, it is reported, but the members of the Commission threatened to resign en masse.  This means that if the Commission does propose anything radical, an important part of the government will be against it.  This will (or should) provoke a major national debate.  Time to start marshalling the arguments, and to be all them more ready for the flood of obfuscation and irrelevant arguments that is bound to surround such a debate.  Let me offer some thoughts.

Even in a quick and selective overview, I have shot over 1,500 words.  I offer this below, but for those without the patience to read through this, my conclusions are these:  it is necessary to restrict the activities of wholesale banking so that the returns it makes are substantially lower in ordinary years, and the losses they make in bad years are also much lower; it is also important to make the banks less interconnected.  International reforms on bank capital are already doing some good, but we should not be afraid to do more since we are particularly exposed to a future crisis here in Britain. When it comes to the important business of improving finance to support small and medium sized businesses and innovation, we will need new institutions – the big banks will be of little use; the state must promote this type of financial innovation.

One thing is for certain: the established banks will not like any effective reform.  If Mr Osborne is taking their side, we can expect a battle royal.  It will take both determination and guile to face them down.  I will be reflecting on the latter in future posts.

What’s the problem?  First, there are two clear and legitimate issues for state policy.  We want to avoid the risk of another expensive state bailout of the banking system like that which was forced on us in 2008-2009.  Second we want the banks to lend more, at better rates, to small and medium sized businesses with decent prospects, in order to promote job-creation and the improved efficiency of our economy.  A third issue is politically toxic, and drawing most of the attention – that a lot of bankers seem to be grossly overpaid, with bonuses drawing particular anger.  It is less clear whether this is a legitimate issue for government interference, but we need to understand the issues here nevertheless.

Time to clear the decks a bit so that we can concentrate on what’s really important.  Here are some red herrings, to switch metaphors:

  • Bank bonuses are often blamed for promoting the crisis, on the basis that they distort incentives and incite reckless behaviour.  But why aren’t shareholders, whose stakes are at risk, managing this?  In fact the shareholders were as much a part of the problem in the banking crisis as bonus-crazed staff.  It is the incentives for shareholders that need real attention; sort this out, and the shareholders will sort the staff out.
  • Bankers’ pay is not comparable to that of film stars, sports stars or other entertainers who attract massive rewards.  Entertainment stars are a retail phenomenon which, with modern communications, works on a winner-takes-all basis in a mass market.  This is different on two counts from banking: the mega-profits are on the wholesale side of the industry; and it isn’t winner takes all either – a huge number of individuals and firms are able to attract oversized pay, not a lucky few in sea of wannabes.
  • In fact the issue isn’t really banker’s pay, but why the banks can afford to pay them so much.  Investment banking is hugely profitable in the good years.  This high level of profitability is a sign of wasteful economics, not a reward for value added to society.  A properly functioning industry is not particularly profitable because competition reduces profits.  A company at the frontier of technical innovation can deliver big profits and still be economically worthwhile – but this is not what is going on here.  There has been a lot of innovation in the banking industry, but not much of it has been to the overall benefit of society.
  • For the British, a defining moment of the crisis was the fate of Northern Rock, which had to be bailed out.  The reason why a bailout was forced on the state was that retail deposit insurance arrangements were inadequate, which caused a run, and put too many individuals’ savings at risk.  This problem has largely been fixed, and what happened to Northern Rock is pretty much irrelevant to the ongoing debate – it is simply a source of obfuscating arguments.
  • It is the banks that are the real problem, and not other players like hedge funds and private equity.  These institutions may be responsible for some egregious behaviour, but they also address a big weakness in our system of finance: an excessive aversion to risk in most investment institutions. They are not systemically dangerous. To the extent that they are dangerous, it is because of the ease with which they can get finance from the investment banks and over-leverage…which brings the problem back to the banks.
  • Finally dodgy lending by banks was at the bottom f the crisis, but it is not the main problem that needs to be fixed.  The question is why did so many lenders felt able to suspend the laws of proper management and common sense, and how were they allowed to carry on doing so for so long?  The answer is because it was too easy for them to pass buck to somebody else, in the form of securities put together by the investment banks. Securitization was justified at the time as a method of spreading risk – but this proved a fallacy.

Now, the real issues.  The first is that wholesale banking (services delivered largely within the finance industry, and not to retail customers – mainly investment banking) is much too profitable for too much of the time.  Why? This deserves more analysis, but one problem is clear from the bailouts.  Banks are making bets that pay off well most of the time, but deliver occasional disaster.  If you add up the bets that pay off with the costs of the disasters, then profitability may not look excessive.  But when disaster strikes the downside for bank employees – and shareholders – is limited, and others have to come in to bail them out.  In fact many bankers seem to think of the disasters as acts of God that really shouldn’t be their problem.  This leads to the risks being systemically underpriced.  What to do?  The critical thing is to look at how the bets are financed, and to limit the amount that is done through borrowed money rather than the shareholders’ own capital.  When things go bad, it the money banks (and various intermediaries they do business through) borrowed from elsewhere and can’t repay that cause the systemic problems, not the loss of their own capital.

The second problem is contagion.  If one institution fails then it can bring down others with it, forcing the government to bail the firm out, and creating a wider moral hazard problem referred to as “too big to fail”.  The essential problem is that too many financial institutions are lending too much money to each other.  Retail bank customers can be dragged into this mix, which tends to force governments’ hands.  This is a tough one to tackle, but the key points are to reduce the amount of lending between financial institutions (as in the previous paragraph) and to make sure that banks with retail deposits don’t lend them to other financial institutions, or severely restrict such lending.  While trading in securities by investment banks rightly attracts attention, the lending of money to other financial institutions that is used directly or indirectly to buy securities is just as much a problem.

The third problem is the lack of interest by banks (shareholders as much as managers) in lending to smaller businesses.  The problem is that to be successful this type of business requires information and relationships, and this requires good quality human input.  And that’s expensive.  We see big banks polarising into two types of business: wholesale services within the finance industry or mass retail services using computer algorithms and call centres.  Not much space in the middle.  I don’t think our big UK banks will ever be good at this; it is just too late.  We need innovative new institutions.  Two avenues are worth investigating: trying to improve venture capital facilities, and setting up publicly sponsored and locally focused institutions to lend to businesses, perhaps drawing inspiration from the German and Swiss systems (see this interesting paper from Civitas).

Basically this boils down to two things: cramping the style and reducing the profitability of investment banking.  And encouraging innovation in the supply of finance to small and medium sized businesses.  Forcing the current banks to lend more to businesses will not help; they simply won’t understand what is needed.  Making the big banks separate investment and retail banking would probably be a helpful reform, but it is not necessary and would not be sufficient.  Barclays have managed to insulate their retail from their investment banking businesses quite successfully.  Retail banks become exposed by lending money to investment banks or to the shady investment vehicles they create without them being part of the same organisation.

Some progress has been made on restricting investment banks internationally.  New international rules on capital are already putting investment banking profits under pressure, although not yet to the extent that they are having to cut pay (see this article in The Economist).  Is this enough?  Britain is uniquely exposed to financial crises, and we were lucky not to go the way of Ireland and Iceland, with mass bank failures on our hands. We can’t expect much solidarity from our European friends, given how stingy we have been to them.  An oil crisis is in the works; property prices could yet fall further; monetary policy and fiscal bailout have run out of road.  We shouldn’t shy away from extra measures to reduce our exposure.

Forcing the banks to cut pay is going to be tough going – but it is only then that we will know that reform is working.  High pay is rooted into the culture of these organisations.  Probably some banks will have to fail first.  We must hope that this will be the orderly winding down of some units, but we can’t rule out something worse.  And that leads us to a key paradox that will be at the heart of the argument.  Measures to make banks behave more safely may well cause some systemic instability.  The idea isn’t to abolish financial earthquakes, but to make them smaller and less threatening – even at the price of having more of them.

 

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Time to rethink the Bank of England

It seemed a great idea at the time.  Independent central bankers managing our economy on a strictly technical basis, preventing politicians from mis-managing it for short-term ends.  Alas, even if this was not an illusion then, it surely is now.  Central bankers across the world are becoming politically controversial.  Meanwhile their policy decisions, be they changes to the interest rates under their control or buying bonds (“quantitative easing” – QE), either have no effect on the real economy or do not have the effect intended.  But the recent coverage of the Bank of England’s latest interest rate decision shows than most observers are still stuck in the old narrative.  The present system is obsolete; the real question is what the Bank’s role should now be.

Monetary policy, as now conceived, arose in the 1980s, after confidence in economic policy collapsed, amid a toxic combination of high inflation and high unemployment in most countries.  Out of this wreckage came the idea that the economy at large responded to changes in the money supply, which influenced the decisions people made in output and employment, and in prices and wages.  By managing the money supply we could manage the overall economy.  And what was more, we could make this a relatively objective, technical process, by limiting growth to what the economy was able to produce, and keeping inflation into a nice, tidy band.  Fiscal policy, taxes and public spending, were pushed into a relatively minor role, and became politically suspect.  A new economic orthodoxy grew, sometimes called neo-Keynesianism, with Economics students given new sets of diagrams to learn, while economic modellers translated this into more complex mathematical equations.   Then, in 2007, it all went horribly wrong.  Two basic problems are now quite evident.

The first is trying to understand how exactly monetary policy works.  Its advocates had always been vague about this, their case based mainly on historical correlations rather than actual, practical mechanisms.  To the public, policymakers talked about printing presses, as if it was all about the number of banknotes printed and put into circulation…which was clearly nonsensical in a modern economy.  During the 1990s the process focused on the setting of interest rates, with the central bank using its power as banker of last resort to manage interest rates on the overnight deposits made by commercial banks, a process which indirectly affected the supply of money.  While I was studying economics at UCL (in 2005-08) our lecturers admitted this was pretty thin.  Long term interest rates were more important, and yet the central bank’s influence over these was marginal.  More important, as electronic money and “shadow banking” exploded, it was not at clear how central banks were supposed to manage the volume of money supply at all; even defining it became impossible.  The whole thing completely fell apart in 2007 when the interbank market seized up, leaving the central banks’ instrument of management broken.  The central banks pulled their levers one way, and yet the actual supply of money, in practice if not in statistical definition, went the other.

The second problem with monetary policy is more fundamental still.  Real people and markets don’t respond to changes in money supply as they theoretically should.  The main effect of policy changes seems to be on the prices of shares and property – not the amount people consume.  So loosening policy merely inflates asset prices, having little effect on output, prices and employment.  Alan Greenspan, the US Federal Reserve’s previous chairman even seemed to make a virtue out of this – suggesting that strong share prices helped sustain investment and consumer demand.  But this leads central bankers into a very dark place, as the Economist’s Buttonwood column has recently pointed out.  What on earth are central bankers doing trying to manipulate asset prices?  Surely asset prices should be set by a properly functioning free market?

So central banks have comparatively little influence on the real economy, and what influence they do have is mainly on asset prices, rather than on employment and consumer prices.  Accept this and you quickly see that asking them to manage inflation as we do in the UK (or inflation and employment, as in the US) is absurd.  It may not even be healthy to confine inflation to a narrow band – there can be perfectly good reasons why it is right to allow inflation to run ahead at a particular time in a particular economy, or, indeed, to let the supposedly wicked deflation to run.  Central banks’ role should be much more limited.  They should control seigniorage (profits made on the creation of currency) and ensure that the markets for money are orderly.  And that’s about it.  Even managing exchange rates is toxic, as the Swiss are finding.

This is the best reason for raising interest rates in the UK (and US) at present.  They are so low that money markets can’t do their job properly – it is much healthier if savers can expect some rate of return.  And, frankly, asset prices are too high anyway.  Not that anybody on the Bank of England’s MPC seemed to offer anything like this reason for raising rates in their  minutes.  George Osborne still seems to believe that the Bank can help him out if fiscal policy seems to be too tight.  The level of denial remains astonishing.  The game goes on; it’s not going to end well for the Bank, I fear.

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Megatrends – where will we be in 2030?

Mark Pack recently wrote an article in Liberal Democrat Voice about how badly awry political predictions went in 1992.  Politics, an interaction between adaptive and opportunistic parties is inherently unpredictable.  What about the economy?  The big trends (“megatrends” I will call them, to contrast with “microtrends” in fashion a couple of years back) of the 1990s were technology (internet and mobile phones) and globalisation, especially the rise of China and India.  I may be mis-remembering, but these unfolded more or less as predicted if you discard the excitable froth.  But these trends have played out.  What does the future hold for the British economy.  What will 2030 look like?

First megatrend.  The era of cheap imports is over.  Chinese and Indian costs were so low in some industries that ours could not compete; many jobs were lost in manufacturing, especially.  These jobs were replaced by well paid jobs in more up-market and high tech businesses (including finance) and by a lot of poor quality service jobs too.  On average, Britain prospered, but inequality grew as well.  The economics of this (the law of comparative advantage, to talk technical) is notoriously difficult to pick up intuitively.  But, as the developing economies prosper, their cost advantage erodes.  We saw this with South Korea and Taiwan; it’s now happening to China and India, whose costs are rising rapidly.  There doesn’t seem to be a huge pool of undeveloped countries to replace them at the bottom of the market.  Bangladesh, Pakistan and various African nations might rise to it, but they don’t seem to have the political stability or governance required.  The good news is that the steady stream of job losses will diminish, especially at the lower value end, and jobs will even be repatriated.  The bad news is that our overall living standards will stagnate, since we no longer get the boost from consuming cheap imports.

Second megatrend.  Energy costs are going up.  The range of predictions ranges from the serious to the apocalyptic.  Demand for energy of all sorts, but especially oil, grows as developing countries develop.  There are plenty of energy sources, but to increase overall supply means tapping into energy that’s much more expensive to get.  The consequences of this are quite profound (this is a favourite topic of the Economist Buttonwood blog, like here and here).  This will prove a major drag on living standards and we will have to invest huge sums in both new energy sources (especially alternative energy) and energy conservation (especially our homes).  Something analogous may be happening in food and agriculture.

Third megatrend.  The work force will stagnate.  The baby boomers are retiring, or at least want to wind down; most mothers that want to are already working for as many hours as they want, rather than staying at home with the children. Immigration is coming down, as we fret about the social consequences, and anyway we don’t provide such an attractive proposition to immigrants, as the economies of east Europe steadily catch up.  And productivity has reached such levels that many question the need to work so many hours, and crave a better work-life balance.  This puts a strong damper on the economy, although it’s not all bad.  More leisure, if people want it, is a sign of economic success, not failure.  The problem is if publicly funded benefits are supporting leisure that is not earned (by artificially low pension ages, for example)…though my feeling is that this is less of a problem in Britain than elsewhere.

This is pretty negative stuff.  So what about the fourth megatrend: the continued advance of technology?  This is very difficult to read.  One article I read recently suggested that current technology trends are rather ephemeral: smartphones and social networking don’t have the power to change things like the internet and mobile phones did.  But we can’t know; the Economist carried an interesting article last week on how print technologies are transforming manufacturing industry.  We have to invest a lot of hope in technological change to help meet the other challenges.  Which means we must understand how technological advance works.  It’s disruptive; the law of diminishing returns slowly kills off the current industry leaders (look at Pfizer closing down its R&D outfit because it doesn’t pay any more).  The process is disruptive and favours the nimble, be it glitzy Silicon Valley start-ups, or earnest German family businesses.

So where am I going with all of this?  The trends that shaped our economy in the last 20 years are coming to a halt or reversing.  We face major challenges which mean improvements to standards of living are most likely to come from technological innovation and a more equal distribution of wealth.  Some of the trends of the last 20 years, growing inequality and companies retaining a bigger share of profits, may well go into reverse.  Bad news for share prices.

What should governments do?  First promote innovation – and the key point is to make it easier for smaller and medium sized companies to get cheap finance; which means big changes to our banking system.  Second, energy policy will be critical; even if you are a climate change sceptic, there remains a lot of value in low carbon policy as cover for dealing with rising energy costs.  Third, the public demand for “fairness”, however impossible to define, is here to stay.

Economists may fret about stagnant income, but this doesn’t have to end badly.

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