A tale of two City rogues

Too often people condemn City financiers without asking what it is that they do.  But we must try to distinguish the good from the bad.  The tale of two larger than life City financiers who have got into trouble brings this into focus rather neatly.

The first is Conservative donor and hedge fund manager Lewis Chester.  He, or rather the fund he manages, has been hit with a massive fine by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for abusive trading in mutual funds, the US equivalent of unit trusts and OEICs.  These collective funds provide opportunities for retail investors to take a share in a portfolio of investments without owning the shares individually, and are one of the best ways for ordinary investors (even very wealthy ones) to invest.  But they aren’t priced real-time, and that can leave them open to abuse.  In this case Mr Chester’s fund is supposed to have bought stakes late in the day, after prices had been fixed but when there was reason to think that they were under priced.    The fund was able to make a handy profit by selling the stake back later – but it came at the expense of the fund’s ordinary investors.

Hedge funds are investment funds given an unconventional or aggressive brief compared to the plodding ordinary funds which merely manage portfolios of shares and bonds.  Often the exploit pricing anomalies.  This isn’t very pretty, but usually it’s a way of transmitting information across financial markets and ensuring that everybody gets a fairer price.  On balance this is positive.  But when it comes to exploiting anomalies in mutual fund pricing there is no such information transmission.  It is simply theft, and there are rules against it. And even if rules aren’t actually broken, it is unethical, and anybody perpetrating it should be shunned by respectable society.

In this case Mr Chester still seems to be denying wrongdoing, dismissing his rather juicy emails as “banter” (gems like: Poor souls, working past cookie and milk time…for once in your lives, you can work like real men and do a proper day’s work. (You really are a bunch of women of the first order).).  But it’s gone through four years of judicial process and the fine has ended up at $100 million – though an appeal may be on its way.  I really hope that our own FSA is on his case, as if this is true he is hardly a fit and proper person to be conducting business here.

The second case is receiving much more attention, including two opinion pieces in todays FT.  It is Ian Hannam, a specialist in mining investments and friend of David Davis, the Conservative MP.  Like Mr Davis, and unlike Mr Chester, he is not a classic City smoothie who came up through the usual channels.  He got his boots dirty by travelling out to various dodgy parts of the world to take a closer look at the investments he was advising on, and talk tot he people that matter.  This is a striking contrast to so much of the City game of trawling through statistics and devising new computer programs.  He advised on investments and facilitated big deals.  Not pretty I’m sure, but you can see how this type of work can justify a big salary.  The net result is that more resources get mined to keep the world going in the style to which it has become accustomed.

Mr Hannam has been fined by the FSA £450,000 for flouting rules on insider information, for revealing too much about deals he was working on to clients.  I have no feel for the facts of this case, and Mr Davis has leapt to Mr Hannam’s defence.  What I do know is that the rules on insider information are tricky, and that there is a lot of grey in amongst the black and white.  If well connected insiders are getting all the best deals and making money out of the outsiders, this undermines confidence in markets.  But information is the lifeblood of markets, and restrict it, even amongst insiders, and markets will suffer.  It is already becoming more and more difficult for smaller companies to go public due largely to restrictions on information flow – and this will have a baleful influence on innovation.  Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Mr Hannam’s case the rules seem to be drawn too restrictively at the moment.

The last few decades have seen astonishing advances in the battle against world poverty.  A more globally integrated economy has been a key part of this, and global finance has been a key facilitator.  It has also been wildly abused, with too many fortunes being made to no socially useful end.  The public needs to take a closer interest in what goes on, to condemn the unethical (whatever side of the law they are on), but admire the people that genuinely make new connections and keep things moving – even if they cross the odd arbitrary line and get themselves into trouble.

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The budget – the coalition at its best

George Osborne is gradually cementing a reputation as an effective Chancellor of the Exchequer and skilful politician.  He certainly understands coalition politics and how to play for the longer term.  Yesterday’s was a very interesting budget.

There a two schools of thought about coalition governments.  One may be characterised as “lowest common denominator”: all the bold ideas are knocked out and we are left with a few messy compromises that lack any kind of coherence.  The second is the “natural selection of ideas”  in which the ideas of the various parties have to compete on their merits and the weak ones don’t survive, the sum being better than any party would produce individually.  Britain’s first post-War coalition, formed by politicians unfamiliar with how coalitions work, has seen both types of policy formation at work.

The coalition started well.  The initial policy programme was full of bold ideas, while dotty ones (cutting inheritance tax for example) did not make the grade.  But things soon degenerated, as activists on both sides sensed betrayal.  This was especially evident on the NHS, where we are left with a messy compromise that is almost certainly worse than either party would have produced on its own.  But the 2012 budget shows a reversion to the “natural selection” model, for which credit must go to both George Osborne and the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

One of the interesting features of the budget has been the disappearance of budget “purdah” – the absolute secrecy surrounding budget proposals.  Mr Clegg made the early running in the media game with his bid for an acceleration of increases to personal allowances.  But Mr Osborne clearly understood this to be an opportunity rather than a threat – in this case to reverse the top rate of income tax of 50%, which until a month or so ago looked to be entirely off the agenda.  A few years ago the Lib Dems had a big conference battle over this top rate (before Labour introduced it, as it happens) and rejected the 50% – so there was evidently some Lib Dem ambiguity over the tax, which Mr Osborne was able to exploit.  And indeed world thinking has long since turned against such high marginal rates, even for the very rich.

Meanwhile, weaker Lib Dem ideas about how to tax the rich more efficiently did not make the cut.  This applied to the Mansion Tax on high valued property.  Such an idea (though based on land rather than total property value) appeals to theoretical economists, but has two major practical problems.  First is that property is not the same as cash, and that owners of such valuable properties may struggle to pay, and hence create a fuss.  The wider the scope of tax, the more of a problem this is.  The second problem is that it has to be based on a theoretical valuation rather than hard and fast fact.  This is one of those things that becomes more of a problem the more that you think about it.  Property (or anything else) is worth what you persuade somebody else to pay for it, which depends on many factors unique to the individuals taking part in the transaction and the time they make it.  A host of practical issues follow.  The eventual compromise of an increase in stamp duty for properties over £2 million, combined with a clampdown on stamp duty avoidance, looks like a much better idea to me.

The idea of limiting allowances to higher income people so that effective tax is no less than 25%, the “Tycoon Tax” – attributed to Mr Clegg in the proposal process, though not coming out of any Lib Dem official policy – also looks like a very sensible proposal – and this made the cut.

Mr Osborne was also able to push through further cuts to the main Corporation Tax rate.  I have some reservations about this: companies are sitting on too much cash – if they don’t invest it, then the best way of getting this wealth back into the economy is to tax it.  But there is logic to it to help retain footloose international capital, something that the country has been quite good at, but needs to stay in the game.  And it’s not as generous as it looks, since allowances have been kept in check.  In fact the big thing UK companies have been asking for is more generous capital allowances – but the footloose companies aren’t so bothered about this, and the Chancellor did not budge.  I’m not sure that capital allowances have been set at the most efficient level – but I do know that business leaders always ask for too much, and the game is often more about tax avoidance than real investment.

One idea was not leaked in advance.  This was the phasing out of the age-related personal allowances.  This “granny tax” has attracted most of the press attention this morning, with howls of protest that the Labour opposition are seeking to exploit.  Yet the reasoning behind this change is solid enough.  Pensioners have done pretty well under the reforms already implemented by the government, and this is a nasty, complicated piece of work.  Although it is true that many pensioners have been punished by the general reduction in the value of savings since the crisis began, this allowance is a bad way to deal with the problem.  What is actually needed is for the economy to return to health, so that we can get back to a real interest rate of about 2% or so from its current negative value.  It was brave to take on the pensioner lobbies like this, and Messrs Osborne and Clegg (to say nothing of the PM David Cameron) deserve credit.  Critics suggest it may go down as a fiasco like Gordon Brown’s cut of the 10% tax band, or the negligible increase to state pensions the last government implemented when inflation appeared to be very low.  Both were politically very damaging, to Mr Brown and to Tony Blair respectively.  But this policy does not create cash losers (denying benefits to those who haven’t got them yet – rather than taking them away from those that have).  It may even mark a turning point in the battle of the generations, as younger voters start to appreciate just how generous the state is to pensioners, and shift their ire away from the much less costly immigrants and benefit claimants.

The budget does nothing for macro-economists.  There is no bold, imperial stimulus to “get the economy moving”.  But nobody was expecting that.  Overall this budget is a credit to the Coalition government.

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Lesson from the banking industry: sometimes people need to be treated as people.

This article from the Economist struck me like a bullet on reading it today.  Not so much for the subject matter itself (US banking practices) but what the whole episode says about the modern world.  We have never had more data readily available on people – but we seem less able than ever to take decisions on their individual merits.  More data, less information.  This problem is usually shrugged off y economists and reformers with a laugh; it shouldn’t be.

The story starts in the US property boom, when banks were falling over themselves to offer mortgages, based on the vague idea that since these loans where secured on property, and property values always go up, you couldn’t have too much.  The banks stand accused of approving loans robotically, without any consideration of individual merits – and as a result often lending to people who could not afford to keep up with the repayments.  This accusation was commonplace, but, as the article points out, little effort seems to have been made to substantiate it against hard evidence.

Then came the crash, and many people who had taken out loans could not or would not keep up with the repayments – and stood at risk of having their homes repossessed.  And the banks once again stood accused of carrying out repossession without due care and attention, again on mainly anecdotal evidence.  This became a hot political issue, and the individual US states set about suing the banks, with the Federal government becoming involved too.  And now an umbrella settlement is proposed, to which the five main US banks and 49 out 50 state Attorney Generals have agreed to.  The banks are making a blanket payment to make the problem go away.

What remains characteristic of the whole story, from the original alleged malpractices right up to the settlement, is a failure to reconcile it to what actually happened to real people in real homes.  No attempt is made to distinguish between whether some banks are more culpable than others; and no attempt to distinguish between arrears that arise from people in genuine hardship, and those who are trying to beat the system.  All that is just too difficult.

And this type of thing is happening all around us.  Decisions are made about us using computer algorithms based on data that may or may not be accurate – or based on our membership of some or other broad group of people (men, women, over 50,  etc.) and the law of averages.  Companies calculate that it is cheaper that way.  To consider people as real people, and base decisions on the individual merits of the case, well that requires the intervention of skilled staff, and they cost a lot of money.

And so the flip side to ever advancing productivity (one of the things that makes skilled people cost so much) is that we are subjected to an increasing volume of de-personalised services and arbitrary decisions; and around the fringe a spectrum of fraud arises, as people learn to take advantage of system weaknesses.  I have been the subject of mild identity theft several times; this looks quite safe for the people who perpetrate it, since nobody bothers to find them – it’s just a cost of doing business.

But what’s the moral of the story?  We gain a lot from the increased wealth that arises because of all this added productivity.  And what’s more part of becoming a more equal society is that well off people like me can’t expect to have armies of people running around fawning on their every need.  So should I just stop whinging, and get on with all the things I can now do that would have been unthinkable in a previous age?

Up to a point.  I think there are two important consequences that many people overlook.  One big picture, and the other of more urgency.  The big picture point is that are are physical limits to economic growth, and it is no wonder that the pace of growth slows in developed societies.  Higher productivity means we consume more services with diluted human content.  But huge part of the pleasure we derive from some services is exactly because we get one-on-one attention from somebody (hairdressing perhaps, a personal trainer, dinner at a posh restaurant, and so on); as productivity advances, the proportion that these non-negotiable services comprise in the total economy rises – and so growth slows.  Economists refer to this as “Baumol’s Disease” after the economist who originally pointed it out.  But it is not a disease; it is the product of success – it’s the process of arriving at the promised land, so to speak – the place that is so good that progress is impossible.  An increasing proportion of services cannot be improved without detracting from their value, and people will resist buying them at any price; and that’s saying nothing of the distortion to incentives that arises from making decisions based on averages.  We can’t rely on economic growth to wash away society’s problems – we need to confront them more directly.

The more urgent point applies to the reform of public services.  Too many people assume that to make these more effective we must follow a similar process of sucking the human content out of them as we see in so many commercial services.  In some cases I’m sure that’s true; some Indian organisations are doing amazing things to improve the productivity and effectiveness of certain medical procedures by using economies of scale.  But in most cases the effectiveness of public services depends on joining up the dots; seeing people as people rather than collections of unrelated needs that can be picked off one by one.  An individual who is committing serial antisocial behaviour offences, may have mental health problems, addiction issues, a dysfunctional family life, educational under-achievement, and inadequate housing.  Just from listing them you can see how all these problems are interrelated and feed off each other.  We stand a much better chance of making progress if we design solutions based on looking at this individual and his exact personal circumstances and negotiating with him as a human being.  Productivity in public services is not about rate of throughput, its about solving problems and reducing demand.  This needs a completely different mindset than that needed from the commercial world.  Alas too much (though certainly not all) public service reform misses this key point.

 

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Is cutting Corporation Tax good for growth?

Everybody agrees that the UK economy needs more growth, like pretty much every other developed economy.  On the right it seems to be taken for granted that cutting corporate taxes will help.  This view deserves to be challenged.

An example of the argument for lower tax rates is this one from Tim Knox on the LSE website, promoted by the conservative think tank CPS.  Mr Knox suggests cutting the main rate from 28% to 20%, while simplifying a lot of the deductions.  The logic is simple.  The economy needs businesses to invest and expand.  A high corporate rate of tax is a disincentive to do so; a cut in rates would give businesses a shot of confidence that would get them moving.

This line of reasoning is not nonsense – and his ideas for simplifying the system on capital allowances and capital gains may make sense, though would be fiercely contested by lobbyists.  There is a lot nonsense talked about corporate taxes.  Companies aren’t people, and the payments companies make to people are taxed as employment or investment income.  There is quite a cogent argument (a classic essay topic for undergraduate economics students) that companies shouldn’t be taxed at all – though this would certainly open up opportunities for tax avoidance.

But a different way of looking at the predicament of the UK economy comes from Martin Wolf in the FT (paywall, I’m afraid).  He points out that one of the macroeconomic problems with the UK economy is the large value of the corporate surplus – in other words businesses are making too much profit and not spending enough.  He agrees with Andrew Smithers of Smithers and Co who published  a report entitled “UK: Narrower Profit Margins and Weaker Sterling Needed”.  Mr Wolf does not advocate raising corporate taxes, but he nevertheless poses an awkward question for those who advocate a cut.  The basic macroeconomic problem for the UK is that the government deficit is too high and its mirror image is a corporate surplus that is also too high.  Going back to Year 1 Economics, you can’t cut one without cutting the other (not entirely true, but the alternatives involve private individuals getting even more indebted, or an unrealistic export surplus).  How on earth does cutting corporate taxes help, without using voodoo concepts like the Laffer Curve?

In fact economically corporate tax is one of the more efficient ones in microeconomic terms – it does not distort incentives as much most other taxes, because it is based on profits, not inputs or outputs.  It amounts to a tax on capital – but capital is already having it very easy in the world economy, one of the drivers of increased inequality within nations (as opposed to between them…).

Strategically we should be thinking of more ways of taxing companies, on the basis of “use it or lose it” – it isn’t healthy for companies to sit on surplus profits.  A logical way would be to raise the tax rate but make dividends deductible – but this is probably a nightmare in practice.  Another idea is to cut the tax relief for debt interest – which would help restore the balance between debt and equity funding.  In the long term this would no doubt be very healthy and discourage companies from becoming over-indebted; in the short run it would be a bit like bayoneting the wounded after the battle, so implementation would need a great deal of care.

But even if either of these ideas look impractical, the argument for cutting the tax rate looks distinctly weak.

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Globalisation is at a turning point

After a period of relative silence the idea of “globalisation” is re-entering political commentary.  But almost none of the commentators seem have seem to have grasped its dynamics – and that its pressure on developed economies is easing rapidly to both good and bad effect.

Maybe it’s Davos.  But globalisation has been coming up a lot lately.  It is the subject of this week’s Bagehot Column in the Economist, which claims that its effect lie behind a lot of the political debate in Britain.  An FT article drew attention to recent speeches by President Obama and French Presidential hopeful Francois Hollande apparently attacking its effects. And the IPPR launched a heavy (108 page) report on The Third Age of Globalisation, recommending that Britain in particular develops a proper industrial strategy.

I have already worried about how much political debate centres on abstract nouns, in particular “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” (a favourite on the left).  “Globalisation” has to be added to this list.  It is much better for the debate to move to the concrete (income and wealth distribution, for example).  But there is value in trying to unpick the concept a bit.  And what arises from this, at least in my view, is that the globalisation process is changing in way that few commentators recognise.

“Globalisation” is used as a collective word to refer to three inter-related phenomena in particular: international trade, cross-border investment, and international finance.  These three have worked together in the last couple of decades (the IPPR’s “third age”) to transform the world economy, with developing economies being at the heart of it.  It is associated with positive outcomes: the rise of so many developing economies, and negative – the increase in inequality in developed and developing nations alike.  But to understand how this process will evolve it is best to consider the trade aspect, from which all the rest flows.

The central phenomenon had been the growth of trade between less developed economies and more developed developed ones, with the former taking over the manufacture of many consumer goods, and also many services too.  Economists find this type of trade particularly easy to understand: it is a straightforward application of the principle of comparative advantage, first described some 200 years ago by David Ricardo.

Comparative advantage is one of those ideas that tend to separate “proper” economists from those that just try to follow economics from newspapers.  I think many of the latterle think it is similar to the much more familiar idea of competitive advantage – but it is quite different.  Basically it says that benefits in trade between two economies arise when there are differences between them in the opportunity costs of producing different goods.  So if one economy can produce 10 tons of wheat to one of beef, and another 5 tons, there are benefits in trade which each economy specialising in the good where it has comparative advantage.  In this case the first economy has a comparative advantage in beef and the second in wheat.  It makes no difference how efficient each economy is in producing either good.  And a comparative advantage in one good means a disadvantage in another – unlike competitive advantage (which applies to individual businesses rather than to whole economies) where one party can dominate the other.

So this theory predicts that there will be trade between economies that are different to each other – which is why the trade between developed and developing economies is to easy to explain.  Economists struggle in using the theory to explain trade between similar, developed economies – but that’s another story, and it is a different type of trade.

Developing countries have emerged with a comparative advantage in low and middle tech manufacturing.  Developing countries typically have the balancing comparative advantages in higher-end goods and services, raw materials (where they have endowments) and agriculture.  Of course what we notice is the very low wages in developing countries, which make us think that the whole business is unfair.  But it is a sideshow, and very easy to explain using basic economics.  Wage rates are low because the developing economy as a whole is massively unproductive.  The manufacturing plants may be relatively efficient, but other industry, and especially agriculture, is so unproductive that it drags wages down for the whole labour market.  If factories paid higher wages, nobody would man the farms and people would starve (to greatly oversimplify things).  It takes some getting used to the idea that developed countries have a comparative advantage in agriculture, when so much of a developing country’s resources are tied up in the sector – but that is what is going on.  Full free trade in agriculture would put most developing world farmers out of business – except where tropical conditions gave them an advantage (bananas, perhaps).

And here’s the point.  As the developing economy advances this picture changes.  More and more people come off the land, and agriculture becomes more productive.  Wages across the economy rise, and the developing economy slowly comes to resemble a developed one.  The gains from trade disappear.  Trade continues but it is on much more equal terms and much more about the competitive advantage of particular businesses than about the circumstances of a whole economy.

And this is exactly what has happened.  In the 1990s the globalisation trend was mainly about the so-called “tiger” economies, of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, and so on.  I remember Tory ministers wandering around saying how this country was under existential threat unless workers’ pay and conditions were cut so that we the country would be competitive.  But eventually a South Korean firm decided to build a factory here because it was cheaper producing goods here than at home.  South Korea had caught up.  But as the Tigers caught up and went to the next phase, China and India entered the picture, and gave the process a boost.  The two most populous countries in the world were bound to have a massive effect and the whole process accelerated.

But these countries are catching up.  This is especially clear in China, where rising wages have become a big issue.  This week’s Economist has a very interesting briefing on the subject.  The same processes are visible in the rather more chaotic India too.  In both cases the attention is shifting to raising the standard of living for the domestic population, rather than international competitiveness.  The worm has turned.

And on to the next wave?  There are plenty of less developed economies in the queue: Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and various countries in Africa.  But none have the size and weight of the big two.  And it’s not just a matter of supply: the developed world is becoming that much bigger as new countries enter it – so impact of these poorer countries entering the market will be spread more widely; they will be busy exporting to India and China.

So the basic driving force behind the globalisation trend of the last 20 years is grinding to a halt.  What effect does that have on us in the developed countries?  The good news is that the pressure to offshore will ease, producing a bit more stability on our work landscape.  The bad news is that the gains on trade will vanish.  This has been an important part of the general rise in living standards in the last couple of decades, which we have been relying on to produce forward momentum to a greater extent than many realise.  Another reason why the “new normal” is slower growth.

So the developed countries will stay grumpy, but more from the slowdown of globalisation than from its continued rise.  But the big question is whether the trends to inequality will reverse.  On that score things are much less clear.

 

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Ballsed up – Labour’s economic narrative implodes

Labour’s economic narrative was always a bit of a balancing act, and now it is coming apart.  It is tempting to blame the messengers (Ed Balls and Ed Miliband), but its own contradictions are the real problem.

But what is this narrative?  It is rarely reported sympathetically, so confusion is widespread.  This is how I understand it:

  1. The Labour government’s careful middle way between free markets and social democratic intervention rewarded Britain with a prolonged period of economic growth, and growth too in public services.  Contrary to what political opponents and a hostile media claim, this was perfectly sustainable.  Indeed by 2007 Labour had won over most of its critics and the Tories were saying that they would do much the same.
  2. But in 2008 it collided with a global economic storm, originating in foolish economic policies elsewhere in the world, and misguided financial management, mainly in America.  Since full participation in globalisation was part of Labour’s economic policy, and had delivered enormous benefits, Britain could not but be affected.  After the first shock, sensible economic policies under Gordon Brown were delivering a sustained recovery.  These policies were based on maintaining aggregate demand in the economy, in particular by sustaining government expenditure, with only a gradual, carefully measured slow down.
  3. This was all undone by the coming to power of the Coalition in 2010.  They panicked (or else were driven by a malign wish to undo Labour’s good works) and cut back too far, too soon.  This has set off the classic Keynesian doom loop, where reduced government expenditure reduces private demand, causing further hardship.  There are any number of distinguished economists who point out the folly of excessive austerity (Paul Krugman being a favourite).
  4. The Coalition policy is failing, as growth has tailed off and government forecast after forecast is being missed.  This is doing long-term and lasting damage to the economy.
  5. Because of this long term damage, by the time we reach 2015 it will not be so easy to pump things back up again to where they were before.  As a result, Labour cannot promise to restore the cuts – even as we now declare they are foolish.

It is not my point today to pick holes in the economic logic of this.  Both Mr Balls and Mr Miliband are economically literate, and we have every reason to believe that they believe what they are saying.  It is not falling apart in terms of economic logic – and the likely future turn of events is not likely to undermine it.  The only thing that would be a problem for them is if the economy should start to pick up some serious speed.  Nobody believes that it will.

The problem is the politics.  Labour have been trying to achieve a tricky balancing act here.     The dismantling of so much of Labour’s legacy by the Coalition has sent their supporters into a frenzy of anger.  Labour needs to harness this anger to sustain its political “ground war” – the hard graft of daily political advance, for the most part achieved by unpaid volunteers, even if the wider public seems more sceptical.  This angry brigade has not accepted that any cuts are necessary, and grasp at the writings of Krugman et al, adding a little A-level economics, to sustain the idea that all the economy needs is more government expenditure to reflate its way back all the way to 2008.  They think that the Coalition is waging economic warfare on the poor, as one commenter on this blog put it, with the naive Lib Dems being taken for a ride, along with a large part of the public.

The angry brigade hears what it wants to from the “too far, too fast” mantra and thinks that the Labour front bench is on its side.  But the Labour leaders also know that the economy has shrunk so much that many, indeed, most, of the cuts will have to be made eventually.  Labour’s plans to cut the deficit before they left office weren’t so very different to the current government’s, and very little at all compared the surprisingly slow pace at which the deficit has actually been cut.  Their plan is actually to win back and exercise power again, rather than simply have fun as an opposition party.  They know they need to present credible policies for when they are in power again – after all, look what happened to the Lib Dems when they promised that they could cut university tuition fees to harness student anger for their own ground war.  And a close reading of what Mr Balls and Mr Miliband have been saying is not nearly as reckless as the mood music of anger.

But Labour have encountered a wider political problem.  The passion and anger of their activists burns as bright ever, but the public are simply not convinced.  Why?  It is tempting to blame economic naivety, which allows the government and its supporters to present the government’s finances as if they were a household budget.  Actually I think the feeling runs deep that the economic prosperity of the late Labour years was unsustainable. There is no naivety about that standpoint.  Government debt catches the blame – but in fact it was private sector debt that was more to blame.  And for those that did not have a government job, the suspicion the state was too big and benefits too generous ran deep.  In my description of the narrative most people can’t get past the first paragraph.

And so the two Eds have started to reach out to the sceptics by emphasising paragraph 5 – that the cuts will have to stay.  The hope is that this will then give them an opportunity to get a hearing for whatever else they have to say, on corporate greed, the NHS reforms and so on.  But the activists are apoplectic.  The Guardian‘s weekend article has attracted a whole host of disbelieving and hostile comments from a group of people that is now feeling disenfranchised.

But the narrative is too complex to be accepted by the sceptics either.  Only a confession that the economy before 2008 and unsustainable, even without a financial crisis, will do that.  Alas the two Ed’s don’t think they can say that.  And so politically the narrative falls apart.  I would be surprised if Ed Miliband lasts the year.  He has had some bright ideas, and has begun to take Labour out of its denial phase.  But as denial moves into anger, he will surely be a victim.

 

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Time to wake up to the de-industrialisation of advanced economies

Trying to understand the global economic crisis?  This article from Joe Stiglitz is required reading.

I have flagged it already on Facebook and Twitter, but without much in the way of reflection. In fact it has produced an epiphany moment for me.  I have maligned Professor Stiglitz in a past blog as producing only superficial commentary on the crisis, alongside his fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.  This was based on one or two shorter articles in the FT and some snatches on the radio; I wasn’t reading or listening carefully enough.  Professor Stiglitz is one of the foremost economists on the current scene.  He used to be part of the Clinton administration, and worked at the World Bank in the 1990s, but his views proved politically unacceptable.  He also wrote the standard text book on public economics, which I used in my not so recent degree course.

The article is wonderful on many levels, but the epiphany moment for me came with his observation that, underlying the current crisis, is a long-term decline of manufacturing employment in the US, and by implication, other advanced economies too.  He draws an interesting parallel with the Great Depression, which was caused, he claims, by a comparable shift from agricultural employment – again in the US; I think that such a shift was less marked in Britain, but the depression was also less severe.  This decline in employment brought about a doom-loop of declining demand across the economy as a whole – which was only reversed by World War 2.  The war effort caused a boom in manufacturing industry which was readily redeployed into the postwar economy.  This view of the Great Depression rises above the fierce controversies over fiscal and monetary policy, and places them in a proper context.

We have been witnessing the decline in manufacturing employment for some years, and grappling with its social consequences.  The important point is that it is mainly irreversible. It has been brought about by technological change, which has improved productivity.  There is a limit to the number of manufacturing products that we can consume – just as there is a limit to the food we can consume, and we are at that limit.  So the number of jobs declines.

Of course the picture is complicated by the rise of manufacturing in the developing world, and especially China, and their exports to the developed world.  In the US I am sure, and certainly in the UK, more manufacturing output is now imported than exported, causing a further loss of jobs.  This is reversible, though, and in due course will reverse, as the developing world advances and loses its temporary competitive edge.  But this won’t be enough to reverse the overall trend of rising productivity.

But advancing productivity should be good news in the long run.  It releases the workforce to do other things, or, if people prefer, to increase leisure time.  So what replaces the manufacturing jobs, in the way that manufacturing took over from agriculture?  Services, of course.  What is, or should be, the product of these services?  Improved wellbeing.

Services have rather a poor reputation in our society.  Traditionalists see them as ephemeral, compared to the real business of making things – a bit like Soviet planners were obsessed with producing steel rather than consumer goods.  More thoughtful people associate them with poor quality jobs in fast food restaurants or call centres.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We need to develop clearer ideas of what tomorrow’s service-based economy will look like. That’s important because the way out of the current crisis is through investments that will take us closer to this goal, just as war led to investment in manufacturing in the 1940s (and earlier in Europe).

And the key to this is thinking about wellbeing.  This is important because one of the answers could be an increase in leisure, hobbies and voluntary activities – which is not normally regarded as economic activity at all.  Reflecting on this, I think are two areas whose significance will grow and where investment should be made, both of which raise awkward political problems – health and housing.

It is easy to understand that health and social care will take up a higher proportion of a future economy than they do now, and not just because of demographic changes.  These services are vital to wellbeing.  But we are repeatedly told that we can’t afford to expand them.  And that is because we are reaching the limits of what state-supplied, taxpayer funded services can deliver in the UK. (In the US it’s another story for another day).  The health economy of tomorrow will have a larger private sector component, whether integrated with the NHS or parallel to it.  But what should our priorities now be, while this private sector is on the back foot?  It seems sensible to make the NHS more efficient and effective, but foolish to cut jobs.  We should be building the skill base alongside the reform programme.  The chief critics of the government’s NHS plans (including the Labour front bench) are that NHS reforms should be stopped so that they can focus on the critical business of raising efficiency.  But maybe it should be the other way round – we should be pushing ahead with reform, but relaxing the efficiency targets and letting the costs rise a bit until the economy starts showing greater signs of life. then, as any cuts are made the private health sector can take up the slack.

Perhaps housing is pushing at the boundaries of what “services” are.  We traditionally view this as a capital investment.  But what I mean is providing more and better places for people to live in, whether they own them or not.  Most of the country is quite well off here, but poor housing is probably what divides rich from poor more than anything else – and more investment in the right places (decently sized social housing) could rebalance things nicely and dramatically improve wellbeing.

But beyond this we badly need to get out of a manufacturing mindset, both in the private and public sectors.  We should not view division of labour and specialisation as the ideal form of organisation (massive call centres, and so on), and we should value listening skills much more – I nearly wrote “communication skills” but most people understand this about getting over what you want to say, not understanding what your customer or service user actually needs.  This is happening only very slowly.

So I would add a third priority: education.  We need to greatly expand the teaching of life skills at school and elsewhere.  This would not only help build the skills that tomorrow’s economy needs.  It would help people make better choices in a changing world.

 

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The difficult truth about payday loans

The top story on the BBC Today programme this morning was about the expansion of so called “payday loans”, drawing attention to the shockingly high interest rates such loans entail (1,700% APR is typical).  This was hooked onto some research by insolvency group R3, which thereby got massive free publicity (Christmas came early for some PR person); the BBC web story is here.  Even the sober Financial Times runs the headline “‘Legal loan sharks’ target urban poor“.  This coverage makes me very uncomfortable.  Time and again middle-class do-gooders and commentators fail to understand the grim economics of being poor – and their interventions usually make things worse.

What are payday loans?  They are short-term loans (less than a month) for smallish amounts (typically £100s).  The timing and amount is related to typical paydays, hence the name.  Looking at moneysupermarket.com the typical charge is £25 for a one month loan of £100.  They are provided by in a reasonably transparent way by public companies, rather than in the informal economy.

How to think about this?  When providing financial products (similar logic applies to savings savings) it is easiest to think about three components.  The cost of the money; the risk of default; and the labour input.  The first two are well understood by everybody, and are directly proportional to the amount and length of time borrowed or saved, and can be understood as a rate of interest.  The third is usually ignored, because if your are well-off it doesn’t amount to very much in the scheme of things.  Labour input is the cost of actually providing the product (including distribution, admin, computers, and the rest); it is not proportionate to the value of the product, but to its structure, the number of transactions, and so on.  If you are dealing in millions of pounds it is negligible; but if you are borrowing (or saving) the odd £100 it is not.  £25 is a massive rate of interest for a £100 borrowing, but a run of the mill cost of labour input for a single transaction.  If you don’t have much money labour input is highly significant; it destroys your savings and ratchets up the cost of borrowing.

If the loan is genuinely short-term then it doesn’t look unreasonable, in fact.  What are the alternatives?  An unauthorised overdraft at your bank will cost way more than this, since British Banks have lighted on this as a way of cross-subsidising “free” banking.  And forget trying to get an authorised overdraft, which might well come with an arrangement fee, etc.  And it is a much better deal than the real loan sharks in the informal economy.  Credit cards (if you can get one) may be a better deal if you are careful.  In fact you could look at payday loans as welcome competition in the lending market.

Much of the criticism of this type of product centres on people who use this type of finance for longer term needs, rolling over each month.  This is a very bad idea and leads to even worse hardship, but is really right to ban this sort of product on the basis that it can be misused?  Cars kill hundreds (even thousands) of people each year, but this doesn’t mean we stop the public from driving them.  Much of the criticism is unbearably patronising.

There are two things we must learn from this.  First is that finance for the poor is more about transaction costs than interest rates and rates of return.  Longer term borrowing can be extortionately expensive; savings, including most pension plans, deliver much lower returns than those for better off people.  It’s part of the poverty trap that is not widely recognised.  And it’s one of the reasons why the welfare state is so important in developed societies.

And the second thing is that it is vital for everybody, and especially those on lower incomes, to understand finance much better.  School teaching on “financial capability” is essential.  Everybody needs to be numerate.

But well-meaning regulation, such as that which has pursued payday lenders in the United States, is a likely to make matters worse.  You can’t legislate away the laws of physics.

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George Osborne, Ed Balls and the confidence fairy

Paul Krugman, the economics Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist, likes to talk of the “confidence fairy”.  It is a critique of right-wing “supply side” economists, who advocate cutting back on taxes and public expenditure and reducing government regulation.  These counter the criticism that such policies suck demand out of the economy and cause unemployment with the idea that confidence in the soundness of the government’s policies would boost business investment and consumption, and so create jobs.  But such beliefs have no more substance that a belief in fairies.

Mr Krugman believes in solid government management of aggregate demand of a type that is often called “Keynesianism”.  He was bitterly critical of the Obama government for not trying to enact a much bigger stimulus programme in 2008, at a time when the usual criticism was that he was spending to much.  These same arguments are emerging in the UK between the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and his Labour Shadow Ed Balls.

To be fair, Mr Osborne and his supporters, especially the Lib Dem ones, never made much use of the confidence fairy in the sense that Professor Krugman uses it.  The confidence they that they had in mind in supporting austerity was that of investors in government bonds, and the scary consequences of losing it.  But ultimately Mr Osborne does believe that business and consumer confidence will provide the economic growth and employment he seeks.  But what fewer people understand is that the policies advocated by Mr Balls and Professor Krugman require the confidence fairy too.

Let us consider the logic of the “Keynesian” stimulus.  Cut VAT as Mr Balls suggests and put this money in consumers’ pockets, who go out and spend it, creating jobs, which create further demand.  The Keynesian multiplier (no need for quotation marks here) does its stuff and £10bn of government stimulus might increase total demand in the economy by perhaps £20bn in a year.  But then what?  The extra demand has helped offset the cost (so the £10bn direct cost has been reduced to perhaps £6bn), but the national debt has still gone up.  But growth drops back to zero (or worse) unless there is yet another stimulus package of yet more tax cuts or government spending programmes.  To the extent that these measures are temporary (such as the temporary tax cuts advocated by Mr Balls, or the job programmes and extensions to unemployment benefit favoured by Professor Krugman) then the whole process goes into reverse, multiplier and all.  And if the programmes aren’t temporary, the government structural deficit has just got a lot bigger.  Unless the confidence fairy waves her magic wand.

And it is this boost in confidence that lies behind the case for government stimulus.  It is reinforced by the metaphors used to describe it, such as “kick-start”, “getting the economy moving” or the word “stimulus” itself.  A catalyst that improves confidence and hence gets businesses to invest and consumers spending more and saving less.  And the results would indeed be magical.  By spending and borrowing more you would reduce borrowings in the medium term by more than a strategy based on austerity.  But without the fairy it works no more than the supply-side policies do.  The problem is deferred and made worse, not solved.

So can such a stimulus boost confidence?  In the right circumstances it certainly could, such as those induced by a temporary external shock, perhaps literally as in an earthquake (one of the reasons why earthquakes seem to do such little damage to an advanced economy).  And here there is a genuine divergence of view.  Mr Balls, who perfectly literate economically, does not believe that the British economy pre crisis was fundamentally unsustainable, and so thinks that it should be relatively easy to recover the lost ground.  In economist-speak the British economy has plenty of spare capacity.  A number of professional economists, including the FT’s Samuel Brittan, one of my heroes, seem to agree.  But government economists and many others, apparently including the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, disagree.  The previous economy was over dependent on debt spending by consumers and government and cheap imports, sustained by an overvalued exchange rate and financial support from abroad that can no longer be counted on.  Mr Brittan thinks that the lower capacity of the economy is a self-fulfilling prophesy (i.e the longer the economy is depressed, the more difficult the recovery), but personally I think that the 2007 economy was in a very bad place, and was always going to take a long time to sort out.

But even if you don’t accept this, there is another problem.  The extra confidence induced by a stimulus package can be overwhelmed by outside events, such as the Euro crisis.  The UK economy, much more than the US one, is dependent on the world economy and is open to such shocks.  Right now looks the wrong time to bet on a calm world economy.

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The Euro end game

It’s been a tough year for Europhiles, especially those, like me, who have always supported the single currency and thought Britain should have been part of it.  Most of them have been very quiet, and no wonder.  Whatever one says quickly has the feel of being out of touch and in denial.  And now this week the Economist asks in a leading article  Is this really the end? that has been tweeted over 1,200 times and picked up over 500 comments.  In today’s FT Wolfgang Munchau article is headlined: The Eurozone really has only days to avoid collapse (paywall).  Is now the moment to finally let go, and admit that the whole ill-fated enterprise is doomed?

There is no doubting the seriousness of the current crisis.  While most of the headlines have been about sovereign debt (especially Italy’s) what is actually threatening collapse is the banking system.  It seems to be imploding in a manner reminiscent of those awful days of 2007 and 2008.  The Germans’ strategy of managing the crisis on the basis of “just enough, just in time” seems to be heading for its inevitable denouement.  Unless some of their Noes turn to Yeses soon there could be a terrible unravelling.

The most urgent issue is to allow the European Central Bank (ECB) to open the floodgates to support both banks and governments suffering a liquidity crisis.  “Printing money” as this process is often referred to, seems the least bad way to buy time.  Two other critical elements, both mentioned by Mr Munchau, are the development of “Eurobonds” – government borrowing subject to joint guarantee by the member states – and fiscal integration – a proper Euro level Finance Ministry with real powers to shape governments’ fiscal policy in the zone.  Most commentators seem to be convinced that some sort of steps in both these directions will be necessary to save the Euro.

I have a lingering scepticism about these last two.  I thought that the original idea of allowing governments to default, and so allowing the bond markets to act as discipline, had merit.  The problem was that the ECB and other leaders never really tried it before the crisis, allowing investors to think that all Euro government debt was secure.

Still the short term crisis is plainly soluble, and most people will bet that the Germans will give the ECB enough room to avert collapse.  But that leaves the zone with a big medium term problem, and two long term ones.  The medium term one is what to do about the southern members whose economies are struggling: Spain, Portugal and Greece especially, with Italy lurching in that direction.  The stock answer, which is to enact is reforms such that their economies become more competitive, seems to involve such a degree of dislocation that we must ask if it is sustainable.  This treatment is not dissimilar to that meted out by Mrs Thatcher to Britain in the 1980s (an uncompetitive currency was part of the policy mix here, deliberately or not), for which she is still widely loathed.  And she was elected (though “democratically” is a stretch given Britain’s electoral system).  How will people react to unelected outsiders imposing such treatment?  Better than Britons would, no doubt, since there is so little confidence in home grown politicians , but it’s still asking a lot.

And that leads to one of the two long-term problems: the democratic deficit.   A lot of sovereignty is about to be shifted to central institutions, and it won’t be possible to give electors much say.  The second long term issue is dealing with the root cause of the crisis in the first place, which is how to deal with imbalances of trade that develop within the Euro economy.  Germany simply cannot have a constant trade surplus with the rest of the zone without this kind of mess occurring at regular intervals.  But there is no sense that German politicians, still less their public, have the faintest grasp of this.  For them the crisis is the fault of weak and profligate governments elsewhere.

So if the Euro survives the current crisis, there is every prospect of another one down the road, either political (one or more countries wanting to leave the Euro and/or the Union) or financial (say an outbreak of inflation).

My hope earlier in the crisis was that it was part of a learning curve for the Euro governments.  As they experienced the crisis institutions would be changed and expectations made more realistic, such that zone could get back to something like its original vision.  I am afraid that there is a lot more learning to do.

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