Tag Archives: UK economic policy

Tax is the Budget gorilla

As a rule I hate clichés. I cringe whenever I hear about a “perfect storm”. But I have a soft spot for the gorilla in the room, who is sometimes an elephant. The huge thing, obvious to everybody, but which it is impolite to talk about. In responding to Britain’s annual (OK, twice yearly) Budget I’m looking at one of them.

Britain’s Budgets are political theatre staged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as our senior finance minister is known, annually, or whenever there is new government. There is also an Autumn Statement, which amounts nearly to the same thing. The whole exercise is a process of heavily manipulated speculation in advance, followed by a tumble of instant reaction. All this shows how news is the enemy of information. By the time facts are known, contextualised and properly analysed the news media have long since moved on. People who try to be a bit more serious, like me, are torn. By joining the circus of speculation and premature response we get more readers and more reaction. But this is often at the cost of saying anything that is worth saying. My compromise is not to respond until after I have read the reactions the morning after.

The Budget process seems particularly farcical at the moment. The government is trying to set out its plans over a five year period, and in particular over the five years of a parliament, which in both cases means up to 2020 at the moment. This means they depend on five year projections of the economy. These projections are produced independently of the Treasury by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR). Without the smoothing hand of political manipulation, the five year outlook is highly volatile. Last Autumn the OBR “found” £27 billion; a mere six months later they had “lost” £56 billion. I can’t offer much help about what is going on here, except to point out that economic forecasting is a dodgy business, and this sort of volatility simply shows the absence of manipulation. It is no basis upon which to carry out serious economic planning. And yet the government says that it is doing just that. Last Autumn it used the £27 billion windfall to relax its fiscal plans. This time it was forced to tighten up a little, plus deploy a few accounting tricks to pretend that it is on course to meet tis five year target to move the budget into surplus, even as interim targets fall by the wayside.

But nobody is convinced, and nobody cares. It is far too early to worry about 2020, with so many unknowns. The critical thing is the next year, and nobody disagrees much with the overall thrust of George Osborne’s strategy. The muddle is particularly noticeable on the left. They are trying to capitalise on the fact that the government is missing its short-term austerity targets, while at the same time condemning austerity. Since 2010, the government has taken a pragmatic, Keynesian stance to fiscal policy, while pretending that it is being austere.  This means that the country’s fiscal deficit and levels of public debt are higher than pretty much any other major developed economy apart from Japan, having started the crisis in a much stronger position. That this has still meant dramatic cuts to public spending shows just how out of control the government finances had become under the previous government, as it pursued the illusory goal of Scandinavian public spending backed by US taxes. The left are still in denial about this.

So what did Mr Osborne do? Not much. There were promised tax cuts on personal allowances and higher rate thresholds. He failed to increase tax on petrol, even after petrol prices have fallen so far. There were cuts to company taxes and capital gains. I don’t approve of much of this, though many liberals do. But the impact will not be huge. He stepped up the ratchet on public spending, without being too specific, but pushing the hard decisions way into the future in the hope, no doubt, that the economy will come to the rescue. There were gimmicks and irrelevances aplenty, like a sugar tax, and pushing schools towards academy status, which I comment on in another post.

But here’s the problem. Constraining, never mind cutting, public spending is getting harder. Benefit cuts are causing anguish that even Conservative MPs feel; the ambitious idea for Universal Credit could yet collapse amid its technical problems. The attempt to drive efficiency savings in the NHS through ratcheting up financial pressure annually, a policy that predates 2010, has now collapsed. Hopes that the NHS can achieve substantial savings through re-engineering are vanishing. The ugly behemoth is unmanageable, and the reforms made by the Coalition aren’t helping. Outsourcing bits of it will not help. Meanwhile demand continues to rise. The government’s bid to reform schools finance requires a lot of extra money to placate the losers if it is not going to run into big problems. Social care is in crisis. Attempts to curb the defence budget have collapsed.

Behind this can be spied a strategic problem. Or, rather, two. The first is a growing proportion of older people, with an added demand for public pensions, and health and social care support, while dropping out of the tax base. The second is that the benefits of a modern economy are increasingly going to the richest, leaving many behind without adequate savings, and putting pressure on the social security safety net. Rising property prices are exacerbating this, burdening many younger people with huge rents and no prospect of joining the property bonanza. I could add a number of further issues which suggest that the days of easy economic growth are over.

So demand for public services is rising, but the tax base is shrinking, or at least stagnating. There is a substantial current account deficit, which limits the scope for creative government finance (like “people’s QE) we need lots of foreign currency to buy the all those foreign goods we depend on. There is really only one way out. Taxes will have to go up, and not just on the richest. That means the sacred trio of income tax, national insurance and VAT. But nobody talks about this. Not even the opposition parties.

And that is the gorilla.

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Neither fish nor fowl, why I will oppose the economics motion at #ldconf

This weekend the Liberal Democrats meet for their Spring Conference. To most observers of the political scene, this is an irrelevance. But with the growing gap between Labour members and the general voting public,  and the Conservative Party riven by splits on Europe, who knows what opportunities might arrise for the party? I still care about it, anyway.

The party is rebuilding itself after the five year car crash of coalition government ended last year with it being reduced to near irrelevance in the House of Commons. And that followed five years of rather gentler decline after its peak year of 2005. The party conferences are an opportunity for members and leaders to decide what the revitalised party stands for.

One complaint after last year’s meltdown was that the party was weak on economic policy, and so let others set the agenda. No doubt that motivated the submission of a motion on the economy as the first item of policy business on Saturday with just an hour’s debate. Alas the motion plumbs the depths of awfulness.

I can’t find a neat link to it, so I will reproduce it here in full below, so you can judge for yourself. But with its 10 whinges about the current situation, and 15 proposals, I’m not sure I would recommend a close read. It is mostly unobjectionable. It has some worthy ideas, and some airy aspirations. Item 11 od the 15 reads: “Addressing inequality through a renewed commitment across Government and society to analyse and address Beveridge’s Five Giants in modern society.”

In some contexts a list of 15 rather disconnected policy ideas is not a bad idea for a policy motion – for example if the party was planning to negotiate a coalition programme from a position of strength. This is hardly the context now, and even then it fails. Just what would you do with a commitment to tackle the Five Giants in a coalition negotiation? Instead all such a long list of vague ideas serves is to offend people whose own hobby horses are left out of the 15, or are underrepresented, or given too low a prominence.

What the party actually needs from a debate on economics at this stage in the political cycle either of two things.

The first thing it could do is set out a very limited number of general themes, around which to hang more detailed policies. These need to display a bit of vision, and show  what the party is all about. I suggested a few last year: green growth, small is beautiful (or greater diversity and innovation, if you will), problem-solving public services and addressing inequalities and imbalances. It would not be hard to do better than that, and any debate would say something about the party’s values and campaigning priorities. I can find no such clear general themes in the motion. Worse, I am rather shocked to see so few references to environmental sustainability in a party that used to pride itself on environmental consciousness – that alone is reason enough to vote the motion down.

The second thing it could do is develop a particular economic idea or solution to a specific economic problem. There are plenty of places where this needs to be done: investing for green growth; tackling the housing crisis; free but fair trade; taxing businesses. Or the role of fiscal policy in economic management, though the chances of getting a rational debate on that area in a left of centre political party are slim. This is actually where the heavy lifting needs to be done, and where the Lib Dems can make a substantive contribution to the wider political debate on economics.  The real world of democratic politics is evolutionary; revolutions fail. What is needed is a series of practical changes, each of which will works on its own merits, and which collectively will amount to radical change. The motion does point to some specifics, but each of its 15 proposals needs to be picked apart in a debate of its own. Instead we have a series of vague and useless commitments.

And as a result the motion is a complete waste of time. Much hope seems to be being placed on amendments. But unless these are allowed to replace the motion with an entirely new one, which would be an abuse of process, I can’t see how it can either be turned into a general vision or a specific economic proposal. It is neither fish nor fowl.  The best thing to do with it is to throw it out and start again.

Conference re-asserts the Liberal Democrats’ continuing commitment to sound public finances, social justice, an open economy in an open society, and the principle of free markets whenever possible with intervention where necessary by an enabling state.

Conference notes:

a) The Liberal Democrats’ effective record in Government in stabilising the public finances and major contributions in the fields of apprenticeships, banking regulation, the British Business Bank, the Green Investment Bank and the promotion of innovation through the Catapult network.

b) The fragile nature of economic recovery following the 2008 crash, evidenced by interest rates which are historically low and continued Eurozone uncertainty.

c) The growth of house prices carrying the threat of a price bubble and subsequent crash.

d) The Chancellor’s unhelpful and arbitrary re-definition of the deficit, doubling the total by including capital spending, in his attempt to justify Tory spending cuts.

e) The medium-term risk to the UK economy posed by increasing and unsustainable private and household debt.

f) The threats to the UK economic prospects posed by Conservative approaches to UK membership of the European Union and immigration.

g) The International Monetary Fund’s advice to reduce debt through growth not cuts.

h) The UK economy’s over-dependence on London and the South-East.

i) The UK’s bad record in allowing the growth of an increasing number of young people with low levels of education, training and aspiration.

j) Growing inequalities in wealth and income, coupled with unfair and regressive action against the poorest people in the country, now exacerbated by the assault on welfare spending.

Conference calls for effective measures to support and grow the UK economy, including by many established Liberal Democrat policies:

1. Increased investment, both directly by Government financed by public borrowing, and stimulated by Government, particularly in affordable housing including social housing and infrastructure to support balanced growth throughout the UK.

2. Support for planning reform, institutional lending to small builders and action by local authorities for planned development, including assembling land for auction.

3. Further measures to improve and regulate banking services by promoting efficient lending, particularly to small and medium-sized enterprises, encouragement of challenger banks and increased personal accountability.

4. Strengthening takeover legislation to protect the country’s science base.

5. Reversing cuts in the development of green energy and promoting investment in green business initiatives.

6. Further development of the Government’s industrial strategy, promoting co-operation and supply chain development in key sectors for the long-term.

7. Re-balancing the economy towards manufacturing industry and regions, based on the coherent and substantial devolution of political and financial power.

8. Further reform of corporate governance to encourage ‘long-termism’ and to discipline executive pay, including an employee role in determining executive pay.

9. Renewed emphasis on vocational education and training, particularly through effective apprenticeships and especially higher-degree level and engineering and construction apprenticeships.

10. Coherent efforts across Government Departments to address the needs of young people who are excluded from the labour market and participation in wider society.

11. Addressing inequality through a renewed commitment across Government and society to analyse and address Beveridge’s Five Giants in modern society.

12. Investigating sustainable ways of funding universal services, including a cross-party, cross-society settlement on funding health and social care.

13. A new commitment to taxing unearned wealth, including Land Value Taxation.

14. Measures to dampen the growth of asset bubbles in opposition to Conservative approaches which tend to increase that growth.

15. Support for more diverse ownership models including worker ownership, social enterprise, mutuality and co-operation.

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Economics essay 2: why global trade is going into reverse

Now for the second essay on economics that I wrote in 2008. The topic is trade, and it investigates the theory of trade between developed and developing nations. It turns out that standard trade theory, based on comparative advantage, works rather well here. But it contains a prediction that goes largely unremarked. Apart from Paul Samuelson (in 2004) I haven’t seen anybody else raise the point. And yet it does much to explain what is going on in the world now, especially between Britain and China.

The theory of comparative advantage is part of what Americans call “Economics 101”: basic first year economics. It explains how mutual trade can benefit economies even when one is manifestly more efficient than the other. But generally this wonderful piece of logic, made famous two centuries ago by David Ricardo, fails to advance much beyond Economics 101. Modern economists have not found ways of using it to make concrete predictions. Attempts to make the theory more specific, for example by relating it to availability of factors of production (like land, capital, etc.) have come to not much. Instead the idea is used to give a warm glow to the idea of trade being a Good Thing, and the basis of patronising comments to non-economists advocating protectionism, while economists get on with the day job without touching it.

That is a pity, because the theory repays more examination. Its central idea is that gains from trade are based on opportunity costs of the various products in an economy, or comparative advantage – that is how much of one product you have to forgo to produce a given quantity of another. The corollary is that where the differences in opportunity cost are minimal, the gains from trade are likewise minimal. As different economies converge, the less incentive there is to trade.

In fact trade does take place between similar economies, but it is driven by other factors, such as economies of scale, and is quite sensitive to transport costs. But the theory of comparative advantage does explain trade between developed and emerging economies rather well. These economies are self evidently very different from each other, and gains may be made between countries on opposite sides of the globe. But as emerging economies develop; they converge with developed economies. What happens then?

To explore this I created a simple mathematical model. I divided the economy into four sectors: agriculture, where productivity grows, but which is not traded; services, also not traded, but where no productivity changes happen; and two types of goods, high and low tech, which are tradable and where productivity changes at differing rates. I looked at three stages of development. The first, undeveloped stage has a huge and inefficient agriculture sector. In the second, intermediate, stage, low tech manufacturing has got going. In the final developed economy stage, productivity has advanced in all sectors apart from trade, but especially in high tech goods.

I then looked at how trade would work between the developed and undeveloped economy. There was no major impact, but the undeveloped economy would buy all its high tech goods from the developed one, in exchange for low tech goods.  The undeveloped economy’s currency traded at well below purchasing power parity. Next I considered what would happen if the undeveloped economy moved to the intermediate stage. Now trade becomes much more important to both economies; once again the intermediate economy buys all its high tech goods from the developed one, in exchange for low tech goods. But the developed economy imports a high proportion of its low tech goods. Both sides gain substantially.

But what happens as the economies converge further? The trade disappears; the developing economy supplies an increasing proportion of its high tech needs, and exports fewer low tech goods, substituting productivity gains for gains from trade. The developed economy has to supply its own low tech goods again, and loses gains from trade. It is worse off.

All this models what has been happening between Britain and China quite well. Nothing much at first, but as China’s agriculture became more efficient, and so its low tech manufacturing could grow, then trade ballooned, with gains to both sides. This took place in the 1990s and early 2000s. The price of manufactured goods in Britain dropped because of cheap imports, allowing other goods and services, and pay, to grow at a healthy 4% per annum or so, while keeping overall inflation at about 2%; the components of the inflation statistics became very revealing. A lot of the economic growth that took place in Britain in this period was surely driven by this, rather than advancing productivity.

But even in 2008 I could see that the party was coming to an end. Chinese costs were rising; they were moving increasingly into high tech areas. It has become harder for Britain to compete for high tech goods, but easier to repatriate lower tech manufacturing and services. This latter has been good for British jobs, but not for living standards, as what is being repatriated has lower productivity. Volumes of trade have fallen – though it is a complex affair so cause and effect are hard to prove.

Won’t China be replaced by other countries? Japan started the trend after all, to be replaced by the “Asian Tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan, etc.), before China entered the picture. There are emerging economies that are taking up some of the slack – Vietnam and Bangladesh, perhaps. Africa has huge scale. But not only are many of these economies slow to transition to the intermediate stage, with a strong export manufacturing base, but the sheer scale of China changes things. The emerging economies are as likely to trade with China (and India, whose emergence takes a different but parallel path) as they are with the developed world. And perhaps low tech is becoming more high tech too – making it hard for the newly emerging economies to find enough of scale where they have a comparative advantage.

And this is yet another reason why developed economies appear to be stagnating, and why much of the growth that took place before the crash of 2008 was unsustainable. Trade has a reverse gear that is nothing to do with protectionism and ignorance of economic theory. Economic theory predicts it.

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Why do governments follow austerity when orthodox economists advise against it?

It’s by turns annoying and amusing: the way people on the left complain that orthodox economics has gone off the rails, and that we need fresh thinking to inform government policies. Apart from coming up with a lot of age-old tropes that economic models do not mimic real behaviour, or take account of information asymmetries, the main item of evidence is the persistance of austerity policies in the developed world.

But the main critics of austerity turn out to be…. orthodox economists. People like Joe Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf. And newspapers struggle to find economists to make the case for the defence. The Financial Times often resorts to Niall Ferguson, who is a historian, not an economist, and no match for a Nobel laureate like Mr Krugman. The British Labour party is even roping in economics professors to bolster its economic credibility.

In fact there is a brand of orthodox pro-austerity economists. These are the old “supply-siders” from such institutions as the Chicago Business School, who developed a line of “neoclassical” economics, and rebelled against what was once the Keynesian orthodoxy. This branch of thinking grew out to the economic crisis of the 1970s, but proved utterly useless when the crisis of 2007/08 hit. Neoclassical economists pipe up here and there in America, but are mostly silent, their credibility shot-through. That leaves the field nearly unchallenged for the neo-Keynesians – at least far as the public debate in newspaper columns is concerned, in Britain, anyway.

Which leaves us with a mystery. Why are governments, from Europe to America (though not Japan, interestingly), ignoring the orthodox economists? Two explanations are usually offered by their critics. One is rank incompetence or wilful blindness. The other is a political agenda that austerity plays to, usually involving making the rich richer. Neither explanation stands up to close examination.

I am wary of accusations of incompetence, especially when made about clearly intelligent people, such as most politicians and technocrats involved in government finance. This is something I learnt as a history undergraduate (I studied both science and history in my original undergraduate incarnation, long before my study of economics as a mature student). Such accusations are bandied about freely down the ages, but never stand up to scrutiny. Mostly the wilful blindness comes from the people making the accusation, who cannot entertain the idea that there is a rival point of view to their own. Modern economic policy is no exception.

The political agenda is a bit more plausible. Perhaps governments are in hoc to big business interests and those of the wealthy? But if the last 150 years of history has taught us anything, it is that if poorer members of society are prospering, the rich will prosper also, and be left in peace. This is even more true of big corporate interests than anybody else. It is harder to make money in a stagnant economy. Those malign influences are there in politics, but their effects are altogether more subtle than doing down poor people to help line the pockets of the rich.

Sensing that these explanations don’t work, many on the left build up an idea of “neoliberalism”. This is a philosophy based on the old supply-side or neoclassical economics that may be waning in academic economics, but still holds a grip on the lesser mortals who staff finance ministries and banks, and other parts of the “elite”. But this too is inadequate as an explanation. Certainly it is possible to identify a series of beliefs and biases amongst policymakers that equate to economic liberalism. But they do not explain austerity as a macroeconomic policy. And besides, we need to understand why the hold of these beliefs is so strong. Clearly some on the left think that an outdated economic orthodoxy is to blame. But surely such theoretical constructs cannot by themselves have such a grip on so many intelligent and practical minds?

Instead of a conflict between different types of theory, what is really going on is a conflict between theory and practice. The theoreticians may be gung-ho about fiscal and monetary stimulus, but the people who implement policy are acutely aware of the practical problems and risks. There are three particular practical issues about which the theoreticians are dismissive, but which weigh heavily on the practical types: economic efficiency; public investment; and financial markets.

First take economic efficiency. Pretty much everybody agrees that, ultimately, living standards depend on economic efficiency, or productivity. This piece of orthodoxy could be challenged, but that is not what most on the left mean (traditional Greens being the exception, along with liberal voices in the wilderness like mine) when they call for fresh thinking. They see slow economic growth as a sign of failure as much as any conservative does; and that ultimately is based on productivity. But economic efficiency is hard work politically. Both businesses and workers like to protect their patches with taxes, government agencies and regulations that keep the winds of change at bay. This is especially the case in Europe and Japan. And yet, in order to achieve long-term growth, these vested interested must be tackled, and reforms enacted. This has been shown in countless contexts in both developed and developing world. Mostly reforms have an economically liberal character – but only because this approach genuinely unlocks long-term efficiency.  Far-sighted politicians and officials want to use every possible chance to advance reforms. That includes the pressures created by economic hard times. Theoretical economists might suggest that boom years are the best time to push through reforms, or that reforms can be covered by macroeconomic leniency. Politicians know that the opposite is the case – it too difficult to muster the political imperative in easy times, or if short-term macroeconomic policies take the heat off.

Reform and austerity are not necessarily the same thing, but they almost always are.  This debate, of course, dominates discourse in the Euro zone, where economic hardship is concentrated in less efficient economies. Critics of austerity there offer no way forward for improved efficiency, beyond the hope that public infrastructure investment will deliver the growth they seek.

Which brings us to the difficulties of public investment. To theoretical economists this is the magic bullet. Public investment in infrastructure both yields gains to long-term efficiency, and a short term fiscal stimulus. The economists are exasperated that so few governments seem to follow their advice. And yet public investment is a graveyard of roads to nowhere and white elephants. When the imperative to  invest is political, the choice of project becomes political too. It is very hard to make sensible choices. China was much lauded for its infrastructure investment programme following the crash. This has now turned into a major headache, as so much of the money was wasted on empty cities and useless infrastructure. Something similar happened in Japan in the 1990s. Finance ministry officials are rightly wary.

And then there are the financial markets. If I’ve heard one economist here in Britain suggest that now is a fabulous time for the government to borrow, or even “print”, money, I’ve heard it from a hundred. With so much demand for government bonds in the markets, and inflation looking mortally wounded, just what are you worrying about? But none of these economists work at the sharp end of government finance. If they did, such sanguinity would remind them of the sort of thinking that got the world’s banks into the disaster in the first place: a reckless confidence that markets would behave in future as they do now.

Alas life is much more complicated than that. Grounds for confidence in the financial markets is stronger in some places than others. Japan has a massive export industry that sees to all its foreign currency needs, so that the state can borrow and even print the Yen with reasonable confidence. Which is what it has been doing, in prodigious quantities, for the last two decades, although to little apparent effect. The US is another country that can feel reasonably secure, even though its balance of trade is less benign than Japan’s. The dollar is the world’s de facto reserve currency. The United Kingdom, however, shares neither of these strengths. It needs to draw on overseas institutions and businesses, and its own private sector, in order to finance its significant current account and trade imbalances. This is not a problem that printing the Pound can help with. The state has been extraordinarily adept at handling this risk over the last few decades. But that is because of the conservatism that is currently attracting so much criticism.

To me the theoretical economists, the practical policymakers, and most of their leftist critics are all trapped by an orthodox way of looking at the world through economic aggregate statistics. This means that they are failing to take on the deeper problems that society faces: economic and environmental sustainability, alienation, and the gravitation of wealth to successful people and places. That has very little to do with the politics of austerity. People on the left who call for fresh thinking should be careful what they wish for.

 

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The economy is for Labour what tuition fees is for the Lib Dems

If there is something that unites British Labour Party people, from rightist Blairites, to Brownites, through to the leftist Corbynistas, it is that the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 should not be held responsible for the financial crash of 2008/09, and the terrible state of government finances that followed. They are made indignant by Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats) who go on about how Labour is to blame for the financial mess the government left the country in in 2010, when the budget deficit had ballooned to over 10% of GDP. But the public finds the Tory line more convincing. And if Labour are to throw off this albatross, it will have to move on from its air of injured innocence.

There are two dimensions to this question. The first is a question of fact, or purports to be: how much responsibility did the Labour government actually have for what went wrong in the economy? The second is what is going on in people’s heads when they think of Labour and the economy, and how the party might address it.

On the first question, Labour have quite a few sympathisers outside the party. And certainly the direct line of attack made by Tories is not all it seems. The Tory narrative is that Labour went on a spending splurge in the boom years, which then  proved completely unsustainable, leaving their successors  choice but to implement austerity policies. Defenders of Labour’s record point out that there was no big government deficit before the crash. It was a relatively modest 2.5% or so in 2006 and 2007, and not regarded as irresponsible at the time. Nobody foresaw the financial turmoil, which originated in American sub-prime mortgage markets.

The Labour defence against this charge is mostly true. But not quite. Gordon Brown, as Chancellor (he became Prime Minister in 2008), claimed to operate government expenditure on a “golden rule” which meant no net borrowing over the economic cycle. But he had taken to moving the goalposts rather than applying the rule strictly. Had he followed his own rules as originally intended, there may not have been a deficit as the economy turned in 2007. But that only accounts for 2% of the problem. There was another 5% that came from somewhere else, allowing for a normal cyclical swing of 3%, and which cannot be blamed on Labour profligacy.

If you take a wider view, however, Labour’s defence becomes more difficult. British government finances were worse affected than other major industrial countries, from France to the USA, and much worse than some, like Canada. There are broadly two reasons for this. The first is that Britain had a bigger financial crisis, because it had a bigger banking sector, especially in international banking, and so was more affected by its collapse. The second is that tax revenues fell unusually sharply in Britain. Both aspects have government fingerprints on them.

Take banking. Labour lauded the rise of the international banks, and celebrated Britain’s “light-touch” regulation that helped bring this about. They gave RBS’s Fred Goodwin a knighthood for no other reason than that he had expanded his bank, recklessly as it turned out – there were none of the usual good charitable works to point to as supporting a general aura of public-spiritedness, as is customary in such matters. Meanwhile, Britain’s success as an international banking hub helped drive Sterling up and manufacturing exporters out of business. Mr Brown tried to wriggle out of responsibility by suggesting that he wasn’t responsible for banking regulation under Britain’s tripartite system of financial regulation (between the Treasury, the FSA and the Bank of England). This is pretty damning, because this system was of his own design, and it was clear that overall responsibility for making sure the system was working lay with the Treasury. It couldn’t be anywhere else.

Then on taxes, Mr Brown engineered a switch from taxes on income, and Income Tax in particular, to an array of other taxes, like stamp duty, that turned out to be about milking financial bubbles. At the time, his reduction of the basic rate of income tax to 20% was lauded as a triumph. This proved a colossal misjudgement, as it has proved politically impossible to raise income taxes, even in supposed more left-leaning Scotland.

On top of this, a broader claim can be made. The world financial crisis was not some storm that happened somewhere else with unfortunate consequences for Britain. Britain was the world’s leading international centre of finance; Britain’s bankers were at the heart of it, Two of Britain’s big banks, RBS and HBoS, collapsed, not helped a Britain’s own reckless mortgage lending, which also affected smaller banks, like Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley. These banks had all adopted highly risky business models, whose main assumption was that global banking markets would be stable. Sitting on top of one of the most prestigious finance ministries in the world, and trumpeting his own reputation as a financial manager, Mr Brown and his acolytes can’t really escape the charge of incompetence for not appreciating these risks. And these risks were plan to some, including his Lib Dem shadow, Vince Cable, whose warnings were pooh-poohed.

Labourites are on stronger ground when they suggest that, once the crisis emerged, their government handled it well. It wasn’t pretty (amongst innocent victims of the government’s shoot-first approach were Icelandic banks and Britain’s own Lloyd’s bank), but largely stands up to scrutiny. Another argument is over whether the Tory/Lib Dem coalition that took power in 2010 was too tight with its austerity policies, compared to how Labour would have handled the same situation. Many independent commentators agree with at least the first part of that proposition, though I don’t.

So, I don’t think Labour were quite as innocent as they claim, even if much of the direct criticism is misplaced. But, in politics, such arguments actually count for little. A more important question is how the public perceives things. This is where Labour’s real problem lies. What the public sees is a classic hubris to nemesis story, which is one of the oldest storylines in humanity, and takes some rebutting. Labour’s problem is their boastfulness before the crisis. Labour appealed to voters because a Labour government meant “no more boom and bust”, unlike with the Tories. And then one of the biggest busts in history happened.

And there is trust issue here. Labour’s position is a bit like that of the Lib Dems over tuition fees. The Lib Dems vowed not to vote for an increase in student tuition fees before the election, and yet later that year they supported the trebling of fees. Many Lib Dems will give you a convincing intellectual explanation as to how this not nearly as bad as it sounds, and that anyway there was little they could do in coalition. But this cuts no ice with the public, because of the way the party presented their policies before the election.

Labour are onto an equally losing wicket if they try convincing the public that the economic crash of 2008/09 was not their responsibility. Ed Miliband, their leader at the last election, was quite right not to even try. Besides, the alternative argument that Labour were the hapless victim of world events hardly counters the public’s perception of the post-Brown leadership (Mr Miliband and his successor Jeremy Corbyn) of being nice but ineffectual. The usual advice for when you are in a whole is to stop digging. The idea that if the party had come out fighting, public perception would be swayed, is pure nonsense.

The only way forward is for Labour to acknowledge their responsibility, and put forward hard economic policies that show they are capable of taking tough decisions if in power. And that means they have to stop banging on about austerity and get tough with some of their own supporters. For now, though, there is no chance of that.

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2016 is nothing like 2008, but there’s trouble ahead for the world economy

In my New Year post I did not write much about finance, but made some rather throwaway comments that the economy could take a turn for the worse in 2016.  Having just read Martin Wolf’s rather sanguine piece in the FT, I hadn’t quite understood that my views were in line with conventional wisdom in the financial markets – and this not at all a position I like to be in. But pessimism is in, and reflected by lower share prices worldwide. This has filtered through to left wing commentators, like Will Hutton, who gleefully want to show that “austerity” or “neoliberalism” is leading to a repeat of the 2008 crash (though Mr Hutton is too good a writer to use those particular totems). This is definitely company I don’t want to keep. Time to dig a bit deeper.

It helps to think back to what happened in the last turndown, the crash of 2008 – as this is foremost on people’s minds. At the start of 2008 the banking system was in deep trouble, although on the surface things were quite calm, if gently sinking. “Holed below the waterline” was the description that I used at the time – alas I was not publicly blogging until three years later, or my reputation might have been made. Trust was breaking down because the banks were dealing a lot with each other, or off-balance sheet offshoots, rather than with the public or businesses. And things were starting to go wrong, beginning with US sub-prime mortgages. The huge tangle of interbank transactions and derivatives meant that nobody knew how the losses would play out or where – so everybody was tainted. Things kept superficially calm until quite late in 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, threatening a chain reaction that would have brought much of the world’s banking system to a screeching halt. Since the banking system is at the centre of everyday life in developed economies the result could have been catastrophic.

That catastrophe was largely avoided, but only because governments bailed banks out to keep the whole system afloat. Even then the damage to the non-banking economy was severe, and government finances, especially here in the UK, were ruined. What was so alarming about the whole episode was that a fairly routine downturn in the business cycle infected part of the US mortgage market, which then completely disproportionately went on threaten the whole system. Defenders of Britain’s Labour government still can’t believe it was anything to do with them – though in fact ten years of complacent economic management had left the country highly vulnerable to such a chain reaction.

Why are people worried now? Well one thing that helped the ameliorate the disaster in 2008 was that emerging markets, especially China, were less badly affected, and in China’s case, government stimulus helped keep things afloat. Now that side of things is unravelling. The Chinese economy is slowing, and in the process it is undermining world markets for commodities such as oil, which presents the threat of widespread damage in the developing world. The Chinese situation arises partly because the country has hit an awkward point in the evolution of its development, and partly because their stimulus package after 2008 was largely wasted and bad debts are threatening its banking system. Indeed the whole soundness of China’s growth strategy is coming into question (its second, state-directed phase , rather than Deng Xiaoping’s original liberalisation from 1978).

This is serious, and no mistake. The role China has played in the world economy in the last quarter century is hard to exaggerate. What is happening there is much bigger than the US subprime crisis that was at the heart of the 2008 debacle. But it doesn’t have the same destabilising features that caused such a fierce chain reaction – which were in plain view as 2008 started. China is not at the heart of a cat’s cradle of complex derivatives sitting in off-balance sheet funds, with almost every international bank taking part. And the huge power of the Chinese state, and the depth of its financial reserves, means that the country’s financial system will collapse slowly rather than suddenly. The western banking system is a much soberer thing than it was in 2008 too, even if many left wing commentators would have you believe that nothing has changed. For these reasons 2016 does not look like 2008. A meltdown, or near meltdown, does not look likely.

But there could be a slower moving form of trouble. Secular stagnation, the affliction of the world economy I referred to recently, is here to stay. Western economies will slow. Worse things may be in store in the developing world. Share prices may well fall badly – many markets have been overpriced for some time.

And in Britain? In my New Year post I suggested that 2016 might be the year the economy here started to turn sour. That comment wasn’t based on any deep thinking. Britain is unusually dependent on the international economy, as is evident from persistent trade and current account deficits, and a value for Sterling that is hard to justify based on its “real” economy. So, with things going awry in the world economy, Britain might be vulnerable. The Pound could come under pressure; foreign investors could desert London’s property market causing a chain reaction; or a downturn in the City’s finance sector could do the same thing. On the other hand, capital flight from the developing world could benefit London in particular, allowing the country to weather the storm. Some left wing commentators have been trying to stoke alarm about the level of personal debt – but that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Neither should we pay much heed to Labour’s economic adviser, David Blanchflower, who on the radio this morning suggested that Britain was less ready to deal with a crisis than in 2008, because interest rates were already rock bottom. That vastly inflates the effects of interest rate policy on crisis management. David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s luck could hold. I struggle to understand the alarmism on the political left – it will merely undermine its already shaky reputation for economic grasp.

it seems to me that 2016 will be the start of a good old-fashioned cyclical downturn for the world economy, with no more than the usual localised financial crises. Personally I think this will morph into a period of more prolonged secular stagnation that will put paid to economists’ lazy assumption that 1-2% rates of growth are a law of nature.

And that should pose some very challenging questions for the art of economics. But that’s a topic for another day. Meanwhile government bonds are a better bet than shares; cash is not a bad bet either; don’t mortgage up to your eyeballs in property; and interest rates aren’t going up.

 

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Osborne uses an accounting trick to implement People’s QE

When Jeremy Corbyn, was running his successful campaign for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, he floated the idea of “People’s QE”. “QE” stands for Quantitative Easing, the means by which central banks try to loosen monetary policy in an economy without reducing interest rates – handy when interest rates are near zero. It attracted quite a bit of attention from economists, much of it quite approving. That is because the idea touches on one of the most important aspects of modern economic policy: the suggestion that governments can sustain quite big deficits simply by “printing” money. In the end we find, not for the first time, that the current Conservative government acts much further to the political left than it talks, as did its Conservative-Liberal Democrat predecessor.

Back in the 1980s, when monetary policy first became the height of fashion, we had uncomplicated views about what it was about. Although most money was in bank accounts, economists painted a picture as though it was all in notes and coins, and the various actors behaved as if they were kids spending pocket money (and even then was probably too simplistic…). They talked of a “money supply”, which could be manipulated, and the size of which affected spending behaviour. We are older and wiser now, though many economists and journalists still talk about “printing money”, even though physical money has almost no role to play, and bank accounts are different in very important ways. Even trained economists who should know better sometimes trip themselves up in this way. For example there is much excited talk about how commercial banks create money rather than the central bank – which turns out to be a red herring on reflection [That link from Paul Krugman includes a broken link to a masterful essay from James Tobin in 1963, read it here]. It is better to look on monetary policy as a series of policy instruments under the control of the central bank, which have not entirely knowable effects on the economy at large.

The most important of these instruments is the short-term interest rate the central bank charges to commercial banks in their interactions with it. These ripple right through the economy. But when they are very low, as they are now in the UK, it is very hard to lower them further. Some European banks are using negative interest rates without the sky having fallen in, but these negative rates aren’t very high – fractions of a percentage point. So how to “loosen” policy – that is encourage a greater level of economic activity? Here the invention of QE comes in, pioneered, as so much of modern policy, by Japan in the 1990s and early 2000s. This is often talked of as if it means printing physical money and handing it out to the kids to spend on sweeties. What it actually means is that the central bank goes into the market and buys bonds, usually government bonds, like British gilts.

How does that help? Well the people who held the bonds now hold cash instead, which they should spend on something else – which might include new capital investment, after it has changed hands a few times. And it might reduce bond yields, which will reduce long term interest rates right across the economy, and increase asset prices. This creates a “wealth effect” that might encourage the mass affluent to spend a bit more money on stuff that people make. Or all that could happen is that there is a merry-go-round of money chasing various flavours of pre-existing asset to create an asset price bubble. It’s not very clear what has happened to the Bank of England’s QE over the years. The bank produces various statistical associations as evidence that it has helped stimulate the wider economy. Others are sceptical.

Which is where People’s QE comes in. What if, instead of buying government bonds in the market, the money went into extra government spending, such as infrastructure investment, or even current spending. Because the Bank controls the currency in the UK, it can fund the government’s deficit without the need to borrow money from investors. It borrows money from itself. This amounts to supporting looser fiscal policy (i.e. government tax and spend), which should provide a more predictable stimulus to the wider economy.

Mr Corbyn’s advisers developed the idea with the suggestion of administrative structures to channel the extra money into infrastructural investment. This puzzled some economists. There is no need for such engineering. All the government has to do is spend the money, increasing its deficit, issue bonds as normal, which the Bank of England then buys in the existing QE programme. If the Bank is buying bonds, the government is less beholden to the bond markets. In Japan, which has been practising QE on a massive scale, the government now issues little net debt to the bond markets, making large deficits sustainable.

But how does this work? Surely it is something for nothing? The answer to that is that it only works if there is slack in the economy, and the government steps in to create demand because businesses are investing less than the public is saving, creating an imbalance. If this is not the case, you can get inflation, which is what happened to Germany and Austria in the 1920s, Zimbabwe more recently, and is happening in Argentina now. Alternatively you get a asset price bubble. Which in the modern, globalised financial and trading system is in fact more likely for developed economies – though this seems to be a blind spot for many economists, who think that asset markets are too efficient for that.

But in the developed economies, including the US, the Eurozone and Japan, as well as the UK, there does seem to be scope to do this kind of stimulus. There is a lack of business investment, while, it appears, too much money ends up in the hands of rich people, who don’t spend it. Nobody knows how long-term this problem is, but it does look as if large government deficits are much easier to sustain than before. If the bond markets refuse to fund all of the deficit, then central banks can simply “print the money” as the popularisers would put it. Prominent British economist (Lord) Adair Turner (whom I am something of a fan of) suggested that this could be a long term policy in a recent book.

In Britain there is an accounting wrinkle which is having an important impact. The Bank buys government bonds, but it holds them rather than cancelling them, so that it can sell them should it want to tighten policy. So the government still pays interest on the gilts the Bank holds, and this used to count towards the publicly declared deficit. But the Coalition government changed the rules, so that it does not count the interest on the Bank’s holdings against the deficit. That reduces the fiscal deficit and allows the government to spend money on other things instead. Also the effects of QE on longer term gilt yields reduces the deficit projected by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which plays such a pivotal role in longer term government spending plans. According to the FT’s Chris Giles £22.4bn of the £27bn that the Chancellor, George Osborne, “found” to allow him to loosen austerity measures in the Autumn Statement resulted from these accounting tricks. This boils down to People’s QE, and Mr Osborne used it to fund his U-turn on tax credit cuts, amongst other things.

The problem, as Mr Giles points out, is what happens when the Bank feels the need to tighten policy in, say, a year or two’s time? Then the whole thing goes into reverse. Politicians have seen gain in blurring the distinction between fiscal and monetary policy. That could return to haunt them, at both ends of the political spectrum.

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The Autumn Statement shows the conflict of short and long term Tory priorities

George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered his Autumn Statement yesterday. This is a very British piece of political theatre, delivered by somebody with a very theatrically British job title, that adds up to “Finance Minister”. In the statement Mr Osborne announced financial plans for the next five years of the Conservative government. It is a set-piece event designed to score political points and attract good publicity. The dust has not had time to settle, but some important issues are clear.

The main headlines were these: the government dropped the central part of its plans to reduce tax credits to top up the incomes of people working on low pay. It also withdrew plans to cut police budgets. Various other goodies were doled out; schools had their budget protected in real rather than nominal terms; there was more money for the NHS, and various investment projects. This was all part of a familiar game of managing expectations, which Mr Osborne now handles with competence. The reversal on police cuts was particularly well managed. The short-term politics has worked very well for the government, helped by the Labour opposition spokesman John McDonnell’s misjudged stunt using Chairman Mao’s Red Book.

But let’s step back a bit.  The first point to make is that this exercise is one of completely false precision. The justification for a greatly reduced level of cuts to departmental spending (according to the FT’s Martin Wolf, from £41.9bn in pre-election March, to £15.6bn in post-election July to £7bn now) was a £27bn reduction in 2020’s projected borrowing. This £27bn figure is widely reported in the media, but it is nearly meaningless. It is based on economic forecasts which have almost no chance of being fulfilled – though at least they are produced independently by the Office for Budget Responsibility. That £27bn can appear out of nowhere in four months simply reflects this imprecision; it can disappear just as quickly. Personally I feel that the projection of a steady 2% plus of GDP growth, which underlies this forecast, is most unlikely to be fulfilled; it is an artefact of a deeply flawed process of economic modelling that still has a grip on conventional economics, because nobody has found a substitute.

So this needs to be taken in a broader strategic context. The government has two stated economic aims for the medium term. The first is that the state should run a surplus in the middle of the business cycle; the second is that overall government spending should be cut to about 37% of national income- low by postwar standards. Both are entirely arbitrary. There is a good case for a government deficit to fund investment, especially if the private sector is reluctant to invest its profits, which has been the story of the 21st Century so far. There is no convincing evidence that I know of to suggest that a lower level of government expenditure is more economically efficient.

But all this makes more sense if you think about the politics rather than the economics. And here the Statement was balancing long and short term aims. The long term aim is to crush an ecosystem of political bureaucrats in central and local government, and a range of agencies, consultancies and NGOs that hover around them. This is the principal power base of the Labour Party, and flourished mightily under the patronage of Mr Osborne’s predecessor but one, Gordon Brown. What is set to replace it is series of soulless, hollowed out agencies that are as easy to deal with as modern big businesses like phone companies (BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, etc) that are unable to manage complexity, so try to deny that it exists. The government’s new Universal Credit system is shaping up to be just such a nightmare. I see both sides of the argument here. I hate the old Labour bureaucracy and its hangers on with a passion, and I am not sorry to see it being dismantled (though a lot of excellent professional services are going too). But its hollowed out replacement lacks credibility, and at will be a partial solution at best.

The difficulties with this Conservative dystopia are apparent in the short-term politics. Welfare, security, health, education and social care are proving politically highly resistant, and hence the retreats evident in Mr Osborne’s statement. The Conservative fight to crush the opposition Labour and Lib Dems is going very well. But this is in large part due to Labour’s ineptitude. What if it woke up and led a serious fightback?.

The Conservatives’ drive to cut government budgets leaves them politically exposed. They stand a real chance of shutting Labour out of power for generations, but only if they secure the votes the working class and and the less secure middle classes. The changes to tax credits would have made these voters very angry. Mr Osborne’s U-turn is unsurprising – but leaves the question of how he managed to get into the mess in the first place. Meanwhile added demands of an ageing population on health and social care services is a challenge that will not go away. The extra funds found for these are unlikely to be equal to the challenge.  And the problem of an economy polarising between low and high wages, while housing costs are escalating, is placing huge stress on welfare.

The hollowing out of the state at both national and local levels will continue apace. But a weaker than expected economy, and mounting pressure on health and social care services are likely to break Mr Osborne’s plans eventually. Whether the political opposition, outside Scotland, will be in any shape to exploit this situation remains open to doubt, however.

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Is the world heading for a new financial crash?

Yesterdays’ Guardian carried an article entitled Apocalypse now: has the next giant financial crash already begun? by Paul Mason, who is Channel 4’s economics editor. The same paper carried an article last week by David Graeber: Britain is heading for another 2008 crash: here’s why. So it’s clearly becoming fashionable for left wing types to start spreading stories of doom. Could they be right?

Mr Graeber is not a professional economist (neither am I, I should make clear); he’s an anthropologist, in fact. He has written engagingly on financial matters though, notably his book Debt: the First 5,000 years. His enthusiasm is for the big picture and the global explanation. I found his book a huge let-down because he was incapable of analysing more recent financial events at any level below sweeping generalisation.

And so it is this time. His central argument is that enthusiasm for governments to cut their financial deficits means that private debt, at less affordable rates of interest, will pile up. The key strand of evidence is this graph, which shows public, private and external deficits:

Graeber graph

He notes that it is symmetric, because it is based on an accounting identity. So, if the external balance is constant, which it roughly has been, any reduction in public deficit must be matched by an increase in private deficit. Ergo, we are simply swapping public debt for private debt. And since, as everybody knows, the crash of 2008 came about because of excessive private debt, another one is inevitable. He calls this the Peter-Paul principle (ie. robbing Peter to pay Paul).

Oh dear! It’s hard to know where to begin. As anybody with an understanding of mathematics will tell you, accounting identities don’t tell you as much as you might think. They are tautologies: you can’t use them to predict anything useful about the world. I remember, back in the 1980s, another accounting identity, this time on money, growth and inflation, getting people into trouble, as monetarists used it to “prove” that inflation and growth depended on money supply. Alas all it showed was how uselessly elastic are the concepts of money supply and velocity of circulation. A moment’s thought tells you that Mr Graeber’s argument must be flawed. He is suggesting that the amount of debt in the economy remains fixed – and yet it clearly goes up and down. Actually, the amount of debt is fixed – it is a net of zero! For every debtor there is a creditor; gross debt, however, must be independent of the sizes of the sectoral balances. The Peter-Paul principle is not the great taboo of economics as Mr Graeber suggests. It just doesn’ tell you very much. Not nothing, as the FT’s economics writer Martin Wolf, has shown – but it has taken him in a different direction. He suggests that if government austerity is not matched by extra private sector spending, the economy will shrink. An altogether more subtle point.

Mr Mason’s line of argument is sounder, in that it is based on more factual evidence rather than airy assertions. His line of argument is that aggregate debt has continued to rise, but the world economy has stalled, so that debt will be unrepayable, and so there will be a financial crisis. But this is still lightweight fare, based on aggregated data, which may be unreliable, and not on the specifics of who owes what to whom. The problem is that the world financial system is a very complex thing. It very hard to attribute cause and effect – or rather it is all too easy, it is just impossible to prove that you are right. The financial crash of 2007/2008 came about with the convergence of a number of things, of which the reckless build-up of private sector debt was only one (rising oil and food prices, reckless use of off-balance sheet finance by banks, persistent trade surpluses from China and oil states, a false sense of security from central banks – to name but a few).

One thing we can say is that the world in 2015 is very different from that of 2007, when the last crisis started. It is commonplace in left-wing circles to suggest that nothing has changed in the world of international banking since the crash. Well some banks are making money again, and some bankers are taking outrageous bonuses. But there are many fewer of them; there is much less profit sloshing around. The banks have been forced by regulation and bitter experience to be more prudent. Off-balance sheet finance, at the heart of the 2007 crisis, has been drastically reined in. And the world financial situation is very different, with low oil and commodity prices, a fading China, and the US fast becoming self-sufficient in hydrocarbons.

But that may not offer us much reassurance. We may not be heading for another 2007/2008 but we could still be heading for something nasty. There are four things that could be a sign of trouble:

  1. There are asset bubbles in some places. What is referred to as “emerging market” assets are the most spoken of: debt, shares and property located in China and various parts of the developing world. But there are others: London property and US shares come to mind. Some suggest that developed government bonds are in a similar bubble, as their prices are historically high, but Japan has shown that these prices can stay high for a very long time indeed.
  2. Central banks are running with ultra low interest rates, meaning that the main arm of monetary policy is not available. Quantitative Easing (QE) is problematic. This leaves them without the firepower to deal with a crisis as it emerges – or so many people think. In fact the dynamics of monetary policy have moved well beyond textbook theories about money supply and inflation expectations, leaving us unable to understand how things work.
  3. The maturing of China and the rise of shale oil and gas in the US have changed world financial and trade dynamics fundamentally from the pattern of the last two decades. I suspect the new pattern is more stable than the old one in the long run – but any such change tends to cause dislocation. It may, for example, become much more difficult for many countries, including Britain, to finance their deficits (the blue bit in Mr Graeber’s graph could shrink).
  4. International politics has become more fractious, making international deals more difficult to do. And populists from left and right are making it harder for governments to intervene to stabilise financial markets – often portrayed as bailing out bankers at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. That will make any future banking crisis harder to manage.

So I share some of Mr Hunt’s and Mr Graeber’s worries. I have my own airy narrative. Since the the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and gold underpinning was broken in the 1970s, by President Nixon who needed to fund the Vietnam war without raising taxes, the world has been addicted to an increasing cycle of debt. Some of this debt might be regarded as lubrication for the wheels of capitalism. But also there seems to be a bit of Ponzi scheme about it, with debt being repaid by the issue of yet more debt, rather than through substantive economic advance. In the long run, that cannot be stable. And yet it may take a long while yet before the trouble starts to show up.

 

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The tax credit row: ignorance and obfuscation are rampant

Britain’s tax credit row  reached a milestone last night with a government defeat in the House of Lords. As I said last week, it doesn’t show British politics in a flattering light. Then I complained about the failure of the government’s critics to tackle the financial implications. But ignorance seems to be wilful on both sides. What is the row really about?

First, we need to understand what tax credits are. There are two systems: Working Tax Credits (WTC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC). WTC amounts to £1,890 to £4,525 per annum, plus more for those with disabilities. It starts to be withdrawn when income is above £6,420 and the rate of withdrawal is 41%. In other words, for every £1 you earn above £6,420 your benefit is cut by 42p. CTC is for parents responsible for children. This amounts to a basic £545pa plus £2,750 per child (plus extra if the child has disabilities). For those in work these amounts are added to WTC and withdrawn at the same rate. For those not claiming WTC, withdrawal starts at £16,105 (I’m not sure how that works, and why you would be in work and not claiming WTC, but I’ll leave that for now).

So what were the proposed changes? There are two sets. The first is due to be implemented in April 2016. The withdrawal threshold for WTC is to be cut to £3,850; for those only on CTC the rate is cut to £12,125. The withdrawal rate is increased to 48%. The second set of changes will be made in 2017 to CTC. The £545 family element will be withdrawn, and the benefit per child will be limited to two children. These elements will apply to new families, not those who are currently claiming.

So what do the changes mean? First: the basic amounts of the benefits are not being changed, until the changes in 2017, and the latter do not cover existing claimants. This allows the government to say that it the Prime Minister David Cameron was not lying when he said that “he did not want to cut” CTC, during the election campaign. But, of course, the changed withdrawal rules mean that the benefit is being cut for everybody earning more than £3,850. The impact will be concentrated on lower earners, who will face a high marginal rate of tax, starting at 48%, and rising to 60% as National Insurance kicks in, and then 80% as Income Tax joins the party.  This creates something of a poverty trap effect, reducing the incentives to work. But then again, the tax credits are not being abolished, and workers do keep some of their extra earnings.

The government’s chief advertised mitigation measure is raising the national minimum wage. This should put more money in the pockets of the poorest workers, provided employers don’t cut their hours. But much of the benefit of this will go to workers not claiming tax credits, and it will do little to alleviate the hardships of those worst affected. There seem to be two strategic aims. The first is to transfer some of the economic burden of lower wages to employers. There is a suggestion, for example, that employers are paying lower wages because they know that tax credits will make up some of the difference. The evidence that this effect is important is weak, however. A second strategic aim, not doubt, is to reduce the poverty trap element of the changes – so that workers are pushed through the levels of pay at higher marginal tax rates faster. The problem with these strategic aims that the new levels set for the minimum wage are arbitrary. Much of the cost will have to be borne by small and marginal businesses that can ill afford the cost – they may well choose to cut hours paid, and so undermine the policy.

The worst of the interventions in the debate, however, come from some of the suggestions made as to how to mitigate the effects of the changes. These have centred on raising the thresholds at which Income and National Insurance are paid. This is obvious nonsense. It may be clever to mitigate the withdrawal of a universal benefit by using targeted ones. The mitigation will cost less than the original change would save. To suggest the opposite, which is what these ideas amount to, is plain stupid. Worse, the poorest earners are not even paying these taxes, so exempting them will not help. And yet the BBC interviewer on the Today programme this morning sounded surprised when his interviewee pointed this out to him. This is wanton ignorance. The ulterior motive for these “mitigations” is to provide tax cuts to the better off, not to help the poor and struggling.

Moving on. Here are the points that should be being made in this debate, and either aren’t being made, or are being made by too few people:

  1. The government’s changes are tackling the symptoms of the disease of low pay and poverty, and not its causes. Raising the minimum wage may help, but not by much, and could backfire. The real problems arise from the economic pressures that cause lower wages, and from increasing housing costs that make that poverty harder to bear. The risk is that the savings made from cutting tax credits will ultimately be overwhelmed by the less direct effects of poverty on the state. Instead of making it easier climb out of poverty these changes make it harder.
  2. The cost of tax credits will fall if lower incomes rise. The whole design of tax credits is that their costs fall as the need diminishes.
  3. The 2017 proposed changes, are more harmful and ill-considered than the 2016 ones. Clearly the thought is that the level of benefits is encouraging poor families to be larger. I don’t think any strong evidence is being put forward to justify this. It looks positively vindictive.
  4. The government’s policies are not a vindictive attack on the poor, but an attempt to rebalance the system to something that is more sustainable in the long term. But they are a gamble. They are making several changes at once, without a base of evidence to support them. It is these risks that should be the focus of the debate.

Personally I feel that the basic, original, design of tax credits is reasonably sound. The fact that they are costing much more than originally planned is a problem in itself, of course. But it is also an alarm bell – it points to even deeper problems in our society. If we take away the short term cost to the taxpayer, it does not mean that this problem has been solved. I would tackle the funding problem through taxes on the better off (loosely defined, not just chasing the slippery very rich). But the real energy needs to go into alleviating the causes of tax credits. Nobody is talking about that at all.

 

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