Secular stagnation: the curse that still haunts developed economies

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The financial crash of ten years ago was something of a paradox for conventional economists. It took most of them by surprise, and dented their reputation. And yet economists became more important than ever to the running of our world. But now, to listen to most of them, the equivocation is over. We're back to normal, as the global economy looks in much better shape. This looks complacent.

The crash was a double shock to economists. The first was how it happened at all, when most economies seemed to be purring on at a relatively steady rate of growth (often referred to as the trend rate), which seemed to relate to growing productivity, and which most economists, driving through the rear-view mirror, assumed to be a law of nature. The second shock was that developed world economies, especially the British one, were so slow to recover. Economists  simply assumed that with a bit of stimulus, economies would not just return to trend growth, but make up for lost ground too. I don't think any advanced economy has done this - and in Britain we lag far behind. In the years after the crash an expression was coined, or rather resurrected, to describe this second problem: secular stagnation.

The person whose name is most attached to this is Lawrence Summers, who had been prominent in the Clinton administration. By it he meant that economies could only achieve growth by extraordinary and unsustainable efforts to stimulate it. And, as Mr Summers recently pointed out in the FT, you cannot say that it has disappeared. Growth has returned, but the measures required to produce it are unsustainable. What he is referring to is the extraordinarily low interest rates prevailing in the developed world.

This has been going on for so long that we have become accustomed to it. But what do negative real interest rates mean? They mean that in order to use up available savings we have to create investments that have little or no financial return. Now that is at the margin, not on average, but even so it does not suggest an economy that is at all healthy. If investments don't produce a return, productivity will not advance, and growth will not be sustained. And in particular we will accumulate debt that cannot be paid off. Or not without inflation which destroys the accumulated wealth of the middle classes. And sure enough, many economists are warning us about mounting debt levels. In due course this will lead to a financial crisis.

Why are we in this situation? And what can we do? There are many speculations as to why, and most commentators, including me, tend to gravitate towards the one that suits their overarching narrative. Many blame a skewed distribution of income for creating a surplus of savings that cannot be used properly. Others say that modern businesses don't need so much traditional capital (Google doesn't need to issue debt or share capital to keep its investments going). Then there is the gradual ageing of the population reducing the size of the workforce. Others blame the wrong sort of stimulus - if only government spending hadn't been cut back ("austerity"), we'd have bounced back in no time. My favourite is the Baumol effect which suggests that we are in a transition towards industries, like healthcare, that are less financially productive, though still improve human wellbeing. Whatever it is (and it could be all at once) it's a problem because it is dragging down the potential growth rate.

And what can we do? People often talk of unconventional policies, but what are they? The most interesting idea is  to run up bigger government budget deficits. Piling up government debt is much safer than piling up private debt, as we are doing now. Why? Because governments can finance that debt by a process that is usually referred to as creating money, and the burden can be shared more equitably.

But piling up debt and creating money often ends in tears. The best current example of that is Argentina, with rampant inflation and impatient foreign creditors. The problem for Argentina is that its monetary system has been mismanaged for so long that much borrowing, public and private, has to be in foreign currency, which the central bank cannot create. But there is an opposite example. Japan has been piling up public debt for decades, and the central bank has been buying up debt, with few apparent ill-effects.

So how do you know whether you are Japan or Argentina (and no doubt Argentina looked like Japan once)? The first, obvious, difference is that Argentina has had a current account deficit for some time, while Japan has generally been in surplus. That means that Argentina is importing more than it exports and requires financing by foreigners - who are less likely to be happy to take payment in domestic currency. Current account deficits usually flow from budget deficits - though not always, as the recent crisis in Spain showed. That would be a bad sign for countries like Britain that also have a current account deficit. But Britain's standing in international markets looks a lot more like Japan's than Argentina's. The government has no trouble in borrowing in sterling, and the same goes for most British businesses.

So why are we in Britain so worried about budget deficits and debt? One explanation is that we have been persuaded into this view by malign political forces who use the analogy of household financial management to make their case. But there are deeper worries. The first is how do you tell when you have gone far enough with budget deficits and need to stop? The traditional economists' answer is when inflation starts to take hold. But it might be too late by then, and anyway it is not so clear that in a modern, globalised economy inflation works in quite the way economists think. You know it is too latewhen there is a rush of people trying to change domestic currency into foreign, creating a panic and to people, including the government, having to borrow in foreign currency. That can happen without inflation.

The problem behind that is the politics of it. Opening up the possibility of more government spending is a huge boost to the power of central government politicians, who do not have strong incentives to apply the brakes when they need to - any more than those bankers did before the crash of 2008. It is too easy to believe your own hubris. I think this happened to the Labour government in the mid 2000s when the government should have started to tighten spending but decided not to. This didn't cause the financial crisis, but made it harder than it should have been to manage. Even now, though, it is impossible to get anybody on the political left to accept that. It's the one thing that unites Jeremy Corbyn with Tony Blair.

Still, we should be able to find ways increasing government borrowing that helps stimulate demand more sustainably. Building public housing is one idea. Other infrastructure policies should help (but not all of them). There's also a case for taking a longer view on some public spending, like education , community policing, mental health services and public health that heads off future trouble. But not building more navy frigates or, even, hospitals. We might need these, but they need to be securely funded by current taxes. The trick politically is to create a system of checks and balances that lets you invest productively and not let central government managers run away unchecked.

Behind this lies an important but rarely acknowledged idea. It is that, in the 2010s and onwards, public investment is often more productive than private investment. And that, I think, is one of the causes of secular stagnation. So in the developed world we need more public investment, and that we can afford to borrow much more to pay for it than most people think. And we need less private investment, much of which is wasted on asset recycling schemes that will end in tears. It may well take another financial crisis before we start to realise this.

 

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The Budget shows that the Tories are in a political cul-de-sac

I will break my self-imposed silence because yesterday's British Budget is one of those great set-piece occasions which can be used as a moment of reflection. Predictably, most in the news media squander this in a silly game of speculation about the short-term prospects of political leaders. But the Budget poses more profound questions.

The government faces two profound economic problems, which it must either learn to live with or expend political capital to solve. These are low productivity and housing. There are other big problems, of course: Brexit, austerity, regional disparities and income inequalities, for example. But Brexit is more about means than ends; austerity is symptom of the productivity problem; and the other problems are not so high on political agenda right now, though they are important to both housing and productivity. Broadly speaking, the government is being forced to embrace the productivity problem, and is doing its best to confront aspects of the housing problem, without being able to do enough.

Let's look at productivity first. This is about production and income per hour worked. Since unemployment is now low, and immigration is looking less attractive, increasing productivity is the key to raising incomes, and, above that in my view, to raising taxes. Weak tax revenues lie behind austerity - the cutting of public spending to levels which are now unsustainably low. The government is forced each year to spend extra money to fix some crisis or other brought about by austerity. This time it was Universal Credit and the NHS. Next year it will be police and prisons, after that it will be schools and student loans. And so it goes on - this is no way to build for the future. The government could try to raise taxes, but this is so politically unpopular that not even the Labour Party is talking about it - they persist in thinking that there is easy money to be raised from big business, rich people and confronting tax evasion. So growth it must be, and productivity must rise. But productivity is stuck in a rut. The big news for this Budget is that at long last the Office for Budget Responsibility has given up hoping that there will be a bounce back, and so reduced its forecasts of income growth, which are used to set tax and borrowing assumptions. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, talked about fixing this, as all politicians do, but in practice has done very little about it. Labour, for all their huffing and puffing, are no better. Both parties propose a number of sensible small things, like increasing public investment and education, but nothing that gets to the heart of the issue.

So the political class have chosen to embrace slow productivity, by their actions if not their words. They are right, though they need to think through the consequences. My take on the productivity puzzle is different from pretty much everybody else I have read. I think that the primary cause is what economists call the Baumol Effect. The problem is not the failure of British businesses to embrace improvements, but the limited demand for goods and services that are susceptible to advances in productivity, such as manufacturing. There are things that can be done to raise such demand, but these mainly have to do with increasing incomes for those on low incomes - people with high incomes consume less as a proportion of income, and spend more on low-productivity items that confer status. Also if demand for exports could be raised, and imports diminished, that would help - international trade is mainly about high productivity goods. But nobody really has much idea how to deal with these problems beyond tinkering at the edges with minimum wage adjustments and such.

So what of housing? What, exactly, is this about? It is about high costs to both buy housing and to rent it. This is a very complex problem with deep roots. Most analysis is superficial, but this article in the FT by Jonathan Eley is a good one. Among a number of interesting points he makes is that the low number of new housing units being built in recent decades compared to earlier ones is a bit misleading. In those earlier decades a lot of housing was being destroyed: slums and temporary housing for victims of bombing in the war. It is not necessarily true to suggest that the problem is that too few houses are being built. In fact there are deep structural problems with the housing market. One is that private borrowing has been made too easy; another is that changes to housing benefit has subsidised demand for private rental accommodation. The result of this and a number of other things has forced up the price of land relative to the housing  built on it, and made trading in land central to economics of private sector developers.

The upshot of this is that it is hard to see any solution to the housing problem without a substantial intervention by the state to directly commission house building, and social housing in particular. Another issue is building on greenbelt land outside cities, which is now forcing suburbs to turn business premises into housing, and turning suburbs into an unhealthy housing monoculture. Caution on greenbelt building is warranted, of course, as suburban sprawl, as demonstrated in so many countries in the world, is not desirable either. Mr Hammond did practically nothing on either of these critical issues. He did try to tackle the housing problem, but mainly through the private sector and private markets which are structurally incapable of making things better for the growing proportion of the population weighed down by excessive housing costs.

That is entirely unsurprising. Solving the crisis, especially in an environment of low economic growth, means that current levels of house prices and rents have to fall. That is a direct attack on the sense of wellbeing of the Conservatives' core constituency: older and better off voters. And if that isn't enough, property developers and others with a vested interest in the current system are showering the Conservatives with money. A politically weak government is no shape to take this on.

And that, I think, is the most important political fact in modern Britain. Housing costs are not an intractable problem that we must learn to live with, like productivity. One day it will solve itself in an immense period of pain as land prices, and much of the financial system, collapses. The sooner it is tackled the less the pain will be. Labour may be useless on productivity, but they are much stronger on housing. They have a much better prospect of doing something useful. That does not mean they will win the next election - the forces of darkness on the right should not be underestimated. But it does mean that Labour is looking to be the lesser of two evils.

For my party, the Lib Dems, this is important. It means its stance of equidistance between Labour and the Tories needs to be modified. The turning point, in hindsight, should have been that moment in coalition with the Tories when the then Chancellor George Osborne said that he could not support the building of more council houses because that meant more Labour voters. The coalition should have been ended then and there. Just as in the 1990s when the Lib Dems leaned towards Labour, the party needs to accomplish the same feat now. It is much harder because Labour has abandoned the centre ground. But that is where the country is at.

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Can Britain afford to abandon austerity? Maybe

Perhaps only Brexit is a more important political issue in Britain than austerity - the policy of restraint in public spending that is causing acute stress in parts of the public sector. It might surprising, therefore, that the quality of debate is so low as to be nonsensical. But then again, when things get important, truth is the first casualty. So let me attempt a dispassionate overview.

First let's look at the case made by government supporters in favour of continued austerity. This runs at the level of household accounting. The government is outspending the revenue it collects. This means it is piling up debts which future generations must pay. How irresponsible! "There is no magic money tree," says the Prime Minister, Theresa May. But one of the first things you learn in economics is that running a government budget is nothing like a household one. And the government does have a magic money tree - it's called the Bank of England. It is perfectly safe for a government to create money to pay its own bills, in the right economic circumstances. Japan has being doing this for a couple of decades. Plus spending government money in the right way may generate the means to pay it back - through bringing spare capacity into the economy, or through investing in projects that generate a return. Or even both at the same time. The case made by government ministers is simply irrelevant. But that doesn't make them wrong.

The case made by the left has more economic sophistication - and it is even nominally supported by authoritative economists like Joe Stiglitz, an American Nobel Laureate (who wrote a useful textbook on public economics). The main argument they make is often referred to as "Keynesianism" after the great Liberal economist Maynard Keynes, who offered it a the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Keynes pointed out that if there is spare capacity in the economy, such as during a recession, extra public spending will not displace other activity, and it will (or should) therefore cause the economy to grow, and pay for itself. But this argument is made by left-wingers regardless of the economic climate. Find me a trade unionist that has ever, ever said that because the economy is overheating, government spending restraint is required. It's like finding a businessman who says, in any given economic conditions, that interest rates should go up. They are like barristers making a case, no matter how ridiculous. What should judge and jury think?

Two pieces of evidence may be offered in favour of Keynesian expansion now. First is that economic growth since the great financial crisis of 2007-2009 has been lacklustre, and behind many of Britain's peer economies. Surely it needs a kick up the backside? Second is that inflation is low and looks stuck. Actually, inflation has been creeping up a bit, but that is due to the pound falling. Pay inflation - surely the critical point in this case - remains low. In classical economics high inflation is the surest sign of an overheating economy.

But two pieces of evidence can be offered against Keynesian expansion. First is that unemployment is at near record lows for recent times, and overall employment is very high (unlike in the USA, there don't appear to be a lot of people who have dropped out of the labour market and so not treated as unemployed). Second is that Britain has a high current account deficit - at 3.1% of income it is one of the highest in the developed world, though it has been coming down since the pound fell. That means that Britain needs foreigners to pay it in its own currency, or Britons need to acquire foreign currency to finance foreign debts. This means that the country depends on "the kindness of strangers" as the Chairman of the Bank of England put it. Among other things that takes some of the magic out of the money tree owned by the Bank - and is a contrast with money-plucking Japan, which tends to run big surpluses. Money trees need net savings (or current account surpluses) to nurture them, or else their fruit turns bad, as many a horror story from South America will attest.

So there should be public debate around what these pieces of contradictory evidence mean. Unemployment is low, but the quality of many jobs is low - so would people work more productively under the right pressure? Britain has a trade deficit, but most debt (including government debt) is still denominated in Sterling, reducing risks substantially. There is much to explore, but few take the trouble. Easing austerity could simply raise growth; it could cause us to borrow in currencies that the Bank of England can't print; it could cause inflation; it could simply stimulate more low paid immigration; or nothing much might happen at all.

The important message, though, is that it matters how any extra government money is spent. This rather goes against the flow of the usual macroeconomic debate, which likes to deal in quantities rather than qualities. But if you read carefully you will see that trained economists brought into oppose austerity policies are quite careful about the type of extra spending they advocate. They want more investment. If the government invests in things that generate financial returns by making the economy more efficient and productive, then the question of whether or not the economy is running at full capacity is side-stepped. The Labour manifesto at the general election offered this line of reasoning, and that is doubtless why the likes of Mr Stiglitz felt able to endorse it. Labour also wanted to put taxes up albeit mainly on the rich - which, nominally, at least, should reduce excess demand.

Unfortunately this can lead simply to politicians labelling all public expenditure as "investment" - a favorite trick of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. We need to look at matters case by case. What if the government gave NHS employees a pay rise, which some say they are due after years of pay restraint? Some of the extra money would come straight back in taxes; some would be spent creating demand which might help local economies to grow. But some might be spent in businesses that will just put their prices up; some might simply be saved (which has no short-term economic impact) or spent on things like foreign holidays that just add to the current account deficit. Unless balanced at least some extent by tax rises the economic case for this looks unconvincing (where those tax rises should fall is not a simple question either...). But there are other benefits to increasing pay. Would it make it easier to recruit and retain top quality staff that would make the service more efficient? That mean the service could run on fewer temporary staff and make cost savings by heading off medical complications? Well that's the key, and it depends on strong management. These benefits don't just happen.

But what of devoting more money to public health? If done properly, this will head off demand for health services, and reduce the costs of poor health elsewhere in the economy. The case for funding this from borrowing is much easier to make. A similar case can be made for schools funding - though again this depends on good management (though personally I am more confident of that in schools than in hospitals, if only because the former are much simpler to run).

There is a lot of extremely interesting debate to be had around the economic implications of different sorts of public spending. Would forgiving student debt be a financial catastrophe? Or might it provide an economic boost in exactly the right places? We need some dispassionate analysis.

Instead we have a Conservative Party that will not engage in arguments of any economic sophistication, and is allowing some of its cost savings to do lasting damage to society. And though the Labour Party understands this, it seems uninterested in the discipline that will be needed to ensure that extra government spending and borrowing does not drag the economy down, rather than boost it. Each party is sponsored by advocacy groups who think that the overall outcome for the country is somebody else's problem. Such is modern British politics.

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The real questions behind the politics of tax and spend

Warning: this is a longer read for those interested in achieving a deeper understanding of political choices, especially here in Britain. I write it to release some my internal tensions after a tough few weeks helping to organise my party's general election campaign, while tackling questions posed by tightening school budgets.

The politics of tax and spend is close to the heart of Britain's general election campaign. And yet the quality of economic commentary is very shallow. Here is my attempt at something deeper.

Running government finances is not like running a household budget. The primary constraint on a household budget is money, which can be treated as a fixed resource, and can be stored for use at a future date (so long as inflation is not a major factor). But looking at an economy as a whole, money is just an economic tool, a means to an end. Hoarding it is pointless. Money is tactics, not strategy.

So to look at matters strategically we need to take money out of the picture, and ask what it is that we are trying to achieve. A higher level of public services? More private consumption? More investment for the future? All of these things are constrained by real resources. By which we mainly mean people. If we want to increase the level of consumption or investment, more people need to be put to work, or the same number of people need to work harder or more productively. The latter may also be a function of capital assets, but capital assets are created by people working in earlier periods and forgoing consumption.

So, if you want to expand public services, the question arises as to where the extra resources are to come from. If you are hiring 10,000 extra policemen, those individuals may be doing nothing now, in which case the economy as whole expands costlessly. Or they may be doing important jobs elsewhere, in which case the recruitment will potentially reduce the production levels of their previous employers. And what if you simply raise the level of pay for the same work? Or increase the level of a cash benefit. That is a way of raising the levels of consumption for those targeted individuals. Who is to produce those extra things they are to consume?

And so we come to a central question of fact, which is discussed surprising little. The left claim that there is plenty of spare capacity in the economy, so if we expand the consumption of the disadvantaged, or the reach of public services, the economy as a whole will respond by utilising those spare resources, and nobody is disadvantaged. This idea goes by the term "Keynesianism". It is more likely to be true in a recession than at the height of a boom. The right thinks that spare capacity is not so easily manipulated, and such expansion will usually come at the cost of private consumption, whether that is intended or not. And in Britain, when employment is at record levels, and we are still net importers of goods, this is not so easily dismissed. Some on the left counter with the hope that any reduced consumption will be by the rich, of luxury goods.

But many more thoughtful observers think that there is still spare capacity in the economy. They point to low levels of pay and productivity in many places. If there was more pressure from the demand side of the economy, then private sector produces might sharpen up and become more productive. And if the extra public resources were directed well, into investment, then that will help expand future capacity too. The likelihood of these outcomes depends a lot on the tactics.

But before considering the tactics - the details of taxation and monetary policy - we need to reflect that modern, developed economies are quite open. We can import resources from abroad. And we can import workers. For certain advantaged economies, like the USA, a high level of net imports is completely sustainable. And there are economies out there (Germany, for example) that are happy to be net exporters, for their own tactical reasons. But for others a prolonged period of net imports, especially if not used to create productive assets, can lead to a financial crisis and the seizing up of the economy. Where the UK stands between these two poles really is unclear; the country has been a net importer for most of recent history, and financially stable for most of that period too. But there will be a level of net imports that is unsustainable; and a financial crisis can take many years to build, as we found in 2008.

It is worth touching on the issue of immigration. What if the extra workers needed for expanded public services could themselves be imported, either directly or to substitute for home recruits?  These workers will create demands of their own, but it is one way of squaring the circle. Indeed in the mid noughties, when the Labour government undertook a significant expansion of the public sector, this was one of the ways they were able to sustain it, using workers from the new entrants to the EU from central and eastern Europe. That Labour leaders are now saying that this influx was a serious mistake is a piece of hypocrisy; they love to take credit for the expansion of public resources at the same time.

It is worth trying to establish these basic rules on strategy - but it is not hard to see the strategy that public leaders converge on, from left and right. It is to expand public services and benefits (such as pensions and hardship relief) while taking up slack in the country's productive capacity, or expanding that capacity through higher productivity.  And so we turn to the tactics. If the tactics of expanding the public sector go wrong, there is a more or less disorderly reduction in the levels of consumption by the general public in order to make room.

We need to understand what we mean by this. In the conventional view of economists this about one thing above all: inflation. Most economists like the idea of a little bit of inflation (I don't agree, but because I think inflation erodes trust in public institutions rather than its effect on short-term incentives, the obsession of most economists). But inflation can quickly become unhealthy, so that an increasing amount of effort is placed in managing money rather than valuable production, and it clogs the process of exchange, which is the foundation of a healthy economy. Inflation occurs when demand outstrips supply. Its effect in this context is either to undermine the attempt to expand the public sector, by eroding real wages or the real value of the benefits, or by reducing public consumption as real incomes are reduced. The so-called neo-Keynesian consensus of the 1990s and early 2000s built an entire edifice on this idea - using a targeted rate of inflation as the primary way of determining whether an economy was in balance. The idea still stalks the conventional wisdom.

But that was dealing with yesterday's problem. Neo-Keynesianism was built in response to the 1970s phenomenon of stagflation, when the old-fashioned "Keynesian" model broke down (quotation marks because though Maynard Keynes's fingerprints are on this old conventional wisdom, such a flexible mind would surely have moved on as the facts changed). But what emerged in the 1980s and 1990s was different. It was changed by two things - a shift in the balance of power in the political economy towards employers, and away from employees and unions; and the process of globalisation. Globalisation, we must understand, is a combination of more advanced production and communication technologies, and the opening up of new Asian economies into the global trading system, starting with Japan and moving by way of South Korea and Taiwan to the giants of India and China. This has broken down the previous relationships between demand, supply and price.

First, it has broken the link between prices and pay. It used to be easy to identify a single rate of inflation that, give or take, would apply to both prices and wages. At first this seemed to work in workers' favour. Cheap imports from Asia held price inflation in check, but workers' pay kept ahead. But since the crash in 2008 this has flipped. Rises in prices (often from those same Asian imports) are not reflected in pay levels. It makes no sense to talk of a single level of inflation, and to use consumer price inflation as a lone yardstick of economic health. And the second change is that other ways that excess demand can be satisfied have been made easier. It is easier to import goods and services either directly, by buying from foreign firms, or indirectly by domestic firms outsourcing production. We are still trying to understand what the impacts of these changes are. But excess demand is likely to lead to two things: fat profits by businesses as they are able to increase their prices while holding wages down, and an increasing trade deficit. It is also means that the risks of excessive inflation are much lower, as it quickly feeds into lower real incomes and dampening demand.

At this point we need to think about money. This, too, has changed dramatically, as technology has moved us away from physical currency to a much more flexible system of paying for things. The idea of "money supply" as being a physical thing that needs managing as such is increasingly old-hat - another nail in the coffin of neo-Keynesianism. Instead, policymakers need to think about interest rates, exchange rates and controls of the physical transfer of capital (in this case money balances not required for consumption) within economies (banking controls) and between them (exchange controls). If this goes wrong, people lose confidence in the means of exchange, and the economy rapidly melts down - as we can see happening now in Venezuela. This is what spooked so many governments in 2008 and 2009 when they launched into a series of panicky bail-outs of banks.

And so in this brief overview (that is already much longer than my usual posts) we at last come to where most of the political conversation starts: taxation and public debt. Looked at through the eyes of an economist (money is not a thing in itself, remember) the main purpose of tax is the regulate demand so that we have an orderly economy. Not enough tax, and the financial system becomes unstable, with or without inflation. Too much tax and it is a self-inflicted wound - living standards are lower than they need to be. Tax has other important functions too, of course. It is a means of wealth redistribution (and too skewed a distribution of wealth leads to a poorly functioning economy), and managing incentives. Whether an economy needs more or less tax at any given point depends on a wide variety of factors, of which the size of public spending is only one. This has led to a lot of tension between economists and politicians, especially in the austerity years from 2010. Politicians insist on talking as if public accounts were like household accounts; economists (or many of them) say this is self-harm. Actually a lot of the  argument is at cross purposes. What the politicians do, and what they said were different things. Oddly enough, I suspect that politicians were in fact thinking long term, and trying to rebalance the economy, while economists were obsessing about the moment - a reversal of the usual characterisation.

And what of public debt? This again is not all it seems. Many governments, including the US, the UK and most spectacularly, Japan, have asked their central banks to quietly buy up government debt. This acts to in effect cancel it. The world has not ended, as some conservative commentators have suggested it would. What is going on? The central bankers are reacting to an unbalanced financial system. For one reason or another there is too much hoarding of money, by business organisations and rich individuals. This hoarding is sucking demand out of the economy. And it is also creating excess demand for short-term financial instruments. Governments are taking advantage of this by satisfying this excess demand by buying back longer term debt. They hope that in the process they will restore some of the lost demand by encouraging more genuine capital investment, as opposed to a continuing financial merry-go-round. There is little evidence for this working, though.

This makes it an extremely easy time for governments to finance budget deficits and investment - at least tactically. And that is why calls for more public investment at a time of high national debt only outrages conservative politicians and their allies. But the strategic question remains. As real resources are mobilised towards these ends, what will the impact be? There may indeed be spare capacity to be utilised, but that actually be what happens?

To me the key point to arise from this is that managing public finances is a matter of competence and discipline. The left may well be right that in the short term that we can expand the public sector with few real risks, even without raising taxes by much. But that could turn bad very quickly. Do they have the competence to appreciate when that moment arrives, and the discipline to act?

This is where the Labour government of the mid-noughties fell down. They expanded the public sector, while holding, or even cutting, taxes on mainstream income and consumption (as opposed to capital transactions). They secured growth with low inflation (those cheap Asian imports helped a lot), but not based on genuine productivity (supposed advances in productivity were in sectors such as finance where it turned out to be chimerical). Rapid immigration helped sustain this, but it created tensions, especially in working class communities. And they failed to grasp that the extent of the financial boom, which generated a lot of short-term tax revenue, was creating systemic risk. As a result the financial crisis was a rout for the UK, unlike the relative calm of better-managed economies such as Canada or even France.

And yet there is no sign that either wing of the Labour Party has learnt from this. They want to stoke up demand but have no understanding of when enough will be enough. The Conservatives have many faults (and their idea of eliminating the budget deficit is plain nutty), but to my mind they show a greater grasp of the strategic risks, and the need for discipline and competence (as do my own Liberal Democrats, come to that - indeed Vince Cable showed more awareness of the dangers in the mid-noughties than any other leading politician).

But quite apart from party differences, I feel that there is a deeper need to reform the process of governance so that these risks are managed more securely. There is a slo a need to reform the workings of the economy so that extra demand for goods and services does not simply end up in fat profits and foreign jobs. Alas there is little talk from any of the parties of how this is to be done.

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Where is the light for towns like Wakefield?

Last week I spent a few days in Wakefield, a small city to the east of Leeds in West Yorkshire. The economic fortunes of such small towns in Britain is one of the big issues in British public policy. I am still searching for the answers.

Wakefield goes back at least to that era which Britons refer to as the Dark Ages - after the Romans left and England was subject to invasion successively by Anglo-Saxons and Danes. The Normans proceeded to raze it to the ground in the Harrying of the North, after William the Conqueror took over in 1066. But its geographical location, at an important crossing of the River Calder, a navigable waterway, ensured its future. The Normans built two castles there. It prospered as a port serving the wool and tanning trades. This economic success continued into the industrial revolution, when its river connections were boosted by canals. It flourished as an agricultural trading centre. It diversified into textiles, coal (mined nearby) and glass, and became an important administrative centre. Its grand church (the tallest spire in Yorkshire) became a cathedral with its own bishop in 1888, and City status soon followed.

Alas this has fallen apart. The coal, glass and textiles industries were wiped out in the 1980s, usually blamed on the policies of Margaret Thatcher, but in fact the result of changes to technology, assisted by globalisation. It lost its bishop in 2014. The town looks rather sad today. There are plentiful vacant spaces used as car parks. Empty shops scar its streets. Benefits are claimed by about 18% of the population, compared to the English average of 13.5%. Unemployment is higher than average, though, according to the claimant count (4.3%), far from catastrophic. There are few immigrants living there - a sure sign of a weak economy (though our hotel cleaners were east European). We could buy about ten houses of the same size from the current value of our London home. Let's not overdo this. It it did not appear to be a disaster area. It was easy to find nice places to eat in the town centre. But our hotel (part of a characterless budget chain) was the only central one we could find. There were other hotels on the outskirts: a bleak land of dual carriageways, roundabouts, retail parks and industrial estates, dominated by national chains, doing things as cheaply as possible, and sending the surplus elsewhere.

Quite a bit has been spent on redevelopment. The town centre has a smart shopping mall (albeit with quite a few empty shops), and the central square looks newly revamped. The cathedral has been very tastefully restored and modernised, with some lovely new furnishings, and is an uplifting space. Above all there is the Hepworth, which was why we visited. This is a modern gallery that celebrates Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor and artist, who was born and brought up in Wakefield. This is a lovely building on the town's otherwise derelict riverside - and a world-class gallery, taking advantage of many years of collecting by its unprepossessing but imaginative predecessor, the Wakefield Art Gallery (converted from terraced houses) - and the generosity of local artists like Hepworth and Henry Moore, who was born and brought up in nearby Castleford. The dedication to art does not end there. A few miles from the town there is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) - an outstanding collection of sculpture and other art, in the setting of an old country park - and another reason for our visit.

But how far can you regenerate a town on art? There did not appear to be many jobs in it. No flourishing urban environment has developed around the Hepworth in the manner of London's South Bank, in spite of its riverside location. The same can be said for the YSP, which barely keeps a couple of snack bars going, in spite of its many visitors - though a posh hotel and conference centre is under development. The nearby motorway service area on the M1 motorway may do more business than both of these facilities put together.

So Wakefield has achieved a sort of economic mediocrity. There are jobs, and not just in the usual services, but it is not prospering. One clear weakness is the lack of a university (unlike nearby Leeds, and even Huddersfield, another smaller town nearby). Education should be at the heart of a modern economy. There is a decent further education college - but this is a neglected sector in Britain's education system, starved by government austerity even as schools and universities have prospered.

The town must aspire to better. The weakness of such towns drives much of the foul political mood in not just Britain. People there feel left behind and neglected by metropolitan types who promise much and deliver little (or so it appears to their residents). New jobs tend to be poor quality; capital sends its rewards to the big metropolises or to offshore tax havens. Surely there is untapped human capital here? How can local networks be revived to counter the giant national and global networks that will otherwise suck these places dry? Too many economists are sinking into pessimism. A recent article in the Economist compared the fate of less-skilled humans to that of horses, which became obsolete a century ago. Is the weakness of such centres an inevitable consequence of the march of automation and an obsession with productivity?

I'm not convinced. I see too many jobs that need doing that are being neglected - in education, health, social care and local services generally - and in the world's large but hollow corporations and state agencies, who pass the buck rather than solve problems. The liberal market economy, so favoured by the conventional wisdom of the 1990s and 2000s is failing - just as the publicly directed command economy has failed before it. But what to do? Local currencies perhaps? This approach is favoured by new economy thinkers like David Boyle - and regular commenter to this blog Peter Martin. Perhaps it is worth a try, but I suspect that political power structures must be altered first. It is no accident that countries with a highly devolved political culture, like Switzerland and Germany, are faring better than centralised polities like Britain and France. Though that is not enough - as the fortunes of the highly devolved United States shows. You need a strong social safety net too.

If I was trying to make something of Wakefield, I would start with its further education college. It has failed in a bid to acquire university status - but Britain needs world-class technical training for less academic young people and adults. Surely building on neglected human capital must be a large part of any solution? But that needs a strong state to provide up front payment and carry risk - and the state is weakening.

So a larger state, but not one dominated by giant agencies with Key Performance Indicators and lacklustre management; local democracy that does not turn into cronyism and mediocrity; thriving businesses that recycle their surpluses locally rather than send them elsewhere. A big challenge, but the future of  liberalism depends on it.

 

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Productivity statistics expose deep weaknesses in theoretical economics

I hadn't intended to post for another couple of weeks, but this article in the Financial Times is too good to miss. It tackles one of the central issues in modern economic debate: why productivity growth is so slow. Productivity lies at the heart of the conventional view of public policy - and yet it is very poorly understood. This article sheds light on what is happening in the UK - and it should give politicians and economists pause.

Productivity is in principle a very simple idea. It is the amount produced by a unit of labour in a unit of time - the number of widgets per person per hour, for example. This immediately conjures up a clear mental picture of a factory producing cars, say. Count the number of cars produced, and the number of hours of labour required and it is easy-peasy, surely? Alas in a modern economy  it is a much more difficult idea. What if your car factory is producing both Ford Fiestas and Mondeos, and switches to the smaller car? Has productivity gone up if more are produced? And how do you distinguish product enhancement from inflation?  And then there are problems treating capital outputs and inputs, research and development, and so on. In the end the productivity measured across an economy is a bit of a balancing figure, as we accountants would call it - or a bit of a dustbin - what's left when you've taken everything else out. It is just a number relationship without a coherent meaning in its own right. It is not like the concepts that physical scientists are used to dealing with - such as the temperature and pressure of a gas. Macroeconomics is heterogeneous, to say nothing of being subject to capricious social forces that tend to corrupt all attempts at measurement.

Now, what is the productivity puzzle? It is that productivity growth, as measured by macroeconomic statisticians, has slowed markedly since 2008, when the financial crash caused a dislocation in measured income. This applies to all developed economies, but to the British economy most of all - UK productivity growth, according to the article, fell from 1.6% per annum before 2008 to just 0.3% after. This has profound implications, since in the long term productivity growth is what drives income per head, alongside the average hours people work (influenced strongly by workforce participation - such as how many women are in paid employment). And this drives tax revenues, from which public services are funded. Since we assume that quality of life is mainly driven by income, and that public services can constantly be enhanced by extra spending (apart from occasional periods of "austerity"), this has profound implications. Prior to 2008 most economists assumed that productivity growth of 1-2% pa was a law of nature and  main driver of "trend growth", which could be baked into economic models. The corollary was that weak growth since 2008, and the failure of GDP to catch up with the pre 2008 trend-line, was a failure in macroeconomic policy.

But given the dustbin nature of the productivity statistics, it is very hard to drill down into them to find out just where the problem is - though that there is a problem of some sort is clear. This is licence for all manner of people to project their speculations into a fact-free zone. Mostly these are based on the intuitively obvious idea that the changes to the productivity figures represent trends in the efficiency of workers. Recently Bank of England bigwig Andrew Haldane moaned that the problem was that efficiency was stuck in a rut, especially in a swathe of mediocre firms. He based this on sectoral analysis which showed that the productivity had stagnated across all sectors - with economic growth mainly attributed to rises in employment, not efficiency.

The FT article, authored by Chris Giles and Gemma Tetlow, challenge that. A close examination of the numbers shows that the crash in productivity growth arises from changes in a small number of economic sectors, accounting for just 11% of income. These are banking, telecoms, electricity and gas, management consultancy, and legal and accounting services. Actually Mr Haldane's and Mr Giles/Ms Tetlow's analysis can be reconciled. Mr Haldane was taking a general view across the economy since 2008, where productivity growth is now very limited. The FT writers are looking at the transition from before and after 2008. The curious point is why productivity growth was so high in that small number of industries before 2008 - and the realisation that this is what was driving so much of the figures for productivity growth before that date.

And that leaves this blogger asking whether that pre-crash productivity growth - and by implication the pre-crash trend rate of overall economic growth - was in any sense real, other than statistically. In banking we know that in 2008 massive state resources were required to keep the industry alive, and that since then the industry has been much better controlled. This suggests that "productivity" would more correctly be described as "recklessness". And in each of the other industries you can point to factors that demonstrate that growth was not simply incremental improvements in efficiency. For example in electricity and gas productivity was based on high inputs of fossil fuels and nuclear energy - and the switch away from these destructive sources of power has caused a decline in measured productivity. And how on earth do you assess the output of management consultancy, and accountancy and legal services? The transition may simply be from high margins in boom economy conditions to higher scrutiny when times were harder - or to put it another way, what was supposedly economic growth prior to 2008 was in fact concealed inflation.

All this supports the narrative that I have been promoting for quite a few years about the transition from growth to austerity. This is that the supposed growth of the economy of the early to mid noughties in the UK was down to excess demand, of which reckless fiscal policy was a part  - though you might alternatively argue that it was reckless borrowing by the private sector that the government turned a blind eye to. It also suggests that the lacklustre economic performance of the UK economy since 2008 reflects a lot more than just weak demand management: it is chickens coming home to roost.

This takes me to two very important conclusions. The first is that we have to be very careful about the recommendations of macroeconomists - and the eco-system of commentators and policy types that use macroeconomics as their starting point. The bandying about of aggregate statistics is all very well - but the aggregates hide as well as reveal - and we need to base economic prescriptions on the complexities of the real economy. That is hard, but necessary.

The second point is that overall productivity is indeed stuck in a rut, and has been since well before 2008. It must reflect structural issues in real economy - and not simply laziness amongst mediocre firms or poor macroeconomic management. There is no shortage of potential culprits: demographics; the nature of modern technology; the temporary nature of gains from trade with Asian economies. The world may still be becoming a better place - but because of things that are not captured in GDP, and hence productivity statistics. The problem for public policy is that tax revenues are largely driven by GDP (which is why it is an important statistic) - so we can't expect an ever increasing flow of tax revenue to fund public services. In the long run we must either reduce the demand for public services (healthier people, fewer crimes, less skewed income distribution, etc.), raise taxes, or compromise what level of services and benefits we think that a civilised state should provide.

And that is a completely new way of thinking about public policy. The political right have grasped this (for the wrong reasons, perhaps) - but the left has not.

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Britain’s economic outlook is dismal. We need a new direction.

Yesterday the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, gave his Autumn Statement. It was his first big set-piece in that role, and the time the government has attempted to set out its financial plans since the country voted to leave the European Union. Amid the noise and kerfuffle that such events generate, it is easy to miss the big picture: Britain's politicians have no answer to a dismal outlook.

What drives my pessimism? The most important piece of public life that I am involved with is schools. Looking back over the last decade there is much to be proud of in this patch of inner London. The professionalism and dedication of school leaders and staff have grown. The imagination they have used to reach out to disadvantaged children is wonderful to see, and the results impressive. Where once teachers vehemently defended their little classroom empires against any outside scrutiny, and blamed poor results on social conditions, I now see a new generation of professionals, willing to accept advice and scrutiny, and enthused by a team mission to ensure that all pupils achieve potential. Political credit needs to be spread widely. The New Labour government started the process by putting pressure on London schools to break out of the tyranny of low expectations. The Conservatives sharpened the focus on teaching quality. The Liberal Democrats' Pupil Premium policy led to a step-change in the treatment of disadvantaged pupils, and will be their most enduring achievement in coalition. But the clouds are gathering.

Education funding is being squeezed. London schools are funded generously by comparison with many parts of the country, and so the pressure is being applied there sharply. Teaching Assistants, who do not have professional qualifications, are feeling the squeeze the most - just that section of society that is finding it hardest to make ends meet. And services, slowly but surely, are under threat. Children's Centres, which provided pre-school support, we the first to be hit. Now nurseries are under threat. A system that was tackling the gap between the haves and have-nots is slowly being dismantled. And this picture is being repeated across public services generally. Health and social care services are gradually failing to cope with the steady rise in older patients. Neighbourhood police teams have been cut drastically, choking the process of community links and intelligence gathering. And so on. All this is slowly creating a society divided by education and the lottery of property ownership.

The Chancellor offered us no hope of relief. The government budget deficit is still 4% of GDP, a level not usually thought of as sustainable. A large current account deficit shows that the country as a whole is consuming more than it is producing, as it has been for the last two decades. To be clear, neither of these deficits is a cause to panic. In current global economic conditions they look quite sustainable for a good while yet. But they show that there are limits to what the state can fund. In conventional analysis what is needed is a bit of economic growth, and more productivity from British workers. But, for all sorts of reasons, that productivity growth has dried up globally. Mr Hammond boasted that growth in Britain compared favourably with other developed world economies. That is not good news, because it demonstrates that the country's problems are deep-seated and unlikely to be solved by a bit tweaking here and there. We are all in the same swamp.

What we need to understand is that these problems follow from profound changes in the world around us. Developed world populations are aging - by which I mean that the proportion of older people is rising and leaving the productive workforce. Technological change is wiping out working class jobs, pushing economic rewards towards a minority of professionals and the owners of capital. Globalisation was making things worse in some ways for developed economies, but provided solutions in others - but in any case it is slowing down as the Chinese economy in particular matures.

And to this rather gloomy picture we are adding wonton acts of self-harm. Climate change is helping to destabilise the world, creating waves of refugees. In Britain, Brexit will make things worse. It is not that economic integration of the type offered by the European Union was helping particularly, but the act of leaving the union is creating a colossal distraction for both government and businesses.  It has also given populism, a turning inwards and the rise of charlatan political leaders bent on self-aggrandisement, a big lift, Donald Trump's American isolationism promises to do more harm than good both inside and outside the USA.

Politicians  left and right are responding mainly by trying to turn the clock back to imagined happier times. The right imagine a world of self-sufficient, ethnically homogenous nation-states undistracted by the pressures of global integration and technological change. The left fondly recalls a time of institutional Keynesianism and an ever-expanding state. Neither confronts the challenges of technological change and the need to heal fracturing communities.

So what about hope? We have some things to play with. The current younger generation is the best-educated and most cosmopolitan ever in the developed world. By and large they are not fooled by the lure of the past - one reason why they are so disengaged by current politicians. That their expectations of an easy, inevitable and prosperous life are being dashed means that at least they will be open to positive change. Technological change has its plus points too, by enabling cooperation and personalisation. The advance of renewable and energy-efficient technologies offers plenty of hope too.

But we do need to start thinking of different ways of organising political and economic activity. Ways that offer less power to corporate monopolies, and better able to tax and recycle their profits (perhaps the most persuasive reason for staying with the European Union is  its ability to confront the multinationals). We also need to place less faith in highly centralised systems that struggle to deal with complex problems, while concentrating political and commercial power. We  need better schools, better public healthcare, and stronger, local public services to support struggling communities - and controlled by those communities rather than the whims of politicians in a far-off capital.

As blogger David Boyle wrote recently, we are in a dark tunnel, but we need to press towards the light at the end of it, not try to turn back.

 

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Fiscal activism makes a comeback. But it won’t help savers

Even the Prime Minister Theresa May is saying it. Low interest rates are not lifting the economy in the right way. So time for government spending and tax cuts to take over? Or, as economists call it, active fiscal policy. She joins a chorus of academic economists and newspaper commentators.

The story goes back to the 1930s when the Depression was rampant. This hit government tax revenues and the conventional wisdom was that government spending had to be cut to balance the budget. Enter the great economist Maynard Keynes.

Keynes pointed out that the problem with the economy was a shortage of demand - not enough people buying things to pay for the people in jobs. Or to put it another way, there was excess saving. If people are saving, they are spending less than they earn. That means that there isn't enough spending across the economy to pay everybody's wages, so the economy sinks. Or it will sink if the savings are not spent on investment, which is another type of spending. Stuffing cash into mattresses is not investment. Neither is putting the money into a bank account unless the bank lends it to somebody who in their turn pays somebody to do something. In a depression people are unwilling to invest, and so saving tends to be higher than investment. And so the economy enters a doom-loop. Before the 1930s economies were marked by severe boom and bust cycles.

Keynes pointed to a way through. If government increased its spending or cut taxes, they would put money in people's pockets, which would be spent, neutralise the excess saving and bring the economy back to life again. Slowly governments followed his advice, most famously US President Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal.  The most spectacular success came in Hitler's Germany, which spent freely on infrastructure (think of the autobahns) and armaments. Keynes pointed out that it did not matter what the spending was on provided it was spent at home, or at any rate it didn't matter at first. As the economy approaches capacity wasteful government spending is a problem, but not before then. The rapid expansion of the US economy as it was placed onto a war footing in the 1940s proved Keynes right beyond doubt. Thus was born fiscal policy as an instrument of economic management, and economics as a discipline entered a golden age. The swings from boom to bust were notably reduced in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then it came off the rails. In the 1970s things changed. The first shock was the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates - it could not handle the excess of US spending on the Vietnam war. This destabilised the international financial system. Then came the oil shock in 1973, as OPEC ramped up oil prices massively. The governments that tried to spend their way out of the subsequent recession merely created inflation and not jobs. The governments that applied stricter fiscal policy, West Germany and Japan in particular, suffered much lower inflation. Enter another economist: Milton Freidman.

Freidman suggested that Keynes had it all wrong. The issue was not managing government spending and taxes, it was managing the money supply. The Depression was severe because the banking system collapsed, and people couldn't borrow money. A lot of what Freidman said turned out to be nonsense, but what evolved was the neo-Keynesian consensus. This relegated fiscal policy to a relatively minor role. In the conventional wisdom of the time (often referred to nowadays as "neoliberalism"), government spending could easily get out of hand, destroy inventives and make economies less efficient. Instead the main responsibility for managing the business cycle came to something referred to as "monetary policy", run by  central banks.

Monetary policy is a bit of misnomer, a hangover from Freidman's emphasis on money supply. To this day people often explain monetary policy as if people paid for things in banknotes, which are printed at will by the central bank. In fact money has moved almost entirely to accounting systems of debtors and creditors, with banknotes relegated to a very minor role. The economic implications of a bank account are utterly different from those of a pile of banknotes. The idea of money supply is nearly meaningless. Instead of that, as regular commenter to my blog Peter Martin put it in a post to Lib Dem Voice, what we have is interest rate policy. Money supply in the economic models taught to students has become a completely theoretical concept that cannot actually be measured . If demand is falling in an economy, this is corrected by reducing interest rates, which should encourage people to spend more. If things look like getting out of hand, then interest rates are raised.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s this system seemed to be working, but it came under increasing criticism. Central banks used inflation targets to judge whether the level of demand was too high or too low. But this measure excluded asset prices, which were directly influenced by interest rates. Asset bubbles were allowed to develop. Then they popped in 2007 to 2009, in the financial crash and the big recession that ensued, which interest rate policy proved unable to correct.

Fiscal policy made a return. But it was tentative. As soon as the worst of the recession was over, governments cut back (widely referred to as "austerity"). Critics argued that this was stalling any recovery. Then the victims of low interest rates, those saving for pensions in particular, started to get agitated. This is most evident in Germany - but Mrs May was voicing concerns amongst her constituents in the UK.

So can fiscal policy help lift economic growth, in place of low interest rates? There is a strong case for this, but caution is warranted. Most economic commentators hedge their bets by recommending that extra spending is on infrastructure projects, that will yield economic returns in their own right.

This hints at the first of three reasons for caution. What if the reasons for slow growth are structural and not to do with low aggregate demand? Are we making the same mistake as the mid 1970s, when economists saw high unemployment and low growth and assumed that this meant lots of spare capacity? In fact economies then had suffered a major dislocation from the oil shock, and were slow to adapt because of excessively unionised and corporatist economic management. That was then, but there are plenty of suggestions as to what the capacity restraints might be now, starting with demographics. Investing in infrastructure should help overcome these constraints, killing two birds with one stone.

The second reason for caution is that economies have internationalised. A lot of the benefit of fiscal stimulus can leak abroad, especially if other countries have a deficiency of demand too. Fiscal stimulus might simply drag in imports from countries eager for export-led growth. Globally coordinated fiscal policy works much better. This was achieved in 2009, but consensus has broken down since. The risk of stimulating other people's economies can be reduced if the stimulus programme is carefully designed. But it can be quite hard to tell where best to direct spending or tax cuts.

And the third reason for caution is the difficulty in understanding when to turn the tap off and tighten policy. Politicians are prone to fiddling the figures to put the evil day off. British Chancellor Gordon Brown was notorious for this in the mid-2000s, contributing, in my view anyway, to the severity of the financial crash in 2007-09. Anti-austerity has become a political totem on the left - and yet there must come a point in any business cycle when austerity is required. This is also a problem with using infrastructure investment as the prime instrument of fiscal policy - it is not so easy to manage according to the business cycle. Lead times can be long and if an investment project is worth doing, it is probably worth doing at all points in the cycle.

And a final point. looser fiscal policy is unlikely to help savers with raising interest rates. Interest rate policy and fiscal policy should not be working against each other. To raise interest rates we need to see a healthier British and world economy. That looks some way off.

 

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Does the fall in the pound presage a financial meltdown?

The British pound is now at its lowest effective (i.e. trade-weighted) level ever, according the Bank of England's 168 year index. There was a sharp initial fall after the referendum to leave the EU, and then a further fall over the last week after the prime minister's conference speeches pointed toward a quicker and harder exit than expected. Is this just a routine fluctuation that can be shrugged off, as bigger falls have been in the past, or does it portend something nasty? It is, of course, too early to tell.

The pound's fall has been seized on by supporters of Remain as the sole piece of substantive evidence to support their prediction that exit would make Britain worse off. Leavers are predictably unimpressed. Of course both sides seek to gather every scrap of evidence to justify the stand they took in the campaign, and this argument leaves us none the wiser. This blogger is not beyond such things, of course, but I do try to set a higher standard.

The first question posed by the depreciation is what was the pound doing so high before the referendum anyway. The country has a large current account deficit. In other words, as a nation we are spending more foreign currency in imports than we are getting in exports and investment income (or persuading foreigners to accept more sterling than they want to spend on British imports - it boils down to the same thing). In theory this suggests that the currency's real exchange rate is too high. This has been a persistent and to me perplexing phenomenon since the late 1990s. Demand for sterling has remained high, notwithstanding the deficit. Investment by foreigners in property and business assets (or Britons selling off overseas assets and repatriating the proceeds) has kept the pound afloat for 20 years - though at a much higher level before the financial crisis of 2007-09.

This is, literally, a confidence trick. Investors have had sufficient confidence in the British economy to think that their assets will grow in value in terms of their home currency, rather than ours. It is hard to pin down why for sure. Britain is an easy place for foreigners to do business - we don't have a xenophobic attitude to foreign investment, sometimes seen in countries as close as France. That encourages footloose capital in our direction. We have seen many takeovers of great British businesses (notably this year the chip designer ARM). Buoyant high-end property values have no doubt encouraged investors too, though it is hard to quantify.

Britain's membership of the EU is doubtless part of the charm of Britain, for business investors at least. They can set up operations here with ready access to European markets, free of tariff and non-tariff barriers. Leaving the EU, and its single market, must surely dent the country's attraction. But we don't know by how much. It won't change the ease with which foreigners can buy assets here. By itself it should not affect high-end property either.

There is, therefore, a clear case to keep calm. As sterling takes a fall, it makes British assets cheaper. This should be a compensation enough for British exit to the EU, though you might be wise to stay clear of some businesses, like motor manufacturing. A lower exchange rate should help rebalance the economy, reducing the current account deficit, and the country's dependence on foreign investment flows. This is all self-correcting. And if you are a true Brexiteer you will be confident that a more efficient, better balanced economy will eventually emerge from any transitional wobbles. That may be right - I always thought that the hair-shirt case for Brexit, as I called it, was intellectually their most persuasive argument (referencing a post I made in March which stands the test of time). Could EU membership have caused that current account gap, or allowed it to persist, leaving us with an unbalanced economy?

There is a problem, though. Capital markets are not rational. Nobody really understands how they work, and they are at least as influenced by a complex game of second-guessing short-term movements as they are by cool, calm assessment of long-term prospects. They are prone to bubbles: excessive periods of confidence followed by excessive pessimism.

You can see this by the way market observers talk about movements in prices being persistent trends, rather than asking what the right price is. This is at its most striking in the property market, where price movements are talked as "performance" rather than finding an appropriate level. A long view investor might say that the pound has simply found a new and more appropriate level. A short view investor might suggest that the pound has been performing badly, so that further falls are to be expected. In the former case you have would expect the fall to be limited, in the latter the fall becomes a self-reinforcing trend. And the difference comes down to a not entirely rational quality: confidence.

Confidence is not a nice, mathematically well-behaved quantity. It is prone to behaving in a very non-linear way. It can disappear suddenly. Confidence in Greek government bonds used to be nearly as rock-solid as German ones. And then it disappeared. Could confidence in the pound, and then other British financial investments, like government and corporate bonds, disappear just as quickly? Could the 20 year bubble burst? It doesn't have to be rational. If it does the wider consequences would be severe. Inflation could take off as the monetary floodgates are opened (by the government funding itself directly through the Bank of England); bank lending could simultaneously dry up causing a recession. Back to the 1970s in other words when, amongst other things, a massive rise in oil prices caused a rapid rebalancing. Is Brexit a similar shock? (even accepting, as with high oil prices in the 1970s, we end up in a better place).

It is hard to believe that things will turn out like this. There are some signs of vulnerability: property prices are high; the budget deficit remains high by historic standards, and so is the level of the national debt. There is little scope to restore financial markets by cutting interest rates. Gilt yields have been rising recently - suggesting that confidence in government finances is starting to fade. And yet the overall statistics do not suggest alarm - foreign exchange reserves, for example, look plentiful. But ultimately if the country has a current account deficit, and if foreign investors don't want to finance it, there will be defaults or inflation or both.

As the FT's Martin Wolf points out, a financial meltdown is not likely, but the risk of it has risen in the last week. The capital markets have given Britain an easy ride through its recent troubles, but that could change quickly. The government needs to be very careful about how it handles Brexit. Sovereignty in an interconnected world is always incomplete.

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The post-Brexit phoney war on the economy

Two months after Britain's shock referendum result, and what has happened? Not a lot. Though you wouldn't think it from reading the running commentary. So was Project Fear the hoax that the Leave campaigners always said? Probably not.

The few days after the result seemed to fulfil Project Fear more quickly than even Remain campaigners suggested. The pound fell sharply and many stock indices tumbled too. There was much talk of this or that investment being stopped, or this or that institution or business being under threat. Remain supporters have kept up the pace of alarmist talk ever since, to judge by my Facebook feed.

But Brexit campaigners have a point when they poke fun at this. When it comes to cold, hard economic statistics it is very hard to see much, or any, adverse impact. The stock markets have fully recovered. Retail sales, employment and prices all looked pretty healthy in July. The government still finds it laughably easy to raise money on the bond markets; the Bank of England's currency reserves went up. Only that fall in the currency has persisted. And no doubt that reflects weaknesses in the economy before the vote - given the scale of the ongoing current account deficit. The various indicators that have taken a plunge represent sentiment rather than hard fact, and may have been contaminated by the sheer shock of it all, as might the gloomy reports from the Bank of England and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

On only one thing can Brexiteers be disappointed. The remaining EU has sailed on just as smoothly as the UK, with the Euro strengthening significantly against the pound. This defies predictions of imminent panic and collapse gleefully made by (some) Brexit campaigners. No other country seems at all inclined to follow Britain's lead to the exit. Even as the emerging kerfuffle on Italian banks is as good evidence as you might ask for about problems with EU rules and democratic mandates.

There is, of course, one possible explanation for this insouciance: denial. Maybe people think that exit is so hard, and will have such obviously dire consequences, that it will never happen. Speculation about the invocation of Clause 50 for formal exit pushes it further and further into the future. If so it shows remarkably little insight amongst the market makers. Any process by which the referendum result is reversed will be very messy, and entail a lot of collateral damage.

Personally I think people are putting too much faith in the markets' ability to see trouble ahead. The signs that the 2008 crash was in the works were obvious more than a year beforehand, when the interbank markets froze. Strong enough, as I don't tire to point out, for me to move my pension portfolio from shares into index-linked gilts and cash. The more perceptive would have seen the trouble coming a year before even that, when US property prices started to slide, threatening the foundations of the whole financial edifice. And yet the markets did not reflect the mounting danger at all.

And at the other end of the scale, when it comes to the multitude of small decisions taken by consumers and businesses that drive the short term statistics, there is also a sort of built-in inertia. Short term decisions quickly overwhelm intangible longer term worries. People don't know what to do, so they carry on as normal.

There are two ways in which the Project Fear may yet turn out to be on the money. One is a slow decline that accumulates: slower growth turns to a shallow recession that persists. That would be perfectly consistent with current statistics. The other way would be like the 2008 crash: a delayed reaction leading to a sudden crash.  Both of these follow my metaphor of the economy being holed below the waterline in my post in the week after the result. The ship is in mortal danger despite no damage visible above water.

Why might trouble happen? It comes back to the basic weakness of the British economy (which, it must be said, EU membership was doing little to help) - a substantial trade and current account deficit. Britons as a whole are spending more than they are earning, and have been for many years. That has been OK because plenty of foreigners have been prepared to lend us money, or to invest in British businesses or property. Also British multinationals may be selling off foreign assets and bringing the proceeds home. Brexit is putting that investment flow at risk.

What happens if the country can't get enough currency to pay for imports? Demand for Sterling falls, and the currency sinks. That might attract investors (British assets look a bargain) or scare them (with the risk of further depreciation). Currency reserves, private and national, start to be drawn down. That will affect living standards. Then either the trade balance corrects (buy fewer imports and sell more exports), or things start getting nasty with a financial crisis as the stability of banks and the entire payments system comes into question - which is what happened in 2008, for different reasons. These changes tend not to happen smoothly.

The problem is that the financial system is very complex, with all sorts of buffers and hidden dependencies, which makes it non-linear. Responses are not proportionate to the changes to the system. Past performance is a poor guide to future dangers. There might be a lot of short-term factors stabilising things, but that could be undermining resilience. The country could be building up vulnerability to the next financial crisis, just as the Labour government of the naughties created vulnerability to the banking crisis of 2008.

Or perhaps the Brexiteers are right. The financial system will adapt to the new realities calmly and the British economy is fundamentally stronger than the pessimists say. The economy will sail serenely on and gather strength to boot.

The thing is that it is just too early to tell. It could be many months, or even years, before any crisis caused by Brexit emerges. I will be watching for signs of trouble. But, to be honest, I haven't seen them yet. It's all a phoney war.

 

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