Tag Archives: UK economic policy

The budget – the coalition at its best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is cutting Corporation Tax good for growth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ballsed up – Labour’s economic narrative implodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Inflation and the British economy

There is an excellent article in today’s FT by Chris Giles.  Unfortunately this is behind the FT paywall so I don’t think clicking through will help most of my readers.

Mr Giles considers what has gone wrong with the British economy over the last year – since growth forecasts are being consistently revised downwards.  Two explanations are often offered – “it’s the Euro crisis” or the government is cutting “too far, too fast”.  In fact both are wide of the mark.  The simple fact is that while rates of pay have stuck broadly on forecast (2% increase), consumer prices have increased by more (over 5% compared to just over 3%).  The gap is plenty enough to explain the lowering of real terms growth.

Why have prices shot ahead of forecast?  Mainly external factors to the British economy – oil prices, global prices for food and clothing and so on.  I really don’t like calling these price rises “inflation”.  Inflation suggests a degrading of money which, inter alia, makes debts easier to afford.  But incomes aren’t keeping up, so debts aren’t eroding by more than the 2% a year or so that incomes are rising.  Similar considerations apply to government debt – taxes largely depend on income.  VAT is an exception – but many benefits (like pensions) are linked to the rate of increase of consumer prices – so the national debt doesn’t get any more affordable.

The economic pain of these external price rises is being spread widely.  Surely the Bank of England is right not to tighten policy – which would only cause unemployment and concentrate the pain on an unlucky few.  Our comparatively low rate of unemployment, compared to previous crises of this economic scale, is one of the wonders of the British economy.

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Is Britain about to go bust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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