Tag Archives: GDP

Theresa May’s agenda as UK’s Prime Minister

I have no idea whether Theresa May really intends to ditch Osborneomics. George Osborne appears to have ditched it, so it seems quite likely. Hopefully she will have got the message that ‘the markets’ have capitulated over the perceived need to raise interest rates, as they are still piling into Britain’s gilts (government bonds), causing them to yield what are effectively negative rates. Which means they would be paying the government to borrow, as before, but now even more so. So now would be a really, really good time for the government to borrow to fund new infrastructure investment, as well as investment in education (including adult), health, housing, R&D, even military – anything which would be of long-term benefit to the country as well as employing people and receiving more taxes back. The kind of growth so engendered would eventually bring our Debt/GDP ratio right down again in good time.

Of course this would tend to suck in more immigrants to do the work Britons seem incapable of doing, for the moment – but that is another story, which will be somewhat difficult for her to deal with, as recently.

An article in the IMF’s Finance & Economics magazine (F&D) in June questioned the ‘Neoliberal Agenda’ with its emphasis on globalisation and particularly capital flows deregulation, indicating that the way it has actually worked has, to say the least, not been optimal. After doing some research, the authors stated:

  • The benefits in terms of increased growth seem fairly difficult to establish when looking at a broad group of countries.­
  • The costs in terms of increased inequality are prominent. Such costs epitomize the trade-off between the growth and equity effects of some aspects of the neoliberal agenda.
  • ­Increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth. Even if growth is the sole or main purpose of the neoliberal agenda, advocates of that agenda still need to pay attention to the distributional effects.­

This is a conclusion reached by a large number of economists. As is noted here, by Dani Rodrik, quoting from some of the more distinguished ones:

This backlash was predictable. Some economists, including me, did warn about the consequences of pushing economic globalization beyond the boundaries of institutions that regulate, stabilize, and legitimize markets. Hyper-globalization in trade and finance, intended to create seamlessly integrated world markets, tore domestic societies apart.

The increase  in inequality is all around us in the UK with its shrinking middle-income sector, and even more so in the USA, where middle and working-class incomes have hardly risen in the past 30 years. In the meanwhile the incomes and wealth of the richest 1% of our societies have risen exponentially. This is not just an issue of ‘fairness’. The super-rich have difficulty spending their money in a way that benefits the economy broadly via growth and tax receipts, compared with the less well off who spend more of their income and therefore do pay more in tax as their income rises.

There is significant middle- and working class disgruntlement and outright anger, which is clearly visible in the popularity of Trump and Sanders in the USA and the Brexit referendum result in the UK. This inequality is causing social unrest, as is now very clear, but started to become pretty obvious here during the widespread riots in 2011. The problem will not go away unless there is a significant change of government policies.

And that is what is so interesting about Theresa May’s latest pronouncements.  She, at least, has got at least some of the message – as, perhaps, only an ex-Home Secretary can, who certainly will not want more social unrest during her stint as Prime Minister. Especially as Brexit will almost certainly make matters worse in a shrinking economy where arguments about who gets most out of the remaining ‘cake’ are likely to become even more heated, as Tim Harford has pointed out.

Chris Dillow, a Marxist blogger whose day job is on Investors Chronicle makes some very interesting points about some of the details of her future agenda:

There’s something remarkable about Theresa May’s speech yesterday: large chunks of it could have come from a Labour politician.

For example, she spoke of the “injustices” of people from poorer backgrounds having less chance of going to university or getting top jobs or even living a long life. She complained that many people in politics don’t appreciate “how hard life is for the working class”; of workers being “exploited by unscrupulous bosses”; of “irresponsible behaviour in big business” and of an “irrational, unhealthy and growing gap” between workers’ and bosses’ pay.

She went onto demand a “proper industrial strategy” to raise productivity – one that might block hostile takeovers; of the need to “give people more control of their lives”; of the need for workers on company boards; a “crack down on individual and corporate tax avoidance and evasion”; and restraints upon CEO pay.

If we add to all this her renunciation of austerity and (I presume) acceptance of rises in the national living wage, May is to the left of the position many Labour MPs had in 2015 – and perhaps still have  … It’s no surprise that her words have been welcomed by the Equality Trust.

So, maybe she is also, unlike George Osborne, listening to the views of the vast majority of UK economists. George Osborne may or may not have got the message, but I suspect she may want someone else as Chancellor of The Exchequer.

EDIT 13-07-16 Evening

George Osborne is out of the Cabinet. Philip Hammond is the new Chancellor.

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What happened between 2010 and 2016. All about Austerity…

I came across something on Yves Smith’s excellent #NakedCapitalism blog, which I thought I’d share with my future self.

Before linking it, here’s my own version of the story so far…

I’ve kept banging on about the follies of #austerity ( aka ‘fiscal consolidation’) as introduced by the UK’s Chancellor George Osborne, much aided and abetted by the hapless Nick Clegg in the coalition government which came to power in 2010.

But it is important to be clear that fiscal consolidation is very appropriate under certain circumstances – namely, when an economy is judged to be growing strongly, and, for any reason you like, it is judged desirable to rein in public debt. After all, why burden your future self or future generations with debt which is unnecessary because you can easily afford to reduce it without harming your growth or harming your public services? All governments borrow by issuing debt in the form of government bonds and the UK government has nearly always been in debt. Think of it as a mortgage. No problem, as long as you can afford the interest payments. Even with a strongly growing economy a government may legitimately wish to borrow in order to raise large sums, beyond the scope of taxation, for state investment purposes – on infrastructure, hospitals, universities, schools, weapons, scientific research, and so on (war also comes to mind). But if it needs to borrow to pay for ongoing salaries, unemployment benefits, social services, road maintenance, etc., (etc.) – then clearly something is wrong. In that case it may mean taxation is just too low: as a growing economy may mainly be putting the proceeds of its growth into the pockets of a very few, with little ‘trickling down’ to the many. In which case the government’s coffers would be receiving too little tax to pay for current expenditure, because inequality is too high.

The current UK austerity policy was introduced by the Clegg-Cameron coalition shortly after the massive increase in debt incurred by the UK government of Gordon Brown: an increase which was necessitated by the bailout of the poorly-regulated financial sector (for which blame Bill Clinton and blame Blair-Brown) after the financial sector, especially the banks, brought much of the world economy to its knees. The same events occurred in the USA, where it all started, and in many other major economies.

Financial sector bailouts, the monetary policy of reducing central bank interest rates and fiscal stimulus by governments – ie extra government spending – were initially applied and sort-of saved the day. But the initial very appropriate fiscal stimulus was quickly followed by panicky fiscal retrenchment even as the previous policy was starting to work. The immediate result of the 2010 newly elected Conservative fiscal retrenchment was to immediately turn shaky recovery back into recession. In the UK George Osborne lifted his foot off the fiscal brake a little when it became obvious to the Treasury in 2011 that his austerity policy was damaging the economy, which had started to grow again in 2009-10. All the while Mr Osborne was claiming that there was no alternative to Plan A, and that he was still pursuing it. But he wasn’t. Much to the chagrin of some of the ‘Tory Press’.

However, by then the damage caused by Osborne’s ceasing all UK government investment, and his other austerity measures, had already been done; followed by knock-on (‘hysteresis’) effects on private investment as well as further state investment. Of course, the UK economy did eventually start to recover yet again – they always do…eventually. But this UK recovery, despite significant employment growth, has since been pretty anaemic and fragile in terms of GDP, with appallingly low productivity and an unsustainable ‘trade deficit’. not to be confused with the fiscal deficit, which was hardly shrinking at all, despite the cuts. Similar government behaviour elsewhere in the world produced similar results, though Britain’s productivity remains the worst among developed nations.

Of course, in the middle of all this, the euro area had its own special problems to add to the mix, largely due to irresponsible bank lending, most especially by German banks, to irresponsible  private borrowers – mainly property developers in other countries, especially Ireland and Spain. Greece was a special bad case with Greek government profligacy which was pretty obvious when it joined the euro and which should have stopped its joining, except nobody had the courage to call out the Greek govenment over its bogus data.

Basically, what was forgotten by the UK government and others, as they focused their attention on the higher than normal Debt/GDP ratio (obviously more important than the actual debt itself), was that while, if this ratio is considered too high to be sustainable, there are, on the surface, two ways to bring it down:

  1. to directly cut debt by cutting the government deficit (difference between tax take and expenditure), through severely curtailing government spending, or…
  2. a longer term strategy of raising GDP by means of additional government spending on capital investment and encouraging business to invest… (and there is always ‘helicopter money’ to consider, as well – giving money directly to consumers to spend)

… in most countries, especially the UK, the focus was wholly on response (1) from which the private sector bit of (2) was supposed to occur via… er…’confidence’.

The reason for choosing opton (1) was the alleged sheer urgency of ‘bringing down the debt’. This was supposed to mean the private sector would regain its confidence to spend and business, thereby, would invest more. It was hoped by the more full-blooded neocons that this would also have the benefit of shrinking the state, which, for many, was their main ideological and selfish motivation (lower taxes, y’see).

Of course it failed and continues failing, even in its anaemic form.

This is because businesspeople are not stupid and did not actually have confidence that the policy was going to work, whatever they may have been saying to the press. And so, instead, they pocketed their profits and tax cuts by proceeding to increase senior management salaries/bonuses while massaging up their share prices via buying their own shares, thus ‘justifying’ increased bonuses… etc., (etc.). British productivity, in particular, suffered from a lack of investment and cheap labour, some imported.

Neither were ‘the markets’ confident. Thus they went about increasing their purchase of government bonds in the secondary market, driving up bond prices and thereby decreasing bond yields, since the interest paid is monetarily fixed on the initial government issue price. This was, amazingly, widely reported by an ignorant press and others as ‘success’ in raising the confidence of the markets and, by inference, business generally. After all, if a country’s bond prices are high (interest rates therefore low) doesn’t that mean the country is a safe bet?

Bollocks it did.

In this case it meant that while ‘the markets’ understood that a country in charge of its own currency would have some difficulty actually going bankrupt, because if push comes to shove it can legally pay its debts in its devalued currency, government bonds were being bought instead of shares or investing in productivity-enhancing schemes because, in reality – as opposed to what was put in company reports – they had too little confidence in their sales and profitability being steadily sustained in the future. There was nowhere else really to invest with any confidence, squire.

In the euro zone, countries can easily go bankrupt, because they do not have their own currency and so debt must be repaid in euros. They are in a situation a bit like the old discredited ‘gold standard’.  This was why Britain could never ever have become ‘Greece’ despite the ignorant warnings from people who should have known better, or did know better but were just being mendacious.

Throughout, there was also the ‘monetary policy’ employed by central banks, namely reducing interst rates drastically and quantitative easing  – otherwise known as ‘unconventional’ monetary policy – employed to overcome the ‘zero lower bound’, when you cannot stimulate an economy via lower interest rates any more because they they have already been reduced to zero or near zero. That had relatively poor stimulative success – unless, maybe it worked to keep us out of recession once we had managed to get out of it. In fact, we mainly got out of it through consumer spending and increases in consumer debt, or at least consumer ‘dissaving’.

So, in the UK, here we still are, with an anaemic recovery (yes, yes, better than some, but still anaemic) which can easily be knocked off course by any old external shock – and any old self-inflicted internal shock like the Brexit vote and its rumbling longer term repercussions.

Quite early on in all this, the IMF had changed its mind about the desirability of fiscal consolidation as a way of reducing debt (murmurings and research from them in 2010 and later, as I posted in previous blogs). But the OECD seems only very recently to have come to its senses and started to call for governmental fiscal expansion policies. It says the need is urgent, urgent, I tell you! It has to be remembered that these august instutions are often run by politicians and bankers who have a major say in the official pronouncements, which may actually conflict what their economists are actually saying, until eventually the economic realities and the narrative of their economists successfuly break through.

Meanwhile, Germany is still stuck in its traumatic Weimar fear of inflation – forgetting Bruning deflation – and employs a version of macroeconomics allegedly invented by Schwaebian Housewives: debt=bad…always… and never ever print money. Their behaviour is also dictated by a belief that every country in the euro zone should be like them and export more than it imports: a logical impossibility… (except to German finance ministers, apparently).

Finally, here is the link I promised originally.

But now we are starting a new story. Post the Brexit referendum. Next blog.

 


Austerity: The UK Government’s Current Motives Are Not The Original Ones

It looks as if the UK government’s austerity drive to reduce the deficit in haste no longer has the objective of improving the economy. It has other objectives.

It looks this way because the excuses for austerity not apparently actually improving the economy are transparently weak. They boil down to ‘our main export markets are in a terrible state, the global economy is in a pretty poor state, other countries are in the same boat, so we are doing the best we can under highly adverse circumstances; but don’t worry – we are getting there, slowly – just look at our improving employment situation‘.

This is transparently weak because, for a start, it ignores the fact that our major companies are simply not investing. These companies do not need to borrow (or borrow much) to invest as they are generally sitting on large cash-piles. So while it is true that our SMEs may be experiencing difficulty raising funds – because the banks are still in a ‘delicate’ position – if our major companies were to be investing we would be seeing some real growth. But they are not, despite the once-alleged confidence building effects of the austerity policy. This is because they are fearful there won’t be enough demand to justify their investment in new products, new plant, new machinery. They see a lack of demand stretching into the future. This demand shortfall arises because consumers do not have the wherewithal or confidence to go out and spend. For some years now, their wages and salaries have not kept pace with consumer prices and they are nervous about their jobs. One major reason why their wages remain ‘stickily’ low.

But what about our ‘improving’ employment situation? Well, it’s true that private employment has grown and even outpaced the engineered decline in public sector employment. But at pretty low wage levels. And anyway, there is a marked decline in productivity associated with these employment improvements. More private jobs is not translating into more production and growth. Cheap labour is being hoarded by firms and hired, too, as a cheaper or less risky alternative to capital investment. And in the service sector much labour is being expended fruitlessly chasing more business which refuses to materialise because this is a negative-demand-led recession.

David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg are none of them stupid. Neither (now, at least) are they ignorant. They know all this stuff. So what is their stated excuse for not abandoning their policy of short term fiscal consolidation – though, of course, it is now not quite so short term because the end-of-this-parliament targets are definitely going to be missed, and the government has admitted it? When, instead, they could be borrowing – at what are actually negative real interest rates – in order to boost demand through increased capital investment in productivity-enhancing infrastructure, building works, school repairs, more housing, etc? All things which are really needed, and which would, much of it from the get-go, have significant economy-boosting effects. The stated excuse is that to be seen to be changing the austerity policy and embarking on a borrowing ‘binge’ when the national debt is ‘so large’ in relation to GDP would cause the bond markets to freak out. The markets would suddenly cease purchasing UK government bonds. And this would result in a rapid rise in market interest rates on the bonds significantly increasing the price of government borrowing in the future. Also, they claim, the UK would lose its AAA status because the government would have lost credibility in its perceived ability to reduce the deficit and ultimately the national debt. Um… well the credit rating agencies are going to do that anyway, and soon. Because, clearly, the government is failing in its endeavours to fix the economy, while the deficit remains stubbornly high, with debt still increasing in relation to GDP. GDP is still bumping along the bottom, if not actually decreasing, further exacerbating the debt-to-GDP ratio. Obviously the best way of actually reducing this ratio would be to increase GDP, the denominator in the equation. We really, really need growth.

There is also, of course, a major unstated reason for not changing policy: that no senior politician can be seen to admit they were wrong, as this would have a seriously deleterious effect on their personal credibility and future career path. Tough one that… Moral dilemma, eh?

So therefore the purpose of continued austerity is now no longer to fix the economy, but (i) to try to hold off a sudden rise in UK government bond interest rates (a sudden drop in demand for bonds) and (ii) to shore up policymakers’ personal credibility until ‘something turns up‘. This is just finger-in-the-dyke stuff. It can’t help but fail. Even more disturbing is that, actually, there is also a third reason (iii) that some Very Serious People, possibly including Mr Osborne – but if not, certainly people he rubs along with at dinner parties, perceive government debt as immoral. They do, too. They may give reasons for this, relating to future generations – reasons which don’t generally hold water. This is really ideological, emotional, not susceptible to argument. Oh, and a related fourth reason (iv) The belief that the state must be shrunk so that the well-off can keep as much of their income as possible and not be burdened by more than the minimal amount of taxation: purely ideological, this one, to put it politely.

So – there we have it: four motivations for continued sharp fiscal retrenchment – none of which actually relate to the reason we were given for front-loaded fiscal retrenchment at the outset: that this austerity would cause the private sector to invest and grow. This was the myth of ‘expansionary austerity’. A myth, by the way, cleanly, neatly and tightly debunked in an essay/paper from the USA’s Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) published some 7 months ago. Here (PDF).

Way back in 2010 Olivier Blanchard of the IMF clearly said ‘Commandment II: You shall not front-load your fiscal adjustment, unless financing needs require it’. That was in June 2010.

All this is not to say that the national debt is too low, or just right. The national debt is, by general agreement, even among KrudeKrugmaniteKeynesians, too high in relation to GDP. A credible plan for its reduction – and therefore reduction of the deficits which feed it – is definitely needed. But we do not have such a plan at the moment. Plan A has, indeed, been discredited. To be at all credible, a rational plan needs to be stated now, to be implemented when GDP does significantly turn up in what looks like being a sustained manner. Austerity in a time of growth may be a virtue. In a time of depression/recession it is definitely a self-defeating ‘sin’. As the IMF pointed out way back then.

Addendum

1. How does our debt to GDP ratio actually look? Is it as bad as it is claimed? Well, it is not brilliantly good. But putting it into a historical perspective shows that it is not actually all that terrible, either. Here are some charts. So we need to do something to bring it down. But all that now-now-now panic was totally unnecessary. (EDIT: And long after this was originally written, a paper by Reinhart and Rogoff widely used to justify debt panic, has been thoroughly debunked for (i) sloppy use of Excel, (ii) deliberate exclusion of data that didn’t fit the thesis and, (iii) perhaps the greatest sin, assuming causality and ignoring the possibility of reverse-causality: high government debt results in slow growth, when it could equally be that slow growth causes high government debt).
2. Did the last government cause the sharp increase in national debt? Well, it did happen on their watch. But that was because of the extreme financial crisis caused by the meltdown of the banks, requiring an expensive bank rescue operation, and causing a sharp drop in tax receipts.
3. Could we have been in a stronger position when all this actually started? Probably. But Spain and Ireland were paragons of fiscal rectitude, and still got sunk by their banks (and the euro and the ECB – but that is another story). The UK was not particularly fiscally profligate before this all happened. The fiscal deficit of the UK was actually less than 3% of GDP at the time. Not so bad, as it happens. Similar to the USA and France. But, of course, if the banks had been better regulated… Well, that’s another story. And the blame for that can certainly be laid at the door of Gordon Brown. However, the Conservative party at the time was all for very light-touch regulation too.

EDIT
There is one potential flaw in the argument that the government should switch course, and borrow for investment in beneficial infrastructure, etc, etc… But nah… That’s for others to elucidate… If they have some evidence, that is…

…Oh well, all right then. The potential flaw is that – although I do not believe it would happen, it is, theoretically possible that some muddled thinking on the part of some people in ‘the markets’, combined with herding, might result in either refusal to buy new UK government debt, or, if not immediate, a sudden rise in their yields (free market interest rates) as those who had bought the new debt (mainly banks) found that they could not sell it on at prices above or equal to what they had bought it for. In other words, if the UK government were to abandon current austerity policies and borrow for worthwhile capital-type investment to boost GDP (fiscal stimulus, yay!) interest rates on UK debt might possibly go stratospheric.

As I said, I don’t believe this would happen. But, if it did… what would happen then? The answer, from history, seems to be here. Nice charts and explanation from that KrudeKeynesianKrugman (KKK). So, not Greece, nor Spain, nor Ireland today. But but France in the 1920s. When an awful ‘bond vigilante’ strike actually happened. So France, which had started with an enormous post WW1 debt problem, recovered strongly. what a surprise! The effect of the sharp rise in French bond yields caused a sharp decline in the value of the franc (surprise? No). Resulting in increased exports (surprise? No). Some inflation eroding the value of the debt (but definitely no Weimar, note). And on to a full economic recovery. France boomed in the 1920s – until the Great Depression. But that is a whole other story.

Meanwhile here is a blogpost and chart chart snitched from Not The Treasury View (aka Jonathan Portes and NIESR) which says it all about the current recession, compared with previous ones.