We could fix our economy by giving every man, woman and child £6,000 in cash

It's hard to believe in the economy's so-called recovery when 2.5m remain unemployed and 1.5m are stuck in part-time jobs because they can't find full-time work. So how do we get growth beyond the Square Mile?

Have you heard the good news? The economy is “turning a corner”. Growth is back. Green shoots abound. Hurrah! Forget that this is the slowest recovery in a century; forget that George Osborne promised us 7.7 per cent growth three years ago and yet we’ve had less than 3 per cent. Ignore the 2.5 million people who are still unemployed and the 1.5 million people who are stuck in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work. Turn a blind eye to the longest squeeze on workers’ incomes since the 1870s, to the 500,000 people who have been forced to visit food banks in the past year.

OK, you get my drift. To talk of a “recovery” is self-serving spin from the discredited austerians. If you want to see “green shoots”, you’ll have to head for the City of London. Bonuses there are up 64 per cent, while RBS and Lloyds are enjoying combined half-year profits of £3.5bn.

So how do we get growth beyond the Square Mile? Forget fiscal stimuli. Yes, Labour’s proposed VAT cut would boost demand – but by less than 1 per cent of GDP. Forget monetary stimuli. Interest rates have stood at a record low of 0.5 per cent since March 2009.

Then there is quantitative easing (QE), in which the Bank of England, according to the official explanation on its website, “electronically creates new money and uses it to purchase gilts from private investors such as pension funds and insurance companies . . . [This] lowers longer-term borrowing costs and encourages the issuance of new equities and bonds to stimulate spending.”

We have had a massive £375bn of QE so far, which may have saved the financial sector but has done very little for the rest of us. According to the Bank of England, 40 per cent of the gains from QE since 2009 have gone to the richest 5 per cent of households. “QE is a policy designed by the rich for the rich,” says Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of Legal & General.

There is, however, a way of using QE money in a bolder, much more daring way. It’s called “quantitative easing for the people”, or QEP.

QE of £375bn amounts to around £6,000 per man, woman and child in the UK. So why not electronically add this to the current accounts of every member of the public? Why not give the QE money directly to ordinary people to spend, save or pay off their debts? Wouldn’t it be better to inject new money into the real economy, rather than the City of London (where it usually sits unused, unspent, unlent, in bank vaults)?

QEP, incidentally, isn’t my idea. It’s Steve Keen’s. A professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney, Keen was one of only a handful of economists to have warned of the dangers of a financial crisis, several years before Lehman Brothers imploded in 2008.

QEP might elicit snorts of derision from the inflation hawks and deficit scolds, not to mention lazy references to hyperinflation and Weimar Germany, but it isn’t quack economics. Far from it. Remember the freemarket economist Milton Friedman, a hero to Thatcher and Pinochet, who said that downturns could be fought by “dropping money out of a helicopter”?

And remember his liberal-left rival John Maynard Keynes, who called for the Treasury to “fill old bottles with banknotes” and then bury them for people to find, dig up and spend?

QEP bypasses the tired and stale debate over austerity. Having the Bank of England hand over cash directly to consumers would boost aggregate demand without adding a penny to the national debt.

What’s not to like? Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? Wrong. There is if you’re a banker or a bond trader. The question is: why use QE money to bail out the masters of the universe rather than members of the public?

It’s a taboo topic, I guess. QEP is, in the words of the veteran economics commentator Anatole Kaletsky, formerly of the Times and now of Reuters, “too controversial for any policymaker to mention publicly”. Only a handful of pundits, such as Kaletsky and the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, have so far dared to discuss the option of QEP. Kaletsky refers to “citizens’ dividends”, Jenkins to “people’s bonuses”.

It’s still a tough sell. Ever since Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour chief secretary to the Treasury, left behind his now notorious note in May 2010 – “I’m afraid there is no money,” he joked – the austerians have pretended that the UK is broke, bust, bankrupt. In a speech in March, David Cameron declaimed that there’s “no magic money tree” to fund what he dismissively described as “ever more wishful borrowing and spending”.

This is the big lie of the debate over growth and deficits. Don’t take my word for it. Or Keen’s. A briefing document published by George Osborne’s Treasury to coincide with the Budget in March noted how: “It is theoretically possible for monetary authorities to finance fiscal deficits through the creation of money. In theory, this could allow governments to increase spending or reduce taxation without raising corresponding financing from the private sector.”

The Treasury agrees: there is a money tree – and it isn’t magical. It’s called QE and it can, if we so choose, be deployed to support households, not banks; to encourage spending, not hoarding. QEP isn’t just doable: in an age of collapsing living standards, it’s vital.

It would also be revolutionary. To borrow a line often attributed to Henry Ford: “It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is cross-posted

Economic growth can't only be focused on London's financial district. Image: Getty

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?