The second Great Depression

If today's projections are right, this will be the longest-lasting recession in a century.

Thankfully, the MPC did the right thing and kept rates on hold, in contrast to the ECB, which raised rates to 1.5 per cent. There is no evidence in either the UK or the euro area of a wage-price spiral emerging and inflation is expected to fall in the euro area, as the effects of the recent oil and commodity price increases drop out. Therefore, the ECB's move looks to be a classic policy error, as this will exacerbate the growth problems experienced by all countries.

As background, I looked at the latest data from Eurostat and plotted data on wages, inflation and changes in producer prices, which are presented below. What stands out is that there is no evidence of substantial increases in nominal hourly wage costs in any country; the highest increase is a paltry 3.8 per cent in France. Greece has seen a fall of 6.8 per cent. For the euro area, the average is 2.6 per cent and it is 2.1 per cent in the UK. The story is similar on inflation, which did not increase at all in the euro area over the past month and fell in five countries including Germany. Producer prices fell by 0.2 per cent in the euro area and in nine of the 17 euro area countries. What inflation? As I said, the ECB has made a major policy error, just as it did in July 2008 when it raised rates. This move to raise rates is madness, as it will lower growth in the euro area. Well done, MPC.

 

Another piece of evidence supporting the MPC's decision to sit tight was NIESR's latest forecast for the UK economy, published today. Although I think it should have done more quantitative easing (QE) as the economy is slowing -- but that is for another day.

Buried in the data is a potential bombshell for George "Slasher" Osborne. NIESR's monthly estimates of GDP suggest that output grew by only 0.1 per cent in the three months ending in June after growth of 0.5 per cent in the three months ending in May. In part, this was because the effects of one-off events in April have depressed the overall quarterly growth rate. However, even accounting for these factors, the underlying rate of growth NIESR believes is still likely to be weak. This compares with the OBR's forecast of 0.8 per cent.

Commenting on the forecast, Simon Kirby at NIESR argued that: "Economic growth in the UK continues to be subdued. In our April forecast, we expected growth to pick up in the second half of this year to around 0.5 per cent per quarter. We expect the domestic economy to contract throughout this year, leaving net exports as the major positive contributor to economic growth. There will continue to be much talk of continued economic growth over the coming months but it certainly won't feel like it to most people. As with any forecast, there is uncertainty and risk around the outlook. At present, the risks to growth are firmly balanced on the downside."

NIESR goes on to argue in its report that: "These figures do not provide a picture of economic growth that would support a tightening of monetary policy at this juncture." This is a not-too-subtle dig at NIESR's previous director Martin Weale, who left to join the MPC in August 2010 and has voted for rate increases over the past six meetings and presumably did so again today. His recent claim that raising rates now means that they won't have to be increased as much in the future is abject nonsense with no basis in economics or common sense.

The biggest news in the NIESR forecast is contained in the attached graph. This shows for the current recession and the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, as well as the 1930s, the extent of the drop in output measured on the vertical axis and the length of time it takes for output to be restored. In the 1970s, recession output fell by 4 per cent and it took 36 months for output to get back to its starting level. In contrast, in the 1980s, output dropped 6 per cent and took 48 months to be restored. In the 1930s, output dropped by 6 per cent with a double-dip in the middle and also took 48 months to be restored.

GDP 

NIESR has kindly provided me with an updated version to the one it published, which also contains estimates of when the recession will be over, measured by the point at which output will reach the level it was at the start of the recession in 2008. That is the black diamond on the right of the graph. This suggests NIESR believes that this recession will be the longest-lasting in a century and output will not be restored for at least five years. This is based on NIESR's forecast for April but, given Simon Kirby's view that the risks are to the downside and the Q2 2011 forecast, then recovery could well take even longer than that. NIESR is, for example, forecasting growth of 0.5 per cent in both Q3 2010 and Q4 2010, which does look overly optimistic.

If NIESR is right, Osborne's policies will be responsible for the worst recession in a century -- and maybe it should be named the "Second Great Depression". This suggests an economic policy U-turn on the fiscal front must be in the offing. It also raises the prospect of the MPC doing more QE before the end of the year.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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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?