"The opposite of a sovereign debt crisis"

Being paid to look after money isn't what governments ought to be doing.

Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal has written a blogpost which is doing the rounds at the moment, in which he argues that the world is experiencing the opposite of a sovereign debt crisis:

The problems of Spain, Italy, and Greece are often pointed to as being somehow bleeding-edge, canaries in the coalmine that serve as warnings to other governments of what might happen if they don't get their acts together.

But the real story today is just the opposite. The world is experiencing whatever the reverse of a sovereign debt crisis is, as borrowing costs for government are plummeting EVERYWHERE. . .

What this essentially means is that there's a lot of money out there that sees no productive investments in the real world, and thus people are willing to stick it with entities that promise them a very meager return.

The whole piece is great, with compelling charts and stats, and is definitely worth a read.

As government yields hit zero or lower, conventional economic realities fall apart. Jonathan Portes has written about the possibility of financing a £30bn infrastructure program using just the income brought in by the now-defunct pasty tax, while Matt Yglesias has arguedfrequently –  that when real interest rates are negative, it simply makes no sense to collect taxes.

It isn't just governments facing unusual situations in a world of free money. Google's chariman Eric Schmidt was faced with the reality of his company's situation in a debate with tech investor Peter Thiel:

ADAM LASHINSKY (Moderator): You have $50 billion at Google, why don't you spend it on doing more in tech, or are you out of ideas? And I think Google does more than most companies. You're trying to do things with self-driving cars and supposedly with asteroid mining, although maybe that's just part of the propaganda ministry. And you're doing more than Microsoft, or Apple, or a lot of these other companies. Amazon is the only one, in my mind, of the big tech companies that's actually reinvesting all its money, that has enough of a vision of the future that they're actually able to reinvest all their profits.

ERIC SCHMIDT: They make less profit than Google does.

PETER THIEL: But, if we're living in an accelerating technological world, and you have zero percent interest rates in the background, you should be able to invest all of your money in things that will return it many times over, and the fact that you're out of ideas, maybe it's a political problem, the government has outlawed things. But, it still is a problem. . .

ERIC SCHMIDT: What you discover in running these companies is that there are limits that are not cash. There are limits of recruiting, limits of real estate, regulatory limits as Peter points out. There are many, many such limits. And anything that we can do to reduce those limits is a good idea.

PETER THIEL: But, then the intellectually honest thing to do would be to say that Google is no longer a technology company, that it's basically – it's a search engine. The search technology was developed a decade ago. It's a bet that there will be no one else who will come up with a better search technology. So, you invest in Google, because you're betting against technological innovation in search. And it's like a bank that generates enormous cash flows every year, but you can't issue a dividend, because the day you take that $30 billion and send it back to people you're admitting that you're no longer a technology company. That's why Microsoft can't return its money. That's why all these companies are building up hordes of cash, because they don't know what to do with it, but they don't want to admit they're no longer tech companies.

What we are seeing is two sides of the same coin. When companies like Google – which, as Lashinsky says, is one of the biggest fans of blue-sky innovation in Silicon Valley – can't find anything to spend their war chests on, then they have to keep them somewhere. Banks are, for the first time in a generation, perceived as risky, so they turn to sovereigns, thus driving yields even lower.

The problem is, since these companies are looking for safety rather than income, yields have a lot further to fall. How much will Google pay for a safe place to keep its money? We don't know. But it's likely to be a lot more than a measly 0.3 per cent.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who has the unfortunate problem of Too Much Money. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.