"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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.