Word of the day: Hysteresis

Too long in a slump, and the slump starts to get permanent.

The Financial Times reports this morning that the Olympics don't seem to be leading to quite the tourist boom expected:

The games have attracted as many as 100,000 foreign visitors [per day] to London – more than in previous Olympics. But, on its own, that number significantly lags behind the estimated 300,000 foreign tourists [per day] who could be expected in a typical year.

As Richard Murphy points out, this means that one of the great hopes for bringing the country out of recession appears to be fading away. Which means the word of the day is hysteresis.

In general terms, hysteresis is similar to intertia; it is the concept that some things which are hard to get going may then require little input to maintain, and even more effort to reverse.

In specific economic terms, it is the theory that persistent levels of high unemployment raise the "natural" rate of unemployment, also known as NAIRU, the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemploymet. This is the level of unemployment at which, under neo-classical economics, inflation stays low and steady. (As a side-note, yes, neo-classical economics holds that a certain amount of unemployment is good. "Full employment" is thus a bad thing, because it leads to spiralling inflation)

Although it's not specifically related to GDP, it is always a fear when dealing with persistent unemployment and long periods of stagnation and recession. The cause of the phenomenon comes when layoffs in a particular sector increase the bargaining power of the remaining workers. as there are fewer of them left, they can demand higher wages, which become "sticky" in nominal terms, if the period of unemployment lasts long enough. If, at the end of the recession, the business then wants to hire new employees, they have to pay them the new, high wage. In practice, this means that either unemployment stays high permanently, or inflation goes up until the value of the high wage is back, in real tems, to where it was.

It doesn't look like we are seeing the "increased wages" part of the problem yet (since wages are very much stagnating), but that hasn't stopped Citigroup's Ajai Chopra warning everyone:

Our analysis of such hysteresis effects shows that the large and sustained output gap, the difference between what an economy could produce and what it is producing, raises the danger that a downturn reduces the economy’s productive capacity and permanently depresses potential GDP.

A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus in Bath. 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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.