Green investments can overcome the paradox of thrift

We need real public investment in Green projects now

Few economists will be entirely surprised that the UK is officially back in recession. We are witnessing a classic case of the "paradox of thrift" in which households, businesses, banks and now government are all retrenching simultaneously, cutting investment, shedding labour, restricting credit and storing money.

Government policies have failed to unlock record levels of private sector savings which could revitalise the stagnant economy. Yet if the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues offer a bold strategic vision which restores confidence in the direction and consistency of public policy on the green economy, there will be golden opportunities for investment which could jump-start growth.

Investment has slumped mainly because households, businesses and banks are nervous about future demand, and have responded by forgoing more risky investment in physical capital, such as infrastructure. Instead, companies are squirreling away private saving into "risk-free" assets such as solvent sovereign bonds. As a result, annual private sector surpluses over the past few years have been at record levels, and amounted to £99bn last year, equivalent to 6 per cent of UK GDP.

Desired saving has exceeded desired investment to such a degree that global real "risk-free" interest rates for the next 20 years have been pushed to zero and below. Savings are losing value by the day as pension funds and financial institutions pay real interest to (rather than receive interest from) governments; a truly perverse state of affairs given the need for productive investment. These low rates do not reflect a collapse in the underlying returns to capital, but instead reflect desperately depleted confidence.

And when everyone retrenches simultaneously, fear of recession becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, sustaining a vicious circle of low demand and low investment that affects the whole economy.

The UK, like many advanced economies, needs to stimulate economic growth to reduce deficits and debt, but growth requires investment, and investment levels have slumped to record lows relative to output. The longer recovery is delayed and capital sits idle, the more skills are lost and the higher the misallocation of resources, making it harder to restore growth.

Fiscal policy is generally constrained by the need to restore confidence in the sustainability of public debt and, with short-term interest rates close to zero, the effectiveness of monetary policy to stimulate growth is reaching its limits.

What is needed to restore confidence is a clear strategic vision with supporting policies to guide investors. A vision to build an innovative, resource-efficient market economy which restores energy security, tackles climate change, and saves consumers and businesses costs in the long run.

Standard macroeconomics tells us that the best time to support low-carbon investment is during a protracted economic slowdown. Resource costs are low and the potential to crowd out alternative investment and employment is small. In addition, although public budgets are stretched, there is no shortage either of private capital available for investment, or of investment opportunities with potential for profitable returns. The current opportunity should not be missed.

This is about more than correcting market failures, such as those associated with greenhouse gas emissions; it is about restoring confidence through mission-driven investment which spurs innovation in a way comparable to, but bigger in scale than, the space race or the struggle to defeat cancer. Policies to encourage low-carbon investment would provide new business opportunities, generate income for investors and would have credibility in the long term because they address growing global resource challenges, while tapping into a fast-growing global market for resource-efficient activities.

The most recent figures published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show that the UK low-carbon and environmental goods and services sector had sales of £122.2bn in 2010-11, growing 4.7 per cent from the previous year and placing us sixth in the global league table.

But the private sector is not investing as heavily as it could in green innovation and infrastructure because of a lack of confidence in future returns in this policy-driven sector. The Government should incentivise such investment by itself taking on elements of this policy risk which it "controls". By backing its own low-carbon policies, the Government can stimulate additional net private sector investment, and thereby make a significant contribution to economic growth and employment.

The Government can do this, for instance, by allowing the Green Investment Bank to operate as a lending institution, offering loans to private companies so that it shares some of the risk of private investments in green infrastructure.

But it also needs the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to be publicly supportive of the green economy. Whenever the Chancellor conveys the false impression that we have to make a choice between environmental responsibility and economic growth, he undermines the confidence of private sector investments. The Prime Minister helped to repair some of his damage with a speech this week that highlighted the importance of clean energy, but there needs to be a clear vision for "the greenest government ever".

In past global recessions, rearmament, electrification and space races have helped restore investor confidence – this time the vision should be green. The green sector is one of the few vibrant parts of our economy at the moment. It offers a golden chance to generate growth, as long as the Government makes stronger efforts to restore private sector confidence in public policy.

Savings and investment: A bank vault in the US. Photograph: Getty Images

Dimitri Zenghelis was formerly Head of Economic Forecasting at HM Treasury and is currently a senior visiting fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and an adviser to Cisco systems. His paper, A strategy for restoring confidence and economic growth through green investment and innovation is available at http://www.lse.ac.uk/grantham/.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR