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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.