Monetary stimulus is much more fun when it buys you a holiday

Why not use QE to give holiday vouchers to northern Europe? No, really, why not?

It's always nice to read a proposal that could simultaneously ease the euro crisis and get you a free holiday to Barcelona. It's even more fun seeing the idea gestate from a slightly boozy tweet to a full-blown plan, set in motion by the disability blogger and campaigner Sue Marsh:

After a while, I had a thought. All of the countries in trouble were holiday destinations - Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal even Ireland. The ones weathering the storm were the colder, northern countries. Would it not make sense to encourage and incentivise holidays? [...] Hell, was fun automatically not an option just because it was fun?

A few weeks ago, there were rumours of another 700 billion bailout for Eurozone banks. I had just watched Spanish banks get a bailout of more billions and the markets ate the extra money mercilessly in about 48 hours. With the press of a few buttons, the banks or markets appeared to have eaten the very money they had just created! [...]

I asked more seriously on twitter if any economists could explain to me why my holiday idea wouldn't be a better stimulus to the Eurozone than another bank bailout.

Marsh's idea was picked up by NIESR's Jonathan Portes, who wrote it up with Declan Gaffney, another prolific blogger on disability and welfare issues. Their plan sounds a lot like it would work, cost no more than a bank bailout, and as Sue says, be fun:

Our proposal is that they should issue vouchers to their citizens, redeemable only on spending in goods and services in those countries suffering financing difficulties (Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Italy). Holiday vouchers, in other words. So German holidaymakers could pay for their drinks in Cretan bars (and their flights, hotel bills, souvenirs, ferry tickets and the like) with "money" created by the ECB and distributed to them by their own government. The Greek businesses would in turn be able to trade in the vouchers for euros from the German government (via the banking system and the ECB).

This solves a number of problems. It would loosen monetary policy across the eurozone and ease the financing problems of the periphery countries. But most importantly, as Martin Wolf has long argued, the fundamental problem of the eurozone is not fiscal profligacy in periphery countries, but internal current account imbalances. Consumers in the periphery countries have been spending on goods and services from Germany and the Northern countries, but not vice versa, financed directly or indirectly by capital flows from those same countries. Now those flows have dried up; so one way or another, the current account balances must be corrected.

Both posts are well worth a read, and serve to drive home an important point: there are far more options to deal with crises than those that most policy makers think they actually have. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; but European governments have far more than just hammers in their toolbox.

Greeks sunbathe on a beach in Athens. 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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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