Are fiscal conservatives even certain of what they're arguing about?

One of the problems fiscal conservatives have is that most of them can't actually agree about what they are conservative about.

One of the problems fiscal conservatives have is that most of them can't actually agree about what they are conservative about. Debt? Deficit? Absolute, or relative? And how should we talk about the issue?

For instance, one would guess from their name that deficit hawks care about the deficit – that is, the amount that a country spends each year in excess of the amount of revenue it receives, officially called (in Britain, at least) public sector net borrowing (PSNB). Last year, PSNB stood at a shade over £120bn, and this year, it's forecast to be £91.9bn. That's the government's deficit reduction strategy at work, albeit at far slower work than we were promised in 2010.

But other fiscal conservatives go after debt (the official measure of which, Public Sector Net Debt, stands at £1.03trn). Fraser Nelson, for instance, condems the elision between the two in today's Telegraph:

Cameron faces the same problem. He says he is “dealing with the debt” when he is actually increasing the national debt by as much as Labour proposed: an almighty £600 billion. But he has not yet been rumbled. An unpublished YouGov poll by Policy Exchange, taken after last year’s Budget, found that just 14 per cent of voters realised the national debt is rising. Another poll, released this week, found that only 10 per cent see what’s going on. Now, just as under Labour, ministers play word games and talk about “cutting the deficit”, knowing that most voters will hear “cutting the debt”. Astonishingly, almost half of British voters think that debt is falling.

It's certainly the case that debt is rising, and will be rising for some time. And confusing debt and deficit – as, say, Nick Clegg does – is unacceptably economically illiterate. But it's unclear how, exactly, being a "debt hawk" would work.

It is emphatically not the case that Britain can begin reducing its debt any time soon. For all that Nelson attacks the government for increasing the national debt, to reduce it would entail turning a deficit into a surplus overnight. Just considering the pain involved in entering into a seven-year deficit reduction program, doing it any faster would be politically impossible.

And in fact, given the various multipliers in effect from government spending, it may be economically impossible as well. There is strong evidence to suggest that the mere fact of trying to cut the deficit too quickly led to the contraction we're now experiencing; and that contraction has reduced government revenue and increased mandatory spending to a degree that makes it difficult to do any deficit reduction at all.

Being a debt hawk would thus seem to necessarily imply being a deficit hawk, at least for the time being. When – if – the structural deficit is eliminated, then the two groups can argue over whether debt should start being reduced; but while there is a deficit, it's silly to pretend that national debt going up is somehow surprising, and unless you want to go full Paul Ryan, you aren't going to get rid of it in a year.

All of this confusion is compounded by the fact that if it's unclear what we ought to be trying to reduce, it's doubly unclear how we ought to go about measuring it. Debt hawks favour quoting absolute figures, like those I've used at the top of the post, because frankly one trillion pounds sounds a lot more than "65.7 per cent of GDP". Yet the latter is probably a more accurate representation of where we are; for one thing, it allows us to accurately compare the economic situation with similar ones from history, as this chart (from Wikimedia Commons) does:

And for another, it conveys an important truth about the debt, which is that we can shrink it in two ways: either by paying it off, or by growing our economy big enough that what's remaining doesn't matter. This is the truth behind arguments over "deficit reduction versus growth".

But there is an even better way to discuss the national debt that in terms of a ratio to GDP, and that is in terms of it's cost.

The only downside to having debt is that you have to pay interest on it. But more debt doesn't necessarily mean higher interest payments – in fact, it's the exact opposite. Joe Weisenthal explains:

Using data from Bloomberg, we looked at basically all of the big emerging and developed markets* with a big bond market, and good data on debt to GDP and decided to check to see if there was any connection at all between debt to GDP and the yield on their 10-year bonds.

The answer, quite clearly, is no.

In fact, using an exponential regression, we detect a slight shift down and to the right, meaning that the more debt a country has relative to its GDP, the cheaper it is to borrow.

As debt goes up, interest rates go down. So doubling debt doesn't double interest payments, and halving debt doesn't mean you pay half as much servicing it. In chart form, that claim looks like this:

 

Our interest rates are so ridiculously depressed at the moment that even though we've almost doubled our national debt to GDP ratio, the amount we pay to service our debt has barely gone up by half.

This is what the debt hawks should be looking at. Not debt to GDP, and certainly not absolute debt; nothing matters to debt except the cost of holding it. And that cost doesn't present a particularly compelling reason for cutting it.

Gold, as a common and universally accepted store of value, is particularly useful to illustrate stories about abstract economic concepts like debt. 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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.