Getting the measure of a better capitalism

Growth and relative poverty are no longer enough to tell us whether our economy is on the right trac

Today the Institute for Fiscal Studies has launched an Exocet at the Coalition's claims to be a one-nation government taking a lead on poverty reduction. Nearly all measures of poverty are set to rise over the next five to ten years and the Coalition's policies are part of the cause.

But underneath the headlines the IFS analysis serves a less likely purpose. It provides timely grounds for questioning some of the key measures we use to judge progress in our society. In particular, it raises difficult questions about our reliance on a formula that says 'GDP growth plus poverty reduction' is enough.

To understand why, we should start by looking at the IFS account of what is happening to child poverty. Over the short-term relative poverty has fallen (though it will go on to rise sharply, as will absolute poverty). This fall might seem counter-intuitive given the current squeeze on living standards. The explanation nothing to do with a positive impact from the government's welfare policies. It is because typical ('median') household incomes have faced an 'unprecedented collapse' (in the words of the IFS), lowering the bar against which relative poverty is measured. It's not that those at the bottom are doing any better, just that those in the middle are doing worse.

It is for these same definitional reasons that the IFS show it would be a bad thing for relative child poverty if we find ourselves in the lucky - and highly unlikely - position of securing faster earnings growth for those on low-to-middle incomes in future years. The result would be higher median incomes and therefore increased poverty rates. Just as perversely, it would be a good thing for child poverty if future earnings growth went overwhelmingly to the top of society - a depressing if more likely scenario - and so failed to lift median incomes.

There is nothing new about scoring debating points against a relative measure of poverty. It's not just those who disagree with it on the ideological grounds that we shouldn't care about income inequality (wrongly in my view). There are also progressive voices who think there are smarter ways of measuring these things. These concerns have a new purchase in an era when poverty appears to fall simply because the living standards of those in the middle are falling through the floor.

Nor is this the only measure of economic progress that needs probing. Take GDP growth. It used to be the case that if the growth figures were good then we could assume the living standards of the working population could take care of themselves. Now we're not so sure. In the UK growth stopped flowing into personal gain for low-to-middle income households early on in the last decade when wages started to flat-line. For ordinary families growth, it seems, doesn't signify what it used to.

The importance of this goes beyond a technocratic debate about definitions. Governments - left and right - set their course and judge their progress by a few key measures. If these are designed for the nicer world of the 1990s and early 2000s, not the nastier times we now live in, they may be less reliable guides to good policymaking then our leaders like to think. In the past 'growth plus poverty reduction' was thought to be a decent proxy for a better capitalism. Today, the route to a progressive economy requires additional bearings.

There is, of course, scope for endless debate about how to judge what a better capitalism should look like. The ONS is currently investigating a new measure of well-being - an idea with some merit - though one suspects that it was also conceived with better economic times in mind. Surely, however, a wide swath of opinion would concur that a key goal should be ensuring economic growth steadily lifts the incomes of those in the middle, not just the top, at the same time as ensuring the bottom catches up. Higher absolute living standards for the majority of families whilst closing the gap: very hard to achieve in practice, but not, you might think, all that controversial as a 21st century lodestar for government policy.

Indeed, given this goal is in tune with the regularly repeated rhetoric of party leaders, you'd have thought it might be a statement of the obvious - banal even. Yet Whitehall has a complete blind spot in relation to measures of living standards. Within the Treasury and No 10 there will be real anxiety, sometimes near crisis, preceding the announcement of weak growth numbers. DWP will be laser focussed on poverty numbers. In contrast there is entrenched ignorance, bordering on indifference, about the living standards of low-to-middle income households. Before the recession, when families knew their living standards were flat-lining, Whitehall assumed all was well - after all GDP was steadily climbing. Alarm bells weren't ringing. Those seeking to get Departments to focus on these questions were made to feel like they were speaking a foreign language.

Of course, right now you might think such talk is a luxury. We're not in a position to choose the type of growth we want - we'll take any on offer. But over the longer term we need to hold our governments to account for securing growth that leads to a rising tide of prosperity for those at the bottom as well as those in the middle. It would be a helpful start if Whitehall could get the measure of what a better capitalism might look like.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?