Explaining the child benefit saga

Do you prioritise fairness for individuals or for households? The coalition is realising you can't d

Observing a government in the midst of a policy u-turn is rarely an elegant sight. When it is drawn out over an extended period, and fuelled by briefing and nods and winks from the PM downwards, it is even less edifying. So it is with the coalition's current contortions on Child Benefit.

None of the proposals being discussed as improvements to the coalition's original idea (to axe Child Benefit for households with a higher rate tax payer) are attractive. All are likely to be an administrative nightmare. Indeed, if the government could press rewind I doubt very much they would choose to repeat the initial pledge they made (not withstanding polling evidence showing it could be quite popular). And if they could press fast-forward into the future my guess is that they would probably decide not to plump for the sort of complex proposal that they are reportedly leaning towards (for instance creating what would in effect be a new tax threshold at £50k).

As things stand, Osborne's room for manoeuvre is limited. He's made clear that he wants to remove Child Benefit from the affluent. Some of the ways of achieving this that have been floated by leading voices like the IFS, such as integrating Child Benefit within the tax credit system, and so means-testing it according to household income, are now likely to be deemed to be politically too difficult (even though they might have once been possible back in 2010).

Why? Because they would hit (many) households with two earners each on say £30k-35k. You might think this would be more rational than axing Child Benefit for single earner households on £45k. Perhaps. But the last thing a government in retreat wants when placating one group of losers is to create another disgruntled set who previously thought they would escape unscathed. Indeed, the biggest risk the coalition faces right now on this issue is not that they fail to recoup the full £2.4bn they were hoping to save, but that they find themselves making a series of expensive concessions as each new proposal they make comes under pressure. They need to find a position they are sure they can defend and stick to it.

Given the hole they are now in on this issue, and assuming a complete u-turn is not on the cards, the least bad option for Osborne would probably be to ditch the idea of abolition and instead start taxing Child Benefit for higher rate taxpayers; though he will probably feel this falls short of what he needs to do (and it still suffers from some of the problems as his original idea).

Given the upheaval, it's worth asking what led the government down this path? Part of the answer is the tendency towards politically-driven but ill-conceived policy announcements - recall that the Child Benefit proposal arose in the first place in order to soften up opinion in advance of the wider cuts to the benefit system.

But it also reflects an underlying and still unresolved issue about the future of the tax system. Take a step back from the detail of this row and consider what pattern emerges from the coalition's changes to the tax and benefit system. In terms of where money has been spent, it has been on Clegg's flagship idea of increasing personal allowances - an agenda which is primarily about tax-cuts targeted at individuals. Meanwhile those parts of the tax and benefit system targeted at supporting households and children (like tax credits) face harsh cuts, though no one in the coalition would like to put it this way.

The Child Benefit proposal is an uncomfortable hybrid: it's based on individual earnings (means testing child benefit for higher rate tax-payers) but in a very clunky and arbitrary way it nods towards considering household income in that it asks each claimant whether their partner pays the higher rate of tax. The result, as has been widely pointed out, is that the single-earner household on £45k risks losing up to several thousand pounds while the dual-earning household on a combined income of £80k loses nothing.

At the heart of the issue is the point that tax and benefit reforms can prioritise fairness for individuals (Clegg's argument), or they can seek to respect the principle of individual taxation whilst advancing greater equity for low and modest income households with children - which is in essence what tax credits seek to achieve (at the price of far greater complexity). But they can't do both at once.

Regardless of how the current Child Benefit saga plays out it is unlikey to be the final word in this debate about supporting individuals as opposed to households. Why so? Because if personal allowances continue to be the favoured mechanism for tax reform, and there's little reason to think they won't for as long as the coalition survives, then sooner or later their comparative shortcomings as a way of supporting families with children will surface as more of an issue.

Liberal Democrat strategists concede as much (at least in private). Looking to the longer term they are interested in exploring ways of making the personal allowance better reflect household circumstances - for instance through some form of children's tax allowance. This isn't an issue for now, but could well be in the event Lib Dems are in with a real chance of forming another coalition government beyond 2015.

If you think some of this sounds vaguely familiar, you'd be right. We used to have child tax allowances before they were phased out in the 1970s and replaced by the Callaghan government with (you guessed it) a version of today's Child Benefit - a system thought to be much more beneficial to mothers than its predecessor.

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?