Credibility and the confidence fairies

Low interest rates have nothing to do with "our hard-won credibility"

In 1994, the Conservative Government proposed a rise in fuel VAT from 8 per cent to 17.5 per cent. It was defeated by a Labour-backed motion and Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown looked to have won a major economic battle. But Chancellor Ken Clarke made a stirring speech defending the economic fundamentals of the policy and accusing Labour of recklessly undermining the nation’s prosperity, culminating by calling Brown a "silly billy".

Today, David Cameron made his own stirring speech, laying out his plan for how Britain could finally begin a recovery. But like Clarke before him, he wanted to defend his economic fundamentals from the Labour line, saying:

Those who argue we should spend more want us to borrow more, driving up our deficit and our debt and putting our hard-won credibility and low interest rates at risk.

The argument behind all this is, of course, whether the government is right to make deficit reduction "line one, clause one, part one" or whether a slower approach would make the economy grow faster, which would increase the size of the pie, allowing more debt to be paid off.

Despite losing public backing for their tackling of the economy as well as outspoken criticism from the economics profession – for example, Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman here – the government will not be fazed.

And it all rests on one argument:

Government bond yields are at an all-time low, which means the UK is seen as a safe place of investment and therefore the government’s plan is the right one. Economics professors across the Golden Triangle must squirm every time they hear another one of their protégés pull this one out on Question Time.

And that is because the low-bond-yield argument is a choreographed hoodwinking of the British public. To say that our rates are 1.85 per cent, compared to 6 per cent in Ireland, 12 per cent in Portugal and 28 per cent in Greece, is like saying that the PM picks up a tan quicker than an inmate of Her Majesty’s Prison Service. Yields reflect risk, and in those countries, there is real risk that the Governments will default on their debts. The same has never been said of the UK.

Instead the "risk premium" paid on gilts is based on the fact that we are a safe haven in a turbulent financial world and investors are willing to accept lower returns than normal because their risk in the UK is relatively lower than in the Eurozone. But this is not normal. Look up any economics textbook, it will tell you that the more global investors buy Government bonds, the more they are at risk (of losing money if the pound depreciates), therefore the higher the risk and the rate will be; in normal times bond yields are high the more of them are supplied to the private sector.

Indeed, as Jonathon Portes highlights here, confidence has grown in the UK at the start of 2012 (as measured by the rise in share prices of FTSE250 companies) and the bond-yield has risen alongside it. His graph is below:

More worryingly, a recent paper has shown empirically that current ten-year bond yields are a good benchmark of growth rates in ten years’ time. That would mean 1.85 per cent growth by 2022- the OBR expect 3 per cent growth by 2015.

But what about the interest rates that the PM is so keen to keep down for the sake of struggling homeowners?

As an economy grows in confidence and bond yields rise, yes, eventually interest rates should rise too, so mortgage and loan repayments will increase. But surely this is to be expected in a healthy, growing economy, with increasing incomes?

A Manchester United fan, for example, must accept that the price of supporting Manchester United is that you will pay higher ticket prices than you would as a Wigan fan.

Low interest rates are a symptom of the problem, not the solution.

This can be seen quite clearly in a country whose interest rates and bond yields have been rock bottom for over a decade: Japan. The charts below compare GDP (only up to 2007, to focus more clearly on growth trends before the recession), 10-year government bond yields and interest rates for the UK and Japan since 1992, when the Japanese economy sank into a recession from which it has never fully recovered.

Click for big

Indeed, Japanese homeowners are now accustomed to close-to-zero interest rates following a “lost decade”. Is that the ultimate aim of the UK Government’s austerity plan? If not, they might be forced before long to accept that Labour had it right all along. Silly billies.

Pictured: Confidence fairies. Maybe. Photograph: Getty Images

Dom Boyle is a British economist.

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.