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 Images
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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research