Britain is tied to the Eurozone – so why keep it at arms length?

Europe does affect British economic fortunes, which is why it is so counterproductive to pretend "so

Another quarter, another set of negative GDP figures, another drop back in recession for the British economy. The much talked about, yet elusive, recovery seems to be slipping from our grasp once again.

Many, especially Keynesian economists and those on the left of the political spectrum, will tell you this was inevitable. No surprise. Nor is it surprising that the government has been quick to blame everyone else for the state of the British economy. That’s what politicians do best.

According to the government’s script what is really to blame for the economic predicament we are in is the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone and the economic crisis it has generated. With our main trading partners in economic contraction our chances for recovery are significantly reduced, the story goes. Not to mention that the rising cost of raw materials like petrol is pushing our inflation rates up, while the global banking crisis is forcing the Bank of England to inject billions in the British banking system. At the same time, the printing of money is reducing the value of our currency, making imports of German cars, Japanese DVDs and American smartphones we love so much more expensive. And all the above combined is making the Bank keep interest rates at levels so low that they are starting to become unsustainable.

So much for the cherished economic, monetary and fiscal independence of Britain. The fact of the matter is that the government is, to a large extent, right. Most of what a very open but small and peripheral economy does is affected (and often dictated) by events that take place elsewhere.

The value of our GDP, the level of our inflation and interest rates, the very health of our economy are, by the government’s own admission, dependant on outside, European as well as global, factors. All we can do is tighten our belts and hope people will keep lending us money in affordable terms (their words, not mine).

As a result it is a bit disingenuous for the government to go on exclaiming their holy duty to maintain our economic and monetary sovereignty one moment while the next admitting that the very notion of "sovereignty" is void of meaning in the context of the internationally integrated economy Britain is plugged in to.

We are not just affected by the state the European economy is in. We are the European economy. Our trade inflows and outflows, our financial services sector, our supply chains and the source (as well as destination) of investment are one with those of the EU. And for good reason. This is the biggest market in the world and one of the most mature and sophisticated economies. Britain prospers when the EU economy does well and it suffers when it stagnates.

The plot really thickens when one keeps in mind that the EU has engaged in a process of monetary integration, soon to be coupled with fiscal and political union. No matter what the immediate and short term problems of the Eurozone (and its institutional architecture) are, the Eurozone and its single currency are so systemically important for the EU (and global) economy that it is a matter of when rather than whether the Eurozone will sort itself out and continue its path towards becoming a global reserve currency.

Before the sovereign debt crisis in Greece and the burst of asset bubbles in Ireland and Spain the euro had become the most held currency and the de facto second reserve currency. It has maintained that status throughout the financial and debt crisis of 2008 and 2010 and it has also kept its value, while global powers like the US and China have verbally and practically shown their confidence in the euro.

As a result we will soon find ourselves in a world where the global economy will be dominated by two, maybe three, currencies: the US Dollar, the Euro and the Chinese Renminbi. A situation that according to academic research (pdf) will contribute to the re-balancing of the global economy, away from the uni-polar and destabilising current system and towards a more sustainable multi-polar system.

The question is what happens to small and peripheral economies like Britain’s, with a freely floating currency like Sterling, when they get caught up in the headwinds of those three global reserve currencies and the enormous economies that underpin them.

Some people are forecasting that Judgement Day is approaching for the Eurozone. But the Armageddon they are predicting (or hoping for) is not going to take place. It is actually Britain that will have to make some important judgement calls in the not so distant future about how it wishes to welcome this brave new world. On the side-lines, affected by the elements of economic weather but unable to have an effect on them. Or as part of a strong and global currency. The sooner we start discussing the merits of that question the more prepared we will be for when the time comes to make this decision.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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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?