Darling holds his nerve

The Chancellor's refusal to panic has won him respect, but his biggest test still lies ahead

So the government has ripped up the new Labour rule-book with a return to redistributive taxation, nationalisation and work-creation schemes. The same spinners who once laid burnt offerings at the feet of the gods of the free market now sing the praises of state intervention.

In this world turned upside down, one government figure has been consistent in his reading of the situation. From the early summer, Alistair Darling has been saying that we are living through the gravest economic crisis the country has faced since the first half of the 20th century, and that the government must do all it can to protect the British people from the effects of the storm.

The Chancellor began his statement on this week's pre-Budget report in apocalyptic terms, speaking of an "unprecedented global crisis". There was a time when he would have been accused of talking down the economy. Such an idea now seems absurd. At the end of August, during his infamous interview with the Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead, the Chancellor merely said that economic conditions were "arguably the worst they've been in 60 years". The only quibble now with Darling's assessment would be that he ever judged that it was "arguable". At the time, the sky fell in on Darling, with a series of attacks that included disgraceful briefings from Gordon Brown's allies against the Prime Minister's most loyal lieutenant. In fact, Darling had been warning of the seriousness of the situation for almost three months. In an interview with the New Statesman in early June, he said: "If you ask fundamentally what's changed . . . self-evidently it's the credit crunch . . . The IMF has said that it is the biggest shock to the world's economic systems since the 1930s."

It is hard to think of a historical political figure who has survived such a battering, from oil price rises to a bank collapse

Watching Darling's performance in the Commons on Monday, what was striking was his extraordinary calm. Some have put this down to his background as an Edinburgh lawyer, but this isn't an adequate explanation. Just before the £500bn banking bailout in October, a journalist was overheard asking Darling how he remained so unruffled in such turbulent times. He said it was the wrong question, adding: "Now is not the time to panic." He has not panicked, yet. At the height of the briefing campaign against him, he also held his nerve. Darling is popular among political journalists and despite his identification as a "Brownite", he is seen as a non-sectarian figure in Westminster.

There is still the distinct possibility that the PBR will unravel (and the news that the Treasury considered raising VAT to 18.5 per cent does not help matters). Some within the Labour family salute the aims of giving the economy a £21bn boost, while wondering whether it will be enough. But few are turning their fire on Darling himself. For example, Frank Field, the leader of the 10p tax rebels, said he believes the fiscal stimulus may yet turn out to be inadequate. But he recognised that Darling had been clever not to put a limit on how long the measures would take to work. "Alistair has given himself all the time in the world," he said. "Now he will just keep saying that the measures need to be given the chance to work."

There is no doubt now that Darling stays calm under pressure. It is hard to think of a historical political figure who has survived such a battering. Quite apart from the collapse of the banking system and a vicious campaign to undermine him from within his own party, the Chancellor has dealt with Northern Rock, the loss of computer disks from H M Revenue & Customs containing the personal data of 25 million individuals, fierce criticism of his decisions on capital gains tax and corporation tax, the stagnation of the housing market, wild fluctuations in the prices of oil and huge rises in the cost of household fuel.

There is at least one area where Darling remains vulnerable, however, and that is over the policy to abolish the 10p tax rate, which he inherited when his predecessor left for No 10. In the PBR, Darling announced an increase of personal tax allowances by £130 a year to soften the impact on those who lost out. But the real question for the Labour high command should be whether this will be enough. If backbenchers feel renewed pressure from their constituents on this issue, the possibility of a rebellion over the Budget in the spring will re-emerge.

The revival in the fortunes of the man at No 11 coincides with a new sense of direction throughout Downing Street. The National Economic Council has helped open up dialogue between departments and there is no longer the feeling that cabinet ministers are huddled in their individual silos. The increasing influence of the affable MP for West Bromwich East, Tom Watson, since his appointment to the Cabinet Office at the start of the year, has helped stamp out some of the more thuggish briefings. And despite differences over the emphasis of the PBR, the Treasury and No 10 are said to be working well together.

A new test of Darling's nerve will come in the new year when unemployment begins to bite. If the news bulletins are led every day by job losses up and down the country, Labour backbenchers are already talking about being afraid to show their faces in public. Darling has demonstrated his integrity over the course of the past year and consistently delivered a brutally honest assessment of the economic crisis. But if unemployment hits three million in 2009, these qualities will count for nothing.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

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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?