How Labour can clean up Osborne's mess

The party must make national renewal its essential governing project.

George Osborne has messed the economy up. This might be a somewhat laconic summary of the latest IMF report into the state of the UK economy, but it isn’t a million miles from the truth. The overly rapid imposition of fiscal tightening has led to recession, which in turn means that borrowing is increasing, not falling. Cue ominous orchestral strings.

Yet as George Eaton argued yesterday, Osborne’s failure - and it is an abject, historic, world-class failure – has difficult political consequences. The Chancellor's failure means the next election will be fought under economically cloudy skies. The economy will probably be growing anaemically by 2015, but there will be pressure on living standards and stubbornly high unemployment. Our national debt will still be rising and the necessary return to fiscal balance will be several years off.

So the government has quietly kicked rebalancing a little longer down the road. The IMF reminds us that the government has already announced "further, unspecified consolidation in 2015-17.". That’s the £10 billion of further welfare cuts the government has "planned" for after the next election. The IMF think growth will be slower than the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) does, and deficit targets missed, which means even more "unspecified consolidation" will eventually be needed. To this gloom, the OBR adds that an aging population means return to pre-crisis levels of debt will require additional spending cuts or tax rises worth some £17 billion a year[1] just to return to the debt status quo ante.

These problems are going to land right in the lap of the next government. So what can Labour offer a nation facing weak growth, high debt and demographic cost pressures?

One reaction to the triple squeeze a Labour government would face is to deny that deficit reduction will be needed, that we can find a path to growth in the rejection of spending restraint, or "austerity-lite". In the short-term, that is absolutely the right approach. Debt is historically cheap, and rates are low because money is seeking out the safehouses of government securities. Unfortunately, Labour will not be governing in the short-term. Come 2015, while fiscal consolidation might be slowed, or even temporarily reversed, at some point it will need to be resumed – at least if we are to remain good Keynesians. So in order to create the space we need to invest for growth, we will need to bind ourselves tight to medium-term deficit reduction.

Another argument might be that Labour should support deficit reduction, but primarily through tax increases. If we were to take the current projections, we’d be looking at an immediate £10 billion in tax increases to fund welfare, plus whatever action we took on medium term debt, plus any other cuts we sought to reverse or delay. Then there’s social care, which might need another £10 billion or so. Yet as those dangerous right wingers at the Fabians have pointed out, there is little public appetite for tax rises. Gulp.

I believe neither argument is wholly convincing because neither postponing the debt reckoning nor increasing taxes to preserve services, can renew our national economy. They are responses to problems, not a search for a solution. Instead, our political focus must be directly on the need for the recovery of our national productive capacity.  Naturally, that means we can’t afford the risk of a fiscal event, or to waste money on financing extended debt levels for longer than strictly necessary. So a steady return to fiscal balance is vital. But as well as closing the existing deficit, we also have to do new things to support growth- such as a National Investment Bank, infrastructure, R&D, and education.

Unfortunately, few of these things are free[2]. It is disturbing to think that the key to Britain’s long-term growth is a plan for national renewal which will cost more of the money we already don’t have. No wonder the latest buzz phrase among left-wing wonks is "switch spend" which translates as "cut services to fund investment".

The next Labour government won’t be able to choose between higher taxes and cuts if it is to slowly reduce the deficit, deal with demographic pressures and deliver sustainable growth. Instead, it will have to do both. But how can such a programme ever be sold to an already sceptical electorate?

I believe we need to make national renewal our essential governing project. Our argument must be that national renewal only works if pursued for the long-term and alongside a politics of common sacrifice. The problem for this government is that they do not believe in restraint in any terms other than for the state. If you have wealth, or power, or privilege, restraint is for other people. Labour can offer a distinctive message. Yes, the next few years will be tough if we fight back to economic strength. But we can only do so if all parts of society contribute.

This requires that we change too. If we are to talk of a common purpose, it must demonstrate that restraint is broadly shared. If the risk for the Tories is that they are too indulgent to the wealthy few, then for the left it is that we are unable to be frank with those the trade unions represent. This strategy is risky, I freely admit. It doesn’t sit well with progressives to promise pain today but joy deferred. It will be hard to make the argument to Unison and the GMB that to support long-term growth requires short-term restraint in public service budgets.

Yet the reality is that a Labour government will face sharp constraints, that we need long term sustainable private sector growth to fund our social aims, and that future demographic pressures require more fiscal restraint, not less. That means that a future Labour government would have to make such arguments, like it or not.

Today, politics often sounds tinny and inadequate to the challenges we face.  Perhaps the key to changing that is to frankly recognise the sea of troubles we face, set a great national ambition, and argue that to achieve such may be difficult, but is also worthy. Shared sacrifice, national renewal, common purpose. Maybe it’s just me, but I can see that catching on after selfish Toryism fails.



[1]  "we calculate the additional fiscal tightening necessary from 2017-18 to return PSND to its roughly pre-crisis level of 40 per cent of GDP in 2061-62, as well as that necessary to keep it at the level we expect at the end of our medium-term forecast, namely 75 per cent of GDP, again in 2061-62. Under our central projections, the government would need to implement a permanent tax increase or spending cut of 1.1 per cent of GDP (£17 billion in today’s terms) in 2017-18 to get debt back to 40 per cent and 0.3 per cent of GDP (£5 billion in today’s terms) to have it at 75 per cent."

http://cdn.budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/FSR2012WEB.pdf

P13 Para 52-54

As the OBR says, this figure only gets bigger if the government misses its debt targets for 2016-17.

 

[2]  Though Gregg McClymont’s work on pensions charges shows that not all progressive reforms cost money. The same is true of other consumer and market regulation issues, many of which, ironically enough need to be imported from that bastion of neo-liberalism – the USA.

 

A future Labour government would face tight economic constraints. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hopi Sen is a former head of campaigns at the Parliamentary Labour Party. He blogs at www.hopisen.com.

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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?