How the economic policies of a corrupt elite caused the Arab Spring

Living standards in the region must rise if the political momentum is to be kept up.

Six months ago a Tunisian street seller started what is now known as the "Arab Spring" by setting himself on fire. However, although the immediate motivation behind his gesture was anger at the confiscation of his market stall, the economic causes of recent events in the Middle East have still received relatively little attention. However, many analysts believe that economic stagnation has been an important driving force behind the demands for political change, and that political and economic reform has to take place simultaneously.

One expert who has extensively studied the interaction between development and politics in the Middle East is Dr Ali Kadri, the former Head of the Economic Analysis Section of the United Nations regional office in Beirut. Dr Kadri sees recent events in the Middle East as the culmination of decades of under development, and in some cases de-development, fuelled by failed economic policies and broken institutions. He points out that between 1971 to 2000 overall economic growth in the Arab world was negative, with the real GDP per capita of Gulf Countries contracting by 2.8% annually.

At the same time inequality has increased, further squeezing the incomes of middle-class and working families. Although most Middle Eastern countries attempt to hide the extent of these problems by refusing to carry out the necessary surveys, unofficial reports suggest that the region is more unequal than even Africa or Latin America. According to the University of Texas Inequality Project, Qatar, Oman and Egypt had Gini coefficients of 55, 52 and 50 respectively in 2002, one of the highest levels in the world.

Kadri believes that these problems have been compounded through patronage. Lacking democratic legitimacy, "regimes in the region have used public sector employment to generate consent via clientelism... shifting the accent away from development". Although he believes that a degree of government ownership may be necessary in the short-run, many of the state-run firms that dominate most Middle Eastern economies are focused on creating make-work jobs rather than productive goods.

These views are increasingly recognised by other organisations. In the case of Egypt, a US State Department document three years ago noted "the military's strong influence in Egypt's economy" and that "military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries". Similarly, a study by the World Bank of the Egyptian financial system found that because a significant portion of bank credit went to state companies, "family owned firms and small and medium enterprises rely heavily on the informal market".

These policies have resulted in high rates of unemployment and under-employment, especially among the young. According to the International Labour Office, less than half those of working age in the Middle East are actually in employment, with youth unemployment over four times the adult rate. Even in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, 30.2% of those between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed. Kadri believes that "those protesting want a dignified living and good schools for their children".

Kadri believes that corruption, and regional conflict, which many analysts believe are consequences of dictatorships, have made it hard for firms to think beyond the short-term. Kadri notes that the dearth of domestic investment opportunities has meant that much of the wealth generated by rising commodity prices over the last decade has gone abroad. He also suggests that the growing gap between savings and investment rates has been instrumental in producing financial bubbles, such as the speculative frenzy surrounding property and office construction in Dubai, which came to a dramatic end three years ago.

Kadri is relatively optimistic about the future of the region, suggesting that the collapse of autocrats, like Ben Ali in Tunisia, will allow the population, rather than the elites, to determine the course of development for the first time. His conclusions are supported by World Bank research which found that the existence of an independent civil society was the most important factor in determining whether countries in Central and Eastern Europe were able to make a quick and successful economic transition after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

However, although the long-term prospects of those in countries currently making the transition to democracy may be positive, this is of little comfort where the regime is willing to brutally crush dissent, as in Syria. Even in Egypt, there are signs that Mubarak's machine is silently reconstituting itself, although its creator is now in jail. Although the G-8 has announced $40bn in economic support, much of this will come from Gulf Countries who have little interest in economic and political change. This prompts the question of what else western countries can do to make sure the political momentum generated by the "Arab Spring" continues and is able to result in rising living standards for all those in the region.

Matthew Partridge is a freelance journalist and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

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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?