Osborne rides to Labour’s rescue

He has forced Labour to acknowledge that if you cut less now, you have to cut for longer.

The deterioration of the public finances will guarantee George Osborne tough headlines for his mini-Budget Autumn Statement. Labour argues that it stands vindicated: the government's strategy has failed. But is anyone listening to the Labour case -- and even if they are, will it change how they vote?

Labour's first problem is that it is still blamed for the deficit. Whilst it was conducting a lengthy leadership election last year, the coalition partners successfully persuaded the public that gross profligacy during the Labour years was to blame for the ballooning deficit. In a neat piece of political framing, the Coalition said Labour had "maxed out on the country's credit card", thereby making a symbolic association between high household debt and government deficits. An electorate suffering a hangover from a consumption binge and the bursting of a housing market bubble was in receptive mood. Labour had presided over a splurge, and spending had to be cut.

Labour has never given a convincing answer to this charge. It hasn't consistently articulated an alternative account of why the deficit grew so large during the 2008/9 financial crisis, other than to blame the global economic meltdown and admit to the failure of its light-touch regulation of the City of London. Consequently, it remains vulnerable to the criticism that it is in denial about the deficit.

Yet it doesn't have to be boxed into this corner. In reality, Labour got the tax -- not spending -- side of the tax-spend equation wrong. Although it should have been running a small surplus in the run-up to the crisis, its big failure was consistently to over-estimate tax revenues. And ultimately, this was about the structure of the economy itself: the tax base was too reliant on revenue from the City, the housing market and wealthy individuals. A quarter of all corporation tax was being paid by City firms before the recession.

When the crisis struck, these sources of revenue collapsed, leaving a huge hole in the public finances. But whereas in Germany a loss of economic output in the recession of between 6 per cent and 7 per cent of GDP -- roughly the same magnitude as in the UK -- led to a deficit of 3.5 per cent of GDP, in the UK the deficit reached nearly 12 per cent of national output. As the chart from the Autumn Statement today below shows, lacking a resilient, broad tax base, the UK's public finances were far more exposed than many other countries on the Continent (conversely, the fact that the UK has its own currency and Central Bank gave it the flexibility and tools it needed to fight the economic downturn: had it joined the Euro, a fully-fledged sovereign debt crisis would have been on the cards immediately).

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Labour should acknowledge its responsibility for the deficit in these terms, rather than apologising for over-spending as its critics demand. Indeed, a reckoning with its fiscal record of this kind is precisely what would allow it to build a bridge to the kind of responsible, long-termist, rebalanced capitalism that Ed Miliband has made such a central part of his platform. A fairer, more robust political economy in the UK would produce more resilient public finances: prudence would be built on firmer foundations that self-declared fiscal rules. Without such an account, the deficit weighs like a drag anchor on Labour's economic credibility.

The party's second problem is a paradoxical one. It is this: the more it is right about the Coalition's "too far, too fast" fiscal strategy, the greater the task it sets itself to persuade the public to trust it again on the public finances at the next General Election. Labour has got it broadly right on fiscal strategy over the last year. The Keynesians are getting the better of the argument. But politically, all the talk of cuts simply reinforces the perception that Labour doesn't acknowledge the need for fiscal rectitude in the medium term. Labour spokespeople eschew being drawn too far into declaring which cuts they would make, for fear of confusing the electorate on their central argument about growth and jobs (indeed, there doesn't even appear to be a consistent script that Labour frontbenchers use when asked to describe what cuts or tax rises they would make to bring down the deficit). Instead, they talk up the impact of cuts in almost every department. The party has made no tough spending choices -- nothing at least that the electorate might recall.

It is on this score that Osborne has now ridden to Labour's rescue. By pushing back his structural deficit reduction plans into the next Parliament, he has forced Labour to acknowledge what its position would all along have entailed: that if you cut less now, you have to cut for longer. In his speech to the IPPR last week Ed Miliband made a virtue of this fact, saying to Osborne that if he failed to eradicate the structural deficit in this Parliament, Labour would have to finish the job. Commentators immediately pricked up their ears. Labour was on a path back to fiscal prudence.
Osborne has today set out further fiscal tightening of £8 billion in 2015/16 and £7 billion in 2016/17 on the cyclically-adjusted current budget. That means that we know the broad spending position for the first two years of the next Parliament, just as we did in 1997 when Labour said it would match Ken Clarke's plans. The same electoral arithmetic is clicking into place today.

Of course, had it been in power Labour would have arrived at the same place by a different route. It will also mercilessly attack the government for having failed meet its targets because of weak growth and high unemployment. But the central political fact remains that at the next election, Labour will now be in the business of fiscal rectitude in a way that it has previously not had to acknowledge.

It should now use the opportunity presented by this changed political landscape to develop new, politically compelling routes to social democracy that don't rely on spending increases. Instead, it should rest instead on the central pillars of deep economic reform, switches of spending into public services that support higher living standards, like childcare, and the reform of public services to secure greater efficiency and effectiveness for given levels of spending. If it completes these tasks, it may find it has much to thank Osborne for.

Nick Pearce is Director of IPPR

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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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?