Did no-one spot that Britain is leaving the EU in five years' time?

It didn't get much attention but a draft European treaty leaked last week maps out a course that, if

Despite the twin facts that European Union affairs came to dominate political news towards the end of last year and the eurozone crisis remains the single most important factor in deciding whether or not the UK economy can recover in 2012, Britain - or rather the British media - just don't seem to be able to sustain in interest in the EU for very long.

Most of the political coverage and commentary in the weekend just passed has focused on two themes: the troubles with Ed Miliband's leadership and David Cameron's ambitions to occupy the electorally popular terrain of moral outrage at the excesses of freewheeling capitalism.

Hardly anyone seems to have noticed or picked up on an extraordinary scoop on Friday by ITV business correspondent Laura Kuenssberg - a draft copy of the proposed new treaty for Eurozone members and their fellow EU travellers. This, remember, is the document that David Cameron will not sign. Its very existence rather contradicts the established story that the prime minister somehow wielded a "veto", since - as has subsequently been noted on a number of occasions - a veto prevents something from happening. And yet here, the other 26 members of the Union are pressing ahead with their plans unimpeded by grumpy Britain.

And, as Evan Davis successfully established in his interview with Cameron on Friday, the fact of the UK's exclusion doesn't actually guarantee any of the safeguards for the British financial services industry, procurement of which was the ostensible motive for wielding a "veto" in the first place.

Of course, the document revealed last week is just the starting point for negotiations. There is a European summit due at the end of this month when the real work of putting a new treaty together will get under way. How much influence Cameron will have over that process is an open question - as is the matter of how much leeway his party will give him to inch back towards a slightly more cooperative stance (as Nick Clegg insists ought to be the case). One thing helping Cameron is the fact that several of the proposed signatories to the euro-plus pact share Britain's concerns about a hardcore fiscal union run, essentially, by Paris and Berlin. The 26 v 1 scenario that emerged at the end of last year masks more subtle diplomatic manoeuvres as negotiations around an actual treaty proceed.

Still, the outcome is looking very tricky indeed for Cameron.

Here are just a few paragraphs that stand out from the draft treaty (written, as usual, in the arcane jargon of European legal documents):

The Contracting Parties undertake to work jointly towards an economic policy fostering the smooth functioning of the Economic and Monetary Union and economic growth through enhanced convergence and competitiveness. In this context, particular attention shall be paid to all developments which, if allowed to persist, might threaten stability, competitiveness and future growth and job creation. To this aim, they will take all necessary actions, including through the Euro Plus Pact.

That sounds a lot as if the inner core of EU members that sign up to the treaty (i.e. not Britain) will be talking on a regular basis about all sorts of economic plans that cut across the wider single market. The idea of the europlus group hatching a "competitiveness" agenda without consulting London will be completely unacceptable to the UK.

With a view to benchmarking best practices, the Contracting Parties ensure that all major economic policy reforms that they plan to undertake will be discussed ex-ante and, where appropriate, coordinated among themselves. This coordination shall involve the institutions of the European Union as required by the law of the Union.

So that confirms it - the euro-plus group will set the economic agenda for the whole EU in advance of Brussels summits and then railroad their plans through the Council.

The President of the Euro Summit shall keep the other Member States of the European Union closely informed of the preparation and outcome of the Euro Summit meetings.

Britain will be allowed to find out what has been arranged in her absence and invited to agree.

Within five years at most following the entry into force of this Treaty, on the basis of an assessment of the experience with its implementation, an initiative shall be launched, in compliance with the provisions of the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, with the aim of incorporating the substance of this Treaty into the legal framework of the European Union.

And eventually - in the not too distant future - whatever grand new economic schemes have been settled by all of the signatories to the new treaty will be presented to the non-signatories as a fait accompli and turned into a new pan-EU treaty after all. At that point Britain will have to sign up (having had minimal input) on a take it or leave it basis. It is very hard to see any government agreeing to that, let alone parliament ratifying it, whoever is running the government by 2017.

In other words, this draft treaty sets up a framework and a timetable for the evolution of European economic policy as mediated by EU institutions that, if not substantially amended, all but guarantees Britain's departure from the Union. Not long ago it was scarcely thinkable; a distant hope for the most hardline sceptics. Now it's all queued up to happen in five years' time. It is odd, to say the least, that this didn't get more coverage over the weekend.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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?