Are the ratings agencies doing us a favour?

At every stage of this crisis, action has been forced on politicians by the markets.

James Carville, Bill Clinton's pugnacious chief of staff, once said that, if he were to be re-incarnated, he would like to come back as "the bond market because then you can threaten anyone". With Europe's capitals still reeling from the decision by Standard & Poor's to downgrade the credit rating of nine eurozone countries, he might consider reincarnation as a rating agency instead.

In the European Parliament last week, German conservative Elmar Brok accused S&P of having "declared a currency war against us" and was widely applauded. Many rightly question the legitimacy of the power wielded by the big three rating agencies -- S&P, Moody's and Fitch -- which can effectively hold countries to ransom particularly as they were responsible for awarding AAA ratings to the asset backed securities made up of sub-prime mortgage loans which caused the 2008-9 crisis. Such is the herd behaviour of financial markets that a decision to downgrade a country's rating is taken as gospel truth, with the result that a nation's borrowing costs go up, putting a further squeeze on their public finances.

S&P's bombshell was merely the latest overreaction by the markets to the sovereign debt crisis -- Spain and Cyprus suffered a two notch hit despite having, like France, a far better debt and deficit situation than the UK - but it scarcely came as a surprise. Although there was cautious optimism early in the month when Spain and Italy managed successful bond auctions with the interest rate falling to its lowest level since last summer, rumours about a mass downgrade by the ratings agency were doing the rounds before Christmas.

But while "Black Friday" moved the condition of the eurozone -- as well as the rest of the EU including the UK -- from serious to critical, the political symbolism of S&P's move was as important as its implications for Europe's economies.

This is because while it is right to question the illegitimate power of the rating agencies, and their role in creating and then deepening the current crisis, it is the failure of Europe's supine political leaders that has ceded control over economic policy from democratically elected governments to rating agencies and the bond markets. For all their protestations about US rating agencies declaring war on the euro the reality is that Brok's boss, Angela Merkel's pursuit of a masochistic and fundamentally unworkable monetary policy is, in large part, responsible for S&P's decision.

In fact -- though it pains me to say it -- the rating agencies are actually doing us a favour. At every stage of this crisis action has been forced on politicians. For example, in early 2010 Merkel and most other EU leaders promised that there would never be an EU bail-out fund. Then market pressure meant that, in May 2010, the European Financial Stability Facility was created. Then they said that there would never be a permanent bail-out fund. In spring 2011 the EU treaties were amended to set up the European Stability Mechanism. Apparently there would never be a hair-cut on Greek debt. The December EU summit offered a 50 per cent right-down of Greek debt which is now being concluded between the Greeks and bond-holders. We have gradually edged towards sensible crisis-resolution not thanks to politicians but because of the financial markets.

Moreover, before we rush to condemn the markets, we should also remember that the departure (finally) of Italy's oft-disgraced but indefatigable leader Silvio Berlusconi was brought about not by one of his many scandals but because yields on Italian debt were spiralling out of control. To misquote the Sun: It was the bond market wot done it.

We are, of course, treading on very dangerous ground when unaccountable markets or neighbouring governments are able to force out elected governments but is there some truth to the idea that the debt crisis is too important to be left to politicians?

Last October Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean Claude-Juncker came out with the phrase that defines the political response to the crisis thus far. "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it," he said. It's a remark that is both infuriating, but accurate. I suspect that even Merkel and Sarkozy know that their beloved fiscal compact treaty, with its rigid budget discipline, is at best a diversion and at worst a complete waste of time. The prospect of either of them admitting this before their respective elections is extremely remote. The real solution for the euro area -- which will inevitably involve a large dose of money-printing by the ECB and common Eurobonds alongside stricter rules on budgetary discipline, and possibly the exit of several countries -- seems to be too frightening a prospect for politicians to dare mention it.

But Europe's political leaders need to decide, and quickly, if they have the balls to take the difficult and unpopular decisions that are necessary if the euro is to survive and the European economy to recover. If they choose inertia then the rating agencies and bond markets will continue to decide for them. And as for those who worry about Juncker's dictum, the demise of Berlusconi should carry a salutary warning: the markets don't care if you won the last election, if you can't govern, you're a goner.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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