How Osborne's Budget can increase confidence

The state must have more faith in its own power to tame recession.

The state must have more faith in its own power to tame recession.

This week's Budget will reflect whether George Osborne's team has learned some economics over the last few months. If not, here is a last minute crash course, focusing on the need to increase "confidence" (the government's buzz word). But whose confidence?

1. Market confidence

Low interest rates in the UK aren't a reflection of "market" confidence, but of the fact that the economy is not growing. As in most stagnant economies, interest rates remain low - as does also inflation, which is only rising due to international commodity prices. The fact that the UK has its own currency, with an active central bank, partly explains why the bond markets are not fearful of a default and why Britain's AAA credit rating has not been downgraded, yet.

But the increasingly low growth forecasts for the UK, and the recent warnings by ratings agencies (including Fitch last week), show that the markets know that one of the world's most "austere" nations is in trouble because austerity does not generate growth.

Lesson: In your speech, don't use the "market'"and low interest rates as the reason that you need to continue austerity. Remember that savers are punished by low interest rates and life insurers - an important UK industry and a source of finance for recovery - could be seriously undermined by them. And if you think that the fixed rate on 100 year bonds is the solution, this will only make markets less confident. It demonstrates that you think rates of return will remain very low for an extended period. If not, it's unclear why anyone would invest in these.

2. Business confidence

Private business investment is not driven by tweaks in taxes, but by expectations about future technological and market opportunities. This is what Keynes meant by investment being driven by "animal spirits" and is the reason why there is too little investment in downturns and too much in booms.. It is also the reason why even in booms, there is little investment in countries, or particular regions, with low future growth opportunities. Weak private business investment in the UK and the fact that various companies are picking up and leaving (Pfizer, GSK, Sanofi) , is not due to their high taxes, but the lack of positive expectations about future growth in the UK.

Lesson: Don't try to increase investment by decreasing corporate taxes. Evidence is that these "savings" will not be reinvested back into production. Likewise reduction of the 50p rate will not "trickle down" to the rest of the economy, it will only increase inequality as all such measures, especially in the USA and the UK, have in the last decades. To increase investment, government must invest in those areas that create high expectations about technological and market growth: education, research in emerging technologies, modern infrastructure, and constructing a financial system that can nurture long-run, innovative investments.

3. Confidence in competition

When competition is strong, businesses feel the need to differentiate themselves to increase market share, whether via advertising or innovation. This is why there is rarely dynamism in sectors where competition is lacking. Competition policy should nurture those types of businesses that are most interested in growing via new products, processes, or new markets for existing products -- and in so doing create jobs. One way to invest in such opportunities is to properly fund the whole 'eco-system' of innovation, promoting broad technological areas rather than trying to pick winners within them.

In doing so it is important not to mythologise some of the actors, especially those with strong lobbies (e.g. small/medium enterprises, venture capital). It is not true, for example, that the SME sector as a whole is being starved of funds. Indeed UK SMEs get somewhere between £7-8 billion pounds a year in direct and indirect government support - more than either universities or the police. It is the high-growth, innovative SMEs (about 6 per cent of the total) that need support, which must be tailored towards their precise needs. And it is not true that the problem in the UK is commercialisation, the target of the new Catapult Centres. The lower amount of market relevant research is the UK's the problem; so setting up Catapult Centres, without investing in public R&D and stimulating business to do the same, is like pushing on a string. The UK's R&D/GDP ratio is 1.3 per cent, compared to 2.6 per cent in Germany and the USA. Unlike Britain, the former has increased its spending since the crisis.

Lesson: Invest in measures that can help generate the company strategies and structures that enable UK companies to produce products and services that the world wants to buy. Only in this way will UK companies win procurement contracts in their own country (it is hardly surprising that Siemens' won the Thameslink train deal, with its very high R&D spending, and investment in green technology). And don't focus so much on new vehicles like Catapult Centres, which will have all the force of a pea-shooter if the research base remains underfunded.

4. Bank confidence

Quantitative easing (QE) by the Bank of England has not resulted in higher growth because this injection of money has simply ended up in the coffers and bonus pools of banks, which are not lending. They are scared because they, like business, do not believe there are growth opportunities in a country that has problems with both demand (consumer spending) and supply (new business output). Banks' complaint that they are not receiving enough demand for new loans highlights the slump in demand afflicting the economy. Thus ironically, post-crisis QE has benefited only the actors that have been most responsible for the crisis, letting them recapitalise on the cheap without reducing business finance costs.

Lesson: To increase lending, the government should create a National Investment Bank that could offer the kind of "patient capital" needed by businesses investing for the long run. As private investment banking will not be viable on the past scale after banking reforms, this could be constructed from the skeleton of RBS. At present there is £500 billion of net financial surplus hoarded in the UK (and $1.1. trillion in the USA), mainly in pension funds; government can play a greater role in releasing these funds, which also have a public dimension, in particular directions like "green" investments with high future returns (see Nick Stern's recommendations).

5. Consumer confidence

Four types of demand drive GDP. Demand by government, by private business investment, by consumers and by what other nations demand from us (exports) minus what we demand from them (imports). Of these, consumer demand is the largest, and the most stable component, about 65 per cent of our GDP. It is much more predictable than private investment, as it is largely a function of disposable income. Thus even if you get all the policies above right, if you cut down on disposable income during a recession, you'll turn it into a depression. This is indeed the real current risk. And falling household incomes (from the rise in VAT, freeze in public sector pay, cuts to fundamental social services, and general downturn of the economy) will be made only worse with the further cuts that will be needed as a consequence of the 50p rate reduction.

Lesson: Consider reducing VAT, and releasing the public sector pay freeze, both of which are damaging to demand. While marginal rates have little effect on top earners they do deter effort and initiative at very low rates of pay (see Mirrlees Report). So what is needed is to decrease the marginal rate on very low earners - sometimes 100 per cent or more - not worrying about a 50 per cent rate at the top. Do whatever you can to steer councils away from spending cuts in areas that sustain the social fabric, including after-school clubs that allow women to work more and youth clubs that allow young people to feel valued members of society.

Perhaps the biggest lesson around confidence is that government must be more confident of its own powers. It should use the ability to tame recessions through monetary and fiscal policy, and invest in the future by funding the knowledge base that is the source of new waves of growth. The new green revolution is just beginning and, like all technological revolutions, will not happen without government playing a lead role, absorbing most of the uncertainty before the private sector dares to enter. This entrepreneurial role must lead the vision in next week's Budget if the UK is to play a meaningful role in the world economy.

Mariana Mazzucato is Professor of Economics and RM Phillips Chair in Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex. She is the author of The Entrepreneurial State.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.