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.

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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue