The milk blockade is part of a far crueller story

It's just an episode in a scandalous, decades-long tale of corporate greed.

Every couple of years the papers run a story about the food in your local supermarket. It goes like this: you know that Lochmuir Salmon you get in Marks and Spencer? Well, turns out Lochmuir isn’t a crystal-clear lake near Edinburgh, populated by ginger-haired men in rowing boats, catching ethically-sourced salmon in small nets.

In fact, there’s no such place as Lochmuir: it’s just a brand name, chosen by a panel of consumers. The salmon’s actually farmed on an industrial scale at various sites around Scotland, by a supplier called Scottish Sea Farms.

Having revealed this and other similar tricks (Tesco’s Willow Farm, home of its chickens, is just a bunch of barns across the country, for example), the journalists generally shrug their shoulders. But it’s where the story begins. Because the idea is to give the impression of “local” food from a guaranteed source: products that have, in recent years, exploded in popularity. And the fact they only want to give this impression helps illustrate a scandalous, decades-long tale of corporate greed.

Unlike the bankers at RBS and other institutions, it didn’t financially imperil the country. Many of those who suffered weren’t the kind of people journalists care about. But in terms of pure, callous, blood-soaked capitalism, you’d do well to find a more nauseating story.

Let’s rewind the clock a couple of decades. Between 1990 and 1996, the number of independent shops with annual sales of less than £100,000 declined by 36 per cent. Over an equivalent period, the number of superstores in Britain more than doubled, to over 1,000. A 1998 report by the now-defunct Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions made an explicit link between the two figures. It said some food shops lost up to 50% of trade when a supermarket opened.

This, we’re told, was simply the market in action: customers getting what they wanted. But you have to ask why customers got what they wanted so quickly, while no provision was made for those who’d be left behind by this brave new world.

The answer in the first instance is that corporations know how to grease the wheels of local government. In one town alone -  Seaton in Devon - Tesco offered a package including a visitor centre, football pitches and buses. For the people of Witney, it offered to build a new main road.

And the supermarkets exerted even more influence at a national level – quite apart from the number of supermarket execs on government task forces over the years, one need only look at the 13 meetings Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury held with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ministers and officials between 2008 and 2009: years when their stores were springing up at a rate of nearly one a day.

“But the superstores create jobs!” was the mantra, churned out by the companies themselves and rarely challenged by the government, despite a 1998 report by the National Retail Planning Forum that found evidence the superstores had a negative net impact on employment up to 15km away.

It’s hardly rocket science. Your local butcher might well be less efficient than a supermarket, but he’s more likely to buy his meat from a local farm, use a local builder for maintenance jobs, and spend his profits in the local economy.

This caused untold damage to the social fabric of our small towns and cities, but was as nothing compared to that wrought on food suppliers. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons have now taken control of nearly 80 per cent of British food retail. Your out- of-town supermarket controls a local monopoly, and it’s most effective for it to buy most of its produce from a small number of large farms.

And all this has had a heavy impact on the two million people in rural Britain living below the poverty line, and, according to last month’s Observer, to the 3,000 small and medium-scale farmers in Britain put in poverty or out of business over the past decade.

I have my journalistic case study; but it’s one I can’t bear to write about in detail. He was a close friend of a friend, and he died by his own hand. Was his depression purely a result of his financial worries? No doubt it could be spun that way. Such things are impossible to quantify. All we know is: they have an impact. Governmental figures from the 1990s revealed that farmers were nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the general population, and one shudders to think what results a similar survey would reveal today

And what of the “lucky” farmers who do supply the supermarkets? They have nowhere else to go, and so the stores can specify any number of conditions over the meat or crops they supply. Supermarkets can set whatever price they like, until the farmer’s business folds, whereupon they’ll find a new supplier.

“You won’t hear a word from the farmers on record,” says Jeanette Longfield, coordinator of Sustain, a charity that campaigns for better food and farming. “The simple fact is they’re scared to come forward, because they know they’ll be punished.”

This month we’ve seen an uncharacteristically coordinated response to the supermarkets’ sharp practises, with farmers taking to Westminster and blockades of milk plants around the country. But this is one of many occasions over the last couple of decades when the supermarkets have overstepped the mark.

“This issue comes up time and again,” says Longfield, “Milk, unlike other products, is hard to transport, so you’d think the farmers would have bargaining power. But the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has historically seemed either unable or unwilling to unionise their members.” And indeed, many have asked whether the NFU can really be called a union at all, such is its close relationship with government.

All this pain, we’re told, is worth it for low food prices. Some will point the finger of blame at producers like Dairy Crest. But Andrew Hemming of Farmers For Action this morning left Radio 4 listeners in no doubt as to the culpability of the supermarkets in putting pressure on them. The prices paid by the supermarkets – some less than the cost of production – must be seen in the context of a world in which they’ve quadrupled their profits on every litre in the last 15 years. As Longfield says: “Would consumers even notice a few pence extra on the price of their milk? People gladly pay more for bottled water. It’s madness.”

A common belief is that the farmers are all subsidised by the European Union, so none of this really matters. “It’s not that simple,” says Longfield. “Due to the complexity of the Common Agricultural Policy regime, large farms will work the system to their advantage. The subsidies often don’t benefit the smaller farms.”

The impotence of politics in the face of big business is highlighted by how long it’s taken for any kind of legislation to appear that might stymie this lunacy. It only materialised, in fact, because, in 2006 the Office of Fair Trading made a reference to the Competition Commission after a court case involving Action Aid and the Association of Convenience Stores. The resulting report in 2008 proposed a better code of practise enforced by an ombudsman. The resulting Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill is at its third reading in the House of Lords.

Michael Hutchings, a solicitor who has advised the grocery market on the inquiry, says: “By this point competition policy was supposed to be politically independent and in the hands of the OFT and Competition Commission, but as we saw with Lloyds/HBOS – and more recently BSkyB - the government was happy to fudge the decision.

“All the details have been decided and have cross party support – it just needs a stroke of a statutory pen. Instead we’re getting long parliamentary debates in the Lords. One peer wants to give retailers the right to go to court before reports into them are published – the adjudicator won’t have the hundreds of thousands of pounds required to fight a case like that.”

Despite this, Hutchings still expects the bill to be passed without being watered down too much: “An adjudicator will have two jobs – first to arbitrate disputes between the two – this won’t really happen because the producers are scared. But more importantly, to carry out generic investigations, which will have an impact. The important thing is that the bill starts with the principle of fair dealing. Most industries do work fairly, because you don’t have such an imbalance of power between producer and supplier. This is a special case.”

 

Supermarkets can set whatever price they like for farmers' produce. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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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?