Ed Balls used his address to yesterday’s EEF Manufacturing Conference, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a platform to rail against spending cuts in advance of the delivery of the budget in two weeks’ time.
Playing straight to his manufacturer audience’s fear of Britain sliding into industrial obscurity, he warned that the government’s obsession with deficit reduction at the expense of long-term investment would “curtail ambition” in business and “militate against” the UK’s ability to compete with Europe (read, Germany).
His appearance at the conference coincided with the publication today of a labour-commissioned report by Sir George Cox, Overcoming short-termism within British business, which argues for executive pay to reflect success over longer cycles, tax changes to favour equity markets, and a mechanism to make infrastructure investment decisions independent of political cycles.
Despite a fantastically awkward bit of audience Q&A, in which Balls avoided verbally signing his party up to Sir George’s proposals even though the report author was sitting just feet away in the front row, the rhetoric seemed to go over well with delegates.
But in terms of a demonstration of long term-thinking, the Sturm & Drang over the budget’s treatment of British business paled in comparison to the day’s opening presentation, delivered by Jim “BRICs” O’Neill, Goldman Sachs’ chairman of asset management.
As one might expect from the man who coined the now ubiquitous acronym for emerging markets, O’Neill had very little to say directly about the state of British industry, and even the UK’s fortunes in the context of the Eurozone crisis.
Instead he spoke frankly, and backed by some very big statistics, about the overwhelming importance of emerging markets, particularly China, to both the UK and world economies over the decades to come.
Professing himself to be an optimist, O’Neill predicted the world economy would grow close to 4 per cent in the current decade, largely thanks to China which, he reminded us in words notoriously borrowed by David Cameron, grows the equivalent of Greek GDP every twelve and a half weeks. To underscore the point, O’Neill mentioned in passing that China had, since the end of 2010, grown by approximately the current size of the Indian economy.
He said that if the US and China could partially reverse their traditional roles with regard to production and consumption, so that China ended up “spending more and producing less” and the US vice versa, “it would be a very good sign – and this appears to be happening.”
In response to audience anxiety over the Eurozone, he acknowledged that while Europe was still the single most important export region for the UK, the percentage of UK exports going to the Eurozone had fallen from 55 per cent to 45 per cent over the last decade, and would likely fall further to 39 per cent by 2020.
By the same point time, he argued, 17 per cent of UK exports will likely be destined for the BRICs, while Germany will probably be exporting twice as much to China as to France. If we had known that in the early 1990s, he posited, there might never have been a Eurozone in the first place.
When drawn by session chair Krishnan Guru-Murthy on what he would do if he were chancellor in two weeks, his answer said more through understatement than Balls did through twenty minutes on the soapbox:
“Those nations with more emphasis on long-term fiscal consolidation rather than a "cut debt now" mentality tend to be recovering better… It’s entirely understandable to want to lower debt and to shrink [the financial services] sector… but trying to do both at once? It could be very difficult, and I think I’ll leave it at that”.