Goldman Sachs’ boss Lloyd Blankfein says we must stick with austerity

Enough to make you weep.

You wonder if George Osborne’s tears at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral were as much to do with sorrow at having adopted her not for turning mantle, as regret at the passing of a political hero who didn’t feel the need to speak estuary to up her popularity ratings.

Today you wonder whether the tears are flowing more copiously, or have just dried up in resignation on hearing from Goldman Sachs’ boss Lloyd Blankfein, sitting comfortably atop first quarter profits of £1.47bn (1.2% of UK government borrowing in 2012), that Osborne is stuck with his austerity approach, like it or lump it.

Talk about a rock and a hard place.  Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Blankfein fundamentally concurred with the conclusions of IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard last week, and the thinking behind the decisions of first Moody’s and latterly Fitch to downgrade the UK’s triple A credit rating.  If the country’s efforts to escape the downturn are to not to continue to resemble those of a spider climbing out of the bath, it needs an economic plan B.

“You would like it at this part of the cycle not to cut, to push out austerity and not to shrink the economy,” said Blankfein.  But, tough, he added. That course is only permitted to countries, which have done their housekeeping, balanced the books and not cranked up an enormous deficit, otherwise the markets will react badly.

“If you have a big deficit, you lose optionality,” said Blankfein. “The choices get taken away from you.”

So no chance then of that preferable loosening of the purse strings to let the economy breathe. Instead, continued snail-paced growth, with the likelihood of the further credit rating downgrades that entails, followed, in turn, by probable higher government borrowing costs and, consequently, even less flexibility for pump priming business and industry.

Reading between Mr Blankfein’s lines, businesses, especially small to medium-sized ones (SMEs), can’t expect the banks to stump up much more of the cash that government can’t provide either. The reason? They’re frightened, poor loves.

“Businesses are starving for cash and banks have cash idle, but they’re afraid, for want of a better word,” said Blankfein. And he understood their anxiety, he added, uttering the words you probably wouldn’t expect or hope to hear from a Jedi master among masters of the universe; that “lending money to businesses is one of the riskiest things you can do”.

Goldman Sachs, however, does a little something for the small business community. It won’t lend them the cash they’re starving for (they’re way too small and it’s way too frightening), but it will teach them new skills. Blankfein is over here to talk up and talk about his company’s programme for improving the general business nous of SMEs and “professionalising” them, an international offshoot of its USA 10,000 Small Businesses scheme.

Participating businesses in the UK do rate the initiative. But facing flat demand in a stagnating economy, those SMEs which have seen their or their customers’ credit ratings cut by the banks are likely to utter a hollow laugh, or shed an Osborne like tear, at any suggestion that such projects are going to do much to lift their or the UK’s fortunes in the near future. 

Lloyd Blankfein Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Jeffree edits the Timber Trades Journal.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.