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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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