Did we all go out of our minds on transfer deadline day?

It is obscene and absurd — but Martin Cloake can't stop watching.

We have all gone completely out of our minds.

On English football’s transfer deadline day, a record £630m was spent by the 20 Premier League clubs, up 29 per cent on the previous year. The day's transactions included a world record £85m for a single player, Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur, who was bought by Real Madrid. Spurs were the biggest spenders, laying out £103.7m on new players. But, helped by Bale’s bumper fee, the club recouped £106.7m. On the final day of the transfer window alone, £140m was spent.

The figures are extraordinary. It’s as if the recession was just a figment of our imagination. But what’s even more extraordinary is that watching the trading of fantastic amounts of money as player brands are moved to club franchises is becoming as big a draw as watching the game itself. The BBC’s live transfer web page was read by two million browsers and, as BBC Sport’s Stuart Rowson revealed:

Audiences are so big that every major media brand has to have live coverage running. Here, all journalistic caution is thrown to the wind – just get the names in, pick up the rumours, create the churn. If a rumour doesn’t turn out to be true, no matter, the story is that the original story was not a story. Keeping the names in the frame is what counts. 

The big daddy of them all is Sky Sports News’s Deadline Day coverage. It’s The Day Today on acid. All day, presenter Jim White bounces excitably in his seat while linking to live to-camera reports from reporters standing outside training grounds where something might be going on. The reporters’ job is to suck in as much information as possible before spewing it into the camera while standing in front of over-excited groups of fans making sure they don’t flick wanker signs at the camera.

Back in the studio, White regularly turns lustfully to a big screen and asks a colleague how big the total wodge of dosh that’s been spent is, encouraging us to wallow in the sheer spending power on display. 

It is compelling, obscene and absurd. All through the month-long transfer window, and long after the deals have been done behind closed doors, the pantomime is played out as clubs and players and agents and media select heroes and villains for their own ends. The Bale deal, for instance, was done months ago. Since then a complex PR battle has been fought as the parties involved sought position and commercial advantage. Veteran journalist Norman Giller called the Bale deal early and correctly – and received a barrage of abuse for his trouble. Because while fans lap it all up, they don’t trust the media who they see as stoking the deals – another example of the public despising the media for delivering what they demand. 

Now, with the window closed, come the debates, the agonising, the retrospectives – this blog. There’s talk of winners and losers before any of these players have kicked a ball. Fans complain their club has spent too much or too little, everyone wants a shiny new toy while simultaneously bemoaning the bastard footballers who don’t stick around to wear the shirt. The conversation will move into the more serious slots, where people will ask how many hospitals could be built for the price of a Bale. I’ve always found such arguments odd – it’s not as if Arsenal was going to pump £42m into a Keynesian stimulus intiative but decided to buy Mesut Özil instead. 

There’s dark comedy too. The advertorial masquerading as a news story in the Telegraph written by Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett is a masterpiece of zero self-awareness. Barnett, let’s not forget, was the agent who helped Ashley Cole move after Arsenal’s offer of a £55,000 week contract nearly, according to Cole, “made me crash my car in disgust”. 

On the day Bale’s £85m transfer was confirmed, non-league Kettering Town went out of business with debts of £58,000. See? You switch the 5 and the 8 around and knock off some noughts – see? But the story is not the neat juxtaposition; not even, as some seem to have inferred, that the Bale transfer is directly responsible for Kettering’s plight. The story is the great lie that wealth trickles down, that there is a national game that is linked from top to bottom. But telling that doesn’t provide the buzz that the big brands and the big names and the big deals do – and anyway, my £40m midfielder is bigger than your £40m midfielder. And so’s his dad. So there. Ya wanker.

There are, of course, many fans who take a more considered view. My writing colleague Adam Powley’s piece for fan site The Fighting Cock is a terrific read – an insightful and considered take that knocks much of the mainstream media bluster into a cockerelled hat. And there’s plenty out there, in the independent football media and in corners of the mainstream too, that probes and questions. 

It’s easy to conclude that too many care too much about something too inconsequential – transfer window madness as a symbol of the final debauched days of a crumbling empire is too easy an angle to pass up. But it’s not the caring that’s the problem – it’s the embrace of not caring we should worry about. 

Yesterday, one of the blokes I sit with at Spurs, who I’ve known since college and followed the club all over Europe with, said to me: “Forget what you were brought up with – the game is not about glory, it’s about hard-nosed capitalism. No one except old romantics actually cares about trophies or history or team. It’s all about the kerching kerching.” He’s not a former fan, he’s still got his season ticket. 

I do not understand what he thinks the attraction is. 

On this site, I’ve said that “as the lines between sport and business become ever more blurred, sport risks losing the qualities that make it attractive to business”. Maybe I just want to think that. Maybe the mass spectator sport of the modern age will be the watching of the wheels of commerce as they crush the soul and spirit of everything they touch.

Maybe we have all gone completely out of our minds.

Martin Cloake’s new ebook, Sound of the crowd: Spurs fan culture and the fight for future football, is now out, priced £2.99.

Gareth Bale's new shirt is hung in Real Madrid's store. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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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?