Ex-MPC member: Britain has an investment crisis, not a debt crisis

Adam Posen hits out at governmental "misinterpretation" of the economy.

Former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Adam Posen has a post up at Jonathan Portes' Not the Treasury View… where he lays out what, precisely, is screwed up about the UK economy. The whole piece is at Portes' blog, but here's the bullet point version, in Posen's words:

  • The British economy is lacking productive investment, but not for want of investment opportunities. Banks and large corporations are sitting on cash, households are holding back on large purchases (including of housing), and the public sector is slashing its investment flow.
  • The current British coalition government’s economic policy program, however, is intended to address a lack of savings, not of investment.
  • This false assumption feeds back into further arguments for fiscal and household consolidation. The UK public and private sectors are paying down debt less quickly than expected to, and that means by assumption that their future ability to pay down debt is declining, so they must cut back spending and borrowing even more today to remain solvent.
  • The facts of recent experience, including of the recession, do not fit with [the misinterpretation that debt is the problem], but do fit with the view that investment failings are at work in the British economy.
  • So should the British government just go on a spending binge instead? No, clearly not. Even though there is legitimately little fear about UK government finances at present, with the large deficits largely driven by slow growth pushing down tax revenues and up benefits spending, there is nothing to be gained by making those fears more realistic.

Posen's full piece has a long list of examples backing up his reading of the economic situation versus the Chancellor's, which is worth reading if you have the time.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.