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.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR