Planning for a rainy day: why Britain needs a financial stability fund

We've got to try and prevent the next crisis – but also plan for what happens if we don't, writes Victoria Barr

Even with robust reform of financial sector regulation, it would be a mistake to think that a financial crisis could never happen again. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now observe a long trend in political economy in which the lessons of the 1930s were forgotten over time: depression-era restrictions separating investment from retail banking were eroded in the US, while in the UK, a "light-touch" approach to financial sector regulation was pursued by both Labour and Conservative governments.

Over time, new cohorts of personnel will staff central banks. They will have learned about the recent crisis from textbooks rather than personal experience, and will be influenced by new intellectual agendas. Within the financial sector, a new generation of bankers will emerge, confident about the merits of their financial innovation and impatient with the fussiness of their compliance departments. Finally, future politicians, mindful of the importance of the City to British economic performance, may be swayed by persuasive arguments to relax capital adequacy requirements; to allow economies of scale to be exploited from the greater fusion of retail and investment banking; or to celebrate a merger which turns a national champion into an international behemoth, ignoring that the bank may have become too big for one sovereign to bail out alone. These processes are not inevitable, but they are not impossible to imagine over, say, the next seventy years.

The concern that the financial crisis may reoccur lies behind many of the current regulatory reforms. However, the risk of reoccurrence also has implications for the management of the public finances. If financial fragility builds up, unnoticed or ignored, during stable economic periods, then it is possible that economic and fiscal forecasts could be out by a wide margin. The Treasury’s public finance forecasts and decision-making on levels of taxation and spending before 2008 were based on the expectation that the UK economy would continue to grow at around 2.5 per cent per year. This expectation was very much in line with the consensus view among independent forecasters at the time. However, the latest estimate of what the UK’s average annual growth rate will end up being between 2007/08 and 2016/17 is less than half that, at 1.2 per cent.

The UK was hit particularly hard by the financial crisis, partly because it has a large financial services industry relative to the size of the economy. The City is a source of great economic strength for Britain, a sector in which we excel internationally and which, in good times, provides a healthy stream of revenue for the Exchequer. However, as recent events have clearly demonstrated, it also brings with it fragility and risk. In this regard, it shares some of the characteristics of the so-called "natural resource curse", where the discovery of natural resources, like oil, brings great wealth to a country, but also fiscal volatility and other undesirable side effects.

Many countries have attempted to avoid the natural resource curse through the introduction of revenue stabilisation funds, which aim to smooth income over time and insulate the rest of the economy from the impact of natural resources exploitation. In fact, countries have also introduced similar "accounts", sometimes called sovereign wealth funds, to achieve a range of other objectives: to meet certain fiscal targets; to save to meet long-term obligations; and to anticipate the costs of future financial crises.

Such an approach has attractive properties for the UK. The government should establish a Financial Services Revenue Stabilisation Account, or "rainy day fund", which could only be accessed in the event of a serious financial crisis. In addition to supporting measures to maintain stability in the banking sector, the funds in the account could also be used to counteract the negative impact of a financial crisis on the wider economy (such as measures to boost aggregate demand (e.g. tax cuts) or to avoid cuts to public services).

The planned size of the fund should be subject to further analysis. As the fund is only intended for use in serious financial crises, it should be possible to allow the fund to build up over time. The monies in the fund should be invested conservatively in counter-cyclical and liquid assets, able to withstand the asset price volatility which accompanies financial crises and which can be accessed quickly without the liquidation of the fund itself causing market turmoil.

The fund is intended to improve the management of tax revenues in a country with a large financial sector. However, for simplicity, payments into the account need not be explicitly hypothecated from particular revenues from the financial services sector, although this would be the spirit of the fund. We do not recommend an additional levy to pay for contributions to the fund.

The disadvantage of a Stabilisation Account is the opportunity cost of locking tax revenues away. The funds invested in the account could otherwise be used for different purposes, such as investment, reducing taxes or paying down the national debt. These are not trivial concerns.  However, the contingency function of the fund, and the capability to respond to a serious crisis that it would give a future government, are sufficiently important to warrant foregoing other expenditure in the short term. 

At the current time, we remain in the middle of an economic crisis, and the government’s priority must be to jump start the economy out of the current slump. Payments into the Stabilisation Account should therefore not commence until the economy is growing strongly again.

In addition to regulatory reform to reduce the likelihood of a financial crisis occurring again, Labour should acknowledge that crises are difficult to predict and economic forecasting prone to error. A ‘rainy day fund’ would ensure that any future government is better placed to take action during a crisis and signal the Labour party’s commitment to securing Britain’s long-term economic stability.

A Rainy Day Fund: Why Britain needs a financial sector revenue stabilisation fund is published today by the Fabian Society – click here to read the full publication.

Photograph: Getty Images

Victoria Barr is an economist at FTI Consulting. She has previously worked at Frontier Economics, the World Bank and as the Economy and Welfare Policy Of?cer at the Labour party during the 2010 general election.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder