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.

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Have voters turned against globalisation? It depends how you describe it

Brits are more positive about diversity than Sweden. 

New research shows that citizens across Europe are pessimistic about the future, distrustful of government and other political institutions, ambivalent at best about multiculturalism, and increasingly sceptical about the role of the European Union.

We wanted to understand the extent to which Europe’s citizens favour a "closed" rather than an "open" outlook and perspective on politics, economics and society. Making globalisation work for ordinary people in the developed world is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. Globalisation’s popularity and political viability is both a pre-condition and a consequence of making it work, but mainstream politicians seem to be failing to persuade us to embrace it, to the detriment of democratic institutions and norms, as well as their own careers.

The decision of the British people to leave the European Union has been perceived as yet another step back from globalisation and a rejection of an "open" outlook that favours international co-operation in favour of a more closed, inward-looking national debate.

There’s certainly a strong element of truth in this explanation. The referendum campaign was deeply divisive, with the Leave campaign playing heavily on concerns over immigration, refugees and EU enlargement. As a consequence, the "liberal" Leavers – those who wanted to leave but favoured a continuing a close economic relationship with the EU along with free movement of labour – appear to have been side-lined within the Conservative party.

Our results are by no means uplifting, but it’s not all doom and gloom. While there’s no doubt that opposition to certain features and consequences of globalisation played an important role in driving the Leave vote, Brits as a whole are just as open, outward-looking and liberal-minded, if not more so, than many of our European neighbours.

First, we asked respondents in all six countries the following:

“Over recent decades the world has become more interconnected. There is greater free trade between countries and easier communication across the globe. Money, people, cultures, jobs and industries all move more easily between countries

“Generally speaking, do you think this has had a positive or negative effect?”

Respondents were asked to consider the effects at four levels: Europe as a whole, their country, their local area, and their own life.

Overall, British voters are overwhelmingly positive about globalisation when described in this way - 58 per cent think it has benefited Europe and 59 per cent think it has benefited Britain. More than half (52 per cent) think it has benefited their local area, and 55 per cent think it has benefited their own life.

One might respond that this question skates over questions of immigration and multiculturalism somewhat, which are the most controversial features of globalisation in the UK. Therefore, we asked whether respondents thought that society becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse had changed it for the better or for the worse.

Overall, 41 per cent said that ethnic and religious diversity had changed British society for the better, while 32 per cent said it had changed for the worse. That’s a net response of +9, compared to -25 in France, -13 in Germany, and -17 in Poland. Brits are even more positive about ethnic and religious diversity than Sweden (+7) – only Spanish respondents were more positive (+27).

There’s a long way to go before ordinary people across the developed world embrace globalisation and international cooperation. Despite the apparent setback of Brexit, the UK is well-placed politically to take full advantage of the opportunities our increasingly inter-connected world will present us with. It would be a mistake to assume, in the wake of the referendum, that the British public want to turn inwards, to close themselves off from the rest of the world. We’re an open, tolerant and outward-looking society, and we should make the most of it.

Charlie Cadywould is a Researcher in the Citizenship Programme at the cross-party think tank Demos. His writing has been published in peer-reviewed journals as well as the national media.