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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle