The Times' bizarre economics

Straight outta 2010.

The Times has an economics leader (£) today calling for the cutting of public spending to continue. It's a remarkably sloppy piece, straight out of the 2010 election campaign, and ignoring everything we have learned in the two and a half years since then.

The piece starts by pointing out that the Chancellor will have failed to cut debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of this parliament, something he initially staked his reputation on. It then, accurately, points out the the principal risks to Britain's economic health come from anaemic growth, not a collapse of "confidence".

The leader then runs through the failure, even after the third-quarter growth, of anything resembling the recovery, and comes tot he relatively sensible conclusion that Osborne ought to delay his fiscal targets.

Then it all goes off the rails:

The IMF has argued that increased borrowing should be tolerated rather than tackled with tax rises or further spending cuts. That does not mean that the Government has been wrong to seek a rapid reduction in the budget deficit. Cutting spending does not simply take demand out of the economy. It reduces sovereign risk and the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing. As sterling is not a reserve currency, maintaining fiscal credibility is an especially important task in economic management.

The low market interest rates that the UK needs to pay should be counted a success. They are a precondition of recovery.

Where to start. Cutting spending reduces sovereign risk? Are we still having this conversation? The UK controls its own currency, and exclusively issues bonds denominated in that currency. Sovereign risk is infinitesimal. We cannot go bust like Greece; we cannot default like Argentina. The worst thing that Britain could do is attempt to inflate its way out of debt; but that hasn't happened, and isn't going to happen, because spending is manageable, inflation is low, and interest rates are lower.

The leader also claims that cutting spending lowers "the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing". Which is again nonsense. As I wrote just two weeks ago, when Conservative MP Jesse Norman launched a bizarre attack on NIESR's Jonathan Portes:

Sovereign debt yields can be low either because investors think there is little chance of the nation going bankrupt, or because there is scant competition from other potential investments pushing up the yield. Since the crash, the chance of Britain defaulting hasn't changed from basically-zero, but the growth rate – and thus the average return on investment from putting your money in the "real" economy – has plummeted.

The status of Sterling as a reserve currency is also weird, inaccurate and slightly irrelevant. Sterling is a reserve currency – it is the world's third most held, after the euro and dollar. It is no longer the reserve currency, true – the dollar took that title after World War II – but that also has little to do with the importance of fiscal credibility.

And while the low market interest rates the UK needs to pay are helpful, they should not be considered a success. If anything, they are a sign of Osborne's economic failure. If the market truly expected a recovery, the first thing that would happen is interest rates would rise, as investors finally priced in the fact that they could expect real returns if they put their money elsewhere in the economy. As it is, returns on investment in government bonds remain close to zero, as investors flee to a safe haven.

Osborne needs, first and foremost, a plan to end this depression. Cutting spending acts against that goal. Market interest rates, and the risk of sovereign defaults, are irrelevancies to that question.

Money. 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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.