Danny Alexander confirms: the student loan book will be privatised

Off the book borrowing of the worst kind.

Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has confirmed that the Government will be privatising student loans as part of a plan to raise £15bn from sales of public assets, in order to boost investment.

Speaking to the Commons today, he said:

We will take action to sell off £15 billion worth of public assets by 2020.

£10billion of that money will come from corporate and financial assets like the student loan book.

And the other £5 billion will come from land and property.

Mr Speaker, government is the custodian of the taxpayers’ assets.

When we no longer need them, we should sell them back at a fair price – not act like a compulsive hoarder.

The sale is not expected to be finalised until 2015, two years later than originally planned.

In order to get a decent amount for the loan book, the government is expected to offer sweeteners to whoever purchases it. The most extreme of these would be the proposal, revealed earlier this month, to lift the cap on interest paid by people who took out loans between 1998 and 2012.

That change would increase the revenue for whoever owned the loan book in 20 to 30 years time, because people who would otherwise have paid their loans off will still owe money. But it won't do anything for the government's balance sheet today – unless the government sells the book to a private company for a lump sum, which is exactly what it plans to do.

Another sweetener proposed has been what is called a "synthetic hedge". That would involve artificially replicating the change, by promising whoever buys the student loans that they will be paid the difference between the actual cash flow and the estimated cash flow which would have been received without the cap. It's fairer – because it spreads the cost throughout all taxpayers, rather than lumping it on young graduates – but it's also far more cowardly. Crucially, because the government would't have to pay any extra cash flow now, it won't have to work out where that extra revenue comes from. That's a difficulty it gets to offload onto a future government.

Whatever happens, a sweetener of sorts will have to be offered. Student loans are a classic example of an asset which is worth far more to the government than any private entity: a revenue stream spread over decades, with a high degree of variability in the value of the repayments.

For an organisation, like the UK state, which can borrow at record-low interest rates for decades on end, selling it off at a discount to secure a cash lump sum now is terrible financial management. It is as though they had decided borrowing to invest was a good thing, but they'd rather pay higher interest rates than they have to in order to keep it off the books. Surely not…

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.