Uncertainty in the BRICS

The nature of today's economy is uncertainty, and nowhere is that more true than in developing nations.

In the third of these linked blog posts, we return to the general theme of "The Great Uncertainty" to explore the consequences of the shift in the balance of economic power that many discern, broadly from ‘West’ to ‘East’. The issues, we suggest, are rather more complex and involved than we are typically led to believe in popular accounts couched in terms of ‘rising powers’ and the challenge of the BRICS economies.

So where to start? Well, what is clear to us is that there is indeed a shift taking place in the balance of global economic power. That, at least, we can agree on. There is no need, we feel, to fill this post with figures because the broad picture is pretty well established. Indeed, it is captured, after a fashion, in those speculative pieces that we have all read about exactly when China will overtake the US as the largest economy in the world (although this, too, is more complicated a calculation than is often recognised).

The essential point, though, is that the combination of longish periods of (very) fast economic growth in some countries with slow growth, stagnation and recession in others cannot but alter the respective weights of different countries (and by extension regions) within the global economy. It is from that core shift that all the other features that are so much discussed – different patterns of FDI, aid, trade, bond purchases and the like – emanate.

However, the analytical problem is that economic power does not translate easily or automatically into political power. Or, to put it a little differently in what has been a common theme of ours, economics is not political economy. Economic power can be measured statistically by reference to GDP, proportion of world trade, level and direction of financial flows, and so on. Political power cannot. It has instead to be pondered and probed.

What do we find when we do this? Let’s start with China. In a simple sense it is the most obvious candidate to replace the US as the hegemon of the global political economy. But, for all its fast and continuing economic growth, it is in fact beset by a host of problems generated by its particular experience of late industrialisation and single-party politics. These include: a core imbalance in its economy between investment and consumption, considerable ongoing financial instability, deep social inequalities and tensions, and the confusion about intentions inevitably generated by its opaque and increasingly corrupt state structure. And this is not even to mention the big, looming issue of being pressured to move at some point in a democratic direction.

The reality is that, for all the talk a while ago of an emerging "Beijing Consensus", China has yet to produce a style of capitalism that is globally attractive.

Let’s move on to think about India, Brazil and other ‘rising powers’. Here, once more, the political picture is much less sharply defined than the economic one. In global terms India still lives mostly within itself. It has a very strong historical sense of the uniqueness of its continental civilisation and seems content for the moment to deploy an assertively ‘Southern’ rhetoric amidst broad acquiescence in a US-centred world order.

Brazil is best seen politically as the major regional power of South America. Given its location and history, it is always alert to the possibility of overbearing behaviour by the US and is ready to be stroppy if necessary. But it has yet to set out a coherent and convincing account of the global role that it might like to play in the future.

We could at this point go further on down a list to discuss Russia, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, even Turkey. But we already know that we are referring here to countries that have a power and a presence in global politics, without yet constituting major players when it comes to shaping policy outcomes in the UN, the IMF, the WTO or any other global, as opposed to regional or ‘Southern’, institution.

In a very interesting recent article, the veteran Indian political scientist, Achin Vanaik, has argued that what is emerging is a ‘new pentarchy’, consisting of the US, the EU, Russia, China and India. Others don’t quite make the grade. In his view, such a pentarchy will not be formalised like the G8 and G20. Nor will it be a concert of equals or near-equals, but rather a hub-and-spokes arrangement with the US at the centre and the others at the circumference.

Vanaik advances this proposition on the basis of an attempt to integrate economic and political power into his thinking. All his five entities have sufficient demographic, economic and military weight to qualify, as it were, but only the US has the soft – or ideological – power to ‘project a social-political-cultural model that is potentially generalisable’. He asks tellingly: ‘How many states and their ruling and middle classes want to become more and more like Russia, China or India rather than like the USA?’ What about the EU in this context? It is dismissed in a single brutal phrase: ‘The EU by its very nature cannot be a single unified aspirational model’.

Now, this is but one recent piece of political analysis. It’s quite persuasive in its way, but things almost certainly won’t work out in quite the manner that Vanaik suggests, and that is really the key point. Political economy analysis is contentious stuff. We don’t ever stand on especially firm ground. We make judgements, and then see how events unfold, adjusting our thinking as we go. Economic power in the world is shifting, but we can’t be certain quite what that will mean politically over the next few years and that just reinforces the sense of the uncertainty of the times in which we live.

This is the third in a five-post series on the "Great Uncertainty".

Professors Colin Hay and Tony Payne are Directors of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?