Full text: David Cameron's new year's message

"We are on the right track" he says. Are we?

David Cameron's new year's message (see video below) is unusually pugnacious: even his parting shot "so happy new year" sounds like he's banging a table whilst saying it. It's a broad defence of the government's actions this year, and their plan for the next - but hardly a proper one, as it fails to mention any of the highly publicised slip-ups comprising the omnishambles which was Cameron's 2012. Leveson, the series of U-turns (pastygate, petrol tax, caravans tax), Rebecca Brook's horse, are all ommited. Neither does he mention the EU, or Syria, or the rise of UKIP, or even Nick Clegg's autotuned apology for the rise in tuition fees.

He concentrates on defending the government's approach to the economy, pointing to increased employment and a £13bn fall in the deficit this year. He says "we are on the right track. On all the big issues that matter to Britain, we are heading in the right direction and I have the evidence to prove it."

But Labour vice chair Michael Dugher is not so sure. In response to the message he said:

"It's a case of more of the same from David Cameron. In his New Year message, Cameron talks of people who work hard in this country but he's the one hitting hard-working families on lower and middle incomes whilst cutting taxes for millionaires.

David Cameron stands for the old divide and rule Tory approach of the past - he can't be the One Nation Prime Minister Britain needs.

Cameron promised change but nothing is changing for the better. Britain's economy is failing under his policies over the last year, with nearly one million young people out of work. Prices are still going up faster than wages and borrowing is going up not down, over 7 per cent higher this year than last year. This Prime Minister is out of touch, he stands up for the wrong people and he's failing to deliver for working people."

Here's the full text from Cameron's speech today:

"2012 was an extraordinary year for our country. We celebrated our Queen with the Jubilee. And with the Olympics and Paralympics we showed beyond any doubt that Britain can deliver. It was a great year. But, if we are honest, it was a tough one too. We are still dealing with debts that built up over many years. And for many families, making ends meet is difficult. So to anyone starting this new year with questions about where we are heading and what the future holds, I want to reassure you of this: we are on the right track. On all the big issues that matter to Britain, we are heading in the right direction and I have the evidence to prove it.

This government inherited a huge budget deficit that was dragging our country down. Well, this New Year, that deficit is forecast to be £13bn smaller than last new year, down by one quarter since we came to office. We inherited a welfare system that was frankly out of shape, that paid people not to work. So we made some big changes, and this new year almost half a million more people are in work than last new year. That is real progress. We inherited an education system where too often mediocre was deemed good enough and discipline in many schools was slack. We said we need more discipline, tougher exams and more academies because those schools consistently get better results. Well, this new year we’ve got more than 1,000 academies open than last New Year. The numbers studying science and languages are going up. And teachers have more power over discipline than they’ve had for years.

This is, quite simply, a government in a hurry. And there’s a reason for that. Britain is in a global race to succeed today. It is race with countries like China, India and Indonesia; a race for the jobs and opportunities of the future. So when people say we can slow down on cutting our debts, we are saying no. We can’t win in this world with a great millstone of debt round our necks. When people say we’ve got to stop our welfare reforms because somehow it is cruel to expect people to work, we are saying no. Getting people into good jobs is absolutely vital, not just for them, but for all of us.

And when there is a fight on our hands to change our schools, we are ready and willing to have it because having a world-class education is the only way our children are going to get on in this world. And we know what we are doing all this for: not just to get our country up the rankings in some global league table but to get behind anyone who likes to work hard and get on in life. It’s for those people that we made changes to our tax system in 2012, cutting the income tax bills of 24 million workers. It is for them that we have frozen the council tax for three years in a row, to keep bills as low as we can. And we did the right thing by our pensioners too, in 2012, bringing in the biggest ever increase in the state pension.

This is what this government is about: making sure Britain succeeds in this global race and, above all, helping our people succeed, the people who work hard and aspire to a better life for their families. So this is my message to the country at the start of 2013. We can look to the future with realism and optimism. Realism, because you can’t cure problems, that were decades in the making, overnight. There are no quick fixes and I wouldn’t claim otherwise. But we can be optimistic too because we are making tangible progress. We are doing what’s right for our country and what’s best for our children’s future. And nothing could be more important than that. So happy new year and best wishes for 2013."

Cameron delivers an unusually pugnacious message. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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?