Sell: Cable, Umunna, IDS; Buy: sensible backbench Tories

The New Statesman’s political investment guide for 2013.

It has been a turbulent year for Westminster trading. Stock in pretty much everyone and everything has fallen. It’s bearish out there. The outlook for next year is hardly less gloomy. National reserves of trust are at an all-time low. Scarcity of imagination and competence will continue. The market is over-supplied with mediocrity.

Here we present the New Statesman’s political investment guide for 2013.

Hold

All three of the main party leaders Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron all look relatively secure in their positions. Miliband is unassailable as long as his party is leading opinion polls. Cameron will be undermined by rebellious backbenchers but will, true to past form, make sufficient concessions to ward off the threat of a credible challenge. The overwhelming majority of Tories recognise the absence of a ready alternative. The Liberal Democrats can hardly be satisfied with their position but a majority seem to accept that unpopularity is a necessary consequence of becoming a party of government and that Clegg, as the man who is leading them on that journey, deserves more time to make it work.

George Osborne and Ed Balls  Alike in more ways than either man likes to admit, neither is liked but both are proven operators with serious staying power.

Boris Johnson The London Mayor can’t advance up the political ladder any further until he is an MP and he can’t run for parliament before the next general election without it looking like the start of a leadership bid but with no vacancy – a very exposed position. So he has to bide his time. But too many disgruntled Tories find him useful as a theoretical foil to Cameron for his stock to fall yet.

Buy

Sensible backbench Tories The Conservative leadership will be desperate next year to push forward some moderate voices to counteract the high profile enjoyed by Anglo-Tea Party, Ukip-lite fanatics. Conservatives who sound reasonable and do a good impression of belonging to 21st Century Britain are bound to start cutting through a little bit more. Lesser-known moderate Tories, such as Damien Hinds, MP for East Hampshire, and Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West are worth a look.

Fiscally serious Labour people The premium on Labour MPs who actually think about practical policy responses at a time of austerity is sure to go up. Liz Kendall, shadow social care minister, has a realistic understanding of the fiscal challenge and a detailed grasp of a vital brief. Likwise, Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow and scourge of payday lenders. She combines a clear attack line on the rapacious end of immoral capitalism with a quiet commitment to budget discipline. And she doesn’t speak in tedious robotic jargon as pumped out by the party press office.

Chris Huhne? One for the bargain-hunters. There are reports – as yet unconfirmed – that charges of perverting the course of justice that finished the former Energy Secretary’s cabinet career might be dropped. That would open the way for a return to active politics. He’s far too unpopular among Tories and mistrusted by Clegg to get a front line job. But he has enough support in the party rank and file to start causing mischief and right now the price is at rock bottom.

Sell

Vince Cable The Business Secretary is seriously over-priced as a consequence of Labour and Tory people ramping up the idea of him replacing Clegg as Lib Dem leader, largely just to destabilise the third party. It won’t happen. Cable doesn’t have a big enough base among Lib Dem MPs and, in any case, he wouldn’t want to be the man to wield the knife against Clegg, knowing that doing so would diminish his chances of wearing the crown. The Cable leadership talk is a bubble.

Chuka Umunna Shares in Cable’s opposite number on the Labour front bench, Chuka Umunna, have also been trading high for most of 2012. Umunna is talked up as a potential leader of his party one day. He looks and sounds good on television; he has avoided being associated too strongly with any wing of the party. But his rapid elevation through the ranks and high profile have made him a figure of envy and irritation on his own side. Questions are also starting to be asked about the rigour and depth of his economic analysis. As shadow business secretary he should be the face of Miliband’s quest for more responsible capitalism, which means leading an economic operation of sufficient gravitas to rival the more reactionary story coming out of the shadow chancellor’s office. Is Umunna heavyweight enough to counter-balance Ed Balls? Doubtful.

Andrew Mitchell On the Tory side there has been a sudden rally in Andrew Mitchell’s stock, following revelations that cast doubt on the police version of events in the “plebgate” story that finished his career as International Development Secretary. Westminster has been piling into Mitchells on the assumption that he can now return to front line politics. I’m not so sure. He didn’t resign exclusively because of what he was alleged to have said but because so few Tories felt like defending him and plenty were gleefully putting the boot in. The angry temperament that got him into trouble in the first place has plainly left a long trail of resentment that will not be forgotten quickly. This is not a man who can easily slot back into government where he left off. His current rehabilitation is a dead-cat bounce.

Iain Duncan-Smith The Work and Pensions Secretary is feted as a pioneer of “compassionate” Conservatism. Few question his moral determination to make welfare reform a mechanism to rehabilitate poor communities by helping those on benefits back into work. Sadly, that ambition is being undone by cuts inflicted by the Chancellor and by general lack of competence at every level in DWP. 2013 is the year flagship welfare reforms run aground.

Then of course there’s the alternative investment market. George Galloway’s price surely peaked in Bradford in 2012. His ambition is plainly to use Respect as the vehicle for a hard left personality cult built around him. His personality isn't attractive enough to make that work at a national level. On the right, Ukip will continue to make angry mischief up until at least 2014 elections to the European parliament. It could be worth dabbling in Farages now, but switch to safer Tory stocks before the general election.

General warning: the New Statesman is not responsible for views formed on the basis of this advice. Remember, politicians’ reputations can even further down as well as just down.

Vince Cable: "the Business Secretary is seriously over-priced". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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?