The coalition risks following the wrong path on childcare reform

Global experience shows that increasing subsidies to parents, rather than investing in services directly, is a costly and ineffective approach.

As part of next week’s Budget, the Chancellor is expected to announce reforms to the funding of childcare. While action on childcare is welcome, it is likely the changes will see a greater proportion of childcare funding flowing via parents to purchase childcare, rather than invested in services free at the point of use. The experience of other countries with a similar market-led system is that rather than leading to cheaper care, pumping more money into the market via parents leads to greater cost inflation, with little change in affordability. If the government really wants to go big on childcare, it should invest more money in services, rather than benefits.

What is going to be announced? Since the 're-launch' of the coalition in January, there have been numerous hints in the media. Despite widely-reported disagreement between the coalition partners, it appears the government has settled on offering greater funding to better-off parents via some kind of tax relief, combined with additional money tied to Universal Credit for poorer families. Beyond the previously-announced extension of the free Early Years Entitlement to the 40 per cent of poorest two-year olds, there is little sign that the coalition is looking to expand the free offer, preferring instead to give money to parents.

While it is good that the government is looking at greater childcare funding, we have to ask whether this is the best use of extremely scarce resources. The coalition hopes that putting more money in the hands of parents will lead to greater purchasing power in the market for childcare, with increased competition and innovation among providers acting to keep prices low and stable. But will this actually be the case?

In order to answer that question, we should look to the country that has been most committed to this style of funding. Australia enacted wide-reaching reforms to childcare over the last two decades, combining a mixture of de-regulation and increases in childcare benefits, whilst at the same time effectively shutting off direct funding to childcare providers.

What happened to prices? The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects robust inflation data on the cost of childcare. Looking at how prices evolved before and after the reforms provides a stark picture of the dangers attached to the changes being considered here in the UK.

In the ten years before the 1997 reforms, the price of childcare rose on average by 5.2 per cent a year, around a fifth higher than the general rate of inflation. But in the decade after 1997 relative cost inflation rocketed, with childcare prices rising by 7.2 per cent annually, more than two and a half times wider inflation. In 2008, rather than reverse course, the Australian government doubled down on their inflationary approach, increasing the value of the tax rebate offered to families. If anything it appears this worsened childcare costs – In the year to March 2012 prices rose by almost 10 per cent.

What is it about childcare that leads to this outcome? Why doesn’t parental purchasing power manage to keep costs low? Simply put, the market for childcare does not function like most competitive markets. It is inherently localised, risky for those looking to set up a business and vulnerable to severe cost pressures from staff outlays and rent inflation. Like many other public goods, it is better to let the state pool these risks and offer long-term and sustainable funding to keep costs low, rather than leave it to the market.

Will this experience be repeated here in the UK? All the signs are that the UK, which already has internationally high childcare prices, is set for further inflationary pressure. The sector in general is unprofitable, with a quarter of childminders operating at a loss last year, meaning prices may need to rise just to keep many businesses afloat. And surveys of the UK market suggest that the qualifications profile of staff in the sector has risen in recent years, but with little change in real wages. Having a higher-skilled workforce in the sector is welcome, but is likely to exert cost pressures in the near-term. All this will be compounded by the changes that will be made next week.

Throwing more money into a system that is struggling to stay afloat, as the coalition is planning to do, may look good on paper, but without controls on prices there is a real risk that the instant benefit families feel after next weeks changes will soon be eroded by price rises. Providers will see their existing set of users have a greater ability to pay, and, because of the difficulty of turning a profit in the sector, will understandably look to raise prices. Far from being a gold rush for the sector, these changes are more likely to re-enforce the status quo. At a time when there is little money around, this risks being a highly wasteful use of public resources.

What the childcare sector and parents really needs is higher and more sustainable funding for providers, with a greater number of hours offered free or at low cost to parents. It would be wrong to claim this comes cheap. Indeed, countries that have followed such a route, like Denmark and Sweden, tend to spend a larger proportion of GDP on childcare and early years provision. But by controlling the cost to parents directly, and offering a longer-term and more predictable source of funding to providers, there are real efficiency gains to be made under such a system.

All three main political parties realise the importance of childcare, and accept there is a role for the public sector in making it affordable. This is welcome. But how we go about funding childcare, either via parents or through providers and price controls, needs to be rigorously debated. We currently have a mixed system in the UK, with some free places through the Early Years Entitlement and some subsidies via the benefits system. It appears the coalition favours the latter. It is important that we realise the dangers of such an approach, and look towards a much more sustainable future for UK childcare.

David Cameron is pictured during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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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?