Balls sharpens his axe: where Labour would cut in 2015

Free schools, Police and Crime Commissioners, Titan prisons and army admirals are targeted for cuts.

There were two main aims of Ed Balls's speech on the economy today. The first was to reassure voters that while continuing to support stimulus now, Labour would pursue fiscal responsibility in office. While refusing to play George Osborne's game by saying whether he would stick to the coalition's 2015-16 spending plans ("when we do not know the economic circumstances two months ahead, let alone two years"), he emphasised that, before the election, Labour would adopt its own fiscal rules to eliminate the current deficit and reduce the national debt as share of GDP. Balls also signalled that, with growth finally returning, he would soon abandon his expensive pledge to introduce a temporary VAT cut (which Ed Miliband had such trouble defending in his infamous World At One interview) in favour of long-term capital investment. He said: 

Today, with growth prospects still very uncertain and interest rates too low to be of use, a temporary VAT cut now is still the right prescription before extra capital spending can come on stream – although any immediate tax cut which helps middle and lower income families is better than nothing. 

But over the coming year if, as we all hope, some kind of recovery does take hold, then the balance of advantage will shift from temporary tax cuts to long-term capital investment.

The second aim was to begin the task of forcing the left to accept that not only will Labour be unable to reverse most of the cuts imposed by the coalition, it will have to make its own. As Balls pointedly noted, "The next Labour government will have to plan on the basis of falling departmental spending."

The announcement that Labour would remove the winter fuel allowance from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners is pretty small beer. While Ed Miliband's abandonment of universalism is politically significant (it opens the door to further benefit cuts), the move will save just £100m a year (less than half a per cent of the £207bn welfare bill), meaning that it barely qualifies as a rounding error. But Balls went on to outline, in greater detail than before, other, larger cuts and efficiency savings that a Labour government would seek to make. Since the shadow chancellor wants to give himself maximum flexibility in 2015, they were proposed in the form of questions (as was the winter fuel allowance cut) but, for now, they are the best guide we have to where Balls's axe would fall. Here's my summary:

- Not opening new free schools in areas with excess places. Balls derided "vanity schools projects" and suggested that Labour would not open new free schools in areas with a surplus of secondary school places. ("With primary school places in short supply in many parts of the country, and parents struggling to get their children into a local school, can it really be a priority to open more free schools in 2015 and 2016 in areas with excess secondary school places?")

- Scrapping Police and Crime Commissioners. ("When we are losing thousands of police officers and police staff, how have we ended up spending more on police commissioners than the old police authorities, with more elections currently timetabled for 2016?")

- Cancelling the new 2,000-place "Titan" prison recently proposed by Chris Grayling. ("Has the Ministry of Justice properly made the case for a major new 'Titan' prison, at a time when the prison population is falling?")

- Abolishing High Speed Two Limited, the company developing the new rail network. Balls suggested that this role could be performed more effectively by Network Rail ("Should we be spending millions on a separate company to deliver High Speed 2 when we already have Network Rail, which after all is responsible for rail infrastructure?")

- Cutting the number of army officers and admirals. ("Do we need more admirals than ships and more officers in our forces than our international counterparts at a time when frontline armed forces are under pressure?")

- Merging the four separate government motorist agencies. ("Do we really need four separate government agencies delivering services to motorists?")

- Combining management functions. in government departments, agencies, fire services and police forces. ("Does it really make sense to have separate costly management and bureaucracy for so many separate government departments, agencies, fire services and police forces - the same number as when this Government came into office - all with separate leadership structures and separate specialist teams?")

- Requiring industries to contribute more to the cost of regulation. ("Should industries pay a greater share of the costs of their regulators?")

The aim of these cuts and savings will be to free up funds for Labour's priorities (which Balls promised a "relentless focus" on): employment, housing, childcare, the NHS and social care. Based on his speech today, it is likely that Labour will go into the election promising to spend more than Tories in areas such as infrastructure (borrowing to invest), while giving itself the political cover to do so by adopting new fiscal rules, independently monitored by the OBR, and promising to control welfare spending (Miliband will announce his support for a cap on structural benefits, such as housing benefit, in his speech on welfare on Thursday). The defining political question is whether this will be enough to reassure a sceptical electorate, less than a third of whom believe Labour can be trusted to manage the nation's public finances, that it wouldn't "crash the car" all over again.

Ed Balls emphasised that Labour would have to plan "on the basis of falling departmental spending". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is 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?