John Cridland's assault on Miliband completes the CBI's divorce from reality

The CBI head presents the Labour leader's plans as dangerous Bolshevism. But in an age of market failure, most businesses won't agree with him.

"[It] raised the hairs on the back of my neck". That was the reaction of CBI head John Cridland to Ed Miliband's conference speech. What could have inspired such terror? In an interview in today's Times, Cridland cites "price controls, wage controls, land controls, increased corporation tax" and Miliband's alleged contempt for "large companies" as evidence of his nefarious socialism. "It’s the aggregation of those five. It has caused business to scratch their heads...It’s quite a philosophical speech, and a shift to the left," he says. 

But look beyond the rhetoric, and Cridland's intervention is more revealing of the CBI's conservatism than it is of Miliband's radicalism. His attack on "wage controls", for instance, is a reference to Miliband's pledge to examine the possibility of increasing the minimum wage in sectors such as finance, construction and computing. At present, with the minimum wage now worth no more than it was in 2004 (after being continually eroded by inflation) and with 4.8 million workers paid less than the living wage, it is the taxpayer that is forced to pick up the bill in the form of tax credits and other in-work benefits. Why should making those businesses that can afford to pay their staff more do so, be considered dangerous leftism? Were Cridland a more enlightened figure, he might have noted that those companies who pay their employees the living wage of £7.45 an hour (£8.55 in London) report increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, improved morale and higher staff retention rates. 

And it's not only here that Cridland is engaged in crude political spin. On corporation tax, Miliband has modestly proposed increasing the main rate from 20% to 21% in order to fund a reduction in businesses rates for commercial premises with an annual rental value of £50,000 or less. This move would still leave the UK with the second-lowest corporate tax rate in the G20 (after the coalition reduced it from a starting level of 28% in 2010) and one well below the US's 39%, Japan's 38% and Germany's 30%. It was the Conservatives' Zac Goldsmith who quipped after Miliband's speech, "The CBI attacks Miliband's plans for small firms. That suggest he might be on to something."

As for the Labour leader's plan to force developers to "use or lose" their land, framed by Cridland as Bolshevik-style requisition, that enjoys the support of that well-known radical, Boris Johnson. As the mayor recently told the London Assembly: "To constrict supply to push up prices by land-banking is plainly against the economic interests of this city. I’m all in favour of using the powers where there are clear cases of land-banking, where people could go ahead with developments that would be massively to the benefit of this city."

While developers sit on vacant land and wait for its value to go up, thousands of houses with planning permission are left unbuilt. Figures published by the Local Government Association show that there are 400,000 homes with permission that have not developed, while in London, where demand is highest, there are 170,000, this at a time when housing starts have fallen to 98,280, less than half the number required to meet need (230,000). Is it really anti-business to want to ensure employees are able to live in the city where they work? 

On energy prices, Cridland argues, "I think we have to be honest and open with the public that bills are going to have to go up for households to make up for years of insufficient investment". He is certainly right about the need for greater investment, but why should families be penalised at a time of collapsing living standards?

As another famed socialist, John Major, observed at last week's Press Gallery lunch, "I do not regard it as acceptable that they have increased prices by this tremendous amount. Nor do I regard their explanation as acceptable, that they are investing for the future. With interest rates at their present level, it’s not beyond the wit of man to do what companies have done since the dawn of time and borrow for their investment rather than funding a large proportion of their investment out of the revenue of families whose wages have not been going up at a time when other costs have been rising".

One searches in vain in Miliband's speech for any evidence of his alleged loathing of all large companies, but when the head of the UK's biggest employers' group (albeit one that still represents just 5% of businesses) so casually dismisses reforms that would improve conditions for millions of workers and owners, it becomes clearer what the Labour leader meant when he first spoke of "the predators" and "the producers". 

CBI Director General John Cridland addresses the CBI Scotland annual dinner on September 6, 2012 in Glasgow. 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?