Leader: The wrong kind of economic recovery

Even the most depressed economies eventually recover. The return of growth in the UK, after three years of stagnation under the coalition government, is merely a reflection of this truth. With GDP still at 2.5 per cent below its pre-recession peak, in 2007, the economy has yet to make up the lost output from the crisis. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus by cutting taxes and increasing infrastructure spending, the economy is now 5.2 per cent larger. But after convincing much of the public that the post-2010 downturn was inevitable, George Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations.

According to the Chancellor’s account, the surge in growth is a vindication of his decision to pursue austerity after entering office. This claim is faithfully echoed by a media that loudly endorsed his deficit reduction programme in 2010. Not only does this narrative ignore the tardiness of the recovery – the slowest for more than 100 years – it also obscures the sources of the growth we are now experiencing. It is not austerity but its reverse that explains the upturn.

To the extraordinary monetary stimulus provided by the Bank of England, in the form of quantitative easing and record-low interest rates, have been added large-scale state interventions such as Help to Buy. After imposing damaging policies such as the VAT rise and the dramatic reduction in infrastructure spending in 2010, Mr Osborne has also eased the pace of austerity. Rather than sticking to his original deficit reduction timetable, the Chancellor allowed borrowing to rise and extended his programme from four years to seven. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the deficit is still expected to be at least £100bn this year, £40bn more than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2010.

When he entered office in 2010, Mr Osborne pledged to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on property and debt-financed consumer spending, cynically fostered by Labour, and towards investment and exports. But growth is again being driven by the former. Exports fell by 2.4 per cent in the most recent quarter, despite the continuing weakness of the pound, while business investment remains 6.3 per cent below its 2012 level. With wage growth (0.8 per cent) still lagging behind inflation (2.2 per cent), the recovery is being built on consumer credit and rising house prices. Like Gordon Brown before him, Mr Osborne has found the attractions of debt-driven growth impossible to resist. If the economy is not to become permanently reliant on ultra-low interest rates, he must act now to promote both public and private investment. Rather than risking the creation of another property bubble through Help to Buy, he should concentrate on increasing the supply and the affordability of housing.

A programme of the kind pursued by Harold Macmillan as housing minister in the early 1950s, when 300,000 homes a year were built, would stimulate growth (for every £100 invested in housebuilding, £350 is generated in return), create employment and reduce welfare spending. As some MPs in his own party have suggested, the Chancellor should also offer incentives to firms to pay the living wage in order to reduce consumers’ reliance on borrowing to maintain their living standards.

At present, GDP is rising but living standards are not. The north-south divide in England is widening, rather than narrowing. Meanwhile, household savings are falling at their fastest rate for 40 years. The economic cycle may finally have turned but the structural conditions for a repeat of the crash remain firmly in place.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England. Photo: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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