Cameron and Osborne are benefiting after three years of a crippled economy. Photo: Getty.
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Will the economy hand Tories the election?

The recovery may be feeble, but voters are rewarding the Tories as GDP rises – and the 'cost-of-living' is half the issue it was in 2011.

What issues will decide next year’s general election? For the major parties, the challenge is making their issues the topic of national debate.

For the Tories that means focusing on the economy, immigration and crime.

For Labour, it means steering every news agenda towards health, education and housing.

The Tories are the more trusted stewards. Voters back them to safeguard our finances, control our borders and police the streets – despite three years of sluggish growth, uncurbed immigration levels and cuts in police numbers.

Nevertheless, they are far more trusted on each of those issues than Labour. But, if the Tories are trusted to apportion the money, voters would prefer Ed Miliband’s party spend it.

This reflects a trend across developed democracies. Voters want Scandinavian levels of spending but want to pay Texan-level taxes. They want left-wing parties when asked about their public services but right-wing ones when asked about actually managing the economy or country.

That is what makes Ed Balls’ speech today on taxes and wages interesting. While Labour are reportedly going to focus on the NHS over the summer, Balls is showing how Labour will challenge the economic recovery being trumpeted by the Coalition.

Balls is doing this even though the government’s economic approval rating has dramatically recovered in the past year, buoyed by near 4 per cent growth.

This is despite only a few voters thinking the economy is on the way to recovery. But more voters think the UK is at least now showing signs of it – which most didn’t in 2013.

And in welcome news for the country, if bad news for Labour, the number of voters feeling the cost-of-living crisis has halved in the past three years.

In October 2011, 49 per cent of people were worried they wouldn’t have enough money to live comfortably. Now 25 per cent are.

This is slightly at odds with what has happened to real wages over the past four years. As George Eaton noted today, “Labour will still be able to go into the general election and answer Ronald Reagan’s question – “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” – in the negative”.

That is because inflation has outstripped people’s wages throughout this parliament.

But this appears to have little effect on the government’s economic approval ratings.

Headline GDP appears to be the only statistic that matters. At first glance there is little link between GDP and economic approval.

But, by using a three-month rolling average of GDP, we can uncover a relationship. 

The data implies that if GDP growth were 0 per cent, the government's economic approval would be -30 per cent. But for every 1 per cent of quarterly GDP growth, their approval increases 24 per cent. The realtionship is not that strong – GDP growth explains only about half of the approval rating (R² = 48 per cent) – but there is a link, as we might expect.

The importance of the economy in predicting elections is widely recognised in academic work.

As one paper recently put it, “If all you know is the state of the economy, you know pretty well how the incumbent party will do”. Nate Silver agreed – a composite measure of economic health was one of the pillars of his perfect predictions in 2012.

The fact that link appears to exists for the Tories is worrying for Labour. Until very recently, the economy had been the number one issue for voters throughout this parliament.

The growth of the past year, and the recent UKIP-fuelled focus on immigration, has changed that, but that’s more encouraging for the Tories than Labour – it’s another sign of the recovery.

This is why Labour are zeroing in on the NHS. It is the only issue on which they both have a significant lead and voters care much about (education and housing are not rated as top issues by most voters).

Immigration helps UKIP more than either party, but it helps the Tories before Labour – as their attempt to lead the news with it yesterday showed.

Labour can try and make the NHS the election’s pivotal issue, but this parliament has been defined by the economy. If GDP stays strong the left may face another five years in the wilderness.

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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?