Osborne shouts bingo - but let's first keep up with Paraguay

The UK cannot achieve a sustainable recovery until it can pay its way in the world, and despite a 25% depreciation of the currency over the last 5 years it still fails lamentably to do so.

Osborne’s reckless boast that he has been proved right over the economy will come back to haunt him. None of his claims stand up to examination.

“Those in favour of Plan B” (i.e. stimulating the economy to produce growth), he asserts, “have lost the argument”. That will be news to employees whose real earnings at current rates will have shrunk by £6,660 during the 2010-15 parliament. It will also come as a surprise to the UK’s biggest companies still sitting on corporate cash stockpiles of £700bn because they doubt the level of demand justifies new investment in plant or services.   The stock exchange and finance markets may be frothing, but the real economy isn’t.

Nor is it likely to be any time soon. In the last 5 years UK investment has fallen by a quarter in real terms, which is devastating in terms of future growth potential. It now stands at just 14% of GDP, against a global average of 24%. Indeed in terms of the global investment-to-GDP league Britain now stands 159th, behind El Salvador, Guatemala and Mali. A recovery based on low wages, poor productivity and weak investment must be expected to stutter and slip back by 2015.

Nor does the historical evidence indicate that Osborne’s counter-intuitive plan, known by the oxymoron of ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, has ever worked.  It has been tried three times before – the so-called ‘Geddes axe’ cuts in 1921-2, the May businessmen committee cuts in 1931, and the Howe budget in 1981. The first enforced expenditure cuts very similar in real terms to today and led to a decade of anaemic growth.   The second was only saved from a similar fate by Britain being forced off the gold standard. The third led to growth only because interest rates were eased, bank lending loosened and a reviving US helped to reflate the world economy. None of those conditions remain now to be applied, so there is no reason to believe the Osborne ‘recovery’ will defy historical precedent.

Osborne’s second claim is that “Britain is poorer because of a huge failure of economic policy in the past decade” (i.e. it was all Labour’s fault). In other words, falling incomes today are due, not to his own policies of austerity, but to Labour’s over-spending which caused the recession. But Labour didn’t over-spend, and didn’t cause the recession – the bankers’ crash did that. The budget deficit in 2007 just before the crash was only 2.9%, below the OECD average, and only rose to 11.6% in 2010 because of the enormous bank bailouts. Even by the time of the election in 2010 the UK national debt had only risen to 77% of GDP which compared with 75% for Germany, 84% for France, and 93% for the US. Labour spending was not out of line with other lead countries.

Equally it is disingenuous for Osborne to claim that today’s diminishing incomes – the longest fall in wages since the 1870s and on average 9% down in real terms since pre-crash levels – owes nothing to his austerity programme and all to the recession. Of course the latter has had a major impact, but to pretend that £81bn of expenditure cuts and £18bn (and counting) of benefit cuts have not significantly exacerbated the downward pressure on incomes is absurd.

Third, “nor are we seeing”, the Chancellor has claimed, “a return to unsustainable levels of indebtedness and household borrowing”. Well, actually, we are. Frighteningly, household lending is just 0.3% below its 2008 peak, while lending to firms is now 22% lower and if account is taken of inflation it’s fallen by a stunning 32%. There is no other way of describing this except as unsustainable. At the same time it’s clear that another major housing bubble is well under way, driven by Osborne’s own Help to Buy scheme, with estate agents the fastest growing sector in the workforce. Debt-to-income ratios, previously falling, have now turned up again. Plainly the recovery, such as it is, is propelled by borrowing.  And an economy dependent on consumer debt together with low wages, weak investment and poor productivity is likely once again to slip back after an initial short burst of expansion.

Osborne’s last assertion was that “growth had been too concentrated in one corner of the country – and HS2 will transform the UK’s economic geography”. The former statement is certainly true, with any recovery heavily concentrated in London and the south-east. But HS2, even if it goes ahead with a price-tag heading north of £50bn, will not remotely produce the degree of economic rebalancing required. The country’s finance sector is still too large and dominant, while manufacturing is shrivelled well below its potential.

The UK cannot achieve a sustainable recovery until it can pay its way in the world, and despite a 25% depreciation of the currency over the last 5 years it still fails lamentably to do so. The UK has only had a surplus in traded goods six times in the last 55 years, and last year the deficit on traded goods was £106bn, equal to 7% of GDP. HS2 won’t conceivably solve a problem of these proportions – only a fundamental revival of the UK’s capabilities for high-tech manufacturing will achieve that.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne speaks during the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Image: Getty
Ralph Orlowski / Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's investment bank plan could help fix our damaging financial system

The UK should learn from the success of a similar project in Germany.

Labour’s election manifesto has proved controversial, with the Tories and the right-wing media claiming it would take us back to the 1970s. But it contains at least one excellent idea which is certainly not out-dated and which would in fact help to address a key problem in our post-financial-crisis world.

Even setting aside the damage wrought by the 2008 crash, it’s clear the UK’s financial sector is not serving the real economy. The New Economics Foundation recently revealed that fewer than 10% of the total stock of UK bank loans are to non-financial and non-real estate businesses. The majority of their lending goes to other financial sector firms, insurance and pension funds, consumer finance, and commercial real estate.

Labour’s proposed UK Investment Bank would be a welcome antidote to a financial system that is too often damaging or simply useless. There are many successful examples of public development banks in the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and Korea. However, the UK can look closer to home for a suitable model: the KfW in Germany (not exactly a country known for ‘disastrous socialist policies’). With assets of over 500bn, the KfW is the world’s largest state-owned development bank when its size is measured as a percentage of GDP, and it is an institution from which the UK can draw much-needed lessons if it wishes to create a financial system more beneficial to the real economy.

Where does the money come from? Although KfW’s initial paid-up capital stems purely from public sources, it currently funds itself mainly through borrowing cheaply on the international capital markets with a federal government guarantee,  AA+ rating, and safe haven status for its public securities. With its own high ratings, the UK could easily follow this model, allowing its bank to borrow very cheaply. These activities would not add to the long-run public debt either: by definition an investment bank would invest in projects that would stimulate growth.

Aside from the obviously countercyclical role KfW played during the financial crisis, ramping up total business volume by over 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011 while UK banks became risk averse and caused a credit crunch, it also plays an important part in financing key sectors of the real economy that would otherwise have trouble accessing funds. This includes investment in research and innovation, and special programs for SMEs. Thanks to KfW, as well as an extensive network of regional and savings banks, fewer German SMEs report access to finance as a major problem than in comparator Euro area countries.

The Conservatives have talked a great deal about the need to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing. However, a real industrial policy needs more than just empty rhetoric: it needs finance. The KfW has historically played an important role in promoting German manufacturing, both at home and abroad, and to this day continues to provide finance to encourage the export of high-value-added German products

KfW works by on-lending most of its funds through the private banking system. This means that far from being the equivalent of a nationalisation, a public development bank can coexist without competing with the rest of the financial system. Like the UK, Germany has its share of large investment banks, some of which have caused massive instabilities. It is important to note that the establishment of a public bank would not have a negative effect on existing private banks, because in the short term, the UK will remain heavily dependent on financial services.

The main problem with Labour’s proposal is therefore not that too much of the financial sector will be publicly owned, but too little. Its proposed lending volume of £250bn over 10 years is small compared to the KfW’s total financing commitments of  750 billion over the past 10 years. Although the proposal is better than nothing, in order to be effective a public development bank will need to have sufficient scale.

Finally, although Brexit might make it marginally easier to establish the UK Investment Bank, because the country would no longer be constrained by EU State Aid Rules or the Maastricht criteria, it is worth remembering that KfW’s sizeable range of activities is perfectly legal under current EU rules.

So Europe cannot be blamed for holding back UK financial sector reform to date - the problem is simply a lack of political will in the current government. And with even key architects of 1980s financial liberalisation, such as the IMF and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, rethinking the role of the financial sector, isn’t it time Britain did the same?

Dr Natalya Naqvi is a research fellow at University College and the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, where she focuses on the role of the state and the financial sector in economic development

0800 7318496