The likelihood is that George Osborne’s new bank lending scheme, announced last night in his Mansion House speech, will neither revive the economy nor the Tories’ moribund poll ratings (they currently trail Labour by 12 points).
Osborne has always said that he and David Cameron are “fiscal conservatives but monetary activists” and more monetary activism is what we’re getting. Under a new “funding for lending” scheme, worth up to £80bn, the Bank of England will provide cheap loans to banks for several years, at below market rates, in exchange for them lending the money to households and small and medium-sized businesses. In addition, the snappily-titled Extended Collateral Term Repo Facility will lend banks a minimum of £5bn a month in the form of six month loans to them. The aim of both schemes is to stimulate the economy by increasing loans to credit-starved businesses and households. But will they work? Almost certainly not.
There is increasing evidence that the UK is caught in a liquidity trap, a situation in which confidence is so low that looser monetary policy (e.g. increasing the money supply or lowering interest rates) has no positive effect on the economy. If consumers and businesses are determined to hoard cash (as is common in a recession), then the new loans will not be taken up. As for those willing to borrow, many are so indebted that the banks won’t lend to them anyway. Put simply, the creditworthy won’t take loans and the uncreditworthy won’t get them.
It is in such circumstances that the government must act as a spender of last resort and engage in fiscal stimulus (higher spending and lower taxes), as Ed Balls has repeatedly argued. Since Osborne is so fond of boasting of the UK’s historically low bond yields (although they owe more to the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme than to his deficit reduction programme), the least he could do is take advantage of them. He should increase borrowing to fund higher infrastructure spending (the most effective stimulus, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility) and tax cuts.
As for the politics, they’re not great for Osborne either. As Tory MP Douglas Carswell, an increasingly vociferous critic of the Chancellor, noted on Twitter: “Print-money-and-give-to-banks (govt) V Print-money-and-give-ppl (Balls). Guess which will play better in studio debates?”
In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman sagely observed that “the economic strategy that works best politically isn’t the strategy that finds approval with focus groups, let alone with the editorial page of The Washington Post; it’s the strategy that actually delivers results.” If Osborne wants to restore his political reputation (he is both Chancellor and the Tories’ chief election strategist) and give the Tories a faint hope of forming another government, he should adopt a plan that works. But first he must learn the lesson of the 1930s – you can’t cut your way out of a recession, but you can spend your way out of one. And in these depressed times, only big government has the firepower to do so.