Greece has voted decisively to reject the terms of the latest loan offer from the so-called Troika – the IMF, ECB and EU.
Figures published by the interior ministry showed 61 per cent of those whose ballots had been counted voting “No”, against 39 per cent voting “Yes”. This means Greece will go back to the negotiating table with a firm mandate to reject demands for further austerity as part of the conditions of any further loans – and to demand that the country’s huge debt be restructured into a sum that it is possible to pay off.
The victory for Tsipras and his Syriza party is all the more remarkable because it faced enormous opposition from representatives of the Troika and elements of Greek society who scaremongered hard that a ‘No’ vote meant Greece would be ejected from the Eurozone, meaning the Euro would cease to be its currency and it would have to create one of its own.
This is a proud day for Greece. As a nation and democratically, these people have made it clear that austerity doesn’t work and they won’t have any more to do with it – especially when it is imposed undemocratically from beyond their borders.
But you probably won’t hear anything of the kind from the media in the UK. Here’s Guy Debord’s Catto explain why:
“The BBC and the rest of the British media will continue to peddle the lie that George Osborne’s LTEP is “working”. Can you see the green shoots of reification? If you can’t, then you’re probably an “extreme leftist”.
“As I type this, a BBC News reporter in Athens is interviewing a New Democracy politician who’s claimed that it’s a “dark day for Greece”. Then the reporter interrupts to tell her that Antonis Samaras, the leader of the New Democrats, had resigned. She stumbles and mumbles something along the lines of “I couldn’t possibly comment”.
“Cut to some vox pops of Greek people telling the camera how “scared they are for the future”. The propaganda: it’s blatant.”
The Cat also points out something well worth spelling out to the UK’s current Tory government:
“They don’t have a mandate. 24.3 per cent is nothing. 62 per cent is a mandate. Tories, take note.”
They won’t, though.
Not until the UK finally wakes up and follows the Greek example.
It’s all looking a bit tense, isn’t it? In fact, Alexis Tsipras could have this look on his face because he’s playing a particularly tricky game of Spider Solitaire on his laptop – it’s the Troika that should be scared at the moment.
Greece defaulted on its loan from the ILF last night (Tuesday). Gosh.
The world didn’t stop turning; life went on; and if there was any mass hysteria, it was on the part of neoliberals who – it seems – will do anything to keep everyone else in line with their worldview.
The neoliberals at the IMF, ECB and EU want people to believe that Greece (and, in fact, any other country that takes out a loan from western banks) has the wherewithal to pay back its debts. Their way of life depends on it because without that belief, countries start demanding debt relief packages and the whole racket that – as Vox Political mentioned yesterday – returned around $5 for every $1 lent in 2011 will fall like the house of cards it is.
Fintan O’Toole had it right in the Irish Times: “The story must be maintained: Greece must keep punishing its people to pay back the money being borrowed to make the payments on the unpayable loans.
“In the upside-down world we inhabit, Syriza, which has called a halt to this fiction, is a bunch of mad fantasists, while the troika that goes on acting as if the fictions were real is the voice of hard-headed realism. Everything – from the lives of ordinary Greeks to the foundations of the European Union – must be sacrificed to the story.”
But nobody believes that story any more. Everyone knows that Greece doesn’t have the wherewithal to pay back its debts. In fact, increasingly harsh demands by the Troika have made the problem worse, rather than better.
Everybody knows that debt relief will have to happen.
The Guardian‘s economics editor, Larry Elliott, wrote: “Somehow or other, Greece’s debt burden will be reduced. It can happen through a deal in which Athens gets debt relief for economic reform. Or it can came through a default that would swiftly follow Greek exit from the single currency.”
Richard Murphy, of Tax Research UK, agrees: “This fact has been obvious for some time. Greece has rising debt that is well above any internationally recognised sustainable level and because of falling income, imposed on it by the EU and IMF, has not the remotest chance of paying that debt off.”
He continues: “What is left is unserviceable without radical reform of the Greek economy that permits it to grow again, and that reform is not possible unless existing debt is written off. That’s because without that write off all the money needed to invest for growth will instead go in debt servicing,” as Vox Political has also mentioned in the past.
“If Greece was a company a pre-packaged insolvency would probably solve most of its problems, in days. It is time we did the same for countries. But don’t hold your breath because bankers object to this, largely because the guarantee that countries won’t fail is what they think underpins their own risk, and the last thing they want to do is accept responsibility for that.”
But Greece has failed. It is precisely its membership of the Euro that made it inevitable. Without its own sovereign currency, Greece could not take measures to prevent that failure. So Mr Murphy is right again and the banks are wrong. Again.
Meanwhile the neoliberal attempt to rule Greece undemocratically from beyond that country’s borders continues. The current plan is to make wild claims about the purpose of the yes/no referendum on the new loan conditions, called by Alexis Tsipras, to take place on Sunday. Merkel, Hollande and Juncker want the Greek people to believe it is about whether they stay in the Euro – which is not an inevitable consequence of a ‘no’ result, and would not, in any case, be a disaster (see yesterday’s post).
They’ve already lost that one, though. You see, everybody knows what’s on the table isn’t their last offer. They already gave in on that one, several renegotiations ago. If they had pulled the plug the instant Greece started to demur, they would have had leverage when Greece came back to the table but they didn’t. Now they’re on the sliding scale. They’ve admitted they need Greece to be paying back something, which means that Greece is now in a position to decide what that something should be.
(I got the above from an episode of Doctor Who entitled Deep Breath; if someone threatens to kill you and then doesn’t, they have nothing left with which to threaten you, having foolishly gone to their most extreme option first. Good show, Doctor Who.)
Angela Merkel has said the Troika won’t negotiate on anything at all until after the referendum. This has given Mr Tsipras a chance to bring in a new offer – it doesn’t even matter what it is – making him look like the reasonable man at the table. Already Merkel is on the back foot. She can refuse, look unreasonable and face a ‘no’ vote on Sunday, or she can agree, look weak and – again – face a ‘no’ vote on Sunday.
If the Greek government is holding further talks with its creditors, it is because the IMF and the Eurozone are afraid – not Alexis Tsipras.
The IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Union have a lot riding on their attempt to get Greece to give in and submit meekly to further austerity measures that are designed to keep that country in a debt-servicing economy rather than help get it back in the black.
The idea – as This Blog has reported before – was to create a debt trap, similar to that created for the so-called Developing Nations – and keep Greece in it.
Greece could continue receiving financial support if it sold off nationally-owned assets, privatised services and increased taxes – thereby insuring that it could never actually repay the loans; the profit-making facilities would all have been sold off and the tax burden on citizens would be so great that they could never pay their way out.
But Tsipras came into government on a promise to end austerity measures like this. His sticking-point, it seems, is that this may mean defaulting on the nation’s debts and dropping out of the Euro – returning to a currency unique to Greece – and the electorate doesn’t seem to want that.
Defaulting on loans isn’t as bad for a nation as it may seem. It means all those involved have to agree that the loan won’t be repaid under current conditions and new conditions must be negotiated. The Troika opposes this because its debt trap relies on presenting an illusion that the loans can be honoured. It is only an illusion; Tsipras knows that.
It seems to This Writer that he would be better-off taking a leaf out of Germany’s (history) book. When Gustav Streseman became the new Chancellor of the Republic in the 1920s, debt repayments had crippled that country. Inflation was out of control and industry had ground to a halt due to strike action.
Streseman abandoned Germany’s old currency and introduced a brand new version which was given a very high, stable starting value through the backing of US gold. Similar options are open to Greece, if it abandons the Euro.
Streseman negotiated a new, more realistic arrangement with his country’s creditors, cutting the reparations to be paid by Germany for World War I down from a wildly-punitive £2 billion to the more reasonable £50 million. He also ended the strike and ordered a full- scale return to work, making it possible to pay off this amount. This also is possible for Greece, if it refuses the austerity being proposed by the Troika.
Greece’s creditors will do everything they can to stop this from happening. They want Greece to join the Developing World countries who – as recently as 2011 – were paying back nearly $5 for every $1 lent to them by the western banks. They don’t want Greece to become another Germany; that would profit Greece – not them.
Here in the UK, it is in our interest to hope that Tsipras doesn’t blow it. He could find himself leading the way out of the neoliberal debt trap – not just for Greece, but for many other nations as well.
Economists are probably lining up right now to demonstrate that George Osborne is a fool.
The Chancellor is trying to persuade us that aiming for an immediate budget surplus is good policy. Experts disagree.
Very quick off the mark is Professor Simon Wren-Lewis in his Mainly Macro blog. He has already pointed out that fiscal tightening is a terrible idea when interest rates are at their zero lower bound (ZLB), as they are at the moment – if economic growth falters, then monetary policy cannot come to the rescue because interest rates are already as low as they can be.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reckons that there’s no reason for the government to reduce debt from its current level of 80 per cent of GDP, as long as the market is happy to keep buying it up. This Writer has issues with that, because it is not advisable for the UK or any other country to become a debt-servicing economy. However, the principle that there is no need for drastic action is sound.
Osborne’s plan may provide scope for dealing with further ‘Great Recessions’ without running out of what the IMF calls “fiscal space” (the amount of extra debt into which the UK could fall before there was any need for serious concern) – but this would demand that ‘Great Recessions’ take place much more often in the future than the past.
The claim that we should reduce the debt burden for future generations is dismissed as perverse, as it means “the costs of reducing debt would largely fall on the same generation that suffered as a result of the Great Recession”.
Leading on from this, he points out that any claim that an individual would want to pay their debts down quickly is not accurate, for the very good reason that nations are not like individuals; they are more like corporations. Firms live with permanent debt because that debt has paid for the capital purchases they have made: “The state has plenty of productive capital…. If we paid back most government debt within a generation, we would be giving that capital to later generations without them making any contribution towards it.”
From here it is fairly easy to see that selling off national assets (like the Royal Mail or Eurostar – or any of the profit-making utility firms, back in the 1980s) is a bad idea, because the national corporation (the UK) then fails to benefit from the proceeds of all its investment. The railways are an even worse case, because the country is subsidising them with more money than when they were a nationalised industry, but receives none of the profits.
Narrow down your definition of what is happening even further and we see that George Osborne is making the poor pay – with squeezes on benefits – in order to allow the rich to benefit; they will own the assets that the government is selling off while paying nothing towards the capital costs discussed above.
So – unless you are one of the very few people rich enough to profit from Osborne’s policy, do you really want to support him now?
This blog would be particularly interested in hearing from working people who voted Conservative last month:
Did you realise that Osborne would be penalising you and your descendants?
At last the Torygraph comes out with an article that tries to make the Zombie Economy seem like a good thing.
The idea is to make slaves out of every working person in the UK, by ensuring that their taxes do not pay for services, but instead service the ever-mounting debts racked up by right-wing governments such as we have at the moment.
IMF economists cited research by Moody’s Analytics that suggested countries such as the UK, US and Canada could afford to live “forever” with relatively high debt shares compared with their pre-crisis averages.
… claims the Torygraph‘s Szu Ping Chan.
We can conclude that the so-called ‘developing’ nations were offered the same language by the IMF when it imposed ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ on them. These SAPs perform several functions as follows:
They enforce the sale of nationalised industries and resources (mostly to foreign-owned investors and governments.
They remove capital controls on money flowing into and out of the country.
They dictate the level of public spending.
They prioritise debt repayments and corporate welfare over infrastructure development and personal welfare (the good of a company becomes more important than the good of the people).
And they demand wage suppression and the restriction of labour unions.
As you can see, much of this is already taking place in the UK.
It is a way to force neoliberal economics onto a country without having to worry about getting the people to vote for it (even though, bizarrely, the UK did vote for it last month).
Kerry-Anne Mendoza’s extremely useful book Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economystates: “Structural Adjustment Programmes are now being rolled out across Europe, disguised as ‘Austerity Programmes’ – to reorientate European economies toward servicing the debt economy. Central banks are lending to stabilise national economies that have been broken by the cost of bailing out other banks. The central banks make these funds contingent upon the national government imposing an Austerity programme.”
And you know what the worst of it is?
The whole point of the ‘Austerity programme’ is that you can never pay your way out of it.
Look at the amount of debt that George Osborne has racked up in just five years.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss his country’s economic strategy and debt repayments.
The point of Austerity in Greece was never to help that country pay off its debts; it was to create a permanent debt that Greece would never be able to pay off.
Under a submissive government, this was feasible – as it has been in many countries in what is laughably called the Developing World – but now Syriza has taken control and Alexis Tsipras could have the Troika (European Central Bank, IMF and the European Union – the three organisations that have been lending money to the Greek government) over a barrel.
The plan was to add Greece to the list of nations running a ‘zombie economy’ in the service of neoliberal corporate interests, rather than the well-being of its own citizens.
The Troika’s settlement with Greece was similar to that carved out by the western banks with the Developing World – the creation of a Debt Trap.
Western banks indulged in a lending spree across the Developing World during the latter half of the 20th century but the oil shocks of the 1970s created a domino effect of economic disaster which ended up putting most of Africa and Latin America on the verge of bankruptcy.
They could not be allowed to default on their debts. This would have allowed those countries to recover but would have harmed the western world – both economically and politically, as its influence would have faded.
So the IMF stepped in with ‘bridging loans’, ensuring that the original debts could be serviced – but there was a cost. In return for these loans, the IMF created a mechanism called the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP – an appropriate acronym as it has sapped away a huge amount of money from every nation where it has been used).
The SAP set conditions under which debtor nations were provided the bridging loans: The sale of nationalised industries and resources – mostly to foreign-owned corporations and governments; the removal of capital controls on money flowing into and out of these nations; allowing the IMF to dictate the level of public spending; prioritising debt repayment and corporate welfare over infrastructure investment and human welfare; and suppression of wages and restrictions on trade unions.*
This is more or less the deal that Greece was offered.
The result has been clear – as Professor Simon Wren-Lewis pointed out in his Mainly Macroblog yesterday: “Austerity… is of course why Greek GDP has fallen by 25 per cent.”
At the moment, the Troika is threatening Tsipras with the loss of further loans, as he has stated that he intends to reverse the privatisations that have been forced on Greece over the last few years, raise the minimum wage, and increase public spending. These are measures designed to reverse the Troika-engineered Greek economic collapse and make it possible to start paying off the huge debt the country has built up.
Tsipras wants that money because he wants his economic recovery to take place in an orderly way, so he has agreed not to roll back the privatisations that have already taken place but to review those that haven’t; to introduce collective wage-bargaining, stopping short of raising the minimum wage but encouraging non-statutory wage rises; and tackling the humanitarian crisis with free medical care for the uninsured unemployed, along with housing guarantees, at no extra cost to the public purse.
But here’s the thing: Greece can manage without that loan money, if it has to. Yes, there will be a great deal of pain, but Tsipras effectively has the Troika over a barrel. The promise of some money is better than no money. All he has to do is hold his nerve and point out that what the Troika is doing is exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to be doing.
By funding Greece during Austerity, the Troika was perpetuating its debt, rather than helping end that debt; now it is actively fighting a plan that will genuinely help end that debt. And the world can see this.
It is an important lesson for the UK, as well. This country didn’t need the Troika to enforce privatisation, wage suppression, public spending restrictions and so on because we have a neoliberal Conservative-led government that is already avid for those things.
Our economy has suffered badly – and our people have suffered brutally – because of these choices by rich Conservatives who have not had to bear any of the pain themselves.
For no reason.
It seems possible that both Greece and the UK could probably take a leaf out of 1920s German chancellor Gustav Streseman’s book – re-industrialisation and (in Greece’s case) renegotiation of loans and an exit from the Euro in order to create a new currency. Whether that is practical is best left to economists who have more expertise than a layman like this writer.
What is clear is that Austerity – and its champions – are bad for everybody’s national interest.
*Austerity – The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy, Kerry-Anne Mendoza, published by New Internationalist. Pick up a copy now!
[Image: David Symonds for The Guardian, in February this year.]
Britain has returned to prosperity, with the economy finally nudging beyond its pre-crisis peak, according to official figures.
Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? Next time you’re in the supermarket looking for bargains or mark-downs because you can’t afford the kind of groceries you had in 2008, you can at least console yourself that we’re all doing better than we were back then.
The hundreds of thousands of poor souls who have to scrape by on handouts from food banks will, no doubt, be bolstered by the knowledge that Britain is back on its feet.
And the relatives of those who did not survive Iain Duncan Smith’s brutal purge of benefit claimants can be comforted by the thought that they did not die in vain.
NO! Of course not! Gross domestic product might be up 3.1 per cent on last year but it’s got nothing to do with most of the population! In real terms, you’re £1,600 per year worse-off!
The Conservatives who have been running the economy since 2010 have re-balanced it, just as they said they would – but they lied about the way it would be re-balanced and as a result the money is going to the people who least deserve it; the super-rich and the bankers who caused the crash in the first place.
You can be sure that the mainstream media won’t be telling you that, though.
Even some of the figures they are prepare to use are enough to cast doubt on the whole process. The UK economy is forecast to be the fastest-growing among the G7 developed nations according to the IMF (as reported by the BBC) – but our export growth since 2010 puts us below all but one of the other G7 nations, according to Ed Balls in The Guardian.
“Since most international trade is in goods and not in services, once the proportion of the economy devoted to producing internationally tradable goods drops below about 15 per cent, it becomes more and more difficult to combine a reasonable rate of growth and full employment with a sustainable balance of payments position,” he writes.
“In the UK, the proportion of GDP coming from manufacturing is now barely above 10 per cent. Hardly surprising then that we have not had a foreign trade surplus balance since 1982 – over thirty years ago – while our share of world trade which was 10.7 per cent in 1950 had fallen by 2012 to no more than 2.6 per cent.”
All of this seems to be good business sense. It also runs contrary to successive governments’ economic policies for the past 35 years, ever since the neoliberal government of Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979.
As this blog has explained, Thatcher and her buddies Nicholas Ridley and Keith Joseph were determined to undermine the confidence then enjoyed by the people who actually worked for a living, because it was harming the ability of the idle rich – shareholders, bosses… bankers – to increase their own undeserved profits; improvements in working-class living standards were holding back their greed.
In order to hammer the workers back into the Stone Age, they deliberately destroyed the UK’s manufacturing and exporting capability and blamed it on the unions.
That is why we have had a foreign trade deficit since 1982. That is why our share of world trade is less than one-third of what it was in 1950 (under a Labour government, notice). That is why unemployment has rocketed, even though the true level goes unrecognised as governments have rigged the figures to suit themselves.
(The current wheeze has the government failing to count as unemployed anyone on Universal Credit, anyone on Workfare/Mandatory Work Activity and anyone who whose benefit has been sanctioned – among many other groups – for example.)
You may wish to argue that the economy is fine – after all, that’s what everybody is saying, including the Office for National Statistics.
Not according to Mr Mills: “The current improvement in our economic performance, based on buttressing consumer confidence by boosting asset values fuelled by yet more borrowing, is all to unlikely to last.”
(He means the housing bubble created by George Osborne’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme will burst soon, and then the economy will be right up the creek because the whole edifice is based on more borrowing at a time when Osborne has been claiming he is paying down the deficit.)
Ed Balls has got the right idea – at least, on the face of it. In his Guardian article he states: “We are not going to deliver a balanced, investment-led recovery that benefits all working people with the same old Tory economics,” and he’s right.
“Hoping tax cuts at the very top will trickle down, a race to the bottom on wages, Treasury opposition to a proper industrial strategy, and flirting with exit from the European Union cannot be the right prescription for Britain.” Right again – although our contract with Europe must be renegotiated and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement would be a disaster for the UK if we signed it.
But none of that affects you, does it? It’s all too far away, controlled by people we’ve never met. That’s why Balls focuses on what a Labour government would do for ordinary people: “expanding free childcare, introducing a lower 10p starting rate of tax, raising the minimum wage and ending the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts. We need to create more good jobs and ensure young people have the skills they need to succeed.”
And how do the people respond to these workmanlike proposals?
“You intend to continue the Tories’ destructive ‘austerity’ policies.”
“The economy isn’t fixed but you broke it.”
There was one comment suggesting that all the main parties are the same now, which – it has been suggested – was what Lynton Crosby told David Cameron to spread if he wanted to win the next election.
Very few of the comments under the Guardian piece have anything to do with what Balls actually wrote; they harp on about New Labour’s record (erroneously), they conflate Labour’s vow not to increase borrowing with an imaginary plan to continue Tory austerity policies… in fact they do all they can to discredit him.
Not because his information is wrong but because they have heard rumours about him that have put them off.
It’s as if people don’t want their situation to improve.
Until we can address that problem – which is one of perception – we’ll keep going around in circles while the exploiters laugh.
We live in times when the whole of the evidence means a great deal – for example, information on Q1 of 2012 that put growth at a standstill – neither up nor down – meant the UK did not enter a double-dip recession, even though the economy contracted in the periods immediately before and after. In real terms we were backtracking – but on paper, no.
Let’s remember, also, that the organisations that record our economic fortunes are liable to revise their predictions down as well as up – remember when the Office of Budget Irresponsibility changed its mind about the growth figures for 2012? It had predicted growth of 2.5 per cent for that year. In fact, once we iron out the ups and downs, the economy really only bumped along at a roughly steady state.
The International Monetary Fund had predicted a more conservative 1.6 per cent growth for 2012 – but in January of that year revised this down to 0.6 per cent. You get the picture.
The 0.6 per cent figure was in line with market expectations, though – and that is a good sign. But 0.6 per cent is a very fragile figure and the prospects for the rest of the year are “highly uncertain”, as market analyst Richard Driver said in the BBC News website’s report.
We all knew that the economy would start turning upwards again at some point. That it has taken five years to do so indicates the severity of the banker-induced crash – and also the lack of any investment in recovery.
In the past, the upturns arrived comparatively swiftly – but there had been a willingness on the part of both government and businesses to put money into it. The current government has been sucking money out of the economy in the pursuit of Gideon‘s nonsensical “expansionary fiscal contraction” and getting the deficit down – meaning that all the effort has been put into cutting spending and none into actually making a buck or two. Meanwhile, it has been estimated that businesses have been sitting on fortunes totalling six or seven per cent of GDP – around £775 billion, according to Michael Meacher.
In his blog, Mr Meacher said he expected the announcement to be “milked by Cameron-Osborne for all it’s worth” and he was not to be disappointed.
“These figures are better than forecast,” said Osborne in the BBC report – claiming credit for something that had nothing to do with him. “Britain is holding its nerve, we are sticking to our plan, and the British economy is on the mend – but there is still a long way to go.”
What will he say if a later revision knocks the figure down again?
Mr Meacher’s blog stated that the growth figures had been inflated “by being talked up by the finance sector”, and stimulated by Osborne’s Help to Buy scheme “which has ploughed taxpayers’ money into mortgages but without increasing the number of houses being built, which can only push up property prices… igniting yet another housing bubble which is the last thing the economy needs”.
He added that the real essentials of recovery are still missing – “an expansion of manufacturing and exports”.
We may have to wait for another government before that happens; the Coalition is too busy exploiting our current economic fragility as an excuse to sell off the family silver – those parts of the NHS it thinks nobody will notice, the Royal Mail, school playing fields, student loans…
I could mention ‘Starve the Beast’ again – but by now you should be on intimate terms with that expression.
All the wrong choices for all the wrong reasons: The evidence fails to support George Osborne’s economic austerity policies – the only likely explanation seems to be an intention to rob this nation of everything possible before 2015.
The more we learn of the Tory-led Coalition’s policies, the wider the gap grows between what it is doing and what it should be doing.
Look at the sham psychometric tests, exposed by fellow blogger Steve Walker in a series of articles on his Skwawkbox site. It is now firmly established that the DWP – aided by the Cabinet office ‘nudge unit’ – set out to pressgang put-upon benefit claimants into taking part in a crude piece of neuro-linguistic programming – no matter what answers you provided, the test always pushed out a ridiculously upbeat appraisal of your character and then tried to get you to act according to this verdict in your jobsearching activities. The theory is that this will make a jobseeker more confident and finding a job easier. The problem is that it’s quite utterly ludicrous.
If you haven’t already, you can read the Skwawkbox exposure of this particular caper on that site – there are plenty of links to it from this one. The reason it is mentioned here is that it provides a useful set of questions with which to analyse any government activity: First, is the theory behind this activity sound? Second, if that theory is being used to support a particular course of action, is that action justifiable?
Firstly, the letter warns against the perils of losing market confidence. By this, we can see that it means we should fear any downward revision of our credit rating by the credit agencies, as “a one percentage point increase in government bond yields would add around £8.1 billion to annual debt interest payments by 2017-18”.
What’s being said is that a drop in our credit rating would mean the people and organisations that have invested in UK government debt (by buying our bonds) might move their funds to others, meaning the government could be faced with an interest rate rise, leading to increased difficulty in borrowing.
As Professor Malcolm Sawyer notes in Fiscal Austerity: The ‘cure’ which makes the patient worse (Centre for Labour and Social Studies, May 2012), “It is well-known that a government can always service debt provided that it is denominated in its own currency. At the limit the UK government can ‘print the money’ in order to service the debt: this would not take form of literally ‘printing money’ but rather the Central Bank being a willing purchaser of government debt in exchange for money.” This is what is happening at the moment. Our debt is in UK pounds, and we can always service it. Our creditors know that, so they remain happy to continue financing it.
This means that the Treasury’s next point, that “any loss of investor confidence in the UK’s fiscal position would not only affect the UK, but also the global economy” is also meaningless. There won’t be a loss of investor confidence, so there won’t be an effect on the global economy.
We move on – to the Chancellor’s claim that fiscal austerity is required to prevent the slowing of economic growth that happens when the national debt hits 90 per cent of gross domestic product (or thereabouts).
Obviously I haven’t had time to look up eight academic works to support any opposing theory I may wish to create – and I think I would be foolish to try. I don’t have any grounding in economics beyond what I’ve been able to pick up by following the national and international debates.
He writes: “Most economists are unable to conceptualize anything that someone with more standing in the profession did not already write about. This is the only reason that the Reinhart-Rogoff 90 per cent debt-to-GDP threshold was ever taken seriously to begin with.”
That prodded my curiosity to check some of the papers listed by the Treasury in support of its stance, and the three that I checked (The Real Effects of Debt, Public Debt and Growth, and How Costly Are Debt Crises?) all listed the Reinhart-Rogoff paper in their supporting references. So Mr Baker is right.
“Debt is an arbitrary number,” he continues. “The value of long-term debt fluctuates with the interest rate… The value of our debt will plummet if interest rates rise… This means that we could buy back long-term debt issued today at interest rates of less than 2.0 percent for discounts of 30-40 percent. This would sharply reduce our debt-to-GDP ratio at zero cost.
“Bonds carry a face value, meaning the amount that will be paid off when they reach maturity. This is what gets entered in our debt figure. However bonds also carry a market price, which fluctuates inversely with interest rates. The longer the term of the bond, the more its price will vary with interest rates.
“If interest rates rise, as just about everyone expects over the next three-to-five years, then the market price of the bonds we have issued in the current low interest rate environment will fall sharply. Since we count our debt at the face value of the bonds, not their market price, we could take advantage of the drop in bond prices to buy up… bonds at sharp discounts to their face value.
“The question is why would we do this, we would still pay the same interest? The answer is that the policy would make no sense for exactly this reason.
“However, if we accept the Reinhart-Rogoff 90 per cent curse, then reducing our debt in this way could make a great deal of sense. Suppose we can buy back debt with a face value of 60 per cent of GDP at two-thirds its face value, or 40 per cent of GDP. In our debt accounting we would have reduced our debt-to-GDP ratio by 20 percentage points. If this gets us below the 90 per cent threshold then suddenly we can have normal growth again.
“Yes, this is really stupid, but if you believed the Reinhart-Rogoff 90 per cent debt cliff, then you believe that we can sharply raise growth rates by buying back long-term bonds at a discount. It’s logic folks, it’s not a debatable point — think it through until you understand it.”
I found Mr Baker’s piece after asking Jonathan Portes of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) for his opinion on the Treasury letter. He described it as “Predictable and largely irrelevant”.
So despite my lack of economic education, we have a working theory that suggests the Treasury has built its economic castle on the sand; that its justification for austerity is unsound. What about the austerity measures themselves? Are they justifiable on any level at all?
Evidence suggests not.
Let’s go back to our other friend in this matter, Prof Malcolm Sawyer. “Fiscal austerity and cuts in public expenditure do not work – there is a limited, if any, effect on reducing the budget deficit, and any return to prosperity is severely undermined.” We can see that this is true, using the government’s own figures. It managed to cut the deficit from £150 billion to £120 billion in 2011-12, mostly by axing large projects that invested in the UK economy. How much did it cut from the deficit in 2012-13? Less than £1 billion. The benefit cuts that created much of the fuel for this blog have not helped to cut the deficit at all.
“The reduction of the budget deficit can only come from a revival of private demand which is harmed by an austerity programme,” Prof Sawyer continues. Again, we can see that this is true. Austerity measures such as benefit cuts and the axing of infrastructure investment projects means there is less money available to the people who are most likely to spend it – the working- and middle-classes, and those who are unemployed. People with less money have to spend just about everything they receive in order to cover their costs. That money passes into circulation and the economy grows, through the fiscal multiplier effect. An attempt to explain this effect appeared on this blog within the last few days. The point is that demand increases when the people who earn the least have more to spend.
Therefore we see that Prof Sawyer’s next statement, “Deficit reduction requires investment programmes and reduction of inequality to stimulate demand”, is already proved.
So the answer is to reduce the unemployment rate by creating more jobs and closing the jobs deficit, as highlighted in this blog only a few days ago; to raise incomes by significantly increasing the minimum wage and adopting the proposed ‘living wage’, as promoted in this blog frequently; and investment in infrastructure projects.
What has Osborne done, along with his economically-illiterate chums?
He has created high unemployment.
He has depressed wages.
He has cut infrastructure projects.
He has, therefore, sucked all the demand out of the economy. What effect has this had?
Economic growth has, in the single word of Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, “flatlined”, borrowing has remained high and the national debt is continuing to rise.
In other words, this part-time Chancellor’s strategy – a plan on which we have all been asked to judge the entire Coalition government, let’s not forget – has failed. Hopelessly.
I return you to Prof Sawyer, one last time [bolding mine]: “The austerity programme is economically irrational, socially irresponsible, and lacks credibility that it can reduce the budget deficit and secure any return to prosperity. The time has come to rebuild through investment and through a major assault on inequality.”
Last month, Vox Political wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Mr Osborne, politely asking him whether he had any other documentary justifications for his disastrous programme of austerity after the previous principal pillar of his faith – a paper by Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff – had been disproved by a student at a rival university.
Today we received a response! A lengthy, well-considered one at that.
What a shame that we found a way to trash it before we reached the end of page one.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s all read the letter together, shall we? It begins:
“Thank you for your letter dated 22 April about the recent publication by Herndon, Ash and Pollin, a critique to the paper ‘Growth in the time of Debt’ by Reinhart and Rogoff.
“You asked for the Treasury’s views on the recent criticism of the paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff which concluded that public debt above 90% of GDP could prove a significant drag on economic growth.
“As you will be aware, the Coalition Government inherited the largest deficit in post-war history due to unsustainable increases in Government spending by the previous Government and the effects of the financial crisis [We don’t know that at all. The largest deficit in post-war history is something to which this writer cannot respond – I only know that the national debt at the end of WWII was 250 per cent of GDP, or very nearly four times as much as it is now. Spending by the Labour administration was less than that of the Conservatives until the financial crisis took place, so the writer is effectively admitting that Conservative spending between 1979 and 1997 was even more unsustainable. As for the financial crisis, the Tories would have done the same as Labour at the time, as is borne out by the history books]. In order to address these problems the Coalition Government set a clear and credible consolidation plan to reduce the risks of a costly loss of market confidence in the UK, to restore confidence and underpin sustainable growth.
“As noted by the OECD in their Economy Survey of the United Kingdom February 2013, ‘global developments have shown that the consequences of loosing [sic] market confidence can be [a] sudden and severe and sharp rise in the interest rates [that] would [be] particularly damaging to an economy with the United Kingdom’s level of indebtedness.’ A 1 percentage point increase in government bond yields would add around £8.1 billion to annual debt interest payments by 2017-18.
“Fiscal consolidation also reduces the risk of adverse feedback between weak public finances and a strained financial sector. This feedback can be very damaging, as evidenced by recent events in the euro area. Globally, the UK has one of the largest financial systems relative to the size of its economy, meaning that any loss of investor confidence in the UK’s fiscal position would not only affect the UK, but also the global economy. As the IMF has stated in their United Kingdom – 2011 Article IV Consultation Concluding Statement of the Mission, ‘the UK financial system thus serves as a global public good’. It is the IMF’s view that the UK’s economic and financial sector policies have a systemic impact on the global economy.
“The Government’s approach is supported by a large body of academic and professional literature which finds that there are strong theoretical and empirical grounds for a relationship between high levels of debt and slow growth, including:
“1. Work by staff of the Bank for International Settlements:
“* ‘The Real Effects of Debt’ by Cecchetti et al, 2011 (published as a Bank of International Settlements working paper in September 2011), found that government debt above 85% had a negative impact on growth.
“2. Research by staff of the International Monetary Fund:
“* ‘Public Debt and Growth’, an IMF 2010 working paper prepared by Kumar and Woo, found that an increase in debt ratio of 10& resulted in an annual decrease of 0.2% in per capita GDP growth, with a stronger effect at higher levels of debt. The paper found some evidence of nonlinearity with higher levels of initial debt having a proportionately larger negative effect on subsequent growth. Analysis of the components of growth suggested that the adverse effect largely reflects a slowdown in labour productivity growth mainly due to reduced investment and slower growth of capigal stock.
“* ‘How costly are debt crises’, an IMF 2011 working paper prepared by Furceri and Zdzienicka, finds that debt crises produce significant and long-lasting output losses. This study also provides support to the idea of a threshold for the debt-to-GDP ratio above which output growth starts to decline.
“* The IMF 2013 WEO box 1.2 ‘Public Debt Overhang and Private Sector Performance’, cites studies that have found a threshold beyond which public debt harms growth. It also lists several reasons why a debt overhang can affect economic activity.
“3. Work by staff of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development:
“* ‘Public Debt, Economic Growth and Nonlinear effects, Myth or Reality?’ Egert, OECD 2012, finds ‘some evidence in favour of a negative nonlinear relationship between debt and growth using a variety of econometric models.
“4. Work by staff of the European Commission:
“* Report on Public Finances in EMU 2012 supports the statement that public debt can trigger economic growth: ‘higher debt levels and interest rates might weigh on economic growth, especially when debt exceeds a certain threshold level as a number of papers suggest.’
“There are also theoretical reasons, highlighted in Boskin, 2012 and OECD, 2012 for believing that higher levels of public debt will damage medium-term growth prospect:
“* First, tax hikes needed to service a higher public debt may crowd out private investment by reducing disposable income and saving.
“* Second, if the higher debt servicing costs associated with increased debt levels are financed by increasing tax revenue, they also imply a deadweight loss on the economy as a result of distortionary effect of raising tax revenues.
“* Third, there is broad agreement that large deficit and debt levels are associated with a higher level of long-term Government bond yields which may crowd out productive public investment and reduce private investment through an increase in the cost of capital. Reduced investment in research and development will have long-lasting negative impacts on growth.
“The approach is also supported by international organisations. The OECD, for example, noted in its November 2012 Economic Outlook that ‘With the budget deficit (excluding temporary factors) at over 8% of GDP and gross government debt at over 80% of GDP, fiscal consolidation is necessary to restore the sustainability of public finances and will strengthen medium-term growth prospects. The fiscal stance remains appropriate, and is supported by the strong institutional framework.’
“Olli Rehn, Vice President of the European Commission, on the speech of the Spring Forecast in May 2013 noted: ‘It is important that the UK follows through with consistent consolidation of public finances with a view to achieve (sic) a more sustainable fiscal position.’
“At the end of this letter you can find the papers referred to above online.”
I shan’t embarrass the letter’s author by naming that person.
… all of which can be picked apart with one observation and a couple of attached questions:
Mr Osborne demanded in 2010, that cuts to welfare benefits alone should total £18bn per year by 2014-15 (meaning a total of £90bn over the five years of Coalition government). Other government departments have had to take huge hits as well.
So why is the total drop in the deficit this year just £300 million? And why is the national debt now more than 88 per cent of total GDP – well inside the danger zone that Mr Osborne has been trying to avoid?
Could it be that, once put into practice, the theories outlined above aren’t actually worth a farthing?
Expect much more on this subject as we really get our teeth into the material the Treasury has kindly provided.
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