Tag Archives: Malcolm Sawyer

The Magical Land of Os(borne) – fantasy economics

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George Osborne’s claim that his nonsense policies have magically turned the economy around, coupled with his equally-preposterous claim that the UK needs another seven years of austerity before he can balance the books – provides a fine example of the duality at the heart of Conservative economic policy.

He needs to convince you that his choices have made a difference and the nation’s fortunes are changing, but he also need to convince you that we’re in a terrible mess – or he won’t have an excuse to continue cutting more public services and selling them into the private sector so his rich friends can use them to fleece you.

The two claims are not only contradictory of each other – they are self-contradictory. The evidence shows that Osborne’s policies delayed the recovery, rather than encouraging it, and the ‘Starve The Beast’ plan he cribbed from George W Bush has long been recognised as harmful to any country’s economic health; by cutting services he is starving the economy of the liquidity that is its lifeblood.

(This is a point worth remembering: Whenever a TV news reporter says Osborne or the government want to make cuts in order to “save” money, they mean the government will be “taking money out of the economy” – which will consequently be worth less. As a result, some people will have to become poorer. Can you guess who?)

Before we congratulate Osborne in ways that are anything like as effusive as David Cameron’s endorsement earlier this week, let’s look at the facts: According to Martin Wolf in the Financial Times, in three and a half years, the UK’s economic performance has improved by just 2.2 per cent – against a prediction of 8.2 per cent by his pet Office of Budget (Ir)Responsibility. In the second quarter of 2013, Gross Domestic Product was 3.3 per cent below its pre-crisis peak and 18 per cent below its 1980-2007 trend, making this the slowest British recovery on record.

Osborne and the Conservatives point proudly to the strong increase in private-sector jobs but, as Mr Wolf states, “this is hardly something to boast about”. While employment – on paper – is at an all-time high, productivity has fallen back to the level it reached in 2005. What does this say about the quality of the jobs that are being filled? Are they high-quality, long-term, well-paid careers, or are they part-time, zero-hours, throwaway fillers? We all know the answer to that. Average wages have been cut by nine per cent, in real terms, since 2010 – and they are still falling.

Even by the standards of other crisis-hit, high-income economies, the UK’s performance has been dismal, says Mr Wolf, pointing to work by Spencer Dale and James Talbot of the Bank of England. This indicates that the Eurozone has performed just as badly – but the difference is that the Eurozone countries do not have control of every economic lever that is available to them; Britain does.

Osborne claims that high global inflation and the performance of the Eurozone have impacted on the UK; Mr Wolf’s assertion is that austerity is the reason for this disappointment – and Osborne was just as much a cheerleader for austerity in Europe as he has been for it in the UK. Furthermore, as the Labour Party pointed out in its report, “David Cameron’s out of touch, you’re out of pocket” (2013), inflation in other G7 countries has been lower than in the UK, indicating that high global prices have little to do with the problem.

“Yes, but,” says Osborne, “austerity has kept interest rates down.” Did it? Did it really? In that case, interest rates would have been kept low because of the promise (in 2010) that borrowing would be brought down by 2015. When the Coalition came to power, Osborne said he expected to borrow a total of £322 billion by 2015. In March this year, that figure had risen to £564 billion – an increase of 75 per cent! Meanwhile the deadline for the national debt to start falling has slipped from 2014-15 back to 2017-18 and the level at which the debt was expected to hit its peak has jumped from 70.3 per cent of GDP to 85.6 per cent. The deficit has been stuck at £120 billion a year for the last two financial years, despite the repeated claims that it has been cut by one-third. None of this has affected long-term interest rates and neither did the loss of the UK’s AAA credit rating in February this year.

Here’s why – as explained in an article on this site in June:

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.

“With interest rates at the zero bound, austerity weakened the economy relative to what might otherwise have happened,” wrote Mr Wolf.

Nobody thought recovery would never happen under austerity, merely that it would be damagingly delayed… This has been an unnecessarily protracted slump. It is good that recovery is here, though it is far too soon to tell its quality and durability. But this does not justify what remains a large unforced error.”

Looking to the future, Osborne has reacted to the new barrage of Labour policies, all of which have been carefully costed against savings in current budget areas, with a series of rushed measures that are entirely unfunded. Remember that, next time a Conservative accuses Labour of borrowing and spending!

The married couples’ allowance, worth less than £4 per week (and less than £2 if you’re on a low income) is unfunded. The promised fuel duty freeze is unfunded. These will cost more than £2 billion and no source has been identified.

And what about the £12 billion stage two of the housing ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, that Osborne rushed forward to this month?

He has pulled £14 billion out of nowhere, but still expects us to believe he will resume his stalled deficit cuts by £35 billion by 2015, £42 billion by 2017-18 and £43 billion by 2020, in order to create a budget surplus.

All the while, he is promising “improved living standards for this generation and the next”. For whom? These cuts must come from somewhere, and they mean removing a cumulative total of £120 billion from the economy each year by 2020. That has to come from somewhere.

Look at the amount by which bosses’ pay in FTSE100 companies has increased in the last three years – 32 per cent, while average worker pay has dropped by nine per cent.

Do you really think the “Have-yachts” will be paying for these cuts?

Further reading: George Osborne’s credibility gap (Alistair Darling, Guardian)

Have the Tories taken leave of their senses? (Michael Meacher, blog article)

From the DWP to the economy – the Coalition’s growing credibility chasm (Vox Political, June 2, 2013)

Treasury responds to Vox’s austerity challenge (Vox Political, May 13, 2013)

From the DWP to the economy – the Coalition’s growing credibility chasm

All the wrong things for all the wrong reasons: The evidence shows no good reason for George Osborne's economic austerity policies - other than, possibly, an intention to rob this nation of everything possible before 2015.

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?

So let’s turn once again to George Osborne’s reasons for pursuing economic austerity, as described in the letter Vox Political received from the UK Treasury last month.

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.

But we know that this isn’t true. The UK’s credit rating was downgraded only a few months ago. Did interest rates rise? Was our ability to borrow hindered at all? No. There’s a reason for that.

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).

You’ll recall that my letter to the Chancellor was prompted by the revelation that the academic paper on which he relied most often, by Reinhart and Rogoff, had been proved to be mistaken. The Treasury’s response pulled out a series of references to other academic works suggesting a fiscal cliff similar to the Reinhart-Rogoff model, off which we would drop if the national debt passed an arbitrary level around 85-90 per cent of GDP. These were published by the International Monetary Fund, which we know isn’t quite as keen on austerity as it used to be; the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which this blog marked out as “schizoid” only a few days ago; and others.

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.

But, then, according to Dean Baker of the Center (yes, it’s American) for Economic and Policy Research: “As a general rule economists are not very good at economics.”

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.”