• What Happened to the Money?

    Larry Elliott is right to ask in Tuesday’s Guardian why 16.5 billion of quantitative easing made available by the Bank of England to the commercial banks through the funding for lending scheme has failed to show up in increased lending to the small and medium-sized businesses which desperately need a boost to their available funding. He is also right to dismiss the lame excuses offered by both the Bank of England and the commercial banks to explain why such lending has actually fallen rather risen since the same time last year.

    We are, of course, all paying the price, in a slower recovery from recession, higher unemployment, less investment and more business failures, for the fact that this resource, rather than being used, languishes in the banks’ coffers – so we all have an interest in why it has happened. The bad news is that the reasons for it are part of a much wider and longer-term picture.

    The excuses trotted out include the age-old claim by British banks that the comparatively low level of their lending to business does not evidence any reluctance to do so, but merely a shortage of demand – or, to put it another way, a shortage of suitable projects on which to lend. But no sense of this can be made unless we know not only how much is available to lend but also – and more importantly – the terms on which the banks are offering to lend.

    And that is precisely, of course, what we are not allowed to know. The banks are always very coy about the terms they offer. But, in the absence of information made available by the banks, we are entitled to make some assumptions on the basis of what is known of the long-term attitude of the British banking system to lending to industry.

    The information that is available shows that, by comparison with other and more successful economies, our banks lend over a shorter term – the repayment period, in other words, is shorter. This means that the annual repayment costs of bank loans for British firms over the life of the loan are much higher, the adverse impact on cash-flow is therefore more severe, and the need to make an immediate return on investment (and a quick boost to profitability) is much greater.

    My colleague, George Tait Edwards, has shown that annual repayment costs that are two, three or even five times lower are a large part of the reason for the greater amount and ease of bank borrowing enjoyed by businesses in, for example, Germany and Japan, and in the new powerhouses of China, Korea and Taiwan – and that is, of course, why they are able to buy and make a profit from our failing assets.

    This is the fons et origo of the much-lamented British disease of short-termism. For many British firms, short-term cash-flow or liquidity is at least as important as longer-term profitability, because it is literally a matter of life and death. It is a factor that both inhibits the willingness to borrow (and therefore the access to essential investment capital) in the first place, and – if the loan is made – greatly increases the chances that it will not and cannot be repaid in accordance with the loan period and terms insisted upon by the banks.

    If, as is all too likely, a business borrowing on these terms runs into difficulties before the return on the investment funded by the borrowing becomes available, the news gets worse. British banks, unlike their overseas counterparts, show little interest in the survival of their customers. Their sole concern is to recover the loan and interest payments due to them over the short period specified in the loan arrangement. If that means receivership or liquidation – even if the business had a good chance of survival were the investment plans funded by the loan allowed to proceed – so be it. The banks can console themselves not only with the return of the loan and other payments due to them sooner than if the business had been allowed to survive but also with the money to be made from the disposal of the assets (sometimes to foreign buyers) and the receivership process.

    Many people are vaguely aware of these factors but our lack of interest in what makes competitor economies more successful than ours – indeed, our conviction that we have nothing to learn from them – blinds us to these truths. It is time we opened our minds and demanded better from our banking system. And shouldn’t these decisions in any case be taken in the public interest and not those of self-interested bankers?

    Bryan Gould

    4 June 2013

  • An Economic Policy for Labour

    It was significant that, in the seven issues that Tony Blair – in his article last week in the New Statesman – advised Ed Miliband to focus on, there was no mention of the state of the economy.

    It is true that Tony never had much interest in or knowledge of economic policy – a deficiency that might have been an exacerbating factor in his precarious relationship with Gordon Brown. But it is nevertheless surprising that, in identifying the big issues that warrant attention, the parlous state of the economy slipped under the radar.

    Tony Blair is not, of course, alone among leading politicians in disavowing any interest in economic affairs. Most are content to accept advice from supposed experts, which usually means (and was certainly true in the case of Gordon Brown) that they have no option but to go along with whatever may be the prevailing orthodoxy.

    Yet the issue of how an economy should be run and in whose interests is surely the central issue in democratic politics. The ability to think for oneself and to judge the merits of conflicting views should surely be a minimum requirement of anyone who seeks to run the country.

    We see today where the orthodoxy of the past thirty years has got us. It is one of the welcome changes that Eds Miliband and Balls have brought about that there is now a disposition in the Labour party to challenge that orthodoxy. There is certainly an appetite for such a change by virtue of a growing if belated realisation in the general public that the old nostrums have failed.

    What is needed now is more courage, not less – a focus on positive change (which these days means no more than a moderate Keynesianism) and a conscious effort to move the debate’s centre of gravity; the Blair advice to fight shy of any genuine clash of ideas is surely misplaced – not only representing a missed electoral opportunity but a betrayal of the interests that Labour should be fighting for.

    Labour should be ready to take on the tired and discredited proponents of austerity, monetarism and the “free” market with some bold new (or, in most cases, revived) thinking. What about, for example, abandoning the backward-looking and static view of the economy taken by monetarism (and the irrational reliance on austerity to recover from recession) in favour of a recognition of the great power of a competitive market economy to grow – like the US at the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Chinese today? The new Governor of the Bank of England is signalling that he is already looking at this approach.

    What about addressing that issue of competitiveness, or lack of it, that has held us back and constantly threatened inflation and trade deficits when we have tried to grow, by making improved competitiveness the central determinant of policy – as Singapore does?

    Why not tackle that issue by ensuring that – as Keynes warned – a shortage of money (for which read credit) does not hold us back, but that the credit that is created is put to productive purposes by being channelled, with the aid of an industrial strategy agreed with government, business and banks, into strengthening our neglected manufacturing base?

    What about using specific and focused measures to control inflation through restraining bank credit creation for non-productive purposes, so that the real and positive purpose of macro-economic policy – the productive use of all our resources, and the achievement of full employment in particular – become the main focus?

    And why not restore such macro-economic goals to their proper place in a democratic society – as the prime responsibility of elected and accountable governments, rather than being sub-contracted to unaccountable and self-serving bankers? And when government uses its power to “print money”, shouldn’t we ensure that those resources help industry through productive investment rather than sitting unused while they boost the balance sheets of the banks?

    And should we not nail forever the canard that we have to choose between social justice on the one hand and economic efficiency on the other? We have seen just how economically efficient is an economy that is run in the interests of a privileged few. There is nothing economically efficient about placing huge purchasing power in fewer and fewer hands, about allowing the wealthiest to treat the meeting of their tax obligations as a minor voluntary donation, about keeping large numbers out of work so that they are claimants rather producers, about leaving manufacturing flat on its back, about using vast amounts of money from both the taxpayer and the central bank to boost the banks’ balance sheets while both demand and investment remain depressed.

    A real debate about economic policy would produce great benefits – not just for the party brave enough to initiate it, but for the country as well.

    Bryan Gould

    15 April 2013

  • George Osborne’s Non-Event

    George Osborne’s budget was driven by an obvious political imperative but was, in economic terms, largely a non-event. The major interest, such as it was, lay in the minor adjustments offered to long-suffering consumers in the forlorn hope that they would be cheered up by cheaper beer and marginal concessions on income tax, and might not therefore notice that their jobs, services and living standards are still under constant threat.

    In terms of the wider economy, the Chancellor’s stance was “steady as he goes”; after nearly three years of his stewardship and in the sixth year of recession, nothing much, it seems, needed to change.

    There was no recognition that austerity as a response to recession had not only been invalidated by experience, both in the UK and in Europe, but had also, as a consequence, been rejected – following a review of their earlier recommendations – by the IMF. The Chancellor was apparently unconcerned that output still lagged behind its pre-recession peak, and that the government borrowing, whose reduction he had identified as one of his primary goals, had continued – reflecting the depressed level of economic activity – to grow as a percentage of GDP.

    So little account was taken of the most obvious and pressing problems facing the economy that one must wonder whether the Chancellor’s focus is political and social, rather than economic. It may well be that his unstated agenda is to take advantage of the recession to unleash forces and drive through measures that will change the balance of advantage between rich and poor, private business and the public sector, for a generation.

    The Chancellor may well be, in other words, an (perhaps – if one is being generous) unwitting heir to a long and dishonourable tradition, epitomised by Andrew Mellon, the multimillionaire US Treasury Secretary, who called upon employers in the depths of the Great Depression to “liquidate labour”.

    Austerity, and the withdrawal of government, represent, after all, increased space for private enterprise (though the Chancellor seems not to have noticed that manufacturing is so enfeebled that it is unable to take advantage of any supposed opportunities); and even the resulting failure to get the economy moving has a silver lining, in that it guarantees that unemployment remains an actual and potential restraint on wage growth.

    What was needed from the Chancellor in his Budget speech was so far removed from what was in his mind that there seems scarcely any point in rehearsing it. But the Budget speech would have made a positive difference if it had signalled the abandonment of austerity and its replacement by a strategy to recruit government, banking and industry in a joint effort to raise the level of demand, to provide finance for productive investment, to coordinate an industrial strategy focusing on those areas of manufacturing that represent the best possibilities for growth, and to frame a macro-economic policy with competitiveness rather than inflation control at its heart.

    Bryan Gould

    31 March 2013

    This article was written for Palgrave Macmillan’s newsletter.

  • George Osborne’s Deep Hole

    Whatever George Osborne may say on Wednesday in his budget speech, he cannot extricate himself from the wreckage that now surrounds him. He may be just about the last person in Britain to believe that austerity offers a credible path to recovery from recession – and it may be doubted that even he remains a true believer. The repeated fall back into recession, a government deficit that goes on rising, and the loss of the country’s top credit rating are surely enough to shake the confidence of even the most arrogant and obtuse practitioner of the dismal science.

    The Chancellor’s continued commitment to austerity has made a significant personal contribution to the digging of an economic hole from which there now seems no discernible path to recovery. Perhaps his only saving grace is that he should not be left to bear the burden of that responsibility alone.

    As a long-time critic of British economic policy under successive governments, I hear the flapping wings of chickens coming home to roost; for the truth is that the current difficulties – and the imminent prospect of long-term economic decline – are the inevitable consequences of decades of mistaken policy choices and the worship of false gods.

    It is hard to grasp, even now, just how thoroughly and comprehensively the favoured nostrums of the last four decades – those nostrums that have guided our fortunes over the whole of that period – have now been disproved and discredited. Let us look at some of them in turn.

    Take the propositions that the market (and especially financial markets) can be accurately predicted on the basis of mathematical models, that they are self-correcting and do not therefore need regulation, and that any intervention in unregulated markets will automatically produce results that will be worse than if they had been left alone. As Keynes warned, and experience in the form of the global financial crisis has confirmed, markets – and financial markets in particular – are all too likely, if unregulated, to lead to excess and collapse.

    Or, what about the belief – maintained for more than three decades – that macro-economic policy is not a matter for government but is a simple matter of restraining inflation – an essentially technical task through setting interest rates that can safely be entrusted to unaccountable bankers? Do we still believe that monetary policy is all that is needed for a healthy economy? Or that it is any more effective than pushing on a piece of string as a means of escaping from recession? Or – when we look to more successful economies overseas – that there is no role for government?

    And what about the related confidence displayed in the expertise and objectivity of bankers in running our economy? Do we still believe that bankers have the common interest at heart and do not make decisions to suit themselves? Are we happy that they continue to enjoy the astonishing privilege, as private monopolies, of creating money out of nothing, thereby exercising hugely more power over our fortunes than do elected governments?

    What do we think of the faith placed by successive governments, not least by New Labour, in the financial services industry as the means of paying our way in the world? Do we still accept that the huge fortunes made by a few in a largely unregulated City represented real and sustainable wealth-creation in which the rest of us would share?

    Even more importantly, what do we think of the careless assumption that focusing on financial services made it unnecessary to concern ourselves with our manufacturing base? Do we now understand that the loss of manufacturing means – now that the chips are down – that we are denied the most reliable way of maintaining our standard of living, the most important source of innovation, the most substantial creator of new jobs, the most effective stimulus to improved productivity and the provider of the quickest return on investment?

    Do we understand that globalisation has meant, with the removal of exchange controls, that major global investors can now move huge volumes of money – totalling as much in a single day as the total annual production of most economies – from one country to another, and have thereby disabled democratic governments from doing anything to protect us?

    And do we understand that the combined effect of all these policies has been to create a huge mechanism for shifting wealth and resource from the poor to the rich, and that it is that which is responsible, rather than any great ability or virtue on the part of the rich, for the widening inequality that weakens and disfigures our society?

    Underpinning all of this is a fundamental failure – an obstinate refusal to recognise that the world has changed and that, with the rise of newly efficient economies around the globe, we have no innate right to have a privileged standard of living delivered to us on a plate. The fact is that the UK has been a fundamentally uncompetitive economy ever since the 1970s, but we have preferred to avert our gaze from this uncomfortable truth.

    The issue of competitiveness is not recognised, let alone discussed in Britain; yet much more successful economies use measures of competitiveness as their guide to what is required from macro-economic policy. We, on the other hand, have preferred to take refuge in a range of nostrums that we can now see have little merit.

    George Osborne’s budget will be scrutinised for signals that tiny changes in direction might be forthcoming and that salvation might lie therein. But the budget will be a minor factor in an economic dilemma which George Osborne – and his predecessors – have spent painstaking decades in creating.

    Bryan Gould

    17 March 2013.

    Bryan Gould’s new book Myths, Politicians, and Money will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year.

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 18 March.

  • I Told You So

    Jonathan Freedland, in last week’s Guardian, congratulates the UK Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, on being able to claim the rare privilege in politics of saying “I told you so”. Balls had warned in 2010 that austerity would not pull the UK out of recession – a prediction now in the course of being amply confirmed.

    It is certainly true that, for most politicians, claiming to have been proved right is rarely possible – and, even if it is occasionally justified, it is not usually a claim calculated to endear the claimant to his audience. So, Ed Balls is fortunate to have someone else make the claim for him.

    The claim is usually, of course, only of interest if it can be made by or on behalf of a frontline practising politician – someone who either does or might one day exercise the power of government, and whose fitness to do so would perhaps accordingly be enhanced.

    The claim is even more difficult to make – and of considerably less interest – if made by someone who has long since departed the scene. So why – 18 years after I decided to leave British politics – should I think it worthwhile to make that claim in my own name now?

    The answer is that I left British politics in 1994 because I despaired of being able to persuade my colleagues in the Labour party that they were pursuing the wrong course on a wide range of issues. And, since it is precisely those issues which have dominated news headlines over recent times, there is now the chance of assessing who was right and who was wrong.

    What were those issues? First, the dominant role assumed by the City in British economic policy, something enthusiastically endorsed and encouraged by successive governments.

    In 1986, I led for the Opposition when the Financial Services Bill was debated in Standing Committee, and warned repeatedly that self-regulation, “light-handed” regulation, or no regulation at all, would allow unregulated financial markets to subject us all to unacceptable risks – risks that eventually materialised with a vengeance with the Global Financial Crisis.

    From even further back, I had argued consistently that macro-economic policy was being formulated in the interests of the financial economy, rather than the “real” or productive economy, and that this was creating a serious structural imbalance which would eventually come back to bite us. That view was dismissed in the euphoria engendered by the sight of large fortunes being made in the City. Like Winston Churchill, I would rather have seen “Industry more content, and Finance less proud.”

    Then, there was the euro. My argument that the euro, imposing as it did a single and inappropriate monetary policy on a wide range of diverse economies, could not possibly work, had been preceded by my opposition to the euro’s predecessors – the European Monetary System and the Exchange Rate Mechanism, both of which had failed. I was constantly dismissed as “anti-European”, despite my contention that it was the concept of Europe itself that was being put at risk. I was eventually stripped of responsibility for policy-making on this issue.

    And what about the current controversy over News International? I recall being invited to lunch by Rupert Murdoch in 1988. In retrospect, it is a reasonable assumption that he was interested in how malleable I might be (I was then the Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary) in responding to his ambitions. I remember little of the lunch but I am quite certain that I offered a less pliable prospect than some of my successors clearly have done since – and I remained throughout extremely concerned at and hostile to the dangers posed by the concentration of media ownership.

    And austerity? I salute Ed Balls for his foresight in warning that austerity by itself takes us further into recession, and that we need a strategy for growth. But we are saddled with the current sterile orthodoxy because we accepted in the 1980s that the “free” (or unregulated) market must prevail, so that – even in a recession – government must step aside to allow the market to re-establish equilibrium. I have spent most of my political life arguing that markets are irreplaceably valuable but not infallible.

    And, as long ago as 1981, I published – with two colleagues, John Mills and Shaun Stewart – Monetarism Or Prosperity? We argued that macro-economic strategy should be about much more than simply controlling inflation and that we needed a strategy for growth, focusing on full employment, competitiveness and putting the interests of the productive sector first.

    There are many other (and not just economic) issues on which I would claim that events have supported the views I took – the invasion of Iraq, for example, where I was clear long before the invasion that any such action would be disastrous. My purpose, however, is not to claim any special far-sightedness, since there have been many others who have expressed similar views on each and all of these issues.

    What I would claim, however, is that I was one of the very few in mainstream, frontline politics to have taken these views and to have swum against the prevailing tide. On all of these issues, in other words, we had choices – and we have suffered greatly from making the wrong ones.

    Bryan Gould

    1 June 2012