Austerity or growth-Cameron flips and flops

23 11 2009

David Cameron appears to have realised, as I predicted, that his party’s call for austerity is not terribly appealing. He is now talking af the need to promote economic growth. At this stage there is no substance behind the talk and it seems to be as rhetorical as his earlier call for austerity.

There are really only two main ways in which government can influence what happens in a market economy. The first is at the level of political leadership. This means that government sets an agenda for the nation, and creates a legislative framework to enable the agenda to operate. In that sense focussing on the need for growth is a step in the right direction. However, even at this level it is important to identify what the barriers to growth are that need to be overcome.

In the UK, some of these are historical and structural and to do with the shape of the UK economy, particularly its over-reliance on financial services. Some are to do with social and cultural factors, particularly the culture of risk aversion which has enveloped our society in the recent past. One of the main dangers as we creep out of the recession is that the lessons we learn may make us even more risk averse at a time when boldness is at a premium.

A new report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) for example predicts that businesses will adopt ‘a more balanced, less risky pathway to growth’. This may seem sensible in the aftermath of a recession, except that it contains the wrong assumption that it was risky behaviour which created the recession in the first place. This has now become the default position of those who have tried to explain the recession, that it was the product of risky behaviour in the financial sector.

It is vital that we do not allow this interpretation to remain unchallenged. The bubbles in the financial and housing sector which preceded the recession were the product of a stagnant economy, not caused by risky behaviour. Real productive investment in the UK and other western economies was seen as too long term and risky and has declined in favour of speculation. The bankers were responding to a demand for risk free investment with high returns hence the boosting of both the housing sector, seen as a one way bet, and the slicing and dicing of investments to spread the risk.

The second area in which governments can affect what happens in the economy is in the areas they have direct control over such as education, civil administration, health and infrastructural projects. The main danger here is that without an overall plan of how to revive the economy, decisions will be short term  and based on trying to placate public opinion. Here we can see the dangers of the weakness of the political class at its most exposed. Without the confidence to make long term decisions, which may be unpopular, the decline of the UK threatens to become a self fulfilling event.

What all these factors mean when put together is that collectively there is little belief that we can become a dynamic economic nation once again. One can sense that behind the flip-flopping of Cameron on the economy lies a genuine lack of belief that major change can be effected. In the absence of  clarity on this issue it is very unlikely that real political leadership in the form of agenda setting will emerge.

Politicians pay the price for the recession

11 05 2009

Since the recession began, it has felt to me as if economics was coming into line with politics. What does this mean? Since the collapse of the left in the 80s the sphere of ideological disputation in political life has diminished consistently. Politics in the UK has come to be defined as a narrow contest between parties who disagree on very little and who conduct their politics via market research led focus groups. The idea of politics as a place where there is a battle of leadership to determine what direction the country should be going in has faded away. Instead, we have an increasingly personality led and cliquish political class which has shifted to the margins of what most people feel is important in their lives.

Over the past ten years, political leaders, Gordon Brown especially, made a virtue of their support for the expansion of financial services, the housing bubble and the vast increase of credit based consumption . The absence of any alternative to this approach did not matter as long as the bubbles kept inflating.  Brown was able to claim that he had brought an end to boom and bust, although unfortunately as we now know the boom was built on the expansion of credit, paid for by the Chinese and others.  Growth did not happen because the UK had developed a new productive economy, but because the Chinese and other productive developing countries could not find a domestic use for their profits.

The collapse of the financial bubble revealed that the UK economy had not been built on solid ground, rather, as Tony Blair has since admitted, Labour was lucky. Its rule coincided with the availability of cheap credit. The narrowness and introverted character of our political life combined with a blind faith in the market,  encouraged a lack of proper examination of what lay behind the financial and housing bubbles.

Politicians here and elsewhere reacted with shock and disbelief when the recession began.  For a long time they could not believe that their faith in the explosion of financial services could have been wrong. When they did begin to react they tried to avert attention from their own complicity in what had happened by trying to pin the blame on greedy bankers.  This should have been the time to launch into a proper debate about what went wrong and to try to work out a new approach to the economy. Instead, having blamed ‘greed’ for the recession they set themselves up perfectly for their current humiliations over their expenses.

Now we are in a very dire state. We have a political class which is lacking in ideas and credibility. We have an economy which has lost its driving force. What can we do about these problems? These and other issues will be at the core of the discussion at the Battle for The Economy next weekend.

Every recession is different

29 04 2009

This is the message of Sean Collins’ excellent new essay, The ‘credit crunch’: another Great Depression?  where he looks at the difference between the slump in the 1930s and the recession today. As he quite rightly points out, every recession is different and therefore demands a different approach in terms of a resolution. Collins lists the following aspects of this recession which mark it out from the 30s: 

1) As the post-war boom ended, the major economies encountered significant problems of stagnant profitability in productive industries. These problems were not fundamentally addressed by the recessions of the 1970s, 1980s or the early 1990s, and remain to this day. Extreme examples of the holdover of unprofitable businesses are the American car manufacturers GM and Chrysler.

2) As the economy grows, so too will the credit and the financial sphere. However, a trend in the major economies is for this sphere to grow at a faster pace than the real economy. Especially noticeable since the 1987 stock market crash was the trend for stagnancy in production leading to surplus capital, which found outlets in an even more extensive expansion of credit and a greater development of (and reliance on) finance as an income-generating area. This development explains the stock market and housing bubbles, as well as the proliferation of financial instruments.

3) A turning point was the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, which, among other things, lessened international tensions and weakened labour movements. In the global arena, we see greater export of capital and goods from the developed countries, and the expansion of production in emerging markets. A significant development is the opening up of new points of production in China and other parts of Asia.

4) The easing of tensions following the end of the Cold War also gave the market system much more room to manoeuvre, without the need for destructive, cleansing recessions. This allowed capitalism to survive without traditional boom-bust cycles, otherwise known as the ‘Great Moderation’ and ‘SAD’ (stable, anaemic, durable) period. Many have welcomed that recessions became milder and less frequent, but the downside was that growth was muted. Another self-imposed constraint in this period are ‘green’ measures that restrict expansion. 

5) The wide expansion of credit, including debt-fuelled consumption, was not sustainable. No one could anticipate when the limit of the credit system would be reached. But now we know: it was precipitated by the US sub-prime crisis, with domino effects across finance and into other sectors.

6) The problems in the productive sphere in the major economies continue today (and arguably more in the US and UK than in Germany and Japan). The ‘deleveraging’ effect from the credit crisis has not fully played out, and is likely to be destructive. In particular, the fallout from this severe asset-based recession will now curb both key drivers of previous 10 to 15 years of economic activity: bank lending/financial activity and consumer spending, leaving a question mark over future sources of growth.

Read this alongside Gavin Poynter’s analysis of the UK economy and you get a very compelling case for the specificities of the problems we face.

At The Battle for the Economy conference in London on May 16 (2009) we will be attempting to tackle some of the issues raised by Sean and Gavin. Lazy comparisons with the past are out, as are false hopes that the underlying problems will just go away.  Our politicians are ducking many of the central issues and at best they are offering us a future of austerity – it will be a great discussion so buy your tickets now.