The Tories’ Plan to sink the (non)recovery

Oh come on guys! Are you doing this specifically to annoy me?

George Osborne should introduce emergency tax breaks paid for by welfare cuts to “shock” the UK economy back to life,  according to the Conservative MP Liam FoxFox called for capital gains tax, currently set at 28%, to be suspended and reintroduced after three years at 10%. These should be paid for by benefit cuts, said Fox… “We need to have a look at everything that we have in terms of paternity leave and all the other things that are there.” He added: “With the sort of economic problems that we face in the UK it is irrational and unreasonable to expect that those in work should keep all their social benefits and workplace benefits should be protected, at the cost of making the next generation unemployed. That is not a sustainable generational compact.”

Liam Fox is proposing a policy which will make the slump worse, not better. Sadly, Liam Fox has chosen to drop this clanger behind the Times paywall so I can’t find the exact quotes or policy. Presuming, rather generously, this is not just a political salvo and is a thought through policy. On its own terms it completely fails, let me explain why.

Let’s leave aside the unsubtle class war and the political manoeuvring – other blogs do that better – and assume this is a serious policy. What effect would it have?

I want to ignore the small details (like fathers not seeing their children grow up or people pushed into poverty) and focus on the macroeconomics, because that is the sort of hip, cool blog this has become daddio. Fox is portraying this as a “shock” treatment to promote a rapid economic recovery. This is bullshit, in the classic sense of the word. Fox is indifferent to whether it is true, it just sounds good, so he says it. The policy is a jobs killer.

To understand why just think of Fox as the anti-Simon Wren-Lewis. David proposes a balanced budget multiplier. If the problem today is too little demand and a fragile debt market then the solution is normally simple – cut interest rates. At the moment interest rates are at zero so some help from fiscal policy may be necessary. [1] Normally this refers to deficit spending, but if you’re genuinely worried about debt this is unacceptable. You’re left with one option, raise spending and raise taxes. In doing so you increase demand because, although all the money is spent now, some of the money taken as taxes comes out of savings, not consumption. This means aggregate  consumption increases temporarily. No increase in debt, but more demand.

Liam Fox is demanding the opposite cut taxes and cut spending. In his scheme welfare payments are cut; this self evidently leads to less spending because nearly all benefits are spent. They are cut to give businesses and the wealthy a tax cut, some of which will be saved. We know lots of it will be saved because firms are already sitting on a cashpile of £64bn, which they are not spending. So if make the safe assumption that Liam Fox is proposing this policy to be fiscally neutral, then there will be no increase in debt, but there will be less demand.

Quite how a policy which reduces aggregate demand is meant to “shock” the UK economy into recovery, I don’t know. Thus I conclude: Liam Fox, bullshitter and class warrior.


[1] The Bank of England could theoretically offset a policy this stupid, but will they? Well, with the most incompetent central banker in Britain’s history behind the tiller, I’m not confident enough to try. Fox is either a brave man or an idiot…draw your own conclusions from that little thought experiment.


Is Osborne being squeezed from all sides?

Vincent Cable. Photograph: David Levene

The FT reports that “cabinet ministers”  – it’s Vince Cable, everybody knows it’s Vince! – are looking into completely nationalising RBS and setting it to work directly lending to firms in an effort to boost growth. It would cost £5bn to buy the remainder of RBS and the betting I expect is that this would be paid for several times over if the purchase leads to even a modest increase in growth. Yet, this is the same Vince Cable who asked “What tools does the Government have?” and responded:

The first is continued use of monetary policy, and stronger communication of the policy aim it is meant to achieve – robust recovery in money spending and GDP.

This is what has confused me. Taking over RBS seems to be a losing proposition because were RBS – or the newly formed national investment bank – to boost lending it would eventually lead to firms expanding production and hitting bottle necks. Those bottle necks would cause price increase and those price increases would lead to tightening from the Bank of England. The action would be entirely self defeating.

There seems to be only a couple of ways to explain Vince’s economic policy in view of his previous comments. One is that there is a supply side problem in the banking system. The banking system is currently in a stable equilibrium where no banks are lending much and it doesn’t make commercial sense for any bank to break ranks because unless others join and encourage growth it will fail. The government is there to overcome this and move the banking industry to a high lending equilibrium. Overcoming this problem would actually lend a deflationary pressure to the economy by improving productivity and encourage more stimulus from the Bank of England.

The second justification for Vince’s policy is that no longer doesn’t believe that changing the Bank of England’s mandate to target nominal GDP is enough. Given Vince’s past comments I don’t think either explanation for this policy is really convincing. Vince has always emphasised the Chuck Norris effects of a NGDP target for the Bank: communication is the tool, not the banking channel. I then got reminiscing and thought…where had I heard of combining a nominal GDP target with directed lending to firms…why its good-egg of the liberal blogosphere and coalition apparatchik Giles Wilkes’  Centre Forum paper “Credit Where it’s Due” of course!

It looks like what is being discussed is the second plank of Giles’ prefer policy:

The Bank should start by targeting a high level of nominal growth until the economy is performing at its potential. This will reassure the private sector that liquidity won’t dry up in the near future, and so encourage more investment now. The second step should be for ‘credit easing’ to replace ‘quantitative easing’.

But why start with the second, less potent policy? Politics.

Then it occurred to me. George Osborne is facing as much pressure  to change course from within the Cabinet as from without.

It looks like a rearguard action is being fought within the Government to upset Osborne’s deficit cutting and investment cutting first policy platform. This is unsurprising, the coalition is presided over a lost decade in progress and that does terrible things for your reelection chances, especially for the Lib Dems.

As I’ve pointed, ad nauseum, the Chancellor can change the Bank of England’s mandate to adopt NGDP level targeting at any time, but there are political risks to doing anything unconventional and Osborne seems loathe to deviate from the script. Osborne is very much a part-time Chancellor but he is a full-time political operator.

Perhaps there is a worry in Government that changing the Bank mandate alone will be insufficiently convincing for firms and markets, it may be that this policy is a supporting plank of one that will be much more effective. And perhaps, more importantly, there is a worry in parts of government that they will not be able to convince another part of government change the Bank’s mandate unless the groundwork has been laid to make it politically acceptable.

So although the nationalisation of RBS may prove good policy in the end, it may be that its political power is more important than its economic significance. Although it doesn’t strike me as necessarily the best way run a bank, given that we’re already screwed and convincing expansionary monetary policy is our only hope, I’ll see how this one plays out.

Dear David Cameron,

Thanks for the speech, it was great, oh boy, was it great (snigger). Just a few questions for you.

1) Do you think that a man was given leave to remain in the UK because he owned a cat, and that separating a man from his cat breaches his human rights?

Because, that is incorrect. Not only is it incorrect, but you and your Home Secretary should know that. The cat was immaterial to the decision to grant leave to remain and the Home Office themselves knew that. 1.2) Are all your attacks on human rights based on such flimsy evidence?

2) Do you really think “even mighty America is being questioned about her debts”?

The US can borrow over 10 years at 1.76%, that isn’t what it looks like when your debts are being questioned. This is what it looks like when your debt is being questioned. It appears people have never been more desperate for US debt and that the only reason the US has wavered is nutty Republicans in government holding the country to ransom.

3) Do you really think Government, consumers and business can all pay down debt simultaneously, just as the UK’s main export market explodes?

If everyone reduces their outgoings at once…how can anyone’s incomings increase at all? What you are proposing amounts to nothing less than a return to recession. Moreover, you own Office for Budget Responsibility predicts the exact opposite to happen to that which you personally want/expect. They predict household debt to increase rapidly because this is the only way for your deficit reduction plan – and I use the term plan lightly – to work.

I’ll be very grateful for your response as soon as possible, maybe before the economy returns to growth please.