There is a debate going on in the House of Lords today on the economy. It was intended as platform for the new Treasury Minister, Lord Deighton, to strut his stuff.
However instead Labour’s Lord John Eatwell eviscerated the Government’s economic policy and its (lack of) growth policy:
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure for me to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, to the Dispatch Box and to congratulate him on his appointment to the Treasury team. It is always a special delight to see one’s former pupils do so well. When I marked his economic essays back in the mid-1970s, I never imagined—nor do I suppose did he—that we would find ourselves in this situation. I think it is appropriate to report that his essays were typically examples of excellent economic analysis, and I hope and believe that he will put those skills to good use in re-educating the Treasury. It certainly needs it.
Today, he has been placed in an extraordinarily difficult position. It is rather difficult to defend the Government’s growth record when there is none—growth, that is. The latest figures are truly awful, with no growth at all in 2012, despite the heroic efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, and his team at the Olympics.
Taking the longer view, since the Government’s spending review in the fourth quarter of 2010, when it might be said that coalition policies replaced Labour policies, the UK economy has grown by just 0.4% over that entire period. Over the same period, the USA has grown by 4.2%, Germany by 3.6% and France by 1.5%. Accordingly, while the UK economy is now still over 3% below its pre-crisis peak, the USA is 2.5% above and Germany is 2% above.
The question before us today is: in the situation in which we find ourselves, what is to be done? How can we get Britain back on to a secure growth path? Should we follow the recommendations of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that we stick with austerity, accepting his declaration that “Britain is on the right path”? Let us call this plan A. Or should we adopt plan B, following the advice of Adam Posen, former member of the Monetary Policy Committee, and particularly of Olivier Blanchard, chief economist of the IMF, who said last week,
“if things look bad at the beginning of 2013—which they do—then there should be a reassessment of fiscal policy … We think that slower fiscal consolidation in some form may well be appropriate”.
That is the IMF view on Britain.
The answer to our question, “What do we do?”—the fundamental issue in this debate—rests on a consideration of three issues. First, how did the Government get into this mess and are they tackling it in the best way? Secondly, what is necessary to restore the UK economy to growth? Thirdly, what is there to prevent us following this path of restoration?
So, first, how did we get into this mess? As the noble Lord said, the Government inherited the terrible economic consequences of the international financial crisis—everyone agrees about that. These consequences were and are particularly severe for a country as dependent on financial services as we are. But then the crucial question is: in the past two and a half years, have the coalition’s policies made things better or worse?
The previous Chancellor, my right honourable friend Alistair Darling, had been battling the crisis since 2008, and by the spring of 2010 he had succeeded in beginning to turn things around. Recovery was under way at a similar rate to that in the US and Germany, so that George Osborne inherited an economy growing at an annual rate in excess of 2%. He killed that recovery stone dead. He destroyed business confidence by preaching the coalition dogma of austerity and by foolish and demeaning comparisons with the plight of Greece and other eurozone countries without their own currency and exchange rate; he slashed public investment so that in the past three years the Government have spent £12.8 billion less in capital investment than Alistair Darling had planned; and, with savage glee, the coalition set about shrinking the state and impoverishing the poor. This is all justified in terms of the Tory manifesto commitment to eliminate the deficit in one Parliament—a commitment, by the way, which will not be kept, for the deficit is not falling.
Recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that public sector net borrowing in the first nine months of fiscal 2012-13 was about £107 billion compared with £99 billion in the same period last year—a rise of 7.3%. I repeat: the deficit is over 7% up on the equivalent period last year. So the answer to the first question is that the coalition inherited a very difficult but recovering economic situation and proceeded to make it much, much worse.
What should be done to turn the position around again and to set the economy on a new growth path or, to put the question in a more practical fashion, how can businesses be encouraged to invest? Firms invest because they are reasonably confident in the future demand for their products. Without demand, if they are shackled by a framework of fiscal discipline, as referred to by the noble Lord, it does not matter how much cheap money there is, as no one will invest. That is why monetary policy is not working. Interest rates can go no lower and the first positive announcement effect of quantitative easing has now worn off. Quantitative easing may be inflating asset prices and ruining pension funds but cheap money will not encourage investment when the Government are intent on slowing the growth of demand.
However, if there is a prospect of growing demand then, to invest, firms need finance and access to the very best skills and technologies to secure markets in a competitive world. Demand is the key to making all the measures that the noble Lord referred to as his fourth pillar work.
That is why my right honourable friend Ed Balls has proposed a temporary cut in VAT to boost family incomes, together with the boost to demand and capacity that would result from bringing forward infrastructure investment, including building thousands of affordable homes. Enhanced demand prospects would then be underpinned by a British investment bank to boost lending to small businesses, complementing fundamental regulatory reform of the banks. To sustain confidence there should be a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed and, further up the employment chain, investment in skills and in transformational science and technology. That is plan B.
Why cannot this be done? “Because”, cry the coalition, “it’s a policy for borrowing more when debt is the problem”, and we heard a similar statement from the noble Lord today. But hang on, at the moment, as we all know to our cost, spending cuts are resulting in a growing deficit. How can this be happening? The IMF has provided the answer and it, at least, has acknowledged its earlier mistaken commitment to austerity.
The answer lies in the relationship between changes in spending and the overall performance of the economy. This is measured by what, in the economics jargon that the noble Lord and I used to discuss, is called the multiplier. If a cut in government spending of, say, £2 billion results, for whatever reason, in a fall of output of just £1 billion, then the multiplier is a half. That is what the IMF believed the multiplier to be back in 2009. The share of taxes in output is about 40%, so if government spending is cut by £2 billion and output falls by £1 billion, tax revenues fall by about £400 million. The fall in tax revenues is much less than the cut in spending, and so the deficit falls by £1.6 billion. That was the policy that the Government thought they were implementing.
However, what if the multiplier happens to be bigger than that? Supposing that it is as large as 2.5, the cut in spending results in a fall in tax revenue of exactly the same amount. You can go on cutting taxes until the cows come home and there will be no change in the deficit at all. All that will happen is that the economy will be driven further and further into the mire of depression.
In acknowledging a previous error, the IMF estimated the multiplier to be a bit less than two, so a £2 billion cut in government spending will drive the economy down by about £4 billion and, when cuts in revenue are taken into account, the deficit will fall by only £400 million. Throw in a depressed European Union and you arrive at our current miserable situation: ever bigger cuts and a growing deficit. But the good news is that what goes down can also go up. What if government spending is increased by £2 billion and the multiplier, optimistically, is 2.5? The economy then grows by £5 billion and the increase in tax revenues pays for the extra spending; there is no extra borrowing at all. I repeat: increased spending results in no extra net borrowing. Plan B is a strategy to cut government spending. And there is more. The government cuts—particularly those disastrous cuts in government investment—not only reduce output now by cutting demand; as the OBR has pointed out, they also cut future output by reducing the real productive capacity of the economy.
As I was saying, there is more to it than that. As the OBR has pointed out, government cuts in investment cut future output by reducing the real productive capacity of the economy. This long-term loss of output brings with it a long-term reduction in tax revenue, in addition to the medium-term effect that I have just outlined. In other words, the Government are not just failing to cut the deficit now; they are increasing deficits for years to come. By contrast, if the IMF is right, the measures proposed by my right honourable friend will be substantially self-financing in the medium term and will stimulate tax revenues in excess of spending in the longer term. This point has also been argued by the Harvard professor and former US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers.
Before we sign up to plan B, however, another issue must be confronted. Today, any Government’s finances can be devastated by a loss of confidence in the international bond markets. The noble Lord referred to this. After a particularly violent example of sovereign bond market hysteria, James Carville, the political adviser to President Clinton, famously remarked,
“I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope … But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody”.
Well, the bond market certainly seems to have intimidated the coalition. Whenever its destructive policies are challenged, it argues that unless the vice on Britain is tightened, the financial markets will lose confidence, interest rates will rise and any prospect of recovery will be destroyed.
There are three things wrong with that argument. First, no one is suggesting a spending spree. Plan B is a cautious expansion to begin the task of building the foundations for growth. Secondly, it is austerity that is now undermining market confidence. All three of the main credit rating agencies—Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch—have put Britain on “negative outlook”, citing concerns over the weak recovery and the public finances.
Thirdly, let us consider the experience of the United States, which lost its AAA rating last year. Would you rather have our AAA rating and zero growth or the lower US rating and 3% growth in the last quarter? I know which I would prefer.
The noble Lord, Lord Deighton, outlined in his speech a number of desirable measures that the Government can take to help to build productive capacity—the structural measures to which he devoted the majority of his speech. However, the Chancellor’s commitment to cutting demand and shrinking the state—less Bullingdon Club, more Tea Party—is eliminating any significant impact of those worthy measures. The Government’s attempt to stimulate growth has been a failure; the Government’s attempt to cut the deficit is a failure; and, if informed predictions are correct, even the Government’s attempts to preserve Britain’s AAA rating in the markets will prove to be a failure.
The coalition is now responsible for the longest slump in the British economy in the past century—longer than the great depression—yet last week George Osborne said something truly chilling. He said:
“We can either run away from these problems or we can confront them and I am determined to confront them”.
What is it in the word “failure” that George Osborne does not understand? For the sake of this country’s economy, it is time for him to run away. He is the living embodiment of plan A and must accept responsibility for its failure. Perhaps I may suggest that an excellent replacement as Chancellor would be my former pupil, the noble Lord, Lord Deighton.”