When Is Austerity Necessary At The Treasury?

I have made clear in the past that I believe that the time for austerity at the Treasury is the boom, not the slump.

However this is a very general and non-specific definition. I want to be a little clearer and more specific.

First, I think it is important to define austerity. Government is a two-way street. It sucks in money through taxation, and it pushes out money into incomes through spending. Net government spending is the net of these two figures. Austerity in a technical sense happens when the change in net government spending turns negative either through spending cuts, or through tax hikes, or a combination of the two.

Second, I think it is important to specify that this is not a debate about the ideal size of government. This is a debate about the short-term government spending and taxation trajectory, which is a very different subject to one’s ideal size of government. It is possible to favour very small government in principle, but at times oppose austerity. It is also possible to favour large and expansive government, and at times support austerity.

Now, to be very clear: the time for austerity at the treasury is the time when government activity is crowding out the private sector. When does this occur? Well, the clearest example that I can think of are World War I and World War II. It is easy to imagine how government can smother the private sector in times of war; resources are centrally controlled and directed to the war effort, labour and capital are directed away from productive activities and toward fighting, toward building bombs and weapons to destroy things. There is little slack in the economy, as in total war the state commandeers as much of society as it possibly can toward the war effort. Notably, austerity programs that massively reduced the size of government following the two world wars were successful, and did not have a long-term downward impact on growth.

In peacetime, it is also possible for the government to crowd the private sector out of the economy, in a similar way. By commandeering large quantities of resources, labour and capital, governments can leave little for the private sector to use to create, build and invent.

The two most important parameters to determine whether a government is crowding out the private sector are labour markets and capital markets. In the broadest sense, the specific parameters are interest rates and the unemployment level. When the private sector is being crowded out in labour markets, unemployment falls to a low level, as the government is utilising all the slack. When the private sector is being crowded out in capital markets, interest rates rise to a high level, as the government is utilising all the slack.

Today, both in Britain and the United States unemployment is elevated (meaning labour is freely and readily available) and interest rates are very low (meaning capital is freely and readily available). First, Britain:

UKAusterityParameters

Second, the United States:

USAusterityParameters

What this means is that in a technical sense — and irrespective of one’s preconceived notions of the ideal size of government — government is not crowding out the private sector. There is plenty of slack in the economy in both labour and capital markets.

Yet in another sense — unrelated to spending — governments may be slowing private activity. By imposing high legal and regulatory barriers to entry, governments can slow business investment and prevent new businesses from forming, and the unemployed from becoming self-employed. Given the massive growth of legal and regulatory burdens in certain industries favouring only large and old competitors who can hire lots and lots of expensive lawyers, it is extremely likely the case that there are some negative effects. The OECD noted in 2006 that “administrative simplification and reducing administrative burdens are a very high priority for OECD member countries”, and red tape levels have grown in both sides of the Atlantic since then. I have repeatedly suggested that in the current economic environment governments ease the regulatory and legal burden for small and new businesses in particular to foster competition and lower unemployment.

However cutting back on red tape is a totally separate matter to fiscal austerity, which in the current environment by definition takes an economy with significant capital and labour slack, and creates even more slack.

The time for fiscal austerity at the treasury is a time of high or rising interest rates and low or falling unemployment, and especially when interest rates are higher than the unemployment rate. The reality is that most of the Western world has the opposite of that right now.

Do Creditors Exploit Debtors, or Vice Versa?

I’m asking this question because I think a proper understanding of the answer is a giant leap toward grasping the geopolitical realities of the relationship between America and China.

This discussion was triggered by Noah Smith’s discussion of David Graeber’s ideas on debt, and particularly his idea that debt is a means to “extract wealth” out of others.

Noah Smith on David Graeber:

“Debt,” says Graeber, “is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us.” But sometimes he seems to claim that creditors are extracting wealth from debtors, and sometimes he seems to claim that debtors extract wealth from creditors.

For example, in the Nation article, Graeber tells that The 1% are creditors. We, the people, have had our wealth extracted from us by the lenders. But in his book, Graeber writes that empires extract tribute from less powerful nations by forcing them to lend the empires money. In the last chapter of Debt, Graeber gives the example of the U.S. and China, and claims that the vast sums owed to China by America are, in fact, China’s wealth being extracted as tribute. And in this Businessweek article, Graeber explains that “throughout history, debt has served as a way for states to control their subjects and extract resources from them (usually to finance wars).”

But in both of these latter cases, the “extractor” is the debtor, not the creditor. Governments do not lend to finance wars; they borrow. And the U.S. does not lend to China; we borrow.

So is debt a means by which creditors extract wealth from debtors? Or a means by which debtors extract wealth from creditors? (Can it be both? Does it depend? If so, what does it depend on? How do we look at a debtor-creditor-relationship and decide who extracted wealth from whom?) Graeber seems to view the debtor/creditor relationship as clearly, obviously skewed toward the lender in some sentences, and then clearly, obviously skewed toward the borrower in other sentences.

But these can’t both be clear and obvious.

What Graeber means by “extracting wealth” in the context of a relationship between, say a mortgager and a mortgagee seems to mean the net transfer of interest. It is certainly true on the surface that there is a transfer of wealth from the debtor to the creditor (or from the creditor to the debtor if the debtor defaults).

However, between nations Graeber sees the relationship reversed — that China is being heavily and forcefully encouraged to reinvest its newly-amassed wealth in American debt (something that some Chinese government sources have suggested to be true). But if the flow of interest payments — i.e. from America to China — is the same debtor-to-creditor direction as between any creditor and debtor, then is the relationship really reversed? If China is being forced to amass American debt by the American government, is America effectively forcing China into “extracting its wealth”?

The thing Graeber seems to miss is that the transfer of interest is the payment for a service. That is, the money upfront, with the risk of non-repayment, the risk that the borrower will run off with the money. That risk has existed for eternity. In this context, the debtor-creditor relationship is a double-edged sword. Potentially, a debtor-creditor relationship could be a vehicle for both parties to get something that benefits them — in the case of the debtor, access to capital, and in the case of the creditor, a return on capital.

In the case of China and America, America may choose to pay off the debt in massively devalued currency, or repudiate the debt outright. That’s the risk China takes for the interest payments. (And the counter-risk of course being that if America chooses to repudiate its debt, it risks a war, which could be called the interstate equivalent of debtors’ prison).

Of course, the early signs are that China’s lending will be worth it. Why? Because sustained American demand provided by Chinese liquidity has allowed China to grow into the world’s greatest industrial base, and the world’s biggest trading nation. And it can’t be said that these benefits are not trickling down to the Chinese working class — China’s industrial strength has fuelled serious wage growth in the last few years. Yes — the Chinese central bank is worried about their American dollar holdings being devalued. But I think an inevitable devaluation of their dollar-denominated assets is a small price for the Chinese to pay for becoming a global trading hub, and the world’s greatest industrial base. Similarly, if American firms and governments use cheap Chinese liquidity to strengthen America, for example funding a transition to energy independence, then the cost of interest payments to China are probably worth it. And that is a principle that extends to other debtors — if the credit funds something productive that otherwise could not have been funded, then that is hardly “wealth extraction”. There is the potential for both parties to benefit from the relationship, and the opportunity costs of a world without debt-based funding would seem to be massive.

But what if tensions over debt lead to conflict? It would be foolish to rule out those kinds of possibilities, given the superficial similarities in the relationship between China-America and that of Britain-Germany prior to World War I. It is more than possible for an international creditor-debtor relationship to lead to conflict, perhaps beginning with a trade war, and escalating —  in fact, it has happened multiple times in history.

It is certainly true that devious creditors and debtors can extract wealth from each other, but so can any devious economic agent — used car salesmen, stockbrokers, etc. The actual danger of creditor-debtor relationships, is not so much wealth extraction as it is conflict arising from the competition inherent to a creditor-debtor relationship. Creditors want their pound of flesh plus interest. Debtors often prefer to be able to shirk their debts, and monetary sovereign debtors have the ability to subtly shirk their debts via the printing press. That is potentially a recipe for instability and conflict.

There is also the problem of counter-party risk. The more interconnected different parties become financially, the greater the systemic risks from a default. As we saw in 2008 following the breakdown of Lehman Brothers, systemic interconnectivity can potentially lead to default cascades. In that case, debt can be seen as a mutual incendiary device. 

So the debtor-creditor relationship is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if all parties act honestly and responsibly debt can be beneficial, allowing debtors access to capital, and allowing creditors a return on capital — a mutual benefit. In the real world things are often a lot messier than that.

Britain’s Greatest Depression

This is just a disaster — and more prolonged than the depression of the 1930s:

GDP to January 2013

And even more of a disaster when we consider the impact this has had on youth unemployment, which has climbed far above the EU and OECD averages (although nothing like as badly as Spain or Portugal):

o-UK-YOUTH-UNEMPLOYMENT-570

This is not just a failure of government austerity, although that in itself has totally failed to ignite any kind of growth or recovery. The fiscal trajectory is important (not least for business expectations) — and trying to cut public spending and raise taxes during a severe depression in private activity has been shown repeatedly to just exacerbate the private slump — but it’s just one aspect of a greater problem — the failure to create a favourable business environment that can attract capital and growth to the UK.

Lending to UK business remains severely depressed:

LendingtoUKbusiness

Given that the British government owns the bailed-out commercial banks, it’s a shock that they haven’t leveraged this power to reignite lending to business, and particularly to business startups. So long as businesses are allowed to either succeed or fail on their own merits, it would not be a malinvestment of time, energy or capital to use publicly-owned bailed-out banks to break through the lending freeze.

It is something of a chicken-or-egg problem to say exactly how much of the problem is austerity, and how much of it is a weak business environment. But either way, we are on the wrong track. Business confidence levels are still deeply depressed — lower than they were when Cameron and Osborne came to power:

uk-pmi-services-buisness-confidence-feb-2013

We’re now half of the way to a Japanese-style lost decade. If we carry on on the same track, we may end up with exactly that.

If British businesses don’t have confidence in Cameron and Osborne’s policies, if their policies don’t lower unemployment, don’t create growth, don’t boost imports and exports, don’t result in recovery, and don’t even result in less borrowing  (their stated aim), why do they continue to pursue them?

Gun Control in Britain

Americans looking to more strongly regulate guns might want to consider the reality of my country, Britain which outlawed public handgun ownership in 1997 following massacres at Dunblane and Hungerford — a vastly more severe measure than anything on the table in America. Certainly, the two cases are nothing like identical. America is widely different demographically, culturally and geographically, and Britain banned guns fifteen years ago in a different political and cultural era.

Yet in Britain’s specific case, gun killings have not fallen since the introduction of the handgun ban:

homicides_committed_firearms_england_wales

And overall homicides significantly spiked following the handgun ban, although have more recently fallen back:

numberofhomicides_englandwales

Correlation, of course, does not imply causation. The level of violence in a country is likely determined more than anything else by the cultural, social and economic climate, not by legislation (which is why Mexico which has strong gun control laws can have a vastly higher rate of violence than the United States).

On the other hand, what this does show is that banning gun ownership is in itself no panacea for violent crime and gun crime, underlining the reality that those with criminal intent who want to get guns will still get guns whether or not they are legal to the wider public.

The Interconnective Web of Global Debt

It’s very big:

article-2118152-124602BE000005DC-0_964x528

Andrew Haldane:

Interconnected networks exhibit a knife-edge, or tipping point, property. Within a certain range, connections serve as a shock-absorber. The system acts as a mutual insurance device with disturbances dispersed and dissipated. But beyond a certain range, the system can tip the wrong side of the knife-edge. Interconnections serve as shock-ampli ers, not dampeners, as losses cascade.The system acts not as a mutual insurance device but as a mutual incendiary device.

A mutual incendiary device sounds about right.

George Osborne & Big Banks

The Telegraph reports that George Osborne thinks big banks are good for society:

The Chancellor warned that “aggressively” breaking up banks would do little to benefit the UK and insisted the Government’s plans to put in place a so-called “ring fence” to force banks to isolate their riskier, investment banking businesses from their retail arm was the right way to make the financial system safer.

“If we aggressively broke up all of our big banks, I am not sure that, as a society, we would benefit from it,” he said. “We don’t have a huge number of banks, sadly, large banks. I would like to see more.

His comments came as he gave evidence to the parliamentary commission on banking standards where he was accused of attempting to pressure members into supporting his ring-fencing reforms.

“That work has been accepted, as far as I’m aware, by all the major political parties. We are now on the verge of getting on with it,” he said.

Several members of the Commission have argued in favour of breaking up large banks, including former Chancellor, Lord Lawson.

This is really disappointing.

Why would Osborne want to see more of something which requires government bailouts to subsist?

Because that is the reality of a large, interconnective banking system filled with large, powerful interconnected banks.

The 2008 crisis illustrates the problem with a large interconnective banking system. Big banks develop large, diversified and interconnected balance sheets as a sort of shock absorber. Under ordinary circumstances, if a negative shock (say, the failure of a hedge fund) happens, and the losses incurred are shared throughout the system by multiple creditors, then those smaller losses can be more easily absorbed than if the losses were absorbed by a single creditor, who then may be forced to default to other creditors. However, in the case of a very large shock (say, the failure of a megabank like Lehman Brothers or — heaven forbid! — Goldman Sachs) an interconnective network can simply amplify the shock and set the entire system on fire.

As Andrew Haldane wrote in 2009:

Interconnected networks exhibit a knife-edge, or tipping point, property. Within a certain range, connections serve as a shock-absorber. The system acts as a mutual insurance device with disturbances dispersed and dissipated. But beyond a certain range, the system can tip the wrong side of the knife-edge. Interconnections serve as shock-ampli ers, not dampeners, as losses cascade. The system acts not as a mutual insurance device but as a mutual incendiary device.

Daron Acemoglu (et al) formalised this earlier this year:

The presence of dense connections imply that large negative shocks propagate to the entire fi nancial system. In contrast, with weak connections, shocks remain con fined to where they originate.

What this means (and what Osborne seems to miss) is that large banks are a systemic risk to a dense and interconnective financial system.

Under a free market system (i.e. no bailouts) the brutal liquidation resulting from the crash of a too-big-to-fail megabank would serve as a warning sign. Large interconnective banks would be tarnished as a risky counterparty. The banking system would either have to self-regulate — prevent banks from getting too interconnected, and provide its own (non-taxpayer funded) liquidity insurance in the case of systemic risk — or accept the reality of large-scale liquidationary crashes.

In the system we have (and the system Japan has lived with for the last twenty years) bailouts prevent liquidation, there are no real disincentives (after all capitalism without failure is like religion without sin — it doesn’t work), and the bailed-out too-big-to-fail banks become liquidity sucking zombies hooked on bailouts and injections.

Wonderful, right George?

Thoughtcrime in Britain

A 19-year old man was arrested yesterday for the supposed crime of burning a Remembrance Poppy and posting a picture of the incident on Facebook.

A teenager arrested on Remembrance Sunday on suspicion of posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook is being questioned by police.

The 19-year-old was held after the image of a poppy being set ablaze by a lighter was reportedly posted online with the caption: “How about that you squadey cunts”.

Police said the man, from Canterbury, Kent, was detained on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act after officers were contacted at about 4pm on Sunday.

This is simply dangerous, absurd and Orwellian.

It is just the latest in a succession of police actions against individuals deemed to have caused offence: mocking a collapsed footballer on Twitter; hoping that British service personnel would “die and go to hell”wearing a T-shirt that celebrated the death of two police officers; making sick jokes on Facebook about a missing child. Each time the police have arrested people for nothing more than expressing an unpopular, outrageous or offensive opinion.

Britain is setting a precedent for trampling all over free speech in the interest of enforcing public morality. Mussolini would be proud.

The point of free speech is not to protect popular speech. It is to protect us from becoming a society where the expression of unpopular, offensive and distasteful ideas is criminalised. That is the surest guard against totalitarian tendencies.

This new incident is particularly bizarre. Children are taught in school that Britain fought the Second World War to defeat fascism. They are taught that the deaths of British soldiers commemorated on Remembrance Sunday were for the cause of freedom, to defeat fascism, to defeat totalitarianism. And now we arrest people merely for making offensive comments and burning symbols?

Are we turning into the thing that we once fought? 

What has happened to free speech?

What has happened to Britain?