Britain Isn’t Working

George Osborne claims that spending cuts will produce a recovery.

From the Guardian:

The main test of a budget at this time is what it does for the recovery and growth of the British economy. George Osborne has repeatedly made clear that he wants to be judged by this test. He believes that deficit reduction is a growth policy which will be vindicated by its results. Growth has been postponed but, he insists, it is about to happen. So is he right?

It doesn’t look like it:

UK GDP has ground to a halt, while the United States has ticked slightly upward.

Now here’s unemployment:

Looks painful.

But at least we’re paying off the debt right? Nope:

Readers are of course advised to ignore the nonsensical future projections — particularly those for the United States — and focus instead on the fact that the UK is still amassing debt in spite of austerity.

So what the hell are we doing? Unemployment is ticking up, GDP is stagnant, and debt is still rising? Is this policy supposed to be working? Does the Cameron government not understand that cutting government outlays during a recession to pay down debt leads to falling tax receipts, which leads to bigger deficits (exactly what has happened!)?

The truth is — as Keynes noted — that the time for austerity at the treasury is the boom, not the bust. The only exception to this is if you can give back enough money to the taxpayer in tax breaks to offset the deleterious effects of spending cuts (as Ron Paul recommends), which itself is a form of spending. That way, government outlays remain roughly the same.

Cutting government waste is always a good idea; but using the savings to pay down debt (which very often in the modern world means sending the money overseas) during a recession seems like a very bad one. And it should be noted that the Cameron government isn’t even really cutting back much on what I consider to be waste. Britain spent billions effecting regime change in Libya.

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Bubble Economy

Noah Smith asks:

What is a “bubble”?

Well, it’s something that looks like this:

Prices go way up, then they crash back down. Look at any long-term plot of any asset price index (stocks, housing, etc.) and you’re likely to see some big peaks like this. That’s what I call a “bubble.” It’s also the definition used by Charles Kindleberger in his book Manias, Panics, and Crashes.

That sounds about right. We see these patterns everywhere — from Bitcoins, NFLX, and copper today, to the DJIA, NASDAQ and many commodities and stocks during the last century. Smith continues:

But the real question is why we care about bubbles. Some people believe that bubbles are merely responses to changes in expected fundamental value of an asset (the “fundamental value” is the expected present value of  the income you get from owning an asset). According to this view, the NASDAQ bubble happened because people thought that internet companies were going to make lots and lots of profit, and when those expectations didn’t materialize, prices went down again. This view is held by many eminent financial economists, including Eugene Fama, the most cited financial economist in the world.

If bubbles represent the best available estimate of fundamental values, then they aren’t something we should try to stop. But many other people think that bubbles are something more sinister – large-scale departures of prices from the best available estimate of fundamentals. If bubbles really represent market inefficiencies on a vast scale, then there’s a chance we could prevent or halt them, either through better design of financial markets, or by direct government intervention.

Smith goes on to quite elegantly show that a lot of evidence suggests that bubbles are probably an entirely natural phenomenon.

As an Englishman, there is an example much closer to home:

Gordon Brown claimed that his government had abolished boom and bust; there would be no more foundering capitalist bluster, no slump after the boom, just slow, steady centrally-planned growth.

Then 2008 happened, his claims were made to look infantile, and he was shunted from office by a man who at the very least has some backbone.

Bubbles are expressions of human exuberance. That is because value is subjective (and as such, the notion of incorrect “fundamentals” is extremely fuzzy — how can any subjective value be “fundamental”?) Humans are herd animals — we move where the money is. If an asset value is rising, speculators will want a piece of the action. And why not? Money made speculating is money made with little or no effort. Sometimes there is some underlying reason as to why an asset value is rising: expectations of rising earnings, or a prospective takeover. Sometimes it is just hot air and animal spirits.

A simple heuristic: bubbles happen. Even when central planners have explicitly gone out of their way to prevent bubbles, they still seem to happen.

On the other hand, it is possible to make societies more robust to bubbles. For a start, if a bubble is built on debt-acquisition (e.g. 1929) its collapse will be more painful than otherwise due to counter-party risk, because of the resultant default cascade. So, basing the banking system around debt is by default quite fragile. So too is allowing a humungous scheme of credit creation via securitisation and rehypothecation. And so is allowing the unregulated trading of huge quantities  of exotic derivatives and swaps.

Andrew Haldane, writing in Nature, describes the bubble that emerged:

In the run-up to the recent financial crisis, an increasingly elaborate set of financial instruments emerged, intended to optimize returns to individual institutions with seemingly minimal risk. Essentially no attention was given to their possible effects on the stability of the system as a whole. Drawing analogies with the dynamics of ecological food webs and with networks within which infectious diseases spread, we explore the interplay between complexity and stability in deliberately simplified models of financial networks. We suggest some policy lessons that can be drawn from such models, with the explicit aim of minimizing systemic risk.

Regulators overlooked huge systemic fragility because they had no concept of its existence. That is the very definition of a black swan. And the nature of reality suggests that no matter how good we get at modelling reality and behaviour, those black swans will keep clusterflocking.

Bubbles happen: what matters is how resilient we are to them. And  — with gross derivatives exposure as high as ever before, with government and private debt as high as ever before, and with unemployment still perilously high — it would be quite hard to say we look very resilient.

The United Kingdom of Massive Debt

Perhaps it is unpatriotic of me to ask, but are France’s shrill politicians right? Is the United Kingdom the weak link?

From the Guardian:

The entente is no longer so cordiale. As the big credit rating firms assess whether to strip France of its prized AAA status, Bank of France chief Christian Noyer this week produced a long list of reasons why he believes the agencies should turn their fire on Britain before his own country.

France’s finance minister François Baroin put things even more bluntly: “We’d rather be French than British in economic terms.”

But is the outlook across the Channel really better than in Britain? Taking Noyer’s reasons to downgrade Britain – it “has more deficits, as much debt, more inflation, less growth than us” – he is certainly right on some counts.

Britain’s deficit will stand at 7% of GDP next year, while France’s will be 4.6%, according to International Monetary Fund forecasts. But Britain’s net debt is put at 76.9% of GDP in 2012 and France’s at 83.5%. UK inflation has been way above the government-set target of 2% this year and the IMF forecasts it will be 2.4% in 2012. In France the rate is expected to be 1.4%.

On growth, neither country can claim a stellar performance. France’s economy grew 0.4% in the third quarter and Britain’s 0.5%. Nor has either a particularly rosy outlook. In Britain the economy is expected to grow by 1.6% in 2012. But in the near term there is a 1-in-3 chance of a recession, according to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. In France, the IMF predicts slightly slower 2012 growth of 1.4%. But in the near term France’s national statistics office predicts a technical, albeit short, recession.

There is one significant factor everyone is overlooking.

Total debt:

From Zero Hedge:

While we sympathize with England, and are stunned by the immature petulant response from France and its head banker Christian Noyer to the threat of an imminent S&P downgrade of its overblown AAA rating, the truth is that France is actually 100% correct in telling the world to shift its attention from France and to Britain.

France should quietly and happily accept a downgrade, because the worst that could happen would be a few big French banks collapsing, and that’s it. If, on the other hand, the UK becomes the center of attention then this island, which far more so than the US is the true center of the global banking ponzi scheme, will suddenly find itself at the mercy of the market.

And why is the debt so high? Well, the superficial answer is that the UK is a “world financial centre”. The deeper answer is that the UK allows unlimited re-hypothecation of assets. Re-hypothecation is when a bank or broker re-uses collateral posted by clients, such as hedge funds, to back the broker’s own trades and borrowings. The practice of re-hypothecation runs into the trillions of dollars and is perfectly legal. It is justified by brokers on the basis that it is a capital efficient way of financing their operations. In the US brokers can re-hypothecate assets up to 140% of their book value.

In the UK, there is absolutely no statutory limit on the amount that can be re-hypothecated. Brokers are free to re-hypothecate all and even more than the assets deposited by clients. That is the kind of thing that creates huge interlinked webs of debt. And much of Britain’s huge debt load — particularly in the financial industry — is one giant web of endless re-hypothecation. Even firms (e.g. hedge funds) that do not internally re-hypothecate collateral are at risk, because their assets may have been re-hypothecated by a broker, or they may be owed money by a firm that re-hypothecates to high heaven. The problem here is the systemic fragility.

Simply, the UK financial sector has been attracting a lot of global capital because some British regulations are extremely lax. While it is pleasing to see the Vickers report, that recommends a British Glass-Steagall separation of investment and retail banking, becoming government policy, and while such a system might have insulated the real economy from the madness of unlimited re-hypothecation, the damage is already done. The debt already exists, and some day that debt web will have to be unwound.

Now Britain does have one clear advantage in over France. It can print its own money to recapitalise banks. But with inflation already prohibitively high, any such action is risky. If short sellers turn their fire on Britain, we could be in for a bumpy ride to hell and back.

UPDATE: Readers wanting to understand the true extent of economic degradation in some parts of the UK ought look no further than a recent post

Post-Industrial Decline in England

Today, I want to give a short virtual tour of the city in which I grew up, Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke-on-Trent grew up around the pottery industry.

From Wikipedia:

Since the 17th century, the area has been almost exclusively known for its industrial-scale pottery manufacturing, with such world renowned names as Royal DoultonDudson Ltd, Spode (founded by Josiah Spode), Wedgwood (founded by Josiah Wedgwood) and Minton (founded by Thomas Minton) being born and based there. The presence locally of abundant supplies of coal and of suitable clay for earthenware production led to the early but at first limited development of the local pottery industry. The construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal enabled the import of china clay from Cornwall together with other materials and facilitated the production of creamware and bone china.

Stoke-on-Trent is a world centre for fine ceramics – a skilled design trade established in the area since at least the 12th century. But in the late-1980s & 1990s Stoke-on-Trent was hit hard by the general decline in the British manufacturing sector. Numerous factories, steelworkscollieries, and potteries were closed. This resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment.

Of course, Stoke is by no means typical, but it does typify some problems that are found in many cities across the Western world: the loss of manufacturing jobs, and a subsequent decline into mass unemployment, drug abuse, state dependency, and social and economic degeneration. This is a tough cycle to break — slashing welfare handouts is impossible, because there are no jobs for feckless welfare recipients to take. So — without a serious regeneration budget — the state has little choice but to leave much of the city welfare-dependent and festering.

What I really want to get across is the depth of the post-industrial decline and dereliction in such cities. When they lost their manufacturing sector to cheaper overseas competition, many of these cities lost their reason to exist. They just left an angry, workless and disaffected concentration of population tightly bundled together. Being deprived of capital and investment means that infrastructure, housing and social welfare grossly declined:

The City Centre

Boarded-Up Housing


Former Industrial Glory

Broken Wasteland


The Problem with Spending

George Monbiot wrote yesterday:

There are two ways of cutting a deficit: raising taxes or reducing spending. Raising taxes means taking money from the rich. Cutting spending means taking money from the poor. Not in all cases of course: some taxation is regressive; some state spending takes money from ordinary citizens and gives it to banks, arms companies, oil barons and farmers. But in most cases the state transfers wealth from rich to poor, while tax cuts shift it from poor to rich.

Is that even true? In an earlier post, I made the case that through the stimulus package, government was stealing from the poor and giving to the rich — predominantly the financial industry. But the problem is far greater in terms of the arms industry. Government defines itself as the legitimate monopoly on violence and defence in most countries: this means that the arms industry’s main (and often only) client is Government. Now, I am not denying that nations should be capable of self-defence. But the modern state transfers massive wealth from poor and middle class taxpayers and into the hands of defence contractors. Let’s look at a great graphic from the War Resisters’ League showing where your income tax really went in 2009:

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