Abenomics & Rooseveltian Resolve

The new Bank of Japan chief Haruhiko Kuroda today unveiled an aggressive new round of monetary easing, the latest step in the policy of recently-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As part of a promise to do “whatever it takes” to return Japan to growth, Kuroda promised a level of quantitative easing unseen before in Japan, intended to discourage saving and encourage spending. Kuroda promised to print 50 trillion yen ($520bn; £350bn) per year.That is the equivalent of almost 10% of Japan’s annual gross domestic product, and over double the level of what the Federal Reserve is currently experimenting with.

Many are hailing this as an attempt to put into practice the advice of Ben Bernanke to Japan in the 1990s — what Bernanke called “Rooseveltian resolve“. In fact, Ben Bernanke has provided a practical as well as a theoretical template through the unconventional policies adopted in the last five years by the Federal Reserve. Although some economic commentators believe that Shinzo Abe was more interested in reviving Japanese mercantilism and drive exports through a cheap currency, it is fairly clear that even if that is Abe’s ultimate intent, Abe is certainly harnessing Bernankean monetary policies (as well as Keynesian fiscal stimulus policies) in that pursuit.

So, will Abe’s policies return Japan to growth, as Bernanke might have intended?

Well, this diagnostic pathway sees deflation as the great central ill. The rising value of a currency acts as a disincentive to economic action and the encouragement of hoarding, because economic participants may tend to offset projects and purchases to get a greater bang for their buck. (This, of course, would be the great problem with Bitcoin becoming the sole currency as its inherent deflationary nature encourages inactivity and not activity, but that is a topic for another day). During deflation, delayed projects and subdued consumer spending are reflected in weak or nonexistent growth. More expected inflation encourages businesses and individuals to consume and start projects rather than save. At least, that’s the theory.

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. So in practice, what other effects are at play here?

First of all, the Japanese in general (or a substantial and influential proportion of them) seem to really dislike inflation. Why? Well, since the initial housing and stocks bubble burst in the 1990s, they have become a nation of capital accumulators with a low private debt level. This is at least partially a demographic phenomenon. Older people tend to have a much higher net worth than younger people who have had less time to amass capital, and they need places to park it — places like government and corporate debt. This has driven Japanese interest rates to the lowest in the world:

bernanke-exhibit-20130301a1

The other side of the coin here is that this has made it very easy, almost inevitable, for the government to run massive budget deficits and run up huge levels of debt (which has to be rolled). Higher inflation would mean that those elderly creditors (who have up until now voted-in politicians who have kept the deflationary status quo) will very likely experience a negative real interest rate. Many may find this a painful experience, having grown used to deflation (which ensures a positive real interest rate even at a very low nominal interest rate, as has been the case in Japan since the 1990s):

JapanRealInterestRate

Every time Japan’s real interest rate has touched zero, it has shot back up. Japan has an aversion to negative real interest rates, it seems. And this is in stark contrast to countries like the UK and USA which have experienced much lower real interest rates since the 2008 crisis. A negative real interest rate in Japan would be a shock to the system, and a huge change for Japan’s capital-rich elderly who have happily ridden out the deflationary years in Japanese government bonds. (Of course, if reversing deflation revived real GDP growth then they would have more places to park their capital — like lending to or purchasing equity in growing business — but the question is whether or not the Japanese people at large have an appetite for such a shift).

Another challenge to growth is the existence of Japan’s zombie corporations and banks — inefficient, uncompetitive entities kept alive by government subsidies. Although some zombie banks left on life-support from the 1990s were terminated during the Koizumi years, it is fairly clear from total factor productivity figures of both Japanese manufacturing productivity and non-manufacturing productivity are still very uncompetitive. How can a burst of spending as a result of inflation turn that around? Without removing the subsidies — something that Abe, as a leader of the establishment Liberal Democratic Party, the party that has ruled Japan for the overwhelming majority of the postwar years, and is deeply interwoven with the crony industries is very unlikely to do — it may prove very difficult to return Japan to growth. And of course, these industries own the bulk of Japanese debt, so attempts to reduce the real interest rate is likely to prove deeply unpopular with them, too. (On the other hand, Japanese banks will profit from these open-market operations through flipping bonds at a profit, so the new policies may have their supporters as well as opposers among Japan’s zombie financiers).

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bank of Japan’s new programs are doomed to fail, or that they are likely to trigger severely adverse outcomes, but if serious attempts are not made to tackle the systemic challenges and entrenched interests, then it is hard to see how much can come out of this other than a transitory inflationary and devaluationary blip followed by a retreat to more of what Japan has become used to, and what much of Japanese society seems to like — low growth, a strong yen, and low inflation or deflation. And if Abe’s gameplan is really to grow by boosting the exports of the crony industries, then hope of desubsidisation of the crony industries seems almost entirely lost.

Certainly, more fiscal stimulus will eat up slack capital resources. And certainly, this is an interesting experiment on the fringes of Monetarism and monetary policy in general. If Japan goes through with this experiment, hits its inflation target and triggers sustained nominal GDP growth this will be a decent empirical test of whether or not such policies can lead to sustained real GDP growth. But there is no guarantee that Japan has the Rooseveltian resolve to follow through with these policies, and even if it does there is no guarantee that they will lead to a significantly higher trend in real GDP growth. The underlying system is deeply entrenched.

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As Soon As The First Nation Leaves, A Trickle Will Turn To A Cascade…

If enacting a levy on Cypriot depositors was a call for a bank run, then saying that the actions in Cyprus are a “template” for future recapitalisations in other Eurozone countries — as the Dutch Euro Group President Jeroen Djisselbloem did yesterday —  was screaming it from the rooftops awash in a demented stupour, drunk on bullshitty Smets-Wouters DSGE and the ridiculous notion that the Euro is sustainable.

Dijsselbloem

This question, I think, needs answering:

Dijsselbloem is yet to respond to the question, other than to say that his claim that it was a “template” did not in fact mean that he meant that it was a template. 

Tyler Durden jokes that the only conceivable reason for this could be an insane pseudo-Keynesian conspiracy to trick people and businesses holding cash to go out and spend or invest it, thus raising aggregate demand and generating recovery:

Last week, when we commented on the absolutely idiotic Eurogroup proposal (now voted down and replaced by an equally idiotic “bank resolution” proposal which will see uninsured deposits virtually wiped out) to tax uninsured and insured deposits, we jokingly suggested that this may be merely the latest ploy by the legacy status quo to achieve one simple thing: force depositors across the continent (and soon, world) to pull their money out of a malevolent, hostile banking system and push that money into stocks, or simply to spend it.

Given the utter folly of the levy itself and the subsequent comments, this might as well be as good an explanation as any. The easiest and quickest way to destroy the fractional financial system is to convince depositors around Europe or the world that their deposits are under threat. The European policy elite has displayed a slavish tendency to protect bondholders from losses, but not depositors upon whom the banking system is utterly dependent. If bondholders do not buy bonds, then it becomes harder for governments to finance themselves (although it must be noted that around the world, interest rates are at all-time-lows in every developed country with its own currency, suggesting a run on bonds by bond vigilantes is a relatively small possibility). But if depositors withdraw their money en mass, the banking system collapses.

I believe that this slavish devotion to preventing losses is fundamentally unhealthy, as capitalism without the potential for loss is robbed of any internal stabilisation mechanism. If bondholders or depositors cannot lose their money, they have no incentive to be prudent with it. But with the danger of a Eurozone bank run looming putting bondholders ahead of depositors is unhealthier still. Protecting government borrowing at the expense of confidence in the banking system is a dire error.

And it is not like there is really a hard choice between the interests of bondholders and depositors. If the European policy elite would deal with the huge social upheaval that the Euro system has created — namely, very high unemployment, youth unemployment and slack resources following the burst housing bubble in the periphery — then both depositors and bondholders could sleep easier at night. All this would take is a firm, long-term commitment from domestic and supernational governments to lending, tax incentives and spending to support business growth. A Europe that is growing, producing additional goods, services, energy and resources that people want and need will be far more stable than one that is shrinking and weakened (in both supply and demand) by forced and centrally-planned fiscal consolidation imposed by the policy elite. People want jobs, contrary to the assumptions of certain neoclassical economists who believe that all unemployment is voluntary. People want business, not to be subject to humiliation and subjugation to meet an arbitrary debt target set by delusional central planners actively weakening economic activity. And, the only way for peripheral nations to get this is through leaving the Euro, which may very well soon start to happen. And once it does, a trickle will turn to a cascade as the leavers begin to quickly recover from their Merkel-inflicted wounds.

In the long run, 25% unemployment in Spain and Greece (as well as elevated unemployment throughout the periphery) will come back to hurt the core, whether that is through weak demand for core-produced goods and services, social unrest, Eurozone-rupture, etc. And Dijsellbloem may yet see how foolish his template was.

Whose Insured Deposits Will Be Plundered Next?

283756588_ad5af0208e_o

According to Zero Hedge, it could be Spain:

 Spain, it would appear, has changed constitutional rules to enable a so-called ‘moderate’ levy on deposits.

New legislation in New Zealand suggests that depositor funds could be used to bail out banks there, too.

Far more worrying for American and British depositors though is this paragraph Golem XIV brings up from a joint Bank of England and FDIC paper from 2012 which points to the possibility of using deposit insurance funds to bail out illiquid banks:

The U.K. has also given consideration to the recapitalization process in a scenario in which a G-SIFI’s liabilities do not include much debt issuance at the holding company or parent bank level but instead comprise insured retail deposits held in the operating subsidiaries. Under such a scenario, deposit guarantee schemes may be required to contribute to the recapitalization of the firm, as they may do under the Banking Act in the use of other resolution tools. The proposed RRD also permits such an approach because it allows deposit guarantee scheme funds to be used to support the use of resolution tools, including bail-in, provided that the amount contributed does not exceed what the deposit guarantee scheme would have as a claimant in liquidation if it had made a payout to the insured depositors.

Of course, if deposit insurance money is used as a resolution tool to bail out a bank which then goes on to fail anyway (as we have already seen multiple times since 2008 — a bank receives a large liquidity injection, and goes onto fail anyway) depositors could end up moneyless.

As Golem XIV notes:

The new system makes the Deposit Guarantee fund available for use as bail out money.

The rationale is that if using your deposit guarantee fund for propping up the bank ‘saves’ the bank from collapse then you wouldn’t need that deposit guarantee would you? This overlooks the one lesson we have all learned from the bank bail outs of the last 5 years, that the bail outs are never, ever, ever, a one off. The first one fails to save the bank as does the second and third and and and.

So if I have read the above correctly – the new system raids the Deposit Protection scheme, gives it to the bank instead of you  and when that fails to save the bank…then what? The bank fails again and there is no money left in the Deposit Guarantee scheme.

Now, in the case of this kind of scenario actually happening, it seems probable that governments and central banks would try to replenish the deposit insurance fund. Whether the fund would be replenished to its full extent, or whether insured depositors would suffer an effective haircut remains to be seen.

These kinds of policy suggestions coming from governments and central banks are extremely worrying for depositors, because it implies that what is happening to Cypriot depositors and Cypriot banks could be forced onto British and American depositors. In a worst-case-scenario, criminally minded bankers (of which there seem to be many) could even use this provision to intentionally run off with deposits.

We know that the TBTF banking sector (or G-SIFI’s — global systemically important financial institutions — as they are now known) remains fragile, over-connected and dependent on insider advantages. That means that over the next few years, it remains possible that there could be another severe banking crisis in Britain or America or both.

Just what in the world do financial regulators think they are doing even implying that depositor guarantee funds could be used to bail out banks under such an eventuality? Such a recommendation — and the attendant possibility of insured depositor haircuts — could severely impact confidence in the banking sector, just as it has done in Cyprus. The possibility that insurance money may go down the toilet to bail out illiquid banks will make some uneasy to invest their money in the banks. If a severe banking crisis looms, it could lead to bank runs, just as is happening in Cyprus. The trend, if events in Cyprus and Europe continue to escalate, and if other jurisdictions do not take steps to protect depositors from banker greed, is toward depositors losing faith in the banking system, and seeking other stores of purchasing power — mattress stuffing, bitcoin, tangibles.

Essentially, if there is to be any confidence in the banking system, the possibility of depleting liquidity insurance funds to bail out banks needs to be taken off the table completely. The possibility of insured depositor haircuts needs to be taken off the table completely. If banks need bailing out, the money must not come from insured depositors, or funds designed to compensate insured depositors. If banks fail, the losers should be the uninsured creditors.

Do Wages Benefit From A Shrinking Labour Force?

Dean Baker says yes:

The retirement of the baby boom cohorts means that the country’s labor force is likely to be growing far more slowly in the decades ahead than it did in prior decades. The United States is not alone in facing this situation. The rate of growth of the workforce has slowed or even turned negative in almost every wealthy country. Japan leads the way, with a workforce that has been shrinking in size for more than a decade.

Baker concludes:

With a stagnant or declining labor force, workers will have their choice of jobs. It is unlikely that they will want to work as custodians or dishwashers for $7.25 an hour. They will either take jobs that offer higher pay or these jobs will have to substantially increase their pay in order to compete.

This means that the people who hire low-paid workers to clean their houses, serve their meals, or tend their lawns and gardens will likely have to pay higher wages. That prospect may sound like a disaster scenario for this small group of affluent people, but it sounds like great news for the tens of millions of people who hold these sorts of jobs. It should mean rapidly rising living standards for those who have been left behind over the last three decades.

Of course, Baker could just look at the data from Japan. Real wages there have been depressed in recent years, even while the labour force has shrunk:

Japanwages

Even more damningly, labour’s share of income in Japan has declined even more considerably than the United States, and other nations with a growing working-age population:

ShareofLabourincome

Matthew C. Klein asks an important question:

Perhaps Mr Baker was thinking of an older example: the Black Death, which killed about half the people in Europe. Many (including me until I looked it up) believe that the resulting shortage in agricultural labour led to soaring real wages for peasants and a redistribution of economic power away from landowners. Recent evidence, however, casts doubt on this hypothesis. While nominal peasant wages did indeed increase in the aftermath of the Black Death, real wages may have actually fallen for decades. That may have helped heavily indebted peasants, but everyone else had to endure punishing declines in their standard of living, not to mention the psychological trauma of surviving such a devastating plague.

And the evidence on the Black Death seems conclusive:

In southern England, real wages of building craftsmen (rural and urban), having plummeted with the natural disaster of the Great Famine (1315-21), thereafter rose to a new peak in 1336-40. But then their real wages fell during the 1340s, and continued their decline after the onslaught of the Black Death, indeed into the 1360s. Not until the later 1370s – almost thirty years after the Black Death – did real wages finally recover and then rapidly surpass the peak achieved in the late 1330s.

And if we look at China — a country which has seen stunning real wage growth in recent years — it is clear that that growth has come in the context of a growth in the working-age population. China’s working-age population hit one billion for the first time in 2011.

To me at least, this seems to suggest that while all else being equal, a shrinking working age population might lead to a more competitive labour market, all else is not equal. Employers invest in more capital-intensive processes like automation and robots to compensate for a lack of workers, or in our globalised world they shift operations to somewhere with a stronger labour force (like China today, or perhaps like Africa further into the future). Even more simply, a falling population as a result of a natural disaster like the Black Death, or even just as a result of demographic trends like Japan, may lead to an economic depression due to falling demand.

This suggests that Baker’s conclusions are extremely optimistic for labour, and that shrinking populations may be bad news for wages.

Explaining The WTI-Brent Spread Divergence

Something totally bizarre has happened in the last three years. Oil in America has become much, much cheaper than oil in Europe. Oil in America is now almost $30 cheaper than oil in Europe.

This graph is the elephant in the room:

3 year brent spread

And this graph shows how truly historic a move this has been:

brent-WTI-spread

Why?

The ostensible reason for this is oversupply in America. That’s right — American oil companies have supposedly been producing much, much more than they can sell:

This is hilarious if prices weren`t so damn high, but despite a robust export market for finished products, crude oil is backing up all the way to Cushing, Oklahoma, and is only going to get worse in 2013.

Now that Enterprise Products Partners LLP has let the cat out of the bag that less than a month after expanding the Seaway pipeline capacity to 400,000 barrels per day, The Jones Creek terminal has storage capacity of 2.6 million barrels, and it is basically maxed out in available storage.

But there’s something fishy about this explanation. I don’t know for sure about the underlying causality — and it is not impossible that the oil companies are acting incompetently — but are we really supposed to believe that today’s oil conglomerates in America are so bad at managing their supply chain that they will oversupply the market to such an extent that oil sells at a 25% discount on the price in Europe? Even at an expanded capacity, is it really so hard for oil producers to shut down the pipeline, and clear inventories until the price rises so that they are at least not haemorrhaging such a huge chunk of potential profit on every barrel of oil they are selling? I mean, that’s what corporations do (or at least, what they’re supposed to do) — they manage the supply chain to maximise profit.

To me, this huge disparity seems like funny business. What could possibly be making US oil producers behave so ridiculously, massively non-competitively?

The answer could be government intervention. Let’s not forget that the National Resource Defence Preparedness Order gives the President and the Department of Homeland Security the authority to:

(c)  be prepared, in the event of a potential threat to the security of the United States, to take actions necessary to ensure the availability of adequate resources and production capability, including services and critical technology, for national defense requirements;

(d)  improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the domestic industrial base to support national defense requirements; and

(e)  foster cooperation between the defense and commercial sectors for research and development and for acquisition of materials, services, components, and equipment to enhance industrial base efficiency and responsiveness.

And the ability to:

(e)  The Secretary of each resource department, when necessary, shall make the finding required under section 101(b) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(b).  This finding shall be submitted for the President’s approval through the Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.  Upon such approval, the Secretary of the resource department that made the finding may use the authority of section 101(a) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(a), to control the general distribution of any material (including applicable services) in the civilian market.

My intuition is that it is possible that oil companies may have been advised (or ordered) under the NDRP (or under the 1950 Defense Production Act) to keep some slack in the supply chain in case of a war, or other national or global emergency. This would provide a capacity buffer in addition to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

If that’s the case, the question we need to ask is what does the US government know that other governments don’t? Is this just a prudent measure to reduce the danger of a resource or energy shock, or does the US government have some specific information of a specific threat?

The other possible explanation, of course, is ridiculous incompetence on the part of US oil producers. Which, I suppose, is almost believable in the wake of Deepwater Horizon…

The Importance of Free Immigration

Judge Andrew Napolitano has incensed critics of immigration with his defence of the idea of immigration as a natural right:

Since the freedom of speech, the development of personality, the right to worship or not to worship, the right to use technologically contemporary means for self-defense, the right to be left alone, and the right to own and use property all stem from our humanity, the government simply is without authority to regulate human behavior in these areas, no matter what powers it purports to give to itself and no matter what crises may occur. Among the rights in this category is the freedom of movement, which today is called the right to travel.

The right to travel is an individual personal human right, long recognized under the natural law as immune from governmental interference. Of course, governments have been interfering with this right for millennia. The Romans restricted the travel of Jews; Parliament restricted the travel of serfs; Congress restricted the travel of slaves; and starting in the late 19th century, the federal government has restricted the travel of non-Americans who want to come here and even the travel of those already here. All of these abominable restrictions of the right to travel are based not on any culpability of individuals, but rather on membership in the groups to which persons have belonged from birth.

Americans are not possessed of more natural rights than non-Americans; rather, we enjoy more opportunities to exercise those rights because the government is theoretically restrained by the Constitution, which explicitly recognizes the natural law. That recognition is articulated in the Ninth Amendment, which declares that the enumeration of certain rights in the Constitution shall not be used by the government as an excuse to deny or disparage other unnamed and unnamable rights retained by the people.

So, if I want to invite my cousins from Florence, Italy, to come here and live in my house and work on my farm in New Jersey, or if a multinational corporation wants the best engineers from India to work in its labs in Texas, or if my neighbor wants a friend of a friend from Mexico City to come here to work in his shop, we have the natural right to ask, they have the natural right to come here, and the government has no moral right to interfere with any of these freely made decisions.

I agree with Napolitano. Giving the state the power to restrict freedom of movement is a dangerous precedent, and a dangerous concentration of power. Powerful and well-connected groups and industries can use the largesse of the state to protect their own uncompetitive ventures by restricting immigration.

And why should the state have the power to determine who can and who cannot live where? Surely market forces are a better determinant of the need for workers and migration than a central planner setting migration targets based on their own dislocated criteria?

These are by no means the most significant arguments for the freedom of movement. Ludwig von Mises theorised:

vonMisesimmigration

This is a critical dynamic. If a government enacts laws that are undesirable, workers (if they can) will move to another jurisdiction with more desirable laws. Freedom of movement is the status quo today for capital — under the current global regulatory framework, the free flow of capital means that governments have to compete to attract capital from around the globe. Governments do not have to do the same thing for labour, as the flow of immigration is very restricted compared to the flow of capital. This disparity may well have contributed to the extant reality that around the world — but particularly in the United States — capital’s share of output is increasing, while labour’s share is shrinking. Freer immigration could change all that.

There are various misconceptions of immigration. Perhaps most prominent is the idea that immigrants cost natives jobs. But the evidence suggests that this is not true. Eduardo Porter notes:

For years, economists have been poring through job market statistics looking for evidence that immigrants undercut less-educated Americans in the labor market. The most recent empirical studies conclude that the impact is slight: they confirm earlier findings that immigration on the whole has not led to fewer jobs for American workers. More significantly, they suggest that immigrants have had, at most, a small negative impact on the wages of Americans who compete with them most directly, those with a high school degree or less.

Meanwhile, the research has found that immigrants – including the poor, uneducated ones coming from south of the border — have a big positive impact on the economy over the long run, bolstering the profitability of American firms, reducing the prices of some products and services by providing employers with a new labor source and creating more opportunities for investment and jobs. Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California at Davis, estimated that the wave of immigrants that entered the United States from 1990 to 2007 increased national income per worker by about $5,400 a year on average, in 2007 dollars. He also concluded that the wave had a small positive impact on the average wage of American workers, by lifting the overall economy. If immigrants hurt anyone, it was the previous cohort of immigrants, with whom they most directly compete in the labor market.

Recent estimates have concluded that a liberalisation of global immigration policies could lift global GDP significantly. More importantly, empirical studies have confirmed the reality that immigration eases the fiscal balance — helpful for developed countries with ageing populations and a shrinking tax base. A 2011 report by Madeleine Zavodny of the American Enterprise Institute found that immigrants on average pay much more tax than they consume in government services:

fiscalimpact

This means that one frequent objection to immigration — that immigrants overstretch government programs and infrastructure — is irrelevant. Working immigrants pay more than enough in taxes to fund their own costs — often many times over.

The study also found that rather than taking up jobs, each immigrant worker generated jobs for the native population. The supply of work is not fixed. Each additional 100 H1-B workers were found to have generated 183 new jobs for the native population, and each 100 additional H2-B workers generated 464 new jobs for the native population.

But what about the countries that immigrants leave behind? Surely the countries left behind by thousands or millions of workers will fall into recession? Well, perhaps to some extent — although not so much in countries with higher birth rates or slack employment — but that’s the point. Countries that suffer a labour drain may have to reform their legal and political structure to attract workers. This alone would significantly boost competitiveness in the long run. And emigrants frequently send money back to their country of origin, and acquire new skills while working abroad that they can bring back home, in turn enriching their home country.

On the other hand, it might be unwise for countries to immediately switch from a restrictive policy to an open-door immigration policy. While freedom of movement is an essential economic freedom, a radical change in policy could prove destabilising, and cause significant cultural and social dislocation, friction or ghettoisation. Such a large change in policy should be undertaken slowly and cautiously — it would be unwise for governments to rush forward with policies that are unwanted and unpopular with the wider population.

But in the long run, though, the benefits of freedom of movement are clear, and will likely become clearer in the coming decades as more countries and blocs experiment with freer migration policies.

Cameron’s EU Policy Uncertainty

So, David Cameron wants a referendum?

I believe that small is beautiful, and that the European Union system is big and fragile. I am all for free trade, freedom of movement and immigration. But as for regulatory, monetary and fiscal integration — which is the direction that Europe has taken, especially since the self-inflicted Euro crisis that grew out the fundamentally flawed Euro system — how can Europe be responsive to its citizens when they are so numerous, so diverse and so geographically and linguistically dispersed? How can it be viable to have the same regulatory and political framework for Poland, Spain, Austria, Britain, Denmark and Greece? Political and monetary frameworks that are local and decentralised are usually responsive and representative. Big bureaucratic juggernauts are very often clunky and unresponsive.

That means that I am quite open to the idea of Britain leaving the political union, so long as we retain the economic framework that Britain voted for in a referendum on joining the European Economic Community — the predecessor to the European Union — in the 1970s. Britain never voted for political union, and the British public has been shown again and again in polls to be broadly against such a thing.

But David Cameron’s plan for an In-Out referendum in 2017 — but only if the Conservatives win the 2015 election — is misguided. It will just create five years of totally unnecessary policy and regulatory uncertainty.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that policy uncertainty can be very damaging to the economy. A 2013 paper Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven Davis used automated text analysis techniques to count key words relevant to uncertainty in the media. They combined the news analysis with data from tax code changes, disagreement among economic forecasters, and information from equity option markets to create an “uncertainty index”:

UncertaintyIndex

They looked at changes to gross domestic product, private investment, industrial production and unemployment, and found that spikes in uncertainty foreshadow large and persistent declines in all four. First, GDP and private investment:

GDPInvestment

Next, industrial production and unemployment:

Policshocks

The last thing that Britain needs is five years of policy uncertainty. If Cameron wants to have a referendum on E.U. membership, why not do it now? 82% of the public favour such a referendum — presumably not only UKIP and Conservative voters, but also Liberal Democrats and Labour voters. If we vote to leave, then we leave, if we vote to stay, we stay. We — and the markets — will know exactly where we stand.

Frankly this strikes me as more of a political ploy. The Conservatives are haemorrhaging support to UKIP. They are roughly ten points behind Labour in the polls. This strange announcement just seems like an attempt by Cameron to claw back support and distract from the disastrous state of the economy which just entered a triple-dip recession and which has been depressed since 2008. Ironically, this announcement may actually worsen the economic woe.