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Budget 2021: The political consensus on low taxes could be completely wrong

Budget 2021: The political consensus on low taxes could be completely wrong

In the run up to most Budgets there is almost always one key question shaping debate: should the screws be tightened or the floodgates opened?

This time round, a near unanimous consensus has arisen. Taxes should not go up, for fear of jeopardising the recovery.  Even the Leader of the Labour Party has signed up to this view.

The last time economists and commentators appeared so united was in the years immediately prior to the financial crisis of the late 2000s.

The view was that a new economic paradigm had been established by the Great Helmsman, Gordon Brown.  Boom and bust, as he himself proclaimed, had been abolished.  Levels of debt were irrelevant, and growth would continue uninterruptedly for ever.

Only a few paid up members of the awkward squad dissented, but their voices were drowned out.

What about this time round?  Could the consensus be completely wrong again?

The UK government confronted both a huge level of public sector debt and a large annual deficit, boosting debt even higher, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

The outstanding stock of debt relative to the size of the economy was even higher than it is now, at some 260 per cent of GDP.  The annual deficit was smaller, but was still large by historical standards, at some £125 billion (in today’s prices) in the first full year of peace, 1946.

The Labour government led by Clement Attlee is seen as being the most radical in British history.  It established the NHS and, as was then fashionable in left-wing circles, nationalised industries such as coal and rail.

But in its fiscal stance it was the very model of austerity.

The large deficit of 1946 was turned by 1948 into a surplus of some £85 billion (again at 2021 prices).  Similar surpluses were generated until Labour lost office in 1951.  Taxes were increased and public spending controlled.

Yet economic growth remained buoyant, at over 3 per cent a year in real terms, above the annual average over the entire post war period of 2.5 per cent.

In the decade of the 1950s, the Conservative government continued this, well, conservative fiscal approach, though not as dramatically as Labour had.  There was a public sector deficit, but it only averaged some £10 billion each year (at today’s prices), compared to the 2020 deficit of getting on for £400 billion.

Again, growth was not harmed, averaging 3.5 per cent over the 1950s as a whole.

The growth under both Labour and the Conservatives in the late 1940s and 1950s was driven by supply-side factors.

The government did not boost the economy. The private sector did. Corporate investment boomed to provide consumer goods, after being suppressed in favour of military spending during the Second World War.

This key historical episode suggests that higher taxes can slash massive public sector deficits with no harm to the economy.

But there is a big proviso.  The dynamic, wealth creating sectors must be shielded for rapid supply-led growth to take place.

As published in City AM Wednesday 3rd March 2021
Image: Budget Day by Number 10 via Flickr
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Vaccine passports: a free market and plentiful pubs mean they won’t work in the UK

Vaccine passports: a free market and plentiful pubs mean they won’t work in the UK

As the country emerges slowly from lockdown, the debate over so-called vaccine passports gathers pace.

Yesterday, Matt Hancock confirmed Britain was looking into the proposition for international travel.

Countries such as Greece and Spain have a strong incentive to develop a system with us. Each attracts large numbers of British tourists in a normal year.

Whatever the details of the system might be, they would be monitored and enforced by officials at borders.  Despite potential bureaucratic inefficiencies and delays, it would work.

Could the idea be applied with the UK itself?

The Israelis are opening up their economy with vaccine passports.  But already almost half the population has been jabbed

Last spring, the idea of allowing the young to move about freely gained some traction at a high level in the UK.  Then, the argument was that there is very little health risk to them from the virus.  A key reason it was dropped was the obvious discrimination against older people.

The reverse argument applies now.  Younger people would feel justifiably aggrieved if regulations prevented them from enjoying freedom of movement granted to older, vaccinated people.

Mass testing, which the government is keen on, appears to resolve this age-related problem.  Freedom could be granted to anyone with either proof of vaccination or of a recent negative test.

The problem here is that the tests would have to be done so frequently that many would soon come to see them as an imposition.

Perhaps, as we move through the year and the vaccination numbers rise, the free market will do the job of regulation.

Already, some leisure and retail outlets are raising the idea of barring those without proof of negative status. This would give an incentive to bear the inconvenience of frequent testing and avoid being discriminated against in this way.

However, Milton Friedman argued many years ago that the free market would prevent this from working.

Quite simply, he thought that companies which discriminate impose avoidable costs upon themselves. As a result they will be driven out of business by their competitors.

As ever in economics, the strength of the argument depends upon how well its assumptions correspond to reality.  The key one here is of a “competitive market”, one with many companies, none of which can exercise any real power over the market as a whole.

Expensive restaurants in affluent areas do not need to put in their adverts, as Basil Fawlty once memorably did in Fawlty Towers, “no riff-raff”. They do have a degree of localised monopoly power over a specialised part of the market.  Discrimination would work here.

But for many hospitality and leisure outlets in towns and cities, Friedman’s assumption seems reasonable.  If a pub keeps you out because of a lack of certification, there is another reasonable one not far away.  The situation is not quite the same in rural areas.

But why leave it to either the regulators or the pubs themselves to say who can and cannot go into a pub?

Just let individuals decide for themselves which outlets to use, like they have always done.  That will be true normality.

As published in City AM Wednesday 24th February 2021
Image: Restaurant via Pixabay
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The Great Frost of Covid-19 will pass – and Britain’s economy will heat up

The Great Frost of Covid-19 will pass – and Britain’s economy will heat up

The Great Frost of 1709 has been in the news this week, quite possibly for the first time since 1709 itself.

According to Bank of England estimates, this was the last time that GDP fell by more in a single year than it did in the Covid year we have just had.

The Office for National Statistics published its first estimate of GDP for 2020, showing a year-on-year fall of 9.9 per cent.

During the financial crisis of the late 2000s, for example, the drop was quite a lot less. UK output fell by a total of just 5 per cent in the two years 2008 and 2009 combined.

Despite the severity of this recession, the Bank’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, issued a very optimistic statement. The UK economy, he said, was like a coiled spring, waiting to rebound strongly.

But could the sheer scale of economic disruption which has happened put a damper on this?

Companies worried about survival, individuals worried about their jobs – these might depress confidence and mean that spending will be held back even once the restrictions are lifted.

Economist Angus Maddison spent a lifetime constructing meticulous estimates of economic data in the past. In his final work, he even put together data on the size of the world economy over the past 2,000 years.

His most famous data set – famous within economics that is – contains estimates of GDP in all the Western economies ever since they became industrialised. For some, such as Japan and Sweden, that was quite a bit later than the UK. So Maddison’s data here starts in 1870.

There are getting on for 300 separate examples of economic recessions in his data, years in which GDP growth in any particular country fell below zero.

The striking feature is the resilience of the Western economies. They recover quickly from most shocks. Two-thirds of all recessions only lasted a single year. And nearly 90 per cent had ended after two years. In other words, positive growth has usually been resumed very quickly.

At the end of the Second World War, for example, the defeated countries such as Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan experienced catastrophic economic collapses.

Overrun by enemy armies, relentlessly bombed, their economies almost ceased to function. Yet by 1947 they were roaring away, recording positive GDP growth of over 10 per cent a year for several years.

The impact of Covid on the economy has been grim. But is not quite the same as being attacked with atomic bombs, as Japan was in 1945.

Growth resumed in 2010 after the financial crisis of late 2008/09. It has since been rather anaemic, but it has been positive nevertheless.

The only time the developed world has experienced a prolonged recession was during the truly major financial crisis of the 1930s and its aftermath.  America did not regain its 1929 level of output until 1939.

If we can rely on the experience of history, we are indeed in line for a big bounce back once lockdown is lifted.

As published in City AM Wednesday 17th February 2021
Image: London under snow via Flickr by Jessica Mulley CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Burnley and Asda are unlikely warnings of debt-driven troubles

Burnley and Asda are unlikely warnings of debt-driven troubles

It has been a week of mixed messages. Not just on the release from lockdown, but on the economy.

The Bank of England indicated that banks have been given six months to prepare for negative interest rates.

The Monetary Policy Committee was quick to clarify that this did not mean that they would necessarily cut their 0.1 per cent interest rate. It was just that, well, it sort of might be needed if the economy remained in recession. It was that kind of clarification.

Almost in the next breath, the Bank’s Governor, Andrew Bailey, opened up the vision of an economic boom as consumers emerge from lockdown.

Households have accumulated some £125 billion in extra savings during the lockdowns.  If this is translated into spending, the economy will roar away. The Bank will be looking at higher interest rates to cope with the inflationary pressures this would create.

The unlikely setting of Turf Moor, home to Burnley football club, shines a light on the future direction of interest rates.

Burnley, an isolated town in North East Lancashire, maintains a club in the Premier League.  Only a few weeks ago, they achieved a notable victory at Anfield, the home of Liverpool.

Since its inception in 1882, the club has been owned solely by local businessmen and Burnley supported.  Until the end of last year.

In its most recent published accounts, to June 2019, the club had no borrowings and £42 million in the bank.  But no longer.

An American consortium, ALK Capital, has bought the club and appears to have loaded it with debt. The precise details have not been made clear. But it seems that a loan has been taken out to pay off the previous shareholders, and secured on the stadium and the club itself.

On a far bigger scale, the tremendously successful Issa brothers, from nearby Blackburn as it happens, have revealed this past week that debt will be the principal instrument to finance their takeover of Asda.

Starting with just a single garage 20 years ago, they have built a huge and flourishing business empire and are shining examples of entrepreneurial success.

The details of the £6.8 billion acquisition of the supermarket chain are complicated. But they are in the public domain. Essentially, they involve raising debt and carrying out a sale and leaseback of some of the company’s assets.

So here are two newsworthy company acquisitions basically financed by debt.

For reasons which are perfectly understandable, central banks in the West have presided for years over a regime of very easy money.

It is now accepted much more widely than it was at the time that high and rising debt levels were the principal cause of the financial crisis of the late 2000s.

We are still a long way from this. But history tells us that a rising trend of debt-financed corporate acquisitions is not a good sign.

Once the recovery from the Covid crisis becomes established, the Bank needs to act to damp this down. And higher interest rates have to be part of the plan.

As published in City AM Wednesday 10th February 2021
Image: Asda Blackburn by Hassan Jawad via Geograph CC BY-SA 2.0
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Beware those who’d lock us down and throw away the key

Beware those who’d lock us down and throw away the key

Rather like dedicated Remainers, pro-lockdown enthusiasts never seem to give up.

Their ardour will have been fuelled by leaks over the weekend of results from the epidemiological models.

Apparently, even though quite soon all the over-70s will have been jabbed, lifting restrictions before the summer would lead to a massive third wave of the virus.  Daily death rates would once again soar over 1,000.

The SAGE modellers seem to have arrived at a totally different view to that of the Chief Executive of the NHS, Simon Stephens.  He told a House of Commons committee last week that Covid would soon become a much more treatable disease.  We can look forward, he said, to a “much more normal future” over the course of the next year.

Instead of wallowing in gloom, we might usefully look at Sweden.  The country has not just the prospect of a normal future but the actual reality of a normal past and present.  In Stockholm today, for example, you can walk up to the bar and order a beer.

In terms of economic outcomes, Sweden has performed better.  In 2020, output in the UK fell by over 10 per cent, and by just over 3 per cent in Sweden. The UK is running a public sector deficit of over 13 per cent of GDP, getting on for £400 billion. The comparable figure in Sweden is 4 per cent.

The Covid death rate in Sweden is rather high, at 1144 per million people.  But in the UK, it is 35 per cent higher, at 1550.

Currently, and adjusting both rates to the UK population size, the daily death rate in Sweden is around 100, and more than 1000 here.

Could a policy of very few restrictions have worked in the UK?

The virus spreads more easily in dense populations.

Much of Sweden is essentially completely uninhabited. In fact, slightly more Swedes live in urban areas than do Brits, 87 per cent compared to 83. So no difference there.

The Swedes are definitely less fat. Just under 20 per cent of them are clinically obese compared to 28 per cent of the UK population. Obesity is a key determinant of serious illness and death in Covid cases. But even adjusting for this, Swedish death rates are hardly likely to have exceeded those of the UK.

No politician would dare as to even hint at this. But could it be that the Swedes are, well, more sensible than we are?

They could be trusted to behave in ways which did not lead to the virus getting out of control.  The epidemiological models do not in general include the possibility of people adjusting behaviour in the face of a pandemic.

Overall, compared to the UK and many other Western European countries, Sweden, with virtually no lockdown restrictions, has had a good crisis.  Behavioural changes can make a massive and sustained difference to outcomes.

With only minor modifications of behaviour and armed with the new vaccines, it seems that Simon Stephens’ vision of a return to normality is close to being realised.

As published in City AM Wednesday 3rd February 2021
Image: Socialising in Sweden by Johan Anglemark  via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0
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