Paste your Google Webmaster Tools verification code here

Less austerity will always mean more tax

Less austerity will always mean more tax

There is a great deal of discussion, following the election, of relaxing or even abandoning austerity.

There is an equal amount of confusion about this, because the same word is being used to describe two quite separate concepts.

The consequences of the government changing its policy on austerity are dramatically different, depending on which one it is.

One meaning of the word is what we might call “social austerity”. From any given pot of money available to a government, its supporters believe that, in general, tax cuts should be promoted rather than public spending increased. Opponents argue that public spending as a result has become underfunded. Local councils, education, and the NHS all need more money.

Social austerity can be relieved, as even the DUP and some Conservatives argue, by increasing spending appropriately, and funding it by increases in taxation. This was an important aspect of Labour’s manifesto, and the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has intensified the discussion around it.

The main risk is purely political. Are voters really and truly willing to pay more tax, rather than just wanting someone else to pay it?

There are some potential adverse economic consequences if the policy of higher taxation is pushed too far. Former French President Francois Hollande’s 75 per cent tax rate led to several hundred thousand skilled young people leaving France, mainly for the UK. If companies are taxed too heavily, they may choose to locate to another country. Both skilled labour and capital are geographically mobile.

But, within reason, social austerity could be relaxed without perhaps too many fears in this direction.

“Economic austerity” is quite a different matter. Opponents of this want to increase the gap between government spending and tax receipts – the so-called fiscal deficit. This is funded by issuing government bonds. So the deficit in any given year goes up, and the outstanding stock of government debt also rises.

Any relaxation of social austerity is paid for by higher taxes now. Any relaxation of economic austerity is paid for by borrowing more now.

But the debt has to be repaid at some point, and the interest payments on it must be met. So taxes in the future will be higher. Either way, less austerity means more tax.

John Maynard Keynes himself made it very clear that increasing public spending at a time of full employment would simply lead to more inflation. There are areas of the country where there probably are people registered as unemployed who genuinely do want to work – the Welsh Valleys, for example. But the rest of the UK is at full employment.

The number of people in employment is at an all-time high, at 32m. This has risen by 2.8m since 2010. Meanwhile the unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9 per cent in 2010 to just 4.6 per cent today.

Any major fiscal stimulus to the economy now would simply bid up wages, leading to higher costs and higher inflation.

The public mood on social austerity may have shifted. But the case for economic austerity is stronger than it has ever been.

As published in City AM Wednesday 21st June 2017

Image: People’s assembly by Peter Damian is licensed under CC by 2.0
Read More

Sorry Corbyn, consumers aren’t as sold on nationalisation as you’d like to think

Sorry Corbyn, consumers aren’t as sold on nationalisation as you’d like to think

One of the most remarkable features of the Conservative election campaign was the dog which did not bark.

There was no systematic attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s wholly implausible economic narrative. Magic Money Tree comments aside, Labour’s economic incompetence was allowed to pass almost unchallenged.

One part of Labour’s economic offer which really did strike a chord with the electorate was the promise to nationalise industries such as rail and water. To anyone with direct experience of the old British Rail or the Post Office (which made you wait six months to get a phone installed) this almost defies belief. But only those over 55 can remember.

The fact is that for a number of years there has been strong and consistent support in surveys for taking industries such as rail into public ownership.

In 2013, for example, the moderate Labour website Labour List commissioned an analysis by the poll company Survation. In terms of rail nationalisation, 42 per cent thought fares would be cheaper, compared to only 12 per cent who thought they would go up. Those believing the quality of the services would improve easily outnumbered those who thought it would get worse, by 38 to 14 per cent. There are many similar examples.

Economists are pretty dismissive of the results of surveys about hypothetical situations or choices. A key foundation of economic theory is the concept of revealed preference, to use the jargon phrase. Individuals are assumed to have reasonably stable tastes and preferences. These preferences are revealed not through answers to hypothetical questions, but through how they actually respond to changes in the set of incentives which they face.

In the National Passenger Survey, for example, 80 per cent of respondents routinely express satisfaction with their journey, compared to fewer than 10 per cent who are dissatisfied. But how does this translate into actual decisions?

Prior to rail privatisation just after the 1992 election, the peak number of passenger journeys made each year was some 1.1bn in the mid-1950s. Faced with rapidly rising road competition, the rail industry saw journeys fall steadily, to a trough of around 750m in the mid-1990s.

After privatisation, massive investment programmes have been carried out and, in the form of the train operating companies, there is now a distinct part of the industry whose priority is the consumer. Journey numbers rose, passing the 1bn mark in 2003, to the current level of 1.7bn, a figure not seen since the early 1920s, when road competition was weak.

So the revealed preference of consumers seems to be that they rather like the current structure. They actively choose to use rail in massive numbers.

Rather like a good Party member in George Orwell’s book 1984, the electorate seems capable of believing two contradictory things at the same time. This reinforces the importance of narratives in politics. Trying to treat voters as rational agents often ends in tears, as both Cameron and May have discovered.

As published in City AM Wednesday 14th June 2017

Image: Jeremy Corbyn by Garry Knight is licensed under CC by 2.0
Read More

Does the productivity gap actually exist?

Does the productivity gap actually exist?

Whoever wins the election tomorrow will have to grapple with what appears to be a fundamental economic problem. Estimated productivity growth in the UK is virtually at a standstill.

The standard definition of productivity is the average output per employee across the economy as a whole, after adjusting output for inflation – or “real” output, in the jargon of economics.

The amount in 2016 was the same as it was almost a decade ago in 2007, immediately prior to the financial crisis.

Productivity is not just some abstract concept from economic theory. It has huge practical implications. Ultimately, it determines living standards.

Productivity is real output divided by employment. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has a pretty accurate idea of how many people are employed in the economy. They get data from company tax returns to HMRC.

What about output? The ONS uses a wide range of sources to compile its estimates. But these essentially provide it with information about the total value of what the UK is producing.

The ONS has the key task of breaking this number down into increases in value which are simply due to inflation, and those which represent a rise in real output.

This problem, easy to state, is fiendishly difficult to solve in practice. To take a simple illustrative example, imagine a car firm makes exactly 10,000 vehicles of a particular kind in each of two successive years, and sells them at an identical price. It seems that real output is the same in both years.

But suppose that in the second year, the car is equipped with heated seats. The sale price has not changed. But buyers are getting a better quality model, and some would pay a bit extra for the seats. So the effective price, taking into account all the features, has fallen slightly.

Assessing the impact of quality changes is the bane of national accounts statisticians’ lives. The car example above is very simple. But how do you assess the quality change when, for example, smartphones were introduced?

The ONS and its equivalents elsewhere, such as the Bureau of Economic Analysis in America, are very much aware of this problem. But even by the early 2000s, leading econometricians such as MIT’s Jerry Hausman were arguing that the internet alone was leading inflation to be overestimated by about 1 per cent a year, and real output growth correspondingly underestimated.

Martin Feldstein is the latest top economist adding his name to this view. Feldstein is a former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, so he is no ivory tower boffin.

In the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives, Feldstein writes:

“I have concluded that the official data understate the changes of real output and productivity. The measurement problem has become increasingly difficult with the rising share of services that has grown from about 50 per cent of private sector GDP in 1950 to about 70 per cent of private GDP now”.

The Bean report into national accounts statistics last year acknowledged these problems. It could well be that there is.

As published in City AM Wednesday 7th June 2017

Image: Smartphone by JÉSHOOTS  is licensed under CC by 2.0
Read More

The UK could teach the Eurozone a thing or two about successful monetary unions

The UK could teach the Eurozone a thing or two about successful monetary unions

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published last week some figures which show how a successful monetary union works in practice.

It is not obvious at first sight, from the dry heading: “regional public sector finances”.

The ONS collects information on the amounts of public spending and money raised in taxes across the regions of the UK. The difference is the so-called fiscal balance of the region.

Only three regions generate a surplus. In London, the South East and the East of England, total tax receipts exceed public spending. The capital has a healthy positive balance of £3,070 per head, followed by the South East at £1,667 per head.

Essentially, these two regions subsidise the rest of the UK. Public spending in the North East, for example, is £3,827 per person above the level of taxes raised in that region. In Wales, it is even higher at £4,545. No wonder that one of the first things Carwyn Jones, leader of the Welsh Assembly, said after the Brexit vote was: “Wales must not lose a penny of subsidy”.

The region which benefits most is Northern Ireland, which gets £5,437 per head more than it generates in tax. Scotland, to complete the picture, receives around half of that, at £2,824 per person.

There is a lot of debate around Brexit and the border between the North and the Republic of Ireland. There is even talk of reunification, but on these numbers the Republic would be mad to want it.

Essentially, the regions receive these subsidies because they are running deficits on their trade balance of payments. The exports of goods and services from the North East, for example, to the rest of the UK are much less than it imports. In balance of payments jargon, the subsidy it receives is a monetary transfer from the rest of the country, principally from London and the South East.

The ONS does not actually produce regional balance of payments statistics. But the fact that most regions receive these large transfers implies that they are just not productive enough to sustain their living standards by their own efforts.

All the regions are in the sterling monetary union. Those running trade deficits cannot devalue to try to improve their position. They must instead rely on subsidy.

Exactly the same principles apply in the Eurozone. The massive difference of course is that there is no central Eurozone government to make sure the weaker performing regions receive the necessary funding.

This is why President Macron and Chancellor Merkel announced they will examine changes to treaties to allow for further Eurozone integration. Even the hardline German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, said: “a community cannot exist without the strong vouching for the weaker ones”.

To be sustainable, a monetary union needs large transfers between its regions. London and the South East already put their hands deep into their pockets for the rest of the UK. Gordon Brown did get one thing spectacularly right. He kept us out of the Euro.

As published in City AM Wednesday 31th May 2017

Image: Euro sign by Alex Guibord is licensed under CC by 2.0
Read More

Labour’s plans add up on paper, but that won’t translate to the real world

Labour’s plans add up on paper, but that won’t translate to the real world

The two main manifestos have been published. Initially at least, the Labour one seems the more popular. Many people are susceptible to being bribed with other people’s money.

Labour claims that their plans to spend an additional £49 billion have been fully costed. At one level, this is true. A set of tax changes and estimates of the additional revenue they will bring is presented. These numbers do add up to the same sum as the extra spending.

It would be pure nit picking to ask where the money is to come from to pay for the nationalisation of the rail, water and mail industries. Labour says the shareholders would receive government bonds in exchange for their equity. This extra borrowing would foot the bill.

Perhaps it would be even more trivial and tendentious to draw attention to the proposed National Transformation Plan, which will spend an extra £250 billion over ten years on infrastructure. This, too, would be financed by additional government borrowing.

After all, Labour says: “we will take advantage of near-record low interest rates”. Indeed, longer term UK government bonds are currently trading at a yield of around 1 to 1.5 per cent.

But this is the essence of the problem. In economics-speak, the bond yield may not be invariant to the size of the deficit. In English, if borrowing rises sharply, interest rates might also go up.

Keynes is often regarded as the intellectual inspiration of those who want to see government borrowing increased. He himself was far more cautious. True, in his magnum opus the General Theory, he did advocate higher government spending to try and solve the depression of the 1930s. But he was very careful to point out that the potential benefits of a bigger deficit could be cancelled out if, as a result, interest rates rose sharply.

This is not a mere theoretical abstraction. In the Mediterranean economies in recent years, interest rates have regularly risen to 6 or 7 per cent, and sometimes higher still, in one of the many crises in confidence in government prudence which have taken place. The idea that Labour could borrow hundreds of billions of pounds with no consequence for interest rates is stretching credibility to breaking point.

More generally, the whole of Labour’s manifesto is costed on the naive assumption that tax and spending changes would not lead to any changes in how individuals and companies behave.

An additional £23 billion is planned from the corporate sector. It is possible that the tax will be passed onto consumers and this amount will be raised. But it may well be that companies will be deterred from operating in the UK at all, and corporation tax receipts will fall rather than rise.

Ex-President Hollande in France raised the top tax rate to 75 per cent. As a result, large numbers of highly skilled young French people moved to London.

The Left is very good at drawing up well intentioned detailed plans. But they usually fail because people change their behaviour in response to them.

As published in City AM Wednesday 24th May 2017

Image: Labour Party General Election Launch 2017 by Sophie Brown is licensed under CC by 2.0
Read More