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
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
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.
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
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
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
As the snow fell on Sunday, I almost expected a Cabinet minister to address the nation that very evening: “Don’t go out in the snow. Don’t slip and sprain an ankle. Save the NHS!”
It could have been backed up by a scientist brandishing a chart and a “model” to demonstrate that icy weather led to an increase in broken limbs.
In this case, of course, the science would have been very well grounded and supported firmly by the evidence, something which has definitely not always been the case with Covid-19 pronouncements.
Economics, like epidemiology, is an inexact science. But It can still tell us useful things about the world.
What is probably the best supported insight of economics has been in the real news this past week. Namely, that when incentives change, people change their behaviour.
The proposal that those who catch Covid-19 be paid £500 as an incentive to self-isolate attracted widespread ridicule. The idea was well meaning. It would remove the incentive to go to work in order to get paid.
As many have already pointed out, the concept was flawed. It would create a perverse incentive, especially for younger people for whom the risks are very low, to go out and catch the virus. More simply, there was nothing to stop those who test positive from pocketing the loot and still going out to work.
Economists did point out early in the pandemic that test and trace systems in general faced challenging problems, even if the technology really did work properly.
Self-isolation is not simply a personal inconvenience. For many, it involves a loss of income. There are strong incentives therefore not to comply, which is indeed what has happened.
It is not easy to design a system of monetary incentives around test and trace which only reward good behaviour. The risk of people discovering how to game the system is high.
For example, a £10,000 fine was introduced for failure to self-isolate. This incentivised people either not to sign up at all, or to provide false information when asked.
Incentives still have an important role to play.
They need not be monetary. The over-60s have an incentive to have a jab, for example. The incentive here is to stay alive.
But there is worrying evidence that substantial numbers of younger people may not accept a vaccine when their turn comes. And we need high participation to squash the spread of the virus.
Why make the effort of going for a jab, especially if you might then not feel so good for a couple of days, when you personally are at very little risk?
The government could usefully offer everyone under 60 some ready cash if they get vaccinated. For the whole 16-59 year age group, at £25 a head the bill would come to just under £1 billion, a mere drop in the ocean in terms of the costs of Covid overall.
Public policy and personal incentives would be perfectly aligned. Cash for the under 60s when they get a jab. It makes good sense.
As published in City AM Wednesday 27th January 2021
Image: Covid Vaccine via Pixabay
The NHS is a highly centralised organisation. During the Covid crisis, policy decisions have been made at the top and then passed down. There has been little scope for showing initiative at a local level.
This dates back to when the NHS was set up in the late 1940s. Central planning was very fashionable at the time.
Yet as many have pointed out, no other Western health service has seen fit to copy the particular organisational structure of the NHS. There is, to varying degrees, more devolution of authority and decisions.
In normal times, the problems arising from a centralised, command-and-control system have become apparent over the years. Cancer survival rates, for example, are routinely lower in the UK than in other European health systems.
In a crisis, however, many economists and business school theorists have argued that a highly centralised structure works best. Decisive and coordinated action is needed, and this may be done more effectively from the centre.
There is a rival school of academic thought which takes a completely different view.
When a major shock such as a financial crisis occurs, decision makers face a highly uncertain environment. Local managers in a firm, for example, can understand their specific circumstances much better than can those in central headquarters. They are therefore better placed to make good decisions.
A timely paper in the American Economic Association’s Applied Economics journal examines the performance of firms during the Great Recession of 2008/9.
Nicholas Bloom of Stanford, along with his colleagues, analyse two large micro data sets of decentralisation in firms across ten developed economies.
Their conclusion is unequivocal. Companies which delegated more power from the central headquarters to local plant managers before the Great Recession happened outperformed their centralised counterparts.
The enhanced value of specific local knowledge during a crisis, when uncertainty is high, is seen as a key reason for the finding.
In the context of Covid and the NHS, the effectiveness with which the vaccination programme is being carried out appears to contradict this view. But this did not need specific localised knowledge. It required the large-scale mobilisation of resources to deliver a very clear target.
Against this success, we can set the myriad failures of Public Health England. Its ability even to perform the basic task of collecting accurate data on the number of new cases has been brought into question.
Certainly, some local authorities embody the central planning mentality even more than PHE. But many could have used their local information about outbreaks to act much faster if the powers had been devolved to them. Local public health inspectorates, for example, have a lot of experience of practical tracking and tracing.
With decentralisation, different authorities would initially have tried different approaches. We would have had a natural experiment, as it were, into what sorts of things really worked. Successful tactics could then have been copied more widely.
One of the key lessons from the Covid crisis is the need to devolve powers within the outdated system of central planning on which the NHS is currently based.
As published in City AM Wednesday 20th January 2021
One of the most depressing aspects of the decade of the 2010s, well before Covid-19 struck, was the apparently very slow growth in productivity.
This is not a mere ivory tower issue. It is only through increasing productivity that rises in living standards can be sustained. Productivity is the key measure of the efficiency of the economy.
On an everyday level, the previous decade seems to have witnessed a surge in innovative ways of doing things. Companies like Amazon and Netflix make life easier, more enjoyable. Computing power has made dramatic advances. In the past few years, there have been major new developments in the science of artificial intelligence.
But hardly any of this seems to be reflected in the official statistics. Between 2010 and 2019, these show that productivity in America grew by only 0.6 per cent a year. In the UK, growth was even lower, at just 0.3 per cent a year.
An important paper by Stanford’s Erik Brynjolfsson, in the latest issue of the American Economic Journal, goes a long way to resolving this paradox.
The analysis is based on the concept of what is known in economics as a general purpose technology (GPT).
GPTs are technologies which have a large and pervasive impact on both the economy and society. The steam engine was the first, during the first Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and the first half of the 19th century. Electricity was another, around a hundred years later.
Such technologies are far more efficient than the competitors which they replace. In 1830, for example, the crack London to Edinburgh stagecoach took 39 hours. By the middle of the century, it had been driven out of business by the railways.
They revolutionise many aspects of life. Steam power enabled factories to be built. These in turn led to huge shifts in population from rural to urban areas.
Computers have had a major impact since around 1980. But as economics Nobel Laureate Bob Solow remarked, “one can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”.
Brynjolfsson and colleagues argue that GPTs need a lot of complementary investment in order to realise their full impact.
Computers, for example, require firms to develop new business processes, develop the experience of management, retrain workers and the like.
The key point is that many of these investments are intangible and do not appear on the balance sheet. They are particularly difficult for national accounts statisticians to deal with when they estimate the size of an economy.
The authors estimate that productivity levels in the US were 15.7 per cent higher in 2017 than the official numbers suggest. This means that the size of the American economy has been potentially underestimated by some 3 trillion dollars.
A similar exercise has yet to be done for the UK. But we can reasonably expect it will boost the numbers by between £200 and 300 billion.
So we are, in another piece of good news for the New Year, much better off as a nation than the Office for National Statistics says we are.
As published in City AM Wednesday 13th January 2021
Image: Numbers via Pixabay
Let’s start the New Year with a very positive point.
The speed of scientific innovation seems to be accelerating sharply. And it is innovation which ultimately drives our health, wealth and well-being.
The types of problems which have previously taken years or even decades to solve are being cracked in record times.
The development of the vaccines is of course a tremendous scientific achievement. It is the one unequivocally Good Thing to come out of the Covid crisis.
The typical time scale from the initial idea to developing a successful drug has been around ten years. Yet the vaccines were created and licensed for use in less than ten months.
But 2020 saw an advance in science which is even more exciting and important.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has been getting a bad press lately. Stories proliferate of how “algorithms” have led to bad decisions. The fiasco over the A-level results in August for example.
It has streams of Luddite detractors at a more intellectual level. They assert, for example, that it can never really think like a human.
The Deep Mind team at Google are famous, in some circles at least, for having created AI algorithms which can wipe the floor with human world champions at both chess and Go. The game of Go is so complex that in comparison chess looks easy.
So what, many may feel. These are only games.
But at the end of last year, the team announced that AI had solved one of the great challenges of biology.
Their algorithm AlphaFold can predict how proteins fold from a chain of amino acids into 3D shapes that carry out life’s tasks.
Human researchers have made some progress in this area. But it has been slow, and many attempts have failed. Structures have been solved for only about 170,000 of the more than 200 million proteins discovered across life forms.
All very techie and incomprehensible to most of us. But tremendously important.
Science is one of the two top scientific journals in the world. The tone of its pieces is usually measured and guarded. The journal is certainly not given to hyperbole. But in Science, leading biologists have described the achievement as “fantastic” and one which will “change the future of structural biology”.
AlphaFold has not quite solved the problem completely, but it has advanced the science of this topic by decades.
In practical terms, it could, for example, enable drug designers to work out the structure of every protein in new and dangerous pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. This is a key step in the hunt for molecules to block them.
Crucially, the team has agreed to reveal sufficient details of AlphaFold for other research groups to re-create it. No wonder that biologists are excited.
Both the Astra Zeneca vaccine and AlphaFold are a particular triumph for Britain.
The Astra-Zeneca vaccine was developed in conjunction with Oxford University, and Deep Mind was acquired by Google from the computer science department at UCL.
The government must devote more resources to the world beating scientists in our top universities.
As published in City AM Wednesday 6th January 2021
Imagine. No, not the silly childish song by John Lennon. Imagine there were no vaccines available. What would Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, do?
He might ask people to pay more attention to the scientific advice.
But the plain fact is that the credibility of Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief science officer, is shot to pieces.
They have cried wolf too many times and issued too many Project Fear-type projections for people to have any confidence in their pronouncements.
Without a vaccine, the government would have been forced to confront the single most damaging and destructive aspect of the whole pandemic.
Namely, the apparent inability of the ranks of epidemiologists and government scientists to understand the crucial need to alter behaviour, rather than to rely on lockdowns.
Lockdowns can only work in certain rather extreme circumstances.
They need to be harsh. They need to last for a couple of months. The country needs to seal its borders. And there needs to be a willingness to comply.
So-called “firebreak” lockdowns of a couple of weeks duration cannot work at all.
On average, Covid victims are infected for a couple of weeks. When a lockdown is imposed, many of those infected at the time will be free of the disease when it ends. But not all. A small percentage will remain infectious.
More importantly, on day one of lockdown, other people will become infected, and still more on each subsequent day. So a pool of infected people will emerge from lockdown, and the epidemic will spike up again.
Such is the deranged obsession with lockdowns that not only has the Labour leader, Sir Kier Starmer, been a strong enthusiast for firebreaks, they have been implemented in Wales and Northern Ireland.
But as a matter of simple logic, not opinion, they cannot work.
The same logic applies to all but the most rigorous and lengthy lockdowns. Unless there is a fundamental shift in behaviour, the virus will simply spread again once lockdown is lifted.
A policy of successive lockdowns may very well change behaviour. But for the worse. With each one, the willingness to comply is reduced.
This is exactly what has been happening in the working class areas of the UK – the central belt in Scotland, the old mining valleys in Wales, whole swathes of the North and the East End plus its Essex and Kent extensions.
It is in these areas that infection rates have gone through the roof, even when lockdowns were in place. It is not that the rules were insufficiently strict. It is that people have paid less and less attention to them.
Government scientists appear to have no idea about life in these areas. It is not an easy one.
People get a lot of pleasure from socialising with friends and family, who typically live close by. The longer the restrictions last, the greater the incentive to ignore them.
Imagine we had epidemiologists and health bureaucrats who understood that behaviour must change if a virus is to be contained.
Imagine we had politicians who were not in thrall to pseudo-science. At Christmas, is this too much to imagine?