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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
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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
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Economists have lost the public’s trust by meddling in politics

Economists have lost the public’s trust by meddling in politics

Michael Gove famously said during the Brexit campaign that people “have had enough of experts”. Certainly, the outcome suggests that many were sceptical of the doom-laden economic projections of Project Fear.

But what do the public think about economists themselves? An intriguing survey released last week by ING bank and the Bristol University Economics Network sheds light on how this particular group of experts is viewed. The findings were presented at a seminar held in the Treasury last week.

Some key results were reassuringly as expected. For example, an overwhelming majority of respondents, in the poll conducted by You Gov, think that economics is important.

There is a widespread misconception of what economists actually do. A great deal of media focus on economics is about macro economic forecasts, what will happen to GDP, inflation, interest rates and the like. In fact, very few academic economists work on forecasting problems, and even within the Treasury and the Bank of England, the teams directly involved with this are small.

Most economists work on micro problems, trying to figure out, for example, the impact of changing tax rates on incentives, or trying to assess the costs and benefits of an infrastructure problem.

In principle this is useful work. But, regrettably, the survey did not disclose to the respondents just how many economists are employed in the public sector. In 1964, the incoming Labour government of Harold Wilson doubled the number of economists in the civil service from six to twelve.

Now there are 1,400, not counting those working in the Bank of England and the numerous regulatory authorities. Much of the expansion took place under Gordon Brown. It is hard to believe that diminishing marginal returns, to use a jargon economics phrase, have not set in. In plain English, there are far too many of them.

An important feature of the survey is that there is a big problem of trust in the opinions of economists. This is particularly the case with older people and with Leave voters. Many believe that economists express views based on personal and apolitical opinion than on verifiable data and analysis.

A striking illustration of this is of course Brexit itself. It cannot be said too often that the Treasury forecasts of the consequences of a Leave vote predicted a massive rise in unemployment of 500,000 by the end of 2016. It has of course fallen.

At least 90 per cent of professional economists in the UK supported the Remain campaign. Some brave souls in university departments who favoured Leave found themselves virtually ostracised. The shameful attacks on Leave voters, accusing them of being dupes and incapable of understanding the arguments, are based on the misplaced intellectual certainty of the economics mainstream on this topic.

Economics is far from being an empty box, and it can usefully illuminate many practical problems. But the profession needs to be more honest with the public. Some parts of the discipline do have strong empirical backing. Others seem based more on groupthink than on objective science.

As published in City AM Wednesday 10th May 2017

Image: Big Ben from London Eye by Zen Whisk is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Don’t believe the myths: Capitalism has performed well since the financial crisis

Don’t believe the myths: Capitalism has performed well since the financial crisis

Ten years ago, the financial crisis began to grip the Western economies. During the course of 2007, GDP growth slowed markedly everywhere. By the end of 2008, output was in free fall.

A key theme in economic commentary is the sluggishness of the subsequent recovery of the developed economies.

The picture is not quite as bad as it is usually painted. True, last week the Office for National Statistics announced a dip in UK growth in the first quarter of this year. But from 2009, the trough of the recession, to 2016, GDP growth averaged 2.0 per cent a year.  Not exactly a stellar performance. But from 1973, the year prior to the major oil price shock, to 2007, the British economy expanded by just 2.3 per cent a year on average. The contrast between the two periods in the US is slightly greater. From 1973 to 2007, growth averaged 3.0 per cent a year, and since 2009 it has been 2.1 per cent.

There is a very stark contrast with the experience of the 1930s, the last time there was a global financial crisis. This time is different, things have only got better. The recovery may be slower than desirable, but it has been much more widespread than in the years following the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A decisive indicator is the length of time it took not just for growth to resume, but for the previous peak level of GDP to be regained.  So in the UK, for example, the economy started to grow again in 2010. But it was not until 2013 that there had been enough growth for the economy to get back to its 2007 size.

Looking at a group of 18 developed economies, which includes all the main and medium sized ones, GDP had regained its previous peak within 3 years in no fewer than 8 of them. By 2016, everyone in the group except Finland, Italy and Spain had a GDP which exceeded its previous peak.

Three years after output began to fall in 1930, not a single economy had managed to regain its 1929 level of output. Even by 1938, output was below its 1929 level in Austria, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain.

Perhaps Keynes’ most powerful insight was why the slump was so prolonged. He developed the concept of “animal spirits”, which are not a mathematically based prediction of the future, but the sentiment of the narratives which companies form about the future. He wrote: “the essence of the situation is to be found in the collapse of animal spirits…. this may be so complete that no practicable reduction in the rate of interest will be enough.”

Zero interest rates and low growth! Keynes got there before us.

Still, capitalism has performed much better in the aftermath of the financial crisis of the late 2000s than it did in the crisis of the early 1930s. Animal spirits may not be buoyant, but they are in much better shape than in the 1930s.

As published in City AM Wednesday 2nd May 2017

Image: Day 20 Occupy Wall Street by David Shankbone is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Kenneth Arrow proved economists needn’t be loud to make a difference

Kenneth Arrow proved economists needn’t be loud to make a difference

Does winning the Nobel Prize in economics cause longevity?  We might be forgiven for thinking so.  Thomas Schelling died last year aged 95.  The author of the famous textbook, Paul Samuelson, passed away at 94, whilst his colleague, Bob Solow, is still going strong at 92.  The British Laureate Ronald Coase reached the age of 102.  Kenneth Arrow was a mere whippersnapper in comparison, dying a couple of weeks ago at 95.

The metropolitan liberal elite in America represent an aristocracy every bit as interwoven by family connections as the grandees of 18th century England.  Forget the Clintons and their daughter.  Arrow was Samuelson’s brother in law.  He was the uncle of Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary and President of Harvard.

In terms of his contribution to science, Arrow was possibly the most important economist of the second half of the 20th century.  But he is essentially unknown to the general public, spending his career in the sheltered groves of American Ivy League universities.

This illustrates a fundamental feature of economics.  In the media, it appears to be solely about the big features of an economy, the macro variables in the jargon, such as GDP, unemployment and inflation.  In the public perception, economists seem to spend most of their time having furious arguments with each other.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, the bit that is seen.  Where Arrow worked, under the surface, is where most economics is done.  And it is where economists are far more often in agreement than in dispute.  It is the territory of micro economics, the study of how individuals behave and take decisions.

Arrow made a massive contribution to the crown jewel of this world, so-called general equilibrium theory.  The idea that markets are a Good Thing goes back at least as far as Adam Smith, as does the insight that supply and demand can be brought into balance by changes in the price of the product.

The role of price in any particular market is easy to understand.  For many decades economists wrestled with a problem which is straightforward to state but fiendishly difficult to solve.  Price can equalise demand and supply in a single market.  How can we establish whether a complete set of prices can exist which ensures that all markets clear in this way, so that supply is the same as demand?

An analogy with quadratic equations might help.  Most readers will recall struggling to solve these at school.  But there is a formula which guarantees to find the solutions to any such equation.  Simply plug in the relevant numbers, and the answer pops out.  Arrow’s mathematical work was not to find a set of prices for any particular economy.  It was to establish the conditions, to find the formula, under which a solution could be found for any economy.

This may sound, and indeed it is, highly esoteric.  But general equilibrium models, thanks to Arrow, are now, for better or for worse, part of the everyday practical tool kit of modern day economists.

Image: Seesaw by Antony Mayfield is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Claims that a low tax, low regulation UK would be a disaster are rubbish

Claims that a low tax, low regulation UK would be a disaster are rubbish

Dame Minouche Shafik, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, is leaving to become Director of the London School of Economics.  Last weekend, she gave her final interview wearing her Bank hat.

Shafik issued what was described in the media as a “thinly veiled warning” to the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond.  She stated that it was an “illusion” to believe that transforming the UK into a low tax, low regulation economy would give it a competitive advantage.  Indeed, Shafik went further and offered the opinion that such polices risked “hugely disastrous consequences for the economy”.

We have heard such prognostications before. In the run up to Brexit, the Treasury claimed that unemployment would rise by 500,000 by the end of 2016 in the event of a leave vote.  It actually fell.  The Bank signalled a similar opinion, that Brexit would be bad.  Doom and gloom was prophesised by the OECD and the IMF.

These institutions seem permeated by what we might call “Davos liberalism”, the sorts of opinions which would be congenial to George Clooney.  Of course clever, well meaning people can design policies and regulations which will benefit ordinary people, who after all cannot be expected to understand these things and might hold incorrect views!

Shafik claimed that the UK economy has lost 16 per cent of GDP relative to trend because of the financial crisis. Looser regulation would run the risk of an even bigger loss in future.  But the French economy is much more highly regulated than that of the UK.  It has lost at least 20 per cent of GDP relative to trend, some £80 billion more than the UK.  And France has at least 1 million more people who are unemployed.

Shortly after the Shafik statement, the government announced a major review of how the UK can become the world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.  We can take with a pinch of salt the unnervingly precise estimate that £654 billion can be added to the British economy by 2035 if the growth potential of AI is achieved.  But we are clearly already a world leader in this area and, equally clearly, if we succeed in capitalising on this, GDP will be boosted by a very big number.

An essential ingredient for success is to attract the innovative thinkers who will push out the frontiers of the science, and the entrepreneurs who will help turn the ideas into practical tools.  It is of course possible that a system of high personal and corporate tax rates could succeed in attracting such people.  But it seems plausible that low tax rates are more likely to do the trick.

The high taxes imposed by President Hollande in France illustrate the point.  Young French people have flocked to the UK.  London is now the sixth largest French city in the world in terms of the population of native French speakers.

Our borders need to remain open to highly skilled individuals.  But we need policies which continue to attract them rather than drive them away.

Image: French President François Hollande by Foreign And Commonwealth Office is licensed under CC by 2.0
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