Socialist Economic Bulletin

Slowdown is made in Downing Street

Slowdown is made in Downing StreetBy Michael Burke

It is now customary for George Osborne to blame all the ills of the British economy either on overseas economic weakness or more recently the ‘uncertainty’ over the Brexit debate. This is nonsense. The renewed economic stagnation is directly related to the policies the Tories have pursued.

The three most widely discussed symptoms of the renewed stagnation are the decline in retail sales, the widening of the trade gap and the fall in production. Of these the fall in production is the most important.  

This point may require explanation, primarily because the strength of the neoliberal counter-revolution in economics has tended to drag all other schools of thought in its direction. As a result, there is widespread confusion on these matters as if to suggest that consumption, or wages, or some other factor can lead the economy.

Marx argued (in Grundrisse and elsewhere) that,

“The conclusion we reach is not that production, distribution, exchange and consumption are identical, but that they all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity. Production predominates not only over itself…..but over the other moments as well. The process always returns to production to begin anew. That exchange and consumption cannot be predominant is self-evident.”

It is self-evident that exchange and consumption cannot be predominant for the simple reason that it is impossible to exchange or consume a good or service before it has been produced. It is sometimes suggested that this is only true of pre-monetary economies. An individual or a whole economy can borrow so that the level of consumption rises beyond their share of what has been distributed to them after production. Very true. But since the money borrowed has to be paid back plus interest, the borrowing amounts to a claim on future production.

Production-trade-retail sales

This fundamental point applies to analysis of the current state of the British economy. Production and manufacturing are both in recession, that is at least two consecutive quarters of declines. The trade gap has widened to record levels. But retail sales have only just begun to falter by recording falls in February and March.

Osborne and others want to claim this is a result of Brexit ‘uncertainty’. But if British-based companies were cutting back on investment this would be reflected in lower import demand for investment goods. If British consumers’ greater uncertainty led to lower consumption, then this should be reflected in lower imports of consumer goods. In both cases the trade gap would narrow.  

At the same time, there has been no crisis of ‘demand’ in the British economy, if by that is meant under-consumption. Retail sales have been far stronger than either production or exports since the recession. This is shown in Fig.1 below.

Fig. 1 Consumer demand versus output

Retail sales, which are primarily the key discretionary part of household consumption, have risen modestly since the beginning of the recession, up 6.5%. But output is now in its third recession in 8 years and has fallen back towards levels last seen in the depth of the Great Recession itself. It has fallen by 10%. Quite logically, if production in Britain is falling but consumption is rising, then the trade gap must grow.

To be clear, there is the same broad pattern when total consumption is taken into account, that is household discretionary and non-discretionary consumption plus government consumption. Like the rest of the economy Government has increased consumption and cut investment. The totals for consumption and investment are shown in Fig.2 below.

Fig. 2 UK Consumption and Investment
It is not the case there is no growth in consumption in the British economy. It is growing at a modest pace. But investment is effectively unchanged over 8 years, up by just 2%. This is the crucial weakness of the British economy, which is an extreme case of the general malaise afflicting the advanced industrialised economies.

This in turn accounts for the widening trade gap. Producers based in Britain are losing market share globally and domestically. As the world economy is not far from stagnation this leads to falling output. In addition, as the growth of consumption in Britain is greater than most competitor economies, which Osborne claims as a sign of success, this leads to the growth of imports outstripping the growth of exports by some distance. This cannot be solved by devaluation. This has already been tried and failed. The pound is still 16% lower against a basket of major currencies than it was prior to the recession.

It is investment which is the source of the falling levels out output and the widening trade gap. In addition, household income growth has been weak and real wage growth almost non-existent over a prolonged period. Therefore the rise in consumption has been achieved by a rundown of savings/increase in borrowing by households. The household savings ratio has fallen to a new all-time low of 3.8% (Fig.3 below).

Fig. 3 Household savings ratio
Of course, wages cannot sustainably rise if production is falling. The squeeze on profits if businesses cannot force down wages means profits are cut and output cuts follow. This is what has happened in the steel industry, for example. Rising wages requires rising output. That can only be sustained by increasing investment.

Osbornomics and its followers

There have been two distinct phases to the Tory offensive. The first was to cut government spending, both current spending on services and capital investment. But, as both of these cause economic downturn, then government spending on social security (or other items like working tax credits) tends to rise. This is widely understood as austerity.

The second phase was purely for electoral advantage and began in earnest in the March 2013 Budget. This promoted private consumption, most obviously with policies such as ‘Help to Buy’ and other schemes. This was combined with a halt to new cuts in current spending while continuing to cut public investment. 

It is this sequence of policies combined which has brought about the current crisis. The austerity policy led to a renewed downturn in the economy and a widening public sector deficit. The austerity mark II policy led to an unsustainable rise in consumption. It also led to inflation of asset prices, especially the damaging rise in house prices. In textbook fashion, ‘demand’ for housing was increased with extra funds, without any increase in supply, that is investment in new housing.

All of those, however well-meaning who now argue for further measures to boost ‘demand’ (meaning consumption) would simply repeat Osborne’s highly damaging policy in a new form. This is the case with Adair Turner’s call for monetary financing to boost nominal demand, known as ‘helicopter money’ (pdf).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with money creation. It is especially useful in extreme cases where the economy is slowing sharply and/or there is a risk of sustained deflation; prolonged falls in the price level. But we have already shown that the British economy is not suffering a deficiency of ‘demand’. It is once more in crisis because there is still a slump in investment.

If instead monetary measures are used primarily to boost consumption there will be a re-run in some new form of Osbornomics. This relates to a fundamental economic law. The greater proportion of output devoted to investment the higher the growth rate of the economy (and ultimately the sustainable rise in the level of consumption). The greater proportion of output devoted to consumption the slower the growth rate of the economy (and the same negative consequences for the level of consumption). You can’t shop your way to prosperity, as British consumers can once more testify.   

Monetary and fiscal measures should be aimed boosting investment. This would raise output and produce high-skill, high-wage jobs. This is in fact exactly what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have proposed. It is the sustainable way of out of renewed crisis.

RIP ‘All in it together’, buried in Panama

RIP ‘All in it together’, buried in PanamaBy Michael Burke

This Tory government, its economic and social policies and its financial scandals almost seem designed to provide illustrations of fundamental economic truths. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, famously wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. The Panama scandal reveals the big lie that austerity is about deficit reduction and the false mantra that ‘we are all in it together’. The entirety of government policy is an attack by one class on all its subordinates.

Whenever some Tory Minister or another announces another damaging economic policy or wholly regressive social policy and attempts to justify this in terms of a shared burden of adjustment, it can punctured by recalling just one word: Panama. ‘We’re all in it together’ has been fatally wounded.

Tory economic policies and the leaders themselves are often criticised in terms of incompetence or immorality. No doubt that these factors are present. But the same policies now in place have been pursued to different degrees before; public sector spending cuts, cuts to public sector investment, pay cuts, tax increases and benefit cuts for average and low-paid workers, tax cuts for business and the high paid, privatisations, and so on. This was the actual content of Thatcherism although it was cloaked with ‘monetarism’ and again when the pound entered the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The label changed but the policy was the same.

This policy consistency is not accidental. It represents a class interest. As a result the current government cannot be advised or implored to choose different policies. Only militant opposition combined with considered alternatives will work.

Tax haven hub

The focus of the anger has quite rightly been against David Cameron, who called tax avoidance ‘morally repugnant’ when looking for a cheap target in tax-dodging celebrities. But he is also a representative figure of the model of the British economy which his government inherited and which they are recklessly extending.

That economic model places the economy at the centre of an international hub of tax havens, with the City of London as its organisational focal point. Economic policy is aimed at promoting this international role, if necessary at the expense of other sectors of the economy. So, the departing permanent secretary to the Treasury recently told the Financial Times that steel was a ‘lame duck industry’ and should not be bailed out. This assessment clearly does not apply to the finance sector and the banks.

Table 1 below shows the level of bank liabilities (primarily deposits) in selected financial centres. They show the vast level of offshore wealth in tax havens. The data is from the latest quarterly report from the Bank for International Settlements.

Table 1. Bank Liabilities in selected centres, US$ billions

The US is no stranger to tax avoidance itself, although to a large extent this is done onshore, through incorporation in Delaware or Nevada. But the UK economy and its dependencies and Overseas Territories have greater bank liabilities combined than the US itself. This is not an exhaustive list, as other territories, including Gibraltar, the British Virgin Isles, Belize and others are engaged in similar schemes.

The efficient management of savings should be a positive contribution to economic prosperity, by directing savings towards the most productive areas for investment. But this is not what is happening. A global system of tax avoidance deprives countries of tax revenues that could be used to for investment or social protection or public goods. This is not just confined to Britain and the biggest victims are the populations of the Less Developed Countries.

Worse, the capital does not lie idle in the banks, offshore companies and hedge funds. It is used for speculation in financial assets, stock markets, commodities and property which further distorts economic activity, and exacerbates inequality.

The current Labour leadership has nothing to do with these rackets and has always opposed their effects. The Labour leadership can only gain from the exposure of these scandals. One of its tasks will be to formulate policies which shift the whole financial sector away from tax-dodging and speculation towards productive investment. That is a major task. But the sums involved are so large that every incremental step has the potential for a huge positive effect.

Budget shows women bearing the heaviest burden of austerity

Budget shows women bearing the heaviest burden of austerityBy Kerry Abel

This government’s budget and the entire austerity policy hits women harder than men. At the same time the government are consulting on gender pay gap reporting, because as they acknowledge, the gap between men’s hourly pay and women’s still stands at 19.2% the Tories are taking 81% of their budget cuts out of women’s pockets.

Despite making cuts to local government, the NHS and other public services in the period 2010-15, including £200billion from the NHS the Chancellor has not met his target to balance the books by 2015, so has come back for more. And they are taking from those least able to afford it. According to the Women’s Budget Group, households on the lowest incomes lose out five times as much as richest households.

Fig.1 Cumulative impact of tax/benefit and spending cuts by income decile (2010-20)
Graph from: A cumulative gender impact assessment of ten years
of austerity policies, published by Women’s Budget Group

This was not neutral budget. Women tend to be in the lowest paid sections of society, more likely to be on the minimum wage and have to stretch their wages further – 90% of single parents are women. The budget’s tax cuts mainly benefit rich men because they are disproportionately high paid. Analysis by the Tax Justice Network noted before the budget that ‘if George Osborne slashes the rate further in the Budget – from 45p to 40p for those on £150,000 or more – will put even more money in men’s pockets’.

How does this work?

The first channel for the uneven distribution of austerity is the aim of cutting public sector spending by £3.5 billion by 2020. The public sector – local government, schools and hospitals are disproportionately staffed and used by women. So any cuts will affect women’s employment prospects more as well as leaving them holding the baby, the disabled relative or older family member when a cut to a service bites.

Public sector workers have had only a 1% or less pay rise in the last five years and four more years is a real terms cut of 15-20% of their wages.

The government has outlined £3.5bn additional cuts to departmental budgets – excluding those protected areas of education, health, international aid and defence – which will need to be found in 2019/20, budgets that will have already fallen in real terms by over a third since 2010.

2019/20 will also be the same year that public sector employers will be faced with a £2bn increase in contributions to unfunded public sector pension schemes, which arises from the update to the discount rate applied to pensions. The Nuffield Trust estimate that this could mean a £650 million bill for the NHS virtually wiping out the marginal 0.7% spending increase planned for that year and leading to a real terms cut in health spending in that year.

Public sector employers will also be struggling to meet additional National Insurance contributions as a result of the abolition of the second state pension, a figure just shy of £3bn. With a cap on public sector pay due to remain until 2020 and the government already committed to further savings on redundancy pay and sickness absence, it is hard to see what more can be squeezed out of a public service workforce that is beset by increasing recruitment and retention problems.

This can be broken down even further in terms of health, education and wages. In November the Health Foundation analysis showed the government commitment to increase NHS funding by £10bn in 2020/21, but this is only an increase to the NHS England budget not total health funding. The NHS has been creaking under the pressure of the last parliament’s cuts and increased pressures on health spending arises from demographic changes and cuts to other budgets, especially social care. So some vital investment has been cut and will not be restored by this budget – junior doctor training, health visiting, sexual health and vaccinations are all at risk and hospital equipment neglected over the last five years.

Money has now been allocated to local government to spend on health and this is open to politicisation and inefficiencies, the postcode lottery of contraception availability is a prime example of this. But it is also a false economy, for every £1 spent on contraception the NHS saves at least £11. The Advisory Group on Contraception research found that the average abortion rate was around 9.7 per cent higher in areas where services were restricted, compared with areas with no restrictions. And some centres like the newly refurbished Margaret Pyke centre is faced with closure despite significant investment in 2013.

Health cuts affect care services and women suffer disproportionately and end up have to bear the burden when the state fails.

There has rightly been a campaign against and media outcry about the announcement of forced ‘academisation’ of all schools by 2020. There will be a wholescale move away from the national curriculum and the nonsensical idea that parents should not have a say in how the school is run. But this will also affect how staff are paid and how that pay is collectively negotiated. The compulsory move to academies is an attack on collective bargaining, which will result in less fair and transparent pay structures and this will affect women’s pay. Collective bargaining helps to create pressure for remuneration decisions to be fair and transparent, that starting salaries are fixed, that maternity pay is the same across the country and that teachers and school staff know they are being paid a fair rate for the job. Anything that undermines this opens up multi-tier pay deals that will leave those in rural or difficult schools less well paid. Wherever collective bargaining has broken down, women’s pay suffers.

It is shameful that the gender pay gap still exists and currently stands at 19%. The biggest single policy that closed the gender pay gap was the introduction of the National Minimum Wage in 1999 and reorganised public sector pay in the 2000s as part of large scale pay and grading programmes went some way to close the pay difference, but in recent years it has stagnated. Women are at the poorest end of the wage scale and the case for equality is not taken seriously enough. Legal requirements for policies to have no detrimental impact on equalities are routinely ignored, despite many commentators highlighting this issue.

The increase in the new National Living Wage is important and 61% of beneficiaries are women. Job growth is important, but women are disproportionately in low paid part time jobs (75% of part time workers are women). The move to low paid, zero hour contracts and spurious self-employment in unstable working environments is not the solution.

On top of this, the TUC have repeatedly pointed out that the ‘motherhood penalty’ still exists, by the age of 42, mothers who are in full-time work are earning 11% less. It is still culturally linked to the idea that men should be the breadwinners, and that women are seen as less committed to work when they return as parents. Research in America found that changes in work behaviour and time out of the labour market may explain some of the motherhood pay penalty but the majority is unexplained.

Unfortunately none of this will be properly dealt with by the gender pay gap reporting proposals from the government, currently being consulted on, due to come in from 2018 because the reporting system is voluntary and companies are not required to give information detailed enough to shine a light on the main causes of the overall gender pay gap within their organisation.

Cameron and Osborne often argue that strong public services like the NHS require a strong economy. But SEB has shown that their central policy of cutting taxes on profits and on high earners has not produced a strong economy. Business investment as a proportion of GDP was higher when the Corporation Tax rate was 30% than it is now with the rate at 20%. Capital gains tax is also down, the higher rate is being reduced from 28% to 20% and the basic rate from 18% to 10% – this is what led to private equity partners paying a lower rate of tax than their cleaners.

It is true that raising the tax free personal allowance will benefit low income women lifted out of paying tax but it disproportionately benefits higher earners and doesn’t help those who already earn less than the threshold. Quite simply these measures mainly benefit double income households where both are high earners.

The reality is that austerity constitutes both a frontal assault on public services and has led to economic stagnation. Under Cameron and Osborne, neither the NHS nor the economy is strong. And, because of the greater exploitation of women and their oppression, they bear the greatest burden of this.

In effect, the Tory policy is to cut pay and public spending in order to fund tax giveaways for businesses and the rich. It is a policy that disproportionately hits women and benefits only the tiniest fraction of society. It isn’t working. There is a clear alternative based on investment in the economy for sustainable growth. The benefits of that growth can be directed to protecting and rebuilding out public services, and so ending the Tory offensive against women.

Rotten Tory ideology laid bare by crisis in steel

Rotten Tory ideology laid bare by crisis in steelBy Michael Burke

In order to defeat Osbornomics it is necessary to understand it. A central tenet is that the private sector is the key to prosperity and that therefore everything possible should be done to promote and encourage it. The state should shrink in order to release the inherent dynamism of the private sector. The argument runs that it may be that some people fail temporarily so some sort of safety net may be necessary, if affordable. In this framework, if it is necessary to cut support for disabled people and the poor in order to fund tax cuts for high earners and business, then so be it.

The attack on disabled people has rightly been the focus of hostility to Osborne’s Budget. But this is not an isolated case, as all those who have suffered those cuts can testify. This has been a repeated pattern of Osborne Budgets, supported by all Tory and LibDem MPs beginning in 2010. The right of the Labour Party has had no significant disagreements with it.

At the same time, the long-term decline of the steel industry has turned into a full-blown crisis. In a very useful report the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) debunks the myth that the crisis is due to ‘dumping’ of steel in the EU. The UK loss of market share in core industries producing intermediate goods, such as steel, is twice the rate of the industrialised countries as a whole over the long-term. Despite alleged ‘dumping’ by Chinese firms in Europe, German steel production rose by 2% in 2015.

The IPPR report shows that all of these industries combined have suffered a devastating reversal. While by the end of 2014 UK GDP had recovered by 4% from its pre-crisis level in 2008, the producers of core materials used in manufacturing and construction were still 20% below their pre-crisis level. They are in a deep crisis.

Two trends

These two trends are linked in policy terms; the repeated attacks on the poor and those who should be entitled to support, combined with a decline in key industries. In this way, the central proposition of Osbornomics is revealed by the most striking simultaneous giveaway in the 2016 Budget, which was the further cuts in the tax rate on corporate profits, as well as the cuts to Capital Gains Tax (CGT). 

Osborne has cut CT so that it now stands at 20%. In the 2016 Budget the announced cut to 17% is in effect funded by attacking disabled people and cutting public services sharply in real terms (after adjusting for inflation). He also further cut CGT. It should be remembered that New Labour also cut both CT and CGT.

All of this has been cast in terms of boosting investment and ‘freeing the private sector’. It is nonsense. In Fig.1 below the level of CT is shown against the proportion of business investment in GDP. It also shows the projected level of CT rates that Osborne has announced for future years.

Fig.1 UK Corporate Tax Rate and Business Investment as % of GDP


Both the tax rate and the investment rate have been in a long term downtrend. The high-point for business investment over the period was in 1998 and 1999 when the CT rate was 30%. Cutting taxes has not spurred investment. The new freedom for the private sector is a greater proportion of its post-tax return is free to fund excessive boardroom pay, share buy-backs and to fund speculation in financial markets, including housing.

Britain has an investment crisis. This has led to a crisis of production and of jobs. But cutting the CT rate has done nothing to address it as business investment continues to remain weak. All other things being equal, the cut in the rate from 28% to 20% has reduced public sector tax revenues by approximately £30 billion in the current Financial Year. If the private sector will not invest, then the public sector must. Any measures to begin to reverse this unproductive cut in taxes will lead to greater revenues available for public sector investment.

Steel should be renationalised and provided with large scale investment via a National Investment Bank. This and an all-round programme for investment is the way to generate growth and prosperity. On this basis there would be no more cuts to the entitlements of disabled people and others and the cuts to incomes can be restored.

Building an economy that works for all

.896ZBuilding an economy that works for all

By Ken Livingstone
The following article, setting out why Tory economic policy is failing and the Labour framework set out by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell is necessary, was first published by the Morning Star.
* * * 
Jeremy Corbyn was right to say last week that the Budget the Chancellor delivered was “actually a culmination of six years of failure” and that “this is a recovery built on sand.”
Almost all the growth in our wealth in recent years has gone to the richest 1 per cent, while working-class and middle-class families have seen real incomes cut by 9 per cent since the banking crisis.
Yet in much of the media, we are still subjected to the big lie — repeated again by George Osborne this week — that we are in this mess because the last Labour government spent and borrowed too much.

The truth is that in the 36 years since Thatcher came to power there were only two years in which the Tories produced a balanced budget, and three years in which Labour did. All governments have borrowed to fund their revenue spending, but there has not been enough investment in infrastructure and rebalancing our economy.

The Tories constantly say Thatcher’s economic strategy “saved Britain” and claim that Osborne’s austerity is now building on this legacy. But when Thatcher died The Economist, which devoted six pages to her record, did not mention growth in the economy or investment.

We were told that breaking the power of the unions, cutting taxes for the wealthiest and big corporations and deregulating the banks would unleash a wave of investment and growth. But in the 30 years following Thatcher’s election the British economy only grew at two-thirds of the rate it did in the 30 years before Thatcher came to power.

And while the Tories say manufacturing was past its sell-by date and did nothing to invest in it, Germany did and one-fifth of its economy is still manufacturing, whereas ours is now less than 10 per cent. That matters because more than half of all our exports come from this sector, which is why we now have the biggest trade deficit in our history.

Now the ideologically driven austerity of Thatcher’s heirs, confirmed again in the Budget last week, threatens even our fragile economic recovery.

As John McDonnell put it, “productivity growth, the essential ingredient in delivering rising living standards, has stagnated,” while “the gap between the UK’s productivity and those of the Germany, the US and France is the widest it has been for a generation.”

The scale of these problems requires leadership from people who can think outside the box and present a clear, radical alterative. Jeremy, John and the talented team that has been put together have shown in their response to the Budget this week that they are up to this challenge, and have put the issue of investment in our economy centre stage.

What holds back Britain’s economy is a lack of investment, both public and private, which is now running at its lowest level since WWII.

Nearly all economists now agree that investment is not just the most important factor in economic growth, but outweighs all others put together. This is why, when Cameron and Osborne took power and slashed the last Labour government’s investment spending, it pushed our economy back into recession.

In contrast, Labour’s economic plan for a big expansion of investment in transport, housing and upgrading our broadband system is crucial in turning the British economy around.

Given the very low level of interest rates this is the best time to borrow in order to invest. When I persuaded the last Labour government to put £5 billion into building Crossrail, ministers knew that the growth generated by the project would give them between £10bn and £15bn more in tax.

Another big Tory lie repeated ad nauseum is that Labour will increase our taxes, but we don’t need to do that as long as everyone pays their fair share.

The scandal of Google, Starbucks and Amazon is just the tip of the iceberg. Tax avoidance and evasion, mainly by international corporations, could be the equivalent of a quarter of the government’s Budget. Experts believe that tax avoidance and evasion equals 10 per cent of our annual GDP, at least £120bn and perhaps as much as £150bn.

Jeremy has made it clear he will crack down on the tax dodgers, and that can help provide the money we need for the healthcare and education we all have the right to expect.

Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world and the idea that we can’t make the changes necessary to give all our people the chance to succeed is rubbish.

The Labour leadership’s clear position on the economy can win the 2020 general election for Labour. Jeremy and John’s ability to speak clearly and provide a real alternative to cuts and austerity is what’s needed now because they are offering hope for a better future to a generation that has had no hope. Let’s make it happen.

Ken Livingstone is re-running for the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee as part of the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA) ticket. Nominations are now open and each constituency party can nominate up to six candidates. You can follow his campaign at and @Ken4LabourNEC, and find out more information about the CLGA at

This article was first published by the Morning Star, where it can read here.

Osborne slashes investment and growth. Labour would increase it

.633ZOsborne slashes investment and growth. Labour would increase itBy Michael Burke

George Osborne’s stated aim once again is the elimination of the deficit. It was also his stated aim at the beginning of the last parliament. He failed spectacularly as by the May 2015 general election the budget deficit was still 3.1% of GDP. Yet the price of this failure is far greater. His policies have caused widespread misery and slowed the economy. Some economists believe that the damage done is permanent and the latest forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), which Osborne relies on, have slashed its long-term growth forecasts for the British economy. 

The reason for this failure is a function of a complete misunderstanding of economics in two crucial respects. Investment, not consumption drives the economy. Secondly, Government finances are not wholly independent of the economy, but interact with it.  

In the course of the last parliament Osborne announced total spending cuts amounting to £74.2 billion. Yet total UK public sector current expenditure over the 5-year period from the Financial Year ending in March 2010 to the FY ending in March 2015 rose in real terms (after adjusting for inflation) from £672.8 billion to £673.3 billion. 

Cuts aren’t savings

Asinine right-wing commentators such as John Redwood and others claim that because current spending has not fallen there has been no austerity. The millions of public sector workers who have had their real pay cut, pensions cut or lost their jobs, the people struggling on ever-lengthening NHS waiting lists, the hundreds of thousands of disabled people who have had a variety of benefits cut, the carers who have had to cope with closed Sure Start centres, public sector workers fired, and so on, can all testify that is not the case.

There are three key reasons why cuts in current spending have not led to reductions in the current spending under Osborne. Cuts in one area lead to increased cost pressures. The largest of these is probably the cuts to social care putting pressure on the NHS Budget. Secondly, the economic effects of Tory policies increase Government current spending. So for example, rising in-work poverty puts upward pressure on in-work benefits, and rising housing costs increase the subsidy to landlords from housing benefit. Thirdly, Osborne has used Government finances to promote consumption, especially in housing as part of his re-election strategy. This includes ‘Help to Buy’ and a number of other schemes.

Fig.1 below shows that Public Sector Current Spending has only fallen modestly from elevated levels associated with the crisis (pushed higher by rising unemployment payments and other social protection). It is still way above pre-crisis levels. By contrast, it is government investment that has been slashed. This is a key contributor to weak growth and worse-than-expected government finances, including stubbornly higher current spending.

Fig. 1 UK Current Spending and Net Investment

Growth is the key

A very clear exchange took place on BBC Radio 4 on the morning after Osborne’s Budget. The interviewer wanted to reduce John McDonnell’s policy focusing on investment to a secondary matter. Justin Stewart said, “We’ll come to investment. But you can’t balance the current budget with investment can you?” John McDonnell replied, “Yes you can. You raise the level of growth and so tax revenues go up.” This is precisely correct (and the interviewer was somewhat lost as a result). It is also the case that current budget outlays will fall too with higher investment-led growth as more people are in better-paid jobs.

The Labour contrast with Osborne is stark. As Fig.1 shows public sector net investment has been slashed under the Tories. The latest Budget shows the plan is to cut it further despite all the parading in high-vis jackets. In the years 2018 and 2019 the intention is that government capital spending will fall outright. As business investment has also been much weaker than forecast, the Tory government’s actions exacerbate the key failing of the economy. There can be no serious hope that productivity will increase or that exports will grow significantly with falling investment.

In fact, Osborne and the OBR seem to have given up on hope. Their previously over-optimistic forecasts have given way to a much reduced long-term growth outlook. But they have failed to understand cause and effect. Austerity halted a mild recovery in business investment and cut government investment outright. Hardly anyone, except Osborne is surprised then when growth is weaker as a result and government finances do not improve as expected.

The alternative from John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn is correct, borrowing for investment while aiming to balance the current budget over the business cycle. It should also be clear that this is the sustainable foundation of decent public services. Rising investment will primarily impact government finances by raising the level of current tax revenues, and to a lesser extent reducing government current spending. The greater the sustained level of investment, the greater the funds available for public services. A third impact of rising investment will be to increase government capital revenues, but this is a relatively small effect compared to the first two effects. 

This issue is crucial in generating popular support for an investment-led programme and will be addressed in future pieces.

Why China can achieve its 6.5% growth rate target

.750ZWhy China can achieve its 6.5% growth rate targetBy John Ross

Economic targets for China were announced during the National People’s Congress of at least 6.5% annual GDP growth during the 13th Five Year Plan in 2016-20 and 6.5%-7.0% for 2016. Some Western economists claim such targets cannot be achieved. In fact, analysis of supply side factors, which will primarily be relied on to achieve this goals, shows clearly why China can achieve its 6.5% minimum growth goal.

Current international economic trends, particularly trade, are undoubtedly unfavourable owing to slow growth in the advanced economies. Slow trade growth negatively affects China’s supply side, as with all countries, by limiting its ability to benefit from international division of labour. In the next period China will consequently will have to rely primarily on domestic supply side factors to achieve its growth targets. Data on global growth in turn shows clearly which are the most powerful economic supply side forces and why these can successfully allow China to achieve its targets.

To understand clearly the fundamental reason China can achieve its economic goals the starting point is that an economy’s growth rate is strictly determined by the percentage of fixed investment in GDP divided by what is known as the Incremental Capital Output Ratio (ICOR) – the latter being a measure of the efficiency of investment, and equal to the percentage of GDP that has to be invested for the economy to grow by 1%. For China the latest internationally comparable World Bank data for these, for 2014, showed that China’s percentage of fixed investment in GDP was 44.3% and its incremental capital output ratio was 6.1. China’s GDP growth rate was therefore 7.3%.

Since 2014 the percentage of fixed investment in China’s GDP has fallen, probably to around 42-43% of GDP, which will be assumed to show why China can achieve its 6.5% growth target. Supply side factors may then be divided into the rate of fixed investment and those which determine the efficiency of that investment (ICOR).

The most powerful supply side factor for all countries studied is what are known technically as ‘intermediate products’ – one industry’s inputs into another which reflect increasing division of labour throughout the economy’s supply chain. In the US, the world’s most advanced economy, 52% of economic growth is due to growth in such intermediate products.

Growth of intermediate products is also crucial for understanding the role of innovation. Innovation is not just a few ‘big bang’ inventions. As an economy is an interconnected network it can only be as strong as its major weakest links. For example, merely installing the most modern machinery in a factory will not yield optimal results if there is not an adequate supply of component parts, if there is not sufficiently skilled labour, if the logistics system does not efficiently take products to and from the factory etc. Given the economy’s interconnectedness every part must function efficiently for successful operation. China has therefore stressed applying innovation across the entire economy.

Such a supply side division of labour requires a multitude of factors ranging from infrastructure to product standardisation – all of which China has to develop further for its supply side to function efficiently.

The second most powerful supply side factor is fixed investment – which is above all required to incorporate technological upgrading. Leaving aside intermediate products, internationally fixed investment accounts for 61% of economic growth.

The third most powerful supply side factor is growth in quantity and quality of labour – accounting for 29% of GDP growth globally. Given China’s working age population is not expanding improvements in education and skill are a decisive factor in this area.

Other inputs (scale of production, individual entrepreneurship etc) account for an average 10% of growth globally. These are technically termed Total Factor Productivity (TFP) and contribute to China’s supply side development.

Taking these factors together shows why China’s 6.5% growth rate is entirely realistic and why the claims of Western critics are erroneous. Given the fundamental ratios already outlined then for China’s economic growth rate to fall below 6.5%, from its 6.9% level in 2015, one or both of two things would necessarily have to occur.

Either China’s ICOR, its efficiency of investment, would have to deteriorate substantially, or

The percentage of fixed investment in China’s GDP would have to decline in a major way.

Without one or both of these occurring it is simply numerically impossible for China’s growth rate to fall significantly. Those critics claiming that China’s economy will not meet its 6.5% growth target, and who either do not explain why China’s level of investment or its efficiency of investment are going to drastically decline, are engaging in economic ‘hot air’ – unwarranted claims without any serous factual basis.

Given China’s current investment level and the efficiency of that investment there is no reason why it will not achieve its 6.5% growth rate.

*    *    *
This article originally appeared at China Daily.

John Ross

John McDonnell lays the basis to restore Labour’s economic credibility with the ‘Fiscal Credibility Rule’

.496ZJohn McDonnell lays the basis to restore Labour’s economic credibility with the ‘Fiscal Credibility Rule’ By Michael Burke

Labour lost the last general election because it had no economic credibility, as the overwhelming bulk of opinion polls show. John McDonnell’s new ‘Fiscal Credibility Rule’ decisively and correctly addresses that issue.

“Labour would balance tax revenues and day-to-day spending over a five-year cycle, but this target would exclude long-term investment projects, allowing Labour to spend billions on projects such as housing, railways or high-speed broadband”, is how The Guardian summarised the new policy framework.

Despite an inevitably hostile Tory media McDonnell’s approach can succeed because it is correct. It stands in sharp contrast to George Osborne’s fiscal rules which place a ban on all borrowing for productive investment. This is Neanderthal economics which has the support of hardly any serious economist, even on the right. It also gets rid of the confusions of the ‘keynesian’ left of the Ed Balls type – which had little to do with the views of Keynes and fatally undermined Labour’s economic credibility.

Basic economics

All economic policies, including fiscal rules should be set within the basic laws of economics. Unfortunately after decades of the dominance of the Thatcherite economics which led to crisis, economic debate has been debased and a crop of crackpot ideas has grown up, Osborne’s among them. 

A significant increase in production requires investment in the means of production. Prosperity cannot be raised by no investment, as Osborne suggests. For example his policy has been to encourage consumption without increasing investment in areas such as housing. The net result has been a growing housing shortage. In effect he raised demand for housing without increasing investment. The effect was higher prices, just as the textbooks say. Across the whole economy the effect has also been to increase indebtedness. Household debt has soared along with overseas debt. This would be the effect of all schemes which see consumption as the key to growth.

Therefore McDonnell’s Fiscal Credibility Rule is correct. Increasing investment, and in conditions where private investment is low Government borrowing to achieve it, is the only sustainable mechanism for increasing output and the prosperity that depends on it. At the same time current or day-to-day spending will be balanced over the medium-term cycle. This too is correct, as it allows Government to respond to any downturn in the economy by raising spending. But under ordinary circumstances current spending should be balanced by tax revenues.

Misplaced criticism

Both of these policy planks have come under attack. It is widely argued that McDonnell’s rule is the same as Gordon Brown’s ‘Golden Rule’. Sometimes this is said as a result of a genuine misunderstanding. It also argued that the commitment to balance current spending with tax revenues means a commitment to maintain austerity. Both of these arguments are false.

The claim that John McDonnell is rehashing Ed Balls, made by commentators such as John Rentoul, is pure bullshit confirming that they do not understand basic economics, and the difference between investment and consumption. The difference between John McDonnell and Gordon Brown is that McDonnell is in favour of a massive increase in public sector investment. Brown slashed it to record lows. He only increased it later in response to the crisis.

Fig. UK Net Public Sector Investment as Percentage of GDP

In the 1960s and early 1970s public sector net investment had frequently exceeded 6% of GDP. Thatcher cut that to a low-point of 0.7%. But Blair and Brown kept it at 0.6% of GDP for 3 years at the beginning of their time in office. Later, Brown did increase public sector investment in response to the crisis which was crucial to economic recovery. But that was after a crisis in which chronically low levels of investment and high levels of speculation played a decisive role.

Brown’s was an entirely wrong economic policy – the reverse of what is required. It is government current spending which should be allowed rise temporarily in response to crisis, while investment should be maintained at persistently high levels. This is what John McDonnell proposes, and Gordon Brown did the exact opposite.

The separate argument that a commitment to balance current spending over the cycle is to adopt austerity is foolish and muddle-headed. The budget is comprised of two elements, outlays and revenues. A commitment to bring these two into balance says nothing about cutting spending, simply that taxes must match that current spending. 

The most effective way to increase tax revenues and to lower current spending is to grow the economy. SEB has previously referred to UK Treasury research which shows that government finances improve by 75 pence for every £1 increase in GDP. The excellent research is unjustly overlooked because it shows the very high sensitivity of government finances to changes in output. 

By implication it also shows the fundamental relationship between government investment and the provision of public services and social protection that are the key to a decent society. If the output multipliers from a change in output are generally about 1.5 or more and the sensitivity of government finances is 0.75, it possible to calculate the immediate effect on government finances from every £1 increase in investment as follows:

 1.5 X 0.75 = 1.125 

Therefore there is an immediate positive return to government finances of 12.5% from every £1 invested. A 12.5% return is a very large multiple of current government borrowing costs as the yield on long-term gilts (UK government bonds) is around 1.5% (and the yield on inflation-proofed or index-linked gilts is negative).

If done on a sufficient scale, from this return it is possible to commit further investment, improve public sector services and improve government finances. The new investment asset (housing, super-fast broadband, renewable energy production and so on) will also yield a return over the long-term either directly or indirectly.

Therefore there should be no fear of scary headlines of the type that ‘McDonnell plans to borrow billions’. State investment is correct under current circumstances, and state investment is supported by the leading economic commentators such as Martin Wolf. It clearly correctly distinguishes Labour from the Tories and voters will increasingly grasp that such investment is crucial. 

Borrowing for investment, not for consumption, is also key to rebalancing the economy. This means increasing the role and weight of the productive sectors of the economy and thereby producing a reduction in the role of speculative finance. It is logically impossible to persistently borrow for consumption and to reduce the weight of the finance sector in the British economy. As consumption does not lead to growth the only thing that will grow is government debt and the interest on it, which is the mainstay of speculative finance. This is why debt as a proportion of GDP has ballooned under Osborne from 65.2% of GDP to 83.7% of GDP even when interest rates are ultra-low.

It is evidently wrong to suggest that John McDonnell’s Fiscal Credibility Rule is either a rehash of Gordon Brown’s Golden Rule or a commitment to austerity. It is a recognition that investment leads growth while consumption cannot, and that very large government investment is required because of private sector failure. It codifies that understanding for government finances. As a result it can restore much-needed credibility to Labour’s economic policies.

Labour right-wing still in the austerity dead end

.386ZLabour right-wing still in the austerity dead end

By Michael Burke
Rachel Reeves, a former Labour shadow secretary for work and pensions, has produced a short note for Progress which has been hailed in the right wing media, and by the Labour right, as ‘an alternative Budget’. The New Statesman was perhaps the most excitable, describing Reeves as the shadow chancellor in waiting. All of this is entirely incorrect as the article offers no alternative to the Osborne’s resumed austerity, which he is certain to recommence in the next Budget.

Reeves has declined to join the current shadow cabinet under Jeremy Corbyn and her intervention is clearly posed primarily as an alternative to the economic policy framework outlined by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, not to George Osborne. It confirms once more that the Labour right is disloyally more interested in attacking the Labour Party leadership than in attacking the Tories. 

In reality the note offers no recognition that there is now a weakening economic situation in Britain following an historically weak recovery. Consequently it offers no policy framework to improve matters. The very few policies outlined do not amount to a Budget, alternative or otherwise. There is no alternative to austerity, no clear role for government intervention, and certainly no suggestion that there is any mechanism to fund that intervention. 

This amounts to a rehash of the economics of the Labour right, which wants nothing more than a cigarette paper between it and the Tories. It is the same as Ed Balls disastrous policy framework which played a key role in losing the last election. This approach also led most of the Parliamentary Labour Party under Harriet Harman to announce they would vote for the Tory cuts to working tax credits and only retreat to abstention under extreme pressure from unions and the Labour membership.

The real alternative
Osborne will argue that the UK economy is slowing, that this is because of deteriorating international conditions and that this therefore requires renewed austerity measures. Only the first of those statements is true.

The year-on-year growth rate has slowed in the UK from 3.0% in the 2nd quarter of 2014 to just 1.9% in the 4th quarter of 2015. Surveys, monthly data for early 2016 and other evidence all point to further slowing. Yet this is not induced by international conditions. Over the 18-month period real GDP has risen by a cumulative 3.3% but real exports have risen by 6.3% – indicating international demand is stronger than domestic demand. The slowdown in the British economy is not the result of international conditions (although these too are deteriorating). The slowdown is homemade.

Fig.1 Export growth much stronger than GDP growth

But Osborne’s argument that more austerity is required because there is a slowdown is as false as his other claims. It should be noted that Osborne’s austerity approach goes completely unchallenged in the so-called alternative budget. The effects of Osborne’s first bout of austerity should be well-known to readers of SEB:

 · Growth slowed dramatically and stagnated in 2012

· Average living standards (per capita GDP) stagnated
· Real wages fell
· Public services are in crisis as jobs were cut
· The public sector deficit was not eliminated, and actually rose in 2012 as the economy slowed to a crawl
 · Productivity actually fell, which had only previously occurred in the early years of World War I and in the Great Depression

In economic terms, renewed austerity is equivalent to applying leeches to the patient when the previous quack remedy has failed. As the effects of austerity fall mainly on ordinary workers and the poor, the social effects are enormously damaging. 

It is clear that what is actually required is a strategy for investment-led growth. This will address the economic crisis directly and so will correct the deficit in government finances in the process. Fortunately, this is possible with the new economic framework outlined by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell .

In contrast to the note from Rachel Reeves the new leadership of the Labour Party has identified the deficit of investment as central to the economic malaise facing Britain. In the US they talk of ‘secular stagnation’ or tepid growth because investment has only expanded by 10% in the years 2007 to 2014, according to World Bank data. In Britain investment has increased by just 7.8% in those 8 years. This little more than half the world rate of investment growth (14.2%) which is itself weak by historical standards.

The policy of asking and bribing the private sector to invest, a policy shared by Osborne and the Labour right, has failed spectacularly at Hinkley and elsewhere. Fewer homes are being built despite soaring prices, flood defences have been allowed to deteriorate and the rail network is truncated and overloaded, there is a looming energy capacity crisis while investment in renewable energy has been cut, and so on.

Labour’s new leadership argues that the public sector should increase its level of investment, in order to address this deficit and to spur growth. Relying on the private sector to lead has been tried and failed. In addition, unlike the hopes or pious wishes of both Osborne and Reeves, they have identified the means to achieve this increase in public sector investment, principally through the establishment of a National Investment Bank. This can borrow cheaply in the financial markets with the implicit guarantee of the UK Treasury. It can also ensure that the returns on the investment accrue to the public sector and that the investment stream is maintained even if private sector profitability is insufficient, or deteriorates.

It should be noted that this authentic version of a National investment bank has almost nothing in common with Osborne’s sop of a Green Investment Bank or Nick Trott’s version produced under Ed Miliband, which was aimed at providing loans to small firms where the commercial banks have refused. As small firms are not engaged in large scale housing programmes, or construction of rail networks, or the huge investment needed in renewables, this would be rather pointless to address an investment crisis. 

Ending austerity

The word ‘austerity’ does not appear in the alternative Budget from Rachel Reeves. This is for the very good reason that the Labour right believes it is inevitable, and has only ever argued for slower or shallower cuts at most.

By contrast Corbyn and McDonnell have outlined the economic policy framework which can end austerity by investing for growth. The clear distinction in borrowing only for investment and balancing current spending over the business cycle is the correct framework as it is the only one which is sustainable because it maximises the government impact on growth and living standards, and the returns to government from that investment.

It is also a strong base from which to attack Osborne, who rules out even borrowing for investment (although in reality he has doubled the level of government debt by borrowing to cover current spending, which is clearly unsustainable). Osborne’s policy, to save first and only invest when there are sufficient accumulated funds, belongs to a pre-banking, pre-financial era. It is as stupid as it is primitive. 

The Corbyn/McDonnell framework also stands in sharp contrast to the accumulated confusions of ‘keynesians’ (who have little to do with the views of Keynes) who believe governments can perpetually borrow for consumption, rather than as a temporary measure to avert crisis. As this entails debt and interest on it without raising the level of output, so it becomes a drain on the economy and slows growth.

Osborne and Reeves share the view that the private sector should be left to determine the level of investment in the economy and consequently to maintain or extend its near-monopoly on the ownership of the means of production. They maintain this even when the private sector is manifestly failing to deliver adequate investment. Of course, the ‘keynesians’ are opposed to austerity and its effects (unlike Osborne and Reeves) but they lack a credible framework to achieve an alternative because they refuse to clearly distinguish between the economic consequences of borrowing for consumption and borrowing for investment.

Corbyn and McDonnell do have the framework to achieve that and a mechanism to do so. Not only are they committed to ending austerity but their plan to increase public sector investment via the National Investment Bank means the public sector can borrow sufficient funds for the scale of investment and direct it towards the sectors required. 

The consequent increase in growth will allow them to halt all austerity policies and to roll them back. Government revenues will rise with increased economic activity and government outlays will fall as decent well-paid jobs are created. This is a deficit-reduction programme based not on cuts but on growth, and a commitment to both social welfare and rebuilding public services in the transition to a stronger growth economy and beyond. Because it is theoretically grounded, this is a genuine, practical anti-austerity policy.