The Autumn Statement reveals but one thing: the Chancellor and his advisers are both ill-advised and dangerously ill-prepared for the forthcoming prolonged Depression. (And if you think I exaggerate, let me remind you that 20 years after the Japanese debt bubble burst, Tokyo house prices are still falling, and the stock market is worth 60% less than 20 years ago. And the Japanese economy was in a healthier state then, than the UK is today, thanks to an export surplus.)
Today’s penalising of the innocent – public sector workers, pensioners and those hundreds of thousands of young people entering the labour market - is a result of a deeply flawed economic analysis by the Chancellor of the causes of the global financial crisis.
No depression will be averted; no government borrowing will be reduced; no economic recovery can be hoped for, until the cause of the crisis is correctly analysed and then addressed with appropriate policies.
For me an interesting angle on the day was the difference in emphasis between the official Treasury Autumn Statement, and the Chancellor’s speech. The latter was far more ideological of course; but the Treasury Statement does indicate some grasp of the scale of the crisis. The very first paragraph of the full Statement (on page 11) reads:
“The UK economy is recovering from the biggest financial crisis in generations. Prior to the crisis, underlying competitiveness fell and economic growth was driven by unsustainable levels of debt, with the UK seeing the greatest expansion in debt of all the world’s major economies over the last decade. As a result, the UK experienced the deepest recession of any major economy except Japan and the Government inherited a budget deficit forecast to be the largest in the G20.” (My emphasis.)
So the Treasury does get it. The country that enthusiastically hosts the biggest global banks in the world; that celebrates “London ..as the world’s pre-eminent financial centre” (to quote the Chancellor today) witnessed “the greatest expansion in debt of all the world’s major economies over the last decade” – and as a consequence, the public finances worsened.
From these simple facts much analysis flows.
The most important is this: Britain (and the Eurozone) are not facing a sovereign debt crisis. We are not facing a crisis of the public finances. Instead: we are facing the biggest ever crisis of the private financial system.
Why? Because the “greatest expansion in debt of all the world’s economies” is not going to be paid back.
“The greatest expansion of debt in all the world’s economies” must first be written off, ‘de-leveraged’ or paid down.
As this process grinds relentlessly forward, the banks that lent “the greatest expansion of debt in all the world’s economies” face bankruptcy – if not now, in the near future.
That is the crisis we all face. The bankruptcy of the global private banking system - based in our backyard.
The mobilising of finance for the Eurozone is to bail out private banks that engaged “in the greatest expansion of debt.” Although you would not believe this from media reporting, its purpose is not to bail out sovereign governments. The stubborn refusal of German politicians (with whom I have some sympathy) to agree to further taxpayer-backed bailouts of the private finance sector means that private banks face imminent bankruptcy.
Which is the why the Polish Foreign Minister warns of an impending “crisis of apocalyptic proportions“.
Given this terrifying prospect, what do our Treasury mandarins and British Chancellor recommend?
First, that we make it easier for employers to sack people, and thereby increase unemployment and cut wages – making it harder for those employees to pay back debts.
Second that we cut public sector wages of those in employment – with which some of those private debts may have been paid back. Third, that we penalise future pensioners. For why? And fourth, that we try and rescue 200,000, but sacrifice hundreds of thousands more young people on the dustheap of unemployment. That policy alone will cut the nation’s income; income that could help the banks put balance sheets back in the black.
The Chancellor’s speech reminded me of the parent that knows his child is hiding behind the curtain, but instead looks under the sofa, inside the box, behind the dresser – everywhere except where the solution lies. A silly, but in his case, dangerous game.
The fact is that the solution does not lie with cuts in public spending; with austerity. We have had only eighteen months of synchronised austerity across Europe and already the British and world economy teeters on the brink.
The failure is not that austerity was not implemented; the failure is austerity.
Private money markets are not asking for deeper austerity. They are asking for a revival of economic activity. They are begging for governments to draw back from the policies that have caused output, investment and employment to fall off a cliff.
But that is hard for governments such as ours, gripped as they are by an antiquated and flawed economic orthodoxy. As David Graeber explains so well in his book “Debt: the first five thousand years.” orthodox economists – believe it or not – do not understand the nature of money and credit. An unfortunate weakness for a profession majoring on the economy.
Nor can their jaundiced Scrooge-like minds accept that prosperity is caused by employment. Not by rich, ‘light-touch’ regulated bankers.
They find it hard to grasp that money/credit – that is not generated by savings, but begins life at the Bank of England – can provide a bridge to employment. But only if it is managed carefully, and not outsourced to the reckless greed, and fraudulent behaviour of bankers and their friends in government. (See today’s story about Hank Paulson’s “inside jobs” with Wall St.)
Orthodox economists like those in the Treasury and the Conservative party cannot grasp one simple but vital truth. Employment can generate the income needed to a) repay debt b) pay tax revenues to lower the budget deficit and c) restore both general prosperity and a sense of national well-being. All of which might be of some help to the private finance sector.
Instead our policy and decision-makers are playing petulant, disgracefully irresponsible games with all our futures. And missing the biggest crisis of all: the imminent bankruptcy of the private finance sector.