Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Brexit slowdown begins (probably)

When the Bank of England after the Brexit vote forecast 0.8% GDP growth in 2017, they expected consumption growth to decline to just 1%, with only a small fall in the savings ratio. But consumption growth proved much stronger in the second half of 2016 than the Bank had expected. As this chart from the Resolution Foundation shows, pretty well all the GDP growth through 2016 was down to consumption growth, something they rightly describe as unsustainable. (If consumption is growing but the other components of GDP are not, that implies consumers are eating into their savings. That cannot go on forever)

This strong growth in consumption in 2016 led the Bank to change its forecast. By February
their forecast for 2017 involved 2% growth in consumption and GDP, and a substantial fall in the savings ratio.

What was going on here? In August, the Bank reasoned that consumers would recognise that Brexit would lead to a significant fall in future income growth, and that they would quickly start reducing their consumption as a result. When that didn’t happen the Bank appeared to adopt something close to the opposite assumption, which is that consumers would assume that Brexit would have little impact on expected income growth. As a result, in the Bank’s February forecast, the savings ratio was expected to decline further in 2018 and 2019, as I noted here. Consumers, in this new forecast, would continually be surprised that income growth was less than they had expected.

The first estimate for 2017 Q1 GDP that came out yesterday showed growth of only 0.3%, about half what the Bank had expected in February. This low growth figure appeared to be mainly down to weakness in sectors associated with consumption (although we will not get the consumption growth figure until the second GDP estimate comes out). So what is going on?

There are three possible explanations. The first, which is the least likely, is that 2017 Q1 is just a blip. The second is that many more consumers are starting to realise that Brexit will indeed mean they are worse off (I noted some polling evidence suggesting that here.), and are now adjusting their spending accordingly The third is that consumption was strong at the end of 2016 because people were buying overseas goods before prices went up as a result of the Brexit deprecation.

If you have followed me so far, you can get an idea of how difficult this kind of forecasting is, and why the huge fuss the Brexiteers made about the August to February revision to the Bank’s forecast was both completely overblown and also probably premature. All Philip Hammond could manage to say about the latest disappointing growth data was how it showed that we needed ‘strong and stable’ government! I suspect, however, that we might be hearing a little less about our strong economy in the next few weeks.

Of course growth could easily pick up in subsequent quarters, particularly if firms take advantage of the temporary ‘sweet spot’ created by the depreciation preceding us actually leaving the EU. Forecasts are almost always wrong. But even if this happens, what I do not think most journalists have realised yet is just how inappropriate it is to use GDP as a measure of economic health after a large depreciation. Because that depreciation makes overseas goods more expensive to buy, people in the UK can see a deterioration in their real income and therefore well being even if GDP growth is reasonable. As I pointed out here, that is why real earnings have fallen since 2010 even though we have had positive (although low) growth in real GDP per head, and as I pointed out here that is why Brexit will make the average UK citizen worse off even if GDP growth does not decline. If it does decline, that just makes things worse.  

Thursday, 27 April 2017

One vote to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them

Forgive me for once again adapting a line from Tolkien’s ring-verse, but it does so naturally follow on from the post where I first used it. Then (before Theresa May announced her election) I noted that by March 2017 many more people had accepted that they would be worse off because of Brexit than immediately after the vote. However the proportions of people who say we were wrong to leave the EU has stayed pretty stable. (In the latest poll yesterday, there was, for the first time, the smallest majority possible believing it was wrong to leave.)

I wrote
“Here is a possible reason for this paradox. Voters feel that once a democratic decision has been made, it should be respected, even if they personally now feel less comfortable with the reasons behind the decision. It is important to respect the ‘will of the people’ for its own sake, just as it is important to keep to a contract even though you may now regret signing it.”

That was why I called that post ‘one vote to bind them all’.

These thoughts were, as I said at the time, largely speculation, but the extraordinary poll bounce May has received since she announced another vote makes me think I was right. When announcing the election, she talked about the country uniting behind Brexit. She also said
“Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done.
Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union.”

The second sentence is just nonsense, while the first is ominous for any democrat. But as both polls and focus groups suggest, the spin that she needs ‘a strong mandate to get the best Brexit for Britain’ chimes with many voters. It is a vote to 'bring them all' into the darkness of an endeavour the aims of which remain hidden by platitudes.  

In this rather odd sense, there are similarities with what the Falklands did for Thatcher. The negotiations have been portrayed in the UK media as a battle between the UK and the EU. It is only natural for this to inspire nationalism among many voters: May needs strong backing (a large vote) so she can get the best deal for Britain in her battle with the EU. (And, of course, anyone arguing for the EU is therefore a ‘saboteur’.) May’s election announcement bounce therefore has similarities to Thatcher’s Falklands poll bounce.

As ever, reality is very different. What happens in the negotiations is largely down to the EU, with the occasional choice for the UK. These choices should be made by democratic means, and not by one person who has the interests of her party to worry about. My impression is that as far as the media outside the UK is concerned they just cannot understand why we have embarked on this crazy path.

If May and her team realised this when they called an election they were clever. There are plenty of other reasons why she called an election: potential prosecutions associated with election expenses, as Bill Keegan’s notes the negative impact of brexit is about to become visible, and of course the unpopularity of JC. [1] The latter was, I’m afraid, inevitable from the moment he was re-elected, and the responsibility for that vote lies as much with the PLP as with Corbyn and Labour party members.

It is almost as if May’s line is ‘who do you want to lead us into battle, me or JC’? With the referendum still regarded as the most important issue in UK politics, it is a line that could make the UK into virtually a one party state. [2] Of course many die-hard Remainers (like me) will never vote for her, but they comprise at best only around half of the 48%. Labour’s core support will remain loyal. But even if you could form some kind of ‘progressive anti-May alliance’ (which will not happen), Chaminda Jayanetti is right that there just are not enough progressives around to defeat the Conservatives, particularly if the UKIP vote collapses.

So is a Conservative landslide which decimates Labour assured? Heroic talk of defeating May and trying to shift the debate on to something else besides Brexit will not work. This is not because the Tories are not vulnerable. Quite the opposite in fact: I have never known a government that has such a poor record on health, education (this, and grammar schools for pity’s sake) and even prisons. The ‘we now have a strong economy’ line is a lie just waiting to be busted. All that means the Conservatives will focus relentlessly on Brexit and leadership. In 2015 the broadcast media followed the press in focusing on the issues where the Conservatives were strong, and they will do so again with (unlike 2015) justification from the polls.

Perhaps predictably, the wisest words I’ve seen written on this have come from Tony Blair. He suggests the slogan ‘no blank cheque’. It concedes defeat, which is realistic and has the advantage of shifting attention away from JC’s leadership qualities. It encourages voters not to ask who would be best battling for Britain against the EU27, and instead to think about choices to be made which may not be in the country’s interests but instead are in Conservative party’s interests. I do not think the leadership will ever adopt this line, because it requires them to admit they are going to lose and I do not think they are brave enough to do that. But on the doorstep it might help.

[1] When I tweeted Bill’s column with this point about Corbyn, someone replied that I couldn’t help making a dig at Corbyn when the price was a Tory Brexit. This is the other side of those on the right who accuse me of being politically biased when I’m critical of the government. Both misunderstand what I do and don’t do. I don’t do propaganda as defined here.

[2] The culture war analogy that Chakrabortty uses is interesting, as is the comparison with Nixon. But in many ways it is the spin doctors, well versed in what happened in the US, who are calling the shots, and May just has to agree to what they advise.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Economic Competence Revisited

My last post was designed to show clearly that the UK has not been a strong economy since the Conservatives started running it. Now I would be the first to say that this proves nothing about how competent the Conservatives are. It may be just bad luck. My point was about the media debate. This should be about whether it is the government’s fault that we have a weak economy, or alternatively whether they have done the best they could in the circumstances. Instead of that discussion, we have mediamacro’s presumption that we have a strong economy when clearly we do not.

The political debate should really be about economic competence. Mediamacro assumes that the Conservatives are more competent at running the economy because that is what the polls say, and the polls say that in part because mediamacro assumes it. It is a self-reinforcing loop, where the last thing the media thinks of doing is asking academic economists. How would I, as an academic macroeconomist, assess competence when it comes to running the macroeconomy?

The obvious thing to do is to look at key macroeconomic decisions made by governments, and how they turned out. I would be particularly hard on governments when they chose to go against the prevailing academic consensus, and this choice did not turn out well. I have written about this before on a few occasions: see here and here for example. Let me summarise why I think, once again, it is the Conservatives rather than Labour who have a lot of explaining to do.

We can start with monetarism, which in its most basic form is setting policy according to movements in monetary aggregates (the ‘money supply’). It was a short lived failure. A particular failure was the 1981 budget, raising taxes in the middle of a recession, which was famously opposed by 364 economists. The economists were right: the recovery (properly defined) was delayed by 18 months. This is not the story told by mediamacro, but it is an account that fits the facts.

The next economic disaster was the Lawson boom of the late 1980s, which combined a monetary and fiscal stimulus that increased inflation. I was once told by someone close to decisions at the time that Lawson wanted to reduce the top tax rate to 40% in 1988, and it was thought to be politically expedient to combine this was a standard rate cut even though we were in the middle of a boom. Monetary policy involved shadowing the DM, so could not counteract the fiscal stimulus and other inflationary pressures.

By 1990, the Lawson boom was becoming a recession, and the Conservative government decided to formally fix the exchange rate. Their chosen rate was much too high, as the work I carried out with colleagues at NIESR clearly showed. Black Wednesday, when the UK was forced to abandon the fixed exchange rate regime, rightly lost the Conservatives their reputation for economic competence for some time to come.

Between 1992 and 1997 the management of the economy was better, but without any major decisions or events. Widening the definition of policy you can justifiably credit Thatcher with weakening trade union power, but her failure to emulate Norway and establish a sovereign wealth fund from North Sea Oil revenues was a clear mistake.

Under Labour there were three major macroeconomic decisions, and all three were successes. First most academics agree with central bank independence, and I think most would agree that the design of the Monetary Policy Committee in 1997 was particularly good. Second, the decision not to join the Euro in 2003 was clearly correct, which was taken after extensive economic analysis. Third, the decision to embark on fiscal stimulus after the Great Recession was correct, in much the same way as Obama’s slightly later stimulus was correct.

Should we count the financial crisis, and the failure to prevent it happening, as a clear negative against economic competence? I would argue not, as (a) the opposition argued for less financial regulation, and (b) the government did follow the consensus view at the time. If any institution is to blame, it is the Bank of England for ignoring the rise in bank leverage. As to a profligate fiscal policy, this is simply a myth.

The incoming coalition government set up the OBR, which deserves credit just as setting up the MPC under Labour does. However their decision to embark on austerity in 2010 was a huge mistake, which once again probably went against majority academic opinion, particularly as it involved cutting public investment sharply. And then we have Brexit. Although arguably mandated by a referendum, the decision to leave the Single Market and customs union are down to the Conservative government alone.

We will be able to compare the economic policies of the two parties this time when they publish their manifestos. This post is about track records. It shows clearly that Labour tend to get things right, while the Conservatives have created a number of major policy-induced disasters. As with the ‘strong economy’, mediamacro have got it completely wrong about macroeconomic competence. But I’m afraid, as was the case in 2015 and 2016, it will be mediamacro rather than reality that carries the day. That, alas, is how democracy currently works in the UK.  

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Breaking the ‘strong economy’ narrative

My last post talked about the gap between the macroeconomic narrative in the UK media (‘mediamacro’) and macroeconomic facts. The gap is created or encouraged to a considerable extent by narratives employed by the political right. So how might that change, to let reality back in?

As with other things, Labour under Miliband had the right idea but did not follow it through. They talked about a ‘cost of living’ crisis, but in doing so they implicitly suggested this was some unfortunate by-product of a strong economy. The aim should be to redefine a strong economy as one that delivers solid real wage growth.

To do so makes perfect sense in current circumstances, when we have just had a policy-induced large depreciation in sterling. GDP measures the output produced in the economy, but not how much people in that economy can buy. Welfare depends on the latter, not the former.

It also makes sense if real wages have fallen because workers have priced themselves into jobs, by in effect discouraging firms to invest in labour saving machinery. Boasts that employment is at record levels make no sense in that situation, because high employment comes from lower wages rather than from additional output. [1]

I have stressed in the past (including my last post) how weak recent UK performance has been by historical standards. But a favourite trick of the government is to make international comparisons, of GDP rather than the more appropriate GDP per head. So how does our economy look if we focus, more appropriately as I argue above, on international comparisons of real wage growth?

Luckily the ILO and Geoff Tily have already done the spade work. Here is a chart for all countries, with blue denoting OECD countries.

International comparison of average real wage growth since the crisis 

Source: Geoff Tily, ILO. 

Among OECD countries the answer is striking: only Greece has seen real wages falls greater than the UK. The UK is second best among the OECD at achieving a decline in real wages! Geoff looks at data from 2008, but a quick check suggests the result holds good if we start in 2010 instead.

The data in this comparison only goes to 2015. You could, rightly, argue that 2016 was a better year for the UK, but then you would have to address what will happen to real wages this year and next. [2] You could argue that this poor performance was a consequence of the 2008 depreciation (which had lagged effects): again you would be right, but the Brexit depreciation which is not yet in these figures is just as large.

Either way this data provides strong evidence of just how terrible UK economic performance has been over the last several years. [3] What is more, unlike GDP, it is data that directly relates to the experience of ordinary people. But as Miliband found out, to quote this data is not enough. What you need to do is start proclaiming that the UK economy under a Conservative Chancellor has performed worse than any other OECD economy besides Greece. Just that, no caveats, no qualifications, no ‘cost of living’ label. Only that way will you begin to shift the narrative that we have a strong economy.

[1] If you are worried that this might help justify calls to reduce immigration, fear not. What they show is that policymakers failed to create an adequate level of aggregate demand: another consequence of austerity.

[2] If we look at the ONS series for real average earnings, normalised to 100 for 2015, it was at 101.8 in May 2010, and in February 2015 it is 100.3, a fall of 1.5%

[3] It has even been fact checked: see here.              

Thursday, 20 April 2017

GE2017: Why economic facts will be ignored once again

In 2015, the Conservatives spun the line that Labour profligacy had messed up the economy, and they had no choice but to clear up the mess. In short, austerity was Labour’s fault. As Labour chose not to challenge this narrative, almost all the media and half the voters assumed it must be true. The reality was the complete opposite. The rising deficit was a consequence of the global financial crisis, not Labour profligacy. Doing something about it should and could have been delayed until the recovery was underway. By acting prematurely, Osborne delayed the recovery and lost the average UK household resources worth thousands of pounds. The story that we had to cut now because of the markets was completely false. 

Indeed, if you define the term economic recovery properly, as growth above previous trends, there has been no economic recovery from the Great Recession. I have shown this chart many times, and the story it tells is clear. In every post-war recession the economy recovered. The exception is this one, where we have seen no recovery while Conservatives were running the economy.

We can put the same point another way. The average growth in GDP per head during the Labour government period, which included the recession caused by the global financial crisis, is greater than average growth since 2010. The last decade has seen a unique period of falling real wages. Now this might not be the fault of the government in charge at the time, but it is that government that should have some explaining to do. But they never do have to explain, because mediamacro take it as given that the Conservatives are better at running the economy.

The 2015 General Election was the first recent occasion that the economic facts were ignored. The second was of course the EU referendum. Academic economists were united in thinking that Brexit would be bad for living standards: the only question was how much would incomes fall. The non-partisan media decided to portray that not as knowledge, but as just another view, to be always matched by someone saying the opposite.

A critical issue during the referendum was a belief that immigration had reduced the access of UK natives to public services. Economists know that is simply wrong for the economy as a whole, and if it happens locally it is because the government has pocketed the taxes immigrants pay. But the media did little to inform voters of why it is wrong, and I suspect this is why most of those voting Leave believed they would be no worse off in the long run outside the EU. This majority were not willing to lose income to reduce immigration for the simple reason that they believed, erroneously, that reducing immigration would make them better off.

Brexit may not have led to the immediate economic downturn that some expected, but the Brexit depreciation has brought to a halt the short period during of rising real wages. The economic pain that economists said would follow any vote to leave is starting to happen. Will that change the broadcast media’s view about how to present the economic consequences of Brexit? When Conservative politicians and their media backers choose to focus on GDP, will broadcast media journalists have the nous to ask what about real wages?

Unfortunately we know the answer to these questions. As far as economics is concerned GE2017 is likely to be nothing more than a combination of GE2015 and the EU referendum. The economy has not got any better than in 2015, and is about to get worse, but mediamacro will let Conservatives insist that the economy is strong. It is one year on from the referendum, but we still do not know what kind of Brexit we will have, a reason May gave for not holding another referendum in Scotland. The exchange rate has fallen and real wages have stopped rising, but we will still be told this is just Project Fear and the consensus among economists will get ignored once again. So, for the third time, we will have a vote where economics is critical but economic facts will be largely ignored.

We might be appalled at the authoritarian way May justified her decision to hold an election, which the Mail only slightly beefed up in their Leninist talk of crushing the saboteurs. But the depressing truth is that a majority of voters have bought this story. According to a snap poll by ICM for the Guardian, 54% of voters thought May was right to change her mind about an election because the situation has changed. They have been sold the narrative that Brexit is the will of the people, and now they must get behind May so she can get the best Brexit deal. As inflation rises and real wages fall the facts may be changing, but the narrative survives.

Narratives are a way people can try to understand things they know little about, and most people know little about economics or politics. Mediamacro is a set of narratives. Project fear is a narrative. The right and the ideologues are very good at selling narratives, and they have a media machine to invent them, road test them and spread them. The left and the realists have none of those things, and are hopeless at it anyway because they know reality is more complex than most narratives. That is why they have lost two elections, and look like losing a third big time.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Inequality or poverty

Tony Blair famously said:
“[It’s] not that I don’t care about the gap [between high and low incomes], so much as I don’t care if there are people who earn a lot of money. They’re not my concern. I do care about people who are without opportunity, disadvantaged and poor.”

Most people, including the Labour government, interpreted that as focusing on poverty rather than inequality. For an excelllent discussion of historic trends in inequality and how they were influenced, among other things, by poverty reduction programmes pushed by Labour (as well as how that may unwind in the near future) see this excellent discussion by Rick. 

I recently saw a very clear defence of the position that poverty mattered more than inequality from Miles Kimball. His argument comes from surveys that quantify a basic principle of economics, which is diminishing marginal utility. He quotes results which suggest that a dollar of income means an awful lot more to someone earning half the average wage than someone who earns double the average wage. He suggests the results come close to validating the second principle of justice suggested by John Rawls. To put the idea at its most simple, we should not worry about the rich too much because their extra money buys them very little extra happiness, but instead focus on reducing poverty.

Now of course this point is irrelevant if we are talking about reducing poverty by taxing the rich. The rich are a very good source of money, because they will not miss it very much. The importance comes if we compare two societies. One has no poverty, but a significant number of very rich people. The other has no rich people, but still has poverty. Miles’s argument is that we should prefer the society with no poverty to the one with no super-rich. In a static sense I think that is right, but I have dynamic concerns that I will now come to.

Right at the start of Miles’s discussion is an interesting paragraph:
“Before going on, let me concede first of all that the amount of wealth held by the ultra-rich is truly astonishing, and that making sure that the ultra-rich do not convert their wealth into total control of our political system is important. Documenting and studying in detail all of the ways in which the ultra-rich influence politics is crucial. But short of the ultra-rich subverting our political system, the focus of our concern about inequality should be how well we take care of the poor; whether money needed to help the poor comes from middle-income families or the rich is an important issue, but still of secondary importance to how well we take care of the poor.”

I want to explore a point that Miles does not pursue. If money matters so little to the very rich, why would they want to become ultra-rich to an astonishing degree, and go on to try and control the political system to ensure they get even more? The answer comes from exactly the same logic as Miles uses. If £1000 means nothing to you because you are very rich, if opportunities arise you put effort into making that £1000 into £10,000 or £100,000. The fact that the ultra-rich have wealth that is truly astonishing may not be an accident, but may be a result of exactly the same principle that Miles explores: diminishing marginal utility. The rich are no different from everyone else in wanting more utility, except for them it requires huge amounts of money to get it. [1]

To see why this can matter, consider an argument put forward by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva that I discussed here. Why has pre-tax income for the 1% risen so much in the two countries, the UK and US, that in the 1980s saw large reductions in top income tax rates? The argument these authors put forward is that with punitive tax rates, there was little incentive for CEOs or finance high-flyers to use their monopoly power to extract rent (take profits away) from their firms. It would only gain you a few thousands after tax, which as they were already well paid would not increase their utility very much. However once top tax rates were cut, it now became worthwhile for these individuals to put effort into rent extraction.

As I discussed here, the bonus culture may be the means of rent extraction that was incentivised by cutting top tax rates. If you want to see the kind of thing I have in mind in action, read this article by Ben Chu on what happened to Theresa May’s wish to see annually binding votes by shareholders on executive pay. That kind of lobbying takes effort. It worked, and as a result top executives at the builder Crest Nicholson can ignore a shareholder vote against changes to their compensation rules. No wonder executive pay seems to rise even when a company’s fortunes turn sour.

So it seems to me that I could take the same basic principle that Miles explores and write a very different conclusion. Once we allow those at the top the opportunity to earn very high incomes, and the only way these individuals can see to get additional utility is to embark on rent seeking, we can at the very least divert their effort from socially enhancing activities (i.e improving the company). When those efforts extend to influencing the political system, we are in serious trouble. These activities may culminate in taking over the political system, which after all is what has happened in the US, with potentially disastrous consequences. For that reason alone, inequality matters as well as poverty.

[1] Of course status linked to competitive consumption is also important.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

When journalism becomes propaganda

A few days ago I took part in a Royal Economic Conference session on the implications of the Brexit vote. There is no need for me to describe how it went, as there is a good write up in the FT. By good, I mean that it was a fair reflection of what went on. Philip Aldrick, economics editor at the Times, took exception to something I said at the meeting on twitter.

Almost a month ago I wrote a post on propaganda. I used a definition borrowed from Jason Stanley, where intent was key. A good journalists provides what they believe are they key facts that the reader needs, while propaganda involves providing facts that advance the newspaper’s view. The interesting thing about this twitter conversation was that Aldrick thought that selecting facts to support the papers view was not propaganda, and that he thought it was what the other newspapers he named and I as an academic did.

Just to crystalise what I mean, take this article that recently appeared in the Telegraph. The headline (and remember this is all that many Telegraph readers will read) said “EU migrants without a job make up city the size of Bristol”. The article continued:

“EU migrants of working age living in the UK who do not have a job account for a city the size of Bristol, new figures have revealed. One in seven of the 2,733,000 EU migrants aged 16-64 - a total of 390,000 - are unemployed or “inactive”.

A survey by the Office for National Statistics does not give a breakdown of how many claim benefits, but those who are unemployed will be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance and may also claim housing benefit and child benefit. People who are “inactive” include those claiming disability benefits.”

The ONS survey can be found here. The fact that the Telegraph chose not to report was that 1 in 5 UK nationals was unemployed or inactive (excluding students). The reason that this is such a high figure is that ‘inactive’ includes mothers staying home to look after children, another fact that the Telegraph decided not to report.

The real story therefore is that migrants of working age are more likely to be working than UK nationals of working age. Other things being equal, this means that they will be paying more taxes and therefore contributing proportionately more to public services that UK nationals. By selecting which facts to report to their readers, the Telegraph turned this into a story about how many migrants were not working, and the amount of benefits they were collecting. In doing this, they were following in the proud traditions of the Mail, Sun and Express. 

Would you call this journalism or propaganda? There are a great many good journalists who would not want this described as the same as what they do, and it fits the definition of propaganda I gave exactly. Propaganda distorts the truth, and in a country like the UK good propaganda does not need to resort to lying about facts to achieve its goal. And of course it matters a lot. I suspect that stories like this are one of the reasons the state can treat migrants so badly in this country.