With the UK parliament in Brexit gridlock, the Labour opposition is calling for a general election. Although its policy over Brexit and a second referendum is causing splits in the party, the Labour party is generally agreed that pubic expenditure on health, education and transport infrastructure needs to increase – that there needs to be an end to fiscal austerity. However, to fund extra public expenditure would require an increase in taxes and/or an increase in government borrowing.
One of the arguments against increasing government borrowing is that it will increase public-sector debt. The desire to get public-sector debt down as a percentage of GDP has been central to both the Coalition and Conservative governments’ economic strategy. Austerity policies have been based on this desire.
But, in the annual presidential address to the American Economics Association, former chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, criticised this position. He has argued for several years that cutting government deficits may weaken already weak economies and that this may significantly reduce tax revenues and potential national income, thereby harming recovery and doing long-term economic damage. Indeed, the IMF has criticised excessively tight fiscal policies for this reason.
In his presidential address, he expanded the argument to consider whether an increase in government borrowing will necessarily increase the cost of servicing government debt. When the (nominal) interest rate (r) on government borrowing is below the nominal rate of economic growth (gn), (r < gn), then even if total debt is not reduced, it is likely that the growth in tax revenues will exceed the growth in the cost of servicing the debt. Debt as a proportion of GDP will fall. The forecast nominal growth rate exceeds the 10-year nominal rate on government bonds by 1.3% in the USA, 2.2% in the UK and 1.8% in the eurozone. In fact, with the exception of a short period in the 1980s, nominal growth (gn) has typically exceeded the nominal interest rate on government borrowing (r) for decades.
When r < gn, this then gives scope for increasing government borrowing to fund additional government spending without increasing the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, if that fiscal expansion increases both actual and potential income, then growth over time could increase, giving even more scope for public investment.
In his Budget on 29 October, the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced a new type of tax. This is a ‘digital services tax’, which, after consultation, he is planning to introduce in April 2020. The target of the tax is the profits made by major companies providing social media platforms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), internet marketplaces (e.g. Amazon and eBay) or search engines (such as Alphabet’s Google).
The proposed digital services tax is a 2% tax on the revenues earned by such companies in the UK. It would only apply to large companies, defined as those whose global revenue is at least £500m a year. It is expected to raise around £400m per year.
The EU is considering a similar tax at a rate of 3%. India, Pakistan, South Korea and several other countries are considering introducing digital taxes. Indeed, many countries are arguing for a worldwide agreement on such a tax. The OECD is studying the implications of the possible use of such a tax by its 36 members. If an international agreement on such a tax can be reached, a separate UK tax may not go ahead. As the Chancellor stated in his Budget speech:
In the meantime we will continue to work at the OECD and G20 to seek a globally agreed solution. And if one emerges, we will consider adopting it in place of the UK Digital Services Tax.
The proposed UK tax is a hybrid between direct and indirect taxes. Like corporation tax, a direct tax, its aim is to tax companies’ profits. But, unlike corporation tax, it would be harder for such companies to avoid. Like VAT, an indirect tax, it would be a tax on revenue, but, unlike VAT, it would be an ‘end-stage’ tax rather than a tax on value added at each stage of production. Also, it would not be a simple sales tax on companies as it would be confined to revenue (such as advertising revenue) earned from the use in the UK of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. As the Chancellor said in his speech.
It is important that I emphasise that this is not an online-sales tax on goods ordered over the internet: such a tax would fall on consumers of those goods – and that is not our intention.
There is, however, a political problem for the UK in introducing such a tax. The main companies it would affect are American. It is likely that President Trump would see such taxes as a direct assault on the USA and could well threaten retaliation. As the Accountancy Age article states, ‘Dragging the UK into an acrimonious quarrel with one of its largest trading partners is perhaps not what the Chancellor intends.’ This will be especially so as the UK seeks to build new trading relationships with the USA after Brexit. As the BBC article states, ‘The chancellor will be hoping that an international agreement rides to his rescue before the UK tax has to be imposed.’
Ten years ago, the financial crisis deepened and stock markets around the world plummeted. The trigger was the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest US investment bank. It filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. This was not the first bank failure around that time. In 2007, Northern Rock in the UK (Aug/Sept 2007) had collapsed and so too had Bear Stearns in the USA (Mar 2008).
Initially there was some hope that the US government would bail out Lehmans. But when Congress rejected the Bank Bailout Bill on September 29, the US stock market fell sharply, with the Dow Jones falling by 7% the same day. This was mirrored in other countries: the FTSE 100 fell by 15%.
At the core of the problem was excessive lending by banks with too little capital. What is more, much of the capital was of poor quality. Many of the banks held securitised assets containing ‘sub-prime mortgage debt’. The assets, known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), were bundles of other assets, including mortgages. US homeowners had been lent money based on the assumption that their houses would increase in value. When house prices fell, homeowners were left in a position of negative equity – owing more than the value of their house. With many people forced to sell their houses, prices fell further. Mortgage debt held by banks could not be redeemed: it was ‘sub-prime’ or ‘toxic debt’.
Response to the crisis
The outcome of the financial crash was a series of bailouts of banks around the world. Banks cut back on lending and the world headed for a major recession.
Initially, the response of governments and central banks was to stimulate their economies through fiscal and monetary policies. Government spending was increased; taxes were cut; interest rates were cut to near zero. By 2010, the global economy seemed to be pulling out of recession.
However, the expansionary fiscal policy, plus the bailing out of banks, had led to large public-sector deficits and growing public-sector debt. Although a return of economic growth would help to increase revenues, many governments felt that the size of the public-sector deficits was too large to rely on economic growth.
As a result, many governments embarked on a period of austerity – tight fiscal policy, involving cutting government expenditure and raising taxes. Although this might slowly bring the deficit down, it slowed down growth and caused major hardships for people who relied on benefits and who saw their benefits cut. It also led to a cut in public services.
Expanding the economy was left to central banks, which kept monetary policy very loose. Rock-bottom interest rates were then accompanied by quantitative easing. This was the expansion of the money supply by central-bank purchases of assets, largely government bonds. A massive amount of extra liquidity was pumped into economies. But with confidence still low, much of this ended up in other asset purchases, such as stocks and shares, rather than being spent on goods and services. The effect was a limited stimulation of the economy, but a surge in stock market prices.
With wages rising slowly, or even falling in real terms, and with credit easy to obtain at record low interest rates, so consumer debt increased.
So have the lessons of the financial crash been learned? Would we ever have a repeat of 2007–9?
On the positive side, financial regulators are more aware of the dangers of under capitalisation. Banks’ capital requirements have increased, overseen by the Bank for International Settlements. Under its Basel II and then Basel III regulations (see link below), banks are required to hold much more capital (‘capital buffers’). Some countries’ regulators (normally the central bank), depending on their specific conditions, exceed these the Basel requirements.
But substantial risks remain and many of the lessons have not been learnt from the financial crisis and its aftermath.
There has been a large expansion of household debt, fuelled by low interest rates. This constrains central banks’ ability to raise interest rates without causing financial distress to people with large debts. It also makes it more likely that there will be a Minsky moment, when a trigger, such as a trade war (e.g. between the USA and China), causes banks to curb lending and consumers to rein in debt. This can then lead to a fall in aggregate demand and a recession.
Total debt of the private and public sectors now amounts to $164 trillion, or 225% of world GDP – 12 percentage points higher than in 2009.
China poses a considerable risk, as well as being a driver of global growth. China has very high levels of consumer debt and many of its banks are undercapitalised. It has already experienced one stock market crash. From mid-June 2015, there was a three-week fall in share prices, knocking about 30% off their value. Previously the Chinese stock market had soared, with many people borrowing to buy shares. But this was a classic bubble, with share prices reflecting exuberance, not economic fundamentals.
Although Chinese government purchases of shares and tighter regulation helped to stabilise the market, it is possible that there may be another crash, especially if the trade war with the USA escalates even further. The Chinese stock market has already lost 20% of its value this year.
Then there is the problem with shadow banking. This is the provision of loans by non-bank financial institutions, such as insurance companies or hedge funds. As the International Business Times article linked below states:
A mind-boggling study from the US last year, for example, found that the market share of shadow banking in residential mortgages had rocketed from 15% in 2007 to 38% in 2015. This also represents a staggering 75% of all loans to low-income borrowers and risky borrowers. China’s shadow banking is another major concern, amounting to US$15 trillion, or about 130% of GDP. Meanwhile, fears are mounting that many shadow banks around the world are relaxing their underwriting standards.
Another issue is whether emerging markets can sustain their continued growth, or whether troubles in the more vulnerable emerging-market economies could trigger contagion across the more exposed parts of the developing world and possibly across the whole global economy. The recent crises in Turkey and Argentina may be a portent of this.
Then there is a risk of a cyber-attack by a rogue government or criminals on key financial insitutions, such as central banks or major international banks. Despite investing large amounts of money in cyber-security, financial institutions worry about their vulnerability to an attack.
Any of these triggers could cause a crisis of confidence, which, in turn, could lead to a fall in stock markets, a fall in aggregate demand and a recession.
Finally there is the question of the deep and prolonged crisis in capitalism itself – a crisis that manifests itself, not in a sudden recession, but in a long-term stagnation of the living standards of the poor and ‘just about managing’. Average real weekly earnings in many countries today are still below those in 2008, before the crash. In Great Britain, real weekly earnings in July 2018 were still some 6% lower than in early 2008.
Explain the major causes of the financial market crash in 2008.
Would it have been a good idea to have continued with expansionary fiscal policy beyond 2009?
Summarise the Basel III banking regulations.
How could quantitative easing have been differently designed so as to have injected more money into the real sector of the economy?
What are the main threats to the global economy at the current time? Are any of these a ‘hangover’ from the 2007–8 financial crisis?
What is meant by ‘shadow banking’ and how might this be a threat to the future stability of the global economy?
Find data on household debt in two developed countries from 2000 to the present day. Chart the figures. Explain the pattern that emerges and discuss whether there are any dangers for the two economies from the levels of debt.
The last two weeks have been quite busy for macroeconomists, HM Treasury staff and statisticians in the UK. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Phillip Hammond, delivered his (fairly upbeat) Spring Budget Statement on 13 March, highlighting among other things the ‘stellar performance’ of UK labour markets. According to a Treasury Press Release:
Employment has increased by 3 million since 2010, which is the equivalent of 1,000 people finding work every day. The unemployment rate is close to a 40-year low. There is also a joint record number of women in work – 15.1 million. The OBR predict there will be over 500,000 more people in work by 2022.
To put these figures in perspective, according to recent ONS estimates, in January 2018 the rate of UK unemployment was 4.3 per cent – down from 4.4 per cent in December 2017. This is the lowest it has been since 1975. This is of course good news: a thriving labour market is a prerequisite for a healthy economy and a good sign that the UK is on track to full recovery from its 2008 woes.
The Bank of England welcomed the news with a mixture of optimism and relief, and signalled that the time for the next interest rate hike is nigh: most likely at the next MPC meeting in May.
But what is the practical implication of all this for UK consumers and workers?
For workers it means it’s a ‘sellers’ market’: as more people get into employment, it becomes increasingly difficult for certain sectors to fill new vacancies. This is pushing nominal wages up. Indeed, UK wages increased on average by 2.6 per cent year-to-year.
In real terms, however, wage growth has not been high enough to outpace inflation: real wages have fallen by 0.2 per cent compared to last year. Britain has received a pay rise, but not high enough to compensate for rising prices. To quote Matt Hughes, a senior ONS statistician:
Employment and unemployment levels were both up on the quarter, with the employment rate returning to its joint highest ever. ‘Economically inactive’ people — those who are neither working nor looking for a job — fell by their largest amount in almost five and a half years, however. Total earnings growth continues to nudge upwards in cash terms. However, earnings are still failing to outpace inflation.
An increase in interest rates is likely to put further pressure on indebted households. Even more so as it coincides with the end of the five-year grace period since the launch of the 2013 Help-to-Buy scheme, which means that many new homeowners who come to the end of their five year fixed rate deals, will soon find themselves paying more for their mortgage, while also starting to pay interest on their Help-to-buy government loan.
Will wages grow fast enough in 2018 to outpace inflation (and despite Brexit, which is now only 12 months away)? We shall see.
In three interesting articles, linked below, the authors consider the state of economies since the financial crisis of 2007–8 and whether governments have the right tools to tackle future economic shocks.
There have been some successes over the past 10 years, in particular keeping inflation close to central bank targets despite considerable shocks (see the Vox article). Also unemployment has fallen in most countries and to very low levels in some, including the UK.
But economic growth has generally remained well below the levels prior to the financial crisis, with low productivity growth being the main culprit. Indeed, many people have seen no growth at all in their real incomes over the past 10 years, with low unemployment being bought at the cost of a growth in zero-hour contracts and work in the gig economy. And what economic growth we have seen has been largely the result of taking up slack through unprecedentedly loose monetary policy.
Fiscal policy, except in the period directly following the financial crisis, has generally been tight as governments have sought to reduce their deficits and slow down the growth in their debt.
But what will happen if economies once more slow? Or, worse still, what will happen if there is another global recession? Do countries have the policies to tackle the problem this time round?
Quantitative easing could be used again, but many economists believe that it will have more limited scope if confined to the purchase of assets in the secondary market. Also, there is little scope for reducing interest rates, which, despite some modest rises in the USA, remain at close to zero in most developed countries.
One possibility is a combination of monetary and fiscal policy, where new money is used to finance government expenditure on infrastructure, such as road and rail, broadband, green energy, hospitals and schools and colleges. This would avoid the need for governments to borrow on open markets as the spending would be financed by new government securities purchased directly by the central bank.
An objection to such ‘people’s quantitative easing‘, as it has been dubbed, is that it would effectively end the independence of central banks. This independence has been credited by many with giving central banks credibility in controlling inflation. Would inflationary expectations rise with people’s quantitative easing and, with it, actual inflation? A lot would depend on the extent to which this QE could still be conducted within a framework of targeting inflation and whether people’s expectations of inflation could be managed jointly by the government and central bank.