The Banking Crisis and Executive Pay

Four separate factors came together to create the perfect storm that was the banking crisis. Two of these, the subprime housing collapse in the US and the haircutting of Greek sovereign debt (another catastrophic EU decision), both of which caused contagion to spread across the global banking system, were factors beyond the control of any British government. The other two, namely the failure of UK banking regulation and the build up of national debt, were. Strictly speaking the size of the national debt and deficit did not cause the recession, but it meant that the Coalition had to spend two years reducing the deficit before they could start reducing unemployment.

There has, I think, been a lot of very muddled thinking over the banking crisis. It’s not the bail-outs that were the problem. The taxpayer will come out of these with nice fat profits (which would have been even bigger at RBS if Gordon Brown had taken convertible loan stock in the first instance, until he knew the full extent of the losses, rather than equity), and both depositors and creditors were protected as well. Only shareholders, which of course include you and me through our pension funds, lost out. The recession was caused by a combination of contagion and regulation failure (as the banks in retrospect pulled in their horns). Many of the measures taken by the Coalition, such as the bail-in procedures and the ‘electrified’ ring fence, appear to be designed to make it easier for banks to go bust rather than less, which means that any future recession will be even greater! Increasing bank equity ratio requirements in the middle of a recession can only make that recession deeper. It is also worth remembering that some of the bank failures, such as Northern Rock and HBoS, had nothing to do with sub-prime; they were just simple cases of over-trading, ie. regulation failure.

One small and rather technical point we could look at however would be to remove limited-liability status from retail bank subsidiaries. As I am sure you know, under company law the creditors of a bankrupt subsidiary company have no recourse to the holding company for restitution. Normally this encourages investment and economic growth, but in the case of retail banks security is more important. Such a change would place the group at first port of call for any bail out instead of the tax-payer, and create a more arms-length relationship preventing the group from treating its retail subsidiary as a cash cow for its rather more dodgy ‘casino’ activities.

But the real problem is the relationship between shareholders and directors, with the former losing money whilst the latter swan about playing ‘masters of the universe’ and paying themselves the earth to boot. The Coalition proposed yet more red tape to hold directors more directly responsible, but I suggest that such an interventionist approach may well backfire and undermine the status of the City. Instead I propose the introduction of Supervisory Boards for all publicly quoted companies (not just the banks), not to put Unions on them like the Germans do, but to comprise the five or six largest shareholders on the register when the meeting is called, together with perhaps a couple of non-execs and the Chairman and Chief Executive, so that the shareholders have the majority. Company law would give these boards authority over capital reconstructions, takeovers and mergers, and over the appointment and remuneration of the directors. Such an approach would enable the principal shareholders to be involved in these key decisions well before resolutions for general meetings are formulated, whereas the Coalition has merely given shareholders a slightly larger rubber stamp than they had before. Such a structural change would reflect the ownership of the company rather than have the government intervening with yet another raft of red tape.

All of which brings us to the subject of executive pay. What I see here is a closed shop, even more so today when everything is done behind closed doors by headhunters. As a capitalist I expect to see an open competitive market. We do not tolerate closed shops from the Unions, so why should we do so from company executives? It is not in the public interest, nor is it conducive to economic growth. Headhunters and directors like to say that there are only a few people who can run these large companies, yet a moment’s observation shows that they are no different to our armed forces, where it has become a cliché to say that you end up with more admirals than there are ships and generals that there are tanks. These large pyramidal organisations all recruit well, train well and promote well, so that you end up with a great tsunami of talent surging up into the little pinnacle at the top with nowhere to go. They also like to say that there would be an exodus of executive talent abroad, but I just don’t buy this in view of the numbers available. Even if we do lose a few bed-blockers abroad, I welcome the emigration!

I realise that recruitment is a risky business, and it is natural for headhunters to want to cover their backsides by limiting their shortlists only to people who have done exactly the same job in exactly the same industry somewhere else before and then just moving them sideways. Obviously you will find only a few who fit that gold-plated requirement, who can and then do ask for any salary they want, setting off a chain of catch-up increases across the industry, but it is a false analysis. Some years ago research in the US compared the performance of CEOs who were doing the job for the first time with those who had been moved sideways by headhunters, and found that almost invariably the first timers did a better job.

The solution is a procedure I call Cheapest Competent Candidate. Recruiters would be forced to dip their toes rather deeper into the pool of talent and produce a minimum shortlist of five names. It could be included into company law as a default that the supervisory board could overturn on a temporary basis if they really wished, and could also provide for the award of discretionary discounts to candidates of up to say 10%. Essentially however the process is then simply to ask the candidates to bid for the job, and to appoint the lowest net bidder, just as you would do with a contractor.

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July 2015 Budget: Osborne announces a 1 million increase in unemployment.

Well, he did not put it quite like that of course. What he did say was that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast the creation of 1 million new jobs over the next five years. What neither he nor the OBR added however is that, on the basis of current trends, we will by then have 2 million more new immigrants. Simply deducting one figure from the other shows how net unemployment will increase. And it won’t be the immigrants who are unemployed, though many will be working for scant wages as part of some board and lodging scam, thereby adding to wage compression for the rest of us. The young, the old and the disabled are all set to find jobs more difficult to find.

He also tells us that unemployment is down to 5.5%, but omits to include the thousands of people now classified as self-employed but who are not earning a penny, the thousands more sanctioned off benefits, and the many thousands in part time jobs who want full-time employment. It’s pure window-dressing. The real danger is that he believes his own propaganda, which in turn will lead to further mismanagement of the economy.

Because the other big mistake he makes is to treat welfare expenditure as fixed. It’s not. It’s cyclical. It goes up and down with unemployment. He tells us that “Britain is home to 1% of the world’s population; generates 4% of the world’s income; and yet pays out 7% of the world’s welfare spending”. Frankly that is precisely what I would expect in the middle of a recession.

In fact these figures simply don’t add up. If unemployment is really down to 5.5% then that is more than half-way through the cycle. Unemployment peaked at around 9%, and the lowest it has been historically was 3%, so that sets the middle at 6%; the point at which the cyclical deficit/surplus is nil and any remaining deficit is purely structural.

Historically the factor linking cyclical deficit to unemployment is around £25bn per percent of unemployment. I suspect this is now lower due to changes in the structure of income tax and benefits, so let’s take the factor as £20bn. 5.5% unemployment therefore means we now have a cyclical surplus of £10bn and a structural deficit of £85bn. That means £85bn of more austerity, yet he has announced only £37bn over the next five years and still predicts a balanced budget at the end of it. As I say, these figures simply don’t add up. What about the remaining £38bn?

Of course my strong suspicion as noted above is that the unemployment figures are wrong. Let’s work it out the other way round. The £38bn must be cyclical deficit, which means unemployment must be just short of 8%. That sounds much more likely in the light of high levels of under-employment, both of employed and self-employed people, and of immigration. But of course it also means that unemployment has only fallen by one percent over the past five years, which is a terrible performance. No wonder he wants to cook the books!

And then there is the news that average weekly earnings are rising by 3.3% per annum. What we are not told is how the rich are once again surging ahead at the expense of the poor.

I shall write separately on welfare reform shortly, and in particular on the problems of breeding for benefits and in making work pay, but addressing the former is undoubtedly the main thing he has got right. With Tax Credits now costing some £30bn a year, and families on benefits breeding at roughly double the rate of families not on benefits, it was a matter of urgency to remove this perverse incentive. The benefits cap was a crude first attempt at it, but reducing entitlement to child benefits for new claimants is a more structural and focused approach. I still have problems both with the caps (which in my opinion should not impinge on market social rents or housing benefit) and in their impact on larger families who expanded before they started claiming, but the top priority here was to remove the perverse incentive to breed for benefits. Refinements can come later.

So in summary let’s make some lists:

1) What he got right:-

a) Cutting tax credits, but only for new-born children.

b) Reducing the benefits cap; but see reservations above and below,

c) Introducing the Apprenticeship Levy,

d) Stabilising business first-year capital allowances,

e) Phasing out the bank levy: bashing the banks in the middle of a recession has only made it worse!

f) Earn or learn,

g) Transferring university maintenance grants to the loans system,

h) Increasing the Minimum Wage – but he has not left business with enough to pay for it,

i) Increase in Employers’ NI allowance – will go some way towards it, but not enough,

j) Reductions in Inheritance Tax,

k) Scrapping permanent non-dom status,

l) Various measures against tax evasion

m) Aligning the ESA WRAG allowance with JSA

n) Committing to spending 2% of GDP on defence,

o) Funding for the Defence Medical Welfare Service and the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.

2) What he got wrong:-

a) Balance: the overall impact will be a reduction in consumer demand just when we need to keep unemployment falling. He cannot continue to rely solely on monetary policy to stimulate the economy (the Bank of England is already warning of the consequent financial instability) or house prices will distort still further and be subject to a major downwards correction when eventually we do build sufficient new houses and limit immigration. His cuts to tax credits should have been matched by tax cuts elsewhere (see note on regional policy below) which, because they would reduce unemployment still further, would be self-financing and thus still enable him to meet his deficit targets.

b) Reducing the benefit clawback earnings disregards: this makes it even less likely that work will pay

c) Reducing social rents and limiting housing benefit and LHA in various ways: this will undermine the supply of social housing just when we need much more, and squeeze lower paid workers out of more prosperous areas where their work is most needed. The idea he expressed that higher rents are fuelled by housing benefit is just plain false; the market rent is determined ultimately by supply and demand. Housing benefit is certainly a component of that demand, but unless you are just going to make people homeless it is an unavoidable one. I must say I was distinctly reminded of Ed Miliband and energy prices when I heard this! All tenants should pay rents at the market rate (the Rent Officer used to set the HB limits at around one third of the way up the rental range in each area – I don’t know if that is still the case but it makes sense to me) and the clawback tapers then ensure richer tenants pay what they can afford to pay. No need for complications such as his ‘pay to stay’ idea.

d) Dividends: there was no need to muck about and make the taxation of these even more complicated. Dividends should simply be taxed at the shareholder’s marginal rate with no extra personal allowance, and a withholding tax credit of 25%. With corporation tax now below 20% the double taxation argument has less force. In any case it should be addressed by reducing business taxation, not shareholder taxation, since businesses themselves do not have votes. Business taxation is taxation without representation and undermines incentives to invest and improve productivity.

e) Limiting public sector pay to 1%: pay should be determined by local staff turnover rates otherwise we could end up with severe staff shortages. Likewise there will be some areas where even 1% isn’t justified as staff turnover continues to be low.

f) Building more roads to improve (allegedly) productivity. This will damage the environment and increase taxes. The correct answer is to reduce demand by limiting immigration.

g) Introducing Help-to-Buy ISAs and removing higher rate interest allowability for Buy-to-Let landlords. These will only push up house prices still further. He should give the Bank of England the power to restrict mortgage availability on a local basis to keep house price inflation under control, to assuage the Bank’s fears for financial stability, and as an additional dimension to regional policy.

h) Withdrawal of tax relief on pension contributions and the additional cost of government contributions into pension ISAs. He’s got it the wrong way round. Your pension is taxed when you receive it, so if you have to pay into it out of taxed income that amounts to double taxation. It also reduces the base level of investment upon which the fund can grow. I look forward to contributing to his Green Paper on this, and also as the Coalition made a right pig’s ear of reforming public sector pensions as well (see future post).

i) Abolition of entitlement to housing benefit for 18 to 21 year olds. Many youngsters are desperate to escape dysfunctional or violent family homes before they can concentrate sensibly on their futures.

3) What he should have done but didn’t:-

a) Start to hedge the National Debt (see my Election Address (para 5) and post on Pensions).

b) Introduce post-code regional policy and reform of the Barnett Formula (ditto). This is by far the most efficient way of reducing unemployment, and with it the deficit, as it concentrates stimulation where unemployment is highest and therefore most responsive. It will also I believe prove far more effective in regionally balancing the economy than any of the supply-side measures he did announce. I have elsewhere proposed a supplementary personal allowance of £500 per 1% of local unemployment above a threshold of say 5%, though of course both factors can be adjusted to taste as you go along. The policy presupposes availability of some honest un- and under- employment figures, though estimates would be better than nothing.

c) Cut business rates – see comments above about business taxes and funding the minimum wage, as well as funding the higher levels of training and supervision required by many youngsters entering work. Otherwise employers will simply go on recruiting immigrants instead (in fact they will anyway until immigration is restricted).

d) Introduce the National Credit Card for private sector public services (post 25th February 2015),

e) Relate the Universal Credit single adult living allowance, earnings disregards and clawback rates to the tax personal allowance in terms of fixed percentages, so as to produce a smooth transition from benefits to tax, at least for single adults, and to keep the living allowance at realistic levels, funded by a complete phasing out of the tax credits system. I also cannot see any reason why we have different clawback taper rates for different benefits. Make them all 50%.

f) Fund the building of social housing required through 30-year borrowing. The mortgage repayments will fund the bond redemptions and interest payments, so it won’t add to the unfunded national debt. It’s what I call ‘clean debt’, ie debt which ‘washes its own face’; though there may be some upwards impact on housing benefit until house prices and unemployment fall.

g) Introduce in law, both for the public sector and for publicly quoted companies, the Cheapest Competent Candidate procedure for executive recruitment and promotions (see future post shortly). This will create a much more open competitive market for executive talent, and probably much lower remuneration, thereby reducing the income range as well as costs.

h) Build more medical schools and nursing colleges to eliminate the NHS’s dependence on immigrants.

The Management of our Public Services

Probably the most frequent questions I was asked during the recent campaign concerned the NHS. And it wasn’t just about funding, an issue I addressed in an earlier article. People were concerned about the way it is being managed, its inefficiency, and about the outsourcing of NHS services to the private sector.

As it happens, early on in the campaign I attended a seminar addressed by Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, and I asked him for the staff turnover figures for doctors and nurses across the NHS, and for the percentage of staff who were on temporary contracts. He avoided giving me any figures. Whether this was because he did not want to, or because he did not know them I am not sure, so I went on to ask why his board did not include any resource-specialist directors such a Human Resources Director, Finance Director (although there is someone they rather begrudgingly call their chief financial officer), IT Director or Facilities Director. How, I asked, could he be held responsible for the performance of the NHS without such a board. He immediately replied that he could not!

Now I have no reason to suppose he was just being flippant in giving this reply. I suspect the real reason is that his brief is not one of chief executive that we in the private sector would recognise. Which in turn means that there is no one properly in charge. It is rather like a manufacturing company where the MD has five production directors and a bookkeeper! Clearly it is impossible for such a board to keep tabs on all the resources within the organisation, of which its staff are its most important. No wonder we end up with a health service where the supply of doctors and nurses cannot keep up with demand, where staff turnover has gone through the roof, where a high proportion are expensive agency staff, and where half of those cannot speak English anyway. It came as no surprise therefore when a debate erupted after the election about the shortage of doctors and nurses in the NHS!

Another concern frequently expressed was how difficult it is to find anyone in the NHS capable of taking the initiative and making decisions. It would appear that the top-down prescriptive, target-orientated management methodology introduced by Tony Blair’s New Labour government is still in place. The whole thing is upside down. You want your doctors and nurses at the sharp end dealing with the patients and doing the research. They are then in a position to propose the changes and budgets necessary drive their own local units forward in response to the needs of their patients. The role of the board is three-fold: to assess these initiatives, to provide the resources they require, and to monitor the use of all resources across the NHS so as to maximise utilisation and efficiency. That just not appears to be happening at present. I accept that there may also be a need for some central initiatives as well, but not at the expense of the reactive ones.

Almost all of our public services are conglomerate in nature; that is they comprise groups of units operating at specialist or local level and accountable through central management to their ultimate owners, Parliament. The most successful method of managing conglomerates is technique perfected by Arnold Weinstock at GEC during the 60s, 70s and 80s which I call comparative management by results. Weinstock famously used just seven key financial indicators (they would of course be different and more diverse in the public sector, but the principle is the same) to compare the performance of all the subsidiaries in the group, and then started kicking arse from the bottom of the list upwards. These numbers aren’t good enough, he would bellow down the line. You are in the bottom half of the list. What are you going to do about it? I want your proposals on my desk by Friday lunchtime” or whatever. If they could improve well and good, but if they could not they were replaced. It was as simple as that.

Compare this approach to that taken by New Labour, which I call ‘top down prescriptive methodology’. “Tick these boxes. Follow these procedures. Meet these targets. Do it this way and stick your head in the sand while you’re at it”! Weinstock never told his MDs how to do their job; these were expensive, experience people who should already know that; it was what he was paying them for. He was only interested in results. His only other major role was to accumulate and allocate capital funds for investment, and if he could get a better return elsewhere he did so. His ‘cash mountain’ became famous.

The difference between the two approaches is striking, but what is also telling is that Weinstock seldom if ever got involved directly with his customers or even with what they were actually buying from GEC. That was all delegated; in other words ‘localised’. Even more so is the role and importance of central management. Weinstock’s head office was tiny. I went there once, just a five story terraced building in Stanhope Gate, but it was only by having a central team that he was able to manage the company in this way.

It is also worth noting that New Labour’s approach was to set absolute targets. This may have been politically convenient, but has the drawback that any target will have a resourcing implication, and if that implication is not addressed then the result will be chaos, which of course is precisely what happened. Weinstock’s approach on the other hand was comparative. He knew what was possible by looking at the companies at the top of the list, and simply expected the others to do as well. And when you think about it, this is precisely how an open competitive market works; the choices available to consumers are comparative both in price (efficiency) and quality.

Now look at what is actually happening out there! We keep hearing of schools and hospitals being ‘put into special measures’, which involves drafting in a whole raft of interim managers, none of whom know anything about the organisation they going in to manage, none of whom will be there in a year’s time or have any permanent commitment to it, and all of whom are being paid massive fees. I saw one case recently where ten such managers had been drafted into a hospital, all of whom were being paid in excess of £100k pa, and the chief honcho at a rate in excess of £500k pa! OMG! What a total and utter waste of time and public money. All you have to do is change the guy in charge and then support him.

But if you thought that was bad enough, look at Social Services. They don’t have anyone in charge at all. They are quite literally running around like headless chickens. It’s all very well to say that such services are run by local authorities, but the money comes from central government and when things go wrong we expect ministers to take responsibility. Local authorities are simply not physically in a position to make the comparative assessments required or allocate resources according to demand.

I suspect the source of the problem lies in the structure of the spending departments themselves. How many of them have a clear structural separation between their advisory side, with its responsibility to advise ministers of current problems and future needs, and their executive side, with its responsibility to deliver a mandate approved by Parliament? Taking it from the top therefore, I would expect to see:-

–  A National Director General / Chief Executive (DG) for each and every public service reporting directly to the relevant Secretary of State and his Permanent Secretary. There could be several within a given department depending on the breadth of that department’s responsibilities.

–  The advisory side of the department organized on a pool basis, such as you would find in a firm of accountants or solicitors, managed through the use of timesheets, project budgets and activity percentages, and run by an Under-Secretary.

–  Each DG having a board of directors covering the full range of functional responsibilities, including HR, Finance, IT, Facilities, internal audit and inspection, and others as may be appropriate, with the Executive side structured on a traditional hierarchical basis.

–  Every level of management under the DG having the power to hire and fire the next level down. This is essential for both authority and accountability.

–  A comprehensive quarterly Management Information System (MIS) covering all key performance and efficiency indicators across the service, including management accounts, enabling comparisons to be made and follow-up action taken where necessary. It is important to emphasise that these indicators are not targets, simply monitoring procedures. It is often said that a good MIS only poses questions; it does not provide answers.

–  Each DG having full and complete autonomy over the allocation of his budget, with no ring-fencing or other restrictions. To the extent that Parliament has decreed certain levels of provision within the service, these should simply be monitored through the MIS.

–  The Board including a non-exec Customer Representative, to whom local governors and customer representatives can report on a functional basis. Each local board would have a similar position, possibly elected locally. Our manifesto commitment for elected county representatives fitted this requirement neatly.

Why the Tories are wrong on the economy.

Recent History

Gordon Brown notoriously claimed that he had ended boom and bust – just before the banking crisis inflicted the deepest recession on us since the Great Depression. But I am not going to sit here just to take pot shots at him, because I too was beginning to develop some confidence that we had cracked the challenge of macroeconomic management. What caught us both out was the emergence of a separate global economic cycle triggered by spikes and troughs in the oil price, which proved to be, and still is, out of phase with our domestic cycle. I am of course overlooking here the additional regulatory failures on both sides of the pond.

That was Keynes’s view too, though as it turned out matters were not so simple in the 1930s either. Keynes’s solution was public works, and it did indeed have some success at first because to ‘dig a hole’ in those days required huge teams of navvies all wielding picks and shovels. They had to be paid of course, and it was the spending of those wages that increased local consumer demand and helped to regenerate the local economy. Nowadays such a project would be carried out by one man and a JCB, so the effect is not the same. As Jim Callaghan succinctly put it in 1979, you cannot spend your way out of a recession.

Keynes has also been criticised for the assumptions behind his famous book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Classical theory held that supply would create its own demand; in other words if you had a given supply of a commodity, be it fish on the quayside or hours of labour, then if you price it correctly you will just be able to sell it all. He expected to see unemployed workers offering their labour for lower wages. But he didn’t. So he assumed there must be something wrong with the classical laws of economics and, having just witnessed the transition from classical to modern physics, he may have thought something similar was required in the field of economics.

In fact, as we now know, the reason why workers were unable to find work at lower wages during the 1930s was because of the Unions’ closed shop. Even after the war the closed shop continued to undermine our economic performance, eventually manifesting itself in the form of stagflation. Milton Friedman first made the analysis of this in his Nobel lecture of June 1977 when he attributed stagflation to what he called “unanticipated increases in aggregate demand”. In plain English this becomes “Union extorted wage increases above the natural level that balances supply and demand for labour”.

Proof of Friedman’s theory came later with Margaret Thatcher’s reform of the Unions, because since then we have not seen the slightest whiff of stagflation. Indeed the term has practically dropped out of the dictionary, and now we are instead experiencing concerns about deflation. Also the phenomenon of zero-hours contracts indicates that workers are now able to price themselves back into work once again, which is supply creating its own demand as the classical laws predicted. This is the final nail in the coffin of Keynes’s General Theory. Of course we all want proper full-time employment, but this will depend on the economic recovery. In the meantime surely it is better to have half a job rather than no job. At any given time in the economic cycle there is only so much money in circulation available for wages, so sharing it out this way is surely better than making higher unemployment carry the full burden of the shortfall.

It was the boom and bust of the late 1980’s which fully demonstrated the effects of demand mismanagement. One of the first things Geoffrey Howe did as Chancellor in 1979 was to remove all remaining exchange and credit controls. This led to people taking out ever greater mortgages to chase up house prices, due to the chronic shortage of housing we have always had in this country. By the mid 1980’s the economy was booming and the yuppy phenomenon was upon us. That would have been the time to take your foot off the accelerator and start moderating demand. Instead Howe’s successor, Nigel Lawson, not only failed to reintroduce credit management but also introduced some of the biggest tax cuts in recorded history (just before an election, of course!). The basic rate of tax came down to 25% from 27% (and 29% the year before) and the top rate to 40% from somewhere up in the stratosphere. Immediately people used the extra money in their pockets to jack up their mortgages still further and the whole thing just blew up in their faces. I am all in favour of tax cuts of course, but timing is crucial!

It does however demonstrate the potency of demand-side management. Whilst Jim Callaghan was absolutely right in saying you cannot spend your way out of recession (supply side), that does not mean you cannot cut taxes (or increase benefits) your way out of recession (demand side and increasing the deficit). This is a point the Tories appear to have missed. As I see it stimulating the economy is like trying to move a piece of string lengthways. If you push it, either by fiscal spending or by excessive quantitative easing (QE) the string will just crumple. You have to pull it from the front end. Of course if there is insufficient QE that will pin the trailing end of the string down, so you have to get it just right. The Bank of England (BoE) appear to have been using the FTSE 100 as their indicator since that has been moving sideways for the past fifteen years, but increases in other asset prices, including house prices and the FTSE 250, would suggest they have overdone it.

Which brings us to the introduction of monetary policy in the late 80’s and early 90s, and the exit from the ERM. The big advantage of monetary policy is that it acts directly on consumer demand. Also because it is reviewed on a monthly cycle it provides much finer tuning that the annual fiscal cycle. It could be argued that fiscal policy was always too late to have any counter-cyclical effect, though that said Harold Macmillan’s government seemed to manage it pretty well in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Perhaps the housing market wasn’t so critical then.

With the benefit of hindsight I would say that John Major was wrong to rely solely on interest rate rises to bring inflation back under control. He needed something much stronger than that, and something which would not undermine the rest of the economy as well. I suspect that the reintroduction of credit controls and mortgage limits would have had a more positive and immediate effect. I do see why he was determined to remain within the ERM, as this stopped any devaluation causing further inflation, but what is interesting is that when we did eventually tumble out of the system in September 1992, no inflation resulted. This demonstrates that, contrary to Ken Clarke’s recent remarks, devaluation can be a very useful tool in the right circumstances. In other words if you have high unemployment and a recession, then that is the time to do it if you need to, because the increase in import prices is simply absorbed. The exit from the ERM set us up for the following ten years of solid economic growth, and it was at this time that I started to form the view that we had it sorted. But I had reckoned without New Labour, Gordon Brown and the development of the global economic cycle! Also without his undermining of the Bank of England’s role as City regulator, thankfully now restored.

This piece would not be complete without some reflections on the banking crisis. Four separate factors came together to create the perfect storm that was the banking crisis. Two of these, the subprime housing collapse in the US and the haircutting of Greek sovereign debt (another catastrophic EU decision), both of which caused contagion to spread across the global banking system, were factors beyond the control of any British government. The other two, namely the failure of UK banking regulation and the buildup of national debt, were. Strictly speaking the size of the national debt and deficit did not cause the recession, but it meant that the Coalition had to spend two years reducing the deficit before they could start reducing unemployment.

There has, I think, been a lot of very muddled thinking over the banking crisis. It’s not the bail-outs that were the problem. The taxpayer will come out of these with nice fat profits (which would have been even bigger at RBS if Gordon Brown had taken convertible loan stock in the first instance, until he knew the full extent of the losses, rather than equity), and both depositors and creditors were protected as well. Only shareholders, which of course include you and me through our pension funds, lost out. The recession was caused by a combination of contagion and regulation failure (as the banks in retrospect pulled in their horns). Many of the measures taken by the Coalition, such as the bail-in procedures and the ‘electrified’ ring fence, appear to be designed to make it easier for banks to go bust rather than less, which means that any future recession will be even greater! And the decision to increase equity ratios in the middle of a recession is crazy. Surely it would have been better to leave decisions to raise or lower equity ratios to the discretion and timing of the Bank of England?

One small and rather technical point we could look at however would be to remove limited-liability status from retail bank subsidiaries. As I am sure you know, under company law the creditors of a bankrupt subsidiary company have no recourse to the holding company for restitution. Normally this encourages investment and economic growth, but in the case of retail banks security is more important. Such a change would place the group at first port of call for any bail out instead of the tax-payer, and create a more arms-length relationship preventing the group from treating its retail subsidiary as a cash cow for its rather more dodgy ‘casino’ activities.

But the real problem is the relationship between shareholders and directors. It was the former who lost money whilst the latter were swanning about playing ‘masters of the universe’, and paying themselves the earth to boot. The Coalition is proposing yet more red tape to hold directors more directly responsible, but I suggest that such an interventionist approach may well backfire and undermine the status of the City. Instead I am proposing the introduction of Supervisory Boards for all publicly quoted companies (not just the banks), not to put Unions on them like the Germans do, but to comprise the five or six largest shareholders on the register when the meeting is called, together with perhaps a couple of non-execs and the Chairman and Chief Executive, so that the shareholders have the majority. Company law would give these boards authority over capital reconstructions, takeovers and mergers, and over the appointment and remuneration of the directors. Such an approach would enable the principal shareholders to be involved in these key decisions well before resolutions for general meetings are formulated, whereas the Coalition has merely given shareholders a slightly larger rubber stamp than they had before. Such a structural change would reflect the ownership of the company rather than have the government intervening with yet another raft of red tape.

Future Policy

So where are we now? What are the challenges facing the first UKIP Chancellor? I suggest these can broadly be considered under following four headings:-
1). Wage compression and the cost of living,
2). Employment, the output gap and eliminating the deficit,
3). Funding our public services to an acceptable standard,
4). Paying down the National Debt.

Wage compression is simply dealt with by coming out of the European Union combined with imposing consequently a complete moratorium on the immigration of unskilled labour. That’s the only way to do it. Simples – it’s just old-fashioned supply and demand, the price mechanism as it applies to wages. General inflation is the least of our problems at present, and that in turn suggests that an increase in the minimum wage might not only help people struggling with the cost of living but also provide some protection against deflation. I accept that increases in the minimum wage can make reducing unemployment more difficult, but there are other ways we can do that, again not least by limiting immigration. At present a third of all new jobs are going to new immigrants. Ending the green deal will also help.

It is over the output gap that the Tories are really going wrong. Last week the TaxPayers’ Alliance published a massive tome designed to cut public expenditure by £77bn, the element of the total deficit of £90bn they claim to be structural. Now I am not against cutting expenditure where it should properly be transferred to the private or charitable sectors, e.g. overseas aid, or where it is identifiable waste. I dare say the TPA have come up with all sorts of excellent ideas on that score. What I am concerned about here is the assumption that most of the deficit is structural, and cannot therefore be reduced by reducing unemployment. The TPA offer no support for that figure.

Historically the output gap has been defined as the percentage of unutilised industrial capacity. Once all your productive assets are being fully utilised you cannot increase real GDP any further. That means unemployment cannot be reduced any further, which in turn means tax revenues cannot be increased and welfare payment reduced; what is known as the cyclical element of the deficit. However two points arise. The first is that industrial capacity is not the only resource that is involved, labour including relevant skills are also critical as are energy supplies and other resources. The question is which lie on the critical path. The second point is that few of these resources are inelastic in the longer term. Indeed the more slowly you approach them, the less inelastic they will be. It all depends on what timescales you are looking at, but if we cap immigration as we intend then labour will in due course be the critical factor once full employment is achieved, not industrial capacity.

At present British industry is generally profitable and has accumulated substantial savings which it is holding back from investing. That suggests to me that industrial capacity should be viewed at least over the medium term as non-critical. Energy I will leave for another discussion. Labour is the interesting one. It all depends on whether you believe the government’s employment figures. Given the high incidence of part-time working and zero-hours contracts, the level of self-underemployment and the number of people sanctioned off benefits even though they are still fully unemployed, frankly I don’t. It’s all smoke and mirrors designed to win an election. This assumption is backed by reports from HMRC that income tax revenues are below expectations. One of the first things a UKIP Chancellor will have to do is get himself some decent employment statistics.

So if at present neither industrial capacity nor employment are critical, the deficit is not structural. For every one percent reduction in unemployment, the deficit reduces by between 20 and £25bn. So a further reduction in unemployment of between 4 and 5% is possible and would wipe out the deficit entirely without either cutting essential expenditure, like the Conservatives, nor increasing taxes, like Labour. But you can only reduce unemployment by this amount by limiting immigration, and you can only do that by leaving the European Union. QED.

In the longer term of course UKIP wants deliberately to restrict the availability of unskilled labour, other than on a temporary basis. You therefore eventually come up against a choice between full employment and crude GDP growth. I say crude because of course GDP is a nominal figure which includes both inflation and population growth. We should instead be concerned with real average standards of living, and these have plummeted over the past ten years. Two years ago I downloaded some statistics from the ONS website and constructed an index for real average standards of living which I set at 100 for the year 2000. It rose to 105.3 in 2005, dipped to 105.2 in 2006, up to 105.6 in 2007 and then plummeted to 83.4 in 2012. Obviously the fall after 2007 is principally caused by the recession, but it is the very slow growth before that and the dip in 2006 which are interesting. If one allows 1% pa for normal productivity growth, modest when you consider the phase of the cycle, there is no reflection of the growth in personal credit and the fact that we were living ‘beyond our means’ by 2007. Both strongly indicate an adverse effect from immigration. Also the sheer size of the fall afterwards surely cannot be attributed solely to the recession? This is logical when you consider that standard of living is real GDP divided by population. So if population rises faster than real GDP our standard of living falls. It’s just mathematics. That is the evidence.

Many people overlook the fact that anyone living here is consuming as much as they are producing. You have to be a higher rate taxpayer or net saver to be contributing more than you take out, and at the other end of the scale those on benefits, living on increasing credit or sending money overseas are taking out more than they are putting in. Everyone else in the middle is neutral, except that any increase in population spreads our available resources more thinly leaving less for each. This is as true for an increase in the birth rate as it is for immigration, but that is another story.

There are other impediments to reducing unemployment of course, and our strategy must include them. Principally these are:
1). A regional policy designed to achieve an even level of percentage employment across the land (see my previous post),
2). Effective welfare reforms designed to provide a better balance of carrots and sticks to entice the unemployed back into work. I advocate a big increase in the earnings disregards to really ‘make work pay’, and
3). Better education for the least able or most distracted children. We must introduce procedures to identify these children much earlier, perhaps by introducing GCPEs, so that we can then tailor their education directly to their needs.

As listed elsewhere UKIP’s policies are likely to make over £40bn of extra money available both for funding public services and for cutting taxes. It is money the other parties simply won’t have. Leaving the European Union is central to achieving it.

Finally there is the question of how we deal with the National Debt itself. As I set out in my election address, the answer is obviously to set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund to hedge it. With interest rates on the floor we have had a golden opportunity to do this, yet Osborne has completely flunked it. Sheer negligence.

Housing, Regional policy and the Dis-economies of Devolution.

The one thing we shouldn’t be worrying about over the provision of social housing is funding. With interest rates on the floor it is a simple matter to raise the funds required through the issue of 30 year gilts, currently costing less than 3% pa, and transfer those funds on to the Housing Corporation in the form of 30 year mortgages. The Housing Corporation in turn would pass the funds on again over perhaps 25 years to housing associations, local authorities or indeed anyone else wanting to build and rent social housing. This way the capital is fully repaid by the time the gilts mature, and the quarterly repayments can be used partly to pay the interest and partly to invest in a repayment wealth fund. With rents at the levels they currently are it should be easy to make the finance work, and of course any strain would be taken by housing benefit. That in turn will reduce as unemployment falls. Important of course that rents are set at market levels for this to work.

Encouraging private landlords into social housing is just as important. Historically private landlords have avoided social housing like the plague, as they regard the whole system as hopelessly unreliable. I remember once ringing round six different estate agents in Oxford to find private social housing for someone, and every single one of them said ‘no’. Three said it was a matter of company policy, and the others admitted they did not trust the system. And I can see why. Benefits officials tend to shoot first and ask questions later, leaving the claimant unexpectedly stranded, even though there may be nothing wrong with their claim. On top of that we now have the Coalition proposing an end to direct payments. One of the things I remember from my time as Finance Director at PCHA is how much time our housing officers had to spend with tenants just helping them with simple domestic budgeting. Direct payments were often key to getting the rent paid on time.

To overcome this, and hugely to increase private sector investment into social housing, I propose the setting up of a Landlords’ Guarantees Agency. In return for a small commission off the rent, sufficient to fund the agency’s costs, the agency would offer landlords charging a social rent guaranteed payment of that rent, less commission, on the nail in advance every month. The agency would then collect the rent from the tenant which, with all the powers of the state behind it, it would be in a much stronger position to do. The arrangement could also benefit the tenants since if necessary the agency could press the landlord to fulfill his own obligations under the tenancy agreement, such as for maintenance for example. It would provide protection from rogue operators on both sides of the fence.

I also propose the introduction of a flat rate benefit for the homeless. Perhaps at a rate of £100 pw or thereabouts, this would allow people who are entitled to housing benefit but who cannot actually claim it, because there is insufficient social housing available and who therefore quite literally end up on the streets, to take the initiative to sort themselves out. Their ‘demand’ would encourage the charitable or private sector provision of hostels or they could find lodgings, though what they actually do with the money would be entirely up to them. This way the most vulnerable of all in our society would no longer be caught up in the dependency culture the current system creates through having to wait for some bureaucrat to fall out of bed the right side that morning. They can get on with it themselves. The cost would be nothing, as the money is already mandated in the form of housing benefit.

UKIP have quite rightly said that all new housing must be built on brown-field sites, and that the starting point will be to set up a register of where they all are. I was relieved to hear that about one third of these are thought to be in the South East, where presumably most of the homeless are, but it is not something to leave to chance. Essentially the aim must be to build the houses where the brownfield sites are, and then to create the jobs where the houses are. This requires an effective and structural regional policy.

This is not the only reason we need such a policy. Regional imbalance is also an impediment to reducing unemployment, as well as a factor in dealing with devolution and the Barnett formula.

Regional policy has never been successful in this country, and the reason I believe is that it has always been applied to the supply side of the economy. Stimulating the economy, which is essentially a matter of increasing consumer demand, given that investment follows demand, is like trying to move a piece of string lengthways. If you push it (supply side) it will just crumple. To get the whole thing to move you have to pull it (demand side). This became obvious in the late 1980’s. The relatively rapid recovery of the economy in the early eighties was caused by the removal of credit restrictions so that people started to chase up house prices by increasing their mortgage borrowing. When on top of this Nigel Lawson then cut taxes in his 1987 budget people used the extra money to jack up their mortgages even further and the boom just took off. I suspect this memory inspired George Osborne’s Help-to-Buy policy, which indeed has had some success. So it works at the national level; it just remains to apply the same principles at the regional level. It also chimes with UKIP’s policy of lower taxation.

I propose therefore that a second personal allowance be introduced into the income tax system, applied on a local post-code basis and related to local levels of unemployment, and perhaps also to housing availability, by an appropriate formula, so that people living in areas of higher unemployment would pay less tax for a given income than those living in areas of lower unemployment. I am sure this would go down very well in places such as Clacton, Rochester and Margate! It would regenerate local communities from within, which is by far the best way to do it.

I also advocate the setting up of a chain of Local Community Banks, on the German model but owned by the Bank of England, to take in deposits and lend them on to local small and medium-sized businesses (SME’s). They would not get involved in payment clearing or mortgages in any way and would not therefore replace the clearing banks. But they would allow lending criteria to be skewed in favour of areas of higher unemployment, a sort of localised quantitative easing (QE) if you like, whilst keeping its overall lending book balanced.

These policies would have the effect of creating a much more even level of percentage employment across the land, which in turn would enable average unemployment to be reduced much further before London and the South East trigger inflation. This is essential not only to deal with housing mismatch but also to reduce the deficit. As I have said elsewhere, UKIP can eliminate the deficit entirely by reducing unemployment by between 4 and 5% because for every one percent reduction in unemployment the deficit reduces by between 20 and £25bn. However there are a number of impediments to reducing unemployment this much. The first of course is immigration, but regional policy comes a close second. Both are required, and I would argue also for a big increase in the welfare earnings disregards in order to ‘make work pay’, something Universal Credits does not appear designed to achieve, but that is really a separate subject.

A separate regional policy will enable us to lift regional considerations out of issues such as HS2 and devolution. UKIP has of course committed to abolishing HS2 anyway, but the argument that regional policy is dealt with separately adds further grist to the mill. Devolution is a more interesting matter.

Many of you may remember the old rating system that used to exist in London whereby it was always the poorest boroughs that charged the highest rates. Margaret Thatcher always argued that this was due to their profligate loony-left policies and there may well have been an element of that, but the principle reason surely must have been that they had fewer taxpayers and higher costs. Although there was supposed to have been a redistributive balancing formula, it never seemed to work.

All public expenditure, with the possible exception of transport which is largely user financed, involves a transfer of wealth from rich to poor. Our progressive tax system is based on this principle, as is the principle of allocating expenditure according to need. A moment’s reflection will indicate that this will only work if both taxpayers and recipients are all in the same pot. If you compartmentalise the pot then you are likely to end up with most of the rich in one compartment and most of the poor in another, and the transfer mechanism is broken.

There is also the question of where you locate expensive and scarce facilities. You may not be able to afford to supply one for each pot, or there may be insufficient demand to justify one for each smaller pot. In the case of Aisha King’s cancer treatment the NHS could not afford the required machine at all and he had to go Prague, which was of course private sector and therefore available to anyone across the globe. This is what I call the Dis-economies of Devolution.

Much of the upsurge in popularity for the SNP is I am sure due to the recession; what the medical profession calls a ‘referred pain’. It is illogical to suppose that if you are independent then that somehow gives you access to more funds or that you could use them more efficiently. Almost certainly that is not the case for Scotland, both because I suspect that a disproportionate number of higher-rate taxpayers live south of the border (not an issue that was discussed at all during the referendum campaign as I recall) and because the referendum has now highlighted the fact that Scots receive more public funding per head, about £1,500pa as I recall, than the English.

Devolution means we can no longer allocate expenditure according to need (the management mechanisms necessary to do this are now entirely missing anyway) and it follows we must go for a ‘fair’ equal allocation of funds per head instead. Of course the Scottish government can always add their own layer of taxation to make up the shortfall (which probably will be less than popular!), but what they can’t do is subtract from UK taxation. UKIP is committed to revising the Barnett formula onto this basis, though my proposed tax-based regional policy would go some way towards redressing the balance on an equally fair basis.

Funding the NHS and other public services.

The first and easiest thing to say, as I did in my election address, is that UKIP is the only party able to fund adequately the NHS and other public services on account of the money we will save by coming out of the European Union, by transferring overseas aid to the charitable sector, by imposing a turnover tax on global companies and a number of other measures. Nigel Farage has committed £3bn of this to the NHS, which leaves plenty for other things, including tax cuts. He has also reiterated that we want a publicly owned, publicly funded and in-house managed NHS. I fully endorse both of those statements.

However I want to take a longer term look at the options available with a view to attaining the highest standards of health care in this country, free at the point of delivery for all, whilst at the same time reducing the burden on the taxpayer. UKIP stands for small government and low taxation, so any improvements in management and funding efficiency are a step in the right direction. I shall address issues to do with the way we manage our public services in a future article. In this article I shall concentrate on funding.

The main efficiency problem with all our public services is that they are monopolies. No monopoly has any incentive to be efficient unless it is underfunded, in which case shortages develop. These can take the form of prolonged waiting times, hasty attention or, in our schools, large class sizes. You can only achieve both sufficiency and efficiency at the same time in an open competitive market. That is an economic truism. A quick look at supermarkets will illustrate what I mean. Whilst not everyone likes the impersonal nature of supermarkets, I don’t think many will dispute their high standards or value for money. When you go to a supermarket you don’t have to make an appointment, book or stand in a queue (except at the checkout perhaps); you can drive straight in and park, find what you want already waiting for you on the shelves, and on the odd occasion where this is not so you can drive a few miles down the road to another one where it will be.

It is important to understand that such a situation would drive a Treasury mandarin mad, because of course in the public sector he would regard it as over-provision and thus a waste of taxpayers’ money. Competition only really kicks in when supply exceeds demand, because that is when customers truly have a choice. It’s no good trying to reproduce this in the public sector because you could never produce a wide enough range of customer choice. In the private sector, when a new product market develops, such as for mobile phones for example, the first supplier into that market makes huge profits. However those profits attract other entrants until the level of supply rises to and overtakes the level of demand. From then on weaker suppliers are likely to find the going much tougher and may not survive.

Privatisation only works where whole new marketplaces are created, involving multiple suppliers and multiple customers all interacting with each other. That is what happened with the public utilities in the 1980’s with huge improvements in efficiency, as anyone who can remember previously having to wait weeks for a new phone line from the old GPO can confirm. Whereas if you try to outsource a service from a monopoly you will just end up with an outsourced monopoly, which will be as tempted to profiteer as any other monopoly. Just look at what happened to the court interpreters for example. The Ministry of Justice outsourced the provision of interpreters to a single private agency, presumably thinking that the cheap price they achieved was a reflection of their purchasing power. In practice the new agency simply reduced the fees it paid to the interpreters, until eventually the interpreters decided it was no longer worth the candle and simply stopped working. As a result the supply of interpreters dried up and the courts were left in chaos. Much the same sort of thing happened with security at the Olympic Games, where eventually the Army had to step in to fill the gap.

Outsourcing is used effectively in the private sector, as for example where a company outsources its IT department, but this only works because the person purchasing the service is also the person receiving it. They can then see immediately if quality of service is failing and react to it, ultimately if necessary by cancelling the contract for breach of its provisions. In the public sector this does not work because the person receiving the service, you and me, has no relationship with the person commissioning it. The feedback loop is entirely missing. Not only that, workers tend to have much greater loyalty and are much more likely to go the extra mile where they feel they are part of an organisation that people respect and need.

So where does this leave health, education, legal aid, care and support for the elderly, child care and a host of other such services? Are we doomed to having to put up with inefficient monopolies for ever?

I don’t think so. An open competitive market inevitably will produce higher standards and better value for money, and people are often prepared to pay for that. You only have to look at the survival of independent schools to see it. The question is can we likewise encourage the private sector to compete and grow alongside public services such as the NHS without directly impinging on them, but do so in a way where the private sector alternative is also free at the point of delivery?

Further, can we do this so that the patient or other user can make an affordable choice, available to all without exception, between the sectors without requiring bureaucratic approval? The pitfalls were clearly demonstrated in the case recently of little Aisha King and his brain tumour, where his parents could only find the treatment he needed in the private sector. Yet it took a huge amount of political pushing and shoving to get the NHS to pay for it.

I believe the answer to this is yes. I envisage the issue to everyone of a national credit card which can be used to pay for ‘public’ services from the private sector. The use of a credit card effectively makes the service free at the point of delivery. These services would be approved in principle, and suppliers would most likely most easily be accessible through a comparison website, which would check credentials and assess reputations on an ongoing basis. It would preferably act on a ‘blacklist’ basis so as to minimise barriers to entry, unlike the ‘whitelist’ approach, requiring expensive prequalification, favoured by New Labour and the European Union, which has quite the opposite effect and encourages profiteering.

So you slap all your purchases onto your credit card, without limit, and the government, as the credit card agency, pays them without question. However, come the end of the tax year, when hopefully you are back home fully recovered, the taxman will look at how much you have spent on your credit card, will do your tax assessment in the normal way, put the two together, apply a means test and then charge your affordable share of the cost back to you through the tax system, which for most people would mean an adjustment to their PAYE code. This is in fact just an adaptation of the old voucher system which has been mooted since the 1950’s, updated to use modern technology.

So everyone would pay something. Even people on benefits would pay a pound or two, because this is necessary to ensure a proper ‘value-for-money’ purchase decision. Benefits would be treated as income for the purposes of the means test and the charges deducted from future benefit payments as necessary. It is this decision which drives efficiency and quality, and prevents waste and over-usage. Past attempts at giving users choice have concentrated on quality only, which doesn’t work because you cannot all use the ‘best’ supplier! The system would not of course work for security and other establishment services as they have to be imposed rather than chosen.

Alongside this I envisage the setting up of a dedicated wealth fund for the NHS and wider health service, perhaps to the tune of £30bn or so and perhaps called the National Health Fund (NHF), by issuing 30 year gilt-edged securities, currently costing less than 3% pa. The more astute of you will have noticed the heavy working capital requirement of the credit card system, but in addition to that the NHS itself and many hospitals within it are desperately in need of recapitalisation, there are new medical schools and nursing colleges to build and PFI contracts to buy out. I envisage investing about half this sum with a range of City asset managers so that over 30 years it is likely to produce a surplus sufficient to repay the loan in full and all the interest thereon, leaving the other half to spend.

It may take some time for confidence and supply to build up, and the means-test rates could start quite high initially to ensure an orderly introduction. This would encourage users to take out insurance against the retrospective charges, which means both that insurers cannot interfere in the treatment and that the premiums themselves are in effect means-tested. By about year fifteen the charges should be producing additional income well in excess of £10bn a year. As users migrate voluntarily across from the NHS its budget could be reduced, and not all of that money need be transferred to the fund since the fund will be receiving the charges via HMRC as well. The excess can be used to fund other public services and reduce taxes.

I envisage that the NHF will be managed by the Department of Health subject to the restriction that any shortfall in the funds required for redemption must be made up progressively after year fifteen from the additional income. I also envisage that similar funds be set up for other public services such as education, care and support for the elderly, child care and legal aid. Once education is put onto the credit card system it would bring to an end finally the toxic social divide that still exists between state and independent schools. Although the most famous schools might decide not to accept the card, I am sure the majority of independent schools would do so as it would both secure the collection of fees and bring greater stability to the pupil population, since if a parent were to fall on hard times mid school career no one would know except the taxman. All parents no matter how poor could thence choose an independent school for their child if they so wished.

Those on the left may be worried that this will produce a two-tier system, or that the profit motive will undermine quality of service and accessibility. I believe these worries are unfounded. A two-tier system is only a problem where demand exceeds supply, whereas the whole point of this system is that we get away from shortages and restrictions on access, promoting a free choice for all between the two sectors. Furthermore there is a difference between profiting (good) and profiteering (bad). Profit can only be made in an open competitive market if you satisfy your customers. Why does it matter if a supplier makes a profit if they are providing better value for money? Whereas profiteering occurs where supply is restricted. Indeed the Treasury is profiteering all the time by cutting expenditure which in turn undermines quality of service. It is time to bring that to an end.

Greece, the Eurozone and World Trade

It would be easy and tempting for UKIP’ers to look smugly at the renewed chaos unfolding in Greece and say ‘I told you so’. Easy but unhelpful. Although small, Greece is still an export market for us, and if Greece crashes out of the Eurozone that would create massive contagion which would badly affect the whole of Europe including the UK. In any case I am sure we all wish the Greeks greater success for the future.

So what would we do in their situation? To answer that we must first remind ourselves of why all the Mediterranean Eurozone countries are so determined to keep using the euro. It’s not just the War and history of invasion, it is also that all of these countries are incorrigibly corrupt. Their citizens no longer trust their own politicians and so turn to the European Union as a mechanism to counter this. So it’s no use telling them to ditch the euro. They might still do that, but only out of sheer desperation.

There are two quite separate parts to the Greek, and other Mediterranean country, economic crises: they have a fiscal deficit on government taxes and expenditure, and they have a balance of payments deficit on external trade . The former causes the more immediate challenge, and hence gets the attention of the EU, ECB and IMF ‘troika’, but the external trade deficit is just as, if not more, debilitating in the long run. It is the external deficit I want to examine in this article, as we have a very similar problem.

The UK’s balance of external payments is now running at a deficit of over 5% GDP and getting worse. And that during a recession! You would normally expect your external payments to move into surplus during a recession as imports fall. In theory if you have a deficit the need to fund that deficit creates a need to purchase foreign currency, which in turn devalues sterling. That in turn makes our currency more competitive and so help to boost exports and reduce imports, thereby re-balancing our external trade automatically. In theory. In practice capital flows have grown and overwhelmed trading flows, and as the French economist, Thomas Piketty, pointed out recently, capital to GDP ratios continue to increase across the world.

Greece of course can’t do this anyway as they have in effect a fixed exchange rate by using the euro. Part of the idea behind austerity was that costs would fall thereby achieving an ‘internal devaluation’, but whilst costs in Greece have fallen substantially over the past five years it has not led to any regeneration in the economy. In fact perversely it has simply led to Greece’s debts becoming a higher proportion of GDP as GDP has fallen, whilst unemployment has continued to rise.

It was Adam Smith who originally observed that the wealth of a nation is the product of its labour. So if you want your country to get richer (and generate higher tax revenues) you must get unemployment down as low as possible without triggering inflation. Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister seems to have remembered this whereas the troika have not, and is now coming up against the sort of block-headed intransigence from the European Union we in the UK know so well. Even under the most primitive of jurisdictions, if new evidence comes to light you reopen the case. The failure of austerity clearly constitutes new evidence, yet Wolfgang Schrauble, Germany’s finance minister has simply said that the new Syriza government is bound by the contractual terms of Greece’s E245bn bail-in, and that “Elections change nothing. There are rules”. We can only wish Mr. Varoufakis the best of luck with that one.

But even suppose Greece does manage to secure terms for a debt restructuring and recovery, that is not going to change their external imbalance. Indeed it will make it worse as more imports are sucked in. So we need to look for a new solution to the problem of trade imbalances both for within the Eurozone and across the rest of the world as well. There are now massive trade imbalances around the whole world, not least between China and the United States. Further the old GATT/WTO rounds of trade talks aimed at reducing trading tariffs so as to promote world trade generally have ground to a halt for some time now, since such talks have little chance of success if they start from a position of imbalance.

The Bretton Woods conference, master-minded by John Maynard Keynes after the second world war, aimed at creating stability in world trade through a system of fixed exchange rates. It held for a couple of decades before collapsing because different countries experienced different rates of inflation. Britain in particular, due to a succession of weak Labour governments and the Heath government pursuing inflationary policies for political reasons, experienced a whole series of ‘runs on the pound’, and made the collapse of manufacturing in this country inevitable. Eventually we floated the pound in 1971 and a new international regime of floating exchange rates followed, with mixed success. However it can undoubtedly be said that Britain’s exit from the ERM in 1992, coinciding as it did with a time of high unemployment, which meant that the inflationary effects of devaluation were absorbed, laid the foundation for ten years of solid economic growth. So strong in fact that it took Gordon Brown quite a while to ruin it!

Thomas Piketty’s research is very relevant here, and while in my opinion he rather loses the plot when drawing conclusions from it, the value of his book, Capital in the 21st Century, lies in that research. The continued increase in capital to GDP ratios means that we cannot allow things to continue unchanged. The imbalances will only get worse as international capital flows increase. The irony is that the solution lies in precisely the very thing that successive rounds of GATT/WTO talks have been trying to reduce; import tariffs.

It has always been recognised that the danger of import tariffs lies in the fact that they can become competitive and create trade wars. However if you set up a successor Bretton Woods regime under which only deficit countries were allowed to set import tariffs, and the IMF were to set limits for each country according to the size of their deficit, then that would not happen. It could be applied separately to Greece as the new regime would be currency-independent. That would create a partial devaluation for Greece in that it would promote import substitution, though of course it would do nothing for exports. But it would also provide an additional fiscal revenue stream which can be used to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment.

In a world where the environment is under threat, the continued expansion of world trade in itself must be questioned. I would venture that it is the balance of trade that matters far more than the volume of it. Of course world trade gives consumers much greater choice, and it allows small countries with limited resources of their own to join in. But ultimately Adam Smith was right. It is the product of your labour that makes you rich, what today we call ‘adding value’, and a country that only exports natural resources will return to poverty when those resources run out.

In Britain however there is a further way we can improve our competitiveness. By setting up a Sovereign Wealth Fund to hedge the National Debt. As you may have seen in my election address, I have castigated the Coalition for overlooking this. But what I did not say there is that funds nowadays are invested globally. It follows that a substantial proportion of the wealth fund would be invested overseas, which would involve the selling of sterling, which in turn would make it more competitive. The Chinese have always had a high propensity to save, and it was by investing in US Treasury bonds that their export boom and consequent high rate of economic growth was created. We can do the same.