The Austerity Fairy

Today I’ve been playing with the greatest toy ever created. It’s not a Sony Playstation and it’s not a Pokemon. It’s a Rubik’s Cube.

The Problem

The Problem

One of the things that makes a Rubik’s Cube so great is that the problem you are trying to solve is very easy to understand. From the time you first picked one up, you understood exactly what you had to do – arrange it such that each face of the cube was the same colour.

The Solution

The very best people in the world have solved it in under 10 seconds, putting through around 5 moves per second.

I’ve just tried making 5 moves per second and I couldn’t even get close.

Let’s imagine taking someone who could move the cube this fast but didn’t know what they were aiming at, that is they know there is a single arrangement of the cube they are aiming for but don’t know what it is so they need to try every possible permutation. I done a sum and by my reckoning, assuming they were able to go at 5 moves per second and were able to keep track of every permutation they had tried so that they never hit the same one twice, it would take them around 274 billion years to get through them all and be sure to have hit the solution.

6 seconds vs 274 billion years – the importance of understanding the problem you are trying to solve.

So anyway, the economy is shrinking again – down 0.2% in the final quarter of 2011 😦

George Osborne was not worried though:

We have the right plan and we’re going to stick with it!

In fairness to him he was half-right. We are going to stick with it.

George thinks the problem is spending. He thinks that as long as we spend less, at some stage the Austerity Fairy will show up and magic the economy back to health.

He blamed firstly, the reckless spending of the Labour government. Let’s get this one out of the way quickly with the IMF data I’ve put on here before. Between 1997 when Labour came to power and 2007, the year before financial meltdown, the UK’s debt as a proportion of its GDP was the lowest in the G7. In every single year:

Government debt as a percentage of GDP (Source IMF)

Government debt as a percentage of GDP (Source IMF)

Yes, the UK is the orange line at the bottom.

Next he blamed Europe. Wait a moment – is that the same Europe who are also awaiting the arrival of the Austerity Fairy? How’s that working out for them? Oh.

Much as George would like it, it’s actually not all everyone else’s fault. The reason George has not solved the problem is because, like the poor bugger spending eternity on a Rubik’s Cube he doesn’t understand the problem he is trying to solve.

The problem isn’t that we currently have too much spending. The problem is a lack of growth and high unemployment. Let me explain further.

In normal economic times when employment is high, if the economy starts looking a little shaky the Bank of England can cut interest rates. Lower interest rates make people want to save less money and spend more. When people spend more the economy picks up. Even Robert Peston knows that.

We are not in normal economic times though. Interest rates have been at an all time low for almost three years and you know what? No one is spending. For the rising number of unemployed this is understandable but for the people who kept their jobs why would they be saving more and spending less with such low interest rates?

It’s fairly simple. In an economic depression, even those people with jobs are scared that they might not have jobs at some time in the not so distant future. What would happen if they were made unemployed? Probably they wouldn’t walk straight into another job so they save. Even with crappy interest rates they save.

We have reduced interest rates pretty much as far as they can go but have still not got people spending again and we have therefore become stuck in something that economists call a liquidity trap. We have nowhere to go with interest rates so as long as the economy is weak no one will spend and as long as no one will spend, the economy will be weak.

This is the problem. Understand that much and the solution is a bit easier to grasp – you plug the gap with government spending until employment goes back up to healthy levels and people are spending again. When people are spending again, then you reduce it.

Even if George were able to grasp the economic problem, it would lead immediately him to a political one. How would he possibly explain to the public that for the past 20 months he had pursued exactly the opposite strategy of the one he should have? It would be political suicide. He’s not going to do that.

Better to take David by the hand and skip off together down the road to nowhere in search of the Austerity Fairy.

RedEaredRabbit

Economic Bloodletting

In older times bloodletting was a common medical practice. A doctor would treat a poorly patient by pumping out a few glugs of blood in the hope that it would cure them. The patient would then decline a bit and the doctor would say, “It’s more serious than we thought!” And he’d pump out some more blood. The patient would then get even worse and this bizarre cycle would continue, often until the patient died, at which point the doctor would say, “Well we did our best but they were clearly beyond saving.”

In 2010, the coalition government inherited a poorly economy. (Can you see where I am going with this?) They decided that what it needed was less spending. Less spending they claimed, would have the economy back on its feet in no time.

They predicted that with some much needed spending cuts, economic growth in 2011 would be 2.6%. Then a couple of months later with an even more sickly economy they predicted that with some more spending cuts, 2011 would enjoy economic growth of 2.3%.

November 2010 came though and the patient had deteriorated. 2011 economic growth was now predicted at 2.1% – despite economic bloodletting things were looking bleak. What this patient really needed was… bloodletting.

By March 2011 they had downgraded the annual growth from 2.1% to 1.7% but maintained that the patient’s only hope was spending cuts.

By November, the annual growth prediction was downgraded to 0.9%. We’ll soon see what the real figure was but it is clear that like the quacks of ancient times, the government is unwilling to recognise that there is any link between the treatment and the illness.

Some will disagree that this policy had anything to do with the worsening economy. What is indisputable however, is that the government’s policy of austerity has not led to the economic benefits that they predicted it would.

So let’s think about an alternative policy. Another option is that when the economy is weak we should pursue policies that encourage economic growth and employment. When unemployment rises, there are two immediate consequences. Tax revenues drop and government spending on benefits increases. Then public spending decreases because fewer people have money to spend, and those in employment save more because they are worried about rising unemployment. When public spending decreases, the economy weakens further, the whole thing becomes self-perpetuating and if unchecked we end up where we are today in an economic depression.

The government would say that you can’t spend your way out of recession. They say it all they time. It’s entirely incorrect though – government spending increases economic growth. So a better way of doing things might be to increase spending during a recession and then cut it back once the economy had recovered, employment had gone back up and tax revenues had gone back up. You could also supplement this with some taxes on the wealthy. So we have found a policy that is better than the government’s. Great! Let’s get ’em!

Oh, hold on. Where’s the opposition gone?

Oh dear.

The Labour party it seems, have decided not to take a stance against the spending cuts. Well, I think they have decided that. If I’m honest I’m not absolutely sure. For the past 18 months they have sort of said that they oppose them but have never really laid out a clear alternative. Now Ed Balls has decided that they would not commit to reversing spending cuts whilst maintaining that the government is cutting “too fast and too hard”.

Well I am confused. If they think we are cutting “too hard” but wouldn’t change the policy of cutting exactly this hard then what exactly are they proposing? Labour seems to have moved from a bit wishy-washy to some bizarre conflict of agreeing with government policies whilst saying they are bad.

If I were Ed Miliband, every time David Cameron said during PM’s Questions, “you can’t spend your way out of recession!” I would stand up and read bits out of a first year Macroeconomics text book to him.

And it doesn’t stop at economic policy. Opposition to the government’s proposed health care reforms have come more from doctors than they have from the Labour party despite the government’s argument being shown to be based on completely false statistics. We have a Secretary of State for Education who thinks we should fire more teachers for poor performance. If I were in opposition I think my criteria for firing secretaries of state would include trying to spend £60m on a boat for the Queen and £400,000 on personally inscribed bibles.

In my frustrated state, I am quickly running out of parties to vote for:

  • The Conservatives –  Implementing poor policies with no end in sight
  • The Labour Party – Unable to convey an alternative
  • The Lib Dems – Presumably I don’t need to explain
  • UKIP – Xenophobic
  • BNP – Racist
  • Green Party – In no way prepared for government but might have to look at them now

Ed Miliband’s time is running out to provide coherent opposition to what is going on. He was a good politician in government but for whatever reason he has been positively ineffective in opposition. A recent poll said that the UK public trusted the coalition more on economic policy than they did the Labour Party. I am in no way surprised by this. While I think the coalition policy is bad, it is at least coherent and clearly communicated. Rather than think of a better one, Labour seems to have given up and said, “That’s popular, let’s say that too!”

And say it they did. In a completely incoherent way.

The Conservatives might be poor when it comes to forming policies to gain economic growth, put people into jobs, or improve education and the NHS but never underestimate their brilliance when it comes to making a crap policy sound like common sense.

It is a fragile brilliance though and as their dumb marketing machine rolls forward we can see quite a few gaping holes at which to aim our wrath. I really do believe that a few carefully placed, well-argued policies could derail the whole thing but sadly I see no sign of them on the horizon.

And so, I am making one last, desperate, heartfelt plea:

Could the real opposition please stand up?

RedEaredRabbit

Crappy New Year

As far as the economy goes, 2011 was a bit of a poo. It was also the year in which my already extremely shaky faith in politicians hit an all time low and so, as we enter a new year it is natural for us all to look forward and wonder what 2012 might bring.

So where better place to look than David Cameron’s new year speech? I’ve just watched it on YouTube. If you’d like to you can do so here or read the full transcript here. If you can’t be bothered then don’t fear, I have a selection of the best bits below.

On 2012, David says this:

It must be the year we go for it – the year the coalition government I lead does everything it takes to get our country up to strength.

I’d kind of assumed he was already going for it in 2011 but it seems as though he wasn’t. It does beg the question as to what exactly he was doing. Was he perhaps biding his time? Was he just waiting for the economic depression* to reach a certain level of calamity before calmly springing into action? Or perhaps he was just lulling it into a false sense of security?

Anyway, let’s not dwell on that. We are “going for it” now so let’s look forward:

The coming months will bring the global drama of the Olympics and the glory of the Diamond Jubilee.

It gives us an extraordinary incentive…to look our best: to feel pride in who we are and what – even in these trying times – we can achieve.

I know that there will be many people watching this who are worried about what else the year might bring…The search for work has become difficult… I get that… I know how difficult it will be to get through this – but I also know that we will.

This all sounds deeply uplifting until you think about it – at which point it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

I’ll start with the Olympics. I am glad that we have the Olympics and I even have some tickets for the tennis. I’ll also watch loads of it on the TV and cheer on the UK’s athletes all the way. Having said that, I don’t really understand the link David is making. What has getting excited about the Olympics got to do with finding a job? Is he implying that unemployed people just need some motivation? I hope not but either way I don’t understand it.

About the Diamond Jubilee I’ll be honest and concise – I don’t care. I absolutely could not possibly care about anything any less. The country’s most privileged family celebrating another milestone for the length of time they have been living a life of ridiculous luxury is I think, if anything, demotivating. If I were unemployed and having severe difficulty in making ends meet I’m not sure the royals having another party at the country’s expense would be the motivational catalyst that propelled me back to employment.

Back to David:

Too often our schools aren’t up to scratch, our hospitals aren’t always clean enough and our police don’t catch criminals. Brilliant and committed people work in public services – but somehow the system stops them doing their job. So we’ll change it.

Ok, but tell me how. The current government has cut funding for education and the police without providing any coherent policy on how, with less funding, those services will be improved. We’ve heard the big society idea about parents running schools but I don’t think too many people found it coherent. I find the policy of changing schools into “academies” to be at best confusing. The news is full of teachers’ concerns about this policy and rather than offer a clear explanation to ease these concerns, the government instead chooses to label the teachers as “ideologues happy with failure“.

If a government chooses to cut funding for education and the police whilst at the same time maintaining that education standards will rise and crime will go down, then the public deserves a very clear explanation of exactly how this will be achieved.

(I do appreciate though, that in 2011 the government hadn’t started going for it yet, so perhaps a good explanation is just around the corner.)

The NHS on the other hand does have a protected budget but the government’s justification for reform is one of the most shameful examples of misleading the public I have ever seen. I wrote about that here.

Onwards and downwards:

I will be bold about working to cure the problems of our society. While a few at the top get rewards that seem to have nothing to do with the risks they take or the effort they put in, many others are stuck on benefits…

David said exactly the same thing many times in the run up to the election but in the 20 months since he took over he has done nigh on nothing about the former problem of the few at the top (other than attempt to cut inheritance tax on the very rich) and in dealing with the latter has responded by cutting benefits and public services. In this respect, not only has he not been going for it, he has been going for the exact opposite.

So none of his speech so far made sense. What rabbit was he going to pull out of the hat that would possibly address all of the glaring holes in his arguments?

I profoundly believe that we can turn these things around. That’s what I mean by the Big Society…

I lost the will to live at that point.

RedEaredRabbit

* Yes, I said “depression” – the word that politicians around the world have been avoiding like the plague. It’s been three and a half years. Perhaps in 2012, their New Year’s resolution should be to wake up and call it what it is.

The French Disconnection

Today, Christian Noyer, the chairman of the French Central Bank called for the credit rating agencies to focus on downgrading the UK before looking at France. His comments came in response to S&P placing France on “CreditWatch” – essentially monitoring it closely and considering an imminent downgrade.

The UK, Noyer argued, should be ahead of France in the queue for downgrades because it has:

  • a higher deficit
  • higher inflation
  • lower growth

Now, I have no love for rating agencies but he has missed the point a bit. If the factors he mentioned were the only factors then fine but he forgot to mention anything to do with the reasons S&P gave for putting France on CreditWatch, namely that the countries using the Euro are in a massive pickle and their politicians have proved unable to decide upon a way to depickle themselves.

I understand why he’s upset with the UK. David Cameron’s performance last week of refusing any attempt of negotiation in favour of showing his backbenchers that he is tough on Europe and tough on the causes of Europe was probably not our proudest moment.

Even so, Noyer should have a bit more compassion. He might have to deal with Cameron every now and then but in the UK we have to deal with the guy every day, and it’s hard enough without foreign central banks petitioning the rating agencies for a UK downgrade.

Yes, our finances are in bad shape but we are a long way from risking default. How he could compare the UK’s credit worthiness with France’s without mentioning the Euro-shaped elephant in the room shows he is either clouding his judgment because he is in a big huff with David Cameron or he is simply disconnected with reality.

We might have equally incompetent politicians running our country but while we are not using the same currency as Greece or Italy and while we have the ability to determine our own monetary policy, it should be no surprise to Noyer or anyone else that when it comes to worries about debt repayments, all eyes are on Europe.

RedEaredRabbit

Creationist Economics

Evolution is truly amazing.

The are two reasons I think this. Firstly, just look at the wonderfully diverse range of organisms to which it has lead. Elephants, dolphins, giant redwoods, kangaroos, scorpions, sharks, squid, salmonella, venus fly traps, honeybees and naked mole-rats. They are all stunning examples of what evolution has caused.

The second reason I find it amazing is that it is so simple:

  • An individual’s offspring will share similar traits with that individual
  • An individual with beneficial traits is more likely to have offspring
  • Therefore more beneficial traits are more likely to be passed on from one generation to the next than less beneficial ones

That is pretty much it and all you need to add is a bit of time.

A friend of mine disputed evolution recently, on the basis that the species we see today are just too complex to have come out about through such a process. This is how I thought about it. (This is probably why I don’t have many friends.)

Suppose that a particular species has a one year lifecycle and on average each new generation is about 0.001% better than the previous generation. It’s a very small amount – one one-thousandth of one percent better.

Over a period of 1000 years you would notice little difference – the current generation would be about 1% better than they were 1000 years ago. It’s very similar to compound interest – invest £1 for 1000 years at a rate of 0.001% and you will get £1.01 back at the end. Look at this though:

After 10,000 years it will be worth about £1.11
After 100,000 years it will be worth about £2.70
After 1,000,000 years it will be worth about £22,000
After 2,000,000 years it will be worth about £485 million
After 3,000,000 years it will be worth about £10.7 trillion
After 4,000,000 years it will be worth about £235 quadrillion

Back in terms of our evolutionary example, our species that improved at a thousandth of a percent per generation is 235 quadrillion times better than its ancestor of 4 million years ago whilst being virtually indistinguishable from its ancestor of a few thousand years ago. Pretty cool.

Of course, like my friend, not everyone believes in evolution. Some favour Creationism. In Creationism you assume that there is a supremely intelligent being who made a supremely brilliant strategy for the development of species at the start of things and everything worked out from that brilliant strategy.

Now, I can hear you all saying, “That rabbit has really lost it this time, what the hell is he talking about now? I was expecting some sexy economics shit not a biology lesson.”

I am coming to that. I am a big fan of something that has come to be known as evolutionary economics. It works like this:

Suppose you want to achieve a certain outcome over a period of time in an environment with many unknowns. One way of doing it would be to work out the perfect strategy at the start and then run with it. Evolutionary economics would suggest that a better way of doing it would be to continually monitor and adapt your strategy, keeping the things that are working well, and replacing the things that are working badly with new things. Some of the new things will work and they’ll be kept. Some of the new things won’t work and they’ll be binned and replaced. Perhaps some of the things that worked well a while ago will stop being beneficial later. That’s fine, they’ll be adapted too. By doing this, the strategy continually evolves, adapting to the successes and failures along the way in order to ultimately succeed.

I strongly believe that in a complex environment the very best way to achieve success is by continually reviewing and adapting strategy. I do not believe that the very best way to achieve success is to come up with a strategy at the start and never adapt it in spite of how well it does.

Some people do though and they’re called politicians. When the Conservatives won the last election they did so partly based on the promise that they could cut spending and also achieve economic growth. The economic growth though, for one reason or another, has not materialised.

Some people will say, “You big muppet, George Osborne! You said we’d have economic growth and we didn’t! Your strategy was all wrong!”

I don’t agree with this way of looking at things. Sure, he’s a muppet but we are talking about the deployment of a strategy in a complex environment. The behaviour of the UK economy is not easily predictable – a huge number of unpredictable factors influence it. It is complex. His failure is not in his initial strategy, it is in being unable to adapt his strategy based on how well it is actually doing.

Imagine you are watching a horse race and horse number 3 is in the lead. You might say, “I think horse number 3 will win this race.” It would be a fair prediction. Horse number 3 might then take a fence badly and be overtaken by horse number 5. You might then say, “I think horse number 5 will win this race.”

You give your best judgment at a particular point in time and if the situation changes, you adapt your judgment. A politician does not do that though. When horse number 3 was overtaken, a politician would still back horse number 3 because that was what they said first. Horse racing is a brutal industry – when horse number 3 fell at the next fence, broke its foot and was shot by a vet, the politician would still back it to win.

In contrast to evolutionary economics, I have developed my own term for this kind of thinking – Creationist Economics. It’s impossible to get everything perfect first time around but politicians it seems, believe their strategies represent some kind of intelligent design.

At last week’s Conservative Party conference the general economic theme seemed to be, “We must keep doing what we’re doing because you can’t borrow your way out of recession.” (That’s actually not really true. You can borrow your way out of recession you are just left with more debt afterwards. What you can’t do is cut your way out of recession.) Either way, I am moving away from my point. George Osborne, favouring Creationist Economics, refuses to accept that his strategy has not realised the growth that he forecasted and instead stands by his policies through what I can only interpet as a matter of faith.

Of course, George isn’t the only disciple of the church of Creationist Economics. The Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley has an idea to reform the Health Service. Because the communicated benefits of his policy turned out to lack any basis in fact he had to work hard on a campaign of misinformation. (This is always preferred by creationist economists over accepting their strategy was wrong which is considered blasphemy.) Lansley found a couple of facts that if taken out of context he could use to make his strategy look like a good one. He didn’t exactly lie but he did intentionally mislead people, which I think is every bit as bad.

Let’s have a look now at Theresa May. Theresa’s new policy is scrapping the Human Rights Act. Unsurprisingly, this has come in for a huge amount of criticism from all sides. Like Lansley before her, Teresa was forced into telling a fib in order to maintain her creationist ideals. See if you can spot the fib:

What Theresa said:

We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act… about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.

What Theresa said minus fib:

“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act… about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am making this up, he had a pet cat.”

Let me summarise my thoughts:

  • It is not possible within a complex environment to devise a perfect initial strategy.
  • It is therefore necessary to monitor and adapt a strategy in order for it to be ultimately successful.
  • Politicians deny these things as they are creationist economists

You may not have realised this but most likely you are an evolutionary economist. Suppose you are making your first ever Sunday roast and when making the gravy you decide how much corn flour to add and it all goes thick and lumpy. Next time you do it you learn from your failed strategy and add less corn flour. Congratulations, you are an evolutionary economist. Would you ignore the evidence and continue to put the same amount of corn flour in your gravy forever? If so then you are a creationist economist.

To me it seems clear that our politicians are not governing our country in a particularly efficient way. It’s not just the current government – the opposition parties would and do embrace their own creationist themes. My complaint is with no particular political party it is with our system. If a politician tried evolutionary economics the media would crucify them for “flip-flopping”. It is much more beneficial for a politician to just get it wrong to start with, never waver from being wrong and spend their time and effort on misleading people into thinking they are right.

And while this is the case, we will all have to endure poor political strategies and politicians will have lumpy gravy every Sunday.

RedEaredRabbit

The Greatest Democracy on Earth

The United States is often marketed as the Greatest Democracy on Earth. I’m not sure I agree.

A couple of months ago there was a lot of worry in the global markets that the US was about to default on its debt. As I wrote about here, this was a very different situation to that of Greece who is very much in danger of default at the moment.

So, why is it different? After all, both of them need money. Let’s take a look.

The USA

Investors are banging on the door to lend the US more money.

Greece

Finding someone who wants to lend to Greece at the moment is harder than finding a dodo who can simultaneously breakdance, juggle six elephants and recite its seven times table in Welsh.

While both countries need money, investors believe that the US will be able to pay it back and Greece won’t. It is probably not a bad judgment.

So if the US isn’t a risk to lend to, if people are queuing up to lend it money – why was there ever talk of a default?

To understand this we need to look at US politicians. In the US (to all intents and purposes) there are just two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans and things are always very close between the two. With nothing to back this up, I am going to lazily say that 45% of the US public always vote Republican and 45% always vote Democrat. The remaining 10% decide who is in government and even they are often fairly evenly split.

Because of this the US always has a fairly evenly split Senate, which in turn leads to both parties needing to agree in order to pass changes to US policy. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory; in some ways it is quite good but it does require that to get anything done the two parties need to work together in a reasonably constructive manner.

That’s where the problem lies – they can’t. Or at least they don’t.

The President of the United States, is often referred to as the most powerful person in the world. Evidence clearly shows this is far from true. Take that “almost default” example. Without the Senate agreeing, Obama couldn’t even make the decision to take the money that the US needed and not default on their debt repayments.

Instead the decision went to the Senate.

Defaulting on your debt when people want to lend you money very cheaply would be more than a bit daft. In fact it would be so daft that even the Republicans knew it would be much worse for the US than just borrowing the money that people wanted to lend it.

The Republicans also know though, that their votes are needed for the decision to pass so instead of just saying “Fine borrow the money, let’s move on to something important.” They instead said, “You can borrow the money only if you do something totally unrelated that we want.”

(For more on that read my charming, metaphorical story about Obama flying an aeroplane. Or should that be an “airplane”?)

Had the bill not passed, the people who would have lost out would firstly have been the US citizens as their economy went down the pan. Then everyone else in the world would have been in trouble (as the health of the US economy affects us all).

Although there was a lot of posturing and political bravdo thrown around by both sides, that situation can be neatly summarised like this:

The Republican Party held the US government to ransom with the American people as the hostages.

I’m not being theatrical, this is simply what happened. The Republicans wanted some spending cuts and held the country ransome to get them and it was truly shameful. A far better way of doing things (without causing global economic chaos) would have been to say:

“We all agree that we need to borrow some more and while we would like to discuss other fiscal measures we will do so once this is sorted out. After all whatever we agree on those items, paying our bills is essential.”

Unfortunately this isn’t a one off. Obama has recently announced a new bill aimed at boosting the US economy through closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and increasing government spending. It is actually a very sensible bill but it doesn’t matter – it will be shot down by the Republicans and it won’t pass.

Is that stupid? No, it is ludicrous. Republicans, hate taxes on rich people and hate government spending. Their political campaigns are funded by the rich and that is of more interest to them than doing something sensible to actually help sort out the problem.

The US government needs to act decisively but can’t because of their politicians and sadly, their economy will experience far lower growth than it should do and we’ll all be worse off because of it.

Have you ever wondered why the US can’t bring in public health care or cut greenhouse gas emissions? Same reason – any sensible policy can be easily blocked by a few right-wing half-wits with their own agenda.

In light of this, is the US the greatest democracy on Earth or a bit of a fucking mess?

It’s not just the US though. Europe is in a big mess too. Do you see any sign of some decisive action from European politicians to put forward a clear plan to sort their mess out? If you’ve spotted one then let me know, it must have passed me by.

Politicians just don’t seem to realise that part of the remit we gave them when we elected them was to be able to sort this stuff out. In the US, Obama is trying but he’s ultimately powerless in achieving anything. In Europe they’re doing nothing and hoping it blows over. (It won’t.)

So what of the UK? The UK government has favoured spending cuts and austerity over any attempt to boost the economy. With interest rates at the zero lower bound and unable to be cut further to offset the cuts, this is at best a dangerous game. Basic economics shows that spending cuts in such a situation will harm growth but the government crossed their fingers and hoped that the economy would somehow sort itself out on its own. In the long run it probably will but that’s hardly a reason to dismiss opportunities to sort things out now.

The IMF has said that if the UK is not going to meet the government’s 2011 economic growth targets (it doesn’t have a chance by the way) that it should reconsider its policy of spending cuts and look instead at a policy of stimulating the economy.

After the election in 2010 it would have been very difficult for any political party to forsee the future and build the perfect fiscal policy to cope with such unknowns. In such circumstances, the elected government should:

– Have used macroeconomic theory as the foundation for their policies. (They didn’t)

– Absolutely be prepared to adapt their policies to match the continually changing and unpredictable economic climate. (They aren’t.)

The government based their policy of spending cuts on the hope that economic growth would happen anyway. It hasn’t and now is the time for them to understand that blindly pursuing this will only cause further harm to the economy.

When looked at objectively, the ability to assess and adapt seems like common sense but asking a politician to consider changing policy is not so simple. A lot of that is our own fault. When a government changes its policy we all say, “It’s a U-turn! You got it wrong! You’re rubbish!”

That really is missing the point. An effective government will not be made up of fortune tellers. Therefore an effective govrnment needs to be able to continually adapt their policies to fit with a volatile and unpredictable world. If, next week, George Osborne says that he is going to scrap some cuts and instead focus on some policies to stimulate the economy, we should not all be criticising him as a weak policitian for changing his mind. If he does this we should be commending him as a strong politician – someone who is able to adapt their policies to fit the situation in which they find themselves.

Of course this is all wishful thinking. In reality what will happen next week is that:

  • Obama will bang his head against a wall because the Republicans will block his sensible policies
  • Angela Merkel will keep her head in the sand and hope it all goes away
  • George Osborne will fly in the face of logic and stick with spending cuts

The really sad thing is that now, more than any time in the last three years, it is easier to know what a good fiscal policy is.

It just seems harder than ever for a politican to spot one.

RedEaredRabbit

The Tax Delusion

Have you ever met a climate change denier? I wonder why they don’t believe in global warming. Using some fairly basic maths you can calculate the Earth’s surface temperature assuming no greenhouse effect exists – it’s about minus 18°C. The reason we’re not in a permanent ice age is because of the greenhouse effect.

“Rubbish!”  you say, “the greenhouse effect is something new, we didn’t have it before and it wasn’t that cold!”

The greenhouse effect is actually nothing new – it’s been around as long as carbon dioxide, water vapour and other greenhouse gases have existed in our atmosphere. The problem now is that our activities are increasing the concentration of these gases. Basic physics states that this should increase the Earth’s surface temperature and lo and behold that’s exactly what we observe. Of course there are many factors that affect our climate at any one time and while we cannot be 100% sure how much the greenhouse effect will affect the surface temperature in any one given year, we can be sure of these two facts, which are absolutely indisputable:

a) We are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere

b) Greenhouse gases increase the surface temperature of the planet

When the temperature starts going up in line with this it is surprising that lots of people choose to put their heads in the sand and deny what theory and evidence shows is very clearly happening. The reason I think, that this denial-phenonmenon exists, is simply that it is much more convenient for people to live in denial than it is for them to accept reality.

Accepting the true scale of the problem means significantly changing our lifestyles and a lot of people don’t want to do that. Pretending that climate-change skepticism has any basis outside cloud-cuckoo land allows people to continue doing what they’re doing and avoiding this massive inconvenience.

This blog isn’t about climate change though.

Have you ever met a supply-sider? Supply-siders have a lot in common with climate change deniers. I should explain what I mean by a supply-sider. It’s about tax though, so grab a coffee before you continue.

Cutting income tax has a positive effect on economic growth because people have more incentive to work and have more disposable income to spend. The problem though is that tax cuts need to be financed by cutting public spending and that has a negative effect on economic growth and a negative effect on people’s quality of life. As an alternative to cutting spending, we could borrow to cover short-term tax cuts but we can’t make permanent tax cuts and still have a functioning NHS, education system, armed forces etc. etc.

That much is, again, basic maths and uncontroversial. Unless you are a supply-sider. Supply-siders believe that the effects of tax cuts is so ridiculously large that they more than pay for themselves – that cutting taxes actually increases government revenue and everyone becomes better off because of it.

Nowhere are supply-siders more prominent and militant than in America. When Bill Clinton took office he took over a large budget deficit. He responded to this by introducing tax rises on the middle-classes and wealthy. Supply-siders went mad – claiming that this would starve the economy and usher in financial disaster! In fact what happened was that the economy grew, unemployment went down and the deficit turned into a surplus.

Enter George W. Bush. As a supply-sider, Bush brought in an era of tax cuts and the richer you were, the more you benefitted. This, he assured everyone would make a massive boost to the economy. The surplus quickly turned back into a massive deficit.

Of course these are just two examples (albeit good ones) and there were many other things going on which would have contributed to these two outcomes. Importantly though, supply-siders said that Clinton’s policy to raise taxes on rich people to pay off the deficit would spectacularly backfire and they said Bush’s policy to cut taxes on rich people would boost the economy. In both cases they were 100% wrong.

Like, climate-change deniers, supply-siders ignore logic and evidence simply because the reality is inconvenient. Supply-siders organise huge campaigns to tell voters that their taxes are harming the economy.  They tell people that if they just paid less tax to the government and kept more money for themselves, we’d all be better off. This is voodoo economics. This is one of the ultimate examples of bad marketing. This is to economics what homeopathy is to medicine.

So we can see that while cutting taxes stimulates economic growth, it does not pay for itself. Cutting taxes will cost money and if it is the rich receiving the benefit, it is everyone else who is receiving the cost of it.

It was therefore, with sadness that I read this week’s story about 20 economists writing to the FT to campaign for a lowering of the top tax rate, stating that it was harming the economy.

I do agree we need something to stimulate the economy. As I’ve discussed before on here – we won’t get rid of the deficit without economic growth and there is precious little of it at the moment. I do though have a big problem with attempting to do this through a tax cut on the 320,000 richest people in the country. Don’t misunderstand me – I am not so much of a liberal that I want to advocate the punishment of rich people, I simply think that if you are in the top 320,000 richest people in the country you should not be at the front of the queue when it comes to government handouts.

The supply-siders’ excuse is that by giving rich people even more money we will boost the economy and it will filter down to the poor people.

So which of these boosts the economy more?

a) Giving 10 rich people £1,000,000 each

b) Giving a million poor people £10 each

The letter to the FT offered nothing more than vague anecdote to say why we should go for a). 24% of income tax, it said, is paid by the richest 1%. This could be because taxes are grossly unfair. It isn’t though.

The income gap between rich and poor has been rising for a long time and is now bigger than it has ever been. When a small number of people earn lots of the income, a small number of people pay lots of the income tax. On its own, that figure of 24% paid by 1% tells us nothing useful at all. (I wrote more about this here.)

I reread the letter a few times and couldn’t really understand how 20 economists (a few of them with senior academic positions) could so strongly advocate such a tax cut and only provide a weak argument of vague anecdote to back it up.

To say the least it was a wish-washy argument: “Some rich people might all move somewhere else with a lower tax rate.” Well they might indeed – we all understand incentives. I would have thought though – no I would absolutely have expected that 20 economists arguing for tax cuts for rich people, between them could have come up with something concrete to show why, in the circumstances, this is a good policy. The US has (and has had for a long time) a far lower top income tax rate compared with the large economies in Europe and they’re doing worse than we are. I haven’t see a huge number of UK companies abandoning ship and moving to the US.

Supply-siders argue that when taxes on top-earners are raised that top-earners find ways to avoid and evade the taxes. That’s also true, but it isn’t necessarily a reason to sort it out through a policy of:

“Damn those rich people, they’re so wiley! We’ll have to recoup that money from the less-wiley poor people!”

If our tax rules are this easily side-stepped by rich people then we should look at the tax rules and make them tighter. We should not be saying that poor people should be picking up the bill because we have loop-holes in our tax law.

A very important point that the letter ignored though is what people do with the extra money they receive through tax cuts. If we go with option a) and give 10 rich people £1,000,000 they might spend a bit of it but most likely a lot will go into their savings – they already have plenty of money to finance their lifestyles.

If we go with option b) and give 1,000,000 poor people £10 each they will spend it. When people are really struggling to get by on what they earn they don’t open a savings account.

This is very important because the key reason that tax cuts help to stimulate an economy is because people have more money to spend and in spending that money they stimulate the economy. If we make a tax cut where the extra money goes straight into people’s bank accounts then no economic growth is realised. These are two very basic and indisputable economic rules:

  • Rich people save a greater proportion of their income than poor people
  • Spending money stimulates the economy
It is therefore absolutely the case that option b) would lead to more of the realised tax benefits being pumped back into the economy. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have at least mentioned this in the letter? Maybe shown how they could be so sure that the effect of the disappearing, tax avoiding rich people outweighed this effect?

Anyway, as it transpired, the 20 economists’ letter to the FT had been organised by a PR company. I’ve no idea why a PR company decided to set out to find 20 economists to sign their letter but something fishy is definitely going on.

Labour’s alternative is to make a temporary cut in VAT. This might work quite well as an economic boost – everything is cheaper for a year, buy it now! It isn’t a perfect way of targeting the poorest – VAT has a reasonably equal effect on everyone. The Lib Dems (remember them?) are said to favour raising the threshold below which no income tax is paid to £10,000. I like that one the best.

Let’s be clear, though – none of these ideas is going to suddenly pay for itself. Despite the claims of the supply-siders, all tax reduction policies would increase the deficit (or mean additional, unplanned spending cuts.) While increasing the already massive deficit is not ideal, I would be in favour of doing so if it kick-started some growth and simultaneously helped out the poorest people who are struggling the most.

If, when you started off reading this blog post you were an advocate of tax cuts for the rich and are now considering your position then this post has done its job.

If, when you started off reading this blog post you were an advocate of tax cuts for the rich and are not now considering your position then don’t worry, you’re not on your own – George W. Bush is on your side too.

RedEaredRabbit

Scotland and Filettino

Yesterday I read this rather wonderful story in which the Italian town of Filettino, population 550, has declared independence from the rest of Italy in protest at the government’s austerity measures.

This got me thinking about whether the move was in fact a good one. Sure Berlusconi isn’t running things for them now but he has been replaced by someone whose first act was to print bank notes with his own face on so the jury will have to remain out on the leadership point for now.

Since I don’t know too much about Filettino, I decided to first think about a more familiar independence argument – should Scotland be independent from the United Kingdom? I wasn’t sure about this either so I do what I always do in such situations – I asked Twitter. I also cunningly asked respondees to give me their nationality.

These were the results:

Votes for Independence for Scotland

Overall things are a bit mixed but we can say that the Scottish respondees were mostly against independence and everyone else was split about evenly. (Except in North America where Canadians were 100% against independence and US was 100% in favour. It was a small sample though.)

Quite a few of the English Yes votes were accompanied by a brief “we should stop paying for them” type quote. This always seems to be what the argument boils down to but the SNP argues that Scotland more than pays its way because of North Sea Oil.

Let’s look at this. If Scotland became independent and international waters were divided up according to standard methods then they would certainly have a far larger share of the North Sea oil per head of population than England. Scotland isn’t Abu Dhabi though, so is it enough for them to successfully function independently?

The price of oil is hugely volatile. It varies between $50 and $150 a barrel and seems to shoot between these two extremes all the time. Major oil producers like Abu Dhabi hold lots of oil in reserve and actually help to set the oil price by controlling its supply into the market. Scotland could not do that – if it based its economic independence on oil then it would have a very volatile income. Because the UK economy is much larger than an independent Scottish economy, this volatility in the oil price has a much lower effect on it. Scotland could however, get around this through borrowing money when the oil prices were low and paying it back when oil prices were high, it’s a more expensive way of doing things but probably not a big issue.

You could though, argue that oil is going to run out at some point and that relying on it for your income is not a particularly clever long term strategy. That’s true but like it or not, oil will be around for a while yet and there would be plenty of time for an independent Scotland to invest in other industries before the oil is all gone.

Anyway, back to the key question – is the rest of the UK funding Scotland or vice versa? More or Less on Radio 4 recently did the maths. They calculated that over the past 27 years Scotland had been subsidised by the rest of the UK to the tune of £20 billion. It might sound like a lot but £20 billion over 27 years is nigh on nothing. It’s about £741m per year, or to look at it another way it is equivalent to 20 tonnes of platinum at today’s prices. 20 tonnes of platinum is handily pretty much exactly a block of one cubic metre. (One cubic metre of platinum weighs 20 tonnes! Pretty cool, no? No? Oh.)

Why is that nothing to worry about? Last year the UK as a whole borrowed the equivalent of more than twice the height of Big Ben in such blocks – one block really isn’t an argument defining amount.

(If you just read that and said, “Actually Big Ben is the bell, not the clocktower, this RedEaredRabbit is an idiot!” then you are both a pedant and a poo.)

My point is that in reality, the rest of the UK does not fund Scotland and Scotland does not fund the rest of the UK. Ok, the rest of the UK funds it a little bit but everywhere outside London is like that. London is a huge, global financial centre – why should we not expect it to generate more money per head than other parts of the country? Of course it will. Accepting this is not having a dig at any particular region, it is just obviously going to be the case. On the other hand, saying that because London does produce a lot of money, it should keep it all for itself and not give anything to the rest of the country is frankly, a bit silly.

So we can see that with all things average, Scotland can take care of itself financially. Sadly though – things are not always average and I think an independent Scottish economy would have struggled more during the financial crisis than the UK economy has – not least because its two major banks HBOS and RBS failed in the most spectacular fashion. In tough times, being part of a major economy, with access to borrow an awful lot of money cheaply is very handy and that is probably my biggest economic argument for Scotland to stay as part of the UK.

I got sidetracked massively then. I was talking about Italy.

So then, what of Filettino? Well Italy’s national debt is about €31,000 per person and it’s going up all the time. I don’t really see that Filettino can declare independence and avoid taking its share of the debt so now the 550 people in Filettino need to pay off €17m on their own. If the town has a (very) disproportionately large economy then they can do this and they might be ok. If they don’t though they are going to find it extremely hard to continue borrowing at any reasonable rate. Although it’s a fun story, I can’t help thinking that the motives behind it were based less on economics and more on a crazy mayor with a power trip.

In conclusion, I don’t see economic benefit to a declaration of independence in either of these two situations but economics isn’t everything. I’ve grown up in the United Kingdom, I love it and I love all four countries. Of course they each have their own history and culture – I would never want it any other way and I think it’s a big part of what the UK is.

From my perspective, without any one of the four countries, it just wouldn’t be the UK any more. If Scotland receives a tiny bit more money one year and then pays a tiny bit more money the next year, should we really be talking about splitting up over it? I don’t think so.

I think we’re pretty good at the moment.

Besides which, when Andy Murray wins Wimbledon next year I want to claim some of the glory for myself.

RedEaredRabbit

When the History Grad took on the IFS…..

It was interesting to read today’s publication from the Institute for Fiscal Studies regarding their analysis of George Osborne’s emergency budget. At the budget, you may remember, George Osborne presented his policies and stated that they would proportionally impact the poor less than the rich.

I like the IFS because it is independent of any political party but is extremely well equipped to analyse their economic policies and give us a viewpoint unbiased by any political persuasions.

The IFS have spent lots of time looking at George Osborne’s policies and doing their own sums. They have included lots of things that George Osborne didn’t include in his model. Things like the cost of mortgage payments do actually affect poor people, as do cuts in housing benefits and tax credits. They have also included the years 2013 and 2014 in their analysis which were missing from George Osborne’s.

At this point, I would have liked the government to thank the IFS for their analysis, review it in detail and decide, based on this review, whether or not they should change their policies. This wasn’t what happened. Within hours, the government had given a press release stating that the IFS had missed some important things from their analysis, such as economic growth and if they had included these they would have come to a different conclusion. This is a bit odd, because the IFS have included more things in their analysis than the government did in theirs. They haven’t as far as I can see missed out anything which they government included in their model, they have just added things the government forgot to include. To my mind, this doesn’t make it a worse analysis, it makes it a better analysis.

If George is going to get into a verbal ruck with the IFS about economics, I worry his modern history degree won’t help him out much but there is a bigger concern that I have. For the government to have so quickly found a the flaw in the data presented by the IFS they would have had to take the IFS model, incorporate the things they felt had been missed and then recalculate everything on that basis. i.e. they would have to have an even better analysis already prepared and ready to go. If they have this analysis then they should publish it so the IFS, you, me and everyone else can read it and respond. I suspect this analysis has not been done and their reaction is purely a defensive one.

In an ideal world a government would form policies by gathering the available evidence, analysing it and then determining the best policy based on that analysis. Before they implemented it they would determine the way in which they would measure its success or failure and if it were not behaving as expected they’d adjust the policy accordingly. This might seem an unattainable idealism but actually we are all doing such an exercise in our every day lives all of the time.

Supposing you live in Wimbledon and you get a new job in Canary Wharf. You now have to decide how you will get all the way across town and back every day. There is nothing direct so you have lots of combinations of options. You could take buses, tubes, mainline trains or even river boats.

You start off by typing your journey into your iPhone app. It suggests that the quickest route is taking the District Line through Earl’s Court, changing at Monument and taking the DLR. You try this for a while but realise that every morning you get stuck outside Earl’s Court for 20 minutes because the people who manage the arrivals and departures there are half-witted. The model on your iPhone app didn’t take this into account so in this situation you would try a couple of the other suggested journeys a few times and after a while, based on your experience, you’d settle on the route which worked the best for you.

The government equivalent is to decide that on the first day of work, they need an emergency iPhone app journey plan. After this, no matter how inconvenient it becomes they will stick to the route they took on the first day and claim it is the best.
When newer better apps become available they accuse them of not including something their original model had never included anyway like “leaves on the line” and stick to sitting outside Earl’s Court for 20 minutes every morning, pretending they meant to do it.

No one would go in for this nonsense with their journey to work so why do politicians insist on it for something as important as the economy? The difference is this:

How much would it cost you to admit you were wrong?

Sadly we live with a political system which overly punishes this natural human trait. When the apple fell on Newton’s head his reasoning didn’t go like this:

I need an emergency gravity law. It is very important to get this out asap. Thinking it through would be an unnecessary waste of time.

…and then…

My emergency gravity law is that apples are attracted to heads, through a strange new force.

And then refuse to change his law when someone pointed out it was a bit more generic than that and in fact everything was attracted to everything else.

Of course he didn’t. Science would hardly be where it is if all scientists were to all insist that the first thing they ever thought of were the absolute truth. Politics a bit different though. For one there is the opposition. Imagine there were someone employed for the sole purpose of taking your job off you. If there were, would you want to admit you’d got something wrong? Also there is the press. Every newspaper has a political agenda, and while I think being able to learn from experience and adjust accordingly is a good trait, the press seem to call it a “U-Turn” and think it makes you a weak politician, not fit to do the job. All this gives an incentive for governing politicians to refuse to admit their mistakes and pretend the policy they first thought of was the best one.

I admit though, the comparison with Newton was harsh because politicians are under a lot more time pressure than Newton was. As important as Newton’s theory of gravity turned out to be, it wasn’t as though anyone at the time was having a terrible time directly because they didn’t have an equation to explain why they were sticking to the Earth. The new government didn’t have that luxury. When they came to power they were under immense pressure to put in place some policies to start addressing their finances – after all they had promised to do so and been elected on that basis. I don’t have a problem with them doing this, as long as they could have a process to continually review what they were doing, take on board other people’s opinions where necessary and adjust their strategy accordingly when they were wrong.

The reality is a long way from this though and the best model available to us today, from the IFS, suggests that our current economic policies are punishing the poor more than the rich. The government deny this but haven’t produced a better model to show how they can be so sure.

Would it be so bad to have a political system where a government could take constructive criticism of their policies into account and improve upon them because of it?

Wouldn’t that benefit to the country as a whole?

Would it really be so terrible of them to at least read the IFS publication with an open mind before responding?

I don’t think it would be terrible. In fact, I think they should read it. It is rather good.

RedEaredRabbit

Blame it on the Bonus?

It seems to me that politicians are very keen on blaming the recent financial crisis on the bankers who earn big bonuses.

I rather think it is a little more complicated than that but before I stray too far into why, I’ll give a basic example of why a trader may tempted to take a risk.

I recently found out that Scottish Power have overcharged me on my direct debit by so much for so long that they owe me £1,000 and have to send me a cheque. I could invest this in a savings account with a high street bank. I may get an interest rate of 1% on such a deposit, meaning in 1 year’s time I will have £1,010. The £10 I have made doesn’t really set my world on fire (especially when taking inflation into consideration I will have made a loss) but the upside is my money is safe. It is so safe that it is even guaranteed by the UK government in the event of the bank going bust.

Alternatively I could invest my £1,000 in the stock market. The stock market is much less predictable – my money in a year’s time could easily be £1,250. It could easily be £800. If things went really badly for the company I invested in it could be worth £0. In fact I have very little idea about how much it is going to be worth but returns in the stock market historically outperform returns on a bank account so I may be tempted by the risk.

This is also the reason why a trader takes risks in a bank. Simply, risky investments are more likely to yield a larger return. If there were a risky investment which had a likely lower return than a safe investment no one would bother going near it. Therefore we can say that when a trader takes a risk they think it is more likely to yield a larger reward than the safer option.

Now let’s extend this principle to Evelyn. Evelyn is an evil, heartless trader who, when she isn’t out running over old ladies in her Ferrari, has a bonus scheme which pays her according to the profit she makes for the bank. If she put all of her available funds into a safe bank account she’s going to get no bonus – anyone could have done that. In order for her to get the new Lamborghini she’s got her eye on she is going to have to take some risks.

Evelyn has taken risks with the money for the last few years and every year the risks have worked out and she has made a fortune for the bank and a fortune for herself. Until 2008. In 2008 everything didn’t work out and she lost 100 fortunes for the bank. The bank couldn’t foot the bill and the tax payer had to bail it out. Therefore Evelyn caused the financial crisis.

It was all Evelyn! Case closed, right? Wrong. Who spotted the real problem in the above paragraph?

“…and the tax payer had to bail it out.”

It may not seem immediately obvious but Evelyn hasn’t actually done anything wrong in all of this. All she has done is respond to her incentives. She knows the riskier the strategy the more chance she has of making the big bucks. The smallest her bonus can be is zero – if her strategy doesn’t come off it’s not like she has to fund the loss herself. She has simply responded to the incentives the bank gave her.

In a bank as well as the traders, they have people called risk managers. Risk managers are responsible for determining what traders are allowed to invest in and how much they are allowed to invest in it. They do lots of complicated maths and put in place policies to police the traders. If I were going to start pointing fingers at bank employees I would probably have a good look at them before the traders. I’m not though.

Recently @WH1SKS, (one of the greatest people on Twitter, follow him) said he thought that the banks didn’t seem to have really paid for their failure, although everyone else did seem to be paying for it. He was completely right.

Banks, you see, are “too big to fail.”

“Too big to fail.” It drives me nuts. Outside the financial sector you will find no one “too big to fail” and you will find no one who could possibly fail in such a big way as they have.

I work in a small company. If we made enough bad decisions we could probably make ourselves go bust. At that point we could go to the chancellor and ask for a bailout but we won’t get one because outside our staff and our clients no one gives a stuff whether we’re there or not. Our company therefore has a massive incentive not to take unnecessary risks – a bunch of risky strategies could be the end of us. A risky strategy for a bank now means either a massive profit or, if it all goes tits up, a handout to keep it going. The bank is now no different to Evelyn – in the good years make a bundle and in the bad ones know your maximum downside is you keep going anyway and someone else pays for it.

The banks could not be allowed to go bust because the impact on the global economy would have been far worse than it was to bail them out. They each had so much in the way of liabilities that them going bust would not only have taken out the finances of many individuals and companies, it would also have taken out other banks and the whole thing would have gone down like dominoes.

So what’s changed? If RBS tomorrow were to announce they were in a pickle they’d get bailed out again because the same problem is true today. If the banks were too big to fail before, it’s even worse now because due to the mergers which followed the financial crisis, they are bigger now than they were before.

All this has proved is that it is a completely unworkable system to have organisations which cannot be allowed to go bust when they make bad enough decisions. If that is the case, they have no incentive to abandon risky strategies and they will continually need to be bailed out when the strategies don’t come off.

So what’s the solution? There are several contenders. Perhaps banks should have to provide the impact of their potential bankruptcy as part of their financial reporting and auditors should have to verify they could go bust without causing financial meltdown and if they can’t prove it they would be broken up. Perhaps they just need to hold more capital? Perhaps there should be legislation forcing them to raise more money through equity rather than debt?

It’s a debate that needs to happen because it is a problem that must be solved and has not been solved. By bailing them out all we have done is put an Elastoplast over the underlying problem. There are still financial behemoths out there with incentive to take risks and nothing to guarantee it won’t result in a bailout. I don’t know the full solution, but I do know one thing:

If a bank is too big to fail – it’s too big.

RedEaredRabbit