We need to talk about Europe

In the run-up to the last election, much was made of the UK’s poor financial situation. We were told repeatedly  by the Conservatives that after years of irresponsible borrowing, our finances were the worst in the developed world, that we were on the point of bankruptcy and that if we didn’t immediately reduce the deficit then no one would lend to us.

18 months on, we’ve achieved nigh on no economic growth and despite the government’s cuts have continued to increase our debt at more or less the same rate.

This leads me to wonder – if our finances were so bad then and have got worse since, why is it that we can continue to borrow money so cheaply when no one will lend two Drachmas to all of those struggling economies in the Eurozone? Something doesn’t add up.

First, let’s look at whether our finances were really the worst in the developed world. This is a graph of government debt as a percentage of GDP for each country in the G7. The data is taken from the IMF website.

Government Debt as a Percentage of GDP (source IMF)

Government Debt as a Percentage of GDP (source IMF)

You see that orange line at the bottom? That’s the UK. Were we really borrowing so irresponsibly for all of those years under Labour? That’s a matter of opinion but if we’re on the naughty step then it’s pretty crowded.

On a side-note, Japan’s is quite impressive, isn’t it? They seem to be in a Ponzi scheme with their own public but Japan could be a million blog posts on its own so I’m not going down that avenue.

Turning our attention to the Eurozone, you will have noticed in recent weeks that Angela Merkel has blamed the current crisis on the irresponsible fiscal policy of certain member nations – i.e. that they have screwed the Euro by living beyond their means.

Here’s some more data from the IMF website showing some Eurozone economies’ borrowing as a proportion of GDP from the adoption of the Euro up until 2007, the year before the financial crisis.

Government debt as a percentage of GDP (Source IMF)

Government debt as a percentage of GDP (Source IMF)

Ireland and Spain reduced their debt significantly in this period. Italy reduced theirs a bit and although it was pretty awful in 2007, it was even worse when they joined the Euro so I don’t understand the sudden surprise now.

Anyway, it’s fairly clear that while Italy and Greece maintained high levels of borrowing throughout this period, Ireland and Spain did not. Merkel’s claim that each of these nations brought it on themselves purely through their government borrowing is not backed up by the figures. Ireland arrived on the eve of the financial crisis with much lower borrowing rates than they’d had historically but their economy imploded spectacularly nonetheless. Saying that the problems are purely down to fiscal policy is quite bizarre.

Another factor, which Merkel hasn’t wanted to mention, is monetary policy. In the UK when our economy got into difficulty the Bank of England cut interest rates and they have been sitting at a tiny 0.5% for the last two and a half years. Conversely, in April, egged on by Germany, the European Central Bank started to increase interest rates in the Eurozone and perhaps it should not come as a surprise that this coincided with the start of the current crisis.

The fragile Eurozone economies didn’t want higher interest rates but they could do nothing about it. Germany wanted higher interest rates because they were worried about inflation and so the weaker economies had to pay for this through lower growth and higher unemployment.

When the fragile Eurozone economies want to borrow money, lenders look at them and see that they are powerless to control this basic facet of monetary policy and therefore have lower confidence in their ability to respond to changes in their economies. If I want to invest some money shall I do it with a country who can respond to economic problems or one who can’t? Not a difficult decision.

There is though, another branch of monetary policy that is perhaps even more concerning. There is a reason that no one in the market really worries about the UK or the US being able to repay its debt but do worry about the economies in the Eurozone.

If the UK ever gets into a real pickle and needs some more Pounds to repay a loan they always have the option of going to the printer and just printing it. The UK controls its own currency. Ireland doesn’t. Italy doesn’t. Spain doesn’t. If they run out of money they go bust.

In the first recession they have faced, the Eurozone members’ lack of control over their own monetary policy has been a key factor in the crippling of several economies. Angela Merkel now wants to take things further and take away their control over their fiscal policy. Forcing the weak economies into crazy austerity measures will simply lead to many more years of high unemployment and no economic growth.

If it’s that simple though, why would Merkel be advocating a clearly bad policy? The problem Merkel has is that if she did the sensible thing and told the ECB to cut interest rates and buy up lots of government bonds from the weak economies, the German people would get cross and she would not be re-elected. Sadly, these are the things that matter most to politicians.

So what will actually happen? This is my prediction:

  • Germany will implement some rules to restrict fiscal policy of the Euro member states which will keep German voters happy but screw up the weak economies for years to come
  • Having done this Germany will then, finally, allow the ECB to buy up some government bonds, allowing the fragile economies breathing space to avoid short term default
  • The underlying problems will remain

Do you remember when William Hague fought his 2001 election campaign with pretty much one policy? “Keep the Pound,” he bleated incessantly for several months before losing in a landslide against a government who, err, kept the Pound.

He was right to want to keep the Pound though. Ok, he was right for the wrong reasons – nationalism and xenophobia have little place in macroeconomics but in hindsight, I shudder at the thought of where we would be now if we’d adopted the Euro too.

There is a certain romance in the single currency. It feels like it brings us all closer together, working with our neighbours in one financial union and it’s a marvellous two-fingered salute to the sickening xenophobia peddled by Nigel Farage and The Daily Mail.

Sadly, romance and economics don’t mix either and whatever transpires, one thing is abundantly clear – in an era of many bad ideas, the worst one of all was the Euro itself.


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.


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


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.