Thursday, 29 September 2016

Tories out - austerity has failed - National Demonstration 2 October



Assemble: 11:30am, Victoria Square, Birmingham
 
At Teresa May's first Tory Party Conference as Prime Minister the People's Assembly Against Austerity will be holding a mass demonstration to say we demand an alternative to ‘Austerity Britain’
 
The demonstration will demand:
  • investment in public services, in infrastructure, and in decent jobs for all
  • an end to scapegoating of migrants which divides our communities and whips up racism
Transport is being arranged from across the country. Check here for details
 
 
 
 
 
 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Illusion of the narrowing trade gap


By Tom O’Leary

A recent Times editorial castigated the new International Trade Secretary Liam Fox for his foolish remarks regarding the laziness of British business executives. If The Times is going to criticise every stupid pronouncement by the three new ministers for Brexit, there will be little room for any other comment.

But the editorial also betrayed a lack of knowledge about elementary economics. And, as the assertions made about what prevents Britain being a greater or even an important participant in international trade are widely held, they are worth rebutting. The editorial states that,

“We should…complain about export growth. It is true that too few British companies succeed abroad. This is partly because they struggle to compete with rivals in India and China that spend less on wages. It is partly because companies selling services do not always find willing buyers in those markets. It is furthermore a reflection of lack of ambition.”

So, not laziness, but ‘lack of ambition’ and lower wages in India and China are the sources of British export weakness. This is plain nonsense. 

The chart in Fig.1 below shows the level of total exports to the world from UK and from Europe’s export powerhouse Germany. In the most recent quarter UK exports to the world were valued at US$100bn while German exports were valued at US$326bn. Germany has a population about one quarter again as big as the UK and its economy is approximately 40% larger. Yet German exports are more than 3 times greater than those from the UK. Germany has struggled under the weight of slow global growth. Even so, Germany’s export performances is vastly greater than that of the UK economy, even though Indian and Chinese wages are just as low for German manufacturers as they are for British ones.

Fig.1 UK, German World Exports, US$bn
 
A key reason why German exports are more than 3 times greater than UK exports is that the German economy is much more integrated into global supply chains. This also means that Germany’s imports are also far greater than the UK’s. But Germany also provides a much higher level of value added to the imported raw materials and inputs of intermediate and capital goods. By contrast the UK is more usually the final destination of its imports, the final consumer of goods not the final producer of finished goods.

Currency Devaluations

The widely expressed hope is that the devaluation of the pound will lead to a revival of exports. Sterling’s trade-weight currency index (a basket of currencies weighted according to UK trade) has fallen by around 10% since just before the Brexit referendum and has fallen by 18% since mid-November 2015.

Currency devaluations can boost exports. They also raise the price of imports and so lowers the living standards of the population. Viewed domestically, devaluations represent a transfer of incomes from consumers to producers.

Exporters benefit because their key cost is now lower in international terms, wages. Other inputs such as energy and raw material, as well inputs of semi-finished or intermediate goods produced abroad will all eventually rise to adjust to the new exchange rate.

The long run history of the British economy is punctuated by repeated and very sharp devaluations. Yet Britain’s share of world trade has continued to decline and is now a fraction of former competitors such as Germany.

Fig.2 Sterling Trade-Weighted Index

The devaluations are a product of economic weakness driven by underinvestment. UK exporters have not responded to devaluations with increased investment, but have simply temporarily increased profit margins. As competitors continue to invest at a greater rate this cost advantage is eroded and the cycle of declining competitiveness and devaluations sets in once again.

Will this time be different? There is no evidence that it will be. The British Chambers of Commerce is just the latest organisation to forecast reduced business investment in the period ahead. This follows similarly gloomy forecasts from the Bank of England, Markit Purchasing Managers surveys, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in the England and Wales, as well as others.

The structural impediment is that the UK economy is not sufficiently integrated into global supply chains. With a few exceptions, such as aerospace, cars and a small number of others, UK industry is not part of the leading European or global industrial sectors. There is no other route to increasing that participation other than increased trade links with the rest of the world based on significantly increased industrial investment (not increased bluster from the Tory Ministerial Brexiteers).

The latest international trade data showed a narrowing of the trade gap, Fig.3 below. The much-heralded rise in exports in the data, held to vindicate Brexit, is simply an exchange rate illusion. Most trade internationally is conducted in US Dollars. The falling level of the pound against the US Dollar raises the value of exports in Pound terms, which is how the trade data is naturally reported.

Fig.3 UK Trade Balance July 2014 to July 2016 £ billion
Source: ONS
 
But the ONS also reports trade data on a volume basis. In July, following the devaluation the total volume of UK exports fell 0.2% from June and were just 1.1% higher than a year ago. The narrowing of the trade gap arose from a 3.8% fall in import volumes from June, and they were just 1.2% higher than a year ago.

There is no evidence to date that exports will rise on a sustained basis following the devaluation. It is possible that the trade balance will narrow for a period because incomes have fallen on an international purchasing power basis, poorer firms or households cannot afford the same level of imports. The trade gap may narrow, but only because the UK is poorer. Using the weakness of the pound to improve living standards would require an investment-based reindustrialisation strategy.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The ‘Golden Age’ and the Public Sector Deficit


By Tom O’Leary

John McDonnell’s fiscal policy framework continues to come under fire from both left and right. The framework broadly states that the Government should borrow for investment (the capital account) and that over the business cycle Government day-to-day spending (the Government’s current account) should be in balance. 

The attacks from the right are largely disingenuous. They argue that the McDonnell framework is little different from that of Ed Balls, a cloak for austerity-lite. The Balls approach also included a commitment to match Tory spending plans in the first two years. These would have been the deepest cuts to public spending in history and were so draconian that the Tories themselves abandoned them in office after May 2015. Balls supplemented this with a ‘zero-based spending review’, that is a commitment to have no commitments, not even to pensions, to social welfare for disabled people, or to the NHS. 

The contrast with John McDonnell is a sharp one. He has consistently opposed austerity. Crucially, McDonnell he has committed to the establishment of a National Investment Bank to address the acute investment shortage of the UK economy. He has also committed to borrowing £500 billion for investment to tackle the crisis. The McDonnell framework is not different to Balls because it can be suspended. Its content and its effects would be entirely different.

‘Keynesian’ misunderstanding

Unfortunately, because of a deep misunderstanding of economics, economic history and public finances, many progressive or ‘keynesian’ economists echo these same rightist criticisms. As this is primarily misunderstanding not malevolence, it is worth addressing once again.

From a theoretical perspective the misunderstanding arises because of the widespread view that Consumption can lead growth. Therefore, it is argued, the Government should increase its own Consumption in order to foster recovery. The premise is false.

Consumption cannot lead growth because it is not an input to it. Consumption is a consequence of production, and growing Consumption is a consequence of growing production. If production has not risen increased Consumption requires borrowing, which is a financial claim on future production. Furthermore, if an increasing proportion of output is devoted to Consumption rather than Investment the growth rate of the entire economy will slow, and so too will Consumption.

Yet ‘keynesians’ and other progressives who wish to end austerity persist in arguing for Government to increase Consumption by borrowing on its own account- hence the attacks on McDonnell. This is also flies in the face of economic history.

History

It is widely recognised the economic growth rate of the UK and of many of the Western economies was greater in the post-World War II period, from 1945 to the early 1970s than in the subsequent period. This recognition includes ‘keynesians’ and many others, some describing it as the ‘Golden Age’.

This itself is a misreading as the far higher growth rate in the US and to a lesser extent the UK was in the pre-war and war period itself. The exceptionally strong growth was caused by the state taking control of investment and directing very large increases, in order to wage war. The subsequent ‘Golden Age’ was the gradual deceleration of this war boom.

Even so, the recognition that growth in the post-War period was markedly stronger than the period beginning in the early 1970s is shared. It is factually correct. Yet this ‘Golden Age’ does not at all conform to the ‘keynesian’ prescription for permanent public sector deficits on the current Budget. In fact it shows the opposite.

In Fig.1 below the UK Current Budget Deficit is shown as a proportion of GDP. A level above zero shows a deficit. Below zero shows a surplus. For the entire period of the ‘Golden Age’ the UK Current Budget was not just balanced, it was in surplus.
 
Fig.1 UK Current Budget Deficit as a Proportion of GDP
 
The smallest surplus on the current Budget in the entire period was equivalent to 0.9% of GDP in 1960/61. The largest surplus was equal to 7.9% of GDP in 1969/70. The current Budget did not move into deficit until 1974/75, precisely when the ‘Golden Age’ of stronger growth was ending. Apart from brief periods, there have been large and growing deficits ever since and the trend in GDP growth has slowed at the same time.

This post-WWII period of large current Budget surpluses coincided with the establishment of the NHS, the creation of the ‘welfare state’, a massive public sector house building programme, large scale nationalisations and other measures.

How is this possible? How can there both be (sometimes huge) surpluses on the current Budget while Government current spending was initiating a whole series of new or improved public goods? 

The answer is investment, public investment. Fig.2 below shows the level of Public Sector Net Investment as a proportion of GDP over the same period.
 
Fig.2 UK Public Sector Net Investment as a Proportion of GDP
 
The high points in net public sector investment coincide with the very large surpluses on the public sector current account (or in reality precede those surpluses by 18 months to two years). This demonstrates a fundamental law of public finances. The returns to the public sector from investment are not registered in the investment account but are overwhelmingly returned to the public sector current account.
When governments build a rail network, a university science park, superfast broadband, or when a local authority builds a home, the investment return is not more rail networks or homes than those built. It is registered as increased tax revenues and, via job creation, as lower social security outlays such as on unemployment, payments for poverty such as tax credits, and so on. The investment comes back mainly as tax revenues, which is part of the current account balance. The UK Treasury estimates that every £1 rise in output is recorded as a 70p improvement in government finances, 50p of which is higher tax revenues. Those revenues can either be used either for more investment, or to increase current spending or some combination of the two.

This explains why both rightist and leftist criticisms are misplaced. The McDonnell framework will not lead to austerity if investment is increased. More importantly, it offers a way out of the crisis. If investment is sufficiently strong the economic recovery will provide sufficient tax revenues and lower social security outlays to become self-sustaining. This improvement in government finances can be used for more investment and for increased current spending.

On the other hand, if it should be the case that recovery remains weak and therefore the current budget remains in deficit, then the answer would not be to cut current spending, but to increase public sector investment.

The period of the greatest advances in public sector current spending took place when there were surpluses on this current account, only made possible by relatively high levels of public investment, in British terms at least. Current spending has been in crisis ever since 1974, with Denis Healey’s fake IMF crisis, then Thatcher and her successors, who slashed public investment. 

Mainstream economics largely tries to bury economic history. Those genuinely seeking an alternative to austerity should not make the same mistake.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

'No harm from Brexit vote' is fantasy island politics

By Tom O'Leary
There is a concerted propaganda effort claiming that there has been no damage to the economy arising from the Brexit vote. This is being mounted not just by newspapers who supported Leave, such as the Daily Telegraph but it also includes sections of the left, the minority who also supported leaving the EU such as Larry Elliott in the Guardian.

The reality is that living standards have already fallen as a result of the Brexit vote, before the negotiations attempting to achieve it have even begun. The international purchasing power of the UK economy fell immediately as the pound depreciated sharply again in the early hours of June 24 although it had already fallen in the run-up to the referendum. The Sterling Trade-Weighted Index, the Bank of England's measure of the value of the currency adjusted for the UK's trade patterns has fallen by over 20% since July 2015. It stood at 78.0248 on August 18, which is also 12.5% below its level on June 23.
This falling in purchasing power is first most obviously reflected in higher prices. This has all happened before. The pound fell by 44% in the year to December 2008 that year. Consumer price inflation rose sharply subsequently, peaking at 5.2% year-on-year price rises in September 2011. Alone of the all the crisis-hit countries in Europe the UK economy experienced inflation even during a slump. This was a key contributor the fall in real wages that the TUC has noted. UK real wages fell by 10.5% from 2007 to 2015, a fall equalled only by Greece. A smaller, less pronounced rise in prices should now be expected in the period ahead, with a similarly more modest fall in real wages.

Fig.1 Change in hourly wages in EU countries
Source: TUC
As previously, the rise in prices will take some time to work through the economy. This is because many goods and services that are imported are subject to fixed price contracts, which take time to be replaced. The rising oil price also feeds into the cost base of virtually all producers of goods, but does so with a time lag. Recently the oil price in sterling terms has risen from about £20bbl to £30bbl, a rise of 50%.

Brexit supporters argue that the lower level of the currency will make UK exports cheaper on international markets, as well as making imports more expensive. This is true. But a sustained increase in UK exports would also require that exporters increase their level of investment. Otherwise the potential boost to exports is squandered. Yet this is the long-run history of the UK economy, repeated currency crises and devaluations, and declining share of world export markets. More recently, the export performance of the UK economy following the 44% devaluation brought about by the crisis led to no significant export recovery. On the contrary, the UK external deficits are at record levels.

The missing factor is business investment. Previously, SEB has argued that it would be investment that would react most rapidly and most negatively to the Brexit vote. This is because the profitability of firms is in part driven by the size of the market in which they operate, and the Brexit vote threatens to cut the UK economy off from the largest market in the world. So far, as with almost all economic data, only survey data for investment has been published for the period immediately after the vote. The actual effects of the vote will be felt over a much longer timescale. The Markit PMI survey shows the fall in demand for investment goods alongside demand for other goods. The Bank of England's regional agents' survey covers firms with 1.2 million workers and shows that half of them plan to cut recruitment following the vote. 60% plan to cut investment, and none plan to increase investment following the vote. 
 
Fig.2 Bank of England Agents’ survey of investment intentions
Source: BoE
It is investment which is the main determinant of growth, after participation in the division of labour, including the international division of labour. The Brexit vote has immediately damaged both of these, investment and participation in the division of labour, and the full effects will only be felt over the medium-term. 

Of course, for those who insist against all evidence that consumption can lead growth, then the strong rise in retail sales in July are a harbinger of a rosy outlook for the UK economy. Shoppers will lead the way. No matter that real incomes are set to fall once more and that therefore rising consumption could only be sustained by falling household savings and rising household debt. At some point, these come to an abrupt halt.

This is part of the fantasy island economics and politics which led to the Brexit referendum and the vote itself. It will not be borne out by events.

Data shows China's 'socialist development model' outperformed all capitalist development strategies

By John Ross
This article finds that the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fastest growing economies during the period since the putting forward of the neo-liberal ‘Washington Consensus’ all follow, or are highly influenced by, China’s development model. These are the socialist states of China and Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Laos People’s Democratic Republic. Alternative development models, including the Washington Consensus, have been a failure in comparison. China's economic model also far outperformed alternatives in poverty reduction.
These facts have international implications. The socialist development model followed by China was the unique creation of China’s economic policy as developed from Deng Xiaoping onwards. The Washington Consensus is the dominant economic strategy put forward by international economic institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.
The overwhelming economic superiority of the performance of countries following or highly influenced by China’s socialist development model shows that China’s economy not only outperformed alternatives but China’s economic strategy ‘out thought’ Western economic models.
A detailed theoretical analysis of the reasons that China’s development model outperformed alternatives is made in Chinese in my book 一盘大棋?中国新命运解析 (The Great Chess Game? A New Perspective on China’s Destiny). Shorter summaries may be found in English in my articles Deng Xiaoping and John Maynard KeynesWhy Adam Smith’s ‘classical theory’ correctly explained Asia’s growth and Deng Xiaoping - the world's greatest economist. This theoretical analysis is therefore not dealt with here. The focus here is simply on establishing the facts – facts which clearly establish the outperformance by China’s socialist development model of any alternative.
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This article compares factually the international results of two different economic development approaches – one which will be termed China’s ‘socialist development strategy’ versus the ‘neo-liberal’ Washington Consensus. The latter is the dominant economic development strategy advocated by the IMF and World Bank.
The reasons to make such a factual comparison should be clear. The wise Chinese phrase says ‘seek truth from facts’. Put in international language this dictum asserts the only basis of scientific analysis: that if facts and theory do not coincide it is the theory that has to be abandoned not the facts suppressed. ‘Dogmatism’, a fundamentally anti-scientific approach, consists of clinging to a theory even when the facts entirely contradict it.
Despite this requirement for factual study supporters of the Washington Consensus appear to strongly dislike systematic factual comparisons of the two development approaches. The reasons for this will become evident from the data below. This shows that China’s ‘socialist development strategy’ far outperforms the neo-liberal ‘Washington Consensus’.
The term ‘Washington Consensus’ was first coined in 1989 by US based economist John Williamson - although the actual practical policies were commenced in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The Washington Consensus is a classic form of ‘neo-liberalism’. It advocates in terms of economic policy privatisation and minimisation of the state’s economic role. Its social policy may be described as ‘trickle down’ – a belief that if there is economic growth all layers of society will automatically benefit as the benefits ‘trickle down’ from richest to poorest. Legally the Washington Consensus states the overriding goal is the strongest guarantees of private property. Politically, although claiming to be neutral, this combination of policies evidently favours capitalist and conservative political parties
China’s ‘socialist development strategy,’ which commenced with its 1978 economic reforms, is radically different in its entire framework and directly counterposed on key policy issues. China used, in Xi Jinping’s phraseology on economic policy, both the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible hand’ – not simply the private sector but also the state. Indeed, in China itself, as the 3rd Plenum of the Central Committee of the 18th Congress of the CPC insisted: ‘We must unswervingly consolidate and develop the public economy, persist in the dominant position of public ownership, give full play to the leading role of the state-owned sector.’
In social policy, accompanying the economic dominance of the state sector, China did not rely on ‘trickle down’ but, in line with its socialist approach, China:
  • undertook massive and conscious programmes deliberately aimed at eradicating poverty – these are to be completed in the 13th Five Year Plan by 2020 by lifting the remaining 70 million people out of poverty;
  • China deliberately promotes development through urbanisation as a way of moving the population into higher productivity economic sectors;
  • China deliberately sought to narrow the income gap between rural and urban areas;
  • China does not rely exclusively on ‘the market’ but deliberately uses state infrastructure spending to raise the economic level of its less developed inland provinces;
  • legally China guaranteed private property but a key economic role was assigned to the state sector,
  • politically China was socialist.
What, therefore, were the factual outcomes of these two radically different approaches to economic development? To assess this, for reasons which will become evident from the statistics, not only will China itself be analysed but three other countries will be considered. These are Vietnam, which defines itself as socialist and which in reality drew heavily from China’s ‘socialist market economy’ approach, Cambodia, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – the latter two also being highly influenced by China’s development model.
The facts are summarised in Table 1 which shows the annual average rate of per capita GDP growth up to 2015 from 1978, when China began its economic reforms, from 1989, when the Washington Consensus was put forward, and from 1993 when data for Cambodia becomes available.
The data is of course extremely striking – indeed conclusive. From 1993-2015, when all four countries can be analysed China, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos ranked respectively 1st, 2nd 3rd, and 4th in world per capita GDP growth – peripheral cases of countries with populations of less than 5 million or dominated by oil production are not included. From 1989, the date of the putting forward of the Washington Consensus, to 2015 China, Vietnam and Laos ranked respectively 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the world for countries in per capita GDP growth. From 1978 onwards China ranked 1st among all economies in terms of economic growth.
This ranking of growth necessarily shows that China's economic model not only produced more rapid growth than developed economies but also capitalist economies at the same stage of economic development (level of per capita GDP).
Table 1
16 08 23 Chart 1

The degree to which economies influenced by the ‘China development model’ outgrew the world average was huge. From 1978 onwards China’s rate of growth was almost six times the world average Since 1989 China again grew almost six times as fast as the world average while Vietnam and Laos grew over three times as fast as the world average.
The contrasts not only of average per capital GDP growth but in eradication of poverty were overwhelming. From 1981 China lifted 728 million people out of World Bank defined poverty. Another socialist country, Vietnam, lifted over 30 million from poverty by the same criteria. The whole of the rest of the world, in which the dominant model advocated by the IMF was the Washington Consensus, lifted only slightly 120 million people out of poverty. In summary 83% of the reduction of the number of those living in poverty was in China, 85% was in socialist countries, and only 15% of the reduction in the number of those living in poverty was in capitalist countries.
This data, of course, also destroys the claim that is ‘capitalism’ which has produced rapid economic growth and poverty reduction. If capitalism were the motor of rapid economic growth and poverty reduction then this growth would be most rapid, and poverty reduction greatest, in capitalist countries. Instead it is in socialist China and socialist Vietnam that the greatest poverty reduction has taken place Socialist China and socialist Vietnam, together with the countries they influence Cambodia and Laos, have seen the fastest economic growth.
China’s ‘socialist development model’ therefore was a huge success while the Washington Consensus was a failure. Economic development remains the most fundamental issues for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population- on the latest World Bank data, 84% of the world’s population lives in developing countries. Any objective analysis based on aiming to maximise a countries development potential would therefore start with China’s ‘socialist development model.’ The facts of world economic development show that China’s development policies of a huge role for the state sector, large scale conscious policies to eradicate poverty, and a socialist political orientation were the most successful in producing both economic growth and poverty reduction.
The simple but decisive fact that the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th most rapidly growing economies during the period of the Washington Consensus all use the ‘China socialist development model’ is the factual demonstration of the superiority of China’s socialist development path to any capitalist alternative.
Appendix
20 Fastest Per Capita GDP growth rates
16 08 23 Chart 2
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This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in Chinese at Guancha.cn.