Real incomes fell last year for the first time since 1981, and are on course to fall again this year. Inflation is higher, and consumer confidence has slumped to levels that we saw during the depths of the recession. High street retailers are sending out profit warnings and, to cap it all, the Government have been forced to revise upwards the forecasts for the budget deficit. We should not forget that driving down the deficit is the Holy Grail of Government policy, but it is going in the wrong direction.
Where is the evidence that Britain is enjoying what the Chancellor ironically calls ‘expansionary austerity’, on the spurious ground that the knowledge that the Government are getting a grip on the public finances will produce confidence and will encourage spending by the public to replace the cuts in public spending? That policy relies on a tighter fiscal policy while allowing a looser monetary policy to remain loose, but if the monetary policy was already ultra-loose—as it was when the Government came to power—there is certainly no scope for it to made any looser. Any tightening of fiscal policy, let alone the massive tightening that we have seen in the Budget and the comprehensive spending review, is bound to lead to a lower level of aggregate demand in the economy. That is exactly what we are now seeing. Despite two years in which the bank rate has been almost on the floor at 0.5%, there is a marked reluctance to borrow. Mortgage demand is running at half the levels it was in the 10 years up to the financial crash and lending to business is not picking up.
The key question for this debate is: against that background where is the growth to come from? Even Martin Wolf, the distinguished right-wing commentator for the Financial Times has acknowledged that the only plausible source of increased final demand is export growth, but export growth is in effect blocked off, because almost all EU markets are depressed as they all try to export their way out of crisis at the same time. To cap it all, the likely eventual Greek default could severely depress further any prospect of early EU recovery and therefore of UK export markets in the EU.
I repeat the question: where is the growth to come from? Incredible as it might seem, the last straw that the Chancellor is clutching at is a huge increase in personal and household borrowing, which is already at more than £1.5 trillion—well above the level of Britain’s entire gross domestic product. Although it was falling at the last election, the OBR is now forecasting that it will reach £2.13 trillion by 2015—half as large again as Britain’s entire GDP. That is an extraordinary admission. The Government’s only way of imposing massive public expenditure cuts is by pumping up a gigantic financial bubble in the private sector, which can only end in another colossal financial crash.
I would be the first to admit that that depends on the private sector’s being willing to load up on hugely more debt, but the other side of that coin is that if households save more, as they are very likely to do because they are extremely worried about their prospects, demand is going to plummet and the economy is likely to hit the wall with an almighty crash.
I ask again: where is the evidence for this expansionary austerity that we are being told about? It is not in the balance of payments figures, which are getting worse, not better; it is not in the high street, because consumers would need an increase of about 6% in their incomes to compensate for the price rises and tax increases of the past year; and it is not in the business community, where investment has fallen.
The latter point has an important story behind it. In the commercial private sector there is currently a huge net corporate financial surplus that is almost without precedent. Among the banks and the rest of the financial sector, that now amounts to £44 billion, while for the big corporations in the non-finance sector, it is larger still at £67 billion. Together, the corporates are running an unprecedented surplus that is nearly equal to 8% of Britain’s GDP.
Still, however, the banks are not lending—they are already well short of their Merlin targets after only a couple of months—and the big companies are not borrowing. Why? It is because they see little prospect of demand for their products and services to justify their investment. That is the central problem and it is not resolved by the current strategy. That is exactly the opposite of what they were expected to do by the Chancellor, who predicted that as the public sector was cut back, the private sector would surge forward to fill the gaps.
It is tragic that the historical evidence that expansionary fiscal contraction has never worked has not been learned. It has been tried three times in the past century. It did not work in the huge public expenditure cutbacks of 1921 to 1923—the so-called Geddes axe, which was very similar in size to the current Osborne axe; it did not work in 1931 to 1935 in the great depression; and it appeared to work in the Howe Budget of 1981 only because it was accompanied by a sharp reduction in interest rates and the major US-driven international recovery of the early 1980s, neither of which applies today.
What is not just tragic but deeply culpable is that the same approach is being imposed today, not because there is any evidence that it makes economic sense, but because it is really driven by an underlying ideological motive to shrink the state and to maximise the privatisation of the economy. And it is not working and will not work”.