‘When the Money runs out: the end of Western influence’

I was attracted to a lecture at the LSE last month by this provocative title.  For a senior bank official to publish such a book, is somewhat more serious than the infamous note with the same sentiment, left by Liam Byrne as he quit the Treasury in 2010! This is from Stephen D. King, HSBC’s Group Chief Economist and the bank’s Global Head of Economics and Asset Allocation Research. He was launching it at the LSE to an audience of economic students, dons and public for nearly two hours including questions. So, we thought, he must know more than the rest of us about what’s ‘up ahead’!  We weren’t disappointed.  
King’s underlying analysis is that the current stagnation of Western economies threatens to reach crisis proportions in the not-so-distant future. He argued that the phenomenal growth rates of post-war decades will not return and that even the low single digit average growth rate since 2003, looks optimistic to expect in the future. In his view, this huge reduction in economic activity is unlikely to be reversed even by high levels of public spending. He questioned whether even the continuation of   ‘Quantitative Easing’ (i.e. money printing) policies of US, UK and other central banks  to avoid a 1930s-style slump, would succeed beyond their initial success. The US Treasury seems to have come to the same conclusion, to the consternation of the stock markets.
What was interesting also was his critique of orthodox economic theory. He argued that the absence of historical perspective in most economists’ university training, has made them ill-equipped to learn the lessons of  past crises. He therefore advocate much greater focus on economic history, than the current syllabuses’ reliance on the mathematical models. . They had so failed to spot the signs of the present financial crisis.  Remember the Queen’s very same question to an assembly of top economists!  I very much agree with this. Interestingly, no one in that audience of economics students or dons, argued otherwise. 
But his message was much tougher for the establishment generally. Not since John Maynard Keynes, in the 1930s, has such a senior UK economist warned of the dangers of such a lengthy wage freeze as workers in the western economies have recently endured. He described it as the greatest redistribution of income to the asset and cash rich since the nineteenth century. The implication was the wealthy classes and employers must accept more taxation and allow more wage increases, if austerity policies are to continue. 
To ram home this point, he gave two powerful historical parallels – the mishandling of the economy which gave rise to the French Revolution and the disastrous Snowden budget and clinging to the Gold Standard of 1931, which almost caused an uprising in Britain.  The French case needs little illumination – with the vivid images of tumbrils it conjures ! King argues that the true circumstances of the Snowden budget is less well understood today, and that even Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, who argued, ‘Don’t Repeat the 1930s folly’, in his critique of the government’s policies in 2010, has misunderstood the true lessons! 
Philip Snowden (1864-1937), was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ramsay MacDonald’s short-lived Labour government of 1929-31. Despite the huge mass unemployment of the Great Depression (3million plus in Britain in 1931), he clung to the financial orthodoxy of the Gold Standard. This had overvalued sterling and made Britain’s exports uncompetitive (especially against cheap German coal, causing the General Strike in 1926). Snowden was attempting to reassure the financial markets and foreign creditors that Britain would not penalise them by devaluing the £, which was then a global currency. Instead of trying alternative policies (such as raising trade tariffs), he opted for the deepest austerity policies of a Committee on National Expenditure (20% cuts in unemployment benefit at a time of 20% rise in prices and  30% drop in GDP). ‘Snowden forced Britain onto a diet of cod liver oil and leeches.’ ['When the Money Runs Out'p102].  
For King, that was a stupid policy, which austerity governments today, are repeating all over Europe. It showed the ‘political impossibility of maintaining a monetary arrangement that persistently imposed costs on British citizens even as the government attempted to maintain the UK’s credibility in the eyes of international financiers.’ [p102]
This attack on the benefits of the vast out of work classes caused a split in the Labour Cabinet’, as senior Ministers, lobbied by the TUC and the unions, refused to go along.  However, MacDonald and Snowden formed a ‘National’ Government with the Conservatives and some Liberals and their ill-fated budget was implemented in September 1931.  Following the government’s lead, the Navy cut the pay of the ratings by 25%, triggering a mutiny by the sailors – the Invergordon Mutiny. As King notes, ‘The stock market crashed, foreign investors headed for the exit and on 20th September, sterling left the Gold Standard’. [p99] Ironically, this reversal of orthodoxy policy proved the catalyst for economic recovery in the mid ’30s (shades of the 1990s forced exit from the EMS!). It relieved the threat of much wider social discontent, at a time when the appeal of German and Italian fascism was a serious worry in Britain. 
King’s point (and though radical, he is no ‘New Dealer’ advocating Keynesian stimuli policies, but a fairly cautious banker), is that there are lessons from past periods of monetary and politically-entwined experiences, which should inform today’s debates. Although he does not spell it out, he clearly implies that unless British governments and wealthy classes are seen to share the burden of low economic growth, they might again face their ‘Invergordon moment’.  
Whether he is right about that future for society under western capitalism (which he described as ‘the best of bad alternatives’), here is  something to ponder for our current leading politicians, media commentators and employers. For a start, they might dip into ‘When the Money Runs Out’. 

Unions respond to the Chancellor’s public spending announcement

Ed Balls MP, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, responding in the House of Commons to the Spending Review statement, said:

The Chancellor spoke for over 50 minutes – but not once did he mention the real reason for this Spending Review today: his comprehensive failure on living standards, growth and on the deficit too.

Prices rising faster than wages. Families worse off. Long-term unemployment up.
Welfare spending soaring.  The economy flatlining. The slowest recovery for over 100 years. And the result of this failure? For all the Budget boasts, borrowing last year not down but up. Not balancing the books as he promised, but in 2015 a deficit of £96 billion. More borrowing to pay for his economic failure.

That is why this Chancellor has been forced to come to the House today and to make more cuts to our public services.


Commenting on the spending review, Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, said:

“Today’s spending review reveals the true extent of the Government’s failure.  The Chancellor has got it horribly wrong – despite all the promises, the austerity measures and cuts, he still hasn’t got the country out of recession.  We are still in the slowest economic recovery in 100 years and yet all we get from this Chancellor is more of the same.

“The Government is losing grip on economic reality if they continue travelling down the same path, expecting to arrive at a different destination.  They need a plan B and they need it now.

“The idea that the NHS is being ring-fenced would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.  We’ve all paid into the NHS and we expect it to be there to deliver when we need it.

“How can anyone believe the Chancellor on unemployment because the figures do not add up. Despite the best efforts of the private sector any jobs being created are part-time, low wage and do not replace the hundreds and thousands of public sector jobs that have been lost. There are 2.5m people out of work, 1m are young and that is a shocking statistic.

“Instead of more cuts and austerity what the country desperately needs is an economic boost to stimulate jobs, growth and spending.“


Dave Penman, FDA General Secretary, said: “The scale of cuts announced today for 2015/16, on top of those already being delivered in this Parliament, will result in many departmental budgets having been cut by a third.


“Additionally, removing pay progression without ensuring civil servants get the real rate for the job will end up causing lower morale and a faster exodus of talent.  This cannot be a viable approach for a Government focusing on reform, fairness and growth.


“Many public servants have seen their incomes fall by around 20% under this Government and the widening pay gap between the civil service and private sector is already making it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the best people, as was recognised by last week’s National Audit Office report.


“For the Government to have reform, growth and fairness in its policy delivery, civil servants need reform, growth and fairness in their employment.  This means a new approach to reward instead of arbitrary caps and cuts; resourcing that matches civil service jobs and training to the priorities the Government wants to deliver; and recognition of the role the civil service plays at the heart of society, rather than simply as a means to reduce the deficit.


“The Chancellor’s announcement today does nothing to address these long-standing problems and simplistically tries to portray public sector pay as a burden to be cut, rather than a means to motivate and recruit those that are tasked with delivering ever greater reform with ever reducing resources.”


Brian Strutton, GMB National Secretary for Public Services, said “I predict another 70,000 local council jobs will go in these cuts on top of the 420,000 that have already gone. This will take total number of jobs lost in local government to nearly half a million since the election in 2010.


This is more than half of the entire public sector job losses. This has coincided with a three year pay freeze. It really has been a dire time for local government under the coalition.


Council services have already been decimated as a result 26% cuts to local authority budgets and the freeze on council tax.


This further reduction will mean the average council having to find another £30m in savings at a time when local communities need more support than ever. Councils are coping by cutting services but they should really be saying ‘enough is enough’. Transferring money from other budgets to local councils is a “smoke and mirrors” exercised and does no change these cuts which are down 10% on a like for like basis.


Things like the £10bn backlog of pothole repairs blighting our roads and the £20bn funding gap for care for the elderly. This means the elderly are left to struggle isolated at home with fewer services or put in chronically underfunded care homes. These are the legacy of council cuts and there are many more examples.


The Chancellors sideswipe at public sector workers by questioning their pay progression also reveals a lack of understanding about pay systems.


People begin at a starter rate of pay and through experience progress to the rate for the job, typically after five years. If anything, public sector workers are actually underpaid for too long and should accelerate much more quickly to the rate for the job. Furthermore, performance related pay systems have been widely shown not to work.


This is just another unpleasant dig at public sector workers who have already been made scapegoats for problems they had nothing to do with.”

Ed Balls on Labour’s spending plans: Room to increase borrowing to fund projects such as housebuilding to boost economic growth

Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls has made a speech setting out how the Labour opposition can turn things around on growth and living standards at the same time as dealing with the deficit in a fairer way than under the Tories.


Speaking at Thomson Reuters Ed Balls said: “As far as capital spending is concerned, it certainly does make economic sense now, as the IMF has urged, to bring forward capital spending to support growth and invest in our long-term infrastructure – creating jobs now, bringing long-term returns and taking advantage of very low interest rates.


“And for the future, we need to invest in the homes, transport and infrastructure Britain needs and ensure a recovery made by the many. Of course, here too we will only set our plans for investing in Britain’s future in the light of the economic circumstances at the time, and the needs of economic growth, informed by the findings of the Armitt review into Britain’s long-term infrastructure needs.”


The speech gives trade unions space to make the case for what the changed spending priorities might be and what the level and nature of capital spending might be.


“…on infrastructure, how should we set priorities within rail spending, and between rail investment, trunk roads, expanding airport capacity, delivering super-fast broadband across the whole country, modernising our energy infrastructure and improving our flood defences?These are some of the questions our zero-based spending review will ask.”


Rather than commiting to Tory spending limits, Ed has put forward a distinct approach to the economy.

We will say “Never Again” again

On Easter Sunday I spoke at the NASUWT conference in Bournemouth at a fringe meeting on austerity, here’s my speech:

young workers publication

Thanks for opportunity to speak. I’ve been coming to the conference for a few years and it’s great to be able to speak as Unions21 celebrates 20 years of serving the union movement.


Frances O’Grady talking about us at our conference earlier this month said: “I always like to think of Unions21 as the trade union movement’s answer to the TaxPayers’ Alliance – but with less money and more brains.” – which we appreciated.


And the support of NASUWT has always been appreciated through the years.


I’ve been asked to talk about how austerity has impacted on young people.


So: Unions21 as an organisation is 20 – what’s it like to be a 20-year-old person in austerity Britain? And can unions provide credible hope for young people?


I’m going to use some polling conducted last month by Survation for Unions21 of 1000 working people to help describe what it feels like to be a young worker and also present some of a report that was written previously for Unions21 by Professor Melanie Simms on young workers in the recession.


The two main effects of austerity I’ll concentrate on are unemployment and the decline in standards of living, but I also want to bring in some related effects around reduced training and opportunities.


Some of these issues are clear social issues and there’s also issues for unions to organise around too.

Read More…

Frances comes out fighting

Frances O’Grady has come out fighting on her first day as TUC General Secretary.


Speaking on the Radio 4 Today Programme she said the Coalition’s policies have failed and that the country needs an active industrial strategy exactly as Lord Hesletine has recommended.


Frances said “I want to get out there and appeal to all working people. My task is to get out there to encourage people to join [unions]. Particularly young people who are feeling great sympathy for unions.”


She called for more diversity in British boardrooms to include worker representation and  more efforts from the Government to encourage companies to invest in the economy and the most well-off to pay their fair share in taxes.


She has issued a message setting out the TUC’s campaigning priorities for 2013:


‘I become TUC General Secretary at a critical time.

‘The economy is stuck in the middle of what at best looks like a lost decade. Jobs continue to go across the public sector – including in services like health that we were told would be protected. And while we should be pleased that unemployment has not been as bad as many feared, it is still far too high, especially for young people. Read More…

Unions respond to Autumn statement

THE CHANCELLOR delivered his Autumn statement on the Government’s economic policy today in Westminster.


Commenting on announcement the TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:


‘When you are self-harming you should stop, not look for better sticking plasters.

‘With the economy still scraping along the bottom, unemployment set to rise and the Chancellor missing his own debt target, we need a fundamental change in direction, not more muddling through.

‘Cuts, austerity and squeezed living standards stretch seemingly without end into the future. What is missing today is any vision of a future economy that can deliver decent jobs and living standards – it’s pain without purpose.’ Read More…

Banking reform – time to stop privatising the profits and socialising the losses

FOR the past four months I have been serving on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. It was set up in July in response to the Libor and other scandals and at first tasked with looking at culture and behaviour. However in recent weeks it has concentrated more on the issue of structure – whether investment banking and retail banking should be split. Sir John Vickers reported on this question last year arguing that there should be a ring fence placed around retail banking, but against a full split. The Commission has been asked to do the job of pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill to implement the Vickers Report.


Amid this focus on the structure of banking, there is a danger that another question gets overlooked – who should bear the losses in the event of another banking crisis? One of the things that most angered the public about the recent crisis was that when times were good, the profits were private (and huge) but that when the crisis came, the losses (also huge) were borne not by those who had lent money to the banks but by taxpayers.


All across Europe, austerity measures have been imposed on electorates to pay for the cost of bailing out banks. And the banks were bailed out because the social and economic cost of allowing them to collapse was deemed too great. Yet, apart from some exceptions in Greece, for the most part the bondholders who lent to the banks have not had to take haircuts on their investments. They have been paid while the taxpayer swallows job losses, pension cuts and cuts to services. No wonder people are angry. Read More…

After November 14th – What we need to do next

Photo: Protestor on 14 Nov, Credit: ETUC-CES.
Austerity isn’t working – so let’s change policy, says John Evans.

THE global economy is facing a jobs emergency. Global unemployment is growing to over 200 million. The OECD and ILO estimate that 21 million jobs need to be created each year to return to pre-crisis employment rates by 2015 in the G20 alone.


Yet, with several European economies now in recession, other industrialised countries experiencing low rates of growth, and growth slowing in emerging economies, unemployment will rise further. Precarious and informal work arrangements, already at unacceptable levels, are increasing. Financial markets continue to wreak havoc on our democracies, economies and societies. People are angry and social tensions are running high.  Read More…

Are we heading for triple-dip recession?

THE Independent reports on its front page the Governor of the Bank of England Sir Mervyn King’s fears that the UK could re-enter recession. The Bank of England produced its gloomiest medium-term assessment of economic prospects since it was granted independence in 1997.


TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber responding to recent unemployment figures said “Tougher times may still be ahead if our economy starts to slow again in the autumn quarter. There are still big challenges ahead, with long-term unemployment rising, real wages falling and far too many young people out of work.” Read More…

Job insecurity fears on the rise, top concerns include stress and bullying

The proportion of employees saying it is likely or very likely they could lose their job as a result of the economic downturn has risen to 20% according to a CIPD survey.


Barely 1 in 10 (12%) think it would be easy to find a job if they lost their current position. Read More…