Saturday, December 19, 2009

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, It May Be Your Last



Wartime cheer


Tyler's Mum was a great Judy Garland fan, so he's pretty familiar with the back catalogue. And this particular number from the 1944 film Meet Me in St Louis seems to sum up Xmas 2009 quite well. Especially with its original lyrics, which were so depressing they had to be toned down for Garland to sing in the film - play the vid and read along with the original below to see how comprehensively MGM wimped out:

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.

No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now."

Now that's Xmas 2009. Because with GDP down 6% from its peak, unemployment already up by a million, government debt fast heading for 100% of GDP, and inflation on the rise, this yuletide is likely be your last champagne cork popping for a while.

Except that somehow, out there, it just doesn't feel like that.

For example, Tyler has an irritating (to Mrs T) habit of asking shop assistants how biz is going, and right now, they all seem pretty happy. "Last year was terrible," they shout above the din of jingling cash registers, "but this year we're well up."

And they're not spinning a line. According to the official ONS stats, retail sales have increased by 3% over the last 12 months. Even more extraordinary, they've also increased over the last 24 months - ie from before when the crisis broke. In fact, retail sales volumes (ie adjusted for inflation) are currently the highest they have ever been:



Compare that to the last recession in the early 1990s, when retail sales fell by 5% and took three years to regain their previous high.

Yes, OK, there has been a big fall in other spending not included in the ONS definition of retail sales - like tourism and cars. But the fact is, whatever professional doomsters like Tyler may say, most people in the real world don't seem terribly fussed about the impending economic apocalypse. Everybody can see there was a banking crisis, and everyone probably knows someone who's lost their job, but the general view is that it's all over bar the shooting of those greedy bankers.

Now in one sense this is good. As Keynes preached so strikingly back in the Depression, the economy ultimately depends on confidence. If people are fearful, they don't spend, they don't invest, and the economy goes into a nosedive. So confidence is good.

But false confidence, that's something else altogether. False confidence leads to people spending beyond their means, borrowing up to the hilt, and sooner or later facing bills they cannot pay.

Which brings us to a very striking chart in the Bank of England's latest Financial Stability Report (see here - 4mb):



The chart shows the proportion of the average UK household's income that is taken up by interest payments on mortgages and other loans. And as we can see, the current low level of interest rates has helped them out considerably, freeing up nearly 3% of household income for use elsewhere.

But the Bank knows - as we do - that these low interest rates cannot last, and the two blue diamonds on the chart are what the Bank calculates will happen to the interest burden when rates go back up to pre-crisis levels. There will be a significant squeeze on average household spending power.

Of course, for savers the opposite applies. They have been squeezed savagely by the fall in interest rates, and they will benefit from a reversal. But savers tend to be prudent, and they will not be rushing out to take up the spending slack.

So all those shop assistants Tyler chats up had better make the most of this merry little Christmas - it may be their last for some considerable time.

And you? What should you do?

Eat, drink, and be merry.

And think seriously about where you're going to move to next year (despite Garland we suggest not NY - their top rate of income tax next year will be 35% Federal plus 9% state).

******

BOM will now be taking  its seasonal break. Happy Christmas, and try not to worry. The events depicted on BOM over the last year are very rare and almost certainly won't happen to you. Unless you're a UK taxpayer, that is.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Priests Screw Up - We're Doomed



So they get 15,000 priests, 5,000 scribes, and 45,000 worshippers, cart them all off to the Great Pyramid of the Sun, and then screw up.

No mass sacrifice. No bloodied beating hearts tossed down the steps. Just a bunch of weird attention-seekers thrusting themselves into the global pulpit whenever possible.

I tell you, the Gods ain't gonna like this.

****

What a shambles. If they can't even organise a £130m piss-up in the best brewery in the world, HTFFFF do they expect us to believe they can manage the future of our planet?

But I guess we can afford the odd £130m on a total waste of time. Much worse if they'd actually reached agreement. Because if these climate fascists ever get their way, we will all be A Lot poorer.

Today, the TPA published updated estimates of what so-called Green Taxes already cost us here in the UK. The shocking answer is £26bn pa, or over £1,000 pa per household (see paper for details).

And as things stand, all main political parties intend to increase that burden. They intend to tax and regulate our carbon emitting activites even more heavily - despite the fact that our taxes already far exceed the official estimates of the cost of our emissions. And they want to spend whole other shedloads of our cash on windchimes and elfin generators.

The Aztecs were only able to got rid of their destructive priests when the Spanish slaughtered them all. Let's hope we can get a grip before it comes to that.

PS Anyone who saw Newsnight yesterday will have seen their "Ethical Man" reporter in his kitchen, trying to prove that mankind is the evil destroyer of worlds by means of three empty Evian bottles, a length of plastic piping, and a large lady scientist. Needless to say, it proved nothing. But it did put Tyler in mind of the grisly bits in 10 Rillington Place, where Dickie Attenborough murdered various actresses in his kitchen using a very similar device.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

No Serious Economist Thinks



Pol was on BBC R4 Today this am with the indefatigable Ruth Lee. They were discussing the question of government debt and whether we might lose our AAA credit rating.

According to Pol, the risks have been hugely exaggerated by the City and their groupthink apologists. She says:

"No serious economist thinks Britain will default on its debt."
Well now, let's just think about that.

First off, we need to be clear about the meaning of default. When a modern government issues debt denominated in its own currency, it is highly unlikely to default in the sense of failing to pay the interest and principal as denominated in that currency. Why should it, when it can simply run the printing press to manufacture the readies it requires?

The default that matters on such debt is default via inflation - ie the government repays, but in devalued currency. Which is precisely the way our government defaulted last time round.

Another way of putting it is to say that, in reality, a major government issuing debt in its own currency is never going to be less than AAA credit quality. But that isn't the important point: if the currency stinks, international bond investors will not want to hold the government's debt however high its formal credit rating.

So in terms of the government's borrowing in the sterling bond markets (gilts), what matters more than anything is whether the market is confident that UK inflation will remain low and sterling will maintain its value.

And we all know what happens when that confidence goes. The 1970s showed us precisely: gilt yields soar (to over 17% in 1975), sterling plunges (to near-parity with the US dollar in 1976), and we all get poorer. Even though in the 1970s HMG never actually lost its formal AAA credit rating.

However, where the formal credit rating becomes absolutely vital is with government borrowing in foreign currencies. And that's for the very simple reason that domestic governments do not have access to the foreign currency printing press: they cannot just print more to pay off their debt obligations. Outright default - or "rescheduling" as it's known in polite circles - becomes a real possibility.

Which is why the weaker members of the Eurozone such as Greece are now facing a funding crisis. They have done their borrowing in Euros, which for them is effectively a foreign currency - the vital printing press is controlled by the Franco-German alliance. Greece's credit rating has just been cut to BBB+ - just three notches above junk - and their debt interest cost is now over 2% pa higher than Germany's.

But surely, you say, that's not a problem for us: HMG borrows in sterling not foreign currency.

Unfortunately, while that's true for the vast bulk of our £0.8 trillion official debt, the bank bail-outs have transformed the situation. That's because, as we've blogged many times, HMG has guaranteed all the liabilities of our entire banking system, including their massive foreign currency liabilities.

How much? As at end-October the banks' foreign currency liabilities totalled a very scary £4.2 trillion, or nearly three times our annual GDP. And as we can see from the following chart, over the last decade that exposure has ballooned beyond the range of anything we have ever seen before:



Now, of course, those £4.2 trillion of liabilities are matched against a £4.2 trillion pile of foreign currency denominated assets held by the same banks. So you might ask what's the problem?

The problem is that we have absolutely no idea what that £4.2 trillion of so-called assets are actually worth. According to the people Tyler speaks to, the banks have still not confessed to the true toxicity of their "assets", and it would be frankly amazing if that £4.2 trillion is worth what it says on the tin.

Which leaves us with a serious problem. Because if there's a shortfall and our busted banks cannot make up the difference, then HMG will have to find possibly a very large amount of foreign currency to plug the gap.

And that's when our credit rating will become absolutely critical.

And that's also when we find out what serious economists really think.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bubble Dependency

As we noted last week, the government's projections of tax revenue rest on some wildly optimistic assumptions. And none more optimisitic than what they are apparently assuming on house prices.

The chart shows what the Pre-Budget Report projected for total tax receipts from the housing and finance sectors combined (see here). Receipts have slumped since the onset of the financial crisis, but by 2014-15 they are projected to bounce right back up to 3.5% of GDP, or £64bn.



The projection is not broken down into its components, and the bulk is presumably reckoned to come from taxes on the finance sector. But you can bet they are also assuming a pretty sharp rebound in housing taxes - specifically stamp duty.

When Labour came to power in 1997-98, stamp duty on residential property brought in £0.8bn (see here). But a decade later, in 2007-08, it had increased eightfold to £6.6bn. After Labour's rate increases and the boom in house prices, it had become a major source of tax revenue.

Unfortunately, as the property market slumped, so did stamp duty revenues. In 2008-09, revenues more than halved to £2.7bn, and they are likely to fall further this year. That is the price of making your tax revenues dependent on asset bubbles.

So what will happen to house prices now?

The honest answer is nobody has the faintest idea.

But what we do know is that UK prices remain very stretched, both by historic standards and by comparison with housing markets internationally. One standard yardstick is house prices relative to income, and on that measure the OECD reckons we have the fourth most highly priced market in the developed world. Moreover, since Labour came to power, our price-to-income ratio has increased more than any other country's (see here).

Now, of course, you can argue that our valuation ratio has increased because with low low interest rates home buyers can afford to borrow more, thus jacking up prices. And there's some truth in that. But how long are interest rates going to remain at these rock-bottom levels?

And then there's the argument that we have very limited land resources, and what with our tight nimby-led planning restrictions and continuing mass immigration, house prices are pretty well a one-way bet.

Which puts Tyler in mind of conversations he had during a business trip to Japan in the late 80s. At the time, the Japanese property market was in the stratosphere, but nobody seemed at all concerned. Tyler was told it reflected the extreme shortage of habitable land combined with powerful demographic factors - in other words, a one-way bet.

I think we all know what happened to Japanese property prices over the two decades since then - they've been a one-way bet all right, but down rather than up.

Lessons for the UK? Here's a chart showing the Japanese and UK property markets over those two decades:



It couldn't happen here?

You wouldn't want to bet your fiscal projections on it.

Nor your retirement planning.

Signposts From Ireland




There must be some way out of here

Last week, the Irish government unveiled the toughest budget in the country's history. It was effectively the third budget in one year.

The centrepiece comprised further spending cuts, focused on two areas which had already suffered previous cuts - public sector pay and welfare payments.

On pay, there will be reductions of between 5% and 15%, plus additional savings on public sector pensions. On welfare, there will be cuts to a wide range of benefits, including Child Benefit and Jobseeker's benefit. Overall, adding in a further billion of capital spending cuts, the package will amount to €4bn next year, around 7% of expenditure.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Irish government will withstand the public sector strikes and/or riots that will ensue, but they've certainly stepped up to the plate.

So what can we learn?

First, welfare. Chatting to some civil servants last week, it's clear that Whitehall has already lined up welfare for the chop. And you can see why: welfare spending (so-called "Social Protection") now amounts to well over £200bn pa, accounting for one-third of all public spending (see here). It cannot escape some serious pruning, especially given its near 40% real terms increase since Labour came to power.

Second, public sector pay. For some reason the civil servants did not mention this as being a cuts target, but of course it must be. At over £160bn pa, pay accounts for one-quarter of total public spending (see here) - and that excludes the cost of those index-linked pensions. If imposed across the board, an Irish style 5-15% cut would immediately deliver more than £10bn pa in savings.

What's that? Such cuts would be unfair to the most vulnerable in society, as well as hard-working public servants?

Well, OK. But what's your alternative?

Given that we have to find something like £100bn pa to close our massive fiscal deficit, what would you do?

Because sitting on our hands is not an option.

The OECD's latest estimate says that our structural deficit (ie the bit of government borrowing that will not cure itself as the economy recovers) is now close to 10% of GDP, or about £150bn. And that's worse than Ireland even before its latest budget. It's also worse than Greece. In fact, as things stand, the UK will have the highest structural deficit of any OECD member in both 2010 and 2011.

Cut specific spending programmes, rather than across the board cuts to welfare and pay?

Yes, yes, we like that. Target the cuts on things we don't actually need government to do. Much better.

But what?

Last September the TPA/IOD proposed 34 specific cuts (including a public sector pay freeze) and got to £50bn pa of savings (see this blog). Unfortunately, we didn't notice a great rush of support for the measures from politicos of any colour. Nobody it seems wants to be seen as picking on particular groups (aka making tough choices)..

Which is why such exercises so often end up with broadbrush across-the-board cuts: to politicos, it feels much easier to spread the pain far and wide, rather than confront particular lobbies and interest groups.

Of course, the very worst kind of cuts are those where the central government politicos impose budget cuts on those further down the line without committing themselves on how those cuts are to be delivered.

They say things like "the education service will make 10% efficiency savings, and those savings will release cash for deployment elsewhere". Individual head teachers are then faced with the need to save 10% of their budgets, while still delivering all the government's targets for things like class sizes, and still paying nationally negotiated pay rates.

We saw that before back in the 70s and 80s, and it led to decaying school buildings, decaying hospitals, and a general air of public service decrepitude. It should not be allowed to happen again.

Which is why George needs to be so very bold. The cuts are unavoidable. But cuts without the accompanying specifics are a recipe for 20 years of public sector misery.

The Irish government has been specific on how the cash will be found - by cutting benefits and public sector pay. George needs to be equally specific.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Government By Deceit



Deception all round

Bliar's last Director of Public Prosecutions is now back practising law with Cherie at Matrix Chambers, the operation he set up with her in the late 1990s. A long-time Labour insider, he was appointed DPP in 2003 just after the invasion of Iraq, but it seems he's finally recognised a horribly inconvenient truth:

"The degree of deceit involved in our decision to go to war on Iraq becomes steadily clearer. This was a foreign policy disgrace of epic proportions and playing footsie on Sunday morning television* does nothing to repair the damage. It is now very difficult to avoid the conclusion that Tony Blair engaged in an alarming subterfuge... to mislead and cajole the British people into a deadly war they had made perfectly clear they didn’t want, and on a basis that it’s increasingly hard to believe even he found truly credible..."
Now given that Ken Macdonald went to work for Bliar after the invasion of Iraq, and after they hadn't found those notorious Weapons of Mass Destruction, you may think he is in no position to criticise. But let's park that.

The key point is the deceit. As Macdonald says, Bliar deceived us over WMD. Worse, large swathes of the British establishment - including the Tory Party - went along with that deceit. Whether for reasons of self-aggrandisement, or because they thought we needed to side with the yanks whatever, they went along with the wafer-thin fiction that Iraq's invisible WMD somehow posed a clear and present danger to us.

But of course, once discovered, such deceit has a price. As Macdonald puts it, "it rendered any affair of the heart between government and people no more than a wisp, like a lie in the wind. It broke faith."

And that's a pretty good summary of where we are overall. Right from the early days of so-called "triangulation", deceit has been at the very heart of this government's entire approach.

Consider just a few of catastrophes we blog so often on BOM:
  • The debt mountain - Brown's self-monitored "Golden Rules" were nothing more than a fiscal con, designed to reassure the financial markets while allowing him to stretch and break their so-called limits at his convenience; the definition of National Debt failed to account for his hundreds of billions of off-balance sheet liabilities, massively understating the true total
  • Public sector efficiency savings - the "non-cashable" Gershon programme allowed Brown to claim savings where none existed
  • Immigration - Labour claimed mass immigration would make us all richer: it has done nothing of the kind; in reality, it seems it was driven by Labour's desire to destroy the right in British politics
  • Edukayshun - Labour has dumbed down the UK exam system to make us think education is improving; in reality we are plummeting in the international league tables
  • Crime - Labour has spun the crime stats to make it look like crime is falling: in reality, violent crime - the stuff we really worry about - has risen
  • Climate change - Labour claims the "science is settled" and spends shedloads paying for research and propaganda to prove that; in reality, it is far from settled
  • Tax - Labour promised not to increase tax... enough said
Last week Tyler met a bunch of quite senior civil servants. They were pretty downhearted, and not just about the public spending outlook. As one of them explained en route to the tube afterwards, they have been corrupted by government spin.

These days, everything they do, from official statistics to the latest Pre-Budget Report, has to be shaped and spun to support the government line. Nothing is genuine any more, and it has corroded the entire civil service structure. Those that have done Labour's bidding have prospered, and those that haven't are now toiling in a Strategic Health Authority just outside Omsk.

Ultimately we get the governments we deserve, so why have we ended up like this? Do we like being deceived?

Well, no, of course not. But we are all suckers for a nice simple story. The real world is horribly complex, and we are crying out for someone credible to make sense of it for us. Especially someone like Bliar who has first convinced himself he's right.

Eventually of course, the real world will out, and no amount of deception can escape from it. But nobody likes facing up to harsh truths, and the last time we were there back in the 70s/80s the woman who dealt with them was reviled by a large section of the population. She got herself into the all-time lexicon of evil and remains there to this day.

Deception seems so much easier all round.


*Footnote In case you missed it, Bliar was paying footsie with Fern Britton on her new TV show. Ah, Fern, Fern. Tyler first met Fern in a lonely hotel room up North. She was sparkling and funny and warm and seemed so genuine. It was madness of course - Tyler was a boring financier and she was the hostess of Ready Steady Cook. Plus, she was the other side of a TV screen. But no more for that - Tyler was smitten, and watched with pleasure as her career blossomed. But then one day she let him down. Badly. She'd lost a sensational amount of weight, and was looking fantastic. She claimed she'd done it through diet and exercise and sheer willpower, and even started to lecture Tyler about how he could do the same if only he had as much self-discipline as her. Alas, it subsequently emerged that her new look was entirely down to the surgeon's knife and a large elastic band twanged tight round her stomach. How could she? How could she break faith? How could Tyler ever trust her again? Heartbreak. And now she's even playing footsie with the liar's liar.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

News From BOM Correspondents - 22



Absolutely fabulous darling


It's been a while since we did a correspondent round-up, so here's a quick selection:


1 Latest from Stoke on Trent

The terminally awful Stoke City Council has featured on BOM several times (eg here). Among its other triumphs was the decision to close its only properly functioning secondary school on ideological grounds (see here).

Now Tom W draws our attention to the following:

"Concerns have been raised over why a firm was awarded a contract to knock down a former Victorian workhouse which was more than three times the price quoted by an award-winning company.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council set a budget of £1.2m for demolishing the building and last month it accepted a price of about £1.1m from a firm to complete the work.

However, documents obtained by the BBC showed the cheapest quote received by the council was actually £309,000. The lowest bid was rejected, despite the contractor being an award-winning firm and one of the biggest demolition companies in the UK.
So for unknown reasons Stoke Council agreed to pay three times what it needed to pay. There's more:

"Concerns were first raised over tenders for the contract by councillor Alan Rigby, who was asked to witness the tenders being opened.
He claimed there were serious irregularities in the process and said he was asked to sign a form which did not contain details of prices. When Mr Rigby asked to see prices, they were written in and ranged from £618,000 to £210m."

So a councillor was asked to sign off the process without being shown the competing bid prices. Hmm... riiigght...

Council leaders have blamed it all on a "computer glitch", and faced with a stewards' enquiry have agreed to re-run the whole process. But if we lived in Stoke, we'd be demanding that enquiry anyway.


2. Pagan Sex, Money Laundering, and Self-Abuse

It's been too long since we linked a story on David Blackie's excellent blog The Language Business, which is dedicated to exposing the moneypit that is the British Council.

On 6th Jan the BC's Knowledge and Learning Centre clocks up its eighth anniversary, and David has recently been investigating some of the outstanding study opportunities it currently markets to foreigners who wish to dodge UK immigration controls to study at a world-class British university. According to its website, it's Exeter for Pagan Sex and Portsmouth for Money Laundering. But as he explains here, if it's self-abuse you're after, the University of Huddersfield is the one for you, with its tempting choice of three specialist courses.

A course on terrorism?

No need to head off to Tora Bora any more. According to the BC, there's now a choice of 146 Terrorism courses offered right here, by no fewer than 41 UK universities. Here's just the first page of results (click on image to enlarge):



And remember - you're paying.


3. Frocks

Nick L sent an FOI to Bliar's new Supreme Court, asking what their new frocks cost (pic above). His letter and the reply are here (and see MoS story here). They said:

"The total cost including VAT of the robes for the 12 Justices of the Supreme Court was £137,956.
...the Justices do not wear robes while they sit in court... However the Justices recognised the need to have a robe for certain ceremonial occasions... They therefore have robes... made from black brocade with gold lace and some gold ornamentation on the sleeves with the Supreme Court emblem embroidered on the back."
Nick L suggests we establish a new unit of account - the Standard British Peasant Year:

"Minumum wage is £5.80. 40 hour week, 52 week year, equals £12,064 pa. Ignoring employer's NI, they have deductions of £1,816.19 a year
So £137,956 for the robes divided by £1816.19 is 76 - ie the Justices have spent 76 Standard British Peasant Years on their new frocks.
Of course, that assumes a Standard British Peasant doesn't consume any public services. 76 of them slave away for an entire year, simply in order to kit the justices out in some bling."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Labour's Debt Explosion



When the unelected idiot Brown took over in 2007, the UK's official government debt stood at 47% of GDP. By the end of 2011 it will be 94%, a literal doubling over just four years. Under his incompetent management, the UK will have clocked up the biggest increase in debt of any major OECD economy.

So says the OECD itself in its latest World Economic Outlook (see here Annex Table 32).

But remember: the OECD's debt measure excludes most of our off-balance sheet Enron debt, like PFI and public sector pensions, which roughly double the final total. And it also excludes the trillions in guarantees given to our busted banks, whose most toxic chickens have still not finally come home to roost.

Labour always always burns our money - we know that. But even in Labour terms, Brown is the idot's idiot. Not only will he be leaving us our worst peacetime debt burden ever, he's also given his name to the famous Brown Bottom in the gold market - the time he flogged off our gold reserves when the market was at its lowest level for two decades (see this blog).

We don't know exactly what price he got for our 400 tons, but the market price at the time was below $300. And since the price is now over $1100, Tyler's fag packet says Brown's arrogance and stupidity lost us well in excess of £6bn.

Although admittedly, measured against what he's now done to us, £6bn pales into insignificance.

Friday, December 11, 2009

More Of Your Cash Wibbled Away



I'll give you £1.5bn if I can wear the Big Hat

Never mind that we are stoney broke, the arrogant unelected clown masquarading as our PM has just blown another £1.5bn of our money in an attempt to buy himself some international status:
"At an EU summit in Brussels, the Prime Minister offered to pay the money into an EU fund intended to help poorer countries to cut their carbon emissions.
The offer will make Britain the largest contributor. France and Germany each promised around £1.2 billion to the EU fund, which will be worth around £6.5 billion in all."
Just so we're clear, Brown has agreed that we will pay 23% of the EU total, even though we only account for 13.6% of EU GDP. In other words, we are paying 70% more than our fair share.

And what is this fund anyway? How will it be spent? How much will get eaten up in the EU bureaucracy? Which wibbletech companies will get the orders? And which African dictator's Swiss account will benefit most? We know only too well what history tells us, but don't hold your breath for answers from Brown.

Meanwhile, the £180m pa tax-funded Met Office has published its latest scare story for Copenhagen:
"Global temperature for 2010 is expected to be 14.58 °C, the warmest on record."
Not one, but two places of decimals. That really is arrogance.

Of course, given enough computers, even the most blinkered monkeys will eventually hit the right answer. But we still suggest you note that prediction for future reference.

Fiddling While Blighty Burns



There goes our future prosperity

The Pre-Budget Report (PBR) has to be one of the most disreputable documents ever to emerge from HM Treasury - and that's against some pretty stiff competition over recent years.

As we blogged here, it failed on all three critical counts:
  • Borrowing - no progess on reducing it faster
  • Taxes - higher taxes on jobs and a risky low yielding tax on bank bonuses
  • Spending - unbelievably, spending was actually increased rather than cut
But it's worse than simply failing to deliver. The PBR is riddled through with fiddles and outright deceit.

To start with, we have been told that schools, hospitals, the police, and overseas aid will be ringfenced. But there has been absolutely no explanation of how that squares with the overall spending projection. Not for the first time, it's been left to the indispensable Institute for Fiscal Studies to pick apart the entrails, and point out that other programmes, like Defence, will have to be slashed by an implausible 12% in two years, and perhaps 16% by 2014-15. How on earth will that work?

And then, as we blogged here, the PBR's forecasts for tax revenue and welfare spending rest on wildly optimistic assumptions about future economic growth. A realistic projection of the public finances would show a significantly worse picture, implying either much higher borrowing, even higher taxes, or further spending cuts.

We've also discovered the PBR contained a disguised provision to uprate welfare benefits by more than the RPI just before the election, and then downrate them again afterwards. Which is breathtaking cynicism even for this bunch of black-hearted shysters.

The latest twist is that "sources" have "let it be known" the PBR was not the Treasury's at all. The Treasury now claim they wanted to be tougher. They didn't want to increase spending, and wanted an increase in VAT rather than job-destroying NI. But they were overruled by Brown and Balls.

In other words, the government's own experts have disowned the PBR as an outrageous exercise in low-grade politicking.

Unsuprisingly, the markets are losing their nerve. We had always assumed they would give us the benefit of the doubt until George took the controls, but their reaction to the PBR suggests we may not even have that long. Yesterday, the gilt market sold off sharply, amid mounting concern that our rulers are in denial about the need for drastic action. One bond market strategist put it this way:
"UK bond investors should look at Greece, where the bond markets have crashed this week. The bond markets in the UK could crash too, unless the government starts to initiate serious debt reduction policies."
Another said:

“The PBR seeks to create a fiscal fiction that the deficit can be resolved solely by tax hikes on a relatively small share of the population – the few, not the many – and without painful public spending cuts. The revenue forecasts again look over-optimistic, and there are no public spending plans after 2010-11 – only vague forecasts.”
Of course, we can never know exactly what the markets are thinking - they don't even know themselves. But it's a fair bet a lot of players are now thinking what we're thinking: has George got the balls to do the necessary? And even if he has, will Cam overrule him like Brown has just done with poor Darling?

Because it will be tough enough to grip our public finances as it is. But by concealing the true scale of the problems, this shocking fiddled PBR just made it that much harder.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Way Too Optimistic

The fiscal projections in yesterday's PBR - just like last April's budget - rest on economic growth assumptions that are ludicrously optimistic.

Here is the relevant table from the PBR (click on image to enlarge):


As we can see, GDP growth is assumed to bounce back in very short order to reach 3.25% pa from 2011-12 onwards. Over the five year forecast period from 2010-11 it is supposed to average 3% pa.

Yeah, right. In a world of over-indebtedness, zombie banks, and tax increases, that just ain't gonna happen, boys.

Consider:
  1. The average of independent forecasts for more or less the same period (2010 to 2013) is just 2% pa - and that was collected and published by the Treasury itself (see here page 18).
  2. Last time we had to tackle a fiscal crisis even remotely like the current one - in the 70s - GDP growth was pretty close to zero for the following five years: in fact between 1976 Q4, when the IMF arrived, and 1981 Q1, when Geoffrey Howe finally completed the necessary fiscal consolidation, UK growth averaged just 0.4% pa.
So what if we correct the Treasury's fantasy growth numbers? What happens to the projected budget deficit?

As we've mentined before, the Treasury's own rule of thumb says that one percent off GDP increases the fiscal deficit by 0.7 percentage points of GDP. Which as things stand comes to around £10bn in cash terms.

But of course, that's cumulative. If GDP growth is 1% pa lower than HMT's forecast, by the end of 5 years, the fiscal deficit will be running £50bn higher than the Treasury forecasts. Well actually more than that, because by the end of 5 years, with all that extra borrowing, government debt will be £150bn higher than the Treasury projects. Which means interest costs will be higher. And even if we assume the government can go on borrowing at 4% (a very heroic assumption), that's another £6bn pa on the deficit - ie the 2014-15 deficit is £56bn higher.

Which means that if we take the average of independent GDP forecasts, by 2014-15 borrowing will not be £82bn as the Treasury projects, but more like £140bn - hardly any improvement at all on this year's £178bn.

And if we take our post-IMF growth experience from the 70s as a guide, borrowing in 2014-15 will be... gulp... can this be right? £228bn (equals (3.0 minus 0.4) times £56bn plus £82bn).

And you know, it could be even worse than that. Because HMT is making some fairly optimistic assumptions about the recovery of tax revenues from the finance and property sectors. Plus, it's assuming unemployment stops rising in 2011 - back in the 70s, our joyless jobless stagnation saw unemployment go on rising for nine whole years.

Right that's enough. I'm off out now to a fiscal workshop under the chairmanship of Evan Davis. Maybe he's got some answers. Or at least, a stiff drink.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What A Shocker



Labour's final Pre-Budget Report (PBR) was a real shocker. Key points:
  • Borrowing - no action to cut borrowing faster than the leisurely pace set out in the April budget, and the Treasury forecasts rest on the ludicrously optimistic assumption that our GDP growth rate will soon return to 3.25% pa; the UK has been left as the developed world's borrowing basket case, and a catastrophic capital flight is that much closer.
  • Tax - no action to cut taxes in order to boost growth; on the contrary, the tax on jobs (National Insurance) and other taxes will be increased by £5bn pa (2012-13); the tax on bonuses seems to be the worst of both worlds - given the City's imaginative tax lawyers, it definitely won't raise much revenue, yet it has sent a very negative message to those footlose international financiers.
  • Spending - far from cutting spending, incredibily, the PBR increases it - by £5bn pa (2010-11); moreover, there is virtually no detail on how future expenditure restraint will be delivered - it's simply assumed that savings can be found somehow to provide for Labour's "ringfenced" areas (ie schools, hospitals and police)
So overall, they got pretty well everything wrong.

But in reality of course, nobody expected Labour to deliver any sense in this PBR. As we've blogged many times, the financial markets and everyone else who matters wrote them off long ago. The real test will come when George stands up to deliver the real budget next June.

And if George gets it wrong, we really will have to get out.

World Basket Case? It's Us

When Darling stands up at lunchtime to deliver his Pre-Election Budget Report, he will doubtless repeat the old formula about how they're innocent victims of global circumstance. The reality is that Labour have dropped us into a fiscal hole bigger than that of any other OECD member - including the supposed basket cases of Ireland, Iceland, and Greece.

Here are the OECD's lastest borrowing league tables for 2010 and 2011 (NB to make the chart clearer, we've reversed the sign on the financial balance - ie higher is more borrowing):






Tyler will be spending the day round at the TPA's fortified bunker close to the frontline. We'll be trying to work out what's really going on through the smoke screen, and we'll be posting our conclusions on the TPA's site.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen



The biggest bunfight in world history

No time for a proper blog today, but as you watch the wall-to-wall BBC/C4 coverage of the Copenhagen grandstandingfest, we wanted to make sure you've got the TPA's analysis of the costs in front of you (see TPA research note here, and Mail article here).

Overall, the direct cost to taxpayers is estimated at £130m. This comprises the travel, accommodation, food, and salary costs of the 15000 - yes, 15000 - government delegates who will be attending, plus the cost of the facilities and security.

In addition to those 15000, there will be 5000 media and up to 45000 warming activists in attendance. The BBC has sent an extraordinary 35 people - all at our expense - and in the case of UK activists, you can bet many of them will be in receipt of government funding in one form or another.

But the good news is that Copenhagen's prostitutes are offering their services for free on production of a conference pass. Prostitution is pefectly legal in Denmark, and according to Susanne Møller - spokesperson for the SIO (the Sex Workers Interest Group) - climate scientists will be given the warmest of warmist welcomes:

"If you have a lab coat and a hotel bar receipt, your emissions will be peer-reviewed at local brothels until Dec. 18."
Enjoy.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Looney Tunes



So after 12 years incinerating mountains of our cash, this high spending low performance "government"  wants to tell us it can be more efficient.

To be frank, I can't be bothered to read Brown's speech. In essence he's after the same headlines the Tories got months ago - a crackdown on public sector fatcat pay, cuts in top civil service jobs, and cuts in the use of consultants (yes, all these items were identified long ago by the TPA - which just goes to show what conviction and persistence can achieve).

On top of that, Brown reckons he can make savings from the "smarter use" of IT - even though none of his previous IT projects (like the now scrapped NHS supercomputer) have ever saved money. And finally he wheels out yet more of those preposterous Gershon "efficiency savings" - even though three-quarters of the previous savings were bogus (see previous posts eg here).

Oh yes, to make sure these savings don't result in worse public services, he's going to combine them with yet more citizen guarantees of good service. Job done.

Does he actually believe this garbage? And does he imagine we'll believe it? Not only is he a proven liar, but he is the very man directly responsible for the bloated public sector which now afflicts us. How can he possibly think we'll believe a word he says on efficiency?

Yes, of course, there is huge waste in the public sector: we have spent the last five years blogging that very subject. But there is absolutely no reason to think fresh orders from the top will change anything. The public sector has had 12 years of Labour's Stalinist management methods, and they are utterly discredited.

What we need is fundamental public sector reform. By which we mean what we've always meant - break up the monolith and introduce choice and competition. The money must be put directly into the hands of the customers, and the producers must compete for the customers' biz.

That is the only way we know that will both free frontline professionals to manage their own affairs, and  incentivise them to meet customer needs. No amount of citizen guarantees, online league tables, and unringfenced grants comes anywhere close to the simple power of the marketplace.

Sure, Brown will never wrap his socialist head around that.

But there's no excuse for Cam.

Meanwhile, with Rome well and truly in flames, and entirely at your expense, Brown's wife has thrown a Tweet party at No 10:

"Guests at the Downing Tweet Christmas Party were able to tweet about the event from a specially created ‘Tweetzone’ whilst they were entertained by singer Beverley Knight and ate mince pies adorned with the iconic Twitter bird."

Let them eat Twitter mince pies.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Pre-Election Budget Report - Those Treasury Leaks In Full



BOM sources inside HM Treasury have smuggled out key passages from Wednesday's Pre-Budget Report. Quote:
  • Growth - due to unforeeable global circumstances entirely beyond the government's control, GDP this year may have fallen by somewhat more than the 2.75% decline forecast in April's Budget. But next year and forever after, growth will be much much stronger - the central estimate is now 7% pa, reflecting the fruits of the government's growth policies which were opposed every step of the way by the Old Etonians.
  • Spending - once again, public spending on vital frontline services will increase year-on-year - unlike the savage cuts planned by the Old Etonians. Wave after wave of Gershon efficiency savings will enable NHS waiting lists to be abolished, every child to have one-on-one personal tuition, and all our old people to spend their remaining years in the Dorchester Hotel. And to prove it, here are the figures: 3.1658, 3.1672, 3.2534, 4.6739, and 5.9912.
  • Tax - hard-working families will be rewarded with a new tax credit scheme, known as a Certificated Revenue Accrual Participation. This will bribe voters entitle hard-working families to a massive tax cut, encashable only if they vote for us at a date to be announced in the next budget. The CRAP will be financed by a new tax on super-rich Old Etonians.
  • Fiscal responsibility - as a result of the strong and sustained growth now in prospect, tax revenues are projected to increase at their fastest rate for a generation. The fiscal envelope will be stuffed as never before, and the National Debt will have been paid off in its entirety by 2015. There will be health, wealth and happiness for all. Except Old Etonians.
*****

So is this PBR in any sense a serious exercise?

The leaks say that there will be a public spending freeze. But what does that mean?

As you will recall, April's Budget incorporated spending cuts (the ones denied by liar Brown for so long), but there was no clue as to what they would be. They were just unspecified cuts. And from what Darling told his old school chum Mr Marr this morning, we will get no more detail this time. Darling reckoned he can't specify the detail because there's too much uncertainty just now. What self-serving piffle.

The only spending cut he was prepared to mention is BOM's old friend the NHS Supercomputer - the white elephant personally ordered by Bliar at an initial budget of £2.3bn, last estimated to cost £12.7bn, running years behind schedule, and not actually working (see numerous previous posts). Setting aside the obvious question of WTFFFFFFFFF they ever did it in the first place, scrapping it is sensible - when we looked into possible savings, we reckoned outright scrapping could still save us c £1bn pa each year up until 2015-16.

But apart from that, the rest is silence. Cam and Oz will be starting from scratch.

PS Pre-budget Treasury leaks (aka expectations management) are of course as old as time. Tyler himself was once involved in an official leaks enquiry when he worked at HMT. Funnily enough, they never did trace that one back to its obvious source just across the courtyard (see this blog).

The Joke Is On You



A life of privilege 

In case you've never heard of him, comedian Marcus Brigstocke is yet another privileged public schoolboy* employed by the BBC. His routine comprises slagging off capitalism and the Evil Tories.

Among his other BBC jobs, he has a regular slot on R4's Now Show, a weekly 30 mins of "comedy sketches and satirical comments". And this week, after wittily describing John Redwood as a "glassy-eyed replicant MP",  he spent most of his slot having a go at the TaxPayers' Alliance (you can listen again here - 11 mins 50 secs in - HTP Bill Quango).

We needn't spend time quoting him, but essentially he says the TPA are evil anti-social racist pigs (complete with grunts and trotters).

Which is fine. Absolutely what guilt-ridden rich boy lefty comedians ought to be saying. And doubtless there's a market for it.

But please don't ask me to pay for it. I don't find Brigstocke remotely funny, and I wouldn't dream of paying to see him.

Unfortunately, the tax-funded BBC doesn't give me a choice. It forces me to pay the telly tax, and then uses a chunk of it to employ this dire big government "comedian". Not only that, but it also gives him a national platform to hector and insult the growing number of us who are sick of being ripped off to pay for things we just don't want. Like Brigstocke.

It's a joke all right. But not a very funny one.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again - roll on privatisation.

*Footnote: Brigstocke comes from the leafy glades of Guildford, just down the road from the Major. Born with a large silver object inserted into one or other of his orifices, he was educated at Westbourne House School (fees £12870 pa), King's Bruton (fees £24,711 pa - pic above), and Bristol University (notorious for its high public school count and its close career links to the BBC). And why is that relevant? Because Brigstocke had the privileges of wealth handed to him on a plate, yet now makes his living by decrying those who seek to create wealth for themselves. It sticks in my craw.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Flat Earthers And Assholes



OK, it's warmer... but why?

Two, ahem, thoughtful contributions to the climate debate yesterday:

"With only days to go before Copenhagen, we mustn't be distracted by the behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-earth climate sceptics. We know the science. We know what we must do. We must now act." (Mr G Brown, a public employee with a direct career interest in extending the role of the state)

"What an asshole." (Professor Andrew Watson, a public employee with a direct career interest in extending the role of climate scientists)

Now, many of us would agree with Professor Watson's description applied to Mr B. Except of course, he wasn't describing Mr B: he'd hardly bite the hand that feeds.

No, the Prof - who is something senior at the University of East Anglia's utterly discredited Climategate Research Unit - was describing a fellow Newsnight discussant who had the temerity to challenge his views. Poor Martha hardly knew where to look (you can watch again here - at least for the next 48 hours)*.

As others have pointed out, once they start playing the man not the ball, you know they've lost. Climategate has crystallised the entire issue.

Because it turns out that these blinkered arrogant.... er... assholes have cobbled together hundreds of years of supposed temperature data from Irish pixie rings, crunched the data through a battery of computer models so convoluted they themselves can't remember precisely how they worked, and then presented the results as incontrovertible science. "Science" that has been embraced by big government types worldwide to justify a further massive increase in taxation, regulation, and jobs for the boys.

And as the scales drop from the public's eyes, all these assorted tax-dependents can come up with is that if we won't take their word for it, we must be behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-earthers. Like, we should trust them because they have always been as pure as the driven snow... not that we'll have snow much longer.

So what's the truth, and can we handle it?

The story most of us have finally pieced together goes something like this:

The earth's climate has warmed a bit over the last few decades, although the warming seems to have stopped in 1998. There is no robust scientific explanation of why this has happened, which is hardly surprising given the complexity of the global climate system. Moreover, data on long-term climate change is extremely sketchy, although we do know that there has been considerable variation in the UK's climate over the last couple of millennia (from vineyards to ice fairs on the Thames, and back again).

So what should we be doing?

Given the uncertainty over the basic climate data, we're not at all clear we should be doing anything.

But even if we accept that the climate is warming, nobody has yet convinced us it's mainly down to our activities. The official line is that the link has been proved, but the people who say that have never presented the evidence in an open and transparent form that we can examine for ourselves. They simply assert it, present a load of hyped up exaggerated garbage like Gore's lamentable film, and rant hysterically at anyone who dares to question their authority.

But that's simply not good enough. It's not good enough for Brown and Miliband to close down debate by telling me and 60% of the UK population that we're flat-earthers. It's not good enough for them to tell us we have to go on with the green taxes and all the rest just because the world is warming. If the world is warming for natural rather than manmade reasons, making ourselves poorer by stifling our economy is not going to help - on the contrary, it will render us much less able to afford the costs of adaptation.

I want to be convinced. I want to see the actual evidence and be taken through how the models actually work. I want to understand the doubts and uncertainties, and I want to hear from both sides of the debate. And no, I'm not a climate scientist or even a scientist. But I do consider myself to be of at least average intelligence, and I do know a reasonable amount about number crunching and statistical models. And I do want to know.

So why can't the BBC do that for me? And not yet more spin from their in-house propagandists, but a sensible old-style BBC series with half of the progs presented by a sceptical specialist (Mrs T and I nominate Prof Stott).

*PS Yes, we realise Newsnight chose their climate sceptic to face Prof Watson with extreme care, in order to present all sceptics as excitable non-scientists. We are all aware by now that the BBC's editorial position on climate change is that of green propagandists. BOM correspondent NN suffered a seizure while watching a BBC news report on Wednesday about salt traders in Timbuktu. According to the report - a NEWS report note - said traders have apparently had to swap their transport camels for great big climate destroying trucks, because global warming has made the camels too tired and thirsty to do the work (well there is also the small matter of the always biddable truck being able to haul in one week what it takes the moody camels seven to achieve, but the real villain is definitely global warming). After a strong dose of smelling salts, NN emailed - "They sent a sodding reporter and camera crew and translator to sodding Timbuktu for this garbage. By camel? I would be willing to wager that they flew in a nice shiny aeroplane and then carted all their gear on one of the very same evil trucks that cause climate change. At least I hope so. The thought of BBC reporters earning 45 days of per diems while lugging their crap around on 1st century technology is truly alarming. What could have been a really good example of creative destruction and new technologies replacing old for the good of all involved becomes a truly loopy example of green non-thought. And spare a thought for the Tuareg salt-trader. Who wouldn't rather spend 45 days in blistering heat and thirst with a load of wheezing camels than seven days in an air-conditioned truck listening to Timbuktu FM. Of course it was climate change what done it. Aaaaargh. I think I need to leave the country to escape the madness, - by horse." We may join him.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Rich At Our Expense




Purrrrrrrr

By a strange coincidence, this year's Public Sector Rich List from the TaxPayers' Alliance is published just as the row over bankers' bonuses explodes once again.

The Rich List first. This year, the TPA has discovered 805 public employees earning more than £150,000 pa (and that excludes local authority employees, who are covered in the TPA's companion study, The Town Hall Rich List). Among the "highlights" (data relates to 2008-09):
  • 8 people got more than £1m pa
  • 333 earned more than the Prime Minister
  • The group's average pay rise was 5.4%, compared to 2.7% for a nurse and 2.3% for a teacher
  • The group's average total remuneration is £226k per annum; by comparison, according to the Institute of Directors, a managing director of a private organisation with a turnover of between £50 million and £500 million (about the size of a typical quango) could expect to earn £141k and an executive director £87k.
And for the first time, the Rich List includes executives from our nationalised banks (but note it's only board members - ie it doesn't including all those high rolling traders and investment bankers who remain anonymous because they are not on the boards). There are 30 of them, including the List's top earner, Mark Fisher of the Royal Bank of Scotland, on £1.4m.

Which brings us back to those banker bonuses, with over 5000 of the varmints apparently in line for over £1m apiece - ie a total bill in excess of £5bn just for the top guys.

Should we care?

You bet we should. As my Lord Myners was explaining all day yesterday, these bankers have been bailed out with squillions of taxpayer dosh. Apart from the effectively nationalised banks (ie RBS and Lloyds), all the other UK banks are being propped up with open-ended taxpayer guarantees on their liabilities. WTF should we allow them to walk off with barrowloads of our cash?

So what of their threats to resign and go off to work for Goldmans?

Call their bluff, we say.

Look, the key reason we're still in this mess is because Brown has not grasped the nettle we've blogged about so often (eg here). However it's dressed up, we need to split high street retail banking away from investment banking (aka a new Glass-Steagall).

High street banking should go back to being a low risk utility type operation, fully guaranteed by taxpayers but heavily regulated and subject to a hefty annual insurance charge to pay for the guarantee. Pay packets would soon return to the the more modest levels that always used to exist in our high street banks.

In contrast, investment banking should be much less regulated, a thousand flowers should continue to bloom, but there should be absolutely no taxpayer guarantee, either explicit or implicit. Investment bankers should pay themselves whatever they like, but if their bets go wrong, they should be left to incinerate.

We desperately need to get on with this. The existing arrangements are not only grossly unfair to taxpayers, but over time they will hobble our nationalised banks into oblivion. Whatever they decide to do, they will not be able to match their competitors bonuswise, because we won't let them. They will inevitably go the way of all nationalised industries before them - second-rate and a drain on national prosperity.

So what would we do right now?

Irrespective of international agreement, we'd announce our own Glass-Steagall. From say, end-2011, any bank wishing to offer UK high street accounts guaranteed by the taxpayer would have to comply with new regulatory requirements. And those requirements would include complete separation from any entity offering investment banking services (there would be other restrictions as well, covering such matters as asset and liability liquidity).

Meanwhile, we'd say to our nationalised banks yes, you can continue to pay bonuses, but they have to be in the form of deferred equity in your new post-2011 offspring. Cash? Forget it.

Throughout history, so-called "rent seekers" have sought to capture government so as to extract unwarranted financial gain at the expense of taxpayers. But whether in the public sector or the private, taxpayers should not be expected to underwrite the riches of others.

PS And talking of rent seekers, the furore over Climategate is gathering pace. The conflicted tax-funded global warming industry has now woken up to the threat, and is trying to argue that lies and distortions from East Anglia aren't that important to the case - loads of other "respected" scientists have come up with the same results independently. Except of course, it isn't like that. As the splendid Prof Philip Stott pointed out on R4 Today this morning, the whole global warming biz is an inverted pyramid, resting on the work of about 40 scientists. And 39 of them work at East Anglia. Well, no, I made that last bit up, but it is only around 40, forming a very tight groupthink mutual support network. But like the man said, you can't fool all of the taxpayers all of the time.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ken Puts His Finger On It



The man who sorted us last time*

Ken Clarke holds a number of views we don't share, but all things considered, he was a pretty reasonable Chancellor. Indeed, from the vantage point of today's blackened economic crater, his famous Golden Legacy looks a little more golden with every passing day. If only he could have stayed at the controls. If oooonly.

So when he speaks about matters fiscal, we always listen. And he's just put his finger on something that's been troubling us for months.

In some classic off-the-cuff Ken remarks, he's let slip some of the fiscal advice he's been giving to young George. He's apparently warned George against “getting too adventurous” in plans for public spending cuts before the next general election. He points out that some voters could be scared away from the Tory party if it was too specific about tax and spending plans:

“You could then wind up with a very messy outcome... I think it is very difficult to have a sensible argument. You are running enormous risks — we have not had an election like this before.”


Although emphasising that most people knew that the level of public debt was “disgraceful and unsustainable”, he said: “The population is only keen on tough measures so long as they don’t affect them and their families.”


Predicting that Labour would portray the Tories as wanting “to do the nasty stuff — you know, take away unnecessarily”, Mr Clarke said: “We will find some voters are seduced away by that if we are not careful, so there is a problem in the run-up to the election if we start getting too adventurous.”

Spot on. The veritable nub.

You see, we're back to the old problem with democratic politics and taxpayers' money. Backsliding self-serving animals that we are, we are quite happy to cut spending, but only so long as it doesn't impact on us.

Take Tyler. Although he doesn't look a day over 30, in reality he'll turn 60 next year. At which point he'll cop a free bus pass. And free prescriptions. And probably a sackful of additional goodies he hasn't yet discovered.

Now, he shouldn't get any of that. He is well able to afford it for himself, and he knows it**. But what if the Tories threaten to take it away along with a whole stack of other middle class welfare benefits? Will he get miffed? Well he might. Especially when he finds out the Tories will close his local hospital, and withdraw policing from boozed-up Guildford on Saturday nights.

Experienced politicos like Ken understand this only too well. They are principally in the business of getting elected, and there is simply no electoral upside in promising to cut spending. All cuts will hurt someone, and they are very likely to take against you.

Yes. Yes, indeed. An iron law of democratic politics.

Except where does that leave us vis-à-vis the jolly old fiscal crater? Is the plan that Cam gets in on an Obama-style promise to make everything better, and then once he's in, he... well, what exactly? Rip off the mask within days and implement savage and untrailed spending cuts? Or dither and dally Obama-style as reality gets ever uglier around him?

Which do you reckon sounds more likely?

Yes, quite.

Hmmm.... mmmm.... ohhhhh...

The ghastly truth is that we won't vote for spending cuts because we aren't yet ready. As we've noted before, we haven't yet suffered the Götterdämmerung crisis that we need to concentrate minds. We haven't yet had the outright collapse in sterling. We haven't yet had the terrifying spike up in borrowing costs and inflation. We haven't even had the real end of our property ladder fantasies.

So we're not ready. We won't yet vote for politicos who promise serious cuts because we haven't yet suffered the pain of not cutting. And even if our politicos understand the grim realities, there's no way they'll promise cuts if it means we won't vote for them.

Ggggggggggg.... guuuu.... glug....

Look, I do apologise for a week of terminal depression.

I really will try to find something upbeat to blog.

There has to be something.

*PS Yes, it's true that Ken's fiscal consolidation did involve increasing taxes as a percentage of GDP, from 32% to 35% of GDP. But the main work was done by a reduction in spending, from 43% to 38% of GDP (TME).

**Footnote Tyler's small stater sense of identity is telling him not to accept the "free" anythings. But his sense of tax victim outrage is telling him to grab whatever's going.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hubble Bubble



Bubbling: Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee in session


A frightening article in today's FT (HTP JW):

"Some of the most controversial financing practices of the credit-bubble years – from cov lite loans to Pik toggle notes and dividend recap exercises – have returned to Wall Street, stoking fears that debt markets are growing overheated. The techniques fell into disrepute during the financial crisis because they were based to varying degrees on the same rosy expectations that encouraged companies and consumers to assume what proved to be crippling levels of debt."
Don't understand the lingo?

"In a cov light – short for covenant light – loan, borrowers are granted credit with few, if any, conditions. Pik toggle transactions make it possible for debt to be repaid with more debt – payment-in-kind notes. In a dividend recap, companies take on additional debt to pay dividends to their owners."
Or as market insider JW puts it:

"COV-LITE, THE FINANCING YOU COULDN'T DEFAULT ON UNLESS YOU WERE CAUGHT STABBING THE CEO'S PET LABRADOR - AND THEN ONLY IF THE LABRADOR HAD BEEN A PET FOR A VERY LONG TIME."
Yes, junk financing is back, underlining a point we've blogged before - the bubble is reinflating. From equity markets to property to junk bonds to banker bonuses, the hubbling bubbling balloon of insanity is once again looming over us.

And you don't need to be a professor of finance to understand why: yesterday's junk debt has been shuffled off onto the taxpayer, interest rates are more or less zero, and sitting on your banking hands never earned a megabonus.

Well, that's not so bad you say, at least we've got the economy growing again, and stopped unemployment spiralling.

Except of course, we haven't. When last sighted (Q3), our economy was still contracting, and unemployment was still rising.

And then there's the horrible head-splitting issue of government debt. As we blogged here, our real national debt (including public sector pensions, PFI, and various other Enron items) is already £2.2 trillion - about 150% of GDP. Adding in the contingent liabilities we've taken on by nationalising RBS and Lloyds takes the total  to £4.6 trillion - well over 300% of GDP. And to put that in context, the normal rule of thumb based on historic experience says that 60% is the maximum safe limit.

You see, the thing is - and pay attention because you may have missed this - by nationalising all those bad bank debts, we've not only let off the bankers from the full consequences of their previous actions, we've also exposed ourselves (ie we the taxpayers) to the major risk that our credit will be cut off. Sure, we are not Dubai (quite), but a 300% debt/GDP ratio is flashing red, red, RED.

We're reinflating those dangerous asset bubbles on the back of our collective sovereign credit. Credit that is already stretched way beyond normal bounds.

So what happens? On the basis of what we've heard so far, here's what we think.

The next government will fail to deliver the spending cuts required to get our public finances back on track. Tax increases will undermine enterprise and effort. Economic growth will be very sluggish over the next few years - much less than the preposterous 3.25% pa envisaged in the last budget. At some stage the markets will take fright. Sterling will plunge (further) and interest rates will surge - long-term rates will be jacked up by the markets, and the Bank of England will jack up short-term rates in an attempt the stabilise sterling. House prices will slump. The bubble will collapse.

At which point, the only way out will be inflation. Lots of it. All that money printed by the Bank to support the bubble will finally come home to roost. And trust me, roosting bank notes are not a pretty sight, especially if you're a pensioner or a saver.

Hopefully, I'm wrong. Hopefully, Cam gets a working majority, screws up his courage, and comes up with a credible programme for sorting the public finances (ie spending cuts combined with bankable fiscal rules).

But most people we've spoken to reckon Cam is SuperMac Mk II. As you will recall, SuperMac Mk I was a so-called one nation Tory patrician who throrougly disapproved of the tough fiscal policies pursued under Thatcher. And as you will also recall, he was the PM who had his entire Treasury team resign because he would not back their plan for restraining public expenditure.

You know what? I've depressed myself again.

Think I'll stop there and maybe treat myself to a shot of morphine.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

In Their Heads But Not Their Souls



The fire last time

Yesterday Tyler had a chat with one of Britain's few sound MPs. We naturally touched on our fiscal crisis, and the risks of a 70s style market meltdown. Tyler wondered if MPs understand the need for urgent and painful action?

"Well, on one level, yes... but it's in their heads, not their souls."
Which seemed a pretty good summary of the entire problem, from the top down.

Brown/Darling have acknowledged the need for some kind of fiscal tightening, but not until way off in the medium-term, well beyond the next election. And even then, they've kept the details hidden, and their numbers only add up on the basis of wildly optimistic assumptions about future economic growth (eg see this blog).

Cam/Os have talked much more of the tightening talk, but their announced measures deliver less than £10bn of the £50-100bn cuts required (eg see this blog). St Vince ditto (see this blog).

The hope seems to be that once again, we can somehow muddle through. Unfortunately, our fiscal hole is now so big, that is most unlikely.

Last week, Tyler attended a session to launch of Politeia's latest paper Booms, Busts & Fiscal Policy - Public finances in the future? (unfortunately not online). It was written by one of BOM's heroes - Ludger Schuknecht, a senior economist at the European Central Bank and co-author of a seminal study on the inefficiency of Big Government (Public Spending in the 20th Century).

Disappointingly, Mr Schuknecht himself wasn't actually in attendance - that's because ECB rules apparently require him to clear anything he ever says in advance with his bosses (Soviet institutions didn't trust their senior staff to go out alone without minders either).

Anyway, Schuknecht reviews the deterioration of public finances across the major economies, and says our fiscal situation is the worst:
"The worsening in fiscal balances [is] staggering... within only three years, public debt is projected to increase by 40 per cent of GDP in the UK [against 30% in the US, and 20% in Japan and the Euro area]...

The first challenge must be the ambitious correction of fiscal deficits so that the debt dynamics do not explode... Given the higher deficits in the UK... their dynamics could be even less favourable..."
So debt dynamicwise, our position is even less favourable than an explosion. Does it get any worse than that?

[Debt dynamics? We've blogged about this before under its everyday label - the Doomsday Machine - and it's the simple idea that once debt gets beyond a certain point, the interest on that debt starts to cumulate faster than the borrower can pay down the debt... leading to all of us having to turn off the central heating and live on baked beans for the next 30 years]

HTF did we get here? Schuknecht highlights something we've blogged many many times on BOM - Brown spent far too much. Either deliberately or recklessly, Brown assumed a temporary boom in tax revenues from the finance and property bubbles was permanent income for him to spend as he wished. Which, coupled with the increase in welfare spending from this recession, means that in 2010 public spending will exceed 50% of GDP. And over the decade of the noughties, public spending will have increased by a pant-wetting 16% of GDP, far more than any other major economy (Germany's increase is 1.4%).

So what to do?

Mr S has a familiar prescription - spending must be cut substantially.

As he points out, deficit reductions based on tax increases are not only damaging to economic growth, they are unlikely to be sustainable from a political perspective - ie people won't tolerate them for long. And as he further points out, there is now considerable evidence (including that gathered by he himself) that government spending much above 35% of GDP is increasingly inefficient - ie it does little to achieve its objectives:

"A ratio below 40% of GDP and ideally 30-35% should be sufficient and allow good outcomes in areas judged to matter in western economies: functioning markets, equal opportunity for market participants, essential public goods and services, infrastructure, economic stability, and income distribution.

The evidence is that ambitious reforms that reduce government spending on public employment and other public consumption and on transfers and subsidies, is the best and most successful way to bring down public spending at little cost to economic cost and wellbeing."
So we need an axe, but the axe needs to be combined with a serious programme of public sector reform... something like school vouchers and competing social health insurers, say.

Oh, and one other thing - the state pension age needs to be increased much further and faster than we currently plan. The truth is we cannot afford it any more, and people are going to have to support themselves for much more of their lives (thereby of course, boosting economic growth and improving the fiscal arithmetic still further).

All very sensible stuff, fully supported here on BOM.

But as it happens, there were a couple of very senior MPs at this Politeia event, and while one of them seemed to get it, the other observed that cuts are all very well but we must not push them so far as to foment social unrest.

Presumably, he was thinking of the riots in Toxteth, Brixton, etc back in the early 80s (pic). And you have to say, you could imagine it happening again - especially given the tensions over mass immigration and British jobs for British workers.

But on the other side, TINA is heading back towards us. And this time she looks mad as hell.

As we've blogged many times, we are standing on the fiscal edge. Buoyed by the Bank of England's massive gilt purchases, and the belief hope that Cam/Os will get a post-Election grip, the markets have so far given us the benefit of the doubt. But if that slips, we are in real trouble. As spelled out in yesterday's report from investment bank Morgan Stanley:

“Growing fears over a hung parliament would likely weigh on both the currency and gilt yields as it would represent something of a leap into the unknown, and would increase the probability that some of the rating agencies remove the UK's AAA status...

In an extreme situation a fiscal crisis could lead to some domestic capital flight, severe pound weakness and a sell-off in UK government bonds. The Bank of England may feel forced to hike rates to shore up confidence in monetary policy and stabilize the currency, threatening the fragile economic recovery.”

Hung parliaments... MPs with weak souls... Cam/Os faffing around... TINA looking mad... a long hot summer...

Sounds like it's time to follow the Major and lay in some fire extinguishers. And a shotgun.