The Austerity Myth or the Great Lie
I apologise for any typo’s as it was written in anger after George Osborne’s speech
There is a consensus amongst the governing classes and that the overriding crisis of our times is that of excessive government debt. No matter what the price to be paid in terms of rising unemployment, increasing poverty, there is not too a high price that can be paid for eliminating that debt. However unlike most myths which have some truth in them, this is one founded on the ‘Great Lie’. The real crisis that of over indebted banks and the high price that is paid to keep them in existence. In Europe and the UK that price is large scale unemployment amongst the young, in the UK 1 in 5 young people are unemployed and in Greece it is 1 in 2. Europe is sacrificing the futures of its young to preserve the wealth and status of a particularly unpleasant group of people, the bankers and the financial elite.
The media constantly reports on the growing national debt which had risen to 85.8% of GDP in March 2012. With an economically illiterate media, political elite and population it is easy to run scare stories about the dangers of such a large debt. The fact that this figure is not historically high, is temporary and the fact that high levels of such debt can coincide with periods of high growth as well as low growth is lost in a miasma of media untruths. What is never mentioned in the media is the high level of indebtedness of the UK banks. Paul Tucker in 2009 brought out a report suggesting that the debts of the banks equalled 5x the size of UK’s GDP, more recently Morgan Stanley suggested that figure was 6x the size of UK’s GDP. Critics have rubbished the latter figure suggesting its only 2x GDP. Since the banks have not ceased the reckless behaviour they indulged in before the crisis, I suspect a figure of 2x GDP is too low. What has happened is that the banks have successfully deflected the story from being one about the problem of massively over indebted banks to a focus of the less significant problem of government debt.
What is most surprising is that the best educated parliament in our history (a legislature dominated by graduates many with good degrees from the best universities) has never questioned this narrative, they have accepted the bankers story as the true one. There are interesting parallels with the past. Germany of the Weimar Republic had the best educated population, yet in fell prey to the follies of Nazism. What is interesting is the that intellectual elite in both countries fell for a brutualist philosophy, which derided the current morality of society as being a bar to progress. In Germany it was the philosophy of ‘sturm un drang’ and the moral scepticism of Nietzsche’s superman philosophy and in England the ‘Neo-liberalism of Hayek and Alyn Rand. What both taught was a contempt for the masses of humanity and a culture that pandered to their needs, a culture of weaklings. The superior beings who should dictate mankind’s future were Nietzsche’s superman, the ‘blond beast’ or Alyn Rand’s billionaires. Both of these types of super beings were denied their potential by a culture that denied them their place at the forefront of humanity. Rand even advocated the mass starvation and death of the millions of useless humanity. What these philosophies created was an ethical waste ground, where a mass murderer could become leader or one in which predatory financiers could thrive by looting businesses of their wealth, making thousands unemployed and yet be lauded as successful kings of finance. What the Nazis wanted was to remake their nation as a dynamic state which under the leadership of the Aryan supermen, would come first in the competition between nations. Neo-liberals similarly wanted to revitalise English culture by destroying the welfare state and the culture of dependency it engendered. For the Germans the superman was the SS Officer and for the Neo – Liberals it is the financier, both would remake society the first through violence and the second through financial muscle. Since the British Parliament is largely drawn from the intellectual elite, who see financiers as the saviours of British society they could not comprehend why the banking system failed, they were all too willing to put it down to a once in a life time crisis caused by events external to the UK and not the greed, incompetence or recklessness of bankers. Is this not why George Brown, despite all the evidence to the contrary, engaged bankers to direct the financial recovery?
The state cannot be absolved of all blame for the crisis as the government during the Chancellorship and Premiership of Gordon Brown did its utmost to encourage the speculative frenzy in the financial markets. Such frenzy provided a lucrative source of revenue through taxes such as s tamp duty and capital gains tax. Not the first government to become over dependent on tax revenue from such a volatile source as gambling. Economic history is the most neglected subject in the curriculum of our university educated elite.
What did the banker’s want most of all? To carry on as before and to avoid that what should happen in any crisis, the closure unsound businesses of which they were the most prominent example. What classical economists taught was that recessions were an economic Darwinism that weeded out all the weak businesses leaving only the strong surviving. In this crisis the weakest of the weak were the banks. What they had to avoid was paying the price of their recklessness, that is bankruptcy. Fortunately for them the government of UK would do all that was necessary to prevent that happening. The National Audit Office estimated that the government had paid £123.93 billion to bail out the banks and at the height of the crisis had stood guarantor for banks liabilities to the tune of £1.2 trillion. In 2009 the value of GDP was £139.26 trillion, so the UK had guaranteed debts equal to 86% of GDP or National Income. In the unlikely event that all those liabilities had to be met UK plc would have become bankrupt.
What was it that would enable the banks to remain solvent and continue as before? Low interest rates, what is called a cheap money policy. The many loans they had given out to borrowers to finance their speculative activities in the property or asset markets could only be financed by those borrowers if the interest they had to pay on these loans was small. As gambling on future speculative gains meant that what mattered, was not the current return on their investment, but the large sum to be made selling on the business at an inflated price. When the market stopped moving upwards such borrowers were in trouble, as they had borrowed far too much to buy these businesses and falling sales meant they had difficulty in financing their loans. In addition in a depressed market they were unlikely to find a buyer a d recoup their initial investment. One such example was Guy Hands who took over EMI hoping to reorganise it and sell it on at an inflated price. The market for EMI’s products collapsed and Guy Hands had difficulties in financing his borrowing. Eventually he disposed on the various parts of EMI to other private equity firms at a loss.
It was a similar situation in the property market, as there individuals and property developers had over borrowed on the anticipation of continually rising prices in the property market, as a large loan could easily be paid off by selling the property at an inflated price. since between 70 and 80% of bank loans are to the property market, financial catastrophe threatened.
Whether consciously or not Mervyn King was the saviour of the banks. He presided over a cheap money policy at the Bank of England, the Bank of England rate fell to an unheard level of 0.5%. Since the Bank of England rate was the base rate on which all lenders based their interest rates, all interest rates would fall in the market. The rationale for this policy was that low interest rates would make it cheap for businesses to borrow and this would encourage economic growth. Also low interest rates would enable over indebted British households to continue to pay their mortgages and avoid eviction. What he knew but did not say, was that a cheap money policy would be the saviour of our over indebted banks, who would not face a collapse of their loan books.
However it is not sufficient just to set the rate; there has to be a means by which all other financial institutions can be persuaded to follow that lead. The government did this by committing itself to end its spend thrift ways. A little digression is needed here bank rate is the rate of interest at which the government sells it borrows money and lenders will only lend money at low rates if they think it is a sound investment. As history shows when markets judge governments as unsound borrowing rates will be very high. Essentially they want to know that the government will have the wherewithal to repay its loans. Consequently the Labour government announced plans to cut its budget deficits. The market was satisfied and rates kept low.
This is a very simplistic account of the current situation, but it without parody summarises the thinking of the bankers. When the IMF or World Bank lent funds to countries, they inevitably only lent money to governments if they cut spending. In reality the cuts imposed on these countries invariably did little to help them out of the mess they were in, all these countries gained was the finance to pay off some of their foreign creditors. Surprisingly the cuts they imposed always seem to benefit foreign investors who could invest in the newly privatised state businesses. The blue print for aid was always drafted in a way to benefit rich foreign multi- national companies. What was always evident was has the self interest of the foreigner lenders motivated their actions.
Similarly with the City of London, they were able to have their cake and eat it. The banks and the city traders benefitted from low interest rates, as it meant that they had cheap money which made it easier that ever to speculate, as if money cost next to nothing to borrow, the costs of speculation were minimal. Those potentially rotten assets held by the banks would never be revealed as such, because the rates of interest were so low, that even the most indebted speculator could finance his borrowings. On top of that the government initiated a huge programme of quantitative easing which gave the banks vast amounts of practically free money, at present it totals £375 billion. In addition the programme of spending cuts have given them new opportunities to make money, as was accompanied by a programme of privatising state assets or services. One such example is the forthcoming privatisation of the probation service. There are fees for arranging privatisation and endless consultancy fees for advising on ever ingenious ways to scale back the size of government. Perhaps without too much exaggeration what Harold MacMillan’s said in 1959 about the UK applies to the banks, they ‘have never had it so good’.
There is a much darker side to the picture which is never discussed, except obliquely. If the economy picks up the demand for money will rise (money required for investment in new equipment, stocks etc.) and so interest rates will rise. Interest rates are low only if the demand for money is low, that is supply is greater than demand. Banks are continually claiming that there is no demand for loans from business, so the supply of money exceeds demand. While rates are low there is no chance of the insolvency of the banks being exposed, as borrowers won’t be forced to default on their loans. How conscious is the demand amongst bankers for demand in the economy to be suppressed is hard to tell. Certainly the wiser heads amongst them realise a depressed economy works in their interest. Bankers certainly represent an influential voice in government. What ever the self knowledge of bankers, they all know it is in their interest to continue the policy of cheap money, even if it means keeping the economy in a state of continual depression.
One of the wisest of the current generation warned of the dangers of growth. In a report published on the 27th June 2013, Mervyn King spoke of the dangers of increased growth even if his language was very guarded. He said increased economic growth would lead to an increase in interest rates, which require over indebted households to find additional sources of income to fund their mortgage repayments. What he did not say was that there would be the risk of increased insolvencies among indebted households and businesses. Depending on the level of insolvency this could have very serious consequences for the banks. His solution is to reduce the restrictions on banks so they would have more money at their disposal which could then be used to finance another speculative asset boom. Rising prices in the housing market would offset the rise in interest prices. He never spoke about the speculative boom but its safe to assume that this is what he meant.
Having written far more than I intended, what I have demonstrated is that the current policies of the government are of benefit to only the banks and the City of London. The whole country is paying the price for the follies of the super rich (aided by the naïveté of government). The banks can only remain solvent if the UK continues almost indefinitely in a state of semi depression or if the UK indulges in yet another frenzied housing and asset boom. The greatest losers are the young, years of depression means reduced job opportunities and lower incomes, continued job insecurity and for many long periods of unemployment. Another lost generation similar to that of the 1920 ‘s when the City of London demanded a policy of financial retrenchment which served its interests and those of nobody else. The alternative is hardly any better, economic growth generated by another speculative boom, which will lock millions out of the housing market and inevitably end in a speculative bust.
One final point should be made if banks had gone bankrupt had in 2009, the greatest losers would have been the super rich. It was they who had invested millions in speculation. There would have been a repeat of 1929, when in America failed financiers in despair threw themselves out of windows of Wall Street. The lesson of the years since 2009 is that there is never too high price that the super rich expect the rest of us to pay to protect their wealth.