Economics of the precipice

There seems to be a lemming like instinct among politicians, in that if the economy is in trouble they seem to do exactly the thing that is designed to push it off the economic cliff. A behaviour that mirrors that of the lemmings who are popularly supposed to commit mass suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea.The current situation in the United Kingdom (UK) provides a good example of this lemming instinct within the political classes.

The economic auguries are not good for the UK. One obvious problem is the record trade deficit, the highest for any country in the developed world. Then there are the record levels of consumer debt again some of the highest in the developed world. Finally there is the combined deficits of the banking sector which are in excess of 400% of GDP.  There are also a host of other problems such as some of the lowest levels of productivity in Europe and the continuing decline of the manufacturing sector make for a troubled economy. The decline in the manufacturing skills base is is so marked that the Ministry of Defence can no longer find within the British economy sufficient native engineers to design and build our warships. In desperation the Ministry of Defence had to borrow warship designers and engineers from the USA for this task. In such a situation what is least needed is a political shock that could send the UK economy into a dangerous downward spiral. Yet our political classes did just that with Brexit.

One of the leading campaigners even said that the warnings of economists should be ignored as there could always be found self interested experts to support any political campaign. Ignoring the facts is the criteria of all lemming politicians.

To be fair the vote leave politicians they did recognise that there might be an economic downturn, in the event of a vote to leave the EU. However they assumed that it would be a small and temporary economic downturn one from which the economy would bounce back. History shows that when politicians plan what they think will be a temporary economic downturn, it proves to be anything but, as these downturns can easily spiral out of control.

The greatest threat to the UK prosperity is its massive private sector indebtedness. The level of debt is so great that it vies with Japan for the unwanted title most indebted of developed nations. Unfortunately it is in a much weaker position than Japan in that much of that debt is debt owned by foreigners. This foreign owned debt consists largely of money lent at short notice (that is the debt that the owners can demand repayment of immediately or within a very short time period), which is then lent long to property companies etc. Meaning that in the event of a large withdrawal of funds the banks will have trouble meeting the demand for cash. Only if the banks and the Bank of England have sufficient reserves of foreign currency can they meet the demand.

This is a very volatile situation as demonstrated by the fact that soon after the Brexit decision, many property funds had to stop customers withdrawing funds as they did not have sufficient funds to meet the demand for cash. This proved to be only a temporary crisis as the Brexit panic was short lived and the funds could return to normal operating practices, when the panic ended. However what is forgotten is that on Black Wednesday  speculators forced the Bank of England a state of near bankruptcy, when it ran out of foreign currency reserves to meet the demand for foreign currency. Whatever might happen in the future, the UK remains as vulnerable as it was in 1992 to an adverse movement in the foreign exchange markets. Only the most foolish of politicians would want to create a scenario in which that becomes more likely.

What every politician should know is that to deliberately provoke an economic crisis or downturn no matter how small to achieve some political end, is the most foolish of all actions as such downturns always prove hard to control. All too often a small economic crisis turns into a major crisis that has difficult and unforeseen consequences. Politicians need to learn that they cannot turn the economy on and off as they please.

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