The Economics of the Titanic or a comment on Larry Elliot’s article on Brexit economics

When reading today’s Guardian I was struck by an article written by Larry Elliot. It was mocking all the doomsayers who predicted dire economic consequences if Britain left the EU. He quite rightly wrote that since the vote to leave the EU, the economy has  been doing quite well. Unemployment is down, economic growth is higher than expected and sales in the retail sector are as buoyant as ever. There seems to be no evidence of the economic disasters that would occur if Britain left the EU, as claimed by the Remain campaigners. However, he does in his thoughtful article explain that there are still unresolved problems that threaten future prospects of the UK economy, such as the appalling low productivity levels of British workers and the large trade deficit. He does suggest that these problems do have solutions and that the shock of exit will force the government into tackling these problems in the economy that have been ignored by politicians for decades, as they wish to minimise the negative effects of EU exit.

There are just one or two caveats that I would wish to make. He as did I would have read J.K.Galbraith’s “The Great Crash”* when a student studying economics. He would have read that one of the prime factors in causing the great crash was an unsustainable boom in asset prices. One these prices moved downward all the flaws in a weak financial sector were exposed and a panic would set in forcing a crash sale in assets such as shares with the consequent bankruptcy of many business enterprises. There is plenty of evidence of there being a speculative and unsustainable boom in asset prices within the UK economy at present. Despite a few blips property prices have reached new highs. While it is not clear when the downward in the property market will occur it is likely to be sooner than later. Given the natural turn of events financial downturns occur every nine years, 1990, 1999 and 2008, which means that if this cycle continues there will be a crash in 2017. Leaving the EU has created an aura of uncertainty which not only undermines market confidence making a financial downturn more likely but means when it does occur it will be worse that otherwise would be expected.

If I could use a metaphor to describe the foolish actions of our political leaders, I would see it in the actions of the captain of the Titanic. The captain of this ship overestimated the soundness of the construction of this liner. He believed that if the ship collided with an iceberg, the nature  of its construction would mean that any collision will result in minimal damage to the ship. As a consequence he sailed too far north, to close to the area of the Atlantic in which the icebergs where situated and the resultant collision with an iceberg sunk the unsinkable ship. The attitude of the politicians who campaigned for Brexit mirrors that of the Titanic captain. They vastly overestimated the soundness of the UK economy and its ability to withstand economic shocks. Instead of there being a small hole below the economic waterline, caused by exiting the EU which can soon be fixed, there is a much larger one that is capable of sinking the UK economy.

One of the flaws never mentioned by Larry Elliot and the Brexiters is the massive over indebtedness of the British economy. Consumer indebtedness is moving rapidly towards a total of 200% of GDP and the debts of our banks are far in excess of 400% of GDP. Much of this debt, particularly that of the banks is owed to overseas investors. Even in normal times this represents a problem for the UK economy, but in a time of uncertainty it becomes a far more serious one. The value of the pound sterling has fallen since Brexit, this has meant that the holdings of British currency in British banks by overseas investors has decreased in value. At the moment the fall in the price of sterling has stabilised and there has been no rush by overseas investors to withdraw their money. They judge that the advantages of investing money in Britain outweigh the disadvantages. However in a time of uncertainty there is a possibility that the value of sterling will fall further, which will probably occur when the exit negotiations hit some difficulties. Then these foreigner depositors will not be willing to see their cash deposits shrink further in value and so will begin to withdraw their funds from the UK. This can easily develop into a panic and the consequence will be a run on sterling. The UK government would have to apply to the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding to tide it over the crisis. Quite possibly the European Central Bank would be involved as many large European banks are located in London. In this event the price for these loans would be the imposition of a Greece like austerity programme. Such a programme of austerity would devastate the British economy as massive cuts in public spending would be required. One casualty would be the National Health Service as one of the first casualties, as the Greek experience shows that any national system of healthcare is regarded as a luxury that an indebted nation cannot afford.

If Larry Elliot’s memory had served him better he would have remember that Galbraith wrote that there was a relatively long lead in to the crash in 1929. The signs of the impending disaster were visible  long before the crash occurred. Then it was the evidence of the foolish speculative spending made by investors, they would invest in anything in the hope of making a profit. One story sticks in my mind and that is the one property developer marketed Florida swamp land as a desirable housing investment. This obvious fraudulent nature of this development mattered little to investors as they believed what they bought for $1 in the morning they could sell for $2 at the end of the day to some sap. Obviously this could not continue and it would end in heartbreak for many.  A minority of investors got out early recognising that there would  be a stock market crash, investors such as Joseph Kennedy. The soon to be multi millionaire father of JFK. Similarly in Britain there are signs of problems ahead. There has been a marked fall in business investment as manufacturers are unwilling to commit to a future which is so uncertain. A collapse in business investment is as any economist knows is the mechanism which starts a downturn in economic activity and possibly a recession. There was also the short panic that occurred just after the Brexit vote when a number of property investment funds had to temporarily stop withdrawals as they had not the funds available to met the demands for cash withdrawals made by panicky investors. The omens for the future are not good, despite current appearances to the contrary.

Whatever happens in the coming years all that can be said it that they will be years of difficulty for the British people. Years of difficulty brought about by the foolish actions of our political leaders who demonstrate a flawed understanding of the UK economy.

* J.K.Galbraith ‘The Great Crash’ an account of  the Great Depression which started in 1929


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