Tag Archives: Cheap money

There are none so blind as those who choose to be blind. A comment on contemporary journalism

This essay was prompted by an article in the left of centre daily newspaper that I read. In it the journalist (who is an economist) claimed that Brexit would be a non event similar to the millennium bug. It was an article I thought so typical of contemporary journalism, a well written article with a simple story line that ignored inconvenient realities. He dismissed those experts such as the Governor of the Bank of England, stating that they had constantly misread the economic runes and their predictions were always proved to be wrong, so why should we take their warnings of a bad Brexit deal seriously. Instead he preferred to trust the politicians, the realists who would deliver a good Brexit deal. In colossal misreading of history he said that the good guys, the politicians would deliver the best possible of Brexit deals. One can only believe he is ignorant of history, a history in which ill informed and incompetent political leaders led their country into disaster. 

There is one disturbing feature of this article which in so characteristic of contemporary journalism. That is the disparaging of experts and expert knowledge. What he is suggesting is those who know a something about their subject are to be distrusted and instead we should listen to the politicians who know little or nothing about the subject. He trashes the idea that there is something that can be called  human knowledge. As Mark Carney and the British Treasury have so often got things wrong, he claims that this proves that there is nobody who knows what is really going to happen in the economy, least of all the experts. Therefore it is just as well to trust the ‘know little’ and ‘know nothings’, as their sense of realism will prevail and they will deliver a good deal on Brexit.

Just as with so many who have studied economics, he can see no role for human folly in history. Unlike him I cannot consider the current generation of political leaders who have demonstrated serial incompetence in their roles, as the best people to be in charge when the country faces the existential threat that is Brexit. Can anybody really claim that any of our leading politicians have actually improved the performance of the departments in which they ran. The list of there failures is endless, transport, prisons, schools etc. This is why one minister has the unkind nickname of ‘failing Grayling’.In this government the good minister is the one that fails to made the department of which they are in charge worse.

However fairness demands that this journalist be judged as an economist. He bases his article on the claim that Mark Carney and the other expert economists got it wrong, when they said that Brexit would be bad for the economy. In his article he writes of several examples that demonstrate that the economy is sound and prospering, in spite of the referendum vote. Yet as an economist he should know that Mark Carney once the Brexit referendum was announced immediately pumped money into the economy to prevent the crash he warned against. This created cheap money and as interest rates were so low people borrowed to supplement their low incomes. Economic growth or what he terms prosperity has been founded on a rapid and unsound expansion of consumer borrowing. Such borrowing cannot continue for ever and the economy is rapidly coming to resemble that of 2008, when an over indebted economy crashed, with dire consequences for us all.

What this left wing journalist also fails to mention is inequality. The prosperity that he sees demonstrated in his local supermarket, excludes the millions on low pay. Those millions in the gig economy suffering the twin evils of low pay and insecure employment would have a very different view of the economy to his.

Possibility John Ford in his film ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ had it correct, when his newspaper man confronted with an awkward truth, says it is better to print the myth than the truth. Similarly too many journalists prefer as does John Ford’s newspaperman to print the myth. In this case it is the myth of British exceptionalism.

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The Economy does not Exist

Perhaps now being in my eighth decade I can look back with some perspective on society. While I must admit that wisdom does not necessarily come with age, one’s vision and understanding does sharpen over time. What becomes increasingly evident is the follies of mankind and in particular the politicians. One often repeated folly occurs when politicians say that … must be done for the sake of the economy. To their listeners it sounds impressive, but it is just yet another must say meaningless phrase that politicians say. The economy does not exist, it is not a thing as such. It is merely a word that economists give to a series of activities that create wealth, and the means by which that wealth is distributed. The crofter the Outer Hebrides and the investment banker in London will be included by the government statistician as being part of the British economy, but the link between the two is tenuous. Rather it is better to say that the economy is lots of different things that involve wealth creation and distribution, but it is no more than that.

There is a very simple example that illustrates this point. Government ministers take policy decisions that they claim are for the benefit of the economy, but which in reality damage significant sectors of the economy. British governments have pursued policies designed to keep the exchange value of the pound high. The reasoning being that as so many of our goods are imported from abroad, if foreign currency is relatively cheap compared to the cost of the pound, imports will be comparatively cheap. As over 50% of our food comes from abroad, it makes the fruit and vegetables in the supermarket cheap to buy. However this same policy is damaging to our domestic manufacturing industry. If the pound is expensive in terms of foreign currencies, it makes British exports expensive and foreign imported manufactured goods cheap. Consequently British manufacturers are hit twice, their expensive imports are hard to sell abroad and they are increasingly undercut in the domestic market by cheap foreign imports. This is why British manufacturing industry only accounts for 10% of national output (GDP) and why of all the developed countries the U.K. has the largest trade deficit as a percentage of GDP.

What I am trying to say is that by treating the economy as one thing, rather than several things, government economic policy making is condemned to be both wrong headed and damaging. Anyone looking back over government economic policy, will see a series of constant policy errors and misjudgements.Observing this record of failure politicians came to believe that a policy of doing nothing or as little as possible was the best policy option. From this came Neo-Liberalism and free market economics. There was an equally obvious conclusion that politicians could have drawn and that was that governments had been using the wrong economic policies or applying them correctly, which they preferred to ignore. Also it was a terrible misreading of history, a recovery from the ravages of war in 1949s and 50s was only made possible by the government regulation of the economy. Money was directed towards rebuilding the economy away from consumption. Rationing of goods was very unpopular, but it made possible the post war economic recovery.

Today the only economic policy measure used is monetary policy, the government believes that by controlling the supply of money they can best manage the economy. One way they control the money supply is through varying interest rates. Their reasoning is that of interest rates are low people will be encouraged to borrow more and the increase in the amount of money in circulation will increase the demand for goods and services so increasing economic growth. What they don’t understand is that a policy of cheap money can be bad for the economy. Interest rates are the price paid to borrow money and as such the price at which money is borrowed should be high enough to discourage foolish and silly investments. Unfortunately when money costs next to nothing to borrow it encourages many foolish speculative investments. As money borrowed today can buy shares that can be sold tomorrow at a profit. If only a higher price was charged for borrowing money such speculative punts would be discouraged.

Government ministers need to realise that a booming stock market is not the economy, but only one part. The froth on the coffee. When money is made so easily by speculating, why bother with the long term investment that business desperately needs. Such investment does not deliver the quick and astronomic returns of speculation, it only delivers in the future. Why wait several years for a return on your money when a speculative will deliver a profit tomorrow or the day after. Consequently the UK’s investment in infra structure is as low as that of the European basket case, Greece.

South Korea offers an instructive comparison. After the Korean War in 1951, it was a basket case. The country’s economy had been devastated by war. Now South Korea is one of the world’s major manufacturing nations. This was a country which the government actively interfered in the economy. What it employed was sectorial economics, in which the government decided on which industrial sectors to promote and how to support them. Samsung was originally a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, who following the dictates of the government concentrated on the manufacture of electronic goods. Samsung is now one of the world’s leading manufacturer of electronic goods. Neo-Liberal Britain’s last major manufacturer of electronic goods GEC disappeared long ago, after its directors made a series of foolish acquisitions.

The only large British owned and managed manufacturing industry is in engineering, where there are two remaining industrial giants. BAE and Rolls Royce. It is no coincidence that these two companies have been in receipt of government largesse in the form of defence contracts. Sometimes politicians cannot see what is in the front of their noses.

Obviously South Korea is not without its problems, it does as does all developed countries have a severe youth unemployment problem. However in ten years time South Korea will still be a major manufacturing nation of hi-tech goods, the same cannot be said of the U.K. Quite possibly it will continue on the path of slow decline, which has been its history this century. Only if politicians stop believing that there is an economy and instead acknowledge the economic reality, they might develop policies that promoted economic growth and welfare and not the reverse.

*This essay owes a considerable debt to Markus Gabriel’s book ‘Why World does not Exist’