Our current Chancellor is nicknamed spreadsheet Phil, a name intended to reflect his prowess in managing the country’s finances. His proud claim was to have achieved what most Chancellors had failed to achieve, that is a balancing of the books. He announced that the government daily revenues exceeded its spending. To use economic jargonese current revenue exceeded spending, that is tax revenues exceeded spending on hospitals etc. This was for him a cause for celebration and he was feted in the financial columns in the print media. However much like iron pyrites* all that blisters is not gold.
Chancellors of a Conservative mind have always sought to achieve the holy grail of sound money. A non existent myth much like that of the holy grail. As students we were given the example of Winston Churchill who as Chancellor who returned the pound sterling to the gold standard in 1925. He choose a rate that valued the pound at $4.84, its pre war value. He said that he wanted to look the dollar in the eye. A political move as the ravages of the First World War had diminished the relative value of the U.K. economy and its currency and had confirmed the USA as the world’s leading economy. Consequently the dollar was now the world’s strongest currency. Churchill wanted to put the pound on a par with the dollar. It was economic folly, as the expensive pound priced U.K. exports out of foreign markets. In consequence the U.K. had a trade deficit, which could only be kept within reasonable bounds by depressing the level of income activity. This cut the level of overall demand in the economy and so reduced the import bill. Much of the misery experienced by the people of the 1920s was a consequence of this policy.
Phillip Hammond just as did his predecessor, does not understand that a weak or unsound economy makes any sound money policy fallacious. Simply because such a weak economy is likely to experience sudden and unexpected downturns, which in the eyes of the financial community can render the sound pound and chancellors reputation unsound over night.
Our current Chancellor has continued with the austerity policies of his predecessor and has fulfilled his predecessors aim of ensuing that government revenues exceed its spending. What they both want is the respect of the financial community. If the financial community believe that the government is pursuing a policy of sound money, they both believe many benefits accrue. One is that this community will allow them to borrow at low rates of interest. However this is of little practical benefit when the government chooses not to invest. Currently investment in infra structure projects is the same as in Greece one of the most impoverished of all EU member states.
However the plaudits of the financial community soon become worthless in a financial crisis, as then that community is forced to confront stark economic realities, that they would prefer to ignore. At present the current benign economic climate allows the financial community to overlook the very obvious weakness in the economy. When forced to confront them they will turn on the government. Greece provides the obvious example of what happens in these circumstances.
Phillip Hammond is astute enough to realise that the U.K. is subject to regular periodic economic crisis.* When that occurs he might need to find the funds to tide the U.K. economy over that crisis. He believes that if he builds up a war chest of money by continually spending less than he receives, that money can be used to avert any run in the pound as occurred on Black Wednesday. What the Chancellor fails to understand is that this cash reserve will rapidly diminish in value as the pound falls in value during a crisis so in consequence making that reserve of cash too small to be of any real value. One of the characters says in a Stendhal novel, that what takes ten years to build can be destroyed in ten minutes of warfare. The same applies to Chancellor reputations. In any major financial crisis the government and the Chancellor rapidly lose all credibility, so all the years spent creating a reputation for soundness are rendered meaningless.
What should be the aim of any Chancellor is a sound economy not a sound money policy. While there are many fundamental weaknesses in the U.K., two stand out. The first is the persistent trade deficits. At 6% of GDP it is the highest of any developed country. This debt is financed in part from money invested in the U.K. by foreigners. As a country we are paying Germany, the USA and our many other creditors by recycling the money that there nationals invest in this country. A situation that cannot continue indefinitely. One day the financial community will decide that the emperor has no clothes.
Secondly as a nation the U.K. borrows short and lends long. The U.K. is one of the world’s leading financial centres and as a consequence many foreign nationals invest there savings in London. These moneys are usually invested in accounts with a short term notice of withdrawal and pay a relatively modest interest rate. British banks to finance these accounts lend long for which they receive a relatively high rate of interest. This arrangement works fine when the investors have confidence in the country concerned. In the event of a crisis these investors want their money back. If the amount invested is relatively small compared to the size of the country’s wealth (GDP), that country will have no problem in averting a temporary ‘country run’. When those sums are relatively large when compared to a nations GDP as in the case of the U.K., the county’s reserves of foreign currency will be too small to avert a ‘country run’. As Black Wednesday demonstrated when the country was bankrupted in one afternoon due to the activities of foreign currency speculators. Unfortunately spreadsheet Phil appears to be ignorant of this fact.
Britain’s chancellors should have been working to remedy all the flaws the financial crisis of 1992 and 2008/9 revealed. Instead there has been a papering over the cracks, with the so called sound money policy. This is not a folly practiced not by just Conservative Chancellors of the Exchequer. When Gordon Brown was Chancellor in a Labour government he also pursued a sound money policy, instead of implementing the necessary structural reforms necessary for strengthening a weak economy. Although the crisis of 2008/9 was a financial one caused by the foolish speculative activity of financial speculators, the fact that he and none of his successors failed to make any attempt to create a sound economy, meant that the economy has failed to make the expected recovery from the last crisis. The majority of the population have experienced either falling, stable or small increases in income since 2009, a mark of a failing economy.
It is a perverse rule of thumb that when the financial columnists particularly of the right wing media laud a Chancellor for the soundness of his economic policy making, usually that Chancellor is making a hash of things.
* Iron pyrites or fools gold were the staple of many stories in the cowboy magazines of the 1950s.
* He is aware that just such a crisis might occur when the negative consequences of Brexit become obvious to all.