Tag Archives: Recession

The ‘sky cannot fall in’ school of economics.

There is an economic school of thought commonly held by politicians and journalists, which can be best described ‘as the sky won’t fall in’ economics’. What the practitioners of this economics believe is that the economy is a thing that just goes on delivering whatever politicians might do. There foolish decisions have some negative impact on the margins, but come what may the economy will still working as well as ever tomorrow. Such people described the financial crisis of 2008/9 as a ‘once in a lifetime affair’, it was what insurers call the unexpected, an ‘act of God’. What it was not was a crisis brought about by the foolish behaviour of bankers and politicians. The cause of the crisis was not the foolish speculative behaviours of the banking community or in the naivety of politicians in believing that the financial market could regulate itself, no the causes lay elsewhere.

Similarly in the U.K. we are suffering from a surfeit of ‘the sky won’t fall in’ economics from the Brexiteers in the politics and the media. Warnings of the dire impact that a hard Brexit will have on the economy are dismissed as ‘Project Fear’. One leading politician when warned of the damaging impact of a premature exit from the European Union (EU) on manufacturing industry, said that it won’t matter, as manufacturing only accounts for 10% of U.K. output. Only a person completely ignorant of economics could make such a foolish statement.

Yesterday a journalist who normally displays the utmost scepticism about politicians and politics revealed themselves as a member of this school of thought. He in his articles has on numerous occasions exposed the follies of politicians; yet he takes the word of these self same politicians that a premature rupture in trading relations with our biggest trading partner will have minimal impact on the economy. He writes that the day after Brexit the economy will be functioning as normal, planes will still be flying and there will be food in the supermarkets.

Yes the economy will still be there and it will be functioning, but the question he fails to ask is how well will it be functioning. To take his first example, yes the planes are likely to be flying, as it’s inconceivable that the British and European politicians can’t come to some agreement on airlines flying rights. (One must mention a proviso, politicians are just as likely to come to an agreement which is detrimental to the interests of our airlines, as beneficial. He assumes a competence which our politicians in the Brexit negotiations, have been singularly lacking.) What he fails to understand is that whatever results, the British government is exchanging an agreement about rights to fly over Europe that is highly beneficial for our airlines for one that is much less beneficial. What we do not as yet know is how much more difficult will it be for Britons to fly in and out of Europe. Obviously the uncertainty generated by Brexit will the day after Brexit lead to some cancelled or delayed flights. All that can be said is that British airlines won’t enjoy the same access to flight space over Europe than they had before. However what will obvious is that flying from Britain to Europe will become more difficult.

Journalists and politicians of the Brexit persuasion hide behind this uncertainty. I as an economist know that Brexit will be damaging to the British economy and society. Just because people such as myself cannot spell out in accurate statistical format the exact damage that Brexit will inflict on the economy, Brexiteers claim that we should not be believed as we really just don’t know. However to put it in its simplest terms believing the Brexiteers is asking the people to accept that there uninformed guesses are as good as my informed guess of myself and other economists.

John Maynard Keynes was once the doyen of British economists, but he is now so out of favour that his economics has been banished from the Treasury and political circles. As a consequence politicians lack an understanding and knowledge of his great insights to the workings of the economy. What all in politics and most in journalism have forgotten is his insight that the capitalist economy is inherently unstable. In his books such as ‘What is to be Done’ he demonstrated how the misguided decision making of the politicians had brought about the worst of all possible economic circumstances. The Peace Treaty of Versailles might have delivered peace but it also delivered a Europe wide economic recession. Imposing punitive sanctions on Germany wrecked the economy of what before 1914 had been Europe’s largest and most prosperous economy. The knock on effect was Germany no longer bought the goods it had previously, so spreading the misery of slow growth and high unemployment throughout Europe. Added to this British politicians made a series of decisions which worsened the impact of this depression on the U.K. The 1920s in terms of economic growth was a lost decade.

What cannot be stated often enough is that the economy is not a thing that will constantly deliver, regardless of the poor decision making of our political and business leaders. Just as with any human construct it has flaws and one flaw is its propensity towards instability. This unstable economy can be as easily pushed into recession, through the follies of our leaders as it can be thrust into exuberant growth through the ingenuity and good decision taking of the same people.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and all the other entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley kickstarted the information technology revolution, which led to a sustained period of economic growth. One only temporarily halted by the bursting of the dot.com bubble. A bubble caused by foolish speculators bidding to much for dot.com businesses. When it became obvious that these companies would never earn the expected profits, it became obvious that these companies had been overvalued, so there share prices collapsed, causing a loss of business confidence and a recession.

To this economist one the main causes of sudden changes in the business cycle are human folly and ingenuity. The economy is not a perfect construct it has weaknesses and foolish decisions made by politicians and businessmen can expose those flaws which leads to economic collapse. Similarly it has strengths which men and women of ingenuity can exploit to create immense wealth, which benefits all.

In answer to Michael Gove and Simon Jenkins, despite what you think, the ‘economic sky can fall in’. It’s the actions of men such as you that make this more likely to happen than not. Unfortunately the leading politicians in Britain at present seem to lack amongst them, people of realism and ingenuity that could prevent ‘the sky from falling in’.

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Warning signs

Sometimes as an economist you notice things that others don’t. Today I visited the centre of the city in which I live and for the second time this week, I noticed that the cafes and shops were relatively empty. One reason is the belt tightening that invariably happens after the Christmas shopping spree. The other reason is more ominous and that is that the uncertainty generated by fears about Brexit which are causing people to be more careful with there spending. In times of uncertainty it is sensible to be cautious about spending, it makes sense to increase one’s savings to protect against future uncertainties. All the extra spending on credit cards that was recorded last year will come to a halt once people start to fea the future. They won’t want to saddle themselves with extra debts.

While the evidence I present is only anecdotal this is how economic downturns start. Consumers become more and more cautious with their spending  because they fear for the future. This action becomes something of a self fulfilling prophecy as failing consumer spending means that firms cut back on there spending on staff and purchases of stock. Gradually at first but then more rapidly people become poorer, because of falling spending by businesses and the down turn in economic activity can  within a short time develop into a recession.

These downturns occur because of flaws in the economic system,  as happened with the financial crisis of 2008/9 or because of misguided economic policy making. The second is happening now. There should be a golden rule in politics, that governments never take action that might be detrimental to economic welfare except in the most extreme circumstances. The problem about such actions is that there is no way of foretelling whether the action taken by the government will lead to an uncontrollable downturn in economic activity or whether it will result in a more modest adjustment.

There is a terrible warning that all politicians regularly fail to heed. When the Prime Minister Jim Callaghan returned to the country in 1976 from an overseas trip, there was a crisis developing in the financial markets. He made a foolish remark in response to a journalists question about the crisis, he said ‘what crisis?’ This gave the impression that the government was not in control and the financial crisis rapidly got out of hand.

Yesterday the Prime Minister Theresa May had her Jim Callaghan moment. She stated that Britain will be leaving the single market, giving the impression to informed observers that she had little grasp of economics. The EU is the largest market for British exports and announcing that she intends to make it more difficult for British firms to access that market, is an act of supreme folly. Today two banks announced in response to her speech that they are moving some banking operations to Europe. There will be many more such announcements in the following weeks and months. This will generate fear and uncertainty amongst British consumers, leading to large cuts in there spending, as they save more and more for the expected rainy day. The consequence is that it likely that later this year  that the economy will tip into recession.

Unfortunately the folly of her decision is compounded by the school boy howlers  made by her ministers. Today the Foreign Secretary compared the attitude of the French President to Brexit to that of a Second World War prison camp guard. Such remarks will merely serve to convince the financial markets that this government has little understanding of the economic reality and has but a very weak grasp  of the essentials of policy making.

As I said in the second paragraph my evidence is anecdotal but the incompetence of this government makes me fear for the future.