Tag Archives: trade deficits

What is required today is a return to the economics practised in 1968

The storm clouds are gathering over the economy, yet our political leaders seem oblivious to the approaching storm. These are some of the gathering clouds, inward investment has fallen 80% since 2016, the investment in national infra structure is at levels similar to Greece and in consequence economic growth fell to 0.1% in the last quarter. As a nation our trade deficit is the highest, as a proportion of GDP in the developed world. A trade deficit of 5.9% of GDP is only reduced to 2.2% through the contribution of financial services. A situation in which the U.K. is over dependent on recycling foreign cash invested in the U.K. to pay for imports. This gives an incentive to government to ensure that the City of London remains the largest money laundering financial centre in the world. Dirty money is as acceptable as clean money for paying our debts. This situation cannot continue indefinitely, if politicians cannot take action to resolve some of these problems, they will resolve themselves. This resolution will come in the form of an economic crash which will make us all much poorer.

A useful comparison can be made with the 1960s and 1970s a period of frequent balance of payment crises. In the 1960s the trade deficit never exceeded 0.6% of GDP and in the crisis year of 1976 it rose to 1% of GDP. These deficits always called for remedial action such as devaluation and economic policy measures to reduce the demand for imports. Now this ever rising import bill is never considered a problem for the U.K. Its role as one of the world’s financial centres ensures that it always has ample reserves of foreign currency to finance its debts. What never troubles the world’s governments is that one of the world’s largest financial centres lacks the strong economy to sustain it in that role. In the 19th century Britain’s strong economy enabled it to fulfil its role as the world’s banker. Now with a significantly diminished role in the world’s economy it still tries to be the world’s banker. This mismatch cannot continue, we as a country are unfortunately heading for a crash that could wreak havoc with the world’s financial system. The catalyst could well be Brexit when Britain begins to lose its role as the EU’s banker and uncertainty develops about the UK’s future this could precipitate a flight from sterling similar to that which happened on Black Wednesday. This time there will be no easy strategy for quickly resolving the situation. There is no ERM to leave and no easy currency devaluation to make. The pound will crash and the only remedy will be a large IMF loan and the imposition of a Greek like austerity programme.

Whatever criticisms the politicians of the 60s and 70s deserved, they were at least pragmatists. Unlike today’s ideologues they can recognise that there was a reality that existed beyond the world as seen from Westminster. The Labour government of 1976 could embark on an incomes policy that would alienate its supporters, knowing that this was necessary to restore the economy to health. This programme of income cuts was the only way that the government could reduce the high level of inflation and reduce the trade deficit. This programme was so successful that by 1979 the trade deficit had been converted into a surplus. These politicians were pragmatists who listened to the advice of outsiders and adopted an economic programme that was contrary to their political instincts.

Unfortunately this government of pragmatists lost the election to a party led by radical minded ideologues. They advocated a policy of Neo-Liberalism, which included as part of its policy manifesto the recommendation to adopt supply side economics. This meant freeing up resources from the less productive parts of the economy by closing them down. Capital and labour would them be freed from being shackled to old inefficient industries and be freed to be used by the new dynamic industries that would replace them. This it was they claimed would boost economic growth. What was talked about was the so called ‘weightless economy’ an economy largely devoid of manufacturing industry instead one based on the finance and industries such as the entertainment industry. These new industries would replace the jobs lost caused by the closure of the old manufacturing industries. The economy never developed in a way that these new economic prophets claimed.

At the beginning of their period in government these Neo-Liberals were warned by economists that there policies would lead to depression and the damage British manufacturing industry. Yet they were ignored by the new radicals, who knew this was outmoded thinking. The British manufacturing sector lost 20% of its capacity, with the consequent widening of the trade deficit. A deficit temporarily covered up by the wealth generated from the exploitation of North Sea oil. The old manufacturing centres declined, there was no rush of new money to so called new industries to compensate for the lost output from the old manufacturing industry.

What was damaging to the country’s economic prospects was new understanding in politics that the economy no longer mattered. Free marketers in government believed that economy was a largely self regulating mechanism that could be largely left to itself. All that was required was the occasional light touch on the tiller in the form of interest rate changes. What was once a major department in government, that of Trade and Industry now became a mere sideshow. Now industry could be left to run itself, no longer would government try to pick winners.

What these politicians had forgotten was the words of Maynard Keynes, there would be times when the government would be needed to save capitalism from itself. That happened in 2008/9 when the world financial system was only saved from the consequences of the financial crash by timely action of governments. Politicians learnt little from this crisis and continued the policy of non intervention. When I was a child one popular ornament was the China or brass three monkeys who epitomised the motto ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’. This is the government’s current approach to all matters economic. No matter what wrong doing is practised by managers and directors, as in the example of Carillon, they do nothing. Even if individuals can do wrong, the belief is that the market as a whole can do no wrong.

In the now much discredited 60s and 70s there was a belief amongst politicians that the welfare of the nation was dependent on the well being of the economy. Whatever the political conviction of the politicians, they believed an interventionist economic policy was necessary to maintain the well being of the economy. When the economy was in danger of over heating it for example imposed restrictions on demand to prevent that happening. Perhaps the most famous is Selwyn Lloyd’s 1961 credit squeeze. Unlike today’s politicians they did not see inflation in the housing market as a good thing. This contrasts markedly with all governments of the past twenty years who regarded house price inflation as a good.

One consequence of this is the unfortunate lending programme of the banks. Today only about 6% of bank lending goes to manufacturing industry. In 2008 almost 80% of bank lending went to the property market, a figure which it is approaching today. The U.K. remains an economy in which the main driver of economic growth remains property speculation, while manufacturing industry the real creator of the wealth that matters is neglected.

Whatever experts might say or write contemporary politicians remain impervious to economic realities. Nothing of what I have written impinges on their consciousness. They now seem to inhabit a hermetically sealed world into which no outside thought intrudes. The leadership of the main parties are locked into an increasingly complex debate in which each of them strives to deliver the most authentic Brexit. That the Brexit promised by each of the leaderships is a fantasy, that fails to acknowledge any economic reality is of no concern to these politicians. In the words of one leading Brexiteer, the people are tired of experts and don’t what to hear what economists such as myself say. All that matters is the authentic voice of the people as interpreted by the Brexit politicians no matter how fantastic that interpretation.

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Fools Gold or the Economic Follies of Phillip Hammond and like minded Conservative Politicians.

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.

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.

The Philosopher and the Economist

Over the last twenty plus years their have been a series of financial crisis each inflicting damage worse than the previous on the world economy. Yet economists see no need to change there understanding of economics as they believe that in the years before 2008/9 they had discovered the ‘holy grail’ of economics, that is the free market economy. The two schools of British economics Neo-Liberalism and its free market cousin, New Keynesian have an enthusiasm for the largely unregulated market system, seeing it as the best possible of all possible economic models. Yet evidence suggests otherwise and as an avid student of philosophy I would say that all understandings of human behaviour and society are imperfect and that no one understanding of the nature of the economy is without significant flaws. 

 
Image taken from drury.edu

John Locke in his discussion of the nature of philosophy (Essay on Human Understanding) makes what I believe the most compelling case for the inclusion of philosophy in the economists tool box. He compares the role of the philosopher to that of the under labourer. The under labourer on the 17th century building site cleared the ground in preparation for the building work to come. Similarly the philosopher clears and tidies up the area of study for others, they clear the intellectual clutter from the site making clear to other, making clear the areas of study and highlighting the key questions to be answered. Their role is to dismiss all those questions that prompt research that hinders or obstructs the progress of research. In the science of the 17th century this would mean excluding astrology from the in study of astronomy, as the study of this distracted from the real science of the universe. While it might be argued by economists there is no equivalence of astrology studies in economics today, their still practise their subject in a way that prevents real solutions being found to the current economic malaise.

As a Lockean philosopher I would ask why do economists not recognise that the economy is an integral part of the wider social organisation that is society. What they should be asking is how does the wider society impact on the economy? What are the consequences for the economy in changes of human behaviours and attitudes, do these changes contribute to the current economic malaise? Why leave the builders out of the study, after all the economy is but a human construct?
Just as with the fashion in clothes it is at affected by changes in people’s tastes and attitudes.

Perhaps the most significant change in people’s attitudes and behaviour is the shared undertandin of the purpose of the legal system. Initially lawsand the legal system were seen as indispensable to the working of society, as they prevented those disruptive behaviours that would prevent a settled society from existing. These crimes when committed could attract severe sanctions, in the most extreme cases a life sentence. However there has developed in recent years a new understanding of the role of law. Law is now seen as a means of facilitating certain approved behaviours which are known by the generic term entrepreneurship. Laws aimed at eliminating bad behaviours by this group have been removed or emasculated, as it is believed that the free market is the best means of regulating such behaviours. The assumption is that competition in the market will drive out bad entrepreneurs and the law that by intervening in this Darwinian market will result in interventions that damage the economy. Consequently laws on employment protection and the governance of companies are either abolished or have their impact minimised. Now the legal profession is tending towards the belief that the free market and not law is the best guarantor of good behaviour in business and that their role is to stop groups such as environmental activists interfering in the market. In Britain there any many legal restrictions that can be imposed on such awkward groups.

One such consequence is that company law has been rendered largely ineffective. Originally the public company was developed as a means of enabling businesses to raise large sums of money from the public to finance large scale business investment. This organisation has now evolved primarily into a means of tax avoidance or for the owners a means of avoiding legal responsibilities and liabilities. When companies go bankrupt through mismanagement ,the directors are free to walk away from the company free from any legal sanction. No blame attaches to them. It is the legal entity the public company that has gone bankrupt, not the directors. The structure of the public company encourages irresponsible and reckless behaviour by company directors, as was demonstrated during the crash of 2008/9 when no senior banker was held to accountable for reckless or irresponsible behaviour.

This widespread practice of wrong doing throughout the corporate sector has had very negative consequences for the economy. Increasingly people come to distrust the large business corporations all they see is a group of greedy individuals exploiting their customers for their own benefit. Such people have achieved the impossible in making people yearn for a return of the once much derided nationalised industries. The directors of the privatised rail industry have been responsible for massive increases in rail fares making British railways the most expensive in Europe. Fares on British trains can be six times the price of their equivalent in Italy. This behaviour is producing a reaction in the community at large, in Western Europe groups such as Momentum in Britain or Podemos in Spain are campaigning to end this abuse of the system.

However my intention is to demonstrate how the tolerance of widespread mismanagement, corporate greed and wrong doing impacts on the economy as a whole.This is most clearly demonstrated in the finance industries. In the days of my childhood one of the most trusted figures was the ‘man from the Pru’. He called every month to collect a small payment from my parents for life insurance, savings and house insurance. My parents knew that a reputable firm such as the Prudential would always pay out whatever the circumstance, they had faith in the company. The first sign that all was not well in the finance industry was when England’s oldest insurance company ‘The Equitable Life’ went effectively bankrupt, as it lacked the funds to pay the pensions it had promised. There then followed a long series of scandals in this industry due largely to a combination of mismanagement, individual greed and irresponsible behaviour. The consequence was the development of a widespread distrust of the financial services industry.

This justified widespread distrust of the financial services sector has led to some unfortunate consequences. People began to look for alternatives to saving their money with these institutions; they looked for investments that would offer far better and safer returns than those promised by the financial institutions. The one alternative for most people was property, asset prices rose more rapidly in the housing market than in any other alternative market, so any investment in property appeared to be a win, win situation. There is no other market in which the value of the initial investment would increase so quickly. Many entered the rental market as the returns on rental properties were astronomic, it was a market in which it seemed nobody could lose, except they did. There is the now forgotten property crash of 1990 and the more recent one of 2008/9. The problem was that the increase in house prices was due to a speculative boom, caused by more and more money chasing an ever more slowly increasing supply of homes for sale. A market based on speculation will always be subject to booms and busts. The supply of money for this speculative investment will always slow at some stage, usually due to some downturn in the economy or the realisation that much of the property in which the money is invested is not worth the money paid for it, as in the sub prime market in the USA. Such as downturn is occurring now and there will be a crash in the property markets in either 2016 or 2017. What cannot be predicted is the scale of the crash.

Unfortunately this rise of the property market has coincided with the decline of the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing now only generates 10% of UK’s national income. In the housing market much of the investment is recycled money as the same properties are sold over and over again at ever increasing prices; whereas the manufacturing industry creates new products for sale, which generates ‘real’ extra’ income. With the decline of manufacturing people could look less and less to an increase in income, as most new jobs created were in the less productive service sector. As people could no longer rely on ever increasing incomes that looked to speculative returns to boost there spending. The market that offered huge speculative returns was the housing market.

There are two negative impacts on the economy from the growth of the housing market. Funds are attracted to the higher speculative returns in that market, rather than the lower returns from investment in manufacturing industry. At the time of the crash in 2008 over 80% of bank loans where made to the property market. A manufacturing industry starved of investment funding can only decline. The consequence is that Britain has become increasingly dependent on foreign manufacturers to supply the goods it needs. Britain now has the largest trade deficit as a percentage of national income for any developed industrial country.

This has resulted in a disastrous change in government economic policy. Now as so many people are dependent on speculative booms in the housing market for extra income (loans secured against the increase in property values), the main role of government economic policy is to support the speculative boom by adopting a series of policies that constantly increase house prices. What never occurs to the government is that this is a foolish policy that can only end in tears,as happens when the market crashes. No government minister or Treasury official seems to have noticed that each successive crash requires greater and greater sums of government money to bail out the losers in the crash. Figures for the money used to bail out the bank’s etc in 2009 are notoriously opaque. One figure I came across was that in 2009 the government pledged £1.2 billion to support the bank. This figure was about a 100% of national income, fortunately it was no called on, it remained just a pledge. If the bank creditors had demanded that the money be paid into the banks coffers, Britain would be in a far worst situation than is Greece.

What I am trying to say is that as a philosopher I look beyond the current economic toolkit to try to understand the nature of our current economic malaise. It is by asking different questions that I arrive at different conclusions to those proffered by orthodox economists. The main solution to our problem is to stop the speculative frenzy that is the property or more accurately the housing market. If the banks and other lends could not increase by astronomic sums the amount they lend to the property market, there would be no money to fuel this frenzy. This could be done quite simply by increasing the reserves the banks hold, one economist has suggested that the bank’s reserves should be increased to 10% of total assets (or loans). If this happened banks would have to go to the market to raise huge sums of money to increase their share capital. It would not happen and banks would be forced to withdraw funds from the housing market. There would be a painful crash in that market, but once that the effects of that crash had receded the economy could be rebalanced towards manufacturing. An increase in manufacturing activity would have many beneficial effects, one of which would be the reduction of our horrendous trade deficit, as people rather than buying imported goods bought domestically produced ones.

There would be a price for making this change, there would be a fall in the incomes of many people, as they could no longer rely on loans to boost they’re spending. It is quite likely that there are a number of senior politicians that are aware of this and for that reason they are afraid to end the speculative housing boom. Conventional knowledge states that any government that presides over falling house prices is committing electoral suicide. Instead they hope the great crash will happen on somebody else’s watch. To put it another way fear of electoral suicide makes cowards of all politicians.

What I am saying is that while economists fail to consider factors such as a change in the attitudes and behaviours in the population at large and in particular that of the political and cultural elites, they will never come up with solutions to the current economic malaise. This type of thinking that does take into account these cultural changes was known as political economy, yet this school of economics has long been abandoned by practising economists.

Returning to my initial thoughts on Locke and the under labourer, perhaps what really needs to be cleared away is the current economic orthodoxy, which acts as an intellectual road block to prevent the development of any new approaches to solving the current economic malaise.

‘And you thought the economy was safe in their hands’

One of the dominant  issues of this election campaign is the fitness of the contending leaders to manage the economy. Quite rightly people complain of this being a boring election campaign, as the big issues that concern us are largely ignored. Given the superficial nature of the campaign what is never mentioned is the incompetence politicians of all parties have demonstrated when managing the economy. Although my essay is about the UK, the issue of economic mismanagement is a characteristic of all governments of the Western world, there are no politicians of the calibre of Franklin Roosevelt or George Marshall. Instead we have a Rand Paul, David Cameron and Angela Merkel none  of whom have an understanding of the current economic crisis. 

When I was a teenager the recurrent problem was the balance of payments deficit, there were continuing runs on the pound sterling and the government was constantly having to change  policy to deal with this problem. Now I am in my sixties the problem of the recurrent trade deficit seems to have disappeared, sterling crises are now a thing of the past, although in fact nothing is further from the truth. In the last quarter a balance of payment deficits was recorded that equalled 6% of GDP, whereas in the 1960’s the deficit averaged 0.2% of GDP. Now the deficit is 30 times greater there is no problem! When a senior politician was questioned about this he said ‘times have changed’ and having the largest (in percentage terms) trade deficit in the Western world no longer mattered. Has the world really changed that much or was the senior politician being hopeless naive about the problems of the current trade deficit?
  
Any reference to an economic textbook will appear to explain this miracle. Today we live in a world economy with freely floating exchange rates. If a country is in deficit the value of its currency will fall (currency traders mark down what they see as weak currencies) making its exporters cheaper and its imports more expensive, so its exports will increase and its imports decrease until the balance of payments is once again in surplus. However this automatic self regulating mechanism has not worked in the case of the UK, as the trade deficit has continued to grow. At one stage the pound sterling had fallen 20% below its 2008 peak and yet the trade deficit continued to grow. Despite the failure of this automatic stabiliser and the growing trade deficit there was no sterling crisis. Foreigners did not clamour to sell devalued pounds on the foreign exchange markets. In fact the growing trade deficit coincided with a increase in the value of the pound sterling.
How has the UK got away with running the world’s largest trade deficit?

Politicians would claim it due to their superior  economic management that there have been no crisis to resemble those of the 1960’s or that of 1976. Whereas in reality they have ignored the growing problem that could provoke a crisis greater than that of 1976. 
The UK is at the heart of the world’s financial system and as such it is able to use the foreign currency deposited here to finance its trade deficit. Quite simply the UK is recycling the foreign currency it receives to pay the country’s debts. One economist has quite rightly called it a ‘ponzi scheme’, as to pay our way the UK has to attract an increasing amount of foreign currency  to finance its ever growing trade deficit. If the flow of funds ever slowed down or stopped the UK would be in serious trouble. This is one reason why all governments have made it their priority to ensure that the city of London remains the chief financial centre in Europe. Their greatest fear, if they would have the courage to admit it, is that Frankfurt might come to rival London as a financial centre which would undermine  their current economic strategy.
What are the politicians doing?

Nothing would be one answer, but the truth is that they actively pursuing policies that make the situation worse. Instead of taking on the really difficult task of eliminating the trade deficit, they are promoting the British ‘ponzi’ scheme. Politicians realise that they must continue to keep the funds flowing into London, if they are to avoid being forced into making the difficult decisions that would make them unpopular. Gordon Brown when Chancellor of the Exchequer went out of his way to attract foreign funds to London. He introduced the ‘light touch regulation’ which made London an attractive destination for those foreign depositors that wanted a safe haven for their money, but one from which they could easily withdraw it when needed. Yet it also made London at the same time the world’s largest tax haven. It should be explained that the so called tax havens of the Caribbean and the Channel Islands are only nominally the countries where the offshore money is banked. What they really are accounts held in London but spuriously named as accounts held in Bermuda etc. Consequently London has not only become the home for legitimate investors but also the place which at one remove is the destination for the world’s illegitimate funds. 
  

City of London (Wikipedia)

British governments have a long record in aiding the world’s undesirables. When the European Union (EU) proposed stringent measures to control money laundering in banks, Britain opposed the measure and succeeded in preventing their introduction. 
George Osborne the current Chancellor has been working hard to persuade the Chinese to allow London to become the official foreign exchange centre for the trading of the Chinese renmibi. If he succeeds there will be all those renmibi’s deposited in London that could be used to pay for our imports from China. 
Why is this policy so foolish?
Obviously any policy that depends on the rest of the world depositing ever increasing amounts of their money with us is foolish. There will inevitably be other financial centres developing that attract the world’s funds, London cannot for ever be the world’s number 1. Foreign investors are not  the foolish suckers that are  attracted to ponzi schemes, they can read the market as well us any London banker. It has been forgotten that in 1990 one astute fund manager (George Soros) almost bankrupted the UK with his astute speculation in the foreign currency markets. The UK will be the recipient of the world’s funds as long as it suits the rest of the world, but that won’t be forever. Unfortunately the government and all the leading politicians have never considered this possibility and prepared for that eventuality.
The UK being the world’s foremost banker is very susceptible to changes in the world’s currency markets. Any large outflow of funds would be catastrophic for the following reason. London borrows short and lends long, what this means is that money that is deposited in London on short term notice is then loaned out  for longer periods time. At the height of the property boom 80% of the  bank’s loans were made to the property market. Not only is it difficult to get money back quickly which has been invested in bricks and mortar, but the value of those loans is subject to market volatility fall rapidly in  a crisis. The prices in the British property market are subject to a speculative surge that can easily reverse itself. In consequence not only will the banks have trouble repaying those loans, but the value of those loans will have decreased, making it impossible for the banks to repay their foreign depositors. To repay these loans the banks would have to rely upon the Bank of England drawing on its foreign currency reserves to bail them out. History demonstrates that those reserves can soon be exhausted and in such a scenario the UK would need the largest loan in the IMF’s history.

Mark Carney (Governor of the Bank of England) has imposed reforms on the banks making them hold greater reserves to fund a run on them in a  crisis. However it has been suggested that in a crisis of the type that occurred in 2008/9 these measures would be inadequate.
Perhaps the worse consequence of this policy is that the government will be tempted to implement more and more foolish policy measures in a desperate attempt to attract more and more funds to this country. This is why the UK is always the one country no matter which party is in power to oppose any meaningful reforms of the worlds financial markets, as they are terrified of any change that might reduce the flow of foreign funds to London.