Thursday, 8 January 2009

Peter Riddell slams Labour and Tory “peripheral initiatives” on economy

Peter Riddell is the doyen of Times columnists and his insights into politics are usually pretty spot-on. It was therefore gratifying to see him arguing in yesterday’s column that the “irrelevant initiatives and hectic trips around the country” of Gordon Brown and David Cameron are merely a substitute for action, and that their many and varied proposals are economically flawed and designed to buy-off political constituencies rather than achieve macro-economic recovery.

Brown's pledge to create 100,000 jobs and Mr Cameron's new savings package do not address the cause of the deepening recession: the lack of credit. Everything else is secondary… [T]he job and savings initiatives are distractions. They address symptoms not causes…

Both the Brown and Cameron initiatives are about political positioning: to demonstrate their concern about the recession and to show they are doing something. The most damaging charge now is of inaction. The plans are also aimed at potential supporters, with Mr Cameron generating a positive response from Tory websites and activists seeking tax cuts, even though he has been criticised by independent commentators.”
Riddell is entirely correct. The only way this recession will end is if the equilibrium between borrowing and lending is established, and preferably at a level that sees interest rates reflecting real time preferences, rather than being massaged down by governments in an effort to stimulate short-lived but vote-winning “booms” (today rebadged as “soft-landings” and even “recoveries”).

I am not entirely sure I agree with his thrust that this should be achieved by the Government pumping vast sums of extra money in to the banking sector: today’s Times headline brings tears to the eye. Excess credit expansion is what brought us to this sorry state and further credit expansion is only going to bring us her again in the future (‘If you are in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging’). However, whether one accepts that the economy needs to go through a period of readjustment or you believe that masses of liquidity needs to be pumped into the banking sector to stop an outright collapse, the fact remains that bail-outs for car companies, government make-work schemes and financial gestures are not only going to fail in their objectives, but will in the process make the situation a lot worse.

Riddell is not nearly firm enough in this, however, and occasionally lapses into Keynesian fantasy. “Bringing forward capital projects makes sense,” he claims, before admitting that it “is unlikely to have more than a marginal impact.” Similarly, he thinks that “There is a case for boosting saving in the long term, but not in the short term when the need is to raise spending,” ignoring the fact that money saved equals money spent: banks can’t hang onto money for long, and sooner or later it has to be invested in businesses or – as the result of more misguided government intervention – used to buy government bonds, which means that either way it ends up in the “real economy”. One man’s saving is another man’s (or company’s) borrowing and spending.

He also gives his blessing to the idea of extended state guarantee for loans that has been proposed by both the government and the Tories. But this is an extremely dangerous proposal for two reasons. Firstly, businesses are currently going bust because lenders are not willing to extend credit to them for fear that they will go bust anyway and thus default. If government guarantees these loans, banks will have no reason to exercise one of their primary roles – as arbiters of who is credit-worthy and who is not – and will be inclined to loan money to all and sundry, knowing that the bank is shielded from loss. The result will be that the government will end up with huge numbers of loan defaults to cover.

And that creates the second problem, which is the moral hazard facing the government as a result of these loans. According to Riddell, “The answer is not unconditional bailouts, as in the 1970s, but some way of breaking the credit logjam”. But once a firm that has outstanding loans backed by government guarantee is faced with bankruptcy, it will have a far more powerful hold over government when it seeks a bail-out. The argument that a subsidy of a few million will avert a collapse and default that saddles the taxpayer with a debt of tens of millions will be hard for government to resist. Conversely, the flood-gates of industrial policy will be open as government will expect influence in return for its largesse: as Riddell himself admits, “the larger that government guarantees become - and they could be enormous - the greater the demand for specific commitments in return.”


dreamingspire said...

The real story is that Brown has taken charge over a government that has somehow become emasculated. My dealings with UK public servants over the last twenty odd years have seen a continual failure by many of them to equip themselves with the skills necessary to cope with both local and global changes, and others have traced this back even further: at least 40 years. There have been islands of competence, and I'm also aware that some of the best of our public servants have moved across the Channel. The USA, despite the cushion provided by its federal structure, and despite the many excellent people in national institutions, may have similarly gone downhill.

Oranjepan said...

...some way of breaking the credit logjam.

Not going to happen until recapitalisation has occurred.

Banks have mortgaged themselves to the hilt and now there's less in the pot to reinvest.

The bubble cannot be reinflated without repairing the puncture, but the problem is that it can't be repaired (let alone found) while everyone is trying to get back in the saddle.

Government risks additional damage if it tries now to do everything.