I’ll be back!

22 Aug 2015

I haven’t updated this website for a while as I’ve been incredibly busy with various tasks. However, I hope to be back before too long.

Since this is my last blog post for Fundweb allow me to indulge a little. I want to try to unravel a debate that has increasingly preoccupied policymakers, as well as myself, in recent years. That is the discussion of excessive inequality.

The arguments on the subject can be incredibly frustrating because they are often at cross-purposes. Few take the trouble to listen carefully to what others are saying.

Anyone who has read some of the key discussions on the topic should first of all be clear that no influential voices are calling for equality. They certainly do not advocate the removal of material inequalities or the abolition of social classes. On the contrary, they often make the point explicitly that they are not calling for an equal society.

Instead the near universal call is for the allegedly damaging implications of extreme inequalities to be contained in some way. This is the thrust of the argument made by leading politicians (such as Barack Obama), religious leaders (including the Pope and Justin Welby), central bankers (Mark Carney and Janet Yellen), influential economists (James Heckman, Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz), international organisations (including the IMF and the OECD), philosophers (such as Michael Sandel and the late John Rawls) and the billionaires who attend the World Economic Forum at Davos.

It should be clear from this glittering roll call that this argument is thoroughly mainstream. Although some may favour a limited degree of redistribution there is nothing inherently radical about their obsession with inequality. On the contrary, it could reasonably be described as an elite preoccupation.

The primary concern is about what is sometimes called social cohesion. That is a fear that the super-rich at the top of the hierarchy (rather than the merely rich) and the socially excluded at the bottom could between them pull society apart. There is also a secondary and related worry that high levels of inequality could damage economic growth.

Although I disagree with the conclusions drawn by Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, he succinctly expressed the mainstream view in a speech to last year’s Conference on Inclusive Capitalism in London. Using sociological jargon he argued the debate was really about “social capital” which he defined as “the links, shared values and beliefs in a society which encourage individuals not only to take responsibility for themselves and their families but also to trust each other and work collaboratively to support each other.” (For those who are interested, he took the concept from Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist).

Carney then went on to say: “My core point is that, just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself. To counteract this tendency, individuals and their firms must have a sense of their responsibilities for the broader system.” He therefore introduced a limited form of anti-capitalism – in the sense of opposition to an unconstrained free market – into his scheme.

Although Carney was careful not to call openly for state regulation of people’s lives, that is where this fearful outlook inevitably leads. That is why it embodies a potent drive to restrict individual freedom. But the premise on which the argument is built is false. The anxiety about social disintegration is greatly overdone. It reflects the outsize insecurities of a technocratic elite rather than the realities among the bulk of the population.

On that note, I would like to wish the best to all my readers.

Democracy in America

12 Jul 2015

I will be introducing a discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America at the Institute of Ideas Economy Forum on Wednesday evening. Details can be found here.

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There follows my Fund Strategy Polemic column for July.

For all the talk of a possible bubble in US technology stocks, the rise in the Nasdaq over the past year is dwarfed by the surge in the Shanghai and Shenzen stockmarket indices. Draw lines on the same graph representing percentage change over the past year or so and the American index’s rise seems ever so gentle. Of course things could change quickly.

At the time of writing there were already signs of wobbles in the Chinese markets. Sharp corrections have also happened before. The Shanghai Composite dropped precipitously in the months following its late 2007 peak. The problem is that comparisons between China and America, or indeed other developed economies, can be misleading. Although it is possible to use the same metrics in both China and the West, such as price-earnings ratios, the context is entirely different. The Chinese economy still works according to different dynamics than its western counterparts. Although most commentators pay lip service to these differences they tend to downplay their significance.

China is seen as in many respects similar to the western economies but with an oversized state and a different cultural context. As it happens the Chinese state is smaller than those of western economies, at least according to one widely accepted metric. The IMF estimates total government spending as a proportion of GDP at 29.6 per cent in China compared with 41.5 per cent for Britain and 36.8 per cent for America. This is a salutary reminder that, despite all the talk of free markets, the state plays a substantial role in western economies. 

Despite nearly four decades of economic reform it is misleading to describe China as a market economy. State-owned enterprises still play a substantial role and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains paramount. The ruling elite is focused more on maintaining order than in creating the conditions for profitable businesses. From this perspective the main purpose of promoting economic growth is to maintain the government’s legitimacy. Rising prosperity is a powerful incentive for the population to conform but the CCP offers relatively little else.

The recent focus on managing an orderly slowdown in growth is designed to maintain growing affluence while avoiding an economic crash. To be sure a consistent annual growth rate of even 6 per cent – that the IMF forecasts for China in the latter part of this decade – would be beyond the wildest dreams of the western economies. But expectations among the Chinese population are high and the official figures could well overstate the rate of expansion.

High expectations among the Chinese population point to a second important difference with the West. Amid all the talk of China as an economic giant it is often forgotten that it is still an emerging economy. Its huge population means that it can have a large GDP even when income per person is relatively low. Even on a purchasing power parity basis, that is taking into account lower prices, GDP per head in China is far lower than in the West. According to the latest figures from the IMF the US was on about $55,000 in 2014, the UK $39,000 and China $13,000. That puts China slightly below the likes of middle-income countries such as Colombia, Serbia and South Africa in terms of income per head.

The existence of a still sizeable rural sector also indicates that China still remains a developing economy. According to official figures from the World Bank just under half of the population is rural. In some respects this gives a misleading impression since many who live in the countryside work in services or industry. But the proportion of the labour force that still works in agriculture is many times that of America or Britain.

China’s massive scale represents another important difference between China and the West. In many respects the Asian giant is better seen as a continent rather than a country. Regional differences can therefore taken on more importance than might be expected The hukou system is one indication that the ties between the different regions are often different from what might be expected of a fully unified state. Essentially an individual’s access to education, healthcare and housing is tied to their hometown or village. In effect this amounts to an internal system of control on the huge numbers of migrants who travel from their homes to other regions of China to work. The movement of labour within China is far from free.

Just because it is possible to use the same economic and financial indicators it does not follow that China is essentially the same as the developed economies. Despite the extensive reform process set in motion in 1978 it should not be forgotten that fundamental differences remain.  

Multimedia links

10 Jul 2015

The debate on social justice I participated in this week at the City of London Festival is now available to listen to as a podcast.

 It is also appropriately topical that my debate on European austerity from last year’s Battle of Ideas is now available to watch on video.

While most European eyes are focused on Greece’s economic turmoil a potentially more significant development is unfolding on the other side of the world. In Beijing delegates from 50 countries have recently attended the signing ceremony of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The bank will lend billions of dollars to help develop Asian infrastructure but that is not the main reason its foundation is so important. It is rather that America made a concerted attempt to block the bank’s creation but failed. So the AIIB’s establishment represents a crack in the long-standing US-led global order.

Many leading figures within America saw Washington’s actions as a monstrous blunder. The US put its influence and prestige on the line, without having any necessary reason to do so, and lost. China was keen for America to participate in the institution but the Obama administration declined the invitation. Nevertheless, many other countries, including Britain, resisted American pressure and agreed to participate. Indeed the UK government was publically rebuked by an American official.

Larry Summers, a former US Treasury secretary, was blunt in his criticism of US policy towards the AIIB in an assessment published in the Financial Times in April. “This past month may be remembered as the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system,” he said.

Robert Zoellik, a former president of the World Bank and US Trade Representative, referred to it as “a strategic mistake” and an “embarrassing experience”.

Stephen Roach, one of the leading American experts on the Asian economy, said the Obama administration had made a “major strategic blunder” . He also helped to put US opposition to the new institution into its broader context: “The US Congress has repeatedly dragged its feet on IMF reforms. And lending programs of the US-dominated World Bank have done little to address infrastructure deficiencies in any part of the world.”

Both of these points are important. For years the US – often working in concert with Europe – blocked proposals for the developing world to have a greater say in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Both institutions reflected the realities of the mid-twentieth century, when the poorer countries had marginal economic weight, rather than the early twenty first century.

China was not the only country to be kept marginalised within these institutions. For example, in 2012 all African states backed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister and a former World Bank managing director, to be the new president of the World Bank but the US stuck by the convention that every head of the organisation should be American. Similarly Europe has insisted on maintaining the tradition that the IMF chief should always be European.

The lack of infrastructure lending by the World Bank also helps provide the backdrop to the creation of the AIIB. Global demand for infrastructure investment is enormous according to the World Bank’s own estimates. Yet in relative terms its lending is modest.

Of course China’s promotion of the AIIB is at least partly motivated by a desire to increase its own influence in East Asia. Beijing is not acting out of altruism. But Washington’s clumsy attempts to contain China have, paradoxically, weakened the global order that America created.

This is my latest blog post for Fundweb.

This is my latest article for the FT.

Has the global preoccupation with extreme inequality peaked? This key question, posed by Labour’s unexpectedly poor performance in the recent UK general election, received little attention. The opposition party’s avowedly egalitarian stance failed to resonate with the electorate in sufficient numbers despite discontent at the government’s austerity programme.

The British public’s preferences apparently ran counter to influential voices worldwide warning of the widening gap between super-rich and poor. These range from US president Barack Obama and the Pope to the heads of the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund.

Anxious discussions about the inequality divide have also become a regular fixture at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The forum even published a report, introduced by former US vice-president Al Gore, identifying rising income inequality as the most dangerous trend for 2015.

This difference in perceptions raises the awkward possibility that ordinary people may not share the concern with widening inequality expressed by the trend’s elite critics. Although the public often tells pollsters it sees the gap between rich and poor as a big problem, this may not shift voting intentions. Or maybe the public is simply more preoccupied with other questions.

Perhaps the dearth of comment on this mismatch is because it is seen as a specifically British enigma. But this ignores Labour’s close ties with fellow egalitarians across the Atlantic. David Axelrod, who was instrumental in Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, advised Ed Miliband, then Labour’s leader, to focus on inequality. Jacob Hacker, a Yale political science professor, had earlier inspired Miliband to promote “predistribution” — the idea of attempting to pre-empt the emergence of excessive inequalities.

The connections have also gone in the opposite direction. Ed Balls, Labour’s former shadow chancellor, was co-author with Lawrence Summers, former US Treasury secretary, of a report on inclusive prosperity published by the Center for American Progress, a centre-left think-tank in Washington DC. Yet Balls lost his seat in the election.

Lane Kenworthy, professor of sociology at the University of California-San Diego, says opinion polls showing public concern about the inequality gap can be misleading. He accepts most such surveys show that most people see inequality as too high. However, when pollsters ask the public what the government’s priorities should be, the topic is rarely near the top of the list.

“When push comes to shove it’s something most people don’t really care a whole lot about,” Kenworthy says. In his view people are more concerned with absolute living standards, economic security and opportunity. He says social democrats and those on the centre left would be better off focusing on these areas. Policies addressed to improving performance in those spheres tend to have the side-effect of helping to reduce income inequality.

Michael Barone, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington DC-based think-tank, takes a harder line, saying people, with the possible exception of those in Greece, are seldom concerned with inequality. He argues it is often those who live in the most unequal communities, such as New York and San Francisco, who “yelp loudest” about inequality. “The sympathetic analysis of the reason is that these people are more aware of inequality,” he says.

It could be, Barone argues, that those who live in such areas make the mistake of projecting their concerns on to the general population. “The ordinary person in America, and I guess in the UK too, is not angry and full of anguish because they cannot afford to spend $2,000 on a pair of shoes,” he says.

Of course, there were other factors in Labour’s poor electoral performance besides its focus on extreme inequality. Nevertheless it is worth looking carefully at what Labour, and indeed most other critics of inequality, argue. It is a common misconception to assume they are advocating equality in relation to outcomes or wages. Such proposals went out of fashion long ago.

Instead, the consensus is that inequality is rising to the extent it is already causing, or may soon cause, damage to society. In other words, it is widely accepted a substantial degree of inequality is inevitable and probably desirable. The increasingly common criticism, at least among policy-makers, is that the trend is reaching the stage where it is damaging the social fabric.

From this perspective it is worth remembering British prime minister David Cameron too has criticised extreme inequality in some circumstances — for example, where people do not have the opportunities to make the most of their talents. The Tories may not be as closely associated with inequality as a campaigning theme as Labour, but the differences on the question can be exaggerated.

A peculiar paradox seems to have emerged: the topic of inequality no longer sharply divides left and right. Instead, a gap seems to have opened up between policy-makers preoccupied with extreme inequality and the public, which is less concerned.

I will be debating social justice at 6.30pm on 6 July at the Bishopsgate Institute as part of the annual City of London Festival.

Reject rigid rules

15 Jun 2015

The critics of George Osborne’s proposed fiscal framework to make budget deficits illegal during “normal times” are missing the point. Its main flaw is not the fixation with balanced budgets but the idea that problems are best tackled with rules designed to outlaw errant behaviour.

It was always likely that Keynesian economists, such as those who signed a letter in the Guardian and Paul Krugman in the New York Times, would attack the Chancellor’s proposal. And it is true that the thrust of their argument, that the world is too complex for such a simple framework, has a kernel of truth. But the critics miss far more fundamental objections to the balanced budget proposal.

Indeed many of the letter’s signatories are guilty of supporting measures which embody similar flaws to the Chancellor’s proposal. It has become the orthodoxy for economists to support rules designed to guarantee prudence. Anyone remember the golden rule and the sustainable investment rule introduced when Gordon Brown was chancellor of the first New Labour government way back in 1997?

Of those of the current generation of critics who were around at the time it is doubtful there was much opposition to Labour’s rules. Their objection is simply to the precise wording of such maxims rather than to the principle of having them in the first place.

There are at least three fundamental objections to the imposition of any such economic rules.

First, they are either rigid or useless. If Osborne’s balanced budget framework were adhered to strictly it would be counter-productive. There are certainly times when it makes sense to run budget deficits. On the other hand, once a get-out clause is introduced – as Osborne has done with the stipulation that the framework should only apply in “normal times” – it becomes useless. All that is needed to circumvent the framework is to declare that times are abnormal.

There is a parallel here with the eurozone’s original 1997 stability and growth pact. From the start the eurozone had a framework limiting the extent of deficits and debt but these were first broken long ago by France and Germany rather than Greece. Member states have always managed to find ways round rules that stipulate fiscal rectitude.

The undemocratic character of such frameworks is a more fundamental flaw. They involve arbitrary rules, rather than democratically elected MPs, playing a central role in determining fiscal policy. This is apparent in Osborne’s proposal, which includes resurrecting a long-defunct body – the Commissioners for the Reduction of National Debt – with most consisting of unelected central bankers and judges.

Finally, the focus on balancing the budget embodied in the Osborne approach is blinkered. It diverts attention to what is at most a side effect of a weak economy – a large fiscal deficit – rather than tackling the fundamental causes of stagnation. A more rational economic policy would start by considering how dynamic economic growth needs to be restored.

Osborne’s balanced budget rule will simply be a distraction from thinking about the key economic challenges facing Britain. Sadly the mainstream critics are just as narrow in their outlook.

This blog post was first published today on Fundweb.

The no brain election

10 Jun 2015

This is a slightly edited version of my latest Polemic column for Fund Strategy. Although it was only uploaded today it was written shortly after the 7 May election.

There was never any doubt about the result of the British election.

Despite the months of vociferous arguments and heated exchanges the outcome was always a foregone conclusion. Before anyone says it is easy to be wise after the event the victor was not a political party. The real winner was an organisation that was ubiquitous in the election coverage but its role was seldom appreciated: the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

It was hard to avoid hearing it name-checked in the media but, for those unaware of exactly what it does, it is officially an independent microeconomic research institute. Essentially it is a group of experts, unaffiliated with any political party, who do detailed analysis on matters related to tax and public spending.

So during the election campaign it became the go-to body to pronounce on pledges by political parties. A journalist who wanted to assess how much a proposed measure would cost, or how it would affect different groups of people, would invariably quote the IFS. Generally commentators described it as a “respected” or even “highly respected” organisation. It took on the role of neutral arbiter, able to judge the viability of proposals by any party. In that respect it became more of a reference point in the election than the parties themselves.

Hardly anyone seemed to recognise that this development had a dark side. For one thing it meant that the IFS, an unelected organisation, had a position of some power. It meant that a panel of experts would have a large say over which parties and which policies should be considered viable.

This is not meant as an attack on the IFS itself. Its experts are no doubt hugely professional, and I have drawn on their authoritative reports myself in previous articles.

The problem, rather, is what has propelled the rise of the IFS to such prominence. Essentially it indicates a hole in the heart – or perhaps that should be in the brain – of politics. It shows that what passes for political debate no longer represents a clash of principles. The spats between politicians are more akin to squabbles between rival accountants over how best to balance the books of a local corner shop.

Just think back to what election manifestos used to represent. Essentially they were broad statements of principle from each political party. Today they are treated more like a set of accounts or business plans. The inevitable refrain to a proposal from any politician is to ask whether the measure has been properly costed.

This lack of principles represents a serious problem for several reasons. First, it indicates the paucity of ideas in contemporary politics. All of the main parties seem conspicuously vision-lite. The vociferousness of the debate is inversely proportional to the differences between the parties. Politicians of different stripes may appear to detest each other but it does not follow that they disagree on matters of substance.

The absence of fundamental debate means that democracy is inevitably degraded. Genuine democracy is premised on having a lively battle of ideas. It is about much more than just having elected parliaments.

Probably most directly relevant to Fund Strategy readers in their professional capacities Is the impact of this lack of principles on economic debate. Without competing visions of society any discussion can only be a narrow, technical affair. There is no force propelling politicians to take up the key questions. The most important challenges seldom get raised; let alone resolved.

Indeed the superficial character of the debate is so long-standing that it hardly gets noticed. The focus is overwhelmingly on secondary factors such as the budget deficit or government debt. It is seldom understood that, to the extent these matter, they are symptoms of underlying problems rather than key challenges in themselves. For example, public debt levels are high because successive governments have preferred to simply spend money rather than promote a much-needed economic restructuring.

When key questions are occasionally raised, such as Britain’s poor productivity levels, politicians are generally at a loss to know what to say about them. This is a long-standing problem that governments of all stripes have failed to address. There is relatively little debate about how the state can play a role in helping to create the conditions for durable investment in some sectors while unwinding others.

So the lack of proper political debate should not be dismissed as either or a shame or a sideshow. It has damaging consequences. It means fundamental questions seldom get raised let alone resolved.

The only winners in what was tragically a sham of an election were Britain’s technocratic elite. They found their reputation enhanced just as politicians were ever more discredited.

If there was one clear winner there was also an unambiguous loser: the general public. It was in effect disenfranchised by an election bereft of ideas. That puts us all in a weaker position to tackle the formidable challenges ahead.