Read Gordon's lips: debt's going way above 40%
Here is one key passage of Gordon Brown's Scottish CBI speech:
"While never complacent about our economic prospects, I am also cautiously optimistic about the long-term resilience and underlying strengths of the British economy. Because at root our economy today is better placed to weather any global economic storm than it was in the 1970s, 80s or early 90s."
I will examine the claim in a minute. But the important thing to note is the change of emphasis. While he has said this before, he has usually also used the "better placed" phrase in relation to other major economies, such as in his May 2008 Guardian interview with Nicholas Watt:
"I also believe that Britain is better placed than most to withstand the global turbulence because of the decisions that we have made both recently and in the past."
And the source of the PM's optimism in today's speech is not just the policies he's pursued over the past 10 years, but the ones he's formulating now:
"It is the actions that governments take and the policies they pursue in periods of economic slowdown that can determine their comparative success and competitiveness in the upswings. Once we are through this global crisis, we will continue to enjoy the opportunities that the global economy offers to us."
This is where I think, in the unlikely event of Newsnight getting him in front of a camera, I would like the questioning to start....
Let us just reiterate, the OECD this week gave the UK the lowest projected average quarterly growth over 2008, at 0.1%. Unfortunately the UK's current GDP growth or shrinkage is not mentioned in the PM's speech - but everybody else's declining growth is. This graph, from the OECD shows the UK is currently in the worst state of all the major economies. And this PDF is the source of the claim that the UK will be the only major economy to enter recession in Q3/Q4.
But it is that "once we are through the global crisis" that I would really like to see the PM grilled on.
He's called that crisis: "The first great financial crisis of the global age with a global credit crunch and global rises in commodity prices."
Once we're through it, runs the flow of the speech, all the wind farms, loft insulation, labour market reforms, productivity etc will see us through. Oh and there's a very interesting sentence on debt I will come back to.
I would like to specualte on an alternative scenario: that the first big crisis of globalisation redraws the map of the globalised economy and that no amount of competence in economic management offsets its impact on the UK.
First off: there is a major chance that this first big financial crisis of globalisation actually sinks enough big financial institutions that the whole landscape changes. This is why Mr Brown and the Bank of England have carefully put in place a "special resolution regime" for collapsed banks. And Mr Brown tacitly acknowledges: our financial services dependence means that if there is a financial meltdown the UK economy could be up a very unpleasant creek.
There is also a serious chance that the Doha trade round never comes back to life, especially if the Democrats win the US election. There is also an uncomfortably bigger than negligible chance that Israel will go to war with Iran, or that Russia will use military force plus destabilisation against Ukraine and even Estonia. That will push energy prices to the point where global depression is on the cards.
The crisis, in other words, contains the potential for shocks and is three dimensional. It's not just a dip and it's not just economics: it's a linked series of vulnerabilities in the world market system. (By the way, no apologies to all those in the blogosphere who think I should stick to demand curves; this is called political economy and you will probably like the sound of the guy who invented it).
In the context of those vulnerabilities how does the UK's political economy look?
In the first place, flexible labour markets have I believe certainly contributed to this being the first recovery in which there was no rise in real wages, no wage-push inflation. Or more precisely, flexible labour markets plus mass migration from Eastern Europe. Even MPC doomsayer David Blanchflower says unemployment will peak at 2m in part because of migration and flexibility. So that's a plus.
On central bank independence, which Mr Brown claims is the source of our current financial stability, I think there is more to discuss: as we explored last night on Newsnight, it's possible that inflation targeting will no longer be enough to ensure stability and growth; that just as we are importing inflation now, it may have been that much of the stability/deflation was also imported. The policy framework may have to change - and see below on the debt bit to see where this is going.
The source of Mr Brown's optimism is that the world economy will double in size in the next few decades and there's a lot to play for. But it's possible that the emergence of rival trading blocs, bilateral trade deals, the collapse of the globalisation process represented at Doha, create - even on the economic plane - a situation in which Britain is not the automatic beneficiary of such growth. Trade, as I know all too well, is a subject that makes people's eyes glaze over: we cover it about once every two years when Peter Mandelson throws his toys around in advance of a meeting in Geneva. However, stuck on the edge of Europe, with a relatively high-tax regime compared to eg Poland and Ireland, a huge social overhang of pension liabilities and the ageing population, it is not a foregone conclusion that Britain is the beneficiary.
In particular because we have a small and - while excellently productive and modernised - vulnerable manufacturing industry. It is just 16% of GDP. The Eurozone has 28% of GDP; the USA about 35% of GDP.
Already, Britain's position within the global trading system, while making London home to one of the free-est financial services markets in the world also makes places like the East Midlands and East Anglia synonymous with low-wage, low value added industry.
I could go on, but I just think the UK is more vulnerable to the vagaries of any deep and cataclysmic financial crisis than is being admitted. Let's hope we don't have to find out. I know there will now be a tit-for-tat argument over e.g. fuel rebates but I would like to see a more thoughtful discussion among the politicians over: is what we have done over the 16 years since Black Wednesday, on productivity, skills, infrastructure etc anywhere like enough to deliver what the PM says it will deliver - namely a soft passage through the turmoil.
Now here's the debt bit. There is an obvious kite being flown - indeed more than flown, hoisted, when Mr Brown tells us:
"Fourth, low debt. The significant debt repayments we made since 1997 mean we have cut public debt as a share of national income from 43 per cent in 1997 to today's 37.3 per cent. This means that, unlike in earlier economic slowdowns, we can sustain our ongoing commitment to investment in fixed capital infrastructure - up 58 per cent in real terms in the last decade."
I will tell you what this means: it means they are thinking of borrowing a lot more than 40% of GDP.
This relative lowness of UK debt on an international scale is real, and has been the subject of after-action barstool conversations between myself and various guests on Newsnight over the past couple of weeks.
Public sector net debt is currently £543 billion and represents 37.5% of GDP. The government thinks it will edge up to 38.5% by the end of the fiscal year. The IFS think tank said, even before accounting for Northern Rock, the government is just 2.8bn pounds - or 0.2% - away from breaching its own "golden" rule that net debt should be below 40% of GDP.
However, Brown is right. Other countries are massively more indebted than we are, and he is also right that this is partly because he has paid down debt in the past. For example (roll Jeux Sans Frontieres music): Japan - 195%; Italy - 104% of GDP; France - 64% - it goes on.
I take this as a cast iron signal that the Pre-Budget Report will give some kind of clear signal of a tax cutting, 40% busting fiscal package to stimulate the economy, which will make everything announced so far look puny.
But here's a thought: if the government breaches its own rules, and runs up a debt into the mid-40% range - will Messrs Cameron and Osborne still feel obliged to match Labour's spending plans penny for penny out to 2011?