What comes next?

Getting a good deal with the EU will be priority number one for whoever our next Prime Minister is, but as important as that is, they shouldn’t lose sight of the huge opportunities that being outside the EU will give us. Big reforms to trade, farming and fisheries will be open to us no matter what deal we go for with the EU, so we should get moving on them right away.

  • We should sign free trade agreements, based on mutual recognition, with as many countries as possible. I’m torn between unilateral free trade, which cuts prices for consumers, and free trade deals that get other countries to cut their tariffs in exchange for us doing the same. But, thanks to the WTO, tariffs are a relatively small part of the picture nowadays – regulatory barriers to trade matter much more. The UK should get talks started to sign Mutual Recognition Agreements with every other OECD state that is interested. Mutual recognition is a more flexible and widely-used mechanism for bringing down regulatory barriers to trade than harmonisation, which the EU prefers internally. It will take time, but it could open up huge new markets and substantially reduce prices for British consumers. I also like Matthew Lynn’s idea to try to join existing regional trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the longer run, Roland Smith's piece about 'agile trade', where sectoral agreements move much more quickly than comprehensive deals, may outline the way forward.
  • Establish an “Everything But Arms” protocol for trade with as many developing countries as possible. The EU exempts most imports from “Least Developed Countries” (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa) from tariffs and quotas, though a lot of countries that are still very poor aren’t quite poor enough to count. We should establish the principle that imports from developing countries under a given (and more generous than the EU's) Human Development Index threshold are exempt from all import restrictions that aren’t related to security or safety. These countries are not large export markets for Britain, so the case for unilateral free trade to boost development there is much stronger. Ultimately this may not do a huge amount of good compared to those countries improving their own regulations and governance, but it's a start.
  • Follow New Zealand in phasing out agricultural subsidies. New Zealand’s Labour government had to deal with an uncompetitive farming sector that was dependent on state income supports, price floors, tariffs and direct subsidies to survive. Rather boldly, they cut almost everything in the space of a few years – “Support to pastoral agriculture, expressed in PSE terms, fell from 34% in 1984 to 23% in 1987 and 3% in 1994 (Sandrey and Scobie, 1994). As a proportion of public expenditure, support to agriculture fell from 9% in 1983 to 7% in 1985 and 1% in 1989.” The result was a doubling of agricultural productivity growth (from 1% to 2-2.3% per annum) and farm profitability beginning to rise steadily. 11% of farm labour jobs were lost, but because of increased automation, not because farms were competed out of existence; only one percent of farmers couldn't adjust themselves.
    It would be rather brutal to pull out the rug from small family farms overnight, and they of course are not the biggest beneficiaries of agrisubsidies – according to the BBC, "about 80% of farm aid goes to about a quarter of EU farmers - those with the largest holdings." To protect smaller farmers from being harmed by these reforms, we should pay a five-to-ten year "transition allowance" equal to their average subsidy receipt over the last five years to family-scale farmers.
  • Harness incentives to restore Britain’s fisheries. Fisheries have to be managed somehow, to avoid a tragedy of the commons where no individual has an incentive to preserve stocks. The EU’s approach is to micromanage things: specifying total allowable catch numbers, for instance, which until recently meant huge numbers of caught fish would be thrown back, dead, into the sea. Since “Hugh’s Fish Fight” this discards problem has been addressed by the EU – with a ban on discards, which might just add to the problems we have.  
    A better approach might be to bring in “Individual Transferable Quotas” (ITQs), which basically is cap-and-trade, but for fish. A government agency sets a total allowable catch for a season for a given part of the sea, and owners of ITQs get to bring in whatever percentage of that total their ITQ gives. ITQs persist over time, and 2% of ten tons is less than 2% of twenty tons, so fishermen have a direct incentive to hold back from overfishing to allow the stock to grow. A review of over 200 studies of ITQs found that fishermen participating in schemes like this break the rules less often and often lobby for lower total catch numbers to boost the long-term sustainability of these stocks. It’s property rights in fish, and it seems to work much better than central planning.

It's understandable to be nervous about what Brexit means, but with a sensible deal with the EU and a willingness to be bold, some wonderful opportunities may lie ahead.

The Guardian hasn't quite got this capitalism thing, has it?

Whether we call this capitalism or free markets is arguable of course but the headline writer here is insistent that there's something very wrong with this situation:

Why do we eat lunch at our desks? Because capitalism

Lunch as we know it today has evolved from its humble origins, but efficiency has always been its true calling card. Get ready for a future of sad desk meal-replacement beverage lunches

The actual writer seems less upset:

The power lunch has also been replaced with a slew of new, powered-by-technology lunch startups, all promising to spice up your workday meal. UberEatsoffers fast delivery from local restaurants, meaning that your options to go broke buying lunch have significantly expanded. New York’s Maple delivers a rotating menu of celebrity-created lunch options for a flat $12 fee. Arcade lets you order meals by text. Bots have also emerged as a new way to more seamlessly order lunch from within productivity platforms. Taco Bell, for example, has integrated with workplace messaging company Slack to offer an AI-powered ordering service. Users talk with the bot, order food and pay through Slack.

Then there are new lunch services that help you get you out of the office, even if just to pick up your food. MealPass, started by a founder of ClassPass, is a subscription-style lunch model that offers a daily selection of weekday lunch options for $119 a month, which works out to around $6 a lunch. You log on to the service before 9.30am, pick one of the options available near your office, and pop out to collect it at a designated time. I tried it out for a couple days and it definitely injected variety into my usual lunch routine – which generally consists of going to the nearest purveyor of foodstuffs and buying the same sandwich every day.

That capitalism/free market mix seems to be making things rather better really, doesn't it? Myriad new options sprouting up as the newly available technological space is explored.

This is not just true of desk based lunch options either. We're not going to praise the culinary excellence of the low end of the frozen pizza market but the mid-range of the supermarket prepared meal spectrum is markedly better than the mean, median or modal British cuisine of 30 years ago. We know because we were there eating that stuff.

It is indeed entirely possible to complain about what all this capitalism and free markets does to us all. Adam Smith himself pointed out that a too rigorous division of labour can leave a man as an automaton performing the same dreary task repetitively. But to complain that we've now the greatest choice of comestibles available to any group of humans ever, cheaper than anyone previously dreamed of before, does seem to be a strange whine about an economic system.  

That Brexit induced stock market disaster in full

The financial markets were of course going to go spare if Britain voted to leave the European Union. Armageddon, plagues of frogs, stockbrokers leaping from windows. That is of course how it turned out too:

A buying bonanza fuelled the FTSE 100’s remarkable rebound, erasing all of its post-Brexit losses in just two days.

London’s benchmark index enjoyed its best day in almost five years, soaring 219.67 points, or 3.58pc, to a two-month high of 6,360.06.

The rebound follows an 8.7pc plunge in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. The blue chip index now trading up 0.5pc since the referendum outcome was announced.

That is ever so slightly a cheap shot as the vast majority of the revenue, and thus the profits of, FTSE 100 companies comes from outside the UK. A falling pound thus increases their profits when stated in sterling.

But it is only ever so slightly that cheap shot. Because of course the same effect applies to the whole economy. Everything British is now some few percentage points cheaper than it was. Yes, modern trade is complex and all that but economics really does happen at the margin. There will be some increase in what foreigners buy from us, some boost to the domestic production of things for domestic consumption. A stimulus to the economy that is.

We would also note that the fall in the pound has been rather larger than whatever tariffs the EU might try to threaten us with on their imports from us. Even if our exports do face the full barrage of that tariff wall we're still cheaper than we were before.

"British exports cheaper! Trade disaster looms!" just isn't a headline which works really, is it?

We prefer to think that it's because Spaniards are observant

A certain amount of headscratching over on the left as Podemos doesn't make the predicted breakthrough in the Spanish elections:

It was supposed to be a historic moment for the left in Europe. Podemos, the anti-austerity party founded barely two years ago, was set to become Spain’s second force in Sunday’s re-run of December’s inconclusive election and, perhaps, be in a position to enter government in a leftist coalition. The polls were unanimous in this respect. Some people even began to think that perhaps the pollsters were being coy and Podemos might just end up snatching the election from the jaws of the conservative People’s party.

It didn’t happen. Not only that but Podemos, which had taken part in the election in coalition with other political forces, suffered a severe setback, losing about 1.1 million votes. Even though the Socialist party also slumped, Podemos went nowhere near overtaking them as everybody had been expecting.

Why did the polls get it so wrong?

We don't insist that we are correct in this diagnosis but we would hope that we are. The result simply being that the Spanish voters had a look around the world and went "Naah, no thanks".

We do not, by any means, back the idiocy that euro membership has forced upon Spain as economic policy. As with Greece the correct policy to have followed was that devaluation that could not be done.

However, the plan on offer from Podemos was alarmingly close to those policies which have worked so well in Venezuela. And do please note that the shortages and rationing there started well before the oil price slide. This is not controversial by the way, Podemos, as with Owen Jones and others, were praising Bolivarian socialism well past the point that it had started to implode even if they're now viewing events with a "Who, me?" insouciance.

What that Venezuelan experience has told us is that we do indeed have a spectrum of economic policies available to us. Ranging the entire spectrum from Hong Kong style laissez faire free markets all the way through to tax and benefit heavy free markets like the Nordics. where you want to be on that spectrum will be a matter of your trade off between equity and efficiency - we go for the efficiency side of that as we think that equity should be considered inter-temporally. Increasing equity today at the cost of making the future poorer is not justified beyond a very limited amount. But we understand that not all moral compasses are as firmly butted as our own.

The importance of this all being that non-market systems simply do not work. Yes, of course, there are areas (externalities, public goods, there's a list in every textbook) where pure free markets don't work well if at all. But the general basis of a workable society simply does have  to be market based. If that's a lesson that all take away from that Venezuelan disaster then that, even if not the disaster, is a good thing.

And our suspicion about the Spanish result is that people are grasping that.

How to ensure the UK’s EEA membership

I voted to Remain in last week’s EU Referendum. As attractive as the “liberal leave” agenda of internationalism, deregulation, and freer trade was, there was too great a risk that the driving forces behind a Leave vote would be anti-globalisation and anti-migrant sentiment.

I also feared that Europe’s leaders would harshly punish the UK to disincentivise anyone else from departing. Although Project Fear was hyperbolic, the concerns over our place in the Single Market and the threat to business, finance, and trade were real.

My worries have not been put to rest. Asides from the appalling upsurge in racist incidents, the referendum result has produced ambiguity, uncertainty, and instability. Still, a few things seem clear. We will leave the EU within the next five years. Leave supporters have divergent agendas and expectations. There is some (limited) flexibility for how the UK responds. And an attractive liberal position, namely remaining within the European Economic Area, may actually be viable.

If the Conservatives can select a reasonable leader and assemble a cabinet containing leavers and remainers, they can unite around ensuring the UK remains within the Single Market. Europe will not compromise over free movement of labour. But, given the enormous damage the UK’s withdrawal from the EEA would do to their economies and the electoral repercussions of this, the leaders of the remaining 27 EU Member States will not make the mistake of rejecting this option if the UK accepts free movement.

It is true that this may require a struggle between the elected European leadership and the more vindictive and vengeful EU bureaucracy. However, so long as Britain capitulates on free movement, this should be sufficient to demonstrate that you can only be in the EEA if you abide by all the rules, and could serve to take the wind out of the populists’ sails by making it unambiguous that rejecting migration means embracing economic collapse.

The only question the referendum asked was whether we should leave the EU. The Single Market and immigration were not on the ballot. Nevertheless, is a UK government now in a position to save free movement, given that supporters and resentful opponents alike are trumpeting the leave vote as a definitive victory for nativism and closed borders? Before the referendum, I would have said no, but the political landscape has changed dramatically overnight. 

In particular, the Labour Party has completely imploded. The unprecedented resignation of almost all of the front bench and the no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership means that Labour has no short-term future. Either Corbyn goes, leaving a large part of the grassroots feeling betrayed. Or he stays, and Labour faces a bitter split or continuing as an emaciated, divided, and confused husk.

This situation provides an opportunity. If the government negotiates anything resembling a sensible deal, many leavers will attack them for ‘selling out’. Nevertheless, in the absence of an opposition, the fallout from this can be minimised. It would probably mean a few more UKIP MPs at the next General Election, but this may be a necessary price to pay for preserving trade, stability, the position of the city, and, indeed, migration.

The other problem is the difficulty of persuading remainers that good could, or even should, come from leaving. The Scottish Nationalists are poised to exploit this to ensure independence, and some on the left seem to want Brexit to result in economic collapse, isolationism, and legitimised racism, so that they feel vindicated. 

These risks can be navigated. Sturgeon is calculating and canny enough to appreciate that, so long as Single Market access was assured, remaining may be easier than fighting another referendum and struggling through a separate set of harder negotiations in Europe. I also expect that remainers will come to appreciate the necessity of realigning to work with liberal leavers to ensure that post-Brexit Britain can remain open, prosperous, vibrant, and tolerant, and is stopped from descending into nationalism, protectionism, and isolation. 

Paying for continued Single Market access isn't worth it

Now that we've decided to leave the EU talk is turning to how we maintain access to the Single Market. And we know what's going to happen there: demands will be made that we must contribute to the EU budget in order to gain that Single Market access. We also have a good idea about the amount that we'll be asked for. About the £8 billion of our current nett contribution.

This is not worth it, not worth it in the slightest.

Leave aside that everyone thinks of this the wrong way around, they all think like mercantilists, believe that exports are what make us richer. This is not so of course, it is imports that do. And of course the rules we have over our imports are for us to decide.

Think of this like a mercantilist. The savings that will be made by Single Market membership are the tariffs that will not have to be paid as a result. No, we agree, those tariffs would be paid by EU consumers, not us, but still, think like a mercantilist. So, how much would be saved by Single Market membership?

UK exports to the EU are some £133 billion a year. Average WTO tariff rates, which is what we would be stuck at sans Single Market membership, are around 3%. We would thus save £4 billion. This is less than the £8 billion cost. This is not worth it.

Now relax our conditions a little. The £4 billion is being saved by EU consumers. Or, if you want to consider elasticities of demand and all that, anything up to £4 billion is saved by UK exporters. At a cost of £8 billion to UK taxpayers. This is still not worth it.

We would even go rather further than this. When it is put this way these payments for Single Market access are quite obviously special deals, taxpayer support for, exporters. Something that is illegal under general trade rules and more specifically so under EU ones. So when do we bring the case against the EU Commission for the illegality of their charging access fees to the Single Market? Preferably before anyone in the UK starts to think of paying them perhaps?


Denmark may not be all that socially mobile

It's commonly thought that Denmark—and Scandinavian countries in general—are especially socially mobile. In these paradises, the theory goes, birth is not destiny. Because of high quality egalitarian education, healthcare, and progressive social attitudes, one's birth has less connection with one's life outcomes than anywhere else, especially the cut-throat conservative USA.

There's something to this view, but a new working paper from famed Nobelist economist, and education expert James Heckman (pdf), throws it into question. Heckman finds that Denmark does indeed have a more mobile society than elsewhere in terms of income, but that this does not mainly come from a generally more fluid and equal society in general.

In fact, the higher measured income mobility is "largely a consequence of redistributional tax, transfer, and wage compression policies". When it comes to educational mobility, the countries are more or less the same. To state that another way: those growing up with less advantage in Denmark don't do better than those in the US because they have high-flying careers and great labour market success, but because Denmark has higher taxes and benefits.

This adds to a large literature finding that there is little we can do to strike at the causes of inequality. Intelligence and the abilities that the labour market rewards come mostly from things we can't do much about. But we certainly can blunt the income effects of unfair endowments of skills through handouts from the state.

And it adds to another body of evidence finding that Scandinavian countries are not as magical—in policy terms—as we think. For example, the descendants of Norwegians, Finns, Danes and Swedes actually do better in the USA (pdf), under their relatively laissez faire hands-off policies, than they do under the relatively interventionist Nordic models. It just looks like Scandinavia is doing better because such a high proportion of its populace are Scandinavian, who tend to have good outcomes whichever system they're under.

There are some things that are just really hard to change!

Osborne won't be having an emergency budget then

Our word, a week really is a long time in politics isn't it? For George Osborne comes out of his post-referendum funk induced purdah to tell us all that he was just kidding. No, really, you didn't actually take the Chancellor of the Exchequer seriously did you? Ha, ha, gotcha

Mr Osborne will not publish an emergency Budget and says that while the outcome of the EU referendum will have an effect on public finances, it is sensible to wait until the autumn for the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to assess the economy and for the new prime minister to be in place. 

Some 12 days ago we were being told:

George Osborne will warn that he would have to fill the £30bn black hole in public finances triggered by a vote to leave the European Union by hiking income tax, alcohol and petrol duties and making massive cuts to the NHS, schools and defence.

In a sign of the panic gripping the remain campaign, the chancellor plans to say that the hit to the economy will be so large that he will have little choice but to tear apart Conservative manifesto promises in an emergency budget delivered within weeks of an out vote.

Yes, of course, we know, the original threat and today's backtracking are both politics rather than economics and politicians do that. And that's why having politicians with power over the economy is such a bad idea - they will, inevitably, do politics not economics with the economy.

However, Chancellor is one of those jobs where the reality bit rather than the phantasms of politics is rather more important than it is in much of the rest of the Westminster circus. There will always be a blend between the buying of votes and doing what is actually correct but that blend has been, these past few years, far too populist and not enough reality.

Still, not to worry too much, only a couple of months to go now. For we rather do believe that the next Prime Minister will have a Chancellor, a different one, one who will eye up the balance rather differently. 

All political careers end in failure of course

But this is something of a new one on us, a move that is doomed to failure before it even starts. It appears that George Osborne is considering trying to replace Cameron as PM:

George Osborne’s allies are taking soundings this weekend among Tory MPs on whether the chancellor should stand against Boris Johnson to be the new Tory leader.

We're really pretty sure that's not one of those things that is going to work. And rightly so too.

Allow us to leave the politics out of this, as we should do, and consider only the performance as Chancellor. Most recently people will recall the outrageous slanting of the Treasury and other official reports about the effects of Brexit. The basic problem, as we all pointed out again and again, was that the inbuilt assumption of all those reports was that Britain would follow stupid policies on trade once we leave. And yes, following stupid policies leads to a bad outcome. But no consideration at all was given to what would happen if we followed sensible policies. Like Patrick Minford's insistence that we should simply move to unilateral free trade, the only sensible trade stance to have anyway, which would grow the economy, not shrink it.

Nominally independent, nominally expert, reports deliberately slanted for partisan political gain.

But sadly it's been worse than that Osborne has been a lousy Chancellor more generally. Two points particularly stick with us.  A higher minimum wage will cost jobs. Even the Low Pay Commission has been telling us this ever since they first started to set the level. Something called the Living Wage campaign starts to make political headway so Osborne decides to trump them, beat them. By bringing in a living wage higher than they were ever asking for. This is a Tory? A Conservative? 

Then there's one more subtle. The Bank Levy. When this came in we cheered it as being obviously correct. Too big to fail is indeed an externality of having large banks. The correct answer is a Pigou Tax on said externality. You can also view it as an insurance premium said large banks must pay for that implicit insurance they get. The original implementation was excellent. The tax was on the right thing, liabilities, and it considered risk. Overnight deposits paid more than long term bond issues, both more than equity. This was a right and good answer to the problem. And the banks were indeed both shrinking and changing their funding models as a result, changing them in the right and desired manner.

That in turn meant that the revenue from the levy was falling so Osborne changed the calculation to maintain the revenue but not the pressure for the banks to change in the desired manner. That is, he entirely screwed up one of the few important things he had got right first time. And all for entirely political, not economic, reasons.

The basic problem with having politicians trying to run the economy is that of course they will do so as politicians, not economists. But Osborne is worse than most. Don't just listen to us of course. Keep looking to see how that campaign works out to be party leader.

Short and sharp we predict, short and sharp and not in a good way. 

We're really looking forward to George Osborne's emergency budget

We're now 24 hours in or so from the markets having to digest the implications of the Brexit vote. The pound is down, less so against the euro than the dollar. That is a nice  stimulatory effect for the British economy, as devaluations are. The stock market, using a number of different measures like the FTSE 100 or the FTSE 250 is all the way down at the depths of Thursday last week.

And so in the face of this catastrophe we have something else to look forward to. George Osborne has promised us an emergency budget:

George Osborne will warn that he would have to fill the £30bn black hole in public finances triggered by a vote to leave the European Union by hiking income tax, alcohol and petrol duties and making massive cuts to the NHS, schools and defence.

In a sign of the panic gripping the remain campaign, the chancellor plans to say that the hit to the economy will be so large that he will have little choice but to tear apart Conservative manifesto promises in an emergency budget delivered within weeks of an out vote.

No one's really seen hide nor hair of him since the vote so we must assume that he's off working on exactly what he's going to cut and which taxes he's going to raise. All slightly odd given that stimulatory effect of the currency movements but there we have it. He did promise us he would punish us if we were naughty little boys and girls and so given that we have been we must expect to suffer.

Yes, that must be it. For it couldn't possibly be that he's simply hiding among the rubble of a once promising political career. Nor that the threat was just that, a threat, a piece of politics. For of course no Chancellor would just play politics with something as important as the economy, would they?

Who would prefer to offer an over and an under on that resignation speech being difficult to write?