Why are Industrial Strategies always such stinkers?

The British Government has announced its Industrial Strategy. The problem being that it's the same as everyone elses' industrial strategy ever. A rag bag of whatever is thought to be fashionable or politically appealing at the time with nary a hint of any actual strategy to it.

Now it's entirely true that we're opposed to the very idea, insisting as we do that the structure of the economy is something emergent from the interactions of people within it. But even so this latest one is a stinker.

For example, we're told that the entire nation is going to be wired up to 5G, there will be superfast broadband everywhere. OK. We're also told that there will be a superfast rail network covering the country. Entirely missing the already proven point, that internet access everywhere destroys the economic case for fast trains. 

Yes, we do already know this - they've already been told to go back and do the numbers for HS2 again.

To explain for those who don't know. In a cost benefit analysis the value of a faster train set is the time saved by those travelling upon it. Business travel is assigned a significantly higher value per hour of travel time saved than leisure. On the grounds that if business types were not travelling to do business they would be in an office somewhere doing business. We wouldn't swear to these figures but £50 to £60 an hour for business types, £10 to £12 for leisure travel is about right.

The economic case for higher speed trains depends very heavily on those higher values for business travel. Both the values and the number of people.

But here's the catch - those numbers come from how the world was decades ago. Including the assumption that being on a train means being unable to do business, one can only sit there travelling to do business. No one who has actually been in a first class compartment in the past decade or two can possibly believe that this is how people work today. Mobile phones, then mobile internet (yes, trains do have it these days) have entirely changed that. Work is done on the move. In fact, scratch a regular traveller and you might well find an agreement that travel time is more productive these days.

Thus the major (and yes, really, it is *the* major) benefit in our cost benefit analysis of fast train sets does not exist. 

That is, if we wire the country so that the internet is available anywhere and anywhen then we've entirely destroyed the economic case for fast train sets. 

Which brings us back to industrial strategies. The claimed argument in favour of them is that they allow joined up government and planning. Yet in practice they always, but always, include stinkers like this. We must spend tens, if not hundreds, of billions on fast train sets when we've just made them redundant by wiring the country instead. This is not big, not clever and not joined up.

It is, instead, just a repeat of the ragbag of the ideas generally thought to be fashionable or politically appealing.

Better, we are certain, to leave the economy to be emergent from the interactions of the people within it than insisting on spraying the wealth of the nation up against the wall in this manner.

 

Let's stress about our banks a little bit more shall we?

Earlier this morning the Bank of England released the results of its latest set of stress tests for the 7 big UK financial institutions.

Having been up much of the night for a BBC Live 5 interview at 5:30, I've only had time to do a quick take and will leave a proper analysis for another time. But in the meantime, consider this from the Exec Summary:

"The economic scenario in the test is more severe than the global financial
crisis. Significant improvements in asset quality since the crisis mean that
the loss rate on banks’ loans in the stress test is the same as in the financial
crisis. In the test, banks incur losses of around £50 billion in the first two
years of the stress. This scale of loss, relative to their assets, would have
wiped out the common equity capital base of the UK banking system ten
years ago."

The stress is more severe than the GFC? Losses from the GFC were half a trillion, maybe
more. So a stress more severe than the GFC produces a tenth of the losses of the GFC?

"The stress test shows these losses can now be absorbed within the buffers of
capital banks have on top of their minimum requirements.

"Capital positions have strengthened considerably in the past decade. Banks
started the test with … a Tier 1 riskweighted capital ratio of 16.4%. The
aggregate common equity Tier 1 (CET1) ratio was 13.4% — three times
stronger than a decade ago."

Capital ratios based on the RWA denominator are meaningless.

"Even after the severe losses in the test scenario, the participating banks
would, in aggregate, have a Tier 1 leverage ratio of 4.3% …"

Many experts suggest that we should have minimum of at least 15% and Lord King in his memoirs suggests that a core capital to assets ratio of 10% would be a good start.

An increase in book value capital is one thing, but a decrease in market-value capital is another. In market value terms, banks have less capital than before the GFC.

Let’s take the BoE results at face value. Their best stress tests say now that all UK banks would pass their standard.

For them Barclays has a stressed leverage ratio of 3.6%. Pass standard also 3.6%. By my best estimate, Barclays’ market value leverage ratio is well under 2%.

RBS, perennial problem child, has a stressed leverage ratio of 4.0%. Big change from last year’s 2.9%. But it hasn't returned a dividend in ten years. By my estimate, its leverage is well under 3% and could well be much lower.

Santander UK: their stressed leverage ratio 3.3%, while the pass standard is 3.25%.

Last but not least, we should remember Lloyds and Nationwide: each with huge real estate portfolios–let’s hope house prices don’t fall!

Misconduct costs are given as 0.6 percentage points. That is a lot. Remind me, how many of those responsible for the great financial crisis of the last decade are in jail?

John McDonnell tells us that we'll all make massive profits from government spending

There are two - useful anyway - possible responses to this latest assertion of John McDonnell. One is hollow laughter, the second is a more robust stream of Anglo Saxon. For what he's saying is that it doesn't really matter what government spends borrowed money upon, it's all still bound to make us richer.

Well, yes.

By focusing on the cost of government borrowing (currently close to an all-time low, thanks to tiny interest rates) rather than the enormous social and financial returns on investing that money, the right creates a narrative that investment costs society rather than benefits it.

Lurking behind this is an assumption that a government cannot invest productively – the belief that government borrowing is akin to burning money. This is nonsense used to support the economic approach that has led our country to this pass. Very clearly, government investment can and should be used to support economic growth, as the OECD and others recommend – as indeed this Tory government, in some small way, is coming to recognise, committing a small amount of borrowing for investment. The meaningful question is whether that investment is wise, given the costs – rather than presuming that only costs exist.

Or as he's expanded upon:

Asked by BBC Radio 4’s Today presenter Mishal Husain how much extra it would cost to service public debt under Labour, McDonnell would not give a figure, saying extra borrowing would “pay for itself”.

The problem with this argument is that it is nonsense.

We can, dependent upon how Keynesian we want to be, make the argument that in a depression and the like then government spending upon near anything can make us all richer. It's not a view we subscribe to particularly but we'll acknowledge that it's out there. That isn't where we are though, is it? We're at or at least about full employment, there's little to no spare capacity in the economy. Thus a simple and pure increase in spending isn't the answer to whatever remaining problems we have - that would just cause inflation.

What is necessary for McDonnell's argument is that whatever the borrowing is spent upon is worth more than the cost of the borrowing. For purists we should also be insisting that it creates more value than alternative uses of the same money - opportunity costs or crowding out. This is possible, certainly. The amount spent upon enforcing property rights is the very basis of our having a functioning economy at all thus it's obviously true that some at least government spending passes this test.

But this isn't the hurdle which must be leapt. Rather, we need to know that the marginal spending will pass it. At which point we might look at the two major infrastructure projects currently under discussion, HS2 and the Swansea Lagoon. Both of which fail their cost benefit analyses. That is, they make us poorer, not richer. As they do so they clearly and obviously do not manage to pay back their construction costs, let alone the interest on the borrowings to finance them.

In the past this was also not true of the Edinburgh tram system, the Humber Bridge, the Tanzanian ground nut scheme and that multitude of other bright ideas that the political process has spent our money upon.

It is indeed theoretically possible that government can add value. It even does so, which is why we continue to have it. We've little to no evidence that this is true of the various building sets that politicians love so much. Therefore, how about not spending our money upon them? 

After all the private sector will already be doing those things that are clearly and obviously identifiable as profitable....

The 2017 Bank of England Stress Tests – What to Expect

The 2017 Bank of England Stress Tests – What to Expect

Key points

  • The key issue is and always was the (lack of) resilience of the UK banking system.

  • It is mathematically impossible to take a weak banking system, subject it to stress and come up with a resilient banking system.

  • The BoE stress tests are worse than useless because they offer false risk confidence, like a cancer test that cannot detect cancer.

  • The biggest risk facing the UK banking system is the Bank of England’s complacency about it.

The results of the next set of BoE bank stress tests are due to be released tomorrow morning.

The key issue, as always, will be the BoE’s attempt to portray a resilience that isn’t there.

Things not to do: Introduce socialism

The claim is that socialism would bring about a fairer society than our present one. Society could indeed be made fairer, but socialism is not the way to do it, and never has been. Whenever socialism has been tried it has involved compulsion, as it attempts to make people behave in ways they would not freely choose to do.

Socialism has always led to economic deprivation and shortages. Markets allocate resources according to demand and anticipated demand, whereas socialism attempts to achieve this by planning, planning by the few instead of by the many. The rulers make their five-year plans, but the attempt to anticipate what people will want and need is always inferior in practice to the activities of entrepreneurs and businesses as they attempt to profit by meeting future demand. The spontaneous market economy is far superior to the planned socialist one. The market economies grew wealthy; the socialist ones stayed poor.

Moreover socialism has in the past led to murder, sometimes of political dissidents, and sometimes mass murder on a horrendous scale. The consensus among analysts is that socialist regimes last century murdered 100 million of their own people. Obviously the Soviet Union, Communist China and Cambodia were among the leaders, but the other socialist countries contributed to the total.

Most of those who advocate socialism tell us that it has never been tried, and that the socialist countries never implemented 'true' socialism, which is a theoretical concept yet to be tried in practice. Yet the socialist countries called themselves socialist; they acted in the name of socialism; they thought they were practising socialism; and many modern socialists are apologists for what they did. If it's called a duck, looks like a duck, has feathers and webbed feet and a beak like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck.

If only The Observer would take The Observer's advice

Peter Preston has some useful advice for the economics editors of the nation:

And what are economics correspondents there for on the big budget outing? Not merely to take the latest Office of Budget Responsibility growth figures and turn them into a uniform tale of woe. As Alex Brummer of the Mail (and before that the Guardian) very reasonably pointed out, the OBR has “a flawed track record” on forecasting– and is glooming a damned sight harder than the Bank of England and IMF.

That may be right or it may be wrong. But the point of employing economics editors is to give the audience their own special take on Philip Hammond’s figuring, not to simply transfer pages of OBR (or indeed, extra-gloomy Institute of Fiscal Studies prognostication) into holy writ. Two questions matter most. Are we really in a hole this big? And even if we are, what can we do about it?

Quite so, at which point perhaps Preston would have a little word with Phillip Inman, the economics editor of his own newspaper:

Of course, this presumes that British businesses remain strong enough to benefit from their newfound freedom to trade with whoever they want.

If Fox had listened to the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane, he would know about the UK’s reliance on a small proportion of highly productive companies and the long tail of largely unproductive “zombie” ones that tick along without making much money or paying their workers much in salary, pension or other benefits.

All economies do that, it's only ever the top 10% most productive companies (or producers) which even try to export. Entirely understandable as mediocrity is generally available across geography. We also know what the solution is - lowering trade barriers. No, not to our exports, but lowering them to imports into the country. As the Treasury has explained:

In the long term, greater openness to trade and investment boosts the productive potential of the economy. Openness increases competition among firms, allows access to finance from abroad, improves the quality of production inputs, and creates incentives to innovate and adopt new technologies.

Indeed so, the cure for low British productivity is greater openness to trade, exactly what Liam Fox is suggesting. This is not a controversial point, this is simply the way that trade works. Might be useful for an economics editor, as Peter Preston suggests, to tell us all this, no? Mr. Inman?

A really interesting complaint about Universal Credit

There is much being said about the rights and wrongs of Universal Credit and we find this specific criticism to be particularly interesting

Thousands – perhaps even millions – of people could have trouble obtaining a mortgage because of problems with the way the government’s universal credit system and banks and building societies “talk” to each other.

A Guardian Money investigation into the difficulties experienced by a homebuyer living in one of the areas chosen to test the new benefit has revealed that some recipients could be at risk of being turned down for a mortgage. Some lenders are saying they will not accept universal credit at all when calculating how much they will lend, while others have apparently not amended their IT systems to deal with it – leading to problems and delays. On its published list of acceptable income types, Halifax’s website simply gives a blunt “no”.

The problem is not on the government side here, it's within the banks. They are not defining Universal Credit as viable income to count when determining the size of a mortgage that might be offered. Ho hum, well, lenders should be able to decide what they wish to consider - some will undoubtedly decide differently which is one of the joys of markets.

It is possible to dig a little deeper into this though. Even to start pondering the age old goose and gander point. For when we consider wealth and its distribution (say, the canonical Saez and Zucman paper) we are told that all of the things which government does to redistribute wealth don't count.

A life long under market rate rent is not a form of wealth (of course it is), the existences of free at the point of use education or health care are not wealth (of course they are), the various insurances provided by the welfare state are not wealth (Oh Yes they are!) and even the state old age pension, an index linked annuity, is not wealth in the way that a privately funded index linked annuity is wealth (it is).

The reason these are not to be counted is that government might change its mind. Therefore all of these sources of wealth are conditional upon politics and should not be counted.

The Universal Credit is clearly and obviously conditional upon future electoral politics for whatever amount might be paid so using our Goosey Gander test it seems fair enough that it shouldn't be counted as a reliable part of income.  

That is to assume that we're all playing fair in our determinations of inequality and redistribution which might, we agree, be something of a stretch.

It is however the underlying point which we find truly interesting. We all know that there is going to be a welfare state of some form - leaving aside the odd cultist it's entirely obvious that the modern polity is going to have some form of safety net. We can and do argue about how and how generous but the basic existence is simply a reality. Given that reality the provision is going to include a roof over the heads of those who otherwise, without redistribution, cannot afford one.

The underlying claim here is that those being redistributed to should be able to buy a house on what is forcibly taken from others through the tax system. Which we do think is an interesting claim. Is there actually any substantial, or even minimal, part of the Vox Populi which would agree with this assertion? 

That the children aren't sleeping on park benches is something that near all Britons will sign up to. That the system should enable those being housed at our expense to purchase does seem to be a significant extension there and not one we'd expect to be widely supported. Given that, where did this underlying assumption come from? 

Why should people on welfare be able to get a mortgage? 

Things not to do: Introduce universal free childcare

Childcare is expensive in the UK, and takes a large slice, in many cases one-third, from the earnings of (mostly) women who want to resume work after giving birth. Its costs deter some from returning to work. One proposal in circulation is that the state should provide and pay for childcare for all parents who need it. This means the general taxpayer, including childless people and those with older children, would pay for state provision for those who need it. If it is to be universally available and free, that means it will also be given to people sufficiently well-off to be able to afford it themselves.

The government already offers 30 hours of free childcare per week for 3 and 4 year-olds, paid for by local authorities, with 15 free hours for 2 year-olds from disadvantaged families. Even this is very expensive, at an estimated £7bn a year and rising. Spokespeople from the childcare sector have said many more billions will be needed to support even this commitment. If it were rolled out as a universal free service of more childcare hours covering more years its costs would soar dramatically.

Critics of universal free childcare point out that one reason it is so expensive is that it is over-regulated in terms of the ratio of staff to children and the qualifications required for carers. Other countries manage with lighter regulations and have much less costly childcare than Britain’s.

It is quite likely that a universal free service would have even tighter regulation imposed upon it. In the interests of health and safety there would be additional regulation about premises, and further requirements for professional qualifications for those administering it – something that would also limit the supply of people prepared to supervise childcare.

Much childcare in the UK is informal, in that grandparents or other family members take care of children while the parent (usually mother) goes to work. This informal care takes place in premises many of which would not meet the regulatory requirements for nurseries, and is done by people who do not have the level of qualifications required for those who do it professionally.

Instead of imposing the vast costs of universal free childcare, government might do better to encourage more informal childcare by proving incentives for family and friends to provide it, and by directing support toward those least able to afford it.

This worries us - the new economics foundation agrees with us

As Giles Wilkes has told us all, nef stands not so much for the new economics foundation as for not economics frankly. It is thus rather worrying to find that they agree with us. Even, that we might have influenced their thoughts on a subject. For to find agreement from such a group does mean that we've got to rethink our own position.

Hmm.

So, done that, yes, we're still right, as they are here

There is another, more prudent and effective way of delivering the homes we need. The chancellor made positive noises about increasing the supply of land for homes. And it’s true that a lack of land underpins the housing crisis.

Well, OK, they're nearly right. We don't have a lack of land in the UK at all. Not even in the areas around London. What we have is a lack of land with planning chitties associated with it. The solution, therefore, is either to have more chitties or to do away with the need for them entirely.

Of course, nef then goes off the rails as usual:

So why is the government selling off land it already owns? If public land was kept in public hands, it could be used to back a People’s Land Bank to deliver at least 320,000 genuinely affordable homes by the end of this parliament. The People’s Land Bank could also be expanded by giving councils the powers to buy any land at “use value”, moving land that is being banked for private gain into public use. This land could then be leased out to community groups and housing associations to build homes at prices that are affordable for the local area. In one go, we could increase access to cheap land for housing, and break up a housing market dominated by a handful of developers, by getting the social sector building again.

Land is cheap, planning permission expensive. Thus reducing the price of the permission is the solution. The method of our solution being to blow up the Town and Country Planning Act. But at least we've got to the point where even the nef is noting that this is all a supply and demand thing. Make more land available to build houses upon and the land to build houses upon will be cheaper.

Things not to do: Renationalize the railways

Support for renationalizing the railways comes mostly from people too young to remember what it was like when the state owned and ran the railways. Those old enough remember overcrowded, dirty and outdated trains. They remember the lack of investment that meant the infrastructure was too antiquated to cope with higher speeds. Trains were slow and uncomfortable. The greatest drawback was that they were unreliable. It was difficult to plan meetings because people could not rely on the train being anywhere near on time, and large numbers of them were cancelled every day.

The staff were numerous but unhelpful. British Rail constituted a classic case of producer capture, with the trains running to serve the needs of the unions and their members rather than the general travelling public. The monopoly, combined with union militancy, gave them that power. Large numbers of railway staff at stations did not seem to do anything, and some analysis coined the term “overstaffed but under-manned” to describe the phenomenon.

Although people rightly complain about the present failings and inadequacies of the rail companies, the facts point to a considerable improvement in the years since privatization. Twice as many passenger journeys are made. The trains are faster, and more of them keep punctual times. The equipment is more modern, more comfortable and more reliable. Breakdowns are very much less common. Safety has improved, too.

Government was faced with a major problem at the time of privatization. It was the same problem faced by the other nationalized industries; insufficient public investment over the years had led to lack of maintenance and modernization. The rail network and the trains and their carriages needed massive investment to make them fit for a modern economy. The government continued and continues with a support subsidy to facilitate that.

The decision was made in the UK to have the travelling public pay a larger share of the costs of their journey than is the norm in much of continental Europe, where the taxpayer contributes more towards the cost of a train ticket. It was deemed unfair that people living in pleasant country areas should have a large share of their commute paid for by those who could not afford to enjoy that pleasure. Not surprisingly, this leads to complaints about ticket prices.

Renationlization would be a major step backward to all of the failings that a state-run railway entailed. But there are things that can bring improvement, some of which are already in process. Longer trains, and stations reconfigured to accommodate them would help deal with overcrowding, as would more frequent services.  The abolition of first class on some commuter routes would free up yet more space. Upgraded infrastructure and new technology can bring faster trains with shorter journey times. The diversity of different rail companies means that improvements achieved by some can be copied by others. And the need to win contracts keeps companies anxious to innovate and improve.