Policy-induced uncertainty

[Originally posted on The Policy Press blog, 24/07/15, under a different title. Reposted here under the original title.]

Choices of a businessmanGeorge Osborne’s recent “emergency” budget proposed many changes to state support to lower income households in a bid to fulfil the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to cut £12bn from welfare spending.

One unexpected aspect of this package was the proposal to cut housing association rents by 1% each year for the next four years.

This proposal was justified with reference to social housing rent rises over the last few years. These have pushed up the already substantial housing benefit bill. Households have needed greater state assistance in order to afford the rents being set. Bearing down on rents over the next few years will, it is claimed, both reduce the housing benefit bill and force social landlords to deliver efficiency gains.

To the unwary or unfamiliar this argument could appear entirely plausible. It is surely time to try to rein in this sort of behaviour: landlords extracting income at the taxpayers’ expense.

Yet, it is important to understand how we have arrived at the current situation and what the consequences of this policy change are likely to be. [Read more…]

Through a glass, darkly

414585868_2c8513d269_nThe community of housing bloggers has already offered plenty of comment on the implications of the Chancellor’s “emergency” budget for housing. Comment from almost all quarters – be it Jules, Ken, Joe, SteveTom or Gavin – highlights, in more or less lurid terms, the challenges the budget measures are going to present the housing sector.

Some of the changes announced in the budget – the reduction in the benefit cap, cuts in tax credits, and the benefit freeze – were heavily trailed. However unwelcome they might be, they didn’t come as a huge surprise. Yet, the precise dimensions of the change – the reduction of the cap to £20,000 outside London and the inclusion of LHA in the benefit freeze – made for grimmer reading than many might have hoped.

But other policy changes were rather more of a surprise. [Read more…]

Osborne’s surplus rule and citizen economics

3542341781_2e07e18657_nThere is much that is troubling about George Osborne’s proposal to oblige future governments to run a budget surplus in normal times.

There is the small matter of identifying “normal” times. It implies something important about how one is thinking about the macreconomy. What does “normal” look like? In the thirty years that I’ve been paying attention to the macroeconomy there always seems to have been some argument or other floating around as to why things weren’t quite normal just at the moment.

This could drive us to the conclusion that the whole thing is a charade. It’s a policy that will never be implemented because there is so much wriggle room built in.

A contrary conclusion might be that whatever macroeconomic behaviour we’re observing is normal, given an appropriate understanding of the macroeconomy. So it’s surpluses all the way.

And then there is the small matter of who gets to define “normal”. It would appear that George Osborne would quite like to pass the responsibility to the OBR, who clearly aren’t all that keen to take it.

A more significant reason to find the Osborne proposals troubling is the sense that they are all politics, no economics. They owe everything to Osborne’s desire to drive home the Conservatives’ political advantage on the economy. It is the next stage in the strategy of boxing Labour even further into a corner. It is clearly working, if Chuka Umunna’s comments in yesterday at the Independent are anything to go by. [Read more…]

Housing markets and economic stories

Part of the story isn’t being told.

As we move towards the General Election strands of news and snippets of information have emerged which circle around the issues but there is a gap in the middle where the story could – and should – be.

I’m thinking here of housing-related aspects of the party manifestos: cuts in inheritance tax on property versus mansion taxes. I’m thinking of the observation that buy-to-let lending was the only component of mortgage lending not to stall in February. I’m thinking of Hannah Fearn’s argument that removal of the obligation to invest pension pots in annuities can be interpreted as a move to recapitalize the bank of mum and dad. And finally I’m thinking of Christine Lagarde’s words of support for George Osborne’s strategy for economic management.

So what’s the story that is missing? [Read more…]

The Tory £12bn and manifest inadequacy

The leak to the BBC hinting at the scale of the cuts to welfare budgets being modelled by the Department for Work and Pensions has caused consternation. And so it should.

Given that George Osborne has refused to say what he is proposing to cut from welfare spending it was inevitable that any halfway credible information would attract attention. It is frankly outrageous that he is unwilling to be transparent with his plans. But that’s a different issue.

The BBC leak suggests that disabled people, unemployed people and those with caring responsibilities could bear the brunt of reduced spending.

The Conservatives have been quick to deny that the leaked figures represent agreed policy. This is just modelling possible options. Nothing has been decided. This statement is presumably aimed at defusing the row or deflecting attention.

But it shouldn’t. [Read more…]

Economics in the bubble

414585868_2c8513d269_nMy plan was to write something following up last week’s Autumn Statement. But what with having to do other things – work and that – I’ve not had the chance.

In the interim there has been bucketloads of analysis. So I’m not sure there is more to say on the substance. All right thinking people are agreed that George Osborne, along with frontline politicians in the other parties, is suffering from what Gavin Kelly has christened a “candour deficit”. No one is being honest with the electorate over the scale of the cuts being planned. And, equally importantly, no politician is being honest about what cuts on that scale imply for unprotected services. Rick illustrates the point beautifully drawing on data from the OBR, the IFS and elsewhere (here and here).

Even Fraser Nelson is calling Osborne out for the sleight of hand he used to claim that the Government had cut the deficit in half. Fraser Nelson. Crikey! [Read more…]

Fiscal foolishness

Budget Cuts sign with clouds and sky backgroundI’ve had an unusual and vaguely discomfiting experience. I found myself largely in agreement with a leader in the Economist. I may need a lie down.

I can console myself with the thought that what the Economist is saying – that the Conservatives’ fiscal plans for the next Parliament are damaging nonsense – would seem to be pretty much the majority, if not the consensus, view. Seeking to legislate to remove the deficit through slashing spending while at the same time delivering a tax cut is not the most impressively coherent agenda ever advanced. It will undermine public sector functions that are vital to the overall success of the economy. And it will almost certainly slam the brakes on the economy at the same time as inflicting further pain on some of the poorest in society.

The main difference of opinion seems to be around Osborne’s intentions. Are his proposals serious? In which case, he’s a bit of an idiot. Or do they signal an implicit acceptance that the Conservatives are not going to win next May? Osborne is simply trying to stake out a position he will never have to implement but which will provide a platform from which to mount an attack on the incoming government’s actions when they are, inevitably, less fiscally stringent. In which case, he’s a bit of an idiot.

Most commentators might think Osborne is talking rot, and that, at the very least, Labour’s proposal to exempt infrastructure spending from the self-imposed fiscal straightjacket is a step towards a more plausible policy. But fewer have offered alternative approaches towards bridging the gap in the public finances.

Here the Economist comes off the fence and sets out a distinctive proposal. [Read more…]

On agreeing with George Osborne

3542341781_2e07e18657_nI have to admit I found the whole situation rather discomfiting. Yesterday I found myself agreeing with George Osborne.

Of course, as David Gillon (@WTBDavidG) pointed out on Twitter, we can all join George Osborne in agreeing that Iain Duncan-Smith is not perhaps the sharpest knife in the drawer. But, beyond that, most right-thinking people tend to find themselves parting company from the biggest cheese on Horse Guards Road.

So when I read reports of Osborne’s comments on raising the minimum wage I was rather surprised that my initial response was to agree with him. Especially as he seemed to be setting out a position in opposition to that adopted by St Vince of Cable, who, as we know, is generally right about such things. [Read more…]

Bittersweet sympathy

two workers Much of the media reporting of today’s IPPR briefing note on the economic recovery focused on the alarm it sounds about the rapid increase in household debt – in particular the risk that Help to Buy II will further increase house prices. The economy may give the appearance of rapid recovery, but it is not occurring on a basis that is sustainable for any economy, and particularly not for one in which households are already heavily indebted.

But to focus upon the issue of debt is to rather miss the bigger point the report is trying to make. The point is that when judged against the objectives the Chancellor set for himself back in 2011 he has fallen a long way short. The talk back then was of a ‘march of the makers’ – a renaissance of British manufacturing and exports – and a rebalancing of the economy away from its reliance on financial services and house price inflation.

What we have seen subsequently, despite initiatives such as the Funding for Lending Scheme, is poor public and private investment performance and an expansion in exports that has just about balanced off the increase in imports. And we’ve seen the Chancellor switch strategy to create a short-term debt-fuelled consumer boom. This is precisely the situation we faced going into the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8.

Except this time the Government has chosen this road in the full knowledge that it has few supporters and many critics – the Help to Buy initiative, in particular, has few friends beyond the Quad at the heart of Government. [Read more…]

Juxtapositions

414585868_2c8513d269_nYesterday felt like a day of unanticipated juxtapositions.

The major domestic political event was the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. This has now morphed into a mini-budget so it will take a while to fully unpack precisely what Osbo’s proposed changes add up to. But he no doubt anticipated that he’d grab the headlines with the combination of the reaffirmation of his faith in the voodoo of austerity and the return of the debt-fuelled growth that got us into this mess in the first place. The OBR lent Obso a hand in the bid to dominate the front pages when it calculated that his sums imply that by 2018 spending on public services will be reduced to levels not seen since 1948.

Commentators were quick to point out that a year or two ago Cameron was assuring us that deficit reduction was as a necessary evil – as painful for him as it was for those directly affected and only being undertaken to get the public finances back on an even keel. Over the last few weeks, with contributions from Cameron, Johnson and now Osborne, we are witnessing the gradual exposure of the ideological nature of the Tories’ austerity project. The pretence has been abandoned. It’s some sort of revolting market fundamentalist dance of the seven veils. [Read more…]