Friday, 8 December 2017

Jack Hayward

I am very sorry to hear of the death of Jack Hayward, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Hull. He was a distinguished member of the profession who act as a mentor to me when I was a young lecturer.

Jack was known as a specialist on French politics, but he also contributed to the study of government-industry relations. He was a key figure in the 'Oxford coup' which saw him installed as chair of the Political Studies Association, initiating the PSA's modernisation and leading it to becoming the highly professional and effective force it is today.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Hammond's budget dilemmas

One light was on in No.11 Downing Street in the early hours. Was Phil Hammond putting some finishing touches to his budget?

Phil Hammond is caught between a rock and a hard place, both politically and economically. Politically the Brexiteers in the Cabinet and the party want to get rid of him as the influential remoaner in chief. Whatever kind of budget he produces, it won't call off the hounds.

Economically, he has little room for manoeuvre. He has to produce a Budget that will reboot the Conservative Party but remains fiscally circumspect. With an underlying productivity problem and poor medium-term growth forecasts, that would be a challenge for anyone.

'Spreadsheet' Phil is not the most charismatic politician by a long way. Asked to describe himself with a single word recently he said 'fiscal'. Very commendable, but hardly likely to set the world alight. Despite the usual leaks which means that these days most of the Budget is known in outline before it is delivered, he has been criticised for not personally setting out his stall in the run up to his speech.

Normally the first Budget of a new Parliament would set the narrative for the governing party. An attempt will be made to make housing a central theme as the Conservative Party seeks to claw back the votes of millennials. However, what is likely to be offered is a series of worthy incremental measures rather than a grand strategy that will signal a new direction.

So it looks like a Budget that might be economically sensible, but a political failure whatever it offers.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Call for industrial strategy

SPERI at the University of Sheffield and the University of Manchester have published the final report of their Industrial Strategy Commission: Executive Summary.

It argues that the UK’s people, places and businesses will only achieve their potential if there is a complete overhaul of how the government views industrial strategy. The Commission calls for industrial strategy to be rethought as a broad and non-partisan commitment to strategic management of the economy. The new strategy should be a long-term plan with a positive vision for the UK. It should provide Universal Basic Infrastructure for all citizens, have a strong focus on place, and ensure health and education are included.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Half of British adults financially at risk

As the wealth divide in Britain deepens, half of all adults in the UK are financially vulnerable, with a growing wealth gap between young and old. Millions are having to resort from friends and family to make ends meet. This is not the view of a left-wing think tank, but of the Financial Conduct Authority.

Financial Lives is the FCA’s largest tracking survey of consumers and their use of financial services, drawing on responses from just under 13,000 UK consumers aged 18 and over. The aim of the survey is to provide the FCA with unique insights into people’s experiences of retail financial products and services. The findings will help the FCA meet its objectives.

The survey collects information about the financial products consumers use and their attitudes to managing their money. It covers their experiences of using financial products and services, as well as their experiences of dealing with the firms that provide them.  The report tells the financial story for six different age groups to show key themes at each life stage, from those 18-24 to those 65 and over.

50 per cent of UK adults (25.6 million) display one or more characteristics that signal their potential vulnerability – they may be at increased risk of harm, or would suffer disproportionately if harm occurred. Potential vulnerability does not mean all people with these characteristics will suffer harm. For all age groups the proportions showing characteristics of vulnerability are around the national average of 50 per cent, except that for those 75 and over the proportions showing vulnerable characteristics are higher:  69 per cent for the 75s and over, and 77 per cent for the 85s and over.

The highest proportion (77 per cent) of those with these characteristics are among the unbanked, and among the unemployed who are looking for work. Women account for the larger number of those with these characteristics, compared with men (46 per cent or 11.7 million), as 53 per cent of UK women (or 13.9 million) are potentially vulnerable.

Looking at the survey results from an age group perspective, the data reveal some interesting characteristics of UK consumers:

  • Single parents aged 18-34 are 3 times as likely to use high-cost loans: 17 per cent compared to the UK average of 6 per cent.
  • The FCA describe 13 per cent of 25-34 year olds as being in difficulty, because they have missed paying domestic bills or meeting credit commitments in 3 or more of the last 6 months.
  • Just 35 per cent of those aged 45-54 have given a great deal of thought as to how they will manage in retirement. Those aged 65 and over are least likely to check if an internet site is secure before giving their bank or credit card details.

There have been rumours circulating about possible measures to be taken in the Budget by the Chancellor to offset the intergenerational divide. The very generous tax reliefs on pensions for contributors of pensionable age could be curtailed. Stamp duty might be eliminated for younger purchasers of cheaper properties. However, arguably these measures are tinkering at the edges.

You can read more about the report here: Financial Lives

Friday, 13 October 2017

Are economic fundamentals strong?

The Chancellor's article in The Times on Wednesday has attracted criticism from Brexiteers, some of whom have argued that he should be sacked (his remarks before the Commons Treasury committee seem to have caused particular offence). I am more interested in his claim that 'the fundamentals of economy are strong'.

We have now had a decade of weak productivity growth which constrains possibilities for increases in real wages. Initially, this could be blamed on labour hoarding after the GFC or impairments in the banking system, but these arguments no longer apply. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility is likely to cut its predictions for productivity growth, posing challenges for the Chancellor's budget judgment: Forecast Evaluation Report

Even economists cannot agree about why productivity performance is so poor. One explanation has been weak business investment since the GFC. Low interest rates have meant that there has been a limited 'shake out' effect of weaker companies, so one does not see the kind of 'batting average' effect on productivity one saw during the Thatcher years.

It may also be the case that it can be more challenging to secure productivity gains in a service oriented economy, although I appreciate that that is a more contentious claim.

It could also be argued that downward pressure on wages and an emphasis on labour flexibility has reinforced low productivity ways of working and attracted relatively unskilled migrant workers. However, it may not be possible to substitute capital for labour in many of the activities they undertake. What is clear is that the answer to the productivity problem is not to be found in further tinkering with the labour market.

If one wants further evidence, the IMF has singled out the UK as a 'notable exception' to an improving global economic outlook, arguing that the negative effects of Brexit are beginning to show. In its twice yearly Economic Outlook, the IMF reduced its UK long-term growth outlook from 1.9 per cent to 1.7 per cent (the long-term trend is in the region of two per cent).

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Rodney Bickerstaffe

At the beginning of PMQs today Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute to trade union leader Rodney Bickerstaffe. The prime minister had difficulty in composing an appropriate reply. Indeed, she kept stumbling over her words in at least the early part of PMQs.

I knew Rodney Bickerstaffe through his involvement in the Modern Records Centre of the University of Warwick. Indeed, he was a honorary graduate of the University, although there is no tribute to him on the University website.

Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute today his role in securing the minimum wage, and rightly so. Rodney was well to my left, but we agreed on one thing: the continuing importance of manufacturing industry and the need for that to be reflected in the collections of the MRC which was originally set up primarily to house the records of employers' associations and trade unions (as well as the Crossman diaries).

I well remember his pleasure when we examined together some material we had purchased relating to Victor Grayson, the pioneer Labour MP for Colne Valley who disappeared in circumstances never fully explained. The papers concerned one of his biographers, Reg Groves.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Why markets are broken

The market economy is not functioning as it should because of a lack of competition, according to a report from the Social Market Foundation which styles itself as 'the voice of the radical centre': Lack of competition

The research finds that all too often, the markets that matter most to consumers are concentrated in the hands of a small number of large companies. That’s bad for customers and bad for the wider economy: where companies don’t have to fight hard to win and keep their customers, they face less pressure to reduce prices and to increase quality, to invest and to innovate. In other words, concentrated markets are often uncompetitive. The research also identifies a link between higher levels of market concentration and lower levels of customer service and trust in markets.

It is argued that the UK’s economic status quo is at a critical juncture. Faith in a largely “free market” settlement is increasingly in doubt, as household incomes are squeezed and many fail to see economic growth translating into an improvement in their day-to-day lives.

It is stated that in this environment, it is more important than ever that consumer markets work well and deliver good outcomes for households. If they don’t, markets risk being replaced with state ownership as the electorate loses faith in private enterprise.

Scott Corfe, the SMF's chief economist and author of the study said: 'Consumers and the economy are getting a bad deal because free markets are not free enough. Big companies in sectors such as broadband, mobile telephony and personal banking do not face enough competition. As a result they can charge more and invest less.'

Reports by the Competition and Markets Authority last year found that lack of competition between retail banks costs customers the equivalent of £116 a year each and an investigation into the energy industry found that consumers in Britain were paying £1.7bn a year too much for energy. However, critics said that the changes recommended by the CMA amounted to little more than tinkering and did not address the fundamental problems.

The collapse of Monarch means that there will be less competition for domestic and European flights, pushing up prices and forcing more travellers to rely on Ryanair who treat their customers with contempt.

In principle, vigorous competition policies should be the antidote to excessive concentration, they are certainly the remedy favoured by economists. However, enforcing such policies in practice often leads to legal challenges by big companies which take years to resolve. The EU competition commissioner is doing her best to challenge big hi tech companies in particular, but this will not help the UK in the long run.

I was once asked by an economist colleague why John Major's government had taken no effective action on competition policy. I pointed out that the CBI was back in favour and was lobbying on the issue. Admittedly, the policies were eventually put into effect by New Labour.

However, the problems remain. Too many big businesses treat customers with contempt. Companies do not fear losing their customers and have become lazy fat cats on their profits, basking in the sunshine. Regulation has been inadequate (some think there should be one super regulator rather than sector specific ones). The impression is given that markets benefit the few rather than the many.

Marxists would, of course, say that this represents an inevitable drift towards monopoly capitalism. But a weaker and less supine government might be able to do something effective to tackle the issue.