I sympathise very much with some of the ideas expressed by economist, author and Observer columnist Will Hutton in his recent article, "Words won't change capitalism. So be daring and do something".
From the time the economic meltdown started, I've really been wondering, "Where, exactly, do we start again?" What can be done to lift our economy out of the morass and downward spiral. The concept of cuts in government spending is good in principle, but it needs to be met with powerful drivers to get the private sector growing again, and so far that effort has been lacklustre, putting it kindly. If you're only cutting, there's no chance for a moribund private sector to make up for that loss of economic activity and you're stuck in recession.
My sympathy with Hutton's ideas is in part informed by our early efforts to raise a modest sum to purchase the brewery freehold back in 2009. At that time the banks just wouldn't lend. One banker told us to come back in 18 months! That's a bank telling a business it's not a good time to invest for the business's future, even though the business case for the investment was all about long-term certainty and lower operating costs. It's now been nearly three years and the banks still don't lend and the economy is still stuck in the doldrums. At least we finally managed the freehold.
Hutton recognises this problem. He takes politicians to task for being too late to even awaken to the problems afoot. He encourages active but positive government intervention to get markets working again. He makes some useful points:
- to deal with 'unknowable risk', capitalism and government need to forge closer links; to share that risk
- banks aren't helping because they are hoarding cash to help shore up their balance sheets and repair the damage done to them by rampant over-lending in the years leading up to 2008
- the current government is talking the talk, but 'absurdly' not backing it up with policy actions
I like the sound of his proposals to prime the economic pump:
- replace a monetary policy guided by a 'redundant' inflation target with targets to boost GDP in cash terms by 7% per year for the next 5 years
- use 'every instrument of policy' - QE, (low) interest rates, government borrowing and government loan guarantees of up to one third of loans to SMEs (he forgot targetted tax cuts and extended capital allowances)
- oblige the Treasury to issue infrastructure bonds, and the BofE to buy them, to force more and more money into the economy
This latter point has always struck me as a good idea - something that will pay benefits in the long run and perhaps even instil a bit of pride in the landscape instead of letting things run down. Even building HS2 strikes me as good for the country, though it has had a long gestation, pissed a lot of people off and will probably not be delivered on time or to its generous £37.2bn budget cost. Still, more of this, please. And more support for renewable energy... it will pay dividends in the long term and stoke the economy now.
I presume this infrastructure QE could be inflationary, but that doesn't seem to be a worry - if other inflationary pressures are minimal, then even accepting 4-5% inflation in the economy seems okay to Hutton. The key is to get things moving again. Seems he is in favour of inflating away the debt overhang: "As money GDP starts to rise, so the public deficit and real burden of private debt will fall." If there is some real growth and we inflate away the debt burden, win/win?
I suppose inflation needs to be borne in mind to some extent by the BofE. Just pumping 7% more cash into the economy could be inflationary, eroding purchasing power that won't keep pace with 'growth' in the near term; leaving savers and pensioners with less and less unless they are indexed.
Something also needs to be done to goad the banks back to their day job, to get that money doing productive good. Hutton makes the point that bankers should be rewarded with bonuses for doing what banks do - supporting capitalist growth through lending. In effect, their bonuses should reflect the success of the economic recovery that their lending facilitates. This seems sensible. Perhaps if bankers get the economy moving again people will be less concerned with the size of their bonus envelopes. Hence Hutton's call for politicians to be daring and act to make this happen.