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Speech on the Spring Budget Statement 2023

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My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the remarkable maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Moyo. It was very thoughtful and thought provoking, and I very much appreciated her reference to me—she will have a great future here. The Budget was crafted in the shadow of disruptive world events over which the Chancellor has little or no control, but it is by its effectiveness in tackling or responding to those events that I think this Budget will be judged. The three killer apps—as one might call them—are global finance, technology and geopolitics. The global banking crisis of course caused the depression of 2008-09. The recent collapse of SVB shows, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, noted in this House on Tuesday, what a huge proportion of our tech industry depends on

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My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the remarkable maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Moyo. It was very thoughtful and thought provoking, and I very much appreciated her reference to me—she will have a great future here.

The Budget was crafted in the shadow of disruptive world events over which the Chancellor has little or no control, but it is by its effectiveness in tackling or responding to those events that I think this Budget will be judged. The three killer apps—as one might call them—are global finance, technology and geopolitics. The global banking crisis of course caused the depression of 2008-09. The recent collapse of SVB shows, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, noted in this House on Tuesday, what a huge proportion of our tech industry depends on finance from a single foreign bank whose solvency in turn depends on fluctuations in interest and bond rates. That is one element of huge fragility in our system.

As for technology, it simply speeds up the operation of every single movement in the economy, whether beneficial or destructive. We know about geopolitics, which threatens all our supply chains and the future of the global economy. So those three elements are really beyond the control of a Budget or a Chancellor and, together, they make the world economy more dangerous, more unstable and more uncertain.

The Minister, in introducing the Statement, stuck closely to the forecasts—but how does she explain the ludicrous divergence in the OBR’s forecasts on inflation and growth between October/November 2022 and March 2023, or the divergence in forecasts between the Treasury and the Bank of England? The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, pointed out that these different models factor in different things, but which of the factorings lead to an outcome that we can have faith in? You factor this, you factor that. What is going on is that all the models used are inadequate. They have become inadequate in the face of large structural breaks which have been occurring in the economy as a result of Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. They are models which are still optimising around some long-forgotten equilibrium.

I am not sure that we have a better model, but it limits the confidence that we can have in these forecasts. They are trotted out almost as truths. The Chancellor said, “We will grow by” X, Y or Z per cent in the next three years, but what he meant was that the OBR model says that those will be the growth rates—and that is not a satisfactory basis for building confidence.

The speed-up of model obsolescence represents a huge break from the past. We were brought up to believe that short-term forecasts were relatively reliable—after all, how much could change in six months?—and that the longer ones were less reliable. Now, however, both are unreliable. It has infected both the short-term and long-term forecasts. The Treasury is not steering the economy—that phrase was the title of one of Sam Brittan’s great books. The economy is being tossed around by the world economy from one place to another, and that is not going away any time soon. These destructive events have wreaked havoc with the macroeconomic rules so laboriously constructed in the 1990s and 2000s, in particular that of the separation of fiscal and monetary policy, which was the architectural triumph of the Blair-Brown years.

What is it like today? What is the state of that separation today? The fact is that it has been fatally undermined. The Bank of England has been stoking up inflation when it was set up to do the exact opposite. It has been given a green mandate that conflicts with its inflation mandate, and no one knows exactly what the relationship is between fiscal and monetary policy. It has become hopelessly fuzzy, as we found out on the Economic Affairs Committee when we interviewed the Governor of the Bank of England. The whole relationship is shrouded in fictions that no one is meant to penetrate. That is not the basis for giving confidence in macroeconomic policy. In fact, the confidence has been withheld.

“Our plan is working”, said the Chancellor. What plan? To reduce inflation? To get growth? To reduce the inactivity rate? To achieve energy security? He must realise that any improvements that have been recorded since he became Chancellor, or in the last two or three months, are not due to anything the Treasury has done but result from what has been going on in the world economy. There have been beneficial developments, particularly what has happened to energy prices.

A remarkable thing about Budget making today is what it says about markets, media and policy networks. If you analyse it, you will find that there is actually very little difference between the Truss-Kwarteng and the Sunak-Hunt Budgets; the first just came at slightly the wrong time, that is all. Now, things have got a bit better. These are Budgets that depend on five-year forecasts; you cannot say that the difference of a month or two in the presentation of a Budget should have caused such panic in the market—unless, of course, no one had any real confidence in the long-term forecasts on which the Budgets were made.

At one time, there were things called “Budget leaks”. You were not meant to reveal what was in the Budget. In fact, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1947 resigned because of a Budget leak. Now, Budget leaks are routine; they are sort of trailers in which the Treasury lays out what it is going to do. What about the opportunities for speculation, for example, that that might give rise to? No one thinks about that any more. You have to make the newspaper headlines.

The Chancellor might have taken advantage in his Budget to display the beginnings of a coherent framework. There is one such framework—it is a very old model; no one knows about it any longer—called the balanced budget multiplier. That approach underpins the Biden Administration’s $738 billion Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed into law last year; I do not think that the Chancellor referred to it in his speech. It is based on an intelligent combination of extra investment and higher social spending to be paid for by higher taxes on the rich and the very rich. Split roughly half and half between tax and spending increases, the combined effect is forecast to secure—again, one has to make the point that it is a forecast—a cumulative reduction in the federal fiscal deficit of about $300 billion over five years. It may not happen—it probably will not—but at least there is a mechanism in it which suggests that it could happen. What we do not have in the present enthusiasm for the policy working is any mechanism or theory which gives you confidence that what the Chancellor is doing will achieve what he wants it to do.

I will make two final points—I am sorry that I have gone on a bit—about where we are in the cycle. It is very difficult to assess what is happening in the labour market; the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, talked about this. On the one hand, we have a very high inactivity rate of about 7 million altogether, which is usually connected with a slack labour market. On the other hand, we have unemployment very low at 3.7% and lots of job vacancies, which would suggest a tight labour market. What is the explanation of that puzzle? The truth, I think, is that headline unemployment figures no longer accurately measure the capacity utilisation of an economy; I think that that has been true for some time, but it has been brought to the forefront recently. A shortage of supply in some areas is combined with a general deficiency of demand in the economy. We would expect the latter to be the case, given that the economy has not grown for three years while the population has grown by 1 million and real wages have fallen substantially. Therefore, we would expect a deficiency of aggregate demand, even though there are pockets of shortage of supply. The Budget might have addressed its attention to that.

I wish that the Chancellor had argued in favour of job creation, rather than incentives to people to apply for jobs that do not exist. Gordon Brown and I, two years ago, argued for a public sector job guarantee scheme, which I still think would act as a kind of buffer stock of employment which would oscillate with the oscillations of the cycle. I am sorry that it was not adopted; it would have been—and still would be—a good method of job creation today that would also tie in with the devolution strategy.

My last point is about securing the long-term growth of the economy. Of course, I welcome the incentives that the Chancellor has provided for investment—the creation of 12 new investment zones modelled on becoming potential Canary Wharfs—but I wish he had given a bit more attention to two British institutions for investment, which I do not think that he mentioned: the UK Infrastructure Bank and the British Business Bank, both of which could be developed. As the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said, we know that investment has been a problem in the British economy for a long time. We also know that the share of public investment in total investment has dropped dramatically, and it has not been compensated by any increase in private investment. Here is a good opportunity to insert the state into the long-term recovery of the economy and to provide for the energy and security autonomy, which is the aim of the Government and us all.

In short, there are quite a few interesting initiatives, but I do not think that they have been properly joined-up, and we still await a commanding framework for action in a world that is spinning out of control.

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Robert Skidelsky
Keynesian economist, crossbench peer in the House of Lords, author of Keynes: the Return of the Master and co-author of How Much Is Enough?

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