The credit crunch: an effect not a cause

Robert Henderson

 How did we get  into this economic hole?

What we are experiencing is a direct consequence of the dominant economic ideology of the age, laissez faire, an ideology which underpins the general political ideology of political elites in the West, the form of liberal internationalism we call globalism.

This neo-Liberal mentality has brought us to the brink of what is probably the most dangerous economic crisis since the Depression. Perhaps it may turn out to be even more disastrous because countries throughout the world (including Britain) are now so much less self-sufficient than they were in the 1930s, while the scope and speed of communications are beyond anything in existence during the Depression.

Most problematic are the immense and entirely novel opportunities permitted by digital technology, a technological development particularly pertinent to the money markets which are at the root of the credit crunch. No one remotely understands the medium-term let alone the long-term implications for the money markets of the creation of a universal market for every form of financial instrument, which is what the Internet potentially provides, or its potential for destabilising currencies. All that can be done at present is to guess, and guessing when the lives and prosperity of entire populations are at stake is a criminally reckless gamble.

 The consequences  of Thatcherism 

There have been outbreaks of  free market and free trade ideological  dominance in Britain from  the 1840s onwards,  but  since  Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 the worship of the laissez faire god has become more devout than ever.

Thatcher introduced something quite new. For the first time in history, a British prime minister and government actively welcomed the wholesale destruction of strategically important industries on the grounds that they could not compete. The doctrine of comparative advantage was pursued by the government in an advanced economy to a degree never previously seen. At the same time she emasculated the unions and began

recklessly selling the family silver with  her introduction of  the idea of privatisation which rapidly placed  almost all of the important nationalised industries in private hands.

Mrs Thatcher was also responsible for one great political act of folly in the name of laissez faire when she successfully fought for the Single European Market. The consequence of this was to rob Britain of its ability to favour its own industry economically (beyond what was already being done) and gave any citizen of another EU country the same rights as a British citizen to be employed in Britain or for any foreign corporation to bid for any public sector contract offered in Britain.

Her ultimate triumph was not only to drive the anti-laissez faire strain from her own party, ( a strain which had survived during previous bouts of  laissez faire dominance) but to eventually force the rest of the British political mainstream to follow suit. The upshot today is that the three major political parties in Britain have as articles of faith both a commitment to free trade and the belief that private enterprise is preferable to public provision in virtually every area or life.

The latter belief has created a novel situation in Britain. Great swathes of economic activity which were once controlled by the state – everything from the great nationalised industries to prisons – have been either sold off or contracted out to private companies.  Once privatised, these erstwhile public operations have become prey to foreigners. Because of post-1979 British governments’ commitment to laissez faire, anyone is allowed to purchase any British company, no matter its strategic importance, and most public contracts are given to the highest bidder regardless of their provenance. Nor in most instances (because of Britain’s membership of the EU) can the privatised industries be subsidised by the taxpayer, a particularly telling restriction in the case of the old public utilities when energy prices are rocketing.

Today, British utilities such as gas, electricity and water are largely in foreign hands, our major airports are owned by Spaniards, we no longer have serious mining or shipbuilding industries, and our largest native owned car manufacturer is the company which produces the Reliant Robin. In addition, many of the iconic names of British business – Bentley, Roll-Royce cars, Tetley Tea, ICI, Cunard, British Steel – have fallen to foreign buyers, while the supposed flagship of the British economy – the City of London – has seen the wholesale transfer of British merchant banks to foreign ownership. The present government has even stood sanguinely by while the London Stock Exchange has come under persistent foreign take-over attempts.

What the credit crunch  is not about

It is not about levels of government spending, although that is probably the next great economic shock which will hit Britain as the economy slows, tax revenues stagnate, the  Public Sector Borrowing Requirement grows and the Enron-style ‘off the books accounting’ involved in the Public Private Partnership (PPP) and Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes becomes impossible to hide.

What this crisis is about is the virtually unrestrained working of private enterprise, which has created a titanic pile of indebtedness ranging from dangerously generous mortgages to unsecured debt, much of it promiscuously and casually granted with a significant proportion going to people providing false information.

At the heart of the crisis lies the bundling of risky loans (especially mortgages in the United States – the so-called sub-prime mortgages) into financial packages. These have  been sold on and treated not as toxic debt but much better quality debt, debt which could be used by the banks as collateral against which to borrow. Eventually the game was up as people (especially in the United States) began defaulting on payments and banks stopped lending freely to one another because much of the debt they held was seen for what it was, toxic. Banks had to write off bewilderingly large amounts in bad debts and their store of useable collateral to set against future loans was much reduced.

This crisis is a peculiarly difficult thing for free marketers to explain. They cannot rationally blame it on too much government interference, because British financial institutions have been allowed to run their affairs largely unchecked by government for the better part of a quarter of a century, a process begun by the Thatcher governments when they threw away credit controls, permitted the de-mutualisation of building societies and their transformation into banks (which placed them under less rigorous rules regarding what they could borrow and lend) and generally slackened financial controls and state oversight.

These practices have been assiduously followed by successor British governments, who have failed to control the development of exotic financial instruments such as derivatives and by relinquishing the power to set Bank Rate (Bank Rate being, in theory at least, set by a body independent of the government, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England) and by embracing fiscal restraints imposed by the EU, such as restrictions on state aid to industry and restrictions on the setting of VAT rates.

The upshot is that the present government is left with only two very general means of controlling the economy, the variation of taxation and of government borrowing and spending. These are hopelessly inadequate instruments to deal efficiently with the multifarious financial problems which arise in an advanced economy. For example, if  credit is growing too fast, raising taxes to take money out of the economy may actually fuel further borrowing, at least in the short term, as people try to service the debts they have and to maintain their standard of living, while the additional taxation will have the unwanted extra effect of depressing the economy.

Alternatively, cutting taxes could conceivably reduce borrowing, although human nature being what it is people might actually feel more confident about the future and hence even more willing to borrow. However, even if such action reduces borrowing it will tend to worsen inflation because the amount of money put into the economy will probably be larger than any reduction in borrowing.

The setting of Bank Rate by the MPC is arguably a third weapon in the government’s armoury, because the MPC works to a narrow government set remit of controlling inflation within certain limits and the government has a considerable say, both directly and indirectly, in the appointments to the MPC. The behaviour of the MPC in crisis conditions suggests that they will do what they think politicians want rather than sticking to their remit. For example, they have dropped interest rates in the past eight months when inflation is rising. However, even if the setting of Bank Rate is a third weapon in the hands of the British government, it suffers from the same deficiency as the other two, namely, that it is too broad a measure to deal with many economic difficulties. Worse, since the credit crunch began, the interest rates charged by the banks and other lenders (especially on mortgages) have not shadowed the reductions in Bank Rate as history suggests they should do, but have stayed stubbornly and significantly above Bank Rate.

Of course, all economic interventions by governments have consequences which go beyond the narrow desired ends of the intervention, but the more economic weapons in a government’s hands, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to find one which is best suited to solve a particular problem with the minimum of unwonted side effects. For example, if the multiplier of salary for mortgages had remained by law no more than two times salary throughout the past quarter century, the housing market would have been pegged back by what most people could afford to borrow.

The money supply

There is a vital technical reason why government should control credit: it increases the money supply. To understand why this is of fundamental  importance, it is necessary to comprehend  what constitutes money, a concept which is far from straightforward in the modern world and growing more complex by the day.

A currency based on precious metals formed into coins is a relatively simple thing, because it is to a large degree self-regulating. The practices of debasing the quality of the metal or of clipping the edges of coins to remove some of the metal may be common, but such things can be tested objectively by anyone with the requisite knowledge, for example, by weighing the coin.  Moreover, the amount of physical money is limited by the availability of the precious metal(s) used in the currency.

Once a country moves from a physical currency based entirely on a precious metal to one which remains, in theory at least, fully convertible to the precious metal but which uses paper money alongside coins made of the precious metal, government’s role is expanded in importance because it is ultimately the guarantor of the currency’s integrity.

The final stage of physical money is when the link between a precious metal and the currency is broken and the entire currency rests upon trust. At that point a currency is entirely at the mercy of governments because there is no natural restraint on how much money is printed or coined in base metals.

Describing physical money is the easy bit. The concept of money becomes complicated the first time someone makes a loan. That has the same effect as someone depositing money with a bank: where one person had the money before, now two have it. Once a society develops a banking system, government needs to intervene both because of potential fraud and an expansion of the money supply. That applies in principle even in a supposedly 100% precious metal based currency, because even then there are primitive financial instruments such as bills of exchange which effectively act as money.

The more advanced a society is, the less important physical cash becomes as the instruments by which the money supply is multiplied increases. To see what a confused state we are in today we need only reflect on some of the various measures of the money supply which have been used in modern times in attempts to quantify the money supply:

1        M0 is the total of coins and notes in circulation plus banks’ deposits at the Bank of England.

2        M1 is M0 plus current account deposits

3        M3 is M1 plus all other types of bank accounts (deposit accounts, foreign currency accounts, public sector accounts)

But there are many other financial products which none of these measures catches that

arguably have aspects of money. Anything which can be readily traded for money can in effect be used as money in certain circumstances: shares, the vast array of derivatives, debt itself. For example, if I wish to buy a house in theory I could do so by swapping shares I own for the house.

The Northern Rock Debacle

September 2007 saw the first run on a British bank since the 19th Century with people literally queuing round the block to get their money out. A converted building society, Northern Rock, had been operating a reckless business plan whereby their core business of mortgages was predominantly funded not by deposits but by borrowing on the money markets. When the credit market tightened, Northern Rock were left stranded and were forced to go to the Bank of England (BoE) as the lender of the last resort, which made a loan of 25 billion to them.

Once that news became public, the panic began and the government was forced to guarantee all Northern Rock deposits which committed the taxpayer to a further £25 billion, a total of £50 billion including the loan. The Government then left the bank in limbo until February 2008 as it desperately tried to find a private buyer for the bank. Eventually, it had to admit defeat and nationalised the bank, exposing the taxpayer to another £50 billion of risk as it took over responsibility for the bank’s mortgage book. The taxpayer is now in for a potential liability of £100 billion. To put the scale of the risk in context, the  Treasury  Red Book forecast  for total government expenditure in 2008/9 is £617 billion, so the Northern Rock risk amounts to around 18% of total Government expenditure for this financial year.

All this is worrying enough but just imagine what will happen if a few more banks go belly-up. It is as reckless an act by a chancellor as you can find in British history, for not only are massive liabilities being put around the neck of the entire population, a precedent has been set. If other banks (and quite possibly much larger banks) get into the same position, it is difficult to see how the government could underwrite another Northern Rock let alone one of the clearing banks, especially in the light of the extensive borrowing facilities the BoE has extended to the banks generally. Of course, we are constantly told by the government that the taxpayer is not really at risk as the assets of Northern Rock are solid and that the loans extended to banks generally are held against sound collateral and will cost the banks a pretty penny in a premium on the interest rate they pay. Frankly, why should we believe them when the government cannot even give a guarantee of when the Northern Rock liabilities will be cleared.

Yet it is difficult to see what else the chancellor could have done. If Northern Rock had folded, the rest of the banking sector would have been placed in real danger. The position was not helped by the drawn-out attempt to find a private buyer for Northern Rock (a symptom of the laissez faire mindset of the Government), but that was merely a detail, not the heart of the problem. Had the government nationalised the bank immediately the problem was known, the liabilities would still be on the taxpayer. The scandal is that the lax credit situation was allowed to arise, something which could have been prevented by proper government behaviour over the past quarter of a century.

The developing crisis

Not only have governments been forced in practice to abandon laissez faire, there have been few if any calls for the central banks to stand back and do nothing. Even in the case of Northern Rock the supporters of the “invisible hand” have been loath to let it go to the wall.

Faced with the dangerous mess they created, the banks and big business asked the government to rescue them. The consequence is that the ordinary person gets the worst of all worlds, for they not only have to suffer a contracting of the credit market, but they also have to fund the rescue of financial institutions, either directly in the case of Northern Rock by nationalisation or indirectly through the extension of credit by the Bank of England (as lender of the last resort) to introduce money into the market for the financial institutions to borrow. The ordinary citizen also has to pay in terms of lost jobs, lower pay, poorer conditions and higher prices.

Commercial banks throughout the developed world have run squealing for help to governments, while the major Western central banks have reacted with behaviour ranging from the dramatic to the reluctant. The Federal Reserve has led the way, slashing interest rates dramatically and making tens of billions of dollars in loans to the banks available to the money markets, much of it on distinctly questionable collateral. The European Central Bank (ECB) has been more cautious on interest rates but has also made vast sums in loans available to banks.

Britain has somewhat tardily followed suit, reducing Bank Rate by three quarters of a per cent since September and belatedly providing billions in loans to the banks on collateral of ever decreasing value. The disquieting thing is that no matter what action has been taken, the flow of credit remains stubbornly locked and governments, including Britain’s, are reduced to throwing more and more money at the banks with less and less assurance that the money the taxpayer is risking will ever be repaid.

On 19 April it was reported (for example, The Daily Telegraph) that not only will the Bank of England inject a further £50 billion into the market with the banks using some of the sub-prime mortgage products they invested as collateral, but that the British government will also underwrite credit card debts held by the banks – all this on top of the eye-watering Northern Rock liabilities.

The most frightening thing about the crisis

The truly frightening thing about this crisis is that the people who are supposed best to understand the financial markets, the central bankers, are completely at sea. The Bank of England (BoE) has admitted that its understanding of the money markets is inadequate. Amid accusations that it failed to respond quickly enough to the crisis at Northern Rock, the Bank has admitted that it is struggling to determine the impact of the credit meltdown on the economy.  Charles Bean, chief economist, said assessing conditions in the economy is “subject to considerable uncertainty”. Writing in the Bank’s quarterly bulletin, Mr Bean also stated “One important step in analysing monetary demand and supply shocks involves improving the Bank’s information about credit conditions”.

The Bank’s admission that it needs to improve its understanding of the credit markets comes as John McFall, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, voiced his frustration following the appearance of Bank of England staff before the Parliamentary watchdog. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr McFall said: “The responses that people gave were unconvincing as a whole. I’m looking at the system and asking the question: Is it working? And it’s not working” (The Daily Telegraph, “We don’t understand the markets, BoE admits”, by Jonathan Sibun, 24 September 2007).

A failure of oversight by central banks both here and abroad has been compounded by the long period of very low interest rates led by the central bank rates of the leading currencies, most notably by the Federal Reserve (“the Fed”) in the USA, which kept money too cheap for a long time, thus encouraging people to borrow. The prime author of this cheap money was Alan Greenspan, who was treated with quasi-religious awe by politicians and so-called financial experts alike while he was running the Fed. Come the credit crunch and the knives came out for him, vide the famous American monetarist Professor Anna Schwartz: “It is clear that monetary policy was too accommodative. Rates of one per cent were bound to encourage all kinds of risky behaviour…..the Fed failed to confront something that was evident. It can’t be blamed on global events” (Daily Telegraph, 13 January 2008).

The inability of everyone from bankers to governments to provide a solution or even understand what is happening is palpable. In April, Gordon Brown ordered a “summit” with bankers to discuss a way out of the mess and his chancellor Alistair Darling railed against the irresponsibility of the banks for reckless lending, carefully overlooking government’s irresponsibility in this area. Massive amounts of public money have been ploughed in ever more desperately, without the squeeze on lending loosening – “The Bank confirmed it would swap treasury bills for premium asset backed debt owned by the banks. Banks have six months to use the facility. The swap is for 12 months and banks can ask for two year-long extensions, making a total of three years….. The Bank has put no ceiling on the scheme” (Daily Telegraph, 22 April 2008, “Banks hail £50bn boost to liquidity”). That it has had no effect is unsurprising, because the banks have used the money to shore up the holes in their balance sheets.

The effects of the credit crisis

The entire economy is rudely affected by a sudden shortage of credit. Apart from hyperinflation, there is no more toxic disease which can affect a modern economy, especially one dependent on consumer spending. The reduced availability of credit at any price causes an economic slowdown. More expensive credit causes people and organisations to draw in their borrowing horns. The reduction in the amount of money available to spend reduces demand. Reduced demand and more expensive credit drives down profits at best and puts companies out of business at worst. Wages are depressed and jobs are lost. This reduces demand even further.

People habituated to debt find they cannot service what they owe, and default. That is especially important in an economy like modern Britain’s where a large number of people have built their lives on a continuous stream of credit. Things which are heavily dependent on credit, most notably property, lose value. People either cannot pay their mortgage or find them selves unable to sell at all or that the price they could get would be much less than they owe on the property. Even those who are do not end up in a position of negative equity find they have great difficulty in selling both because prospective buyers cannot get a mortgage or because other people are unwilling to sell. Those wishing to move, especially if they wish to trade up, find they cannot easily get a new and larger mortgage.

Britain is more exposed to recession than most because her economy is built primarily on consumer spending, much of which is on non-necessities. Such an economy is inherently more fragile than one which is primarily rooted in the production and consumption of necessities because it is very responsive to changes in economic circumstances. In the language of economists, demand for much of what is purchased in Britain is very elastic.

The economic fragility of most peoples lives

Ever since Harold MacMillan famously declared in 1959 that “We’ve never had it so good”, British politicians have been religiously telling Britons that they are getting wealthier. To support this claim they point to such things as the growth in owner-occupation, the myriad of electronic consumer goods, holidays taken abroad and cost of living indices such as the Retail Price Index (RPI) and the CPI.

Most people have tended to take this at face value until fairly recently. They have ignored the fact if it takes two incomes to maintain a family where one was sufficient before, that is not wealthier. That if most people cannot afford to get on the housing ladder when once they could, that is not wealthier. That if the price of most essentials is rocketing that is not wealthier. And that if the Government uses bogus cost of living indices which ignore housing costs and council tax that is not a true measure of purchasing power.

Data released by the Office of National Statistics showed that household incomes fell last year in real terms, and have risen by only £2.25 a year on average since 2001. The reality is worse because these figures are based on the bogus CPI measure, which excludes housing  costs and council tax . In addition, a majority of the British population do not have savings which would allow them to survive for two months if they lost their jobs, and a large segment of the population lives on incomes well below the average wage, which is still below £30,000. A true recession will consequently hit millions of people very hard indeed.

How do we escape this mess?

The honest answer is there is no certain escape. Nor is a ‘soft’ economic landing likely. Circumstances are forcing more prudent lending behaviour onto private financial institutions, with substantial deposits being required before mortgages are granted, the feckless multipliers of six or seven times salary for mortgages vanishing, credit card limits being reduced, cards withdrawn and new card applications being refused. Unsecured personal loans are being subjected to the same type of scrutiny. The problem is that this is all happening in a rush which creates a tremendous shock to the economic system rather than a controlled decline of credit.

All this will probably cause a sharp contraction in the economy.  This creates a dilemma for the BoE. Its remit is to keep inflation close to 2% as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Inflation is significantly above that and showing every sign of rising. According to its remit, the Bank should be raising rates not lowering them. Yet the BoE has cut Bank Rate by three quarters of one percent already and is being urged universally by private business and many politicians to cut further and quickly. The likely outcome of such a policy would be our old friend stagflation. Indicatively, the growth in UK output was down to a miserly 0.4% in the first quarter of 2008.

The great problem is the dependence of housing to drive the economy. There is consequently no painless way out of our present predicament. If house prices are kept high by low levels of house building and continuing mass immigration an entire generation will find them selves stranded in a no man’s land where they cannot find good rented accommodation at a reasonable price.

Contrariwise, if there is a correction which brings housing within the reach of first-time buyers we shall have a massive problem of negative equity which will mean existing home owners cannot move and if their homes are re-possessed, being burdened with ongoing debts as their homes are sold for less than they owe. That is the bind governments over the past quarter century have got us into.

What can be done to make a safer future?

There needs to be a sea-change in the mentality of politicians. They need to recognise that government has a vital role in controlling the economy, not via the heavy hand of nationalisation or hideously complicated regulatory regimes, but by simple and effective measures such as restrictions on credit and the use of exotic financial instruments and the protection of strategic industries such as farming and energy supply.

Back to the future is the answer. We need to create a different moral climate. As little as 30 years ago, people still tended to look upon debt as something to be avoided. For the most part people saved up for things they wanted. Part of that caution was enforced because credit was nowhere as readily available as it is now although we were already into the age of the credit card. But much of the frugality was simply cultural; people had been brought up to feel debt was something loathsome and bankruptcy next door to theft. This was a Britain where the morally vital mechanism of shame still had its place.

The credit which was on offer almost always came with some strong strings attached. If you wanted a mortgage you had to save with a building society for quite some time to establish your credentials. When a mortgage was eventually granted, the amount you could borrow was restricted both absolutely (there was an upper ceiling of £13,000 in the 1970s) and by sensible multipliers of household income (commonly twice income and often the mortgage multiplier was applied only to the main wage earner’s pay). 100% mortgages or anything approaching them were not to be found. A deposit of 10% of the property’s price would have been the minimum required and in many cases more would have been asked. Bank loans required a similar establishment of creditworthiness over a decent period and credit card limits were modest. If anything was bought on hire purchase, a substantial deposit was required. The consequence of such a regime was that far fewer people got into serious financial trouble than today.

1        Here accordingly are a few examples of what might be done. Mortgages – the multiplier of salary used to calculate mortgages should be a maximum of three and a minimum deposit of ten per cent required. The re-mortgaging of owner-occupied property to release capital and buy-to-let mortgages should be outlawed.

2        Hire purchase – a minimum of 20% deposit with the monthly repayment no more than ten per cent of the monthly net pay (net pay to be that left after deduction tax, National Insurance and the repayment of any existing debts).

3        Personal loans other than mortgages – a maximum of 10% of net income.

There is also a need to tighten up checks on creditworthiness. Lenders have been incredibly lax about the information that prospective borrowers supply to them. That is a particular problem with credit card issuers who tend to accept whatever the lender says, but it is also a significant problem with mortgages with people allowed to self-certificate their earnings in some cases. The laxity has its roots in the belief by the lenders that they can reliably calculate the percentage of borrowers who are poor credit risks who will default and in the case of loans secured against property, that house prices will continue to rise rapidly, thus increasing the equity the borrower has in the property. The events of the past year have shown that lenders cannot reliably make calculations of defaulters nor rely on house price inflation to increase equity.

What now?

Is there a chance that the laissez-faire mentality of the elite will change and that common sense will prevail? Or will we stagger on in this ideological straightjacket until a true catastrophe strikes?

On the level of common humanity the hope must be that the crisis is contained reasonably quickly, although I think that unlikely. (I am writing this article in May 2008. By the time it is published the danger of a full blown depression may have been averted, although that is improbable because after more than eight months of increasingly desperate governmental pump priming around the developed world there is no sign that the credit crunch is lessening, let alone coming to an end. )

But there is danger in a rapid resolution for if it happens the underlying reasons for this economic trauma may not be addressed by those responsible for the operation of the economy and things will go on as before until the next crisis occurs. The credit crunch is simply the latest in a line of dangerous economic crises stretching back a century an a half which were brought about by the same fundamental problem, the abdication of government responsibility for the economy.

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