Free trade – whatever the cost?

Free trade and a hard Brexit are all but synonymous. There’s an obsessive quality about free traders, men on a mission, who feel their time has come: seize the moment, lest it slip away.

Daniel Hannan and Boris Johnson recently helped launch the Institute of Free Trade, arguably duplicating the work of the long-established Institute of Economic Affairs. I’ve always had a sense of vast lacunae between argument and reality among free traders, and I turned to an article on the IEA website, by its chief economist, Julian Jessop, to check out whether this judgement was justified. For the full article see:  https://iea.org.uk/whos-afraid-of-free-trade/

Jessop expresses puzzlement as to why ‘the economics commentariat’ (i.e. most economists) had given a ‘sceptical, with some downright hostile’ response to two papers advocating a policy a free trade once the UK leaves the EU, by Professors Kevin Dowd and Patrick Minford.

It may be unfair to quote passages and not reproduce the whole article, but to my mind they do speak for themselves.

‘… it has been suggested that Prof Minford’s analysis shouldn’t be taken too seriously because his forecasts of the economic and market impacts of the vote itself were inaccurate. As it happens I don’t know what Prof Minford was forecasting in 2016. But nor, frankly, do I care….’

‘Professor Minford’s current and past work in this area has been challenged for using what some regard as a simplistic and out-dated model of world trade. But the ‘gravity models’ favoured by many of his critics also have their flaws. Even if Professor Minford’s numbers are only as good as his models (which is always the case) …’

The phrase, ‘the underlying principles are as sound as any’, is key: there is a millenarianist belief in free trade as a universal panacea, the UK’s adoption of which will open the eyes of the rest of the world, as Britain did once before, in the early 19th century. ‘Gravity models’ refers to the long-established and incontrovertible pattern of a much heavier weighting toward trade with one’s neighbours, than with more distant countries.

Nonetheless, whatever the correct interpretation here, these legal points do not weaken the more important economic argument that the UK would be better off lowering its own trade barriers regardless of how the rest of the EU responds.

Free trade it seems works because it works, regardless of circumstance. In what sense better off – who would be better off?

‘… of course, there would be some losers from free trade among consumers as well as producers …

‘….there would be some losers..’ The reality is that the disruption would be extraordinary.

Others have suggested that trade can never be fully ‘free’, because of non-tariff barriers. But this is tedious semantics. Even if unilateral free trade only results in freer trade, relative to the status quo, that would be an improvement.

‘…tedious semantics’? There’s an impatience here, a touch of the Gadarene swine.

What then about things that we do produce ourselves but where other countries have a genuine comparative advantage? Why should we subsidise domestic producers if consumers can buy better or cheaper products elsewhere?

A few suggestions as to why… Easily disrupted supply chains, sourcing expensively at long distance, security implications, quite apart from the disruption to urban and rural landscapes as industries close and new ones – we would hope – spring up elsewhere. But in the chaos, and the economic disruption, what certainty is there that new industries, competitive on the world stage, would rise up?

**

Read the whole article: you may find you’re on his side, not mine.

Wishful thinking

…..and its consequences.

How do you deal with half-truth or dissimulation, with hyperbole – or simple wishful thinking? Or simply two versions of the truth – see my last post on the subject of identity. I might disagree with Roger Scruton, but I’d never doubt his integrity.

Government isn’t about certainties. Most government policies don’t deliver on their original intentions. But if based on clear principle and sound argument then we can accept them, for good or ill, as part of the political process. Not so wishful thinking, which can have malign consequences.

Workforce planning in the NHS  From the Department of Health, last December: ‘Brexit will be a catalyst to get [workforce] planning right.’ [Source: The New European] This in the context of a steep rise in the number of nurses and midwives from the EU leaving the UK. And the answer, we’re told, is to train more of our own nurses.

Why Brexit should in any way be a catalyst for workplace planning in the NHS I can’t see. There is an ongoing need to train more nurses, Brexit or no Brexit. Desperation, as we find our health services understaffed, is hardly the way forward. And if anyone has seen cold, clear planning on the Brexit side over last few months, please let me know.

Trade deals and food standards  ‘Mr Gove has insisted that the UK will not compromise on food standards, even if that means a “narrower deal” with the US.’  Retaining access to EU markets, vital for many farmers, ‘will require continued adherence to EU standards’. That access could be hard to reconcile with US demands for the UK to import chicken washed in chlorine and hormone-treated beef, both of which are banned by the EU. But in a speech this month, Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, said that if Britain wanted a trade deal, it needed to accept US rules on precisely such issues.’ [Source: Financial Times 25/26 November]

Remember the context: 70% of the UK’s food exports last year went to the EU. 80% of our food exports come from the EU.

Obama warned how difficult a trade deal with the USA could be. Maybe under Trump we wouldn’t be at the back of the queue – but only, as Wilbur Ross makes clear, only if we accept American standards, and abandon the EU standards we ourselves have done so much to nurture over forty years. The first lessons of negotiation are to be sure of your argument, and negotiate from a position on strength: neither would true of any post-Brexit US trade deal.

Remember also that this is the USA of Donald Trump, busily posting anti-Muslim videos produced by the British extreme right. More than ever, we need to stand our ground, and know who our friends are, friends who share our values.

A new generation  There’s a breed of establishment liberals, all avowedly Remain voters, who may see Brexit as an economic mistake, but ‘put the blame for the mistake on liberal leaders rather than the benighted masses’. Robert Peston is one such: I’m quoting here from The Economist’s review of his new book, simply entitled ‘WTF’.

This isn’t to say that ‘the self-renewing elite’ Peston refers to shouldn’t be in the dock. And I’ll leave aside my thoughts on whether ‘establishment liberals’ are true liberals. My focus here is on wishful thinking, and I’ll let The Economist’s review of Peston’s book speak for itself:

And his conviction that ‘out of the current swamp a new generation of politicians with credible ideas will emerged primped and pristine on the shoreline of our ageing democracies’ looks delusional. There is little evidence that Britain’s elites are prepared to use Brexit as a spur to bright new policies. There is ample evidence, by contrast, that Brexit is being handled in the worst possible manner: dividing the country still further and distracting attention from what ails us.

That last sentence, and the last clause, ‘distracting attention’, is key. ‘Wishful thinking’ in everyday life may help keep us all afloat, but in politics the damage it can do is extreme.

 

 

The fantasies of free trade

Walking and swimming, conjuring turtles (see my last post) and building castles… since the Brexit vote politics have been more a burden, less a pleasure – how we (as country and individuals) might hold on to our sanity while others attempt to build castles in the air.

Brexit has many castles, most of them air-borne, from the immigrant threat to free trade. Closing down on one, on the free movement of labour, runs directly counter to a fully libertarian approach to free trade – if this was a board game, or a novel, I’d want to see how it all worked out. As political reality, I hope not to.

Focusing on free trade, last week we had ‘From Project fear to Project Prosperity’, a report from the free-trading supply-siders ‘Economists for Free Trade’, chaired by one-time Thatcher adviser, Patrick Minford. Matt Ridley in The Times (21st August) pours praise upon them. We hear the old shibboleth, ‘Fortress Europe’, curiously used to describe 28 countries which have taken down the barriers and practise the four freedoms – goods, capital, services, and labour. Ridley argues that ‘external barriers are pure self-harm’, and you’d have thought that he’d take the EU as a shining example. Instead he focuses on the tariffs the EU imposes on non-EU countries – apparently the tariff on unicycles is 15%. What he totally and wilfully fails to recognise is that free trade isn’t a level playing-field, but self-interested countries seeking common ground on which they can co-operate – not for another’s interest, but for their own. We hear from Brexiters about countries keen to reach trade agreements with the UK – but on whose terms? On ours, on the UK’s?

Garvan Walshe on the Conservative Home website is helpful on the subject. (There is an awful lot of sanity still left in the Tory party – but the sane too often these days are the quiet and the cautious.) In trade between countries, ‘the distance relationship is paramount’.

The effect of that decision [the referendum]  is to forego [the EU’s] economic benefits, and they can’t be replaced by shallower trade agreements with other countries, because they are too far away. And while there could, as Minford suggests, be economic gains from deregulation, they won’t happen while Britain´s politics is moving leftwards … Far from bringing benefits through other trade deals, leaving the EU erects an enormous trade barrier with the rest of our continent. Economists for Brexit should have renamed themselves Economists for Protectionism.

Back to Matt Ridley: ‘…after Brexit, Britain should try unilateral free trade, no matter what everybody else does’. This would Economists for Free Trade argue benefit the British economy by as much as £135 billion a year. (Compare the NIESR – leaving would cut our total world trade by a quarter.) The Minford report assumes that we’d reach an agreement with the EU broadly comparable to what we have now, and a level of de-regulation which simply won’t, and shouldn’t, happen in the current climate.

Ridley is also guilty of a selective use of history, an old bete noire of mine. He quotes Sir Robert Peel in the 1846 Corn Law debate – ‘we should cease haggling with foreign countries about reciprocal concessions’. He argues that ‘the closer countries get to free trade, the more they thrive’ – and quotes Britain in the period 1846-80, and Hong Kong and Singapore today. In all three cases the circumstances are radically different – Britain in a period after 1846 when we could dictate the terms of world trade, and two city-states (treating Hong Kong a city state) operating as low-tariff entrepots.

Ridley also attempts a distinction between the Roman civil law ‘prescriptive, rules-based system’, and a ‘better’ common law (and distinctively English to his mind) approach, ‘which is principles-based, outcome-focused, consumer-friendly’. He continues: ‘Because of our history and the nature of our economy Britain can be an effective champion of this challenge.’

The risk is all ours.

We are back, happily for my argument, to ‘castles in the air’. There is no hard evidence that ‘free trade works’, no hard evidence that supply-side economics will deliver any of the benefits (above all increased tax revenues on higher output, and collective benefits deriving therefrom) it claims.

And finally… Adam Smith. Ridley tries to corral him into the Leave camp: ‘As Adam Smith put it, describing the European Union in advance, “in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer”.’

‘…describing the European Union in advance…’ – this is populist and emotive junk.

The founders of the Adam Smith Institute don’t do much better: ‘We both take the view that the UK now has the chance to trade freely with the rest of the world, since it will no longer be locked inside a protectionist bloc of diminishing economic and political significance.’

The EU isn’t doing too badly at the moment, and it carries political clout – the ‘diminishing economic and political influence’ will all be ours if Brexiters have their way.

Austerity versus stimulus

Don’t let anyone say I avoid the big subjects!

Whatever one’s instincts, where lies truth? Is there any definable ‘truth’ when it comes to this debate – stimulus versus austerity. A good starting-point is a book of that name, just published, a collection of essays edited by Robert Skidelsky and Nicolo Fraccaroli.

The question, as Robert Skidelsky and David Blanchflower argue, ‘is whether Britain should be compared to Greece… Britain could, the Keynesians argue, continue to expand its debt with no risk of lowering confidence in the economy, as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. But does high government borrowing push up interest rates and inhibit private investment? – Friedrich Hayek’s argument.  Is there a danger that people will lose faith in the management of the economy? – Niall Ferguson.

The UK national debt will peak this year at 89% of GDP, the biggest since the 1960s and up 36% from a decade ago.  (Paul Wallace, Prospect, July 2017.) I’ve seen figures for the first quarter of 2015 indicating that the annual cost of servicing the debt was £43 billion, but a third of the interest in that debt is the government paying interest to itself – the result of quantitative easing. On the other hand interest rates are currently very low, and could rise, and in  Paul Wallace’s words, ‘The Treasury is right to worry about maintaining fiscal headroom to respond to a future downturn.’ But if we take out that one-third which the government is paying itself, then it doesn’t look quite so bad.

Comparisons with other countries are helpful, and confusing. My data isn’t up-to-date, but the USA debt was over 100% in 2011, and  Japan’s debt is approaching 200% of GDP. Paul Wallace quotes the IMF, which puts our public debt as the sixth highest of 26 advanced economies. The CIA World Factbook ranked us 18th internationally.

And what about total public spending, another key indicator? Down from 45% in 2009-10 to 39% now – which is its pre-crisis level of 2007-8.  Wallace points out that in the late 1980s Britain spent virtually the same on health and defence. Today we spend nearly four times as much on health.

What this tells me is that there’s a case to be argued on both sides. For stimulus and for austerity. But I’m a Keynesian at heart. Keynes understood that confidence is everything, investment and not retrenchment is the key, and that the private sector is the driver of all successful economies. At the same time there is nothing intrinsically wrong or to be frightened of when it comes to public expenditure.

I think the phrase I quote above is key, ‘as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. So – just one example, but an easy one – scrap HS2. Any growth benefits will be miniscule compared to the benefits from investing the money elsewhere – not least in other infrastructure projects.

Where does this leave the NHS? Real spending on the NHS increased at a rate of 1.1% under the coalition, compared to 4.1% a year over the past few decades. In addition, much of social care is in crisis. Benefits will be pared back further in the coming years. Prisons are too often scary and ineffective places…. This where increases in current expenditure have to be focused. Not on re-nationalising energy supply or the railways, whether such goals are worthy or not. As for scrapping student loans – a contributory scheme, an adjustment to rather than a scrapping of the scheme, may be one way forward. Paying off existing loans would not be a sensible use of resources. And what of scrapping the 1% pay increase limit for public sector workers – a highly inequitable restriction, enforced for four years – and now the subject of very public bickering among cabinet members?

This takes us to current arguments about increased taxation, and how effective that might be. Could it be increases in VAT, and /or a mansion tax (highly controversial) – where revenue streams would be certain in a way that that increasing the top rates of tax or hiking corporation tax wouldn’t be.

With continuing impacts from globalisation, and automation, the future is massively unpredictable. My only sure conclusion at this time is that austerity, as currently enforced and anticipated, is unnecessary and counter-productive. But how we spend wisely – and at the same time promote investment and encourage business and international trade – that is another matter.

What is absolutely certain is that we don’t need the tomfoolery of Brexit. And we do desperately need a competent government.

Where now with globalisation?

31st May, Hay book festival, and a talk by Cambridge lecturer (in public policy), Finbarr Livesey (billed as a conversation with Andy Fryers) on the subject of Livesey’s new book: From Global to Local’.

The subtitle carries quite a punch: ‘The Making of Things and the End of Globalisation.’

Is globalisation the only paradigm, is hyper-globalisation inevitable? Livesey argues powerfully against this thesis. An archetypal example of globalisation is the development almost by accident of the shipping container by a US trucking magnate in the 1950s. And the biggest downside is the level of emissions produced by moving product around the world, primarily by sea.

Major developments are underway which are changing this, 3D printing, with books being produced almost to order being one classic and small-scale example.

Robotics scale down the labour requirement, factories in China with vast labour forces will no longer dominate the production process as they have for the last twenty years.

How we make the journey from idea and design to finished item is being radically reconceptualised. Adidas already make running shoes bespoke to your exact requirement. The Finnish bike maker Jopo brought manufacturing back home to Finland when they realised that their quality standards were more easily and more cheaply met back home. Zara work to a tight timescale which requires local not Far Eastern production. Amazon are even looking at the possibilities of making some products en route to the customer. (Quite how this would work I don’t know!)

In the light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (yesterday, 2nd June), a comment by Livesey on the agreement is put into even sharper focus: ‘As countries commit to harder, binding targets for emissions reductions, the ideas of reuse, remanufacturing, circularity and zero waste will all gain more currency and increase the uptake of ideas across industry.’ China and the EU have come together to condemn Trump. Put that also in the context of the statement two days ago from the EU’s climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete: ‘The EU and China are joining forces to forge ahead on the implementation of the Paris agreement and accelerate the global transition to clean energy.’

Where is the UK in this?

Trump may briefly be taking the USA out of the loop, but the ideas mentioned by Livesey are ideas that could make up the substance of the closer cooperation, between EU and China, plus India, Canada, and most other countries, in the years and decades to come.

Circularity: ideas for making refurbishing reusing, sharing, zero waste, minimising emissions, avoiding landfill… against traditional linear notions of take, make, dispose. The straight line to landfill against the closed loop of reuse. There are, as Livesey is only too well aware, only signs of this at the moment, but bringing production back home is a vital first step. And there’s the example of IKEA, which has moved from ideas such as sustainable sourcing to offering buybacks and creating markets for second-hand IKEA furniture. Nike has stated it wants to double its business while halving its environmental impact: a recent Nike report states that ‘the future will be circular.’

I’ve only touched on themes here. It is early days, but Livesey outlines as I see it an attainable future, more climate-friendly and one which would be underpinned by countries working together: supply chains much more local than at present, and sharing to the benefit of consumers, businesses and countries as an economic reality.

Out on to the Silk Road …

The new Silk Road – will the direction of traffic be primarily east to west, west to east, or both – and who will control the flow?

I’ve posted recently on the subject of history, and how we abuse it. But sometimes we do need the big picture, and I’m thinking here of China President Xi’s $900 million Belt and Road initiative to build a modern-day Silk Road.

History provides a vital context, and a warning.

Forty-six nations attended a gathering in Beijing last weekend. Heads of state from Rusia and Turkey were there, though not from Europe. The EU held back from endorsing a final statement because it didn’t stress ‘transparency and co-ownership’. India argued the scheme is ‘little more than a colonial enterprise [that would leave] debt and broken communities in its wake’.

Philip Hammond attended (not our high-risk foreign secretary, I note), relishing the opportunity for trade deals. In his speech to delegates he argued Britain was a ‘natural partner’ for China. ‘China and the UK have a long and rich trading history…’  Others have commented that the Chinese, remembering the 19th century Opium Wars, and the great British imperial enterprise, might see this ‘natural partnership’ in  different way.

There’s something telling in this sycophancy. Sycophancy comes out of weakness, not strength. The EU holds back, argues from a position of strength. India is rebarbative, confrontational, overstates it – yet there’s truth lurking there. Circumspection has its merits.

Britain in the 16th century set up its own maritime Silk Road, along with the Dutch, Portuguese and (less successfully) the French. The Belt and Road initiative is the land route reasserting itself. The old oceanic skills of Empire will no longer help us. We are one of many, supplicants, out on a western European limb.

There will be many camel trains along the new road, if it develops the way the Chinese wish. We might just be a little lonely. On a camel train, as out on the ocean, there is strength in numbers.

 

The Big Short (and a little short digression on Brexit)

Reading the book, and watching the film. Focusing more on the book, for there the characters are real, not fictionalised.

There’s something about the financial crash that grabs you. Now almost ten years ago, a mortgage securities crisis for heaven’s sake, we think this is someone else’s bed, but we’re all tucked in, and we’re all sucked in. There are big personalities, outsiders, outlaws almost, and big banks, and tanking economies. Michael Lewis makes a brilliant job telling the story, dissecting and explaining. I am now a little wiser, but not out of the wood.

We didn’t know it was happening. Quoting Michael Lewis:

The monster was exploding. Yet on the streets on Manhattan there was no sign that anything important had just happened. The fire that would affect all their lives was hidden from their view. That was the problem with money. What people did with it had consequences, but they were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other.

Will Brexit just somehow slide into place, we’ll be a little bit poorer, but hardly notice, or a whole lot poorer, but we won’t notice because there won’t be too many crises on route, it won’t be harum-scarum? ‘(People) were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other.’ Or maybe we will notice – maybe the crises will be more immediate, urgent, and hit our pockets in very direct and noticeable and politically-accountable way.

Playing with risk, at other people’s expense. Or in the case of Brexit, at a nation’s expense.

Compare Wall Street:.

Salomon Brothers transferred the ultimate risk from themselves to their shareholders. …from that moment, the Wall Street firm became a black box. The shareholders who financed the risk had no real understanding of what the risk takers where doing and, as the risk taking grew ever more complex, their understanding diminished…. The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had from turning an investment bank into a public corporation and leveraging the balance sheet with exotic risks, the pyschological foundations of Wall Street shifted, from trust to blind faith.

Here, in the UK, we are the shareholders. (Sounds dangerously like Brexit speak!)

Back to the book…

The Big Short book brings you face to face with the detail, and it’s a mighty challenge to follow at times, when CDSs get gathered together into CDOs, and CDOs are packaged together, and sometimes different CDOs are packaged into new CDOs, and the old CDOs show up in the new CDOs as if they were in for the first-time. They were going round in circles, and if anyone cared they didn’t care enough to dig down and find out what was really going on – the money coming in was just too good, on a vast and pretty much unfathomable scale.

(CDO – collateralized debt obligations, CDSs – credit default swaps.)

So much investment bank activity is feeding frenzy. Maybe there’s no longer the same level of skulduggery. But there is the endless and needless creation of new financial products, and new ways to bet, to short, to take options…

Making money out of money, other people’s money, is still the golden road…