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Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

July 9, 2015

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): As the City’s MP, it would be remiss of me not to touch on the issue of the bank levy. When it was introduced in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, it was specifically designed to reflect the cost to the public purse of the implicit insurance provided by the Government to the finance sector. The suspicion is that more recently the bank levy has become as much an instrument to assist in deficit reduction.

I understand why the Chancellor sought to outwit his political opponents in March’s coalition Budget—that close to an election, I guess there were few votes to be gained by siding with bankers—but now that we have political stability, I welcome his commitment to ensuring that in future the replacement surcharge does what was initially intended. I suspect that this will sufficiently impress HSBC to stay for now, although I appreciate that perhaps too much good will has been expended by the Government on the ring-fencing arrangement for much to change in that regard—despite the threat to the international competiveness of the UK financial services from elements of the Vickers regime.

The more significant medium-term threat to banks remaining headquartered here in London probably arises from the “reckless banking” legislation. Once this is properly tested in the courts, it will be instructive to see just how many senior executives in the largest global banking conglomerates regard London as a place where they will be happy to be domiciled. That is work in progress for most of the City and the Treasury.

I shall say a quick word on the infrastructure and airport capacity debate. My constituency will undoubtedly be adversely impacted by the enlarged flight paths that will accompany the proposed third runway at Heathrow. I am also deeply concerned about air quality, even before the prospect of additional aviation pollution. However, all of we west and central London MPs need to recognise the national interest. There were certainly only anti votes when I supported Crossrail, which has disruptively carved its way through several residential districts in my constituency, but this major infrastructure is essential. Similarly, the UK and London economies desperately require additional airport capacity.

I would have been keener had the Davies commission come out in favour of Gatwick, but it has unequivocally come out in favour of expansion to the north-west of the Heathrow site. It is a finely balanced judgment, and I think there will be some funding problems when we come to put this in place in the years to come, but with reluctance I now take the view that the Government should move ahead with minimal delay and implement the Davies commission’s clear conclusions.

The Government have been wise to raise their horizons in addressing the sustainability of the UK’s recovery in an ever-expanding sea of global debt. At the last emergency Budget, in June 2010 as the last Parliament began, the Chancellor assumed that the then £1.32 trillion of accumulated national debt would cost some £66.5 billion annually to service. The debt pile has now risen to £1.63 trillion, but here’s the rub: we are expecting that to cost only about £51 billion a year in debt interest.

At this point, it should be said that the Chancellor’s determined rhetoric of fiscal retrenchment has earned him the confidence of the capital markets, which I am sure would rapidly have deserted any Labour Finance Minister. However, there is a herd of investors in the capital markets pricing Government debt with a deceptive, even dangerous, sense of calm. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the record low global interest rates apply to Government bonds issued by all but the most basket-case economies, even in the eurozone. In large part, there is a fear that deflation might be here to stay and that a prolonged period of stagnant or very low growth could be in the offing.

In such uncertain circumstances, taking on Government debt often seems the safest bet in the markets. The impact of quantitative easing and the excess demand for bonds, driven largely by EU regulatory requirements to invest in safe havens, have both helped to reduce the cost of borrowing by Governments. At the same time, however, our own Office for Budget Responsibility, along with the International Monetary Fund, is projecting healthy growth for the UK economy in the years to come. They are both predicting not a period of Japanese-style deflationary stagnation implied by the pricing of Government debt but solid year-on-year growth at a rate of 2.5% to 3%. The trouble that lies ahead for the UK economy is that once the markets catch up to this reality, it is a racing certainty that the cost of servicing our debts will rise, and fast.

In short—and perhaps paradoxically—it is a sustained economic recovery that risks blowing a huge black hole in future years’ budgets as the UK continues to grapple with the vastly expanded debt that has been accumulated over the past decade. That is why the Government are absolutely right to say that drastic and determined Government action on deficit reduction is essential for the medium-term health of the economy. The Chancellor is right to tackle the debilitating impact of entitlement in much of our welfare system, and now is clearly the time to do that, while the sun is shining. Given all the difficulties in the markets, and all that is going on in Greece and China, our positive economic news might not be around for much longer.

At the beginning of this year, analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute revealed that global debt had risen by some 17% since the final quarter of 2007, when the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers was in the offing. The racking up of debt on this scale represents the biggest experiment we have ever conducted in the global economy. Short of the unleashing of a burst of unprecedentedly high levels of output and sector-wide productivity growth, or alternatively a programme of fiscal contraction hard to imagine in an era of welfare dependency and universal suffrage, it is impossible to see how the developed world will ever be able to repay these levels of debt properly.

Historically, Governments have dealt with debt piles by allowing a little inflation to develop. The other option is to introduce what the economists call fiscal retrenchment. The double whammy of the 1930s depression and the cost of fighting world war two in the following decade left all western economies with equivalent debt levels relative to national income. Between the 1950s and 1970s, yields from Government bonds were deliberately set at just below inflation. As a consequence of the alchemy that comes with compound interest, a lot of our debts were paid off.

That might seem to be a comforting parallel, but there are key differences today. One is that we live in an age of free cross-border capital flows, and much of our borrowing comes from international sources. The model of squeezing creditors by means of negative real interest rates and rising prices simply will not work when credit is denominated in a foreign currency or in a deflationary era. We need only look at the ongoing travails of the eurozone to see the limits of imposing financial repression when nation states are locked into a monetary straitjacket.

Much is made of the fact that one third of UK Government bonds have been mopped up by the Bank of England, which has helped to keep interest rates very low—we have now had 76 consecutive months at the emergency 0.5% rate. More distorting still is the fact that more than 40% of our gilts are owned by foreigners. In this uncertain world, those overseas creditors might take on the chin the impact of artificially low returns on their bonds, but they may be considerably less sanguine about the impact of currency risk. The market sentiment towards sterling is currently benign, despite record current account deficits, but if that were to change and if the pound were to fall, sterling-denominated gilts in the hands of foreign investors would rapidly lose their value. The prospect of such overseas creditors losing confidence in the UK economy would then be very real.

For that reason, the Government’s actions are of critical importance. They must persist in reducing the deficit as a matter of national urgency, to ensure that we collectively start to live within our means as rapidly as possible. What really concerns me, and what should concern policymakers, is that at the moment it is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which the cost of credit might be rapidly increased—as will be necessary in the years to come—without the economic roof falling in.