Affording It

“Britain is not Great. Britain is Weird”

IMG_20171104_144549

The Usher Hall voting >90% in favour of Scotland adopting its own independent currency.

On the 4th of November I spoke at the Scottish Independence Convention’s Building Bridges to Independence conference. As with my SIC talk in January, it fell to me to be the one with the graphs and statistics – this time on the topic of public finances and the impact of independence on Scotland’s budget.

The livestream of my talk can be viewed thanks to Independence Live and is the first talk in this segment.

Below the fold are copies of my slides with comments drawn from my talk and references to the points made. The slides can also be downloaded here.

Continue reading

SIC Build Conference Slides

Edit: This blog post has been expanded with commentary and references in addtion to the slides. You can read that version here.

build

This post is for folk attending the SIC Build 2 Conference.

If you want a closer look at the slides which go with my talk, you can download them here.

I also make extensive reference to my Beyond GERS paper which can be downloaded here.

All of the slides are also reprinted in sequence below the fold

Continue reading

We Need To Talk About: Central Bank Independence

“The Treasury…may by order give the Bank directions with respect to monetary policy if they are satisfied that the directions are required in the public interest and by extreme economic circumstances” – Section 19, Bank of England Act 1998.

Theresa May is getting nervous. She’s seen the polls slip away from her. She’s seen the abject rejection of conservative politics first in Scotland and now in England too. She has just admitted that she jumped into her personal snap election whilst her party was completely unprepared to fight it. She is far from “strong and stable.

And now she’s getting worried by the growing pull towards the more interventionist economic policy advocated by Jeremy Corbyn and has responded with a speech defending Austerity and celebrating free market economics on the day of the 20th anniversary of the independence of the Bank of England. And so has begun fairly vapid tirades warning against the “dangers” of nationalism and populism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Continue reading

A Government For All Of Us

“It’s a Common Weal program for government.” – In an email sent to Common Weal today.

Today saw the return of the Scottish Parliament for the 2017/18 session and the opening speech by the First Minster introducing her program for government. You can watch the full speech below.

After far too long of what seemed like the political doldrums of a couple of fairly drab elections and the ever endless string of intentionally depressing political headlines, this speech was a remarkably refreshing change of pace with some fairly strong statements of intent in several areas.

Notably, Common Weal appears to be finally having a significant influence on the political direction of government with several of our policies now being talked about openly or outright adopted as policy.

Continue reading

Twas the Night Before GERSmas

‘Twas the night before GERSmas, and all through Scotland
The bloggers were screiving; their time near at hand.
The headlines were crafted with doom and despair
In hopes that Lord Darling soon would be there.
The MPs were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of oil money gushed through their heads.

santadarling

And Brown with his spreadsheet, and Mackay (who’ll fudge it),
had just settled accounts and balanced the budget –
When outside the office there came such a racket,
They wondered if Ewing had started to frack it.

Continue reading

Passing Go

 “Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied.” – Elizabeth Magie, inventor of “The Landlord’s Game”, the precursor to Monopoly.

For a game about rampant, exploitative capitalism and a race to deliberately bankrupt your mates, in some ways Monopoly looks remarkably egalitarian compared to modern Britain

Monopoly

Continue reading

The Return of the Sick Man

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” – Dickens, David Copperfield

The shape of the next UK economic crisis has become apparent. It may have already begun and it’s not at all clear how it can be avoided or mitigated.

On the 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom, for a variety of reasons, voted to leave the European Union. The immediate impact of this was an almost unprecedented drop in the value of the pound with respect to its major trading partner currencies.

Currency fall

Not much of a problem, the defenders said, as a weakened currency has its merits as well as demerits. Exports should become cheaper, which would boost foreign trade.

This may have been true in times gone by but economies have grown vastly more complex than this. Many products manufactured in the UK consist of sub-components drawn from multiple countries and globalised supply chains have grown STAGGERINGLY complex.

What this has meant is that even the goods that Britain manufactures here have seen their “input prices” increase, which has pushed up the price of goods even despite the fall in currency strength. Add to that, the fact that the UK imports far more than it exports – it has one of the largest trade deficits as %GDP in the OECD –  and it becomes clear why prices have started rising again in Britain. After five years of declining inflation rates and almost a year of zero price increases, inflation has returned with a vengeance.

_95250708_chart_inflation_mar17

But this needn’t be a terrible thing. In fact, inflation can often be quite useful as it erodes the value of debts (which is why creditors and asset holders hate it so much). So long as wages keep up with the rising prices then for those who don’t depend on the rising value of assets or debts it can be manageable. So how are we doing on that point?

Oh…

income.jpg

We’re not doing so well.

So inflation is rising and wages are declining, so we’re in the situation where meeting our needs and maintain a decent standard of living is becoming more and more difficult. But even this could be mitigated or reversed if the government were to step in and support the economy by investing or by otherwise injecting money into it.

So how’s the UK dealing with things? Well…

FT.png

And so this is the root of the coming crisis. Prices are rising, wages are stagnating, savings have been drained, credit cards have been maxed out, and the government is pulling out of the business of providing government and public services so you need to spend even more to replace it. We no longer have enough money to meet our basic needs, never mind the disposable income to buy the widgets we need to consume to keep the wheels of the economy turning.

Up here in Scotland, there are signs that the crisis is already upon us. The Fraser of Allander Institute published a report today warning about the precarious nature of the Scottish economy saying that it was stagnating with relation to the UK economy as a whole. Some will almost certainly be quick to blame this on the Scottish government (the phrase “uncertainty of a divisive second independence referendum” comes to mind). There are certainly some things that the Scottish Government could do to help – a National Investment Bank should be high on the list and a good shake up of the domestic agenda would be welcome – but the ultimate cause of this slow-down does not originate in Scotland nor will its solution come from here (at least until the levers of power are returned to the country upon independence).

The problem, ultimately, is that Britain isn’t Great. Britain is Weird. Britain is a deeply unequal country on a scale which, compared to its neighbours, is utterly baffling.

In many countries, the capital city will be the richest region of the nation. This is normal –  Money wants to be close to power – but the UK’s disparity really needs to be seen to be believed. Here is the GDP/capita for each of the EU28 and EFTA countries broken down by region. Spot the odd one out.

763px-Gross_domestic_product_(GDP)_per_inhabitant_in_purchasing_power_standard_(PPS)_in_relation_to_the_EU-28_average,_by_NUTS_2_regions,_2014_(%_of_the_EU-28_average,_EU-28_=_100)_RYB2016.png

(Note that the UK has two capital dots. The lower one is London as a whole. The upper one is just Inner London)

Whenever statistics about Scotland are produced, they’re often given with reference to the “UK average” or the “UK as a whole” but the extreme disparity of Britain masks the picture. Detailed analysis by Prof Mike Danson of Heriott-Watt University has shown that Scotland’s GDP per capita is the third highest region of the UK (after London and the South-East) and, if we were an independent state, we’d be the 9th highest in Europe. In fact, we can disaggregate out the Scottish data from the chart above and catch a glimpse what we’d look like as an independent country.

EU28 plus Scotland GDPcapita

(Edinburgh data estimated from 2011 NUTS 3 database)

Taken on this view, Scotland no longer looks like a “below average” region of the UK but a fairly normal Western European country. Far more like Finland or Denmark than, say, Greece.

As Prof Danson says, the obsession with comparing Scotland to misleading “UK average” figures leads to commentators ending up unable to take a step back and ask what is happening across and within the UK and where the problems really are. Until this happens, Scotland will continue to stagnate within the UK as the overinvestment of London continues (and is likely to get worse through the Brexit process in a desperate attempt to prop up the financial sector there).

As said earlier, there is a way out of the coming credit crisis but it’s going to involve not more Austerity but a whole lot less. Economists are increasingly coming around to the realisation that the Government’s debt is your surplus and that governments can take on that debt almost without limit (unlike you who have hard limits on credit and the ability to repay it) and – if they have their own currency – can print money in order to provide services (unlike, again, you who would go to jail if you tried that).

Once again, there is a certain amount that the Scottish government can – and should – do at the moment to help but it will always be stymied by the very tight rules of devolution. There’s little to no hope of the UK changing course any time soon (even Corbyn’s Labour is solidly committed to “balancing the budget“)  and the hard Brexit the Tories and Labour are both pursuing is being increasingly differentiated by the amount of damage the plans will cause rather than any attempt to prevent it. The Sick Man of Europe seems destined to return to the UK. I only hope that Scotland doesn’t catch its cold.

tcg-logo-7

 

We Need To Talk About: A Financial Transaction Tax

“We bailed out the City 10 years ago when the crash came, we poured hundreds of billions of pounds into it. Since then £100bn has been given out in bonuses in the City. So we are asking for a small contribution…to fund our public services.” – John McDonnell MP

Image result for "corbyn hood" tax

Last night, Labour announced one of their keynote policies ahead of the 2017 General Election. A financial transaction tax on the City of London. Time for a blog to outline just what in the name of Jim it actually is and what it’s supposed to do.

Continue reading

The Bridge

“Politics is a life we choose because we think we can do some good” – Kezia Dugdale, 25th April 2017

Today the Scottish Parliament debated the cuts to Child Tax Credits being imposed by Westminster. This necessarily centered much of the debate around certain exceptions to those cuts, in particular the so-called Rape Clause. This article isn’t about that Clause in particular. That must be for others. If you want, you can watch the entire debate below

Instead I want to particularly highlight Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s speech (from 26:20 above or here). Please watch it in the context of that debate before continuing.

Continue reading

Beyond The Headlines

“[I]f there is to be meaningful debate on this issue then the SNP have a lot of work to do to produce best possible data. The last thing they should do is trust that from London.” – Richard Murphy

Tax expert Richard Murphy, who is currently most notable for exposing the UK’s massive £120 billion per year tax gap, has written an article warning of relying on UK economic data to make the case against Scottish independence.

Murphy

Before he gets attacked too badly by hacks telling him that the Scottish economic data is produced by Scottish civil servants (Edit: I may already be too late on that) I thought I’d write a parallel piece pointing out what those civil servants have told me about the limits of some of their stats.

The first thing to remember in all of this is that the UK is not a federation or a confederation, it considers itself to be a unitary state of which Scotland is just one region of twelve (plus the “extra-regio” offshore regions). Therefore there is currently no real obligation to even gather the distinct statistics for Scotland and it really only has become important because of the independence campaign.

Tax Revenue

As I’ve pointed out in my paper Beyond GERS, the issue of apportioning tax revenue is fraught with subtle difficulty. GERS itself has updated its methodologies multiple times over the years (particularly since the SNP took the government in 2007. The GERS of today is no longer very closely related to the GERS created by Ian Lang to discredit Scotland in the early ’90’s). There are still differences in the results presented straight by HMRC and the data eventually “Scottishised” [To use the stats folk’s term] and presented in GERS.

Onshore corporation tax is a good example of this. Where an overall UK stat may simply count the location of the HQ of a company for the purposes of assigning corporation tax and this may make sense from a unitary state perspective (albeit this is becoming less true as globalisation increases the ability for multi-national companies to move resources across borders).

For many companies though, the profits one which corporation tax are paid are not generated at the HQ. This is obvious in the case of, for example, a large retail chain which has stores across the country. To correct for this, HMRC and GERS both use different methodologies to apportion the tax more evenly. Various measures (and the weighting applied to those measures) such as estimating volume of sales, number of employees, amount of capital spent in the region and overall population are all used in different ways to reach slightly different estimates. As a result, HMRC estimates that in 2015-16 Scotland produced 7.1% of the UK’s corporation tax compared to 7.3%% estimated by GERS – a gap of  about £100 million.

One can also see possible limits of these methodologies especially if taken individually. For example if one looks at employees then one could probably consider a company (and, it should be stressed that this is a completely hypothetical company) which employs a dozen people in Scotland to make, say, a high value, highly exportable product with a geographic link (call it a similarly hypothetical product like “Scotch blisky”) and then employs a couple of hundred people in London to market it. It may be very difficult to properly apportion the “value” of that product and its profits based on employees alone. It’s possible, after all, to find a market without marketing but a bit harder to drink an advertising campaign.

VAT is another issue where these figures can differ for similar reasons. The UK doesn’t demand point of sale ID to determine the location of VAT spend (If you nip down the road to Carlisle for your shopping, then that results in VAT paid in England but Tesco neither knows nor cares where you came from to get there). Again, various methodologies are used to try to estimate the proportions paid and the estimates are slowly aligning (HMRC claims Scotland paid 8.4% of the UK’s VAT compared to GERS’ 8.6% – a gap of £110 million). There is also a further complication wherein the results between HMRC and GERS are simply presented in a different manner (HMRC measures the cash receipts, GERS measures the accruals)

A third prominent example is Income Tax, and is going to become pertinent now as IT is largely devolved to Scotland and all Scottish residents are to be assigned a distinct Scottish tax code and especially now that the income tax bands in Scotland will soon start to diverge from the UK bands. However, HMRC has been recently criticised for a series of administration issues which is making it difficult to roll out this tax code. As with the difficulties in rolling out devolved welfare, this won’t be nearly so much of an issue once Scotland is independent but highlights the difficulty in trying to run a devolved situation from a centralised unitary setup. This said, both HMRC and GERS arrive at a proportion of about 7.2% of the UK’s income tax coming from Scotland although this may change as the new systems are launched (even if tax rates are kept the same).

It is not possible to say whether the HMRC or GERS estimate is “better” or “worse” than the other. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has commented saying, especially of corporation tax:

“Neither of these estimates is clearly superior to the other, and both may be some way off. Profits are not necessarily generated in proportion to the number of employees, or their wages. Some employees may be more instrumental in generating profits than others; and profits also arise from capital assets – both physical (such as buildings and equipment) and intangible (such as intellectual property and brand value) – the location and contribution of which may differ from the location and wages of employees. Calculating how much of a company’s profits are attributable to economic activity in different locations is conceptually and practically difficult and is the source of many problems in international corporate taxation”

Balance of Trade

This is the big one that has attracted a lot of shouting in the past few months. Once again, the UK’s status as a unitary state causes much of the furore over the published numbers to be based on false premises and over-massaged numbers. The UK’s balance of trade figures are published here and probably do do a decent job of estimating the UK’s position in the world. What it doesn’t do is show the internal movements of trade within the UK. As a unitary state it simply doesn’t matter to the external balance of trade whether or not Yorkshire is a net exporter to Sussex. The UK does produce figures which try to estimate the trade balance between the regions  with the rest of the world but it only covers goods, not services (hence excludes nearly half of the UK’s total trade) and it does not cover internal trade. For that internal trade, we turn to ESS – Export Statistics Scotland – which surveys exporting companies in Scotland and asks them where they send their goods and services (contrary to a semi-popular belief, these statistics don’t care how the goods reach their destination so it doesn’t matter if they physically leave the UK via an “English port“). There are some limits, again, to this methodology.

First, not all companies know where their goods are going (see the example of Tesco again. If someone from Carlisle buys a crate of beer in Glasgow then goes home then that’s a Scottish export but Tesco wouldn’t be able to record it easily) so they won’t appear in the survey. Goods which are shipped to England then either re-packaged or used as a sub-component before being exported from England to somewhere else (or even back to Scotland) would be counted only as far as their export to England and there may be some cases where service “exports” are caused by, for example, someone in London buying insurance for their house in London from the London branch of a provider who just happens to have a brass plate in Edinburgh. The total proportion of these anomalies in the data is simply unknown at this point and unlikely to be knowable until after independence.

Beyond the Horizon

And this takes us to the most important point in this whole article.  Even if the methodologies above all align and all can capture the full economic picture of Scotland and everyone can agree on the figures produced and everyone agrees that they produce an accurate and complete picture of Scotland’s economy within the Union there is a fact which should be utterly indisputable (and certainly is within the team which put together these stats).

Independence. Changes. Everything.

None of these figures have any validity if you try to use them to project beyond the independence horizon. Corporation tax may change due to the redomiciling of businesses post-independence. Both those seeking to remain within the UK and those seeking to remain within the EU or EEA may shift operations. Trade exports may suddenly become a lot easier to assign (whether there’s a “hard border” or not) and that “extra-regio” oil which is often excluded from stats due to historical and supply chain accounting issues suddenly has to be accounted for. Those tax streams which are simply too embedded to discuss in any terms other than by a population share have to be audited. And all of this is before Scotland starts to make changes to the tax system to optimise it for the Scottish economy or to do things like close the tax gap.

As with everything in science and in economics, statistics are based on models, models are only ever as strong as their underlying assumptions and projections are only ever as strong as the person making the prediction’s understanding of the limits of those assumptions and the models.

IMF GDP Growth

(One day I’ll write an article about the “Porcupine Plots” which get created when inappropriate models are used year after year in spite of reality)

I don’t mind discussing the economy of Scotland within the Union. I don’t even mind speculating on the economy of an independent Scotland. But I sense that the next two years of campaigning will get very frustrating if pundits continue to stretch their own models past the point of credibility in a quest to push their political point. This, I should warn, goes for both sides. We need a more meaningful economic debate than we saw last time. Let’s get beyond the headlines to create one.

tcg-logo-7