Wishing us to fail?

If you have read the Bruges Group’s latest Brexit paper What will it look like?, you will be aware of the scale of the challenge Mrs May’s team will face in negotiating a seamless exit from the EU within the tight timescale imposed by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. It will be intense – a very hectic time with the potential to go wrong – but the stakes are high on both sides. It’s neither in our interest nor that of the EU to reach Independence Day – possibly the end of March 2019 – without some agreement in place enabling trade to flow smoothly.

It is now over eight months since June’s memorable vote and since then, the UK economy has defied the gloomy predictions. Anyone signed up to the daily news briefs from Global Britain will be well aware of how well the business sector is doing.  Only yesterday, for example, the news brief carried reports of Boeing’s decision to establish its first European base in the UK, factories in Plymouth thriving and 500 new jobs being created at the University of St Andrews, including an enterprise centre.

It’s a far cry from the doomsday scenario painted by George Osborne. Thankfully, some remain voters who decided leaving the EU carried too great a risk have graciously admitted that they got it wrong. For instance, Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, said that the worst predictions may turn out to be “just scare stories” and that criticism of economists was a “fair cop” after they failed to predict the financial crisis and were wrong about the impact of the Brexit vote.

True, there has been some negative fallout from the Brexit vote. The fall in the value of sterling, while a bonus for exporters, has caused a rise in inflation, which is not welcome for consumers. This still needs to be put into context, however. At 3%, Spain has annual Consumer Price inflation running at a much higher level than in the UK  – indeed, the UK’s current inflation rate, 1.8%, is still below the Bank of England’s target of 2%. For most people in the UK, in spite of the inconvenience of rising prices, the Brexit vote has come and gone and it’s time just to get on with life.

There are the exceptions, however, the most prominent of which are politicians. Following on from Tony Blair’s intervention, Sir John Major’s speech at Chatham House rightly infuriated Mrs May’s ministers. Major did mention that negotiations were going to be a tough, which is a reasonable enough comment to make. However, the tone of his remarks were very different from the Bruges Group’s paper. He called the Brexit vote “an historic mistake” and sought to dampen down the optimism of Government ministers. “The hopes of those who favoured leaving the European Union are sky-high. We are told that countries ”are queuing up to do trade deals with us”. That ”our best days lie ahead”. It all sounds very enticing. And – for the sake of our country – I hope the optimists are proved right. But I’m not sure they will be… If events go badly, their expectations will not be met, and whole communities will be worse off.”

It is one thing to say that some Brexit supporters, including even members of Mrs May’s team, may have underestimated the challenges of the negotiations, but is there almost a wish for Brexit to fail? Are there some people who would positively like to see us slip into a calamitous recession if it means we bottle out and end up stuck in the EU?  Take the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. Last November, she wrote, “Sooner or later, {Philip} Hammond will have to stop pretending the economy is OK.” What was the truth? The economy was doing much better than expected at the time and three months later, the picture hasn’t changed. One comment on the article said “significant inflation is already building up due to this mad plan to leave the EU.” As we mentioned above, the UK inflation rate is well below Spain’s or Belgium’s for that matter, but never mind the facts. It’s as if the unspoken message is “oh good – the more it hurts economically, the more chance there is of people reconsidering their decision.”

But it’s not just columnists and people who haunt the comment sections of on-line newspapers who seem to be willing a recession. In his recent speech Blair admitted that there was “no widespread appetite” for the referendum result to be reversed, but added that he wanted to “build support for finding a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge.” Oh wouldn’t it be lovely to have a catastrophe!

Assuming Mrs May manages a successful Brexit, that would be the end of any talk of staying in or rejoining this failing project, which is why, reading between the lines, Blair not only expects but seemingly hopes she will fail. If the secret wish of the hard core remainiacs is that thousands of people should be put out of work, lose their homes and endure poverty because it is the only way so we might be stopped from taking a step forward to freedom and self-determination, all we can say is that these people are merely acting true to form.  Perhaps the best comment on Blair’s intervention in tbe Brexit debate came from his former sports minister, Kate Hoey. “Why doesn’t he just now go and find himself a job?”

Why not indeed? It’s time that Blair recognises that his dream of becoming Europe’s Emperor Tony the First died a long time ago. The rest of the EU just wants us gone, Blair and all. There are few in Brussels who want a U-turn now. “This bus has left,” said one senior EU diplomat. “No one is happy about it. But we have moved on and the last thing anyone wants now is to reopen the whole issue.”

Photo by Eoin O’Mahony

When you don’t understand the question

In the run up to Christmas I went to quite a few parties and social events. I do not mention this to boast about my social life, but because I ran into quite a few Remainers – some were old acquaintances I had not seen for a while, others were new to me. It was an illuminating experience.

Most of them were friendly – one was not, but then I never liked her very much anyway – and the majority accepted that they had lost. Quite a few had voted Remain only because they had been influenced by the speeches by the great and the good, others because they liked going on holiday to Europe, some because they backed the status quo. They had moved on and accepted that Brexit would happen. A few had voted Remain simply because most of the people they knew were voting Remain.

But the ones I found most interesting to talk to were those who had been vociferous Remainers and still believed that Britain should remain in the EU. And especially entertaining were those who did not know that I had spent the campaign working as Campaigns Manager for Better Off Out.

The conversations often revolved around the fact that Leave voters “believed lies”, or rather less politely “were ignorant” or “stupid”. We’ve all heard these unpleasant slanders, but I took the opportunity to probe further. What seemed to be behind these comments were that the Remainers I was talking to felt that the Leave voters had not understood the question posed in the Referendum.

These folks were keen to talk to me about the “real issues” at stake. Each person had their own take on these, but they tended to be variations on the economic issue. They were concerned with trade with the EU. A few of them actually worked for companies that did business in the EU, but most did not. They seem to have bought the line that you need to be in the EU to trade with the EU. They were worried about the economy or jobs. Despite the lack of any economic downturn since 23 June, they were convinced that disaster would strike soon. They felt that leaving the EU was economic suicide. People who voted to leave had, apparently, not understood the economic issues at stake.

They were keen to tell me that the Brexiteers had not understood the question.

But actually, it was my party-going friends who had not understood. The ballot paper asked us if we wanted Britain to be a member of the European Union. It did not ask us if we want to buy cars from Germany, nor if we wanted to sell pizza to Italy (I jest not, I know one company that does).

Of course, trade with the EU will be affected by the terms of whatever trade deal emerges from talks with the EU. But for me at least such issues were unimportant.

Essentially the question on the ballot paper was a constitutional one. Should the UK be an independent sovereign country or a member state of the European Union?

When a Remainer says that Leavers were “ignorant” or “stupid” or “did not understand”, what they really mean is that the leavers did not agree that economics were of prime concern. They are concerned about the money, the cash, the lucre. Not that they would ever admit to anything so vulgar, of course. They talk about the economy, the jobs, the exports, but their concerns always boil down to money.

And money was not on the ballot paper. Freedom and independence was.

Next time a Remainer tells you that Leavers were “stupid”, you know who is really showing their ignorance.

A budget to “punish the people for voting to Brexit”

THE PRESS OFFICE OF                                                           

The Lord Stoddart of Swindon (Independent Labour)                                                                                          

News Release

24th  November 2016

A budget to “punish the people for voting to Brexit”

The independent Labour Peer, Lord Stoddart of Swindon has strongly criticised the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, characterising it as a “budget to punish the people for voting to Brexit.”

Lord Stoddart said:  “There is no doubt in my mind that this is going to be a justification budget.  The Government advised the people not to vote to leave the EU and they were ignored.  Therefore, the next budget will be a punishment for their disobedience and a justification for the Government’s original advice.  The evidence is there for all to see.  The Treasury has re-run the gloomy economic predictions it made before 23rd June, despite the fact that many of them are being proven wrong with each passing day.

“It is time to ignore the bleating of these doom-mongers whose predictions have so often proved to be misplaced, inaccurate and self-serving and to proceed with all speed to leaving the EU.”

 

Euro ‘house of cards’ to collapse

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. This article originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

The European Central Bank is becoming dangerously over-extended and the whole euro project is unworkable in its current form, the founding architect of the monetary union has warned.

“One day, the house of cards will collapse,” said Professor Otmar Issing, the ECB’s first chief economist and a towering figure in the construction of the single currency.

Prof Issing said the euro has been betrayed by politics, lamenting that the experiment went wrong from the beginning and has since degenerated into a fiscal free-for-all that once again masks the festering pathologies.

“Realistically, it will be a case of muddling through, struggling from one crisis to the next. It is difficult to forecast how long this will continue for, but it cannot go on endlessly,” he told the journal Central Banking in a remarkable deconstruction of the project.

The comments are a reminder that the eurozone has not overcome its structural incoherence. A beguiling combination of cheap oil, a cheap euro, quantitative easing and less fiscal austerity have disguised this, but the short-term effects are already fading.

The regime is almost certain to be tested again in the next global downturn, this time starting with higher levels of debt and unemployment, and greater political fatigue.

Prof Issing lambasted the European Commission as a creature of political forces that has given up trying to enforce the rules in any meaningful way. “The moral hazard is overwhelming,” he said.

The European Central Bank is on a “slippery slope” and has in his view fatally compromised the system by bailing out bankrupt states in palpable violation of the treaties.

“The Stability and Growth Pact has more or less failed. Market discipline is done away with by ECB interventions. So there is no fiscal control mechanism from markets or politics. This has all the elements to bring disaster for monetary union.

“The no bailout clause is violated every day,” he said, dismissing the European Court’s approval for bailout measures as simple-minded and ideological.

The ECB has “crossed the Rubicon” and is now in an untenable position, trying to reconcile conflicting roles as banking regulator, Troika enforcer in rescue missions and agent of monetary policy. Its own financial integrity is increasingly in jeopardy.

The central bank already holds over €1 trillion of bonds bought at “artificially low” or negative yields, implying huge paper losses once interest rates rise again. “An exit from the QE policy is more and more difficult, as the consequences potentially could be disastrous,” he said.

“The decline in the quality of eligible collateral is a grave problem. The ECB is now buying corporate bonds that are close to junk, and the haircuts can barely deal with a one-notch credit downgrade. The reputational risk of such actions by a central bank would have been unthinkable in the past,” he said.

Cloaking it all is obfuscation, political mendacity and endemic denial.  Leaders of the heavily indebted states have misled their voters with soothing bromides, falsely suggesting that some form of fiscal union or debt mutualisation is just around the corner.

Yet there is no chance of political union or the creation of an EU treasury in the forseeable future, which would in any case require a sweeping change to the German constitution – an impossible proposition in the current political climate. The European project must therefore function as a union of sovereign states, or fail.

Prof Issing slammed the first Greek rescue in 2010 as little more than a bailout for German and French banks, insisting that it would have been far better to eject Greece from the euro as a salutary lesson for all. The Greeks should have been offered generous support, but only after it had restored exchange rate viability by returning to the drachma.

His critique will exasperate those at the ECB and the International Monetary Fund who inherited the crisis, and had to deal with a fast-moving and terrifying situation.

The fear was a chain-reaction reaching Spain and Italy, detonating an uncontrollable financial collapse. This nearly happened on two occasions, and remained a risk until Berlin switched tack and agreed to let the ECB shore up the Spanish and Italian debt markets in 2012.

Many would say the crisis mushroomed precisely because the ECB was unable to act as a lender-of-last resort. Prof Issing and others from the Bundesbank were chiefly responsible for this design flaw.

Jacques Delors, the euro’s “political” founding father, issued his own candid post-mortem last month on the failings of EMU but disagrees starkly with Prof Issing about the nature of the problem.

His foundation calls for a supranational economic government with debt pooling and an EU treasury, as well as expansionary policies to break out of the “vicious circle” and prevent a second Lost Decade.

“It is essential and urgent: at some point in the future, Europe will be hit by a new economic crisis. We do not know whether this will be in six weeks, six months or six years. But in its current set-up the euro is unlikely to survive that coming crisis,” said the Delors report.

Prof Issing is not a German nationalist. He is open to the idea of a genuine United States of Europe built on proper foundations, but has warned repeatedly against trying to force the pace of integration, or to achieve federalism “by the back door“.

He decries the latest EU plan for a “fiscal entity” in the Five Presidents’ Report, fearing that such move would lead to a rogue plenipotentiary with unbridled powers over sensitive issues of national life, beyond democratic accountability.

Such a system would erode the budgetary sovereignty of the member states and violate the principle of no taxation without representation, forgetting the lessons of the English Civil War and the American Revolution.

Prof Issing said the venture began to go off the rails immediately, though the structural damage was disguised by the financial boom. “There was no speed-up of convergence after 1999 – rather, the opposite. From day one, quite a number of countries started working in the wrong direction.”

A string of states let rip with wage rises, brushing aside warnings that this would prove fatal in an irrevocable currency union. “During the first eight years, unit labour costs in Portugal rose by 30pc versus Germany. In the past, the escudo would have devalued by 30pc, and things more or less would be back to where they were.”

“Quite a few countries – including Ireland, Italy and Greece – behaved as though they could still devalue their currencies,” he said.

The elemental problem is that once a high-debt state has lost 30pc in competitiveness within a fixed exchange system, it is almost impossible to claw back the ground in the sort of deflationary world we face today.

It has become a trap. The whole eurozone structure has acquired a contractionary bias. The deflation is now self-fulling. Prof Issing’s purist German ideology has no compelling answer to this.

A Charm offensive by the Bank of England

George West and I were among an audience of business people, local councillors and reporters at a meeting called by the Bank of England at the National Space Centre near Leicester to explain its role. It was one of a series being held throughout the country to improve the bank’s image and public relations.

 We were addressed by the elegant Deputy Governor, Minouche Shafik. She explained how the bank had now taken over regulation of the banking and insurance sectors with a duty to maintain stability in a turbulent international situation. The bank, she said, was politically neutral and independent of the government.

 I had an opportunity to mention that the members of the Campaign for an Independent Britain felt that the Governor, Mr Carney, had stepped outside that brief by his strong intervention on the “Remain” side during the referendum. I hoped she would make it clear to him that we felt that this had been unhelpful and beyond the  functions of the bank,  as described by her.

She explained that quantitative easing was a means of putting more cash into the hands of banks for financing increased business activity. The bank did this by buying assets such as government and latterly corporate bonds. She admitted that the money for this was effectively conjured out of thin air. Having been in the food business, I asked whether this was not equivalent to watering the milk and would we not face massive inflation as a result? She replied that inflation was low and that the introduction of this liquidity into the market plus the very low rate of interest had, in their view, avoided a recession turning into depression.

In reply to questions from other businessmen, she explained that those banks which did not increase their loans would face higher interest rates on their borrowings from the bank. Some of the new “challenger” banks felt that the regulation they faced was too onerous and hindering their efforts to provide finance which would stimulate growth.

On the way home, I heard very trenchant comment on Radio 4 News from an American financier, talking down Sterling very hard and emphasising the perils of Brexit and the uncertainties until the deal was done.  There was a spirited rejoinder from Roger Bootle. It was then reported that Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, had announced that he was going to allow the inflation rate to rise above the bank’s target of 2% to stimulate growth. I have to admit to feeling uneasy about that. Inflation is, in fact, a tax on the thrifty saver by the borrower  – and the most feckless and reckless borrower is Her Majesty’s Government. We have not had nearly enough austerity to reduce government borrowing and we have an appalling balance of payments deficit on our trade.

Let us hope that the lower value of Sterling will help to put that right before long.

 

 

The UK’s strong hand in trade negotiations

The war of words between UK ministers and EU officials continues. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, insisted that the only choices available ot the UK were “Hard Brexit ” or No Brexit” – in other words,  give up trying to leave the EU or accept that if we will not accept freedom of movement, we canot have access to the single market. The article mentioned Norway and Switzerland, which both accept freedom of movement. It failed to mention Liechtenstein which, as we have frequently mentioned before, does not.   

As we have pointed out, this is not he first instance of the media being less than helpful in reporting the prelimiarnbies to the negotiations. However, sometimes, some useful facts to appear. The article below, from the Economic Research Council,  indicates the importance of the UK as an export market for several leading EU nations. Of course, the UK needs to ensure that our goods meet all the EU’s complex regulatory requirements to access the Single Market, but if we adopt the Liechtenstein route or some sort of shadow-EEA arrangement, we do have quite a bit of leverage.

Summary: The chart shows some aspect of each nation’s position on trade with the UK in the run up to Article 50 negotiations with access to the single market being the key issue. Theoretically, countries with a greater reliance on the UK for exports could (or should!) take a softer stance on Brexit negotiations, in order to safeguard these trade links. Where the export/import ratio increases; this pressure to achieve favourable terms should be compounded.
ercchart4116

What does the chart show? The blue bars show the export/import ratio of each nation. Values above 1 denote that the country is a net exporter to the UK, and values below 1 show that the country is a net importer from the UK (of the nations shown, only Greece and Ireland are in this category). The red dots show each country’s exports to the UK as a % of their total exports to EU28 countries, so higher values therefore signify a greater reliance on the UK trade in their dealings with other EU nations. The data represents trade in goods only (not services) and is from 2015.

Why is the chart interesting? The chart shows that the key European nations individually have a very significant reliance on trade with the UK, with five of the key players doing over a tenth of all their export trade in Europe with the UK. What is also underlined is that, unless a united front from the EU states is shown in negotiations, Britain has serious clout with each of them through the sheer scale of its buying power. In addition, the graph only displays trade in goods not services, which might increase EU state’s reliance on Britain yet further.

There has been much speculation on the tone Article 50 negotiations are likely to take, not helped by entrenched ideological positions. We have seen firm and unequivocal comments from some ministers in EU member states who are taking a decisive ‘all or nothing’ stance. This toughening of tone stands in contrast to early conciliatory statements in the days that followed the result. On the other side, the self-assured attitude of some members of the British government, particularly Johnson and Gove, stems from their confidence in the UK’s strength based on the EU’s reliance on UK trade.

What the chart illustrates well is that for the key states in Europe, these negotiations are about far more than trade, indeed they may well allow their economies to take a hit for the longevity of the political union.