Monday, June 07, 2010

Britain's National Debt: DON'T PANIC!!

"Our National Debt problem is terrible, terrible. We must tighten our belts, bite the bullet, take the baby bull by the horns and transform it into a bear, we must eat sackcloth and clothe ourselves in ashes, we must take an axe to public spending,  we must cast tens or hundred of public sector workers onto the dole, woe woe and thrice woe. There is no alternative".  Thus speaks the Cameron today.

Hang on a second. Let's take a look at a picture of our National Debt over time.

Not good, but it has been worse. Note the impact of war on National Debt. If the ConDem Government is serious about national debt, hopefully they will avoid starting any more wars.

Now let's look at comparative figures for other countries. These figures are from here, rounded up.

List of countries' Narional Debt as    %   of GDP.

Zimbabwe      241
Japan             170
Italy               103
India                78
UK                  68 (Dec 2009)
France             67
Germany          63
Canada            62
USA                61
UK                  59 (Sept 2009)
Russia                7

Hmmm. That's not so bad. Second from bottom of this (incomplete) list in September 2009, although we are (just) at the top of the comparable countries in December 2009. That's statistics for you. All these figures vary enormously. The USA debt has been quoted as 70% and then 80% of GDP.

But of course, economics is a complex field. We need to look at other measures.

One is the ratio of debt owed to institutions in the UK, and that owed to foreign investors. Here we find that 36% is owed to foreign sources. We need to see a comparable list of others' debts.  

Another aspect it the Current Account Balance (CAB), which  is derived from balance of trade + Net Factor Income (interest &c) and transfer payments (things like international aid).

We do not do so well on CAB.

Taking the figures from this list,  and dividing them by the figures on this list, (using the IMF figures where possible) we get a percentage which is either positive or negative, a kind of indicator of the profitability of each country.

Zimbabwe -50
UK           - 4.9

Italy           -3
USA         -2.9
France      -1.5
India         -0.4
Canada    +0.9
Japan       +3.4
Germany  +5.7

All my calculations come with a health warning. Mathematics is not my strong point, but I have tried diligently to press the correct buttons on the calculator, and not to confuse my billions with my millions.

So from these figures, it seems that the problem is not our national debt so much as our current account.

The Current Account is a component, with the Capital Account, of the Balance of Payments, and it would be nice to have a list of countries by Capital Account, but I was unable to find such a list.  However, the ONS says: "The capital account has remained in surplus for over 20 years. A surplus of £3.4 billion was recorded in 2008, constituting the highest recorded cash surplus." So that seems reassuring.

Now, as I said before, I thank all the gods that I am not an economist, but it seems to me that the Government should not be slashing wildly away at the National Debt, at risk of bringing on a double dip recession, so much as tending to our Current Account. Since one of the factors in the CAB is the import/export ratio, we could address it by making more exports, or importing less dysfunctional crap, or by devaluing the pound.

I fully realise that there is more to it than this, that economics is a system, and that all factors should be fed in. Surely there is a computer programme somewhere that can crunch all the figures in real time, according to different weightings?

But in the absence of and Economic Deep Throat,  it does seem on the face of it that the Cleggeron is barking up the wrong financial tree.

(What's more, Edmund Conway at the Telegraph also thinks Cameron is panicking unnecessarily). 
As does Mehdi Hasan at the New Statesman.

The thing about the National Debt is that although it is a very large figure, and the interest payments are a huge drag on public finances,  it is a fact of life, and all countries (bar 4) have a national debt. It goes back hundreds of years (one unsourced story is that we are still paying off the ransom for Richard the Lionheart). It is not going to be paid off in the lifetime of one Parliament. The Budget Deficit is another story, and that should be brought down as soon as practicable, but that "practicable" involves the recession. It is pointless to annihilate the budget deficit if it brings on another UK recession, because that will just bring on another round of debt through falling tax revenues and rising benefit payments.

On balance, it looks as if the Cleggeron is frightening the journalists and the people by quoting huge debt figures out of context, in order to cut government spending, and is going going to crash the economy by going too far and too fast in trying to kill the deficit.

More on the budget deficit.
Economists need to come into the digital age.


Greg Lucas said...

hi Richard,
really good summary I think: I absolutely agree with you about libcons putting the frighteners on. Problem is where's the alternative: will E Balls reshape labours past to get beyond being blamed? I'm going to send your blog to Caroline Lucas (our MP)for her info.
Ps presumably national debt is good for UK finacial services; more or less risk free investment with guaranteed income through interest payments.
PPS a mate who knows this sort of thing told me britains debts for the napoleonic wars wern't paid off till the 1950s
Best wishes
Greg Lucas

DocRichard said...

Hi Greg, thanks for a constructive comment.

Re Napoleonic wars: I have been unable to establish whether or not we are still paying the ransom of Richard the Lionheart!

Interesting thought on benefit to financial services. Tax money > pay debt to UK financial service, who repay some profit in tax. But most of it will be creamed off to pay dividends and bonuses.

Mad world we live in.

DocRichard said...

did you see this link:

Balls needs a plan B. He also needs to fess up to labour's overspend on NHS, Social Security and wars. The wars cost about £60bn.