The measures set out in the New Labour government’s emergency budget yesterday were designed to set pulses racing and induce a collective sigh of relief across the country. Instead, the record amounts of borrowing required will not only reinforce the economic and financial crisis but also point towards the possibility of state bankruptcy in the not too distant future.
At any other moment, the unprecedented scale of government borrowing, mostly aimed at stimulating consumption, would have seemed beyond imagination. But, even with £20 billion more now and £118 billion by end of next year, the best that Chancellor Darling said he could hope for was to lessen the severity of the downturn!
To put it bluntly, the emergency budget will not stop the avalanche of company failures, job and pension losses, personal bankruptcies and house repossessions. Initial reactions from the high streets and businesses to a 2.5% cut in VAT were dismissive and rightly so.
As Jeremy Warner, business editor of The Independent put it: “The … reduction in VAT, which accounts for the bulk of the giveaway, will make no difference at all to low and moderately earning households, virtually all of whose disposable income is being eaten up by essentials unaffected by the VAT tax changes. Even on petrol, alcohol and cigarettes, the VAT concession is all clawed back again through a compensating rise in excise duty.”
The real problem that New Labour is incapable of tackling is that the global production overcapacity induced by 30 years of credit-led investment generated tsunamis of consumer goods which overwhelmed the market. Inevitably, consumers reached the limits of their ability to repay the debts they’d amassed under intense pressure to buy.
Consumers eventually had to stop buying ever more products. Under capitalism, if people don’t buy, companies can’t sell. So the global corporations that were the result of the growth hysteria needed to sustain profits are tumbling one by one. And with the promise of future profits disappearing over the horizon, the whole house of cards is crashing to the ground.
Neither Darling’s emergency measures, nor US President-elect Barack Obama’s massive stimulus package to be financed by very large deficit spending announced virtually simultaneously, can put Humpty back together again. The previous packages have failed and so must these. Remember those bank bail-outs that were supposed to get lending going again?
There is worse, far worse to come. In a research report published last week, the International Monetary Fund warned that the failure of a single major financial institution could result in losses to the derivatives market of $300-$400 billion. “What’s more, since such a failure would likely cause cascading failures of other institutions, the total global financial system losses could exceed $1,500 billion,” the IMF warned. That’s a big number by anyone’s standards.
Darling is predicting – gambling is a better word – that the record borrowing can be repaid in seven years through higher taxes derived from an economy that has returned to buoyant growth. This is delusional behaviour because a) there is a global recession in place and b) the future tax increases and public expenditure cuts needed to repay the borrowing will stop any hint of recovery dead.
The Financial Times was dismissive: “The UK consumer is now too stunned by the housing crash, stagnant wages and fears of unemployment to be coaxed into resuming the insane credit-fuelled binge of yesteryear. The government’s belief that output will contract by just 0.75-1.25 per cent next year will, therefore, prove too optimistic.”
What the paper doesn’t say is that restarting the economy after every previous crash has required the destruction of productive capacity – factories, offices, transport infrastructure, employees. It’s in the nature of the capitalist system. It’s what “boom” and “bust” means. But this time the scale and severity of the crash will be far greater than at any previous time in history. New Labour’s policies of promoting free-for-all, corporate driven globalisation and the fantasy financiers of the City have made certain of that.