UK economy

I am living in New York at the moment. I find that Americans who are aware other economies exist have one source of comfort: the US is in bad shape, but the UK is worse. Reading the Green Budget from the Institute for Fiscal Studies forces one to agree: the UK is in a mess. Yet it should still be a manageable mess. Read more

How much debt is too much? Nobody knows. But the governments of highly indebted high-income economies – such as the US and UK – think they know the answer: more than today. They want even more credit to flow to their struggling private sectors. Is that an attainable ambition and, if so, how might it be achieved? Read more

In tough times, politicians squabble. Out of this heat, light should emerge. Alas, it is not doing so, at least in the UK. The utterances of leading Labour and Conservative politicians do not explain how the UK economy is to emerge from its current quagmire. Read more

Nobody would want to start from here, least of all the bankers. A dearth of capital, worsening loan books and a lack of funding are a horrible combination. It is little wonder they are now as desperate not to lend as they were so recently to lend. Unfortunately, if banks stopped lending, they would create a depression from which everybody, including banks, would suffer. The economy cannot go “cold turkey”. A flow of net lending must be sustained.The starting point for any analysis must be with some harsh realities.

The first is that banks enjoy a state-supported licence to create money. No strictly private business can make a credible promise to do that. Banking is a utility in which taxpayers bear much risk. Regulators have to represent the interests of these risk-bearers of last resort. Read more

By Martin Wolf

Is the UK on the road to disaster? Those who believe it is insist that it is mad to tackle a calamity caused by excessive borrowing with still more borrowing, this time by the government as borrower and lender of last resort. These criticisms are wrong and right: wrong, if the government remains creditworthy; right, if it does not. Read more

By Nariman Behravesh

The full fury of the two shocks that have hit the world economy – the financial crisis and record oil prices – is beginning to dissipate. Unfortunately, the full impact of these shocks on the real economy has yet to be felt. Read more

By Martin Wolf

Stuff happens. Stuff has certainly happened to both the UK economy and the government’s fiscal position. What Alistair Darling, UK chancellor, delivered on Monday was not a pre-Budget report, but a crisis budget. Read more


Is this the time for the British to swallow their pride, admit they made a mistake and beg to enter the eurozone? A growing number of people argue it is. They are wrong. Read more

Will the UK government’s scheme for rescuing the financial system work? The answer to this question depends on the meaning of the word “work”. I can identify three issues: will the scheme rescue banking? Will it cost too much? Will it prevent a recession?

First, though, what is the scheme? Read more

By Viral V. Acharya

The G7 and Eurozone meetings have raised hopes of expedient recapitalization of several banking sectors with the use of public funds. Such recapitalization is rightly aimed at shoring up equity base of the highly leveraged banks whose capital is essentially eroded, and of better-capitalized banks whose equity base has suffered too due to a spillover from adverse news about the highly leveraged ones. In light of this much-needed response to the global financial crisis, it is important to remember that following the first round of recapitalizations, regulators should and will look for ways to “clean up” the system. To this end, well-capitalized banks and financial institutions need to be given incentives to acquire weak banks sooner rather than later. Read more

by Peter Boone and Simon Johnson

The US government has moved dramatically, in what it argues is a comprehensive manner, to counteract serious problems in the financial system, and to reduce the risk of a serious recession or worse.  Eurozone policymakers are far more reluctant to intervene.  They remain inclined to handle growing bank failures on a case-by-case basis; and, while their central banks have provided liquidity, they have avoided using other fiscal and monetary policy tools.  If the fortunes of the world economy depended only on the US policy response, we would predict just a fairly severe recession.  The absence of any indication that there will soon be a decisive European policy response suggests we could be in for something considerably worse.

In the view that is increasingly prevalent in the US, we are not facing a Keynesian demand recession, nor the supply side shocks of the 1970s. It is a crisis of confidence very similar to the Asian crisis of 1997-98.  The lesson from these events is when trust in highly leveraged financial markets weakens, there can be long and enduring repercussions across all sectors of the economy. The Federal Reserve’s implicit policy model since September 2007 appears to be tied in part to those events.

In contrast, the frame of reference for European authorities appears to be drawn from the lessons of the 1970s.  They are concerned about inflation and second round effects from past commodity price rises, so they keep interest rates higher.  They have not announced national programmes to bail out financial institutions and borrowers, in part, because of perceived costs relating to future moral hazard. Read more

Privatisation was one of the great achievements of the Thatcher era. But it is becoming increasingly evident that the transfer of monopolies into the hands of regulated companies that own, run and develop the assets is flawed. This is excessively costly to consumers. It is also an obstacle to investment in risky long-term assets such as airports, nuclear power , electricity and gas networks.

This is not to argue that privatisation is devoid of benefits. Where competition could be introduced into the newly privatised industry, as in the case of telecommunications, the gains were huge. Elsewhere, privatisation was the way to allow essential activities to escape from the dead hand of Treasury curbs on public investment. Private finance was more expensive, but investments were at least made. Read more

Silliness is abroad in the UK. Some are arguing in favour of a looser monetary regime. I responded to this two weeks ago (“Britain must not cut loose its anchor”, May 15). Others are even muttering in favour of joining the eurozone, now celebrating its 10th birthday. Even my colleagues on the Lex column argued last week that the UK was close to meeting the economic tests for joining. The only obstacle to entry Lex could find was political.

Lex is wrong. Whether the UK meets arbitrary tests at a particular moment is irrelevant. What is right today may be wrong tomorrow. If a country is to join the eurozone, its people must be willing to cope with the consequences forever, however unpleasant they may sometimes be. Read more

By Martin Wolf

Will sterling follow the US dollar? As Willem Buiter pointed out last week (The silver lining in sterling’s decline, January 4), this is highly likely. Movements in exchange rates are, to put it mildly, unpredictable. But this one ought to happen. It should also be welcomed. This possibility was, indeed, why the UK had to keep out of the eurozone. Read more

by Willem Buiter

The announcement that the UK Treasury had authorised the creation of a Liquidity Support Facility for Northern Rock at the Bank of England came on September 13, 2007.  The Treasury’s announcement of a guarantee for all of Northern Rock’s deposits (not just the retail deposits) and most of its other unsecured credit followed on September 18.  Two months have passed now, and Northern Rock is still on life support, having drawn over £20 bn from the LSF – just under 20 percent of its assets.   

What went wrong and what lessons can be learnt?

(1) The Tripartite arrangement between the Treasury, the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England, for dealing with financial instability is flawed. Responsibility for this design flaw must be laid at the door of the man who created the arrangement – the former Chancellor and current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.  The Treasury, as the dominant partner in the arrangement, also bears primary responsibility for its operational performance. 

The main problem with the arrangement is that it puts the information about individual banks in a different agency (the FSA) from the agency with the liquid financial resources to provide short-term assistance to a troubled bank (the Bank of England).  This happened when the Bank lost banking sector supervision and regulatory responsibility on being made operationally independent for monetary policy by Gordon Brown in 1997.  It’s clear this separation of information and resources does not work. 

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Financial panic has hit both the public and politicians of the UK over the past week, to deliver two remarkable results: the first run on a British bank since the collapse of Overend and Gurney in 1866; and the transformation of bank deposits into public debt at the stroke of a pen. These are historic times.

How then could these astonishing events have happened? Contagion is the answer, just as it was during the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago. When Thailand announced the devaluation of the baht in July 1997, few foresaw the way the crisis would spread. Yet contagion was not random. Some countries were more vulnerable to the disease than others. Read more