If you ask them – or, indeed, even if you don’t – Ministers will tell you that the British economy is improving. Of late, they even have some figures to back up this claim.
The opposition, naturally, sees things differently, and has scored a bulls-eye with the publication of House of Commons Library statistics on comparative real wages in the European Union. This impartial assessment shows that, after inflation, the average British worker is 5.5% worse off now than he or she was when the Government took office in mid-2010. By this undeniably-important measure, only the Greeks, the Portuguese and, perhaps oddly, the Dutch have fared worse. Even in Spain, real wages have fallen by less (3.3%) than they have in Britain.
Using figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), Labour has calculated that average real wages will continue to fall between now and the 2015 general election.
The Labour implication, of course, is that wage-earners would have fared better if Ed Balls had been in charge. This is a pretty doubtful proposition given the shadow chancellor’s preference for borrowing Britain’s way out of a debt problem.
Even if we reject the opposition’s prescription, though, we can hardly deny their diagnosis. Taking a somewhat longer horizon, we need only compare the rise (of 10%) in nominal wages between 2007 and 2012 with official CPI inflation over that period (16%) to accept that working people have become poorer. My preferred take on this is to compare the 10% rise in wages, not just with CPI, but with a basket of essentials, which increased by 33% over those five years*.
The divergence between wages on the one hand and the cost of essentials on the other bears hardest on low earners, because they spend a higher-than-average proportion of their incomes on essentials. The other hard-hit group, of course, are savers, who will have derived no comfort at all from the Bank of England’s newly-stated commitment to keeping interest rates at rock-bottom for a period that is likely to be at least three years.
Like savers, then, wage-earners have become poorer, not just over three years but over a longer period, and Labour is probably right to argue that this trend will continue. What are we to make of the apparent improvement in the economy?
Well, I’m afraid it looks like a case of reversion to type – a return to borrowing as the basis of “growth”. The Government is committed to “helping” first-time home buyers (though you might think, as I do, that enabling people to acquire interest rate exposure in order to buy over-priced properties is a strange kind of “help”). The idea, of course, is that bolstering the property market will make people more relaxed about taking on additional credit, thereby boosting consumption despite continuing weakness in real wages.
What it all boils down to is this. If Ed Balls had had his way, the state would have borrowed more, whereas, under George Osborne, consumers will do the borrowing instead. Either way, the conclusion seems to be that the only way that the British economy can grow is by borrowing.
Depressing though it is, this analysis seems valid – even in the so-called “boom” years under Gordon Brown, household and government debt grew by a lot more than the economy. There’s a parallel here, too, with the banks. In the bad old days before 2008, the banks grew their “profits” by trashing their balance sheets and, according both to the Conservatives and to Labour, the only way in which the country as a whole can grow is by doing the same thing.
The trouble with this, of course, is that aping the banks’ behaviour on a national scale invites the same fate. If you look at the shorter-dated end of the government bond markets, particularly in the United States, you’ll see that rates are rising, which points to the nightmare that must keep Treasury officials awake at night – if the market wrests control of rates out of the hands of central banks, the most indebted countries (and individuals) are in real trouble.
My solution to this would be to come at the problem from the opposite direction. Essentially, we need to boost real wages by getting inflation down. Whilst there’s not much that we can do about the prices of inputs like energy and food, we can certainly improve the mechanism which translates these variables into the average person’s experience.
Coincidentally – or, I believe, not coincidentally at all – the fastest price increases are happening in sectors where competitive pressures are at their weakest. What we need, I believe, is far greater competition in sectors like transport, utilities, banks, telecoms and food retailing.
On the one hand, regulation is no substitute for competition. On the other, there should always be at least a dozen major players in each important sector.
So here’s the question – does anyone have the stomach for breaking up over-concentrated markets, or must consumers go on relying on borrowing rather than earning?
* Those interested in such things might like to know that I’ll be continuing the Tullett Prebon index as the TM UK Essentials Inflation Index, which will be published on this web site in the future.