Britain’s financial meltdown carries a global warning

Published : 03 Oct 2022 08:14 PM

For several days of Britain’s financial meltdown, Prime Minister Liz Truss offered no comment. The Independent newspaper led Thursday with her picture under a snarky headline: “MISSING: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS PM?”

Then Truss did comment, choosing local radio stations, prompting the deputy leader of the rival Labour Party to declare, “Truss has finally broken her long painful silence with a series of short painful silences.”

Acerbic zingers aside, Truss’s performance is no joke. For 10 days, the British pound has swung dizzyingly from weak to extremely weak to merely weak again. Long-term government bonds, maturing in 50 years, shed one-third of their value at one stage, recovering from that unprecedented plunge only when the Bank of England stepped in.

Foreign watchdogs from the International Monetary Fund to the rating agency Standard & Poor’s have condemned Truss’s unfunded tax cuts, which triggered the rout.

Bad for Britain

Truss’s net approval rating has collapsed from negative 9 per cent to negative 37 per cent in the space of a week. But Truss’s predicament also reflects a larger issue. Across the supposedly advanced economies, the return of inflation has magnified the riskiness of extravagant political gestures. For the most part, however, politicians have not gotten the message.

The return of inflation has changed things. Central banks’ primary mission is to stabilise prices, so that the money in your pocket roughly holds its value. Money is supposed to be a store of wealth and a unit of account: When it ceases to perform these functions, the operating system of the economy crashes.

Because of this inflation-fighting imperative, central banks now have to think twice before underwriting political expediency. Bailouts involve cutting interest rates and buying government bonds. Inflation control demands the opposite.

Britain’s crisis illustrates the pain of this transition. In announcing their programme of unfunded tax cuts, Truss’s chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, behaved like a gogo start-up that spends money as though it were water, complacently assuming that venture capitalists will supply liquidity without end.

With interest rates at zero, capital apparently costs nothing. Investors would pour money into almost any project because of the TINA principle: There Is No Alternative.

There is an alternative

The Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates to combat inflation. Investors can stash their cash in US mortgage bonds and get paid 6.7 per cent, more than double what they would have gotten just a year ago.

Like a start-up that burns money without generating revenue, a government that cuts taxes without squeezing spending can no longer count on the markets’ indulgence. RIP TINA, and hello MARA. Markets Are Rational Again.

But around the world, politicians have yet to adjust. As the Economist noted recently, leaders responded to the 1970s energy crisis by telling people to wear an extra layer and cut fuel consumption. “We aren’t going to starve,” West Germany’s chancellor observed calmly.

Today, by contrast, politicians are hurling subsidies at consumers and suspending gas taxes. When the oil shock hit in 1973, the real value of Britain’s benefits bill hardly changed. This time, the government is throwing 6.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to shield citizens from fuel costs.

And the bailout reflex extends beyond the energy sector and Europe. In the US, the government guarantees bank deposits and mortgages, subsidises health care and more; now President Biden proposes to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to cancel student debt.

Adding up the government’s contingent liabilities, the Economist calculates that Uncle Sam is on the hook for debts worth more than six times GDP and that this ratio has shot up lately. In 1979, the bottom fifth of US earners received means-tested benefits worth about one-third of pretax income. By 2018, it was about two-thirds.

Thanks to the 23-year inflation vacation, rich societies have grown used to the idea that government can fix stuff. This is still true in significant ways — the Bank of England backstopped government bonds last week, albeit on a time-limited basis. But to preserve their ability to help in extraordinary times, politicians must exercise restraint in ordinary ones.

Update: UK Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng says the government plans to abandon its plan to abolish the top rate of income tax for the highest earners.

The fact is that inflation vacation is over. Adjusting is going to be painful.

Sebastian Mallaby is an English journalist and author. His books include The Man Who Knew (2016), The World’s Banker (2004).