Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sex and drugs and the EU bankroll

When the Government announces its next GDP figures, for the third quarter of 2014, they will for the first time include calculations for the economic activity of prostitutes and drug-dealers.
These activities supposedly add up to £10 billion a year (though the statisticians admit this is more or less guesswork). Nevertheless, adjustments for drugs and prostitution together with some other changes will add something like £30 billion to Britain’s GDP.
The inclusion of illegal activities in the way we calculate GDP was insisted on by the European Union’s statisticians on the grounds that some countries add them in and others don’t so we should compare like with like.
But there is another good reason why the EU wants to boost the GDP figures of its member states and it’s not simply to make the Eurozone wasteland look a little healthier than it really is.
It’s because if a country’s GDP rises, so does its financial contribution to Brussels, because every nation’s contribution is partly based on its economic output.
Earlier this year, it was announced that reasonable economic growth in the UK would add £800 million to the £8.1 billion we already hand over to the EU.
Now, thanks to prostitution and drug-dealing, we face having to hand over yet more (even though the State does not tax, and therefore does not derive any financial benefit from, these transactions and does, in theory at least, try to limit them given that they are against the law).
Our statisticians have decided the illegal drugs industry is worth £4.4 billion a year. In addition, even though they more or less admit they haven’t got a clue, they say the country has 60,879 prostitutes raking in £5.3 billion with 25 clients a week paying an average of £67.16.
By their calculations it means the average lady of the night is on £87,000 a year which sounds a little difficult to believe.
Anyway, Britain contributes 0.74 per cent of GDP to the EU.
As a result of including prostitution and drug-dealing in the GDP figures, we will have to find another £74 million to give Brussels. Taking into account the other changes as well, our total bill rises by an extra £222 million.
Surely there is a scandal here which has not yet been fully appreciated. The EU will be living off immoral earnings to the tune of £74 million a year of taxpayers’ money.
Interestingly, France is refusing to do as it’s told and has said it will not revise its statistical analysis of economic activity to take into account these activities.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Scotland's figures just don't add up

Dodgy statistics dog the Scottish independence debate. How will an independent nation survive without North Sea oil revenue if the wells run dry? Can it survive financially even with the oil money?

I’ve had a look at some of the figures and all I can say is it’s no wonder the politicians on either side of the great divide can’t agree on anything.
For instance, HMRC has tried to split up its revenue by country.

On the basis of HMRC’s sums, Scotland delivered tax receipts of £42 billion in 2012-13, nine per cent of all UK tax revenues, if you include North Sea oil revenue (£37.8 billion, or 8.2 per cent, if you don’t).

But the BBC says Scottish revenue was £53 billion in the same year.

Curiously or not, this is the sum the Scottish Government also says the country raised in the same financial year.

There is, therefore, a huge gap between the supposed income from taxes in Scotland claimed by its Government and the sum claimed by HMRC.

SNP leader Alex Salmond says Scotland generated tax revenues, in 2012-13, £800 higher per head than the UK as a whole.

‘For every one of the last 33 years, tax receipts have been higher in Scotland than the UK,’ he said.

That’s questionable. What is less debatable is that Scotland’s public sector spends more than the rest of the UK per head. Again the figures vary wildly but one version puts the figures at £10,125 per head in Scotland compared with £8,788 in England.

Another has it at £12,300 for Scotland, £11,000 for the UK as a whole.

The UK Treasury says Scotland gets 14-16 per cent of Government spending; the Scottish Government puts it at 10-12 per cent.

What is less in dispute is that Scotland spent £65.2 billion in 2012-13. That’s a deficit of £12.1 billion (or considerably more depending on where you start from).

Still, the UK is overspending too, so what does it matter?

Well, Scotland’s deficit, even if you give the Scots all the oil money, represents 9.3 per cent of the UK national debt. Yet its population is only 8.3 per cent of the population.

That means the country is earning less and spending more than the nation as a whole. The UK overspent in 2012-13 by £2,031 per head; Scotland overspent by £2,285 per head.

It’s not a yawning chasm but it means Scotland is about 12 per cent more profligate than the UK as a whole even if you hand the country all the oil revenue.
If the oil dries up, it will have to borrow more money to balance the books – or it will have to impose the sort of spending cuts Mr Salmond rules out at every opportunity.

The Treasury’s Office for Budgetary Responsibility reckons North Sea oil revenue will fall from £5.581 billion in 2012-13 to between £3.6 billion and £3.2 billion over the next few years to 2019.

Luckily the Scottish Government has the answer.

The Scottish Government has decided its oil revenues won’t decline at all, or only by a small amount. Its statistics claim oil money will come in at between £4.8 billion (a fall of £900 million) and £8 billion (an increase of £2.5 billion).

Of course if we could predict future oil prices we’d all be millionaires. But as the Scots seem interested only in short-term pain or gain, it’s a pity, if not an impending national tragedy, that the numbers vary so wildly.

It is no wonder the two sides of the independence argument can’t agree on anything.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The quantitative mercy is definitely strained

I’m still exercised by the £375 billion the Bank of England conjured out of thin air, called quantitative easing, and used allegedly to prop up our ailing economy after the crash of 2007-8.

This money was supposed to go to British businesses to encourage investment in new ventures. It hasn’t done that. So what has happened to it?
Some went to prop up the balance sheets of our appalling banks, whose bosses should not enjoy multi-million pound bonuses and pay-offs but should instead be in jail.

That may explain away the whole lot. But here’s another answer. A lot of it has gone to blow up a housing bubble which is still inflating.

This is Chancellor George Osborne’s master-plan for winning the next General Election. All home-buyers (mostly Tory voters, after all) like rising house prices.
We can sell at a profit, we can borrow against our rising equity, we love all this unearned wealth sloshing around us, especially if we live in London.

What’s not to like? Well, apart from the fact that every bubble bursts eventually. And rising prices mean young people are condemned to rent for years to come unless they have rich mummies and daddies. And it creates a totally artificial impression of the true state of the economy.

While we are certainly better off than our Eurozone neighbours, manufacturing is now in decline again and exports are stalled – mainly because of the recession in said Eurozone. They will be dumping goods here while we can’t sell anything across the English Channel because no-one apart from the Germans has any money.

QE has been squandered on house price rises because, as houses are classed as assets, they do not count towards the rate of inflation. That means they can inflate away at 25 per cent a year and officially, according to the august experts at the Bank of England, the rate of inflation remains unchanged (apart from some small adjustments).

This is why we had rampant house price inflation, ridiculous lending decisions and low interest rates before the crash. And why they have come back to haunt us, fuelled by the Bank’s artificial, made-up, fictional £375 billion of printed paper.

I have reached this conclusion by looking at the figures for lending put out by the Council of Mortgage Lenders. These show that in the 12 months between July last year and this June, home loans totalled £198,149,000,000 (call it £198 billion).

In the depths of the recession, mortgage lending slumped. In 2007, just before we all fell off the bank-made cliff, loans totalled £362 billion. They were as much as £253 billion the following year.

By 2009 they had slumped to £143 billion and fallen to £135 billion in 2010, when the Coalition Government was first elected.

Since then lending has risen every year: £141 billion in 2011, £145 billion in 2012, £176 billion in 2013.

If we take £135 billion as the base line, it means lending over that figure has risen by £6 billion + £10 billion + £41 billion + (by the end of this year an estimated minimum of) £45 billion. That comes to £102 billion.

At a time when financial institutions are supposedly strapped for cash, where have all these billions come from? The answer has to be QE.

Of course some additional lending would have taken place anyway and it is not running at the kind of level we saw a decade ago. So you could argue this is just the natural pattern for an economic recovery.

That doesn’t seem terribly likely, however. For banks and buyers, house-price rises are still seen as the safe haven and sure bet they were for such a long time before it all went horribly wrong. And it’s true things never went as horribly wrong in Britain as they did in Ireland or the United States, for instance.

But rampant house-price inflation is not an acceptable way to create the illusion of economic recovery. It cannot last unless the Bank of England prints more money for mortgage-lenders to burn.

If the economy were really recovering, the Bank would have increased interest rates by now. That they haven’t done so has little or nothing to do with the official rate of inflation (which itself has no relationship with reality). It’s all about creating an illusion of well-being ahead of the next General Election.

If the bubble doesn’t burst and interest rates don’t rise (or even if they do by a quarter of a per cent or so), George Osborne will get the credit for rescuing the economy and the Tories might actually win the election.

The truth is, as usual, that they are just deferring the evil day when the QE money runs out and house prices have to return to some sort of normality. At which point, no doubt, the Bank will invent a few more tens of billions to keep the whole tottering edifice from crashing down.

• For more on how QE might affect the country, why not check out my novel ‘Murder on the Brussels Express’ where this distinctly unsexy subject plays a significant role in the plot?