Global Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 11th August 2011.

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Photo of George Osborne George Osborne The Chancellor of the Exchequer 2:20 pm, 11th August 2011

People will be concerned about the turmoil in the world’s financial markets and what it means for economies here and across the globe. I want to update the House on what we are doing to protect Britain from the storm and to help lead a more effective international response to the fundamental causes of this instability.

As of this morning, after heavy losses yesterday, markets in Asia and Europe are a little calmer, although some are still down. Over the past month, the Dow Jones index has fallen by more than 14%, the French market by 23% and the Nikkei by 11%, and it is striking that the German market has fallen by 24%. Even Chinese equities have fallen by 20% since November. Bank shares in all countries have been hit particularly hard. Many sovereign bond markets have also been exceptionally volatile, with market rates for Italian and Spanish debts soaring before falling back in the past three days.

Sadly, Britain is not immune to these market movements. In the past month, the FTSE 100 has fallen by 16% and British bank shares have been hit hard. However, while our stock market has fallen like others, there has been one striking difference from many of our European neighbours: the market for our Government bonds has benefited from the global flight to safety. UK gilt yields have come down to about 2.5%—the lowest interest rates in more than 100 years. Earlier this week, the UK’s credit default swap spread, or the price of insuring against a sovereign default, was lower than Germany’s. That is a huge vote of confidence in the credibility of British Government debt and a major source of stability for the British economy at a time of exceptional instability. It is a reminder of the reckless folly of those who said that we were going too far, too fast. We can all now see that their approach would have been too little, too late, with disastrous consequences for Britain.

It is not hard to identify the recent events that have triggered the latest market falls. There have been weak economic data from the US, including revisions to GDP figures, and the historic downgrade of that country’s credit rating. The crisis of confidence in the ability of eurozone countries to pay their debts has spread, as many feared, from the periphery to major economies such as Italy and Spain. Those events did not come out of the blue and they all have the same root cause—debt. In particular, there is a massive overhang of debt from a decade-long boom, when economic growth was based on unsustainable household borrowing, unrealistic house prices, dangerously high banking leverage and a failure of Governments to put their public finances in order. Unfortunately, the UK was perhaps the most eager participant in that boom, with the most indebted households, the biggest housing bubble, the most over-leveraged banks and the largest budget deficit of them all.

History teaches us that recoveries from such debt-driven, balance-sheet recessions will always be choppy and difficult, and we warned that that would be the case. The whole world now realises that the huge overhang of debt means that the recovery will take longer and be harder than had been hoped. Markets are waking up to that fact. That is what makes this the most dangerous time for the global economy since 2008. We should be realistic about that and set our expectations accordingly. As the Governor of the Bank of England said yesterday and as the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility has noted, the British economy is expected to continue to grow this year. Some 500,000 new private sector jobs have been created in the past 12 months. That is the second highest rate of net job creation in the G7. However, instability across the world and in our main export markets means that, in common with many countries, the expectations for this year’s growth have fallen.

This is what our response must be. First, we must continue to put our own house in order. I spoke again to Mervyn King yesterday and I confirm that the assessment of the Bank, the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury is that British banks are sufficiently well capitalised and are holding enough liquidity to cope with the current market turbulence. We have in place well developed and well rehearsed contingency plans. We must also continue to implement the fiscal consolidation plans that have brought stability to our bond markets.

I believe that the events around the world completely vindicate the decision of this coalition Government from the day we took office to get ahead of the curve and deal with this country’s record deficit. While other countries wrestled with paralysed political systems, our coalition Government united behind the swift and decisive action of in-year cuts and the emergency Budget. While other countries struggled to command confidence in their fiscal forecasts, we created the internationally admired and respected independent Office for Budget Responsibility. Those bold steps have made Britain a safe haven in this sovereign debt storm. Our market interest rates have fallen while those of other countries have soared. The very same rating agency that downgraded the United States has taken Britain off the negative watch that we inherited and reaffirmed our triple A status. That market credibility is not some abstract concept; it saves jobs and keeps families in their homes. Families are benefiting from the lowest ever mortgage rates and companies are able to borrow and refinance at historically low rates thanks to the decisions that we have taken.

Let me make it clear not only to the House of Commons but to the whole world that ours is an absolutely unwavering commitment to fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction. Abandoning that commitment would plunge Britain into the financial whirlpool of a sovereign debt crisis and cost many thousands of jobs. We will not make that mistake.

Secondly, we need to continue to lead the international response in Europe and beyond. In the G7 statement agreed between Finance Ministers and central bank governors this week, we said that we would

“take all necessary measures to support financial stability and growth”.

In the eurozone, there is a growing acceptance of what the UK Government have been saying, first in private and now in public, for the last year—it too needs to get ahead of the curve. Individual countries must deal with their deficits, make their economies more competitive and strengthen their banking systems. Existing eurozone institutions need to do whatever is necessary to maintain stability. We welcome the interventions of the European Central Bank this week through its securities markets programme to do just that.

However, that can only ever be a bridge to a permanent solution. I have said many times before that the eurozone countries need to accept the remorseless logic of monetary union that leads from a single currency to greater fiscal integration. Many people made exactly that argument more than a decade ago as a reason for Britain staying out of the single currency, and thank God we did. Solutions such as eurobonds and other forms of guarantees now require serious consideration. That must be matched by much more effective economic governance in the eurozone to ensure fiscal responsibility is hard-wired into the system.

The break-up of the euro would be economically disastrous, including for Britain, so we should accept the need for greater fiscal integration in the eurozone, while ensuring we are not part of it and that our national interests are protected. That is the message the Prime Minister has communicated clearly in his calls with Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy and others this week. I have done likewise with individual Finance Ministers, in ECOFIN and in the G7 call at the weekend, and will do so again at the September ECOFIN and G7 meetings.

This is a global as well as a European crisis. At this autumn’s meetings of the IMF and the G20 we need far greater progress on global imbalances. We need an international framework that allows creditor countries such as China to increase demand and debtor countries to make the difficult adjustments necessary to repay them. Everyone knows what needs to be done, but progress so far has been frustratingly slow, with lengthy disagreements on technical definitions, let alone any concrete actions. The barriers are political not economic, so it is up to the world’s politicians to overcome them. There are no excuses left.

The UK, like the rest of the developed world, needs a new model of growth. Surely we have learned now that growth cannot come from yet more debt and more Government spending. Those who spent the whole of the past year telling us to follow the American example, with yet more fiscal stimulus, need to answer this simple question: why has the US economy grown more slowly than the UK economy so far this year? More spending now, paid for by more Government borrowing and higher debt, would lead directly to rising interest rates and falling international confidence, which would kill off the recovery, not support it.

Instead we must work hard to have a private sector that competes, invests and exports. In today’s world, that is the only route to high-quality jobs and lasting prosperity. In the developed countries, especially in Europe, that means making the difficult structural reforms needed to restore competitiveness and improve the underlying performance of our economies. The EU should cut red tape, not add to it. Internationally, we have the greatest stimulus of all on the table in the form of the Doha round—a renewed commitment to free trade across the world, which should be taken up now.

Here in Britain, the Plan for Growth that we announced in the Budget set out an ambitious path—23 measures have already been implemented and another 80 are being implemented now. On controversial issues, such as planning reform, we will overcome the opposition that stands in the way of prosperity. On tax, we have already cut our corporation tax by 2p, with three more cuts to come in the next three years. We will continue to pursue a radical agenda in welfare and education reform.

However, there is much more we can and must do if we are to create a new model of sustainable growth. All of us in the House must rise to that challenge in the months ahead and confront the vested interests—the forces of stagnation that stand in the way of growth.

In these turbulent times for world markets, we will continue to lead the international response. We will redouble our efforts to remove the obstacles to growth and stick to our plan, which has made Britain a safe haven in the global debt storm. I commend the statement to the House.