Question, what does the Swedish economy and George Osborne’s dream have in common?
Answer: Setting aside that Sweden is still somewhat concerned about such issues as equality, welfare and workers’ rights, the Swedish economy is, quite probably, Mr Osborne’s dream.
Like the UK, Sweden once suffered a banking crisis. Unlike the UK, the Swedish crisis occurred a quarter of a century ago. Lots of dust has settled since, but today, Sweden is a country with a firm check on public finances. Today, Swedish public debt to Sweden’s GDP is just 44%, roughly half of the UK equivalent. Since 1997, the Swedish government has targeted a one per cent budget surplus over the course of an economic cycle.
You could say that its prudence writ large. Sweden has become one of the most competitive economies in the world, a major technology hub and a centre for entrepreneurism, all this with a growth rate since 2008 that the UK can only envy.
So that’s austerity for you. Cut the size of the state, and the private sector can grow into the void that is left – at least that’s the theory. But maybe Sweden bears the theory out.
There is just one snag. Since 1997, household debt to disposable income in Sweden has risen from 90% to a staggering, and very worrisome, 190%.
It does rather seem as if the price Sweden has paid for reducing government debt is for household debt to rise. When you think about it, across the global economy, if savings are at a certain level, and governments are trying to cut debt, that must mean that private debt must rise, otherwise, all that money that is saved leaks out of the economy. It’s a point that gets forgotten.
But George, or so it appears, has abandoned his dream. It is no longer his target to create a budget surplus by 2020. Brexit has made this impossible.
The truth, of course, is that for all the talk of prudence, of how you can’t fight a crisis caused by too much debt by borrowing more, of how the Keynesian idea of demand stimulus in times of trouble is dead, Mr Osborne has done the opposite of what he said he was doing. Year in year out, targets for government finances have been missed. Borrowing each year was higher than was predicted the year before. On the other hand, while household debt to disposable income has been rising of late, it is way below the pre-2008 level and nowhere near the level in Sweden.
And now, thanks to the Brexit vote, it appears even more targets will be missed.
Before the referendum, Mr Osborne threatened an austerity budget if Leave won. Instead, it appears we are getting more Keynesian stimulus.
If the Brexit supporters, such as Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom, have a dream, it is for the UK to be like Singapore, a dynamic independent hub off a mainland. Can that happen? It is hard to imagine the whole of the UK being like Singapore, but London... well, if you squint your eyes, and apply a large dollop of thinking outside of one of those box things, then maybe London can become Europe’s Singapore.
And now George Osborne is talking about cutting corporation tax from 20 to 15%, the lowest such tax rate amongst the world’s major developed economies. So is that good thinking, or has he boxed himself into creating a low tax haven even though social discontent was the main driver of the referendum result?
The Keynesians argue that in times of economic trouble you should forget about government finances and spend instead.
But the government tells us that this philosophy is irresponsible, that we must live within our means.
In reality, we are being told to forget about government finances and cut corporate taxes instead.
By Michael Baxter, economics blogger