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The National Insurance increase shows that levelling up has been consigned to the Conservative bonfire of easy promises

Boris Johnson playing Connect 4 with an elderly lady and a nurse whilst visit Westport Care Home in East London 7/9/21Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street. Creative Commons 2.0 license

A country ruled by criminals needs two revolutions, one small and one big: The small revolution is to overthrow the criminal government, the big revolution is to radically undo the damage these criminals have inflicted on the country!

Mehmet Murat Ildan, Contemporary Turkish playwright, novelist, and thinker

 

This week, Boris Johnson announced that his government would not ‘duck the tough decisions needed to get NHS patients the treatment they need’, or ‘to fix our broken social care system’. After all the fanfare and promises, from an already morally bankrupt government, the reality is somewhat different. The proposed solution to increase National Insurance will not only do nothing to resolve the growing crisis in social care, or create a fairer system for social care provision, it will also create further burdens on an economy already creaking at the seams.

When Johnson refers to a ‘broken’ health and social care system, he is ignoring the elephant in the room. Who broke it? The actions of successive Conservative governments are to blame, through a decade of cuts that have deliberately starved the public sector of adequate funding, along with decades of allowing a private profit-seeking sector to benefit from public money, at the expense of those needing health or social care services. It did so as a result of its fixation with fiscal discipline and market-driven economic dogma.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the folly of austerity, the toxic and harmful obsession with private sector involvement in the delivery of public services, and the consequences of the lack of strategic planning for such events, which have resulted in the NHS and social care struggling to function effectively during this crisis and led to unnecessary suffering and deaths.

Adding to the already existing shortage of nurses (over 40,000) and other health workers, insufficient ICU facilities, ventilators, beds and PPE, were the warning indicators that something was seriously wrong, as hospitals burst at the seams with very sick patients needing treatment. As a result, we are now facing a growing backlog of patients awaiting diagnosis or treatment (or who have even died waiting), with experts warning of the future consequences on staff already suffering from burnout, stress, and exhaustion. It is humanly unsustainable.

Social care services have not been immune from the same economic illiteracy. The warning signs preceded the pandemic. Social care is in meltdown now, and the proposal to increase National Insurance will not only fail to enable the fairer payment system for social care promised by the government, but it will also do little to alleviate the immediate problems caused by government policies.

Government officials have been clear that most of the money raised by the new tax will be spent on the NHS in the first three years, on the assumption that demand for state-funded care will increase from 2026, as people reach the spending cap. These proposals make no attempt to deal with an already failing underfunded system, and social care providers and charities have already indicated that the extra resources would not be sufficient to improve standards.

The problems faced by social care have been longstanding, exacerbated over decades by a mishmash of reforms by governments unwilling to grasp the nettle, as a likely result of the uncomfortable, but false, question of affordability and how it would be paid for. As a result, under an unfair means-tested social care system, which has for decades been served by private profit-seeking companies and charities relying on state funding to function, social care services have increasingly been impacted by years of funding cuts affecting local council budgets, putting increasing pressures on care standards, wages and employment terms and conditions, as private providers struggle to make their businesses profitable.

This is just pushing the problem yet again down the line, when social care can already no longer meet the needs of those requiring support. Recently published figures showed that nearly 300,000 people are on local authority waiting lists for adult social care, a situation which has arisen as a result of funding pressures and delayed assessments. Figures also reveal a chronic shortage of care workers which has meant that those requiring a home care package have had no option but to accept a ‘temporary’ placement in residential facilities.

The government’s decision to increase National Insurance, a regressive tax that will affect the poorest, not the richest, will lead to many of those already poorly paid workers losing substantial income, as figures now show. Coupled with the looming cuts to the universal credit uplift of £20 a week and rising energy and food prices, it will add more unnecessary pain and suffering to people’s lives. A study published this week by the Health Foundation has shown that the UC cut will hit areas with the worst health hardest and is likely to widen inequality in health and wellbeing, running counter to the government’s promised levelling-up commitment.

Analysis by Policy in Practice noted that by April 2022, the combination of the new Health and Social Care Levy and the removal of the uplift to Universal Credit would mean that carers would be £1035 per year worse off, despite the planned (but scarcely generous) increase to the National Living Wage. Its Director Deven Ghelani said: ‘The unfairness of paying for social care through a rise in national insurance, whilst cutting support for the lowest earners at the same time, means those that kept us going through the pandemic are the ones hardest hit.’

It isn’t any wonder that the media reported this week that many were already choosing to leave social care and find work elsewhere. When Amazon becomes a better alternative to working in social care and playing a vital role in society, then we should question our societal values. When we are told that affordability is key to public service provision, the cruel consequence must be that, down the line, people must suffer higher taxes to balance the budget. How can that even be a consideration for a government which is a currency issuer and has the power of the public purse?

Astonishingly, even the free-market Adam Smith Institute called these plans ‘morally bankrupt’, saying that the government was asking ‘poorer workers to bail out millionaire property owners.’ They also criticised the plan as a ‘kick in the teeth for all the young working people of this country who have already been hard done by the pandemic.’

Whilst the solution is simple, ditching the for-profit motive and replacing it with an adequately funded, publicly paid for, managed, and delivered social care system, getting politicians to agree is quite another matter. Obsessing over how it will be paid for, we have two extremes of economic nonsense being touted in the news and on social media. Both sides of the political spectrum are dedicated to raising taxes to pay for health and social care. The Tories, as these plans show, through punishing already poor people, and Labour by taxing the rich to raise revenue.

Quite rightly, one should tax the rich for reasons of equity and to strip away the power and influence their wealth brings them, but this week some left-wing progressive MPs have flogged the ‘taxing the rich’ to pay for social care narrative to death on social media. James Meadway, a former advisor to John McDonnell, also got in on the act saying that Labour should, ‘seize the opportunity to make the alternative funding case’. A wealth tax and other changes to tax arrangements would fit the bill, he suggested. At the same time, as his party came under pressure to set out a ‘costed plan’, the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, suggested that Labour would consider taxing wealth even more heavily to raise funds.

How depressingly predictable that the question of how you are going to pay for it is the standard response to funding public services, but the same question is never asked for bailing out banks or going to war.

Yes, of course, we want to see a more equitable society, but playing to Mrs Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as public money. There is only taxpayers’ money,’ assertion is a highly damaging tactic. When those supposedly on the progressive left associate themselves with an acolyte of the arch neoliberals Hayek and Friedman, it is scarcely an advert for confidence in them. Although the fact that such views are still underpinning policies and spending is not surprising, given the entrenchment of such narratives in political discourse. Playing to the understanding of one’s audience works every time.

What we need now, desperately, is an opposition which is prepared to put citizens before the profits of private companies and for politicians to reject the gibberish that the belief that taxes fund spending represents. It is hardly progressive to reinforce in the public mind the false household budget narratives of government spending; that tax rises will be necessary to fix what actually has been a deliberately broken health and social care system, or that they could be needed to keep the public accounts straight, as per Sunak’s coming ‘hard choices’ in the October Spending Review.

The insistence that there is no alternative to tax rises to pay for social care is both macroeconomically unsound and cruel to those who are already struggling to keep their heads above water. The consequences of higher taxes in these still uncertain times will be very hard on some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, and will do nothing to support the economy, businesses or the working population and their families, as the UC uplift is terminated, and energy and other costs rise. There still remains the looming potential crisis of rising unemployment as furlough ends, and even if there are sectors crying out for workers, there will likely be a mismatch in terms of skills requirements to fill new posts, and that will take time to correct.

In this respect, the government has put all its eggs into the free-market basket, expecting it to come up trumps, and it has failed, unsurprisingly. This government and decades of previous ones have trusted in the market to deliver. The invisible hand of the market, whatever that mythical beast is, has done no such thing. The private sector is a profit-seeking juggernaut which puts its own interests over public purpose. And therein lies the heart of the problem. Government has put fiscal discipline above people’s lives and allowed the private sector to run amok, in an unforgivable free-for-all bonanza of deregulation and profit-seeking.

The question is never, ‘is there enough money’ or ‘how will we pay for it?’ The question is do we have the real resources to deliver a better health and social care service, and if not, what are the solutions? That is the role of the government to plan and deliver through its spending and taxation policies. The government should be us, but now democracy is made a mockery, as government and corporations become one and the same thing, serving not the interests of the people or indeed the planet, but their own rapacious greed.

The price of a hands-off approach has been and will continue to be a heavy one. Government, as an elected body, should have a responsibility to serve its citizens to ensure fair and equitable wealth distribution, to create the vital public and social infrastructure upon which the economy depends, to plan for the future whether in a post Brexit era, for future pandemics, or indeed for a just green transition to deal with the climate emergency. Words and actions, however, like oil and water, don’t mix in Conservative terms. It has done none of those things, and now we have seen how easy it was for Conservative MPs in the Red Wall, who were originally objecting to the NI tax rise, to dutifully line up behind their macroeconomically challenged leaders to vote for more pain and suffering. Levelling up has been consigned to the Conservative bonfire of easy promises, and the people yet again duped into acceptance that there will be no alternative to tax rises, either to fund social care or balance the public accounts.

The failure of government hinges on a lie used to justify austerity. The lie of monetary scarcity. Over decades, despite the rhetoric and promises, the issue of social care has been swept under the carpet, and now the system is barely functioning. It will not be fixed by increasing taxes of any sort. It can only be fixed by a government with the political will to do so. Shamefully, successive governments have made a political choice not to fund it adequately. They invited the private sector in, as if social care or the NHS should be beholden to the god of business efficiency and profit, not public service for human well-being. The real cost has been lives, disaffected, poorly paid staff who are on the edge financially and physically.

We should be shouting it out loud. We have a government that chose this path. A government that chose to let social care collapse for the lie of fiscal discipline. What a terrible price we and our loved ones are paying. It didn’t and doesn’t have to be like this.

There are two potential outcomes: Either that we carry on with ‘business as usual’, as the work and pensions minister Baroness Stedman-Scott put it earlier this week to the House of Lords, referring to the removal of the UC uplift, or something else.

We could imagine a world where monetary reality informs government policies and spending decisions. Where government puts its citizens first. A world in which we could have a functioning public and social infrastructure, funded, managed and delivered publicly. An economy, underpinned by full employment and a Job Guarantee, that works for everyone, not just for an excessively wealthy elite that uses its power and influence to dominate public policy. A society where real resources and wealth are distributed more fairly, and a just transition to a green agenda to address the climate crisis looming close behind. Just imagine! The way may be rocky and uncertain, but if we don’t try, we will never know.

 

 

 

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Only the World's Workers Can Save Us from a Capitalist Cataclysm

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/09/2021 - 9:10pm in

Fairy tales and the vocabulary of scarcity. Protecting the wealthy and hurting the rest

Fairy tale princess and books in fantasy landImage by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

“Last time, most of us fell for it. This time, it is critical that we do not. Because, in reality, the crisis we just experienced was waking from a dream, a confrontation with the actual reality of human life, which is that we are a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another, and that those who do the lion’s share of this care work that keeps us alive are overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated, and that a very large proportion of the population don’t do anything at all but spin fantasies, extract rents, and generally get in the way of those who are making, fixing, moving, and transporting things, or tending to the needs of other living beings. It is imperative that we not slip back into a reality where all this makes some sort of inexplicable sense, the way senseless things so often do in dreams.”

David Graeber –  After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep

 

 

Rishi Sunak is looking to raise funds! So says an article in the mainstream media this week. Raise funds for what? A gym, a swimming pool or perhaps tennis courts for his £1.5 million manor? No, nothing so trivial! The article, like so many over the past few months, was speculating on how the Chancellor might get the public finances back on track after the huge spending response by the government to keep the country economically afloat and functioning during the pandemic.

What’s it to be? Capital gains tax, targeting public sector pensions, abandoning the pensions triple lock, cutting public sector spending, raising taxes, or perhaps increasing National Insurance (to fund the proposed social care reforms if they ever get off the drawing board). After all, you’ve got to find the money from somewhere, haven’t you? At this point one cannot help but note with a hint sarcasm, that an excessively wealthy Chancellor is now considering cutting benefits for some of the poorest people in our society, putting balanced accounts over people’s lives.

Last week, the BBC covered yet another fake story about government borrowing. It reported that whilst overall borrowing was down on the same time last year, the government had spent a record £8.7bn in interest on repaying its debts in June, three times as much as in June 2020, as a result of inflation which had raised the value of index-linked government bonds. It also noted that debt to GDP was at its highest since the 1960s.

In the same article, the Chancellor, whilst patting himself on the back for the ‘unprecedented package’ of pandemic support, the only option that he actually had to keep the economy from taking a nosedive, commented that he needed to ensure debt remained under control in the medium term and indicated that his ‘tough choices’ in the last budget were ‘to put the public finances on a sustainable path’.

The IFS, relishing its doom-mongering task, as always, said in July that they expected that the ‘tough choices’ would continue, even if the economy appeared to be recovering more quickly than had been expected at the last budget. It noted that ‘permanent economic damage’ had been done by the pandemic, and that rising debt interest costs meant that, under their forecast, the Chancellor would have little, if any, additional headroom against his stated medium-term target of current budget balance (borrowing only to invest, not to fund day-to-day spending) in this year’s Autumn Spending Review. Analysts did, however, stress that despite record interest, debt servicing costs as a share of GDP remained low by historic standards.

Ruth Gregory, a senior UK economist at Capital Economics, said that ‘the public finances should reap the benefits of a fuller recovery in GDP than the OBR expects, meaning that the deficit will fall still further.’ Assuming of course that the proclaimed recovery remains on track, which is looking less and less certain.

You can trace in the above text a common theme. Tax, borrowing, deficit, debt, and fiscal headroom is the vocabulary of choice by politicians, journalists and institutions when describing how the government spends. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the public accepts the deficit and debt fairy tales.

Whilst it may be the case in terms of how the public accounts are presented, the reality is that it is merely an accounting framework which fails to reflect the capacity of the UK government, as the currency issuer, to spend money into existence, and is designed to keep a lid on monetary reality.

Instead, the media in its analysis, acts to reinforce the incorrect narrative of how the government spends, and focuses either on the capabilities of the chancellor of the day to manage the economy in a fiscally sound manner, or aims to shock the same public when the deficit and debt increase, leading to false accusations by the political opposition of economic mismanagement and spending beyond the nation’s means.

We can certainly expect more of this household budget nonsense in the months to come. After a vast round of government spending to prop up the economy, someone’s got to keep the public’s expectations in check, to keep the status quo in place by suggesting that government must balance its books, sooner or later.

In this, the journalists fall over themselves, as Will Hutton did this week in an article discussing the current economic situation, to frame the issues as per usual in terms of borrowing, deficit and debt, as if they represented monetary reality. To give him his due, he was clear, in a deficit dove sort of way, that the spending responses the government had made to address the prevailing economic conditions had been necessary to stop the economy from crashing, and went on to suggest that such spending would need to continue to support the economy. However, even if he didn’t say it, caught as he is like many others in the false paradigm of how the government spends, he will be equally quick to suggest at some time in the future that whilst we might continue to borrow while interest rates remain low, eventually there will be a reckoning and government will have no alternative but to curb its spending and restore fiscal discipline.

Now is the time to challenge this notion of monetary scarcity, and also the economic orthodoxy which has done huge harm to the UK, and also globally.

As the MMT Lens has noted many times before, it’s not the state of the public accounts that are important in themselves, but the economic conditions that lie behind them. What choices did the government make, faced with those economic conditions? What did the government do, or not do, who benefited and who did not?

The media, acting like a magician using his powers of sleight of hand, guides the public to be afraid of public debt and its consequences, when all the while the future of the planet hangs in the balance, not just in terms of planetary degradation, but also the poverty and inequality which will continue to grow without urgent action.

We need a State of the Nation Address to make clear what the consequences of the ideologically driven policies of successive governments and their spending choices have been, and most particularly over the last decade. While the rich have benefited from an ever-larger proportion of wealth, the living standards of successive generations have fallen, increasing poverty and inequality.

The ‘cheap as chips’ economy flourishes increasingly for only one section of it. The corporate sector. Earlier in the year, it was reported that the wealth of the world’s billionaires had grown by $4tn during the pandemic, despite the global economy suffering its deepest recession since the Second World War. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates are just a few of those who have come out of the crisis unscathed, and in some cases even richer.

At the other end of the wealth scale, the gig economy continues to flourish for owners of exploitative companies like Deliveroo, whose workers can earn as little as £2 an hour, unscrupulous employers employing the dirty tricks of fire and rehire on the back of the pandemic, and a continuing low wage economy (even if some sectors are under pressure due to shortages). When the question is asked why such employment standards have been allowed by law and why have they persisted under successive governments, there is only one answer; that those successive governments have served their corporate friends and their own interests through the revolving door, rather than those of the electorate.

This week, the charity Citizens Advice warned, as many have been doing over previous months, that the government’s planned £20 a week cut to Universal Credit could drive 2.3million people into debt. That includes people who were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic as a result of government policies.

A survey had shown that more than a third would be in debt after paying just their essential bills, if their benefits were to drop by £20 a week. This increased to half of claimants in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ areas. The organisation is warning of a ‘triple whammy of benefit cuts, rising energy bills and further redundancies as the furlough scheme ends, which will push families into hardship.’

Dame Clare Moriarty, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, described the cut as “a hammer blow to millions of people”, saying that it undermined the chance of a more equal recovery, by tipping families into the red and taking money from the communities most in need.

Whatever happened to Boris Johnson’s levelling up plan? In his usual defence of cutting the Universal Credit uplift, he suggested that claimants should rely on their own ‘efforts’ rather than accept ‘welfare.’ More ‘it’s your own fault if you can’t find a job’ neoliberal twaddle!

Whilst some in the media suggest that cutting the uplift would create electoral risks for Conservative constituencies in the Red Wall, they often fail to bring attention to something much more significant. That the poverty which preceded the pandemic, although alleviated by the increase in Universal Credit, is not a blip of nature, it has been politically induced. Johnson’s mantra of ‘getting people into work’ is no option at all, if wages are not high enough to keep people out of want. It helps no one apart from profit-seeking business, and the irony is that in the end, the whole economy suffers. People are poor, not because of their shortcomings or because they are lazy shirkers and not trying hard enough, they are poor because the government has decreed they should be.

The media should name the economic ideology that drives poverty and inequality and creates the vast disparities in wealth that we are seeing today. Neoliberalism. A phenomenon which has captured political parties, institutions, and the media which parrots its tenets of faith. The fact that many on Universal Credit are in work, surviving from hand to mouth on low wages, is a red warning indicator that something is wrong. It is an indictment of the government that poverty and employment insecurity has been built into the system to serve its corporate supporters who lobby to serve their own profit interests. But neoliberalism teaches, falsely, that government has no power to change the economic paradigm, and that its policies are constrained by scarce monetary resources. It is the spread of neoliberalism’s teachings that has prevented people from seeing the possibilities for positive change.

It was depressing this week to read about Labour’s plans for overhauling the Universal Credit System through allowing low-income workers to earn more, without seeing a cut in their welfare payments. The phrase ‘making work pay,’ featured in the presentation of their plans, which was horribly reminiscent of Iain Duncan Smith’s dictionary of human torture which informed his welfare shakeup and the Universal Credit Plan in 2010, and which incidentally and shamefully Labour supported. What changes? Labour sharing a bed with its corporate friends alongside the Tories, when it had the opportunity to break free of the economic ideology which has done so much damage already.

With increased knowledge about the capacity of government to act, it doesn’t have to be this way. With a government that puts the needs of its citizens at the top of its agenda, it could, through adopting full employment as a policy objective, and the implementation of a Job Guarantee, ensure that people are paid a living wage instead of what happens now, which is, in effect, a wage subsidy to help out their corporate friends.

Since the government is the price setter for labour through its legislative capacity, a Job Guarantee would help both those in work on low wages and those who are involuntarily unemployed and seeking work. A centrally paid for employment scheme, paid at a living wage set by the government, would provide training, give people dignity and purpose as well as offer a transition into better paying, private sector employment, as and when economic conditions improve. That is the best option of all.

The macroeconomic bottom line is that people with more money in their pockets spend it back into the economy, thus benefiting their local communities and the wider economy. They can pay for the real essentials like rent, food, clothing, and travel, with enough left over for life’s pleasures. Nobody should have to rely on food banks to feed themselves or their children.

What’s not to like? It’s a no-brainer. The economy would benefit, (which in an alternative world to the one we currently inhabit should be the aim of all governments whichever side of the political spectrum they stand) and working people would benefit through increased financial security and improved health and well-being.

Furthermore, with the challenge that is being presented by the urgent necessity to address the climate emergency and work towards a just transition to a truly sustainable world, it offers us an important opportunity to rethink the way we do things, re-examine what work is, and move towards a world that is less oriented towards the consumption of things, to a world concerned with sustainable living and dedicated to fulfilling public purpose. We need to do this within the context, not of monetary constraints, but the very real constraints related to resources.

This week the Financial Times ran an article with the headline ‘Climate action will stall until the finance problem is solved’, in which it said:

‘The options are to raise debt, raise taxes (including wealth taxes) or adopt a wartime mentality. None are politically attractive which at a profound level is the reason why the finance question remains unanswered, and the climate crisis remains unresolved’.

On that basis, as humanity sinks beneath the waves, the politicians will still be puzzling their little brains about how to pay for it, when all the time they should have been looking at the real and finite resources we will need to deliver a green transition, and how they can be shared fairly to create a more equitable world. As a social media friend commented, referring to what would have happened if the government had said in 1939 at the beginning of the second world war, ‘We will not defend Britain until the finance is sorted’, it would have been lunacy. The government did what only it could do to prepare for the battles to come, it spent the money into existence, whilst at the same time, offering war bonds to remove private purchasing power to ensure that it was not competing for the resources it would need to prosecute the war. Those same tools can be used for a just, green transition.

When the fate of the planet and its citizens are at stake, it is a paltry and self-serving argument to ask how it will be paid for, or to claim that balanced budgets must come before action on climate, poverty, and inequality.

Whilst we may indeed have to develop a ‘wartime mentality’, we should interpret that, not as deprivation but as an opportunity for cooperation. A transformation from a society of endless consumption of things we don’t need, to one which really delivers public purpose, a society formulated around human and planetary well-being. A cup half full and not half empty.

Such a world seems light-years away, when the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, continues to advocate a ‘free market’ approach to the economy, that same approach which has created the structural weaknesses revealed over the past year and that will do nothing to save the planet. Whilst, at the same time, right-wing journalists mourn massive state intervention and a culture of unlimited spending (even though it’s poured vast sums of public money into private profit) and promote instead a return to the good old days of unrestrained growth and market dominance.

But in the light of the challenges we face, it is time to acknowledge the damage this approach has already caused and will continue to cause if we fail now to rethink how we live.

Finally, with the news that global trade uncertainty continues to affect the economy, retail sales suffered an unexpected fall in July, and figures show that consumption has levelled off. It rather takes the shine off the expectation that people would be anxious to spend their savings as soon as they were able to, thus saving the government from the ignominy of having to admit that its growth expectations were miscalculated or wishful thinking. The exhortation to spend has fallen flat on its face, for the time being at least.

The elephant in the room crashes about as the government continues to ignore its role in the economic trends, which were already weak before the pandemic as a result of cuts to public spending. And, that it needs to spend sufficiently to deal with the ongoing economic uncertainty and create confidence that government actions are operating in the favour of working people and their families, not the politicians’ corporate friends. In such circumstances, it is clear that those lucky enough to have savings are reluctant to splurge out, just in case things go pear-shaped, and it ignores the many who have no such savings and who have been living on the edge for years as a result of government spending and policy decisions.

While the government continues to threaten more cuts and more public sector austerity to pay down the imaginary debt, the removal of the Universal Credit uplift and potentially the pension triple lock, with the still to come uncertainty surrounding the planned withdrawal of furlough arrangements, people will continue to hunker down after a short flirtation with spending, if they had anything to spend.

Such a strategy, based as it is on a false narrative of government spending, and the evils of deficit and debt, and spending beyond the nation’s means, will constrain the government’s promises, weak as they are, to act on the climate crisis and address the consequences of their own ideologically-driven policies.

If we are to avoid further planetary degradation, destruction of land, resources, and biodiversity, and all that will mean for the future survival of human beings on this planet, we cannot afford to ignore the warnings. We have no monetary constraints, only real resource ones, and it is now for governments across the world to cooperate to ensure that we can deliver a sustainable global economy and a fairer distribution of real resources in both the poorest and richest countries alike. Everything is possible with political will, if we choose it.

 

 

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The post Fairy tales and the vocabulary of scarcity. Protecting the wealthy and hurting the rest appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.

The golden era of greenwashing

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/08/2021 - 12:59am in

Fire fighters during a wildfire in Turkey in 2021Wildfires in Turkey – Image by Felton Davis on Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 licence

The “economy” is ultimately our material relationship with each other and with the rest of the living world. As today’s IPCC report settles in, we have to decide whether we want that relationship to be based on extraction and exploitation, or on reciprocity and care.

Jason Hickel, author of Less is More, and The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its solutions.

 

In 2018, GIMMS’ very first MMT Lens following its launch was entitled ‘The Economics of Climate Change’. In it, we reported on the just-published IPCC’s report on the state of the climate. Scientists warned that we only had 12 years left to halt the worst effects of climate change. The evidence even then was stark, and the clock is still ticking on the capacity of our natural world to support life.

As the world is beset by extreme temperatures, drought, wildfires, and floods, on Monday the UN-led IPCC issued its sixth and latest report, the work of 230 authors from 65 countries. It set out unambiguously the current state of the climate, and what steps we need to take to avert planetary catastrophe. The key takeaway from the report was that we have no more time to lose, and we must act with urgency. If we fail to do so, further climate changes are inevitable and will be irreversible. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres said ‘the IPCC report is code red for humanity. Alarm bells are deafening and evidence irrefutable; greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.’

In anticipation of the report’s publication, Alok Sharma, the UK Minister presiding over the UN’s COP 26 climate talks in November, who is part of a government as always hot on easy rhetoric said: ‘This is going to be the starkest warning yet, that human behaviour is alarmingly accelerating global warming […]. We can’t afford to wait two years, five years 10 years – this is the moment’.

If your eyes aren’t out on stalks by now they should be! This really is a bit rich when the facts have been known for decades and conveniently shelved by successive governments of all shades, as being too hard to deal with and a threat to growth and company profits. We all know in whose pockets politicians lie. Little has been achieved and now we are in the last chance saloon. Saying we can’t afford to wait would be almost laughable if it weren’t so serious.

Politicians and corporations sell us the miracles of technological solutions, many of which are still on the drawing board and promote offsetting carbon emissions through such programmes as tree planting. The claimed answer to the capitalist prayer of business as usual.

As Oxfam noted earlier in the month when it published its report, Tightening the Net: Net zero climate targets implications for land and food equity’, just planting millions of trees to tackle the climate crisis is simplistic, given the huge amount of land that would be needed to offset global greenhouse gas emissions, which would, in turn, impact on the amount of land for crops at a time when climate change is already a growing threat to global food production and increasing levels of hunger.

And that doesn’t even reflect the growing knowledge about trees and the complexity of the environments in which they can exist successfully. Monoculture tree plantations are man-made and bear no relationship with old-growth forest with all the complexity of hundreds of years of growth and biodiversity. The land of easy solutions and a disappointing failure to grasp the reality of what we must do. Cut emissions urgently.

Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam called, instead, for companies and governments to cut their emissions radically, rather than depending on offset, saying ‘Too many companies and governments are hiding behind the smokescreen of ‘net zero’ to continue dirty ‘business-as-usual activities’.

We are living in the golden era of greenwashing. A world in which the rich and powerful sell us the idea that we can have it all. This week, Linton Besser, Foreign correspondent for the Australian news network ABC, published his article entitled Dead white man’s clothes’, and revealed the dirty secret, as he called it, behind the world’s fashion addiction, with many of the clothes we donate to charity ending up dumped in landfill, thus, and not for the first time, creating an environmental catastrophe on the other side of the world. For example, plastic and other waste dumped in other nations – out of sight, out of mind.

Those on social media cannot fail to note the incessant sales pitches of ‘save the planet’ and buy ‘green, ethically produced’ clothing. As the environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg noted this week:

‘Many are making it look as if the fashion industry is starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair’. But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwashing. You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.

 

The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate-and-ecological emergency, not to mention its impact on the countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treat as disposable’.

It is indeed the golden era of greenwashing. Selling us ethical dreams tidied up in greenwashed advertising from clothing to electric cars, tree planting and eating choices (to justify that next purchase and give us a warm glow). How quickly the advertisers catch on. As the fate of humanity lies in the balance, the money makers continue to wallow in the hubris that we are gods with rights over nature and human beings to exploit and grow without end.

As Mark Blyth wrote this week in an opinion piece in the Guardian:

‘Instead, of telling us that we need to truly transform the way we live and organise society, we will be told that we can still carry on as we were, except perhaps with our fossil fuels and one-use goods replaced with green energy and recyclables. Maybe a bit less air travel, but still ‘back to normal’ with green edges.

 

This way of thinking is perhaps as dangerous as the climate crisis itself. While banging on about inflation as a threat to the poor, is a rhetoric of reaction, getting back to normal is a rhetoric of distraction.’

 Except that we can’t afford to continue as we are, or be distracted.

While the government expresses its commitment to action, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), working in partnership with Vivid Economics, has revealed that only a small fraction of the budget had been pledged for new policies to tackle climate change, and that a substantial amount more had been apportioned towards measures that could push up emissions. It warned that despite the Government advisors’ estimate that investment of 1% of GDP a year from the public and private sector is needed to reduce emissions to net-zero, the policies announced in the budget actually equated to just 0.01%.

Isabella O’Dowd, who is head of climate change at the WWF, said that ‘It’s not too late to prevent global warming from rising above 1.5%, it is in our hands. But to do that, the UK government must play its part by keeping every climate promise it has made’. She went on to note that ‘The spring budget showed a disconnect between the government’s rhetoric and the reality of what it’s doing. The ambition [on emissions-cutting targets] is great, but now we really need to see the policies that will deliver.’

Disconnect? Chasm more like. The word ‘ambition’ seems incongruous here too. The government’s ambition is confined to fine words and not much else, as the WWF shows in its analysis.

There can now be no mistaking the seriousness of the situation. Whilst action should have begun decades ago, when the first warnings were being aired, we must now grasp the nettle for our children’s children.

There is an alternative to the path being promoted by governments across the globe, governments who are the lackeys of global corporates through their spending and legislative choices and bypass democracy at every level. And yet it seems the media, despite the clarity of the seriousness of the situation we face, can’t get enough of the messages that claim that financial Armageddon is on the way if we don’t get our public finances under control.

This week, Gerard Lyons headed his article in The Times, ‘Now is the time to tighten monetary policy’. No, it is not! It is time to do the opposite. The Chancellor is just as penny-pinching and anxious to secure his reputation for fiscal discipline, and, perhaps, his future political career.

The reported row between Boris Johnson and his Chancellor suggested that the Prime Minister was ready to sack him over disagreements about spending on the NHS and his levelling up agenda.

In the Telegraph this week, it was suggested that Rishi Sunak should embark on a round of free market, deregulating liberalism, and reduce state intervention and spending, to keep his party members and backers happy.

It beggars belief that people would actually support someone who is openly talking about how he is going to get the public finances back in order, although it is understandable given the false narratives about how the government spends.

Clearly, his ‘Eat out to Help out’ discount has clouded some people’s views, and the collective memory banks seem to be rather short, in some cases, on the lived consequences of austerity and public policy. The cuts to public sector services, social security and infrastructure, along with employment policies that have kept wages low and people living precariously, have been so damaging to the economy, and the lives of working people and their families.

Never mind the fact that poverty is rife and growing, people are hungry and homeless, that our public and social infrastructure is in a state of decay as a result of 10 years of government spending decisions and policies. Austerity. Sawing one’s legs off in one easy action. So, why not have some more? And that is without factoring in the urgency of addressing climate change, which was so clearly laid out on Monday. It is astonishing that some advocate a ‘return’ (did it ever go away?) to less state intervention, to market ideology and more growth, when clearly it has been very damaging to growing numbers of citizens and to the planet, whilst enriching a few others beyond belief.

In good times and bad, it is only the government that has the capacity to spend and legislate for change within the context of available resources, but whilst Rishi Sunak continues to promote fiscal discipline and getting the public finances on a ‘sound footing’, we are wasting valuable time. And it would seem that the mantra of ‘business as usual’ prevails both in spending policies and ideology, to the delight of business advertising and public relations executives, busily working out their greenwashing agendas.

We should stop asking where the financing will come from and ask the important questions about national priorities instead. As Professor Stephanie Kelton, author of The Deficit Myth puts it:

‘Are these things worth doing and do we have the real resources—the people, the equipment, the raw materials, and the technology—to do them? Will they make society better off, and do we have the political will to act?’

 As an editorial in the Guardian noted this week:

 ‘The state is, clearly, not powerless against global capital. During Covid it paid for millions of workers without breaking a sweat. Contrary to conventional thinking there was no threat from rising deficits to interest rates. Thatcherism was defined by Nigel Lawson as “increasing freedom for markets to work within a framework of firm monetary and fiscal discipline”. This saw the state put in service of business interests rather than mediating between labour and capital. It also left Britain woefully unprepared, and ill-equipped, for the pandemic. A Thatcherite approach will not produce a fairer distribution of growth. It will militate against support during downturns and plans to “level up” the regions. Ministers ought to outline a new role for the state rather than relying on failed ideas about what the market can do.’

On the one hand, we have those who note the future monetary cost of doing nothing, implying we could make savings on future public spending if we act now, as if governments are monetarily embarrassed, which we know they are not. On the other, Sunak is still counting the Treasury beans and stressing the need for fiscal restraint to determine if we can afford to act. And according to some experts, the Treasury is blocking those green policies vital to the government’s claimed commitment to net-zero emissions. This week, Nicholas Stern, author of a 2006 study into the costs of climate change, reinforced the message that the UK cannot fight the climate crisis with austerity and trying to do so would put the green agenda in jeopardy.

Sunak has contrarily claimed this week that the UK would not see a return to the austerity policies of the last decade, promising to rebuild the economy after the pandemic. Suddenly in step with the incumbent of No.10? Which is it Mr Sunak? Having already cut foreign aid spending, and frozen pay for some public sector workers on the basis of keeping public expenditure down, it will remain to be seen whether it’s just more electoral rhetoric of the Johnson kind, which will be abandoned when it suits, remembering he has to keep Conservative voters and backers happy. But it’s true to say he can’t have it both ways. Government spending for the public purpose and austerity are mutually exclusive propositions. We should perhaps, therefore, ask a different question. Who would be the beneficiary of the public purse? The last year should give us an indication. The Corporations.

At the same time, those very same actors continue to talk in terms of the risk to economic growth if we fail to act, with little reference to the threat to the planet and human existence as we know it, or the idea that we can have unrestrained growth and call it green.

If we want any sort of future for our children, the cost of counting beans instead of planetary health will be huge. Continuing to promote the message that with green growth we can have it all, is equally to wilfully misunderstand the vastness of the challenge we face, in terms of real resources and addressing the already high costs of an economic system which is based on the exploitation of human beings.

Climate action may be a bargain, but not a monetary one in terms of future fiscal savings. It is a bargain in terms of human existence and planetary well-being. We can talk glowingly about creating a green economy, but until the government sets out detailed policy proposals, having already been widely criticised in many quarters for its failure to do so, real change will not happen.

Such action must form part of a holistic strategy, directed by central government and flowing down to our communities and every aspect of our lives. It must take account of the lives of working people and the vast inequalities that have arisen over decades and will continue to rise if we do nothing. It must provide appropriate regulation and finance, as only the currency-issuing capacity of government can do, to ensure the innovation that could undoubtedly be unlocked by a government committed to change.

Despite Alok Sharma’s warnings prior to the publication of the IPCC report, the reality is that so far little commitment has been made, and the political will to act is shallow. We are scarcely off the starting blocks in terms of the action that needs to happen. A revolution in the way we live. That revolution must start with the basics of how governments spend.

 

 

 

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The cost of Covid-19 is no reason to put off tackling inequality and climate change

Money next to piggy bank wearing surgical maskPhoto by Konstantin Evdokimov on Unsplash

“Emperor Nero, it’s said, fiddled while Rome burned. If you don’t want our politicians to continue to follow his example while the world burns, get politically active now.”

Thom Hartmann – Counter Punch

 

We live in a world of contradictions.

Every day we see warnings about human-induced climate change and its effects on the planet in terms of floods and droughts which is, in turn, impacting on global food production. From the US to Canada, South America, Australia, Asia, and Europe no continent has remained untouched.

In 2019, as reported in the Guardian, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries declared that the world was facing a climate emergency. William Ripple, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University said that ‘despite 40 years of major global negotiations we have continued to conduct business as usual and have failed to address the crisis’.

Two years on, the research team that issued the declaration has warned that ‘there has been an unprecedented surge in climate-related disasters including record-shattering heatwaves, wildfires, hurricanes and devastating cyclones’, and that ‘earth’s vital signs are still deteriorating’.

This week, new research shows a further dangerous slowing of the Gulf Stream. In 2019, currents were at their slowest for at least 1600 years, but a new analysis suggests they may be nearing shutdown, even though precisely when that might happen is still in question. Regardless, we have no time to lose. The Guardian article noted that such an event ‘would have catastrophic consequences around the world, severely disrupting monsoons that billions of people depend on for food in India, South America and West Africa; increasing storms and lowering temperatures in Europe; and pushing up the sea level in the eastern US. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.’

Not insignificant consequences, more life-threatening ones.

Niklas Boers, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany who did the research, commented that ‘The signs of destabilisation being visible already is something that I wouldn’t have expected and that I find scary. And, according to the same 2019 analysis, the planet ‘may have already crossed a series of tipping points’ which will result in ‘an existential threat to civilisation.’

Peter Kalmus, a Climate Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and one of a panel of experts asked by the Guardian about when we need to start changing our economies and ways of consuming and producing said: ‘We have zero years before climate and ecological breakdown, because it’s already here. We have zero years left to procrastinate.’

Globally the signs are not good, and as the recent floods in London and many other climate-induced events elsewhere in the UK have shown, we are not immune. Scientists have said that the UK is singularly unprepared for what is to come, as recent floods have demonstrated. The once-in-a-lifetime events are likely to become ubiquitous features of our climate landscape, and yet we still procrastinate. The government’s recent multi-billion-pound investment in flood prevention is welcome, but it is still failing to deal with the underlying causes of climate change. The unsustainable way we live.

It was surprising therefore that the same Public Accounts Committee that warned earlier this year that the government was not doing enough to prevent damage from flooding, recently said that taxpayers will be left facing significant financial risk for decades to come because of the high levels of government spending on the pandemic.

Once again MPs, with their incomplete knowledge about how the government spends, are claiming that the debt will be a problem. Which then begs the question where do they think the extra cash will come from to deal with the increasingly damaging effects of the climate crisis? If, as they believe, taxpayers are going to be burdened with debt arising from the pandemic?

The contradictions grow daily.

Whilst Rishi Sunak is promising to restore fiscal discipline at the earliest opportunity, the media builds on the narrative that there will be a financial cost to citizens to restore the public accounts to health. While the water pours over our heads. We cannot apparently afford to save ourselves from planetary and human degradation. We must pay back the debt at the cost of human lives.

Surely, at some point, those that govern us will have to acknowledge monetary reality and accept that the real constraints to spending are not fiscal, but real resources and how they are managed to create a sustainable and fairer society.

Contradictions abound wherever you look.

Whilst the Guardian and other media outlets solemnly report regularly on the climate emergency, at the same time they glory, as they did last week, in the expected opening up of the economy to tourism. In this case specifically ‘to unlock more business travel to boost the economy’. We need more growth, but who cares what sort? News of changes to travel restrictions was greeted with a rise in the stock market value of airline companies and demonstrate everything that is wrong about how we determine value. It seems the prospects for a different way of doing things is not so straightforward. The old normal still has its attractions.

In November, the government will be hosting the global climate summit COP26, which is supposedly going to be yet another defining moment of change. Based on previous experience of similar ‘defining moments’ over decades, which promptly got put on the ‘to do’ list and were shelved as soon as everyone went home, why should we believe that this time will be any different?

If it is so important, why are we not grasping the nettle right now? Why are we waiting for another talking shop to tell us what we know today, right now? As has been pointed out in previous MMT Lens, the UK government’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis is lukewarm, known more for its fancy rhetoric than concrete action.

We must not let COP26 become yet another failed opportunity. The time for warnings is over. As Mike Hall, a recent guest on one of GIMMS ‘In Conversation’ events, commenting on social media this week about the slowing of the Gulf Stream, said:

‘This is really shocking. In order to act on, and sustain, any of this, planners and decision makers need to unlearn the mainstream economics drivel they were taught and learn how a monetary economy actually works – something we mostly knew in WWII in building a ‘Mobilisation Economy’. We need to ramp up action now in order to transform all of our major systems by 2050, energy, transportation, industry, agriculture, waste management. We’ll need to eat less meat, farm in ways that store more carbon in the soils, re-forest degraded or abandoned land and restore wetlands.’

But no, instead, the media talks about opening up, creating more unsustainable growth, and unlocking business to boost it, at a time when we should be urgently talking about how we move the global economy towards sustainability, and addressing the huge global wealth inequalities that have kept a destructive economic system in place for decades, creating vast wealth inequity and leading to the on-going decay of our public and social infrastructure.

For over a decade, working people and their families have been at the sharp end of those consequences, which have proved stark, not to mention disturbing, as public money has been shovelled and continues to be shovelled into private profit, whilst at the same time, further austerity in the form of higher taxes or cuts to public spending, is being promoted daily in the media as the solution to paying down the debt’. The message is stuck in a groove that seems inescapable and is preparing us for the next bout of fiscal retrenchment, not because the government needs to pay down the illusory debt, but because it forms part of its neoliberally driven political agenda.

That neoliberal ideology insidiously pervades our belief systems and is destroying us bit by bit. As George Monbiot wrote in an article in 2016

‘We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

 

Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job, it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.

 

Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us.’

The adherence by all political parties to this toxic economic creed, over decades, is responsible for the exploitation of the planet’s resources and has caused huge environmental destruction, it has impoverished people financially and culturally, created huge wealth inequality, left our public and social infrastructure in tatters, and created huge societal divisions to distract us while the political elites continue to serve the insatiable god of unsustainable growth and their own bank accounts. It has divided us and diluted the concept of common cause and cooperation.

As a result, while we are facing an environmental crisis of gigantic, life-threatening proportions, we are now watching the Minister of Hard Decisions in No 11 evaluate options for paying down the non-existent national debt with the media savouring its role in keeping people fearful of the future. What will the Chancellor do? Almost daily that is the question posed. Will he remove the pension triple lock to reduce the pensions bill as if it were a question of monetary affordability, which it is not, or claim that it is a question of intergenerational fairness as if there were a finite pot of money, which there isn’t. Or will he continue with his plan to withdraw the £20 Universal Credit uplift from some of the poorest people in the country? People who were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic.

With this week’s announcement that energy prices will rise, charities are rightly warning that this will hit families very hard at a time when many household budgets are already stretched to the limit.

While the government spews out its rhetoric, our society is in meltdown and our children, who represent the future, are bearing the brunt of government failure. This week it was reported that high levels of deprivation in the north-east of England are driving more and more demand for children’s social care services. A Director of children’s services said that ‘poverty is stark, shameful and obvious. Life chances are blighted. I’ve worked in a number of local authorities all over the country, but I’ve never worked anywhere where poverty is as bad and life chances so poor.

Whilst directors are calling for a radical rethink of how to provide good foster homes for children who need them and recommend the removal or capping of profit-making opportunities in the residential care sector, we should also be looking at the origins of this failure, which is rooted not only in government cuts to spending over a decade, but also the insecure, low wage employment environment which has been promoted for decades and which, in turn, has impacted on the lives of many families.

The pandemic is not over, furlough is ending, and unemployment is predicted to rise as a result. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research said this week that the jobless rate would likely increase from 4.8% to 5.4%. Whilst an upbeat picture is being presented contending that the opening up of the economy will lead to new jobs, nothing is certain if the Chancellor continues along the fiscal retrenchment route. Cutting spending or increasing taxes as the Chancellor suggested earlier this year might be an option, would be, at this time of great challenge and uncertainty, the wrong path to take. As would increasing taxes to pay for social care as No 10 proposed last month or as Zoe Williams from the Guardian put it in an article this week the ‘blindingly obvious way’ would be to fund it with ‘inheritance tax’.

Again, we have politicians and journalists reinforcing the pervasive message that taxes fund spending, without even thinking about the economic consequences of doing so. Whilst they promote boosting the economy, they take away the means for that to happen. Again, contradictions.

Taking money out of people’s pockets when the economy is still emerging from the effects of the pandemic would be not just unwise, but hugely damaging. Adding to the harm already caused by 10 years of spending cuts and public policy decisions which have ravaged our public and social infrastructure, forced people into homelessness and hunger, driven poor wages and employment insecurity with all the associated consequences on people’s health and well-being, would be tantamount to madness. Combine that with the challenges posed by the climate emergency, such a route would be more than disastrous.

Worse, the fact that it is predicated on the lies of monetary scarcity or rising debt, which it is claimed will pose a financial burden on future generations, begs the question, yet again, in whose interests do such lies work? Certainly, not those of working people and their families and friends, nor the planet!

Although much improvement has been made through MMT education networks such as GIMMS and the MMT Podcast, with a nation still largely ignorant of monetary reality, there remains much work to do. At first sight, the mention of economics may be seen as irrelevant to people’s lives, inducing an immediate mental switch off. It is understandable. But once one realises the potential of such an understanding it becomes the art of the possible. Economics is not an arcane subject; it is about us and the impact of government spending and politically driven policies on our lives.  Nobody needs a degree to understand this, and the basics of how the government spends can be described very simply in less than 10 minutes, as the video below shows.

While the right-wing press cries wolf over public debt and urges fiscal retrenchment, those on the progressive left are still, disappointingly, adopting Margaret Thatcher’s narrative about how governments spend. Week in, week out, left-wing groups on social media are awash with memes decrying the Conservative record on deficits and debt. Progressive Labour politicians demand on their pages that the rich are made to pay their tax so that public services can be funded, when, instead, they should talk about taxing the rich to address wealth and real resource inequalities to remove some of their purchasing power and the political influence their wealth wields. That is just as powerful a message and stops dead the incorrect narrative that taxes fund spending. As Warren Mosler says, it’s all a question of sequence and progressive politicians need to understand that governments like the UK’s spend to tax not tax to spend, and whilst they also indulge in the illusion of borrowing, they can’t do that either until they have spent the money into existence. It’s simple when you know.

Instead of calling out the Tories on their economic record, those on the left allow themselves to be side-tracked by such memes which do more damage than good and reinforce in the minds of their readers the idea that the public finances are like their own household budgets. Instead of worrying about the size of the National Debt they could, instead and more productively, focus more on critiquing the economic policies which have, for more than a decade, created huge poverty and inequality, created vast disparities in wealth and destroyed our public infrastructure, whilst at the same time benefitting global corporations and those politicians that serve them through the revolving door.

At election time, the household budget narrative is used by politicians of all shades to discredit each other’s records on deficit and debt. The note left in the Treasury by the Labour MP Liam Byrne, claiming that there was no money left, is an example of this false narrative and proved a gift to the Conservatives allowing them to justify their austerity agenda.

This is absolutely the wrong measure by which to determine the efficacy or otherwise of a government’s time in power. Such beliefs will ultimately drive us into a destructive cul-de-sac at a time when we need to address the climate emergency and bring about a just transition towards a sustainable world as a matter of urgency.

It matters not who increased deficits or created the most debt – it is a red herring designed to take the public’s eyes off the real ball. What matters are the economic conditions at the time and how the government responded. What did they do or not do to ensure the economy could function effectively both in good times and bad? Who benefited and who did not?

Currently, as Frances Ryan, the journalist and disability campaigner, wrote in the Guardian this week:

‘The gap between reality and Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” rhetoric could hardly be starker. It is only concrete action that can lead us down a different path: on housing, disability, insecurity at work, and the gaping holes in our welfare state. A government that leaves millions of the public unable to even eat or wash has, by any definition, failed. Poverty is indeed a mark of shame – but one solely on ministers’ shoulders.’

It is interesting to note this week that Steve Baker, who is the Conservative MP for Wycombe in the traditionally conservative home counties, has urged ministers to abandon its plans to cut universal credit, remarking on the ‘intolerable’ hunger and poverty faced by many of his constituents.

These are the direct consequences of a decade and more of spending decisions and public policy.

Last week, it was astonishing to learn that the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary Priti Patel were proposing a new crime-fighting strategy consisting of ‘chain gangs’ of offenders dressed in such a way as to draw public attention to who was litter picking. Will they be calling for a return of the stocks next or public shaming? Apart from the vile nature of their proposals, reminiscent of Victorian ideals and Dickens novels, it is symptomatic of their singular neoliberal belief in the value of personal responsibility which, at the same time, ignores the role of government in creating an economic environment that strips people of the means by which they can live with dignity and sufficiency and is conducive to an increase in crime.

James Timpson from the UK shoe repair chain was critical of the proposals and tweeted in response:

‘Instead of making offenders wear high viz jackets in chain gangs, how about helping them get a real job instead? In my shops we employ lots of ex-offenders and they wear a shirt and tie. Same people, different approach, a much better outcome.’

Why not go one step further and introduce a properly funded Job Guarantee so that no one faces the indignity of involuntary unemployment? It would provide useful community-based work at a living wage, give people employment and training opportunities when they need them and allow them to make their contribution to society and the economy. It would, at the same time, also promote a sense of self-worth and improve their chances of transitioning into private sector work when the opportunity arises.

Over the past year, we have learned the value of real resources, in this case, the people who do the jobs and keep the economy functioning and productive. Leaving people to flounder, without good work or wages, is detrimental to those affected and detrimental to the economy. These are the people who should be paid decent wages and benefit from good terms and conditions, not be at the mercy of employers exploiting their labour for more profit. A Job Guarantee sets the price for labour and ensures that working people don’t have to work for peanuts or precariously.

This is a time for radical action. Not just to deal with the pressing and urgent climate crisis by rethinking how we live our lives, but also to deal with the vast global inequities of wealth and resources that have arisen over many decades as a result of the exploitation of both people and the finite resources that sustain our western lifestyles.

Time to think the unthinkable! Time to start thinking MMT.

 

 

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The post The cost of Covid-19 is no reason to put off tackling inequality and climate change appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.

Print & Inflate – Now Tax The Poor Some More

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/08/2021 - 3:02pm in

Weird economics Over recent decades Western societies have witnessed arguably the greatest monetary experiment of all-time presided over by central bankers committed to neoclassical economics. What Frank Shostak terms “weird economics”, is predicated on an ignorance of the key factor that underpins inflation, namely increases in the money supply. Shostak says that because inflation has […]

The post Print & Inflate – Now Tax The Poor Some More appeared first on Renegade Inc.

Book Review: A Feminist Reading of Debt by Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 02/08/2021 - 8:40pm in

In A Feminist Reading of DebtLucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago offer a feminist understanding of debt that explores its impact on women and the LGBTQ+ community and examines the relationship between debt and social reproduction, set within the context of the Argentinian feminist movement and wider activist resistance in Latin America. This book is of great value to those interested in the financialisation of everyday life and social reproduction and essential reading for those studying and involved in building feminist movements in Latin America and beyond, writes Gabriela Neves de Lima.

A Feminist Reading of Debt. Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago (trans. by Liz Mason-Deese). Pluto Press. 2021.

In A Feminist Reading of Debt, Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago join the burgeoning scholarship theorising the interconnection between neoliberalism and neoconservatism by focusing on the relations, (im)mobility and mobilisations engendered by debt. This literature sheds light on the neoliberal project of shoring up the traditional family – and related gender and racial hierarchies – to pick up the pieces of dismantled social states. This entails a relocation of debt from the state to households, with the latter increasingly relying on credit in order to obtain the goods and services necessary for their reproduction. Cavallero and Gago offer a multidimensional analysis of this process of financial expropriation based primarily on the political and economic specificities of the Argentinian context and the struggles led by the feminist movement there over the past five years.

This book reminded me of Barbara Sutton’s Bodies in Crisis, a thoughtful account of the embodied implications of the 2001 economic crisis and the importance of bodies to democratic politics in Argentina. However, its most obvious theoretical and methodological inspiration seems to be Judith Butler’s Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly. As the authors remark, it is when bodies are assembled and alliances developed that debt becomes visible as a common concern, in spite of the fact that finance builds on and reproduces gendered forms of inequality and difference. It is also where links between intimacy and national economic policies inscribed in global power structures are traced.

Whereas debt becomes a means to manage crises by producing obedient subjects and channelling conflict inwards (that is, towards homes and territories), those participating in the feminist strikes taking place since 2016 use their embodied knowledge and lived experiences to politicise and resist it. These connections are synthesised in political slogans such as: ‘we want to be alive and debt-free.’ The right to life – a key demand of feminist movements against gender violence – is thought in conjunction with liberation from debt as a key dimension of economic violence. The statement adopted in 2020 inverts the relation of debt and reframes the very idea of indebtedness; it is to women, lesbians, trans people and travestis that debt is owed. Here it is important to highlight that these political slogans serve both a pedagogical and productive function: they provide a greater understanding of the world and encourage revolutionary desires.

Image Credit: Crop of Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Cavallero and Gago’s critique is nuanced, however, noting that debt can both tie down and enable movement. Going into debt may result from a desire to inhabit a future that is better than the present. In the case of women, lesbians, trans people and travestis, this can mean fleeing abusive homes and searching for greater economic independence among other reasons. As such, their critique is directed towards the extractive character of finance and the future-oriented mechanism of debt in facilitating exploitation and accommodation to greater precarity, not towards subjects who wish to live otherwise. The authors also point to the contradictory ways in which women’s social networks may be instrumentalised by banks and credit agencies as a sort of collateral to ensure the repayment of debt, but may also foster mutual aid practices such as pasanaku (a rotating credit circle), allowing them to avoid higher interest rates or make purchases without going into debt altogether.

Beyond its theoretical and methodological contributions, some of which have been outlined above, this book is an important document in itself, as part of the political imaginary of the contemporary feminist movement in Argentina. We can understand the political process of the feminist strike as generative of new vocabularies, ideas and actions. At the same time that the authors are inserted in academic institutions – Cavallero is a researcher at the Universidad de Buenos Aires where Gago teaches Political Science in addition to her position as Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín – they are feminist activists in the Ni Una Menos Collective. They write from within the movement, and as such, their work represents a situated mode of thinking and militant theorising. Many sections within the book’s main chapter are titled after feminist political slogans, or in direct reference to events with implications for women, lesbians, trans people and travestis in Argentina.

The multiplicity of voices, dialogic action and cognitive mapping involved in this feminist reading of debt is most clearly exemplified in the book through the inclusion of interviews with relevant activist organisations in Argentina and Brazil (54-80). The book also contains two manifestos published in 2017 by feminist collectives (81-83). Further, the authors note that the original book (published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in 2019) was discussed in a variety of educational, feminist, community-based and other organising spaces, leading to new considerations that were added to the English version. New feminist struggles against debt in Argentina and other parts of Latin America also inspired new sections.

A welcome addition is the brief but incisive consideration of the financialisation of housing and urban development. The feminist assembly of Villa 31 (a well-located informal settlement) has uncovered how the existing housing policy that prioritises subsidised home ownership dispossesses residents through financial inclusion. While formerly inhabited land is released to the market, the new homes come with monthly expenses (payments for loans and services) and potential income decline (as housing units do not afford adequate workspace), which can quickly lead to increased indebtedness, payment arrears and eviction. Further, the titling policy reinforces the cis-heteronormative family.

The vast array of topics covered rather succinctly and the way in which the book is organised make it difficult for readers to follow at times. Nonetheless, this appears to partly reflect the dynamism and openness of a thought developed through social movement, as well as the sense of urgency in updating and circulating ideas for visualising the operations of debt and challenging them, something which is commendable. As the translator, Liz Mason-Deese, states, the translation is part of an effort to expand the reach of concepts, generate further debates, incite action and help strengthen the internationalism of the feminist movement. It is worth noting that Gago’s Feminist International offers a greater contextualisation of the feminist movement in Argentina and develops many of the concepts used in A Feminist Reading of Debt.

A Feminist Reading of Debt is of great value to those studying and/or involved in building feminisms in Latin America and elsewhere. It is essential reading for students and scholars conducting research on the recent feminist movement in Argentina. Those interested in the financialisation of everyday life and social reproduction, regardless of disciplinary background and regional focus, will also find Cavallero and Gago’s work particularly insightful.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

 


Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 27/07/2021 - 5:56am in

Andrew F. Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, and Wilbert van der Klaauw

Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit

In our first post in this series we showed that mortgage provisions under the CARES ACT and its subsequent extensions resulted in a rapid take-up of mortgage forbearances, under which borrowers had the option to pause or reduce debt service payments without inducing a delinquency notation on their credit reports. Here we examine the forbearance take-up rate of a group of mortgage borrowers we expect to have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic recession: small business owners. Relatively little is known about how small business owners have fared over the past year in terms of their personal finances. Were they able to continue making mortgage payments on their homes? Did they draw on home equity to help fund their business operations?

A Unique Data Set

To examine these questions, we draw on a unique merger between individual-level data from the New York Fed’s Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) and business owner identifiers derived from a random anonymous sample of businesses drawn from Equifax’s Commercial database. The latter is a comprehensive database of all active businesses operating in the United States. To identify business owners, we draw on information reported as part of a business’s Secretary of State filing. More specifically, we identify as business owners those individual(s) listed as owner or principal under “business contacts” in Secretary of State filings in 2019 or later. In approximately 60 percent of these filings the owners can be matched with characteristics of their firms, such as industry or firm size.

Forbearance Take-up and Performance among Small Business Owners

We have described the general trends on forbearances in the first and second posts in this series: By May 2020 some 7 percent of mortgage accounts were in forbearance, after which the share declined gradually to 4.2 percent in March 2021. Borrowers living in the lowest-income zip codes (with average income belonging to the bottom 25 percent) had a take-up rate that peaked at around 10 percent in May, considerably higher than the 7 percent rate for those in zip codes with average incomes in the top 25 percent. In contrast, given their much higher homeownership rates and outstanding mortgage balances, the cash flow relief obtained through forbearance was considerably higher for those in higher-income areas.

But business owners differ from the general population of mortgagors in some important ways. It is important to consider how this group of borrowers compares to mortgagors overall before describing mortgage forbearance take-up by business owners. Consistent with other findings from the New York Fed, we find that business owners generally tend to be somewhat older, have higher credit scores, and are more likely to have credit products of all types (excluding student loans). They also have higher balances on their accounts, on average, and are more likely to live in higher-income areas. For example, some 39 percent of business owners in our matched sample reside in the wealthiest areas with the highest average incomes in their zip codes (based on 2017 IRS data).

We next turn to forbearance take-up among mortgage borrowers, and in the chart below, we compare the rates for those identified as business owners as well as for mortgagors overall. We find a considerably higher take-up rate among business owners, reaching 11 percent in May, after which the share exiting forbearance began to outweigh the share entering, with the rate gradually declining to about 5 percent in March 2021. Overall, 17 percent of small business owners with personal mortgages participated in a forbearance program at some point since February 2020.


Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit

Data on business closures and consumer spending indicate that some segments of the economy, and in particular the services sector, were more severely affected by the pandemic. The chart below shows these hardships clearly reflected on business owner’s credit reports, with business owners in harder-hit industries having much higher forbearance rates on their mortgages. Note that these firmographic descriptions are based on a somewhat smaller sample for which we have industry codes, so they may not be generalizable to the full population of firms. Nonetheless, the results are consistent with spending and employment data, with some 23 percent of business owners in the hard hit accommodation and food services, and transport and warehousing sectors entering forbearance on their mortgage at some point over the past year, while fewer than 10 percent did so in agriculture. We also examined how the forbearance take-up rate varied with firm size. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, we found relatively little variation.


Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit

Personal Credit Use and Performance

In addition to a high mortgage forbearance take-up rate, business owners were more likely to borrow against their home equity after the onset of the pandemic. First, small business owners are more likely to have a HELOC and also on average carry larger HELOC balances. In the chart below showing HELOC balance changes relative to their February 2020 levels, we find that the average HELOC balances of small business owners had jumped up 3.4 percent between February and May 2020, while those of overall individuals declined 0.6 percent over the same period. The increase seen among business owners is remarkable considering that overall HELOC balances have seen steady quarterly declines for many years and has not seen such substantial growth in a three-month period since the Great Recession. This gap persisted over time, with the general population out-pacing business owners in HELOC paydown by about 4 percentage points through March of 2021.


Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit

In the final chart below, we show non-mortgage delinquency rates among forbearance participants for both business owners and the general population. We showed the blue line earlier in this series—the non-mortgage delinquency rate for forbearance participants has crept up in the general population. But for business owners, the delinquency rate has remained relatively flat after a brief uptick in July.


Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit

Summary

We find evidence consistent with disproportionate financial hardship experienced by business owners. Although the CARES Act provisions were intended to target households, these household-supporting provisions also provided relief for troubled small business owners through the personal credit channel, complementing better known means of small business support like PPP and other business lending programs. Small business owners were more likely to enter forbearance on their personal mortgage, a difference especially pronounced in harder hit industries. Business owners were also more likely to borrow against their home equity during the first phase of the pandemic. These coping strategies have likely helped businesses preserve cash flow and avoid delinquency and bankruptcy for their business and themselves personally. Whether these forbearances are simply forestalling future trouble for strained business owners, or if the post-pandemic economy will support the owners to catch up the lost months remains to be seen.

Andrew F. HaughwoutAndrew F. Haughwout is a senior vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

Donghoon LeeDonghoon Lee is an officer in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

Joelle ScallyJoelle Scally is a senior data strategist in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

Wilbert van der KlaauwWilbert van der Klaauw is an senior vice president in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

How to cite this post:

Andrew F. Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, and Wilbert van der Klaauw, “Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Liberty Street Economics, May, 19, 2021, https://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2021/05/small-business-own....

Additional Posts in This Series

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?

What’s Next for Forborne Borrowers?

Related Reading
Economic Inequality: A Research Series

Press Briefing

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the authors.

What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 27/07/2021 - 5:56am in

Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, and Wilbert van der Klaauw

What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?

As we discussed in our previous post, millions of mortgage borrowers have entered forbearance since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 2 million remain in a program as of March 2021. In this post, we use our Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) data to examine borrower behavior while in forbearance. The credit bureau data are ideal for this purpose because they allow us to follow borrowers over time, and to connect developments on the mortgage with those on other credit products. We find that forbearance results in reduced mortgage delinquencies and is associated with increased paydown of other debts, suggesting that these programs have significantly improved the financial positions of the borrowers who received them.

Forbearance and Mortgage Delinquency

Since March 2020, we have observed more than 6.1 million mortgagors enter forbearance. As noted in our previous post, these forbearance participants were much more likely to be delinquent prior to the pandemic than the general population of mortgagors. One of the benefits of forbearance for these previously delinquent borrowers is that commencement of forbearance is often coincident with a “cure”: a change in mortgage status to “current.” That is, for many borrowers, mortgage delinquencies are wiped away as the borrower enters forbearance, at least temporarily. (These status changes come without evidence of payment, supporting the conclusion that the cure is the result of an administrative change rather than a true cure. Mortgage servicer reports to investors, as opposed to credit bureaus, show these loans as delinquent. Importantly, however, these investor reports do not affect borrower credit histories.)

The first chart below shows the credit bureau reporting of mortgage status for those that entered forbearance by May 2020. Around 8 percent of the mortgages were already delinquent before entering forbearance. A great majority of those accounts that were previously delinquent are reported as “current” while in forbearance, some of them by making payments and some without one. A minority—about 30 percent of the previously delinquent accounts—retain this delinquent status throughout the period. These varying treatments upon entry into forbearance seem to depend on servicer practices. As such, current foreclosure data and delinquency statistics drawn from credit bureau data do not accurately give a clear indication of housing market stresses.


What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?

At the same time, neither does the rate of forbearance itself. Why? Because a large share of mortgagors in forbearance actually continue to make their monthly mortgage payments. Indeed, the share of borrowers who continue to make payments while in forbearance is surprisingly high: in each month since June 2020, between 30 and 40 percent of the borrowers in forbearance have made their monthly payment.

This behavior suggests that some borrowers have taken advantage of the forbearance program and skipped payments while others have applied for forbearance as an “insurance policy” against which they are not making claims, and they are reducing their balances each month as originally anticipated in the mortgage contract.

But for the 60-70 percent of forbearance borrowers who are not making payments, mortgage balances aren’t falling. In 2019, mortgagors paid off approximately 4 percent of mortgage balances by making their regular payments. By contrast, borrowers in forbearance have seen their balances increase by 1-2 percent over the course of the last year as the automatic amortization that comes from making the mortgage payment has been largely absent and the interest component of the skipped payment is added back to the balance as well. As of March 2021, among the 5 million borrowers who have taken forbearance for at least one month since the pandemic and haven’t prepaid, about 26 percent have a higher mortgage balance than a year earlier.

Mortgage Forbearance and Performance on Other Household Debts

We can also use the CCP to examine the relationship between mortgage forbearance and performance on a borrower’s non-housing debts. Doing so, though, requires a slightly longer timeframe. In the chart below, we show that non-mortgage delinquency (which reflects delinquency on auto, credit card, and miscellaneous consumer debt) was persistently higher among those who had at least one month of forbearance since March 2020; indeed, prior to the pandemic this was a group of borrowers whose delinquency rates had not only been high, they had also been on the rise. (We keep student debt out of consideration here since the vast majority of student debt has been in automatic forbearance since the early weeks of the pandemic.) Immediately after March 2020, delinquency on non-housing debts leveled off briefly, but then began increasing again and stood at 5.8 percent in March 2021, a full percentage point higher than it had been one year before. In contrast, delinquency rates for those not in mortgage forbearance were roughly flat during the year ending in March 2021, at about 2 percent.

Thus we have a glass half empty/half full situation: these are clearly distressed borrowers, and mortgage forbearance provided assistance that may well have allowed them to keep their homes. Nonetheless, these borrowers were already struggling with debt repayment prior to the pandemic, and forbearance has not allowed them to close the delinquency gap with other mortgagors; instead that gap has persisted in spite of forbearance.


What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?

A second dimension of performance, and one that is perhaps especially interesting during the pandemic environment of reduced consumption opportunities, is debt balance paydown. We’ve noted in the past that aggregate credit card balances fell a lot in 2020, and ended the year more than $100 billion below their December 2019 level. This is the largest annual decline in credit card balances for at least two decades, and it continued into the first part of 2021. The accumulation of savings by U.S. households during the pandemic was surely a key factor in this paydown of costly credit card balances. Did mortgage forbearance play a role for those households that received it?

In the next chart, we provide some evidence for that proposition. The chart shows the relative credit card balances for mortgagors who had a forbearance after March 2020 (red) and those who never did (blue). Card balances declined for both groups, but somewhat more steadily for borrowers with forbearances: by March 2021, they had reduced their credit card balances to 23 percent below their March 2020 level. This compares with a 15 percent decline for mortgagors without a forbearance. The dollar amount of credit card paydown is even higher for those with forbearance, since their initial average amount of credit card debt as of March 2020 was significantly higher at $9,000 compared to $6,000 for those without forbearance. As a result, a typical household in mortgage forbearance has reduced its credit card debt by $2,100 over the last year, compared to $900 for a mortgagor not in forbearance.


What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?

The ability to reduce credit card obligations over the past year has not been equal across different types of mortgage borrowers in forbearance. The next chart shows that the balance decline for neighborhoods outside of the top income quartile has now reached 20 percent below the March 2020 level. In the highest income neighborhoods, which benefited from the largest share of mortgage relief as shown in the previous blog post, credit card balances have fallen more: 30 percent as of March.


What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?

Conclusion

Our brief review of what happens to borrowers when they’re in forbearance produces some interesting conclusions. First, many previously delinquent borrowers are marked “current” as they enter forbearance, even if they don’t make a payment. As a consequence, credit bureau measures of mortgage delinquency must be viewed cautiously in a period of widespread forbearance. Second, a substantial share, around 30-40 percent, of borrowers who get forbearance nonetheless continue to make payments. This will have implications for our expectations for how delinquency measures will change when forbearance ends. Finally, mortgagors in forbearance have been able to pay down their credit cards faster than those not in forbearance, especially in higher income areas. In our next post, we will shift our focus to a group of mortgage borrowers who stand out from the crowd for a different reason: they own a small business.

Andrew F. HaughwoutAndrew F. Haughwout is a senior vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

Donghoon LeeDonghoon Lee is an officer in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

Joelle ScallyJoelle Scally is a senior data strategist in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

Wilbert van der KlaauwWilbert van der Klaauw is a senior vice president in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

How to cite this post:

Andrew Haughwout, “What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Liberty Street Economics, May 19, 2021, https://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2021/05/what-happens-durin....

Additional Posts in This Series

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit

What’s Next for Forborne Borrowers?

Related Reading
Economic Inequality: A Research Series

Press Briefing

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the authors.

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 27/07/2021 - 5:56am in

Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, and Wilbert van der Klaauw

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

Federal government actions in response to the pandemic have taken many forms. One set of policies is intended to reduce the risk that the pandemic will result in a housing market crash and a wave of foreclosures like the one that accompanied the Great Financial Crisis. An important and novel tool employed as part of these policies is mortgage forbearance, which provides borrowers the option to pause or reduce debt service payments during periods of hardship, without marking the loan delinquent on the borrower’s credit report. Widespread take-up of forbearance over the past year has significantly changed the housing finance system in the United States, in different ways for different borrowers. This post is the first of four focusing attention on the effects of mortgage forbearance and the outlook for the mortgage market. Here we use data from the New York Fed’s Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) to examine the effects of these changes on households during the pandemic.

Background: Who Qualifies for COVID-19 Mortgage Forbearance?

Initially, under the CARES Act, borrowers with federally backed mortgages could request up to twelve months of forbearance, made up of two 180-day periods, if they experienced financial hardship because of COVID-19. Several agencies have subsequently granted extensions. Specifically, borrowers with mortgages backed by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can request up to two additional three-month extensions (for a maximum of eighteen months of total forbearance) if they were in an active forbearance plan as of February 28, 2021, while borrowers with mortgages backed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development/Federal Housing Administration (HUD/FHA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), or the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can enroll in forbearance until June 30, 2021, and receive up to eighteen months of total forbearance. At the same time, the CARES Act (section 4013) eased the accounting treatment of pandemic-related modifications for loans in bank portfolios, and the federal banking agencies released guidance to that effect in early April 2020.

How Does Forbearance Work?

Widespread forbearance is a new policy, although similar programs have previously been rolled out on a smaller scale in the wake of natural disasters. Typically, the missed payments will be added to the end of the loan; for a borrower in the first year of a thirty-year mortgage, a forbearance thus amounts to a twenty-nine-year interest-free loan of the forborne amount. These forbearances are safe loans in part because they are incentive-compatible: in order to preserve their housing equity, borrowers must resume payments when they are able. (Note that renters, with no equity in their property, do not have strong incentives to pay back forborne rent payments, making the provision of relief to renters more difficult than to owners.)

Who Entered Forbearance?

As we reported back in November, large numbers of mortgage forbearances began to appear on credit reports in April 2020, and by May 2020, 7 percent of mortgage accounts were in forbearance. By June, however, exits from forbearance began to outweigh entries, and the number of mortgages in forbearance began a slow decline. The following chart shows that by March 2021, the overall forbearance rate had fallen to 4.2 percent, accompanied by reductions in both entries and exits, suggesting a relatively stable group of borrowers in forbearance for a relatively long period of time. In fact, of the 2.2 million mortgages still in forbearance in March 2021, 1.2 million entered forbearance in June 2020 or earlier. (In March, the inflows into forbearance are likely affected by additional payment relief offered in Texas as a response to the effects of the winter storm there.)

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

These dynamics—a sharp rise in April and May, followed by a slow decline through the summer and fall—are common across most types of mortgages, but FHA borrowers were considerably more likely to take up mortgage forbearance initially, and have remained in the program longer. As of March 2021, more than 11 percent of FHA borrowers remain in forbearance, as shown below.

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

What accounts for the higher forbearance rates for FHA borrowers? FHA borrowers are much more likely to be first-time home buyers and to live in lower-income areas. About 41 percent of FHA borrowers live in neighborhoods with average annual household income below $50,000, compared to 22 percent for GSE borrowers.

With this context, it’s perhaps not surprising to find that forbearance rates rose most, and were most persistent, in lower average income zip codes. As shown in the next chart, forbearance rates in the poorest quartile of zip codes approached 10 percent in May and June 2020 and remain above 5.5 percent at the end of March 2021.

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

The likelihood of forbearance falls steadily as borrower credit score (measured at the date of mortgage origination) rises, and it is far higher for loans that were delinquent in March 2020; see the next chart. Indeed, forbearance rates remain near 40 percent for borrowers who were delinquent on their mortgages pre-pandemic. The higher rates of mortgage forbearance in poorer areas and among FHA borrowers is consistent with the uneven impact that COVID-19 and the accompanying recession have had on different segments of the population. Mortgage forbearance has been an important policy tool to mitigate the impact of these challenges faced by less-advantaged households.

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

Since housing costs are typically one of the largest household expenses, it isn’t surprising that mortgage forbearance offers very substantial cash flow relief to the households that take it up. The table below provides details on the payment relief that different forbearance participants received. (As we show in a companion post, being enrolled in forbearance isn’t quite the same as receiving cash flow relief.) We estimate this relief using the average payment that was due prior to enrolling in forbearance for those who were enrolled in forbearance as of March 2021. (These figures have been very stable since March 2020, so we don’t show the changes over time here.)

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

As the table shows, the average monthly cash flow relief associated with a mortgage forbearance is somewhat different across different mortgage types and grows sharply as neighborhood income rises. Indeed, aggregate cumulative payments skipped by borrowers from the poorest 25 percent of neighborhoods are about 38 percent of those skipped in top-quartile neighborhoods.

All told, in absolute dollar terms, mortgage forbearance has brought the most benefit to the highest-income areas. This is due to a combination of high homeownership and relatively expensive mortgage payments in these areas, which more than offsets the considerably higher incidence of forbearance in lower-income areas. Still, the high rates of forbearance take-up on FHA loans and in poorer zip codes makes clear that these programs have been an important lifeline to less-advantaged households.

Conclusion

We find that mortgage forbearance has been an important policy tool to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and has become a fairly common phenomenon since it became widely available last year. After an initial rapid rise to over 7 percent, the share of mortgages in forbearance has slowly declined and stood at just over 4 percent in late March 2021. Forbearance has been more common for FHA borrowers and mortgagors from poorer neighborhoods, as well as those who were already delinquent in March 2020. In a separate post, we look at how being in forbearance affects borrowers, and continue to look at the distribution of those effects.

Andrew F. HaughwoutAndrew F. Haughwout is a senior vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

Donghoon LeeDonghoon Lee is an officer in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

Joelle ScallyJoelle Scally is a senior data strategist in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

Wilbert van der KlaauwWilbert van der Klaauw is a senior vice president in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

How to cite this post:

Andrew F. Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, and Wilbert van der Klaauw, “Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Liberty Street Economics, May 19, 2021, https://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2021/05/keeping-borrowers-....

Additional Posts in This Series

What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?

Small Business Owners Turn to Personal Credit

What’s Next for Forborne Borrowers?

Related Reading
Economic Inequality: A Research Series

Press Briefing

Keeping Borrowers Current in a Pandemic

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the authors.

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