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Thursday, 6 July 2017

What Comes Next, After North Sea Oil?

Mrs Thatcher's government's economic and social policies were made viable only by the fact that her era coincided with the United Kingdom being able to exploit the oil and gas reserves that had been found under the North Sea over the previous couple of decades. The tax revenues derived from those resources largely funded the welfare state, enabled the government to give redundancy pay and early pensions to unwanted employees from the nationalised industries, and maintained the nation's defences. The material fact of having sufficient gas to meet the national need, and a significant oil supply that diminished the need for imports, enabled the country to shut down the coal industry almost completely. 

Those were the material conditions in which the financial revolution of 1986 was facilitated: and the financial services [with their related activities like the courts and arbitration services] were opened to the international community and became a significant earner of foreign exchange. The loss of the textile, crockery and steel industries was mitigated by the sale of financial and related service globally. In particular, Britain's membership of the European Economic Community as it went through the transition to the European Union enabled London to become the unchallenged financial hub of the Union. It will be interesting to see how far President Macron, as an ex-banker, is able to steal business for Paris in the coming years; but that will be a side-show compared to the issue that is being considered here.

The key fact is that material assets - oil and gas - enabled the immaterial activities of 'the City' to become established as major export markets. Simultaneously, the incomprehension of successive governments as to what was happening in the domestic financial services market was building up to the crash that almost brought down the entire economy in 2007-8. New forms of contract, most particularly securitisation, enabled the domestic financial sector to grow in an unprecedented ways to an extent that was way beyond the regulators' power to comprehend or to control it. Securitisation was developed simultaneously in the USA and the UK, as a means whereby borrowing by some firms and most individuals could be lifted off the books of the banks and building societies that made the original loans, and sold on as new forms of security to suddenly emerging 'wholesale' traders and investors. This meant that the retail banks reduced the amount of lending in their books, and could lend more again; which loans could then be securitised: and so on. The debts owed to their banks by small and medium-sized firms largely remained with the banks, because they were recognised to be too risky for securitisation. But the mortgages and credit card debts owed by millions of ordinary people were seen as safe debts to be securitised. Thus when the crash came, the banks faced the fact that they had many billions of pounds of debts from smaller companies on their balance sheets, most of which the companies could not settle in the depressed condition after the crash. So the debts were kept on the books, the Bank of England allowed the banks to cash in government bonds in sufficient volume and value to make those books look balanced, and a huge problem for the future in the form of 'zombie' companies was created [and it now seems almost permanent: impossible in the near term to resolve].

Meanwhile the financial institutions collectively have carried on lending pretty freely to house buyers with reliable incomes, fueling a boom in property prices for the sectors of society than can afford to maintain their repayments and causing a major social division between those who can 'buy' homes and those who can not. Juggling money to keep the mortgage market expanding, largely by expanding the money supply through the Bank of England's 'quantitative easing' trick, has maintained the illusion that 'owners' of property are asset-rich: and this has kept the economy buoyant with regularly reported 'growth' of the Gross Domestic Product of the economy. This is all based on a bubble of credit; about which the Bank of England is becoming increasingly concerned.

Meanwhile, the 'real economy' of goods made and imported and exported and consumed has shrunk to a minor proportion of the domestic economy. The country has become import dependent: to a degree that ongoing sales of financial and related services to the rest of the world will not enable he country to pay its way. Departure from the European Union, even if the UK is able to retain its status as the financial hub within the European Economic Area, will make this situation worse.

It is usually condemned as old-fashioned and uncomprehending to stress the overriding importance of the material economy. But the success of Germany as a material-exporting country [of high-value-added products] is the living demonstration of the point. The reckless use of North Sea assets to finance a material standard of living that the country can no longer afford, and to fund a finance sector that has exacerbated the nation's problems, is a horror story which will haunt economic reality for at least a generation to come: and no politicians are preparing to cope with it.

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