Tuesday, 14 June 2016

WARNING! This post contains SPOILERS about what happens after a leave vote

              Or, then again it might not. I say that because nobody actually knows what will happen to the economy if we leave. Nobody can. David Cameron and George Osborne don't. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson don't either. Nor do Economists for Brexit, the IFS, the WTO or The Economist magazine. Neither do I. But given that the economy is one of the main areas of discussion in the EU referendum debate we can't possibly ignore it. So, before you read any further, there is a massive health warning - any projections which are made OR referenced might be completely wrong. This has been part of the issue that has been turning so many people off from this referendum. The repetition that as soon as one side trot out an indisputable fact, the other side dispute it with their own fact.
              So what can we say about the economy and the impact of leave or remain? Well a really good place to start is to understand some basic ideas which are directly relevant to the question at hand. Let's set out then what the EU is (from a purely economic point of view), where it came from (again from an economic point of view) and what are trade deals, tariffs and the regulations that are often discussed by various commentators on both sides. This might take a while and bore the shit out of you - so if you want to go and get a drink now is the time to do it (I'm certainly having one). This is the explanation nobody else will do - because it is incredibly long and boring. But I think worth getting to the end of. One thing I will try NOT to do is to address any claims or counter claims - there is enough of that round already.
               The EU was originally set up very much as a trading block. The underlying theory of many politicians at the time was simple (and actually pretty true) - that most wars, when you get down to it, are really about access to resources. Those resources might be money, land, water, access or a million others. Given that Europe had spent the best part of a thousand plus years at war, then wouldn't it be better to settle disputes over a negotiation table instead of a bayonet? Therefore a "trading block" was set up relating to Coal and Steel - at the time the 2 key resources you needed to fight a war and also the 2 resources you would be likely to fight over. To avoid using an EU reference, you can find all of that information on wikipedia ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_European_Union ). How would that trading block work? Well, they would work together to decide how much to produce, who to sell it to, at what price and what would be the rules for producing it. The last point is really important. They would also allow the countries in the block to sell to each other without "tariffs" - that is the governments wouldn't add costs to goods coming in from the other countries. To make this fair and achievable, what was very important to the countries involved was that the produce was created in the same way. So, same workers rights, same standards of outputs etc. This was so that no individual country could make more profit by undercutting the others unfairly.
               These are the regulations that are often held up by leave as blockers to British dominance of markets. These hated "regulations" that are thrown around as such a terrible thing include measures to ensure that:

  1. What you are buying is actually what you are trying to buy
  2. You are not paying too much for products and services
  3. When you buy something it wont kill or injure you and your family
  4. The people producing goods are not being abused / have employment protections
  5. Producing these goods doesn't damage the environment more than it has to
  6. There is a standard level of quality for goods that you buy
  7. No single organisation or country can run the entire market and abuse a leading market position.
              As a general rule of thumb then, regulations are good for consumers, good for the market, good for workers and costly for businesses, and if it is costly for businesses that increases prices for consumers too. So whenever you hear the term "regulations" - run through that as a checklist and decide if they are things you want or not. Of course part of the problem identified by some on the Leave side is that these regulations attach to all companies whether they trade across Europe of not. I personally quite like the idea of regulations to stop all companies abusing workers and damaging the environment - irrespective of where they trade.
              In very basic economic terms then, the EU has now become a single market where lots of products and services are sold across Europe - with common regulations, but without tariffs being added if they come from within the EU. Tariffs go hand in hand with international trade - so let's look at what they are. Say your country and it's economy is very reliant on the production of "thingies" as an example. You as a government want to make sure that the "thingie" industry is protected. Therefore, what you do is add an import tariff to any "thingies"made overseas being imported - with the aim of making foreign "thingies" more expensive. It is called protectionism. It has existed since the start of international trade. Why wouldn't you do it?
              There are a couple of big problems with protectionism. The first one is quite simple - that protectionism breeds protectionism. Therefore whilst we are trying to protect our engineering industry, France is trying to protect their wine industry. Italy and Germany are trying to protect their car industries. And it goes on, and on, and on. What that means is that we all pay more for our products and services, but also because people don't want to pay higher prices they don't buy, so economies are held back. Secondly, protectionism favours rich countries. After all, if you have more to protect and trade, then you can afford to be tough to other countries with your tariffs ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protectionism ). So as part of a global world we screw other people, our own consumers and ultimately our own economy. Again, as a rule of thumb then, tariffs are bad for consumers, bad for the overall economy but potentially good for individual companies in an economy.
                There are other ways of course as well as tariffs that countries can protect their own industries. Nationalised companies obviously have government support so can (generally) borrow money more cheaply. Or Labour costs can be controlled by government to help companies. Or grants, or a variety of other measures and methods that can be used. For example, the recent furore over the death of Tata Steel in the UK is often blamed on cheap imports of Chinese Steel "flooding the market". There is a huge lack of transparency around why the EU didn't stop this. The arguments (depending on which side you are on) are that the EU rules stopped the UK from intervening to help our steel industry OR the EU tried to block the chinese steel (by increasing tariffs) and the UK government stopped them from doing that. Whilst it is unclear what happened in this instance, the EU rules on this are quite clear - we could have increased tariffs at a European level to counter the protectionist measures of the Chinese. What is worth considering is whether the whole EU standing up to China would have more impact than the UK standing up to them on it's own.
             So, a single market, with common regulations and no tariffs, across a regional trading block, with an end consumer base of 500 million people. That is great because it gives companies (particularly international companies that trade across borders) certainty. Set up in Britain and access that market. Sounds pretty sweet. The main problem raised though is that in order to access that market we have to be (currently) a member of the EU. That in itself comes with a few costs. Firstly, the cost of complying with regulations as discussed above. Secondly, we have to pay to be a member of the EU. This is not a small amount of money, and the budget is set in Europe - we don't decide ourselves how much to pay. After rebate (which we do control) we pay £14 billion a year to the EU.                 That sounds like we might just be better off paying the tariffs in the first place. To put it into perspective - that is out of total UK government expenditure of £772 billion. Our payments to the EU (before looking at what they give us back in other ways) equate to 0.5% of the cost of government ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_spending_in_the_United_Kingdom ). So less than half a penny in every pound paid in tax goes to the EU. Finally, there is a cost of being part of the EU when we try to trade with non-EU countries. Because we are members when we trade with other countries without a trade deal the EU makes us apply tariffs. This is why the EU is currently trying to agree trade deals with a range of countries - Canada, the US, China as examples. However, overall tariffs are coming down across the world - in some cases slowly, but in other cases more quickly.
              There do seem to be some other major costs too economically. One of the obvious key ones is that if you are running a business in the UK then because of the close integration of the markets you are potentially not just competing with the business next door - but also the business in Paris, Madrid and Berlin. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? Well, first of all it means that the businesses in Europe are also competing with you - you can enter and sell to their local customers. Competition should also (according to prevailing economic theory) lead to better prices for consumers and a more efficient market, innovation and better products and services. The impact of this will depend on your business - common sense would suggest it is much easier to sell "knowledge" services over a phone line or internet connection. It might be much harder to sell fresh cream cakes.
            Finally then, there is also the concern over free movement of Labour - one of the central tenets of the European model of tariffs and regulations. Now, I have already written a blog about immigration generally ( http://unexpectedsocialist.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/if-immigration-is-your-answer-someone.html ) and I don't want to revisit a lot of those points. But being part of Europe also requires us to allow workers to seek employment in any other part of the EU without barriers to that. Is this a cost to our economy? At a very basic level it would seem intuitive that having a greater Labour pool would help companies make money. They can drive down wages and salaries by hiring people from lower paid countries to work for them. This could therefore be good for companies (and earn more money for an economy) but bad for employees. It could also transfer funds from wealthier economies to poorer economies - by individuals remitting wages back to their home country. At the same time though, we have more individuals in the country spending their money here, paying taxes here and generally because they are of working age using less public services (remember, we are only talking about working migrants). Unfortunately, I do need to refer to a study here ( http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/brexit05.pdf ) that shows that immigrants have NOT reduced wages for the UK population. It is simply a not true assertion. BUT TAKE THAT WITH A PINCH OF SALT.
           Economically then, what is the EU? Well a single trading block that increased potential customers but also potential rivals. A law making body that creates a lot of regulations that apply to all companies irrespective of whether they trade internationally. A body that tries to reduce protectionism and tariffs for the good of the global economy, not just ours. A bloc that negotiates on our behalf with other large economies that sometimes doesn't get the results that we would want. A larger, more competitive market that companies either thrive in or fail in. And one where the free flow of Labour allows people to work across a different range of countries depending on their skills, abilities and needs. This of course sounds rosy, but then again I am for remaining in. The problem is that whether we vote to stay in or vote to leave we are picking winners and losers. Some businesses will benefit from staying in. Some will benefit from losing. What we have to do is decide is whether getting rid of or replacing the things above will benefit US as individuals / companies AND what will be the impact on the overall economy. 

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