Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Tax Is a Tax Is a Tax

Of course the stock market dropped about 130 points. Twenty new or higher taxes across-the-board are bad for economic growth, bad for job hiring, bad for investors, and bad for families.

A tax is a tax is a tax, according to Judge Roberts. But he forgot to say that if you tax something more, you get less of it.

Presumably Mitt Romney will make this case in a major way. Hopefully he won’t forget that Obamacare is not just a huge tax hike. It’s also a major new spending entitlement that’s already pegged at $2.5 trillion and will increase the federal debt burden much faster than the GDP expands.

In other words, tax, spend, regulate, borrow. The Obama mantra. Romney must go after it -- time and time and time again.

Bankrupting the economy is not exactly a job-creator.

No Economic Miracle if Obamacare is Overturned

It may well be that the complex tax-and-regulatory mandates embodied in Obamacare have proven to be a deterrent for business job creation. You hear it all the time from men and women in business -- especially smaller businesses, but large companies too.

However, color me skeptical that business will embark on a hiring binge if the Supremes overturn the Obamacare mandate tomorrow. Why? Because the uncertainty premium about future health-care policy is still going to be high, and it won’t be resolved until well after the election. Businesses will have almost no idea what Congress will propose if the Supreme’s strike down Obamacare.

For example, it’s going to take money and high insurance premiums to cover preexisting conditions. There also are the stay-at-home 26 year olds and the so-called health-care market exchanges among the states. There are many other issues to be resolved, but the big question is: How will they be financed?

Will there be a tax? Will there be regulations?
One thing’s for sure. A pure free-market health-care system is not going to happen. Many Republicans talk about a patient-centered consumer-choice system, which would be great. Give consumers tax credits for the same deductions that businesses now have. That also would be great. Include interstate insurance competition. Another winner. Tort reform. Another plus.

But the fiscal reality for health-care insurance and payouts to doctors in hospitals is going to be up in the air for quite some time. It’s a known unknown. And because of that, I think businesses are still going to sit on their hands until they know with greater certainty what the costs of hiring the extra worker is really going to be.

For the foreseeable future, there’s no economic miracle if the Supremes strike down Obamacare (as I believe they will).

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

One-on-One with Marco Rubio

The run-up to the presidential election is really a debate about growth and taxes, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told CNBC on Monday.

“Growth helps the debt be more manageable, unemployment, all of these things,” he said in an interview on “The Kudlow Report.”

“Tax increases do not lead to growth,” he said. “The reason why I oppose increases in taxes is not some religious objection, or even an ideological one. It is the knowledge that increasing taxes discourages growth.”

Rubio said that taxes remove money that was going to be spent into the economy. “When the government spends that dollar, they’re going to be a lot less efficient, a lot less stimulative,” he said.

Rubio, who is being considered a vice presidential running mate by presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, also spoke about the debt crisis, health care and Arizona’s controversial immigration law, on which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Asked by Larry Kudlow whether there could be a compromise like the one former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush mentioned in an earlier appearance — $10 of spending cuts for every $1 of revenue increases — Rubio held firm.

“I’ve always believed that was a false choice. The goal is not to give each side what they want,” Rubio said. “The goal is to solve the problem.”

Hours after the nation’s highest court upheld one of the most controversial parts of Arizona’s immigration law — that police can make checks for immigration status — Rubio agreed with the decision. “I’ve always believed the Arizona immigration law was constitutional,” said Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, even as he admitted “mixed feelings” about it initially.

Part of the law that was upheld instructs law enforcement officials to verify the immigration status of anyone they detain.

“I understand why Arizona did it. I understand why the people of Arizona are frustrated. I believe they have the 10th Amendment right to pass that law,” he said.

But the federal government, Rubio added, needed to fix the problem with a few steps: “Secure the border, have an electronic verification system in place and modernize our legal immigration so it reflects the 21st century needs of our country.”

Weighing in on health care, Rubio said he would like to see the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act be replaced with a free-market system in which insurance companies compete for consumers’ dollars.

“I think once there’s more choice, once the consumeris in charge of their health care dollars, the market’s going to meet that demand. Now all of a sudden, companies are going to try to figure out how to make themselves more attractive so that you choose them over somebody else. Right now they don’t have to do that,” he said.

“From the point of view of the marketplace, insurance companies, if they want my business, if I control my health care dollars, and I get to choose from any insurance company I want, I’ll go to you and say, ‘Hey guys, I would love to buy your insurance, but I have a kid who is sick. Will you cover them as well? Because this other guy will cover them, and I’ll go with them if you don’t do the same.’ I think that now the consumer is empowered to make that argument.”

Rubio said that for chronically ill Americans, state governments could create high-risk pools to provide insurance.

“I think that’s the one focused, narrow place where government — state government — can be helpful to folks,” he said.

Rubio was not asked about any possible run for vice president. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Rubio declined to answer questions about it.


Let me declare an interest. I am old enough to get the £200 tax free Winter Fuel Payment and free local bus travel anywhere in England. As I live in London my travel Freedom Pass extends to local bus and tube travel throughout London 24/7 and local trains from 0930. I guess the whole package is worth £700 a year to me, tax-free. Though in truth if I paid for London travel I would claim back much of it from clients and customers.

So. That’s that out of the way. Well almost. I do not in the slightest need that money. If it disappeared tomorrow I would shrug and say ‘so be it’. It would not leave me freezing in the winter and cut off from family, friends or the local library. Or, come to that, work.

So I get it; I do not need it; and the amount is small enough in my personal financial affairs that whether I get it or not is neither here nor there. So that leaves me uniquely able to say unequivocally that it would be complicated, counterproductive, and wrong to stop Winter Fuel Payment and free bus travel in England for those over women’s state pension age (see footnotes). Here’s why.

First, complicated. Who would you take it away from? Everyone who admitted they didn’t need it? Everyone called Paul? Everyone who paid higher rate tax? That would be possible but it would create a cliff edge at an income of £42,475 – earn an extra £1 and lose £200. And it would not save much. The Government estimates that ending it for households with an income above £35,000 would save just £270 million out of the total cost of more than £2 billion. The administrative cost could be £25 million a year or more – the amount estimated for administering the child benefit tax charge which begins on 7 January.

You would save more by following what one tweeter suggested to me recently. Go down the income scale and only give these benefits to those poor enough to pay no income tax. Then the cliff edge would move down to £10,500 for over 65s (slightly more for over 75s and rather less for 61 to 74s. I know it’s complicated but I didn’t invent the system). That would save more but would certainly take it away from many who needed it.

Another problem is that these are individual entitlements so the non-taxpaying husband, wife, or civil partner of a higher rate taxpayer would continue to get it. The only way round that is to impose a joint means-test such as that about to be imposed on child benefit recipients - and which the theoretical savings above are based on.

Now, I know your next argument. It is one I have made myself. Surely, you are thinking, surely all that Oxbridge brain power in the civil service can come up with SOME scheme to rid me of these turbulent pensioners? Well, just look at the problems of the Child Benefit Tax Charge – yet to be realised.

So that is the ‘complicated’ bit.

Now ‘counterproductive’. The thing about these universal benefits – ones that you get on grounds of age or condition – is that they go to everyone. Those who need them do not have to declare their poverty to get them. If they do have to take that step then many simply do not claim. More than two million older people fail to claim up to £5 billion in means-tested benefits they could get if they applied. Paying them to me is the price we pay as a society so that my neighbour Marjorie, too proud to claim means-tested benefits though she needed them, at least got her winter fuel payment and free bus travel – though she could use that very little in her last years. If you means-test free bus travel and winter fuel payment then poverty among pensioners would grow as many failed to claim what they could get.

And finally ‘wrong’. In a way this is an extension of counterproductive. Many countries call the government departments that run social security or health the Ministry of Solidarity. Because state benefits represent solidarity. Between the sick and the well. Between the jobless and those in work. And, of course, between young and old. There are times and circumstances in life when the state should step in and transfer money from one group to another. Just as the childless pay for schools. The law abiding pay for the police force and the courts. And those without solar panels on their roof pay for those who do.

In summary, taking winter fuel payment and free bus travel away from richer older people would save relatively little, cost a lot in administration, increase poverty among the old, and undermine solidarity between the generations. 

Women’s state pension age
Winter fuel payment is paid to people if they reach the state pension age for women in the September before the winter. Qualifying birthdates are listed here of course it may not last for as many years as this theoretical table suggests! In England free bus travel begins at women’s state pension age – currently just over 61. London Mayor Boris Johnson has promised to bring the age down to 60 in London and it is 60 in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The age for free prescriptions is 60 in England. In the rest of the UK they are free for everyone.

Payment abroad
The rules about paying winter fuel payment abroad have been changed following a European Court of Justice decision. The following paragraph was correct when written in June. New rules are blogged here 

Anyone who has claimed the Winter Fuel Payment in the UK can continue to have it paid for life even if they move abroad to live in any EEA country – that’s the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway – plus Switzerland. Some of these places – like the Canary Isles and Martinique – are very hot. In 2010/11 72,840 received it outside UK at cost of £15.6m, less than 1% of the estimated £2bn cost this winter. It is paid outside the UK because of European law and agreements. The only way to stop paying the WFP outside the UK is to change its nature – means-testing it for example.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

One-on-One with Jeb Bush

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush on Wednesday hailed the outcome of the Wisconsin recall election, praising Governor Scott Walker for emboldening conservatives in their drive to slash spending on a national level.

“He’s a courageous leader, and he was rewarded for courage,” Bush said on CNBC’s “The Kudlow Report.”

“In a world of dysfunction, it’s really good that a guy like that, who had the courage of his convictions and acted on them, is rewarded with a victory. I don’t even know why we had the recall to begin with, but if there was to be one, better to win by a bigger margin than he won in 2010, with a higher turnout. I think it’s a leading indicator of one thing, which is the intensity of the conservative side of politics is now stronger than the liberal side.”

The prediction might be partly wishful thinking.

In an exit poll of Wisconsin voters by ABC News, a majority — 51 percent to 44 percent — said they would support President Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney if the election were held that day.

Voters also picked Obama over Romney, 42 percent to 38 percent, to do a better job handling the economy, as well as by 46 percent to 37 percent on “helping the middle class.”

Bush said the recall election results — which Walker won with 53 percent of the vote to Democrat Tom Barrett’s 46 percent — represented a “spanking” for unions.

“It’s a spanking because they made it that way,” he said. “They raised the stakes, they made this a national campaign. All of the leadership, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of the Democratic Party and the union leaders all said that all roads lead through Madison, basically as it relates to the national campaign. This was a national statement.”

Walker’s victory, Bush said, also meant the Tea Party movement was alive and well.

“They play a huge role in reminding people we’re on an unsustainable course when it comes to spending at every level, and Scott Walker takes the general belief and does something really novel; he acted on it,” he said.

Bush reiterated that the United States government was on an “unsustainable course.”

“The only reason we’ve been allowed to stay on the course is a monetary policy of zero percent interest rates and the fact that Europe has bigger problems than we do, so... we’re slightly larger than the next midget, basically,” he said.

Creating 40 cents of debt for every dollar of federal spending, Bush added, was “not sustainable.”

“Never in anybody’s wildest dreams could anybody say that this is sustainable, so it seems to me that if you could — if you’re in a position of leadership, you have to find creative ways to find common ground, maybe through the tax code, maybe looking at exemptions,” he said.

Bush took a shot at cutting entitlement programs — Medicare and Social Security — though not by name.

“If you could get a cap on entitlement spending in the out years, you are going to save trillions of dollars, not billions of dollars, and in order to bring people along, are you going to have to look at the tax code,” he said. “And so, dealing with exemptions in some way that might satisfy the left to deal with the unsustainable entitlement problems we face. I don’t know what the exact deal would be, but Chris Christie is right about one thing, it requires leadership.”

Bush also criticized Obama for “dividing” instead of finding “common ground,” while defending his brother, former President George W. Bush.

“You’re in the fourth year of your presidency, it becomes unbecoming to constantly be blaming the past for your failures,” he said. “And it’s just not — I don't think politically — helpful to do that. And so, yeah, I mean, I think my brother gets a bum rap, but that’s just the way it is.”


The Treasury is trying to work out how to tempt individual savers use some of the £500 billion cash they have in the bank to fund its ambitious National Infrastructure Programme.

If it can be done it would fulfil two key objectives. First, savers would get a bit more than the dismal 3% or so that is currently on offer even to active savers who move their money regularly. Second, it would get new money into roads, rail, trams, housing, telecoms and so on which would create jobs, help companies and boost the economy. And all without it being booked as Government debt.

But both parts are tricky. Savers with cash in the bank are cautious. They want to know that their money is safe. Even if it does not go up very much, cash uniquely cannot go down (and email me if you are thinking 'what about inflation?' it would take too long here). So any growth bond would have to offer a clear hope of a better return than cash but some sort of protection against loss.

And that brings us to the second tricky part. How to keep the loan - for that is what it is - off the Government books? It already has a debt of more than £1 trillion and is expected to borrow another £120 billion in 2012/13. The Coalition is committed to borrowing less not more. So is it possible to bypass the national accounts by getting savers to lend money directly for infrastructure projects? I am told by someone close to the process that it is this step which is proving very difficult. Especially if savers are to be given any sort of government guarantee.

A similar scheme is being developed by the UK's pension industry. The National. Association of Pension Funds will soon be piloting a Pension Investment Platform to pump initially £2 billion into infrastructure projects. Eventually it could be ten times as big. Like any professional investor the funds want certainty and a good return. One example might be road building or widening. The income stream would come not from a toll - too risky and the M6 toll road has lost money every year since it opened - but from a Government payment per vehicle. They hope for returns of 2% to 5% above inflation.

Retail investors might be tempted with rather less than that. Especially if the offer was sweetened by making returns tax free. There is nearly £400 billion in ISAs, half in cash, just on that promise. But to tempt cash savers with money in the bank the growth bonds would need some sort of protection against loss. And that has to be done without adding the loan to the Government's debt.

If that trick can be pulled off then an infrastructure programme funded by the public would fit in well with Liberal Democrat policy and the public statements of deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

If it can't then growth bonds seem unlikely to leave the bright ideas box and enter the real world.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


The end of free banking in the UK was signalled on 24 May 2012 by Andrew Bailey.

If you wonder who he is, then have a look at a £10 note. His signature will be there as Chief Cashier. Andrew Bailey has now been promoted to Executive Director at the Bank of England. And from next year he will almost certainly be a deputy Governor of the Bank and Chief Executive of the Prudential Regulation Authority.

Never heard of the PRA either? Don’t worry it doesn’t exist yet. It is one of the two separate regulators that will emerge when the Financial Services Authority splits in two next spring. The other is the Financial Conduct Authority. The PRA will be able to intervene in the market if it feels that major financial institutions are not behaving in the public interest.

And on 24 May Andrew Bailey told us what he would like to do when (OK, ‘if’) he takes on that role.

“the reform of retail banking in this country cannot move ahead unless we tackle the issue of free in-credit banking, and have a much better sense of what we are paying for and how we are paying.”

And he warned “it may require intervention in the public interest, not least because it is a way to encourage greater competition.”

In other words he would use his powers to make banks charge us all for our current accounts.

The "myth" of free banking
Most people in the UK believe that they have ‘free banking’. If they keep their current account in credit then there is generally no charge for most of the services the banks perform for us including making and receiving payments, keeping our money safe and letting us have free access to our money through a network of 36,000 cash machines.

Those are valuable services and – free as they seem – someone has to pay. In fact we all pay the cost in two ways. First the banks lend out our money at a profit. Second they charge us heavily when we go overdrawn or travel abroad.

The Office of Fair Trading estimated that banks made £8.3 billion between them from personal current accounts in 2006 – more than they make from savings accounts and credit cards combined.  Most of that was made up of £4.6 billion from interest earned on our money (and charging us high rates of interest when we are overdrawn) and £2.6 billion from direct overdraft charges.

That is why Andrew Bailey believes free banking is a myth and that competition would be better if we paid openly for the valuable services the banks provide us with.

Why they don’t charge
The banks would love to charge us for our current accounts and the services they provide with them. And they all offer us the opportunity to pay for a current account – the charges range from £24 to £300 a year. But most people wisely turn down the offer of paying for a current account they could get without paying a fee. The banks bundle in an insurance policy or two – which most people do not need – and other benefits which – with the odd exception – are generally not worth the monthly cost.

But there is an insurmountable barrier that stops the banks charging all of us for the banking services on our 130 million current accounts.

If one of them started charging for all its current accounts then it would lose customers to competitors who continued to offer free banking.

But if they agree to do it together they will be guilty of anti-competitive behaviour and could be fined up to 10% of their turnover – potentially billions of pounds.      

So they are stuck with the present system. And that is why Andrew Bailey made it clear that he would like to cut that Gordian knot by intervening in the market to make sure they could charge. He would probably do that by saying that keeping the cost secret was anti-competitive and charging would encourage competition and that would ultimately be good for us.

Public reaction
If he does decide to intervene he faces several problems.

First, what do you do about the 9 million people who have a basic bank account? The banks agreed more than ten years ago to introduce these simple accounts with no overdraft facility. It was partly to reduce the number of people who had no bank account and faced higher costs and greater inconvenience in managing their money. The new accounts were also needed to help the Government’s own policy to pay state pensions and benefits directly into a bank account and scrap the costly system of paying them by giro or order book. The new Universal Credit, which will replace many benefits from October 2013, will only be paid through a bank account.

If there was a charge for all bank accounts some excerption would have to be made for people on benefits. And that would probably mean a tightening of the criteria for access to basic bank accounts – which currently are also used by those with poor credit records and on low incomes from work.

Second, public reaction from the middle swathe of society who do not go overdrawn and do not believe they pay for their banking would be hostile. Many are not on high incomes and would complain vociferously if the Government (as they would see it) forced them to pay for a current account which, through careful management, they currently keep free.

Third, a current account is now such an essential part of life that charging people to use one would seem like a tax on living. It would be particularly hard for those in low paid jobs whose employer insisted on paying into a bank account as most of them now do.

Fourth, would he ban any bank from not charging for a current account? If so, that in itself could be seen as the most anti-competitive move of all.

Andrew Bailey recognises some of these problems. He said “I know from last time I raised the subject that the reaction is mixed.”

But he warned that would not put him off.

“I am like a dog with a bone on this one, I don’t think we will have a retail banking industry that is properly serving the interests of the public until we tackle the dangerous myth of free in-credit banking. “

The official Bank of England line is rather milder. A spokesman told me “He was speaking to stimulate debate on an important topic.”

Personal current accounts in the UK, Office of Fair Trading July 2008

The future of UK banking – challenges ahead for promoting a
stable sector, Speech by Andrew Bailey at Westminster Business Forum 24 May 2012
The final paragraph is the relevant one.