Thursday, 20 October 2016

State pensions: property right or benefit?

I know that lots of you are heartily sick of the WASPI campaign, but it does have a tendency to throw up interesting issues. This time, it is the legal status of the UK's state pension.

A couple of days ago, the WASPI campaign announced a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for legal action against the Government. Their CrowdJustice page says that legal action would potentially be twofold:

(this is a screen print from the CrowdJustice page. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I do not post direct links to WASPI campaign material.)

Personally, I am of the opinion that judicial review of the legality of the state pension age changes in the 1995 and 2011 Pension Acts is a non-starter. The timetables for the changes are built into the Acts themselves, so any successful challenge to them would require repeal or amendment of one or both Acts. Since the UK has no written constitution and Parliament is sovereign, judicial review cannot be used to challenge primary legislation unless EU law is violated.

But I am no lawyer, and there may be an angle to this that I don't understand. As WASPI campaign has already met and exceeded its CrowdJustice target for legal advice, there will in due course be a barrister's opinion on the likelihood of the High Court granting leave for judicial review.

What is far more interesting is the question that the proposed judicial review raises. Is the state pension a property right, or a state benefit?

Many in the WASPI campaign claim that the state pension is their right. They paid in during their working lives, so now the government should pay out in accordance with the terms and conditions agreed with them when they started work. Failing to do so is robbery. "We paid in - you pay out!" they screamed at their London demonstration in June this year. Twitter and Facebook are awash with posts claiming their pensions have been "stolen". It is tempting to dismiss all of this as hyperbole, but buried in all the anger is a serious point.

For women who started work before the 1995 Act came into force, the original age at which they would have qualified for a state pension was 60.  If the state pension is a property right, then the state pension age rises in the 1995 and 2011 Acts could be viewed as violation of their property rights, since the total amount of pension they will receive over their lifetimes will now be substantially less than it would have been if the state pension age had not been raised. Whether or not they knew about the changes is irrelevant, though not knowing about them obviously adds to the anger and distress, and for some may have meant consequential losses for which they could seek redress through a maladministration claim against the DWP. The loss of state pension itself would be illegal, and they would be entitled to financial compensation to the equivalent of state pension from 60. I assume that this would be the ground for the proposed judicial review.

But there is a recent legal battle whose outcome seriously undermines the argument that the UK's state pension is a property right. This is the so-called "frozen pensions" case.

In 2002, a UK pensioner living in South Africa challenged the Government in the High Court under the Human Rights Act 1998 over its refusal to give her the same pension increments as those paid to pensioners living in the UK. She argued that her state pension was a property right, and that in refusing to pay the increments the UK government was depriving her of part of her property. And she further argued that she was being discriminated against because she lived in South Africa.

The judge disagreed, saying that "the remedy of the expatriate United Kingdom pensioners who do not receive uprated pensions is political, not judicial. The decision to pay them uprated pensions must be made by Parliament" (my emphasis). In other words, Parliament decides who should receive state pensions, and how much to pay them.

The judge went on to explain that although the claimant had a right to a pension, she could not lay claim to the increments paid to UK residents, since UK legislation did not give overseas pensioners the right to increments:
In the present case, UK legislation has never conferred a right on the Claimant to the uprating of her pension while she lived in South Africa. She does not satisfy and has never satisfied the conditions for payment of an uprated pension. She has never had a right to an uprated pension. There can therefore be no question of her having been deprived of any such right.
He dismissed her discrimination claim on the grounds that the government was entitled to restrict payment:
It seems to me that a government may lawfully decide to restrict the payment of benefits of any kind to those who are within its territorial jurisdiction, leaving the care and support of those who live elsewhere to the governments of the countries in which they live. Such a restriction may be based wholly or partly on considerations of cost, but having regard to the wide margin of discretion that must be accorded to the government, I do not think it one that a Court may say is unreasonable or lacking in objective justification....
And importantly, he added:
It is also difficult to criticise the position of the government if the limitation on the benefit has been published for some time, so that those who have gone to live abroad did know, or could easily have ascertained it, before deciding to live abroad. That is the case in relation to pensions.  
The Government had published information leaflets for those considering retiring abroad, which contained information about the effect on their UK pension. These were available on request from DWP. Clearly, the judge thought it was reasonable for people considering moving overseas to obtain information before making the decision. WASPI maladministration claims will hang on whether the DWP provided adequate information on the state pension age changes, and whether women should reasonably be expected to inform themselves. The WASPI campaign argues that the DWP should have notified women individually of the changes rather than expecting them to ask for information. The "frozen pensions" judgment does not exactly help its case.

However, the High Court's judgment appeared to undermine the principle of equal receipts for equal contributions. Age Concern, which supported the cause of people living overseas whose pensions have been "frozen", said:
People have to pay National Insurance contributions throughout their working life to be entitled to the full basic state pension, and therefore it is scandalous that they should not benefit from the annual inflationary increase that pensioners living in Britain receive
Unsurprisingly, the claimant appealed. Her appeal was heard in the Court of Appeal in March 2003 - and rejected. However, she was granted leave to appeal to the House of Lords. She duly did so. The case was heard in February 2005, and the House of Lords gave its judgment in May 2005.

The House of Lords rejected the appeal. Lord Hoffman dismissed the discrimination claim on the same grounds as the High Court judge, namely that the decision as to who should receive pension increments was a matter for Parliament not the courts.

But it is the next part of Lord Hoffman's judgment that fatally undermines the argument that state pension is a property right. Dismissing the claimant's argument that she was entitled to the same pension increments as a UK resident because she had paid in the same amount of NI contributions, he said (my emphasis):
In effect, her argument was that because contributions were a necessary condition for the retirement pension paid to UK residents, they ought to be a sufficient condition. No other matters, like whether one lived in the United Kingdom and participated in the rest of its arrangements for taxation and social security, ought to be taken into account. But that was an obvious fallacy. National Insurance contributions had no exclusive link to retirement pensions, comparable with contributions to a private pension scheme. In fact the link was a rather tenuous one. 
National Insurance contributions are used to fund a range of benefits. Broadly speaking, the purpose of National Insurance is to "insure" people against the risk of them being unable to work, the aim being to provide them with an income until either they are able to work or they die. The risks insured against include unemployment, sickness, maternity and bereavement, as well as old age. National Insurance also partially funds the National Health Service. In short, National Insurance is not a pension scheme and should not be regarded as in any way similar to a private or occupational pension scheme.

Following this judgment, the claimant appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that the UK government had violated Article 1 of Protocol 1 and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 1 of Protocol 1 gives protection to property rights, while Article 14 prohibits discrimination in the right to enjoy that protection. On 4 November 2008, the ECHR rejected the claim.

The ECHR's judgment defined the UK's state pension as state benefits intended primarily for UK residents, not property rights enforceable from anywhere in the world:
....the Court noted that the Contracting State’s social security system was intended to provide a minimum standard of living for those resident within its territory. Insofar as concerned the operation of pension or social security systems, individuals ordinarily resident within the Contracting State were not therefore in a relevantly analogous situation to those residing outside the territory. 
And it endorsed the view of Lord Hoffman that there is no exclusive link between National Insurance and the state pension (my emphasis):
National Insurance Contributions were only one part of the United Kingdom’s complex system of taxation and the National Insurance Fund was just one of a number of sources of revenue used to pay for the United Kingdom’s Social Security and National Health systems. The applicants’ payment of National Insurance Contributions during their working lives in the United Kingdom was not therefore any more significant than the fact that they might have paid income tax or other taxes while domiciled there. 
But it didn't end there. The case was referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR and was heard on 2nd September 2009.

The Grand Chamber dismissed the case on 8th March 2010. Its summary is a clear and unequivocal statement that the UK state pension is a social security benefit, not a pension scheme (my emphasis):
The Court did not consider that it sufficed for the applicants to have paid National Insurance contributions in the United Kingdom to place them in a relevantly similar position to all other pensioners, regardless of their country of residence. Claiming the contrary would be based on a misconception of the relationship between National Insurance contributions and the State pension. Unlike private pension schemes, National Insurance contributions had no exclusive link to retirement pensions. Instead, they formed a part of the revenue which paid for a whole range of social security benefits, including incapacity benefits, maternity allowances, widow’s benefits, bereavement benefits and the National Health Service. The complex and interlocking system of the benefits and taxation systems made it impossible to isolate the payment of National Insurance contributions as a sufficient ground for equating the position of pensioners who received uprating and those, like the applicants, who did not. 
The "frozen pensions" case has now hit a wall. It can go no further. Pensioners still grumble, of course: but unless the UK government relents, which it shows no signs of doing, their choice is either to accept that their pensions are frozen or to return to the UK.

The unfortunate precedent that this sets for WASPI should be evident by now. The WASPI campaign's claim for financial restitution rests on the belief that woman are "owed" their pensions. Although women are also pursuing maladministration claims, maladministration claims alone will not restore them to the position that they would have been in had they been excluded from the state pension age rises in the 1995 Act - which was the original WASPI "ask". Admittedly, the "ask" published on the WASPI website has now been changed to "fair transitional arrangements", with an explanatory paragraph as follows:
This translates into a 'bridging' pension to cover the gap from age 60 until State Pension Age - not means-tested and with compensation for losses for those women who have already reached their SPA.  
But this appears to imply that the WASPI campaign believes women are entitled to some or all of the pension that they have "lost" due to the changes in the state pension age. Sadly, the outcome of the "frozen pensions" case suggests that this is not the case. Parliament can change the terms and conditions of the state pension as it sees fit, just as it can any other contributory benefit.

However, there is possibly a loophole. The High Court judge dismissed the claim of the overseas pensioner to an uprated pension on the grounds that UK legislation has never conferred the right to uprated pensions on overseas pensioners. Since she had never had those rights, therefore she could not have been deprived of them. Could WASPI claim that women DID have the right to state pension at 60, and have now been deprived of that right?

We shall have to wait and see what m'learned friend says. But myself, I doubt that this is a flier. The WASPI case that women have been deprived of property rights is fatally undermined in my view by the finding of both the House of Lords and the ECHR that the state pension is a benefit, not a pension scheme. You can't have property rights to a benefit.

The precedent set by the "frozen pensions" case would seem to indicate that the WASPI campaign has little hope of winning the thousands of pounds in "lost" pensions that it has promised its supporters. The wording of the CrowdJustice campaign suggests that the pressure for judicial review comes from the WASPI campaign leadership, not from its lawyer: Bindmans LLP appear much more interested in helping women to pursue individual maladministration claims against the DWP, even though you don't need a lawyer to pursue these. And as I noted above, maladministration claims alone cannot restore the "lost" pensions (I shall explain why in a later post).

I fear this will not end well.

Related reading:

An introduction to judicial review - Public Law Project

Monday, 17 October 2016

The dominance of Brexit

Some people have been saying that sterling's fall has nothing to do with the Brexit vote. Sterling was already falling before the vote, they say, because of the UK's wide and growing current account deficit. So I thought I would fact check this.

Here is the UK's current account deficit since 1987, courtesy of ONS:

Well, ok, it has rarely been anywhere near balance in the current century, and it has been trending downwards since 2011.

Now let's look at sterling. Here is sterling's trade-weighted exchange rate since 1992, courtesy of the Bank of England (via this House of Commons briefing paper):

Umm. The correlation between the current account deficit and the trade-weighted value of sterling appears to be negative. Sterling has been rising since 2011 - until this year.

This is actually reasonable. The trade-weighted value of a currency reflects the external performance of the economy. And for a long time now, current account deficits have not been regarded as important for countries with floating exchange rates and independent central banks. So sterling has risen because the UK has been doing well compared to other countries - notably the depressed EU.

Breaking down the current account into its component parts shows why the current account and the value of sterling have been negatively correlated. Broadly speaking, the current account is made up of the goods and services trade balance, plus net investment income. The second of these is the income that UK investors earn from their investments abroad minus the income that foreign investors earn on their investments in the UK.

This is what has happened to net investment income (this chart from ONS also includes other financial income, but net investment income is by far the largest component for the UK):

As ONS explains, the fall in net investment income is driven by two factors:
  • rising FDI into the UK from 2011 onwards
  • higher rates of return on foreign holdings of UK assets than on UK holdings of foreign assets
This chart shows these effects clearly: 

In days gone by, higher rates of return would have reflected higher risk and would therefore have been accompanied by a lower currency exchange rate. But we live in strange times. These days, depressed economies such as the Eurozone have low rates of return, partly due to central bank action and partly due to a generally poor economic outlook. Higher rates of return accompanied by increased FDI indicate relative economic strength. The negative net investment income position is thus a net positive factor for the UK economy, and until recently this was reflected in the rising value of sterling. Thus the negative correlation of current account and sterling exchange rate is not a bug, it is a feature arising from the peculiar construction of the UK's current account - which in turn reflects the UK's position as one of the world's premier financial centres.

ONS shows that the trade balance (goods and services) has been pretty stable, though negative, for the whole of this century:

We do see some positive correlation between the trade deficit and the value of sterling, though we can't tell from these charts whether sterling responds to the trade deficit or vice versa - or whether both are responding to something else. But this relationship is dwarfed by the negative correlation of the net investment income balance and the external value of sterling. Basically, people like investing in the UK.

Or they used to. This is what has happened to sterling recently:

This chart could be interpreted as showing a downward trend since the mid-2014 peak. But in fact it is showing reversion to previous levels from the mid-2014 peak, followed by three abrupt falls, one at the beginning of 2016, a larger one in June and a third that has not yet bottomed out. The first of these was due to the market turbulence and worries about bank profitability at the beginning of 2016. But the other two are unquestionably due to the Brexit vote.

The fall of sterling from the beginning of 2016 is even more obvious in the sterling-euro exchange rate:

Sterling rose immediately prior to the EU referendum because of opinion polls suggesting that Remain would win. As the referendum result was announced, it fell sharply against both the US dollar and the euro. Although it stabilised in the summer, it has not recovered from this fall.

A second fall was recently triggered by comments by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, at the Conservative party conference, and the growing likelihood that Britain will leave the EU in the most economically damaging manner possible - a "hard Brexit". Financial markets are particularly concerned at the prospective loss of "passporting rights" to the EU. The UK's position as the world's premier financial centre is under serious threat - and this is reflected in the falling exchange rate of sterling.

And not just in the sterling exchange rate. Gilts are affected too, as this Reuters chart shows:

After the Brexit vote, gilt yields fell as output forecasts for the UK were slashed and a Bank of England interest rate was priced in. Remember we live in strange times: cutting interest rates is now a negative indicator for an economy, whereas in the inflationary 1970s and 1980s (and indeed in countries such as Russia where inflation has been very high in recent years) it was a positive one.

So used are we to the weirdness of low interest rates that we have forgotten how normal risk pricing works. But we are now being reminded. As it became ever clearer that the UK government was contemplating a hard Brexit, gilt yields started to rise. Now, sterling is falling as well. This is what capital flight looks like in a country that issues its own currency.

Last time we saw capital flight in an advanced economy was the Greek crisis last summer. Everyone remembers Greek bond yields spiking and Target2 imbalances growing as investors and depositors fled from the prospect of Grexit. But there was no currency component to that (well, there was, but you wouldn't find any charts showing the sharply falling implied exchange rate between euros in Greek banks and euros everywhere else). Now, we have capital flight from another advanced country - and this time it is reflected not only in rising yields but in a falling exchange rate. The UK has become a risky place for investors.

Of course, this might only be a short-term effect. The UK government and the EU authorities are both considering their options at the moment, and once the form that Brexit will take becomes clear and the path defined, both sterling and gilts may well bounce back. Sterling has had larger falls than this, and  always bounced back:

But there is, of course, the elephant in the room. All of the sterling shocks in this chart occurred during Britain's membership of what started as the EEC and later became the EU. Indeed, the UK has been a member of the European Union project for the whole of its recent experiment with fully floating exchange rates, which started in 1979 with the lifting of exchange controls. To what extent has EU membership helped to stabilise sterling's exchange rate - and does it now face a more turbulent future? We do not know.

Recently, some have expressed concern about the UK's dependence on external investors - what Mark Carney, quoting Tennessee Williams, called "the kindness of strangers". This is because the UK has both a current account deficit and a fiscal deficit: if both deficits are dependent on external financing, a "sudden stop" can force a very sharp fiscal adjustment and a rapid, highly damaging fall in GDP. There is an outside chance that the current combination of falling currency and rising gilt yields could be the start of a "sudden stop". However, the Bank of England's staff blog recently looked at the financing of the UK's twin deficits and concluded that the fiscal deficit, at any rate, was largely domestically financed so was not in any immediate danger. The current account deficit of course could be subject to a wrenching adjustment if investors fled, although FDI generally tends to be fairly stable. But the two deficits are largely separately financed, so there is little danger of the sort of toxic feedback loop that can ultimately lead to economic collapse and debt default.

What does seem likely is that the net interest income deficit will close, not because returns for UK investors in foreign assets improve but because returns for foreign investors in the UK will now fall due to lower interest rates, QE and a poorer growth outlook. FDI, too, seems likely to decline, though perhaps gradually. No doubt those who are obsessed with current accounts will cheer as the net interest income deficit shrinks, but I wouldn't regard this form of rebalancing as positive, personally. I'd much rather see net investment income turn positive due to higher returns to UK investors from improved growth in Europe.

And what about that trade deficit in goods and services? Well, that might shrink too. Exports will be flattered a bit by the lower exchange rate, and higher inflation will force UK households and businesses to cut back spending, reducing imports. But in the longer term, the outlook for the trade balance depends on what sort of trade deals the UK can cut.

And that brings me back to where I started. Those who thought the fall in sterling was due to a widening current account deficit have the causation wrong. The current fall in sterling is entirely due to Brexit. And the current account deficit is likely to close because of the effect of Brexit on trade and investment. Brexit will determine the behaviour of every UK metric for the foreseeable future.

Related reading:

Short-run effects of the Brexit shock
The currency effects of Brexit

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The currency effects of Brexit

Sterling is falling. Predictably, the financial press describe its slide as a "pounding" and gleefully tell us that sterling is the worst-performing currency after the Argentinian peso.

But some people are cheering. Falling sterling is good for exports, isn't it? So if the pound keeps falling, the UK's large trade deficit will start to shrink, reducing the UK's dependence on external financing and hence its vulnerability to a "sudden stop".

Sadly, it's not that simple. Falling sterling is not an unalloyed good for exporters. The real effect is considerably more nuanced, and over the longer term, not necessarily positive.

As an exporter myself, I am certainly enjoying the pound's fall. These days, most of my income is in US dollars. This is how GBRUSD has performed this year:

Since my income is in dollars but my outgoings are in sterling, I've had a pretty substantial pay rise.

But my chickens will come home to roost shortly. The price of petrol is about to rise by 5p a litre because of sterling's fall. That is a real cost which I cannot avoid, since my singing teaching requires use of a car. My income is still rising, but my profits will be diminished by rising costs. When the fall in sterling affects other business costs too, such as air fares, train fares, hotels and subsistence, I might be looking at a rather substantial rise in my costs.

Business costs are already rising for exporters whose business inputs are raw materials and intermediate goods. And all of us face higher energy and transport costs, because the UK is dependent on imports of oil and natural gas, and those are priced in dollars and euros.

This chart from Reuters shows that producer price inflation is already rising fast:

The net gain for exporters is still positive, but energy price rises have yet to bite. Exactly how much of the income improvement due to currency effects will be wiped out by rising input costs remains to be seen. For some exporters - especially in the UK's fragile manufacturing sector - it could even be a wash.

And that is before we get to the effect of inflation on labour costs. I face rising prices for food, clothes and other consumer goods. As a sole trader, my profits are my income, so I will shortly face a reduction in my disposable income as inflation eats into my profits. But businesses with employees are likely to face demands for wage increases. The businesses most affected will be those that have skill shortages, powerful unions and/or need seasonal labour that could now be hard to come by, because the weak pound makes temporary migration from overseas less attractive.

The fact is that the UK is an import-dependent economy, and sterling's fall makes imports more expensive. For businesses, this means higher costs. For households, this means lower living standards, at least in the short term. As Paul Krugman says, sterling's depreciation makes Britain poorer.

Over the longer term, we might find that higher import prices encourage the growth of domestic industries producing goods and services that can substitute for expensive imports. But there are two obstacles to this.

The first is the UK's dependence on imports for energy. High energy prices due to sterling's weakness will put downward pressure on domestic demand, simply because people will prioritise heating, lighting and fuel over consumables. We've seen this before: high oil prices in 2010-13 were a major reason for the failure of the UK's recovery after the financial crisis. There is no reason to suppose that this time would be different.

The same energy price constraint bites on domestic businesses, which would face higher costs than their overseas competitors. Given this, would they really be able to undercut importers by enough to generate widespread substitution effects - especially if, after a hard Brexit, the Government decided to cut import tariffs unilaterally, as some have suggested?

We need substantial investment in replacement energy sources as North Sea Oil dries up. The UK has neglected this investment over many years now, and it is about to pay the price for this folly. Replacement energy sources take quite some time to come on stream, and during that time the UK will face higher energy prices and associated inflation, to the detriment of households, businesses and the economy as a whole.

The second obstacle is inward investment. The UK has historically been a favourite destination for foreign investors, attracting more capital investment than anywhere else in Europe. This is no doubt due to its dominant financial sector, deep and liquid capital markets, and enormous supply of investment assets. Being a favoured investment destination is of course, something of a double-edged sword: the UK's yawning current account deficit is to a considerable extent due to its attractiveness to foreign capital (the capital account is the mirror image of the current account, so a capital account surplus is matched by a current account deficit). But if the UK is to develop new domestic and export businesses, it will need inward investment.

Some people seem to think that the current starry performance of the FTSE 100 indicates that inward investment into the UK is holding up. Sadly, this is not true. The falling currency is a clear sign that investment is leaving the UK, as are rising yields on gilts. At present, all the signs are that investors are becoming exceedingly wary of investing in the UK.

All of this leads me to conclude that those who think a falling pound will somehow bring about radical rebalancing of the economy away from financial services and towards revitalisation of manufacturing are taking far too simplistic a view. The UK economy is highly financialised and largely consists of service industries. Manufacturing is still about 14% of the economy, but the heavy manufacturing of the past is gone: UK manufacturing now is specialised, highly skilled and makes extensive use of imports. Even were foreign investment to hold up, it would take a very long time for the UK to expand manufacturing to the level of say Germany. It's worth remembering that a 25% devaluation in 2008-9 made little significant difference to manufacturing production or goods exports. As I said above, why would this time be different?

Sterling's fall should be regarded as at most a short-term monetary stimulus to the economy. The UK now has the loosest monetary policy in the G7 (eat your heart out, Kuroda-san!). This is in large measure the reason for the apparent calm in the UK economy, along with buoyant consumer confidence (which is no surprise, since the great British public apparently believe that leaving the EU and restricting immigration will make them more prosperous). It creates a breathing space in which the Government can devise a sensible approach to leaving the EU. But if it is to foster lasting change, it must be partnered with a radical fiscal response involving substantial infrastructure investment, a properly funded business bank and a realistic industrial strategy. Without these, sterling's fall will simply herald the dawning of a poorer, meaner future for Britain.

Related reading:

Brexit is making Britons poorer and meaner - The Economist
UK's trade-weighted currency index slumps to historic new low on hard Brexit fears - The Independent
Brexit and Britain's Dutch disease - FT Alphaville

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Why is global trade so weak?

Global trade is awful. Really, it is. For the last five years, trade volumes have been growing at their slowest sustained rate since the early 1980s. Here's a horrible chart from the World Trade Organisation's latest forecast:

And in the last year, things have got worse:
Import demand of developing economies fell 3.2% in Q1 before staging a partial recovery of 1.5% in Q2.  Meanwhile, developed economies recorded positive import growth of 0.8% in Q1 and negative growth of -0.8% in Q2.  Overall, world imports stagnated in the first half of 2016, falling 1.0% in Q1 and rising 0.2% in Q2.  This translated into weak demand for exports of both developed and developing economies.  For the year-to-date, world trade has been essentially flat, with the average of exports and imports in Q1 and Q2 declining 0.3% relative to last year.
Oh great. The WTO's chart shows that flat trade eventually translates into flat growth. And as this chart from the World Bank shows, growth is indeed flat:

Now, ok, things were worse in the early 1990s, and much worse in the early 1980s. In fact if we went back further, we would also find things were pretty bad in 1973-5. Developed-world recessions are bad for global growth.

But we don't have a developed-world recession now, do we? The developed world is struggling to get inflation off the floor, of course: interest rates are extremely low - in some places negative - and three major central banks are doing QE. In Europe, growth remains elusive and unemployment very high. The US is doing better, but has backed away from planned interest rate increases. Japan is now in its third decade of stagnation. And the UK, which was looking pretty good, has shot itself in the foot. In July, the IMF cut its global growth forecast by 0.1% because of the impact of the UK's decision to leave the European Union.

It would, however, be a mistake to see the last five years of global trade slowdown as one event. There are actually two distinct phases, as these charts from the WTO show:

In 2012, the story was one of developed countries in a slump: export volumes actually fell globally, but the strength of imports to developing and emerging countries prevented a disastrous collapse. The world should probably thank China and its satellites for preventing the Eurozone crisis causing a second global recession.

But the current slowdown is not a developed-country story. No, it is caused by a considerable fall in imports to developing and emerging countries, starting at the beginning of 2015. Exports look better, but of course these charts only show volumes. Because of currency adjustments, export values are actually far worse:

(this chart and the one below are from this IMF working paper)

Global exports have been falling in value terms since 2014.  This is partly caused by the commodity and oil supercycle unwinding, which has crushed the dollar value of exports of raw materials and oil from developing and emerging market countries. But it is also a China story. As this chart shows, China is the single biggest contributor to the trade slowdown of the last two years:

Of course, China's contribution to the current trade slowdown pales into insignificance compared to the Euro area disaster in 2008-9. In 2010, the then President of the European Commission, Jose Manual Barroso declared that the Euro was "a protection shield against the crisis". But that is not what this chart says - and it is not what I found when I looked at the effects of the crisis on countries like Slovenia and Latvia, which suffered terrible "sudden stops" in 2008-9, long before what is now known as the "Eurozone crisis". Far from protecting, the Euro appears to have amplified the adverse effects of what was, after all, originally a US disaster. (But I digress.)

Nonetheless, China's slowdown has drastic effects on its satellites. It has become a trade hub in Asia, importing goods from other countries in the region as inputs to final processing of items for export to the West. So an import slowdown in China ripples back to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region through the south-south supply chains.

Part of China's slowdown is driven by a rebalancing towards domestic production and consumption. But part is due to weaker demand for its exports from Western countries. And why is Western import demand weakening? Well, if we knew that, we would know why global trade is weakening.

Most analyses of the current slowdown that I have seen focus on the effect of economic fundamentals on import demand. Some also discuss changes in international supply chains. Few seem to discuss finance, and if they do, they focus narrowly on trade finance, not on the global financial currents that drive all economic activity.

But this is macroeconomics, and if there is one thing we have learned from the GFC, it is that finance is fundamental to macroeconomics. Papers that omit any discussion of the role of global financial flows - like, for example, the IMF working paper from which I took the above charts - are surely unable to explain adequately what is really causing the current trade slowdown.

So let's look at what is going on in international finance. This pair of charts is from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS)'s latest review:

Well now. Cross-border lending (loans and bonds) has been flat for the last six years. In 2012-13 there was a marked fall in both lending and securities issuance by banks. And there now appears to be another sharp contraction in bank lending (chart 1) and a tailing-off of securities issuance by both banks and non-banks (chart 2).

In fact there is a striking resemblance between falling imports in emerging markets (see chart 2 above), and shrinking cross-border finance to emerging markets:

Please don't tell me that this remarkable similarity is purely coincidental. Now that we know how fundamental finance is to macroeconomics, we must surely admit that changes in cross-border financing must be a key part of the global trade slowdown story. Indeed, although I would normally be the first to say correlation doesn't indicate causation, in this case I would stick my neck out and say the contraction in cross-border lending is the primary cause of the sick state of global trade. The reason why the cross-border lending slump precedes the trade slump is because businesses and households can run on reserves for a while when their funding is pulled, and because just as rising investment takes time to flow through into increased trade, so falling investment can take a while to show up as declining trade.

Just how weak cross-border financing has become since 2010 is evident in this set of charts from BIS showing lending to non-banks in the world's three main funding currencies - the US dollar, the Euro and the Japanese yen:

The one bright spot in this dismal set is the Euro debt securities issuance. But sadly this is not what it seems. The BIS explains that this is due to "reverse yankee" issuance by American corporations who have discovered that it is cheaper to fund in euros and swap into dollars than to fund directly in dollars. Accompanying this explanation, the BIS has an interesting paper on why "covered interest rate parity" appears to have failed. It is a story of over-enthusiastic regulation progressively destroying the mechanisms that make markets work efficiently.

But if shrinking cross-border financing is a large part of the answer to "why is global trade so weak?", then the next question is surely "why is cross-border financing shrinking"? Why are investors pulling back from lending into emerging market and developing countries? Why are banks shrinking back behind their borders? Is this behaviour a consequence of falling demand in Western countries, and if so, why is demand falling? Or are there other drivers?

I will attempt to answer this in another blogpost, with the help of the IMF, which has just released its October World Economic Outlook report. It does not look cheerful.

Related reading:

Slovenia and the banks
How do you say "dead cat" in Latvian?
Austerity and the rise of populism

Image from Fotolia.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A dent in the surface of time

This chart has been fascinating me for ages. It was produced by the Bank of England to illustrate a speech by Andy Haldane. Shock, horror - we have the lowest interest rates for 5,000 years. Even in the Great Depression they were higher than they are now.

These are, of course, nominal interest rates. Real interest rates are even lower - though not by much, since inflation is close to zero in all major economies.

Note also the divergence of long-term and short-term interest rates. This is encouraging, since it suggests that investors view future prospects as brighter, though hardly scintillating. Central banks have been trying to close that gap with various monetary policy tools, the idea being to bring forward some of that future enthusiasm into the present day. But so far, all they have succeeded in doing is depressing expected interest rates far into the future.

Now, policy makers are beginning to talk about interest rates remaining permanently lower than their long-run average. Here, for example, is John Williams of the San Francisco Federal Reserve discussing expectations for r*, the rate of interest when the economy is at full capacity:
A variety of economic factors have pushed natural interest rates very low and they appear poised to stay that way (Williams 2015b, Laubach and Williams 2015, Hamilton et al. 2015, Kiley 2015, Lubik and Matthes 2015). This is the case not just for the United States but for other advanced economies as well. Figure 1 shows estimates of the inflation-adjusted natural rate for four major economies: the United States, Canada, the euro area, and the United Kingdom (Holston, Laubach, and Williams 2016). In 1990, estimates ranged from about 2½ to 3½%. By 2007, on the eve of the global financial crisis, these had all declined to between 2 and 2½%. By 2015, all four estimates had dropped sharply, to 1½% for Canada and the United Kingdom, nearly zero for the United States, and below zero for the euro area.
And here is Williams's Figure 1 showing how rates have fallen:

Unlike the Bank of England's chart, these are real interest rates. But they show the same thing - except that Williams has told only half the story.

It is all about the start point. This chart (courtesy of Economics Help) shows UK nominal interest rates, as in the Bank of England's chart, but plotted against inflation:

The real interest rate is the nominal rate minus inflation. So we can see that in 1975, when the nominal interest rate was about 12% and inflation spiked to 25%, the real interest rate was deeply negative. But by 1981, nominal interest rates had risen to 17%, and the real interest rate was positive. It remained positive for the next 25 years. Remarkably so, in fact. The period from 1982 to 2007 had the highest real interest rates since WWII.

Perhaps even more importantly, for much of that period nominal rates were very high too. People take far more notice of nominal rates than they do real ones. Money illusion is definitely a thing, when you are paying a mortgage and saving for your retirement. And the Bank of England's chart shows that the period from 1975 to maybe 1995 had the highest nominal rates in recorded history. Not since Babylon had there been such high nominal rates sustained for so long.

So the young adults of the 1980s paid the highest interest rates in history on their mortgages and car loans. Now, they are approaching retirement - indeed the oldest among them have already retired. And today's ultra-low interest rates seem like a major betrayal. Where have the returns on their savings gone?

This is a bigger problem than it might seem. In the 1980s, companies started to replace defined-benefit pensions, which promised an income based on final salary, with defined-contribution pensions, where the returns on investment provide an income in retirement. By the mid-1990s, most defined-benefit schemes were closed to new entrants.

Replacing defined-benefit with defined-contribution didn't seem that big a deal at the time. Some people even thought it was better. After all, with the rates prevailing at the time, you wouldn't need a huge investment portfolio to generate quite a decent income in retirement. It never occurred to anyone that interest rates would fall.

And yet they were already falling. All three charts show that interest rates have fallen steadily since their 1980 peak. In fact John Williams's chart shows that real interest rates have fallen rather less in the UK than elsewhere: but it is nominal interest rates that people understand. Now, people are not going to get anything like the returns on their pension investments that they expected. Nor on any other form of savings, either. If anything, private pensions and life insurance schemes look even worse than defined-contribution corporate schemes, and the interest rates on liquid savings such as ISAs are approaching zero.

Over at Bond Vigilantes, Jim Leaviss has an excellent explanation of the rise and fall of post-war interest rates. I have shamelessly borrowed his charts. This one wonderfully shows how the anomalously high interest rates of the 1980s and 90s were entirely due to the baby boom:

And here is Jim's verbal explanation:
The relatively low supply of labour in the 1970s gave power to those of working age. Trade union membership peaked in the late 1970s (when 12 million people in the UK were members) and wage growth outstripped productivity growth and inflation. Government debt burdens grew, and interest rates and bond yields hit double digits. There were talks of ‘buyers’ strikes’ by institutional gilt investors in the UK.
But as the baby-boomers entered the workforce after school or college, there was a significant improvement in the demographic trends. From that low of 40% in 1975, by the end of the 1980s the ratio of workers to non-workers was back above 50%, peaking at over 60% by the end of the 20th century. The developed world had become a world with lots of workers, keeping inflation low (trade union membership shrank), producing tax revenue to reduce government borrowing (at times in the US there was even discussion about retiring the national debt), and investing in paper assets like government bonds to provide future incomes in retirement. Inflation collapsed (you could argue that central banks, despite becoming fierce inflation fighters over this period, starting with Paul Volker taking over at the US Federal Reserve in late 1979, should take little credit here; the demographics did the heavy lifting) and 10-year US Treasury bond yields halved from nearly 13% at the start of the 1980s to 6.5% by the end of the 1990s.
Now the baby boomers are leaving the workforce, we should expect interest rates to rise. Here is Jim's view of where interest rates should be now:

So perhaps the baby boomers were not unreasonable in expecting their investments of the 1980s and 90s to deliver a comfortable retirement. Something has gone badly wrong. But what?

Jim identifies five reasons why interest rates have failed to recover. To many people, they will be all too familiar.

  • Globalisation: offshoring of jobs to cheaper locations and competition from cheaper imports, putting downwards pressure on wages and prices. In the UK, this was compounded by immigration from the EU. 
  • The Great Financial Crisis of 2008: deliberate cuts in interest rates, interventionist central banks preventing buyers' strikes, financial repression and poor wage growth
  • Technology: progressive replacement of humans with robots causes wages and prices to fall
  • Longevity and under-saving: people are living longer, and as already mentioned, older workers have not saved enough, so they are staying in the workforce for longer
  • China's influence on the US Treasury bond yield (which influences all other government bond yields)
As Jim says, "the simplicity of demographic models was attractive, but what worked in a closed economy failed in a connected world". 

For young people, today's low interest rates mean that they have to save much more and take more investment risk to achieve the sort of income in retirement that the post-war generation had. But those who were young adults in the 1980s and 90s don't have enough of their working lives left to build up the size of pension pot now needed to generate a comfortable retirement income. They are looking at a much less prosperous retirement than they expected.
I suspect that the bleaker future facing Britain's older working-age people might help to explain why a high proportion of them self-identify as "have nots", according to a recent survey by Britain Thinks (bottom LH quadrant):

This might go some way towards answering Rick's question - "why are baby boomers so angry"?Younger boomers - those now aged 50-64 - have reason to be angry, as indeed do their 40-something brothers and sisters. Their wages have been stagnant for a decade, their occupational pensions are stuffed and their state pensions are receding into the distance. They are frightened of cuts to the healthcare they will need in retirement and worried that they may have to sell their houses to pay for their care. Many of them blame their precarious financial situation on globalisation, immigration and bankers. And if Jim is right, they have a point. 

So they want to shut the doors, cut the trade ties, kill the parasite financial services industry and jail the bankers. Then they can have their high interest rates back. After all, they paid those rates on their mortgages. Now they expect to receive them on their savings. It's only fair.

And they paid in for their pensions and their healthcare, too. So close the tax loopholes, make the rich pay their fair share and honour the pensions and universal healthcare promises of the past. It's only fair.

There are an awful lot of the baby boomers, and they vote. What they regard as "fair" will dominate political debate for quite a while to come. Resurgent populism now woos the old, not the young. 

This leaves me with two unanswered questions. Firstly, why did people fail to see that the high interest rates of the 1980s and 1990s were anomalous? And secondly, why do Williams and others think low interest rates are here to stay? After all, if people in the 1980s could erroneously believe that high interest rates would last forever, people in 2016 can equally wrongly think that low interest rates are here to stay.

We are short-lived creatures: what seems "normal" to us may simply be a pimple or a dent on the surface of time. Looked at through the lens of 5000 years, the high interest rates of the 1980s and 90s were indeed a pimple, but those who lived through that time did not see it. Looked at through the same lens, today's ultra-low rates look suspiciously like a dent.

As we near the end of the golden age of globalisation, the emerging future looks to be nationalist and protectionist. The world is shrinking, becoming poorer and less connected. We may yet see the return of higher interest rates. If, that is, we don't blow the place up first.

This post has been focused on the UK, but many of the drivers I describe apply equally to other developed nations. Falling interest rates and a sense of betrayal among older people are features of much of the developed world. They are not unique to the UK, despite its unusual occupational pension system. 

Related reading. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Some unpleasant trade realities

Well, this is fun. YouGov has asked the public which countries the UK's new trade negotiators (if and when they are recruited) should prioritise in their quest for free trade deals.

Unsurprisingly, the US and the EU (considered as a whole trading bloc) came top of the list. But as ever, the devil is in the detail. These charts show the difference between the public's perception of the importance of a country versus its exports and GDP rankings:

Now, of course the exports ranking is the current situation. We would expect free trade agreements to change this ranking, since countries with which the UK has free trade agreements should move up the exports ranking, and those with which it does not should correspondingly move down. The EU is currently top of the exports ranking because the UK is part of the single market. Once the UK is no longer part of the single market - as seems increasingly likely - the ranking might change. The GDP ranking is therefore possibly more important, since it indicates export potential.

But what these charts tell us about the public's preferences is disturbing.

Firstly, there appears to be discrimination against Middle Eastern Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are both ranked considerably lower by the public in terms of priority than either their exports ranking or their GDP would justify. Of course, the charts don't extend far enough to include smaller Middle Eastern countries, but it seems unlikely that this negative attitude is limited to those two countries.

Secondly, there is a clear preference for countries that are English-speaking and have historic colonial ties to the UK. That includes the USA, of course. But the effect is more striking for Commonwealth countries. Australia, Canada and South Africa are all significantly over-prioritised by the public relative to both their exports and GDP ranking.

Now, some of the distortion might be due to simple ignorance. Brazil is hugely under-prioritised by the public, and India is somewhat under-prioritised too relative to its GDP. This is perhaps due to public perception that these are poor countries and it would be better to target richer ones such as China and South Korea for exports. It also might reflect fear that removing barriers to imports from those countries - particularly India - would mean losing more manufacturing jobs.

But I fear much of the distortion is not due to ignorance, but tribalism. Europe and the Middle East, both of which have recently been the target of popular anger over immigration, are rejected by many in favour of older alliances. English-speaking countries are favoured over non-English speaking ones. Countries with Christian heritage are preferred over countries where other faiths dominate. Former colonies are prioritised over countries with no historic ties to the UK.

The tribal roots of the public's trade priorities are even more apparent when the voting preferences of those sampled are taken into account. Here are the top five priorities, split by political allegiance:

The split is striking. For those who voted to leave the EU (Leave/UKIP voters), the EU does not even make it into the top 5. But even among Conservative voters, not all of whom would have voted Leave, the EU is fairly low priority. Their allegiance is to what YouGov describes as the "Anglosphere". For all three groups, English-speaking countries are the top priority.

In contrast, for Remain voters and the Liberal Democrats the priority is overwhelmingly Europe. Labour voters are fairly balanced between the USA and EU, but over-prioritise Australia. Indeed the only group that does not significantly over-prioritise Australia is Remain.

Of all the groups, Remain most accurately prioritises in relation to both current export rankings and potential GDP, though it does over-prioritise the EU relative to GDP. But there is a very good reason for this, which appears to be ignored by those who voted to Leave. That is the fact that the UK currently has a free trade agreement with the EU, which it is on the verge of abandoning.

The EU is the destination for half the UK's exports. Leaving the single market without a replacement trade deal would have potentially disastrous consequences for the UK's exporters. Yet those who voted Leave appear to be blissfully ignorant of this. It is folly not to prioritise the EU in trade negotiations.

But why are Leave voters (including UKIP) and many Conservatives so unconcerned about negotiating with the EU? I don't know, but there are a number of possibilities.

Some of them seem to assume that the Article 50 negotiations will establish a new trade agreement, so there is no need for separate negotiation. I've encountered a number of very intelligent people who believe this. Sadly they are wrong. Article 50 negotiation will sort out the terms of the divorce, such as the status of EU and UK migrants and the responsibility for EU pensions. It will not establish a new trade agreement between the UK and the EU. When the UK leaves the EU, it will revert to the same position as any other non-EU country vis-a-vis the EU. There will need to be separate negotiations to re-establish free trade with the EU. These might not take place until after Article 50 negotiations have established the terms of Britain's exit.

It's worth noting, too, that although Britain's exit from the EU only requires a qualified majority vote from the rest of the EU, a new trade agreement would need unanimity. Any one country could veto the entire deal - as the French have said they will do with TTIP. Furthermore, since the precedent recently set by the European Commission with regard to the draft Canadian agreement CETA, a trade agreement with the UK would need to be ratified by the parliaments of all 27 remaining EU member states. That could take a very long time, and the eventual agreement might not be all that favourable to the UK.

Others seem to think that reverting to the EU's standard tariffs for non-EU countries would not affect UK exports. I beg to differ. It would mean an immediate price increase for UK exports to the EU. This is bound to encourage price-sensitive EU importers to look for cheaper alternatives elsewhere. We should expect therefore that leaving the single market with no equivalent agreement in place would cause UK exports to the EU to fall, possibly drastically. It would also affect the EU's exports to the UK, of course - though German cars are pretty price inelastic. There aren't too many alternatives to them at the high end of the UK market.

Finally, some seem to think that losing exports to the EU wouldn't matter because we would have all these lovely new trade agreements with other countries. Never mind the EU, bring on the Commonwealth!

This is frankly delusional. Firstly, countries such as Australia are simply too small to replace the export potential of a trading bloc the size of the EU, depressed though it is. The EU currently accepts 50% of the UK's exports: Australia, 1.6%. Admittedly, these percentages would change if the UK left the single market and agreed a free trade agreement with Australia: but no way could rising exports to Australia compensate for falling exports to the EU. Australia has 23m people: the EU (minus UK), 680m. Australia's GDP is $1.56tn: the EU's (minus UK) about $14tn.

Secondly, despite all the rhetoric, the fact is that the UK is just not that important to countries such as Australia. For some years now, Australia has been establishing itself as one of China's key trading partners. It is one of the very few countries that has a free trade agreement with China, and it is a major partner in Asia's Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership programme, which would establish a free trade area in the entire Asia-Pacific region. This is bound to be far higher on Australia's priority list than a bilateral trade agreement with a country on the other side of the world. India, China , Japan, South Korea and Indonesia are also partners in this programme. The UK is not going to be high on their priority lists, either.

For the USA, sorting out trade relationships with the Asia-Pacific region and with the EU is far more important than a bilateral trade deal with the UK. The TPP and TTIP are both in deep trouble, TPP because of opposition in the USA and TTIP because of opposition in Europe. Deciding what to do about these will be the top priority for the incoming President, whoever that may be.

So that leaves Canada, really. But their principal trading partner is the USA, and they also are trying to finalise a trade deal with the EU. The UK is simply going to be an annoying distraction.

Furthermore, even if the UK could persuade some of these countries to give a bilateral trade deal priority, trade negotiations take a very long time. Agreements with minor countries desperate to trade with someone could perhaps be established quite quickly. But it will be literally years before the UK can establish trade agreements with any major countries or trading blocs.

If the UK ends up leaving the single market, therefore, its future looks bleak for many years to come. It will face tariffs and barriers to trade everywhere in the world, including in Europe where it currently faces none.

The fact is that where global trade is concerned, the public does not know best. Ignorance, tribalism and prejudice are no basis for trade agreements.

The UK's decision to leave the EU is unbelievably stupid. All we have done is "taken back control" of our own decline.  And we will be the poorer because of it.

Related reading:

Modelling the long-run economic impact of leaving the EU - NIESR
Brexit, trade and GVA - NIESR

Image courtesy of the US Treasury. 

Monday, 12 September 2016

Are inheritance taxes unfair?

Are inheritance taxes unfair? Many people think they are. "Why should I be taxed twice on money I've earned during my lifetime?" they say.

This is, of course, a fallacy. Dead people don't pay taxes. Living ones do. So inheritance tax is not double taxation of money the dead person earned while they were still alive. It is taxation of an unearned windfall for the people to whom they leave their assets, usually their children. Other forms of unearned income, such as interest on savings and capital gains, are taxed. Why should someone be taxed on unearned income they receive as a result of investments made from their own earnings, but not on unearned income they receive as a result of investments made from someone else's earnings? That doesn't look very fair, does it? Surely taxing that unearned windfall must be fair. 

No. According to the economist Greg Mankiw, taxing inheritance is fundamentally unfair:
From my perspective, the estate tax is a bad way to tax the rich because it violates the principle of horizontal equity. The basic idea is that similar people should face similar tax burdens.
This opens a whole new can of worms. After all, if the rich and the poor are similar, then a 20% basic rate of tax rising to a 45% top rate of tax is unfair to the rich. Those in favour of flat taxes usually raise this point. Perhaps Mankiw is one of them. But there are very good reasons for taxing the rich more highly than the poor, not least of which is the fact that a similar burden of taxation lies much more heavily on those struggling to pay for essentials than it does on those who want for nothing. "Similar" is in the eye of the beholder.

But let's stick with inheritance tax. Mankiw goes on to provide an example to show why inheritance tax is unfair:
Consider the story of two couples. Both start businesses when they are young. They work hard, and their businesses prosper beyond anything they expected. When they reach retirement age, both couples sell their businesses. After paying taxes on the sale, they are both left with a sizeable nest egg of, say, $20m, which they plan to enjoy during their golden years.
So we are not talking about unfair taxation of the rich versus the poor. We are talking about unfair taxation between rich people. And we are not talking about unfair taxation of one couple's nest egg over the other, either. Inheritance tax would equally be charged on what is left of each couple's nest egg when they die. So what is unfair about that?

One couple lives frugally in order to be able to pass the majority of their wealth on to their children and grandchildren. The other couple has a lavish lifestyle. They have a great party in their declining years, but they leave much less to their descendants. According to Mankiw, these differences in lifestyle choice make inheritance taxes unfair:
So here's the question. How should the tax burdens of the two couples compare? Under an income tax, the couples would pay the same, because they earned the same income. Under a consumption tax, Mr. and Mrs. Profligate would pay more because of their lavish living (though the Frugals' descendents would also pay when they spend their inheritance). But under our current system, which combines an income tax and an estate tax, the Frugal family has the higher tax burden. To me, this does not seem right. 
Now, of course Mankiw has conveniently ignored the existence of state-level sales taxes (or, in Europe, VAT), which would disproportionately be paid by the Profligate family. But he approves of unequal taxation anyway. He is happy for the Profligate family to pay disproportionately higher taxes because of their lavish spending, but not happy for the Frugals to pay disproportionately higher taxes because of their excessive saving.

Mankiw's comment "To me, this does not seem right" exposes the real basis for his opposition to inheritance tax. We have departed from the realm of economics. His argument is a moral one. Frugality is good, profligacy is bad. Tax policy should reward the good and punish the bad. Therefore the Frugals should be excused from taxation on their saving habit, even if the Profligates are taxed on their spending.

The moral belief that saving is inherently good and should be rewarded is deeply ingrained. And in the distant past, when eating the seed corn meant famine next season, there were very good reasons for rewarding saving and punishing consumption. Indeed, that is still the case in many developing countries today.

But in a world where there is not only too much capital floating around but widespread unwillingness of the owners of that capital to put it to productive use, rewarding excessive saving and the transmission of wealth down the generations is counterproductive. In developed countries, there are now very good reasons to tax excessive saving and reward consumption - and indeed this is what the very low interest rates of central banks around the world are doing. We don't view negative interest rates as a tax on saving, but that is what they are.

Mankiw's view of the "family" is perhaps counter-intuitive. He treats the family as an infinitely-lived unit, not as a series of overlapping generations. Inheritance tax is thus taxation of the family's wealth, not its income.

If we were to do a discounted cash flow analysis of the returns from the Frugal family's nest egg out to infinity, we would see that their returns are far higher than the Profligate family's returns. This is due to the Frugal family's patient lifestyle, which Mankiw wants to reward. But I am struggling to see why we should not tax these higher returns. Indeed, I can see some extremely good reasons not only for taxing them, but for taxing them rather highly.

Of course, Mankiw's model is fundamentally flawed. Families are not infinitely-lived, and preferences are not uniform across the generations. The children of Frugals can be Profligate: the children of Profligates can be Frugal. But whatever their own preferences, the fact is that because they inherit wealth, the children of Frugals have a financial advantage that Profligates will never have.

The different lifestyle choices of the Frugals and the Profligates thus create wealth inequality, not for themselves but for their descendants. However hard they work, the descendants of the Profligates will never be as wealthy as the descendants of the Frugals, unless at some point a future Frugal becomes Profligate and blows the lot.

Looked at in this way, we might take the view that NOT imposing inheritance taxes is fundamentally unfair, since it gives an unearned advantage to future generations and progressively widens wealth inequality. Perhaps 100% would be a little steep, but given the compounding effect of intergenerational wealth transfers, inheritance taxes can in my view be pretty high without being remotely unfair.

There is an even more vital reason to tax intergenerational wealth, too. Humans are naturally selfish, envious and belligerent. Those who have wealth tend to hang on to it like mad, while those who don't have wealth tend to try to take it from them. If there is no mechanism for dampening the tendency of wealth inequality to widen down the generations, eventually we have a reset. Usually that takes the form of war, which wipes out lots of wealth (and people). Sometimes we have a revolution, a form of war which explicitly targets the holders of wealth for retribution.

I don't know about you, but I would much rather have explicit taxation of intergenerational wealth than an unstable political economy that generates wars and revolutions because of the buildup of wealth inequality over the generations.

Related reading:

Wealth inequality in the United States since 1913 - Saez & Zucman (pdf)
Capital in the 21st Century - Piketty (book)