I am a fiction writer. A pulp fiction writer. I do thrillers and thankfully most readers give me ‘couldn’t put the thing down’ type feedback. What I am not is an economist. Like most of us on planet earth I find all the noughts that are kicking around in these troubled times a hard thing to wrap my head around. Yesterday RBS announced they had lost £1.5 billion. So how does that pan out? We own 70% of that particular basket case. So just over a billion is down to us. Let’s make the maths easy. There are about 50 million of us which I guess means that yesterdays news means we are all £20 poorer somewhere along the line. However it seems unlikely that some character from the Treasury is about to knock the door and order me to hand over my £20 to keep RBS trundling along.
At least £20 isn’t too much of a big deal. When we get to the National Debt things get a bit more twitchy. It seems that Great Britain Plc is in hock to the tune of a trillion quid. Now that is a seriously big number – one of those where you lose count of all the noughts if you have a pop at tapping it into a calculator. As a fully accredited British citizen I guess my share is about £20,000. Now that would be a problem if the bankers decided to call the debt in and sent around a few skinhead types wielding baseball bats and demanding twenty grand or else. I sometimes wonder how this works for new British citizens. Do they automatically find themselves £20,000 in debt the very minute they swear allegiance to the Queen? And would they run a country mile is they knew that was the price of life membership of this fading club?
The big numbers we hear the most about are the ones describing the good old ‘structural deficit’. This dreaded figure seems to be somewhere in the region of a hundred billion a year. Am I right in thinking that each of us is adding £2000 a year onto the credit card to make sure that hospitals stay open for business and civil servants get their pensions? I think I am. And things threaten to get seriously twitchy if the credit limit is breached. At the moment it seems like we have one of those sensible credit cards where the interest rate isn’t all that daft. Sure we have a few maxed out store cards that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown used to build schools and hospitals. These are classic 40% APR things where you pay the interest on a direct debit and try not to think about it. But the day to day credit card seems to be OK. In household terms it seems we owe about £5000 and the limit is £7000, so if it goes up by £200 a year and we pay the minimum charge every month then we will be kind of OK. And this is lucky because the monthly salary never covers all the bills. The nightmare scenario comes if the bank reduces the credit limit and all of a sudden we join
in trying to blag payday loans from Wonga carrying an interest rate of 2000%
This in a nutshell seems to be the nub of the problem. All the western governments have binged out on their credit cards and one by one they are getting maxed out. The days of getting a new store card and loading it up are long gone. All over the world the likes of Blair and Brown borrowed tonnes of money to build stuff in order to curry favour for votes. And now the credit limit has been reached. And it would appear that this is absolutely no good for anyone. We are miserable because the economy is shrinking and we are all worried so we daren’t spend any money. The Chinamen are miserable because less and less people are spending any money on their stuff and their factory workers are getting pissed off and rioting. The Germans are pissed off because the Chinese are not in the mood to treat themselves to new Mercs and BMWs. The Brazilians are pissed of because all of a sudden the Chinese are no longer in the mood to pay top dollar and more for their iron ore. And so it goes on. Pretty well everyone in the world is completely pissed off apart from a few Arab Sheiks.
So it’s time for a bit of pulp fiction ‘What if?’
Here’s how the ‘What If?’ plays out. The countries of the G20 meet up to have a collective moan. But instead of merely moaning they come up with a cunning plan to turn around the world economy in one day flat. A delegate brings along twenty photocopies of an article that appeared in the Guardian on 20 July. It tells the story of research undertaken by an economist called James Henry who has been looking into how much cash is stuffed away in off shore bank accounts. And those around the table let out a collective sigh when they get a load of all the noughts. Jesus H Christ! Its £13 trillion. Maybe even £20 trillion. As in more than the combined annual GDP of the
USA and . As in about £2000 for every
man, woman and child in the whole bloody world. Now that is some very serious
amount of the folded stuff. Enough and more to solve every problem in town. Japan
Where the hell can such a ridiculous lump of cash have come from? The dark corners of course. The real black economy where cash is king. Drugs and illegal weapons and sanction busting and tax dodging. Drug cartels and Robert Mugabe and Philip Green and Glasgow Rangers Football Club and Jimmy Carr.
And this time there is a difference when the twenty who are round the table read the article and blow out their cheeks. A proposal is made and accepted unanimously. A cunning plan is hatched and everyone in the room swears a solemn oath to keep the biggest secret in history.
The twenty leaders fly home and call their meetings. The Cobra committee meets under conditions of historic secrecy in the bowels of Downing St. The Prime Minister explains the plan and reveals that
Britain’s two nominated targets are Jersey and the Isle of Man. A tough faced officer from
the SAS base in
lays out his plan which is simple in the extreme. Two teams of 200 guys will be
dispatched to the two island tax havens. At an agreed time they will
simultaneously enter a number of banks and put a gun to the manager’s head. In
almost every way they will follow the tried and trusted bank robbing methods
that go back to Bonnie and Hereford Clyde. The manager
will be required to turn on a TV where he will see the Prime Minister of Great
Britain and Northern Ireland announcing that all deposits held in offshore
accounts are about to be electronically transferred to the International
Monetary Fund. At the very same moment Delta Force guys will be issuing the
good news to bankers in the Cayman Islands.
French Foreign Legionaires will scare the living daylights out of all and
sundry in .
German Special Forces will return to Monaco 68 years after being
chased out by the Allied armies. Luxembourg is a joint effort. Switzerland
Within half an hour the IMF has £13 trillion of hard cash at its disposal. All over the world the super rich log onto their computers and scream in horror. In
Mugabe rants and raves. In Harare
hard pock marked faces register dumb horror. In Bogota Belgravia
the super rich from all points north, south, east and west shed tears of
Then what? Will Philip Green close Top Shop and lay everyone off in a fit of pique? Probably not. Surely he will simply carry on. What else is he about to do now that his treasured nest egg has been taken away? And what if he makes £200 million this year? What to do? Does he pay up £90 million of tax and try and eke out a living on a piddling £110 million? Or does he risk salting it away and then losing it all should the special forces guys come calling again? I guess he would grit his teeth and pay up. And no doubt all the bankers, footballers, hedge fund managers, oligarchs and celebrities would be forced to do much the same. Because where the hell is there in the world that can ever be safe from a co-ordinated strike by the special forces of the countries of the G20?
So then what? Well it would appear that the tax take in
go up by plenty enough to get rid of the structural deficit. The IMF would have
plenty in the tank to sort out the woes of Britain Greece
and Spain and . And the
tax take in the belleagured countries of the Eurozone would shoot up as well.
And the war chest could be used to get the young baby step democracies of the
Arab Spring up and running. And should there be a famine in the Horn of Africa,
the aid bill would be easy enough to cover. And my oh my, wouldn’t
international drugs running and arms selling and sanction busting be so much
trickier to achieve without those ever helpful off shore banks to oil the
So. Am I just a naïve writer of pulp fiction here? I have no idea. What would £13 trillion look like? It wouldn’t be a mountain of notes. It would be virtual money moved from one computer to another: at gun point. Would it turn the world on its head and for the better? Or would it completely melt down the financial system? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe you have. I would love to hear.
Oh and by the way, if anyone wants to take a copy of this blog along to the next G20 summit please feel free to do so. Consider copyright waived.