08 October 2008

An Englishman's house is his castle in the air

Another day, another impressive range of zeros is wheeled out by the UK government to persuade the heroes-turned-zeros in the banking world to cheer up a bit. As the panic raises another notch seemingly every day, the amounts of money being found behind the back of government sofas gets every more dizzying. It seems to have reached a point where most people are numb to developments; a year ago, a run on a middling UK bank was a sign of the apocalypse. Today, we greet the imminent collapse of titanic high street institutions with barely a raised eyebrow, before changing the channel.

And so it is with the money required to pay for the investment folly of the elite. Today the UK government announced financial guarantees to the money markets worth up to £500 billion, according to the Evening Standard. The BBC, however, reckoned it added up to £400 billion, further proof of this blase response that two media outlets could disagree about the most important news story of the day by the equivalent of total UK annual health budget. As the numbers get ever greater, the nature of what is underpinning the entire economy becomes ever more surreal.

To put it in context, today's announcement guarantees the near-equivalent of the government's entire annual budget. That's like the government not spending money on anything for a year - from paperclips to pensions, DSS leaflets to Darling's tea bags. Think of how much of a fuss was made about the will-they-won't-they vote by the US Congress over the recent US government bail-out. This was more money - both in absolute and relative terms - but do you think our elected representatives will get the chance to tilt at the idiots who got us into this mess, make them sweat a bit? I think all we'll be invited to do is shut up and pass the money.

Assuming the government spending will not immediately cease for a year, they will have to borrow the money. I'm guessing not from the banks they are bailing out. I am also presuming that the collateral used to secure this borrowing is that famous bottomless pit, the UK Taxpayer? So, in fact, the government is not the lender of last resort - I am. And if those loans are called in, who's going to bail out the government?

This begs the question: can I ever be said to own my house if it is, effectively, part of the security against bailiffs reclaiming the entire United Kingdom? No wonder the housing market is a bit flat at the moment.

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