More Wrong Kind of Growth

Summary

The UK economy experienced another year of modest economic performance in 2017. Despite the technological drive for change across a range of industries, political, public sector, business investment and consumer factors held back the pace of economic development.

The consensus is that there will be ‘more of the same’ in 2018, with the ‘wrong kind of growth’ persisting unless productivity accelerates. Inflation is expected to stay above target but ease back from its exchange rate highs. The risk of recession is higher than the risk of a boom but an improving world economic outlook suggests some upside to offset BREXIT uncertainties.

Even if the forecasters are correct, there should be considerable interest in major structural changes that will be negotiated or get underway this year, especially those related to future trade patterns and industrial strategy.

Against this background, local businesses are confident, operating at high capacity and continuing to face constraints from infrastructure and skills. The need for investment in competitive productivity has never been stronger.

The UK Economy

LATEST EVIDENCE

UK Annual Quarterly Monthly
Real GDP (%ch, yoy) +1.8 (’17) +1.5 (Q4) n.a.
CPI inflation (%ch, yoy) 2.7 (’17) 3.0 (Q4) 3.0 (Dec)
LFS unemployment (%) 4.9 (’16) 4.3 (Q3) 4.3 (Aug-Oct)
Trade deficit* (£bn) -40.7 (’16) -5.8 (Q3) -2.8 (Nov)
Base rate (%) 0.29 (’17) 0.41 (Q4 17) 0.5 (Jan 18)

Source: ONS   *goods and services

The UK economy (table above) ended 2017 with modest growth, high inflation and low unemployment. The trade deficit was probably shrinking a bit and interest rates were starting to edge higher, along the yield curve. There were signs of good activity in some manufacturing and export sectors but the overall mood in many industries was more sombre, with uncertainty about the future weighing on business decision making. At the same time, consumers were restrained by falling real incomes whilst net government and net trade’s contributions were unhelpful, at best.

For 2018, the questions are whether unemployment has troughed, inflation has peaked and growth can be maintained. Most forecasters suggest a slight move away from the ‘wrong kind of growth’ towards more productivity-led activity but the extent of the improvement is expected to be modest. In particular, the consensus of current forecasts is for 1.4% growth and 2.4% inflation, both slower than in 2017.

OBR FORECASTS

There were three key messages from the OBR in November:

  • The cyclical economy is weaker than previously thought: growth projections fell (not forecast to reach 2%p.a. over next 5 years).
  • The structural economy is weaker than previously thought: growth potential dropped to c1.4% per annum (because productivity worse).
  • The fiscal economy is weaker than previously thought: public finances in deficit until 2019/20. (Debt burden stays close to 80% of GDP.)

Essentially, the OBR is predicting more of the same over the forecast period. This can be summed up as “the wrong kind of growth” – growth not fuelled by enough investment, productivity and real earnings.   The economy is operating near to potential and there is little spare capacity. In the near term, BREXIT uncertainty dampens domestic and foreign direct investment, whilst reducing net immigration, compared with what otherwise might have occurred.

There are two broad risks to this OBR central outlook:

  • Fears about BREXIT disruption may be over-stated. New technological innovation, skills and investment may add value more quickly than anticipated. Also, a buoyant world economy could provide more of a local boost, as long as the pound remains competitive and UK trading patterns can be adjusted smoothly. Output and productivity growth may get back to 2% p.a. or more sooner than we think.
  • The forecasts are now so low, however, that the chance of a shock to confidence causing a further slowdown, even recession, cannot be ruled out. Investment and consumption may stagnate because of constrained living standards/high debt burdens, new trade barriers/corporate realignment of capacity and operations, and higher interest rates.

The future is always uncertain but the current UK outlook is particularly so.

ECONOMIC STABILITY

Interest rates remain very low and are only expected to increase slowly over the next few years. Base rates probably need to get back to about 3.5% at some point (roughly equivalent to underlying nominal GDP growth), if pre – Great Recession ‘normality’ is to be restored.

As long as this is done in small, slow steps, such an adjustment need not hurt overall economic growth. There may be some pain for over-extended households and corporate debtors who have not planned properly for higher rates, but a gradual process of change to more ‘normal’ interest levels will improve resource allocation in time – a necessary condition for getting the economy working well and sustainably.

The fiscal side of stabilisation policy remains constrained by historical and projected levels and ratios of debt. Political imperatives may allow some easing of the immediate fiscal stance, but the room for manoeuvre is limited in a low productivity, low growth economy that is losing clarity about access to important international markets.

Structural reform of the public finances is warranted but may be difficult in the current febrile environment of BREXIT and minority government.

The Dorset Economy

LATEST DATA & SURVEYS

The evidence is that the local economy lost a little momentum in the second half of 2017, reflecting the uncertainty about how BREXIT will evolve. It is unclear as to whether this is a real effect or a convenient scapegoat and some local firms are still quite sanguine. Whatever the truth, the impact is the same – more modest growth in 2018.

For example, the collapse of Carillion (15/1/18) suggests construction and public services may lose output in the near term whilst worrying statements from Airbus (FT 16/1/18) about the prospects for aerospace cast something of a cloud over local supply chains. Similarly, there have been a number of reports, notably from the CBI (FT 26/1/18), that contingency plans for “no deal” are being implemented by externally orientated businesses and this will involve a loss of UK jobs.

The latest Federation of Small Businesses Survey (FT 5/1/18) found a high number (1 in 7) of respondents planning to downsize, close or sell the business in 2018. The overall confidence index was negative for only the second time in five years – the other time was just after the BREXIT referendum day 2016. Falling profits were highlighted, as costs increased and demand, especially consumer demand, weakened.

Similarly, the most recent Chamber of Commerce Survey casts a subdued shadow over the business atmosphere. It shows waning confidence in manufacturing and services at a national level. In Dorset, the mood was steadier about current activity and prospects. Locally, in the latest quarter, sales and orders remained positive and employment and exports grew. In the year ahead, more Dorset respondents expect turnover and profitability to rise than to decline. The prospects were steady compared with the previous quarter – an outlook a bit more confident than seen in the country as a whole.

The various Purchasing Managers’ surveys continue to send mixed signals but there was a softening of activity through 2017 in the SW region, including Dorset. The December report showed business confidence about the near future resilient yet the output and employment measures, whilst still positive, were lower. Compared with a year ago, last month’s output reading was down 11% (from 58.7 to 52.2).

Meanwhile, in the year to September 2017, Dorset enjoyed virtually full employment, with most local places’ ratios below national and many below SW regional averages (see next table – SW averages 78% and 3.5% respectively).

Local Labour Indicators (Oct 2016 – Sep 2017)

Emp % Unemp % Emp % Unemp %
Bournemouth 76.4 3.8 Dorset 78.5 2.7
Poole 75.3 3.2 Somerset 74.8 4.0
Christchurch 80.7 2.3 Devon 78.3 3.0
East Dorset 80.6 2.4 Wiltshire 81.0 3.1
North Dorset 83.7 2.5 Southampton 73.3 4.9
Purbeck 85.2 2.3 Portsmouth 74.0 4.3
West Dorset 79.4 2.7 Hampshire 81.1 3.0
Weymouth & Portland 62.8 4.0 Isle of Wight 71.8 4.3

Source: ONS: employment 16-64 age groups, APS. unemployment 16+ economically active

The local labour market is tight and living costs high, making it hard to find and attract new and replacement skills as long as companies are unwilling or unable to pay higher wages. Skills acquisition and retention is a key area in need of improvement if Dorset is to move towards more sustainable, productivity-led growth.

There is also an issue about a shrinking of the ‘middle’ market, with new entrants (16-25 years old) finding it hard to enter and progress along a desired career path (see Prince’s Trust Survey released 24/1/18 – said to reveal “a staggering deterioration of young people’s confidence in themselves and in their future”).

STRUCTURAL FEATURES

In December, the ONS released latest numbers on the GVA breakdown for 2016 for Dorset.  Total GVA was £16.1bn in 2016 (current prices), placing the county 32nd out of the 38 LEP areas – roughly as expected given its relative size. In terms of GVA per head, taking population into account, Dorset achieved £20,900. This broad measure of productive performance showed Dorset to be below regional and national averages, ranking 24th out of the 38 LEPs.

Dorset’s index of GVA per head was 79.3 (UK average = 100) – down on the previous year. For the first time, Dorset was more than 20 percentage points (pps) below the national average, continuing a long-term downward trend.

This slippage in comparable standing is disappointing. Although it reflects a widening gap across the country (Greater London versus the rest), it also indicates a poor relative local productivity record: Dorset GVA per head dropped from just 8.7pps below the UK average in 2000 to 20.7pps below average in 2016.

This fall in the relative GVA per head index is similar to the experience of other south coast areas. Amongst the 12 “southern” LEPs listed in the next table, Dorset ranked 10th on GVA per head. Only four of twelve have seen a positive change over the last two decades.

GVA per head by LEP area, UK = 100 2016 & pps change since 1998

index change   index change
Cornwall & IoS 64.8 -0.5 Solent 91.7 -8.9
Heart of the SW 75.2 -4.7 Oxfordshire 126.6 +6.9
Dorset 79.3 -9.4 Coast to Capital 95.6 -10.5
Gloucestershire 99.1 +3.0 Bucks Thames Valley 114.3 -12.7
Swindon & Wilts 96.9 -12.2 Enterprise M3 122.3 +2.1
West of England 111.5 +4.5 Thames Valley Berks 158.4 -6.1

Source ONS.

Recent growth in Dorset GVA has been in services, with most growth in business and financial services and least in manufacturing and resources. Production has gone from 23.5% of the economy in 1998 to 18.5% in 2016. This 5% loss has shifted largely to private services (not including real estate).  Within Dorset, about two-thirds of the GVA was generated in the east Dorset conurbation – Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch and East Dorset (next table shows details).

GVA & GVA per head within Dorset: All industries

£mn £/head GVA % share
Bournemouth 4,145 20,971 25.7
Poole 3,964 26,167 24.6
Christchurch 1,019 20,596 6.3
East Dorset 1,693 18,999 10.5
North Dorset 1,233 17,354 7.6
Purbeck 879 18,962 5.5
West Dorset 2,322 22,905 14.4
Weymouth & Portland 875 13,386 5.4

Source: ONS

The Government’s recently announced Industrial Strategy (below) aims to correct some of the imbalances and inadequacies displayed by the latest GVA statistics.

The annual GVA regional performance publication will always be one of the areas where future analysts will observe whether the Industrial Strategy is having the desired effect.

The Development Outlook

BREXIT & TRADE

More open trade deals between customs unions/countries are intended to increase economic welfare for all partners to the agreement by reducing barriers to exchange in the markets and sectors covered by the agreement, i.e. by increasing economic efficiency, productivity and wealth.

Economic analysis shows decisively, in theory and in practice, that movement towards open (freer and fairer) trade is a net ‘good’ for all concerned. It is one of the things on which virtually all economists agree: more open trade increases competition, raises productivity and boosts living standards for trading partners as resources are re-allocated to reflect absolute and comparative advantage. Although there may be internal distribution issues, all macro parties are better off.

Historically, most trade deal activity has been based on trade in products rather than services but, increasingly, more agreements are likely to be made about the latter. It is important, however, to remember that trade deals are political as well as economic animals. Sadly, the spirit of mercantilism – the view that trade is a zero-sum game with winners (surplus generators) and losers (deficit generators) – is far from dead. In a world of “America First” and “Deutsche vorherrshaft”), Ricardian views of trade – that efficient and mutual specialisation means it is not a zero-sum game) – need to be defended.

This is what is worrying about BREXIT. For example, one of the UK’s comparative advantages is in financial services. Shifting capacity from London to Paris, because of reduced EU access freedoms/passports for the former, merely diminishes both countries’ ability to create total wealth most effectively: a potentially negative reallocation of resources.

The problem is that BREXIT does the opposite to ‘normal’ trade negotiations. For any likely eventual UK-EU terms, it leads to a constraint on trade rather than a liberalisation. Even if, in the long run, ‘freer’ trade deals are agreed with other trading blocs, it will be many years for the near-term losses to be compensated for. There are costs of losing ‘single access’ for both sides.

Also, under BREXIT, failure to set a trade deal with the EU does not mean, as it usually does, a return to the status quo. It results in a less open move to WTO rules. Countries that have a ‘better than WTO’ trade deal with the EU – e.g. Norway, Switzerland, Canada, South Korea – and those further along in the trade negotiations – over 50 in total – would have better access to EU markets than the United Kingdom after a ‘hard’ BREXIT.

Both the EU and the UK lose trade opportunities from a failure to agree favourable terms. Currently, the EU takes c40% of UK exports. The UK takes c10% of EU exports. At the margin, it is not easy for either to substitute these patterns with new markets quickly.

Finally, there are the psychological effects on supply chains – club members tend to deal more with themselves than outsiders – even at an economic cost. There are already reports that UK companies are finding it hard to get onto the list of potential suppliers in the EU after March 2019 and attracting EU ‘talent’ is getting tougher.

There are always winners and losers when trading structures change but BREXIT, by meaning less open trade, means the average UK citizen will be poorer than would otherwise have been the case – unless there is speedy substitution elsewhere. Future politics will be judged on whether this price is material or not and on whether it turns out to be a price worth paying. It is hoped we do not have a populist, more closed economy by the early 2020s.

INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY

Turning to the Industrial Strategy released in November One of the government’s key ‘antidotes’ to BREXIT trade affects, the key point is that it presents a worthy intention to tackle the UK’s long-established and widening productivity ‘gap’ (with its closest competitors) by rebuilding the underlying capacity and export competitiveness of UK sectors, places and workers. The issue is whether it yet amounts to more than throwing everything into the kitchen sink and seeing if anything floats!

The Industrial Strategy is a long-term plan to boost productivity and earnings, based on five foundations – re-packaging the drivers of productivity as follows:

  • Ideas (innovation): raise R&D as a percentage of GDP, turn more inventions into markets, and preserve and extend collaboration between economic actors.
  • People (skills): advance technical education, STEM and retraining – raising quality, filling gaps, and spreading spatial capacity and opportunity.
  • Infrastructure (investment): expand transport, housing and digital infrastructure and use public procurement to build resource efficiency.
  • Business Environment (entrepreneurship and competitiveness):
    generate government-industry sector deals, make UK the place to start and grow businesses, and develop a fiscal system that supports scale-ups and exports.
  • Places (local capacity and competitiveness): produce local industrial and transforming cities strategies that narrow regional productivity differentials and other disparities through local leadership and co-operation between places.

The Strategy announces sector deals for the life sciences, construction, artificial intelligence, and automotive industries and proposes ones for creative industries, industrial digitalisation, and nuclear. It also intends to form a team that will support future (emerging and disruptive) sectors.

The Strategy presents four Grand Challenges for the industries of the future – aspiring to a fourth industrial revolution of technological fusion. The four are: artificial Intelligence & big data, future mobility, clean growth, and ageing society. If engaged, Dorset can feature positively in each of these areas.

The Strategy also promises a review of LEP roles. The Industrial Strategy requires Dorset to produce its own Local Industrial Strategy under the LEP’s guidance, although when, what and how this will be done is not yet clear.

The Strategy talks about the composition of the UK economy, with its world class heights but much mediocrity, as being a major cause of relatively low productivity. Any new policies to address this need to emphasize how sustained growth is generated: globally competitive productivity growth on the supply side and greater trading engagement on the demand side.

The Industrial Strategy discusses many of the ‘right’ issues and proposes to act on many of the ‘right’ levers. The timescales, resourcing and processes are unresolved, but it is a reasonable framework for future development, based, as it is, on improving national and local productivity performance.

As with all UK government’ approaches to sub-national development, however, the uncertainties are about long term political commitment and consistency, especially in an era of changing international economic relationships, and about private sector and local buy-in across industry and place.

For Dorset and its neighbours, the important thing is to improve existing economic linkages – markets, supply chains and wider connectivity – and to develop new ones. We need more connective agglomeration, higher aspirations and a positive attitude towards personal, business and community development.

Broken: Budget, Brexit & OBR

The key economic message from (yesterday’s) UK 2017 Budget is that there was something of a loosening of macro fiscal policy with a number of measures aimed at encouraging investment and growth.  Analysis of the details is covered by many commentator elsewhere.  The main point of our interest here is the changed OBR view of the overall economy’s future.  It suggests fiscal policy is not going to do much for absolute or relative UK productivity and competitiveness in the next few years.

The most important OBR message is that growth stays below 2% per annum (averaging about 1.4%) because productivity only increases from just below to just above 1% per annum for the foreseeable future.  In consequence, unemployment rates start to rise (though still below 5%) and the inflation rate peaks shortly and falls back to target (2% per annum).  Real earnings start to rise modestly, but only from 2019.  The rise in business investment is anchored at about 2.4% per annum and household consumption increases at a similar rate to the economy as a whole (averaging 1.4%).  Net trade contributes nothing.  As a result, the government deficit ratio drops slowly from over 2% to about 1% over five years and the public sector net debt peaks at 86.5% of GDP in 2018/19 but is still as high as 79% by 2022/23.

The message is stark.  If the central forecast is for growth below 2% a year, the downside risks could be ominous.  If Brexit imposes new barriers to trade, as currently seems likely, the risk of recession becomes far from negligible.  The need to fix the ‘broken’ model of UK development is profound.  Whether it comes from a domestic resurgence fueled by policy on skills, innovation and investment, from an indigenous spark of entrepreneurship and competitiveness (cheap £), and/or from new trade deals with various parts of the growing world, the productivity deficiency has to be closed.  An Industrial Strategy white paper is expected shortly.  The economics and development community will need to interrogate this closely and deeply when it comes.  The fear is that it’s all too late to avoid a harsh economic period in the years ahead.  The broken economy needs mending.

Wrong Kind of Growth

UK inflation hit 3% in September (CPI) and it doesn’t look like reversing downwards soon.  Growth (real GDP) is running at no better than 2%.  Whenever inflation rate > growth rate, it makes one nervous.

Moreover, we have the “wrong kind of growth”: driven by employment growth that is not productivity-led.  Real wages are falling, interest rates and exchange rates are still too low.  The trouble is that cheap labour and cheap money tends to fuel mediocre growth, at best.  Incentives to invest in new capital, innovation and skills are depressed, made worse by current trading uncertainty (BREXIT plus Trump).  Creative destruction is stalled, supporting unproductive ‘zombie’ companies.  Weak sterling offers competitive advantages but can also lower the incentive to do so.

The consensus is that growth will remain subdued through 2018 and  beyond.  Suppressed trade/investment and stretched household/public finances reflect the fundamental productivity gap.  To delay the next recession, we need more investment in the digital revolution in services and, thus, the adjustments needed to skills and innovation that will drive entrepreneurship and competitiveness.  And, that means better inter and intra regional connectivity and higher business aspiration.

The upcoming UK budget/industrial strategy (and the BREXIT negotiations) should focus on these areas of regional development.

Summer of Uncertainty

After an indecisive General Election, and with the BREXIT negotiations now underway, the political runes remain hard to read. Meanwhile, the global economic context is unstable and the economic outlook uncertain.

The financial markets and UK and foreign-owned businesses have reacted warily to the process of regulatory and trading change that is now underway. In contrast, many households are over-borrowing whereas many businesses have robust cash reserves. This and other economic imbalances are profound, especially with respect to productivity, trade and the public finances- regardless of how BREXIT proceeds.

Against this background, the latest data show a mixture of below trend growth and above target inflation, with high employment, low unemployment and, still, low interest rates. Consumer and business surveys remain largely positive but there is a marked contrast between negative real wage growth (hurting average households) and, despite poor productivity figures, improving profitability (net rates of return for average businesses).

Meanwhile, the key business issues are ones of skills deficiencies and tight labour markets contrasting with some caution over investment and competitiveness. Generally, the economy is growing but losing some momentum.

Latest evidence

  Annual (2016) Quarterly Monthly
Real GDP (%ch, yoy) +1.8 +1.7 (Q2 17) n.a.
CPI inflation (%ch, yoy) +0.7 +2.7 (Q2 17) +2.6 (Jun)
LFS unemployment (%) 4.9 4.6 (Q1 17) 4.5 (Mar-May)
Trade deficit* (£bn) -£37bn -£8.8bn (Q1 17) -£3.1bn (May)
Base rate (end %) 0.25 0.25 (Q2 17) 0.25 (July)

Source: ONS   *goods and services

Economic growth may be petering out, with household spending constrained by prospects for real incomes (earnings not compensating for higher inflation, despite high employment). Investment remains modest and net trade in massive deficit (overall, price effects outweighing substitution effects despite some headline successes). Longstanding UK economic weaknesses persist.

It is always regrettable when the inflation rate exceeds the growth rate (see table above). UK growth went from fastest to slowest amongst the G7 over the year to Q1 2017. For April-June, there was a tiny bounce but, it appears to be one of the ‘dead cat’ variety. In the first half of the year, UK real GDP growth was running at half the rate it did in the second half of 2016. Given the uncertainty surrounding BREXIT, most forecasters expect this underlying loss of pace to persist.

On the policy front, the ‘hung’ Parliament suggests some erosion of fiscal austerity might occur. It could also mean a stalling (before it has really begun) of the “Modern Industrial Strategy” – the white paper is now promised before end year. It is to be hoped that uncertainty about the BREXIT negotiations and the government’s lack of a strong electoral mandate do not stand in the way of positive action on public investment at home.

Meanwhile, with inflation above target and expected to remain so, albeit lower in June than May, the Bank of England remains extremely loose. Contrast its unchanged interest rate and QE stance with the actual and pronounced movement to a ‘less loose’ position by the US Federal Reserve, as the US recovery builds. It will be interesting to see if the European Central Bank, already talking about having removed the risk of deflation, abandons its negative interest rates and its QE measures later this year – now that the EU economy is grinding out some forward momentum (at least its better bits).

Financial Stability

The Bank of England’s latest Financial Stability Report (June 2017) describes the current domestic financial position as having risks at a “standard level”, which seems to mean ‘broadly normal, no immediate threats”). Nevertheless, the Financial Policy Committee (FPC) is highlighting four main “pockets of risk” that “warrant vigilance”.

  • Consumer credit is growing too fast (+10.3% in the year to April 2017), especially in unsecured loans for motor vehicles, credit cards and other personal loans. Because the maturity on these types of credit are relatively short, loan viability can deteriorate rapidly if the macro environment becomes adverse. The FPC is concerned about the commercial banks relaxing loan criteria and cutting margins. It is asking whether risk is being correctly priced by the banking sector. Some commentators worry that consumer finances look precarious, as they did in the pre-crisis days of 2007.
  • Mortgage debts are high (average debt/income ratio above 100%) and potentially vulnerable to higher interest rates. Although the latter are unlikely to rise sharply in the foreseeable future, debt levels are high enough relative to incomes to suggest even small changes could prove problematic. Periods of economic adjustment can be worsened by an unbalanced mortgage market because mortgage payments tend to be maintained by households as interest rates rise or incomes are lost, requiring other spending to be cut. This can transmit adverse mortgage effects quickly to the wider macro economy. Indeed, banks with bad loans in housing tend to react by reducing lending to the rest of the economy/unrelated sectors, reinforcing any macro downturn. The FPC is asking banks to stress test their home loan books for mortgage rates 3% above current standard variable rates, indicating where we might be heading on rates over the longer term.
  • Financial market assets may be overvalued. UK bond yields are very low (-c2% for 10-year gilts) and volatility is minimal. Commercial property values are high and some would argue that corporate share values are overstretched. Sudden corrections in these markets could have significant impacts on broad financial stability and detrimentally affect macro growth.
  • Although world growth has accelerated recently, the FPC identifies some global risks, particularly the high debt levels supporting growth in China and the high exposure of UK banks to any correction there. It is also concerned about the continuing high-level of non-performing loans in Italy and ‘peripheral’ Europe. The ‘holes’ in the books of the Italian banks could yet undermine the euro.

Beyond these four risks, the FPC also mentions concern for the banks if disorder from the BREXIT negotiations emerges and vulnerability to cyber-crime is exposed.

Overall, the banks have strengthened their capital positions markedly since the 2008/9 crisis but their profitability remains weak. Stress tests reveal that resilience is good but, given the risks highlighted above, continued vigilance is required. The FPC is right to be watching closely and recommending early action to prevent excesses in UK banking.

Macro Stability

Meanwhile, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England is beginning to talk about raising interest rates and starting the process of ‘normalisation’ – by reducing the overhang of liquidity from quantitative easing (QE). In May, the MPC vote was 5-3 in favour of keeping the base rate at 0.25%. The ‘mood’ music is that the Bank wants to prepare the markets and other economic actors for a slow tightening of monetary policy from here.

Although inflation is now above target, the MPC does not expect this to last because, as yet, there is no momentum towards higher inflation from the labour market. The drop in the ‘headline’ inflation rate from May to June (back to 2.6%) was taken as evidence for this view. Accordingly, there will be no major increase in interest rates soon. Thereby, the ‘awkward’ incentives provided by prolonged low interest rates, which continue to hinder the savings/investment process, and to support unsustainable domestic debts and so-called ‘zombie’ firms, look likely to persist.

Since the General Election, there has been some debate about the future of the governments’ ‘austere’ approach to fiscal policy. Some loosening may be seen in the Autumn Budget but the internal Conservative Party conflict between ‘wets and dries’ and ‘brexiteers and remainers’, and about the future leadership makes any prediction on this front futile. Fiscal policy is just another uncertainty for business and households to deal with.

Macro stability also hangs on the ‘success’ of the UK’s trade negotiations with Europe and other major trading blocs. New impediments to free trade, real (tariffs, quotas, regulation or other trade barriers) and psychological (affecting aspiration and trade engagement by UK and foreign companies), would be a major blow to productive potential, trend and achieved growth, and future living standards. As recent discussion of the demands of the strong agricultural and health lobbies in America indicate, the UK willingness to do non-EU trade deals is confronted by the reality of BREXIT transition and the potential need for difficult compromises and unforeseen consequences.

The Economic & Development Outlook

At the time of the pre-election Budget (March 2017), the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) set out modest and largely flat economic prospects for the UK economy.  Since then, other forecasters, including the OECD and the IMF (down from 2% to 1.7% for 2017 real GDP growth and 1.4% for 2018), have been moderating their views and helping to create a more subdued consensus. For example, the latest (June) HM Treasury monthly survey of independent forecasters shows growth at 1.6% and inflation at 3% in 2017 and 1.4% and 2.5% respectively in 2018. The equivalent unemployment rates are 4.9% and 5.1%. The current account deficit and public-sector net borrowing improve a little but remain excessive.

Overall, the UK and local economies are forecast to slow down further over the year ahead, with a small increase in unemployment and still weak productivity. There is a strong real and policy need to break this pattern (see our Local Economy briefing 19 – Productivity Revisited – released with this report). The promised “Modern Industrial Strategy”, including significant real investment in productivity-growing capacities, is sorely needed.

Conclusion

During this summer of uncertainty, UK macro stability is being tested by a global and domestic environment that is undergoing profound structural and psychological change.

Feeling Fine?

God Save America.  2016 will go down as the year of Brexit and Trump.  REM sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.”  At the moment, it feels like the end of the global economy as lead by the anglo-countries.  It’s hard to feel fine because markets and economies hate uncertainty and we now have uncertainty in profusion.

Why are economists worried?  Uncertainty usually puts the brakes on investment.  Simply, weaker investment means lower output, fewer jobs, weaker productivity and worse standards of living compared with what might otherwise have been.

Intervention to mitigate these negative effects might be possible … but it’s hard to do that in economies where the public debt is already too high and interest rates are far too low.  Without adverse implications, it’s difficult to add to the public debt, spend more and tax less when fiscal policy is over-borrowed.  It is very hard to encourage productivity-enhancing private investment when expected returns are so depressed.

President-elect Trump said in his victory statement that his administration would double US growth and hinted that this would be done by recourse to massive infrastructure renewal.  That may work but it would be a hard task in good times.  Starting from here, it looks impossible without a high risk of scary repercussions – higher taxes, higher inflation and much higher interest rates … eventually.

It feels like the end of the world economic order as we’ve known it over the last sixty years.  Maybe, we can look back in ten years time with relief about how well it all went but, right now, it don’t feel fine.  God save us all.

The Economy – After BREXIT

SUMMARY

On 23rd June, the UK electorate voted to ‘leave’ the EU (BREXIT). The immediate economic consequence was a collapse in Sterling, making exports cheaper and imports dearer. Over time, this might help growth and add to inflation. However, the referendum result increased uncertainty about the economic outlook and may reduce net new investment, output and jobs in the months ahead and beyond.

More firms and investors now seem less confident about the outlook for growth. The survey evidence and the forecast consensus has shifted downwards, acknowledging that there is some risk of negative real GDP growth, higher inflation and lower employment.

In addition, upheaval within the leading UK political parties, the lack of terms/a plan to smooth the UK approach to BREXIT, and concerns over the forthcoming presidential election in the United States all encourage a ‘wait and see’ attitude amongst key businesses.

With forward indicators weakening, the economy is still constrained by fundamental weaknesses: low productivity growth and competitiveness (as shown by persistently large trade deficits). For the foreseeable future, uncertainty over BREXIT will not improve these factors.

Latest evidence

  Annual Quarterly Monthly
Real GDP (%ch, yoy) +2.2 (2015) +2.2 (Q2) n.a.
CPI inflation (%ch, yoy) 0.0 (2015) +0.4 (Q2) +0.5 (Jun)
LFS unemployment (%) 5.4 (2015) 5.1 (Q1) 4.9 (Mar-May)
Trade deficit* (£bn) -36.6 (2015) -12.4 (Q1) -2.3 (May)
Base rate (%) 0.5  (2015) 0.5  (Q2) 0.5  (Jul)

Source: ONS   * goods and services

Growth in the UK economy was fairly modest and flat through the first half of 2016. Despite global/national political and economic uncertainty, as the table above indicates, real growth was maintained close to trend (just over 2% year-on-year), inflation remained well below the 2% per annum policy target (though it edged a little higher) and the drop in unemployment may have started to flatten out (at about 5%). The net trade deficit was still enormous and the loose money and austere fiscal policy stance was largely unchanged. Productivity growth remains too low for sustained and sustainable UK growth.

If real GDP growth now slips below 2% per annum, employment growth will ease or reverse and little or no improvement in productivity can be envisaged. Meanwhile, the recent (roughly 9%) drop in Sterling will boost future inflation. The economic outlook, especially in the face of having to unwind or replace trade, regulation and other business-facing agreements within the EU and other partners, has deteriorated.

Local Economy & Development

The latest purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for SW England shows SW output fairly good but employment slipping back in June. These figures were recorded “pre-BREXIT”. Moreover, the SW regional economy tended to soften through the first half of 2016.

For the PMI series, apart from momentum over time, the crucial benchmark is whether the indices are above or below 50. The former indicates growth and the latter stagnation. It will be interesting to see, in response to BREXIT, whether the next reading for SW PMI output, (to be issued mid-August), will edge below the 50-benchmark, as the UK average did in July and the SW employment index already had done in June. Thereafter, the question is whether negative “BREXIT effects” persist.

Other surveys have shown similar recent trends. For example, the British Chamber of Commerce Survey for the latest quarter pointed to “sub-par UK economic growth even prior to the EU-referendum”. With regard to the future outlook, the mood has been generally more cautious than it was, with many sectors from manufacturing, through retailing and car sales, to property and other services declaring a sudden loss of business momentum after the referendum. What little evidence we have suggests there was an immediate drop in household spending, affecting retailing, tourism and leisure locally; a decline in property movements – affecting commercial and housing sales; and a continuation of caution with respect to business investment.  We do not know whether these were temporary or persistent effects.

In response to these developments, and the aggravated risks and eventual opportunities that lie ahead, the development question is how businesses and the various public agents mitigate any negative impacts. The significant drop in sterling will help some (exporters) but not all (importers and exporters dependent on imports of components and materials). In time, the likely increase in a range of input, factory and final prices will affect some supply chains and household budgets. Moreover, there is a fear that the continuing banking malaise (with share values down sharply from already low levels) may dampen the flow of credit – a key ingredient for maintaining growth.

The Bank of England stands ready to support the financial system (e.g. by relaxing banking capital requirements, lowering base rates, and issuing more quantitative easing). It believes the banking and insurance sectors are much more resilient to shocks than they were in 2008. Also, the new “May-Hammond” Treasury has indicated that it may be more willing to borrow and spend than its predecessor. Its ‘new’ industrial/EU-funding policies, however, are far from clear, (especially as the Business Department is being reformed).

Economic Outlook

According to the latest consensus compiled by HM Treasury (see table below), growth will be very sluggish in the next 18 months. The average forecast is for growth rates well below trend in 2016 and 2017 whilst CPI inflation is now expected to exceed the target (2% per annum) during 2017 and unemployment to rise back above 5.5%.

According to these ‘experts’, the outlook has changed dramatically. Indeed, average forecasts for growth in 2017 slumped from 2.1% (June survey) to only 0.8% (July survey) after the BREXIT vote. Moreover, the current account and public debt positions are worse for 2016 and only expected to improve marginally in 2017. The Bank of England perspective (in its forthcoming August Inflation Report) is expected to show a similar warning about a deterioration in economic prospects.

BREXIT has induced a change in mood, with the consensus about economic prospects shifting markedly downwards in recent weeks. Indeed, the drop in forecasters’ expectations has gained real expression with the downgrading of UK debt by the major credit rating agencies, the drop in the value of UK banking and other stocks, and the Bank of England’s FPC recent highlighting of risks to the financial system.

UK Consensus Forecasts: July 2016

  2016 2017
Growth +1.6 +0.8
Inflation +1.3 +2.4
Unemployment 5.3 5.6
  2016/17 2017/18
Current Account (£bn) -103.1 -82.1
PSNB (£bn) 67.4 58.3

Source: HM Treasury

Some of the new negative sentiment may fade after the initial shock but the danger is that the process of extracting the UK from the EU will generate a series of economic and political ‘aftershocks’ to the markets and the real economy and this could deplete confidence at a fundamental level.

As we have written before (see previous posts), the economics of BREXIT are straightforward. In summary, the creation of economic barriers, borders or boundaries, whether real or psychological, always leads to an increase in costs. That increase in costs, exacerbated by broader uncertainty, stalls investment, reduces output and cuts employment compared with what otherwise might have occurred. Thereby, the outlook for productivity and trade deteriorates.

The resulting fall in business profits and household incomes means less revenue for the government, which requires further fiscal austerity unless the government is willing to borrow more and grow the public deficit. In turn, these factors reduce realised and potential economic activity and confidence. At the same time, as higher costs are pushed through the supply chain, more inflation is generated, which, if accompanied by higher state borrowing, means, at some point, higher interest rates – a further dampener on future domestic demand.

It is important to note that in all these economic linkages and trends, we refer to outcomes in net, macro terms. There will be companies and workers in particular sectors that will benefit from the countervailing forces that always occur within any process of economic adjustment. There will be individual ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The key observation, however, is that the net effect, for the economy as a whole and for the foreseeable future, is one of worsening growth prospects.

BREXIT will affect many Southern businesses and households. Some of these effects will be immediate and obvious; some will be postponed and insidious and some will not have noticeable impacts for several years. But, on average, in due course, less investment means less growth and lower living standards. We must not be distracted by one-off (good or bad) data releases or items of business news over the weeks and months ahead. The important thing is the change to performance potential, and its realisation, over the long run.

In the long run (after 2020), the economy may start to recover (assuming no major global ‘shocks’) from BREXIT.   In the very long term (perhaps, eight years plus), it may be back, or even beyond, where it might have been without BREXIT. The economy is a dynamic creature made up of millions of individual and group actors with diverse characteristics and behaviours. Uncertainty creates opportunity as well as fear. Human beings are inventive, innovative and entrepreneurial, especially as new generations emerge without the baggage of history. It is reasonable, therefore, to remain a long-term optimist about the economy.

For the near future, however, the prognosis is for a period/process of negative adjustment.

  • In the short run, this is likely to harm sectors dependent on current household and business spending first, though these effects may be temporary if incomes and employment hold up over the rest of 2016.
  • In the medium term, it will be the new trading adjustments that matter: 1) sterling depreciation helping exporters unless they are vulnerable to supply chain shifts caused by political uncertainty and higher import prices and 2) trade agreements and new tariff regimes for UK businesses active across the world. Both positive and negative effects are likely to ensue here.
  • In the long run, changes to corporate investment strategies will drive the impact. It is unlikely that global companies will see UK locations and facilities as favoured areas for investment to gain access to the wider European market. Importantly, it is changes at the margin that matter, specifically the potential for erosion of commitment to existing UK operations over time. Behavioural changes will gradually impact replacement and new investment demand. In a decade, the fear is that the next family of aerospace, motors and other engineering and electronics products and services go, at least partially, elsewhere, as trading costs and regulatory frameworks adjust to a new political reality

Analysis of current economic prospects makes regional development activity to boost the drivers of productivity even more vital. The development policy and delivery question is whether the negatives can be mitigated in terms of repairing or building local competitiveness over time. Even as the BREXIT storm rolls over us, we must prepare for better days.

BREXIT 3 – the decision

A small majority of UK voters have chosen to ‘leave’ the EU.  Now we will reap the economic deluge in terms of financial market shocks, lower investment and fewer jobs.  It will take a few years for the negotiations to assert some certainty back on the future path of trade and exchange.  It will take longer for the negative effects on inward investment to work themselves out.  The UK economy will be weaker than it otherwise would have been for up to a decade.  The SW economy will be poorer as key factories and facilities across the region are sidelined or lost, many household incomes are reduced and fiscal transfer resources are diminished.

The question, then, is how we respond to and mitigate these choices and negative effects.  The next Prime Minister, as well as negotiating with all our partners, has to instigate policies that will increase investment, raise productivity and drive development whilst dealing with the probable break up of the United Kingdom.  Hopefully, by 2025-30, we can look back and say “well, it was a painful adjustment but we did it and now the future looks bright again for England” (alone?).  Today, it’s hard to look ahead with confidence but the hard work starts now.

New Year Blues – Waves of Uncertainty

In early 2016, the world economy appears to be floundering. The imbalances of financial, trade and other flows that were exposed by the “Great Recession” have never been properly resolved. Waves of new uncertainties are taking their toll, breeding fear into business and investor confidence at a time when stabilisation policy options are stretched and seemingly ineffective.

The first uncertainty concerns the Chinese Economy.  China is still growing faster than many others and there is no particular reason why the slowing of Chinese real GDP growth to what are still relatively fast rates (over 5% per annum) should affect the mood right now as opposed to in any other period – past or future.  A correction, however, is underway, as a) the Chinese currency falls, b) Chinese political risk rises – pushing its claims over various offshore islands, c) accusations are made about Chinese product dumping in US and EU markets, and d) financiers worry about China’s ability (and will) to continue propping up subsidised industries and banks carrying bad debts.

The second uncertainty reflects events across the Middle East and North Africa to do with Syrian and other civil and religious wars and terrorism, population disruption and exodus, and relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Russia and the West are also at loggerheads and relations between the EU and its near neighbours are strained to east and south.  Some of these issues look irredeemable at the moment. The failure to constrain the effects of the conflict to a small geographical area could be serious.

The third (and partly related) uncertainty is the oil and other commodity markets. The drop in prices undermines fiscal stability, growth and earnings in a number of countries, led by Russia, Brazil and even Australia.  Oil prices have fallen below US$30 a barrel. It is not unusual for oil prices to have periods of high volatility and wide swings as the demand and supply balance adjusts. Although there are significant lags in the process of adjustment, what goes down will come up. Already, there is talk of the supply chain drowning in oil. This will lead to stoppages, closures and mothballing at the wellhead. Supply will fall again and, since world demand continues to grow, oil prices will get back to US$100 a barrel – not now, but eventually.   Meanwhile, low oil prices are good for most of the business economy, at least in the short term. Why are investors panicking about something that should be boosting non-oil profits now? Methinks, it is another case of too much contagion for the markets’ own good.

The fourth uncertainty is about equities themselves. Was the run up in share prices over the previous three years or more a ‘sugar high’ related to the enormous liquidity pumped into the system through various bouts of Quantitative Easing and related monetary largesse by the West’s central banks? Is there real value in the corporate world or is it all built on sand? Today, the markets seem to believe the latter. But, they may be wrong. First, a lot of the excess liquidity was never made active. Second, technological progress and innovation is gathering rather than losing pace. Despite some demographic ageing, the medium to long-term prospects for growth and development do not seem diminished. Yes, we need to get western productivity rates up to support living standards but that calls for more investment and net inward migration, not less. There is a positive story to tell about the underlying economy that should outweigh the short-term ‘bears’, eventually.

The fifth uncertainty surrounds politics in America and Europe. The possibility of a Clinton-Trump contest for the US presidency in next November’s election is alarming many. One is reminded of Churchill’s famous statement along the lines of “America will always do the right thing … after it has flirted with all the other options”.   There may be scope, therefore, for a political bounce in economic prospects, as we approach the election and a rational outcome seems more likely. Meanwhile, there is the matter of UK-EU negotiations for ‘real’ reform and the UK’s in-out referendum. The current betting is on some sort of ‘offer’ kicking off the full referendum debate in late February and being resolved by a vote in the summer. The polls are close and the reform proposed is unlikely to satisfy the sceptics. The question is whether the majority of middle-ground Brits will “do the right thing” in the end? No one knows. But, I worry about the investment delaying and diverting effects of the debate and the vote itself. In the short term, why would companies invest in UK industries until a resolution of ‘BREXIT’ emerges? In the long term, why would you expand UK operations if access to the single EU market is no longer guaranteed on competitive terms? To a regional development economist, borders and boundaries are always a constraint on economic potential and performance.

So, there are five reasons to be unsure about the external environment for UK economic prospects. How do domestic factors play into this mix?

First, 2015 was a year of slowdown. Real GDP growth was barely on trend (c 2.3%) and was weaker at the end of the year than at the start. There was no inflation overall, although this hid wide swings between segments, such as houses (+7.7% year to November) and energy (-7.3% year to December). Meanwhile, unemployment fell to 5.1% overall (September-November). The employment-led recovery is intact but, inherently, it is unable to spark a strong upturn without support from higher productivity, which remains in the doldrums – at a level only just above its previous peak. The demand chain is propped up by the effects of modest real earnings growth on private consumption but, unless and until it is supported by other demand factors (business investment and net trade), this is not going to last – especially if, as expected by the forecasters, the labour market is now leveling off.

Second, the economy is not rebalancing. The trade deficit remains huge and volatile, and the current account is being worsened by a collapse in returns from UK FDI abroad. At about 5% of GDP, the current account deficit remains unsustainable for the long term. Also, manufacturing continues to struggle against global headwinds, as typified by the headline loss of capacity in the steel industry. Manufacturing output is still some 6% below its previous peak (Q1 2008). Since the recession, there seems to have been a permanent loss of productive capacity and a worrying erosion of viable supply chains.

Third, the policy environment is tortured. The public deficit is responding very slowly to fiscal austerity. As yet, ‘crowding in’ of private activity as the public sector retreats is a myth. The monetary environment remains incredibly loose, with low interest rates continuing to dampen investment’ (saver and investor) spirits and, thereby, prospects for underpinning sustained growth. Lost in an austere liquidity trap, the stabilisation policy mix is not supporting growth.

Against this background, the forecast consensus is for a weaker economy in 2016. The January collection of independent forecasts issued by HM Treasury sees growth averaging 2.2% this year after 2.3% last. This represents a downward adjustment by the forecasters from late last year, but still seems modest. Given what’s happening in the financial markets, it would be astonishing if these forecasts were not revised below 2% for 2016 over the next few months. My own current estimate is 1.75% for growth in UK real GDP this year. Importantly, as highlighted above, the downside risks are significant and potentially bigger than the upside.

Other current consensus forecasts include:

  • Inflation is expected to rebound a bit: +1.3% for this year after zero in 2015, largely because of previous ‘bigger’ falls dropping out of the index.
  • Unemployment is predicted to average 5.1% – a rate it has already reached, suggesting no further progress in 2016.
  • The current account deficit is expected to improve barely at all – from £81.5bn in 2015 to £77.6bn in 2016. This is also a “no change” view.

The UK economy is losing momentum and, in several ways, 2016 already looks like a ‘lost year’. Given the waves of uncertainty crashing on the economic beach at the moment, the fear is that the outlook deteriorates from something fairly benign into something worse.

There are some more hopeful signs. It is entrepreneurs, workforce skills, innovation and competitiveness that drives the growth process, not the financiers and panicky markets. There is no evidence that these factors are diminished. Indeed, they are what have been keeping the recovery going despite the headwinds of poor policy and politics. Some of the new technologies will be disruptive for jobs – aspects of artificial intelligence and new consumer interfaces (clouds, hand-held information and communication outlets and driver-less cars). Nevertheless, let us pray that the value-creating songs of the inventors and the risk-takers are not drowned out by the New Year Blues now so prominent in our ears