This double-dip looks like a trade problem

Britain is importing more and exporting less, and that's where the recession stems from.

A lot of people – myself included  – were surprised by the economic contraction announced today. There had been lots of positive noises from the various surveys and data releases since the New Year, and the expectation was for positive (if meagre) growth. Retail spending has increased strongly in the new year, employment has picked up slightly, and the various surveys of businesses all suggested that the economy was growing slightly.

But there was one big problem: trade. It was export growth that propped up the UK economy during 2011 – without exports, the economy would have shrunk by 0.8 per cent over the year. However, UK exports slipped back at the start of 2012, and this may have been enough to tip the economy into recession.

Exports are key to the UK’s economic recovery, because conditions in the domestic economy are so strained. Consumer spending, which underpinned economic growth during the goods years, is being suppressed by falling incomes and stifling household debts. Add in the cuts in public spending, and the banks’ failure to lend money to the real economy, and it’s clear that the domestic economy is unlikely to lead us into recovery. Business investment, another potential route out of the crisis, is being crippled by a lack of confidence and weak demand. The UK economy is caught in a demand trap, and the only easy way out of it is to look overseas.

This export-led approach is at the heart of the government’s economic strategy. The government’s fiscal plan has enabled the Bank of England to keep interest rates low, and pump more money in through quantitative easing. These low interest rates have not been enough to boost consumer spending or investment, but they do have one very helpful side effect – they keep the pound weak, which boosts exports. In principle, this is a decent strategy, but the latest figures suggest it may be unravelling.

The latest ONS trade stats show that the UK’s trade deficit worsened dramatically in January and February, after having improved through 2011. Rather than helping to prop up the economy, trade has started to act as a drag this year, as imports grow and exports shrink. As a result, some of the contraction in the economy came mostly from the production sector, which tends to export more. And perhaps this trade problem shouldn’t come as a surprise, because the pound has been steadily appreciating over recent months. This makes exports more expensive, and imports cheaper – and suggests that the government’s efforts to keep the pound weak are no longer working.

This trade problem may also help to explain how the economy could shrink if retail sales grew. As it turns out, an awful lot of what we buy in the shops is imported, whether its clothes from East Asia or cars from Germany. If the increase in retail spending has helped fuel a rise in imports (or if the imports, such as petrol, have become more expensive), this will not help the economy grow. That isn’t just bad in the short term – it suggests our economy is heading in the wrong direction altogether, and certainly not re-balancing. We will have to hope that this trade problem turns itself around, or it will be even harder to get out of the economic slump.

There is one more point to address: the biggest factor in the GDP contraction was construction. But this should surprise no-one – we already knew that domestic spending was going to be weak, that the government is cutting back investment, and that there are questions over how reliable construction figures are anyway. The problem is that, up until now, these domestic weaknesses have been compensated for by export growth. If that stops being the case, the economy could be in even more trouble, and there will be even more onus on the government to come up with another economic strategy.

Cranes help build the Bishopsgate Tower in London, but construction has fallen flat nationwide. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Sissons is a researcher at the Big Innovation Centre based at the Work Foundation.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation