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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.