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.

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder