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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR