The IMF has no credibility in forecasting the UK economy

George Osborne has, in effect, already resorted to Plan B, because his policies are not working.

Yesterday, the IMF cut its 2011 growth forecast for the UK to 1.5 per cent but said that the government's economic policy was going along swimmingly. The Chancellor seemed to be really pleased about this endorsement. But Slasher didn't seem to notice that the IMF argued that the risks to their forecasts were "significant".

Sadly, the UK economy did not grow at all over the past six months. Consumer confidence has collapsed; business confidence is weakening; employment growth has slowed sharply; house prices are falling and the number of mortgage approvals is falling; business lending is down and there remain real risks of deflation, which I guess John Lipsky, acting head of the IMF, hasn't spotted. Over the weekend, 50 economists did spot the problem and wrote to the Observer about it. The Cabinet Office's ex-chief economist Jonathan Portes and Vicky Price, ex-head of the Government Economic Service, warned that the economy was slowing, as did Tim Besley and John Muellbauer, who had previously signed a letter in the Times supporting the government's now failing strategy. The new economics Nobel laureate, Chris Pissarides, who was also a signatory to the Times letter, also told me in an exclusive interview published in the New Statesman this week that his preferred action now is for a postponement of fiscal contraction. Growth is nowhere to be seen and the government has no plan to fix this.

The Chancellor's claim that his strategy was always flexible because of the use of automatic stabilisers amounted to an announcement of Plan B. As growth slows and unemployment rises, as it surely will, then the payments to unemployment benefits in particular start to rise. This is plainly an announcement that the speed at which the deficit is paid off will inevitably have to be slower than he had previously announced, because his policies are not working -- as I have frequently warned.

Plus, if, or more likely when, the economy starts declining further, the government would have to cut taxes and do more quantitative easing. Hence Vince Cable, Osborne and now the IMF have endorsed Adam Posen's and my long-held views: that there is a possiblity of a slow, Japanese-type recovery, hence the need for another round of asset purchases: ie Plan C.

I was particularly interested to look back to 6 August 2008, when the IMF also lowered its growth forecast for the UK economy.

The IMF predicted that the UK would grow by 1.4 per cent in 2008 and 1.1 per cent in 2009, down from the 1.8 per cent for 2008 and 1.7 per cent for 2009 that it predicted in of 2008. It said inflation at 3.8 per cent was higher than expected and inflation expectations were rising, even as economic activity was slowing. That, the IMF said, meant the Bank of England had little room to cut rates. It didn't exactly turn out that way. In August 2008, the IMF didn't even spot that the UK economy had entered recession in April that year. The IMF has no credibility in forecasting the UK economy.

Osborne has already turned, as the economy is slowing even before the public spending cuts hit. The government's economic strategy is in disarray, no matter which of Osborne's pals he gets to say otherwise.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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