It may be too late to prevent recession

George Osborne's policies have failed. He talked down the economy -- and now it is sinking.

The data releases this week have all been bad for the coalition. It started in the United States, which matters because generally what happens there is repeated in the UK a few months later.

First, the Conference Board published data on consumer confidence that showed a much greater collapse than had been expected, especially in relation to the respondents' expectations for the future.

Second, the Case-Shiller house price index -- the leading measure of US home prices -- shows that the US National Home Price Index declined by 4.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2011, after having fallen 3.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2010. The National Index hit a new recession low with the first quarter's data and posted an annual decline of 5.1 per cent versus the first quarter of 2010. Nationally, home prices are back to their mid-2002 levels. As of March 2011, 19 of the 20 MSAs covered the index were down compared to March 2010.

Third, ahead of the official release of employment data on Friday, an ADP Employment Services report suggests that private-sector payroll growth slowed sharply in May, falling to the lowest level in eight months. This prompted some economists to lower their forecasts for job growth in Friday's data release. It looks as if the US is slowing.

In Europe, the final Markit eurozone manufacturing PMI fell sharply to a seven-month low of 54.6 in May, down from 58.0 in April and below the flash estimate of 54.8. The fall in the index was the largest since November 2008, as manufacturers reported slower rates of increase in output, new orders, employment and inventory accumulation. China is also slowing. Economic output in Australia shrank by 1.2 per cent in the three months to March -- the worst quarterly slide since 1991 -- the national accounts of the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed yesterday.

The data releases for the UK today were truly awful. They follow from the public finance data that shows that, far from paying off the debt, Osborne is increasing it. Plus such growth as there wasn't -­ GDP grew by zero over the past six months -- was driven by government spending. Then, today, the PMI for manufacturing in May was worse than the market expected.

According to Capital Economics, on past form, that leaves the balance consistent with quarterly falls in manufacturing output of around 1 per cent. Some of this fall, it argues, is likely to have been driven by the temporary disruption to supply chains caused by the Japanese earthquake. But Capital Economics points out that the new orders balance also fell from 50.8 to 48.3, which, it argues, suggests that "beneath the monthly volatility, a sharp underlying slowdown in demand is taking place".

There were also a number of statistical releases from the Bank of England, which added to the bleak picture. It appears that banks are simply not lending enough to get the economy moving. This suggests the poorly named Merlin project -- which should be renamed the Mickey Mouse project -- has not worked any magic. First, the money-supply growth was weak. Second, the stock of lending to UK businesses overall contracted in the three months to February, as did the stock of lending to small and medium-sized enterprises. Third, the number of loans approved for house purchases fell by 4 per cent to a four-month low of 45,166 in April ­- the lowest figure for April since records began in 1992.

This inept Chancellor has talked the economy down by falsely claiming it was bankrupt when it wasn't, which has decimated animal spirits among both businesses and consumers. He has also tried to blame a once-in-a-hundred-year global financial crisis on the previous government, which was clearly also untrue and hyperbolic. Osborne has implemented toothless regulation over the banks and has demonstrably failed to get them to lend. He also has no interest in controlling bankers' bonuses, despite his absurd claims to the contrary when he was shadow chancellor. And all of this before the public spending cuts hit: currently it is the public sector that is the driver for growth but that is all about to change. The public finances are worsening, not improving.

The government's economic policy is in total disarray and the economy is sinking. Osborne has been hoisted by his own petard; his numerous false claims were inevitably going to catch up with him and now they have. The coalition's austerity programme was never based on sound economics and was simply a political move to shrink the state. Interestingly, the claims that the economics profession supported his actions have turned out to be false. In my NS column in the issue out tomorrow, I make clear that one of the initial signatories to the letter to the Times that Osborne touted as supporting him ­- the 2010 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Chris Pissarides -­ has now, embarrassingly for Osborne, turned against him and now opposes the ill-conceived and wreckless austerity programme of cuts and tax increases.

It is hard to find any economists outside the City of London that do support the government's strategy, other than a few of the usual right-wing hangers-on.

It is time for Osborne to explain to the British people why his economic policies have failed and what he intends to do about it. My fear is that Slasher has inflicted so much damage on the British economy that it is too late to prevent us slipping back into recession.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

0800 7318496