The second Great Depression

If today's projections are right, this will be the longest-lasting recession in a century.

Thankfully, the MPC did the right thing and kept rates on hold, in contrast to the ECB, which raised rates to 1.5 per cent. There is no evidence in either the UK or the euro area of a wage-price spiral emerging and inflation is expected to fall in the euro area, as the effects of the recent oil and commodity price increases drop out. Therefore, the ECB's move looks to be a classic policy error, as this will exacerbate the growth problems experienced by all countries.

As background, I looked at the latest data from Eurostat and plotted data on wages, inflation and changes in producer prices, which are presented below. What stands out is that there is no evidence of substantial increases in nominal hourly wage costs in any country; the highest increase is a paltry 3.8 per cent in France. Greece has seen a fall of 6.8 per cent. For the euro area, the average is 2.6 per cent and it is 2.1 per cent in the UK. The story is similar on inflation, which did not increase at all in the euro area over the past month and fell in five countries including Germany. Producer prices fell by 0.2 per cent in the euro area and in nine of the 17 euro area countries. What inflation? As I said, the ECB has made a major policy error, just as it did in July 2008 when it raised rates. This move to raise rates is madness, as it will lower growth in the euro area. Well done, MPC.

 

Another piece of evidence supporting the MPC's decision to sit tight was NIESR's latest forecast for the UK economy, published today. Although I think it should have done more quantitative easing (QE) as the economy is slowing -- but that is for another day.

Buried in the data is a potential bombshell for George "Slasher" Osborne. NIESR's monthly estimates of GDP suggest that output grew by only 0.1 per cent in the three months ending in June after growth of 0.5 per cent in the three months ending in May. In part, this was because the effects of one-off events in April have depressed the overall quarterly growth rate. However, even accounting for these factors, the underlying rate of growth NIESR believes is still likely to be weak. This compares with the OBR's forecast of 0.8 per cent.

Commenting on the forecast, Simon Kirby at NIESR argued that: "Economic growth in the UK continues to be subdued. In our April forecast, we expected growth to pick up in the second half of this year to around 0.5 per cent per quarter. We expect the domestic economy to contract throughout this year, leaving net exports as the major positive contributor to economic growth. There will continue to be much talk of continued economic growth over the coming months but it certainly won't feel like it to most people. As with any forecast, there is uncertainty and risk around the outlook. At present, the risks to growth are firmly balanced on the downside."

NIESR goes on to argue in its report that: "These figures do not provide a picture of economic growth that would support a tightening of monetary policy at this juncture." This is a not-too-subtle dig at NIESR's previous director Martin Weale, who left to join the MPC in August 2010 and has voted for rate increases over the past six meetings and presumably did so again today. His recent claim that raising rates now means that they won't have to be increased as much in the future is abject nonsense with no basis in economics or common sense.

The biggest news in the NIESR forecast is contained in the attached graph. This shows for the current recession and the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, as well as the 1930s, the extent of the drop in output measured on the vertical axis and the length of time it takes for output to be restored. In the 1970s, recession output fell by 4 per cent and it took 36 months for output to get back to its starting level. In contrast, in the 1980s, output dropped 6 per cent and took 48 months to be restored. In the 1930s, output dropped by 6 per cent with a double-dip in the middle and also took 48 months to be restored.

GDP 

NIESR has kindly provided me with an updated version to the one it published, which also contains estimates of when the recession will be over, measured by the point at which output will reach the level it was at the start of the recession in 2008. That is the black diamond on the right of the graph. This suggests NIESR believes that this recession will be the longest-lasting in a century and output will not be restored for at least five years. This is based on NIESR's forecast for April but, given Simon Kirby's view that the risks are to the downside and the Q2 2011 forecast, then recovery could well take even longer than that. NIESR is, for example, forecasting growth of 0.5 per cent in both Q3 2010 and Q4 2010, which does look overly optimistic.

If NIESR is right, Osborne's policies will be responsible for the worst recession in a century -- and maybe it should be named the "Second Great Depression". This suggests an economic policy U-turn on the fiscal front must be in the offing. It also raises the prospect of the MPC doing more QE before the end of the year.

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

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.