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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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