A fall in confidence that could end in double dip

The Chancellor can no longer sit idly by.

I am beginning to sound like a broken record as the bad data news on the UK economy continues to pile up. Things on the economic front are really not good and, most worrying, are worsening fast before our very eyes.

The major release of the results of the European Commission Economic Sentiment Index, based on business and consumer surveys in August 2011, was a real shocker. The index is made up of five components based on business surveys in industry, services, manufacturing and retail, as well as a consumer survey. These are conducted in identical form in all 27 member countries and are available as a pdf file or can be downloaded as Excel files. Check them out -- they are scary!

In August, the ESI declined by 5.0 points to 97.3 in the EU and by 4.7 points to 98.3 in the euro area. This decline resulted from a broad-based deterioration in sentiment across the sectors, with losses in confidence being particularly marked in services, retail trade and among consumers. Only the construction sector in the euro area recorded an improvement.

Among the largest member states, Germany (-5.7 points) and the UK (-5.6) reported the strongest decreases in sentiment, followed by Poland (-3.6), the Netherlands (-3.0) and, to a lesser extent, Italy (-0.7), while the ESI remained broadly unchanged in Spain (-0.3). The ESI remains above its long-term average only in Germany and stands at 92.9 in the UK, having fallen from 104.6 in March.

Consumer confidence has continued its steady fall and is now at around the same level it was in May 2009 -- and it continues to drop.

Retail and services confidence

Of particular concern in the UK, though, was the dramatic collapse in confidence among businesses in services and retail. This is illustrated in the graph (above), which shows the sharp fall in both surveys over the past three or four months. This is of particular concern, given that the two surveys tracked very well the collapse of output at the onset of recession.

The two surveys started to fall sharply from March 2008 as the economy headed into recession, which was dated as starting in the second quarter of 2008, based on negative GDP growth.

We are able to explore further the reasons for the fall in both sectors as the European Commission provides more disaggregated detail. It is apparent that in both sectors, demand has fallen markedly and expectations for the future are increasingly pessimistic. Retailers are reporting rising inventory levels due to lack of sales.


Evidence of doom and gloom in the massive service sector was also reported on Tuesday in the CBI's survey of service-sector firms. Business volumes fell in the UK services sector in the past quarter, at the fastest rate since November 2009, the CBI found. Firms in business and professional services, which had been growing slowly, saw volumes contract unexpectedly.

Volumes of business in consumer services also fell -- and at the fastest rate since November 2009. Richard Woolhouse, the CBI's Head of Fiscal Policy, said:

Activity has fallen across the services sector for the first time since November 2009. This quarter we've seen more evidence of the ongoing decline in consumer services spending, as people with increasingly squeezed household incomes are forced to cut back their discretionary spending.

The concern is that this drop in business and consumer confidence is a prelude to a double-dip recession. I assume that the Chancellor George Osborne will continue to assert that his policies are working. Now that both businesses and consumers are running scared, however, Osborne can no longer sit idly by and assert that all is well. It is time for further fiscal stimulus.

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

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.