The bad economic news keeps flooding in

UK manufacturing output hits a 26-month low as growth forecasts are cut again.

The bad economic news keeps flooding in on a daily basis -- but there's still no response from George Osborne.

Manufacturing had been booming -- not least because of exports driven by the significant depreciation in the pound -- but that appears to be heading into reverse. Today's PMI for UK manufacturing fell to a 26-month low. Production fell for the first time since May 2009, as new order inflows declined at the most marked pace in almost two and a half years. The trend in new export business was also substantially weaker than just one month ago. Manufacturers linked the reduction to weak domestic demand, rising global economic uncertainty and lower levels of new export business.

Rob Dobson, senior economist at Markit, commenting on the data, argued: "The second half of 2011 has, so far, seen the UK manufacturing sector, once the pivotal cog in the economic recovery, switch into reverse gear . . . The sudden and substantial drop in new export orders is particularly worrisome, with UK manufacturers hit by rising global economic uncertainty, just as austerity measures are ramping up at home. As consumer and business confidence are slumping both at home and abroad, it is hard to see where any near-term improvement in demand will spring from."

Then, today, the British Chambers of Commerce cuts its growth forecast. They are now expecting GDP growth of 1.1 per cent in 2011 (down from 1.3 per cent) and 2.1 per cent in 2012 (down from 2.2 per cent), rising to 2.5 per cent in 2013. This is much less than the Office for Budget Responsibility, for example, which is forecasting 1.7 per cent in 2011 and 2.5 per cent in 2012.

This lowering of the growth forecast is consistent with evidence from Grant Thornton's UK Business Confidence Monitor for Q3 2011, conducted between 3 May and 29 July 2011, which showed that business confidence had fallen sharply. The confidence index stands at 8.1, down from 13.7 in Q2 2011 to its lowest level since Q3 2009.

The Confidence Index has been on a downward path since a post-recession bounce-back that started in late 2009 and peaked in the first half of 2010, just as this coalition government took office. Notably, the survey suggested that business confidence in the manufacturing and engineering sectors was "relatively downbeat" and continued to weaken.

And then there were some really daft comments from Andrew Sentance in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, in which he argued against further stimulus.

"The global economic recovery has been under way for about two years . . . Monetary policy needs to shift away from the emergency settings that were put in place to halt sharp falls in demand in late 2008 and 2009. The deflationary risks that were then a worry have now receded. Indeed, in some countries -- such as the UK -- persistent inflation is now the bigger worry . . . further stimulus of the demand side would be a move in the wrong direction. It may appear to offer the prospect of short-term respite from economic difficulties. But it will not help us secure the conditions for sustainable growth and lasting economic recovery." Yes it will.

Sentance couldn't be more wrong -- as data from the past few days has made clear, the global economy is slowing fast. It is now apparent that his votes for increasing interest rates at his last 12 meetings were completely misguided as growth plummets and unemployment rises. The UK now has a growth problem, rather than an inflation problem. Wrong on interest rates and wrong on austerity.

Ed Balls had it right today on the World at One: "If you adjust for the high oil prices [and] the fall in the exchange rate, underlying inflation in Britain today is very low indeed. That is reflected in long-term interest rates being very low. Why is that? Because our economy isn't growing . . . Manufacturing output is down and, all around the world in America, in Europe and in Britain, the challenge for central bankers is to do what they can with monetary policy to support growth and get things moving again. The trouble is, in the very unusual global situation we're in, it is hard for interest rates to do that job. That is why there is a challenge to fiscal policymakers to act, as well."

Now is the time for the coalition to act to stimulate growth.

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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.