Boom in the gloom for capital goods

Amidst stagnation, there's one ray of hope

Up on the month and still down on the year. Today’s UK production figures (from the ONS) can be taken either way. Stagnation after a brief and half-hearted recovery really does seem to be the conclusion as manufacturing output has seen three month on month rises in the last six months, and three falls. Total production output has been weaker than manufacturing (two-thirds of the total) for months due to the dismal performance from the North Sea but the annual decline in May is, at least, the least negative since September last year.

UK Index of Production from Timetric

The striking trend in the last couple of years has been the rise in the output of capital goods. The reason for this strength is not entirely clear other than to make the relative comparison, namely to point to the well-known weaknesses in consumer demand and mining (mainly North Sea oil) output. Until one of those two sectors picks up, there is little chance of a real recovery.

UK Index of Production from Timetric

Manufatcuring output is divided into a number of components. The chart below shows the strongest and weakest of the 13 sub-sectors in the recovery phase, post-2008. Output of transport, electrical and other equipment has grown strongly while wood, computing and basic pharmaceuticals have experienced no recovery at all.

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An oil rig. Energy is one of the flagging sectors. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon is the vice president (product) at Timetric

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.