Inaction is now the biggest economic risk

The long-term cost of high unemployment to individuals and to society is huge.

The long-term cost of high unemployment to individuals and to society is huge.

Not surprisingly, NIESR's latest forecast, published today, has led to predictable headlines focusing on our prediction of a "return to technical recession." But this misses the point. We are forecasting that the economy will contract slightly in the first half of this year; some other forecasters agree, others don't. But the differences are within the margin of error; we could well be wrong. The point is that almost everyone expects, even assuming an eventual successful resolution of the eurozone crisis, that growth will be slow at best.

So what should be done? The UK economy currently suffers from deficient demand; the current stance of fiscal policy is contributing to this deficiency. A temporary easing of fiscal policy in the near term would boost the economy. The credible commitment to a sustainable fiscal policy over the longer term provides the government with the flexibility to provide a clearly defined and temporary boost to near-term demand. For example, an increase in government investment would not have a significant impact either on long-run sustainability or - given the way they are defined - the likelihood of the government meeting its fiscal targets.

It is important to be clear that this is not about averting a recession in the short-term. It doesn't matter very much, either to the economy as whole or to individuals, whether economic growth is 0.2 per cent or -0.1 per cent. This is about minimising the long term social and economic damage. On current forecasts - both ours, and that of the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) we are set for an extended period where growth will not be enough to reduce unemployment to the levels we saw before the recession. We expect unemployment to rise to about 9 percent - 3 million - this year and to remain high. Even in 2014, it will still be over 7 per cent. This compares to the OBR's estimate that the structural unemployment rate is about 5.25 per cent.

That difference - the "unemployment gap", shown in the chart below, is a measure of the how much extra (or less) unemployment there is as a result of macroeconomic conditions - i.e. cyclical unemployment resulting from labour demand, or lack of it (more explanation here). In other words, if macroeconomic policy is broadly on track, the unemployment gap should be small; it is a measure of the number of people who are not working because macroeconomic policy isn't either.

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The chart shows that the unemployment gap in the aftermath of the 2008 recession will be larger and longer than any recession since 1970 (which certainly means any recession since the war) including the early 1980s, although there is probably some uncertainty about the 1980s estimates. It says that - on the official view and the official forecast - the unemployment gap is a million now, rising, and will be higher in 2013 than now; and that even by 2015, fully seven years after the recession began, it will be over 2 percent of the labour force, about 650,000 people. Unemployment at this elevated level for such a long period is likely to do permanent damage to the supply side of the economy, with large long-run economic costs.

The argument about fiscal policy is often presented as "Yes, fiscal stimulus might do some good, but are you willing to take the risk?" In my view the risks are hugely exaggerated, as I wrote in this magazine. But people talk much less about the downside of inaction. If we do not do something to boost labour demand now, we are not just taking a risk, we are accepting the likelihood of continuing high levels of unemployment that will damage both many individuals and society as a whole. In 1925 Winston Churchill expressed his dismay that policymakers seemed to be "perfectly happy with at the spectacle of Britain possessing the finest credit in the world simultaneously with a million and a quarter unemployed." As Martin Wolf puts it, "How masochistic does one need to be?".

Jonathan Portes is Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. His blog is http://notthetreasuryview.blogspot.com

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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