On the edge

If the UK is to turn its economy around, the two key factors will be exports and productivity.

Is the UK back in recession? The OECD, a think-tank that governments love to have on their side, believes that the economic recovery has gone into reverse over the last six months. For once, most other economic forecasters disagree, and think the OECD is being far too gloomy; the consensus seems to lie with Mervyn King's "zig-zag" rather than the OECD's "double dip".

Does any of this matter? Hardly. There will be a media storm on 25 April if the GDP figures show that the economy has slipped back into recession, but the question is largely academic. For the 2.7 million Britons looking for a job, and the further 1.4 million unable to find full-time work, it will make very little difference whether the UK is technically back in recession or not.

The fact is that the UK economy is in a far more serious state than the odd double dip can do justice to. The economy has not grown for 18 months, while unemployment has increased by over 200,000 - that is far more serious than a temporary, technical recession. Flatlining is not what is supposed to happen after a recession; we were expecting faster-than-normal growth to make up some of what was lost after the financial crisis. At the Budget in 2010, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that the economy would grow by 2.3 per cent in 2011. It has been downgrading its forecasts ever since.

And there is little chance that the economy will ever regain the ground lost during the recession. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the recession will eventually leave an 11 per cent scar on the UK economy, almost five years' worth of growth that we will never get back. What we are dealing with is not just an economic slump - there is a serious problem with the way the UK economy works.

The most alarming symptom has been a dramatic slump in productivity. The value of what we produce per hour of work has fallen by 3.3 per cent since the end of 2007 - it should have increased by about 9 per cent. I don't expect many people feel they have become less productive or hard-working since the recession hit, but the value of what we collectively produce has fallen nonetheless. Of course, that productivity shock translates into a wage shock, which is why real incomes have fallen. (There is a silver lining, in that this drop in wages has stopped unemployment climbing even higher).

Now falling incomes mean that we have less money to spend, which means there is less opportunity for firms to make money in the UK, which is likely to mean further falls in incomes and fewer jobs. And that's not all we have to contend with - there is also the household debt burden left over from the financial crisis that we need to deal with, which further reduces spending. (There has been some debate in recent weeks over whether it is household debt or bank debt that causes the problems, but again this debate is academic - either way, consumer spending is squeezed).

As a result of this squeeze, the UK's domestic demand fell by 0.8 per cent during 2011. Had it not been for exports, the economy would have shrunk last year, and we'd have already had first-hand experience of a double dip recession. There are plenty of reasons why the UK economy remains in such a precarious position.

But there is some good news amidst the gloom: we are finally beginning to see exports grow significantly, several years after the devaluation of sterling in 2007. This export boom saved the economy from recession in 2011, and remains our best hope for a speedy recovery. It might also help to solve one of the core problems with the British economy; since 1997, we have consistently imported more than we export, and haven't been able to pay our way in the world.

If the UK is to turn its economy around, the two key factors will be exports and productivity. These two issues go to the heart of the underlying changes the economy needs; we need to increase the value of what we do, and sell more of it to the world. Overseas markets are the only place Britain can look to for growing demand at present, and exports are already helping to drag the economy out of the mire. But if any recovery is to be sustained, it must be accompanied by solid growth in productivity, on which the signs are much less encouraging. Reversing the UK's productivity shock will be a longer and more laborious project.

If they are to have any realistic plan for recovery, politicians of all stripes need to worry less about short-term fluctuations, and more about the key underlying factors that will make or break the economy over the next decade. There is little we can do to treat the after-symptoms of the financial crisis, but there is plenty of scope for re-making the UK economy.

Andrew Sissons is a researcher at the Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation

David Cameron at a GSK plant. Photo: Getty Images

Andrew Sissons is a researcher at the Big Innovation Centre based at the Work Foundation.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.