Manufacturing returns to contraction

One phrase is on everyone's mouths, and it rhymes with schmiple schmip.

It's the first of the month, and that means it's PMI day, our chance to find out the first indication of how the economy performed in the last month. Our first indication is: it performed badly.

The Markit/CPS manufacturing index, which provides an indication of activity across the manufacturing sector, fell markedly, recording 47.9 down from 50.5 last month. A number below 50 indicates contraction in the sector, and this is the first time manufacturing has posted such a result since last November:


Markit adds:

New orders fell for a second successive month – and at an accelerated pace. The latest fall was the sharpest since last July amid reports of tough market conditions both at home and abroad. Poor weather was also mentioned as a factor negatively impacting on order book volumes.

Compared to last month's mildly positive figures, the news is bad indeed, and it's led to a strong sell-of in sterling amid fears it indicates a return to rescission for Britain. Here's GBP/USD:


and GBP/JPY:


Ouch. Chris Williamson, Markit's chief economist, writes:

The return to contraction of the manufacturing sector is a big surprise and represents a major set- back to hopes that the UK economy can return to growth in the first quarter and may avoid a triple-dip recession.

The data so far this year point to manufacturing output falling by as much as 0.5%, meaning a strong rebound is needed in March to prevent the sector from acting as a drag on the economy as a whole in the first quarter.

The one positive note was that the market in investment goods strengthened slightly, a necessary improvement if the economy is to improve in the long-term.

George Osborne inspects some manufacturing. Less of it is happening now than before. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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.