The recovery is coming: can we relax yet?

Blue skies are coming.

All this month on economia we’ve been taking stock of where we are five years on from the momentous events that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. So much significance has been placed on the events of September 2008, that some commentators are happy now to refer to events purely in terms of them being “post-Lehman”, as if the failure of one institution marked some kind of year zero when the financial world changed forever

While the meltdown in global credit markets certainly followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there is plenty of dissention as to whether it was the  trigger for recession it has been portrayed as. Andrew Smithers in his latest book The Road to Recovery (reviewed in the October issue of economia) draws on a wide range of sources to argue strongly against what he calls “the myth of Lehmans”. His argument is that the global economy was in plenty of trouble (and recession had already kicked in) by September 2008. Others still don’t dispute that the collapse of Lehmans was significant but point out that it was significant insofar as the reaction to it from governments around the word led directly to a worsening of the depth of recession.

The argument here is that the painful experience since 2008 was caused by authorities and governments not allowing enough banks to collapse. While the shock would have been much worse in the short term, the recovery would have been sharper and would have taken hold sooner. The banking sector would have emerged with stronger and healthier banks (even if there were fewer of them), and would have been in a better place to help business recover.

National governments might also have been better placed to rebuild economies had they not been propping up failed banks.

But to some extent this is the old story. Five years on from these calamitous events, we are beginning to see the early signs of recovery. There have been various indicators and research reports produced to show that a lasting recovery is taking hold. The biggest question marks now remain over the fragile state of the eurozone and the likely fallout of any further problems in one or more of the troubled member economies, and the trickier issue of whether this recovery (however welcome) is the right sort of recovery.

The chancellor, George Osborne, set his stall out on delivering an export-led recovery that would help rebalance the economy and bring a longer-lasting, sustainable recovery. That the current return to health appears to be built on a new housing bubble and domestic debt remains a concern. It’s the economic equivalent of treating heroin addicts with methadone. It is far better for them (and far better for society) than heroin, and is more controlled, but it can hardly count as a full recovery from dependency. There is a place for this treatment, but let’s not pretend (as a triumphalist chancellor is likely to try and do at his party conference next week) that he has the economy back to anything like a sustainable position.

However, when that real recovery does arrive it will be fuelled by the sort of high-growth businesses that are the drivers of any economy. And on this front there are some interesting insights from a new piece of research from private equity firm ECI Partners. The top line from the report, which is based on a detailed questioning of almost 700 leaders in high-growth firms, is that they are far more confident this year than they have been for the past few years. The vast majority claim to be planning to fund expansion and growth of over 10% in the coming year and most are very confident that they will be easily able to access finance should they need to (this has been a consistent challenge to growth in recent surveys).

While there is a more upbeat tone to the responses from those based in London, and those working in the technology sector, the vast bulk of respondents regardless of sector or location feel that things are moving in the right direction.

Even if the storm clouds had been building since 2007, the storm of recession broke in 2008. Five years on we are beginning to see the first signs of blue skies above. While it is incumbent on everyone to take a hard look at the events of five years ago and make sure we learn the appropriate lessons in areas from audit to corporate governance, from our banking culture to financial regulation, for the time being it is also important to enjoy some good news for once.

This story first appeared on economia.


Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.