PMI data reinforces tale of three economies

Good, bad, worse in the US, UK and EU.

Today's Markit PMIs (standard reminder: purchasing managers at companies surveyed, aggregated into an index showing activity across the economy, normalised so that 50=no change) highlight the discrepancy between the Eurozone economy (still contracting, albeit less each month than it has been for the better part of a year) and the US economy (which is growing, and growing faster most months).

(Today's releases are the "flash" PMIs, compiled from the first 85 per cent or so of managers to respond; they are thus to be taken with a larger pinch of salt than normal)

The Eurozone composite PMI – covering services and manufacturing – rose slightly to 47.3. This is a nine-month high, but still represents moderate contraction of GDP:

 

Even worse is the manufacturing data. Again a nine-month high, it now stands at 46.3, and rose by just 0.1 from November.

Compare that figure with the US, where the manufacturing PMI showed a sharp increase to 54.2, signifying healthy expansion:

As ever, the UK data lies somewhere between the two:

The UK is undergoing a renewed bout of economic weakness as it heads towards the end of 2012. The all-sector Output Index from the three PMI surveys rose from 49.7 in October to 50.2 in November, edging above the 50.0 no change mark. However, despite the increase, the latest reading was the third-weakest since April 2009 and consistent with the economy sliding back into contraction after the temporary growth surge seen in the third quarter.

The UK data also highlights the folly of relying too much on the PMI information to predict economic performance, though. All through the double-dip recession, commentators were insisting, based on the strength of PMI data, that the ONS was mistaken. And even as it fell to new lows, the ONS recorded the massive growth of last quarter.

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

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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