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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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.