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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Brexit effect: The fall in EU migration spells trouble for the UK

The 84,000 fall in net migration to 248,000 will harm an economy that is dependent on immigration.

The UK may not have left the EU yet but Europeans are already leaving it. New figures from the ONS show that 117,000 EU citizens emigrated in 2016 (up 31,000 from 2015) - the highest level for six years. The exodus was most marked among eastern Europeans, with a fall in immigration from the EU8 countries to 48,000 (down 25,000) and a rise in emigration to 43,000 (up 16,000).

As a result, net migration has fallen to 248,000 (down 84,000), the lowest level since 2014. That's still nearly more than double the Conservatives' target of "tens of thousands a year" (reaffirmed in their election manifesto) but the trend is unmistakable. The number of international students, who Theresa May has refused to exclude from the target (despite cabinet pleas), fell by 32,000 to 136,000. And all this before the government has imposed new controls on free movement.

The causes of the UK's unattractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit (May has refused to guarantee EU citizens the right to remain) and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents. Ministers may publicly welcome the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.

Brexit has in fact forced ministers to increasingly acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: Britain needs immigrants. Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. Brexit secretary David Davis, for instance, recently conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall after the UK leaves the EU. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (a level not seen since 1997), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

Alongside the new immigration figures, GDP growth in the first quarter of 2017 was revised down to 0.2 per cent - the weakest performance since Q4 2012. In recent history, there has only been one reliable means of reducing net migration: a recession. Newcomers from the EU halved after the 2008 crash. Should the UK suffer the downturn that historic trends predict, it will need immigrants more than ever. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496