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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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.