Chance of triple-dip falls on strong UK manufacturing

Eurozone contraction continues.

Markit economics has released PMIs for manufacturing across Europe, offering a snapshot of the state of the sector. It remains in ill-health, but the general picture is of a bottoming-out — it may still be shrinking, but the rate of decline is slowing.

(Standard explanation: PMIs, purchasing managers indices, are based on interviews with purchasing managers in various sectors. They aim to determine the level of activity in those sectors, and present them on a scale where 50 is equal to no change in activity, over 50 means increasing activity, and under 50 means decreasing activity. The indexes are not official measures of activity, but are generally extremely accurate predictors)

Spain enters its 21st straight month with a PMI under 50, but it is steadily rising; the reduction in new orders is slowest since June 2011. It's not good news — it's not even a turning point — but it's less bad news than there has been for a while.


Spanish manufacturing index

A similar story is evident in Italy; again, the manufacturing PMI hit a ten-month high [47.8 up from 46.7], but continued to imply contraction in the sector. While the fall in new orders tapered off, though, the pace of job cuts increased, though Markit reports that, anecdotally, the main reason seems to be non-replacement of voluntary leavers. That's about as good as contraction gets.


Italian manufacturing index

France is the darkest spot in the releases. The index fell to 42.9, indicating rapid contraction, and has been below 50 since the summer of 2011. New orders fell even faster — the sharpest rate since the great recession four years ago — and Markit's Jack Kennedy notes that it "suggests further steep falls in output are likely".


French manufacturing index

Conversly — and demonstrating again the split fortunes that we discussed last year — data for the UK demonstrates mild expansion. A PMI of 50.8, down from 51.2, is not ideal in what is still supposed the rapid upswing as we come out of a recession, but it does hint at continued strength in the sector. More importantly, it calms fears that we may be heading for a triple dip recession.

The rise in domestic manufacturing comes mainly from the continued strength of the consumer goods sector — and is partially offset by a contraction in investment goods. While in the short term the economy doesn't "care" which of those spending is focused on, if manufacturing of investment goods continues to shrink, as it has for the last six months barring a brief spike over the winter, then the hangover will be painful when that lack of investment bites.


UK manufacturing index

George Osborne inspects some manufacturing. More of it is happening now than before. Photograph: Getty Images

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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation