A flap of a butterfly's wings to freeze the UK economy

The economy has been sailing smoothly this summer. But winter is coming…

The coalition’s economic policies have benefited, like all of us, from the summer sun. But now the nights are drawing in, and the party conference season approaching. We all know that butterflies fluttering over the Amazon can cause snow in Chicago, and there are at least 4 butterflies whose flapping wings may deliver equally chilling results here in the UK in the next few weeks.

The first butterfly starts to flap a month from tomorrow, on September 22, as Germany goes to the polls. The approach of the German election has put the Eurozone crisis "on hold" for the past year. But the delay has made the problems worse, not better, with the Bundesbank warning again this week about the risks from "ongoing uncertainty about the economic policy situation" and the Eurozone debt crisis. The UK cannot therefore rule out the risk of a triple-dip recession in its largest trading partner, if Southern European economies continue to struggle. 

The US will set the second butterfly fluttering in October, when Congress debates the future of the sequester programme and the need to increase in the country’s debt ceiling. As in the Eurozone, US politicians have made a habit of postponing hard decisions in the hope that, Micawber-like, “something will turn up”. But government departments are now having to impose short-time working as a result of the sequester. For example, 650,000 Department of Defence workers are effectively on a 4-day week till September. And markets do not always stay calm once uncertainty rises and the rhetoric starts to fly.

Over in the east, October also sees a third butterfly released at China’s crucial economic policy meeting, the so-called “third plenum”. This is expected to endorse major reforms aimed at boosting domestic consumption from today’s miserably low level, and abandoning the current reliance on export-led growth. But this will not be easy, as China’s city-dwellers have average incomes of only £3000/year, whilst the half of the population still living in rural areas earn just £1000/year. This enormous shift in the world’s second largest economy must inevitably have consequences for us, most of which are currently unknowable.

The fourth butterfly is closer to home. New Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s much-heralded policy guidance has so far been ignored by the markets. Yields in the government bond market for the benchmark 10-year gilt have instead risen by 100 basis points, 1 per cent, since May. This lack of a honeymoon period is a clear omen of potential difficulties ahead for both borrowers and savers. Whilst an out-of-control housing market in London and the south east is making life very difficult for many buyers and renters.

Any of these butterflies could easily send a severe winter chill through an unprepared UK economy. They also highlight how wishful thinking about growth has come to dominate economic policy.

We know, for example, that consumption is 60 per cent of UK GDP, and that consumption falls away as people reach the age of 55. At this age, people already own most of what they need, whilst their earnings decline as they begin to enter retirement. Yet although the average boomer turns 55 this year, policymakers are still failing to connect the dots as regards the implications for GDP.

With 30 per cent of the UK’s population now in this New Old 55+ cohort, it is unrealistic to expect a repeat of the sustained growth seen when the boomers were in their prime wealth-creating years. Voters are not stupid. The party that talks about the new policies needed for today’s new normal, and not around them, will find itself best positioned for the 2015 election.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit