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.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.