Was Northern Rock the worst of it?

<a href="http://www.ippr.org/">IPPR</a> chief economist Howard Reed ponders our economic prospects f

The economic prospects for the UK and other countries in the developed world look bleaker now than they did twelve months ago. For some time there has been wide consensus that the global economy was in an unsustainable financial bubble characterised by inflated house prices and high levels of consumer and corporate debt, but no-one knew when the bubble would burst.

In retrospect the wave of US ‘sub-prime’ lending defaults which gathered pace in Summer 2007 looks like the bursting point. The sub-prime crisis has precipated a global credit crunch, as the ready availability of credit and debt which characterised the decade so far has been replaced pretty much overnight by an extreme reluctance among financial institutions to lend at anything below punitive rates. The Northern Rock crisis which emerged in the summer is a direct consequence of that changed financial climate.

But was the Northern Rock crisis the worst that’s going to happen to the UK in this business cycle, or are there even tougher times ahead?

Six months ago recession in the UK and US was being mentioned as an outside possibility, but now it looks much more likely. Since the summer, each successive release of business forecasts and economic data on employment and output growth from the US has been more pessimistic. And now, increasingly, UK data is following suit – for example, recently released Christmas sales figures from several leading retailers were well below market expectations.

We are now at the stage where Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley (for example) believe a US recession is the most likely outcome in 2008, even though central banks in the US and Europe have lowered interest rates and injected extra funds into the system in an attempt to loosen credit markets.

Given the interconnection between US sub-prime lenders and UK and European banks stems from the widespread repackaging and reselling of debt, if the sub-prime crisis blows a big hole in the US economy it is very likely to take Europe – including the UK - down too.

If the UK economy does go into recession this year, the effects are likely to resemble the most recent recession of 1990-92 more than the slump of the early 1980s, because circumstances were more similar in the early 1990s – a bubble had developed in housing and asset markets in the UK, US and Japan which burst in 1990, leading to a substantial fall in property prices.

By contrast, the early 1980s recession was precipitated by the oil price rise of 1979, but its longevity and severity were more a consequence of a huge shake-out in UK industry and a structural shift away from manufacturing and towards services – particularly financial services and the City.

It does not look like we are poised for big structural shifts in the economy this time round and London’s status as a world financial centre should survive any recession. But the UK’s reliance on the financial services sector makes it particularly vulnerable to the credit crunch in the short term.

Fortunately however, inflationary pressures are much weaker at present than they were in the early 1990s or early 1980s, so we are unlikely to see interest rates at the exceptionally high levels that we saw back then – which should assist economic recovery.

Another point of difference from the early 1990s is that the US economy is being hit hardest by the current slowdown.

Previously the resilence of the US economy has been a valuable catalyst for revival from global economic crises, but this time around, the US looks in much worse shape with high ‘twin deficits’ in the personal and government sectors.

Thus, global economic recovery will be more reliant than ever before on a strong growth performance by China, India and other industrialising powerhouses. In the medium term this is likely to lead to a change in the balance of global economic power, with the end of US hegemony and greater uncertainty over the direction of global economic policy than we have known for the past fifteen years.

In the longer run, shortages of water, oil and other natural resources, and the climate effects of spiralling greenhouse gas emissions, are a greater threat to long-term economic growth than any short-term financial imbalances.

Howard Reed is Chief Economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research