Every time a big-name retailer moans about the grim state of the high street, cheer a little. When the main shopkeepers' trade body, the British Retail Consortium, groans that the month has been "hard going", whistle a cheery tune. When Marks & Spencer reports a 19 per cent slide in profits - as it did on 24 May - and howls about tough trading conditions, send up a thankful prayer to St Michael. When Boots warns that its profits will be disappointing, when Next confesses that its underlying sales are shrinking, when Kingfisher, the owner of B&Q, talks of dismal demand, as each of them has in the past month, it's cause for mild satisfaction.
For if one thing is certain about Britain's horribly unbalanced path of economic growth, it is that consumers desperately need a rest. The explanation for all the gloom in the shopping centres is that consumers themselves are finally recognising that fact. They have been spending beyond their means for years. Since 1997, consumer spending has been growing 1.3 times faster than national income. Two wholly unsustainable trends have kept the shopping trolleys whizzing, the malls heaving and the call-centres ringing with new orders.
The first is the sea of credit - waves of it. Whoever you are, someone somewhere is prepared to lend you money. Banks and credit-card companies have been cavalier at best, and downright irresponsible in some cases, in showering credit on people who will struggle to pay it back.
The second is the death of thrift. Saving has become deeply unfashionable. If - as the psychiatrists would have it - delaying gratification is a sign of intelligence, then we are the second-thickest rich nation on earth, outclassed only by the Americans, who appear to have given up saving altogether. At some point the public needs to start spending less, saving more and paying back borrowings. The longer we put off the evil day, the more brutal the belt-tightening is likely to be.
Economists who wail that the sputtering
of growth in consumption could trigger a sharp economic slowdown or even a recession are perfectly right. There is nothing obvious to replace consumers as the engine for economic growth. The public sector can't carry on expanding at the rate of the past few years. Companies are in no mood to embark on big capital spending programmes. Which leaves just exporters to take up the slack.
Yet an economic slowdown now is better than a more serious reversal in a few years' time, which will surely be the outcome if we continue to spend beyond our means and assume that our grandchildren will bankroll our old age.
On balance, every howl from the high street is to be welcomed. A spell of lower demand can't come too soon.
No one believes, incidentally, that this is anything but a temporary lull. It's not about to usher in an era of ascetic anti-consumerism, however attractive that might sound. According to the property consultants Donaldsons, Britain's developers are working on 34 million square feet of new shopping centres - the equivalent of 22 Bluewaters.
The good news is that the spending drought is already starting to have an effect. In April, according to the British Bankers' Association, credit-card borrowers in aggregate actually paid back more than they borrowed - for the first time in 11 years.
Hooray. It may already be too late for a soft landing. But another year or two of shopping excess would have made the eventual reckoning all the more painful.
Gordon Brown seems determined to prevent a property collapse, or at least to soften any fall in house prices. Perhaps he has noticed that no government in living memory has been voted out after a long period of rising property values. First he introduced generous rules that will, from April next year, allow anyone to set up their own pension fund and buy a holiday home or buy-to-let property using debt to finance half the purchase price. In effect, people will be able to buy second homes out of untaxed income and shelter themselves from capital gains tax. The financial services industry is gearing up for a flood of interest. That could reheat the rapidly cooling buy-to-let market.
Then the Chancellor announced plans to help 100,000 first-time buyers by getting the state and banks to chip in for part-ownership of their homes. It is hard to think of a more elaborate or less
well-targeted way of helping key workers
on to the housing ladder. Quite apart from the endless scope for disputes (what happens when the homeowner wants to add a conservatory?), the intervention can only push prices higher or stop them falling. If Brown really wants to help first-time buyers, perhaps he should let market forces take their course. And, to get more starter homes built, speed up the tortoise-like planning system. That'd do far more good than all this tinkering.
Patrick Hosking is investment editor of the Times