The business - Patrick Hosking sees a spectre return
The consensus among economists is that we have reached the turning point with unemployment - and the
For the first time in years, unemployment is creeping back on to the radar screen. However you measure it, the 12-year golden era of rising job numbers and falling joblessness has quietly drawn to a close.
The number of people claiming unemployment benefit rose 8,800 in June,
not a big increase. In the past five months, however, the figure has increased by 50,000, or 6 per cent - too large a rise to dismiss as a blip. The measure based on International Labour Organisation rules tells a similar story, though the precise pattern is different. It posted a tiny fall in the past three months but, since its low in September, is also recording a 50,000 rise.
The trend is still modest. Saatchi & Saatchi's slogan "Britain isn't working" with a dole queue image helped propel Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979, but today the problem has barely been noticed by politicians.
Claimant-count unemployment, at 865,000, or 3 per cent of the workforce, is tiny compared to the 2.9 million and 10 per cent reached in the last recession of 1992/93 and the three million (11 per cent) of 1986.
Yet the consensus among economists is that the turning point has been reached and there is worse to come.
The reason is simple. The number of jobs is shrinking, falling by 72,000 in the three months to May to 28.57 million. This is the biggest drop since the 1992-93 recession. The reverse in full-time jobs was even more abrupt.
In the private sector, many companies are cutting back staff and are in no mood to create new jobs. The consumer - mainstay of the economy for the past five years - is exhausted, over-borrowed and discovering the painful truth that his or her home has stopped rising in value. That is feeding through into consumer spending. Retailers such as Boots, Asda and Sainsbury's have made cuts. Kingfisher, the company behind B&Q, is rumoured to be considering a cull. And a string of clothing retailers is almost certain to have to shed staff unless the slump in fashion sales rights itself soon.
The public sector, particularly health and education, has been the main creator of jobs. But here, too, the trend is fizzling out. Net new jobs created in the year to March 2005 were 72,000, compared to 148,000 and 133,000 in the previous two years. There are limits to Treasury spending, even though the Chancellor has just given himself a bit more leeway by changing the assumption on which he bases his Golden Rule - the self-imposed constraint that, over the entire economic cycle, he borrows only for investment. By claiming on 18 July that the cycle began two years earlier than he previously thought, he notionally has an additional £9bn to £12bn to play with.
Even so, taxes will still have to go up further, putting an extra dampener on consumer spending. A vicious circle: job insecurity leads to belt-tightening, which hits sales and so leads to more job losses. Even the prospect of cuts in interest rates is unlikely to change things much. Roger Bootle of Capital Economics forecasts that another 150,000 will become unemployed by the end of 2006.
If the government moves on its pledge to tackle the huge numbers on incapacity benefit, who would otherwise be classified as unemployed, the headline number could rise more steeply.
Either way, there is a strong chance that even the well-massaged official number of jobless Britons will smash through the one million mark some time in the next 18 months. In some pockets of the UK the jobs shortage has never gone away, but unemployment will soon be back on the mainstream political agenda.
The City may not be this government's favourite industry, but the latest figures from International Financial Services, London - the body that promotes the City abroad (it used to be called British Invisibles) - are astonishing. UK financial services recorded net exports of £19bn last year, up 9 per cent. In other words, sales of UK financial services to foreigners were £19bn greater than purchases of foreign financial services by Brits. No other country's financial services industry boosts its home nation's trade figures like this.
Even Switzerland achieves a surplus of half that size. The US, despite the dominance of Wall Street, is hugely in deficit (mainly because it's rubbish at insurance), as are Japan and France. Britain's surplus has trebled in ten years as the world buys our insurance, securities dealing, banking and fund-management expertise.
There is a particular joy in the fine print for those smarting from M Chirac's remarks about British food. Apart from Americans, no one in the world is more partial to our financial services than the French: they bought £1.1bn more financial services from us than we bought from them. They might sneer at our cuisine, but when it comes to matters of money they flock to the Square Mile like Brits to a Dordogne cheese shop.
Patrick Hosking is investment editor of the Times
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