Even the most depressed economies eventually recover. The return of growth in the UK, after three years of stagnation under the coalition government, is merely a reflection of this truth. With GDP still at 2.5 per cent below its pre-recession peak, in 2007, the economy has yet to make up the lost output from the crisis. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus by cutting taxes and increasing infrastructure spending, the economy is now 5.2 per cent larger. But after convincing much of the public that the post-2010 downturn was inevitable, George Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations.
According to the Chancellor’s account, the surge in growth is a vindication of his decision to pursue austerity after entering office. This claim is faithfully echoed by a media that loudly endorsed his deficit reduction programme in 2010. Not only does this narrative ignore the tardiness of the recovery – the slowest for more than 100 years – it also obscures the sources of the growth we are now experiencing. It is not austerity but its reverse that explains the upturn.
To the extraordinary monetary stimulus provided by the Bank of England, in the form of quantitative easing and record-low interest rates, have been added large-scale state interventions such as Help to Buy. After imposing damaging policies such as the VAT rise and the dramatic reduction in infrastructure spending in 2010, Mr Osborne has also eased the pace of austerity. Rather than sticking to his original deficit reduction timetable, the Chancellor allowed borrowing to rise and extended his programme from four years to seven. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the deficit is still expected to be at least £100bn this year, £40bn more than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2010.
When he entered office in 2010, Mr Osborne pledged to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on property and debt-financed consumer spending, cynically fostered by Labour, and towards investment and exports. But growth is again being driven by the former. Exports fell by 2.4 per cent in the most recent quarter, despite the continuing weakness of the pound, while business investment remains 6.3 per cent below its 2012 level. With wage growth (0.8 per cent) still lagging behind inflation (2.2 per cent), the recovery is being built on consumer credit and rising house prices. Like Gordon Brown before him, Mr Osborne has found the attractions of debt-driven growth impossible to resist. If the economy is not to become permanently reliant on ultra-low interest rates, he must act now to promote both public and private investment. Rather than risking the creation of another property bubble through Help to Buy, he should concentrate on increasing the supply and the affordability of housing.
A programme of the kind pursued by Harold Macmillan as housing minister in the early 1950s, when 300,000 homes a year were built, would stimulate growth (for every £100 invested in housebuilding, £350 is generated in return), create employment and reduce welfare spending. As some MPs in his own party have suggested, the Chancellor should also offer incentives to firms to pay the living wage in order to reduce consumers’ reliance on borrowing to maintain their living standards.
At present, GDP is rising but living standards are not. The north-south divide in England is widening, rather than narrowing. Meanwhile, household savings are falling at their fastest rate for 40 years. The economic cycle may finally have turned but the structural conditions for a repeat of the crash remain firmly in place.