In my Money Week column this week, I've been discussing how we need to look at a different set of indicators to get a feel for how the UK economy is doing. Here's a taster....
Is Britain about to face a double-dip recession? The media and the economic forecasters in the City have been in a flap about that much of the past month. House prices have stalled, and may be falling again. Consumer spending is sluggish. There are big cuts in government spending coming down the track. It isn’t hard to make the case that the reasonably robust bounce back from the collapse of 2009 we are witnessing right now might be about to go into reverse, and that another recession is just around the corner.
Then again, perhaps we are looking in all the wrong places for signs of life from the British economy. Over the last twenty-five years we became used to watching house prices and the retail sales figures to get a sense of where the economy was going. That worked perfectly well during a property, debt-fuelled bubble. But that economy has vanished forever. The British economy of the coming decade will have to be based on exports, small businesses, and making things. And to get an idea of how that is going we will need to get used to a very different set of indicators – the trade balance, the savings ratio, company formations, and private sector job creation. Those are the numbers that will tell us whether the economy is showing signs of life or not.
For most of the past couple of decades, you could get a pretty good idea of where the economy was going just by looking at the monthly mortgage approvals figures. If people were borrowing more money, pretty soon they’d be buying a new house, and a few weeks later house prices would go up. All the people who’d bought new houses would soon be loading up their credit card with all the stuff they needed to put into it. And everyone else would see how much their house had gone up in value in the past year, book themselves a winter holiday to celebrate, then head down to the shopping mall to buy some new clothes for the trip.
The sequence was pretty simple. In an economy based on property and ever rising levels of debt, if you just kept an eye on house prices, and the sales figures from a couple of the big high street chains, you’d have a very accurate idea of how the economy was doing.
But along with the rest of the developed world, the UK has reached the end of that road. The easy-money days are behind us. The credit has all dried up. The British economy might do well or badly in the next decade, but the one thing it won’t do is go through another house price, retail spending led consumer boom. If it is to have any chance of prospering, it needs to create real wealth in the private sector instead.
So what indicators should we be looking at instead?
The trade balance is good place to start. It used to be headline news every month, but has been largely forgotten about in the last twenty years. But with a big depreciation of the pound, the British should be making things and selling them around the world. They should be importing a lot less as well, as they tighten their belts and concentrate on repairing their balance sheets rather than getting a bigger flat-screen TV to put on the wall. Both should result in an improving trade balance.
The savings ratio might be another good indicator. The UK needs to save more and spend less, and much of that saving needs to be directed towards re-building the economy so that it is less reliant on financial services and government spending.
So too is the rate of company formation, and the rate of bankruptcies. Again, the numbers of new small companies getting started, and the percentage of them that fail or flourish, will be a clear measure of whether a fresh wave of entrepreneurs are establishing new industries. The rate of private sector job creation will be important as well. For most of the last decade nearly all the new jobs were in the public sector. In the next ten years, it will be private companies, and mostly small ones, that have to create the jobs.
As it happens, most of those figures are looking pretty good right now. The trade gap is indeed starting to narrow. Last month, exports rose by more than 4%, and imports by only 1%, producing an unexpected narrowing of the deficit. Exports to non-EU countries were the highest on record. Our car exports were up 11% month on month. That’s pretty encouraging.
Manufacturing is currently up 4.1% year on year, with the biggest increases in the machinery and equipment industries. Company formation figures are not regularly produced (and many new companies are just tax reduction vehicles). But company winding up orders in the court s are down 17% year-on-year, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. That’s a good sign as well.
Unemployment is down slightly, and more jobs are being created. Most importantly they are in the private sector. The numbers of people employed in the public sector fell by 7,000 in the first quarter of this year, whilst private sector employment rose by 18,000. It is a small step, admittedly, particularly when you remember that 29 million people have jobs in the UK. But a small step is still valuable when it is in the right direction. Britain needs a lot more private sector job creation in the years ahead.
The important point is not whether those numbers are looking good or bad. Sometimes they will be up, and at other times down. They are, however, the numbers that count.
None of the pundits writing about house prices or retail sales or government spending are adding anything to the debate. They are referring to an economy that’s vanished. There are a whole different range of indicators we need to pay attention to now.