Don’t panic, but look for signs that Britain’s finances are holed below the waterline

Last week, before Britain voted, I suggested that Britain’s finances were vulnerable, and that a vote for Brexit would lead to a financial crisis. After Britain duly voted for Brexit, many commentators have suggested that just such a crisis is unfolding.  Is it?

My form on predicting such crises is mixed. I thought that Britain’s failure to join the Euro in 2000 might lead to a crisis in due course, as international investors shunned Sterling. This was very wide of the mark.  But in 2007 I correctly foresaw that the apparent calm after the interbank markets froze could lead to a serious financial crisis, moving all my pension fund’s assets to index-linked gilts and cash. Its value rose while most funds were badly battered in the crisis of 2008/09, facilitating my early retirement. So I need to take a deep breath and try to look at this objectively.

First, what do I mean by a financial crisis? There are two things to look out for. First is a collapse in asset prices that causes people who have borrowed to finance assets (which what people usually do for property) difficulties, which in turns affects banks and squeezes demand, causing job losses and recession. The second is one of governmental finance, whereby the government finds it hard to finance the national debt, forcing interest rates up, and a drive to austerity regardless of any need to stimulate demand. This is likely to be combined with pressure on the currency that makes it impossible for monetary policy to take up the slack. The 2008 crisis was of the first type, but the government managed to head off the second type. For the second type examples are Brazil currently, and Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Why did I say Britain was vulnerable? First, the country has a large current account deficit, running at about 7% of GDP, historically high. This suggests that the economy requires substantial amounts of foreign investment to keep going, at a time when uncertainty would put such investment off (both by foreigners and locals’ overseas assets). Second the national debt is high, at over 80% of GDP, and there is still a fiscal deficit; though at 3% this is far from scary, there is not much margin for it to deteriorate into scary territory. Against this Britain’s national financial management, led by the Treasury and the Bank of England, is world class, prepared (unlike the government for Brexit negotiations) and with an excellent track record. British banks are also in much better shape than in 2008, adding to overall resilience. International financial flows are very mysterious, and  it is hard to forecast safety or disaster.

The best thing to do from where I’m sitting, without high powered computer models, is to describe the danger signals, and keep a watchful eye. This means keeping an eye on some key statistics.

First there are share values.  The FTSE100 is a darling of journalists, because it is so accessible. It also tells us not very much, since many of its components are multinationals and not really British. Last Friday was not a good day for share markets, but nothing out of the ordinary either. Today is also bad, with the more representative FTSE 250 falling by 4.6% in three hours (the 100 fell by an unremarkable 1.3%). If these sorts of falls persist, then that could be a wider sign of poor business confidence, which will affect all important investment. But for an asset based crisis it is real estate that is much more important, and this moves at a more sedate pace. Too early to tell there.

Next, there is the pound Sterling. This is much more important. A weak pound will feed through to inflation, for example in petrol prices. This could put pressure on the Bank of England to raise interest rates, which would have all sorts of nasty knock-on effects. But I think that risk is overdone in market commentary – it is very 20th Century. These days employers do not feel the need to match price rises with wage rates, which puts a cap on general inflation. In the recent crisis the Bank was able to ignore rises in consumer prices without risk. But it will mean the public faces a squeeze, which will reduce domestic demand. A second issue with the pound is any effect it has on investment; a weak Sterling will reduce the attractiveness of gilts (government bonds) as a safe haven asset.

The pound had a bad day on Friday, though that was partly because markets were so confident of a Remain victory. But is has continued its fall this morning; if this trend persists there is serious trouble ahead. But there is no sign that the pound’s troubles are affecting gilt prices; they have risen, as they are still regarded as a safe haven. If this continues the government stands a good chance of weathering the crisis. So far it is definitely a case of Don’t Panic.

Looking further ahead, there are two statistics to keep an eye on. One, inevitably, is GDP. The stats here are wobbly and don’t deserve the attention they get. But if growth slows or even goes into reverse, then the government will be under pressure either to extend austerity or to provide Keynesian stimulus, depending on its reading of the situation. The second, more relevant , statistic is tax collections. If this is under pressure then there is a risk of government finances spiralling out of control.

The first question is when the short term reaction to the vote overwhelms the country’s financial system, causing emergency measures. Based on the gilt yields this looks highly unlikely, even in today’s febrile conditions. The more important question is whether, having survived the immediate storm, the financial system is holed below the waterline, to use a nautical metaphor. When a ship is holed below the waterline, it sails serenely on, with only fairly minor signs of damage. But it is taking in water that may cause it to keel over later, if it does not make to safety in time. This was how the world financial system looked to me in 2007 – while many fund managers were saying that the crisis had passed. And the drying up of inward investment could make that metaphor appropriate to the British financial system now.

So my message is this. Don’t panic, but look at for small but significant signs of longer term trouble.

Afterthought

What I probably should have emphasized is that I think it is gilt yields/prices that are the critical statistic to watch. If these stay low (yields) or high (prices) than it indicates that the government can readily borrow Sterling, which gives it the scope to manage the financial situation. If they go in the opposite direction, then it could be a sign of a more serious crisis.

 

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