Britain’s improved growth points to more government austerity

The UK economy has improved dramatically in the last six months. This is one of the most important developments in British politics. This week’s good news on employment is just part of a wide spectrum of measures showing the economy’s improving health. Economic commentary, with its narcissistic obsession with monetary policy, has concentrated on the implications for interest rates. But a more important question I whether the economy’s recovery is sustainable. And the answer to that seems to be… not yet. And while it isn’t government austerity has to be the priority.

The political debate around the economy has focused on the wisdom or otherwise of the government’s austerity policies, designed to fix the country’s massive gap between public expenditure and tax. The Labour opposition suggested that there should be less austerity, and even some temporary tax cuts to try and push the economy into a virtuous circle of growth. But the country is now embarked on just such a virtuous circle without the need for any fiscal stimulus. Additional private consumption is the main cause of this stimulus, according to the latest bulletin from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). This shows that the Labour policy might well have worked (i.e. that a bit of stimulus could set off a virtuous circle), though in the event proved unnecessary.

So intellectually developments have far from proved Labour wrong. But they are the big political losers. Labour’s policy might have been sensible in the circumstances, but they also suggested that the Coalition’s policies were doomed to failure, which has proved not to be the case. It gets worse for them. This level of growth undermines the case for any reduction in austerity polices – which could cause inflation. And yet their hard-core supporters have been rallying to the idea that the cuts in government services and benefits are ideological and unnecessary. Labour have switched their attack to the cost of living, which is still running ahead of personal incomes, but this too runs the risk of being undone by events. Politics is a momentum business, and all it would take is a general improvement in wage levels before the election in 2015 to sink their propaganda offensive. Their poll lead has already shrunk.

Meanwhile press attention has switched to the Bank of England, which has embarrassingly been taken by surprise by the growth spurt. It is not long ago that it suggested that unemployment would not fall to 7% until 2016 – we are nearly there now. I find the focus on monetary policy very irksome though. It allows commentators to pontificate well inside their comfort zone, and talk about short-term developments in financial markets. But, as longer term followers of my blog will appreciate, I think that the usefulness of monetary policy is exaggerated, and the theory behind it has been comprehensively shredded.

Instead the big question should be sustainability. Mainstream economic commentators don’t seem to be that concerned by this. Their analysis is based on the idea that sustainable growth depends on whether or not growth exceeds the trend rate. This trend rate, about 2% per annum, is the average rate of growth since the 1950s, and is primarily driven by a steady increase in productivity. Up to 2007 the UK economy was neatly conforming to this trend. Then the recession hit, putting it well behind the trend rate, with a lot of catching up to do. This sort of commentator often mentions a large gap between the current size of the economy, and what it would have been if it had stuck to the trend – with the implication that this gap is a matter of policy failure. Chief amongst these commentators in my eyes is the FT’s Martin Wolf. In a recent article he dismissed the idea that growth up to 2007 was unsustainable.

This is macro blindness: a failure to question the neat patterns created by aggregate economic statistics. In my view the UK economy cannot sustain a growth rate as high as 2% in the long term, hasn’t been able to do so since perhaps 2000. The reasons are demographics, the changing impact of technology, and a reversal of the gains from trade achieved with the rise of China and India. The main evidence, not mentioned by Mr Wolf in his article, was provided for me in a lecture in 2007 by Professor Wendy Carlin, my economics tutor at UCL. It is the combination of an appreciating real exchange rate and a wide trade deficit. This provides an illusion of growth, but it is not supported by the advances in productivity that are required to sustain growth in the longer term.  It was not fashionable to say this at the time, but it proved prophetic. Productivity, incidentally, is an almost impossible factor to measure satisfactorily, and can only really be inferred indirectly. It is my feeling, not sustained by hard analysis, that a lot this growth illusion was from the reduced costs an increasing amount of goods, and some services, bought from China and India, and an important element of that trade deficit. This boost to the economy had “temporary” and “reversible” written all over it.

And the bad news is that the current spate of growth has suspiciously similar symptoms. The trade balance reported by the ONS deteriorated from under negative 2% of the economy in mid 2013 to over negative 3% in November (the latest data). I don’t have direct figures for real exchange rate (a rather tricky calculation), but sterling has appreciated since a low in about March. There seems to be no offsetting productivity gain, since employment figures have been very positive (a very good thing, in spite of some economists moaning about productivity). So we’ve just reverted to the unsustainable growth patterns of the early 2000s, without the benefit of cheaper imports to sustain living standards.

What, of course, we need to see is a rebalancing of the economy to something more sustainable. This will show through in increased levels of investment (still low) and a stronger trade balance. The confidence engendered by the recent spurt of growth may help with this. Meanwhile the government’s austerity policies need to be strengthened, if anything – otherwise the economy will be even less sustainable. Grim news for politicians of all persuasions.