If UK consumers open their wallets and purses and start spending in any significant way soon something is wrong. But there are reasons to think that exporters and investment may lead the UK forward. This is where we enter a danger period. A recovery built on correcting imbalances will be a good thing. But recovery built on consumer debt, as rising house prices encourage them to go out and buy, would be most worrisome and may even give credence to the prophets of doom.
The truth is that growth in UK wages has been lagging behind inflation since the beginning of 2010. Savings have been much higher too. In the second quarter of 2008, the UK was entering recession, but at that point economic forecasters had not woken up to this, and many were still forecasting a mild slow down. During this quarter the UK savings ratio was just 0.2 per cent. This was surely evidence we had entered a time of madness. But a year later, the savings ratio had risen to 8.6 per cent. That was a staggering rise. UK households, scared by the prospect of falling house prices, had hit a big red button with the legend danger emblazoned on it. They saved more, and soon after, their wages fell.
So what do you get when consumers spend a lower proportion of their wages, while wages relative to inflation fall? Answer: a very severe dip in spending. No wonder the recession was so severe.
But the solution to this problem is surely not to encourage households to save less and borrow more. It is to try to get wages to rise, and for business and the government to use the money that households are saving to fund investment. At the same time, UK company profits are surging, and corporate cash sitting in deposit accounts at UK banks has hit 25 per cent of GDP, which is a 25 year high.
The UK can go one of two ways. The money that is not being spent, and is instead sloshing around the banking system, could be used to fund mortgages and in turn create a housing boom. Writing in the ‘Telegraph’ recently, Jeremy Warner said: “UK housing was not the cause of the financial crisis; in fact, UK mortgage lending has remained a haven of calm and safety for the banks throughout the storm.” See: Unbalanced and unsustainable - this is the wrong kind of growth Maybe he is right, but isn’t that the problem. For too long, whatever money that is available has been used to fund mortgages, even buy-to-let mortgages because they are seen as safe, instead of funding entrepreneurs and wider investment because this is seen as risky. Even many would-be entrepreneurs have been seduced by the allure of easy and low risk money from buy-to-let, and have left the path of wealth creation and joined the path of re-shuffling wealth, which is all that buy-to-let achieves. If the UK goes down the path of creating a housing boom, the causality may be true entrepreneurism and a boom based on debt rather than productivity.
Alternatively, if savings were used instead to fund investment, the result would be truly exciting.
Despite George Osborne’s efforts to administer the first of the alternatives – the cheap and easy way to growth, election victory and an unsustainable economy in which falling government debt is paid for by rising household debt – there are signs that the second approach is occurring anyway.
The UK’s export recovery has been held back by the rather unfortunate fact that the Eurozone, our largest trading partner, is in the midst of an economic depression. But since 2002 exports to China have risen sevenfold. According to a report published by the ONS a few days ago: “In the latest three months the value of exports was 17 per cent higher than the average 2012 quarterly level. Import values from China were little changed, so the trade deficit with China, which had averaged £5.2 billion a quarter in 2012 shrank to £4.8 billion in the latest three months.”
Just as is the case in the US, there are also signs of manufacturing led recovery. UK car exports are beginning to outstrip imports. There is also anecdotal evidence of companies returning their manufacturing to the UK. As Capital Economics said: “The decline in offshoring has reflected a variety of factors. For a start, the trend towards more capital intensive production as technology improves means that the savings in labour costs that can be achieved by switching production to Asia have become a smaller component of total costs. Western manufacturers are also increasingly specialising in high-tech sectors in which production cannot necessarily be replicated elsewhere. The strengthening of Asian currencies has also reduced the savings from offshoring. In addition, fast supply chains are increasingly valued, so that production can respond quickly to consumer tastes and inventory costs can be reduced. “
As for the UK, it said: “According to the manufacturers’ organisation EEF, the proportion of firms repatriating some output rose from 15 per cent in 2009 to 40 per cent last year.” It continued: “Low-value sectors such as textiles have been declining, while high-value markets such as pharmaceuticals and transport have been growing rapidly. The destination of UK manufacturing exports has also evolved. The share of goods exports going to the fast-growing BRIC economies increased from 5 per cent in 2007 to 8 per cent last year and has also persuaded some firms to produce domestically.”
There other reasons to be optimistic. Demographics are looking favourable. Population growth in the UK in this decade is likely to be at its fastest rate since the first decade of the 20th century. The shortage of homes to population is a problem, but there are signs this may be fixed as the government tries to reform planning laws. A house price bubble will do little for the UK in the long term, but a house building boom is different thing altogether, and this may happen.
North Sea oil output is on the rise again, and the shale gas revolution may or may not be a mixed blessing, but it should at least help to promote growth.
And don’t forget that in a growing global economy the UK has certain innate advantages: its time zone being one. The UK working day overlaps with working days in both California and East Asia. The fact that English is spoken rather widely in the UK is another advantage. Add to that political stability and a strong legal system.
Yet, for all that optimism, something broken remains. The UK is not well disposed to encouraging risky investment. That may not sound like such a bad thing, but remember that risk is the key to innovation and growth in the long run.
The government can do more to help and it could start by using money created by the Bank of England via QE to directly fund investment into infrastructure and in entrepreneurs.
© Investment & Business News 2013