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Signs of UK recovery may be exaggerated

The GDP data revealed a worrying 5.6% decline in business investment in the last quarter of 2011

Let’s hope the euphoria that greeted last week’s economic data lasts longer than the cheers England’s footballers can expect this summer when the European championships get underway. There is nothing more traditional than football supporters putting hope ahead of experience in the run-up to the competition’s first match – only to have those hopes dashed.

Were those economists who reached for their rattles and scarves after two months of better than expected figures similarly naive?

It certainly felt like a Mexican wave of cheering after the GDP numbers on Friday.

Strangely the second attempt to measure the economy’s output in the last three months of the year was no better than the first. The Office for National Statistics still came up with the same poor result – a 0.2% contraction. If anything the picture was gloomier after the ONS said the third quarter result should be downgraded. As a result growth for 2011 as a whole was 0.8%, registering one of the worst annual growth rates following a recession in the UK’s history.

A storming recovery it is not. So what was so cheering?

A more detailed look at the figures revealed a mini surge in consumer spending during January following a decent Christmas for high street retailers. Government spending was also stronger than ministers predicted after 4% growth over the year.

Surveys of key economic sectors added to the sense of relief.

Reports for the last two months found manufacturers and services companies, which account for about 85% of output, in a more optimistic frame of mind. Sales were up and orders were healthier.

Services, which covers everything from IT and telecoms to the City and hotels, gained for a third month, its best performance for two years.

Against the backdrop of the euro crisis, this was seen as quite a feat.

Alan Clarke, chief economist at Scotia Bank of Canada, and Chris Williamson, the chief economist at data provider Markit, were among many to declare a double dip recession unlikely such was the renewed vigour among shoppers and Whitehall mandarins for spending, and companies for selling stuff.

But the situation could be short lived. Howard Archer, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, argues that the CBI’s shops survey and GFK/NOP’s consumer confidence poll next week “will provide significant clues as to whether the consumer is genuinely perking up or whether January’s robust sales were primarily driven by people looking to take advantage of the clearance sales and they are still reluctant to spend significantly”.

Archer is sceptical the recovery in consumer spending has any legs, especially as it is largely driven by debt and in the face of rising unemployment.

Among middle income consumers, the spending taps were turned on at the expense of paying down their mortgages at a faster rate. At the bottom end of the income scale spending increased after consumers turned to payday loan sharks for cash.

The Consumer Credit Counselling Service says in a report on Monday that despite a slight reduction in the overall debt level of UK households since the recession and historically low base rates, debt servicing is an increasing burden.

It says: “At the end of last year, the average household was paying almost £200 per month in interest, representing nearly a quarter (23.8%) of available income.”

It found that the rising price of essential items outweighed wage increases and thus reduced discretionary income.

The charity predicts the number of people with crippling debts seeking advice would hit an all-time high in the next two years as the after-effects of maintaining living standards on credit take their toll.

Earlier his month the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development predicted unemployment would rise to almost 3m as public sector jobs continued to disappear as part of the government’s austerity measures and the private sector shed jobs to increase productivity.

With more people out of work, the number of low income households turning to the CCCs is going to rise further.

Contrast the situation with the US. Consumer spending and confidence are increasing there too. New home sales are improving and exports are up and unemployment is falling. After a couple of terrible years that have pushed unemployment above 10%, spending figures are tied to genuine rises in average disposable incomes as more people find jobs.

OECD figures last week for 2012 showed the world economy was close to recession without the positive lift from the US. The situation is not all rosy across the Atlantic, but at least the Obama administration seems to be avoiding the age old trick of resuscitating the patient with an adrenalin-like injection of personal debt.

And there’s worse news for the UK. The GDP data revealed a worrying decline in business investment of 5.6% in the last quarter of 2011.

A rebalancing of our consumption crazy pre-recession economy was meant to involve a shift to investment. It is also the bedrock of the Treasury’s assumptions for growth this year. Without strong business investment, companies will continue to produce goods with the same tired equipment. And less effective equipment will put UK firms at a disadvantage in export markets.

When there are headwinds facing manufacturing and the construction sector from low bank lending (our banks are still in a parlous state), it is difficult to see where the rebalancing is coming from. If we escape recession in the short term, it will be because the British consumer has gone back to buying on tick.

Rather than let the poor consumer carry the burden of generating growth through debt-fuelled spending, the government should shoulder the burden. A rise in government spending last year should be welcomed. It is an opportunity for George Osborne to stand behind the economy with extra spending. Just as he committed himself to backing the banks there is a need for government to take a wider role. The same could be said for European finance ministers.

Obama and his treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, are reaping the benefits of making that commitment. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds