28 Mar 2012

‘No growth Britain’ looks concerning even from pained Spain

I am sitting in a cafe in Mostolles, northern Madrid. It is a Wednesday, so it’s “one euro day” where everything from mini bocadillos to ensaladas cost one euro. Spain is officially back in recession, according to its central bank. More on the pain in Spain tomorrow.

For now I had thought that my location would be a rather apt place to discuss just why Britain’s economy fell more than originally thought in the final quarter of last year. One of the reasons the Q4 2011 -0.2 per cent has turned to -0.3 per cent is that trade data has been revised sharply downwards. When viewed alongside declines in German and eurozone GDP (though not France) you can begin to see that the euro crisis effect did impact on the numbers.

But the alibi stretches only so far. The truly shocking figure requires an interrogation of the figures, and the levels of GDP. The size of the UK economy is now 98.3 (on an index which scores the 2008 economy at 100). This is exactly the same as the size in October 2010. In other words, taking into account, alternate upswings and downswings, the UK has not grown since October 2010, also the month of the spending review. That’s right, ZERO growth in 5 quarters, 15 months, for which the Coalition’s original deficit reduction plan had pencilled in three per cent.

Take it further back, and you of get an economy that is 0.6 per cent bigger in the six quarters that George Osborne has been at Number 11 (3.6 per cent forecast by deficit reduction plan in June 2010). For context, the economy grew by 1.1 per cent in the single quarter immediately before that, Alistair Darling’s last.

Whichever way you slice it, you can’t blame the eurozone crisis for the now prolonged trend of economic underperformance in Britain. It probably did have an impact in the last quarter. The concern is that going forward, this zig-zagging pattern will continue, partially distorted by the Jubilee, Olympics etc, as indicated by the Bank of England.

Does this mean government economic policy has failed? Not necessarily. As the IMF has argued, the lower growth works like an insurance policy for Britain against the nightmare of a sovereign crisis and rising interest rates currently suffered from the place I’m in right now. What my figures show is that insurance policy is proving more expensive than anyone forecast at the time. The longer it takes for sustained growth to emerge from the radical market-based reforms of this government, the stronger the critical voices from left and right will be.

Perhaps the bigger miracle is that austerity has kicked off without a formal return to recession in Britain, as we have here in Spain. But that will be little consolation for a chancellor who may have to wait a few quarters more to shed the “No Growth” tag.

More on Spain soon.

Follow Faisal on Twitter: @faisalislam