Economic update – May 2012: Osborne’s austerity strangles Britain

IPPR chief economist Tony Dolphin presents his latest Left Foot Forward economic update, for May 2012.

Slasher Osborne stalks Westminster on his savage mission to scythe our public services

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The UK is back in recession. According to preliminary data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), real GDP declined by 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2012, having declined by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2011.

Gideon-Osborne-scytheEconomists define a recession as two consecutive quarters of falling GDP. These preliminary data may be revised.

Some economists have pointed out that the decline in GDP is at odds with other evidence about the economy, in particular stronger retail sales and a pick-up in business confidence. They think, when the ONS has more information, we will eventually find the economy avoided recession.

Whether or not we are in recession, the bigger picture shows economic activity in the UK is very weak. Real GDP has fallen in four of the last six quarters and has increased by just 0.4 per cent since the coalition government took office in the second quarter of 2010.

This is a result of a number of factors, some of which – global energy prices for example – are outside the control of the government. But there is little doubt the government’s austerity measures have contributed to the slowdown.

Here is a scorecard of different economic indicators over recent months:


Analysis of previous recessions – across a number of advanced economies – has shown those that follow the bursting of debt and asset bubbles tend to be deeper and to last longer than other recessions. The same analysis shows recoveries following this type of recession tend to be slower and more faltering that other recoveries.

The current UK experience is adding more evidence in support of this conclusion.

The recession of 2008-9 was the deepest since the 1920s (matching the depth of the 1930s recession) and the recovery following it is turning out to be the slowest for at least 100 years. Putting aside whether or not the economy is back in recession, output was still more than 4 per cent lower in the first quarter of 2012 than it was at its peak four years earlier.

The Office for Budget Responsibility thinks it will not exceed this peak until some time in 2014.


See also:

Economic update – April 2012: Coalition failures put Britain in the slow lane 17 Apr 2012

Economic update – March 2012: External events key to any recovery 12 Mar 2012

Economic Update – February 2012: Double dipped 7 Feb 2012

Economic update – January 2012: Outlook not all bad 9 Jan 2012

Economic update, December 2011 – UK teeters on brink of recession 5 Dec 2011


It is not that the economic news is all bad: business confidence has been higher this year than in the second half of 2011; retail sales were much better than expected in March and the latest figures show a fall in unemployment over the last three months for the first time in nine months.

But for every positive indicator, there is another negative one: consumer confidence is at very low levels; manufacturing output fell more than expected in February; and full-time employment is still falling.

Inflation is also proving sticky. The big hope for 2012 was that a sharp fall in inflation would increase households’ spending power, leading to a boost in consumer spending and stronger output growth. But inflation unexpectedly increased in March and prices have risen about 2 per cent faster than earnings over the last year. As a result, any recovery in spending is likely to be weak or short-lived.

At best, 2012 looks like being another year of disappointing growth.

GDP declined by 0.2% in the first quarter:

Preliminary figures show real GDP contracted by 0.2% in the first quarter of 2012. These figures may be revised, but if they are not, the UK is back in recession (on the technical definition of two consecutive quarters of declining GDP).

The main weakness in the economy was in construction, where output fell by 3.0% in the first quarter, but industrial output was also down by 0.4%. Furthermore, the increase of 0.1% in service sector output was attributable wholly to the government sector. See Figure 1.

Figure 1:

Employment is increasing – but only for part-time workers:

Employment in the latest three months, to February 2012, was 53,000 higher than in the previous three months (though it was still down 57,000 compared to a year earlier).

The number of part-time workers was up 80,000 in the latest three months, while full-time working fell by 27,000. Not all of this increase in part-time working is voluntary. There are now 1.40 million people who say they are working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment – the highest number since records began in 1992.

Unemployment has fallen:

On the Labour Force Survey (LFS) measure, unemployment fell by 35,000 over the latest quarter. As a result, unemployment in the three months to February was down to 2.65 million, or 8.3% of the labour force. However, long-term unemployment increased by 26,000 to 883,000 – its highest level since 1996.

The claimant count measure of unemployment increased by 3,600 in March and has now gone up for 13 consecutive months; here, too, there has been a fall recently in short-term unemployment and an increase in long-term unemployment.

Retail sales volumes surge:

The volume of retail sales increased by 1.8% in March – and the value of sales was up by the same amount. In part, this can be explained by panic buying of petrol towards the end of the month and by good weather, which led to earlier than usual purchases of spring clothing.

But the underlying trend in sales also looks to have improved in recent months, despite the continued squeeze on household finances. It may be that households are spending less on services so they can spend more on goods, or that they are cutting their savings.

Consumer confidence remains low:

Consumer confidence in April remained at a historically very low level. In recent months, people’s worries about the future – both for the economy and for their own personal financial situation – appear to have increased.

Manufacturing output trend remains flat:

Manufacturing output was down 1.0% in February and down 1.4% over the last year. Monthly data on output have become erratic and – unless there is more evidence of weakness in the next few months – it still seems likely the underlying trend is flat, as it has been for more than a year now. See Figure 2.

Figure 2:

Business survey confidence dropped in April:

The CIPS purchasing managers’ survey shows confidence in the manufacturing sector fell back in April (from a ten-month high) but is still at a level previously consistent with modest expansion in output. The construction indicator also fell slightly between March and April but is still consistent with healthy growth.

The service sector indicator also fell, to its lowest level for five months, but points to growth at a reasonably healthy pace.

Price inflation up to 3.5%:

There was a surprise increase in consumer price inflation in March, up from 3.4% to 3.5% (though inflation fell from 3.7% to 3.6% on the retail price measure). This was largely due to food prices.

Inflation is widely expected to fall during 2012 – not least by the Bank of England – but so far progress has been slower than expected. Inflation in the UK has proved rather stickier than in several other major advanced economies, with measures announced in the budget adding 0.2% to inflation from April.

Earnings inflation remains below 2%:

Inflation pressures cannot be blamed on higher wages. Average earnings increased by just 1.1% in the year to the three months ending in February and regular earnings were only up 1.6% over the same period.

Earnings growth in the public sector is the lowest since records began in 2001. Combined with the stickiness of price inflation, this means household spending power is still being squeezed.

Export growth has stopped:

Export volumes (excluding oil and erratic items) were unchanged in the year to the three months ending in February.

Exports to Europe fell by 4% – with the weakness concentrated in recent months – suggesting the eurozone crisis is now having an effect on the UK economy, though not on a scale that can fully explain the return to recession; exports to the rest of the world were up 3%.

Government borrowing down on the year:

Public sector net borrowing (excluding financial interventions) was £126 billion in the 2011-12 financial year, down from £137 billion in 2010-11. This was in line with recent OBR forecasts but higher than the £116 billion target set in the June 2010 budget. See Figure 3.

Figure 3:

Interest rates remain at 0.5%; QE at £325 billion:

The Monetary Policy Committee left interest rates at 0.5% in April and the scale of quantitative easing (QE) at £325 billion. There is now only one member voting for an increase in QE as the committee trade off the need to boost growth in the economy and the slowness of the fall in inflation.

Sterling stronger:

Sterling rose against the euro and the US dollar during April. The increase against the euro can be explained by the eurozone’s persistent problems; the increase against the US dollar is harder to understand.

The UK equity market ended the month a little lower, for the second month in a row.

The 10-year UK government bond yield was little changed at close to 2.25%.


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  • Anonymous

    150 bn of deficit spending to get the economy moving and it still goes down.

    Pretty comprehensive proof that Keynes doesn’t apply to a debt and spending binge that causes a recession.

    More debt and spending won’t solve it.

    Just Voodoo economics.

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  • Blarg1987

    Most of that spending has not been on real job creating but on buying assetts by the BoE to encourage market speculation rather then actual job growth i.e. state builds nuclear reactors or upgrade rail network etc.

    Keynes didn’t cause the debt and spending debt we have, it is more to do with the opposite economic theory which only gained ground by those advocating it borrowing money to fund tax cuts to prove their ideas of economics work.

    ANd to look objectively at it Keynes economics led to the boom of the 60’s in the UK after comming out of a war in whcih the country and most of Europe was HEAVILY IN DEBT.

    Not voodoo economics but proof that if we borrow and invest in the appropiate earea, i.e. infastructure / manufacturing and not used to speculate then we can build a better economy for the vast majority of people.

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  • Anonymous

    Most of that spending has not been on real job creating but on buying assetts by the BoE to encourage market speculation rather then actual job growth i.e. state builds nuclear reactors or upgrade rail network etc.


    Very little has been spent on investment. However the ‘assets’ are just loans to the government. It was just a way of printing cash.

    The state can’t invest. Look at HS2. It will never make money. It will never provide benefits exceeding the debt costs. So it’s yet another burden on the tax payer and future children.

    If Keynes is right, why hasn’t the UK economy boomed with the 150 bn a year of borrowing and spend by the government?

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  • Anonymous

    Tony, I don’t want to be rude, but a SURPRISE increase in Inflation? Get real.

  • Anonymous

    Spending isn’t the same where you apply it.

    Your applying money to murdering people, for instance, saves nothing at all.

    Spending cash to shut down services and to then pay out to cover them, and to paper over the damage being doing to the basic social infrastructure is indeed wasted, when simply keeping spending the money as before – or better, to more carefully target it on growth generation – would have a better effect.

    But no, that might slow your Campaign for Chinese Wages. So is unacceptable.

  • Anonymous

    Because spending on murder, corporate welfare (your shares) and correcting your mistakes won’t help the economy. It’s not the investment needed.

    HS2 is for YOU. It’s YOUR plan for your high speed toy. Just like the Olympics is your kind of prestige project. Feral 1% horseshit. Cancel them both.

  • Blarg1987

    Please reread my post, the state can invest, our nations infastructure needs upgrading, and can turn certain areas over time into exports, such as nuclear technology, HS2 I agree is not a good option, but upgrading the exisitng rail services and encouraging more to be put on freight, as well as building new roads, rail links fibre optic communications etc cause companies to invest and create economic growth.

    The best solution is to borrow on public sector pension funds and give them a higher rate of interest which will bring down pension liabilitiers and encourage confidence for public secto pension funds to invest in other things creating market confidence reducing the deficiet.

    Yes the capital cost is slightly higher, however it is a far better and cheaper option then things like PFI.

    You have not said why our economy was booming under Keynes ecomics in the 60’s and debt was very high due to loans form world war 2 but were being paid off?

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  • Anonymous

    The problem is with debt.

    Borrow 150 bn today, and you have to pay way more than 150 bn back. All that interest compounds up.

    That means you have to make even bigger cuts in the future.

    It’s a choice. Small cuts now, or bigger cuts later.

    Not spending the money doesn’t destroy it. It stays we people who still spend it. You have such a government centered view of the world.

    Look at investment, there is bugger all. For the 700 bn last year, how much was ‘invested’?

    What is the return on that investment?

  • Anonymous

    You have not said why our economy was booming under Keynes ecomics in the 60’s and debt was very high due to loans form world war 2 but were being paid off?


    Because the debt wasn’t high. The reason is that the debt figures are being fiddled. It’s a straightforward fraud.

    In 1945, the borrowing figure was high, but the pensions debts miniscule. Now the pension debts are astronomical.

    Look again at the deficit spending in the 60s. Hardly any. Look now, massive.

    Your example argument for Keynes is a really good example of why Keynes isn’t correct.

    Even look at the New Deal in the US. 10.7% was the maximum percentage of GDP that the government spent.

    Look at the percentage spent in the UK now.

    Why hasn’t that massive government spending program, many multiples of FDR’s new deal produce prosperity?

    It’s simple. It doesn’t produce prosperity, it destroys it. The improvements are temporary, produced by buggering future generations with debt, in order to spend now and feel good. The evidence is that the debts are published and kept secret, because to let people know would let the cat out of the bag.

    The effects of running these debts are now available for all to see. Look at Greece.

  • Anonymous

    Only if your growth is persistently below the growth rate plus the return in the investment.

    You offer cuts now, devastating the economy, and cuts later to keep up with the debt payments on what you already borrowed but now can no longer afford since the economy is shrinking anyway.

    Not spending is, demonstrably, destroying the economy.

    The return on your “investment” in the government is getting lower wages for your companies. Follow the money, as always.

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