The economy is stalling – but to fix it we need to look beyond Brexit

We must get back to debating low productivity, low investment, low wages and regional imbalances

 

What is today’s most pressing economic issue?

The average reader of newspapers and the blogs would probably think that it is Britain’s decision to leave the EU. News reports continue to cite predictions of dire economic consequences from implementing the referendum decision.

Despite what you might have heard, Britain outside the EU is likely to be a far wealthier country in 2030 than it is today. How much more wealthy depends a little on the nature of the trading relationship with Europe but it depends a lot on the issues that concerned us before June – low productivity, low investment, low wages, low inflation, low returns on savings, the current account and the imbalances between regions and sectors.

That this idea seems surprising is partly because too many of us are still fighting the referendum. We remainers see every piece of bad economic news as vindication of our position. The other side at least get to cheer when the news is good.

The exaggerations of the campaign still colour our understanding.

Take for example the Treasury study whose central prediction was that Britain’s GDP would be 6.2 per cent lower outside the EU in the long term. That’s the figure Mr Osborne turned into an unbelievable £4,300 loss for every household. (I doubt Mr Osborne ever met a statistic he couldn’t torture into saying what he wanted it to say.)

The figure came from a serious study so let’s take it seriously: after 15 years Britain’s GDP would be 6.2 per cent smaller. The question is smaller than what? The claim is that, ceteris paribus, Britain out of the EU would be poorer than Britain in the EU, not poorer than Britain today.

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If GDP grew at its historical trend rate of 2.5 per cent per annum then after 15 years Britain would be 44.8 per cent richer than today. If leaving the EU cost 6.2 per cent then Britain outside the EU would be 36.8 per cent richer.

That might be too optimistic. Growth as high as 2.5 per cent has been rare in recent years when austerity has held back the economy. Suppose that due to poor policy choices GDP growth averages only 1.5 per cent per annum. After 15 years GDP would be 25 per cent higher than today in the EU and 18.8 per cent outside.

Increase in GDP with good or bad policies, in or out of the EU

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These figures should not be treated as a forecast or a projection. They are merely an illustration of the scale of the impact of leaving the EU setting it in perspective with other developments in the economy.

What can we conclude? Firstly, it would be better to stay in the EU, which follows from accepting the Treasury analysis. Secondly we see that other economic policy choices can have a bigger impact on our future wellbeing than the decisions on Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU.

The conservative leavers have their idea of those other policy choices. They favour further deregulation and cut to corporate taxes to lower business costs. However this approach leads to a low wage low productivity environment where insufficient demand and deflation risks locking the country into a low growth trajectory.

The alternative lies in a virtuous cycle of investment, rising productivity and rising wages. Higher wages provides an incentive to productivity enhancing investment which in turn funds the rise in workers income.

An active industrial policy accompanied by public investment is needed to drive this process. Leaving the EU could start a rebalancing away from the financial sector but active policies will be needed to support an expanding manufacturing sector in its place. Industrial policy needs to promote manufacturing exports to take advantage of the fall in sterling. A low pound is necessary to address the current account deficit, but without active measures the opportunity may be missed

Cross border supply chains will face new frictions and industrial policy should aim to help firms to create shorter supply chains without compromising quality.

With inflation is still one below the government’s target, rising wages could help steer away from the danger area of deflation. Only when inflation is significantly above target will it be safe to raise interest rates which will have the benefit of increasing returns to savings.

Despite the media focus on the economic impact of leaving the EU, that is not the main determinant of future prosperity. The disruption of leaving will weigh on the economy for some time and the loss of efficiency will have permanent effects. Nevertheless there remain many important policy choices which will have greater influence on future economic outcomes.

We need to get back to the policy debates we were having before June.

Jos Gallacher represents Labour International on the National Policy Forum of the Labour Party

8 Responses to “The economy is stalling – but to fix it we need to look beyond Brexit”

  1. Michael WALKER

    “The UK economy grew faster than expected in the three months after the Brexit vote, official figures have indicated.
    The economy expanded by 0.5% in the July-to-September period, according to the Office for National Statistics.”
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37786467

    Nothing more need be said about this article.

  2. Dave Stewart

    While in general I largely agree with the point being made here there are a few problems with this analysis:

    firstly do these growth forecasts include the effect of inflation? the difference between 44.8% and 36.8% might be vitally important to whether peoples incomes in real terms increase or decrease if inflation over the same period totals say 38%.

    Secondly measuring changes in national prosperity in GDP is a rather poor tool. Far better is GDP per capita. The problem is simple, if population growth is equal to or larger than GDP growth then people will on average either stay the same in terms of income or lose. This problem is compounded further by inflation as mentioned above. It is also not unreasonable to expect that population growth will be a large factor in increasing GDP in the future given that at growth rates of 1.5% it would account for around a 3rd of growth (it’s currently 0.6%) meaning that per capita real growth is only around 1%.

  3. Mick

    LFF have basically admitted that they’ve lost the argument on Brexit, they can’t turn the clock back, so they actually look at some other factors for a change.

    See, outside the EU, we WON’T drown, after all!

  4. CR

    Oops…

    Guardian website headline:
    “Nissan to make new car models in UK as economy defies Brexit fears “

  5. CR

    I also note that today the Shadow Chancellor accepts in a speech that we are leaving the EU and concentrates on the details of Brexit. It is time LFF does the same.

  6. Craig Mackay

    Positive growth figures released today are fairly simplistic. The growth was strong in the service industries which have a strong balance of trade surplus but many contracts are denominated not in sterling but in dollars or euros or other currencies. This gives a great boost to the income of service industries in sterling. All other areas are showing a decline, in some cases quite sharply. Simply taking a single figure which some of the above commentators do is sadly rather naïve. Also don’t think that Nissan decided to stick with Sunderland out of the goodness of their hearts or indeed their optimism about Brexit. Until the government or Nissan actually explain what the government bribed them with we simply won’t know. But then this government doesn’t really want anyone to actually know what her doing. World Trade Organisation rules however will force them to make that clear in time.

  7. Mick

    Aaaah, some areas see a dip. Fluctuations we saw both in and out of Europe.

    So what this means is, shock, the sky didn’t fall in after all. Did it, Mark Carney!

  8. Jos Gallacher

    Dave Stewart,
    This is real GDP, ie after inflation is stripped out.
    Yes GDP per capita is a better measure but I’m using a Treasury figure to illustrate the point. They used GDP, as most similar stuies have.
    Mick, CR,
    I don’t speak for LFF. I’m just making a contribution to thinking about the issues.

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