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Britain’s Flagging Economy: is Brexit to blame?

Summary:
Article for Prospect Magazine   21 November, 2018. Ann Pettifor, Council Member, Progressive Economy Forum. According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle there are limits to the precision with which we can be certain about the properties of a particle. ….the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. The very concepts of exact position and exact velocity together, in fact, have no meaning in nature. As in physics so in economics. There are limits to the precision with which we can judge the impact of the interminable drama that is Waiting for Brexit. The precise ‘object’ of Brexit is not clear, let alone its impact, or speed of impact. We know it will have an impact, but this can only be broadly estimated. Let’s go to the

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Article for Prospect Magazine   21 November, 2018. Ann Pettifor, Council Member, Progressive Economy Forum.

According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle there are limits to the precision with which we can be certain about the properties of a particle.

….the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. The very concepts of exact position and exact velocity together, in fact, have no meaning in nature.

As in physics so in economics. There are limits to the precision with which we can judge the impact of the interminable drama that is Waiting for Brexit. The precise ‘object’ of Brexit is not clear, let alone its impact, or speed of impact. We know it will have an impact, but this can only be broadly estimated.

Let’s go to the data. The most recent real GDP stats for the UK from 2014 to 2018 (with the OBR estimate for this year) show the annual percentage rate of change. Can you, Prospect readers, spot a trend?

2014 2.9
2015 2.3
2016 1.8
2017 1.7
(OBR est.) 2018 1.3

The rate of change peaked in 2014, and has declined steadily since then.  The Referendum took place in the middle of the period and the result – it would seem – served to reinforce the already slowing rate of ‘velocity’ of the economy.

Our main EU comparator economies were expanding over this period, as they slowly recovered from the harsh impact of the Eurozone crisis.  Then very recently, that recovery began to reverse. The USA was on a different journey, pumped up by the Trump tax-cut stimulus.  If we put together percentage change data for France, Germany, Italy and the USA, with the latest UK data for the 3rd Quarter of 2018 (change over Q3 2017) we get the following trajectories.

UK France Germany Italy USA
2014 2.9 1.0 2.2 0.1 2.5
2015 2.3 1.1 1.7 0.9 2.9
2016 1.8 1.2 2.2 1.1 1.6
2017 1.7 2.2 2.2 1.6 2.2
2018 Q3 (change on Q3 2017) 1.5 1.5 1.2 0.8 3.0

2017’s decline suggests a possible ‘Brexit effect’ of up to 0.5% of GDP, or around £10 billion –  the gap between others’ 2.2% and the UK’s 1.7% for the year. We may reasonably assume that this carried into 2018, with a similar additional impact.  This would make a combined effect, for the two years, of around £30 billion lost output.  It seems unlikely, from these comparisons, that the Brexit loss figure is more than that – but it could be a bit less.

When we examine in more detail the components of UK GDP, we notice that ‘business investment’ was the largest contributor to the slowdown.  Given uncertainty, that is no surprise. In 2014, the real increase in business investment was 5.2%, and in 2015 it was 3.7%.  In 2016, however investment  fell by -0.2%, followed by a modest gain of 1.8% in 2017. Comparing the first 3 quarters of 2018 with the same in 2017, the rise is just 0.1%.  If we assume that business investment might have risen, absent Brexit, by 10% from 2015 to end 2018, this suggests a shortfall of around £15 billion related to Brexit.  In other words, the fall in business investment accounts for the bulk of the impact of Brexit on the economy.

More recent 2018 GDP figures on industrial production and manufacturing do indeed show a slowdown, but 2017 was reasonably firm, so it is hard to pin the reason on Brexit.  On trade, the lower pound post-Referendum seems to have had some limited positive effect, as exports of both goods and services have grown (in real terms) since the end of 2016 a little faster than imports.  As regard services, the cornerstone of our economy, more recent data indicate an overall slowing in the annual rate of change (now well below 2%) – but it is again hard to discern any direct Brexit effect.

Don’t forget austerity!

In reviewing this data another trend is often ignored: the ongoing impact of austerity economics, for which the Treasury must take so much responsibility. HMT policy has deliberately constricted the economy at a time of private sector weakness.  Both the OBR and HMT have consistently under-estimated the output gap. By underestimating, for example, the demand for labour, the OBR has had to amend its ‘sustainable level of unemployment’ four times – from 5.5% to 5%; then to 4.5% and now to 4%.  Soon it may shift to 3.5%. At the same time, both the Treasury and OBR have underestimated the likely ‘multiplier’ effect of fiscal policy – both the negative and positive multiplier. As a result cuts in public spending have damaged the overall economy more than estimated, and the positive effect of expanded investment has consistently been denied.

Let me be clear: a chaotic Brexit process could have a devastating economic impact. However, the evidence shows that – to date –  it is austerity, not Brexit, that has had the most negative long-term impact on the British economy.

end.

Ann Pettifor
I’m Ann Pettifor, author and analyst of the global financial system, and co-author of The Green New Deal (2008). I predicted an Anglo-American debt-deflationary crisis back in 2003, and in September, 2006 published The Coming First World Debt Crisis (Palgrave). I am known for my work on the sovereign debts of low income countries and for leading an international movement for the cancellation of debts, Jubilee 2000.

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