Things are bad enough without talking ourselves into recession.
Some banks and commentators have already called a recession in the USA, when the figures for the last quarter of 2007 show the US economy was still growing well. Here in the UK the retailers have added to the sense of gloom by concentrating on their sales figures on a â€œlike for likeâ€ basis, leaving out all the sales in new shops.
The current position is both better than the pundits admit, and worse than the government will let on. The bad news is that the banking systems in both the USA and the UK are damaged by discovering that some of the lending they carried out in the heady days of low interest rates and easy money may not be repaid . We are living through a difficult time as banks adjust for the losses they have made, and rein in their lending as they are short of cash. Banks need to cut their dividends or raise new capital.
In the UK commercial property values are falling fast, undermining the security for some of the loans. Residential property values are under attack from the UK government, who want housing to be more â€œaffordableâ€. The price falls have not been fast yet partly because high Stamp duties and the imposition of Home Information Packs are putting people off selling their homes. There are too few homes coming onto the market at the moment to cause a crash . The UK authorities have made the problem worse by their ham fisted approach to Northern Rock.
The good news is that many companies are still trading well. On both sides of the Atlantic activity is higher overall today than it was when the Credit crunch first hit. Both the US and the UK have experienced a falling currency. As both economies need to divert much more activity into exports, or into import substitution, that will help. Both economies can export so much more to the rich parts of the world â€“ China, India, Russia and the Middle East. Both economies now have to seek inward investment from these new giants that have built up huge cash surpluses at the same time as we have built up huge deficits by buying their oil and their manufactures. It is repayment time.
Few forecasters expect a downturn in the UK this year â€“ just a sharp slowdown. Some commentators expect the US to get away with a slowdown rather than a recession. The US Fed is very keen to stop a slump, and is taking the right action by making cash available to banks and by cutting interest rates. Now the US President is also promising tax cuts, which will boost activity as well. The US authorities recognised earlier than the UK that they had to shift from inflation fighting to recession fighting, and they have been bolder in their actions. They will probably succeed in avoiding recession.
The UKâ€™s position is weaker because the UK has increased public spending by too much, wasting too much of the money. At a time when other countries were reining in public borrowing and controlling their spending, the UK government went on a spending binge. This limits the UK governmentâ€™s scope to cut taxes and relieve the pressure on consumers. As consumption is the largest part of activity, this means we are going to experience a slowdown which consumers will feel badly. If the government really wanted to help us out of this change of fortune, it would get a better grip on its spending immediately, cancelling the needless parts like ID cards, computerisation schemes, regional government, and larger EU contributions as well as keeping wages down. Then it could follow the US example and cut taxes to help the hard pressed private sector.
Instead the UK is only going to tackle one of the twin deficits, the balance of payments one, through the mechanism of a cheap pound. Our best hope this year is that the strategy works and the private sector does export more. That could be helped if the government would relent on its planned increases in small business tax and capital gains tax. They need the goodwill of entrepreneurs. Itâ€™s a dangerous time for the government to be sandbagging the very people on whom they rely to recreate their much quoted â€œeconomic stabilityâ€. Our economy at the moment is as stable as a row boat in a storm.
There is no need to talk ourselves into recession â€“ we can get through with a period of slow growth. To do so, the government needs to curb its own appetite for waste and be realistic about how much it can squeeze out of us in tax.