The dangers of the R word

Even if you weren’t following the referendum campaign closely you’ll probably remember a few of the economic highlights (lowlights?): the Vote Leave £350m bus; the “punishment Budget” and George Osborne predicting that there would be a recession if Britain left the EU.

Now we know that all three of these claims were, in their own way, wrong.

There will be no £350m a week public finances dividend (in fact the latest statistics, out today, imply the deficit this year will be even bigger than expected, before any discretionary giveaways the new Chancellor wants to add).

Even Mr Osborne ditched the idea of an emergency budget (punishment or otherwise) before he was booted out of 11 Downing Street.

And now it transpires that Britain looks like it will avoid a recession.

Now, in practice, this final point should be neither here nor there. The definition of a recession – two successive quarters of economic contraction – is, to say the least, pretty arbitrary. Other countries, most notably the US, prefer to declare recessions based on a whole range of other factors – but for some reason in Britain the convention of two quarters of contraction stuck.

So, for instance, if UK GDP shrinks by 0.1% for two quarters, that is a recession. If GDP is -0.9% one quarter and 0.1% the next, that is not a recession. Barmy – and totally misleading, since we are considerably poorer in the latter example (remember that gross domestic product is simply a measure of how much income the country is generating).

And yet, if only in public discourse, the distinction matters. People take much more notice of the R word than the threat of an “economic slowdown”. So, when, a month before the vote, the Treasury published its forecasts for the short-term impact of a Leave result the Chancellor made much of the fact that the HMT models suggested there would be a recession. The press office mocked up various placards saying the UK “would fall into RECESSION”, with the R word in a terrifying horror movie font.

This was, as I said at the time, misleading. In fact, the Treasury’s central forecast was for a 0.1% contraction for four quarters. This would, had it transpired, have been the shallowest recession in economic history. Moreover, in economics, 0.1 percentage points is essentially neither here nor there.

None of that seemed to matter to the Chancellor. He had his recession forecast and he spent the next month warning that the economy would indeed tip into it.

Roll forward to today, almost three months after the vote, and it simply doesn’t look as if the UK economy is in recession. The OECD has cut its forecast for growth next year, but has actually raised its projection for this year. And as Joe Grice, chief economist of the Office for National Statistics says, “the referendum result appears, so far, not to have had a major effect on the UK economy. So it hasn’t fallen at the first fence but longer-term effects remain to be seen.”

Indeed, whereas last month the average forecast from City economists was indeed for a recession, they now expect zero growth this quarter and next. So no recession.


Now in practice, what matters is that, if you believe the economists, this is nonetheless much weaker than the 0.5% a quarter growth rate that was anticipated before the referendum. In other words, our national income is still forecast to be much weaker than previously. However, because of our fixation, because of the Treasury’s fixation with the r-word, the economic fraternity has been discredited again.

The elephant (not) in the room

At the time of the Bank of England’s interest rate decision, no-one in the room knew who was going to be Britain’s new Chancellor. This might seem like an odd thing to mention, given right now the main story people will be obsessing with is the element of shock – that the Monetary Policy Committee decided not to cut rates. But it matters. 

But before we get to that, let’s consider the decision itself, and why so many investors and economists got it wrong.

In the run-up to the Bank of England’s interest rate announcement today, investors were placing an 80% probability on the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee cutting interest rates. Instead, not only did it leave Bank rate on hold at 0.5%, only one of its nine members voted to cut them to 0.25%.

As I tweeted this morning, the market’s apparent confidence that rates would be reduced to their lowest level in history was always misplaced – for four reasons. 

First, we don’t yet know the full impact of Brexit on the economy – and the Bank only very rarely makes big call on rates without at least checking the data or updating its forecasts. 

Second, the fall in the pound is likely to push up inflation – perhaps even beyond the Bank’s target.

Third, when Mark Carney hinted about rates being cut a couple of weeks ago, he was actually rather vague about how soon it would happen – but he mentioned August a few more times than July.

Finally, back to that point I made at the beginning: at the time it made its decision, the Bank did not know who would be Chancellor. This might seem like an odd, pedantic point, but it is significant.

It is an under-appreciated fact that these days the MPC decides interest rates the day before the official announcement. And, as I understand it, the MPC voted to hold rates yesterday afternoon, before Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister – and before she made Philip Hammond her Chancellor.

Now, on the one hand, the MPC is independent to decide rates as it sees fit. On the other hand, it cannot ignore the government entirely. For one thing, if there was to be an emergency Budget (we suspected there wasn’t but that has only been confirmed this morning), the MPC might have considered it prudent to wait and see whether the Government was planning a major splurge. There is less point, after all, in loosening monetary policy radically if fiscal policy is also going in the same direction.

Moreover, were the Bank going to do more quantitative easing, it would have needed the Chancellor’s approval. Which would have been difficult since, at the time, there was no Chancellor. George Osborne was on the way out and Hammond on the way in.

Such considerations don’t surface explicitly in the minutes – and why would they? There are enough reasons above for the Bank to pause this month rather than cutting. But it underlines the fact that these decisions are a bit more complicated, and involve a little bit more second-guessing, than you might have thought.

Anyway, the expectation now is that rates get cut next month. But will it actually happen? Probably, but these days you never know. 

Two hours…

That was how long the Chancellor’s message of reassurance to market investors lasted today.

George Osborne resurfaced at the Treasury just after 7am to tell investors that the UK economy remains strong, to assure them and households that he would take all necessary contingency plans to deal with the instability following the Brexit vote.

And for a little while, the plan seemed to go pretty well. The main London stock markets did not start the day quite as low as had been expected. The pound even rose, for a bit. Moreover, there has been no sudden stop, where investors abandon a government’s debt. In fact the UK government can now borrow at the lowest rate since 1703 – less than 1% for 10 year debt.


But a little after 9am the effect wore off and the market misery that characterised Friday’s trading was back.

London shares slumped back towards the 6,000 mark, with bank shares and a few of those most affected by Brexit doing disastrously: RBS (still 73% owned by the taxpayer, lest we forget) was at one stage down by 25%; Easyjet was down by a fifth. Having risen briefly after Mr Osborne’s appearance, the pound then dropped again to the lowest level in 31 years.

Credit Suisse said that based on leading indicators, the UK is probably already in recession. Indeed, the way investors are behaving – piling money into “defensive” stocks such as utilities and consumer staples – suggests they are gearing up for a slump. The Institute of Directors warned that businesses were actively considering pulling investment and cutting jobs from the UK. Investors are now betting that the Bank of England will cut interest rates in the coming months, perhaps more than once.

Moreover, looked at from another angle, those record low gilt yields could equally be taken to imply that UK growth will be weaker for longer.

Ugh. And, frankly, the bad news is likely to outnumber the good for some time – and for a simple reason. Investors demand stability: stability of taxes, of trade arrangements, of regulation, of immigration policy, of exchange rates. They all play a part in determining whether a company will build that new factory or hire new workers. And the problem with the way Brexit has manifested itself is that, having won the referendum, the Leave campaign is looking towards the Treasury for a plan, who in turn are looking back towards the Leave camp for a plan.

The Chancellor’s appearance this morning illustrated the problem perfectly. There is, he said, a short term plan for stabilising the markets. What there isn’t is a long-term plan for the kind of relationship the UK wants with the EU and other trading nations. And one presumes there won’t be such a plan until there is a new Conservative leader and, perhaps, until after a general election. And even that might not provide a clear guide, since there may not be a clear majority winner.

You get the idea. As long as there is no plan, instability will reign. Investors will continue to be wary of the UK economy, and the economy will be sluggish. The only question is how long the sluggishness, or indeed the potential recession, will last. Another way of putting it: how long until the politicians get their act together, stop squabbling and start leading?

Further thoughts on the EU referendum result 

The problem is not our relationship with the European Union. That can be resolved in the coming years and, who knows, might turn into something more functional than the incoherent muddle it has become in the wake of the euro crisis. 

The real problem today are the shockwaves generated by the referendum result, which go much further – to the very fabric of what has cemented Britain’s place as one of the world’s leading economies. Think about it: what are the key factors that have made the UK a good economic bet in the past – for investors, for employees, for businesses looking to establish themselves somewhere prosperous?

It has chiefly come down to five things: 1. A stable political system; 2. A stable, predictable and reliable legal system; 3. London’s status as a global financial centre; 4. The UK’s reliability as a creditor and 5. The UK’s openness to trade, capital and migration flows. 

The reason markets and investors are quite so disturbed about the EU referendum result is that it puts every single one of these five pillars under question. 

1. The political establishment is now in ruins. The Prime Minister has resigned; much of the cabinet will doubtless follow. 2. The legal system is likely to change wholesale, given it is, for better or marked with EU laws and regulations. 3. Investment banks may well resettle away from the City of London if the UK is no longer a member of the passporting system (basically the single European market in key corporate finance services). 4. The public finances are likely to be thrown into disarray by the short and long term fiscal consequences of the post-referendum downturn; and for the time being there is no clarity on who will preside over those finances in the future. The credit rating is likely to be cut. 5. Finally, while it is possible that an independent non-EU UK could remain open to trade and immigration, those are not the kinds of mood messages transmitted by the a Leave camp during the campaign. 

Now, at this stage it’s worth emphasising that there is no God-given reason why a sensible administration could not surmount all the above issues. But it will take an almost superhuman effort in policy making and financial and legal diplomacy. 

Last night the pound fell by more than it has done in any trading period on record. Consider that for a moment: more than on Black Wednesday, more than during the financial crisis, more than in the 1970s, when Britain had to call in the International Monetary Fund. That is not an academic detail, it will affect everyone. Inflation will go up; Petrol prices will go up; many businesses trading overseas will struggle. It is hard not to presume that there will be a recession, as there has been every other time the pound fell anything like as suddenly and dramatically. The only question is how deep. 

Then there’s a deeper issue. Like most developed nations, the UK has many internal divisions – divisions between the wealthy and the less well-off, between the capital and the rural areas, between each of its regions. While we often make much of those divisions, they are no more entrenched than in many other countries. But, thanks in large part to the electoral system, they are rarely exposed in as brutal a way as they were last night. Every region of England, save for London, voted to leave. Wales voted to leave. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay. Never has the UK looked so divided. 

Whoever takes over at Number 10 faces the greatest challenge of any British Prime Minister in decades