EVERYWHERE you look, the economic signs for the UK and global economy are extremely worrying.
The fact that the Swiss and Dutch Parliaments are discussing sovereign money and Finland is experimenting with basic incomes points to the fact that this thinking isn’t as radical as people paint it. Within a generation, today’s radical may be the new normal.
So is a crisis coming? Even George Osborne is warning of a “cocktail of economic risks”, others have used the term “hat-trick of dangers” but the reality is that a “perfect storm” is brewing. There are at least ten serious warning signs to consider.
1) House prices have been growing too fast and have, especially in London and the South East, lost all contact with reality. Many people can’t afford to move and so are extending current properties, if they can, which is helping the SME building sector, but this means there are fewer properties on the market, by about 35 to 40 per cent compared with prior to the banking crisis, and so prices have inflated due to lack of supply, even though demand is not much stronger.
Banks have also prioritised mortgages post bail-out as they then not only have a major tangible asset to reclaim if the mortgage defaults, but an asset that grows in price as long as banks keep flooding the market with new mortgages.
2) Sticking with housing, tax increases on buy-to-let transactions due to take effect in 2017 will slow demand. Also, a large chunk of interest-only mortgages will mature in 2017. This isn’t so much a problem if those buyers have the cash to pay the balance or can re-mortgage. However, research by Citizens Advice estimates that 934,000 people have an interest-only home loan and do not have a plan for how they will pay it off when it matures. So a London-led property crash in late 2016 or early 2017 is a strong probability.
3) Although wage growth has recently been stronger than expected, it slowed to two per cent in December despite strong job figures. Employers seem to be tightening their belts as confidence dips. This will slow down the consumer spending that drives our economy.
4) Until recently, those that can afford to do so have been de-leveraging their personal debt. Whether it was confidence borne from a return to reasonable pay rises or low inflation, or just people wanting to spend again for Christmas, personal debt has risen 40 per cent in the last six months. Aviva found that the average UK household now owes a staggering £13,520, up £4,000 from the last quarter. This means rather than the banking credit crunch we are entering into unchartered personal credit crunch territory. Hence why I have been banging on about bailing out the people not just the banks. The growth Osborne is boasting about has been borrowed at store card-rates of interest and if consumer spending falls significantly in the first half of 2016, as it must, then it’s time to man the lifeboats.
5) Oh wait we don’t have any lifeboats. Key central banks around the world, not just the UK’s, have used up all of their reserves bailing out the banking system and interest rates can’t go any lower.
6) The bank bail-out worked because the global meltdown wasn’t totally global, but the emerging markets, Brazil, China, Indonesia, India and to a lesser extent Turkey and South Africa, who were holding the line against global economic collapse have moved from being the “super six” to the “susceptible six”.
China’s slowing economy and its volatile stock exchange is making the news and if those economies truly catch a cold we all will.
7) People have become accustomed to record-breaking low (almost zero) inflation. The Governor of the Bank Of England (BOE) is desperate to raise interest rates but those huge increases in personal debt and housing market vulnerabilities will mean the BOE’s monetary policy committee will be brave in the extreme to move interest rates up even .25 per cent this quarter. Deflationary pressures are good for consumers in the short term for sure but bad for the economy in the long term and jobs will be at risk if prices don’t rise by at least three per cent in 2016.
8) The price of oil is the key driver of low inflation as oil prices impact on almost all other sectors.
Oil prices are always volatile and Westminster’s economic mismanagement in not creating a sovereign oil fund has hit Scotland’s North East hard. Volatile is the key word, however, and a potential sharp increase in oil price to triple figures driven by an escalation of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would admittedly boost Scotland’s fiscal position in the short term, but it would also significantly increase inflation and lead to higher interest rates.
Thus, stalling consumer spending in highly indebted households and increased mortgage interest rates possibly burst the housing bubble.
9) Underpinning the UK’s economic woes is the problem of the “wrong culture” that was allowed to dominate our banking sector over the last two decades. Banks are not fundamentally evil institutions as portrayed by the Occupy movement.
It is more that those that regulate them have been fundamentally stupid. Instead of a root-and-branch reworking of the financial system, Westminster has done the absolute minimum, and the Financial Conduct Authority’s decision to drop its inquiry into banking culture signals the end of any attempt at using regulation to align bank behaviour to economic needs.
10) Everything else. The UK may vote to leave the EU and that will cause stock markets to panic and lose faith in the whole European picture, and Sterling’s stability could be threatened. Past recession analysis suggests that after a recession comparable to the banking crash, quicker, follow-on recessions and shorter growth cycles are common, so is a down cycle due?
I could have also mentioned the UK’s weak current accounts and related balance of trade, which were more of a problem for the UK than its much feared debt-to-GDP ratio. As it stands, we either need a radical new approach to economics or to get lucky if we are to avoid a recession we are completely unprepared for.