Global Economics

British Economy Headed for Perfect Storm?


Consumer confidence is at a low, bad debt is everywhere, and the jobs market is headed south. Looks like a stormy season ahead

The storm clouds are gathering over the jobs market; the climate on the high street is growing distinctly chilly; a typhoon of bad debt is buffeting the banks. Could a "perfect storm" be about to hit the British economy?

The signs couldn't be much bleaker. The switchback in sentiment since the credit crisis began in the summer has been violent. The Nationwide Consumer Confidence Index recorded its largest drop yesterday, and joins the GfK/NOP survey earlier this week in suggesting that a wave of pessimism not seen for years is washing over the economy.

House prices have begun to fall, albeit slightly; commercial property is seemingly on the brink of collapse on a par with that seen in the early 1990s. The buy-to-let market is vulnerable. The Bank of England has, unprecedentedly, voiced concerns about the grim prospects for real estate. And the Financial Services Authority has warned of the "very real prospect" of the global credit crunch getting much worse. It is that bad.

Shopkeepers are looking forward to a black Christmas. Sir Philip Green, the boss of Top Shop and BHS, said last night on Sky TV that "business is very, very tough". The British Retail Consortium says that sales grew only marginally in November, having slowed markedly in October. JD Sports, ScS furniture and Greene King are the latest household names warning of setbacks. About 4.4 million credit-card customers still haven't cleared debts they ran up last Christmas, according to MoneyExpert.com.

We're less ready to spend, particularly on "big ticket" items -- furniture, fridges, cars and so on. We're more pessimistic about our finances. We don't want to take on more debt and we want to rebuild our savings. The credit markets are seizing up again. That means banks are becoming much, much choosier about who they lend to, and are charging ever higher rates, despite the efforts of the authorities to keep money markets functioning normally. No lending; no spending.

That unwillingness to lend -- the credit crunch -- has started to affect businesses too, though firms remain generally more upbeat than consumers. Manufacturing firms, and in particular those in the car industry, are happy, a veritable ray of sunshine. However, manufacturing makes up only 15 per cent of the economy. In the financial sector, responsible for more than half of the recent growth in the UK's GDP, the mood is glum.

After months defying gravity, share prices have suffered some dramatic falls. City bonuses will be cut this year -- and next -- along with recruitment and investment. Barclays, HSBC and other banks have reported billions in losses, while the future of Northern Rock is uncertain.

Growth in the construction sector eased to a 14-month low in November, according to the Chartered Institute for Purchasing and Supply. The gentle rise in unemployment over the past 18 months may accelerate. The accountants KPMG say that "what we are seeing is that the credit crunch is tightening its grip over the economy... an underlying weakening, with both demand for permanent staff and vacancies down on the levels earlier this year."

Everyone from the Treasury to the IMF has trimmed their forecasts for UK growth; from close to 3 per cent for 2008, down to nearer 2 per cent. The IMF says that even this is now too optimistic. Is it time to start talking about the "R-word" -- recession, and the possibility that the economy might shrink?

The difficulty is that the credit crisis is a process that feeds on itself rather than an event that can be declared "over". It began with the collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage market and the housing crash there, problems which are intensifying. As more sub-prime customers default -- because of the credit crunch -- more banks record losses and stop lending, and more properties are dumped on to the depressed US housing market. That depresses confidence and spending, and the screw turns again.


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