Some good news at last for the UK economy but don’t expect the tough times to be over
The outlook for the UK economy is finally beginning to brighten following a harsh recession and weak recovery. The Office for Budget Responsibility raised its forecasts for the UK economy with growth of 1.4% expected in 2013 up from a previous estimate of 0.6% in March while 2014 is expected to see growth of 2.4% instead of a prior March forecast of 1.8%. While the government was keen to publicise this as good news, much of the improvement is due to factors that are likely to be temporary. Government measures along with monetary policy are behind the perkier economy but the effects will not last and a proper recovery may still be some time away.
The unexpected boost to the economy has come through higher spending by households. Many UK consumers are feeling better off with UK shares near record highs and the UK property market going through a period of resurgence. Stock markets in many developed countries have been providing stellar returns as extra cash being printed by central banks flows into shares. House prices have benefited through a range of government schemes aimed at increasing the availability of mortgages. This has translated into more consumer spending through a mechanism known as the wealth effect which is the notion that people will spend more if the financial assets which they own are worth more. The UK government has tried to tap into this effect on spending using schemes such as Help to Buy to lift house prices as a means to boost the economy due to few other options (such as higher government spending) being available.
The wealth effect relies on growing levels of financial wealth which can be lifted by different measures but which ultimately rely on the health of the economy. As such, temporary boosts are possible but asset prices (and wealth) can only be pushed up so far and may involve potential negative effects for the economy. Higher prices for financial assets now come at the cost of price gains in the future (such as a weaker property market in the future) with a reduced wealth effect. This may be a necessary price to pay with few other avenues for generating growth but the tactic of pushing up property prices has also been used by the UK government to provide cover for its program of austerity measures.
With public debt reaching around 75% of GDP in 2012, the government has given priority to cutting back its spending but this is controversial coming at a time when the overall economy is weak. The government claims that the cuts are necessary as investors would not buy UK government bonds (resulting in the government having to pay higher interest rates) were government debt to get even more out of hand. Concerns about debt levels have eased considerably since reaching near frantic proportions during the Eurozone crisis, but the government remains unrepentantly committed to slashing spending levels. Cuts to government spending are going to continue for years to come with the stated goal of reaching a budget surplus by 2018 despite calls for a change in policy.
Other areas of the UK economy also have little to offer in terms of growth. Exports from the UK have failed to pick up despite a weaker pound and the value of the currency has begun to rise again which does not bode well for UK exporters. Investment is also weak with lending to businesses in decline. It is proving tough to come up with an engine to drive growth in the UK – a recovery is long overdue but we may still have to wait.