Warning signs

Sometimes as an economist you notice things that others don’t. Today I visited the centre of the city in which I live and for the second time this week, I noticed that the cafes and shops were relatively empty. One reason is the belt tightening that invariably happens after the Christmas shopping spree. The other reason is more ominous and that is that the uncertainty generated by fears about Brexit which are causing people to be more careful with there spending. In times of uncertainty it is sensible to be cautious about spending, it makes sense to increase one’s savings to protect against future uncertainties. All the extra spending on credit cards that was recorded last year will come to a halt once people start to fea the future. They won’t want to saddle themselves with extra debts.

While the evidence I present is only anecdotal this is how economic downturns start. Consumers become more and more cautious with their spending  because they fear for the future. This action becomes something of a self fulfilling prophecy as failing consumer spending means that firms cut back on there spending on staff and purchases of stock. Gradually at first but then more rapidly people become poorer, because of falling spending by businesses and the down turn in economic activity can  within a short time develop into a recession.

These downturns occur because of flaws in the economic system,  as happened with the financial crisis of 2008/9 or because of misguided economic policy making. The second is happening now. There should be a golden rule in politics, that governments never take action that might be detrimental to economic welfare except in the most extreme circumstances. The problem about such actions is that there is no way of foretelling whether the action taken by the government will lead to an uncontrollable downturn in economic activity or whether it will result in a more modest adjustment.

There is a terrible warning that all politicians regularly fail to heed. When the Prime Minister Jim Callaghan returned to the country in 1976 from an overseas trip, there was a crisis developing in the financial markets. He made a foolish remark in response to a journalists question about the crisis, he said ‘what crisis?’ This gave the impression that the government was not in control and the financial crisis rapidly got out of hand.

Yesterday the Prime Minister Theresa May had her Jim Callaghan moment. She stated that Britain will be leaving the single market, giving the impression to informed observers that she had little grasp of economics. The EU is the largest market for British exports and announcing that she intends to make it more difficult for British firms to access that market, is an act of supreme folly. Today two banks announced in response to her speech that they are moving some banking operations to Europe. There will be many more such announcements in the following weeks and months. This will generate fear and uncertainty amongst British consumers, leading to large cuts in there spending, as they save more and more for the expected rainy day. The consequence is that it likely that later this year  that the economy will tip into recession.

Unfortunately the folly of her decision is compounded by the school boy howlers  made by her ministers. Today the Foreign Secretary compared the attitude of the French President to Brexit to that of a Second World War prison camp guard. Such remarks will merely serve to convince the financial markets that this government has little understanding of the economic reality and has but a very weak grasp  of the essentials of policy making.

As I said in the second paragraph my evidence is anecdotal but the incompetence of this government makes me fear for the future.

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