UK Chancellor Philip Hammond welcomed the rise in the pound that accompanied the announcement of the UK election last month. He should be careful about cheerleading GBP strength, because right now the UK is more in need of a weak pound than it has been for a long time, and a significant recovery in GBP could be a big problem for the UK economy.
The UK economic situation is dangerous, not only because of Brexit, but because of the perilous position of the UK’s consumer finances. This is well illustrated by the chart below showing the financial balances of the three sectors of the UK economy, balanced by the position with the rest of the world.
The UK household deficit is at record levels, and as can be seen from the chart, the existence of a deficit is a rarity, seen only briefly in the late 80s and then for a few years in the mid 2000s. It is a danger signal. In both cases, the deficit was followed by a recession, as consumers retrenched, as can be seen from the chart below.
The process see in the past is instructive. Most of the time, GDP grows as the household balance moves towards deficit, fuelled by deficit spending. However, when the household balance moves into deficit, it tends to reverse, and this has historically led to a recession. If this is not to happen this time around, the inevitable reversal in the household balance must be accomplished slowly while other sectors are adding to growth. With the government constrained by longer term budget issues, this really only leaves investment and net exports. This makes the danger from Brexit fairly obvious. If firms are worried about access to the single market then investment in the UK may be curtailed. Longer term, the terms of Brexit will be key for net exports, but shorter term, the export sector looks likely to be the healthiest, as UK exporters benefit from the combination of a lower pound and strengthening Eurozone domestic demand. But this is why a significant recovery in the pound is not desirable. It would both undermine export growth and discourage investment.
Is a recession inevitable when households retrench? Not necessarily – it will depend on the conditions. In 2000 when the dotcom bubble burst the UK avoided recession in spite of a very extended household sector which did retrench, because rate cuts encouraged firms to borrow. But this underlines how important business confidence is in the current UK cyclical situation. With no rate cuts available to encourage businesses or households to spend, confidence in the future is key if spending is to be maintained.
All this makes the timing of Brexit look extremely inopportune. In the mid 2000s, the household sector ran a financial deficit for a few years before the crash, but the crash was all the more severe when it came for that reason. If growth is maintained in the coming years ahead of Brexit, the situation will be similar when Brexit actually happens. If Brexit hurts exports and investment, there will be no safety net.
Policywise, this should make it clear to the government that “no deal” with the EU is not an option. The fear is that they will believe their own publicity and see limited economic damage if they fail to get a deal. Or take the view that, politically at least, falling back on the WTO will be favourable to accepting a deal that is like EU membership only worse. Hopefully sense prevails.
But in the meantime, the UK economy needs to be managed into a position where it can deal with a potential shock. This means managing a retrenchment of household finances now – while exports are strong enough to offset the negative growth impact. Unfortunately, it is hard to think of a policy mix that will achieve the desired outcome of slower consumer spending with strong exports and investment. Higher rates would help increase saving, but would also likely undesirably boost the pound. Higher taxes wouldn’t reduce the household deficit, only consumer spending, but would give the government more scope to react to shocks in the future, so are probably desirable. Direct restrictions on consumer borrowing might also make sense. But a stronger pound would not be helpful. Hammond should not be talking it up.