Britain's GDP fell again in the fourth quarter of 2012, raising the specter of a triple-dip recession
Britain's economy is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but this much is clear: it's a disaster. After its Olympics-fueled growth, such as it was, lifted it out of recession in the third quarter of 2012, Britain might be headed back after its economy fell 0.3 percent at the end of the year -- the fourth time in five quarters its GDP has contracted. Britain's now verging on a triple-dip recession, which is just another way of saying a depression.
But it's not so simple.
Britain is stuck in its worst GDP slump in a century, but not so for jobs. As you can see in the chart below from Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, Britain's stagnating economy has left it in worse shape at this point of its recovery than it was during the Great Depression. GDP is still more than 3 percent below its 2008 peak, and it hasn't done anything to catchup in years. At this pace, there will be no recovery in our time, or any other time.
It's no accident this era of zero growth has coincided with an era of austerity. Despite entering office with borrowing costs at 50-year lows, the Cameron coalition decided the government deficit, and not the growth deficit, was the chief threat to future prosperity. It raised taxes and cut the growth of spending, but did so with little regard for what constituted smart cuts and what did not. As Portes points out, public net investment -- things like roads and bridges and schools, and everything else the economy needs to grow -- has fallen by half the past three years, and is set to fall even further the next two. It's the economic equivalent of shooting yourself in both feet, just in case shooting yourself in one doesn't completely cripple you. Austerity has driven down Britain's borrowing costs even further, but that's been due to investors losing faith in its recovery, rather than having more faith in its public finances. Indeed, weak growth has kept deficits from coming down all that much, despite the higher taxes and slower spending. In other words, it's economic pain for no fiscal gain.
But the story of Britain's flatlining growth isn't just one of ignoring Keynes' maxim that the boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity. It's more like an economic whodunit. The euro crisis -- yes, we're rounding up the usual suspects -- has kept Britain from exporting its way out of trouble, as its largest trading partner, the euro zone, has been too busy flirting with breakup and recession to buy as much stuff as it otherwise would. It hasn't helped that some of Britain's big productivity industries like oil and finance have gone into what might be the start of long-term declines; the North Sea oil and gas fields and the City of London have both shed output and jobs. But this downtrend in Britain's top industries doesn't nearly explain the real puzzle of its economy -- the collapse in productivity.
In other words, the disconnect between GDP and jobs. While the economy is, at best, stuck in neutral, Britain has been adding jobs at a better-than-decent clip the past year or so. Unemployment recently reached an 18-month low, and, in absolute terms, more people have a job today than in 2008 (though underemployment is a problem). This combination of zero GDP growth with positive job growth means Britain is working more to do less. Richard Davies of The Economist calculates Britain is 12 percent less productive today than it was at similar points in other recoveries -- and the decline of the North Sea fields and the City probably only explain 1-2 percentage points of this gap. That leaves a pair of, hardly mutually exclusive, possibilities: either Britain has some serious GDP mismeasurement problems or some serious economic problems, full stop. The former is usually the case any time there's an apparent disparity between GDP and jobs data, but the disparity is so large and so persistent in this case that it seems something else is going on. Davies hypothesizes zombie firms are starving new, more productive firms, for credit, which may well be true, but, again, doesn't seem to explain the full scope of the disaster.
The good news, if there is any, is Britain just poached Mark Carney, one of the top central bankers in the world, to run the Bank of England, and he seems determined to do more than his predecessor to get the country out of its economic rut. And that's it. There is no other good news. Thank goodness for stiff upper lips.
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Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.