The UK and US did okay in the last quarter, and that’s a problem

Posted: August 3, 2015 in Interest Rates, UK Economy, US Economy
Tags: , , , ,

file0001742232424The UK economy grew by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2015, and by 2.6 per cent over the past year. The US economy grew at an annualised pace of 2.3 per cent. The media and markets greeted the figures with relief, but they were wrong.

To understand why, first consider what things were like in the first quarter of this year. The UK grew by 0.4 per cent, that’s quarter on quarter, and the US grew by 0.6 per cent– annualised. Actually, the data for Q2 had been revised upwards, so the markets had a kind of double celebration. They were chuffed by the okay figures for Q2, and even more chuffed by the upwards revision for Q1. Even so, bear in mind that in the latest quarter both the UK and US economies grew at a rate that was still way below average. As for Q1, the data may say that the US grew by 0.6 per cent annualised in Q1, but frankly that is a pretty awful performance. It’s just not as awful as the figures originally suggested. It is like coming last in a race, and then celebrating because the judges discovered they had made a mistake and in fact you only came second from last.

History tells us that economies tend to enjoy a period of above average growth when coming out of recession. History tells us that when an economy suffers a one off shock, which is supposed to have been what happened in Q1 of this year, then the following quarter should expand at a faster than normal pace to make up for the lost production of the previous quarter.

We are told that poor figures on the first quarter were down to a shockingly bad winter in the northeast corner of the US. This even affected US imports to the UK, knocking the UK economy. If that is so, however, shouldn’t the second quarter have seen unusually fast expansion, making up for lost ground?

In the US, the Federal Reserve is losing patience, it will be a big surprise if US interest rates don’t go up very soon, September most likely. Rates will be rising in the UK soon too, probably January.

Once again, consider the lesson of history. The Fed increased rates in 1994, after a period in which they had been at 3 per cent for 18 months or so. A year and a half later, US interest rates were at 6 per cent. Crisis soon followed, however. The global economy had got used to low US interest rates, when they rose capital left developing markets and headed west. We had the Asian crisis of 1997 and the Russian crisis of 1998. The global banking system tottered.

A similar story occurred all over again the following decade. This time though, US rates were cut to 1 per cent, stayed there for about a year, and then gradually began to rise. Within a year or two, come 2008, the global banking system did more than totter, it fell over. We all know how nasty that was.

This time US rates have been at near zero per cent for almost seven years. As they rise, the shockwaves across the world will be nasty.

The problem is compounded. Critics of the Fed say that by cutting interest rate to near zero, it has nothing left to give in the event things make a turn for the worse. The snag with that is that if the Fed hadn’t cut rates so low its economy may have suffered an even more nasty turnaround. It is like a runner in a race, holding back for a sprint finish. But if the race leader sets a fast pace, and our runner goes with the leader and has the sprint run out of him, or indeed her. You can’t criticise the runner for going too fast, there was no choice.

In short, rates are low because they had to be, now they are rising because they have to. Neither the US or UK economy are strong though, indeed they are more like a wheezy athlete, about to start a long uphill climb.

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