The post-Brexit fandango Patrick Minford is Professor of Applied Economics at Cardiff Business School and co-chair of Economists for Brexit In the referendum debate Remain claimed that not only would the economy go into recession if voters foolishly chose Brexit but even the second quarter would be hit by the polls showing a good chance of Brexit. This last is now conveniently forgotten by Remainers, now that the second quarter has shown a more than 50% rise in growth on the first quarter. This second quarter was the only hard data on ‘Brexit uncertainty effects’ till now. Now we have the third quarter’s preliminary GDP estimate, at 0.5% solidly in the 2-3% range we expected without Brexit: there is no observable Brexit effect on the short-term outturn as we expected. Probably the estimates for manufacturing and construction will be revised upwards, as the estimated falls in these are at variance with the latest Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs), all above 50%. The surveys we have so far show that actual output and orders remained on their previous track but that ‘confidence’ took an early hit and subsequently recovered. Experience with past surveys when the media are full of gloom and doom is that there is a disconnect between ‘confidence’ about the general economy and what people do in reaction to their own circumstances. Today ordinary households’ situation has never been better: real disposable incomes are rising at over 3% and employment levels are at a record. Credit is easily available; and the Bank has just made that easier still. The pound has dropped around 17%, as it usually does when the UK hits a bump in the road, and this represents a far bigger monetary stimulus than the Bank’s 0.25% cut in interest rates. There was no need for Philip Hammond to deviate from fiscal prudence in the autumn; and he hardly did. The UK economy will certainly survive any short-term bumpiness; most forecasts have become more optimistic already. The real focus of debate should be on where Theresa May’s government is taking our trade and other economic policies in the long term. She and her ministers have made some good noises about free trade and pro-business regulation, admittedly larded with some talk about less attractive intervention in corporate affairs. These noises were turned into explicit forward commitments at the Conservative party conference in October. Current talks with small business highlight the key fact that smaller firms are less able to carry the heavy costs of social regulation so favoured by the EU Single Market; for them a UK-run regulative system that has always understood small business is much to be desired. Large businesses can lobby and have the staff resources to cope with endless ‘compliance’. But in the UK over half of our employment is in small businesses; this too is the most dynamic and innovative part of our economy. Our future trade framework is the heart of the matter; on it depends how far the UK can pursue the road of self-government, the control of laws and borders demanded by the Brexit majority. It is good to see Liam Fox getting off to a strong start negotiating draft free trade agreements, FTAs, with countries around the world. These countries will then lower their tariffs and trade barriers against us, and we ours against them. But the gain that we get from this does not come from their lowering their barriers against us, contrary to what is generally thought. When they do that there is a negligible effect on the world prices of the things we sell, because even the largest of these countries, such as the US, buys only a small proportion of the world supply of these products; when they buy a bit more from us, and a bit less from some other countries due to some new FTA, their total demand for the product barely changes, so nor does the world price of what we sell. So we gain nothing and sell the same output overall. No, the gain we get from these FTAs is that we remove our tariffs and other trade barriers on them; this means that our consumers pay less for them and so enjoy a rise in their standard of living. Once these high-visibility trade agreements are signed we should make sure that we trade freely with all the rest of the world, however we can arrange it. Our ultimate aim should be to achieve unilateral free trade with all countries of the world. As this implies we could actually short circuit all these FTAs and simply go at once to unilateral free trade, as has been done by countries such as New Zealand and Singapore; even China has unilaterally brought down its tariffs to aid its development. It is this that lies at the heart of our EU trade relationship. The EU Single Market is highly protectionist which of course is why there has been so much fuss about being outside it. This protectionism raises the prices of both food and manufactures by around 20% to UK consumers, implying an 8% rise in their overall cost of living. While this is nice for farmers and manufacturing firms who make higher profits, the losses of consumers are far greater. When we leave the EU, protected prices are replaced by world prices. This generates healthy competition which pushes up productivity, forcing firms to go ‘up the value chain’ towards more hi-tech methods; we can also help them to access the Single Market from the outside as the US and Japan do. The gain in GDP and living standards according to my standard world trade model is about 4%; on top of that there are the gains from replacing EU regulation with our own and from regaining control of mass unskilled immigration which is costly to the economy and politically toxic. As for the City, it too will gain greatly from having its regulations made in free market London instead of a Brussels hostile to ‘Anglo-Saxon finance’. The City fears EU protectionism but it need not worry. Suppose Brussels withdraws ‘passporting’ or ‘equivalence’ and the ECB declares that euro-bonds must be cleared in Frankfurt. Just as with not having an FTA, the City will sell less in the EU and more elsewhere. The implication of all this is that the main remaining task of Brexit policy is for the Ministry of Brexit under David Davis to withdraw us from the Single Market and take us to unilateral free trade, to reap these huge gains from eliminating EU protectionism and regulation. Mr Davis would like to sign some broader FTA with the EU; I would like to wish him luck but the bald truth is that, as David Cameron found out, the EU has virtually no flexibility when each of 27 countries wields a veto. He should save us all time and policy delays by simply walking away from the EU, lock, stock and barrel. At that point Liam Fox can pursue a free trade policy with the rest of the world. The incredible shrinking ‘Brexit recession’ Astonishingly the July 2016 consensus forecast growth rate for the UK in 2017 was 0.6%, close to a recession. Forecasters generally followed the UK Treasury’s lead in projecting a ‘doom and gloom’ scenario after Brexit. Of course, now that we have had the strong recent figures for retail sales, the continuing strength of employment and of the latest Purchasing Managers Indices (PMIs), we will no doubt see these forecasts being raised and we expect this raising to continue. In our own post-Brexit forecast made on May 10th this year, as taken from our Brexit pamphlet of that time (The Economy after Brexit), we projected growth at 2.7% for next year. Our forecast today also takes account of the reactive fall in sterling, larger than we assumed then but perfectly consistent with the idea of a downward adjustment necessary to accommodate the needs of faster post-Brexit growth and the reduction of our current account deficit. How did our forecast come to be so different from that of the Treasury and the rest of the consensus? First, we made a different assumption about the Brexit policies that would be followed: we argued that the optimal policy would be for unilateral free trade as well as the UK taking over all regulatory functions from the EU and we said that since these policies were optimal they would be chosen. This meant the abolition of the heavy EU protectionism of farming and manufacturing, as well as a programme of liberalisation of industrial regulation: the long-term gains from the trade liberalisation came to 4% of GDP while those from deregulation were put at 2% of GDP. By contrast the consensus assumed that both the EU levels of protection and EU regulations would be left intact. Making these last assumptions gave varying long term negative effects to GDP. Yet we argued that no economic case could be made for these last assumptions: plainly they actually reduced the scope of UK free trade by eliminating free trade with the EU and putting nothing in its place! We were told by various consensus economists that ‘it was not politically practical’ to introduce unilateral free trade; yet plainly when there is a referendum normal political ‘practice’ (under which this possibly could be true) is suspended. The second big difference between our forecast and the consensus lay in the treatment of ‘Brexit uncertainty’. Consensus economists put into their forecasts large negative assumed effects of this uncertainty, starting in Q2 and continuing for around two years. These effects generally caused risk premia on asset yields and directly reduced investment and consumer spending. Our treatment of this uncertainty was based on rational expectations (nowadays a default modelling assumption) about post-Brexit policy: we evaluated the two main possible policy scenarios, an EEA-type deal and the free trade/deregulation assumption we made. Essentially the first leaves the status quo intact while the second gives gains as noted above. We also considered that before Brexit there was a more negative assumption possible, that of inward-looking protectionism and controls. Computing uncertainty as the difference between the extremes we found that this was at its height in Q2 and in Q3 fell as the third scenario disappeared under the new May government. We projected it as being steadily reduced as policies were finally chosen in the way we now see that they are being. How big is the effect of such uncertainty and how negative is it? Our view is that the effects are quite small. This seemed to be borne out by the Q2 growth rate, at 0.7% well up from Q1’s 0.4%. By Q3 once the May government was in place we argued it was of little consequence at all. On the sign of the effect, one can argue that while more uncertainty will make people more cautious, this could make them spend more on certain items that enhance security (eg. more investment in innovation to fend of greater competition). In sum we put in nothing for these effects from Q3. In this we seem to have been right. The PMIs across all sectors dipped immediately after Brexit but have since rebounded. The immediate dip can be put down to the political chaos of that time with the Conservative leadership election in prospect and no viable government in office. It seems that once the May government was installed matters became ‘business as usual’. As for the long-term effects of policy these appear to have been treated as on balance positive, which would be consistent with our assumptions about the two scenarios: either the same as now or positive. Given that these effects will take a long time to come through because of lags in policy implementation, this muted response to the long term appears right: in our forecast we assume a five year lag in the full implementation which makes the effects positive but long drawn out. In our early May Brexit forecast we underestimated the effect on the exchange rate. We projected a 5% fall over about two years; we got this effect from the model’s projection that with higher output the exchange rate would need to fall to achieve the necessary higher overseas sales. In fact we have had an immediate fall of around 17%. How is this to be interpreted? Here we come into the area of ‘signal extraction’ where we (and everyone else) try to understand what (the ‘signal’) may be driving short term events (the ‘noise’). We know that in the very short term ideas about what is happening can drive asset prices sharply. Clearly the Brexit vote was a big surprise and reactions to it factored in ’doom and gloom’ forecasts that were widely being made as we have seen. When a negative shock hits an economy the market reaction is to sell the currency and this is also an optimal economic stabiliser, boosting demand for exports and home production at the expense of foreign goods. It seems likely that the negative forecasts and the political chaos together drove the pound down. With the new government moving ahead steadily with its Brexit policies and the economy normalising, it is likely to recover. As we have seen, the growth prospects have remained firm, as supported by recent data. Apart from the strong PMIs for September, we have seen strong growth in retail sales volume, employment, money and credit, and house prices. Furthermore, the exchange rate fall has provided a massive monetary stimulus to the economy. Given these latest developments we expect growth to continue at current rates of 2-3% per annum, much as we forecast back in early May. We also expect consumer spending to remain strong and private investment to continue growing moderately as in Q2. Net exports will rise on the back of the fall in sterling and inflation will rise quite sharply, with it also wage rises because of the continuing rise in employment and the tight labour market, pushed ahead too by the rising minimum wage and the new controls on unskilled immigration. Public spending will move towards less restraint especially on infrastructure; but in spite of this the public finances will improve with rising tax revenues and the debt-GDP ratio will start to fall within the next year. Rising inflation will soon be seen as a threat to the inflation target by the Bank of England and interest rates will have to be raised. The latest contribution to this debate has come in the Autumn Statement from the Office of Budget Responsibility which has conceded that 2016 will show growth of 2.1% but is now predicting 1.4% growth for 2017. It says that it has based this on some average of other forecasters in view of the ‘uncertainty’ surrounding the Brexit effect. Yet as we have already explained this is a strange way to assess the effects of Brexit given that these forecasters made variously damaging assumptions about Brexit policies and we now have a government committed to a Brexit of free trade with the rest of the world, UK-controlled regulation, and an immigration policy based on the economic contribution of migrants- all of which are positive for UK growth. Why did the OBR not base its forecasts on such optimal policies? And given that instead it based them on some ill-defined but worse policies why did the Chancellor not make it clear that as a senior member of this government committed to the best policies he did not agree with their assessment? I fear the answer is rather clear: Whitehall is embarking on its own Project Fear Mark 2 in order to try and reverse the Brexit decision and the Chancellor is leading a faction within the government that supports this reversal objective. Ending the policy uncertainty over Brexit Now that we have had Theresa May’s speeches to the Conservative Party Conference, it is clear that the government has finally made up its mind to leave the EU straightforwardly: that is, to leave the Single Market, the Customs Union and all other EU budget and legal mechanisms. The repeal of the European Communities 1972 Act will end all UK dependence on EU law and other authority. There has been much lobbying by manufacturing industry and the City for an ‘EU-Lite’ whereby the UK would be like Norway in the European Economic Area. But this would have clashed with the referendum vote, since it implies that the UK accepts free migration from the EU, is subject to virtually all the Single Market regulations, and pays a still large budget contribution. Not merely inconsistent with the vote, it would also impose all the same costs of EU protectionism, regulations and budget: this makes it highly suboptimal economically. In sum, the UK has now reached the crossroads where it has decided to leave the EU cleanly. Now it must make sure that this path leads to unilateral free trade and not to some half-hearted UK protectionist substitute for the EU’s damaging protectionism.
... the UK has now reached the cross roads where it has decided to leave the EU cleanly. Now it must make sure that this path leads to unilateral free trade and not to some half-hearted UK protectionist substitute for the EU’s damaging protectionism