My Lords, there has been a lot of debate about the likely impact that leaving the European Union will have on the UK economy. To date, there have been two indisputable negative impacts. First, the fall in the pound as a consequence of the referendum vote has the direct effect of reducing real incomes. The second negative impact, indisputably, is the content of the gracious Speech. For the next two years at least, government energy and parliamentary time will be totally absorbed by the legislation needed to leave the EU. No time at all will be devoted to tackling the long-term trends in the UK economy, trends that herald very difficult times ahead for Britain, whatever may be the eventual deal reached in Brussels.
Consider the following. Investment in the UK as a proportion of GDP is lower than in both the United States and the EU. Corporate investment in fixed assets has fallen well below the rate of capital depreciation—in other words, the corporate capital stock is eroding. Research and development spending in the UK as a proportion of GDP is just a little over half the level that it is in the US or Germany. As a consequence of these, productivity in the UK, output per worker hour, is lower than in the US and all the major European economies, excepting Italy where it is about the same, and for the past decade productivity has not grown at all. It is hardly surprising that these trends have resulted in a seriously uncompetitive UK economy with a falling share of world trade and a persistent deterioration in the balance of payments. Britain is uncompetitive. The idea that we are in a fit state to conquer new global markets is an ignorant fantasy.
The competitiveness failure cannot be solved by the cheap-money policies of the Bank of England. It does not matter how cheap money might be; there is no incentive to invest unless there is prospect of a growing market and a positive return. No wonder companies today are accumulating and distributing cash, not spending on investment.
So what is there in this Brexit-dominated gracious Speech that might do something to reverse these miserable trends? Precious little. We are told that the Government will,
“work to attract investment in infrastructure to support economic growth”.
Note the careful wording—not a Government spending but a Government whistling in the wind in the hope of “attracting” investment. We are also told that the Government,
“will spread prosperity and opportunity across the country through a new, modern industrial strategy”.
But can we have any confidence in this strategy when over the next four years the Department for Transport’s infrastructure plans will see nearly £2,000 per person spent in London but just £280 per person in the north of England? There is not much spreading of prosperity there.
To become competitive again, Britain must become an investing economy. In policy terms we need nothing terribly original, just to learn from what has worked elsewhere. It is clear that low investment is related to the interaction of the UK’s financial markets and corporate behaviour. The Bank of England has shown that the UK’s capital markets are more short-termist than they used to be, and are more so than those of other countries. Investors give priority to short-term returns over long-term ones. In many ways the UK financial sector is a great success story; in terms of size, exports, employment and profits it is among the most successful in the world. But that international success has been bought at a price. The financial sector injects international instability and risk into the domestic economy. No wonder there is an emphasis on short-term liquidity, an unwillingness to commit to markets that are regularly punctuated by financial disorder.
Attempts to address these failings were made in the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013, which sought to erect a ring fence between, on the one hand, commercial banking for households and small and medium-sized firms and, on the other, banking for large companies, investment banking and more risky market activities. However, once the real structure of UK finance is taken into account, it is clear that the ring fence is in the wrong place; it should be between domestic finance and international finance. The stability of comprehensive financial services for UK firms should be rigorously enforced while our booming, if unstable, international financial centre should be encouraged to do what it does best: sell outstanding services to the rest of the world. A stable domestic financial system would provide the motivation for, and the possibility of, a reform of corporate governance, including the regulation of mergers and a revamped, publicly funded R&D strategy, and would incentivise the longer-term investment culture that Britain so desperately needs. Those changes, and the many others that are necessary to create a long-term competitiveness culture, will not work unless the prospect of stable and growing demand, at home and from abroad, provides a sustained incentive to invest. Internationally, the fall in the pound provides an opportunity to recover lost markets, just so long as the competitive boost is not squandered on increased consumption.
In sum, the state of the UK economy requires that all government policy should be directed towards the long-term recovery of British competitiveness. Instead, as is clear from the gracious Speech, all government policy is directed towards a complex divorce from the EU, a huge misdirection of time and effort that in itself will do lasting damage to the UK economy.