Britain’s economy is a mess – and it’s only getting worse

The British economy is in a grim old state. Public sector staff are striking, consumers are crumbling, and the high street is feeling the pinch. With the Bank of England unwilling to do anything to combat inflation, it will only get worse. John Stepek looks at how to protect yourself from the big squeeze.

Amid all the focus on Greece this week, it's been easy to overlook the fact that over here in Britain, we're seeing a fair bit of economic turmoil ourselves.

We've got strike action by various public sector workers this morning. Putting politics aside, the bare facts are that private sector companies have to shed workers and squeeze pay and conditions when there's not enough money to go round. It's difficult to see why things should be any different in the public sector.

There's no question that the private sector is still hurting too. This week has seen carnage on the UK high street, with several retailers going bust and others slashing jobs and shutting shops.

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Unfortunately, there's no sign of things getting better in the near future.

The pound is tumbling against the world's most vulnerable currency

How can this be? The euro is a currency whose very existence is being questioned on a daily basis.

Traders around the world have spent most of this week glued to the ridiculous spectacle of Greece voting to approve an austerity package that will be about as successful as the last one ie not at all.

And yet, the pound can't seem to get a break. What does that say about our economy? Nothing good, clearly.

Unfortunately it's hard to disagree with that diagnosis.

Here's Britain's basic problem. Consumption still accounts for the majority of our economic growth. But the engine of that growth the British consumer is out of petrol.

To keep increasing your consumption, you need to get money from somewhere. Either you earn it, or you generate it from investments, or you borrow it. On the earnings front forget it. British workers are seeing their wages collapse in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.

As for making money from your investments: the main driver of the wealth' effect in Britain is still house prices. The latest Nationwide data shows that prices were down 1.1% in June, year on year. If we want to talk real terms again, that's a fall of more than 5%. And unless you live in London (where prices are still rising, in nominal terms at least), the picture is far worse than that.

And credit? Bank of England data out yesterday showed that credit growth slowed sharply in May.

Why is this happening?

By helping to drive up the cost of raw materials (by whichever transmission mechanism), the central banks have caused an "unprecedented" squeeze on household spending.

But what about rebalancing? Aren't we meant to be moving from a consumer-oriented economy to a shiny future where we're all Dyson-style rocket scientists?

I'm not entirely sceptical about rebalancing. However, it's no miracle cure. As my colleague David Stevenson has pointed out several times in the past, manufacturing only accounts for about 13% of British GDP, compared to the two-thirds or so that's down to consumption.

Manufacturing can grow its slice of the pie, of course it can. But that can happen either by the manufacturing sector growing, or through the consumption sector shrinking. All that needs to happen is for manufacturers to outperform the services sector.

In other words, you can have a shrinking or stagnant economy, and still get this rebalancing' we all claim to want so much. It's just not a very pleasant way to get there.

And yet, as my colleague Merryn Somerset Webb pointed out on her blog yesterday, no one seems to have any better ideas: Why does no one have any real proposals to boost growth? And the bad news is that it could get even worse.

At our most recent roundtable, I asked if anyone present thought that interest rates would rise much by the end of next year. No one expected a serious increase: 2% was the absolute maximum.

So, I asked, does that mean you can't see inflation rising to say, 8%? I'll admit I was quite surprised when the response was: "Oh no, 8% is definitely a possibility. But rates still won't rise".

Negative real interest rates of more than 7%? That's a scary thought, particularly if your wages aren't going to keep up. How can you protect your wealth from that sort of damage? Our roundtable experts had a few ideas: you can read all about them in the next issue of MoneyWeek magazine, out tomorrow (if you're not already a subscriber you can subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine).

But one thing they all agreed on was that high conviction stock-picking would become far more important. I was a tad sceptical about this. Fund managers always say it's a stock-pickers' market, because they're the ones doing the stock-picking.

However, with most stock market indices likely to remain volatile and in sideways trends, it does make sense to be picky about where you invest your money. One of our newsletter writers, Dr Mike Tubbs, is very convinced of the potential for one specific small pharmaceutical stock.

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John Stepek

John Stepek is a senior reporter at Bloomberg News and a former editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.