Plateau-onomics: An economy on the mend?

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So today's GDP estimate of 0.5% growth in the first quarter was, well, expected.

To certain degree, it won't set hearts and minds racing about the strength of the recovery. Nor will it send the markets to panic stations about a double dip.

Manufacturing remains the strong point of the recovery, with 1.1% growth in the first quarter. The service sector rebounded from the snow by growing by 0.9%.

But while we've avoided a return to recession, 0.5% growth won't settle nerves about the rest of 2011. As Joe Grice, Chief Economist at the Office for National Statistics says:

"Abstracting from the snow, we have an economy on a plateau."

Worryingly for the economy, that's plateau, as in stagnant growth...as in stagflation. The Monetary Policy Committee may feel justified in its stance on holding tight on interest rates, but it will worry about the underlying health of the economy: strong service sector growth in q1 is likely a rebound in activity from the snow. As FT Alphaville bearishly notes:

"Plateau isn't the word we would use of course. More stagnation, flat-lining, stalling in mid-air, that kind of thing. The ONS also called growth in Q1 2011 'essentially an arithmetic effect' which seems even more devastating."

What worries us here at EEF isn't necessarily what today's data says about where the economy is now, but what it says about the economy for the rest of the year. The UK will face some stiff economic challenges in the coming months:

  • Fiscal austerity has begun (we've seen roughly the equivalent of 1.5% GDP cut back in the past 12 months) and will begin to weigh on the economy through the rest of this year.
  • There appears to be no respite in rising oil and commodity prices.
  • Supply chain disruptions from the Japanese earthquake will only begin to affect output in this quarter.
  • The euro-zone crisis will only get worse unless Greece, Ireland and Portugal begin to restructure their debts (which will be painful enough).

The recovery could probably withstand a shock from any of these on their own. But the risk is that they combine to create a perfect storm that keeps the economy trapped on the plateau...or even worse, forces an economic retreat back down the hill.

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