Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 22 November 2013

Stages of Economic Recovery in the UK

Below are opening remarks prepared for the Festival of Economics 2013: The State of Economic Recovery in the UK at Bristol yesterday. I thought the title of the session would put people off, but I was very wrong. I don’t currently have time to do this kind of thing very often (yes, it showed), but an otherwise highly articulate and informed panel together with a really interested audience and excellent organisation seemed to me to produce a very successful event.

The UK recession: brought to you by banks, and perhaps maintained by banks

What I want to do is look at why we had a recession, and what has happened over the last five years, to see whether that has implications for the type of recovery that we are likely to see.

We can think of there being three stages in recovering from a recession. The first is to get the economy growing again. The second stage is to get growth strong enough such that we begin to recover the ground lost during the recession. That means growing at 3% pa +, not 1% or 2%. We are not yet at stage 2. The third stage is to achieve that above average growth for long enough to regain most of the ground we lost in the recession. Recessions are never a good thing, but we hope they make us poorer for just a few years, maybe even a decade, but not permanently poorer.

In the past UK recessions (early 1980s, 1990s) were created by governments to get inflation down. They put up interest rates, which brought inflation down quite quickly, so they could then reverse the process. We got reasonably quick recoveries that made up much of the ground lost in the recession.

The last recession was different. This was a recession made by banks, not governments. Bank’s vastly over extended themselves, so they collapsed when a relatively modest amount of loans went bad. Forget all the stuff you hear that the recession was due to irresponsible government borrowing – it is just not true. I’ve studied the numbers, and unless you live in Greece it’s nonsense.

The recession was created by banks, but it was made worse by austerity. In the UK the economy got to stage 1 in 2010, but this was lost when governments in the UK and Eurozone started raising taxes and cutting spending. The independent OBR, the watchdog set up by the current government, estimate UK output has been 1.5% lower each year since 2010 as a result of the austerity imposed by the UK government, and their estimates are definitely on the conservative side. The European Commission calculate that EZ GDP in 2013 is 4.5% lower as a result of the austerity that started in 2011, and that has also had a big impact on the UK.

This has implications for the recovery. Kick the economy down with austerity, and our standard economic models tell us it will – after a few years – bounce back. The more austerity, the bigger the bounce. The reason is that those sacked policemen or civil servants eventually get jobs elsewhere and start producing something else. So for that reason alone, once the recovery starts, it could be quite vigorous. Of course this does not mean that austerity was a good idea. Austerity has meant stage 1 has been delayed by 3 years. But in terms of stage 2, it could imply the recovery is stronger when it comes.

But the really important question is stage 3 – making up the ground we lost. And here we need to look at another unusual feature of this recession in the UK: employment has held up much better than output. Now while that might sound good – and it is in the short term – it has a nasty implication. The difference between output and employment is labour productivity, so labour productivity growth has collapsed in this recession. Real wages tend to move with labour productivity, so this is an important reason why living standards have declined so much in the UK.

No one really knows why productivity growth has slowed. That matters because if this slowdown in productivity growth is permanent, then the economy cannot make up much of the ground lost in the recession. We will not get stage 3, and we will all be permanently poorer.

So answering the productivity puzzle is the key to knowing what kind of recovery we will have. My suspicion, shared by others at the Bank of England and elsewhere, is that some of the answer is to be found back where the recession began – with UK banks. Bank lending to firms is important in increasing productivity, because it allows the productive firms to expand (at home and overseas), and the new start ups to displace the older, less efficient firms. So when bank lending collapsed in the recession, productivity collapsed. If banks start lending again to these new and more productive (but also more risky) firms, we may be able to make up a good deal of that lost ground.

So how are we with fixing the banks? The honest answer is I do not know, but let me end with a concern. Bankers like to pretend they make so much money because they do so much for the economy. There is very little evidence for that. Instead the evidence suggests they make money for two reasons. The first is what economists call rent seeking – essentially making money off other people. When it is illegal, we sometimes get to hear about it, but I suspect mis-selling is endemic.

The second way banks make so much money is by taking risks. When collectively those risks go bad, governments step in to bail them out. They get the reward when the risk pays off, we pick up the tab when it does not. So in effect the public provides a huge subsidy to the banking sector, similar in size to the profits they make, and much of their profits go in bonuses. It would be much better for everyone else if the money paid in bonuses could instead be used to recapitalise banks, so they could start lending again to innovative firms. So it should be good news that the EU is intending to put a very modest cap on bankers’ bonuses. What is the UK government doing? It is taking the EU to court to try and stop this cap.

So this is a recession created by banks, and there is a real danger that the power banks have over governments, and this government in particular, may mean we never make up the ground we have lost.


Austerity: OBR numbers, European Commission numbers

UK Productivity: possible role of bank lending

Banking: general discussion of capitalisation, estimates of public subsidy, examples of mis-selling and illegal activity, Adair Turner on rent seeking (used, as Turner does, in a wider sense than just try to influence governments), potential influence of finance on conservative party, EU bonus cap saga.


  1. Simon,

    Thanks. Very clear and makes sense of all that has happened.

    What, in your view, should the government do with regards to:

    (a) Austerity
    (b) Banks
    (c) Unemployment?



  2. Simon,

    You say “those sacked policemen or civil servants eventually get jobs elsewhere and start producing something else.” I.e. you’re saying that economies recover of their own accord from recessions.

    Certainly that would seem to be the case to judge by the 1800s: i.e. before governments tried to influence aggregate demand. But I’m puzzled as to what the mechanism is. My guess is that Say’s law works, though obviously it doesn’t work all that quickly.

  3. " Real wages tend to move with labour productivity, so this is an important reason why living standards have declined so much in the UK."

    Well, I do agree that there should be such a connection, but there is some evidence that that just isn't the case anymore. Example Germany:
    Germany from 1992 onwards:
    Comparing successful German export companies 2002 to 2012:
    In the US the picture seems to be similar:

    I think this disconnect is one of the primary reasons for secular stagnation. I think that the age of automation really getting going in the 1970s is largely responsible for that.Back then every worker was responsible for his productivity and product quality, something that just isn't true anymore for today's machine watchers.

  4. Professor Wren-Lewis,

    As a general comment, I've only recently begun seriously digging into the breadth of macro blogs after primarily reading Krugman for some time; yours is magnificent, and I quite appreciate the effort spent to make it accessible to a wide audience. Thank you, and please keep it up —


    1. Yes, may I second that.

      We are all grateful that there are some commentators such as Simon who are keeping alive a beacon of sanity in this crazy world.

  5. Politics is inextricably linked to economics. The lesson of austerity is that governments work primarily for their corporate backers and inerchange seamlessly with them. The only economic as well as political explanation for this comes. From both Adam Smith and Karl Marx.
    The general view is that value derived from labour will seek out bigger and better returns.The tax evasion industry provides the latter.

  6. I think readers of this excellent post will find this interesting:

  7. Dear Mr Wolf,

    Thanks for this. Further enlightenment on our current plight.

  8. There was an interesting talk at the LSE on why the state in (broad terms) should help more rather than the banks:
    'Why Growth Theory Requires a Theory of the State Beyond Market Failures' by Prof. Mariana Mazzucato


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