Thursday, 10 December 2009

Macro Level Trends – UK – The Economy Drive of All Time.

Once the white knights of the global financial fiasco, the western-world national account budgets have suffered a heavy toll over the last 12 months. Capital markets watched as the US further plundered its national deficit to support its stimulus and the UK did the same, leading the G20 with the over-ideological internationally co-ordinated financial response.

But of course different countries face different complex problems, and those star performers of the early part of the decade – the likes of the CEE region, Spain, Greece and Ireland that leveraged their low cost-bases & hyped-up asset values – are now suffering. Their 'thin' economic models have surfaced as the financial tide of private FDI and locally generated funding has withdrawn. Productivity has shrunk, GDP contracted, credit ratings slipped and credibility stymied, so creating a negative multiplier effect.

But the smaller brother nations, whilst more precarious, do not find themselves alone. Anything but. The US is publicly perceived as 'in hoc' to China given the respective $800bn trade deficit and the > $2 trillion Sino reserves. Germany & France find themselves caught in socially biased mixed economies which are popularly moving further to the left, but unlike the past where social-democracy could survive unfettered given the European competitive lead, such EU countries find themselves a very different global context – less post-colonial, more intrinsically post-modernist (ie post 20th-century).

But it is perhaps the UK that without the US political clout and noted as the EU laggard – the last to technically emerge from recession – that finds itself with perhaps the greatest future-forward transitional challenge to face. Today, the economy is at its lowest ebb in living memory.

As the UK government's National Statistics Office has reported: present GDP levels are at an average -5.2% over 2009, that average presented via a bottoming-out in Q209 and slight 'upturn' in Q309. The attached graphic highlights the UK's plight, with real GDP falling over 7% since Q108.

Of Q309, the greatest downturn was seen in the “distribution, hotel & catering” sector, this segment taking what could be regarded as a normative / expected hit as a cyclical consequence to previous period hits of primary industries (mining, agriculture), secondary industries (processing and production) and construction. Thus theoretically, the recession is working its way through, supported by the now ramped-down but still loose Quantitative Easing stimulus spending (1.2% of national GDP).

But that massive fiscal injection by the government into primarily the banking sector along with consumer incentivisation (ie the UK car scrappage scheme) has left public finances in a dire situation. At its heart the current or new-come government must steer the UK economy between the extremes of a Japan-like long-term minimal growth scenario and that of an over-extended QE policy generating M4 liquidity to give a false impression of substantial growth which invites hard to handle inflationary pressures. Keen to avoid both, Mervyn King et al on the BoE's Monetary Policy Committee must now work in conjunction with broader industrial policy-makers to regenerate the economy, especially so since many of the fiscal levers have already been effectively exhausted.

In summary, the concerning environment is as follows: a budget deficit of £175bn approx (of a £800bn PSBR), a trade deficit of £8.3 as of November (down from a previously better 7.8% 'helped' by car exports) and unemployment standing at (an 'official' though suspectedly unrepresentative) 8%.

And so it is in this already concerning context that the UK Treasury Minister yesterday highlighted his government's need to take the nation's accounts yet further into the red to eventually alleviate the pain, the aim to half the national debt by 2014. The measures of reduced public sector expenditure nominally by -12 to -15% and the efforts to increase income via steeper taxation are of course expected, though sensitively deployed. A theoretically pertinent element here is the application of the Low Carbon Transport initiative, which alleviates company car tax on electric cars and vans. And though good news for the likes of Smiths Electric and Modec that convert and manufacture e-vans, the real effect in increasing zero emissions e-vehicles on UK roads will be realistically negligible given the chicken-and-egg dichotomy of of e-charging infrastructure that has to date seen little real investment; especially so outside of inner-London.

So Alistair Darling's announcement was par for the course, yet still elicited little corporate or public belief as to how his (or any) government would or could engage a plan of national economic growth. For it is the question of long-term industrial planning, beyond the rhetoric of the “Green Economy”, that UK & foreign corporations and the public at large ponder.

The disparity gap between the rhetoric and reality has perhaps grown to an all time high. The very function of a supposedly knowledge economy shown to be in schism when theoretically highly qualified graduates work in 'chicken-cell' call-centres, inanimate computer servers as opposed to human brains are the real knowledge hubs, and the street graffiti artist 'Banksy' depicts better social commentary 'advertising' than the famed creative media 'shops' of Soho Square. Disaffection runs rife through all age groups, but perhaps most prevalent in the productive critical 30 & 40-somethings - over and above the comfortably off Baby-Boomers or their cyber-space'd (almost self-consciously removed) teenage grand-children.

[NB. The book 'Fantasy Island', authored by Elliot & Atkinson, although not yet read by investment-auto-motives, appears to give a good rounded account of the UK's present PESTEL position]

Inevitably, planning the country's industrial future is perhaps the most important task for the highest echelons of the UK establishment that sit in Whitehall. One only hopes they have a good appreciation of the size of that task, the complexity of the journey and ultimately the required outcome. But given past performance of only limited advancement and holistically orchestrated demonstration, there are 101 million reasons to think not.

However, to this end we will undoubtedly see the re-emergence of greater central planning – even under probable future Tory governance – which administratively echoes the 'reign' of the National Economic Development Council of 1962 – 92. Though unlike NDEC, the primary 3 way conversation must be between government, industry and finance. The latter replacing seat of the 'old world – old view' unions that ruled and stalled Britain the 1960s and 70s.

As a result, investment-auto-motives imagines new Economic Development Committees (neo-NDC's) will be born relative to each systemically-important industrial sector. And as such the remit of an automotive sector strategy council will take and progress the recent findings of the UK Motor Industry Report.

Presently in the broader forum, the re-balancing of investment in government bonds, corporate bonds, hybrid instruments such as convertible bonds and newly emergent 'CoCo's and renewed belief in fundamentally strong stocks will slowly but surely provide a new platform for growth.

Equally a platform must be built for the future of UK Autos, one which includes investment-auto-motives' previously mentioned need for a synergistic relationship between imported Tier 1 technologies and national NPD and local build competences. That probably means a re-birth of the 1981 British Technology Group, the conjoined forces of the then National Research and Development Council and the Development Corporation. Today the Sept of BIS (nee BERR) seems to be setting the scene for that eventuality to promote industrial efficiency and innovation – through probably today a PPI scheme, given the contextual background of government owned large UK banks and the need for wholesale sector transformation.

And so today is set in the context of historical economic cycles, rises and slumps necessitating the use of alternate associative loose and tight industrial planning.

As the progressive Chinese automaker BYD sets its sights on Los Angeles as its entry-point for its clean-tech cars, the UK must ask itself how it can best serve itself in this arena.

Today's UK auto-industry spans a plethora of scale and capabilities, yet must be essentially re-worked as an intelligent, interactive network to maximise change and productivity.

Today's low production run e-vans are of little impact and realistically commercially unviable. So the structural climb to large scale mass mobility that offers very low & zero emissions CO2 vehicles, perhaps engineered, produced and retailed in a very different manner via a very different business model and set of capabilities is today still practically a long-reach aim; even if on the fringes pieces of the jigsaw are being slowly put into place.