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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Britain: Headed for a Hard Landing?

by Calculated Risk on 6/30/2005 11:16:00 AM

According to MSNBC:

The Bank of England's attempt to bring Britain's highflying economy in for a soft landing is starting to reach the nail-biting stage.

Fears are growing, even within the BOE, that consumer spending is faltering in response to past hikes in interest rates and soaring energy bills.
Of course less consumer spending is also related to the deflating housing bubble:
At the center of the drama is Britain's housing bubble, which began to lose air in the second half of last year. Although the growth rate of house prices has slowed sharply, a generally healthy economy has helped to allay worries over a collapse. Now the economic outlook is dimming.

In particular, consumers are pulling back more than anticipated.
Housing slows, consumers retrench, and then the job market starts to soften:
The newest concern is the labor markets. In May the number of workers claiming jobless benefits rose for the fourth month in a row. That hasn't happened since 1993, and it could be a harbinger of softer job markets. Wage growth, excluding bonuses, is already slowing.
And the next step in the downward vicious cycle? Falling housing prices, followed by even less consumer spending and more job losses and then a further reduction in house prices ...

Bloomberg columnist Matthew Lynn offers a similar view: U.K. Consumers Risk Recession With New Restraint.
The U.K. consumer shows every sign of having run out of steam and the economy is teetering as a result.

British shoppers have become hypersensitive since the Bank of England increased interest rates five times from November 2003 through August 2004, and since their household debt skyrocketed to more than 1 trillion pounds ($1.82 trillion).

There may well be a lesson in that for policy makers in many other countries. Consumers who have piled up debt are far more responsive to rate changes than previously.

What used to be just a nudge on the interest-rate rudder is now sending the economy downhill. The U.K.'s growth rate has fallen in each of the past four quarters.

``The main factor has been the huge increase in household debt,'' said Stuart Thomson, a fixed-income strategist at Charles Stanley Sutherlands in Edinburgh, in a telephone interview. ``It is the highest in the developed world. So people are really getting squeezed as rates rise.''
The US has also had a "huge increase in household debt". Perhaps Britain's problems offer a glimpse of the future for the US housing market and economy.

UPDATE: Another take on UK: Economic growth weakest in 2 years
And the GDP data suggest an even greater link between the housing market and consumer spending than the BoE at first assumed, suggesting worse could be yet to come.

The saving ratio in 2004 fell to its lowest since 1963 as household spending was credited with making an even greater contribution to the economy over the last few years, before slowing in line with the housing market.

The Nationwide building society said house prices fell 0.2 percent in June, bringing the annual rate of increase to a nine-year low of 4.1 percent, compared with nearly 20 percent a year earlier.

"This obviously increases the danger that the saving ratio will rise over the coming quarters as the housing market weakens, slowing the growth of household spending even further," said Jonathan Loynes, chief economist at Capital Economics.