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Anthony Hilton: Britain’s malaise will last for a while, but at least it’s better than Japan


I remember a conversation with Paul Fisher in his office deep in the bowels of the Bank of England one day last summer when he said Japan was still struggling after 20 years to get back on its feet following its financial crash so we should not expect too much too soon from the United Kingdom.

He was not saying our malaise would last that long but he was raising the possibility that it could.

In that context a thoughtful speech he delivered yesterday in Cardiff could almost be seen as cheerful. True, he said the UK economy had been puzzlingly weak for a long time and he put forward a list of reasons why this was the case. These included eurozone weakness and competition from Asia, the shrinking of the banks and, most interestingly, a downward shift in people's perceptions about how much money they were likely to have in the future which was dampening their enthusiasm for spending now.

This has echoes in another study this week which was the subject of a comment from Capital Economics. Data published by Eurostat shows that the UK is the most regionally imbalanced country in the European Union. No other EU nation comes close to us in having such a huge difference between the best and worst-performing regions.

No fewer than 27 of the UK's 37 regions were below the EU average for GDP per head – and this includes data from depressed areas like Portugal and Greece and the still-lagging countries of Eastern Europe. What it shows is that the economic performance of much of the UK is poor, but this is masked by the prosperity of London and the South-east, driven in large part by financial services.

So when people talk about re-balancing, they are actually talking about a fundamental change in the way economic activity is distributed and the economy is structured. Such adjustments take time because they demand real changes in the way the economy works. We have to be patient.

So where is the cheerful bit in all this? Well, Mr Fisher believes that a pre-condition for soundly based growth is that banks, businesses, the public sector and households get their balance sheets back in order – and debt back under control. Five years on from the beginning of the banking crisis he believes we are between two thirds and three quarters of the way through that part of the process. That is the cheerful message.

We still have a few years more to get through – but it is a lot better than Japan.