Jeremy Warner: Sterling's fall hasn't helped trade deficit

Wednesday 14 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Outlook If the weak pound was meant to provide a boost for British industry by making our manufacturers and service providers more competitive, there is scant evidence of it so far. To the contrary, the latest figures show a further widening in the trade deficit, with the ratio of export volumes to import volumes excluding oil deteriorating to its worst level since December 2007, when the pound was still relatively strong.

Trade adjustments can take time to work their way through the system. There's a massive inventory correction going on across the world economy at the moment, and until it has played out, it is impossible to know what the long-term consequences of the currency collapse might be. It could also be argued that the situation might be even worse if we were still at $2 to the pound. Ireland's finance minister recently said the pound's weakness had caused immense problems for his country. If, like Ireland, we were in the euro, Britain might be in the same boat in facing an even more severe downturn than the one we are experiencing.

Yet in a world where it is an absence of demand and credit rather than an innate lack of competitiveness which is the root cause of our economic ills, it is not at all clear that a devalued sterling is going to help us very much.

I'm glad to see I'm not alone in believing a weak currency to be not the unalloyed good the Bank of England and other British policymakers seem to think. As Simon Ward, chief econ-omist at the asset management company New Star, points out, many manufacturers will have been constrained from taking advantage of greater price competitiveness by a lack of credit.

Sterling's plunge will undoubtedly have contributed to this absence of credit by accelerating the withdrawal of foreign funds from the UK banking system. Credit in the UK has come to rely heavily in recent years on constant infusions of foreign capital. These have now largely gone.

Meanwhile, import prices have been rising steeply, pushing up costs for UK manufacturers at a time when there is little demand for what they are producing. The Government hopes to ease the credit crisis with further guarantees for small business lending. Depending on the cost of this guarantee to the banks – the Government will extract a heavy price from the banks to safeguard the taxpayer from rising levels of default – this seems welcome enough, but it also smacks of "too little, too late".

It's not just small companies but big ones too which are now suffering from the dearth of credit. Banks around the world are calling in their loans as they seek to shrink their balance sheets. Even relatively debt-free and, in normal times, perfectly viable companies are finding themselves affected by the phenomenon. In circumstances where they cannot refinance, many companies may find themselves forced to the wall or into an alternative fire sale of assets.

The idea that devaluation is good for the UK economy is drawn largely from experience of the last recession, when recovery didn't finally seem assured until Britain was ignominiously jettisoned from the ERM. In fact, the economic recovery that then began had nothing whatsoever to do with a recovery in exports. Rather, it was led by domestic demand, which was starting to recover even before Britain left the ERM and was greatly enhanced by interest rate cuts thereafter.

What's more, Britain had had two years of recession by the time this demand-led recovery began. There was much more slack in the economy to absorb the inflationary impact of sterling's fall than there is today.

Ultimately, devaluation only works in making an economy more competitive by leading to a downward adjustment in real wages and therefore living standards. If of a puritanical frame of mind, you might think this entirely justified after years of credit-fuelled excess, but I see no reason to celebrate our new-found pauperism.

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