Tariffs are a distraction

An odd feature of the Brexit saga is that so many people have become preoccupied with the supposed economic effects of trade. Recently the particular focus has been the impact of tariffs. Tariff levels are being hotly debated, both in terms of what level is desirable and what level will be possible in a post-Brexit Britain.Three years ago, talk about trade agreements, tariff levels and quota restrictions would mostly have raised mild bemusement, or more likely a yawn. Now we have trade ‘experts’ popping up all over the place with firm views on the form and significance of trading arrangements.

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No Deal is no threat to business

More and more businesses and business groups have been getting vocal about the supposedly dire consequences of a No Deal Brexit. Having to deal with new border controls, many are saying, would be a disaster for the economy and for jobs.

Business leaders have as good reason as the rest of us to be irritated with our timid politicians and their delays in implementing the referendum decision. The government’s incoherent messages on preparing for Brexit have also not made life easier for them. While half the cabinet have been saying there is no chance of a No Deal Brexit, others have been telling business, rather late in the day, that they should really be doing more to prepare for one, including building up stockpiles of essential supplies. In practice, a lot of well-run businesses will have drawn up effective contingency plans months ago. But, unfortunately, the government’s lack of decisiveness will have given others an excuse to procrastinate, thereby creating more disruption than would have been necessary.

Genuine frustration, though, is no excuse for business leaders to be telling us stories that are as much Project Fairyland as Project Fear.

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Time to bust the No Deal myths

Leaving the EU without a formal Withdrawal Agreement does not mean ‘crashing out’ or ‘jumping off a cliff’, or any of the other pejorative phrases about the possible economic consequences. All leaving means, economically speaking, is that Britain will no longer be trading with, and its businesses connecting with, other EU countries on the terms set by the rules of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. This was always going to be the consequence of implementing the Brexit vote.

Government and businesses, as well as individuals, could and should have been preparing for that change ever since 24 June 2016. If, in places, this has not happened yet, that cannot be blamed on the Leave vote itself. It comes from the paralysis engendered by a collective fear of change. Since the 1980s a profound attachment to the status quo has taken hold in the Western world, which has taken many forms: in this instance, it is an attachment to the supposed comfort blanket of EU membership.

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2019: the economic picture isn’t rosy

Compared to the start of 2018, economic forecasters at the end of the years are much more gloomly about global economic prospects for the forthcoming period. Trade wars, the ‘end’ of cheap money, excessive emerging market corporate debt, and Britain ‘crashing out’ of the EU are some of the major risks identified in the turn-of-the-year economic projections. We’re told that sluggishness is taking hold again.

Despite the shift in tone there is still too much complacency about the deeper challenges we’re facing. Here are three that deserve more attention and discussion, not just by forecasters but by all of us: accumulating Western atrophy inflaming international economic unevenness; exorbitant debt levels in the mature nations; dysfunctional economic policies.

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The crash 10 years on

The most telling contemporary observation about the ‘worst financial crisis in global history’ (to quote Ben Bernanke, who was chair of the US Federal Reserve when the crash hit in 2008) is that its causes are unresolved. It is true that the financial crash brought about a recession 10 years ago, but it did not trigger the fundamental weakness of the real economy. Slowing productivity growth across the mature economies can be traced back to the early 1970s. It was from that decay within production that the rot spread, gradually, unevenly, but steadfastly. The financial crash was simply one of this decay’s most serious manifestations.

Despite the shock felt in 2008, it is striking how little has changed in economic terms since then.

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No Deal is nothing to fear

Rocketing food prices, medicine shortages, gridlock on Kent’s motorways, administrative and economic chaos… No doubt we’ll hear many more of these scare stories about the potential consequences of Britain leaving the EU without a deal as the Article 50 talks continue to go nowhere fast.

People who are stuck on the status quo and disdainful of democracy are hoping to scare the rest of the population into staying in the European Union. Change, they scold, is too dangerous to countenance because, well, it’s about changing things. As a counterweight against all this hooey, there are three truths we need to set against all the alarmist prophecies.

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Trade wars cause real wars? It’s not that simple

President Trump’s imposition of steel and aluminium tariffs is counterproductive for the US economy in several ways. It will increase import costs and hit US businesses and consumers. It will cause tariff retaliation from other countries, thus restricting America’s export sales. But, more importantly, it will inhibit economic advancement. Tariffs are anti-growth and hold back economic renewal at home. They shield domestic companies from engaging in the long-term investments needed to grow productivity. And in today’s depressed conditions, they act to reinforce stagnation.

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