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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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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Free market vs nationalisation? It’s a delusional divide

This autumn’s UK party conferences triggered reminiscences about the old political debates from the 1970s and 1980s. Jeremy Corbyn wowed his new Labour Party supporters with a call for full-scale nationalisation, including of the rail, mail, water and energy companies. In response, senior Tories used their conference speeches to assert the merits of the ‘free market’, under the inspiring mantra of ‘no return to the 1970s’. Theresa May used her infamous leader’s speech to declare that ‘the free-market economy, for so long the basis of our prosperity’, is under threat, and needs defending.

As a great 19th-century thinker remarked, history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, and second as farce.

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A successful industrial strategy requires letting zombie firms die

As the government considers its industrial strategy white paper, due later this year, it must first break free from blinkered thinking.

While doubtless well intentioned, the familiar policies under discussion so far – additional public infrastructure investment, more state-funded research, and skills enhancement, with a particular focus on management training – are not sufficient to bring about a new industrial revolution.

The flaw in this approach is that none are new practices – and even as they have been operating, Britain’s productivity trap has been getting worse. Repeating what hasn’t been working is not a good route.

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