“Despite Brexit”. You may recognise those words if you read the Financial Times or listen to the BBC. Any bit of good economic news seems to have them tagged onto the end of the headline.
It’s irritating, but there is an obvious reason for the trend. For months in the run-up to the referendum, we were told by a series of prominent figures and institutions that all manner of disasters would befall the economy if the people voted Leave. If you believed them, then it’s understandable that you might have been surprised as events in the three months since polling day have gone fairly well. Indeed, the ONS said this week that “As the available information grows, the referendum result appears, so far, not to have had a major effect on the UK economy.”
At this point, another favourite line of the more dedicated Remainers tends to crop up: “Of course bad things haven’t happened – we haven’t left yet.” Or as the ONS went on to say, a little more tactfully, “So [the economy] hasn’t fallen at the first fence but longer-term effects remain to be seen.” That’s self-evidently true – we’re still in the EU, even if we are headed for the exit, and the full effects of this momentous decision (positive or negative) may not be seen for many years to come.
But that doesn’t make it too early to judge any of the predictions that were made by the OECD, the IMF, the Treasury, the Chancellor and others. Why? For the simple reason that various of their warnings were not about what would happen after leaving the EU but rather about immediate effects of a Leave vote itself, which would supposedly kick in straight after referendum day.
Presumably they either genuinely believed their predictions or were sufficiently confident in the effect on voters that they thought they would never be tested – either way, here are seven predictions which have already turned out to be wrong:
A fall in consumer spending and confidence. In the words of the Bank of England’s inflation report in May, “there is a risk that a period of heightened uncertainty around the referendum could dampen confidence, prompting households to defer consumption and increase their savings.” In reality, that didn’t materialise during the campaign (the period of greatest “uncertainty”), when household spending enjoyed its biggest rise since 2014. Since the referendum, spending in July and August outperformed forecasts. In the words of the ONS, “Overall the figures do not suggest any major fall in post-referendum consumer confidence.”
Instant and ongoing damage to the stock market. Christine Lagarde of the IMF, in her memorable warning at the Treasury, said a “protracted period of heightened uncertainty” would result in “sharp drops in equity”. We did of course see dramatic falls in both the FTSE 100 and the FTSE 250 – falls exaggerated by the fact the market rose rapidly before the vote on the mistaken expectation of a Remain victory – but rather than any “protracted” reduction, both swiftly recovered.
Lower house prices. George Osborne was guilty of some very selective wording when he warned that a Leave vote would produce an “immediate economic shock” that would “affect the value of people’s homes” to the tune of 18 per cent. The Treasury’s small print revealed that they were actually forecasting that house prices would continue to rise, but would only rise to a level 18 per cent below where the Treasury predicted they would otherwise have been in the case of a Remain vote – a technical distinction the then-Chancellor took no pains to make clear. As it is, both demand and asking prices have continued to rise.
“Immediate” recession. In his foreword to the Treasury’s analysis of the short-term effects of a Leave vote – released a month before the referendum – Osborne wrote: “a vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy. That shock would push our economy into a recession”. There’s no doubt whatsoever that he meant that the economy would enter negative growth immediately after the vote – Table 2.C in the same report predicts growth for this quarter, Q3 2016, of between -0.1 and -1 per cent. This week, the Treasury published its basket of independent GDP forecasts for the year, gathered from 38 City and non-City financial institutions, which showed expectations for GDP growth are back on track, with no sign of the Q3 shrinkage Osborne predicted. On Wednesday, the OECD, which had echoed Osborne’s warnings, upgraded its GDP forecast for the UK for 2016.
Rising unemployment. In the same document, Osborne predicted that immediate recession would “lead to an increase in unemployment of around 500,000”. During the supposedly damaging uncertainty of the referendum campaign itself, unemployment in fact fell to the lowest level since 2005. In July, the month in which the instant crash was meant to start, the unemployment and employment rates both held steady.
An emergency budget. Osborne, along with Alan Johnson, said a few days before the referendum that a Leave vote would result in an emergency budget, involving £30 billion of spending cuts and tax rises. The expected timescale numerous newspapers gleaned from Treasury spinners was that this would happen “within weeks” of the referendum. This defied belief at the time, not least because such measures are precisely the opposite of how the Treasury would react in a sudden recession, and because scores of Conservative MPs instantly said they would refuse to vote for it. Unsurprisingly, it has not come to pass.
Higher interest rates, mortgage costs and business borrowing. Both Lagarde and Osborne chose to hold the prospect of increased borrowing costs over homeowners and businesses. The IMF boss predicted “increased borrowing costs”, and the Treasury’s assessment of the immediate impact included “higher interest rates on borrowing by businesses and households”, as well as “a tightening of UK financial conditions, including higher mortgage rates”. Instead, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee cut interest rates, corporate borrowing costs swiftly returned to normal and the cost of borrowing for the Government has fallen, too. And it could improve even further – The Guardian reported this week that “rates on two-year, fixed-rate mortgages – already at record lows – could fall even further because of tough competition among lenders”.
There may yet be medium- and longer-term predictions about Brexit that come true, but it seems clear that a lot of those issued for the short-term were woefully inaccurate.
Michael Gove has been roundly and unfairly mocked by some for saying in his Sky News referendum appearance that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Not only did it turn out on referendum day that most voters agreed with him, but it now turns out that the people were quite justified in not believing every scare story they were told.