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Brexit on agenda as British Irish Chamber meets Brokenshire

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UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire discussed Brexit with chambers of commerce from across Ireland at a British Irish Chamber of Commerce working lunch at KPMG in Dublin yesterday.

The UK/EU departure talks were top of the agenda, with Brokenshire reiterating the UK government’s commitment to “frictionless trade on the island of Ireland” as he explained his government’s negotiating position.

“The British Irish Chamber is delighted to be hosting secretary of state Brokenshire in Dublin today,” said director general John McGrane. “Given the number of political engagements the secretary of state has to keep while in town, I think his availability to meet with business groups shows the importance of maintaining the vital trade network that exists on the island.

“The chamber welcomed the publication of last week’s papers and especially the commitment shown by the UK government to borderless trade on the island of Ireland and the continuation of the Common Travel Area,” he said. “While we are happy to see suggestions put forward to maintain both of these, we are still cautious about the feasibility of these proposals and will continue to positively engage with governments on both sides to ensure that a solution is found that works for all concerned.”

Trade between Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England is wroth €60bn per annum and supports 400,000 jobs according to the chamber, which represents businesses and employers with interests in both islands.

Shaun Murphy, managing partner of KPMG noted that “there is an urgent need to forge both practical and realistic solutions to address the Brexit issues of relevance to Ireland – North and South – and we welcome all efforts to resolve these matters in the interests of business across the island.”

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Unemployment and zero-hour contracts down in latest jobs data

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The UK employment rate is at its highest level since comparable records began in 1971, according to the latest data released by the Office of National Statistics today.

The ONS also revealed that 20,000 fewer people are on zero-hour contracts compared to this time last year, with 883,000 depending on zero-hour employment for their main income.

“Estimates from the Labour Force Survey show that, between January to March 2017 and April to June 2017, the number of people in work increased, the number of unemployed people fell, and the number of people aged from 16 to 64 not working and not seeking or available to work (economically inactive) also fell,” the ONS said.

The employment rate is at 75.1% and the unemployment rate is now 4.4%, down from 4.9% last year and the lowest since 1975.

“Latest estimates show that average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in nominal terms (that is, not adjusted for price inflation) increased by 2.1%, both including and excluding bonuses, compared with a year earlier,” the data revealed.

There are now 32.07m people at work in the UK, 125,000 more than in the first three months of the year and 338,000 more than this time last year.

 

 

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Inflation at 2.6% as Bank of England leaves rates untouched

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The Bank of England has decided to leave interest rates at 0.25% in a 6-2 split decision, and announced that inflation is at 2.6% for June, up from 2.3% in March.

Governor Mark Carney also outlined an analysis of Brexit and options available to the bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). “The UK economy is beginning the process of adjusting to a new, as yet uncertain, economic relationship with the European Union,” he said today.

“Monetary policy cannot prevent the weaker real incomes likely to accompany the move to new trading arrangements with the EU, but it can influence how this hit to incomes is distributed between job losses and price rises. And it can support UK households and businesses as they adjust to such profound change.”

Carney also said that markets, households and businesses reacted in different ways to the referendum outcome, with markets expecting poorer UK economic performance, households being slow to react but eventually slowing their spending, and businesses investing “less aggressively”.

“In the MPC’s central projection, GDP growth remains sluggish in the near term as the squeeze on households’ real incomes continues to weigh on consumption,” he said. “Growth then picks up to just above its reduced – or modest – potential rate as net trade and business investment firm up and consumption growth gradually recovers in line with modestly rising household incomes.”

The MPC expects inflation to peak around 3% in October and to remain around 2.75% until early next year, Carney also predicted.

“Conditional on the current market curve, which implies that bank rate will rise by half a percentage point over the next three years, inflation is projected to remain a little above the target at the end of the forecast period – an overshoot that reflects entirely the effects of the referendum-related fall in sterling.”

 

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GDP growth and interest-rate rise predicted amid positive UK forecast

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GDP growth of almost 2%, an interest rate hike in Q1 2018 and inflation easing to 2% in 2019 are all part of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research’s latest forecast for the UK economy.

Predicting 1.7% GDP growth this year and 1.9% in 2018, the NIESR has brought forward its prediction of an interest rate increase from Q2 2019 to Q1 2018, a “modest withdrawal of some of the additional stimulus that was injected into the economy after the 2016 EU referendum,” it said. The think tank also predicted an elimination of the fiscal deficit in 2022, and a peaking of debt to ration in 2018/19.

“The economy has slowed each year since 2014 and according to our forecast, 2017 will mark the trough for GDP growth,” it said in its analysis. Thereafter, we envisage a modest recovery that takes economic growth to a level that is close to potential.”

It also described movement in the UK’s labour market as “puzzling”, with employment growing, unemployment dropping and wage growth remaining “muted”.

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FCA plans certification rollout to all financial services firms

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The Financial Conduct Authority, the City’s regulatory authority, has outlined a proposed expansion of its Senior Managers & Certification Regime (SM&CR).

The proposals will extend the FCA’s rules to all financial services firms, and a consultation period on the 312-page document is open until November. It aims to “reduce harm to consumers and strengthen market integrity by making individuals more accountable for their conduct and competence”, according to the authority.

“Culture and governance in financial services and its impact on consumer outcomes is a priority for the FCA,” explained Jonathan Davidson, Executive Director of Supervision – Retail and Authorisations. “The extension of the Senior Managers and Certification Regime is key to driving forward culture change in firms.

“This is about individuals, not just institutions. The new conduct rules will ensure that individuals in financial services are held to high standards, and that consumers know what is required of the individuals they deal with. The regime will also ensure that senior managers are accountable both for their own actions, and for the actions of staff in the business areas that they lead.”

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UK election results hit consumer confidence – YouGov

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The indecisive outcome of this month’s general election damaged consumer confidence, according to data released by YouGov.

The research firm saw a sharp dip in the important economic measurement immediately after the vote.

“UK consumer confidence slumped sharply after the indecisive result of the general election, falling to levels comparable to the immediate aftermath of last year’s vote to leave the EU, our latest analysis with the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows,” explained YouGov head of reports Stephen Harmston.

“We found that in the first eight days of June – before the results were known – the YouGov/Cebr Consumer Confidence Index stood at 109.1, around the same level it was at the month before the snap election was declared. However, in the first twelve days after the votes were counted, the Index fell to 105.2.”

YouGov identified two key drivers in the data: lack of confidence over property prices, and a “slow puncture” in people’s household finances.

“However, the data suggests that the job security and business activity measures, both for the last 30 days and the next 12 months, are proving relatively resilient,” said Harmston.

 

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Britain ‘weary’ of austerity, says Hammond in Mansion House speech

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British voters have tired of austerity and the health of the UK’s economy depends on the outcome of Brexit negotiations, UK chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond said in his Mansion House speech on Tuesday.

The annual event, delayed due to last week’s Greenfell Tower disaster, saw the chancellor lean towards a ‘soft’ Brexit with economic matters to the fore.

“Britain is weary after seven years of hard slog repairing the damage of the great recession,” said Hammond. “Funding for public services can only be delivered in one of three ways: higher taxes; higher borrowing; or stronger economic growth. And only one of those three choices is a long-term sustainable solution for this country in the face of the inexorable pressure of an ageing population.”

Hammond addressed Brexit in milder terms than he did on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in which he said “no deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain” on Sunday.

“The future of our economy is inexorably linked to the kind of Brexit deal that we reach with the EU,” he said yesterday.

“Our departure from the EU is underway. But ensuring that it happens via a smooth pathway to a deep and special future partnership with our EU neighbours, one that protects jobs, prosperity, and living standards in Britain, will require every ounce of skill and diplomacy that we can muster.

“Yesterday was a positive start. It will get tougher. But we are ready for the challenge,” he said.

Brexit negotiations, led by Brexit secretary David Davis and EU negotiator Michel Barnier, opened in Luxembourg on Monday.

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Are businesses turning away from Theresa May?

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Katya Puyraud of Euro Start Entreprises interprets the mood in advance of election day.

Think Conservatives and you think business. The current governing party has always been inextricably tied to the interests of commerce in the UK, back to Thatcher and beyond. Their policies of privatisation, corporation tax cuts and red tape reduction have developed an image of economic competence that has seen businesses back them to the hilt. A combination of vocal support and party funding has formed a significant part of the last two Tory electoral victories.

Recently, however, this cast-iron support has come under question. An apparent move away from the party’s favoured free market economic model has left businesses lukewarm and wondering where the Tories are headed. While it’s debatable whether the opposition’s vision is more palatable to business, the fact that this debate is even being had may worry the current government in the run up to June 8th.

Manifesto malaise
The Conservative manifesto has been a difficult sell for many groups, but the most unusual dissent has come from business interests. Analysis by the Telegraph of small business leaders suggests that the reaction on social media has been almost overwhelmingly disapproving: over 50% of responses were negative, and only 8% were clearly positive. Larger businesses have not taken it much better, with Morrisons boss Andy Higginson calling their policies an “attack on business.”

Chief among the complaints is the lack of costing throughout the manifesto, making up 34% of complaints logged by the Telegraph. This is thrown into particularly stark relief by the ‘fully costed’ Labour manifesto, though there are indications that this was rushed and is not entirely accurate. Still, combined with the recent U-turn on the cost of social care, May seems to have undermined the ‘strong and stable’ slogan that has been the bedrock of her campaign.

It is the general willingness to complain that might hurt May the most. The manifesto pledges are only the latest in a line of decisions that have tested the resolve of the business community; these include raising the minimum wage, a controversial apprenticeship levy and a flagship policy to cap energy prices. With the additional burden of slowing consumer spending and political uncertainty, business leaders say they are struggling to shoulder these burdens.

Deal or no deal
Dwarfing these, however, is the thorny issue of Brexit. Businesses have put a brave face on things, and most feel confident of pulling through what will be a challenging period. But they still face a significant instability, not least because of the government’s insistence on a ‘hard Brexit’, and an unwillingness to clarify its negotiating position this early on.

For businesses contributing to the UK’s £14.3bn trade deficit, import costs have risen thanks to the weakened pound sterling. These now have to be passed on to consumers who are spending less, contributing to the recent fall in growth. And the future of exporters remains uncertain, with 44% of UK exports going to other EU countries.

It’s notable that in the weeks since the manifesto launch, Theresa May has moved away from domestic policy issues and back towards Brexit. While she notably did not support it, her apparent willingness to leave negotiations with ‘no deal’, as opposed to ‘a bad deal’, has won plaudits.

Whether this is an economically sensible approach is questionable; any deal involving billions of pounds in settlements is likely to be seen as a bad deal. But what some would see as stubbornness, many see as strength – a quality that the more demure Jeremy Corbyn sometimes is perceived to lack.

Opinion still varies on Brexit when it comes to ideological grounds, as well as other political factors, but it did not represent the pragmatic choice. The ability to acquire the best person for the job and trade freely only benefits business, and these abilities remain under direct threat. The last thing SMEs want from the government at this uncertain juncture is policies that upset the status quo.

Labouring the point
On these grounds at least, Labour do not present a particularly credible alternative. Jeremy Corbyn has proposed a tax rise for the top 5% of earners in order to pay for massive public expenditure, as well as nationalising certain keystone industries; none of this plays particularly well to larger businesses. Questions have also been raised of Corbyn’s leadership qualities following Labour infighting, something that may inhibit his influence on the global stage.

But smaller enterprise will not be hit by these tax cuts, and big business is hardly in favour of the Tories’ move to give employees more power in the boardroom. While its position on Brexit has been muddled, Labour also represents the most likely choice to pursue a softer approach to negotiations, and would do so without the dubious services of Boris Johnson.

What this shift represents remains uncertain. It is entirely possible that business interests will continue to simmer, aware that there are few options other than to quietly lobby government. But the outcome of the election could prove decisive.

A more likely scenario than a Labour victory would be a coalition government. This would have the potential for more balanced policymaking, involving both sides of the spectrum – and both sides of the Brexit vote – in decisions with decades of consequences. But it could also descend into unwelcome chaos and uncertainty, given the polarised opinions on each side. It would also throw doubt on Theresa May’s mandate to continue as both prime minister and party leader.

As ever, British enterprise will try to adapt to the hand it’s given. Brexit is not an immediate positive or a long-term one, but enough remains to be negotiated that businesses can be optimistic. While social issues have altered the momentum of the election campaign, the battle for Brexit is probably where the war will be won.

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Former journalist Katya Puyraud is the co-owner of Euro Start Entreprises, specialising in company formation in France and the rest of the EU. Since 2007 Euro Start Entreprises has helped budding digital nomads, entrepreneurs and expanding SMEs to open their companies in over 30 countries worldwide.

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‘Third parliament of austerity’ on horizon – IFS

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Austerity will last until into the 2020s, with economic growth and pay-rise levels remaining stagnant, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ budget commentary.
The think-tank’s response to yesterday’s budget delivered by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond pulled few punches on the state of the UK economy.
“On the public finances the OBR made by far its biggest ever revision to forecasts between Autumn and Spring for the current financial year,” said IFS director Paul Johnson. “In November it thought we would be borrowing £68 billion this year. It now thinks we will be borrowing just £52 billion. Yet it has barely changed its forecasts for future years. We remain on course to be borrowing about £20 billion in 2020 – that’s £30 billion more than intended a year ago. That leaves a lot of work to do in the next parliament to get to the planned budget balance. It looks like being, I’m afraid, a third parliament of austerity.”
Johnson also argued that the UK has had what amounts to “a decade without growth”, with GDP per capita rising by only 2% since 2008.

“Income and earnings growth over the next few years still look like being weak,” he said. “On current forecasts average earnings will be no higher in 2022 than they were in 2007. Fifteen years without a pay rise. I’m rather lost for superlatives. This is completely unprecedented.”

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IFS predicts more spending cuts and low growth

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The Institute for Fiscal Studies has announced its Green Budget, with predictions and analysis highly critical of the UK economy.

The London-based think tank predicts that sharp spending cuts are due to arrive before the next election, with tax rising to a greater proportion of national income than has been seen since the mid-1980s: the IFS says that spending cuts and tax rises will continue into the 2020s.

The report was compiled with analysis from Oxford Economics, which expects a “relatively disappointing” 1.6% GDP growth this year, and 1.3% growth in 2018, with wages almost static.

“For all the focus on Brexit the public finances in the next few years look set to be defined by the spending cuts announced by George Osborne,” explained IFS director Paul Johnson. “Cuts to day-to-day public service spending are due to accelerate while the tax burden continues to rise. Even so, the new chancellor may not find it all that easy to meet his target of eliminating the budget deficit in the next parliament. Even on central forecasts that is going to require extending austerity towards the mid-2020s. If the economy does less well than hoped then we may see yet another set of fiscal rules consigned to the dustbin.”

Andrew Goodwin, Oxford Economics’ lead UK economist, said that the UK economy has thus-far achieved solid growth – but that it has been almost entirely reliant on the consumer. “With spending power set to come under significant pressure from higher inflation and the welfare squeeze, the consumer will not be able to keep contributing more than its fair share. Exports should be a bright spot, but overall a slowdown in GDP growth appears likely.”

“If the government is able to agree a transitional arrangement with the EU and make progress on a free-trade agreement then the impact of Brexit is likely to be fairly modest within our forecast horizon of 2021. However, the negative effects of leaving the single market and the customs union are likely to become clearer over time and we estimate that the new trading arrangements could reduce UK GDP by around 3% by 2030, compared with remaining in the EU. Should we fail to secure a free-trade agreement then the outcome is likely to be worse still.”