Richard Brown: What type of recession is heading London’s way this time?

Richard Brown: What type of recession is heading London’s way this time?

One of the grimmer expectations as sizzling summer gives way to apprehensive autumn is that we seem to be heading into a recession. But what sort of recession will it be? To paraphrase Tolstoy, even if all economic booms are alike, every recession is unhappy in its own way. How did London fare in recent recessions, and what could that tell us about the city’s prospects over the next couple of years?

1990-92 – from negative equity to currency speculation

The early 1990s recession technically ran from autumn 1990 to autumn 1991, though it cast a long shadow. It was triggered by rising inflation in the late 1980s, leading the government to put the Bank of England base rate up from around 8% in summer 1988 to nearly 15% in summer 1989 – nearly ten times its level today. Though the base rate came down steeply in the following years, it was still 10% in late 1991.

By this stage, the UK housing market was in freefall. Prices dropped by about 20% nationwide, and the fall was particularly sharp in London and the wider south east – around 30% between late 1988 and early 1993. A similarly sharp crash hit commercial real estate. The 1992 bankruptcy of Olympia & York, developers of Canary Wharf, was one of the most prominent collapses, throwing the planned Jubilee Line extension into doubt in the process.

The late eighties had seen a residential property boom, fuelled by right-to-buy, tax relief on mortgages and pretty lax lending criteria from banks. As prices plunged and mortgage costs rose, many new homeowners ended up with “negative equity” – property worth less than the debt secured on it. A study by economic geographer Danny Dorling estimated that around 40% of Londoners who bought homes in the late 1980s found themselves in this position – the highest rate in the UK. In some parts of east London, the proportion was more than 60%.

London’s workforce also suffered badly. In 1990 the unemployment rate in London was around 6.5%, the same as in Britain as a whole, but by 1994 it had doubled to 13% compared to 10% nationwide. Rates converged slightly in the following years, but London’s unemployment rate has stayed above the national level ever since. One analysis has suggested that factors driving higher unemployment in the capital included employers moving out of the city, high rates of closure in the manufacturing sector, and an increasing tendency for specialised sectors to recruit workers from outside the M25.

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A curious turning point in London’s economic fortunes was reached in September 1992, when the UK was forced to leave the exchange rate mechanism (ERM), a precursor to the European single currency, which had required the government to use interest rates to maintain sterling’s value against other European currencies.

As speculation against the pound intensified, the government tried to compete with the speculators by buying sterling and by temporarily putting interest rates back up to 15%, before throwing up their collective hands and leaving the ERM. The value of sterling and interest rates then fell quickly, with the latter reaching 6% by the end of the year, and staying between 3% and 8% until 2008. With relatively low interest and exchange rates, the UK in general and London in particular suddenly looked like a great destination for overseas investment. The stage was set for the 15-year boom that followed.

2008-09 – from credit crunch to quantitative easing

The 2008-09 recession was very different in character and impact. The main trigger for the recession was the “credit crunch” – a sharp reduction in banks’ willingness to lend as they realised that many of them had bought high-risk subprime mortgages, which were starting to default. Because of the way these mortgages had been bundled up the banks didn’t even know how exposed they were. This screeching halt to a lending boom hit the housing market, with knock-on effects on consumer spending and confidence.

As concerns about unidentified “nasties” sent bank shares plunging (dragging the rest of the stock market with them), the government stepped in with a £500 billion programme of loans and guarantees to keep the money moving in the UK banking system. Interest rates – by this time set by the Bank of England – were also reduced sharply to try to return liquidity to lending, falling from 5% in April 2008 to 0.5% a year later. And, like other central banks around the world, the Bank of England also began to buy up government bonds, thereby injecting more cash into the economy for lending and investment (“quantitative easing”).

The immediate impact of the financial crisis was highly visible in London, and commentators expected this “white collar recession”, which had its roots in irresponsible lending by the financial sector, to hit London hardest. In September 2008, the collapse of US bank Lehman Brothers provided schadenfreude-fodder TV footage of stunned-looking bankers leaving their Canary Wharf offices with cardboard boxes of belongings. Immediate job losses in banking were substantial: GLA analysis identifies a net reduction of 30,000 in financial services in 2008-09.

But London proved resilient: overall job numbers in the capital fell faster than in the rest of the country, but also recovered more quickly. Unemployment peaked at 10%, but that was much lower than in 1993. House prices also dipped sharply, falling 15 per cent in London in the year to May 2009, but had recovered to their 2007 level by 2011, three years sooner than that happened in the UK as a whole. Asking “How did London get away with it?”, Professor Ian Gordon of the London School of Economics has observed that the recession affected different classes in different ways: lower-paid administrative and manufacturing workers took a heavy hit, while professionals and people working in service sector jobs supporting them saw much lower job losses over time.

One reason for this, Gordon suggests, is that the package of support provided by the government helped to revive professional services, particularly through diverting investment from bonds into property and shares. In addition, while London’s construction sector took a hit, both the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and Crossrail were major programmes of public works that sustained demand. It is, of course, arguable whether London’s rapid recovery from 2010, closely tied as it was to soaring property costs, was good for the city as a whole or has acted as a brake on productivity and equity – but that is probably for another day.

2022-?? – prospects for the capital

So, does the coming recession look more like 1991-92 or 2008-09? Worryingly for London, it may resemble the former more that the latter: interest rates and inflation are rising rather than falling (and GLA research suggests that Londoners face particularly high inflation). Private renters are already facing steep rises according to some reports, and London’s owner-occupiers may struggle when fixed-rate deals come to an end: average mortgage debt in London was about 60% higher than across the UK according to a 2017 survey, and the capital has many more borrowers with high loan-to-income ratios. Meanwhile, after a boom in demand for higher quality office space, rising interest rates and energy costs, alongside persistently high levels of home-working, are chilling the commercial real estate sector.

Furthermore, it is hard to see where new money will come from to reignite London’s economy. Quantitative easing has ended (indeed, the Bank of England is contemplating reversing the process), new transparency rules may make London a less favourable destination for (shady) foreign investors, and Transport for London is haggling with government to sustain services rather than gearing up to deliver new infrastructure.

However, for the moment, the economy still seems relatively buoyant. The number of jobs in the capital grew by around 100,000 between March and June this year, and unemployment is falling (even if, intriguingly, more people are dropping out the labour market than entering work). And London continues to top league tables of popular cities for business, from finance to tech (ironically, the sector that powered remote work seems particularly focused on office location).

London’s resilience can emerge from surprising places, as it did in the 1990s when recovery took root in places such as Hoxton and Shoreditch that had been been laid low by recession. There may even be shafts of sunlight behind the clouds. Nobody wants to see a return to negative equity, but a medium-term correction to commercial and residential property values might actually make London more accessible as a place to live and work.

There may be trouble ahead, but London still has the diversity of people and place, the heritage and culture, the transport connections and restaurants, that make it one of the world’s greatest cities. It may be politically and economically difficult to commit major investment in the capital, but the government should at least avoid damaging the social, housing and transport infrastructure that will enable London to lead national recovery after the recession.

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Categories: Analysis

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