A silver lining?

2008

The financial and economic meltdown experienced over the past few weeks may yet have a silver lining, according to one of the UK's most respected economic commentators.

Roger Bootle, economic adviser to consultancy Deloitte, has argued that we are in all likelihood going to experience a recession comparable with that of the early 1990s rather than the 1970s or, worse still, the 1930s.

But one bright spot in all the doom and gloom is that, when things do start to recover, the purging effect of the credit crisis on the banking system is likely to have led to a much healthier financial and economic environment, he forecast.

"Although it might not feel like it now, a few years down the line we might be thanking the credit crisis for shaking up the financial system and making its institutions healthier – and better able to contribute to the future progress of society at large," Bootle argued in an analysis of the just how deep the downturn is likely to get.

Within the UK at least, the government's bail-out of the banking system was unlikely to prevent a major slowdown in the growth of bank lending to households and companies, he predicted.

"Moreover, even if the supply is there, in the current environment it is unlikely that the demand will be," he added.

"The triple whammy of plummeting house prices, sluggish income growth and soaring inflation is already weighing down on consumer spending growth and will continue to do so for some time yet," he continued.

"This will contribute to a further fall in company profits, which in turn will compound the recent slump in business investment," he added.

This would inevitably lead to a sharp rise in unemployment, with numbers growing by 1.5 million over the next two years, he forecast.

"This would push the unemployment rate up to nine per cent, the likes of which haven't been seen since the years after the early 1990s recession," he added.

Such a grim prediction seems to be borne out in a poll of more than 700 UK employers by consultancy KPMG and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development,

This has found that more than a quarter now have contingency plans in place to make new or further redundancies in the next 12 months, in addition to those already planned.

Organisations that had already made or planned to make redundancies in the next three months were more likely to be considering further job cuts in the next twelve months, it added.

The cuts will not come cheap, with the average cost for making workers redundant now standing at more than £10,000, it also calculated.

The majority of compulsory redundancies – eight out of 10 – were likely to be seen in the private and voluntary/not-for-profit sectors.

And managers, professionals and skilled non-manual workers were most likely to suffer from the redundancy cull, the poll forecast.

Dr John Philpott, the CIPD's chief economist, said: "The spectre of redundancy is beginning to haunt the UK jobs market once again. Employers have held off from making large scale redundancies until recently but we are now on the verge of a torrent of bad news."

But Dave Conder, KPMG HR director, emphasised to managers that redundancy need not be the only cost reduction option for businesses during difficult times.

"Closing down recruitment avenues, deploying flexible resource management and simply having controls on optional spending will all help in the long run," he advised.

"Redundancy is sometimes a short-term fix to the problems that businesses experience in a downturn," he added.

In fact, companies needed to look at redundancy as the option of last resort rather than hurrying into job cuts they might regret later, consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers has advised.

Its latest research has argued strongly that companies should be looking at flexible working, job-share arrangements, reduced hours and pay cuts as alternatives to redundancies.

Managers also needed to be evaluating the merits of secondments, sabbaticals and international assignment policies, as the post-downturn workforce and working practices could look very different.

The firm identified 12 primary "people cost" areas that companies should be assessing and taking decisive action on.

These were: pensions, headcount, absence management, expenses, use of contractors, analytics and benchmarking, pay and productivity, incentives, employee benefits, secondments and mobility, flexible working and HR and finance effectiveness.

Michael Rendell, partner and global head of human resource services at PwC, said many manufacturing firms had already been offering reduced salaries to save jobs and firms needed to follow their lead and be imaginative in how they responded to the downturn.

"Options include opening out flexible working or job-share arrangements to staff who wouldn't usually qualify. Introducing or revisiting polices on sabbaticals, international assignments and secondments would also benefit many industries," he pointed out.

"Some employees would welcome the opportunity to take a career break or experience working temporarily in an emerging market or a different organisation, perhaps a client or charity.

"If companies harness the flexibility and creativity needed to minimise redundancies and keep business strategy on track, the workforce at the other end of this downturn could look very different.

"Larger businesses tend to be slow to respond to market changes – this focus on working practices and policies could help bring the agility they should be striving for," he added.

Ultimately, however, Deloitte's Bootle has argued for caution in expecting the economy to bounce back quickly.

"Things could be even worse if a more vicious circle between events in the real economy and the financial markets develops," he warned.

"In perhaps the very worst case scenario, this could prompt a fall in the price level and a bout of Japanese style 'debt-deflation'," he added.

The chances were that, while the UK economy would recover, it would not a quick process.

"History shows that the economic fallout from previous financial crises has often lasted for a number of years," said Bootle.

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