Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey has warned that failing to secure a new trade deal with the European Union would do more damage to the UK economy over the long run than the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think the long-term effects … would be larger than the long-term effects of Covid,” Bailey said Monday in response to a question from a lawmaker on what would happen if the UK government does not complete a deal before the December 31 deadline.
“It takes a much longer period of time for what I call the real side of the economy to adjust to the change in openness and to the change in profile in trade,” Bailey added in testimony before parliament’s Treasury committee.
The United Kingdom left the European Union in January. But the £670 billion ($895 billion) trade relationship has been largely unaffected so far because of a transition period that expires at the end of this year. Negotiators have been trying to hammer out a deal that will allow for tariff-free trade to continue. But progress has been slow, and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned on Monday that “fundamental differences” still need to be resolved.
UK business groups are pushing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to secure a deal, saying that many companies have been stretched to the breaking point by the coronavirus and another round of lockdowns. Without an EU deal, UK-based firms face hefty tariffs, quotas and other barriers to doing business with the country’s biggest export market starting on January 1.
The Bank of England forecast earlier this month that the UK economy will shrink by 11% in 2020. Economists are worried about “scarring” caused by coronavirus, but Bailey said on Monday that he was optimistic about the economy’s ability to recover relatively quickly from the pandemic.
A change in the terms of trade with the European Union would produce more lasting upheaval, he suggested, comparing that outcome with modeling the central bank did decades ago showing it would have taken the UK economy between 30 and 40 years to adjust if policymakers had decided to drop the British pound and switch to the euro.
The UK government and the Bank of England have unleashed hundreds of billions of pounds worth of stimulus to help cushion the blow to business and workers from the pandemic.
Earlier this month, the central bank said it would increase its purchases of UK government bonds by £150 billion ($195 billion) to £875 billion ($1.1 trillion), and finance minister Rishi Sunak extended a furlough program through March 2021. The government will pay 80% of the wages of employees of businesses forced to close, capped at £2,500 ($3,270) per month.
Sunak said on Sunday that the economic situation in the country presents “a very difficult picture.”
“The economy is experiencing significant stress,” he told the BBC. “We’ve seen that particularly in the labor market, with people’s jobs. We know that three quarters of a million people have tragically already lost their jobs with forecasts of more to come. Borrowing … is at record peacetime levels and more stress to come.”
Sunak will deliver an update on the economic situation on Wednesday and sketch out his plans for borrowing and spending after the pandemic.