Leader: Season of full tills is upon us, but guiding lights elusive

TODAY households set forth in a frenzy of last-minute Christmas shopping. It has already been labelled “Frantic Friday”. The footfall will be massive. The tills will ring with sales expected to hit £1 million a minute.

In outward appearance it will indeed seem like a “normal” Christmas. But these are not at all normal times. It is because of this, not in spite of it, that we have every cause to be grateful for what we have and to make the most of the festive season. Indeed, we should seek to make it last for as long as we can, given the widespread apprehension about the state of the economy and what the new year will bring.

Yesterday it seemed as if the Office for National Statistics had brought a welcome and wholly unexpected Christmas gift. Economic growth in the July-September quarter is now reckoned to be stronger than first thought. Growth over the quarter has been revised up, from 0.5 per cent to 0.6 per cent. Coming as it did after a downpour of depressing news – rising unemployment, the squeeze on household incomes, poor service and manufacturing confidence surveys, persistent inflation and the black cloud of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis still pressing relentlessly down – good news of any size is welcome.

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But even this crumb-like offering came in distinctly unfestive wrapping. A downward revision to growth in the second quarter means that year-on-year growth remains unchanged at a dismal 0.5 per cent. And the figures for the third quarter did not look much of a gift at all on inspection.

Household and government consumption made a zero contribution. Indeed, the figures show a rising household savings ratio as hatches are battened down. Neither is there much evidence of business spending – business investment rose by just 0.3 per cent. And, most disappointing of all, the UK’s current account deficit ballooned out to a record £15.2 billion in the third quarter. Exports were essentially flat in the face of weakening global economic activity. So much for the export-led recovery.

The real problem, however, remains the unresolved crisis in the eurozone. No deal has yet been reached here. And while cheap finance may have been extended to eurozone banks this week, there is still no clarity as to how the eurozone’s debt-laden economies are going to recover and where the money will come from for the much-vaunted bail-out kitty. The European Central Bank is determined to resist pressure to resort to printing money.

The longer this stand-off continues, the deeper the apprehension that Europe may experience a devastating collapse next year. And it is this fear that blights our own prospects.

On this view, lower takings at the Christmas tills are the least of our problems. But there are two points of light in the gloom. Inflation is set to come down fast. And the Bank of England is standing ready for further bouts of quantitative easing that should help forestall a financial freeze.