Scotland's growth engine lacks oil

Oil installation Image copyright Thinkstock

Nearly a year since the oil price began to fall and five months since it bottomed out, the benchmark barrel of Brent Crude remains volatile and we're still not clear what impact it will have on the Scottish economy.

The latest analysis from the Scottish ITEM Club - economists who independently apply the Treasury's economic model - point to the downsides.

Last week, we heard from Scottish Engineering, the sector's trade body, a downbeat message that falling orders from the offshore sector are being felt far beyond the north-east, reaching into firms in the central belt.

The latest analysis from the chief economist at the Scottish government suggests that the impact of the price fall may be neutral.

That is, offshore oil and gas is suffering a loss of profitability, with less investment and fewer jobs: but businesses, drivers and householders who buy fuel rather than produce the stuff are enjoying lower prices, which look to them a bit like a tax cut.

One question is which has the bigger impact. Another remaining question is whether the impacts will be felt at different times.

Forecasts and uncertainty

In St Andrews House, Gary Gillespie is in agreement with recent forecasts of around 2.3% growth in the Scottish economy.

The Scottish ITEM Club is slightly lower, at 2.2%, up by 0.2% points since its end-2014 forecast. The difference is hardly worth quibbling over. But what's striking is that puts Scotland significantly behind the growth rate expected by EY's ITEM Club for the UK as a whole, at 2.8%.

The analysis goes further than that, suggesting Scotland is on schedule to lag the growth rate in the rest of the UK for a few years to come.

Scotland and the UK have in common uncertainty around the eurozone and European Union membership. The EU referendum could also put pressure on sterling, by putting the trade deficit into starker relief, suggests the EY publication. Growth won't be helped by a sharp tightening in government spending.

The Scottish economy and the wider UK benefit from very low interest rates. Inflation is now around zero and staying low over the next year, while real wages rise.

Down to earth whisky

So what makes Scotland different? Offshore oil and gas is an obvious candidate. Even if some think it has a neutral effect, the impact on the rest of the UK isn't weighted with the same downsides, proportionately. The wider economy ought to feel a positive effect.

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Immigration is helping fuel growth in parts of England, but it's less of a boost to Scotland. And when measured per head, to take account of higher population growth south of the border, recent growth in Scotland can be made to look better.

The finance sector has been flat, stellar whisky exports figures have come down to earth, and despite the best efforts of the transport sector (for which, read Falkirk bus builders among a few others), manufacturing is not performing that well.

Construction, which motored at a cracking 13% growth rate last year, is expected to fall back, though it still has the benefit of big public projects, from the Forth Replacement Crossing to Aberdeen's ring road and the M8 upgrade through Lanarkshire.

Surveys of business confidence have been getting a bit gloomier in recent months, and retail spend is lagging well behind the rest of the country. That could be canny, instead of fuelling private debt even further, but shoppers are failing to do their patriotic duty to the economy in the short term.

What about men?

The employment picture looks healthy, given the scale of the recent downturn and the high jobless rates elsewhere in Europe.

New jobs are being created, but nothing like as fast as in England. The net growth has been almost entirely in female employment over last year. That's been welcomed. But it suggests something's going wrong for men, without it being clear precisely what that is.

As often noted, the quality of jobs remains a problem - zero hours, temporary, part-time, skills underused and many wanting to work more hours than they can get.

And the ITEM Club returns to concerns that some sectors face skill shortages, which could push up pay for some without it being backed by higher productivity.

All that said, it forecasts 25,000 more jobs this year, and 15,000 to 20,000 per year in the medium term.

That's while the working age population shrinks by 10,000 per year (and the number drawing pensions increases). Overall, that means job opportunities for those who wish to keep working past 65.

Scotland's population is on track to hit 5.4m in 2017, but as immigration is much stronger into England, the Scottish share of the UK total will slide from its present 8.2%.

Economic levers

All this can be expected to have political implications. The case for Scottish independence has followed a twin-track argument that historic growth has been held back by being part of the union, yet this century, growth has matched the UK - suggesting that Scotland is strong enough to thrive without the union.

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If Scotland is returning to relatively weaker growth, the 56 SNP MPs at Westminster and the Scottish government may choose to tweak the latter argument towards the preceding complaint that Scotland's economy is faltering.

They will surely prefer to argue that's down to Westminster rule and George Osborne's spending plans than for any of the blame to fall on Nicola Sturgeon's administration.

But it could also put further pressure on them to choose which of the economic levers they're soon getting, and others they want, could and will be used to address these shortcomings.