UK Inflation

UK inflation, as measured by the CPI, fell in September to 2.4%. Not only was this below last month’s rate of 2.7%, it was also 0.2% below the expected rate of 2.6%. (Note we are talking of a fall in inflation, not a fall in prices).  Currency dealers believe that the effect of this was to make a further rise in interest unlikely and therefore there was a fall in demand for sterling, leading to a small fall in the value of sterling on the foreign exchange market.

However, it is not clear whether their reaction was correct. The day before these figures were issued, figures for average earnings in the three months to August were published by the Office for National Statistics, which showed that wages are rising at 3.1%, up from 2.9%, their highest rate since the financial crisis.  The rise in earnings is not surprising since it has been predicted ever since unemployment started to fall towards the current, record low level of 4% or 1.36 million.

The idea that inflation and unemployment are inversely related was expressed by Phillips using what became known as the “Phillips Curve”. Recently, economists have doubted it since unemployment has fallen without the previously-expected rise in earnings which would, in turn, feed through to prices via increased demand and higher costs for firms.

If the increase in real incomes continues, it is possible that higher spending and higher wage costs for businesses might increase inflation which, although falling, is still above the 2% target. It is also worth noting, firstly that uncertainty created by lack of progress in the Brexit talks might limit increases in consumption, secondly, that the increase in earnings is not likely to be shared by workers across the country and thirdly, unless the UK is able to increase its productivity, which is still low compared to our competitors, significant increases in earnings are likely to be limited.

How are we really doing?

This post looks at the current state of the economy.  Although the data may seem to be a few months out of date, it is the latest available and indicates a difficulty for economic bodies such as the Bank of England who try to control the economy. Their task is made even more difficult because, for example, not only are the Labour Force Survey figures out of date, they also do not respond quickly to changes in the economy since employers often wait a few months before hiring or firing workers to see if changes they experience are permanent or temporary.

GDP growth slowed at the end of 2018 from 0.4% to 0.3% in the three months to the end of October. This was largely due to a 0.8% fall in the manufacturing sector, particularly the manufacture of vehicles and pharmaceuticals. Our productivity continues to disappoint having been almost flat for 10 years, and about 20% below what it would be if it had grown at the trend rate for the last ten years. Investment has fallen for the last nine months, unlike our G7 partners who have experienced double digit growth.

However, the labour market continued to do well between August and October with the number of people in work increasing to 32.48 million, 396,000 more than a year earlier. The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years in work) was 75.7%, higher than a year earlier (75.1%) and the joint-highest estimate since comparable estimates began in 1971 while the unemployment rate (unemployed people as a proportion of all employed and unemployed people) was 4.1% or 1.38 million people. As a result, the proportion of people inactive was approximately 21%, again the joint lowest since 1971.

Inflation, measured by the CPI, dropped to 2.1% in December, the lowest since January 2017 when it was 1.8%, caused by falling air fares and oil prices (causing falling petrol and diesel prices among other things). Employee average weekly earnings increased by 3.3% over the year, giving a real increase of 1.2%, a welcome change from recent years when the rate of inflation has exceeded the increase in earnings. However, over the year, poverty increased, with 14 million people (22% of the population) in relative poverty (defined as 60% of the median income after housing costs). This includes more than 4 million children, with more than half of the children in single parent families in poverty. Food bank use has increased by 13% in the last year.

The balance of payments current account deficit increased to £26.5 billion between July to September, 2018, which equated to 5% of GDP, the largest deficit recorded for two years in both value and percentage of GDP terms. Contributing to this was an increase in the deficit on trade in goods and services, as the service sector surplus fell, and an increase in the primary income deficit caused by an increased net outflow of profits from FDI in the UK. (Primary income is the net flow of profits, interest and dividends from investments in other countries and net remittance flows from migrant workers). The majority of the deficit was financed by foreigners purchasing UK shares and UK investors selling part of their overseas portfolios.

Finally – an apology to younger readers. The latest government figures have shown that the share of UK wealth held by those over 65 has grown to 36% of the total, averaging £1.1 million.  The proportion of over 65s who are millionaires increased from 7% in 2006 to 20% in 2016. This wealth is in the form of property, their pension funds, holdings of shares and other savings. The biggest losers were those in the 35 – 44 age group whose share has dropped from 15% to 10% (although the value of their wealth rose from £180,000 to £190,000. This is a major change over the last 20 years when 21% of pensioners were in poverty.

How was Christmas for consumers and retailers?

UK consumers did not have a good Christmas and, since consumption is the main component of aggregate demand, this is a serious problem for the UK economy and for retailers in particular who rely on high spending at Christmas. Furthermore, not only was consumption lower than hoped for by retailers, it has also been financed by significant increases in household borrowing (see Mr Dean’s recent post). According to the British Retail Consortium, the retail sector experienced their worst Christmas since the financial crisis in 2008 with sales which were basically the same as last year. They reported that, although spending on groceries was higher than last year, spending on other categories such as clothing, were lower. Barclaycard confirmed this when they reported a real terms fall in consumption in December of 0.5%

There are a number of possible causes for low consumption. In the past, we would have looked at what has happened to consumers’ real income. However after many years of falling real incomes, last year incomes started to increase at a faster rate than inflation so this is no longer a factor. More likely is a fall in consumer confidence as doubts about the future of the UK economy increase as progress towards Brexit falters. There have also been declining car sales with new car registrations falling 6% in 2018 compared to 2017 caused by Brexit uncertainty and a fall in the attractiveness of diesel cars. There has also been a fall in spending on recreation and travel. Not only have foreign holidays become more expensive as sterling has dropped in value, consumers have cut back on meals out, recreational activities and travel.

But possibly not all is not doom and gloom. Part of the reason for the fall in December spending was people buying more in November to take advantage of ‘Black Friday’ offers. However this was not good news for retailers in the high street since many of the ‘Black Friday’ purchases were on line. This might mean that there will be more stores following Maplin, Toys R Us, Carpetright, HMV, Poundworld and House of Fraser.

UK household debt reaches peak

Article of the week – Harjot M.

High levels of household debt pose a risk to the economy because any increase in interest rates could lead to a sudden collapse in consumption. Higher borrowing costs mean households have less discretionary income resulting in a fall in consumer spending. Aware of this risk, firms may consider cutting investment in the expectation of a fall in future demand. Consequently, aggregate demand decreases causing a fall in inflationary pressures, a decrease in economic growth and, potentially, an increase in demand-deficient unemployment.

20 Years of the Euro

The origins of the euro were set out in 1992 in the Maastricht Treaty, which set out the pathway to economic and monetary union (EMU). This involved increased co-ordination of monetary policy, more converged economies and then the establishment of the European Central Bank and a single currency. In 1999, the euro came into existence as an accounting tool and, three years later, it became a physical currency, the official currency of the Eurozone.

In order to be successful, a single currency requires that member countries are both in similar stages of the economic cycle and are converged in terms of key economic variables. This means they will respond similarly to external shocks such as rising oil prices or a major demand-side shock in the world economy and changes in interest rates will have a broadly similar effect on businesses and households in each country.

The countries joining the eurozone had to meet convergence criteria to join. These were:

  • an inflation rate no more than 1.5% greater than the average of the 3 lowest countries
  • long term interest rates no more than 2% greater than the average of the 3 lowest countries
  • a stable exchange rate within the exchange rate mechanism (an agreement to limit the flexibility of exchange rates) for 2 years
  • a budget deficit less than 3% of GDP and a national debt less than 60% of GDP or falling towards it.

The advantages of belonging to a single currency revolve round greater economic stability because there are no exchange rate fluctuations, leading to increased investment, including foreign direct investment, economies of scale and greater international trade, in line with comparative advantage. There are also lower costs since commissions paid when changing currencies no longer apply to members of the single currency (but still apply when trading with counties outside the single currency area). There is also greater price transparency which increases competition since it is easier to compare prices in different countries

The UK did not join because it believed that the disadvantages would outweigh the benefits. The key one was the loss of economic sovereignty. Not only did member countries lose control of their interest rates, there now being a single one set by the European Central Bank which might have different priorities to the UK government, there was also no possibility of adjusting the exchange rate to boost exports and cure a balance of payments deficit. This meant that adjustment to economic problems would have to be internal, via cuts to real wages, probably accompanied by higher unemployment, in order for a country to improve its competitiveness. Furthermore  the UK government did not want  to limit its scope for fiscal adjustment because of government borrowing restrictions. There was also the fear that the UK economy, because of its higher level of home ownership (and therefore more homeowners with mortgages), closer links with the USA and its role as an oil producer, was not sufficiently converged with the members of the eurozone. There was also the issue of losing the pound which weighed heavily with politicians.

So how has the eurozone done since it began? It survived the financial crisis and the debt crises faced by the PIGS, the weakest eurozone countries, (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), setting up a fund to provide support to members in difficulty. The currency has also been accompanied by a growth in foreign trade, with eurozone trade doubling between 1999 and 2008, (but we do not know what would have happened without it). Furthermore, it has grown from the original 11 members and now has 19 members -Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. As the FT pointed out, “the euro has become the second most important currency in the world. It accounts for 36% of global payments and 20% of central banks’ foreign reserves, second only to the dollar. The euro is used by 340m people in 19 countries. Another 175m people outside the eurozone either use it or peg their currency to it”.

However there is a more pessimistic view. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning economist, argued last year that the euro has not been that successful, when one compares its growth with that of the USA. He also argues that there could be a new euro crisis in the offing with high Italian government borrowing, continued inequality in incomes between richer and poorer members of the eurozone with the latter suffering from low growth and poor competitiveness. The Economist (5th Jan 2018) talked of the ECB being too restrictive in terms of its interest rate policy, low rates of growth and high unemployment among some eurozone members. How the eurozone will cope if interest rates increase in 2019 or if there is another debt crisis remains to be seen.

Charles Dickens Revisited – A sad Christmas story for the Brexit Era.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Philip Scrooge, or GP to his friends, distantly related to Ebenezer Scrooge, was at home in No 11 Downing Street, on Christmas Eve, 2019, writing a paper for the Prime Minister on what to do about the British economy, following the departure from the EU earlier in the year. Deep down he admitted to himself that the only reason he was doing this on Christmas Eve was because he was lonely. All his parliamentary friends (not that he had many of them these days) had left Westminster to go home to their families and even his neighbour, the Prime Minister, had gone to Washington to spend time with her friend Donald and his Russian acquaintances. GP also knew that he was very unlikely to get a visit from Santa this year. Not only were most presents held up at Calais because of the delays caused by border controls, Santa was having difficulty getting permission to bring his reindeer into the country because of new regulations affecting animals entering the UK and, if that wasn’t enough, his friends and relatives blamed him for the higher prices caused by import tariffs imposed on goods from the EU.

Gradually, despite his interest in the Treasury’s latest macroeconomic forecasts and the excitement of looking at all the negative numbers they contained, he started to feel sleepy, very sleepy. The next thing he knew, the room was full of people all keen to talk to him. The first, who looked well over 100 yet was wearing a very trendy hoody with a large letter K on the front,  started to talk to him about the need to raise aggregate demand, by cutting taxes and raising government spending in order to offset the fall in consumption and investment which had occurred early in 2019 as the UK economy crashed out of the EU after Parliament failed to ratify Teresa May’s plan and the subsequent “People’s Vote” resulted in an almost dead heat when 50.5% of the voters opted for a No Deal departure from the EU. One of K’s friends, a Canadian called MC, asked what he should be doing about interest rates since he had people telling him to cut them to boost the economy while others, due to go off skiing in the New Year, told him to increase them to boost the value of sterling, which had slumped after the decision to leave and was now at parity with the dollar. K was not too bothered about interest rates – he kept going on about being caught in something painful called the liquidity trap.

As soon as K and MC stopped talking, a new American voice piped up, with the letter L on his back, suggesting that what was really important was not to listen to K and his friends but to focus on the supply side of the economy and, in particular, on increasing incentives to work and raising productivity in the economy. L was illustrating his ideas on a napkin, suggesting that taxes should be cut, therefore encouraging people back into work and explaining that this would be self-financing, since government spending on benefits would fall and revenue would increase as the newly-employed paid taxes and spent more, increasing VAT and corporation tax receipts.

Suddenly GP awoke from his nightmare and his unwanted guests disappeared.  “I need a holiday” he thought said to himself and grabbed his laptop to start searching for a short break. He gave up on Europe pretty quickly because of the permit he would have to buy to go to the EU. Although it was only 7 euros, these days, following the fall in the value of sterling, 7 euros was a lot of money. He started to look at breaks in the UK. Driving was out because of the rising cost of fuel after recent oil price rises and the fall in the pound so it had to be a train journey, until he remembered that Crossrail had not been finished, HS2 had been scrapped because of rising cost estimates and the rest of the network were not running between Christmas and the New Year.  Back to the Treasury forecasts and looking forward to Xmas Day with the Queen’s Speech, while eating a Gregg’s turkey sandwich for lunch.

Life After Brexit?

Although we are no clearer about how, when or even if the UK will be leaving the EU, it is worth considering areas the UK government must address in order to make the best not of the next few months, but of the next decade.

Two months ago, in the World Economic Forum’s annual report on countries’ competitiveness, the UK slipped down two places to eighth out of 140, with the top places held by the USA, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, the Netherlands and Hong Kong. The WEF, best known for its annual Davos conference, takes a wide-ranging view of competitiveness, considering such things as infrastructure, macroeconomic stability, health, skills of the labour force, the financial system and the quality of universities.  Although the UK did well in areas such as workforce diversity and the quality of our legal institutions, we dropped down the table because of poor health provision and a lack of investment in ICT-related infrastructure and human capital.

Although the UK currently has record low levels of unemployment, our productivity (output per hour) compared to our competitors is low and this correlates with the WEF comments about our low investment in human capital. In the 1980s our productivity growth averaged 2.4% pa, in the 1990s it was 2.3% pa, in the 2000s it had fallen to 1.4% pa, largely due to the financial crisis, and, since 2010 it has averaged 0.5% pa. If we had been able to maintain the productivity growth of the earlier decades before the financial crisis, UK GDP would be about 20% higher than at present. However, despite all the attention paid to productivity in recent years, the situation might not be as bad as predicted. A recent OECD reports suggests that the UK has over-estimated the number of hours worked by not fully accounting, among other factors, for the increase in part-time work. Nevertheless, it still remains that if UK workers are to get richer, then the country must produce more, either by working longer or becoming more productive.

One area which will need addressing to boost productivity is research and development (R&D). Our R&D spending has been a lower proportion of GDP than many competing countries with the UK spending only 2/3 as much as a percentage of GDP as Germany, Japan and the USA. However the government has committed to increase this to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, up from 1.4% today, and has created a Productivity Investment Fund worth £31bn to assist. It has already committed £7bn with 600 projects receiving funds but there is still scope to increase this.

Another is business investment which, for the last twenty years has been among the lowest of OECD members, not helped recently by the uncertainty in the economy. From 1997 to 2017, gross fixed capital formation in the UK (capital expenditure by the public and private sectors, e.g. spending on factories, plant and machinery, transport equipment, software, new dwellings, and improvements to existing buildings and roads) averaged 17% of GDP pa compared to 21% in Germany and the USA and 25% in Japan.  It is particularly weak in the low wage sectors of the economy and, ironically, it is possible that a decline in inward migration might encourage investment in these sectors if the supply of cheap labour dries up in the future. Low corporation tax and generous tax allowances and grants will be crucial in boosting our investment but, as well as generous financial assistance, businesses will be seeking a guarantee that the tax regime  will be stable to allow them to plan for the future.

A third area which needs addressing is infrastructure. Although the UK has delivered some successful infrastructure projects (e.g. London 2012), our record is not good. Crossrail is likely to be delayed even further and cost more than predicted, estimates for HS2 are increasing and London airport expansion seems stuck in an eternal holding pattern. Not only does such investment increase our productive potential, it also creates a very powerful stimulus to aggregate demand since so much of the cost remains in the UK economy in terms of labour and raw material costs, creating a powerful multiplier effect. Note that while we have been considering expanding Heathrow’s airport capacity by one airport, China is aiming to increase its number of airports from 207 in 2015 to 260 by 2020. There is also a feeling that too much infrastructure has been focused on the South East and a recent development which might help to address the imbalance is the appointment of regional mayors. The seven current mayors argue that transferring more power and resources to them will increase growth and improve productivity in their regions. They want more control over public services including skills, training and apprenticeship services, and the programmes designed to help people get back to work. They also want greater control over how tax revenue is spent, rather than relying on Government grants and control over any regional funds set up to replace EU funding.

A final key area to address is the level of skills of the workforce. A variety of solutions have been proposed such as boosting STEM subjects, improving management training and improving the status and quality of vocational training. Technical qualifications have traditionally been seen as inferior to the more academic A’levels and degrees and the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, intended to increase the number of apprenticeships, coincided with a decline in their number. However the most recent data suggests that this fall is being reversed as employers become more familiar with the new scheme. With a likely decline in the number of skilled migrants entering the UK from the EU, this area will be key if the UK economy is to prosper over the next decades.

The UK’s current problems

Attention in the UK is focused heavily on Brexit and what might or might not happen in the next few months – will Mrs May’s deal get through Parliament? If not, will there be a new deal negotiated or will we leave with no deal? Will there be a second referendum or even a general election or both or neither? However it is worth looking beyond the short term and  considering the problems we face, many of which might have influenced the Brexit vote.

On a global scale, there is talk that another recession might be approaching (although to be fair, there is often talk of another recession approaching!) A possible cause is the rise in interest rates which have already happened in the USA and the UK and is likely to happen in the Eurozone during next year. The US rise has already started to cause problems for some emerging economies because money which moved into their economies as interest rates fell and QE reduced bond yields in developed countries, has moved into dollars to buy US government bonds or to be placed in interest-bearing accounts. In addition, the strength of the dollar has caused some emerging economies further problems since many of their loans and interest payments are denominated in US dollars. A further potential cause of a world slowdown is the decline in China’s growth rate. A growth rate in China of 6% adds the equivalent of Russia’s entire GDP to Chinese GDP each year so even a small slowdown has an impact on the world economy. There is a fear that, as China grows, the opportunities for continued, fast growth diminish so it becomes more difficult for them to rapidly expand. Nearer home, there is also concern about Italy’s high level of public borrowing and the possible implications of this for the euro.

In the UK, there has been much discussion about possible economic factors which influenced the vote in 2016.  One issue was the regional imbalance between London and the South East compared to the North of England, with the latter feeling that they were ignored by governments which focused their activities on the South. Infrastructure is poor in the North with lower transport per head than in the South, incomes are higher in the South with average London incomes being 2 ½ times those in the North East and, since 2010, London incomes have grown 20% while those in the North East have only risen 6%. Many Northern companies have moved their headquarters down to London and there has also been a move in skilled labour in the same direction.

Another issue was the falling real incomes which many workers have experienced since the financial crisis. Following the recession in 2008, average wages fell almost consistently in real terms until mid-2014. Although there has been some recovery, there are still major problems with poverty in the UK. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported this month that almost 4 million working adults were below the poverty line because their wages were so low, about half a million more than five years ago. This was based on the idea of poverty being people or families receiving less than 60% of the median income by household type (e.g. married with two children), adjusted for the cost of housing. The implication of their report was that, although unemployment has fallen significantly in the UK, many of the new jobs are low paid ones. (It is worth noting that these figures are not accepted by the government since they focus on relative poverty and uses a definition of poverty now updated).

A further issue has been the effects of a decade of austerity on voters. Not only is there increasing concern over the quality of public services (think train delays and NHS waiting times) but a recent report from the OECD points out that the % of GDP taken by taxation has risen to 33.3%, a 49 year high, and above countries like France (46.2%), Italy (42.4%) and Germany (37.5%), but below Japan (30.6%) and the USA (27.1%). The prediction for this year is that the tax burden will rise further and if correct, since 2009 the share of GDP taken by tax will have risen by 2.2% while the share taken by government spending will have fallen by 5%, hence people feeling that they are paying more but receiving less from the government. There has also been a perception that EU migration has imposed further strains on the economy – using the NHS, filling up schools, taking scarce housing, claiming Job Seeking Allowance and other benefits and taking jobs from UK workers (although these last two are contradictory!). The positive benefits of migration in terms of providing skilled labour and contributing tax revenue have not received the same attention.

While there is very little, if anything, which the UK can do to prevent the global problems mentioned above, it can take steps to tackle the issues specific to the UK. Solving these will place the UK economy in a much stronger position to withstand global shocks and to make the best of whatever Brexit outcome occurs and will be the focus of the next post.