So how is the economy doing?

This week has seen the publication of considerable economic data and much of it is contradictory, making it hard to tell exactly how well the UK economy is (or is not) doing.

In the year to March 2017, household spending in real terms returned to levels not seen since before the financial crisis, reaching £554 per week. The UK budget deficit has fallen and was £2.6bn in December, compared with £5.1bn in December 2016, and almost half economists’ expectations. This was partly due to higher than expected tax revenues from income tax receipts because of higher employment, higher VAT receipts and a refund on contributions to the EU. The positive news on the budget deficit means that government borrowing is likely to be at its lowest level since the financial crisis. Before celebrating too much, be aware, firstly, that the higher VAT receipts were due to higher inflation as well as to the growth in consumption and, secondly,  the refund from the EU was because the UK share of the EU budget has been revised downwards as a result of slower growth in the UK than the rest of the EU.

Another boost for the UK economy  was news that the employment rate had risen to a record high of 75.3% or 32.2 million, confounding forecasters who had predicted that the employment boom was over, based on the fall in October 2017 which is now being treated as a temporary fluctuation. At the same time as the employment level rose, the unemployment rate remained at 4.3% or 1.4 million, a 42-year record low. Equally encouraging was the shift from part-time work to full-time work which occurred over the period.

Further positive news  was that the economy grew at 0.5% in the last three months of 2017, faster than expected, largely because of the resilient service sector which makes up about 80% of the economy. As a result, growth last year was 1.8%, significantly higher than the 0.5% prediction by some disappointed economists following the Brexit vote. However, it is worth noting that the UK has dropped from being a growth leader to a laggard among the G7 countries, its growth rate is now at its lowest rate for the last five years and, given more rapidly rising incomes among our main trading partners, a slowdown in UK growth is disappointing.

On the downside, wage growth continues to be slow, meaning that real incomes are falling, the number of people starting apprenticeships fell by a quarter in the three months between August and October compared to last year, and sterling rose to its highest level since the Brexit vote. While this is good for importing businesses and holiday makers, it is less good news for exporters who have enjoyed the benefits of a low pound. It has also hit the share prices of companies with significant dollar earnings which are now worth less when converted into sterling.

Finally a word of caution; some of the figures, such as consumption spending, relate to the previous financial year while others, such as the growth in GDP, are subject to significant revision over time. Most recently, the figures for UK productivity have been questioned because the ONS might have significantly over-estimated inflation in the telecommunications industry and therefore underestimated the increases in its output. As a former Governor of the Bank of England pointed out, “trying to control the economy is like steering a car by looking in the rear view mirror”.

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The exchange rate and the economy.

The traditional view of a fall in the value of a developed country’s currency was that it would lead to an increase in the value of their exports and a fall in the value of their imports, hence improving the balance of payments and, via the resultant increase in aggregate demand, cause an increase in employment and growth.

However the above analysis needs considerable qualification. Although a fall in the value of a currency will almost always increase the VOLUME of exports and reduce the VOLUME of imports, whether the values change in the same way will depend on the elasticities of demand for exports and imports. For a developing country whose exports are commodities with an inelastic demand, a fall in the value of the currency might worsen its balance of payments. Over time the UK’s exports have moved up-market and therefore it can be argued that they have become less price sensitive since factors such as design and quality become more important.

Secondly, the analysis assumes that firms can increase their production of exports to meet higher demand and this will depend on the state of the domestic economy, the availability of labour, raw materials and components. This is unlikely to be easy in the short term and economists talk of the “J Curve effect” whereby a devaluation initially leads to a worsening balance of payments as quantities of exports and imports do not change much, possibly because of long-term contracts or the difficulties in increasing output of export and import-substitutes and, only over time, will the balance of payments improve. While this might not apply to tourism, where people can switch their holiday destinations relatively quickly, high tech exports and imports of manufactured exports will be much slower to adjust. Firms need to take a view as to the permanence of any change in the exchange rate. In my last post, I wrote that the £:$ exchange rate fluctuated from $1.71 in July 2014, $1.32 after the Brexit vote, then to $1.21 in January, 2017, and was at $1.38 (20th January 2018) but at the time of writing (27th January 2018) it had risen to $1.42. Firms planning long-term contracts will need to take a view as to the likely long-term exchange rate and largely ignore short-term fluctuations.

We should also not forget the downside of a devaluation which is that imports become more expensive and therefore living standards fall. Not only does one’s foreign holiday cost more, but imported finished products and anything using imported components or raw materials becomes more expensive, with the increase in price depending upon how easily the supplier can pass on the increased cost to the buyer. As products become more complex and firms take advantage of globalisation, the supply chain becomes longer and there is a greater likelihood of imports being involved in some in the final product. Thus an increase in UK exports of goods is very likely to require an increase in imports needed to make our exports and some of the increased competitiveness will be lost by the higher cost of imported components and raw materials.

Recent examination of the exchange rate and UK trade in goods might suggest that the exchange rate  has a significant impact. In the last year the volume of UK goods exported rose almost 9% which would imply that the fall in sterling post Brexit has had a positive impact until one reflects that UK imports have increased by 7% during the same period, despite their increase in price. What this shows is that the exchange rate is simply one of many factors affecting the demand for imports and exports and we cannot ignore factors such as quality, income, interest rates or anything else which changes the desire to consume goods and services.

Sterling and the UK Economy

The pound has undergone something of a roller-coaster ride over the past three and a half years.  It was $1.71 in July 2014, fell from $1.49 to $1.32 after the Brexit vote and then again to $1.21 in January, 2017 and has recently risen to $1.38 (20th January 2018). However, it is worth noting that while, historically we usually measure sterling against the dollar, the fall against the euro has been greater.  In July 2015, £1 would buy 1.49 euros but by August 2017 the rate had fallen to £1 = 1.08 euros  and it is currently at £1 = 1.33 euros.

This post will consider the factors which might cause the value of a currency to fluctuate. (and the next will discuss the impact fluctuations might have on an economy). Over the last 100 years, the world has moved from a system where currencies were fixed to gold (the Gold Standard), to a time when the dollar was fixed to gold while currencies such as sterling were pegged, with limited flexibility, against the dollar (the Bretton Woods Agreement) to a system of flexible exchange rates where, today, in theory, the demand for and supply of the pound in the foreign exchange market determines its value.

In old economics textbooks, the adjustment process was simple.  The demand for a currency is determined by foreigners wanting to buy UK exports and needing to pay for them in sterling while the supply of sterling came from UK firms and consumers wanting to buy foreign goods and services, such as overseas holidays, and needing to swap pounds for foreign currency to pay for them. If the UK had a balance of payments deficit, the demand for sterling in the foreign exchange market would be less than the supply and so the value would depreciate against other countries, making UK exports cheaper and imports more expensive, restoring international equilibrium.

Today the situation is far more complex; not only do we have to consider the impact of a currency such as the euro which has replaced the individual currencies of the members of the eurozone, making it impossible for them to use depreciation to improve their balance of payments, it is now no longer the sale and purchase of exports and imports of goods and services which determines  the exchange rate, it is the trade in financial assets which is far more important as banks, businesses, governments and individuals buy and sell foreign shares and government securities and move money between countries to gain higher interest rates or profit from speculative movements in currencies. To put this into perspective, the World Trade Organisation estimated that in 2015, total international trade in goods and services amounted to $20 trillion while $5 trillion was traded on the foreign exchange market EACH Day.

Therefore factors which influence speculators’ views of the economy will have a major short-term impact on the value of the currency. Hence, immediately after Brexit, the general view was that leaving the EU would have detrimental effects on the economy (or at least on those dealing in financial assets and currencies) and this reduced the demand for sterling from overseas and increased its supply from UK holders seeking to purchase foreign financial assets. Similarly if the political situation changes and that affects views of the economy, then the value of the currency will change. Other things which will affect the value of the currency will be changes (or expected changes) in our rate of interest or the rate of interest in other major currencies, the economic performance of our economy or other major countries since if, for example, the US economy weakens, then relatively, the UK economy will be stronger and this will encourage a movement of money from the dollar to the pound.

Big pharma, the NHS, and ‘price gouging’.

Over the past couple of years, the news has reported several incidents of sudden and rapid price hikes in medicines bought by the NHS. Drugs are often patent protected, which, put simply, means that firms are legally protected from another firm reproducing their product. Patents are a barrier to entry that helps to increase monopoly power. They do, however, provide benefits, insofar that without legal protection firms are unlikely to conduct the highly expensive research and development process to develop new drugs if another firm can simply come along and copy their idea. Without the high R&D costs, the rival would be able to charge a lower price and so the ‘creator’ stands to make large losses. Consequently, firms would not invest in R&D and we, the consumers, would not benefit from the advances in medicines we have seen.

On the other hand, firms can exploit this legal protection and monopoly power by charging very high prices to earn abnormal profits. These profits can be reinvested to develop new drugs, as Big Pharma will point out, or returned to shareholders in the form of dividends. However, the consequence of high prices, is, of course, lower consumption, and given the nature of the product, this can have a significant impact on consumer’s health.

The NHS is a very large organisation, Britain’s largest employer, with an annual budget of approximately £122bn. This should give it monopsony power when it comes to buying drugs, approximately £15bn of the budget, countering the monopoly power of the large pharmaceutical firms, such as Pfizer. However, reports suggest that the NHS is not getting value for money and is a victim of ‘price gouging’ – the process of suddenly increasing prices to exploit market power and increase profits. Probably the most famous example of price gouging is when Martin Shrkeli bought a patented drug used to treat AIDS and then increased the price by 5500% overnight. The process of extracting a larger ‘slice’ of wealth without creating new wealth is called rent-seeking. He is not a very popular man.

The UK government can take action to deter firms from this practice, which often takes place when a patent expires and the firm can change the name and distribution chain, a process known as ‘debranding’. Recently, Flynn and Pfizer have been fined for their decision to increase the price of an epilepsy drug by 2000%, although this is being contested in the courts. Further regulation is being discussed by the government and may be processed in the near future.

Given the funding issues the NHS currently faces, an increasing medicines bill creates an unwanted opportunity cost and means that cuts in other areas have to be made. Big pharma does need to make a profit to recoup high R&D costs and fund new medicine development, but how much is enough?

Read the original article here.

Oil and the UK Economy.

The price of crude oil fell from $114 a barrel in June 2014 to $27 in January 2016. This fall  had significant impacts on both the North Sea oil industry and the UK economy more generally. In the early 1980s, when North Sea oil production was at its peak, the energy industry contributed over 10% to UK GDP but by 2014 this had fallen to 2.8%. It is worth noting that, unlike Middle East producers, those extracting oil in the North Sea face high costs because of the weather and also because many of the easy-to-reach (and therefore low-cost fields) have been exhausted. Employment in the industry was 440,000 at the start of 2014, fell to 375,000 in September 2015 and is now around 300,000. If this continues, the skills of workers will be lost and many of the firms which make the infrastructure necessary to extract oil will close down. Government revenue from corporation tax and the other taxes levied on oil production has dropped sharply from a peak of over £30bn in the mid-1980s to an estimated £0.9bn this year.

The decline in the oil price and in the North Sea oil industry has had a significant impact on parts of Scotland and particularly on Aberdeen, the “oil capital”. When oil was first extracted, it became a boom town with low unemployment, rapidly rising wages and house prices as workers moved in to the area and new businesses set up. However, in recent years, the picture has been different with oil companies laying off workers, incomes and house prices falling and unemployment rising, an example of a local multiplier effect with local businesses supplying the oil industry, hotels, restaurants, taxi companies, etc suffering from the decline in the oil industry, the loss of income of its workers and the decline in foreign businesses and workers in the area.

However things might be changing. The price of crude oil has been rising steadily and is currently (Jan 2018) around $70 and there has been an increase in investment in the industry with firms starting new projects, supported by an inflow of private finance. This optimism is based on the  feeling that the recent low crude oil prices marked the bottom of the cycle and we are now back into a period of increasing oil prices, hence making many postponed projects  profitable.

The reasons for the rising oil prices are an interesting exercise in the economics of supply and demand. We have seen cuts in production orchestrated by OPEC combined with increased demand across the world economy because of higher world growth. There is also speculation which is further increasing the price. However this might be optimistic since US shale production is likely to increase, prompted by the higher prices and a positive economic environment under President Trump.

So what will this do to UK consumers who are already seeing higher prices for petrol and diesel? Will the higher prices feed through into firms’ costs, thereby increasing inflation or will the price rises tail off as US supply depresses prices and the OPEC production restrictions are broken by some of its members, eager to cash in on the higher prices?

What’s in store for the UK economy in 2018?

Santa has been and gone, the sleigh is parked in the long-stay car park, the reindeer are out to graze for a few months and it is time to think about what 2018 will have in store for the UK.

However economic forecasting is difficult. Unlike the natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, we cannot base our predictions on previous laboratory experiments. Furthermore, although economists frequently assume “ceteris paribus”, the real world is not like this. For example, we do not know what the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be, whether the bitcoin bubble will burst, and, if it does, what the impact will be, whether there will be a new Prime minster  or a general election this year or even what will happen to oil prices.

In an article published in the last week of 2017, The Times examined predictions made by key economic bodies (the Bank of England, the CBI, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Institute of Financial Studies and the British Chambers of Commerce) a year ago for the economy in 2017. As the table below indicates, the results are not encouraging.

  Growth Inflation Unemploy-ment Wage Increase House-hold Spending Increase
End 2016 Figure 1.9% 0.7% 4.9% 2.8% 2.8%
Highest prediction for 2017 1.6% 2.7% 5.4% 2.75% 1.5%
Lowest prediction for 2017 1.1% 2.1% 5.1% 2.1% 0.6%
Actual figure for 2017 (latest estimate) 1.7% 3.1% 4.3% 2.5% 1.0%

 

The UK’s growth performance has dropped from first place among the G7 in 2016 to close to the bottom and, in addition to the data above, we should note that share prices in the USA and the UK are at record highs, as is employment in the UK. However particularly worrying is the fall in real incomes which has impacted on consumption growth.   UK productivity growth has been low, with businesses tending to increase labour rather than spending on capital. Although the very latest figures show an improvement, this is because hours worked have dropped rather than output increasing. In addition, house price growth, particularly in London, has slowed.

In thinking about what might happen to the UK in 2018, there is the old saying that “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold”. This is still applicable but we might include China since the performance of the world’s largest economies will have both direct and indirect effects on the UK, since their faster growth will directly impact on our export sales and indirectly as rapidly growing demand for raw materials overseas pushes up prices for UK firms and consumers. On the other hand, we do not know whether President Trump’s desire to implement policies  focussing on “putting America first”, will have an impact on the rest of the world.

The IMF is positive about the prospects for the world economy in 2018. It predicts that world GDP will grow by 3.7% and this recovery is likely to continue for a further four years. This faster growth is the result of the three main economic areas (North America, Asia and Europe) all recovering rapidly at the same time. Businesses in the USA and France are confident following the election of business-friendly Presidents Trump and Macron, and this confidence should have a positive impact on investment. In addition, even though there have been interest rate rises in the USA and the UK, the level of world interest rates and the positive effects of QE continue to facilitate growth. The IMF therefore expects that average unemployment in the G7 will drop below 5% this year for the first time since the 1970s while inflation will remain below 2%.

Time to feel sorry for economic forecasters.

 

 

Goodbye the Big Mac – hello Starbucks Grande Latte.

 

Comparing living standards between countries is notoriously difficult. GDP per capita is the most common way but it has many difficulties. For example, countries include different things. As an example, consider the trend in certain US states to legalise (and therefore measure and tax) cannabis and marijuana. As this continues, the production and sale of these drugs move from the hidden economy into the measured GDP, thereby increasing the latter. While the impact is not likely to be large in the USA it is an example of how different countries measure their GDP. Similarly, if one goes to Amsterdam and visits a prostitute as part of trip to see the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank’s house, this will increase the Dutch GDP. Doing the same in London between visiting the British Museum and shopping in Oxford Street will not since prostitution is legal and taxed in Holland but not in the UK.

However, a more significant problem concerns the exchange rate. The UK GDP is measured in sterling while the US uses dollars. If the exchange were stable AND reflected the prices of goods in the two countries, there would not be a problem. However this is not the case. As an illustration, consider that the £:$ exchange rate has fluctuated between £1 = $1.49 in June 2016 and £1 = $1.20 in January 2017. This does not mean that UK living standards fell by 20% over the period and what one could buy with £100 in the UK would buy as much as $149 in June 2016 but only as much as $120 seven months later.

To solve this problem, economists make use of the purchasing power parity adjustment which looks at the price of a basket of goods and services in different countries and uses the relative price of the basket as an alternative to the current exchange rate. This is a complex process and the PPP exchange rate is calculated infrequently. Since 1986 The Economist has published its own, non-scientific PPP measure based on the price of a Big Mac in different countries. For example, if the price of a Big Mac is $5.00 in the U.S. as compared to £2 in Britain, we would expect that the exchange rate would be £1 = $2.5. If the exchange rate of dollars to pounds were £1 = $3, then a British tourist to the USA would feel that the pound was more valuable and goods therefore cheaper in the US. When comparing living stands we would therefore suggest that a GDP pc of £10,000 is equivalent to only $25,000 even though the exchange rate suggests it is worth $30,000

Latte

 

An alternative to the Big Mac Index has featured in the news, particularly in countries where the eating of beef is not common and this is the Starbucks Grande Latte Index. The principal is exactly the same and the diagram above illustrates the comparison. So coffee in Cairo would seem a good idea!