The UK’s Foreign Exchange Reserves and the value of Sterling

Last week was the worst for the pound for a year as holders of sterling sold it following the collapse of the talks between the Conservatives and Labour on how to proceed with Brexit.  On the foreign exchange markets, the price of a currency is determined by supply and demand and, if holders of sterling wish to sell it to buy euros or dollars, then the supply of sterling increases and the price falls. Simultaneously, given the state of political uncertainty, demand for sterling on the foreign exchange market fell, further weakening the value of the pound against other currencies. As a result, sterling dropped to $1.27, losing 1.85% of its value during the week.

Most forex transactions are made using the U.S. dollar, euro, pound and Japanese yen; although one might think that currency is mainly traded on the FOREX market to buy foreign goods and services, this is not the case. On average $5.5 trillion is traded each day but less than 5% of this is to buy goods and services. The majority is to purchase financial assets (e.g. foreign shares and government bonds and to place money into an overseas bank account) or to speculate about the likely movements of currencies to make a profit. Therefore, confidence in an economy is crucial in determining its value.

The UK’s reserves of foreign currency, currently standing at $137bn, are used by the Bank of England to protect the value of the pound on the foreign exchange market. The reserves, at their highest level for at least 21 years, are held mainly in US dollars and can be used to buy pounds on the foreign exchange market, thus increasing the demand for pounds and hence increasing the price, or rate of exchange of the pound against other countries.

According to the IMF, they grew 19% in the last quarter of 2018 because the government wanted to have them available in case they were needed after the originally-planned Brexit date. However if one compares the value of our reserves against the £420 billion of sterling traded daily by UK financial institutions one can see that, while the UK authorities might be able to nudge the value of sterling and slow down its fall, we do not have the resources to withstand a major fall in its value unless the government decides to borrow heavily overseas from foreign governments, banks and the IMF.

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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.

A Brexit Update

It is now 23 days to Xmas and 117 days to Brexit on 29th March 2019. While one of these events is certain, the other is less so and this post looks at the Brexit picture in the run-up to the vote in Parliament on 11th December.

What happens in the vote is crucial. One possibility is that Mrs May wins but this is looking increasingly unlikely since there are two key groups likely to vote against her. Firstly, there are those seeking a “Hard Brexit”, such as the members of the European Research Group, on the right wing of the Conservative Party who are not happy with the way the deal ties us to Europe. On the other side are those who would wish to remain in the EU or seek the softest possible Brexit deal and might oppose it, hoping it will open up the possibility of a second referendum. If the government does lose the vote much will depend on the scale of the loss. It is possible that after falls in the value of sterling and of UK shares as markets take fright and, maybe, some small adjustments in the terms of the UK’s departure arrangements, (said by the EU not to be on offer), that there is a second vote and the government’s deal is accepted.

Alternatively, it could be that there is no majority for the current deal and this leads to Parliament opting for either a “People’s vote”, the UK leaving with no deal, a general election or the current or a new prime minister seeking a new agreement during an extended transition period. A “People’s vote” has difficulties – it is likely to take at least five months to organise and there will be significant disagreement over the question or questions to be asked. Is the choice between the current offer and no deal or should we include the possibility of remaining? Finally, what might the effect of a second referendum voting to remain be on those who voted to leave previously who were told that the 2016 vote was a “once in a generation” decision.

A no deal Brexit, whether adopted deliberately or drifted into is another possibility. The view of the KPMG Head of Brexit is that the government is not prepared for this and, while some sectors, such financial services, pharmaceuticals and the motor industry are ready for this, many others, particularly those dominated by SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are not. A key area which the government will have to address is the transport of goods into and out of the UK. At present 17% of UK trade and 1/3 of our trade with the EU in goods uses the port of Dover. It is the shortest crossing, making it the cheapest and fastest way to import and export to nearby countries, particularly important for perishable products and those companies adopting ‘just in time’ production methods. It has been estimated that a 2 minute delay at the Dover ferry and Eurostar terminals would cause a 20 mile tailback on the motorways into Dover.  This would arise because lorries which are currently able to enter and exit at Dover do not face checks because of our membership of the single market which, among other freedoms, allows the free movement of goods. The government has suggested that other ports might take part of the traffic but, not only would this result in longer and therefore more expensive crossings, pushing up prices, other ports lack the necessary infrastructure for customs checks and do not have the capacity, and possibly not even the space, to expand in the short term.

While we can be certain, or fairly certain, that the impact of a ‘no deal’ would be mitigated by the government for essential industries such as water and pharmaceuticals, those which are less essential will suffer. Newspapers are already reporting stories of firms building up stocks of components and finished products; for example, a major pharmaceuticals company is planning to build up 6 months stocks of products and raw materials on both sides of the Channel and even Fortnum & Mason, the luxury Piccadilly grocer, has built up an extra two months’ supply of champagne! However, such actions are costly for firms and impossible for some which might lack the space or cash to build up stocks. Another area of concern is our import of fresh food. At present the ratio of fresh: frozen food imports is 9:1 and a result of ‘no deal’ might be to increase the proportion of frozen food imports. Although this seems relatively straight-forward, it would require an increase in refrigeration capacity, not currently available.

No deal will mean that tariffs are placed on UK goods entering the EU so, for example, the 54% of UK car exports which go to the EU would face a 10% tariff, making them less attractive to EU consumers, and thereby reducing sales and employment in the car industry and possibly even encouraging firms, particularly foreign ones, to relocate from the UK to the EU to avoid the tariffs. At a recent FT conference on Brexit, the Senior Vice President of Honda Europe suggested that, as well as tariff barriers,  non-tariff barriers, such as the need for physical inspections of  vehicles being exported and components being imported at customs, would be equally important for the company, which operates a ½ day Just In Time production model with components being delivered straight to the production line. The Economist recently reported on the BMW Mini plant in Oxford where 200 lorries deliver 4 million parts to the factory EACH DAY. Therefore, border delays of even a few hours  might impact significantly on their ability to produce smoothly. Because of the threat of a hard border, some UK chemical and pharmaceutical firms are considering opening a second testing facility in the EU so that its products can be sold there without difficulty. Such adjustments are costly and will be passed on to consumers in due course.

Supporters of a no deal see our departure from the EU as a matter of moving from EU to WTO rules on trade, reinforced by our ability to sign free trade deals with many countries. (It is worth noting that we have not yet been able to negotiate independently all the deals that we, as members of the EU, had with 3rd countries). However the CBI point out that this would mean both taxes on our exports and us levying taxes on imports from the EU. Also important will be such things as checks on food products which will be introduced on our exports. Another concern is that the WTO focuses more on trade in goods than in services, which has explained why a number of financial institutions are establishing bases in the EU. Interestingly, the FT conference referred to above was partially sponsored by Paris and Luxembourg, both using the opportunity to promote themselves as attractive places to set up. We do not know the effect which ‘no deal’ would have on sterling, with some talking of it even dropping to parity with the dollar, as holders of short-term sterling assets sell them. Bearing in mind that a 10% fall in sterling causes an increase in inflation of 2%, the effect of such a steep fall would lead to significant falls in real incomes. We also do not know whether the Bank of England would increase interest rates in order to protect sterling or cut them to boost GDP if a recession loomed (and the scope for the latter is seriously limited by their current low levels).

Even the impact of Mrs May’s deal, which involves maintaining the single market in goods but not services, is not totally clear since although the documentation on the UK’s departure is extensive, it is not clear exactly what will happen for the UK when the transition period ends in December 2020, since there is still much to be decided, hence, for example, the need for a backstop to prevent a physical border between Northern Ireland and Eire if a trade deal is not signed.

In the last two weeks, a number of estimates have been published. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research, a well-established think tank, suggests that Mrs May’s deal will leave the UK’s GDP per head 3% smaller by 2030 than if we had remained in the UK. Another think tank, ‘The UK in a changing Europe’, published research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, LSE and King’s College, suggesting GDP per head would be between 1.9% and 5.5% smaller by 2030, depending upon what happens to productivity. The Bank of England and the Treasury have also published forecasts. The latter looks at the impact on the UK economy in 2035, 15 years from the end of the transition period (a longer period than the previous two forecasts) and suggests that, under a no deal scenario, GDP might drop by 10.7% while under Mrs May’s deal, the fall would only be between 0.2% and 1.4%.

A different option which is being proposed by Nick Boles MP is called ‘Norway for Now’  or ‘Norway Plus’. This involves the UK negotiating to join the European Free Trade Association (where we have free trade with the member countries but, unlike a customs union, there is no common external tariff). We would also negotiate a customs deal with the EU. This would allow unrestricted access to the EU market but would allow the UK to escape the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, be outside the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies and pay less to the EU than at present. However EU immigration would not be restrictable unless there were significant problems and we would not be able to sign trade deals with other countries outside EFTA and the EU.

All that is clear at the moment is that nothing is clear! Hopefully, after 11th December, we might know a little more but even that is doubtful.

Is the next financial crisis round the corner?

It is now 10 years since the financial crisis and concern is beginning to be expressed that we could be heading for another in the near future. If it does occur, how well-placed is the UK to withstand it?

The IMF recently examined the finances of 32 countries, comparing what governments owe, e.g. pension liabilities and national debt, with what they own, e.g. land, buildings and natural resources, and concluded that, by this measure, the UK has a net liability of more than £2 trillion – over 100% of GDP. This is not the usual way of looking at a government’s indebtedness, which compares government debt to GDP, but, for example, it does highlight the difference between Norway and the UK in terms of making use of the revenues received from North Sea oil. Norway used them to build up a large stock of financial assets, currently worth over $1 trillion, or almost $200,000 per person which has generated income, while the UK used its North Sea oil revenue for current consumption and tax cuts.

Just as the IMF was undertaking its analysis, the Financial Policy Committee of the Bank of England warned of excessive world-wide lending by banks to businesses and the danger that banks are relaxing their lending standards, particularly in the US, and compared the current situation to the approach to the 2008 crisis. However, a big difference between now and 10 years ago is that commercial banks’ capital reserve rations have increased, and they are now more closely monitored with regular stress tests which examine the way different scenarios, such as rising inflation or unemployment, will affect banks’ ability to withstand shocks. The results of UK stress tests will be published in December.

Worryingly, it is not only business borrowing which is an issue. UK household debt has also increased dramatically. The ONS suggests, not surprisingly, that it is the poorest families who are most in debt. Their analysis showed that, in the 2016/17 financial year, the lowest 10% of households spent two and a half times their disposable income   while the richest 10% spent less than half of their disposable income.

A National Audit Office report in September suggested that average UK household debt (including mortgages) was £58,540 in June, and, overall, people owed nearly £1.6 trillion at the end of June 2018, up from £1.55 trillion a year ago. British households are now among the most indebted in major western countries, with credit card debt and payday loans climbing to record highs. Another source of debt which is potentially worrying is car finance where PCPs (personal credit plans), which allow one to buy a new car with a very small deposit but pay for it over three to four years, are becoming popular.

A key question which worries the Bank of England is what will happen to debt if interest rates continue to rise. Will zombie businesses and poorer households be able to afford higher interest payments or will they, like the sub-prime mortgage borrowers of the last decade, end up defaulting on their loans? On the positive side, wages are growing at their fastest rate since the financial crisis, up 3.2% in the three months to September, but faster wage growth, indicating that the labour market is finally tightening  in response to record low levels of unemployment, might encourage the Bank of England to raise interest rates sooner than they otherwise would have done, possibly hastening a crisis.

The Population Crisis

According to popular legend, the science of economics was christened “the dismal science” by Thomas Carlyle following the publication by Thomas Malthus in 1798 of “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. In this he suggested that poverty and hunger would be a country’s natural state since increases in population would tend to outstrip increases in food supply. Fortunately he was proved wrong as birth rates fell and new techniques increased the supply of food and the science of economics moved on.

We are currently focused on short-term issues such as Brexit but it is worth taking a longer perspective following the publication of a report in ‘The Lancet’ which has highlighted falling fertility rates across the world between 1950 and 2017. The reasons behind the fall include better education and employment prospects for women, improved access to contraception, better maternal education for mothers and prospective mothers and improvements in infant mortality. As a result, 91 out of 195 countries have been identified as having a fertility rate below 2.05 – the minimum necessary for stable population growth. For example, in Britain over the period, the fertility rate fell from 2.2 to 1.7.

The implications of falling fertility rates in richer countries, partially masked by inward immigration, focus on the conflict between increased life expectancy, creating an increased number of elderly pensioners receiving benefits and increasingly needing expensive medical care, and a falling supply of workers who are paying taxes to support the elderly. These workers will therefore face a greater burden in terms of the taxes they will need to pay to support the elderly.

This is already significant in Japan where 28% of the population are over 65, the highest proportion in the world, compared with 18% in the UK and 22% in Germany. One offsetting feature in Japan is that people often work on beyond their retirement age – 3% of their labour force is over 80! Although it is not suggested that working until 80 becomes the norm, the retirement age in many countries is being increased as a result of increased life expectancy and, in the UK, it will reach 66 by October 2020 and 67 by 2028 for both men and women. This will reduce pension payments and increase tax revenue but, alone, is unlikely to be enough to prevent developed countries facing increasing budget deficits to finance care and benefits for the elderly.

As this crisis unfolds, the people who will suffer most are not the elderly but younger generations who will not only be working longer and paying higher taxes but will face student debt and higher house prices than experienced by their grandparents

How are we doing?

Those of you who are Manchester United fans will have been pleased by their comeback against Newcastle over the weekend. However, in the excitement, you might have missed the news that former United star, David Beckham, and his wife Victoria have sold their Beverley Hills house (or mansion) which has six bedrooms and nine bathrooms, for $33million. They bought it eleven years ago for $22milion. At the other end of the scale, you might also have missed the report from the Social Metrics Commission, (SMC) putting forward a new measure of poverty for the UK.

Measuring the number of people in poverty is difficult. Some countries, such as the USA, focus on absolute poverty where an income is identified as the minimum needed to meet a family’s basic needs and those below it are deemed to be in poverty. A variant of this approach involves estimating a minimum standard above which people should live. An alternative, which has become the benchmark for the UK, is to focus on relative poverty (i.e. compared to other people) and consider those in poverty as living in households with incomes below 60% of the median.  However this is not straight-forward since there are two different ways of considering income (before and after housing costs are deducted) and the measure excludes assets people possess.

The SMC focusses strictly on measuring poverty, which, for them, is not having the resources available to meet current needs to be able to “engage adequately in a life regarded as the “norm” in society.”

To assess the number in poverty they consider the resources available to households, namely net income (net earnings from employment and self-employment, benefits and unearned net income (e.g. from rent or interest). They also include assets, such as savings which can be easily accessed and subtract any costs that the family must pay. These costs include debt repayment, housing costs (rent or mortgage payments), service charges in flats, building insurance, council tax, water rates, the community charge, childcare costs and additional costs faced by the disabled. Subtracting these costs gives an estimate of the resources available to a household. The next stage was to estimate the required level of resources needed to meet their benchmark and then set a poverty line at a threshold of 55% of the three-year median resources available measure.

Using this approach, their key findings, using 2016/17 data, were that:

  • 22% of the population (14.2 million) is living in a family considered to be in poverty. However 52% of people in lone-parent families (2.6 million) are in poverty.
  • Of those in poverty, 8.4 million are working-age adults; 4.5 million are children and 1.4 million are pension age adults.
  • The poverty rate for working-age adults is 21.6%; for children it is 32.6%; and for pension-age adults it is 11.4%. For pensioners, the rate has fallen from 20.8% in 2001 to 11.4% in 2017.
  • The majority (68.0%) of people living in workless families are in poverty, compared to 9.0% for people living in families where all adults work full time.
  • Those in poverty are not equally distributed across the country. Poverty rates in Scotland are lower and Welsh poverty rates are higher than in other UK countries. England has the highest child poverty rate and the overall poverty rate in London is more than 10% higher than in some other English regions.
  • The report also found that the number of people (2.5 million) above the threshold by 10% or less is almost identical to the number of people (2.7 million) below the threshold by 10% or less, suggesting that small changes in circumstances can either take people out of or put them into poverty. However 2/3 of those in poverty (12% of the total population) have been in persistent poverty, (being in poverty for two out of the last three years), suggesting that although they might be close to the benchmark, it is not easy to escape from poverty.

The SMC findings raise questions about the benefit system and how we deal with poverty.

Are we happy that over half of single parent families are in poverty?

Are we happy that 2/3 of those in families where no one is working are in poverty?

Are we happy that twice as many working age adults and three times as many children are classed as living in poverty compared to the percentage of pensioners in poverty?

The impact of technology – The Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Amazon has opened a shop in Seattle with no checkouts and customers who do not pay on leaving. Instead, with the appropriate app to link the shopping to an Amazon account, all that is needed is to go round the store, put items in a bag and scanners and sensors do the rest. After leaving the store, payment is debited from your account. There are no queues and no cashiers.  So successful has it proved that more have been opened. It already has three in Seattle and one in Chicago and plans ten by the end of 2018, 50 by the end of 2019 and, according to some press reports, 3,000 such shops within three years.

Electric cars have also been in the news over the summer, with a focus on how they will reduce the environmental damage from driving. What has been less well-publicised is their possible impact on the demand for workers in the factories of the future. Electric cars are easier to manufacture than current ones because their mechanism has fewer moving parts than the internal combustion engine. This means both that fewer workers will be needed and those on the manufacturing process will be less skilled, making it easier to outsource manufacture to other countries. However new technology in the motor industry could, potentially, have an even greater impact with the arrival of driverless vehicles. Uber is already looking into driverless taxis and black cab and white van drivers could become a distant memory in the same way that stokers on railways are no longer with us and blacksmiths are a rarity.

A robot is being developed, based on technology used in the NASA Rover to explore Mars, which will drive itself round battery chicken sheds, measuring the chickens by sight and checking their temperatures. This machine is likely to be popular if farmers face a shortage of labour after Brexit since they will replace human workers.

There is considerable dispute over the numbers and what the future will look like. Some suggest traditional, full-time jobs will decline and there will be an increase in remote working but overall, there will  be little impact on the number of jobs. Others argue that the impact will be positive, with new technology creating more jobs than are lost. They suggest there will be a much greater need for workers to develop, build and maintain the new technology and there will be some areas such as the care industry (growing because of an ageing population) where more human workers are likely to be needed to care for patients. McKinsey, a worldwide consultancy form,  recently predicted that robots will have the same impact on the global economy as the development of the steam engine, adding 1.2%pa to global growth by 2030.

A report by the World Economic Forum (The Future of Jobs, 2018), one of the more optimistic forecasters, has suggested that 42% of the world’s jobs will be done by machines by 2022, up from 29% today. It also estimates that although 75 million jobs will be lost by 2022, 133 million new jobs will be generated, resulting in an additional 58 million jobs. They see losses in administration, clerical, manufacturing, construction, legal, and maintenance sectors but increased demand for those in data analysis, management, computing, architecture, engineering, sales, education and training. Different numbers come from PWC, a worldwide firm of accountants, who predicted in July that about 7 million jobs will be lost by 2020 because of technology but 7.2 million will be created. They see losses in manufacturing, transport and public administration while the increases will occur in healthcare, science and technology and education.

Others are less optimistic. During the summer, Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, made the news by predicting that the impact of artificial intelligence could be more disruptive than previous industrial revolutions and would lead to widespread job losses. He argued that previously machines had replaced labour doing manual tasks whereas increasingly machines, because of developments in AI, are undertaking tasks previously thought to be beyond them. Mr Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, suggested that the latest industrial revolution would threaten 10% of jobs in the UK and, while some workers would benefit from being more productive and earning higher wages, others, losing their jobs,  would not easily be able to find employment providing a reasonable standard of living and would need to be able to access education and re-training throughout their lives.

However the big issue will be that the people filling the new jobs are unlikely to be those losing the old ones. How society copes with this will be a major issue for the future.