A Confusing Tale of Two Economies (with apologies to Charles Dickens).

What is going on in the UK economy is currently hard to understand. Are we doing well or badly? There are many conflicting pieces of evidence and, in some ways, it is like an abstract painting – different people can look at it and see different pictures.

Consider the labour market – in the last three months of 2018, employment rate reached 76.1%, or 32.71 million, the highest since 1971, rising by 220,000 workers, of which 144,000 were female. Over the same period, unemployment fell to 1.34 million or 3.9%, the first time it has dropped below 4% since 1975. While some people see this as a positive sign of economic progress, others present three reasons why the data actually shows an economic problem for the UK.

Firstly, there is a view that the rise in employment is because of an increase in zero hours contracts, with workers working far less than they would like, suggesting that we have rising under-employment instead of unemployment. Secondly some suggest, similarly, that self-employment has been responsible for some of the fall in unemployment, with many of the newly-self-employed working less than they would like. Finally, others argue that the reason for falling unemployment is that employers have cut back on investment, preferring to meet additional demand by hiring more workers, knowing that they can get rid of them if the economy stagnates after Brexit. This last explanation dovetails well with the UK’s poor productivity record, with productivity actually falling by 0.2% in the last quarter of 2018.

Turning now to earnings and inflation; with unemployment so low, we would expect both earnings and inflation to be rising rapidly. In fact, last month, average earnings growth fell from 3.5% to 3.4% and the CPI only increased from 1.8% to 1.9%, due to prices for some food and alcoholic drink items increasing more in price this year than they did a year ago, and core inflation (which ignores the price of food and energy because they are highly volatile) fell by 0.1% to 1.8% in February. Nevertheless, some economists regard this as only a temporary respite, suggesting inflation will rise to 2.5% in the next few months because of higher oil prices and rising wages, with a further jump possible if tariffs rise after Brexit (whenever that is!).

Turning now to GDP, it grew by 0.2% in the three months to January 2019 with the service sector expanding while manufacturing and construction contracted. This meant that growth for 2018, was only 1.4%, the slowest rate for 10 years. Also suggesting that the outlook is poor was a survey of consumer confidence showing that it had fallen over the last year and data showing that we currently have the lowest annual house price growth in the UK for six years. However, government borrowing is at a 17 year low because of rising tax receipts – £200m in February 2019 compared to £1.2bn in February, 2018, meaning that the government is on course to meet its target for structural borrowing to be below 2% of GDP in the financial year 2020/21. Further confusing evidence of our economic situation is provided by the latest UN Annual Happiness Report, which shows the UK has risen from 19th  to 15th out of 156 countries surveyed, with Finland, once again at the top of the table, followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands.

It is not surprising that economists find it hard to assess how the economy is doing since some of the indicators discussed above reflect what has happened in the past, rather than what is currently happening. (Imagine steering a car by only looking in the rear-view mirror). Unemployment, for example, shows the state of the economy six months to a year ago since firms do not immediately hire or fire workers when their orders change. Other indicators, such as GDP are subject to frequent revisions as more accurate data becomes available. Therefore some economists prefer more informal guides to the economy. David Smith, Economics Editor of The Sunday Times, uses the number of skips in his road, since more skips suggest more building and home improvements and therefore greater economic activity.  In an attempt to improve our awareness of the current state of the economy, the ONS is introducing new economic indicators such as the volume of road traffic and businesses’ value-added tax returns which will, hopefully, provide a more up-to-date picture of the economy.

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Shopping not going too well for Sainsbury’s and Asda.

A typical UK family spends approximately 10% on food, with the figure being 4% higher for low income families. Therefore, what happens in the grocery industry is of significance to all consumers in the UK.

The proposed merger of Sainsbury’s and Asda would, if no changes are made in their operation, create a business which has 29% of the grocery market (Sainsbury’s 15% and Asda 14%), employ 343,000 workers (Sainsbury’s 187,000 and Asda 156,000), have 2,104 stores (Sainsbury’s 1,428, Asda 676) and revenue of £50.7bn (Sainsbury’s £28.5bn, Asda £22.2bn). The new business, which joins Britain’s second and third largest supermarkets together, would push Tesco out of first place

The arguments in favour of the merger focus on the economies of scale which the new firm would gain, such as bulk buying and marketing economies. It would allow it to build a stronger on-line presence and counter the competition from the discounters Aldi and Lidl and also from the entry of Amazon into the grocery market. According to the Chief Executive of Sainbury’s, consumers would benefit from price cuts of 10% on “everyday products”.

Elsewhere, there were concerns that the merger would reduce competition. The CMA has identified 694 areas of the country where it would fall because both Sainsbury’s and Asda have stores (either supermarkets or convenience stores) which currently compete. However, Sainsbury’s and Asda argue that the physical presence of stores is increasingly unimportant as more shopping is done on-line. Consumer groups and trade unions fear that the merger would effectively create a duopoly among the supermarkets (Tesco and Sainsbury’s/Asda) which would allow pressure to be placed on suppliers to lower prices, would involve redundancies as the new firm closed stores and sacked staff and lead to lower quality and higher prices.

Although their final report is not due until April, the Competition and Market Authority announced last month that the proposed merger  was likely to be against the public interest, leading to higher prices and a reduction in the range and quality of products. They have the power to block the deal or, if they allow it, to ensure that the two companies sell off a number of stores and allow another company to buy either the Sainsbury’s or Asda brand.

Do we have a housing crisis?

Last week it was announced that an American businessman had bought a house in St James’s Park, near Buckingham Palace, for £95 million. As you might expect, the house has a pool, gym, staff quarters and private gardens. At the other end of the scale, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently reported that 40% of 25 – 34 year olds are not able to afford a 10% deposit to buy the cheapest house in their neighbourhood. In London, approximately twenty years ago, 90% would be able to afford the deposit whereas today only 33% can afford the deposit. Because of the difficulty faced by people getting on to the housing crisis, newspapers have been talking about a housing crisis for some time.

A sign of the housing crisis is the high price of housing, signifying either excess demand or restricted supply. Focusing first on the demand for housing, for many years buying a house was an ideal way of building up wealth for potential homeowners, thus increasing the demand for housing. Not only did borrowers previously receive tax remission for mortgage payments, the price of houses increased more or less continuously and so one could borrow, knowing that when the mortgage was repaid, the increase in the value of the house would more than have covered the cost of the mortgage. More recently the Government introduced the ‘Help to Buy Scheme’ in 2013, (now extended to 2023) which lends, interest fee, up to 20% of the cost of a new build home (40% in London) to borrowers who have been able to raise a 5% deposit, meaning they only need a mortgage for 75% of the value. It has helped to finance the construction of 170,000 homes of which 140,000 have been purchased by first-time buyers. But it has been expensive, costing taxpayers nearly £8 billion since 2013, and providing considerable profits for house builders as demand increased more than supply, thereby pushing up prices. Another criticism has been that the scheme has not helped the low-paid since they have not taken as much advantage of the scheme as those with higher incomes. In addition, we are seeing that buyers of homes using the scheme who now wish to sell, have found that their property has fallen in value since future buyers are not eligible for the help to buy assistance. There have also been a number of suggestions to boost supply. These include allowing more building on green belt land and introducing measures (not yet introduced) to help older buyers down-size and therefore free up larger homes.

Why are we so concerned about declines in house building and house purchases? Apart from the social and political issues which result from people not being able to afford to buy their own house, having to pay excessive rents or sleeping on the streets, there are significant economic implications of a failing housing market. Firstly, if  building slows, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, etc, lose their jobs and firms making bricks, providing carpets, furniture, ovens, fridges, etc, also experience a decline for their products and services and subsequently cut back on labour. As a result, incomes fall and, given the multiplier effect, the impact on the economy will be significant. It is worth noting that the multiplier effect will be large since so much of the expenditure involved in housing is domestic – i.e. there is relatively little leaked out of the economy in the form of imports.

Another way in which the housing market affects the economy is that a poorly-functioning housing market, causing high prices in booming areas, makes it difficult for firms to expand their labour force because workers cannot afford to move into the area. A final issue occurs via the wealth effect – the idea that households’ consumption is determined not only by their income but also by their wealth. For most people, their house is the main source of their wealth. Therefore, a booming housing market makes existing homeowners feel richer and they therefore spend more, believing that they have less need to save since their increasingly valuable house is adding to the value of their assets. Since the financial crisis, the housing market declined. When house prices dropped, people felt poorer and therefore felt the need to save more. This reduced consumption at a time when aggregate demand was already falling, thereby exacerbating the problems faced by the economy.

However, recently, after ten years of decline, the number of mortgages issued has increased and there was the highest number of first time buyers last year for 12 years, according to the government’s annual English Housing Survey, published in January. The increase was linked to the Help to Buy scheme, loans from parents and grandparents and a relaxation in the mortgage market. However we have also seen the slowest growth in house prices for six years, possibly down to Brexit uncertainty and last year receipts from stamp duty (a tax on house purchases) fell, largely because of the slowdown hitting the top end of the market.

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.

Government proposes energy drinks ban for children – BBC News

High levels of sugar and caffeine have been linked to obesity and other health issues.

Source: Government proposes energy drinks ban for children – BBC News

Energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine and sugar. A can of Monster, for example, includes 160mg of caffeine and 55g of sugar. Such high levels can create physical and mental health problems for consumers, these are known as ‘private costs’. However, excessive levels can also create spillover costs for third parties, for example, lower productivity at work or increased pressure on the NHS. These costs are known as external costs or ‘negative externalities’. The problem is that the market tends to ignore these costs resulting in an inefficient allocation of resources. In order to reduce consumption, the government has a series of options. Recently we have seen the introduction of a sugar tax, which should increases firms costs and lead to higher prices. However, the government has decided they need to take more direct action on energy drinks by using an alternative means of intervention, regulation. Approximately 68% of buyers of energy drinks in the EU are aged 10-18, so the UK ban is likely to have a significant effect on firms revenues and profits. One issue for the government is that, unlike a tax, which raises revenue, regulation needs enforcement, which creates administrative costs. There is also an alternative view, that consumers should be free to make their own choices. However, that, in my view, is a difficult case to make when you think about the relentless efforts of the marketing departments at Red Bull et al and the fact that so many of the buyers are children.

Pesticide found to harm bees faces ban across EU

The European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) has concluded that neonicotinoids harm bees to the extent that an outright ban could be imposed. Clearly, we can conclude that the external costs of production, neonicotinoid is an insecticide used in farming, are so high that the socially optimal level of output is zero. Bees are important “as they pollinate three-quarters of all crops”. In recent years their numbers have plummeted and studies suggest that neonicotinoids are a significant cause. Expect any regulation or ban to increase costs to EU farmers. It will be interesting to see if the UK will adopt such measures, post-Brexit. If not, it could mean that British farmers see tariffs levied on any exports to the EU. I suspect, under current Environment Minister, Michael Gove, the UK will look to follow Efsa guidance.

Read the original Guardian article here.