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

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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.

Brexit – considering some of the issues.

UK politics is in a state of turmoil. There are Tory MPs making public pronouncements about possible budget measures the Chancellor might include in his budget, the DUP are threatening to vote against the budget – something which commentators say might bring about the end of Theresa May’s premiership – and at the moment, less than six months before we leave the EU,  it is extremely difficult to predict whether a Brexit deal will be agreed between the UK and the EU, then ratified by Parliament and whether there might be a second referendum or even another election. Significant elements of our post-Brexit existence – namely the Northern Ireland border issue, the nature of any agreement with the EU on trade in goods and services and the movement of labour between the UK and the EU are yet to be agreed.

The possibility of a “No Deal” Brexit is still with us. This would mean that goods and services exported from the UK to the EU would have the same tariffs as those coming in to the EU from any country with which the EU does not have a trade deal  under what are referred to as “WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules”. It is also not clear whether we would be able to persuade countries which currently have trade deals with the EU to create identical deals for us once we leave. Although EU tariffs average 4%, our food exports to the EU would face a 15% tariff and our car exports (70% of our car exports go to the EU) would face a 10% tariff. Equally worrying to many producers are the non-tariff barriers such as customs checks which they would face. At present, because we are in the Single Market which gives free movement of goods, services, labour and capital, goods produced in the UK can be sold in the EU without needing to meet any additional safety checks or face customs delays at the border. UK financial service companies can offer their services across the EU and they would lose their ability to do this from London, hence a number are setting up offices in the EU. Many manufacturers now operate “just-in-time” methods of production where components and raw materials are delivered very shortly before they are needed, therefore avoiding the necessity of having money tied up in holding stocks and having to build large warehouses. There has been talk of how, with a hard Brexit, (i.e. no free trade agreement) small delays at customs posts could cause havoc for manufacturers. The head of Jaguar Land Rover talked of how they produce 3,000 cars using 25 million parts a day and how even a small delay would cause havoc and BMW has announced that, in the event of no deal, it will move production of the Mini and new electric Mini to the Netherlands

The Northern Ireland issue is tricky because of the way it goes beyond economics and into the religious and political history of the island. Without some sort of border between the EU and the UK, it would be possible for goods to flow into Northern Ireland and then cross into Eire without paying tariffs. Therefore, unless we have a free trade agreement with the EU, there must be a customs border between ourselves and the EU. For England, Scotland and Wales, this will be a sea border and existing customs facilities at ports and airports will deal (possibly with difficulty) with incoming and outgoing trade as they do at present for trade with non-EU countries. However Northern Ireland and Eire would either require a land border or an agreement which essentially keeps Northern Ireland in the EU for the purposes of trade and creates an imaginary border between Northern Ireland and the mainland – i.e.  separating Northern Ireland from the mainland, something the Government has pledged not to do. Because of the troubled history of Northern Ireland, a hard border (with customs posts, customs officers and possibly police) is not likely to be politically acceptable. It is also difficult in practice because there are many small roads between the two countries which would be impossible to police. Some politicians have suggested that technology might be able to solve the problem, somehow tracking the goods between Eire and the UK and ensuring that the correct duty is levied and paid to the EU. However, the UK’s record on introducing complex IT systems is not good and it is unclear whether this would be ready by the end of the transitional period before we totally leave the EU.

On the positive side, it is possible that, before you read this,  a deal might have been agreed but …………

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?

UK Consumer Spending

Consumer spending is a major component of GDP and, to assist in its analysis, the Office for National Statistics has just produced an analysis of spending within regions across the UK. The data was collected using two surveys –  the Living Costs and Food Survey (also used as the basis of the Consumer Price Index) and the Annual Business Survey which records sales of businesses. The former looks at 5,000 households (not a particularly large number when broken down into regions) which are interviewed and keep a diary of their expenditure for a two-week period; the latter records retail sales of 80,000 businesses, so provides a larger sample, but suffers in accuracy because some sales go to businesses, not consumers.

The data is broken down into twelve categories which are in turn subdivided into narrower classifications. The twelve categories are food and soft drinks, alcohol and tobacco (and narcotics), clothing and footwear, household goods and services, housing, health, transport, communications, recreation and culture, education, restaurants and hotels, and a miscellaneous category covering items not included in previous sections. The data is also split down into nine English regions, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The average spending per person in 2016 in the UK was £18,787 and, not surprisingly because of high incomes and high housing costs, London had the highest national expenditure (£24,545), while the lowest spending was in the West Midlands (£15,276) and Wales (£15,965). The region with the highest growth between 2015 and 2016 was the North East (8.1%) while the lowest growth was in Northern Ireland (- 0.4%), the only area to see a fall in spending per person in this period.

The survey also provided information about the levels of savings across the country with an average savings ratio (savings out of disposable income) of 6.9%. The ratio was highest in London (14.5%) while the lowest levels occurred in the South West, (1.5%).

The ONS looked at the breakdown of spending between the different categories. London stood out, with 42% of spending going on housing, compared to the UK average of 27%. As a result, it spent proportionately less in the other categories. Excluding London, there is relatively little variation between the regions although, proportionately, spending on tobacco in Northern Ireland is high, spending on food and clothing in Yorkshire is lower than in other regions and spending on recreation and culture in London is the lowest of all areas. The UK averages were: Food 10%, Alcohol and tobacco 4%; Clothing and footwear 5%; Housing 27%; Household goods and services 5%; Health 2%; Transport 13%; Communications 2%; Recreation and culture 10%; Education 1%; Restaurants and hotels 10%; Miscellaneous 13%.

Since 2014, among the sub-categories are drugs and prostitution and their inclusion has added about £10billion to the UK’s GDP. However, because these activities are traded in the shadow or hidden economy and the suppliers do not disclose their earnings to the tax authorities, the ONS has warned that the accuracy of these two categories is low. Nevertheless, it was still able to suggest that more is spent on prostitution than on gardening and DIY activities.

The Causes of the Financial Crisis

INTRODUCTION: In a recent editorial (September 8th), the Economist suggested that  the financial crisis of September 2008 will be regarded as one of the defining  events of the early 21st century, alongside 9/11.Hence the importance of knowing  what caused it ten years ago and preventing another similar crisis

For most people, the story  started in August, 2007, when BNP Paribas, a major French bank, stopped customers withdrawing money from three sub-prime, largely US-based mortgage investment funds. (Sub-prime mortgages are those to less financially secure borrowers). By doing this, BNP Paribus was implying that money invested in these funds might not be repaid. Banks rely on borrowing from other banks via the inter-bank market. The BNP action cast doubt on the stability of the banking system and made banks less willing to lend in this market, causing increased interest rates and a lack of liquidity, despite central banks trying to offset this. As the inter-bank market froze, more financial institutions such as TSB, Bradford and Bingley, Lloyds, Alliance & Leicester and HBOS, found themselves in difficulties and confidence among banks fell further. A month later the reality of the crisis reached British high streets when Northern Rock suffered a “bank run” –  the first in the UK for 141 years – after doubts were cast on the BBC over its solvency. It had invested heavily in the sub-prime market and the value of its assets fell as house prices fell in the USA. Then, ten years ago on 15th September, 2008, Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank in the US collapsed and the world entered the worst financial crisis for decades.

THE CAUSES:

FUNDS SEEKING A HIGH RETURN – An early cause  can be traced back to  the late 1990s when vast quantities of money from Asian countries with large balance of payments surpluses were invested in the USA and Europe, seeking high returns. This increased the supply of money, reduced interest rates and  discouraged saving. It also encouraged banks and other financial institutions to look for areas with a high rate of return, particularly in the booming housing market and to lend to mortgage borrowers. This caused large increases in house and share prices and helped create the asset price bubble which preceded the crisis.

THE RISE OF NEW FINANCIAL PRODUCTS – As the quantity of loans increased, there was a huge expansion of new financial products particularly CDOs (collaterised debt obligations), which were intended to spread risk but ultimately made it worse. They work as follows: imagine a bank makes five loans of $200,000 each to housebuyers at 5%, guaranteed by the value of the houses. It finances this by bundling them together into a bond (called a CDO) and selling it for $1m (5 x $200,000), paying 3%, thus making a profit, and uses the money to lend again. This process is securitisation – transforming a stream of cash payments into an asset.  To understand the concept, think of a butcher taking different types of meat (mortgages), mincing them all together and making sausages (CDOs) from the mixture. In theory, the CDO was safer than individual loans since, if a bank made one loan and it failed, it lost all the money but, with a CDO, where it had a slice of many loans bundled together, one individual loan failing was relatively insignificant. The CDOs were involved in long chains – banks might buy CDOs, then re-bundle them into new CDOs and sell them to other financial institutions who sold them again with borrowed money (sometimes from the original institution) financing many of these transactions, like the butcher then taking the sausages and mixing them together to make different sausages from the mixture.

SUB-PRIME MORTGAGES – A significant component  of the CDOs were sub-prime mortgages  which had increased during the early 2000s since they provided a higher return. Although offered to low-income households, they were regarded as a safe investment since housing markets were booming and if the borrower defaulted, the lender would re-possess the property and sell it at a profit. There was a failure of ratings agencies to properly assess the risk of these new financial products in the USA, which were highly-rated, because they focussed on the credit risk (the risks arising from non-payment) rather than the liquidity risk (the risk of not being able to sell the CDO).  This was combined with a lack of awareness by government regulators of the possibility of a financial crisis since they focussed on CDOs spreading risks and did not anticipate the possible risk of a housing collapse.

When the US sub-prime market collapsed, due to rising interest rates, deemed necessary to reduce inflation, and falling house prices, the CDOs, despite their high rating, were seen to be risky and quickly depreciated in value. They  became illiquid since no one wanted to buy them, so their holders were unable to sell them to realise even part of their value. Simultaneously banks became reluctant to lend to other banks holding CDOs in their assets and first Northern Rock and then other banks failed. However because the original mortgages had been converted into CDOs and often re-bundled into other CDOs, it was not easy to tell which assets were safe and which were not, and therefore all such products were assumed to be risky, the institutions which held them were avoided by lenders and liquidity in the financial system evaporated. Because these products were bought and sold  by financial institutions in USA, Europe and Asia, the crisis spread quickly between the continents.

LOW BANK RATIOS – Banks need a balance between the loans which they make and their share capital and liquid reserves which can be used in case any of their loans fail. In the approach to the crisis, their leverage ratios (loans:capital) increased greatly, meaning that they were supporting their loans on a much smaller base. Lehmann Brothers, for example, had a ratio of 35:1. When the housing market fell, the banks wished to build up their capital by selling the properties on which the loans were based. However the increased supply of housing onto the market further reduced house prices and the value of the sub-prime mortgages, making the crisis worse. It should be noted that it was much easier for a US mortgage borrower to abandon their property without a financial penalty than in the UK. What many sub-prime borrowers did when they could not afford the higher interest rates and house prices fell below the value of their mortgage  was to drop the keys back to their lender and move into rented accommodation. It was then up to the bank to try to sell the house and get their capital back.

POOR REGULATION – Another contributory factor was the level of regulation of the financial sector. Authorities such as the IMF focussed on how securitisation reduced risk and global bank  reforms aimed to make it easier for banks to lend. in the UK there was also a change in the financial regulatory framework. Previously the Bank of England had been responsible  for the regulation of the banking system and the operation of monetary policy. Following the election of the Labour Government in 1997, Gordon Brown, created a three-way structure involving the Bank of England, the Treasury and Financial Services Authority. The FSA was responsible for maintaining confidence in the financial system, preserving financial stability, protecting consumers and reducing financial crime. The move from a single body regulating the financial system to a tripartite arrangement possibly hindered a speedy response to the crisis.Subsequently, in 2013, the FSA was replaced by the Financial Conduct Authority which is responsible for regulating 56,000 financial services firms to protect consumers, protect financial markets and promote competition).

THE SOCIAL CLIMATE – There has been much media attention in the last ten years blaming the crisis on the greed of bankers, earning enormous salaries and bonuses from their activities. . The FT, in a series of articles on the crisis talks of “Massively leveraged investment banks engaged in socially useless trading of huge volumes of complex credit securities.” However it is not only bankers who were keen to make money. Housebuyers borrowed more than, in retrospect, was sensible and even everyday savers  used their savings to dabble in financial products they did not understand in a bid to obtain a higher return.

Then, on 15th Sept 2008 Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. It was not the first chapter in the financial crisis but its size and the probability that it would be allowed to fail, can be regarded as the moment when the crisis became apparent. Within two weeks of Lehman’s collapse the global interbank money market had frozen, creating fear of economic collapse in the USA, Europe and Asia and the Dow Jones Index experienced its largest drop since the September 11 attack in 2001.

A confusing week for economists

This week has seen a considerable amount of contradictory economic information. On the positive side, employment in Britain reached a record high in the three months to April, 2018, with an employment rate of 75.6%. Unemployment has remained at its current low of 4.2% and the inactivity rate, those people, such as students, of working age, but not in the labour force, is also at a record low. Retail sales grew by a record 4.1% in May

However the rate of increase in earnings, which we would expect to be high given the low unemployment figures (as suggested by the Phillips Curve), has dropped from 2.6% to 2.5%. In real terms, the rate of growth in real earnings was only 0.1%, implying that future consumption growth will be low.

Other disappointing news was an announcement from Land Rover that they are moving production of the Discovery from the UK to Slovakia and news that Poundland and House of Fraser have collapsed, putting thousands of jobs at risk. However even these news items are not clearcut. One of the reasons behind Land Rover’s actions is that, once production has moved out of the UK, the site will be used to produce new, more high-tech, more expensive hybrid and electric models and the decline in traditional retailing is happening as on-line purchases increase, creating delivery and warehouse jobs.

However possibly the most disappointing pieces of news were firstly the latest data on manufacturing output for April, showing the fastest fall for 6 years and secondly, the deterioration in the UK’s trade deficit which grew by £1.6bn to a deficit of £9.7bn, the worst monthly figure since October 2016.

Possibly the best way to evaluate the data is to look at what the markets thought and they were pessimistic, thinking that the weakness of the economy will make an interest rate rise less likely and therefore sterling fell in the foreign exchange markets.