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.

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What does the future hold?

“Accurate predictions” and “economists” are not words which always go together and the longer the time period, the less accurate are predictions likely to be. Last year, it was predicted that driverless cars would soon be with us and we would be summoning our driver-free Uber with as little worry as ordering a take-away via Deliveroo. However, following the death of a 49-year-old woman in Arizona, as a result of a collision with an Uber vehicle being driven in autonomous mode, (with a human behind the wheel), both Uber and Toyota have suspended trials and a number of American states are reviewing their attitude to trials of driverless vehicles.

A worry which has been with us for longer is the impact of technological progress and more recently AI, on employment prospects. Keynes, in 1930, during the Great Depression, wrote an article predicting a 15 hour working week by 2030. For him, this was not a worry since he suggested that the average person would be significantly richer in 2030 than in 1930, since businesses would still be producing goods and services and workers enjoying their increased leisure. However, he did raise the possibility of technological unemployment where the fall in demand for labour from technological progress was greater than the increased demand for labour needed to produce new goods and services. Trying to estimate the costs and benefits of new technology in terms of employment has been a problem since the Luddites in the 19th century – English textile workers and weavers who destroyed machinery which they thought would take their jobs away. On the other hand, technological optimists see the arrival of robots as an advantage since they will allow tedious, repetitive jobs to be undertaken by machines while the humans focus on rewarding, creative areas.

Examples support both views. The rise of online shopping is a cause of the decline in high street retailers. However internet shopping has created jobs in warehouses for workers to fulfil orders and among van drivers. But, in the future, will the goods ordered be collected from the shelves by robots and delivered by drones? What will happen to the number of workers in supermarkets if the technology used in Amazon’s cashless store becomes more widespread? There is a consensus that the types of jobs most at risk are those which are routine and repetitive while the safest are those which involve creativity, judgement and manual dexterity. An area which should be secure, and in which the UK is currently strong, is the creative sector, which covers such things as advertising, film and television programme making, architecture, and fashion, employing two million people and contributing over 5% to GDP. One might also think that teaching is a safe occupation since, so they tell me, it involves judgement, empathy and creativity. But if the school of the future is based round individualised learning with students working in large open-plan spaces, supported by “facilitators”, will so many people be needed? How long before we get the department blog generated with no human involvement? How do we take account of the jobs which have not yet been created?

What is clear is that there will need to be resources put into re-training existing workers to allow those who have lost their jobs to move into new areas and, more importantly, those entering school in September, will need to be taught to be adaptable and creative so they can learn new skills, rather than being trained in the skills in use today.

Olen niin iloinen

For those of you who do not speak Finnish, a clue to the meaning of the words above might be found in the following questions.

What happens on 20th March 2018?

Answer – UN has declared it to be World Happiness Day

What do Norway and Burundi have in common?

Answer – they both dropped in the UN World Happiness Report. Burundi dropped to bottom place while Norway dropped out of the top slot to be replaced by Finland – hence the Finnish comment “I am so happy”.

The Report ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels, and, this year, it also looked at 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants, with Finland coming top in both rankings.

The top and bottom 10 are recorded below. A sample in each country are asked to score their happiness on a scale of 10 (most happy) to 1 (least happy) with Finland scoring 7.6 and Burundi 2.9. In order to identify the reasoning behind the score, the report also looks at economic strength (measured in GDP per capita), social support, life expectancy, freedom of choice, generosity, and perceived corruption. The biggest loser was Venezuela, dropping 2.2 on the scale, which is little surprise considering the state of their economy. This year the study also looked at the happiness of migrants,

It is worth a warning note about the numbers – the difference between the top 6 countries is only 0.191 on the 1 – 10 scale.

The world’s happiest – and least happy – countries 2018 World Happiness Report
Happiest Least happy
1. Finland 147. Malawi
2. Norway 148. Haiti
3. Denmark 149. Liberia
4. Iceland 150. Syria
5. Switzerland 151. Rwanda
6. Netherlands 152. Yemen
7. Canada 153. Tanzania
8. New Zealand 154. South Sudan
9. Sweden 155. Central African Republic
10. Australia 156. Burundi

New insights into GDP

A new book “The Growth Delusion” by David Pilling, a Financial Times journalist, provides interesting insights into our obsession with economic growth and how we measure it. This blog highlights only some of his key points which are relevant to A’level and IB economics. The book is definitely worth a read. Modern GDP statistics (“the value of goods and services produced in a given period”)  have their origin in the USA around the 1930s with the work of Kuznets, who produced the first national income data to see the impact of the Great Depression on the US economy. They became more important during the Second World War when the UK government, prompted by Keynes, and the US government needed to be able to manage the war effort to maximum effect while still providing enough resources for consumption.

Pilling points out the many failings of GDP as an economic indicator such as the way it takes no account of what is produced, merely its value. Thus he points out that  wars can be good for GDP if they involve countries producing more tanks, weapons and aircraft. Similarly, two forks are, in GDP terms, as useful as a knife and fork, but less useful in reality when trying to spread jam on toast or cut one’s steak.  He is also scathing about the use of averages and points out that while a rich country might have a high average GDP, and therefore, according to economists, a high standard of living, if this is held by a very small number of people, the standard of living of the majority might be below that of a country with a lower average of GDP.

Measurement of GDP is difficult since it is impossible to measure every transaction and therefore relies on surveys e.g. the Living Costs and Food Survey for about 5,000 households and monthly surveys of approximately 45,000 businesses. The development of technology has made the measurement of GDP more difficult. The UK Government set up an inquiry under Charlie Bean – OB and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England – who made comments similar to those expressed by David Pilling in terms of activities which are now much harder to measure and value such as using Google Maps rather than buying a paper OS map or streaming films rather than buying or renting DVDs. Another problem is that many things have become cheaper and better – my new recorder is easier to use and records more than a previous DVD recorder  but, in GDP terms, it is less valuable because it is cheaper.

There have been many debates over what should be included in GDP and although these might seem largely irrelevant, they matter when trying to compare countries’ GDP. In the past certain things, such as the sale of cannabis in cafes in Holland were legal and therefore recorded while a similar purchase in Romford would not be counted. However Eurostat wanted consistency among its members and decided that all transactions for goods or services involving money were to be recorded, whether they legal, illegal, good or bad. Therefore, in a purely numerical way, those who argue in favour of increasing GDP as being a key government objective, could argue that encouraging the sale of drugs or prostitution is as valid as increased spending on education or health – something even an economist would find hard to justify! More relevantly sales of guns in the UK  are part of the shadow economy but in the US they are legal, widespread and contribute to their GDP.

Pilling also considers the problems of measuring GDP in developing countries where a significant percentage of production takes place in the shadow economy; for example in Zimbabwe only 6% of the is formally employed. Similarly, my purchase of bottled water from Waitrose  is counted in the UK’s GDP, but the effort of a African villager who spends hours walking to and from a stream or well to collect “free” water has no value according to GDP statistics. He describes the way lights at night are used to indicate economic activity in different areas with increases in intensity over time indicating growth. Such methods indicate that the proportion of economic activity occurring in villages, and not always measured, is more significant than thought and therefore the GDP of many developing countries is, similarly, larger than previously calculated.

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.

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.

 

 

A New Industrial Strategy

 Although over-shadowed by the Budget and news of the forthcoming royal wedding, we saw an event last month which might potentially have a major impact on the UK. This was the launch of the Government’s Industrial Strategy which builds on the policy put in place by the coalition government from 2010.

Industrial Strategy is not new. The Labour Government introduced a National Plan in 1965 to boost the UK’s economic growth with a target of a 25% increase in GDP by 1970. To achieve this, there were key areas to be addressed such as reducing government spending at home and overseas, helping exporters, promoting regional equality and establishing an agreement between employers and trade unions on productivity, prices and incomes. The National Plan was abandoned when sterling was devalued in November 1967.

The next significant attempt at industrial strategy came with the Labour Government in 1975 which was facing the same long-standing problem of poor economic performance. The approach copied successful French and Japanese models and was based on ‘Indicative Planning’ – the idea that a government commitment to a long-term macroeconomic framework would give the private sector the confidence to invest and expand. The UK approach (An Approach to Industrial Strategy, November 1975) focussed on tripartite agreements between the Government, employers and trade unions to improve performance in individual sectors and firms, giving  priority to manufacturing industry over the growing service sector. By the time Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Government took office in 1979, it had not met its targets and found no place in the economic armoury of the free market, anti-inflation of the new Government.

The latest approach, announced last week, aims to improve productivity while maintaining our high level of employment and focusses on four areas where the UK can become technological leaders. These are Artificial Intelligence and the Data Economy, Clean Growth, the Future of Mobility, making the UK a world leader in the way people, goods and services move and the Ageing Society, harnessing the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an ageing society.

The Government aims to raise R&D investment from 1.7% to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, via investment of £725m in a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and  an increase in the rate of R&D tax credit to 12%. To improve skills, the White Paper talks of “establishing a technical education system that rivals the best in the world to stand alongside our world-class higher education system” and will invest an additional £406m in maths, digital and technical education, helping to address the STEM shortage. There will also be a retraining scheme to provide support for people to retrain in new industries including the forthcoming £64m investment for digital and construction training. The National Infrastructure Fund will be raised to £31bn for transport, housing and digital infrastructure; electric vehicles will be helped by a £400m investment in the charging infrastructure and an extra £100m to extend the plug-in car grant. The digital infrastructure will benefit from over £1bn of public investment for 5G providing fibre broadband for remote areas. There will be partnerships between government and industry to increase productivity, starting in the life sciences, construction, artificial intelligence and automotive sectors. A new £2.5bn Investment Fund will be established which it is hoped will increase private investment by over £20bn in innovative and high potential businesses. The Strategy also tries to address the problem of low productivity specifically among the weakest firms in many industries – the tail which is significantly longer than in many of our competitor countries. This is partly due to poor management which has been linked to the relatively large number of small, often family-run firms in the UK compared to our competitors.

Will the latest industrial strategy succeed where many of its predecessors  failed? Firstly although the numbers mentioned above seem large, they are not when compared to the UK’s GDP of approximately £2,000bn; the National Infrastructure Fund amounts to only 1.55% of GDP. Secondly the target of increasing R&D to 2.4% of GDP is very modest when both the USA (2.8%) and Germany (2.9%) already exceed it.

Thirdly businesses need certainty when planning investment decisions, and this is particularly important given the uncertainty which exists at present over the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Therefore its chances of success would be significantly boosted if the Labour Party were to commit to keeping the measures in place were it to be elected.