A look at the world economy.

Recently there has been considerable attention given to the current, positive economic indicators for the UK economy. The three months to February showed the number of people in work reaching a new high of 32.71 million, or 76.1%, the highest for 48 years, the unemployment rate falling to 3.9%, the lowest since 1975 and average weekly earnings increasing by 3.5% in the year to February. With March CPI inflation unchanged at 1.9% (and core inflation also unchanged at 1.8%), real incomes are increasing although there is  concern that inflationary pressure will increase as earnings continue to rise while productivity remains weak.

However for the UK, which is a very open economy, what happens elsewhere has a significant impact on our performance. Three areas are significant – Europe, China and the USA.

Europe is struggling. Its strongest economy, Germany, has cut its growth forecast for 2019 for the second time in three months, now predicting growth of only 0.5%. The reasons cited for the slowdown are the continuing trade dispute between the USA and China, a general world slowdown, Brexit uncertainty and falling car sales. Italy is also a cause for concern. Not only is it predicting growth of only 0.2%, its financial situation is worsening and there is concern that it will breach the targets agreed with the European Commission for government borrowing and its national debt. While the Eurozone was able to deal with a financial crisis in Greece, if Italy, a key member of the Eurozone, continues to run excessive deficits, the implications for financial stability would be more serious.

The Chinese economy appears to be doing well. Over the first three months of the year, GDP grew at an annual rate of 6.4%. However there is concern over the impact of the continuing trade dispute with the USA, worry about the increases in China’s debt, which is financing the growth, and, possibly most importantly, fears over the sustainability of its growth because of its reliance on infrastructure spending. In most countries, high infrastructure spending would be a positive feature but there is concern in China about an infrastructure “bubble” with reports of new cities being constructed which have few people, cars or shops.  One way of appreciating the scale of the spending is to consider a Washington Post report that China used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the USA used during the entire 20th century. These concerns coincide with China’s diminishing balance of payments surplus as the Chinese buy more foreign goods and travel overseas more and its exports are falling. In 2007, the surplus was 10% of GDP, it is now only 0.4%. While this is good for the UK if Chinese consumers buy more UK exports and decide to visit UK tourist destinations, if it heralds a slowing of China’s growth, the positive impact might be short-lived.

The third pillar of the global economic triangle is the USA and US economic growth slowed to an annual rate of 2.6% in the last three months of 2018. The high growth in 2018 was partially caused by a large tax cut and an increase in government spending and it is expected that once the effects of the stimulus wears off, growth this year will fall towards its long-term level which the Federal Reserve suggest is between 1.7% a year and 2.2%, some way below President Trump’s target of 4%. USA prospects are likely to be influenced by the impact of trade negotiations with China and the EU which are unknown at present but if we are unable to strike a trade deal with the US and UK businesses find tariffs placed on their exports, the impact on the UK could be severe.

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Brexit, the WTO and the Irish Border

The World Trade Organisation was established in January,1995 to promote free trade since it believes that it provides benefits in the form of greater choice and lower prices, stimulates economic growth, raises incomes and promotes world peace. It also acts as a forum for negotiations to reduce tariff barriers,  provide technical assistance for developing countries and  resolve trade disputes between its 164 members. For example, in August 2018, Turkey complained to the WTO about US sanctions on Turkish exports of aluminium and steel. If, after investigation and consultation, the WTO believes a country has broken its rules, it can authorise retaliatory tariffs.  Until the Brexit referendum, the WTO had not featured  in UK newspapers. However since the vote and the lack of progress in  talks with the EU, there has been increased interest in its role in regulating world trade  since, if no agreement is reached, the UK will fall back on WTO rules following its departure from the EU on 29th March.

Anyone wishing to join the WTO must agree to accept all its rules, particularly the  ‘Most Favoured Nation’ agreement whereby countries  must apply the same tariff to similar goods, irrespective of the exporting country, unless there is a free trade agreement between the importing and exporting countries. Thus if we leave the EU without an agreement, the EU will apply the same 10% tariff on UK car exports into the EU as it does to those coming in from other non-EU countries. Similarly, if the UK government were to announce a unilateral move to zero tariffs on agricultural products from the EU, without a trade deal, we could not levy tariffs on agricultural goods from elsewhere.

A significant concern is that WTO rules do not reduce regulatory barriers. At present, because of the Single Market, a UK car manufacturer can sell products as easily in Rome as Romford. This will cease if there is no agreement with the EU and therefore we would expect UK goods to be inspected when entering the EU, in the same way that British goods entering  Japan are currently examined to ensure that they meet EU standards. This might not seem a major problem but exporters fear that administrative burdens of completing customs forms and the delays to drivers at borders will be significant, therefore increasing costs.  This will be particularly important for those trading in perishable goods, some medical products which need to be refrigerated, and companies currently operating with minimal stocks in order to reduce costs.

A third concern is that WTO rules do not currently provide as much freedom for trade in services as they do for trade in goods. At present, for example, UK banks provide services for individuals, businesses and other banks across the EU without needing to duplicate all of their physical locations overseas. Leaving the EU will make trade in services, which make up 80% of the UK’s GDP, far more difficult and explains why UK financial consultants, bankers, accountants, etc are moving staff and  have established physical locations overseas.

Some in favour of leaving the EU argue that these arguments will not be significant since much non-EU trade is done under WTO rules. However the Economist pointed out (4th August 2018) that the UK would be the only large country trading solely on WTO rules and many other countries have arrangements in place to reduce the administrative customs burdens which hinder trade.

The problem with the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is also causing difficulties in our negotiations with the EU since two almost incompatible ideas need to be reconciled. On the one hand, the EU is insisting that, unless there is a new  form of customs union between the UK and the EU (which some pro-Brexiteers resist since it will reduce our ability to sign other deals), there must be a border between the UK and the EU to allow for customs checks to ensure that goods pay the appropriate tariffs and meet regulatory standards. For England, Scotland and Wales, this will be a sea border. However between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it will be a land one. Not only will this be  hard to enforce since there are many possible routes between the two, there are also very major political difficulties in re-establishing a hard border which relate to historical issues between the two countries. The idea of a “back-stop” which would allow free trade between the two countries would involve a different regulatory regime for Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK, something which is equally politically difficult to accept.

It is difficult to predict what the effects on our trade will be until the Brexit agreement is reached. As part of the EU, we currently benefit from free trade treaties between the EU and other countries and we do not know whether we will be able to negotiate to keep these agreements. A recent example of this is the recently-signed EU-Japan trade deal which we hope to replicate. However the Japanese have made it clear that it will not be ready to be signed by 29th March and, given the importance of Japan-UK trade, this is potentially a serious issue. Indeed, Dr Fox’s claim in 2017 that  the UK would be able to replicate up to 40 EU free trade deals, immediately we leave the EU is not going to happen. So far we have signed  agreements with Australia, Chile, the Faroe Islands, some African nations, Israel,  Palestine and Switzerland. The failure to sign agreements is already impacting on British businesses trading with Asia since goods now being shipped will not arrive until after 29th March and exporters do not know whether they will be liable to tariffs or potentially might even be sent back to the UK. If there is no deal by 29th March, then 18th April becomes the next key date since, by then, the UK must confirm whether it will make contributions to the EU’s 2019 budget which are due by the end of April. A decision to make these payments will  require a vote in Parliament. If we do not make these payments, then our relations with the EU will deteriorate further and the chances of a trade deal will diminish even further.

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

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.

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.