How are we really doing?

This post looks at the current state of the economy.  Although the data may seem to be a few months out of date, it is the latest available and indicates a difficulty for economic bodies such as the Bank of England who try to control the economy. Their task is made even more difficult because, for example, not only are the Labour Force Survey figures out of date, they also do not respond quickly to changes in the economy since employers often wait a few months before hiring or firing workers to see if changes they experience are permanent or temporary.

GDP growth slowed at the end of 2018 from 0.4% to 0.3% in the three months to the end of October. This was largely due to a 0.8% fall in the manufacturing sector, particularly the manufacture of vehicles and pharmaceuticals. Our productivity continues to disappoint having been almost flat for 10 years, and about 20% below what it would be if it had grown at the trend rate for the last ten years. Investment has fallen for the last nine months, unlike our G7 partners who have experienced double digit growth.

However, the labour market continued to do well between August and October with the number of people in work increasing to 32.48 million, 396,000 more than a year earlier. The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years in work) was 75.7%, higher than a year earlier (75.1%) and the joint-highest estimate since comparable estimates began in 1971 while the unemployment rate (unemployed people as a proportion of all employed and unemployed people) was 4.1% or 1.38 million people. As a result, the proportion of people inactive was approximately 21%, again the joint lowest since 1971.

Inflation, measured by the CPI, dropped to 2.1% in December, the lowest since January 2017 when it was 1.8%, caused by falling air fares and oil prices (causing falling petrol and diesel prices among other things). Employee average weekly earnings increased by 3.3% over the year, giving a real increase of 1.2%, a welcome change from recent years when the rate of inflation has exceeded the increase in earnings. However, over the year, poverty increased, with 14 million people (22% of the population) in relative poverty (defined as 60% of the median income after housing costs). This includes more than 4 million children, with more than half of the children in single parent families in poverty. Food bank use has increased by 13% in the last year.

The balance of payments current account deficit increased to £26.5 billion between July to September, 2018, which equated to 5% of GDP, the largest deficit recorded for two years in both value and percentage of GDP terms. Contributing to this was an increase in the deficit on trade in goods and services, as the service sector surplus fell, and an increase in the primary income deficit caused by an increased net outflow of profits from FDI in the UK. (Primary income is the net flow of profits, interest and dividends from investments in other countries and net remittance flows from migrant workers). The majority of the deficit was financed by foreigners purchasing UK shares and UK investors selling part of their overseas portfolios.

Finally – an apology to younger readers. The latest government figures have shown that the share of UK wealth held by those over 65 has grown to 36% of the total, averaging £1.1 million.  The proportion of over 65s who are millionaires increased from 7% in 2006 to 20% in 2016. This wealth is in the form of property, their pension funds, holdings of shares and other savings. The biggest losers were those in the 35 – 44 age group whose share has dropped from 15% to 10% (although the value of their wealth rose from £180,000 to £190,000. This is a major change over the last 20 years when 21% of pensioners were in poverty.

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Life After Brexit?

Although we are no clearer about how, when or even if the UK will be leaving the EU, it is worth considering areas the UK government must address in order to make the best not of the next few months, but of the next decade.

Two months ago, in the World Economic Forum’s annual report on countries’ competitiveness, the UK slipped down two places to eighth out of 140, with the top places held by the USA, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, the Netherlands and Hong Kong. The WEF, best known for its annual Davos conference, takes a wide-ranging view of competitiveness, considering such things as infrastructure, macroeconomic stability, health, skills of the labour force, the financial system and the quality of universities.  Although the UK did well in areas such as workforce diversity and the quality of our legal institutions, we dropped down the table because of poor health provision and a lack of investment in ICT-related infrastructure and human capital.

Although the UK currently has record low levels of unemployment, our productivity (output per hour) compared to our competitors is low and this correlates with the WEF comments about our low investment in human capital. In the 1980s our productivity growth averaged 2.4% pa, in the 1990s it was 2.3% pa, in the 2000s it had fallen to 1.4% pa, largely due to the financial crisis, and, since 2010 it has averaged 0.5% pa. If we had been able to maintain the productivity growth of the earlier decades before the financial crisis, UK GDP would be about 20% higher than at present. However, despite all the attention paid to productivity in recent years, the situation might not be as bad as predicted. A recent OECD reports suggests that the UK has over-estimated the number of hours worked by not fully accounting, among other factors, for the increase in part-time work. Nevertheless, it still remains that if UK workers are to get richer, then the country must produce more, either by working longer or becoming more productive.

One area which will need addressing to boost productivity is research and development (R&D). Our R&D spending has been a lower proportion of GDP than many competing countries with the UK spending only 2/3 as much as a percentage of GDP as Germany, Japan and the USA. However the government has committed to increase this to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, up from 1.4% today, and has created a Productivity Investment Fund worth £31bn to assist. It has already committed £7bn with 600 projects receiving funds but there is still scope to increase this.

Another is business investment which, for the last twenty years has been among the lowest of OECD members, not helped recently by the uncertainty in the economy. From 1997 to 2017, gross fixed capital formation in the UK (capital expenditure by the public and private sectors, e.g. spending on factories, plant and machinery, transport equipment, software, new dwellings, and improvements to existing buildings and roads) averaged 17% of GDP pa compared to 21% in Germany and the USA and 25% in Japan.  It is particularly weak in the low wage sectors of the economy and, ironically, it is possible that a decline in inward migration might encourage investment in these sectors if the supply of cheap labour dries up in the future. Low corporation tax and generous tax allowances and grants will be crucial in boosting our investment but, as well as generous financial assistance, businesses will be seeking a guarantee that the tax regime  will be stable to allow them to plan for the future.

A third area which needs addressing is infrastructure. Although the UK has delivered some successful infrastructure projects (e.g. London 2012), our record is not good. Crossrail is likely to be delayed even further and cost more than predicted, estimates for HS2 are increasing and London airport expansion seems stuck in an eternal holding pattern. Not only does such investment increase our productive potential, it also creates a very powerful stimulus to aggregate demand since so much of the cost remains in the UK economy in terms of labour and raw material costs, creating a powerful multiplier effect. Note that while we have been considering expanding Heathrow’s airport capacity by one airport, China is aiming to increase its number of airports from 207 in 2015 to 260 by 2020. There is also a feeling that too much infrastructure has been focused on the South East and a recent development which might help to address the imbalance is the appointment of regional mayors. The seven current mayors argue that transferring more power and resources to them will increase growth and improve productivity in their regions. They want more control over public services including skills, training and apprenticeship services, and the programmes designed to help people get back to work. They also want greater control over how tax revenue is spent, rather than relying on Government grants and control over any regional funds set up to replace EU funding.

A final key area to address is the level of skills of the workforce. A variety of solutions have been proposed such as boosting STEM subjects, improving management training and improving the status and quality of vocational training. Technical qualifications have traditionally been seen as inferior to the more academic A’levels and degrees and the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, intended to increase the number of apprenticeships, coincided with a decline in their number. However the most recent data suggests that this fall is being reversed as employers become more familiar with the new scheme. With a likely decline in the number of skilled migrants entering the UK from the EU, this area will be key if the UK economy is to prosper over the next decades.

A Brexit Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

TRADE WAR 2

It is rare to see two successive blog posts on the same topic but it is also rare for an economic issue to receive the attention which President Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminium have attracted. Since the last post, Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser, has resigned in protest at the decision, swaying the political balance in the White House from supporters of free trade towards protectionists, the EU has added to its list of potential targets for retaliation to include peanut butter, Bourbon, Florida orange juice and Harley Davidson motorcycles, and President Trump has continued to threaten retaliation against the retaliation, talking of tariffs against EU car exports. There have also been comments in the newspapers looking back to the 1930s and the protectionist measures imposed by the USA as a way of helping them escape the Great Depression, which served only to make the world situation worse.

The language of the debate (if that is what it can be called) continues to be confused. On the one hand President Trump argues that the tariffs are justified by WTO rules on the grounds of national security, a legitimate reason for imposing tariffs; the argument being that steel is an important product for the defence industries. However the main exporters of steel to the USA are the EU (the largest), Canada, Mexico and South Korea – hardly countries which are likely to go to war with the USA. China does not feature among the list of the major steel exporters to the USA. Furthermore some of the steel exported is highly specialised and not even manufactured in the USA.

While talking of national security as a justification, President Trump simultaneously continues to refer to the need to reduce the US balance of payments deficit, arguing that the deficit is “BAD” and the fault of foreign countries. Not only has the deficit occurred in part because foreign producers can produce more cheaply than US ones, it has also allowed the US to consume more than it produces and, subsequently, living standards have risen. Foreign trade is not a zero-sum game – both deficit and surplus countries benefit from greater trade.

So how has a country like the USA (and the UK) been able to run such a large and persistent deficit? This is because foreign governments, banks and individuals have been willing to hold dollars and US assets rather than change them back into their own currency. In the same way that a generous parent’s continual lending allows their children to spend more than they earn, the UK current account deficit might be partially financed by a financial account surplus caused by rich foreigners and businesses placing money earned from selling to the UK in UK banks or buying property in London, UK shares or government bonds. The same applies to the US, but is reinforced by the additional benefit the USA has which is that the dollar is so widely used for international trade and as a reserve currency.

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.

Falling Share Prices – Causes and Effects

This week has seen major falls in share prices across the world with $6 trillion being wiped off world share values.  America’s Dow Jones index dropped 5.2%, Japan’s Nikkei index fell 8.1% and the UK’s FTSE index fell 4.7%, the lowest it has been for 15 months, while in Japan and America the falls broke records for the size of their drop since October 2008.

The initial reason for the fall was, paradoxically, good US economic data as their service sector boomed and wage levels grew at the fastest rate since the start of the decade. This good news meant that it is now more likely that US interest rates will rise sooner and by more than had previously been anticipated. Mark Carney reinforced this view when he expressed similar sentiments about the future of UK interest rates.

Although a rise in interest rates has been expected for some time as the world economy’s growth accelerated, the reminder that it might occur soon has come as an unpleasant shock. The scaling back of QE by central banks is expected to reduce the ability to borrow cheaply, some of which has financed recent purchases in shares. Financial investors expect that the forthcoming rise in interest rates will reduce company profits, therefore reducing the demand for shares. Simultaneously existing shareholders might be encouraged to sell quickly before prices fall further, thereby increasing the excess demand. In addition, the economic uncertainty was increased by the fall in the value of bitcoin by approximately 50% since the state of the year.

Economists are trying to decide whether we are currently experiencing a “correction” or  are entering a bear market, where prices fall by more than 20%. The “correction” proponents believe that shares are over-priced in terms of their price compared to their earnings – the price:earnings ratio – and therefore the fall was due. However there is concern that the behaviour of investors, whether in shares, currencies or commodities, sometimes leads to markets over-shooting since falls (increases) in price encourage selling (buying) which further reduces (increases) the price.

According to economic theory, the fall in share prices might lead to a negative wealth effect (the idea that consumption is determined by one’s wealth as well as one’s income). However, given that many shareholders are in the upper income brackets, their marginal propensity to consume will be low and therefore the effect will small. More significant might be the general impact on consumer and business confidence from the media reports about the falling share prices. As Keynes wrote in his General Theory,  “animal spirits” outweigh the  “weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.”.