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.

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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.”.

So how is the economy doing?

This week has seen the publication of considerable economic data and much of it is contradictory, making it hard to tell exactly how well the UK economy is (or is not) doing.

In the year to March 2017, household spending in real terms returned to levels not seen since before the financial crisis, reaching £554 per week. The UK budget deficit has fallen and was £2.6bn in December, compared with £5.1bn in December 2016, and almost half economists’ expectations. This was partly due to higher than expected tax revenues from income tax receipts because of higher employment, higher VAT receipts and a refund on contributions to the EU. The positive news on the budget deficit means that government borrowing is likely to be at its lowest level since the financial crisis. Before celebrating too much, be aware, firstly, that the higher VAT receipts were due to higher inflation as well as to the growth in consumption and, secondly,  the refund from the EU was because the UK share of the EU budget has been revised downwards as a result of slower growth in the UK than the rest of the EU.

Another boost for the UK economy  was news that the employment rate had risen to a record high of 75.3% or 32.2 million, confounding forecasters who had predicted that the employment boom was over, based on the fall in October 2017 which is now being treated as a temporary fluctuation. At the same time as the employment level rose, the unemployment rate remained at 4.3% or 1.4 million, a 42-year record low. Equally encouraging was the shift from part-time work to full-time work which occurred over the period.

Further positive news  was that the economy grew at 0.5% in the last three months of 2017, faster than expected, largely because of the resilient service sector which makes up about 80% of the economy. As a result, growth last year was 1.8%, significantly higher than the 0.5% prediction by some disappointed economists following the Brexit vote. However, it is worth noting that the UK has dropped from being a growth leader to a laggard among the G7 countries, its growth rate is now at its lowest rate for the last five years and, given more rapidly rising incomes among our main trading partners, a slowdown in UK growth is disappointing.

On the downside, wage growth continues to be slow, meaning that real incomes are falling, the number of people starting apprenticeships fell by a quarter in the three months between August and October compared to last year, and sterling rose to its highest level since the Brexit vote. While this is good for importing businesses and holiday makers, it is less good news for exporters who have enjoyed the benefits of a low pound. It has also hit the share prices of companies with significant dollar earnings which are now worth less when converted into sterling.

Finally a word of caution; some of the figures, such as consumption spending, relate to the previous financial year while others, such as the growth in GDP, are subject to significant revision over time. Most recently, the figures for UK productivity have been questioned because the ONS might have significantly over-estimated inflation in the telecommunications industry and therefore underestimated the increases in its output. As a former Governor of the Bank of England pointed out, “trying to control the economy is like steering a car by looking in the rear view mirror”.