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  Although the data may seem to be a few months out of date, it is the latest available and indicates a difficulty for economic bodies such as the Bank of England who try to control the economy. Their task is made even more difficult because, for example, not only are the Labour Force Survey figures out of date, they also do not respond quickly to changes in the economy since employers often wait a few months before hiring or firing workers to see if changes they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

www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-46780279

Article of the week – Harjot M.

High levels of household debt pose a risk to the economy because any increase in interest rates could lead to a sudden collapse in consumption. Higher borrowing costs mean households have less discretionary income resulting in a fall in consumer spending. Aware of this risk, firms may consider cutting investment in the expectation of a fall in future demand. Consequently, aggregate demand decreases causing a fall in inflationary pressures, a decrease in economic growth and, potentially, an increase in demand-deficient unemployment.

Inflation in Venezuela

It is difficult to be precise about the rate of inflation in Venezuela since the government has significantly reduced its publication of economic data.  The Economist recently quoted a current rate of 46,000% per year, other estimates put it closer to 100,000% and the IMF estimates it will rise to 1 million per cent by the end of the year! The impact of such a rate mirrors what happened in Germany in the 1920s, Hungary in 1946 where inflation at one point reached 150,000% PER DAY, and Zimbabwe’s two episodes of hyperinflation in the last ten years. In Germany, workers were paid twice a day, and given breaks to buy things before prices went up even further, using wheelbarrows and suitcases to carry their money to the shops. Although the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, has blamed opposition activists, officials in Washington and criminal gangs for the hyperinflation, independent observers suggest it is caused largely by the government printing money to pay its budget deficit, currently running at 30% of GDP. Ironically in Venezuela today, almost everyone is a millionaire but 4/5 of the population live in poverty and their average weight is falling because they cannot afford enough food. There are reports of shoppers falling ill because the only meat they can afford is discounted because it is no longer fresh.

The effects of such high levels of inflation on the metro in Caracas (capital of Venezuela) epitomise the problems caused by hyperinflation. The metro, built in 1983, was once heralded as a sign of the efficiency and progress of the economy. It was highly efficient and ran on time. The price of a ticket was fixed at 4 bolivars by the government which now equates to only a tiny fraction of 1p but, even if they wanted to, travellers cannot pay the government has run out of the paper needed to print them so all the ticket machines are marked as being out of order and people travel for free. However the journey is unlikely to be trouble-free. Demand has risen since people cannot afford taxis or fuel for private cars and the system now transports 2.5m people a day, three and a half times the number it was designed for. Only half the trains are working. Despite there being 11,000 workers officially employed, there is a shortage of workers since pay is only around 50p per week.

In Venezuela at present, it is more profitable scavenging for food in rubbish dumps than working. Output is falling for the third successive year and, despite having rich reserves of oil, which should make Venezuela one of the richest South American economies, oil production, which accounts for 95%  of export earnings in the country and a quarter of gross domestic product, (total output of the country) fell by a half between January 2016 and January 2018. Venezuela has been unable to stop a six-year-long production decline, caused by inadequate investment, US sanctions and a lack of skilled workers who have left the country for a better standard of living elsewhere.

There was even a shortage of banknotes which are imported. Last year the banks were forced to limit cash withdrawals to the equivalent of one US dollar a day. Increasingly, transactions are made electronically but those trying to make even a medium-sized purchase via a debit card found that many screens in shops or on their phones were too small to handle the large number of zeros needed. One of most popular television programmes, a Venezuelan version of “Who wants to be a Millionaire”, was abandoned because of the fall in the value of the currency – were it being broadcast today, the top prize would be worth 13p!

To solve the problems caused by hyperinflation, the government has raised the minimum wage by 3,500%, and  President Maduro has announced plans to reduce the government’s budget deficit (the amount the government borrows) from 30% of GDP to zero by increasing VAT and the price of fuel, which is currently very heavily subsidised, therefore admitting implicitly that high government borrowing and the printing of money was a key cause of the hyperinflation. In addition, in August, the government devalued the currency from 250,000 to the US dollar to the black market rate of 6m to the dollar and then introduced a new bolivar, converting 100,000 old bolivars to 1 new bolivar. However the future does not look promising since the value of the new currency fell by 18 % on the black market in the first two weeks after devaluation.

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”.

What’s going on in the UK economy?

Trying to understand what is going on in an economy can be difficult. Running the economy has been described as similar to trying to drive a car while only being able to look in the rear-view mirror. You know where you have been but cannot see what is ahead. Economic forecasters today probably look back to the period before the financial crash when the UK was in the NICE decade (non-inflationary, continuous expansion) as a golden period. Today life is more complex and one cannot help but feel sorry for the Chancellor busy preparing his November budget and the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England when they meet in November and have to decide whether to increase interest rates.

On the one hand, implying  a rate rise is not yet needed, the Office for National Statistics has just announced that GDP growth has fallen from 1.8% for the first quarter of 2017 to 1.5% for the period April to June which is below expectations and the weakest figure for four years. This is partly down to a fall in services of 0.2% which comprise 80% of GDP inflation. Furthermore discretionary income (what you have left to spend after tax and spending on essential items such as food, energy and transport, has fallen and 60% of households are worse off than they were a year ago as a result of wages rising at 2.1% while inflation is currently 2.9%. Another piece of evidence is that a survey published over the weekend by the Nationwide  reported that house prices dropped in London by 0.6% between July and September compared with the same period last year. This is the first such fall for eight years. 

However the high rate of inflation combined with the fall in unemployment  to 4.3% would suggest it is now time  to reduce the level of aggregate demand by raising interest rates.

Just to make the whole picture more confusing , there is the danger of depressing demand at a time when the economy is fragile because of uncertainty regarding Brexit and one does not want to do anything to discourage business investment which is supposed to be weak because of low confidence. Yet business investment actually rose by 0.5% in the second quarter of 2017! Furthermore, although the current account deficit rose to £23.2bn in the second quarter from £22.3bn in the first quarter, exports of goods and services actually rose by 1.7% while imports increased by 0.4%. Finally, just when you might think you have taken account of all the main variables – what about oil prices which have a significant impact on inflation and discretionary income. OPEC’s decision to curb production is intended to keep prices high and, although this looked to be failing earlier in the year, the combination of hurricanes damaging US oil refineries and the OPEC production curbs have started to have an effect on fuel prices.

 

Good news for the Chancellor?

Friday’s papers contained news which might make life easier for the Chancellor when he prepares for his budget on 22nd November. Government borrowing in August fell faster than expected, meaning that the Chancellor will have approximately £10bn more to spend on helping reduce student debt, boosting public sector salaries, spending on the NHS, improving our infrastructure, etc. At £5.7bn, the Government’s August deficit has fallen to its lowest level for a decade. The reason for the fall is twofold. VAT receipts have soared because of  high consumer spending while current government spending, particularly local authority spending, has fallen.

However all is not rosy. Firstly, when interest rates rise, which is likely to happen sooner rather than later, government debt interest payments will increase, as will interest paid on index-linked borrowing because of higher inflation rates (borrowing where the rate of interest is linked to the rate of inflation). Furthermore, there are certain commitments which have already been made, particularly with regard to public sector pay, which will necessitate higher government spending. If these factors are not to increase government borrowing then either taxes will  increase, other areas of government spending fall or the UK economy must grow sufficiently strongly to generate enough extra tax revenue.

Secondly Moody’s, one of the major ratings agencies, last week downgraded the UK’s credit rating from Aa1 (the top rating, sometimes referred to as triple A) to Aa2 on the grounds that leaving the European Union was creating economic uncertainty at a time when the UK’s debt reduction plans were in danger because of the decision to raise spending in certain areas. This follows a downgrading in 2016 by the other major agencies, Fitch and S&P. The downgrade might affect how much it will cost the government to borrow money, particularly on foreign financial markets. The Labour Party has called the downgrade a “hammer blow” to the economic credibility of the Conservatives.

Thirdly the stronger than expected level of consumer spending which boosted VAT receipts is unlikely to be sustainable as real incomes fall because of the low levels of wage increases combined with the higher levels of inflation. The forecast for the growth in retail sales compared to a year ago was 1.1% whereas the actual number was 2.4%, with last month showing particularly strong growth. There are many possible reasons for this. Possibly the weak pound caused more people stayed at home instead of going overseas for a holiday, possibly the falling unemployment had an effect and possibly the figures will reverse next month since they are extremely volatile.

Finally it is worth noting that the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an organisation comprising the world’s major economies) forecasts that we will fall from being the second fastest growing  G7 economy to the second slowest as the other main economies improve and we do not.

If the UK economy is to flourish, an increase in the rate of growth, an improvement in productivity and a satisfactory agreement with the EU are all crucial.

The UK Economy – how are we doing?

Since the Brexit vote ten months ago, there have been many reports about the state of the UK economy and its prospects for the future. In an ideal world, we could look at the recently-published data and decide how we are doing. Unfortunately, the picture is unclear with different data sets indicating different things.

On the positive side, unemployment has fallen to 4.7% and employment has risen to almost 75%, both numbers reaching impressive lows and highs respectively. What we would also expect to see simultaneously is an acceleration in wage increases as workers take advantage of a tighter labour market indicated by  low unemployment, high activity rates and employers reporting recruitment difficulties, with the effect magnified by an increasing number of migrant workers returning home because of the fall in their incomes when exchanged into their own currency due to the fall in sterling since June. However, money wages are rising at only 2.3%pa and, as inflation increases, real wages will fall. Possible explanations for the low average increase in wages are the 1% cap on public sector pay increases thereby reducing the average, a possible increase in retired workers returning to the labour force depressing wages and the increase in self-employment since the self-employed are not counted in the data.

Other positives for the economy are our growth rate, the reduction in government borrowing and improvement in the  balance of payments. Our annual GDP growth of 1.8% has been the second highest in the G7 behind only Germany at 1.9%. However there is concern that consumer spending, which has been an important contributor to the UK’s growth, is now slowing.  Further factors which might impact on consumer spending are the expected fall in real income, mentioned above,  and the slowdown in the housing market which, according to the Halifax, grew at its slowest rate for four years.  The housing market is important for an economy in terms of the wealth effect, its impact on consumer confidence and the effect it has on related markets, such as carpets, furniture and household appliances, which people buy when they move.

The slowdown in consumption growth, and therefore probably GDP growth, is such that the Bank of England is now thinking that the increase in interest rates which has been talked about for some time, is likely to be postponed from late 2018 until the middle of 2019. It will then be almost twelve years since the last increase in UK interest rates which took place in July 2007 when they were increased from 5.5% to 5.75%.

The Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR) has come in below expectations and is now back to levels experienced before the financial crisis. This is largely due to  income and corporation tax revenues being greater than predicted. However, if the economy slows down in the run-up to Brexit, tax revenues will fall and benefit payments increase, increasing the PSBR.

The current account deficit dropped from 5.3% to 2.3% of GDP in the last three months of 2016. Unfortunately this proved to be a temporary improvement and the deficit has widened again this year. This makes it clear that devaluation alone will not be sufficient to improve our balance of payments and significant structural changes will also be necessary to improve the attractiveness of UK products. (Consider Germany which has a current account surplus equivalent to 8.7% of GDP not because of cheap goods but because of high quality, well-designed products). FDI increased in the last quarter of 2016 but a worrying development are recent surveys which have found that the UK has fallen in attractiveness as an overseas country in which to set up compared to other countries.

On the positive side, we could be in Greece where unemployment is 23%, and average wages have fallen approximately 10%, income tax has been increased from 40% to 47%,  the retirement age has been increased from 60 to 67 and  pensions have been cut 14 times compared to 2009.