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.

 

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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.

 

Inflation – it isn’t about sterling, yet – BBC News

Today’s jump in inflation is more to do with low prices last year than it is to do with the collapse in the value of the pound. That is still to come.

Source: Inflation – it isn’t about sterling, yet – BBC News

An increase in the rate of inflation hurts borrowers and those on fixed incomes as inflation erodes the value and purchasing power of money. On a personal note, my drive to school is becoming increasingly expensive as the price of oil recovers from the lows of 2015. The fall in Sterling will see prices at the pump rise further. However, there are winners. Borrowers will see the real value of their debts fall. The Government, as the UK’s largest borrower, will be one of the beneficiaries.

Still, the higher price of imported goods may end up hurting exporters, the direct beneficiaries of the fall in the value of the Pound. Although the price of British goods in foreign currency terms is falling, the costs of imports are rising, so British exporters may see their costs of production rise offsetting, to some extent, increasing profits thanks to higher foreign demand.

At present, the inflation rate remains below target, so, perhaps, a little more inflation is good thing. However, when the rate rises above target the MPC will be under pressure to hike the bank rate. The UK debt mountain has grown rapidly thanks to access to very cheap credit, higher rates will hurt those with large mortgages, car loans, credit cards, etc, and we could see the UK slip back into recession as result of a collapse in consumer spending.

 

 

Phillips Curve

The Phillips Curve can be used to illustrate a macroeconomic policy trade off, namely attempts to reduce unemployment will lead to an increase in inflation and a failure to achieve price stability.

Phillip’s work has been heavily criticized because the stable relationship between unemployment and inflation has broken down. The 1970’s was a period noted for stagflation – high unemployment and inflation. In 2016, the UK’s unemployment rate currently sits at about 5%, while the inflation rate hovers close to 0%. Both periods contradict Phillips’ original findings.

The following materials are intended to support your understanding of this topic. Review and add to your notes.

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