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.


The exchange rate and the economy.

The traditional view of a fall in the value of a developed country’s currency was that it would lead to an increase in the value of their exports and a fall in the value of their imports, hence improving the balance of payments and, via the resultant increase in aggregate demand, cause an increase in employment and growth.

However the above analysis needs considerable qualification. Although a fall in the value of a currency will almost always increase the VOLUME of exports and reduce the VOLUME of imports, whether the values change in the same way will depend on the elasticities of demand for exports and imports. For a developing country whose exports are commodities with an inelastic demand, a fall in the value of the currency might worsen its balance of payments. Over time the UK’s exports have moved up-market and therefore it can be argued that they have become less price sensitive since factors such as design and quality become more important.

Secondly, the analysis assumes that firms can increase their production of exports to meet higher demand and this will depend on the state of the domestic economy, the availability of labour, raw materials and components. This is unlikely to be easy in the short term and economists talk of the “J Curve effect” whereby a devaluation initially leads to a worsening balance of payments as quantities of exports and imports do not change much, possibly because of long-term contracts or the difficulties in increasing output of export and import-substitutes and, only over time, will the balance of payments improve. While this might not apply to tourism, where people can switch their holiday destinations relatively quickly, high tech exports and imports of manufactured exports will be much slower to adjust. Firms need to take a view as to the permanence of any change in the exchange rate. In my last post, I wrote that the £:$ exchange rate fluctuated from $1.71 in July 2014, $1.32 after the Brexit vote, then to $1.21 in January, 2017, and was at $1.38 (20th January 2018) but at the time of writing (27th January 2018) it had risen to $1.42. Firms planning long-term contracts will need to take a view as to the likely long-term exchange rate and largely ignore short-term fluctuations.

We should also not forget the downside of a devaluation which is that imports become more expensive and therefore living standards fall. Not only does one’s foreign holiday cost more, but imported finished products and anything using imported components or raw materials becomes more expensive, with the increase in price depending upon how easily the supplier can pass on the increased cost to the buyer. As products become more complex and firms take advantage of globalisation, the supply chain becomes longer and there is a greater likelihood of imports being involved in some in the final product. Thus an increase in UK exports of goods is very likely to require an increase in imports needed to make our exports and some of the increased competitiveness will be lost by the higher cost of imported components and raw materials.

Recent examination of the exchange rate and UK trade in goods might suggest that the exchange rate  has a significant impact. In the last year the volume of UK goods exported rose almost 9% which would imply that the fall in sterling post Brexit has had a positive impact until one reflects that UK imports have increased by 7% during the same period, despite their increase in price. What this shows is that the exchange rate is simply one of many factors affecting the demand for imports and exports and we cannot ignore factors such as quality, income, interest rates or anything else which changes the desire to consume goods and services.

Sterling and the UK Economy

The pound has undergone something of a roller-coaster ride over the past three and a half years.  It was $1.71 in July 2014, fell from $1.49 to $1.32 after the Brexit vote and then again to $1.21 in January, 2017 and has recently risen to $1.38 (20th January 2018). However, it is worth noting that while, historically we usually measure sterling against the dollar, the fall against the euro has been greater.  In July 2015, £1 would buy 1.49 euros but by August 2017 the rate had fallen to £1 = 1.08 euros  and it is currently at £1 = 1.33 euros.

This post will consider the factors which might cause the value of a currency to fluctuate. (and the next will discuss the impact fluctuations might have on an economy). Over the last 100 years, the world has moved from a system where currencies were fixed to gold (the Gold Standard), to a time when the dollar was fixed to gold while currencies such as sterling were pegged, with limited flexibility, against the dollar (the Bretton Woods Agreement) to a system of flexible exchange rates where, today, in theory, the demand for and supply of the pound in the foreign exchange market determines its value.

In old economics textbooks, the adjustment process was simple.  The demand for a currency is determined by foreigners wanting to buy UK exports and needing to pay for them in sterling while the supply of sterling came from UK firms and consumers wanting to buy foreign goods and services, such as overseas holidays, and needing to swap pounds for foreign currency to pay for them. If the UK had a balance of payments deficit, the demand for sterling in the foreign exchange market would be less than the supply and so the value would depreciate against other countries, making UK exports cheaper and imports more expensive, restoring international equilibrium.

Today the situation is far more complex; not only do we have to consider the impact of a currency such as the euro which has replaced the individual currencies of the members of the eurozone, making it impossible for them to use depreciation to improve their balance of payments, it is now no longer the sale and purchase of exports and imports of goods and services which determines  the exchange rate, it is the trade in financial assets which is far more important as banks, businesses, governments and individuals buy and sell foreign shares and government securities and move money between countries to gain higher interest rates or profit from speculative movements in currencies. To put this into perspective, the World Trade Organisation estimated that in 2015, total international trade in goods and services amounted to $20 trillion while $5 trillion was traded on the foreign exchange market EACH Day.

Therefore factors which influence speculators’ views of the economy will have a major short-term impact on the value of the currency. Hence, immediately after Brexit, the general view was that leaving the EU would have detrimental effects on the economy (or at least on those dealing in financial assets and currencies) and this reduced the demand for sterling from overseas and increased its supply from UK holders seeking to purchase foreign financial assets. Similarly if the political situation changes and that affects views of the economy, then the value of the currency will change. Other things which will affect the value of the currency will be changes (or expected changes) in our rate of interest or the rate of interest in other major currencies, the economic performance of our economy or other major countries since if, for example, the US economy weakens, then relatively, the UK economy will be stronger and this will encourage a movement of money from the dollar to the pound.


What’s in store for the UK economy in 2018?

Santa has been and gone, the sleigh is parked in the long-stay car park, the reindeer are out to graze for a few months and it is time to think about what 2018 will have in store for the UK.

However economic forecasting is difficult. Unlike the natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, we cannot base our predictions on previous laboratory experiments. Furthermore, although economists frequently assume “ceteris paribus”, the real world is not like this. For example, we do not know what the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be, whether the bitcoin bubble will burst, and, if it does, what the impact will be, whether there will be a new Prime minster  or a general election this year or even what will happen to oil prices.

In an article published in the last week of 2017, The Times examined predictions made by key economic bodies (the Bank of England, the CBI, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Institute of Financial Studies and the British Chambers of Commerce) a year ago for the economy in 2017. As the table below indicates, the results are not encouraging.

  Growth Inflation Unemploy-ment Wage Increase House-hold Spending Increase
End 2016 Figure 1.9% 0.7% 4.9% 2.8% 2.8%
Highest prediction for 2017 1.6% 2.7% 5.4% 2.75% 1.5%
Lowest prediction for 2017 1.1% 2.1% 5.1% 2.1% 0.6%
Actual figure for 2017 (latest estimate) 1.7% 3.1% 4.3% 2.5% 1.0%


The UK’s growth performance has dropped from first place among the G7 in 2016 to close to the bottom and, in addition to the data above, we should note that share prices in the USA and the UK are at record highs, as is employment in the UK. However particularly worrying is the fall in real incomes which has impacted on consumption growth.   UK productivity growth has been low, with businesses tending to increase labour rather than spending on capital. Although the very latest figures show an improvement, this is because hours worked have dropped rather than output increasing. In addition, house price growth, particularly in London, has slowed.

In thinking about what might happen to the UK in 2018, there is the old saying that “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold”. This is still applicable but we might include China since the performance of the world’s largest economies will have both direct and indirect effects on the UK, since their faster growth will directly impact on our export sales and indirectly as rapidly growing demand for raw materials overseas pushes up prices for UK firms and consumers. On the other hand, we do not know whether President Trump’s desire to implement policies  focussing on “putting America first”, will have an impact on the rest of the world.

The IMF is positive about the prospects for the world economy in 2018. It predicts that world GDP will grow by 3.7% and this recovery is likely to continue for a further four years. This faster growth is the result of the three main economic areas (North America, Asia and Europe) all recovering rapidly at the same time. Businesses in the USA and France are confident following the election of business-friendly Presidents Trump and Macron, and this confidence should have a positive impact on investment. In addition, even though there have been interest rate rises in the USA and the UK, the level of world interest rates and the positive effects of QE continue to facilitate growth. The IMF therefore expects that average unemployment in the G7 will drop below 5% this year for the first time since the 1970s while inflation will remain below 2%.

Time to feel sorry for economic forecasters.




The WTO & Brexit

The World Trade Organisation has not featured  frequently in UK newspapers since its foundation in 1994. However since the Brexit vote, there has been increased interest in its role in regulating world trade  since, if no agreement is reached, the UK might be falling back on WTO trade rules following departure from the EU. Its aim, when it replaced its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), was to act as a forum for negotiations to reduce tariff barriers,  resolve trade disputes between members and provide technical assistance for developing countries.

GATT was established after the Second World War to ensure that there was no return to the protectionism which  took place in the 1930s as countries tried to protect their economies from the effects of the Great Depression. The WTO replaced GATT because of  developments in international trade since the Second World War, namely the rise of intra-firm trade where a company manufactures components in one country, assembles in a second and sells in a third, increased globalisation and the rise of trade blocs, such as the  EU, and NAFTA. It can authorise sanctions if a country breaks its rules. For example, in 2015 it ruled that the USA had acted illegally in insisting that all beef and pork sold in the USA should have the country of origin labelled. Canada, which sells much meat in the USA, applied to the WTO to impose retaliatory tariffs which will hit many different parts of the US economy in order to persuade the USA to reverse its requirement.

As well as regulating international trade, the WTO attempts to promote free trade since it believes that freer trade provides benefits in the form of greater choice and lower prices, stimulates economic growth, raises incomes and promotes world peace. It does this  via a series of meetings (or rounds) lasting many years, the latest being the Doha Round, which started in 2001, lapsed at the end of July, 2008 as trade fell due to recession, and has now been revived. But its success in reaching agreement is limited and has moved towards agreements covering specific products e.g. removing tariffs on high-end semi conductors rather than wide-ranging agreements which have been difficult to reach.

Anyone wishing to join 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 Malaysia.

Another 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 our lorries to be stopped when entering the EU and inspected, in the same way that British goods entering  Japan are currently examined. This has the potential to hinder  trade as lorries are inspected and goods checked to ensure that they meet EU standards. This might not seem a major problem but exporters fear that these delays will be significant, delaying drivers and lorries and therefore increasing 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 might require UK financial consultants, bankers, accountants, etc to  have more physical locations overseas and also to re-qualify in the countries they export to.

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. Equally, or possibly more importantly, we do not know what tariff and non-tariff arrangements will be in place between ourselves and the EU when we leave. Will UK consumers lose out because of  higher priced imports  from the EU or will these be outweighed by new trade deals negotiated by the UK with non-EU countries and will UK businesses see exports rise because of these new agreements or fall because of less trade with the EU?





Mini cheers for BMW

At the end of July there was positive news about the UK car industry. Production was 1.7 million vehicles, the highest since 1999, and  newspapers reported favourably on the decision by BMW to assemble the new electric mini at its Cowley plant, near Oxford, rather than in Germany or the Netherlands, when it goes into production in 2019.

Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, called this a “landmark decision” showing confidence in the Government’s intention to make Britain a key player in the production of the next generation of motor vehicles.

However it is worth examining this decision in more detail to see what it suggests about the UK economy. A key concept in the discussion of the gains from international trade is “comparative advantage” which relates to those goods and services in which a country has the greatest relative advantage in production over other countries. (In economic terms we are looking at focussing on the production of goods and services where a country has a lower opportunity cost than its trading partners).

Ideally, the UK would like to be involved in the high value-added aspects of the production process since this is where the most income is likely to be earned and hence workers’ pay, profits and living standards will increase. In car production this is in the development and production of such things as batteries and motors rather than the assembly of component parts into the finished product. The most important parts of the new Mini, the electric motor and battery, containing new technology, will be manufactured and assembled in Germany and then shipped to Oxford to be put in to the vehicles. While the assembly of the vehicles will ensure that jobs will remain in Britain, the greatest value-added is likely to occur in Germany since that is where the highly-skilled parts of the production process will occur.

Fifteen years ago James Dyson moved the manufacture of his vacuum cleaners to Malaysia because of the significantly lower labour costs while emphasising that the high value areas, such as research and development will remain in Britain. Similarly, Apple designs its products in the USA but the manufacture is outsourced to plants in China, Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan.

Is the BMW decision a sign that this is the way the UK economy is going?  Are we going to become a low-skilled assembly hub, trying to keep costs low in order to offset tariffs imposed on us by the EU? (With no deal with the EU, we could be facing tariffs of 10% on vehicles and 4.5% on parts). Alternatively do we look to the success of prestige British manufacturers such as Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar which, although now foreign-owned, successfully manufacture high quality products in the UK?



World Bank admits some have lost out from free trade – BBC News

An internal document seen by the BBC says globalisation “may have led to rising wage inequality” as the head of the World Bank says more needs to be done to help those who have lost their jobs.

Source: World Bank admits some have lost out from free trade – BBC News