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.

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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.

Structural Unemployment in Australia

http://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/gm-to-close-last-holden-factory-ending-over-a-century-of-car

Structural unemployment has many causes; advances in technology can make some jobs redundant, offshoring production to low-cost producers means a lack of domestic demand for certain workers, and a permanent decline in demand can make some industries obsolete.

This article, courtesy of Ryan Z, is an illustration of the 2nd cause mentioned above. Australian’s, obviously, will still buy cars, but all will now be imported as domestic production ends. Car plant workers will find it difficult to find work because their skills are no longer in demand. They either move overseas to find work or retrain. The latter is far more likely but does come at a cost to the individual, through lost earnings, and the government, who are likely to partly fund re-training programmes. Building a flexible workforce can help reduce the level of structural unemployment, but this is far from easy.

 

 

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 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.

 

 

A New Industrial Strategy

 Although over-shadowed by the Budget and news of the forthcoming royal wedding, we saw an event last month which might potentially have a major impact on the UK. This was the launch of the Government’s Industrial Strategy which builds on the policy put in place by the coalition government from 2010.

Industrial Strategy is not new. The Labour Government introduced a National Plan in 1965 to boost the UK’s economic growth with a target of a 25% increase in GDP by 1970. To achieve this, there were key areas to be addressed such as reducing government spending at home and overseas, helping exporters, promoting regional equality and establishing an agreement between employers and trade unions on productivity, prices and incomes. The National Plan was abandoned when sterling was devalued in November 1967.

The next significant attempt at industrial strategy came with the Labour Government in 1975 which was facing the same long-standing problem of poor economic performance. The approach copied successful French and Japanese models and was based on ‘Indicative Planning’ – the idea that a government commitment to a long-term macroeconomic framework would give the private sector the confidence to invest and expand. The UK approach (An Approach to Industrial Strategy, November 1975) focussed on tripartite agreements between the Government, employers and trade unions to improve performance in individual sectors and firms, giving  priority to manufacturing industry over the growing service sector. By the time Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Government took office in 1979, it had not met its targets and found no place in the economic armoury of the free market, anti-inflation of the new Government.

The latest approach, announced last week, aims to improve productivity while maintaining our high level of employment and focusses on four areas where the UK can become technological leaders. These are Artificial Intelligence and the Data Economy, Clean Growth, the Future of Mobility, making the UK a world leader in the way people, goods and services move and the Ageing Society, harnessing the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an ageing society.

The Government aims to raise R&D investment from 1.7% to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, via investment of £725m in a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and  an increase in the rate of R&D tax credit to 12%. To improve skills, the White Paper talks of “establishing a technical education system that rivals the best in the world to stand alongside our world-class higher education system” and will invest an additional £406m in maths, digital and technical education, helping to address the STEM shortage. There will also be a retraining scheme to provide support for people to retrain in new industries including the forthcoming £64m investment for digital and construction training. The National Infrastructure Fund will be raised to £31bn for transport, housing and digital infrastructure; electric vehicles will be helped by a £400m investment in the charging infrastructure and an extra £100m to extend the plug-in car grant. The digital infrastructure will benefit from over £1bn of public investment for 5G providing fibre broadband for remote areas. There will be partnerships between government and industry to increase productivity, starting in the life sciences, construction, artificial intelligence and automotive sectors. A new £2.5bn Investment Fund will be established which it is hoped will increase private investment by over £20bn in innovative and high potential businesses. The Strategy also tries to address the problem of low productivity specifically among the weakest firms in many industries – the tail which is significantly longer than in many of our competitor countries. This is partly due to poor management which has been linked to the relatively large number of small, often family-run firms in the UK compared to our competitors.

Will the latest industrial strategy succeed where many of its predecessors  failed? Firstly although the numbers mentioned above seem large, they are not when compared to the UK’s GDP of approximately £2,000bn; the National Infrastructure Fund amounts to only 1.55% of GDP. Secondly the target of increasing R&D to 2.4% of GDP is very modest when both the USA (2.8%) and Germany (2.9%) already exceed it.

Thirdly businesses need certainty when planning investment decisions, and this is particularly important given the uncertainty which exists at present over the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Therefore its chances of success would be significantly boosted if the Labour Party were to commit to keeping the measures in place were it to be elected.

 

The end of the era of low interest rates?

On Thursday 2nd November, the Bank of England increased interest rates. Although the increase was not large (from 0.25% to 0.5%), possibly it marks the end of an era. It was the first increase since 2007 and follows the cut in rates in 2009 from 4.5% to 0.5% after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The rate was further cut in 2016 to 0.5% following the Brexit vote.

Traditionally the rate rise should benefit savers and make it more expensive for borrowers, particularly those with mortgages. However the UK economy has changed in the ten years since rates were last increased. Banks have been far slower to reward savers  than to punish borrowers when rates rise so savers should not get too excited by the rise in interest rates. More importantly, the number of homeowners with variable rate mortgages has fallen significantly, with The Times estimating that only 10% of households will be affected by the rate rise. This is partly because of the shift to fixed rate mortgages, which now account for 60% of mortgages, the increase in renting and the repayment of mortgages among older households.

Secondly, although in percentage terms the rise is large, in absolute terms it is relatively small and, for a family with a £250,000 variable rate mortgage, they will currently be paying approximately £1,125 per month and their payments will rise about 2.25% or £25 per month. This will reduce discretionary income and consequently consumption is likely to be slightly reduced. There are however two more significant effects. Those borrowing via  credit cards or taking out loans for large purchases such as cars or furniture, will see borrowing costs rise and this could deter future consumption. Another issue is that people currently with very high borrowing, particularly those on low incomes, might find it increasingly difficult to repay the interest on their existing borrowing, with an impact on bankruptcies. Most important is likely to be the psychological impact of the rate increase since a signal has been sent out that the era of ultra-low interest rates is coming to an end.

The rate increase is not unexpected, having been forecast in the press for some time. The recent rise in inflation to 3% made it more likely. However it is worth assessing the decision  in more detail. Normally interest rates increase as inflation rises in order to reduce inflationary pressures in the economy and keep inflation within the 1% – 3% band set for the Bank of England by the Government. According to the traditional Phillips Curve idea, rises in inflation are likely to occur simultaneously with falls in unemployment as increases in aggregate demand in an economy work simultaneously to increase prices and reduce unemployment as firms attempt to hire more workers to increase output, thereby putting an upward pressure on wages which then feeds into higher inflation. One could therefore easily argue that, at many times, an increase in interest rates is a sign of a strong economy experiencing rapid growth.

The current situation is slightly different. The increase in UK inflation can be partly explained by the fall in the value of sterling following the Brexit vote and this will drop out of the CPI index over the next few months. Secondly, although unemployment is at a record low at 4.3%, there has not been the rise in earnings which, in the past, we would have expected to accompany the strength of the labour market, thirdly there has been a slow-down in the UK’s rate of growth and finally there is still considerable uncertainty in the economy about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations which is affecting confidence among businesses. So why the rise in rates?

One explanation for the rise in interest rates comes from Ed Conway, the Economics Editor of Sky News who suggests that the UK’s ability to grow without inflation has fallen in recent years because of our poor productivity growth. Whereas in the past we might have been able to sustain growth of 2 – 2.5% without inflation, he thinks the maximum figure for non-inflationary growth might now be 1.5%. Therefore, without compensating action, inflation is likely to increase.