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Depreciation: good or bad?

Senior Bank of England officials appeared before the House of Commons’ Treasury Select Committee on 21 February to report on the state of the economy and the future path for inflation and interest rates. One topic considered was the role of depreciation.

The pound has depreciated since the referendum on EU membership in June 2016. The exchange rate index today is some 9% below that before the referendum and 15% below the peak a year before the referendum.

It had fallen as much as 14% by October 2016 below the level before the referendum and 20% below its peak, pushed down partly by the cut in Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% following the referendum. In November 2017, the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee raised Bank Rate back to 0.5%. Two or three more rises of 25 basis points are expected over the next couple of years. This has helped to strengthen sterling somewhat. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below.)

But has the depreciation been advantageous or disadvantageous to the economy? Here the Governor (Mark Carney) and the Chief Economist (Andy Haldane) appeared to differ. Andy Haldane said:

A combination of the weaker pound and a stronger global economy has worked its magic. That has meant that net trade has been a significant contributor, and we expect those effects to continue over the next two or three years. … Depreciations work, and that’s how they work.

By contrast, Mark Carney said:

Depreciations don’t work. They have an economic effect, but they’re not a good economic strategy. They may be an outcome of various things … but it’s how you make yourself poorer.

Are these statements contradictory or are they simply emphasising different effects of depreciation?

Both Andy Haldane and Mark Carney would accept that a depreciation makes imports more expensive and thus reduces real incomes (at least in the short run). They would also accept that a depreciation makes exports priced in pounds cheaper in foreign currency terms and thus can boost the demand for exports.

There is disagreement over two things, however. The first is the effect on people’s real incomes in the long run. Will any fall in real incomes from higher-priced imports in the short run be offset in the long run by higher economic growth?

This relates to a second area of disagreement. This is whether a depreciation can act as a significant driver for exports over the longer term. The increased incentive on the demand side (from consumers abroad to buy UK exports) could be offset by a disincentive for exporters to become more efficient and/or to compete in terms of quality. In other words, although it can give exporters a price advantage, the crucial question is the extent to which they take advantage of this, or merely take higher profits.

The disagreements thus relate primarily to the incentive effects over the longer term.

Articles
Bank of England governor says Brexit has made us poorer – as it happened The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (21/2/18)
Brexit will knock 5% off wage growth, says Mark Carney The Guardian, Phillip Inman (21/2/18)

Video
Treasury Committee: Wednesday 21 February 2018 Parliamentlive.tv (21/2/18) (see from 16:08:00)

Bank of England documents
Treasury Select Committee hearing on the February 2018 Inflation Report Bank of England (21/2/18)
Inflation Report – February 2018 Bank of England (8/2/18)

Data
Interest & exchange rates data Bank of England

Questions

  1. How does a depreciation affect the demand for and supply of imports and exports?
  2. What determines the size of the effect on inflation of a depreciation?
  3. What is the significance of the price elasticity of demand for and supply of sterling in determining the size of depreciation resulting from a change in confidence or a change in interest rates?
  4. How does productivity growth impact on the effectiveness of a depreciation in leading to higher economic growth?
  5. In what ways might a depreciation affect productivity growth?

OPEC’s juggling act

OPEC, for some time, was struggling to control oil prices. Faced with competition from the fracking of shale oil in the USA, from oil sands in Canada and from deep water and conventional production by non-OPEC producers, its market power had diminished. OPEC now accounts for only around 40% of world oil production. How could a ‘cartel’ operate under such conditions?

One solution was attempted in 2014 and 2015. Faced with plunging oil prices which resulted largely from the huge increase in the supply of shale oil, OPEC refused to cut its output and even increased it slightly. The aim was to keep prices low and to drive down investment in alternative sources, especially in shale oil wells, many of which would not be profitable in the long term at such prices.

In late 2016, OPEC changed tack. It introduced its first cut in production since 2008. In September it introduced a new quota for its members that would cut OPEC production by 1.2 million barrels per day. At the time, Brent crude oil price was around $46 per barrel.

In December 2016, it also negotiated an agreement with non-OPEC producers, and most significantly Russia, that they would also cut production, giving a total cut of 1.8 million barrels per day. This amounted to around 2% of global production. In March 2017, it was agreed to extend the cuts for the rest of the year and in November 2017 it was agreed to extend them until the end of 2018.

With stronger global economic growth in 2017 and into 2018 resulting in a growth in demand for oil, and with OPEC and Russia cutting back production, oil prices rose rapidly again (see chart: click here for a PowerPoint). By January 2018, the Brent crude price had risen to around $70 per barrel.

Low oil prices had had the effect of cutting investment in shale oil wells and other sources and reducing production from those existing ones which were now unprofitable. The question being asked today is to what extent oil production from the USA, Canada, the North Sea, etc. will increase now that oil is trading at around $70 per barrel – a price, if sustained, that would make investment in many shale and other sources profitable again, especially as costs of extracting shale oil is falling as fracking technology improves. US production since mid-2016 has already risen by 16% to nearly 10 million barrels per day. Costs are also falling for oil sand and deep water extraction.

In late January 2018, Saudi Arabia claimed that co-operation between oil producers to limit production would continue beyond 2018. Shale oil producers in the USA are likely to be cheered by this news – unless, that is, Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC and non-OPEC countries party to the agreement change their minds.

Videos
OPEC’s Control of the Oil Market Is Running on Fumes Bloomberg (21/12/17)
Oil Reaches $70 a Barrel for First Time in Three Years Bloomberg, Stuart Wallace (11/1/18)
Banks Increasingly Think OPEC Will End Supply Cuts as Oil Hits $70 Bloomberg, Grant Smith (15/1/18)

Articles
Oil prices rise to hit four-year high of $70 a barrel BBC News (11/1/18)
Overshooting? Oil hits highest level in almost three years, with Brent nearing $70 Financial Times, Anjli Raval (10/1/18)
Can The Oil Price Rally Continue? OilPrice, Nick Cunningham (14/1/18)
Will This Cause An Oil Price Reversal? OilPrice, Olgu Okumus (22/1/18)
The world is not awash in oil yet
 Arab News, Wael Mahdi (14/1/15)
‘Explosive’ U.S. oil output growth seen outpacing Saudis, Russia CBC News (19/1/18)
Oil’s Big Two seeking smooth exit from cuts The Business Times (23/1/18)
Saudi comments push oil prices higher BusinessDay, Henning Gloystein (22/1/18)

Report
Short-term Energy Outlook U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (9/1/18)

Questions

  1. Using supply and demand diagrams, illustrate what has happened to oil prices and production over the past five years. What assumptions have you made about the price elasticity of supply and demand in your analysis?
  2. If the oil price is above the level at which it is profitable to invest in new shale oil wells, would it be in the long-term interests of shale oil companies to make such investments?
  3. Is the structure of the oil industry likely to result in long-term cycles in oil prices? Explain why or why not.
  4. Investigate the level of output from, and investment in, shale oil wells over the past three years. Explain what has happened.
  5. Would it be in the interests of US producers to make an agreement with OPEC on production quotas? What would prevent them from doing so?
  6. What is likely to happen to oil prices over the coming 12 months? What assumptions have you made and how have they affected your answer?
  7. If the short-term marginal costs of operating shale oil wells is relatively low (say, below $35 per barrel) but the long-term marginal cost (taking into account the costs of investing in new wells) is relatively high (say, over $65 per barrel) and if the life of a well is, say, 5 years, how is this likely to affect the pattern of prices and output over a ten-year period? What assumptions have you made and how do they affect your answer?
  8. If oil production from countries not party to the agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC members increases rapidly and if, as a result, oil prices start to fall again, what would it be in OPEC’s best interests to do?

Looking for solutions to the growth in inequality

Each January, world political and business leaders gather at the ski resort of Davos in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. They discuss a range of economic and political issues with the hope of guiding policy.

This year, leaders meet at a time when the global political context has and is changing rapidly. This year the focus is on ‘Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’. As the Forum’s website states:

The global context has changed dramatically: geostrategic fissures have re-emerged on multiple fronts with wide-ranging political, economic and social consequences. Realpolitik is no longer just a relic of the Cold War. Economic prosperity and social cohesion are not one and the same. The global commons cannot protect or heal itself.

One of the main ‘fissures’ which threatens social cohesion is the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of the world. Indeed, inequality and poverty is one of the main agenda items at the Davos meeting and the Forum website includes an article titled, ‘We have built an unequal world. Here’s how we can change it’ (see second link in the Articles below). The article shows how the top 1% captured 27% of GDP growth between 1980 and 2016.

The first Guardian article below identifies seven different policy options to tackle the problem of inequality of income and wealth and asks you to say, using a drop-down menu, which one you think is most important. Perhaps it’s something you would like to do.

Articles
Project Davos: what’s the single best way to close the world’s wealth gap? The Guardian, Aidan Mac Guill (19/1/18)
We have built an unequal world. Here’s how we can change it World Economic Forum, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/18)
Oxfam highlights sharp inequality as Davos elite gathers ABC news, Pan Pylas (21/1/18)
Inequality gap widens as 42 people hold same wealth as 3.7bn poorest The Guardian, Larry Elliott (22/1/18)
There’s a huge gender component to income inequality that we’re ignoring Business Insider, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (22/1/18)
Ahead of Davos, even the 1 percent worry about inequality Washington Post, Heather Long (22/1/18)
“Fractures, Fears and Failures:” World’s Ruling Elites Stare into the Abyss GlobalResearch, Bill Van Auken (18/1/18)
Why the world isn’t getting a pay raise CNN Money, Patrick Gillespie and Ivana Kottasová (1/11/17)

WEF archive
Articles on Inequality World Economic Forum

Questions

  1. Distinguish between income and wealth. In global terms, which is distributed more unequally?
  2. Why has global inequality of both income and wealth grown?
  3. Explain which of the seven policy options identified by the Guardian you would choose/did choose?
  4. Go through each one of the seven policy options and identify what costs would be associated with pursuing it.
  5. Identify any other policy options for tackling the problem.

How UK spending patterns have changed over the past 60 years

Each year for the past 60 years, the ONS has published ‘Family Spending’, which ‘gives an insight into the spending habits of UK households, broken down by household characteristics and types of spending’. The latest issue, covering the financial year ending 2017, has just been released.

To mark the 60th anniversary, the ONS has also published a blog, Celebrating 60 years of Family Spending, which compares spending patterns in 2017 with those in 1957. The blog looks at the percentage of the family budget spent on various categories, such as food, clothing, housing, tobacco and alcohol. Some of the percentages have changed dramatically over the years; others have hardly changed at all.

Before you read on, of the six categories mentioned above, which do you think have increased, which fallen and which stayed the same? What is your reasoning?

Differences in patterns of consumption partly reflect incomes. In 1957, real household income was £381 in today’s prices; today it’s £544 (43% more). You would expect, therefore, that a greater proportion of household incomes today would be spent on more luxurious goods, with a higher income elasticity of demand.

Other changes in consumption patterns reflect changes in tastes and attitudes. Thus there has been a huge fall in the proportion of household income spent on tobacco – down from 6% in 1957 to 1% in 2017.

Three of the biggest changes over the 60 years have been in housing costs, food and clothing. Housing costs (rent, mortgage interest, council tax, maintenance and home repairs) have doubled from around 9% to around 18% (although they were around 20% before the huge fall in interest rates following the financial crisis of 2007–8). Expenditure on food, by contrast, has fallen – from around 33% to around 16%. Expenditure on clothing has also fallen, from around 10% to around 5%.

Expenditure on alcohol, on the other hand, having risen somewhat in the 1970s and 80s, is roughly the same today as it was 60 years ago, at around 3% of household expenditure.

Some of the explanations for these changing patterns can be found on the supply side – changing costs of production, new technologies and competition; others can be found on the demand side – changes in tastes and changes in incomes. Some goods and services which we use today, such as computers, mobile phones, many other electrical goods, high-tech gyms and social media were simply not available 60 years ago.

Articles
Celebrating 60 years of Family Spending ONS blog, Joanna Bulman (18/1/18)
How did households budget in 1957? BBC News, Simon Gompertz (18/1/18)
Rising burden of housing costs shown by 60-year UK spending survey Financial Times, Gemma Tetlow (18/1/18)

Data
Family spending in the UK: financial year ending 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (18/1/18)
All data related to Family spending in the UK: financial year ending 2017 ONS datasets (18/1/18)

Questions

  1. Why has expenditure on housing increased so much as a proportion of household expenditure? What underlying factors help to explain this?
  2. Why has expenditure on food fallen as a proportion of household expenditure? Are the explanations on both the demand and supply sides?
  3. What has happened to the proportion of expenditure going on leisure goods and services? Explain.
  4. What factors affect the proportion of expenditure going on motoring?
  5. Of the broad categories of expenditure considered in this blog, which would you expect to increase, which to decrease and which to stay roughly the same over the coming 10 years? Why?
  6. If expenditure on a particualar good falls as a percentage of total expenditure as income rises, does this make it an inferior good? Explain.

Outsourcing, PFI and the demise of Carillion

On 15 January 2018, Carillion went into liquidation. It was a major construction, civil engineering and facilities management company in the UK and was involved in a large number of public- and private-sector projects. Many of these were as a partner in a joint venture with other companies.

It was the second largest supplier of construction and maintenance services to Network Rail, including HS2. It was also involved in the building of hospitals, including the new Royal Liverpool University Hospital and Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Smethwick. It also provided maintenance, cleaning and catering services for many schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, government departments and local authorities. In addition it was involved in many private-sector projects.

Much of the work on the projects awarded to Carillion was then outsourced to other companies, many of which are small construction, maintenance, equipment and service companies. A large number of these may themselves be forced to close as projects cease and many bills remain unpaid.

Many of the public-sector projects in which Carillion was involved were awarded under the Public Finance Initiative (PFI). Under the scheme, the government or local authority decides the service it requires, and then seeks tenders from the private sector for designing, building, financing and running projects to provide these services. The capital costs are borne by the private sector, but then, if the provision of the service is not self-financing, the public sector pays the private firm for providing it. Thus, instead of the public sector being an owner of assets and provider or services, it is merely an enabler, buying services from the private sector. The system is known as a Public Private Partnership.

Clearly, there are immediate benefits to the public finances from using private, rather than public, funds to finance a project. Later, however, there is potentially an extra burden of having to buy the services from the private provider at a price that includes an element for profit. What is hoped is that the costs to the taxpayer of these profits will be more than offset by gains in efficiency.

Critics, however, claim that PFI projects have resulted in poorer quality of provision and that cost control has often been inadequate, resulting in a higher burden for the taxpayer in the long term. What is more, many of the projects have turned out to be highly profitable, suggesting that the terms of the original contracts were too lax.

There was some modification to the PFI process in 2012 with the launching of the government’s modified PFI scheme, dubbed PF2. Most of the changes were relatively minor, but the government would act as a minority public equity co-investor in PF2 projects, with the public sector taking stakes of up to 49 per cent in individual private finance projects and appointing a director to the boards of each project. This, it was hoped, would give the government greater oversight of projects.

With the demise of Carillion, there has been considerable debate over outsourcing by the government to the private sector and of PFI in particular. Is PFI the best model for funding public-sector investment and the running of services in the public sector?

On 18 January 2018, the National Audit Office published an assessment of PFI and PF2. The report stated that there are currently 716 PFI and PF2 projects either under construction or in operation, with a total capital value of £59.4 billion. In recent years, however, ‘the government’s use of the PFI and PF2 models has slowed significantly, reducing from, on average, 55 deals each year in the five years to 2007-08 to only one in 2016-17.’

Should the government have closer oversight of private providers? The government has been criticised for not heeding profit warnings by Carillion and continuing to award it contracts.

Should the whole system of outsourcing and PFI be rethought? Should more construction and services be brought ‘in-house’ and directly provided by the public-sector organisation, or at least managed directly by it with a direct relationship with private-sector providers? The articles below consider these issues.

Articles
Carillion collapse: How can one of the Government’s biggest contractors go bust? Independent, Ben Chu (15/1/18)
The main unanswered questions raised by Carillion’s collapse The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans (15/1/18)
Carillion taskforce to help small firms hit by outsourcer’s collapse The Telegraph, Rhiannon Curry (18/1/18)
Carillion Q&A: The consequences of collapse and what the government should do next The Conversation, John Colley (17/1/18)
UK finance watchdog exposes lost PFI billions Financial Times, Henry Mance and George Parker (17/1/18)
PFI not ‘fit for purpose’, says UK provider Financial Times, Gill Plimmer and Jonathan Ford (6/11/17)
Revealed: The £200bn Cost Of ‘Wasteful’ PFI Contracts Huffington Post, George Bowden (18/1/18)
U.K. Spends $14 Billion Per Year on Carillion-Style Projects Bloomberg, Alex Morales (18/1/18)
Carillion may have gone bust, but outsourcing is a powerful public good The Guardian, John McTernan (17/1/18)
PFI deals ‘costing taxpayers billions’ BBC News (18/1/18)
Taxpayers will need to pay £200bn PFI bill, says Watchdog ITV News (18/1/18)
The PFI bosses fleeced us all. Now watch them walk away The Guardian, George Monbiot (16/1/18)
Carillion’s collapse shows that we need an urgent review of outsourcing The Guardian, David Walker (16/1/18)
Carillion collapse: What next for public services? LocalGov, Jos Creese (16/1/18)
Taxpayers to foot £200bn bill for PFI contracts – audit office The Guardian, Rajeev Syal (18/1/18)

Official publications
A new approach to public private partnerships HM Treasury (December 2012)
Private Finance Initiative and Private Finance 2 projects: 2016 summary data GOV.UK
PFI and PF2 National Audit Office (18/1/18)

Questions

  1. Why did Carillion go into liquidation? Could this have been foreseen?
  2. Identify the projects in which Carillion has been involved.
  3. What has the government proposed to deal with the problems created by Carillion’s liquidation?
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Public Finance Initiative?
  5. Why have the number and value of new PFI projects declined significantly in recent years?
  6. How might PFI projects be tightened up so as to retain the benefits and minimise the disadvantages of the system?
  7. Why have PFI cost reductions proved difficult to achieve? (See paragraphs 2.7 to 2.17 in the National Audit Office report.)
  8. How would you assess whether PFI deals represent value for money?
  9. What are the arguments for and against public-sector organisations providing services, such as cleaning and catering, directly themselves rather than outsourcing them to private-sector companies?
  10. Does outsourcing reduce risks for the public-sector organisation involved?

Should Britain’s railways be renationalised?

The linked articles below look at the state of the railways in Britain and whether renationalisation would be the best way of securing more investment, better services and lower fares.

Rail travel and rail freight involve significant positive externalities, as people and goods transported by rail reduce road congestion, accidents and traffic pollution. In a purely private rail system with no government support, these externalities would not be taken into account and there would be a socially sub-optimal use of the railways. If all government support for the railways were withdrawn, this would almost certainly result in rail closures, as was the case in the 1960s, following the publication of the Beeching Report in 1963.

Also the returns on rail investment are generally long term. Such investment may not, therefore, be attractive to private rail operators seeking shorter-term returns.

These are strong arguments for government intervention to support the railways. But there is considerable disagreement over the best means of doing so.

One option is full nationalisation. This would include both the infrastructure (track, signalling, stations, bridges, tunnels and marshalling yards) and the trains (the trains themselves – both passenger and freight – and their operation).

At present, the infrastructure (except for most stations) is owned, operated, developed and maintained by Network Rail, which is a non-departmental public company (NDPB) or ‘Quango’ (Quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation, such as NHS trusts, the Forestry Commission or the Office for Students. It has no shareholders and reinvests its profits in the rail infrastructure. Like other NDPBs, it has an arm’s-length relationship with the government. Network Rail is answerable to the government via the Department for Transport. This part of the system, therefore, is nationalised – if the term ‘nationalised organisations’ includes NDPBs and not just full public corporations such as the BBC, the Bank of England and Post Office Ltd.

Train operating companies, however, except in Northern Ireland, are privately owned under a franchise system, with each franchise covering specific routes. Each of the 17 passenger franchises is awarded under a competitive tendering system for a specific period of time, typically seven years, but with some for longer. Some companies operate more than one franchise.

Companies awarded a profitable franchise are required to pay the government for operating it. Companies awarded a loss-making franchise are given subsidies by the government to operate it. In awarding franchises, the government looks at the level of payments the bidders are offering or the subsidies they are requiring.

But this system has come in for increasing criticism, with rising real fares, overcrowding on many trains and poor service quality. The Labour Party is committed to taking franchises into public ownership as they come up for renewal. Indeed, there is considerable public support for nationalising the train operating companies.

The main issue is which system would best address the issues of externalities, efficiency, quality of service, fares and investment. Ultimately it depends on the will of the government. Under either system the government plays a major part in determining the level of financial support, operating criteria and the level of investment. For this reason, many argue that the system of ownership is less important than the level and type of support given by the government and how it requires the railways to be run.

Articles
The case for re-nationalising Britain’s railways The Conversation, Nicole Badstuber (27/8/15)
Lessons from the Beeching cuts in reviving Britain’s railwa The Conversataion, Andrew Edwards (7/12/17)
Britain’s railways were nationalised 70 years ago – let’s not do it again The Conversation, Jonathan Cowie (1/1/18)
FactCheck Q&A: Should we nationalise the railways? Channel 4 News, Martin Williiams (18/5/17)
Britain’s railways need careful expansion, not nationalisation Financial Times, Julian Glover (5/1/18)
Right or wrong, Labour is offering a solution to the legitimacy crisis of our privatised railways Independent. Ben Chu (2/1/18)
Whether or not nationalisation is the answer, there are serious questions about the health of Britain’s railways Independent. Editorial (2/1/18)
Why Nationalising The Railways Is The Biggest Misdirect In Politics Huffington Post, Chris Whiting (5/1/18)

Questions

  1. What categories of market failure would exist in a purely private rail system with no government intervention?
  2. What types of savings could be made by nationalising train operating companies?
  3. The franchise system is one of contestable monopolies. In what ways are they contestable and what benefits does the system bring? Are there any costs from the contestable nature of the system?
  4. Is it feasible to have franchises that allow more than one train operator to run on most routes, thereby providing some degree of continuing competition?
  5. How are rail fares determined in Britain?
  6. Would nationalising the train operating companies be costly to the taxpayer? Explain.
  7. What determines the optimal length of a franchise under the current system?
  8. What role does leasing play in investment in rolling stock?
  9. What are the arguments for and against the government’s decision in November 2017 to allow the Virgin/Stagecoach partnership to pull out of the East Coast franchise three years early because it found the agreed payments to the government too onerous?
  10. Could the current system be amended in any way to meet the criticisms that it does not adequately take into account the positive externalities of rail transport and the need for substantial investment, while also encouraging excessive risk taking by bidding companies at the tendering stage?

The squeeze continues

UK CPI inflation rose to 3.1% in November. This has forced Mark Carney to write a letter of explanation to the Chancellor – something he is required to do if inflation is more than 1 percentage point above (or below) the target of 2%.

The rise in inflation over the past few months has been caused largely by the depreciation of sterling following the Brexit vote. But there have been other factors at play too. The dollar price of oil has risen by 32% over the past 12 months and there have been large international rises in the price of metals and, more recently, in various foodstuffs. For example, butter prices have risen by over 20% in the past year (although they have declined somewhat recently). Other items that have seen large price rises include books, computer games, clothing and public transport.

The rate of CPI inflation is the percentage increase in the consumer prices index over the previous 12 months. When there is a one-off rise in prices, such as a rise in oil prices, its effect on inflation will only last 12 months. After that, assuming the price does not rise again, there will be no more effect on inflation. The CPI will be higher, but inflation will fall back. The effect may not be immediate, however, as input price changes take a time to work through supply chains.

Given that the main driver of inflation has been the depreciation in sterling, once the effect has worked through in terms of higher prices, inflation will fall back. Only if sterling continued depreciating would an inflation effect continue. So, many commentators are expecting that the rate on inflation will soon begin to fall.

But what will have been the effect on real incomes? In the past 12 months, nominal average earnings have risen by around 2.5% (the precise figures will not be available for a month). This means that real average earnings have fallen by around 0.6%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

For many low-income families the effect has been more severe. Many have seen little or no increase in their pay and they also consume a larger proportion of items whose prices have risen by more than the average. Those on working-age benefits will be particularly badly hit as benefits have not risen since 2015.

If inflation does fall and if real incomes no longer fall, people will still be worse off unless real incomes rise back to the levels they were before they started falling. That could be some time off.

Articles
UK inflation rate at near six-year high BBC News (12/12/17)
Inflation up as food costs jump – and gas crisis threatens worse to come The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (12/12/17)
UK worst for pay growth as rich world soars ahead in 2018 The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (12/12/17)
Inflation rises to 3.1%, adding to UK cost of living squeeze The Guardian, Larry Elliott (12/12/17)
UK inflation breaches target as it climbs to 3.1% Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (12/12/17)
Inflation surges to 3.1% in November, a near six-year high Belfast Telegraph (12/12/17)

Data
CPI annual rate of increase (all items) ONS: series D7G7
Average weekly earnings, annual (3-month average) ONS: series KAC3
UK consumer price inflation: November 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (12/12/17)
Commodity prices Index Mundi

Questions

  1. Apart from CPI inflation, what other measures of inflation are there? Explain their meaning.
  2. Why is inflation of 2%, rather than 0%, seen as the optimal rate by most central banks?
  3. Apart from the depreciation of sterling, what other effects is Brexit likely to have on living standards in the UK?
  4. What are the arguments for and against the government raising benefits by the rate of CPI inflation?
  5. If Europe and the USA continue to grow faster than the UK, what effect is this likely to have on the euro/pound and dollar/pound exchange rates? What determines the magnitude of this effect?
  6. Unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975. Why, then, are real wages falling?
  7. Why, in the light of inflation being above target, has the Bank of England not raised Bank Rate again in December (having raised it from 0.25% to 0.5% in November)?

Bubbling bitcoin

What do tulips, nickel mining in Australia, South Seas trading, Beanie Babies and cryptocurrencies have in common? The answer is that they have all been the subject of speculative bubbles. In the first four cases the bubble burst. A question currently being asked is whether it will happen to bitcoin.

Bitcoin
Bitcoin was created in 2009 by an unknown person, or people, using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto. It is a digital currency in the form of a line of computer code. Bitcoins are like ‘electronic cash’ which can be held or used for transactions, with holdings and transactions heavily encrypted for security – hence it is a form of ‘crytocurrency’. People can buy and sell bitcoins for normal currencies as well as using them for transactions. People’s holdings are held in electronic ‘wallets’ and can be accessed on their computers or phones via the Internet. Transfers of bitcoins from one person or organisation to another are recorded in a public electronic ledger in the form of a ‘blockchain‘.

The supply of bitcoins is not controlled by central banks; rather, it is determined by a process known as ‘mining’. This involves individuals or groups solving complex and time-consuming mathematical problems and being rewarded with a new block of bitcoins.

The supply of bitcoins is currently growing at around 150 per hour and the current supply is around ₿16.7 million. However, the number of new bitcoins in a block is halved for every 210,000 blocks. This means that the rate of increase in the supply of bitcoins is slowing – the number generated being halved roughly every four years. The supply will eventually reach a maximum of ₿21 million, probably sometime in the next century, but around 99% will have been mined by around 2032.

The bitcoin bubble
The price of bitcoins has soared in recent months and especially in the past two. On 4 October, the price of a bitcoin was $4226; by 7 December it was nearly four times higher, at $16,858 – a rise of 399% in just nine weeks. Many people have claimed that this is a bubble, which will soon burst. Already there have been severe fluctuations. By December 10, for example, the price had fallen at one point to $13,152 – a fall of nearly 22% in just two days – only to recover to over $15,500 within a few hours.

So what determines the price of bitcoin? The simple answer is very straightforward – it’s determined by demand and supply. But what has been happening to demand and supply and why? And what will happen in the near and more distant future?

As we have seen, the supply is limited by the process of mining, which allows a relatively stable, but declining, increase. The explanation of the recent price rise and what will happen in the future lies on the demand side. Increasing numbers of people have been buying bitcoin, not because they want to use it for transactions, whether legitimate or illegal over the dark web, but because they want to invest in bitcoin. In other words, they want to hold bitcoin as an asset which is increasing in value. These people are known as ‘hodlers’ – a deliberate misspelling of ‘holders’.

But this speculation is of the destabilising form. The more prices have risen, the more people have bought bitcoin, thus pushing the price up further. This is a classic bubble, whereby the price does not reflect an underlying value, but rather the exuberance of buyers.

The problem with bubbles is that they will burst, but just when is virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. If the price of bitcoins falls, what will happen next depends on how the fall is interpreted. It could be interpreted as a temporary fall, caused by some people cashing in to take advantage of the higher prices. At the same time, other people, believing that it is only a temporary fall, will rush to buy, snapping up bitcoins at the temporary low price. This ‘stabilising speculation’ will move the price back up again.

However, the fall in price may be seen as the bubble bursting, with even bigger falls ahead. In this case, people will rush to sell before it falls further, thereby pushing the price even lower. This destabilising speculation will amplify the fall in prices.

But even if the bubble does burst, people may believe that another bubble will then occur and, once they think the bottom has been reached, will thus start buying again and there will be a second speculative rise in the price.

The crash could be very short-lived. This happened with the second biggest cryptocurrency, Ethereum. On 21 June this year, the price at the beginning of the day was $360. It then began to fall during the say. Once its price reached $315, it then collapsed by 96% to $13 with massive selling, much of it automatic with computers programmed to sell when the price falls by more than a certain amount. But then, on the same day, it rebounded. Within minutes it had bounced back and was trading at $337 at the end of the day. It is now trading at around $450 – up from around $300 four weeks ago.

Whether the bubble in bitcoin has more to inflate, when it will burst, and when it will rebound and by how much, depends on people’s expectations. But what we are looking at here is people’s expectations of what other people are likely to do – in other words, of other people’s expectations, which in turn depend on their expectations of other people’s expectations. This situation is known as a Keynesian Beauty Contest (see the blog, A stock market beauty contest of the machines). Perhaps we need a crystal ball.

Articles
Is Bitcoin a bubble? Here’s what two bubble experts told us Trade Online, Timothy B. Lee (8/12/17)
Bitcoin and tulipmania have a lot more in common than you might think Business Insider, Seth Archer (8/12/17)
Bitcoin ends dramatic week with 20% slump followed by recovery The Guardian, Jill Treanor (8/12/17)
Putting a price on Bitcoin The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (8/12/17)
Is Bitcoin a Bubble Waiting to Pop? InvestorPlace, Matt McCall (8/12/17)
Bitcoin bubble follows classic pattern of investment mania Financial Times, John Authers (8/12/17)
The Bitcoin bubble – how we know it will burst The Conversation, Larisa Yarovaya and Brian Lucey (6/12/17)
Bitcoin isn’t a currency – and unless it becomes one it could be worthless The Conversation, Vili Lehdonvirta (6/12/17)
How Bitcoin futures trading could burst the cryptocurrency’s bubble The Conversation, Nafis Alam (13/12/17)
Op-ed: Bitcoin Is Not a Bubble; It’s in an S-Curve and It’s Just Getting Started Bitcoin Magazine, Brandon Green (8/12/17)
Bitcoin vs history’s biggest bubbles: They never end well CNN Money, Daniel Shane (8/12/17)
The 10 Most Ridiculous Price Bubbles In History Business Insider, Vincent Fernando and Anika Anand (11/10/10)
After bitcoin’s wild week, traders brace for futures launch Reuters, Saqib Iqbal Ahmed (10/12/17)

Cryptocurrencies current market prices
Bitcoin live exchange prices and volumes ($) CryptoCompare
All cryptocurrencies – live market prices Yahoo Finance

Questions

  1. To what extent does Bitcoin meet the functions of money?
  2. Why is bitcoin unsuitable for normal transactions?
  3. To what extent is bitcoin like gold as a means of holding wealth?
  4. How would you advise someone thinking of buying bitcoin today? Explain why.
  5. Does a rapid rise in the price of an asset always indicate a bubble? Explain
  6. To what extent is the current rise in the price of bitcoin similar to that of the tulip, Poseidon and Beanie Baby bubbles?
  7. If bitcoin is appreciating relative to the dollar and other currencies, does this mean that the price of goods and services valued in bitcoin are falling? Explain.
  8. Explain and comment on the following sentence from the first Conversation article: “Like any asset, Bitcoin has some fundamental value, even if only a hope value, or a value arising from scarcity.”
  9. How might the introduction of futures trading in bitcoin impact on its price and the volatility of price swings?
  10. Explain and assess the argument that the price trend of bitcoin is more likely to be an S curve rather than a roller coaster

The geographical immobility of labour in England – a social problem

Where you live in Great Britain can have a profound effect on your earning potential. According to a report published by the Social Mobility Commission, there is a growing geographical divide, with more affluent areas getting relatively richer, while ‘many other parts of the country are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially’.

The Commission uses a Social Mobility Index to rank the 324 local authorities in England. The index is a measure of the social mobility prospects for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is ‘made up of 16 key performance indicators spanning each major life stage’.

The index shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have lower educational attainment, poorer initial jobs and poorer prospects for advancement in the labour market. Often they are stuck in low paid jobs with little chance of getting on the housing ladder and fewer chances of moving away from the area.

The problem is not simply one of a North-South divide or one of inner cities versus the suburbs. Many inner-city areas have been regenerated, with high incomes and high social and geographical mobility. Other inner-city areas remain deprived.

The worst performing areas are remote rural or coastal areas and former industrial areas, where industries have closed. As the author of the report states in the Guardian article linked below:

These areas have fewer specialist teachers, fewer good schools, fewer good jobs and worse transport links. … Many of these areas have suffered from a lack of regeneration: few high-paying industries are located there, and they often exhibit relatively limited job opportunities and clusters of low pay.

The problem often exists within areas, with some streets exhibiting growing affluence, where the residents have high levels of social mobility, while other streets have poor housing and considerable levels of poverty and deprivation. Average incomes for such areas thus mask this type of growing divide within areas. Indeed, some of the richest areas have worse outcomes for disadvantaged children than generally poorer areas.

There are various regional and local multiplier effects that worsen the situation. Where people from disadvantaged backgrounds are successful, they tend to move away from the deprived areas to more affluent ones, thereby boosting the local economy in such areas and providing no stimulus to the deprived areas. And so the divide grows.

Policies, according to the report, need to focus public investment, and incentives for private investment, in deprived areas. They should not focus simply on whole regions. You can read the specific policy recommendations in the articles below.

Articles
Social mobility is a stark postcode lottery. Too many in Britain are being left behind The Guardian, Alan Milburn (28/11/17)
State of the Nation – Sector Response FE News (28/11/17)
Social mobility: the worst places to grow up poor BBC News, Judith Burns and Adina Campbell (28/11/17)
How Britain’s richest regions offer worst prospects for poor young people Independent, May Bulman (28/11/17)
Small Towns Worst Places In Britain For Social Mobility, New ‘State Of The Nation’ Report Reveals Huffington Post, Paul Waugh (28/11/17)

Report
Social mobility in Great Britain: fifth state of the nation report Social Mobility Commission, News (28/11/17)
Fifth State of the Nation Report Social Mobility Commission, News (28/11/17)

Questions

  1. Explain how local multipliers operate.
  2. What is the relationship between social immobility as identified in the report and the elasticity of supply of labour in specific jobs?
  3. What is the link between geographical, occupational and social mobility?
  4. Explain why, apart from London, English cities are ‘punching below their weight on social mobility outcomes’.
  5. Go through each of the key policy recommendations of the report and consider the feasibility of introducing them.
  6. What policies could be adopted to retain good teachers in schools in deprived areas?
  7. To what extent might an increased provision of training ease the problem of social mobility?
  8. Investigate policies adopted in other European countries to tackle local deprivation. Are there lessons that can be learned by the UK government, devolved governments, local authorities or other agencies?

A Budget warning on productivity and growth

In delivering his Budget on 22 November, Philip Hammond reported that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility had revised down its forecasts of growth in productivity and real GDP, and hence of earnings growth.

Today, median earnings are £23,000 per annum. This is £1500 less than the £24,500 that the median worker earned in 2008 in today’s prices. The OBR forecasts a growth in real household disposable income of just 0.35% per annum for the next four years.

With lower growth in earnings would come a lower growth in tax revenues. With his desire to cut the budget deficit and start eventually reducing government debt, this would give the government less scope for spending on infrastructure, training and other public-sector investment; less scope to support public services, such as health and education; less scope for increasing benefits and public-sector wages.

The normal measure of productivity, and the one used by the OBR, is the value of output produced per hour worked. This has hardly increased at all since the financial crisis of 2008. It now takes an average worker in the UK approximately five days to produce the same amount as it takes an average worker in Germany four days. Although other countries’ productivity growth has also slowed since the financial crisis, it has slowed more in the UK and from a lower base – and is now forecast to rebound less quickly.

For the past few years the OBR has been forecasting that productivity growth would return to the trend rate of just over 2% that the UK achieved prior to 2008. For example, the forecasts it made in June 2010 are shown by the grey line in the chart, which were based on the pre-crash trend rate of growth in productivity (click on chart to enlarge). And the forecasts it made in November 2016 are shown by the pale green line. Yet each year productivity has hardly changed at all. Today output per hour is less than 1% above its level in 2008.

Now the OBR believes that poorer productivity growth will persist. It is still forecasting an increase (the blue line in the chart) – but by 0.7 of a percentage point less than it was forecasting a year ago (the pale green line): click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.

We have assumed that productivity growth will pick up a little, but remain significantly lower than its pre-crisis trend rate throughout the next five years. On average, we have revised trend productivity growth down by 0.7 percentage points a year. It now rises from 0.9 per cent this year to 1.2 per cent in 2022. This reduces potential output in 2021-22 by 3.0 per cent. The ONS estimates that output per hour is currently 21 per cent below an extrapolation of its pre-crisis trend. By the beginning of 2023 we expect this to have risen to 27 per cent.

Why has there been such weak productivity growth?
Weak productivity growth has been caused by a mixture of factors.

Perhaps the most important is that investment as a percentage of GDP has been lower than before the financial crisis and lower than in other countries. Partly this has been caused by a lack of funding for investment as banks have sought to rebuild their capital and have cut down on riskier loans. Partly it has been caused by a lack of demand for investment, given sluggish rates of economic growth and the belief that austerity will continue.

And it is not just private investment. Public-sector investment in transport infrastructure, housing and education and training has been lower than in other countries. Indeed, the poor training record and low skill levels in the UK are main contributors to low productivity.

The fall in the pound since the Brexit vote has raised business costs and further dampened demand as incomes have been squeezed.

Another reason for low productivity growth has been that employers have responded to weak demand, not by laying off workers and thereby raising unemployment, but by retaining low-productivity workers on low wages. Another has been the survival of ‘zombie’ firms, which, by paying low wages and facing ultra-low interest rates, are able to survive competition from firms that do invest.

Why is weak productivity growth forecast to continue?
Looking forward, the nature of the Brexit deal will impact on confidence, investment, wages and growth. If the deal is bad for the UK, the OBR’s forecasts are likely to be too optimistic. As it is, uncertainty over the nature of the post-Brexit world is weighing heavily on investment as some businesses choose to wait before committing to new investment.

On the other hand, exports may rise faster as firms respond to the depreciation of the pound and this may stimulate investment, thereby boosting productivity.

Another factor is the effect of continuing tight Budgets. There was some easing of austerity in this Budget, as the Chancellor accepted a slower reduction in the deficit, but government spending will remain tight and this is likely to weigh on growth and investment and hence productivity.

But this may all be too gloomy. It is very difficult to forecast productivity growth, especially as it is hard to measure output in much of the service sector. It may be that the productivity growth forecasts will be revised up before too long. For example, the benefits from new technologies, such as AI, may flow through more quickly than anticipated. But they may flow through more slowly and the productivity forecasts may have to be revised down even further!

Articles
The OBR’s productivity “forecast” Financial Times, Kadhim Shubber
U.K. Faces Longest Fall in Living Standards on Record Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy and Thomas Penny (23/11/17)
Britain’s Productivity Pain Costs Hammond $120 Billion Bloomberg, Fergal O’Brien (22/11/17)
OBR slashes Britain’s growth forecast on sluggish productivity and miserly pay The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (22/11/17)
Budget 2017: Stagnant earnings forecast ‘astonishing’ BBC News (23/11/17)
Economists warn Budget measures to lift productivity fall short Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Gill Plimmer (22/11/17)
Why the economic forecasts for Britain are so apocalyptic – and how much Brexit is to blame Independent, Ben Chu (24/11/17)
Growth holds steady as economists doubt OBR’s gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (23/11/17)
Britain’s debt will not fall to 2008 levels until 2060s, IFS says in startling warning Independent, Lizzy Buchan (23/11/17)
Philip Hammond’s budget spots Britain’s problems but fails to fix them The Economist (22/11/17)
Debunking the UK’s productivity problem The Conversation, Paul Lewis (24/11/17)
Budget 2017: experts respond The Conversation (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Forecasts Mean ‘Longest Ever Fall In Living Standards’, Says Resolution Foundation Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (23/11/17)
It May Just Sound Like A Statistic, But Productivity Growth Matters For All Of Us Huffington Post, Thomas Pope (24/11/17) (see also)
UK prospects for growth far weaker than first predicted, says OBR The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (22/11/17)
UK faces two decades of no earnings growth and more austerity, says IFS The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/11/17)
Age of austerity isn’t over yet, says IFS budget analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/11/17)

Summary of Budget measures
Budget 2017: FT experts look at what it means for you Financial Times (24/11/17)

Official Documents
Autumn Budget 2017 HM Treasury (22/11/17)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2017 Office for Budget Responsibility (22/11/17)

IFS analysis
Autumn Budget 2017 Institute for Fiscal Studies (23/11/17)

Questions

  1. What measures of productivity are there other than output per hour? Why is output per hour normally the preferred measure of productivity?
  2. What factors determine output per hour?
  3. Why have forecasts of productivity growth rates been revised downwards?
  4. What are the implications of lower productivity growth for government finances?
  5. What could cause an increase in output per hour? Would there be any negative effects from these causes?
  6. What policies could the government pursue to increase productivity? How feasible are these policies? Explain.
  7. Would it matter if the government increased borrowing substantially to fund a large programme of public investment?