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Nudging mainstream economics

The annual Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, normally known as the Nobel Prize in Economics, has been awarded 49 times since it was founded in 1969. Many well-known economists have been recipients of the award. This year it had been awarded to Richard Thaler for his research in behavioural economics. The award recognises his work in integrating economics with psychology.

Richard H. Thaler has incorporated psychologically realistic assumptions into analyses of economic decision-making. By exploring the consequences of limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control, he has shown how these human traits systematically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes.

In total, Richard Thaler’s contributions have built a bridge between the economic and psychological analyses of individual decision-making. His empirical findings and theoretical insights have been instrumental in creating the new and rapidly expanding field of behavioural economics, which has had a profound impact on many areas of economic research and policy.

Instead of making the assumption that people are rational maximisers, behavioural economists look at how people actually behave and respond to various incentives.

For example, people may be motivated by concepts of fairness and be prepared to make personal sacrifices for the sake of others. Such concepts of fairness tend to depend on the social context in which choices are made and can be influenced by the way choices are framed.

Also people may not weigh up costs and benefits but use simple rules of thumb, or heuristics, when making decisions. This might be an example of rational behaviour when time or information is limited, but the use of such heuristics often becomes engrained in behaviour and the rules become just habit.

People may also suffer from a lack of willpower or ‘present bias’. They may spend more than they can afford because they cannot resist the temptation to have a product. They may overeat because of the short-term pleasure it brings and ignore the long-term effects on their health.

Understanding how people make choices and the temptations to which they succumb can help policymakers devise incentives to change behaviour to achieve various social goals.

One type of incentive is nudging. A well-known example is people’s choice about whether to become an organ donor in the event of their death. If people are required to opt in to such a scheme, they may never get round to doing so. However, if they are required to opt out if they do not want to participate, many more people would thereby be donors and more organs would become available.

Another form of nudge is making desirable things fun. A well-known experiment here was encouraging people to use the stairs rather than the escalator when exiting a subway by making the stairs like a musical keyboard. See here for more examples.

The UK government set up a Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the Nudge Unit (now independent of government) to find ways of encouraging people to behave in their own or society’s best interests.

But it is not just governments which use the insights of behavioural economists such as Thaler. The advertising and marketing industry is always examining the most effective means of influencing behaviour. A classic example is the loss leader, where consumers are tempted into a shop with a special offer and then end up buying more expensive items there rather than elsewhere.

Firms and advertisers know only too well the gains from tempting people to buy items that give them short-term gratification – such as putting chocolate bars by the tills in supermarkets.

Understanding consumer psychology helps firms to manipulate people’s choices. And such manipulation may not be in our best interests. If we are being persuaded to buy this product or that, are we fully aware of what’s going on and how our tastes are being affected? Would we, by standing back and reflecting, make the same choices as we do on impulse or out of habit?

And governments too can seek to manipulate people in ways that some may find undesirable. Governments may try to influence us to follow their particular political agenda – as may newspapers. Certainly, during election or referendum campaigns, we are being nudged to vote a particular way.

It is important then for us to understand when we are being nudged or otherwise persuaded. Do we really want to behave in that way? Just as it is important, then, for governments and firms to understand individuals’ behaviour, so too it is important for individuals to understand their own behaviour.

Articles
Richard Thaler’s work demonstrates why economics is hard The Economist, RA (11/10/17)
Nobel in Economics Is Awarded to Richard Thaler The New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (9/10/17)
The Making of Richard Thaler’s Economics Nobel The New Yorker, John Cassidy (10/10/17)
Nobel prize in economics awarded to Richard Thaler The Guardian, Richard Partington (10/10/17)
Richard Thaler is a controversial Nobel prize winner – but a deserving one The Guardian, Robert Shiller (11/10/17)
What the mainstreaming of behavioural nudges reveals about neoliberal government The Conversation, Rupert Alcock (17/10/17)
This year’s economics Nobel winner invented a tool that’s both brilliant and undemocratic Vox, Henry Farrell (16/10/17)

Questions

  1. For what reasons may individuals not always weigh up the costs and benefits of purchasing an item?
  2. Give some examples of the use of heuristics in making consumption decisions?
  3. Is the use of heuristics irrational?
  4. Explain how people considering that they have behaved fairly is influenced by the social context of their behaviour?
  5. Find out what is meant by the Dictator Game and how it can challenge the assumption that people behave selfishly. How is the ‘dictator’s’ behaviour affected by the possible payoffs?
  6. Thaler suggested that Brexit could be an example of behavioural economics in action. Find out what he meant by this. Do you agree?
  7. Give some examples of ways in which the government can nudge people to persuade them to behave in socially or individually desirable ways.
  8. Find out what is meant by the ‘endowment effect’ and how it influences people’s valuation of items they own.
  9. Why may nudging by governments be undemocratic?

UK low productivity growth – even worse than thought

In various blogs, we’ve looked at the UK’s low productivity growth, both relative to other countries and relative to the pre-1998 financial crisis (see, for example, The UK productivity puzzle and Productivity should we be optimistic?). Productivity is what drives long-term economic growth as it determines potential GDP. If long-term growth is seen as desirable, then a fall in productivity represents a serious economic problem.

Recent data suggest that the problem, if anything, is worse than previously thought and does not seem to be getting better. Productivity is now some 21% below what it would have been had productivity growth continued at the rate experienced in the years before the financial crisis (see second chart below).

In its latest productivity statistics, the ONS reports that labour productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) fell by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2017. This follows a fall of 0.5% in quarter 1. Over the whole year to 2017 Q2, productivity fell by 0.3%.

Most other major developed countries have much higher productivity than the UK. In 2016, Italy’s productivity was 9.9% higher than the UK’s; the USA’s was 27.9%, France’s was 28.7% and Germany’s was 34.5% higher. What is more, their productivity has grown faster (see chart).

But what of the future? The Office for Budget responsibility publishes forecasts for productivity growth, but has consistently overestimated it. After predicting several times in the past that UK productivity growth would rise towards its pre-financial crisis trend of around 2% per year, in its October 2017 Forecast evaluation Report it recognises that this was too optimisitic and revises downwards its forecasts for productivity growth for 2017 and beyond.

As the period of historically weak productivity growth lengthens, it seems less plausible to assume that potential and actual productivity growth will recover over the medium term to the extent assumed in our most recent forecasts. Over the past five years, growth in output per hour has averaged 0.2 per cent. This looks set to be a better guide to productivity growth in 2017 than our March forecast of 1.6 per cent.

Looking further ahead, it no longer seems central to assume that productivity growth will recover to the 1.8 per cent we assumed in March 2017 within five years.

But why has productivity growth not returned to pre-crisis levels? There are five possible explanations.

The first is that there has been labour hoarding. But with companies hiring more workers, this is unlikely still to be true for most employers.

The second is that very low interest rates have allowed some low-productivity companies to survive, which might otherwise have been driven out of business.

The third is a reluctance of banks to lend for investment. After the financial crisis this was driven by the need for them to repair their balance sheets. Today, it may simply be greater risk aversion than before the financial crisis, especially with the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.

The fourth is a fall in firms’ desire to invest. Although investment has recovered somewhat from the years directly following the financial crisis, it is still lower than might be expected in an economy that is no longer is recession. Indeed, there has been a much slower investment recovery than occurred after previous recessions.

The fifth is greater flexibility in the labour market, which has subdued wages and has allowed firms to respond to higher demand by taking on more relatively low-productivity workers rather than having to invest in human capital or technology.

Whatever the explanation, the solution is for more investment in both technology and in physical and human capital, whether by the private or the public sector. The question is how to stimulate such investment.

Articles
UK productivity lagging well behind G7 peers – ONS Financial Times, Katie Martin (6/10/17)
UK productivity sees further fall BBC News (6/10/17)
UK resigned to endless productivity gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/10/17)
UK productivity estimates must be ‘significantly’ lowered, admits OBR The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (10/10/17)
UK productivity growth to remain sluggish, says OBR BBC News (10/10/17)
Official Treasury forecaster slashes UK productivity growth forecast, signalling hole in public finances for November Budget Independent, Ben Chu (10/10/17)
The Guardian view on Britain’s productive forces: they are not working The Guardian, Editorial (10/10/17)

Data and statistical analysis
Labour productivity: April to June 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (6/10/17)
International comparisons of productivity ONS Dataset (6/10/17)
Forecast evaluation report OBR (October 2017)

Questions

  1. Explain the relationship between labour productivity and potential GDP.
  2. What is the relationship between actual growth in GDP and labour productivity?
  3. Why does the UK lag France and Germany more in output per hour than in output per worker, but the USA more in output per worker than in output per hour?
  4. Is there anything about the UK system of financing investment that results in lower investment than in other developed countries?
  5. Why are firms reluctant to invest?
  6. In what ways could public investment increase productivity?
  7. What measures would you recommend to encourage greater investment and why?
  8. How do expectations affect the growth in labour productivity?

Hurricanes and the social rate of discount

With first Houston, then several Caribbean islands and Florida suffering dreadful flooding and destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many are questioning whether more should be spent on flood prevention and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economists would normally argue that such questions are answered by conducting a cost–benefit analysis.

However, even if the size of the costs and benefits of such policies could be measured, this would not be enough to give the answer. Whether such spending is justified would depend on the social rate of discount. But what the rate should be in cost-benefit analyses is a highly contested issue, especially when the benefits occur a long time in the future.

I you ask the question today, ‘should more have been spent on flood prevention in Houston and Miami?’, the answer would almost certainly be yes, even if the decision had to have been taken many years ago, given the time it takes to plan and construct such defences. But if you asked people, say, 15 years ago whether such expenditure should be undertaken, many would have said no, given that the protection would be provided quite a long time in the future. Also many people back then would doubt that the defences would be necessary and many would not be planning to live there indefinitely.

This is the familiar problem of people valuing costs and benefits in the future less than costs and benefits occurring today. To account for this, costs and benefits in the future are discounted by an annual rate to reduce them to a present value.

But with costs and benefits occurring a long time in the future, especially from measures to reduce carbon emissions, the present value is very sensitive to the rate of discount chosen. But choosing the rate of discount is fraught with difficulties.

Some argue that a social rate of discount should be similar to long-term market rates. But market rates reflect only the current generation’s private preferences. They do not reflect the costs and benefits to future generations. A social rate of discount that did take their interests into account would be much lower and could even be argued to be zero – or negative with a growing population.

Against this, however, has to be set the possibility that future generations will be richer than the current one and will therefore value a dollar (or any other currency) less than today’s generation.

However, it is also likely, if the trend of recent decades is to continue, that economic growth will be largely confined to the rich and that the poor will be little better off, if at all. And it is the poor who often suffer the most from natural disasters. Just look, for example, at the much higher personal devastation suffered from hurricane Irma by the poor on many Caribbean islands compared with those in comparatively wealthy Florida.

A low or zero discount rate would make many environmental projects socially profitable, even though they would not be with a higher rate. The choice of rate is thus crucial to the welfare of future generations who are likely to bear the brunt of climate change.

But just how should the social rate of discount be chosen? The following two articles explore the issue.

Articles
How Much Is the Future Worth? Slate, Will Oremus (1/9/17)
Climate changes the debate: The impact of demographics on long-term discount rates Vox, Eli P Fenichel, Matthew Kotchen and Ethan T Addicott (20/8/17)

Questions

  1. What is meant by the social rate of discount?
  2. Why does the choice of a lower rate of social discount imply a more aggressive climate policy?
  3. How is the distribution of the benefits and costs of measures to reduce carbon emissions between rich and poor relevant in choosing the social rate of discount of such measures?
  4. How is the distribution of the benefits of such measures between current and future generations relevant in choosing the rate?
  5. How is uncertainty about the magnitude of the costs and benefits relevant in choosing the rate?
  6. What is the difference between Stern’s and Nordhaus’ analyses of the choice of social discount rate?
  7. Explain and discuss the ‘mortality-based approach’ to estimating social discount rates.
  8. What are the arguments ‘for economists analysing climate change through the lens of minimising risk, rather than maximizing utility’?

A broken economy

According to a new report, Time for Change published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), ‘The British economic model needs fundamental reform.’

It is no longer generating rising earnings for a majority of the population, and young people today are set to be poorer than their parents. Beneath its headlines figures, the economy is suffering from deep and longstanding weaknesses, which make it unfit to face the challenges of the 2020s.

The report by the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice is an interim one, with the final report due in the latter part of next year. The commission was set up in 2016 and includes business leaders, such as the heads of John Lewis and Siemens, the TUC General Secretary, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leading figures.

Commenting on the interim report, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury said

Our economic model is broken. Britain stands at a watershed moment where we need to make fundamental choices about the sort of economy we need. We are failing those who will grow up into a world where the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country is significant and destabilising

The report found that wages have stagnated for the majority of the population since the financial crisis of 2007/8. Wage income has fallen as a proportion of national income, while the proportions going to income from profits and property have risen. Young people are poorer than previous generations of young people.

Despite low unemployment, many people are on zero-hour contracts, part-time contracts or employed on a casual basis. For many, their jobs are insecure and they have no bargaining power.

The UK for many years has had a lower rate of investment that other developed economies and productivity, in terms of output per hour, is the lowest of its major competitors. Productivity in Germany is 36% higher than in the UK; in France and the USA it is 29% higher. Although there are some internationally competitive UK firms with high productivity, the country has:

a longer ‘tail’ of low-productivity businesses, in which weak management and poor use of skills leads to ‘bad jobs’ and low wages.

There are many other challenges, including an ageing population, uncertainties from Brexit, a large current account deficit, increased competition from abroad and growth once more in private-sector debt, which means that consumption may cease to be the main driver of economic growth as people seek to curb their borrowing.

The report is also critical of fiscal policy, which with record low interest rates could have been used to finance infrastructure projects as well as supporting public services.

The report recommends three approaches:

The first is institutional reform to support investment.

The second is making the economy more competitive through a coherent industrial strategy, reform of the financial sector to support long-term investment, reform of corporate governance to promote business success and tackling the market dominance of companies such as Amazon and Google.

The third is to bring greater social justice and equality through encouraging more secure and better-paid jobs, strengthening trades unions and reforming the tax system to make it fairer and smarter.

Not surprisingly the government has defended its record of reducing debt, presiding over falling unemployment and reduced inequality as measured by a reduced Gini coefficient. However, there has only been a modest fall in the Gini coefficient, from 0.333 in 2009/10 to 0.315 in 2016/7, and this has largely been the result of the very rich seeing a decline in income from assets.

Articles
Britain’s economy is broken and failing to tackle inequality, says major new report Independent, Ben Chu (6/9/17)
UK’s economic model is broken, says Archbishop of Canterbury The Guardian, Phillip Inman (5/9/17)
Tax wealth or see the UK tear itself apart, Cable will warn Bloomberg, Alex Morales and Thomas Penny (6/9/17)
Archbishop of Canterbury calls for radical economic reform BBC News (5/9/17)
Archbishop warns economy is “broken” as report reveals longest period of wage stagnation for 150 years Huffington Post, Rachel Wearmouth (6/9/17)
Britain’s economy is broken. We desperately need new ideas The Guardian, Tom Kibasi (4/6/17)
Carney: Britain is in the ‘first lost decade since the 1860s’, Business Insider, Oscar Williams-Grut (6/12/16)
Our broken economy, in one simple chart New York Times, David Leonhardt (7/8/16)

Report
Time for Change: A new Vision for the British Economy IPPR Commission on Economic Justice (6/9/17)

Questions

  1. Why have wages for the majority of the UK population stagnated for the past 10 years?
  2. Why is productivity in the UK lower than in most other developed economies?
  3. Is it possible for poor people to become poorer and yet for the Gini coefficient to fall?
  4. What institutional reforms would you suggest to encourage greater investment?
  5. Explain the possible advantages and disadvantages of abandoning ‘austerity policy’ and adopting a more expansionist fiscal stance?
  6. Does it matter that Amazon and Google are dominant players in their respective markets? Explain.

Oil prices – the ups and the downs

Oil prices are determined by demand and supply. Changes in oil prices are the result of shifts in demand and/or supply, with the size of the price change depending on the size of the shift and the price elasticity of demand and supply.

Some of the shifts are long term, with the price of oil varying from year to year or even moving in a particular direction for longer periods of time. Thus the opening up of new supplies, such as from fracking wells, can lead to a long-term fall in oil prices, while agreements by, say, OPEC to curb output can lead to a long-term rise in prices (see the blogs The oil see-saw, OPEC deal pushes up oil prices and An oil glut).

Medium and long-term price movements can also reflect medium and long-term changes in demand, such as a recession – oil prices fell dramatically as the world economy slid into recession in 2008/9 and then recovered as the global economy recovered.

Another long-term factor is the development of substitutes, such as renewable energy, which can reduce the demand for oil; another is developments that economise on power, such as more fuel-efficient vehicles and machines.

But oil prices do not just reflect these long-term movements in demand and supply. They also reflect daily and weekly movements as demand and supply respond to global and national events.

Two such events occurred at the end of August/beginning of September this year. The first was Hurricane Harvey. Even though it was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made landfall across the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, it dumped massive amounts of rain on southern Texas and Louisiana. This disrupted oil drilling and refining, shutting down a quarter of the entire US refining capacity. The initial effect was a surge in US oil prices in late August as oil production in much of Texas shut down and a rise in petrol prices as supplies from refineries fell.

Then prices fell back again in early September as production and refining resumed and as it became apparent that there had been less damage to oil infrastructure than initially feared. Also the USA tapped into some of its strategic oil reserves to make up for the shortfall in supply.

Then in early September, the North Koreans tested a hydrogen bomb – much larger than the previous atom bombs it had tested. This prompted fears of US retaliation and heightened tensions in the region. As the Reuters article states:

That put downward pressure on crude as traders moved money out of oil – seen as high-risk markets – into gold futures, traditionally viewed as a safe haven for investors. Spot gold prices rose for a third day, gaining 0.9 per cent on Monday

Quite large daily movements in oil prices are not uncommon as traders respond to such events. A major determinant of short-term demand is expectations, and nervousness about events can put substantial downward pressure on oil prices if it is felt that there could be a downward effect on the global economy – or substantial upward pressure if it is felt that supplies might be disrupted. Often markets over-correct, with prices moving back again as the situation becomes clearer and as nervousness subsides.

Articles
U.S. crude edges higher, gasoline tumbles after Harvey Reuters, Libby George (4/9/17)
Global oil prices fall after North Korea nuclear weapon test Independent, Henning Gloystein (4/9/17)
Brent crude oil falls after North Korea nuclear test The Indian Express (4/9/17)
Oil prices remain volatile AzerNews, Sara Israfilbayova (4/7/17)

Questions

  1. What are the determinants of the price elasticity of demand for oil?
  2. Search news articles to find some other examples of short-term movements in oil prices as markets responded to some political or natural event.
  3. Why do markets often over-correct?
  4. Explain the long-term oil price movements over the past 10 years.
  5. Why is gold seen as a ‘safe haven’?
  6. If refineries buy oil from oil producers, what would determine the net effect on oil prices of a decline in oil production and a decline in demand for oil by the refineries?
  7. What role does speculation play in determining oil prices? Explain how such speculation could (a) reduce price volatility; (b) increase price volatility. Under what circumstances is (b) more likely than (a)?

Ten years on

Ten years ago (on 9 August 2007), the French bank BNP Paribas sparked international concern when it admitted that it didn’t know what many of its investments in the US sub-prime property market were worth and froze three of its hedge funds. This kicked off the financial crisis and the beginning of the credit crunch.

In September 2007 there was a run on the Northern Rock bank in the UK, forcing the Bank of England to provide emergency funding. Northern Rock was eventually nationalised in February 2008. In July 2008, the US financial authorities had to provide emergency assistance to America’s two largest mortgage lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Then in September 2008, the financial crisis really took hold. The US bank, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy, sending shock waves around the global economy. In the UK, Lloyds TSB announced that it was taking over the UK’s largest mortgage lender, Halifax Bank Of Scotland (HBOS), after a run on HBOS shares.

Later in the month, Fortis, the huge Belgian banking, finance and insurance company, was partly nationalised to prevent its bankruptcy. Also the UK government was forced to take control of mortgage-lender, Bradford & Bingley’s, mortgages and loans, with the rest of the business sold to Santander.

Early in October 2008, trading was suspended in the main Icelandic banks. Later in the month, the UK government announced a £37 billion rescue package for Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Lloyds TSB and HBOS. Then in November it partially nationalised RBS by taking a 58% share in the bank. Meanwhile various other rescue packages and emergency loans to the banking sector were taking place in other parts of the world. See here for a timeline of the financial crisis.

So, ten years on from the start of the crisis, have the lessons of the crisis been learnt. Could a similar crisis occur again?

The following articles look at this question and the answers are mixed.

On the positive side, banks are much more highly capitalised than they were ten years ago. Moves by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in its Basel III regulatory framework have ensured that banks are much more highly capitalised and operate with higher levels of liquidity. What is more, banks are generally more cautious about investing in highly complex and risky collateralised assets.

On the negative side, increased flexibility in labour markets, although helping to keep unemployment down, has allowed a huge squeeze on real wages as austerity measures have dampened the economy. What is more, household debt is rising to possibly unsustainable levels. Over the past year, unsecured debt (e.g. personal loans and credit card debt) have risen by 10% and yet (nominal) household incomes have risen by only 1.5%. While record low interest rates make such loans relatively affordable, when interest rates do eventually start to rise, this could put a huge strain on household finances. But if households start to rein in their borrowing, this would put downward pressure on aggregate demand and jeopardise economic growth.

Articles
The crisis: 10 years in three chart BBC News, Simon Jack (9/8/17)
Darling: ‘Alarm bells ringing’ for UK economy BBC News (9/8/17)
Alistair Darling warns against ‘complacency’ 10 years on from financial crisis The Telegraph (9/8/17)
A decade after the financial crisis consumers are still worried Independent, Kate Hughes (9/8/17)
Bankers still do not understand complex reasons behind financial crash, senior politician warns Independent, Ashley Cowburn (9/8/17)
We let the 2007 financial crisis go to waste The Guardian, Torsten Bell (9/8/17)
Bank of England warns of complacency over big rise in personal debt The Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/7/17)
On the 10th anniversary of the global financial meltdown, here’s what’s changed USA Today, Kim Hjelmgaard (8/8/17)
Financial crisis: Ten years ago today the tremors started Irish Times (9/8/17)
If We Are Racing to the Pre-Crisis Bubble, Here Are 12 Charts To Watch Bloomberg, Sid Verma (9/8/17)

Videos
The financial crisis ten years ago to the day Euronews (9/8/17)
Ten years later: What really sparked the financial crisis Sky News, Adam Parsons (9/8/17)
Bank of England warns on household debt Channel 4 News, Siobhan Kennedy (25/7/17)

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by ‘collateralised debt obligations (CDOs)’.
  2. What part did CDOs play in the financial crisis of 2007–8?
  3. In what ways is the current financial situation similar to that in 2007–8?
  4. In what ways is it different?
  5. Explain the Basel III banking regulations.
  6. To what extent has the Bank of England exceeded the minimum Basel III requirements?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘stress testing’ the banks? Does this ensure that there can never be a repeat of the financial crisis?
  8. Why is it desirable for central banks eventually to raise interest rates to a level of around 2–3%? Why might it be difficult for central banks to do that?

A portent of tighter monetary policy in the UK?

On the 15th June, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee decided to keep Bank Rate on hold at its record low of 0.25%. This was not a surprise – it was what commentators had expected. What was surprising, however, was the split in the MPC. Three of its current eight members voted to raise the rate.

At first sight, raising the rate might seem the obvious thing to do. CPI inflation is currently 2.9% – up from 2.7% in April and well above the target of 2% – and is forecast to go higher later this year. According to the Bank of England’s own forecasts, even at the 24-month horizon inflation is still likely to be a little above the 2% target.

Those who voted for an increase of 0.25 percentage points to 0.5% saw it as modest, signalling only a very gradual return to more ‘normal’ interest rates. However, the five who voted to keep the rate at 0.25% felt that it could dampen demand too much.

The key argument is that inflation is not of the demand-pull variety. Aggregate demand is subdued. Real wages are falling and hence consumer demand is likely to fall too. Thus many firms are cautious about investing, especially given the considerable uncertainties surrounding the nature of Brexit. The prime cause of the rise in inflation is the fall in sterling since the Brexit vote and the effect of higher import costs feeding through into retail prices. In other words, the inflation is of the cost-push variety. In such cirsumstances dampening demand further by raising interest rates would be seen by most economists as the wrong response. As the minutes of the MPC meeting state:

Attempting to offset fully the effect of weaker sterling on inflation would be achievable only at the cost of higher unemployment and, in all likelihood, even weaker income growth. For this reason, the MPC’s remit specifies that, in such exceptional circumstances, the Committee must balance any trade-off between the speed at which it intends to return inflation sustainably to the target and the support that monetary policy provides to jobs and activity.

The MPC recognises that the outlook is uncertain. It states that it stands ready to respond to circumstances as they change. If demand proves to be more resilient that it currently expects, it will raise Bank Rate. If not, it is likely to keep it on hold to continue providing a modest stimulus to the economy. However, it is unlikely to engage in further quantitative easing unless the economic outlook deteriorates markedly.

Articles
The Bank of England is moving closer to killing the most boring chart in UK finance right now Business Insider, Will Martin (16/6/17)
UK inflation hits four-year high of 2.9% Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Chloe Cornish (13/6/17)
Surprise for markets as trio of Bank of England gurus call for interest rates to rise The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan Tim Wallace (15/6/17)
Bank of England rate setters show worries over rising inflation Financial TImes, Chris Giles (15/6/17)
Three Bank of England policymakers in shock vote for interest rate rise Independent, Ben Chu (15/6/17)
Bank of England edges closer to increasing UK interest rates The Guardian, Katie Allen (15/6/17)
Bank of England doves right to thwart hawks seeking interest rate rise The Guardian, Larry Elliott (15/6/17)
Haldane expects to vote for rate rise this year BBC News (21/6/17)

Bank of England documents
Monetary policy summary Bank of England (15/6/17)
Monetary Policy Summary and minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee meeting ending on 14 June 2017 Bank of England (15/6/17)
Inflation Report, May 2017 Bank of England (11/5/16)

Questions

  1. What is the mechanism whereby a change in Bank Rate affects other interest artes?
  2. Use an aggregate demand and supply diagram to illustrate the difference between demand-pull and cost-push inflation.
  3. If the exchange rate remains at around 10–15% below the level before the Brexit vote, will inflation continue to remain above the Bank of England’s target, or will it reach a peak relatively soon and then fall back? Explain.
  4. For what reason might aggregate demand prove more buoyant that the MPC predicts?
  5. Would a rise in Bank Rate from 0.25% to 0.5% have a significant effect on aggregate demand? What role could expectations play in determining the nature and size of the effect?
  6. Why are real wage rates falling at a time when unemployment is historically very low?
  7. What determines the amount that higher prices paid by importers of products are passed on to consumers?

Brexit alternatives

With the Conservatives having lost their majority in Parliament in the recent UK election, there is renewed discussion of the form that Brexit might take. EU states are members of the single market and the customs union. A ‘hard Brexit’ involves leaving both and this was the government’s stance prior to the election. But there is now talk of a softer Brexit, which might mean retaining membership of the single market and/or customs union.

The single market
Belonging to the single market means accepting the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. It also involves tariff-free trade within the single market and adopting a common set of rules and regulations over trade, product standards, safety, packaging, etc., with disputes settled by the European Court of Justice. Membership of the single market involves paying budgetary contributions. Norway and Iceland are members of the single market.

The single market brings huge benefits from free trade with no administrative barriers from customs checks and paperwork. But it would probably prove impossible to negotiate remaining in the single market with an opt out on free movement of labour. Controlling immigration from EU countries was a key part of the Leave campaign.

The customs union
This involves all EU countries adopting the same tariffs (customs duties) on imports from outside the EU. These tariffs are negotiated by the European Commission with non-EU countries on a country-by-country basis. Goods imported from outside the EU are charged tariffs in the country of import and can then be sold freely around the EU with no further tariffs.

Remaining a member of the customs union would allow the UK to continue trading freely in the EU, subject to meeting various non-tariff regulations. It would also allow free ‘borderless’ trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, being a member of the customs union would prevent the UK from negotiating separate trade deals with non-EU countries. The ability to negotiate such deals has been argued to be one of the main benefits of leaving the EU.

Free(r) trade area
The UK could negotiate a trade deal with the EU. But it is highly unlikely that such a deal could be in place by March 2019, the date when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU. At that point, trade barriers would be imposed, including between the two parts of the island of Ireland. Such deals are very complex, especially in the area of services, which are the largest category of UK exports. Negotiating tariff-free or reduced-tariff trade is only a small part of the problem; the biggest part involves negotiating product standards, regulations and other non-tariff barriers.

All the above options thus involve serious problems and the government will be pushed from various sides, not least within the Conservative Party, for different degrees of ‘softness’ or ‘hardness’ of Brexit. What is more, the pressure from business for free trade with the EU is likely to grow. Brexit may mean Brexit, but just what form it will take is very unclear.

Articles
Free trade area, single market, customs union – what’s the difference? BBC News, Jonty Bloom (12/6/17)
Brexit: What are the options? BBC News (12/6/17)
After the election, the real test: Brexi The Economist (8/6/17)
May’s Ministers Plot Softer Brexit to Keep UK in Single Market Bloomberg, Tim Ross, Alex Morales and Svenja O’Donnell (11/6/17)
UK’s Hung Parliament Raises Business Hopes for a Softer Brexit Bloomberg, Stephanie Baker and James Paton (12/6/17)
Do not exaggerate the effect the election will have on Brexit Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau (11/6/17)
What is soft Brexit? How could it work as UK negotiates leaving the EU? Independent, May Bulman (12/6/17)
Brexit-lite back on the table as Britain rethinks its options after election The Guardian, Dan Roberts (11/6/17)
Review plan to quit EU Customs Union, urges FTA FoodManufacture.co.uk, James Ridler (12/6/17)
Freight leaders urge government to review decision to leave EU customs union RTM (12/6/17)

Paper
Making Brexit work for British Business: Key Execution Priorities M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 77, Harvard Kennedy School, Peter Sands, Ed Balls, Sebastian Leape and Nyasha Weinberg (June 2017)

Questions

  1. Explain the trading agreement between Norway and the EU.
  2. How does the Norwegian arrangement with the EU differ from the Turkish one?
  3. What are meant by the terms ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’?
  4. How does a customs union differ from a free trade area?
  5. Is it possible to have (a) a customs union without a single market; (b) a single market without a customs union?
  6. To what extent is it in the EU’s interests to negotiate a deal with the UK which lets it maintain access to the customs union without having free movement of labour?
  7. The EU insists that talks about future trading arrangements between the UK and the EU can take place only after sufficient progress has been made on the terms of the ‘divorce’. What elements are included in the divorce terms?
  8. If agreement is not reached by 29 March 2019, what happens and what would be the consequences?
  9. Will a hung parliament, or at least a government supported by the DUP on a confidence and supply basis, make it more or less likely that there will be a hard Brexit?
  10. For what reasons may the EU favour (a) a hard Brexit; (b) a soft Brexit?

Falling UK real wages – comparison with other OECD countries

In the last blog post, As UK inflation rises, so real wages begin to fall, we showed how the rise in inflation following the Brexit vote is causing real wages in the UK to fall once more, after a few months of modest rises, which were largely due to very low price inflation. But how does this compare with other OECD countries?

In an article by Rui Costa and Stephen Machin from the LSE, the authors show how, from the start of the financial crisis in 2007 to 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available), real hourly wages fell further in the UK than in all the other 27 OECD countries, except Greece (see the chart below, which is Figure 5 from their article). Indeed, only in Greece, the UK and Portugal were real wages lower in 2015 than in 2007.

The authors examine a number of aspects of real wages in the UK, including the rise in self employment, differences by age and sex, and for different percentiles in the income distribution. They also look at how family incomes have suffered less than real wages, thanks to the tax and benefit system.

The authors also look at what the different political parties have been saying about the issues during their election campaigns and what they plan to do to address the problem of falling, or only slowly rising, real wages.

Articles
Real Wages and Living Standards in the UK LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The Return of Falling Real Wages LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, David Blanchflower, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The chart that shows UK workers have had the worst wage performance in the OECD except Greece Independent, Ben Chu (5/6/17)

Data
Earnings and working hours ONS
OECD.Stat OECD
International comparisons of productivity ONS

Questions

  1. Why have real wages fallen more in the UK than in all OECD countries except Greece?
  2. Which groups have seen the biggest fall in real wages? Explain why.
  3. What policies are proposed by the different parties for raising real wages (a) generally; (b) for the poorest workers?
  4. How has UK productivity growth compared with that in other developed countries? What explanations can you offer?
  5. What is the relationship between productivity growth and the growth in real wages?

As UK inflation rises, so real wages begin to fall

With the effects of the depreciation of sterling feeding through into higher prices, so the rate of inflation has risen. The latest figures from the ONS show that in the year to April 2017, CPI inflation was 2.7% – up from 2.3% in the year to March. The largest contributors to higher prices were transport costs and housing and household services.

But wage increases are not keeping up with price increases. In 2017 Q1, the average annual growth rate in regular pay (i.e. excluding bonuses) was 2.1%. In other words, real pay is falling. And this is despite the fact that the unemployment rate, at 4.6%, is the lowest since 1975.

The fall in real wages is likely to act as a brake on consumption and the resulting dampening of aggregate demand could result in lower economic growth. On the other hand, the more buoyant world economy, plus the lower sterling exchange rate is helping to boost exports and investment and this could go some way to offsetting the effects on consumption. As Mark Carney stated in his introductory remarks to the May 2017 Bank of England Inflation Report:

The combination of the stronger global outlook and sterling’s past depreciation is likely to support UK net trade. And together with somewhat lower uncertainty, stronger global growth is also likely to encourage investment as exporters renew and increase capacity.

According to the Bank of England, the net effect will be modest economic growth, despite the fall in real wages.

In the MPC’s central forecast, quarterly growth is forecast to stabilise around its current rate, resulting in growth of 1.9% in 2017 and around 1¾% in each of the next two years.

But forecasting is dependent on a range of assumptions, not least of which are assumptions about consumer and business expectations. These, in turn, depend on a whole range of factors, such as the outcome of the UK election, the Brexit negotiations, commodity prices, world growth rates and international events, such as the actions of Donald Trump. Because of the uncertainty surrounding forecasts, the Bank of England uses fan charts. In the two fan charts illustrated below (from the May 2017 Inflation Report), the bands on constructed on the following assumptions:

If economic circumstances identical to today’s were to prevail on 100 occasions, the MPC’s best collective judgement is that CPI inflation or the mature estimate of GDP growth would lie within the darkest central band on only 30 of those occasions and within each pair of the lighter coloured areas on 30 occasions.

The charts and tables showing the May 2017 projections have been conditioned on the assumptions that the stock of purchased gilts remains at £435 billion and the stock of purchased corporate bonds remains at £10 billion throughout the forecast period, and on the Term Funding Scheme (TFS); all three of which are financed by the issuance of central bank reserves. They have also been conditioned on market interest rates, unless otherwise stated.

The wider the fan, the greater the degree of uncertainty. These fan charts are wide by historical standards, reflecting the particularly uncertain future for the UK economy.

But one thing is clear from the latest data: real incomes are falling. This is likely to dampen consumer spending, but just how much this will impact on aggregate demand over the coming months remains to be seen.

Articles
UK real wages drop for first time in three years Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (17/5/17)
Bank of England warns Brexit vote will damage living standards The Guardian, Katie Allen (11/5/17)
UK wage growth lags inflation for first time since mid-2014 BBC News (17/5/17)
Britons’ Falling Real Wages Show Challenging Times Have Arrived Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton and Lucy Meakin (17/5/17)
Jobs market will suffer a Brexit slowdown, say experts The Guardian, Angela Monaghan and Phillip Inman (15/5/17)
Pay will continue to be squeezed, employers’ survey suggests BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (15/5/17)
Brexit latest: Real wages falling, Office for National Statistics reveals Independent, Ben Chu (17/5/17)
UK inflation climbs to four-year high, beating forecasts Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (16/5/17)
Why is UK inflation at a four-year high? Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (19/5/17)
A blip, or a test of hawks’ patience? Economists respond to high UK inflation data Financial Times, Nicholas Megaw (16/5/17)
UK inflation rate at highest level since September 2013 BBC News (16/5/17)
Inflation jumps to its highest level since 2013 as Brexit continues to bite Business Insider, Will Martin (16/5/17)
UK GDP growth weaker than expected as inflation hits spending The Guardian, Katie Allen (25/5/17)
UK economic growth estimate revised down BBC News (25/5/17)

Reports
Inflation Report, May 2017 Bank of England (11/5/17)
Labour Market Outlook, Sping 2017 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (May 2017)

Data
Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England
Inflation and price indices ONS
Earnings and working hours ONS
Second estimate of GDP: Jan to Mar 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (25/5/17)

Questions

  1. Find out what has happened to the dollar/sterling and the euro/sterling exchange rate and the sterling exchange rate index over the past 24 months. Plot the data on a graph.
  2. Explain the changes in these exchange rates.
  3. Why is there negative real wage growth in the UK when the rate of unemployment is the lowest it’s been for more than 40 years?
  4. Find out what proportion of aggregate demand is accounted for by household consumption. Why is this significant in understanding the likely drivers of economic growth over the coming months?
  5. Why is uncertainty over future UK growth rates relatively high at present?
  6. Why is inflation likely to peak later this year and then fall?
  7. What determines the size and shape of the fan in a fan chart?