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Articles for the ‘Economics 8e: Ch 17’ Category

A full employment target

Unemployment and employment are concepts that are often talked about in the media. Indeed, the 7% unemployment target referred to by the Governor of the Bank of England has been a constant feature of recent headlines. However, rather than targeting an unemployment rate of 7%, George Osborne has now called for ‘full employment’ and believes that tax and welfare changes are key to meeting this objective.

Reducing the unemployment rate is a key macroeconomic objective and the costs of unemployment are well-documented. There are obviously big costs to the individual and his/her family, including lower income, dependency, stress and potential health effects. There are also costs to the government: lower income tax revenues, potentially lower revenues from VAT through reduced consumer expenditure and the possibility of higher benefit payments. There are other more ‘economic’ costs, namely an inefficient use of resources. Unemployment represents a cost to the economy, as we are operating below full capacity and we therefore see a waste of resources. It is for this reason that ‘full employment’ is being targeted.

Traditional economic theory suggests that there is a trade-off between unemployment and inflation, illustrated by the well-known Phillips curve. In the past, governments have been willing to sacrifice unemployment for the purpose of reducing inflation. There have also been attempts to boost the economy and create jobs through increased borrowing. However, George Osborne has said:

Unemployment is never a price worth paying, but artificial jobs paid for with borrowed money doesn’t work either.

A figure representing full employment hasn’t been mentioned, so it remains unclear what level of unemployment would be acceptable, as despite the name ‘full employment’, this doesn’t mean that everyone has a job. There are several definitions of full employment, in both an economic and political context. In the period of reconstruction after the Second World War, William Beveridge, architect of the welfare state, defined full employment as where 3% of people would be unemployed.

In more recent times, other definitions have been given. In the era of monetarism in the 1970s, the term ‘natural rate of unemployment’ was used to define the unemployment rate to which economies tend in the long run – after inflationary expectations have adjusted. Keynesians use the term the ‘non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU)’, where unemployment is confined to equilibrium unemployment and where there is no excess or deficiency of aggregate demand. Both the natural rate and the NAIRU relate to the rate of unemployment at which the long-run Phillips curve is vertical.

In its Economic and Fiscal Outlook of March 2013, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated the UK’s NAIRU to be 5.4%. George Osborne has not specified a particular rate. Rather, his speech refers to creating the ‘highest employment rate of any of the world’s leading economies’. He said the ambition was to make the UK:

…the best place in the world to create a job; to get a job; to keep a job; to be helped to look for another job if you lose one…A modern approach to full employment means backing business. It means cutting the tax on jobs and reforming welfare.

Therefore, while it appears that there is no target figure for unemployment, it seems that a new Conservative objective will be to focus on sustainable job creation and eliminate disequilibrium unemployment. This represents a move very much into Labour territory. Meeting the objective will be no easy task, given the past few years and such high levels of youth unemployment, as Labour were quick to point out, but the unemployment figures are certainly moving in the right direction. The following articles consider the objective of full employment.

Britain’s Osborne changes tone on economy with “full employment” target Reuters, William James (31/3/14)
George Osborne commits to ‘fight for full employment’ BBC News (including video) (1/4/14)
What does full employment mean? The Guardian (1/4/14)
What is full employment? The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (31/3/14)
’Jobs matter’, says George Osborne as he aims for full employment Independent, Andrew Grice (31/3/14)
Liam Bynre: Labour would aim for ‘full employment’ BBC News (17/5/13)
Osborne pledges full employment for UK Sky News (31/3/14)
Osborne commits to full employment as election looms Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (31/3/14)
Whatever happened to full employment? BBC News, Tom de Castella and Caroline McClatchey (13/10/11)

Questions

  1. What is meant by full employment?
  2. Is it a good idea to target zero unemployment?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate the difference between disequilibrium and equilibrium unemployment?
  4. How can full employment be achieved?
  5. What are the costs of unemployment?
  6. Use a diagram to illustrate the natural rate of unemployment and explain what it means in terms of the relationship between unemployment and inflation.
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A mini-stimulus for China

The growth of China over the past decade has been quite phenomenal, with figures recorded in double-digits. However, in the aftermath of the recession, growth has declined to around 7% – much higher than Western economies are used to, but significantly below the ‘norm’ for China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth target for this year is 7.5%, but there appear to be some concerns about China’s ability to reach this figure and this has been emphasised by a recent Chinese policy.

A mini-stimulus package has been put in place, with the objective of meeting the 7.5% growth target. Government expenditure is a key component of aggregate demand and when other components of AD are lower than expected, boosting ‘G’ can be a solution. However, it’s not something that the Chinese government has had to do in recent years and the fact that this stimulus package has been put in place has brought doubts over China’s economic performance to the forefront , but has confirmed its commitment to growth. Mizuho economist, Shen Jianguang, said:

It’s very obvious that the leaders feel the need to stabilise growth…Overall, the 7.5 per cent growth target means that the government still cares a lot about economic growth.

Data suggest that growth in China is relatively weak and there are concerns that the growth target will be missed, hence the stimulus package. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, there was a large stimulus package in place in China. This latest investment by the government is in no way comparable to the size of the 2008 package, but instead will be on a smaller and more specific scale. Mark Williams of Capital Economics said:

It’s a bit of a rerun of what we saw last year – something less than a stimulus package and more of piecemeal measures to ensure they reach their growth target.

It is the construction of public housing and railways that will be the main areas of investment this time round. A sum of $120–180bn per year will be available for railway construction and $161bn for social housing, and tax breaks are being extended for small businesses.

The 2008 stimulus package saw debt increase to some 200% of GDP, which did cause growing concerns about the reliance on debt. However, this latest package will be financed through the issue of bonds, which is much more similar to how market economies finance spending.

The fact that the government has had to intervene with such a stimulus package is, however, causing growing concerns about the level of debt and the future of this fast growing economy, though the new method of financing is certainly seen as progress.

It should be noted that a decline in growth for China is not only concerning for China itself, but is also likely to have adverse consequences other countries. In the increasingly interdependent world that we live in, Western countries rely on foreign consumers purchasing their exports, and in recent years it has been Chinese consumers that have been a key component of demand. However, a decline in growth may also create some benefits – resources may not be used up as quickly and prices of raw materials and oil in particular may remain lower.

It is certainly too early for alarm bells, but the future of China’s growth is less certain than it was a decade ago. The following articles consider this issue.

China’s new mini-stimulus offers signs of worry and progress BBC News, Linda Yueh (3/4/14)
China puts railways and houses at hear of new stimulus measures The Guardian (3/4/14)
China unveils mini stimulus to to boost slowing economy The Telegraph (3/4/14)
China stimulus puts new focus on growth target Wall Street Journal, Bob Davis and Michael Arnold (3/4/14)
China embarks on ‘mini’ stimulus programme to kick-start economy Independent, Russell Lynch (3/4/14)
China takes first step to steady economic growth Reuters (2/4/14)
China unveils fresh stimulus The Autstralian (3/4/14)
China’s reformers can triumph again, if they follow the right route The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (2/4/14)

Questions

  1. How has Chinese growth reached double-digits? Which factors are responsible for such high growth?
  2. The BBC News article suggests that the stimulus package is cause for concerns but also shows progress. How can it do both?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate how a stimulus package can boost economic growth.
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of high rates of growth for (a) China and (b) Western economies?
  5. Why does the method of financing growth matter?
  6. Railway and housing construction have been targeted to receive additional finance. Why do you think these sectors have been targeted?
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The London magnet

While much of the UK is struggling to recover from recession, the London economy is growing strongly. This is reflected in strong investment, a growth in jobs and rapidly rising house prices.

There are considerable external economies of scale for businesses locating in London. There is a pool of trained labour and complementary companies providing inputs and services are located in close proximity. Firms create positive externalities to the benefit of other firms in the same industry or allied industries.

London is a magnet for entrepreneurs and highly qualified people. Innovative ideas and business opportunities flow from both business dealings and social interactions. As Boris Johnson says in the podcast, “It’s like a cyclotron on bright people… People who meet each other and spark off each other, and that’s when you get the explosion of innovation.”

Then there is a regional multiplier effect. As the London economy grows, so people move to London, thereby increasing consumption and stimulating further production and further employment. Firms may choose to relocate to London to take advantage of its buoyant economy. There is also an accelerator effect as a booming London encourages increased investment in the capital, further stimulating economic growth.

But the movement of labour and capital to London can dampen recovery in other parts of the economy and create a growing divide between London and other parts of the UK, such as the north of England.

The podcast examines ‘agglomeration‘ in London and how company success breeds success of other companies. It also looks at some of the downsides.

Podcast
Boris Johnson: London is cyclotron on bright people BBC Today Programme, Evan Davis (3/3/14)

Articles
London will always win over the rest of the UK The Telegraph, Alwyn Turner (2/3/14)
Evan Davis’s Mind The Gap – the view from Manchester The Guardian, Helen Pidd (4/3/14)
London incubating a new economy London Evening Standard, Phil Cooper (Founder of Kippsy.com) (10/2/14)

Reports and data
London Analysis, Small and Large Firms in London, 2001 to 2012 ONS (8/8/13)
Regional Labour Market Statistics, February 2014 ONS (19/2/14)
London Indicators from Labour Market Statistics (11 Excel worksheets) ONS (19/2/14)
Annual Business Survey, 2011 Regional Results ONS (25/7/13)
Economies of agglomeration Wikipedia

Questions

  1. Distinguish between internal and external economies of scale.
  2. Why is London such an attractive location for companies?
  3. Are there any external diseconomies of scale from locating in London?
  4. In what ways does the expansion of London (a) help and (b) hinder growth in the rest of the UK?
  5. Examine the labour statistics (in the links above) for London and the rest of the UK and describe and explain the differences.
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Japan’s recovery

It is rising inflation that typically causes problems for countries, whether it is demand-pull or cost-push. However, one country that has not been subject to problems of rising prices is Japan. Instead, this economy has been suffering from the gloom of deflation for many years and many argue that this is worse than high inflation.

Falling prices are popular among consumers. If you see a product whose price has fallen from one day to the next, you can use your income to buy more goods. What’s the problem with this? The Japanese economy has experienced largely stagnant growth for two decades and a key cause has been falling prices. When the prices of goods begin to fall over and over again, people start to form expectations about the future direction of prices. If I expect the price of a good to fall next week, then why would I buy now, if I can buy the same good next week at a lower price? But, when next week arrives and the price has fallen as expected, why would I purchase the product, if I think that the price fall is set to continue? The problem of deflation is that with continuously falling prices, consumers stop spending. Aggregate demand therefore declines and economic growth all but disappears. This is the problem that the Japanese economy has been faced with for more than 20 years.

However, the latest data from Japan shows core consumer prices growing faster than expected in December 2013, compared to the previous year. This figure was above market forecasts and was the fastest rate of growth in the past 5 years. These data, together with those on unemployment have given the economy a much needed boost.

Recent government policy has been focused on boosts in government spending, with an aim of reducing the value of the currency (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Such policies will directly target aggregate demand and this in turn should help to generate an increase in national output and push up prices. If the price trend does begin to reverse, consumers will start to spend and again aggregate demand will be stimulated.

The future of the economy remains uncertain, though the same can be said of many Western economies. However, the signs are good for Japan and if the recovery of other economies continues and gathers pace, Japan’s export market will be a big contributor to recovery. The following articles consider the Japanese economy.

Japan inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years BBC News (31/1/14)
Benchmark Japan inflation rate hits 1.3% Financial Times, Jonathan Soble (31/1/14)
Japan’s inflation accelerates as Abe seeks wage gains Bloomberg, Chikako Mogi, Masahiro Hidaka and James Mayger (31/1/14)
Japan inflation quickens to over 5-year high, output rebounds Reuters, Leika Kihara and Stanley White (31/1/14)
Japaense inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years at 1.3% in December 2013 Independent, Russel Lynch (31/1/14)
Why Abenomics holds lessons for the West BBC News, Linda Yueh (18/12/13)

Questions

  1. Why is deflation a problem?
  2. Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
  3. How will a lower currency help Japan?
  4. What is the likely effect of a sales tax being imposed?
  5. Does the fact that unemployment has declined support the fact that consumer prices are beginning to rise?
  6. What government policies would you recommend to a government faced with stagnant growth and falling prices?
  7. How important are expectations in creating the problem of deflation?
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Slowing down under

When the rest of the developed world went into recession after the financial crisis of 2007/8, the Australian economy kept growing, albeit at a slightly lower rate (see chart 1: click here for a PowerPoint). Then as the world economy began to grow again after 2009, Australian grow accelerated. Partly this was the result of a strong growth in demand for Australian mineral exports, such as coal, iron ore and bauxite, especially from China and other east Asian countries.

But in 2013, Australian growth slowed and jobs grew by their lowest rate for 17 years. Employment actually fell by 22,600 in December and unemployment was only prevented from rising by a fall in the participation rate. The Australian dollar, which has been depreciating in recent months, fell further on the news about jobs, reaching its lowest level for over two years (see chart 2: click here for a PowerPoint).

      Chart 1

    Chart 2

The following articles look at the reasons behind Australia’s slowing growth and at possible reactions of the Australian government and the Reserve Bank of Australia (Australia’s central bank). They also look at the link between economic performance and policy on the one hand and the exchange rate on the other.

Aussie Hits a 4 Year Low As Jobs Picture Turns Grim FX Street, Boris Schlossberg (16/1/14)
Unemployment rises: Rate cut on the cards? The Motely Fool, Mike King (16/1/14)
Australia posts its lowest annual jobs growth in 17 years The Guardian (16/1/14)
Australian dollar drops to four-year low after unemployment figures released The Guardian (16/1/14)
Unemployment … Coming to a Suburb Near You Pro Bono Australia News (13/1/14)
Jobs disappear in growth crunch Sydney Morning Herald, Glenda Kwek (17/1/14)

Questions

  1. Why has Australian economic growth slowed?
  2. Why has the Australian dollar been depreciating in recent months?
  3. Why did the Australian dollar fall further on the news that economic growth had slowed and employment had fallen?
  4. Find out what has been happening to commodity prices in the past three years (see Economic Data freely available online and especially site 26) How has this affected (a) the current account of Australia’s balance of payments; (b) the exchange rate of the Australian dollar?
  5. If commodity prices are in US dollars, how is a depreciation of the Australian dollar likely to affect Australia’s balance of payments?
  6. How are possible fiscal and monetary responses in Australia likely to affect the exchange rate of the Australian dollar?
  7. What determines the magnitude of the rise or fall in demand for Australian exports as the world economy grows or declines? How are the determinants of the price and income elasticities of demand for Australian exports relevant to your answer?
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Effects of raising the minimum wage

Conservative Party leaders are considering the benefits of an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage. This policy has been advocated by both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats as a means of helping the lowest paid workers. From 2008 to 2013, minimum wage rates fell 5.2% in real terms: in other words, nominal increases were less than the increase in both the RPI and CPI (see UK minimum wage: a history in numbers).

Advocates of a real rise in the minimum wage argue that not only would it help low-paid workers, many of whom are in severe financial difficulties, but it would benefit the Treasury. According to Policy Exchange, a free-market think tank closely aligned to the Conservative Party, increasing the minimum wage by 50p would save the Government an estimated £750m a year through higher tax revenues and lower benefit payments.

But even such a rise to £6.81 would still leave the minimum wage substantially below the living wage of £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the UK, as estimated by the Living Wage Foundation (see The cost of a living wage). Although many businesses are now paying at least the living wage, many others, especially small businesses, argue that a rise in the minimum wage above the rate of inflation would force them to consider cutting the number of employees or reducing hours for part-time workers.

Meanwhile, in the USA 13 states have raised their minimum wage rates from the 1st January 2014 (see). Some of the rises, however, were tiny: as little as 15 cents. In a couple of cases, the rise is $1. Currently 21 states and DC have minimum wage rates above the Federal level of $7.25 (approx. £4.40); 20 states have rates the same as the Federal level; 4 states have rates below the Federal level. At $9.32 per hour, Washington State has the highest state minimum wage; the lowest rates ($5.15) are in Georgia and Wyoming. In 5 states there is no minimum wage at all. As the ABC article below states:

The piecemeal increases at the local level are occurring amidst a national debate over low wages and income inequality. Fast food and retail workers have been staging protests and walking off work for more than a year, calling for better pay and more hours. Currently, fast food workers nationally earn an average of about $9 per hour.

Workers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and other fast food joints are calling for $15 per hour. Wal-Mart workers organizing as part of the union-backed OUR Walmart aren’t asking for a specific dollar amount increase, but they say it’s impossible to live on the wages they currently receive.

President Obama has been throwing his weight behind the issue. Earlier this month, the President said in a speech that it’s “well past the time to raise the minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.” But such legislation has a bleaker outlook if it reaches the Republican-led House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner has said that raising the minimum wage leads to a pullback in hiring.

So what are the costs and benefits of a significant real rise is the minimum wage on either side of the Atlantic? The articles explore the issues.

Articles: UK
Lib Dems accuse Tories of ‘stealing’ their policy as George Osborne prepares to approve above-inflation rise in minimum wage Independent, Andrew Grice (7/1/14)
Lib Dems accuse Tories of ‘nicking’ party’s policy on low wages The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (7/1/14)
Cut housing benefit? A higher minimum wage would help The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (6/1/14)
Miliband prepares to wage war The Scotsman, Andrew Whitaker (8/1/14)
Increasing the minimum wage is only a half answer to poverty New Statesman, Helen Barnard (8/1/14)
Raise the bar: Economically and socially, Britain needs higher wages Independent (7/1/14)
Another Tory says there’s a ‘strong case’ for raising the minimum wage The Spectator, Isabel Hardman (8/1/14)
Fairness and the minimum wage Financial Times (7/1/14)
Osborne wants above-inflation minimum wage rise BBC News (16/1/14)
George Osborne backs minimum wage rise to £7 an hour The Guardian, Nicholas Watt, (16/1/14)
Minimum wage: in his efforts to defeat Labour, Osborne risks mimicking them The Telegraph, Benedict Brogan (16/1/14)
Minimum wage announcement is not just good economics The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/1/14)

Articles: USA
13 states raising pay for minimum-wage workers USA Today, Paul Davidson (30/12/13)
Minimum wage increase: Wage to rise in 13 states on Jan. 1 ABC15 (30/12/13)
NJ minimum wage sees $1 bump on Jan. 1 Bloomberg Businessweek, Angela Delli Santi (31/12/13)
Minimum wage hike a job killer ctpost, Rick Torres (7/1/14)
A Business Owners Case For Raising The Minimum Wage Grundy Country Herald, David Bolotsky (7/1/14)
Raising the Minimum Wage Isn’t Just Good Politics. It’s Good Economics, Too. New Republic, Noam Scheiber (31/12/13)
Minimum wage rises across 13 US states Financial Times, James Politi (1/1/14)

Information
National Minimum Wage rates GOV.UK
UK minimum wage: a history in numbers Guardian Datablog
List of minimum wages by country Wikipedia

Questions

  1. Draw two diagrams to demonstrate the direct microeconomic effect of a rise in the minimum wage for two employers, both currently paying the minimum wage, where the first is operating in an otherwise competitive labour market and the other is a monopsonist.
  2. What is meant by the term ‘efficiency wage rate’? How is the concept relevant to the debate about the effects of raising the minimum wage rate?
  3. What are the likely macroeconomic effects of raising the minimum wage rate?
  4. What is the likely impact of raising the minimum wage rate on public finances?
  5. Is raising the minimum wage rate the best means of tackling poverty? Explain your answer.
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1.43 trillion reasons for economists to better understand households

As of 31 October 2013, British households had a stock of debt close to £1.43 trillion. Economists are increasingly recognising that the financial well-being of economic agents is an important macroeconomic issue. The financial position of households, businesses and governments can be expected to affect behaviour and, hence, economic activity.

We can calculate the net financial wealth of households as the difference between their stock of financial assets (savings) and their financial liabilities (debt). The latest figures from the Bank of England’s Money and Credit show that as of Halloween 2013, British households had amassed a stock of debt of £1.4296 trillion. It is certainly a large figure since it not far short of the expected GDP figure for 2013 of around £1.6 trillion.

The chart above helps to show that of the aggregate household debt, £1.271 trillion is secured debt (debt secured against property). The remaining stock of £158.589 billion is unsecured debt (e.g. overdrafts, outstanding credit card debt and personal loans). In short, 89 per cent of the stock of outstanding household debt is mortgage debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

In January 1994 the stock of secured debt stood at £358.75 billion and the stock of unsecured debt at £53.773 billion. 87 per cent of debt then was secured debt and, hence, little different to today. The total stock of debt has grown by 247 per cent between January 1994 and October 2013. Unsecured debt has grown by 199 per cent while secured debt has grown by 254 per cent.

But, consider now the path of debt between the end of October 2008 and October 2013. During this period, the monthly series of the stock of unsecured debt has fallen on 52 occasions and risen on only 9 occasions. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has fallen on only 10 occasions and often by very small amounts. Consequently, the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by 22.8 per cent between the end of October 2008 and October 2013. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has risen by 3.9 per cent. The total stock of debt has risen by 0.1 per cent over this period and, therefore, it is essentially unchanged.

The amount of debt accumulated by households is example of the increasing importance of the financial system in our everyday lives. The term financialisation helps to capture this. Financialisation means that economists need to think much more about how financial institutions and the financial well-being of people, businesses and governments affect economic activity. There is little doubt that the financial position or financial health of economic agents, such as households, affects their behaviour. We would expect in the case of households for their financial well-being to exert an influence on their propensities to spending or save. But, just how is an area in need of much, much more research.

Articles
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)

Data
Money and Credit – October 2013 Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. Outline the ways in which the financial system could impact on the spending behaviour of households.
  2. Why might the current level of income not always be the main determinant of a household’s spending?
  3. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
  4. Explain what you understand by net lending to individuals. How does net lending to individuals affect stocks of debt?
  5. Outline the main patterns seen in the stock of household debt over the past decade and discuss what you consider to be the principal reasons for these patterns.
  6. What factors might explain the rather different pattern seen in the growth of debt since October 2008 compared with that in earlier part of the 2000s?
  7. What do you understand by the term financialisation? Of what importance is this phenomenon to economic behaviour?
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Deflation danger in the eurozone

‘Deflation could be replacing debt as the main problem – and there’s nothing to suggest the ECB is up to the job.’ So begins the linked article below by Barry Eichengreen, Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

The good news in this is that worries about debt in eurozone countries are gradually receding. Indeed, this week Ireland officially ended its reliance on a bailout (of €67.5 billion) from the EU and IMF and regained financial sovereignty (see also).

The bad news is that this does not mark the end of austerity. Indeed, many eurozone countries could get stuck in a deflationary trap, with austerity policies continuing to depress aggregate demand. Eurozone inflation is less than 1% and falling. Broad money supply growth is now below that of the US dollar, the yen and sterling (see chart: click here for a PowerPoint).

The ECB has been far more cautious than central banks in other countries in acting to prevent recession and deflation. Unlike the USA, Japan and the UK, which have all engaged in extensive quantitative easing, the ECB had been reluctant to do so for fear of upsetting German opinion and taking the pressure off southern European countries to reform.

But as Eichengreen points out, the dangers of inaction could be much greater. What is more, quantitative easing is not the only option. The ECB could copy the UK approach of ‘funding for lending’ – not for housing, but for business.

Europe’s economic crisis could be mutating again The Guardian, Barry Eichengreen (10/12/13)

Questions

  1. What problems are created by falling prices?
  2. What effect would deflation have on debt and the difficulties in repaying that debt?
  3. What measures have already been adopted by the ECB to stimulate the eurozone economy? (Search previous articles on this site.)
  4. Why have such measures proved inadequate?
  5. What alternative policies are open to the ECB?
  6. What are the arguments for the ECB being given a higher inflation target (such as 3 or 4%)?
  7. What are the arguments for and against relaxing fiscal austerity in the eurozone at the current time?
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Earning and spending in the UK

The ONS has just published two of its major annual publications on income and expenditure in the UK. The first is the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) and looks at earnings from 1998 to 2013. The second is Family Spending and looks at the level and pattern of household spending each year from 2001 to 2012.

Figures from the two publications show that average real incomes have fallen each year since 2008. This is illustrated in the first chart (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). They also show that household expenditure in real terms is falling and is at the lowest level since 2006.

Overall picture
In 2012, households’ average weekly disposable income was £597. In 2012 prices, this was down from £621 in 2010 (after the recession) and £659 in 2008 (before the recession).

Household expenditure is at its lowest level in real terms for over a decade. In 2012 households spent on average £489.00 per week. In 2012 prices, this compares with £521.90 in 2001/2 and £533.80 in 2006 (the peak year).

Picture for particular income groups and products
Although average real incomes have fallen, not everyone has been affected the same. For example, not all occupations have seen a fall in incomes (see the table at the end of the BBC article, Earnings rise slower than inflation for fifth year running). Also, as income distribution has become less equal, so those in lower income groups have seen their real incomes fall the fastest. This is partly the result of nominal wages rising less fast for low-paid workers and partly the result of price increases for various essentials, such as food and power being greater than the rate of inflation, and these products constituting a higher proportion of expenditure for poor people than rich people (see Squeezed Britain 2013).

Likewise expenditure hasn’t fallen on all categories of product. Since 2006, real expenditure on clothing and footwear and on housing, fuel and power has risen. The second chart illustrates expenditure on some of the different categories and how the balance has changed (click here for a PowerPoint). This partly reflects the changes in prices of products, with some items, such as electricity, gas and rent having risen faster than the average, and with the demand for such items being relatively price inelastic.

The changing pattern is also partly the result of different income elasticities of demand for different items. Thus, with falling real incomes, the proportion of income spent on products with a low income elasticity of demand is likely to rise.

Expenditure also varies by income group. People on higher incomes tend to spend a greater proportion of their income on things such as leisure activities (e.g. eating out and holidays), motoring, and clothing and footwear. Poorer people tend to spend proportionately more on food and drink, and on electricity, gas and rent (even net of housing benefit). These differences are illustrated in the third chart which looks at certain categories of expenditure of three different disposable income groups: the poorest 10% (decile), the richest 10% and the 6th decile (i.e. the 6th group up from the bottom – the group with average or just above average income) (click here for a PowerPoint for the chart). Detailed figures can be found here, which is Table 3.2 from Family Spending.

Just as the time-series data looking at changing income and expenditure over time can illustrate the different income elasticities of demand for different products, so can the cross-sectional data in Tables 3.1 and 3.2 of Family Spending.

Articles
Earnings rise slower than inflation for fifth year running BBC News (12/12/13)
Energy and rent are now the biggest family bills The Telegraph, Steve Hawkes (11/12/13)
Families spend £489 each week – on what? The Guardian, Mona Chalabi (11/12/13)
Cost of energy hits family budgets, says ONS BBC News (11/12/13)
Family spending interactive: how has it changed? The Guardian Datastore, Mona Chalabi (11/12/13)

Data
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results ONS (12/12/13)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results: Statistical Bulletin ONS (12/12/13)
Family Spending, 2013 Edition ONS (11/12/13)
Family spending in 2012: Infographic ONS (11/12/13)
Video Summary: Are you an average spender? ONS (11/12/13)
Household expenditure based on COICOP classification, 2001-02 to 2012 at 2012 prices: Table 4.1 of Family Spending ONS (11/12/13)
Detailed household expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure by disposable income decile group, 2012: Table 3.2 of Family Spending ONS (11/12/13)

Questions

  1. What are the determinants of the price elasticity of demand for a product?
  2. What are the limitations of using time-series data of prices and expenditure to estimate the price elasticity of demand for particular products?
  3. What are the determinants of the income elasticity of demand for a product?
  4. What are the limitations of using time-series data of incomes and expenditure to estimate the income elasticity of demand for particular products?
  5. What are the limitations of using cross-sectional data of expenditure of different income groups to estimate the income elasticity of demand for particular products?
  6. How do your answers to the above questions demonstrate the significance of the ceteris paribus (other things being equal) assumption?
  7. If real earnings are falling, why are people able to spend more in real terms?
  8. What are the macroeconomic implications of increased consumer spending at a time of falling real incomes?
  9. How could increased consumer spending help to reverse the fall in real incomes (a) in the short run (b) over a period of a few years? Distinguish between the effects on aggregate demand and aggregate supply.
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The burden of debt

Household debt in the UK has reached a record level. Individuals now owe £1430 billion. This compares with the UK’s general government debt of £1443 billion – also at a record level. These figures are illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

But these figures are nominal. If you look at the real figures (i.e. corrected for inflation), household debt has been falling. In today’s prices, household debt peaked at £1668 billion in March 2008. Also, if you look at household debt as a proportion of GDP, it fell from a peak of 100.96% in May 2009 to 87.43% in July 2013 (see chart). However, since then it has begun rising again, standing at 87.65% in October 2013.

So has household debt become less of a problem? In aggregate terms, the answer is probably yes. However, it is too early to know whether a continuing recovery in the economy will be fuelled by real debt rising again and whether the recovery will encourage people to take on higher levels of debt?

For many people, however, debt has become more and more of a problem. In other words, the aggregate figures conceal what has happened in terms of the distribution of debt. According to a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) study:

Indebted households in the poorest 10 per cent of the country have average debts more than four times their annual income. Average debt repayments within this group amounted to nearly half their gross monthly income.

And the poorest families, often with very poor credit ratings, are frequently forced to turn to payday lenders, charging sky-high interest rates (see Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?).

As mainstream banks reduced access to credit following the financial crash, the market for short-term high-cost credit (payday lenders, pawnbrokers, rent-to-buy and doorstop lenders) increased dramatically and is now worth £4.8 billion a year.

Payday lenders have increased business from £900 million in 2008/09 to just over £2 billion (or around 8 million loans) in 2011/12. Around half of payday loan customers reported taking out the money because it was the only form of credit they could get. The number of people going to loan sharks is also said to have increased – the most recent estimate puts it at 310,000 people.

With rising energy and food bills hitting the poorest hardest, this section of the population could find debt levels continuing to rise, especially if interest rates rise. As Chris Pond, who chaired the CJS study, stated:

The costs to those affected, in stress and mental disorders, relationship breakdown and hardship is immense. But so too is the cost to the nation, measured in lost employment and productivity and in an increased burden on public services.

Articles
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ The Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
UK debt crisis: poorest face ‘perfect storm’ Channel 4 News (20/11/13)
One in five struggle with serious debt The Telegraph, Nicole Blackmore (27/11/13)
It doesn’t matter what we do with Wonga: personal debt is about to rocket The Telegraph, Tim Wigmore (26/11/13)
Poorest families ‘need more help over debt’ BBC News (20/11/13)

Report
More than 5,000 people a year ‘homeless’ as household debt crisis deepens, CSJ warns Centre for Social Justice Press Release (20/11/13)

Data
Monthly amounts outstanding of total (excluding the Student Loans Company) sterling net lending to individuals and housing associations (in sterling millions) seasonally adjusted Bank of England
Public Sector Finances First Release – Public Sector Consolidated Gross Debt ONS
Household debt (Economics Indicators update) House of Commons Library (29/11/13)

Questions

  1. What are the macroeconomic implications of rising levels of household debt?
  2. Why may an economy which has high levels of household debt be more subject to cyclical fluctuations in real GDP?
  3. What are the problems of having a recovery driven largely by increased consumer expenditure?
  4. Why have many people in the poorest sectors of society found their debt levels rising the fastest?
  5. Why may rising levels of debt of the most vulnerable people make it harder for the Bank of England to use conventional monetary policy if recovery becomes established?
  6. What policies could be pursued to try to reduce the debts of the poorest people?
  7. Discuss the effectiveness of these various policies.
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