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Articles for the ‘Economics 9e: Ch 20’ Category

Return of the political business cycle?

According to the theory of the political business cycle, governments call elections at the point in the business cycle that gives them the greatest likelihood of winning. This is normally near the peak of the cycle, when the economic news is currently good but likely to get worse in the medium term. With fixed-term governments, this makes it harder for governments as, unless they are lucky, they have to use demand management policies to engineer a boom as an election approaches. It is much easier if they can choose when to call an election.

In the UK, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, the next election must be five years after the previous one. This means that the next election in the UK must be the first Thursday in May 2020. The only exception is if at least two-thirds of all MPs vote for a motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ or ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.’

The former motion was put in the House of Commons on 19 April and was carried by 522 votes to 13 – considerably more than two-thirds of the 650 seats in Parliament. The next election will therefore take place on the government’s chosen date of 8 June 2017.

Part of the reason for the government calling an election is to give it a stronger mandate for its Brexit negotiations. Part is to take advantage of its currently strong opinion poll ratings, which, if correct, will mean that it will gain a substantially larger majority. But part could be to take advantage of the current state of the business cycle.

Although the economy is currently growing quite strongly (1.9% in 2016) and although forecasts for economic growth this year are around 2%, buoyed partly by a strongly growing world economy, beyond that things look less good. Indeed, there are a number of headwinds facing the economy.

First there are the Brexit negotiations, which are likely to prove long and difficult and could damage confidence in the economy. There may be adverse effects on both inward and domestic investment and possible increased capital outflows. At the press conference to the Bank of England’s February 2017 Inflation Report, the governor stated that “investment is expected to be around a quarter lower in three years’ time than projected prior to the referendum, with material consequences for productivity, wages and incomes”.

Second, the fall in the sterling exchange rate is putting upward pressure on inflation. The Bank of England forecasts that CPI inflation will peak at around 2.8% in early 2018. With nominal real wages lagging behind prices, real wages are falling and will continue to do so. As well as from putting downward pressure on living standards, it will tend to reduce consumption and the rate of economic growth.

Consumer debt has been rising rapidly in recent months, with credit-card debt reaching an 11-year high in February. This has helped to support growth. However, with falling real incomes, a lack of confidence may encourage people to cut back on new borrowing and hence on spending. What is more, concerns about the unsustainability of some consumer debt has encouraged the FCA (the financial sector regulator) to review the whole consumer credit industry. In addition, many banks are tightening up on their criteria for granting credit.

Retail spending, although rising in February itself, fell in the three months to February – the largest fall for nearly seven years. Such falls are likely to continue.

So if the current boom in the economy will soon end, then, according to political business cycle theory, the government is right to have called a snap election.

Articles
Gloomy economic outlook is why Theresa May was forced to call a snap election The Conversation, Richard Murphy (18/4/17)
What does Theresa May’s general election U-turn mean for the economy? Independent, Ben Chu (18/4/17)
It’s not the economy, stupid – is it? BBC News Scotland, Douglas Fraser (18/4/17)
Biggest fall in UK retail sales in seven years BBC News (21/4/17)
Sharp drop in UK retail sales blamed on higher prices Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (21/4/17)
Shoppers cut back as inflation kicks in – and top Bank of England official says it will get worse The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (21/4/17)
Retail sales volumes fall at fastest quarterly rate in seven years Independent, Ben Chu (21/4/17)

Statistical Bulletin
Retail sales in Great Britain: Mar 2017 ONS (21/4/17)

Questions

  1. For what reasons might economic growth in the UK slow over the next two to three years?
  2. For what reasons might economic growth increase over the next two to three years?
  3. Why is forecasting UK economic growth particularly difficult at the present time?
  4. What does political business cycle theory predict about the behaviour of governments (a) with fixed terms between elections; (b) if they can choose when to call an election?
  5. How well timed is the government’s decision to call an election?
  6. If retail sales are falling, what other element(s) of aggregate demand may support economic growth in the coming months?
  7. How does UK productivity compare with that in other developed countries? Explain why.
  8. What possible trading arrangements with the EU could the UK have in a post-Brexit deal? Discuss their likelihood and their impact on economic growth?
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Rising inflation

The latest figures from the ONS show that UK inflation rose to 2.3% for the 12 months to February 2017 – up from 1.9% for the 12 months to January. The rate is the highest since September 2013 and has steadily increased since late 2015.

The main price index used to measure inflation is now CPIH, as opposed to CPI. CPIH is the consumer prices index (CPI) adjusted for housing costs and is thus a more realsitic measure of the cost pressures facing households. As the ONS states:

CPIH extends the consumer prices index (CPI) to include a measure of the costs associated with owning, maintaining and living in one’s own home, known as owner occupiers’ housing costs (OOH), along with Council Tax. Both of these are significant expenses for many households and are not included in the CPI.

But why has inflation risen so significantly? There are a number of reasons.

The first is a rise in transport costs (contributing 0.15 percentage points to the overall inflation rate increase of 0.4 percentage points). Fuel prices rose especially rapidly, reflecting both the rise in the dollar price of oil and the depreciation of the pound. In February 2016 the oil price was $32.18; in February 2017 it was $54.87 – a rise of 70.5%. In February 2016 the exchange rate was £1 = $1.43; in February 2017 it was £1 = $1.25 – a depreciation of 12.6%.

The second biggest contributor to the rise in inflation was recreation and culture (contributing 0.08 percentage points). A wide range of items in this sector, including both goods and services, rose in price. ‘Notably, the price of personal computers (including laptops and tablets) increased by 2.3% between January 2017 and February 2017.’ Again, a large contributing factor has been the fall in the value of the pound. Apple, for example, raised its UK app store prices by a quarter in January, having raised prices for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers significantly last autumn. Microsoft has raised its prices by more than 20% this year for software services such as Office and Azure. Dell, HP and Tesla have also significantly raised their prices.

The third biggest was food and non-alcoholic beverages (contributing 0.06 percentage points). ‘Food prices, overall, rose by 0.8% between January 2017 and February 2017, compared with a smaller rise of 0.1% a year earlier.’ Part of the reason has been the fall in the pound, but part has been poor harvests in southern Europe putting up euro prices. This is the first time that overall food prices have risen for more than two-and-a-half years.

It is expected that inflation will continue to rise over the coming months as the effect of the weaker pound and higher raw material and food prices filter though. The current set of pressures could see inflation peaking at around 3%. If there is a futher fall in the pound or further international price increases, inflation could be pushed higher still – well above the Bank of England’s 2% target. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The higher inflation means that firms are facing a squeeze on their profits from two directions.

First, wage rises have been slowing and are now on a level with consumer price rises. It is likely that wage rises will soon drop below price rises, meaning that real wages will fall, putting downward pressure on spending and squeezing firms’ revenue.

Second, input prices are rising faster than consumer prices. In the 12 months to February 2017, input prices (materials and fuels) rose by 19.1%, putting a squeeze on producers. Producer prices (‘factory gate prices’), by contrast, rose by 3.7%. Even though input prices are only part of the costs of production, the much smaller rise of 3.7% reflects the fact that producer’s margins have been squeezed. Retailers too are facing upward pressure on costs from this 3.7% rise in the prices of products they buy from producers.

One of the worries about the squeeze on real wages and the squeeze on profits is that this could dampen investment and slow both actual and potential growth.

So will the Bank of England respond by raising interest rates? The answer is probably no – at least not for a few months. The reason is that the higher inflation is not the result of excess demand and the economy ‘overheating’. In other words, the higher inflation is not from demand-pull pressures. Instead, it is from higher costs, which are in themselves likely to dampen demand and contribute to a slowdown. Raising interest rates would cause the economy to slow further.

Videos
UK inflation shoots above two percent, adding to Bank of England conundrum Reuters, William Schomberg, David Milliken and Richard Hunter (21/3/17)
Bank target exceeded as inflation rate rises to 2.3% ITV News, Chris Choi (21/3/17)
Steep rise in inflation Channel 4 News, Siobhan Kennedy (21/3/17)
U.K. Inflation Gains More Than Forecast, Breaching BOE Goal Bloomberg, Dan Hanson and Fergal O’Brien (21/3/17)

Articles
Inflation leaps in February raising prospect of interest rate rise The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (21/3/17)
Brexit latest: Inflation jumps to 2.3 per cent in February Independent, Ben Chu (21/3/17)
UK inflation rate leaps to 2.3% BBC News (21/3/17)
UK inflation: does it matter for your income, debts and savings? Financial Times, Chris Giles (21/3/17)
Rising food and fuel prices hoist UK inflation rate to 2.3% The Guardian, Katie Allen (21/3/17)
Reality Check: What’s this new measure of inflation? BBC News (21/3/17)

Data
UK consumer price inflation: Feb 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/3/17)
UK producer price inflation: Feb 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/3/17)
Inflation and price indices ONS datasets
Consumer Price Inflation time series dataset ONS datasets
Producer Price Index time series dataset ONS datasets
European Brent Spot Price US Energy Information Administration
Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England

Questions

  1. If pries rise by 10% and then stay at the higher level, what will happen to inflation (a) over the next 12 months; (b) in 13 months’ time?
  2. Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation. Why are they associated with different effects on output?
  3. If producers face rising costs, what determines their ability to pass them on to retailers?
  4. Why is the rate of real-wage increase falling, and why may it beome negative over the coming months?
  5. What categories of people are likely to lose the most from inflation?
  6. What is the Bank of England’s remit in terms of setting interest rates?
  7. What is likely to affect the sterling exchange rate over the coming months?
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A fall in the UK natural rate of unemployment?

When UK unemployment was 7.7% in July 2013, Mark Carney, the newly arrived governor of the Bank of England, said that the Bank would probably have to rise interest rates when the unemployment rate dropped below 7%. Below that rate, it was expected that inflation would rise. In other words, 7% was the NAIRU – the non-accelerating rate of inflation. The most recent figure for the unemployment rate is 4.8% and yet the Bank of England has not raised interest rates. In fact, in response to the Brexit vote, it cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% in August last year. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below.)

The NAIRU is a similar, although not identical, concept to the natural rate of unemployment. The natural rate is the equilibrium rate consistent with an overall long-term balance of aggregate labour demand and supply: i.e. the rate after short-term cyclical movements in unemployment have been discounted. It is thus a long-term concept.

The NAIRU, although similar, focuses on the relationship between inflation and unemployment. With inflation caused solely by demand-side factors, the natural rate and the NAIRU will be similar if not identical. However, if cost-push factors change – say there is a poor harvest, which pushes up food prices and inflation (temporarily), or a substantial depreciation of the exchange rate caused by political factors (such as Brexit) – the NAIRU would increase, at least in the short term, as a higher rate of unemployment would be necessary to stop inflation rising. In the long term, although being defined differently, the NAIRU and the natural rate will be the same.

In practice, because the Bank of England is targeting inflation at a 24-month time horizon, the NAIRU for the UK at that point could also be seen as the natural rate.

So with the Bank of England not raising interest rates despite the considerable fall in the unemployment rate, does this imply a fall in the natural rate of unemployment? The answer is yes. The reason has to do with changes in the structure of the labour market.

The proportion of young people and women with children returning to the labour market has fallen. Such people have a higher-than-average rate of unemployment since they typically spend a period of time searching for a job.

Tax and benefit reforms over the years have increased the incentive for the unemployed to take work.

Perhaps the biggest factor is a greater flexibility in the labour market. As union power has waned and as people are increasingly working on flexible contracts, including zero-hour contracts, so this has moderated wage increases. At the same time, many firms are facing increased competition both from abroad and domestically via the Internet. This has put downward pressure on prices and hence on the wages firms are willing to pay.

The effect has been a fall in the NAIRU and probably the natural rate. Frictions in the labour market have reduced and people losing their jobs because of changes in industrial structure find it easier to get jobs in low-skilled service industries, where employers’ risks of taking on such workers have fallen because of the loss of rights for such workers.

So what is the natural rate of unemployment today? It is certainly much lower than 7%; the consensus is that it is probably below 5%. As Kristin Forbes, External MPC Member of the Bank of England stated in a recent speech:

[Unemployment] is forecast to increase gradually from its current 4.8% to a high of 5.0% in the second half of 2017, before falling back to its current rate by the end of 2019. To put this in context, 5.0% was previously believed to be around the UK’s natural rate of unemployment – the rate below which unemployment could not fall without wages picking up to levels inconsistent with sustaining inflation around the 2% target. Unemployment at 5.0% is also below the average unemployment rate for the UK over the pre-crisis period from 1997 to 2007 (when it was 5.5%).

She went on to discuss just what the figure is for the natural, or ‘equilibrium’, rate of unemployment (U*). One problem here is that there is considerable uncertainty over the figure in the current forecast made by the Bank.

[An] assumption in the forecast about which there is substantial uncertainty is of the equilibrium unemployment rate – or U* for short. Since I have been on the MPC, the Committee has assumed that U* was around 5%. This implied that the more by which unemployment exceeded 5%, the more slack existed in the economy, and the less upward momentum would be expected in wages (controlling for other factors, such as productivity growth).

As part of our annual assessment of regular supply-side conditions this January, Bank staff presented several pieces of analysis that suggested U* may be lower than 5% today [see, for example]. The majority of the MPC voted to lower our estimate of U* to 4.5%, based partly on the persistent weakness of wage growth over the past few years after accounting for other factors in our models. [See page 20 of the February 2017 Inflation Report.]

My own assessment, however, suggested that although U* was likely lower than 5% today, it is likely not as low as 4.5%. If true, this would suggest that there is less slack in the economy than in the MPC’s central forecast, and wage growth and inflation could pick up faster than expected.

Against that, however, uncertainty related to Brexit negotiations could make firms more cautious about raising wages, thereby dampening wage growth no matter where unemployment is relative to its equilibrium. Moreover, even if we could accurately measure the level of U* in the economy today, it could easily change over the next few years as the labour force adjusts to any changes in the movement of labour between the UK and European Union.

Determining the precise figure of the current natural rate of unemployment, and predicting it for the medium term, is very difficult. It involves separating out demand-side factors, which are heavily dependent on expectations. It also involves understanding the wage elasticity of labour supply in various markets and how this has been affected by the increased flexibility of these markets.

Articles
When will Britons get a pay rise? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/2/17)
BoE decision, Inflation Report – Analysts react DigitalLook, Alexander Bueso (2/2/17)
Bank of England hikes UK economic growth forecasts but warns of rising inflation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/2/17)

Bank of England publications
Inflation Report Bank of England (February 2017)
A MONIAC (not manic) economy Bank of England Speeches, Kristin Forbes (8/2/17)
The labour market Bank of England Speeches, Michael Saunders (31/1/17)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between the following terms: natural rate of unemployment, NAIRU, equilibrium rate of unemployment, disequilibrium rate of unemployment.
  2. For what reasons did the Monetary Policy Committee members feel that the equilibrium rate of unemployment might be as low as 4.25%?
  3. Why might it be as high as 5%?
  4. How are changes in migration trends likely to affect (a) wage growth and (b) unemployment?
  5. How is the amount of slack in an economy measured? What impact does the degree of slack have on wage growth and inflation?
  6. What is meant by the ‘gig’ economy? How has the development of the gig economy impacted on unemployment and wages?
  7. Why has there been a considerable rise in self employment?
  8. How may questions of life style choice and control over the hours people wish to work impact on the labour market?
  9. If people are moving jobs less frequently, does this imply that the labour market is becoming less flexible?
  10. Why may firms in the current climate be cautious about raising wages even if aggregate demand picks up?
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End of the era of liquidity traps?

The linked article below from The Economist looks at whether the election of Donald Trump, the effects of the Brexit vote and policies being pursued elsewhere in the world mark a new macroeconomic era. We may be about to witness rising inflation and the end of the era of tight fiscal policy and loose monetary policy. We might see a return of a more Keynesian approach to macreconomic policy.

According to the article, since the financial crisis of 2008, we have been witnessing economies stuck in a liquidity trap. In such cases, there is little scope for further reductions in interest rates. And increases in money supply, in the form of quantitative easing, tend to be held in idle balances, rather than being spent on goods and services. The idle balances take the form of increased bank reserves to rebuild their capital base and increased purchases of assets such as shares and property.

Even if people did believe that monetary policy would work to boost aggregate demand and result in higher inflation, then they would also believe that any such boost would be temporary as central banks would then have to tighten monetary policy to keep inflation within the target they had been set. This would limit spending increases, keeping the economy in the liquidity trap.

With a liquidity trap, fiscal policy is likely to be much more effective than monetary policy in boosting aggregate demand. However, its scope to pull an economy out of recession and create sustained higher growth depends on the extent to which governments, and markets, can tolerate higher budget deficits and growing debt. With governments seeking to claw down deficits and ultimately debt, this severely limits the potential for using fiscal policy.

With the election of Donald Trump, we might be entering a new era of fiscal policy. He has promised large-scale infrastructure spending and tax cuts. Although he has also promised to reduce the deficit, he is implying that this will only occur when the economy is growing more rapidly and hence tax revenues are increasing.

Is Donald Trump a Keynesian? Or are such promises merely part of campaigning – promises that will be watered down when he takes office in January? We shall have to wait and see whether we are about to enter a new era of macroeconomic policy – an era that has been increasingly advocated by international bodies, such as the IMF and the OECD (see the blog post, OECD goes public).

Article
Slumponomics: Trump and the political economy of liquidity traps The Economist (10/11/16)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘the liquidity trap’.
  2. Why is monetary policy relatively ineffective in a liquidity trap? Use a diagram to support your argument.
  3. Why is fiscal policy (in the absence of public-sector deficit targets) relatively effective in a liquidity trap? Again, use a diagram to support your argument.
  4. Examine how the Japanese government attempted to escape the liquidity trap? (Search this site for ‘Abenomics’.)
  5. In what ways may the depreciation of the pound since the Brexit vote help the UK to escape the liquidity trap?
  6. Could a different form of quantitative easing, known as ‘helicopter money’, whereby government or private spending is financed directly by new money, allow countries to escape the liquidity trap? (Search this site for ‘helicopter money’.)
  7. Why may a political upheaval be necessary for a country to escape the liquidity trap?
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Fears for UK growth as consumer confidence slumps

In our blog What can we read into signs of easing consumer confidence? we noted the slight easing in consumer confidence that had occurred since the autumn of last year. Nonetheless, at that time, survey data from the European Commission was continuing to show consumer confidence levels still well above their long-run average. However, following the UK vote to leave the European Union consumer confidence has fallen sharply and now the headline confidence indicator has fallen below its long-term average for the first time since June 2013.

We take this opportunity to update our May blog to better understand the extent and nature of the decline in confidence. The importance of confidence changes is typically modelled by economists in their models of the macroeconomy as a demand-side shock. Falling consumer confidence would be expected to dampen an economy’s output levels since aggregate demand falls as households spend less. Consequently, a marked fall in confidence amounts to a negative demand-side shock.

The European Commission’s confidence measure is collated from questions in a monthly survey. In the UK around 2000 individuals are surveyed. Across the current 28 member states over 41 000 people are surveyed.

In the survey individuals are asked a series of 12 questions which are designed to provide information on spending and saving intentions. These questions include perceptions of financial well-being, the general economic situation, consumer prices, unemployment, saving and the undertaking of major purchases.

The responses elicit either negative or positive responses. For example, respondents may feel that over the next 12 months the financial situation of their household will improve a little or a lot, stay the same or deteriorate a little or a lot. A weighted balance of positive over negative replies can be calculated. The balance can vary from –100, when all respondents choose the most negative option, to +100, when all respondents choose the most positive option.

The European Commission’s principal consumer confidence indicator is the average of the balances of four of the twelve questions posed: the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations (with inverted sign) and savings, all over the next 12 months. These forward-looking balances are seasonally adjusted.

Sometimes other combinations of the 12 questions are averaged to produce alternative headline confidence numbers (see, for example, the newspaper articles below). These may include a mix of forward and backward-looking questions. However, in this blog we report on the European Commission’s principal confidence indicator as outlined above. The intention is that this or any other confidence indicator tracks developments in households’ spending intentions and, in turn, likely changes in the rate of growth of household consumption.

Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average of –8.7 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses.

In July the confidence balance stood at –9.2 down from –1.2 in June. This 8 point fall is the largest monthly fall in this particular headline indicator since January 1991 when it fell 11 points. The fall also means that not only do negative responses now dominate but more so than is usual. The fall in confidence is therefore very stark indeed. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Chart 2 is important because it enables us to see what drives the European Commission’s headline confidence indicator for the UK by looking at its four component balances. The sharp decline in confidence is reflected in a deterioration in all four components. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The most notable change in the individual confidence balances is the sharp deterioration in expectations for the general economy. In July the forward-looking general economic situation balance fell to –29.9 having stood at –15.7 in June. As recently as last December it registered –1.4. This is the lowest forward-looking general economy confidence balance since October 2012, though still some way above the –50.1 reported in July 2008 when the financial crisis was unfolding.

Alongside the 14 point drop in the balance for general economy expectations, the UK experienced 8 point drops in both the balances for households’ financial expectations and the expectations of saving over the next 12 months. In other words, households expect to become financially poorer and less able to save.

The monthly survey contains other questions that can help to predict future spending patterns. For example, we might expect the responses to questions relating to perceptions around what the survey call ‘major purchases’ to give us some important insight in households’ financial well-being and spending plans. ‘Major purchases’ are taken to be items such as furniture, electrical goods and electronic devices.

Chart 3 shows the balances to both whether now is the right time to make major purchases and to whether respondents expect to spend more on major purchases in the coming 12 months compared to the past 12 months. July’s data show a marked deterioration in sentiment towards making major purchases. The balance relating to whether now is the right time to make major purchases fell by 6.5 points, the largest fall since December 2011, while the forward-looking major purchase balance fell by 4.6 points, the largest fall since January 2011. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The fall in the major purchases balances is consistent with the idea that households are feeling a sense of heightened uncertainty. The implication of this is that households will tend to be more cautious, cutting back on expenditures, including major purchases.

The magnitude of the fall in UK consumer confidence following the outcome of the EU referendum on 23 June is even more stark when compared to developments in consumer confidence across the 28 member states of the European Union and in the 19 countries that make up the Euro area.

Chart 4 shows how UK consumer confidence recovered relatively more strongly following the financial crisis of the late 2000s. The headline confidence indicator rose strongly from the middle of 2013 and, as we noted earlier, was consistently in positive territory during 2014 and remained so at the start of this year. The slump in consumer confidence in the UK means that the headline confidence measure has now fallen below that across the EU as well as that in the euro area. In fact, confidence in the euro area has been consistently between –7 or –9 for the past six months. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Interest now turns to whether the slump in confidence in the UK will persist or, worse still, deepen further. The implied negative impact on aggregate demand would be expected to translate into weaker growth. The concern therefore is the extent to which we can expect UK growth to weaken in the months ahead. The prospect of weaker growth is likely to influence economic policy.

The government has already talked about ‘resetting fiscal policy’ which can be taken to mean a relative loosening in its fiscal policy relative to the Government’s original plans. Similarly we might yet see a further loosening of monetary policy. While the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee held the official Bank Rate at 0.5 per cent at its July meeting, many commentators expect a cut sooner rather than later. The confidence data will be one important consideration in the Bank’s calculations.

Articles
UK sees biggest fall in consumer confidence for 26 years after Brexit vote The Guardian, Katie Allen (29/7/16)
UK consumer confidence takes biggest drop since 1990s ITV News (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence suffers biggest drop in 26 years after Brexit vote The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence slides at fastest pace in 26 years after Brexit vote Indepedent, Ben Chu (29/7/16)
Housing Outlook ’Uncertain’ as Brexit Hits Consumer Confidence Bloomberg, Charlotte Ryan (28/7/16)
Brexit Sees U.K. Consumer Confidence Fall Most Since 1990 Bloomberg, Charlotte Ryan (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence nosedives in Scotland in wake of Brexit vote Herald Scotland, Helen McArdle (29/7/16)

Data
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission

Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
  2. Analyse the ways in which consumer confidence might affect economic activity.
  3. Explain what you understand by a positive and a negative demand-side shock. How might changes in consumer confidence initiate demand shocks?
  4. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate? (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity. (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence.
  5. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator hope that the indicator would help to predict?
  6. Analyse the possible economic implications of the fall in consumer confidence following the EU referendum vote.
  7. What economic effects might any persistence in the fall in consumer confidence have?
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What can we read into signs of easing consumer confidence?

Economists spend a lot of time analysing consumers’ spending intentions. This is unsurprising given that UK household consumption is the equivalent to around two-thirds of Gross Domestic Product. One factor that is argued to affect spending decisions is consumer confidence. Despite a slight easing in recent months, survey data from the European Commission continue to show relatively high confidence levels among UK households. This follows a surge in consumer confidence during 2013 and into 2014.

Rising consumer confidence is identified frequently by economists as a positive demand-side shock. Therefore, rising confidence would be expected to boost an economy’s output levels as aggregate demand rises. The opposite holds for falling consumer confidence which is an example of a negative demand-side shock.

Given the impact that confidence can have on economies it is important to have measures which might be thought, however imperfectly, to capture consumer confidence. The European Commission’s confidence measure involves a monthly survey of around 2000 individuals in the UK. Across the 28 member states over 41 000 people are surveyed.

In the survey individuals are asked a series of 12 questions which are designed to provide information on spending and saving intentions. These questions include perceptions of financial well-being, the general economic situation, consumer prices, unemployment, saving and the undertaking of major purchases.

The responses elicit either negative or positive responses. For example, respondents may feel that over the next 12 months the financial situation of their household will improve a little or a lot, stay the same or deteriorate a little or a lot. A weighted balance of positive over negative replies can be calculated. The balance can vary from –100, when all respondents choose the most negative option, to +100, when all respondents choose the most positive option.

The European Commission’s consumer confidence indicator is the average of the balances of four of the twelve questions posed: the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations (with inverted sign) and savings, all over the next 12 months. The balances are seasonally adjusted.

Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average of –8.8 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses. However, the current confidence balance is just above zero at +0.8. So, as well as indicating a generally positive disposition across UK households, confidence levels are well above the long-term average. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)


Chart 2 enables us to see what has been driving the European Commission’s confidence indicator for the UK by looking at its four component balances. From it we can see that the boost to confidence in 2013 and 2014 coincided with a dramatic improvement in expectations of the general economic situation in the year ahead and a rapidly falling proportion of respondents expecting unemployment to rise.

The easing in confidence since the turn of the year appears largely to be the result of deteriorating expectations over the general economy. In April the forward-looking general economic situation balance had fallen to –12.5 the lowest balance since June 2013. The deterioration in this balance slightly lags the growing belief that unemployment will rise over the next 12 months, which began to take hold last Autumn. Some commentators argue these trends might reflect the uncertainty caused by the EU referendum to be held in the UK on 23 June. (Click here download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The monthly survey contains other questions that can help to predict future spending patterns. For example, we might expect the responses to questions relating to perceptions around what the survey called ‘major purchases’ to give us some important insight in households’ financial well-being and spending plans. ‘Major purchases’ are taken to be items such as furniture, electrical goods and electronic devices.

Chart 3 shows the balances to both whether now is the right time to make major purchases and to whether respondents expect to spend more on major purchases in the coming 12 months compared to the past 12 months. We can see a marked improvement in sentiment from around the middle of 2013.(Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

By the start of 2015 there was a positive balance of individuals feeling that now was the right time to make major purchases. While this balance remained positive in April 2016 at +5.9 this was down from +11.7 back in January. Meanwhile, the forward-looking major purchase balance has fallen slightly in each of the last three months. But, it is still on a par with levels at the end of 2015. Hence, it is perhaps a little too early to talk of any significant easing of forward-looking sentiment around more major purchases having yet become established.

Taking the two major purchase balances together the tentative evidence points to a relatively mild easing in sentiment. This is consistent with the overall consumer confidence indicator.

It would seem that while consumer confidence has eased a touch from the highs of the past couple of years, confidence levels remain strong. Nonetheless, policymakers will be keeping a very keen eye on any signs that this easing in confidence is becoming entrenched with its implications for weaker consumption growth.

Articles
Brexit and euro zone worries weigh on UK consumers Reuters, (31/3/16)
Brexit’s Mixed Messages Depress Consumer Confidence, GfK Says Bloomberg, Fergal O’Brien (29/4/16)
UK consumer confidence stumbles Herald Sun, Dan Cancian (25/4/16)
Consumer ‘depression’ mounts over uncertain economy The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (29/4/16)
Consumer confidence at zero as Brexit fears ‘hit home’ The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (31/3/16)
Consumer confidence in UK at lowest level in 15 months, survey suggests Guardian, Katie Allen (29/4/16)

Data
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission

Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
  2. Analyse the ways in which consumer confidence might affect economic activity.
  3. Explain what you understand by a positive and a negative demand-side shock. How might changes in consumer confidence initiate demand shocks?
  4. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate? (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity. (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence.
  5. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator hope that the indicator would help to predict?
  6. In recent times expectations about the path of the economy have been less optimistic. Yet at the same time more people are positive about how their financial situation will develop. What might explain this apparent contradiction?
  7. What might the long-term average value of the consumer confidence indicator reveal about peoples’ natural perceptions and expectations of their well-being?
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The political business cycle – mark II

During the 1970s, commentators often referred to the ‘political business cycle’. As William Nordhaus stated in a 1989 paper. “The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power.”

In the past, politicians would use fiscal, and sometimes monetary, policies to manipulate aggregate demand so that the economy was growing strongly at the time of the next election. This often meant doing unpopular things in the first couple of years of office to allow for popular things, such as tax cuts and increased government transfers, as the next election approached. This tended to align the business cycle with the election cycle. The economy would slow in the early years of a parliament and expand rapidly towards the end.

To some extent, this has been the approach since 2010 of first the Coalition and now the Conservative governments. Cuts to government expenditure were made ‘in order to clear up the mess left by the previous government’. At the time it was hoped that, by the next election, the economy would be growing strongly again.

But in adopting a fiscal mandate, the current government could be doing the reverse of previous governments. George Osborne has set the target of a budget surplus by the final year of this parliament (2019–20) and has staked his reputation on achieving it.

The problem, as we saw in the blog, Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets is that growth in the economy has slowed and this makes it more difficult to achieve the target of a budget surplus by 2019–20. Given that achieving this target is seen to be more important for his reputation for ‘sound management’ of the public finances than that the economy should be rapidly growing, it is likely that the Chancellor will be dampening aggregate demand in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, in the latest Budget, he announced that specific measures would be taken in 2019–20 to meet the target, including a further £3.5 billion of savings from departmental spending in 2019–20. In the meantime, however, taxes would be cut (such as increasing personal allowances and cutting business rates) and government spending in certain areas would be increased. As the OBR states:

Despite a weaker outlook for the economy and tax revenues, the Chancellor has announced a net tax cut and new spending commitments. But he remains on course for a £10 billion surplus in 2019–20, by rescheduling capital investment, promising other cuts in public services spending and shifting a one-off boost to corporation tax receipts into that year.

But many commentators have doubted that this will be enough to bring a surplus. Indeed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme said that “there’s only about a 50:50 shot that he’s going to get there. If things change again, if the OBR downgrades its forecasts again, I don’t think he will be able to get away with anything like this. I think he will be forced to put some proper tax increases in or possibly find yet further proper spending cuts”.

If that is the case, he will be further dampening the economy as the next election approaches. In other words, the government may be doing the reverse of what governments did in the past. Instead of boosting the economy to increase growth at election time, the government may feel forced to make further cuts in government expenditure and/or to raise taxes to meet the fiscal target of a budget surplus.

Articles
Budget 2016: George Osborne hits back at deficit critics BBC News (17/3/16)
George Osborne will have to break his own rules to win the next election Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (17/3/16)
Osborne Accused of Accounting Tricks to Meet Budget Surplus Goal Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell and Robert Hutton (16/3/16)
George Osborne warns more cuts may be needed to hit surplus target Financial Times, Jim Pickard (17/3/16)
6 charts that explain why George Osborne is about to make austerity even worse Independent, Hazel Sheffield (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: Osborne ‘has only 50-50 chance’ of hitting surplus target The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
How will Chancellor George Osborne reach his surplus? BBC News, Howard Mustoe (16/3/16)
Osborne’s fiscal illusion exposed as a house of credit cards The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
The Budget’s bottom line: taxes will rise and rise again The Telegraph, Allister Heath (17/3/16)

Reports, analysis and documents
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: documents HM Treasury (16/3/16)
Budget 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies (17/3/16)

Questions

  1. Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
  2. Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
  3. For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
  4. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
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Acquiring a taste for credit (again)

The Bank of England’s Money and Credit release on 1 Feb provides us with data up to the end of 2015 on lending by banks and building societies to the rest of the UK private sector. In this post we update our blog of 17 December 2015 – is Minsky right yet again? – to analyse the latest data on lending. The headline numbers show that the flow of lending (net of repayments) by banks and building societies to UK households in 2015 was £40.8 billion up from £29.9 billion in 2014 taking their amount of outstanding lending to households to £1.26 trillion. Was American economist Minsky (1919-1996) right to have argued that cycles in credit are inevitable?

Chart 1 shows the stocks of debt acquired by both households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions), i.e. deposit-taking institutions. The scale of debt accumulation in the late 1980s and again from the mid 1990s up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s is stark. At the start of 1980 the UK household sector had debts to MFIs of around £53 billion. By the start of 2009 this had hit £1.29 trillion. To put these figures into context this corresponds to an increase in indebtedness to MFIs from 25 per cent of GDP to 86 per cent of GDP.

The chart also shows the increase in indebtedness of private non-financial corporations which are effectively every day businesses. They saw their debts to MFIs rise from around £25 billion to over £500 billion which is equivalent to an increase from 12 per cent of GDP to 33 per cent of GDP. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 1.)

The path of debt at the start of the 2010s is consistent with a story of consolidation. Although the term is readily used in the context of the public sector and measures to reduce public-sector deficits the term is also relevant for the private sector. Financially-distressed households, private non-financial corporations and MFIs took steps to repair their balance sheets following the financial crisis. Indeed the term is synonymous with the idea of a balance sheet recession which some economists argue describe the late 2000s. The result was that the demand for and supply of additional credit waned. Debt accumulation largely ceased and, as we can see from Chart 1, debt numbers fell.

More recently the indebtedness to MFIs of households has started to edge up again, though, as yet, not for private non-financial corporations. From the end of the first quarter of 2013 to the end of 2015 household indebtedness to MFIs has increased by 7 per cent to £1.26 trillion.

Chart 2 focuses on flows rather than stocks. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 2.) It allows us to see the accumulation of new credit (i.e. less repayments of debt). What is even more apparent from this chart is the evidence of cycles in credit. The growth in new credit during the 2000s is stark as is the subsequent squeeze on credit that followed. Across 2006 net flows of credit from MFIs to households reached £106 billion while the peak for PNFCs was across 2007 when they reached £71 billion. Subsequently, net credit numbers crashed with negative numbers for PNFCs indicating net repayments to MFIs.

The size of the credit flows emanating from MFIs and the magnitude of the resulting credit cycles is even more stark when presented as percentages of GDP. The annual flow of credit to households in the late 1980s reached 9.4 per cent of GDP while that to PNFCs peaked at the end of the decade at 5.2 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, across 2006 net credit to households reached 7.5 per cent of GDP while the peak of lending to PNFCs was in the 12-month period to the end of 2007 Q1 equivalent to 4.8 per cent of GDP. In 2015, credit from MFIs to households reached 2.2 per cent of GDP while that to PNFCs was a mere 0.2 per cent of GDP.

Of course, the key question now is the path of credit. Clearly flows of credit to households are again on the rise. In part, this is driven by the rebound in the UK housing market. But, significantly there has been a significant rise in flows of consumer credit, i.e. unsecured debt.

Chart 3 shows the flows of consumer credit to individuals (excluding student loans involving the Student Loans Company) from MFIs and other credit providers. Again, we see the marked evidence of cycles. Across 2015 these net consumer credit flows amounted to £14.5 billion, the highest annual figure since 2005. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

To put the current rise in consumer credit into context, the net flow of consumer credit to individuals as percentage of GDP across 2015 as a whole amounts to about 0.8 per cent of GDP. This is the highest figure since the second half of 2006. While it might be a little early to say that credit numbers are a cause for concern, they do need to be seen in the context of a still relatively highly indebted household sector. Policymakers will be keeping a keen eye on credit patterns and assessing whether we have again acquired a real appetite for credit.

Articles
Households put another £4.4 billion on credit cards and personal loans in December as debt rises at fastest pace in a decade ThisisMoney.co.uk, Rachel Rickard Straus (1/2/16)
One in four ‘living for the day’ as 700,000 more expected to default on debt Independent, Simon Read (2/1/16)
Surprise mortgage jump confounds expectations Independent, Russell Lynch (1/2/16)
U.K. consumer credit slows; mortgage approvals up MarketWatch, Jon Sindreu (1/2/16)
Family debt continues to rise – report BBC News (13/1/16)

Data
Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. How can the financial system affect the economy’s business cycle?
  2. What does it mean if households or firms are financially distressed? What responses might they take to this distress and what might the economic consequences be?
  3. How would you measure the net worth (or wealth) of an individual or a firm? What factors might affect their net worth?
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households and businesses?
  5. What does it mean if bank lending is pro-cyclical?
  6. Why might lending be pro-cyclical?
  7. Are there measures that policymakers can take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?
  8. What do you understand by a consolidation by the private sector? Discuss the possible macroeconomic effects of such a consolidation.
  9. What is meant by a balance sheet recession?
  10. How might the effect of attempts by a large number of individuals to improve their financial well-being differ from those when only a small numbers of individuals do so?
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What would Keynes say?

Here are two thought-provoking articles from The Guardian. They look at macroeconomic policy failures and at the likely consequences.

In first article, Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s Economics Editor, argues that Keynesian expansionary fiscal and monetary policy by the USA has allowed it to achieve much more rapid recovery than Europe, which, by contrast, has chosen to follow fiscal austerity policies and only recently mildly expansionary monetary policy through a belated QE programme.

In the UK, the recovery has been more significant than in the eurozone because of the expansionary monetary policies pursued by the Bank of England in its quantitative easing programme. ‘And when it came to fiscal policy, George Osborne quietly abandoned his original deficit reduction targets when the deleterious impact of an over-aggressive austerity strategy became apparent.’

So, according to Larry Elliott, Europe should ease up on austerity and governments should invest more though increased borrowing.

‘This is textbook Keynesian stuff. Unemployment is high, which means businesses are reluctant to invest. The lack of investment means that demand for new loans is weak. The weakness of demand for loans means that driving down the cost of borrowing through QE will have little impact. Therefore, it is up to the state to break into the vicious circle by investing itself, something it can do cheaply and – because there are so many people unemployed and businesses working well below full capacity – without the risk of inflation.’

In the second article, Paul Mason, the Economics Editor at Channel 4 News, points to the large increases in both public- and private- sector debt since 2007, despite the recession. Such debt, he argues, is becoming unsustainable and hence the world could be on the cusp of another crash.

Mason quotes from the Bank for International Settlements Quarterly Review September 2015 – media briefing. In this briefing, Claudio Borio,
Head of the Monetary & Economic Department, argues that:

‘Since at least 2009, domestic vulnerabilities have developed in several emerging market economies (EMEs), including some of the largest, and to a lesser extent even in some advanced economies, notably commodity exporters. In particular, these countries have exhibited signs of a build-up of financial imbalances, in the form of outsize credit booms alongside strong increases in asset prices, especially property prices, supported by unusually easy global liquidity conditions. It is the coincidence of the reversal of these booms with external vulnerabilities that should be watched most closely.’

We have already seen a fall in commodity prices, reflecting the underlying lack of demand, and large fluctuations in stock markets. The Chinese economy is slowing markedly, as are several other EMEs, and Europe and Japan are struggling to recover, despite their QE programmes. The USA is no longer engaging in QE and there are growing worries about a US slowdown as growth in the rest of the world slows. Mason, quoting the BIS briefing, states that:

‘In short, as the BIS economists put it, this is “a world in which debt levels are too high, productivity growth too weak and financial risks too threatening”. It’s impossible to extrapolate from all this the date the crash will happen, or the form it will take. All we know is there is a mismatch between rising credit, falling growth, trade and prices, and a febrile financial market, which, at present, keeps switchback riding as money flows from one sector, or geographic region, to another.’

So should there be more expansionary policy, or should rising debt levels be reduced by tighter monetary policy? Read the articles and then consider the questions.

I told you so. Obama right and Europe wrong about way out of Great Recession The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/11/15)
Apocalypse now: has the next giant financial crash already begun? The Guardian, Paul Mason (1/11/15)

Questions

  1. To what extent do the two articles (a) agree and (b) disagree?
  2. How might a neo-liberal economist reply to the argument that what is needed is more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies?
  3. What is the transmission mechanism whereby quantitative easing affects real output? Is it a reliable mechanism for policymakers?
  4. What would make a financial crash less likely? Is this something that governments or central banks can influence?
  5. Why has productivity growth been so low in many countries? What would increase it?
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What do the USA, UK and Africa have in common?

Economic growth is vital to an economy: it helps to create jobs and is crucial in stimulating confidence, both for businesses and consumers. Growth comes from various sources, both domestic and external, and so for each individual country it’s not just its growth rate that is important, but the growth rates of other countries, in particular those it trades with.

Recent data suggest that the global economy could be on the downturn and here we consider three countries/continents.

The US economy has been doing relatively well and we saw discussion by the Federal Reserve as to whether the economy was in a position to be able to handle an increase in interest rates. Although rates didn’t rise, there was a general consensus that a rate rise would not significantly harm the economy. However, perhaps those opinions may now be changing with the latest information regarding US growth. In the second quarter of 2015, growth was recorded at 3.9%, but according to the Department of Commerce, it fell to 1.5% for the third quarter. Though it’s still a solid growth rate, especially compared to other economies, it does represent a significant fall from quarter to quarter.

Many analysts suggest that this slowing is just a blip, partly the result of running down stocks, but it’s also a trend that has occurred in the UK. Although the fall in growth in the UK (see series IHYR) has been less than in the USA, it is still a fall. Annual growth was recorded at 2.7% in quarter 1, but fell to 2.4% in quarter 2 and to 2.3% in quarter 3 (with GDP in quarter 3 only 0.5% higher than in quarter 2). A big cause of this slowdown in growth has been a fall in manufacturing output and it is the service sector that prevented an even larger slowdown.

And it’s not just the West that is experiencing declining growth. The IMF has warned of a slowdown in economic growth in Africa. Although the absolute annual rate of growth at 3.75% is high compared to the UK, it does represent the slowest rate of growth in the past six years. One key factor has been the lower oil prices. Although this has helped to stimulate consumer spending in many countries, it has hit oil-producing countries.

With some of the big players experiencing slowdowns, world economic growth may be taking something of a dive. The Christmas period in many countries is when companies will make significant contributions to their annual sales, and this year these sales are going to be vital. The following articles consider the slowdowns in growth around the world.

Articles
US growth slows despite spending free Financial Times, Sam Fleming and Richard Blackden (29/10/15)
US economic growth slows in third quarter as businesses cut back The Guardian, Dominic Rushe (30/10/15)
US economic growth slows sharply BBC News (29/10/15)
US Q3 gross domestic product up 1.5% vs 1.6% growth expected CNBC, Reuters (29/10/15)
US growth cools in third quarter Wall Street Journal, Eric Morath (29/10/15)
UK economic growth slows to 0.5% in third quarter BBC News (27/10/15)
GDP growth in the UK slows more than expected to 0.5% The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (27/1015)
UK growth slows as construction and manufacturing output shrinks The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (27/10/15)
UK economy loses steam as GDP growth slows to 0.5% Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (27/10/15)
No UK growth without services BBC News, Robert Peston (27/10/15)
IMF warns of African economic slowdown BBC News (27/10/15)
African growth feels the strain from China’s slowdown Financial Times, Andrew England (27/10/15)
Tax credits: George Osborne ‘comfortable’ with ‘judgement call’ BBC News (22/10/15)
IMF revises down Sub-Saharan Africa 2015 growth Wall Street Journal, Matina Stevis (27/10/15)

WEO publications
World Economic Outlook, October 2015: Adjusting to Lower Commodity Prices IMF (6/10/15)
Global Growth Slows Further, IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook IMF Podcast, Maurice Obstfeld (6/10/15)
Transcript of the World Economic Outlook Press Conference IMF (6/10/15)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (October 2015 edition)

Questions

  1. How do we measure economic growth?
  2. Using an AD/AS diagram, explain why economic growth has fallen in (a) the US, (b) the UK and (c) Africa.
  3. How have oil prices contributed towards recent growth data?
  4. Why has the IMF forecast slowing growth for Africa and how dependent is the African economy on growth in China?
  5. Which sectors are contributing towards slower growth in each of the 3 countries/continents considered? Can you explain the reason for the downturn in each sector?
  6. What do you think should be done regarding interest rates in the coming months?
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