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Articles for the ‘Essential Economics for Business 4e: Ch 11’ Category

US interest rates and growth

The US economy has been performing relatively well, but as with the UK economy, growth in the first quarter of 2015 has slowed. In the US, it has slowed to 0.2%, which is below expectations and said to be due to ‘transitory factors’. In response, the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates at a record low, within the band 0.0% to 0.25%.

The USA appears relatively unconcerned about the slower growth it is experiencing and expects growth to recover in the next quarter. The Fed said:

“Growth in household spending declined; households’ real incomes rose strongly, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices, and consumer sentiment remains high. Business fixed investment softened, the recovery in the housing sector remained slow, and exports declined.”

Nothing has been said as to when interest rates may rise and with this unexpected slowing of the economy, further delays are likely. An investment Manager from Aberdeen Asset Management said:

“The removal of the Fed’s time dependent forward guidance could be significant. It means that any meeting from now on could be the one when they announce that magic first rate rise.”

Low rates will provide optimal conditions for stimulating growth. A key instrument of monetary policy, interest rates affect many of the components of aggregate demand. Lower interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing, reduce the return on savings and hence encourage consumption. They can also reduce mortgage repayments and have a role in reducing the exchange rate. All of these factors are crucial for any economic stimulus.

Analysts are not expecting rates to rise in the June meeting and so attention has now turned to September as the likely time when interest rates will increase and finally reward savers. Any earlier increase in rates could spell trouble for economic growth and similar arguments can be made in the UK and across the eurozone. The following articles consider the US economy.

Federal Reserve keeps interest rates at record low BBC News, Kim Gittleson (29/4/15)
Shock stalling of US economy hits chances of early Fed rate rise The Guardian, Larry Elliott (29/4/15)
US Fed leave interest rates unchanged after poor GDP figures Independent, Andrew Dewson (30/4/15)
Fed could give clues on first interest rate hike USA Today, Paul Davidson (28/4/15)
Fed’s downgrade of economic outlook signals longer rate hike wait Reuters, Michael Flaherty and Howard Schneider (29/4/15)
Five things that stopped the Fed raising rates The Telegraph, Peter Spence (29/4/15)

Questions

  1. By outlining the key components of aggregate demand, explain the mechanisms by which interest rates will affect each component.
  2. How can inflation rates be affected by interest rates?
  3. Why could it be helpful for the Fed not to provide any forward guidance?
  4. What are the key factors behind the slowdown of growth in the USA? Do you agree that they are transitory factors?
  5. Who would be helped and harmed by a rate rise?
  6. Consider the main macroeconomic objectives and in each case, with respect to the current situation in the USA, explain whether economic theory would suggest that interest rates should (a) fall , (b) remain as they are, or (c) rise.
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Deficit plans: clear or vague?

In their manifestos, the parties standing for the UK general election on May 7th state their plans for fiscal policy and, more specifically, for reducing public-sector net borrowing and public-sector net debt. The degree of detail in the plans varies, especially with regards to where cuts will be made, but there are nevertheless some very clear differences between the parties.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has examined the public finance plans of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and SNP and has published a briefing note (see link below) and an accompanying press release. It accuses all four parties’ plans of being short on detail over specific cuts (especially the Conservatives), and over borrowing requirements (especially Labour):

None of these parties has provided anything like full details of their fiscal plans for each year of the coming parliament, leaving the electorate somewhat in the dark as to both the scale and composition of likely spending cuts and tax increases. In our analysis we have used the information provided in each manifesto, plus in some cases some necessary assumptions, to shed light on the four parties’ plans.

But despite the lack of detail, the IFS claims that there are big differences in the parties’ plans. These are illustrated in the following three charts from the IFS Briefing Note.



According to Carl Emmerson, IFS deputy director:

“There are genuinely big differences between the main parties’ fiscal plans. The electorate has a real choice, although it can at best see only the broad outlines of that choice. Conservative plans involve a significantly larger reduction in borrowing and debt than Labour plans. But they are predicated on substantial and almost entirely unspecified spending cuts and tax increases. While Labour has been considerably less clear about its overall fiscal ambitions its stated position appears to be consistent with little in the way of further spending cuts after this year”.

So what would be the implications of the plans of the various parties for fiscal policy and what, in turn, would be the implications for economic growth and investment? The various videos and articles look at the briefing note and at what is missing from the parties’ plans.

Videos
Voters ‘in the dark’ over budgets BBC News, Robert Peston (23/4/15)
Election 2015: Main parties respond to IFS deficit claims BBC News, James Landale (23/4/15)
Election 2015: ‘Not enough detail’ on deficit cut plans, says IFS BBC News, Paul Johnson (23/4/15)
IFS: Electorate ‘left in the dark’ by political parties ITV News, Chris Ship (23/4/15)
Voters Left In Dark Over Spending Cuts, Says IFS Sky News (23/4/15)
Post-election austerity: parties’ plans compared Institute for Fiscal Studies, Press Briefing (23/5/15)

Articles
IFS: election choice is stark Economia, Oliver Griffin (23/4/15)
Election 2015: Voters ‘left in the dark’, says IFS BBC News (23/4/15)
The huge choice for voters BBC News, Robert Peston (23/4/15)
IFS manifesto analysis: fantasy island of Tory deficit reduction plan The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/4/15)
Tories have £30bn black hole in spending plans, says IFS The Guardian, Heather Stewart (23/4/15)
Ed Miliband will leave Britain an extra £90bn in debt, IFS finds The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (23/4/15)
IFS despairs as it finds no party’s imaginary numbers add up The Guardian, John Crace (23/4/15)
Reality Check: Why should we trust the IFS? BBC News, Sebastian Chrispin (23/4/15)
IFS: Households can expect lower incomes, whoever wins the election BBC News, Brian Milligan (28/4/15)

Briefing Notes
Post-election Austerity: Parties’ Plans Compared Institute for Fiscal Studies, Briefing Note BN170, Rowena Crawford, Carl Emmerson, Soumaya Keynes and Gemma Tetlow (April 15)
Taxes and Benefits: The Parties’ Plans Institute for Fiscal Studies, Briefing Notw BN 172, Stuart Adam, James Browne, Carl Emmerson, Andrew Hood, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Helen Miller, David Phillips, Thomas Pope and Barra Roantree (April 2015)

Questions

  1. What detail is missing about cuts in the Conservative plans?
  2. What detail is missing in the Labour plans on borrowing requirements?
  3. How do (a) the Liberal Democrat plans and (b) the SNP plans differ from Conservative and Labour plans?
  4. Find out the public finances plans of (a) the Green Party; (b) UKIP; and (c) Plaid Cymru. How different are these plans from those of other parties?
  5. Define ‘austerity’.
  6. How would a tightening of fiscal policy affect economic growth (a) in the short term; (b) in the long term?
  7. How would an expansion of the economy affect the budget balance through automatic fiscal stabilisers?
  8. What is meant by the structural deficit? How could this be reduced?
  9. Would the structural deficit be affected by austerity policies and the resulting size of the output gap, or is it independent of such policies? Explain.
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Scotland: Fiscal Autonomy?

Scottish voters will be crucial in the upcoming election, with the SNP poised to take many of Labour’s seats north of the border. The future of Scotland will depend on which party comes to power and what decisions are made with regards to its finances.

Nicola Sturgeon wants government spending and taxation powers transferred to the Scottish Parliament, but would this mean spending cuts and tax rises for the Scottish people? Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader has been vocal in pointing out what this might mean, with cuts to pensions or raising taxes. However, given that it is Labour that is facing the biggest threat from the SNP, it is perhaps hardly surprising.

However, as the first video below shows, there would be an estimated £7.6bn deficit in Scotland, according to the IFS if spending and taxing was to be transferred here. This is because the tax revenues raised in Scotland are lower per person and spending per person is higher than across the whole of the UK. Oil prices are extremely low at present and hence this is reducing tax revenues. When the oil price does rise, revenues will increase and so if the split in finances was to occur this would reduce that deficit somewhat, but it would still leave a rather large hole in Scotland’s finances. The following videos and articles consider the SNP’s plans.

Videos
SNP fiscal autonomy plan: What would it do to Scotland’s finances? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/4/15)
Labour attacks SNP’s ‘devastating’ economic plans BBC News (10/4/15)

Articles
Ed Miliband attacks SNP plan for Scottish fiscal autonomy The Guardian, Severin Carrell (10/4/15)
Ed Miliband wars pensions will be cut under SNP plans The Telegraph, Auslan Cramb (10/4/15)
SNP fails to account for billions in welfare and pensions pledge, says IFS The Guardian, Severin Carrell (10/4/15)

Questions

  1. What is a budget deficit?
  2. What does fiscal autonomy for Scotland actually mean?
  3. The IFS suggests that there will be a large deficit in Scottish finances if they gain autonomy. How could this gap be reduced?
  4. Why has Labour claimed that tax rises would occur under the SNP’s plans? What could this mean for Scottish growth?
  5. Why do lower oil prices reduce tax revenues for Scotland?
  6. If Scotland had control over its finances, it could influence where government spending goes. Which industries would you invest in if you were in charge?
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The UK’s poor productivity record

Real GDP depends on two things: output per hour worked and the number of hours worked. On the surface, the UK economy is currently doing relatively well, with growth in 2014 of 2.8%. After several years of poor economic growth following the financial crisis of 2007/8, growth of 2.8% represents a return to the long-run average for the 20 years prior to the crisis.

But growth since 2010 has been entirely due to an increase in hours worked. On the one hand, this is good, as it has meant an increase in employment. In this respect, the UK is doing better than other major economies. But productivity has not grown and on this front, the UK is doing worse than other countries.

The first chart shows UK output per hour worked (click here for a PowerPoint). It is based on figures released by the ONS on 1 April 2015. Average annual growth in output per hour worked was 2.3% from 2000 to 2008. Since then, productivity growth has stalled and output per hour is now lower than at the peak in 2008.

The green line projects from 2008 what output per hour would have been if its growth had remained at 2.3%. It shows that by the end of 2014 output per hour would have been nearly 18% higher if productivity growth had been maintained.

The second chart compares UK productivity growth with other countries (click here for a PowerPoint). Up to 2008, UK productivity was rising slightly faster than in the other five countries illustrated. Since then, it has performed worse than the other five countries, especially since 2011.

Productivity growth increases potential GDP. It also increases actual GDP if the productivity increase is not offset by a fall in hours worked. A rise in hours worked without a rise in productivity, however, even though it results in an increase in actual output, does not increase potential output. If real GDP growth is to be sustained over the long term, there must be an increase in productivity and not just in hours worked.

The articles below examines this poor productivity performance and looks at reasons why it has been so bad.

Articles
UK’s sluggish productivity worsened in late 2014 – ONS Reuters (1/4/15)
UK productivity growth is weakest since second world war, says ONS The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/4/15)
UK productivity weakness worsening, says ONS Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/4/15)
Is the UK’s sluggish productivity a problem? Financial Times comment (1/4/15)
UK manufacturing hits eight-month high but productivity slump raises fears over sustainability of economic recovery This is Money, Camilla Canocchi (1/4/15)
Weak UK productivity unprecedented, ONS says BBC News (1/4/15)
Weep for falling productivity Robert Peston (1/4/15)
UK’s Falling Productivity Prevented A Massive Rise In Unemployment Forbes, Tim Worstall (2/4/15)

Data
Labour Productivity, Q4 2014 ONS (1/4/15)
AMECO database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs

Questions

  1. How can productivity be measured? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using specific measures?
  2. Draw a diagram to show the effects on equilibrium national income of (a) a productivity increase, but offset by a fall in the number of hours worked; (b) a productivity increase with hours worked remaining the same; (c) a rise in hours worked with no increase in productivity. Assume that actual output depends on aggregate demand.
  3. Is poor productivity growth good for employment? Explain.
  4. Why is productivity in the UK lower now than in 2008?
  5. What policies can be pursued to increase productivity in the UK?
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Interpreting economic data at election time

The UK general election is on May 7. In the campaign during the run-up to the election the economy will be a major issue. All parties will use economic data to claim that the economy has performed well or badly and that the prospects are good or bad. As economics students you will, no doubt, be asked to comment on these claims by your friends. So where can you get analysis of the data that is not biased towards one party or another?

One source is the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It is respected by politicians of all parties as an impartial presenter and analyser of economic data. In fact, it is fiercely independent. But at election time, when often quite dramatic claims are made by politicians, the IFS often comments on whether the data support such claims.

An example occurred when David Cameron claimed that if Labour were elected, working families would face a £3028 tax rise to fund the party’s spending commitments. The IFS said that the claim was misleading as, even on the Conservatives’ assumptions, it was was based on the cumulative increase over five years, not the annual increase, and was not per household but only per working household. The IFS also said that the Conservatives’ assumptions were wrong and not in accordance with the Charter for Budget Responsibility, with which the Labour party agreed.

Expect the IFS to criticise more claims as the election campaign progresses: not just by the Conservative party but by the other parties too. After all, the IFS is not partisan and is prepared to challenge false economic claims from whatever party. Expect also that the political parties will cherry pick whatever statements by the IFS seen to favour them or criticise their opponents.

You can also expect political bias in the newspapers that report the campaigns. Even when they present facts, how they present them and which facts they choose to include and which to ignore will be a reflection of their political bias. So even newspaper reporting of what the IFS says is likely to be selective and nuanced!

Why IFS boss Paul Johnson counts in this tightest of general elections The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/3/15)
David Cameron’s claim that Labour would raise taxes by £3,000 is ‘not sensible’, says the IFS Independent, Jon Stone (30/3/15)
‘tax rise’ is shot down by IFS The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (30/3/15)
We will borrow more if we win the election, Labour admits The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (29/3/15)
Chancellor accused of U-turn on austerity: Top economist says £20bn fiscal boost lurking in Budget is ‘remarkable reversal’ This is Money, Hugo Duncan (19/3/15)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between positive and normative statements. How might politicians blur the distinction in their claims and counter-claims?
  2. Identify three series of macroeconomic data from at least two independent organisations. For what reasons might the data be (a) unreliable; (b) used by political parties to mislead the electorate?
  3. In what ways can political parties use economic data to their own advantage without falsifying the data?
  4. How may public-sector deficit and debt statistics be interpreted in ways to suit (a) the current government’s case that the public finances have been well managed; (b) the opposition case that the public finances have been badly managed?
  5. Use data to analyse an economic claim by each of at least three political parties and the extent to which the claims are accurate.
  6. The above links are to articles from four UK national newspapers: The Guardian, the Independent, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail (This is Money). Identify political bias in the reporting in each of the articles.
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The six year anniversary

In March 2009, interest rates in the UK fell to a record low of 0.5%. At the time, it is unlikely that anyone expected that we would still be talking about such low interest rates 6 years later. There has been no movement in the UK rate of interest over the past 6 years and many believe that we are unlikely to see an increase before 2016 or late 2015 at the earliest. With inflation at 0.3%, there is ‘little reason to raise the cost of borrowing’.

The cut in interest rates back in 2009 was in response to the financial crisis and recession. A key instrument of monetary policy, interest rates affect many of the components of aggregate demand. Lower interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing, reduce the return on savings and hence encourage consumption. They can also reduce mortgage repayments and have a role in reducing the exchange rate. All of these factors are crucial for any economic stimulus. As the recovery in the UK took hold, discussions started to focus on when (and not if) interest rates would increase. As the 6 year anniversary occurs, with the MPC keeping rates at 0.5% for March, this question has once again been raised.

Interest rates are used to target inflation and the target in the UK is 2% +/- 1%. With inflation at 0.3% and some predicting that it will turn negative, thanks to such a large fall in oil prices, perhaps the most likely change in interest rates is that they will fall further. A senior Economic Adviser to the EY Item Club commented:

“While the risks of an earlier rate rise have probably increased lately, we still think it most likely that the Bank will wait until February 2016, by which time inflation will be back above 1% and heading towards the 2% target.”

This was echoed by the Chief Economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, who said:

“The strengthening pound against the euro is already posing challenges for many UK exporters and higher interest rates would only make matters worse…Given this background, business confidence will be strengthened if the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) clearly states that interest rates are likely to stay on hold until at least early 2016.”

Some might question the logic of keeping interest rates so low, given that unemployment is falling and the economy is growing. In such cases, we would normally expect interest rates to increase, especially given how low they are and the fact that it has been 6 years since they went down. However, with oil prices down, inflation has fallen and wage growth does remain relatively weak. Furthermore, there are still some areas within the UK that are still in the recovery process.

The strength of the economy relative to Europe is also putting upward pressure on the pound, which will adversely affect the competitiveness of UK exports. These factors together mean that retaining interest rates at 0.5% received unanimous support amongst the MPC. The only disagreement was on the future direction of interest rates. It is this disagreement that is perhaps what is causing problems, as confirmation of what will happen to interest rates over the rest of 2015 would give greater certainty to an economy. The following articles consider this anniversary.

UK interest rates mark six-year anniversary at record low The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (5/3/15)
UK interest rates mark six years at record low of 0.5% BBC News (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps interest rates on hold Financial Times, Emily Cadman (5/3/15)
Carney facing seven-year itch as BOE holds rates Bloomberg, Jennifer Ryan (5/3/15)
Bank of England rates have now been on hold six years. Here’s how it has affected you The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps rates on hold, six years after crisis cut Reuters (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps key rate at record low Wall Street Journal, Jason Douglas (5/3/15)

Questions

  1. By outlining the key components of aggregate demand, explain the mechanisms by which interest rates will affect each component.
  2. How can inflation rates be affected by interest rates?
  3. Why is there a debate amongst the MPC as to the future direction of interest rates?
  4. The Chief Economist at the British Chambers of Commerce has said that the strengthening pound is creating problems in the UK and higher interest rates would make matters worse. Why is this?
  5. Who would be helped and harmed by a rate rise?
  6. Consider the main macroeconomic objectives and in each case explain whether economic theory would suggest that interest rates should (a) fall , (b) remain at 0.5% or (c) rise.
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Deeper in debt

‘The world is sinking under a sea of debt, private as well as public, and it is increasingly hard to see how this might end, except in some form of mass default.’ So claims the article below by Jeremy Warner. But just how much has debt grown, both public and private? And is it of concern?

The doomsday scenario is that we are heading for another financial crisis as over leveraged banks and governments could not cope with a collapse in confidence. Bank and bond interest rates would soar and debts would be hard to finance. The world could head back into recession as credit became harder and more expensive to obtain. Perhaps, in such a scenario, there would be mass default, by banks and governments alike. This could result in a plunge back into recession.

The more optimistic scenario is that private-sector debt is under control and in many countries is falling (see, for example, chart 1 in the blog Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers for the case of the UK). Even though private-sector debt could rise again as the world economy grows, it would be affordable provided that interest rates remain low and banks continue to build the requisite capital buffers under the Basel III banking regulations.

As far as public-sector debt is concerned, as a percentage of GDP its growth has begun to decline in advanced countries as a whole and, although gently rising in developing and emerging economies as a whole, is relatively low compared with advanced countries (see chart). Of course, there are some countries that still face much larger debts, but in most cases they are manageable and governments have plans to curb them, or at least their growth.

But there have been several warnings from various economists and institutes, as we saw in the blog post, Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures. The question is whether countries can grow their way out of the problem, with a rapidly rising denominator in the debt/GDP ratios.

Only mass default will end the world’s addiction to debt The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (3/3/15)

Questions

  1. What would be the impact of several countries defaulting on debt?
  2. What factors determine the likelihood of sovereign defaults?
  3. What factors determine the likelihood of bank defaults?
  4. What is meant by ‘leverage’ in the context of (a) banks; (b) nations?
  5. What are the Basel III regulations? What impact will they have/are they having on bank leverage?
  6. Expand on the arguments supporting the doomsday scenario above.
  7. Expand on the arguments supporting the optimistic scenario above.
  8. What is the relationship between economic growth and debt?
  9. Explain how the explosion in global credit might merely be ‘the mirror image of rising output, asset prices and wealth’.
  10. Is domestic inflation a good answer for a country to the problems of rising debt denominated (a) in the domestic currency; (b) in foreign currencies?
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Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers

In recent times the notion that the financial sytem can be destabilising seems blindingly obvious. And, yet, for some time macroeconomic models of the economy tended to regard the financial system as benevolent. It served our interests. We were the masters; it was our servant. Now of course we accept that credit cycles can be destabilising. Policymakers, especially central banks, follow keenly the latest private-sector credit data. Here we look back at previous patterns in private-sector debt and crucially at what patterns are currently emerging.

First a bit of theory. The idea of credit cycles is not new. But the financial crisis of the late 2000s has helped to reignite analysis and interest. Economists are trying to gain a better understanding of the relationship between flows of credit and the state of the economy and, in particular, why might flows increase as the level of real GDP rises – why might they be endogenous variables in models of the determination of GDP. One possibility is the financial accelerator. This is the idea that as real GDP rises banks perceive lending to be less risky. After all, real incomes will tend to rise and collateral values (against which borrowing can be secured) are likely to be rising too.

Another possibility is growing exuberance as the economy grows. This has gained in popularity as an idea, with economists revisiting the work of Hyman Minsky (1919–96), an American economist. Here success breeds failure as the balance sheets of people and businesses deteriorate as they become increasingly burdened with debt. The balance sheets are said to be congested leading to a point when a deleveraging starts. A balance sheet recession then follows.

Now for the data. Consider first the stocks of debt acquired by households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions). The first chart shows debt stocks as a percentage of GDP. It illustrates nicely the phenomenon of financialisation. In essence, this is the increasing importance of MFIs to the economy. At the end of 2014, these two sectors had debt stocks outstanding equivalent to 90 per cent of GDP. In fact, this is down from a peak of 129 per cent in September 2009. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in debt, especially in the 1990s and for much of the 2000s, was through financial innovation. In particular, the bundling of assets, such as mortgages, to form financial instruments which could then be purchased by investors helped to provide financial institutions with further funds for lending. This is the process of securitisation. Some argue that this was part of a super-cycle which works alongside the normal credit cycle, albeit over a much lengthier period. It can be argued that these cycles coincided during the 1990s and for much of the 2000s until financial distress hit. The distress was hastened by central banks raising interest rates to dampen the rising rate of inflation, partly attributable to rising global commodity prices, including oil.

Some refer to 2008 as a Minsky moment. Overstretched balance sheets needed repairing. But, the collective act of repair actually caused financial well-being to worsen as asset prices and aggregate demand fell.

The global response to the events of the financial crisis has been for policy-makers to pay more attention to the aggregate level of credit provision. The Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC) has responsibility for monitoring and helping to ensure the soundness of the UK financial system.

Undoubtedly, the FPC will have constructed a chart similar to our second chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). This chart suggests some caution: the need for casting a ‘Minsky eye’ on lending patterns. Over 2014, the UK household sector undertook net lending (i.e. after deducting repayments) of £30 billion. While nothing like the £100 billion or so in 2007, this does mark something of a step up. Indeed it is almost exactly double the flow in 2013. In the months ahead we will continue to monitor the credit data. You can bet that the FPC will do too!

Articles
Comment: Household debt threatens return to spending Herald Scotland, Bill Jamieson (2/3/15)
Household debt rising at fastest rate for 10yrs moneyfacts.co.uk (10/2/15)
Housing starting to rally after home loan approvals rise in January London Evening Standard, Ben Chu (2/3/15)

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

Questions

  1. What is meant by the term the business cycle?
  2. What does it mean for the determinants of the business cycle to be endogenous? What about if they are exogenous?
  3. Outline the ways in which the financial system can impact on the spending behaviour of households. Repeat the exercise for businesses.
  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. How might the differential between borrowing and saving interest rates vary over the business cycle?
  8. Explain what you understand by net lending to households or firms. How does net lending affect their stock of debt?
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UK productivity: a constraint on long-term growth

‘Employment has been strong, but productivity and real wages have been flat.’ This is one of the key observations in a new OECD report on the state of the UK economy. If real incomes for the majority of people are to be raised, then labour productivity must rise.

For many years, the UK has had a lower productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) than most other developed countries, with the exception of Japan. But from 1980 to the mid 2000s, the gap was gradually narrowing. Since then, however, the gap has been widening again. This is illustrated in Chart 1, which shows countries’ productivity relative to the UK’s (with the UK set at 100). (Click here for a PowerPoint.)

Compared with the UK, GDP per hour worked in 2013 (the latest data available) was 28% higher in France, 29% higher in Germany and 30% higher in the USA. What is more, GDP per hour worked and GDP per capita in the UK fell by 3.8% and 6.1% respectively after the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see the green and grey lines in Chart 2). And while both indicators began rising after 2009, they were still both below their 2007 levels in 2013. Average real wages also fell after 2007 but, unlike the other two indicators, kept on falling and by 2013 were 4% below their 2007 levels, as the red line in Chart 2 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.)

Although productivity and even real wages are rising again, the rate of increase is slow. If productivity is to rise, there must be investment. This could be in physical capital, human capital or, preferably, both. But for many years the UK has had a lower rate of investment than other countries, as Chart 3 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.) This chart measures investment in fixed capital as a percentage of GDP.

So how can investment be encouraged? Faster growth will encourage greater investment through the accelerator effect, but such an effect could well be short-lived as firms seek to re-equip but may be cautious about committing to increasing capacity. What is crucial here is maintaining high degrees of business confidence over an extended period of time.

More fundamentally, there are structural problems that need tackling. One is the poor state of infrastructure. This is a problem not just in the UK, but in many developed countries, which cut back on public and private investment in transport, communications and energy infrastructure in an attempt to reduce government deficits after the financial crisis. Another is the low level of skills of many workers. Greater investment in training and apprenticeships would help here.

Then there is the question of access to finance. Although interest rates are very low, banks are cautious about granting long-term loans to business. Since the financial crisis banks have become much more risk averse and long-term loans, by their nature, are relatively risky. Government initiatives to provide finance to private companies may help here. For example the government has just announced a Help to Grow scheme which will provide support for 500 small firms each year through the new British Business Bank, which will provide investment loans and also grants on a match funding basis for new investment.

Articles
OECD: UK must fix productivity Economia, Oliver Griffin (25/2/15)
The UK’s productivity puzzle BBC News, Lina Yueh (24/2/15)
OECD warns UK must fix productivity problem to raise living standards The Guardian, Katie Allen (24/2/15)
Britain must boost productivity to complete post-crisis recovery, says OECD International Business Times, Ian Silvera (24/2/15)
OECD urges UK to loosen immigration controls on skilled workers Financial Times, Emily Cadman and Helen Warrell (24/2/15)

Report
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Overview OECD (February 2015)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Full report OECD (February 2015)

Questions

  1. In what ways can productivity be measured? What are the relative merits of using the different measures?
  2. Why has the UK’s productivity lagged behind other industrialised countries?
  3. What is the relationship between income inequality and labour productivity?
  4. Why has UK investment been lower than in other industrialised countries?
  5. What are zombie firms? How does the problem of zombie firms in the UK compare with that in other countries? Explain the differences.
  6. What policies can be pursued to increased labour productivity?
  7. What difficulties are there in introducing effective policies to tackle low productivity?
  8. Should immigration controls be lifted to tackle the problem of a shortage of skilled workers?
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Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures.

According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, global debt is now higher than before the financial crisis. And that crisis was largely caused by excessive lending. As The Telegraph article linked below states:

The figures are as remarkable as they are terrifying. Global debt – defined as the liabilities of governments, firms and households – has jumped by $57 trillion, or 17% of global GDP, since the fourth quarter of 2007, which was supposed to be the peak of the bad old credit-fuelled days. In 2000, total debt was worth 246% of global GDP; by 2007, this had risen to 269% of GDP and today we are at 286% of GDP.

This is not how policy since the financial crisis was supposed to have worked out. Central banks and governments have been trying to encourage greater saving and reduced credit as a percentage of GDP, a greater capital base for banks, and reduced government deficits as a means of reducing government debt. But of 47 large economies in the McKinsey study, only five have succeeded in reducing their debt/GDP ratios since 2007 and in many the ratio has got a lot higher. China, for example, has seen its debt to GDP ratio almost double – from 158% to 282%, although its government debt remains low relative to other major economies.

Part of the problem is that the lack of growth in many countries has made it hard for countries to reduce their public-sector deficits to levels that will allow the public-sector debt/GDP ratio to fall.

In terms of the UK, private-sector debt has been falling as a percentage of GDP. But this has been more than offset by a rise in the public-sector debt/GDP ratio. As Robert Peston says:

[UK indebtedness] increased by 30 percentage points, to 252% of GDP (excluding financial sector or City debts) – as government debts have jumped by 50 percentage points of GDP, while corporate and household debts have decreased by 12 and 8 percentage points of GDP respectively.

So what are the likely consequences of this growth in debt and what can be done about it? The articles and report consider these questions.

Articles
Instead of paying down its debts, the world’s gone on another credit binge The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/15)
Global debts rise $57tn since crash BBC News, Robert Peston (5/2/15)
China’s Total Debt Load Equals 282% of GDP, Raising Economic Risks The Wall Street Journal, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (4/2/15)

Report
Debt and (not much) deleveraging McKinsey Global Institute, Richard Dobbs, Susan Lund, Jonathan Woetzel, and Mina Mutafchieva (February 2015)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘leverage’.
  2. Why does a low-leverage economy do better in a downturn than a high-leverage one?
  3. What is the relationship between deficits and the debt/GDP ratio?
  4. When might an increase in debt be good for an economy?
  5. Comment on the statement in The Telegraph article that ‘In theory, debt is fine if it is backed up by high-quality collateral’.
  6. Why does the rise is debt matter for the global economy?
  7. Is it possible for (a) individual countries; (b) all countries collectively to ‘live beyond their means’ by consuming more than they are producing through borrowing?
  8. What is the structure of China’s debt and what problems does this pose for the Chinese economy?
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