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

Job losses and labour mobility

Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.

The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.

And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.

One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.

What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.

So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.

As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.

Webcasts
Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)

Article
Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)

Reports
Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)

Questions

  1. Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
  2. What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
  3. What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
  4. Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
  5. What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
  6. What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?
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German confidence down again

In the Blog, A VW recession for the eurozone, as German growth revised down?, we discussed the pessimistic outlook for the eurozone, in part driven by the problems facing the engine of Europe: Germany. While the German government noted that the weak growth figures are due to external factors, it appears as though these external factors are now sending waves through the domestic economy.

Over the past 6 months, German confidence has fallen continuously and now stands at almost its lowest level in 2 years. Think tank data from a survey of 7000 firms in Germany fell from 104.7 to 103.2 for October – the weakest reading since December 2012. Confidence is always a key factor in the strength of an economy, as it affects consumers and businesses. Without consumer and business confidence, two key components of aggregate demand are weak and this downward pressure on total spending in the economy depresses economic growth. An economist from Ifo, the think-tank that produced this business climate index, said that firms felt ‘downbeat about both their current situation and the future.’

As confidence continues to decline in Germany, the economic situation is unlikely to improve. Unfortunately, it is something of a vicious circle in that without economic growth confidence won’t return and without confidence, economic growth won’t improve. The industrial sector is crucial to Germany and the data is concerning, according to Chief economist at Commerzbank, Joerg Kraemer:

The latest numbers from the industrial sector are very worrisome…The third quarter was probably worse than expected, the economy may have stagnated at best.

Numerous factors continue to depress the German economy and while negative growth is not expected, estimates for quarterly growth from July to September remain at around 0.3%. As Europe’s largest economy, such low growth rates will be of concern to the rest of the Eurozone and may also bring worry to other countries, such as the US and UK. With growing interdependence between nations, the success of countries such as Germany and Europe as a whole influences the economic situation abroad. Commentators will be looking for any signal that Germany is strengthening in the coming months and an improvement in business confidence will be essential for any prolonged recovery.

German business confidence falters again in October Wall Street Journal, Todd Buell (27/10/14)
German business morale weakens to lowest level in almost two years Reuters, Michelle Martin (27/10/14)
Zero growth best hope for Germany as confidence disappears The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (27/10/14)
German Ifo business confidence drops for sixth month Bloomberg, Stefan Riecher (27/10/14)
German business confidence plunges again as analysts urge fiscal stimulus International Business Times, Finnbarr Bermingham (27/10/14)
German business confidence falls again, Ifo says BBC News (27/10/14)
German business confidence tumbles The Guardian, Philip Inman (24/9/14)

Questions

  1. Why is consumer and business confidence such an important element in explaining the state of an economy?
  2. Use an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the impact on national output of a decline business confidence. What are the other consequences for the macroeconomic objectives?
  3. What actions can a government take to boost confidence in an economy?
  4. If economic growth is weak and confidence is low, is there any point in cutting interest rates as a means of stimulating investment?
  5. If the eurozone did move back into recession, what could be the possible consequences for countries such as the UK and US?
  6. How useful are indices that measure business confidence?
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Does a shrinking banking sector balance sheet signal the end for credit cycles?

Following the financial crisis, all sectors of the economy continue to repair their balance sheets. As well as households, non-financial corporations and government, this is true of the banking sector. In part, the repairing and rebalancing of their balance sheets is being brought about by regulatory pressures. The objective is to make banks more resilient to shocks and less susceptible to financial distress.

The need for banks to repair and rebalance their balance sheets is significant because of their systemic importance to the modern-day economy. Financial institutions that are systemically important to national economies are know as SIFIs (systemically important financial institutions) while those of systemic importance to the global economy are know as G-SIFIs or G-SIBs (global systemically important banks). The increasing importance of financial institutions to economic activity is known as financialisation.

One way of measuring the degree of financialisation here in the UK is to consider the aggregate size of the balance sheet of resident UK banks and building societies (including foreign subsidiaries operating here). The chart shows that the balance sheet grew from £2.6 trillion in 1998 Q1 to £8.5 trillion in 2010 Q1. Another way of looking at this is to consider this growth relative to GDP. This reveals that the aggregate balance sheet of banks and building societies grew over this period from 3 times annual GDP to a staggering 5.6 times GDP. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

But, now consider the aggregate banking balance sheet in the 2010s. This reveals a shrinking balance sheet. At the end of the second quarter of this year (2014 Q2) it had fallen back to £7.1 trillion or 4 times GDP. As a share of GDP, this was the smallest the aggregate balance sheet had been since 2005 Q1.

Does a shrinking balance sheet matter? This is where the analysis becomes tricky and open to debate. If the smaller size is consistent with a more stable financial system then undoubtedly that is a good thing. But, size is not that all matters. The composition of the balance sheet matters too. This requires an analysis of, among other things, the liquidity of assets (i.e. assets that can be readily turned in a given amount of cash), the reliability of the income flow from assets and the resources available to withstand periods of slow economic growth, including recessions, or periods of financial difficulty.

As we have identified before (see Financialisation: Banks and the economy after the crisis), the financial crisis could herald new norms for the banking system with important implications for the economy. If so, we may need to become accustomed to consistently lower flows of credit and not to the levels that we saw prior to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. However, an alternative view is that we are merely experiencing a pause before the next expansionary phase of the credit cycle. This is consistent with the financial instability hypothesis (see Keeping a Minsky-eye on credit) which argues that credit cycles are an integral part of modern financialised economies. Only time will tell which view will turn out to be right.

Articles
‘Cleaning up bank balance sheets is key’ Irish Examiner, John Walsh (10/10/14)
More action needed at European banks: Fitch Courier Mail, (17/10/14)
Bank lending to small businesses falls by £400m The Telegraph, Rebecca Burn-Callander (20/10/14)
Bank lending to SMEs falls by £400m SME insider, Lindsey Kennedy (21/10/14)
Record world debt could trigger new financial crisis, Geneva report warns The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/10/14)
RBS shares jump as bank’s bad debts improve The Guardian, Jill Treanor (30/10/14)

Data
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. Using examples, demonstrate your understanding of financialisation.
  2. Draw up a list of the alternative ways in which we might measure financialisation.
  3. What factors are likely to explain the recent reduction in the aggregate balance sheet of resident banks and building societies in the UK?
  4. How might we go about assessing whether the aggregate level of lending by financial institutions is sustainable?
  5. How might we go about assessing whether the level of lending by individual financial institutions is sustainable?
  6. How would reduced flows of credit be expected to impact on the economy both in the short term and in the longer term?
  7. Are credit cycles inevitable?
  8. Of what significance are credit cycles in explaining the business cycle?
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The UK’s Mansion Tax under Labour

The housing market and what to do about bubbles, second homes and first time buyers is likely to be one of many battle grounds at the next election. For many years, the idea of a mansion tax has been debated and the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has outlined plans for a mansion tax under a Labour government.

The policy would see houses valued at between £2 and £3 million pay £250 a month as a mansion tax. Those owning a home worth tens of millions and those with second homes would pay more under the mansion tax, which would be based on a progressive system. Concerns have been raised about the impact of this tax on home-owners in areas like London, where average house prices are considerably higher than the UK average. Ed Balls has sought to reassure homeowners that payment of the mansion tax could be deferred if earnings do not reach the £42,000 threshold. However, critics have suggested that this policy will only make things worse for middle income households who will not be able to defer such a payment if their income is £43,000. Labour’s MP for Greenwich, Nick Raynsford said, ‘What it does is create a cliff edge. It will still hit people who are asset rich but cash poor.” Writing in the Evening Standard, Ed Balls said:

“Long-standing residents who now find themselves living in high-value homes but do not have an income high enough to pay the higher or top rate of income tax — in other words earn less than £42,000 a year — will be guaranteed the right to defer the charge until the property changes hands.

So a tax on the highest value properties will be done fairly and carefully to help fund our NHS for the future.

Ordinary Londoners should be protected and wealthy foreign investors must finally make a proper tax contribution in this country.”

Although similar in its objective to the Liberal Democrat’s mansion tax, the amount of the tax as a percentage of the value of the home under Labour is significantly lower. It is likely to be between 0.1% and 0.15% of the home’s valued, compared to the 1% levy proposed by the Liberal Democrats.

One debate now surrounds the amount that this tax is expected to raise, especially given the revenue has been ear-marked to finance the NHS. The number of homes whose value is estimated to fall between £2m and £3m varies considerably and hence so would the revenues raised from such a tax. However, the income generated by even the most generous estimates will not come close to raising the ear-marked figure of £1.2bn. As such, there are suggestions that the tax levied on houses worth more than £3m; on foreign owners of residences in the UK and second homes will need to be significant to make up the short fall. A spokesperson for the Conservatives said:

“Serious questions have now been raised about how much revenue Labour would be able to raise from the tax …This is a further unravelling of the policy, which faced fierce criticism after it was revealed that no money would be raised until halfway through the next parliament, and the proposals for mass valuations of family homes was widely slammed as unworkable.”

The UK residential research director of Savills estate agency, Lucian Cook, added:

“Given Labour’s stated ambition to raise £1.2bn, that would leave at least £1.08bn to be raised from the remaining 57,000 properties, possibly more to account for tax leakage elsewhere in the system.”

The impact of the mansion tax will depend on exactly how it is imposed and the thresholds, together with how the threshold changes with the housing market. In the UK, we have seen some houses increase in value by huge amounts in just a few months and with a mansion tax, any such increase in price could move more home-owners into the new progressive tax system. Some argue that it is a tax on Londoners. The following articles consider the proposed policy by Labour.

Ed Balls seeks to reassure London home owners over mansion tax plans The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (20/10/14)
Ed Balls: Mansion tax would start at £250 a month BBC News (20/10/14)
‘Mansion tax’ will mean bill of £250 a month, says Ed Balls Financial Times, Emily Cadman, Kate Allen, Vanessa Houlder and George Parker (20/10/14)
Mansion tax can be deferred in you earn less than £42,000, Ed Balls insists as he reveals details of levy on £2million homes Mail Online, Matt Chorley (20/10/14)
Ed Balls: Mansion tax will cost homeowners £250 a month London Evening Standard (20/10/14)
Middle-class families hit by Labour’s mansion tax The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (20/10/14)
Balls says mansion-tax threshold to rise with home values Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (20/10/14)

Questions

  1. How does a progressive tax system work?/li>
  2. Why are some critics arguing that this mansion tax would just be a tax on Londoners?
  3. What objective is the £42,000 income threshold trying to achieve? Do you think that critics are correct in their assertion that it penalises middle income households?
  4. Fiscal drag is mentioned in the BBC News article as a potential problem with the mansion tax proposed by Labour and that houses may move into the taxable threshold. What is fiscal drag and why is it a potential concern?
  5. How might such a policy affect the incentives of foreigners to invest in the UK housing market? Would this be a good or a bad thing and for who?
  6. The revenues generated from houses between £2 and £3m will not be sufficient to generate £1.2bn. What are the implications for how progressive the mansion tax would need to be and how this might affect homeowners?
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A VW recession for the eurozone, as German growth revised down?

Europe’s largest economy is Germany and the prospects and growth figures of this country are crucial to the growth of the Eurozone as a whole. The EU is a key trading partner for the UK and hence the growth data of Germany and in turn of the Eurozone is also essential in creating buoyant economic conditions within our borders. The bad news is that the economic growth forecast for Germany has been cut by the German government.

The German government had previously estimated that the growth rate for this year would be 1.8%, but the estimate has now been revised down to 1.2% and next year’s growth rate has also been revised downwards from 2% to 1.3%. Clearly the expectation is that low growth is set to continue.

Whenever there are changes in macroeconomic variables, a key question is always about the cause of such change, for example is inflation caused by demand-pull or cost-push factors. The German government has been quick to state that the lower growth rates are not due to internal factors, but have been affected by external factors, in particular the state of the global economy. As such, there are no plans to make significant changes to domestic policy, as the domestic economy remains in a strong position. The economy Minister said:

“The German economy finds itself in difficult external waters … Domestic economic forces remain intact, with the robust labour market forming the foundation … As soon as the international environment improves, the competitiveness of German companies will bear fruit and the German economy will return to a path of solid growth … [for this reason there is] no reason to abandon or change our economic or fiscal policy.”

The global picture remains relatively weak and while some economies, including the UK, have seen growth pick up and unemployment fall, there are concerns that the economic recovery is beginning to slow. With an increasingly interdependent world, the slowing down of one economy can have a significant impact on the growth rate of others. If country A begins to slow, demand for imports will fall and this means a fall in the demand for exports of country B. For countries that are dependent on exports, such as Germany and China, a fall in the demand for exports can mean a big decline in aggregate demand and in August, Germany saw a 5.8% drop in exports.

Adding to the gloom is data on inflation, suggesting that some other key economies have seen falls in the rate of inflation, including China. The possibility of a triple-dip recession for the Eurozone has now been suggested and with its largest economy beginning to struggle, this suggestion may become more real. The following articles consider the macroeconomic picture.

Articles
Germany cuts growth forecasts amid recession fears, as Ireland unveils budget The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (14/10/14)
As cracks in its economy widen, is Germany’s miracle about to fade? The Observer, Philip Oltermann (19/10/14)
Why the German economy is in a rut The Economist (21/10/14)
Germany’s flagging economy: Build some bridges and roads, Mrs Merkel The Economist (18/10/14)
Germany cuts 2014 growth forecast from 1.8% to 1.2% BBC News (14/10/14)
IMF to cut growth forecast for Germany – der Spiegel Reuters (5/10/14)
Fears of triple-dip eurozone recession, as Germany cuts growth forecast The Guardian, Phillip Inman (15/10/14)
Germany slashes its economic forecasts Financial Times, Stefan Wagstyl (14/10/14)
Merkel vows austerity even as growth projection cut Bloomberg, Brian Parkin, Rainer Buergin and Patrick Donahue (14/10/14)
Is Europe’s economic motor finally stalling? BBC News, Damien McGuinness (17/10/14)
Why Germany won’t fight deflation BBC News, Robert Peston (16/10/14)

Data
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (15/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)

Questions

  1. How do we measure economic growth and is it a good indicator of the state of an economy?
  2. What are the key external factors identified by the Germany government as the reasons behind the decline in economic growth?
  3. Angela Merkel has said that austerity measures will continue to balance the budget. Is this a sensible strategy given the revised growth figures?
  4. Why is low inflation in other economies further bad news for those countries that have seen a decline or a slowdown in their growth figures?
  5. Why is interdependence between nations both a good and a bad thing?
  6. Using AS and AD analysis, illustrate the reasons behind the decline German growth. Based on your analysis, what might be expected to happen to some of the other key macroeconomic variables in Germany and in other Eurozone economies?
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Gloomy assessments of the global economic outlook

In two posts recently, we considered the pessimistic views of Robert Peston about the prospects for the global economy (see Cloudy skies ahead? and The end of growth in the West?). In this post we consider the views of Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Lord Adair Turner, the former head of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) (which was replaced in 2013 by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority).

Christine Lagarde was addressing an audience at Georgetown University in Washington DC. The first four links below are to webcasts of the full speech and subsequent interviews about the speech. She gives a more gloomy assessment of the global economy than six months ago, especially the eurozone economy and several emerging economies, such as China. There are short- to medium-term dangers for the world economy from political conflicts, such as that between Russia and the West over Ukraine. But there are long-term dangers too. These come from the effects of subdued private investment and low infrastructure spending by governments.

Her views are backed up by the six-monthly World Economic Outlook, published by the IMF on 7 October. There are links below to two webcasts from the IMF discussing the report and the accompanying datasets.

In the final webcast link below, Lord Turner argues that there is a “real danger of a simultaneous slowdown producing a big setback to growth expectations.” He is particularly worried about China, which is experiencing an asset price bubble and slowing economic growth. Other emerging economies too are suffering from slowing growth. This poses real problems for developed countries, such as Germany, which are heavily reliant on their export sector.

Webcasts
The Challenges Facing the Global Economy: New Momentum to Overcome a New Mediocre IMF Videos, Christine Lagarde (full speech) (2/10/14)
Christine Lagarde downbeat on global economy BBC News Canada, Christine Lagarde interviewed by Katy Kay (2/10/14)
IMF’s Lagarde on Global Economy, Central Banks Bloomberg TV, Christine Lagarde interviewed by Tom Keene (2/10/14)
Lagarde: Global economy weaker than envisioned 6 months ago, IMF to cut growth outlook CNBC (2/10/14)
IMF Says Uneven Global Growth Disappoints IMF Videos, Olivier Blanchard (7/10/14)
Time Is Right for an Infrastructure Push IMF Videos, Abdul Ablad (30/9/14)
China slowdown poses ‘biggest risk to global economy’ The Telegraph, Adair Turner (4/10/14)

Articles
Global Growth Disappoints, Pace of Recovery Uneven and Country-Specific IMF Survey Magazine (7/10/14)
Global economy risks becoming stuck in low growth trap The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/10/14)
American Exceptionalism Thrives Amid Struggling Global Economy Bloomberg, Rich Miller and Simon Kennedy (4/10/14)
World Bank cuts China growth forecast for next three years BBC News (6/10/14)
Beware a Chinese slowdown The Guardian, Kenneth Rogoff (6/10/14)
IMF says economic growth may never return to pre-crisis levels The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/10/14)
IMF goes back to the future with gloomy talk of secular stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/10/14)

Data
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (7/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)

Questions

  1. What are the particular ‘headwinds’ facing the global economy?
  2. Why is the outlook for the global economy more pessimistic now than six months ago?
  3. Why are increasing levels of debt and asset price rises a threat to Chinese economic growth?
  4. Why may China be more able to deal with high levels of debt than many other countries?
  5. In what ways are commodity prices an indicator of the confidence of investors about future economic growth?
  6. What are the determinants of long-term economic growth? Why are potential economic growth rates lower today than in the 2000s?
  7. How might governments today boost long-term economic growth?
  8. What are the arguments for and against governments engaging in large-scale public investment in infrastructure projects? What would be the supply-side and demand-side effects of such policies?
  9. If confidence is a major determinant of investment, how might bodies such as the IMF boost confidence?
  10. Why does the IMF caution against over-aggressive attempts to reduce budget deficits?
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Cloudy skies ahead?

Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.

It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:

seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.

So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.

The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’

Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.

The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)

Questions

  1. What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
  2. What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
  3. Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
  4. Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
  5. Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
  6. What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
  7. What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
  8. Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
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The end of growth in the West?

The growth rates of the Western world have been somewhat volatile for the past decade, with negative growth sending economies into recession and then varying degrees of economic recovery. Growth rates elsewhere have been very high, in particular in countries such as China and India. The future of economic growth in the west is hotly debated and whether the western world has been forever changed by the credit crunch remains to be seen.

The article below from the BBC, written by Robert Peston, the Economics Editor, addresses the question of the future of the western world. Opinions differ as to whether the west is finally recovering from the recession and financial instability or if the credit crunch and subsequent recession is just the beginning of many years of economic stagnation. The article in particular focuses on the yield curve and the trends in government debt or gilts. This tends to be a key indicator of the expectations of the future of an economy and how confident investors are in its likely trajectory. Though technical in places, this article provides some interesting stances on what we might expect in the coming 2-3 decades for economic performance in the West.

Note that John also looks at this article in his blog Cloudy Skies Ahead?

The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)

Questions

  1. Which factors affect the economic growth of a nation?
  2. Confidence from consumers, firms and investors is always argued to be crucial to the future economic growth and in many cases, the recovery of an economy. Explain why this factor is so important.
  3. What is the yield curve and what does it show?
  4. How can the yield curve be used to offer predictions about the future strength of an economy?
  5. Why are governments seen as the safest place to lend?
  6. If Larry Summers is correct in saying that it is a negative equilibrium interest rate that is needed to generate full employment growth, what does this suggest about the future economic performance of the western world?
  7. In the article, there is a list of some of the key things that make investors anxious. Review each of these factors and explain why it is so important in generating anxiety.
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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.

The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.

And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.

So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?

There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.

The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.

Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.

This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.

There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.

As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.

Articles
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)

Data
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
StatExtracts OECD
Statistics database European Central Bank

Questions

  1. What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
  2. How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
  3. What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
  4. Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
  5. What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
  6. Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
  7. How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
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Keeping a Minsky-eye on credit

The instability of the economy was clearly demonstrated by the events of the late 2000s. Economists have devoted considerable energies to understanding the determinants of the business cycle. Increasing attention is focused on the role that credit cycles play in contributing to or exacerbating cycles. Therefore, data on lending by banks is followed keenly by policymakers who wish to avoid the repeat of the pace of growth in credit seen in the period preceding the financial crisis. Interestingly, the latest data from the Bank of England show that lending by financial institutions to households (net of repayments) rose in July to its highest level since November 2009.

The idea of credit cycles is not new. But, the financial crisis of the late 2000s has helped to reignite analysis and interest. Many economists have revisited the work of Hyman Minsky (1919–1996), a Belarus-born American economist, who argued that financial cycles are an inherent part of the economic cycle and contribute to fluctuations in real GDP. Notably, he argued that credit extended to households and businesses is pro-cyclical so that flows of credit extended by banks are larger when the growth of the economy’s output is stronger. Since credit flows are dependent on the phase of the business cycle, they are said to be endogenous to the path of output. The key point here is that there is an inherent mechanism within the economy which is potentially destabilising.

Banks, it is argued, may use the growth of the economy’s output as an indicator of the riskiness of its lending. Households and businesses may undertake a similar assessment. After a period of sustained growth banks and investors become more confident about the future path of the economy and, consequently, in the returns of assets. This means that there is a role for psychology in understanding the business cycle.

If we look at the chart, this period of heightened confidence may correspond with the period starting from the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2007 the average monthly net flow of credit to private non-financial corporations and households was £9.4 billion. In other words, households and businesses were acquiring a staggering £9.4 billion of additional debt from banks each month. But, this was as high as £14.0 billion per month in 2007. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

What helped to fuel the impact of heightened confidence on credit provision was 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. The result was that during the 2000s as households and businesses began to acquire larger debts their financial well-being became increasingly stretched. This was hastened by central banks raising interest rates. The intention was to dampen the rising rate of inflation, partly attributable to rising global commodity prices, such as oil. Suddenly, euphoria was replaced with pessimism.

Some argue that a Minsky moment had occurred. Many countries then witnessed a balance sheet recession. As individual households and businesses try and improve their own financial well-being they collectively contribute to its worsening. For instance, large-scale attempts to sell assets, such as shares or property, only help to cause their value to decline.

A 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 chart shows that lending in 2014 is more robust than it has been form some time. Across the first seven months of 2014 the average monthly net flow of credit extended by banks to households and businesses (private non-financial corporations) has been £2.2 billion.

However, the 2014-rebound of credit is wholly attributable to lending to households. Net lending to households has averaged £2.7 billion per month while businesses have been repaying credit to banks to the tune of £437 million per month – something that businesses have collectively done in each year from 2009. While net lending to households remains considerably lower than pre-financial crisis levels, it will be something that policymakers will be watching very closely. This, in turn, means that they will be paying particular interest to the housing and mortgage markets.

Articles
Appetite for loans picks up again, say major banks BBC News (23/9/14)
Business lending by UK banks is down by £941m Herald Scotland, Ian McConnell (27/8/14)
How bank lending fell by £365 BILLION in five years… much to the delight of controversial payday loan firms Mail, Louise Eccles (7/09/14)
U.K.’s Big Banks Cut Lending by $595 Billion, KPMG Says Bloomberg, Richard Partington (8/9/14)
UK banks’ home loan approvals fall to 12-month low – BBA Reuters, Andy Bruce and Tom Heneghan (23/9/14)

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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