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

Don’t bank on Italy’s economy

The Brexit vote has caused shockwaves throughout European economies. But there is a potentially larger economic and political problem facing the EU and the eurozone more specifically. And that is the state of the Italian banking system and the Italian economy.

Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone after Germany and France. Any serious economic weaknesses could have profound consequences for the rest of the eurozone and beyond.

At 135% of GDP, Italy’s public-sector debt is one the highest in the world; its banks are undercapitalised with a high proportion of bad debt; and it is still struggling to recover from the crisis of 2008–9. The Economist article elaborates:

The adult employment rate is lower than in any EU country bar Greece. The economy has been moribund for years, suffocated by over-regulation and feeble productivity. Amid stagnation and deflation, Italy’s banks are in deep trouble, burdened by some €360 billion of souring loans, the equivalent of a fifth of the country’s GDP. Collectively they have provisioned for only 45% of that amount. At best, Italy’s weak banks will throttle the country’s growth; at worst, some will go bust.

Since 2007, the economy has shrunk by 10%. And potential output has fallen too, as firms have closed. Unemployment is over 11%, with youth unemployment around 40%.

Things seem to be coming to a head. As confidence in the Italian banking system plummets, the Italian government would like to bail out the banks to try to restore confidence and encourage deposits and lending. But under new eurozone rules designed to protect taxpayers, it requires that the first line of support should be from bondholders. Such support is known as a ‘bail-in’.

If bondholders were large institutional investors, this might not be such a problem, but a significant proportion of bank bonds in Italy are held by small investors, encouraged to do so by tax relief. Bailing in the banks by requiring bondholders to bear significant losses in the value of their bonds could undermine the savings of many Italians and cause them severe hardship, especially those who had saved for their retirement.

So what is the solution? Italian banks need recapitalising to restore confidence and prevent a more serious crisis. However, there is limited scope for bailing in, unless small investors can be protected. And eurozone rules provide little scope for government funding for the banks. These rules should be relaxed under extreme circumstances. At the same time, policy needs to focus on making Italian banking more efficient.

Meanwhile, the IMF is forecasting that Italian economic growth will be less than 1% this year and little better in 2017. Part of the problem, claims the IMF, is the Brexit vote. This has heightened financial market volatility and increasead the risks for Italy with its fragile banking system. But the problems of the Italian economy run deeper and will require various supply-side policies to tackle low productivity, corruption, public-sector inefficiency and a financial system not fit for purpose. What the mix of these policies should be – whether market based or interventionist – is not just a question of effectiveness, but of political viability and democratic support.

Articles
The Italian Job The Economist (9/7/16)
IMF warns Italy of two-decade-long recessionThe Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/7/16)
Italy economy: IMF says country has ‘two lost decades’ of growth BBC News (12/7/16)
What’s the problem with Italian banks? BBC News, Andrew Walker (10/7/16)
Why Italy’s banking crisis will shake the eurozone to its core The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (16/8/16)
If You Thought Brexit Was Bad Wait Until The Italian Banks All Go Bust Forbes, Tim Worstall (17/7/16)
In the euro zone’s latest crisis, Italy is torn between saving the banks or saving its people Quartz, Cassie Werber (13/7/16)
Why Italy could be the next European country to face an economic crisis Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/16)

Report
Italy IMF Country Report No.
16/222
(July 2016)

Data
Economic Outlook OECD (June 2016) (select ‘By country’ from the left-hand panel and then choose ‘Italy’ from the pull-down menu and choose appropriate time series)

Questions

  1. Can changes in aggregate demand have supply-side consequences? Explain.
  2. Explain why there may be a downward spiral of asset sales by banks.
  3. How might the principle of bail-ins for undercapitalised Italian banks be pursued without being at the expense of the small saver?
  4. What lessons are there from Japan’s ‘three arrows’ for Italy? Does being in the eurozone constrain Italy’s ability to adopt any or all of these three categories of policy?
  5. Why may the Brexit vote have more serious consequences for Italy than many other European economies?
  6. Find out what reforms have already been adopted or are being pursued by the Italian government. How successful are they likely to be in increasing Italian growth and productivity?
  7. What external factors are currently (a) favourable, (b) unfavourable to improving Italian growth and productivity?
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Economists: have we failed to communicate to the general public?

Before the referendum, economists overwhelmingly argued that the economic case for the UK remaining in the EU was much stronger than that for leaving. They warned of serious economic consequences, both short term and long term, of a Brexit vote. And yet, by a majority of 51.9% to 48.1% of the 72.1% of the electorate who voted, the UK voted to leave the EU.

Does this mean that economists failed to communicate to the electorate? Were the arguments presented poorly or in too academic a way?

Or did people simply not believe the economists’ forecasts, being cynical about the ability of economists to forecast? During the campaign, on several occasions I heard people repeating the joke that economists had successfully predicted five out of the last two recessions!

Did they not believe the data that immigrants from other EU countries to the UK contribute more in taxes they draw in benefits and that overall they make a net positive contribution to output per head? Or perhaps they believed the claims that immigrants imposed a net cost on the economy.

Or were there ‘non-economic’ issues that people found more persuasive, such as questions of sovereignty or national identity? Or was the strain on local resources, such as health services, schools and housing, blamed on immigration itself rather than on a lack of spending on additional resources – the funding for which could have come from the extra GDP generated by the immigration?

Or were there so many lies told by politicians and those with vested interests that people simply didn’t know whom to believe?

Economists will, no doubt, do a lot of soul searching over the coming months. One such economist is Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose article is linked below.

Article
We economists must face the plain truth that the referendum showed our failings Institute for Fiscal Studies newspaper articles. Paul Johnson (28/6/16)

Questions

  1. In what ways could economists have communicated better to the general public during the referendum campaign?
  2. For what reasons may people distrust economists?
  3. Were economists hampered in delivering their message by ‘balanced reporting’?
  4. Comment on Paul Johnson’s statement that, ‘The most politically engaged of us spend decades working out how to tweak tax policy, or labour market policy, or competition policy to deliver small benefits. How many times over would our work have been repaid if we had simply convinced a few more people of the basics?’
  5. Do economists, or at least some of them, need to become more ‘media savvy’?
  6. How could institutions, such as the Royal Economic Society and the Society of Business Economists, do more to help economists collectively to communicate with the general public?
  7. Give some examples of the terminology/jargon we use which might be inappropriate for communicating with the general public. Suggest some alternative terms to the examples you’ve given.
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Monetary and fiscal policies – a U-turn or keeping the economy on track?

What have been, and will be, the monetary and fiscal responses to the Brexit vote in the referendum of 23 June 2016? This question has been addressed in speeches by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and by George Osborne, Chancellor the Exchequer. Both recognise that the vote will cause a negative shock to the economy, which will require some stimulus to aggregate demand to avoid a recession, or at least minimise its depth.

Mark Carney stated that:

The Bank of England stands ready to provide more than £250bn of additional funds through its normal facilities. The Bank of England is also able to provide substantial liquidity in foreign currency, if required.

In the coming weeks, the Bank will assess economic conditions and will consider any additional policy responses.

This could mean that at its the next meeting, scheduled for 13/14 July, the Monetary Policy Committee will consider reducing Bank Rate from its current level of 0.5% and introducing further quantitative easing.

In a speech on 30 June, he went further:

I can assure you that in the coming months the Bank can be expected to take whatever action is needed to support growth subject to inflation being projected to return to the target over an appropriate horizon, and inflation expectations remaining well anchored.

Then in a speech on 5 July, introducing the latest Financial Stability Report, he said that the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee is lowering the required capital ratio of banks, thereby freeing up capital for lending to customers. The part being lowered is the ‘countercyclical capital buffer’ – the element that can be varied according to the state of the economy. Mark Carney said:

The FPC is today reducing the countercyclical capital buffer on banks’ UK exposures from 0.5% to 0% with immediate effect. This is a major change. It means that three quarters of UK banks, accounting for 90% of the stock of UK lending, will immediately have greater flexibility to supply credit to UK households and firms.

Specifically, the FPC’s action immediately reduces regulatory capital buffers by £5.7 billion and therefore raises banks’ capacity to lend to UK businesses and households by up to £150 billion. For comparison, last year with a fully functioning banking system and one of the fastest growing economies in the G7, total net lending in the UK was £60 billion.

Thus although there may be changes to interest rates and narrow money in response to economic reactions to the Brexit vote, the monetary policy framework remains unchanged. This is to achieve a target rate of CPI inflation of 2% at the 24-month time horizon.

But what of fiscal policy?

In its Charter for Budget Responsibility, updated in the Summer 2015 Budget, the government states its Fiscal Mandate:

3.2 In normal times, once a headline surplus has been achieved, the Treasury’s mandate for fiscal policy is:
   a target for a surplus on public-sector net borrowing in each subsequent year.

3.3 For the period outside normal times from 2015-16, the Treasury’s mandate for fiscal policy is:
   a target for a surplus on public-sector net borrowing by the end of 2019-20.

3.4 For this period until 2019-20, the Treasury’s mandate for fiscal policy is supplemented by:
   a target for public-sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling in each year.

The target of a PSNB surplus by 2019-20 has been the cornerstone of recent fiscal policy. In order to stick to it, the Chancellor warned before the referendum that a slowdown in the economy as a result of a Brexit vote would force him to introduce an emergency Budget, which would involve cuts in government expenditure and increases in taxes.

However, since the vote he is now saying that the slowdown would force him to extend the time for reaching a surplus beyond 2019-20 to avoid dampening the economy further. But does this mean he is abandoning his fiscal target and resorting to discretionary expansionary fiscal policy?

George Osborne’s answer to this question is no. He argues that extending the deadline for a surplus is consistent with paragraph 3.5 of the Charter, which reads:

3.5 These targets apply unless and until the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) assess, as part of their economic and fiscal forecast, that there is a significant negative shock to the UK. A significant negative shock is defined as real GDP growth of less than 1% on a rolling 4 quarter-on-4 quarter basis. If the OBR assess that a significant negative shock:

occurred in the most recent 4 quarter period;
is occurring at the time the assessment is being made; or
will occur during the forecast period

then:

  if the normal times surplus rule in 3.2 is in force, the target for a surplus each year is suspended (regardless of future data revisions). The Treasury must set out a plan to return to surplus. This plan must include appropriate fiscal targets, which will be assessed by the OBR. The plan, including fiscal targets, must be presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to Parliament at or before the first financial report after the shock. The new fiscal targets must be approved by a vote in the House of Commons.
  if the shock occurs outside normal times, the Treasury will review the appropriateness of its fiscal targets for the period until the public finances return to surplus. Any changes to the targets must be approved by a vote in the House of Commons.
  once the budget is in surplus, the target set out in 3.2 above applies.

In other words, if the OBR forecasts that the Brexit vote will result in GDP growing by less than 1%, the Chancellor can delay reaching the surplus and thus not have to introduce tougher austerity measures. This, in effect, is what he is now saying and maintaining that, because of paragraph 3.5, it does not break the Fiscal Mandate. The nature of the next Budget, probably in the autumn, will depend on OBR forecasts.

A few days later, George Osborne announced that he plans to cut corporation tax from the current 20% to less than 15% – below the rate of 17% previously scheduled for 2019-20. His aim is not just to stimulate the economy, but to attract inward investment, as the rate would below that of any major economy and close the rate of 12.5% in Ireland. His hope would also be to halt the outflow of investment as companies seek to relocate in the EU.

Videos and podcasts
Statement from the Governor of the Bank of England following the EU referendum result Bank of England (24/6/16)
Uncertainty, the economy and policy – speech by Mark Carney Bank of England (30/6/16)
Introduction to Financial Stability Report, July 2016 Bank of England (5/7/16)
Osborne: Life will not be ‘economically rosy’ outside EU BBC News (28/6/16)
Osborne takes ‘realistic’ view over surplus target BBC News (1/7/16)
Why has George Osborne abandoned a key economic target? BBC News (1/7/16)

Articles
Mark Carney says Bank of England ready to inject £250bn into economy to keep UK afloat after EU referendum Independent, Zlata Rodionova (24/6/16)
Carney Signals Rate Cuts as Brexit Chaos Engulfs Political Class Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton (30/6/16)
Bank of England hints at UK interest rate cuts over coming months to ease Brexit woes International Business Times, Gaurav Sharma (30/6/16)
Carney prepares for ‘economic post-traumatic stress’ Financial Times, Emily Cadman (30/6/16)
Bank of England warns Brexit risks beginning to crystallise BBC News (5/7/16)
Bank of England tells banks to cut buffer to boost lending Financial Times, Caroline Binham and Chris Giles (5/7/16)
George Osborne puts corporation tax cut at heart of Brexit recovery plan Financial Times (3/7/16)
George Osborne corporation tax cut is the wrong way to start EU negotiations, former WTO boss says Independent, Hazel Sheffield (5/7/16)
George Osborne abandons 2020 UK surplus target Financial Times, Emily Cadman and Gemma Tetlow (1/7/16)
George Osborne scraps 2020 budget surplus plan The Guardian, Jill Treanor and Katie Allen (1/7/16)
Osborne abandons 2020 budget surplus target BBC News (1/7/16)
Brexit and the easing of austerity BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (1/7/16)
Osborne Follows Carney in Signaling Stimulus After Brexit Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy (1/7/16)

Questions

  1. Explain the measures taken by the Bank of England directly after the Brexit vote.
  2. What will determine whether the Bank of England engages in further quantitative easing beyond the current £385bn of asset purchases?
  3. How does monetary policy easing (or the expectation of it) affect the exchange rate? Explain.
  4. How effective is monetary policy for expanding aggregate demand? Is it more or less effective than using monetary policy to reduce aggregate demand?
  5. Explain what is meant by (a) capital adequacy ratios (tier 1 and tier 2); (b) countercyclical buffers. (See, for example, Economics 9th edition, page 533–7 and Figure 16.2))
  6. To what extent does increasing the supply of credit result in that credit being taken up by businesses and consumers?
  7. Distinguish between rules-based and discretionary fiscal policy. How would you describe paragraph 3.5 in the Charter for Budget Responsibility?
  8. Would you describe George Osborne’s proposed fiscal measures as expansionary or merely as less contractionary?
  9. Why is the WTO unhappy with George Osborne’s proposals about corporation tax?
  10. What is the Nash equilibrium of countries seeking to undercut each other’s corporation tax rates?
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Are households ravenous for credit?

In April we asked how sustainable is the UK’s appetite for credit? Data in the latest Bank of England’s Money and Credit publication suggest that such concerns are likely grow. It shows net lending (lending net of repayments) by monetary financial institutions (MFIs) to individuals in March 2016 was £9.3 billion, the highest monthly total since August 2007. This took net borrowing over the previous 12 months to £58.6 billion, the highest 12-month figure since September 2008.

The latest credit data raise fears about the impact on the financial well-being of individuals. The financial well-being of people, companies, banks and governments can have dramatic effects on economic activity. These were demonstrated vividly in the late 2000s when a downturn resulted from attempts by economic agents to improve their financial well-being. Retrenchment led to recession. Given the understandable concerns about financial distress we revisit our April blog.

Chart 1 shows the annual flow of lending extended to individuals, net of repayments. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 1.) The chart provides evidence of cycles both in secured lending and in consumer credit (unsecured lending).

The growth in net lending during the 2000s was stark as was the subsequent squeeze on lending that followed. During 2004, for example, annual net flows of lending from MFIs to individuals exceeded £130 billion, the equivalent of close on 10.5 per cent of annual GDP. Secured lending was buoyed by strong house price growth with UK house price inflation rising above 14 per cent. Nonetheless, consumer credit was very strong too equivalent to 1.8 per cent of GDP.

Net lending collapsed following the financial crisis. In the 12 months to March 2011 the flow of net lending amounted to just £3.56 billion, a mere 0.2 per cent of annual GDP. Furthermore, net consumer credit was now negative. In other words, repayments were exceeding new sums being extended by MFIs.

Clearly, as Chart 1 shows, net lending to individuals is again on the rise. This partly reflects a rebound in sections of the UK housing market. Net secured lending in March was £7.435 billion, the highest monthly figure since November 2007. Over the past 12 months net secured lending has amounted to £42.1 billion, the highest 12-month figure since October 2008.

Yet the growth of unsecured credit has been even more spectacular. In March net consumer credit was £1.88 billion (excluding debt extended by the Student Loans Company). This is the highest month figure since March 2005. It has taken the amount of net consumer credit extended to individuals over the past 12 months to £16.435 billion, the highest figure since December 2005.

Chart 2 shows the annual growth rate of both forms of net lending by MFIs. In essence, this mirrors the growth rate in the stocks of debt – though changes in debt stocks can also be affected by the writing off of debts. The chart captures the very strong rates of growth in net unsecured lending from MFIs. We are now witnessing the strongest annual rate of growth in consumer credit since November 2005. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in household borrowing, especially that in consumer credit, evidences the need for individuals to be mindful of their financial well-being. Given that these patterns are now becoming well-established you can expect to see considerable comment in the months ahead about our appetite for credit. Can such an appetite for borrowing be sustained without triggering a further balance sheet recession as experienced at the end of the 2000s?

Articles
Consumer credit rises at fastest pace for 11 years The Guardian, Hilary Osborne (29/4/16)
Debt bubble fears increase as consumer credit soars to 11-year high The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (29/4/16)
Fears of households over-stretching on borrowing as consumer credit grows The Scotsman, (29/4/16)
History repeating? Fears of another financial crisis as borrowing reaches 11-year high Sunday Express, Lana Clements (29/4/16)
The chart that shows we put more on our credit cards in March than in any month in 11 years Independent, Ben Chu (1/4/16)
Britain’s free market economy isn’t working The Guardian (13/1/16)

Data
Money and Credit – March 2016 Bank of England
Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. What does it mean if individuals are financially distressed?
  2. How would we measure the financial well-being of individuals and households?
  3. What actions might individuals take it they are financially distressed? What might the economic consequences be?
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
  5. What measures can policymakers take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?
  6. What is meant by a balance sheet recession?
  7. Explain the difference between secured debt and unsecured debt.
  8. Should we be more concerned about the growth of consumer credit than secured debt?
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Low global growth – the new norm?

In the blog post, Global warning, we looked at the use of unconventional macroeconomic policies to deal with the slow pace of economic growth around the world. One of the articles was by Nouriel Roubini. In the linked article below, he argues that slow economic growth may be the new global norm.

At the centre of the problem is a fall in the rate of potential economic growth. This has been caused by a lack of investment, which has slowed the pace of innovation and the growth in labour productivity.

The lack of investment, in turn, has been caused by a lack of spending by both households and governments. What is the point in investing in new capacity, argue firms, if they already have spare capacity?

Low consumer spending is partly the result of a redistribution of income from low- and middle-income households (who have a high marginal propensity to consume) to high-income households and corporations (who have a low mpc). Low spending is also the result of both consumers and governments attempting to reduce their levels of debt by cutting back spending.

Low growth leads to hysteresis – the process whereby low actual growth leads to low potential growth. The reason is that the unemployed become deskilled and the lack of investment by firms reduces the innovation that is necessary to embed new technologies.

Read Roubini’s analysis and consider the policy implications.

Article
Has the global economic growth malaise become the ‘new normal’? The Guardian, Nouriel Roubini (2/5/16)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘hysteresis’ and how the concept is relevant in explaining low global economic growth.
  2. Why has there been a reduction in the marginal propensity to consume in recent years? What is the implication of this for the multiplier and economic recovery?
  3. Explain what Roubini means by ‘a painful de-leveraging process’. What are the implications of this process?
  4. How important are structural reforms and what forms could these take? Why has there been a reluctance for governments to institute such reforms?
  5. ‘Asymmetric adjustment between debtor and creditor economies has also undermined growth.’ Explain what Roubini means by this.
  6. Why are governments reluctant to use fiscal policy to boost both actual and potential economic growth?
  7. What feasible policy measures could be taken to boost actual and potential economic growth?
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A flawed model of monetary policy

In a recent post, Global Warning, we looked at concerns about the global economy. One of these was about the ineffectiveness of monetary policy to stimulate aggregate demand and to restore growth rates. Despite the use of unconventional monetary policies, such as quantitative easing and negative interest rates, and despite the fact that these policies have become the new convention, they have failed to do enough to bring sustained recovery.

The two articles below argue that the failure has been due to a flawed model of monetary policy: one that takes too little account of the behaviour of banks and the drivers of consumption and of physical investment. Negative interest rates on banks’ holdings of reserves in central banks are hardly likely to push down lending rates to businesses sufficiently to stimulate investment in new plant and machinery if firms already have overcapacity. And consumers are unlikely to borrow more for consumption if their wages are barely rising and they already have debts that they fear will be difficulty to pay off.

As Joseph Stiglitz points out:

As real interest rates have fallen, business investment has stagnated. According to the OECD, the percentage of GDP invested in a category that is mostly plant and equipment has fallen in both Europe and the US in recent years. (In the US, it fell from 8.4% in 2000 to 6.8% in 2014; in the EU, it fell from 7.5% to 5.7% over the same period.) Other data provide a similar picture.

And the unwillingness of many firms and individuals to borrow is matched by banks’ caution about lending in an uncertain economic environment. Many are more concerned about building their capital and liquidity ratios to protect themselves. In these circumstances, negative interest rates have little effect on stimulating bank lending and, by hurting their balance sheets through lower earnings on the money markets, may even encourage them to lend less

What central banks should be doing, argue both Stiglitz and Elliott, is finding ways of directly stimulating consumption and investment. Perhaps this will involve central banks “focusing on the flow of credit, which means restoring and maintaining local banks’ ability and willingness to lend to SMEs.” Perhaps it will mean using helicopter money, as we examined in the previous blog. As Larry Elliott points out:

The fact that economists at Deutsche Bank published a helpful cut-out-and-keep guide to helicopter money last week is a straw in the wind.

As the Deutsche research makes clear, the most basic variant of helicopter money involves a central bank creating money so that it can be handed to the finance ministry to spend on tax cuts or higher public spending. There are two differences with QE. The cash goes directly to firms and individuals rather than being channelled through banks, and there is no intention of the central bank ever getting it back.

So if the model of monetary policy is indeed flawed, prepare for more unconventional measures

Articles
What’s Wrong With Negative Rates?, Project Syndicate, Joseph Stiglitz (13/4/16)
The bad smell hovering over the global economy The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/4/16)

Questions

  1. What arguments does Stiglitz use to support his claim that the model of monetary policy currently being used is flawed?
  2. In what ways has monetary policy hurt older people and what has been the effect on their spending and on aggregate demand in general?
  3. Why has monetary policy encouraged investors to shift their portfolios toward riskier assets?
  4. Examine the argument that ultra-low interest rates may result in a rise in unemployment in the long term by affecting the relative prices of capital and labour.
  5. What forms might helicopter money take?
  6. Would the use of helicopter money necessarily result in an increase in aggregate demand? What would determine the size of any such increase?
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More interest in the interesting case of UK interest rates

In a recent blog Accelerating interest in the interesting case of UK interest rates we compared the level of the official Bank Rate, which has now been at 0.5 per cent for over seven years, with a representative unsecured borrowing rate. In doing so, we found some evidence that credit conditions might be easing following the credit market disturbance of the late 2000s. Here we take the opportunity not only to review that data again one month on, but also to see whether a similar picture is true for the mortgage market.

Theories of the financial accelerator argue that the macroeconomic environment can affect commercial banks’ lending practices. One way in which this can operate is through the difference between banks’ lending rates and the official Bank Rate. We can think of such interest-rate differentials – or spreads – as a credit premium. The size of the premium may be thought to reflect lenders’ perceived risk of default by borrowers. It is argued by some economists that interest-rate differentials will fall when the economy is doing well and increase when the economy is doing less well. This is because the probability of default by borrowers is seen as smaller when the macroeconomic environment improves.

The effect of interest-rate differentials that are contingent on the macroeconomic environment is to amplify the business cycle. For example, a positive demand-side shock, such as a rise in consumer confidence, which causes the economy’s aggregate demand to rise will, in turn, lead to lower borrowing rates relative to the official Bank Rate. This financial effect further stimulates the demand for credit and, as a consequence, aggregate demand and economic activity. It is an example of what economists called the financial accelerator.

The chart shows the Bank Rate along with the average unsecured borrowing rate on loans by Monetary Financial Institutions (MFIs) of £10 000. Unlike secured borrowing, which we consider shortly, unsecured borrowing is not secured against property.

As expected, we can see that the unsecured borrowing rate is greater than the Bank Rate. In other words, there is a positive interest-rate differential. However, this differential is seen to vary. It falls sharply in the period up to the financial crisis. In early 2002 it was running at 8 percentage points. By summer 2007 the differential had fallen to only 1.7 percentage points. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The period from 2002 to 2007 was characterised by consistently robust growth with the UK economy growing by about 2.7 per cent per annum over this period. This may point to economic growth can contributing to an easing of credit conditions as implied by the financial accelerator.

The story from 2008 changes very quickly as the interest-rate differential increases very sharply. In 2009, as the official Bank Rate was cut to 0.5 per cent, the unsecured borrowing rate climbed to close to 10.5 per cent. Consequently, the interest-rate differential rose to 10 percentage points. Inter-bank lending had dried up with banks concerned that banks would default on loans. The increase in interest rates on lending to the non-bank private sector was stark and evidence of a credit market disruption.

The interest-rate differential for unsecured borrowing has steadily declined since its peak at the end of 2009 as the unsecured borrowing rate has fallen. This implies that credit conditions have eased. In March 2016 our interest-rate differential for unsecured borrowing stood at 3.8 percentage points, not dissimilar to levels over the past 12 months. Interestingly, today’s differential on unsecured borrowing is lower than the 6.5 percentage point average over the period from 1997 to 2003, before the differential then went on its pre-crisis fall.

Our second chart repeats the analysis but this time for mortgages. The representative mortgage rate is the average standard variable mortgage rate.

Unlike that for unsecured borrowing, the interest-rate differential for mortgages is fairly constant up to the financial crisis. The widely report credit easing in the mortgage market appears to have operated more through amounts lent rather than through price, as evidenced by rising mortgage advance-to-income ratios. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The second chart shows clear evidence of a credit market disruption from 2009. Hence, the markets for secured and unsecured lending saw credit conditions tighten with interest-rate differentials rising markedly. However, it shows that the higher interest-rate differential for secured lending following the credit market disruption remains. So while the differential has fallen sharply for unsecured lending the situation is quite different in the mortgage market. In fact, February and March 2016 saw the mortgage rate spread at 4.17 percentage points which is an historic high.

Our interest rate data show that interest-rate differentials can vary significantly over time. This is important to understand when we are thinking about the relationships between the macroeconomy and the financial system. Significantly, the data suggest that interest rates on different financial instruments can behave differently such that differences emerge in the patterns of spreads over the official Bank Rate.

The evidence on UK mortgage rates suggests that the market remains affected by the financial crisis and the credit market disruption that arose. Although the level of mortgage rates is historically low – which tends to capture many of the headlines – this masks an historically high premium over the official Bank Rate.

Articles
Bank warns EU vote may hit growth as it holds rates BBC News, (14/4/16)
Carney issues a warning as interest rates are held Belfast Telegraph, (15/4/16)
Bank Of England Leaves Interest Rates On Hold Sky News, (14/4/16)
UK banks plan to boost lending to households but not firms – BoE Reuters, (13/4/16)
Mortgage rates reach record lows as threat of Bank Rate rise evaporates Telegraph, Tara Evans (1/4/16)

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

Questions

  1. Why would we expect banks’ borrowing rates to be higher than the official Bank Rate?
  2. How might banks’ credit criteria change as the macroeconomic environment changes? Explain your answer.
  3. As well as the macroeconomic environment, what other factors might lead to a change in the interest-rate differential between banks’ borrowing rates and the official Bank Rate?
  4. How would we expect a credit market disruption to affect the interest-rate differential?
  5. Explain how the financial accelerator affects the change in the size of the economy following a positive demand shock.
  6. Explain how the financial accelerator affects the change in the size of the economy following a negative demand shock.
  7. What is the impact of the financial accelerator of the amplitude of the business cycle?
  8. How might regulators intervene to minimise the effect of the financial accelerator?
  9. Why might explain the high interest-rate differential on mortgages that continues to persist following the financial crisis?
  10. Analyse the ways in which the financial system can stabilise or destabilise economies.
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How sustainable is the UK’s appetite for credit?

The latest Bank of England’s Money and Credit release shows net lending (lending net of repayments) by Monetary Financial Institutions (MFIs) to individuals in February was £4.9 billion. Although down on the £5.4 billion in January, it nonetheless means that over the last 12 months the flow of net lending amounted to £52.8 billion. This is the highest 12-month figure since October 2008.

The latest credit data raise concerns about levels of lending and their potential to again impact on the financial well-being of individuals, particularly in light of the falling proportion of income that households are saving. As we saw in UK growth fuelled by consumption as households again lose affection for their piggy banks the saving ratio fell to an historic low of 4.2 per cent for 2015.

An important factor affecting the financial well-being of individuals and households is the extent of their indebtedness. Flows of credit accumulate to become stocks of debt. Stocks of debt affect the extent to which household incomes becomes prey to debt servicing costs. Put simply, more and more income, all other things being equal, is needed for interest payments and capital repayments as debt stocks rise. Rising stocks of debt can also affect the ability of people to further fund borrowing, particularly if debt levels grow more quickly than asset values, such as the value of financial assets accumulated through saving. Consequently, the growth of debt can result in households incurring what is called balance sheet congestion with deteriorating financial well-being or increased financial stretch.

Chart 1 shows the stocks of debt acquired by individuals from MFIs, i.e. deposit-taking financial institutions. It shows both secured debt stocks (mortgage debt) and unsecured debt stocks (consumer credit). The scale of debt accumulation, particularly from the mid 1990s up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s is stark.

At the start of 1995 UK individuals had debts to MFIs of a little over £430 billion, the equivalent of roughly 55 per cent of annual GDP (Gross Domestic Product). By the autumn of 2008 this had hit £1.39 trillion, the equivalent of roughly 90 per cent of annual GDP. At both points around 85 per cent of the debt was secured debt, though around the start of the decade it had fallen back a little to around 80 per cent. (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. Both financially-distressed individuals and MFIs took steps to repair their balance sheets following the financial crisis. These steps, it is argued, are what resulted in a balance sheet recession. This saw the demand for and supply of additional credit wane. Consequently, as Chart 1 shows debt accumulation largely ceased.

More recently the indebtedness to MFIs of individuals has started to rise again. At the end of February 2014 the stock of debt was just shy of £1.4 trillion. By the end of February 2016 it had risen to £1.47 trillion (a little under 80 per cent of annual GDP). This is an increase of 4.7 per cent. Interestingly, the rise was largely driven by unsecured debt. It rose by 13.4 per cent from £159.4 billion to £180.7 billion. Despite the renewed buoyancy of the housing market, particularly in South East England, the stock of secured debt has risen by just 3.6 per cent from £1.24 trillion to £1.28 trillion.

Chart 2 shows the annual flow of lending extended to individuals, net of repayments. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 2.) The chart provides evidence of cycles both in secured lending and in consumer credit (unsecured lending).

The growth in net lending during the 2000s was stark as was the subsequent squeeze on lending that followed. During 2004, for example, annual net flows of lending from MFIs to individuals exceeded £130 billion, the equivalent of close on 10.5 per cent of annual GDP. Secured lending was buoyed by strong house price growth with UK house price inflation rising above 14 per cent. Nonetheless, consumer credit was very strong too equivalent to 1.8 per cent of GDP.

Net lending collapsed following the financial crisis. In the 12 months to March 2011 the flow of net lending amounted to just £3.56 billion, a mere 0.2 per cent of annual GDP. Furthermore, net consumer credit was now negative. In other words, repayments were exceeding new sums being extended by MFIs.

Clearly, as Chart 2 shows, we can see that net lending to individuals is again on the rise. As we noted earlier, part of this this reflects a rebound in parts of the UK housing market. It is perhaps worth noting that secured lending helps individuals to purchase housing and thereby acquire physical wealth. While secured lending can find its way to fuelling spending, for example, through the purchase of goods and services when people move into a new home, consumer credit more directly fuels spending and so aggregate demand. Furthermore, consumer credit is not matched on the balance sheets by an asset in the same way that secured credit is.

Chart 3 shows the annual growth rate of both forms of net lending by MFIs. In essence, this mirrors the growth rate in the stocks of debt though changes in the stocks of debt can also be affected by the writing off of debts. What the chart nicely shows is the strong rates of growth in net unsecured lending from MFIs. In fact, it is the strongest annual rate of growth since January 2006 (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in consumer credit, the fall in the saving ratio and the growth in consumer spending point to a need for individuals to be mindful of their financial well-being. What is for sure, is that you can expect to see considerable comment in the months ahead about consumption, credit and income data. Fundamental to these discussions will be the sustainability of current lending patterns.

Articles
Consumer Lending Growth Highest Since 2005 Sky News, (31/3/16)
Britons raid savings to fund spending as economists warn recovery ‘built on sand’ Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (31/3/16)
Household debt binge has no end in sight, says OBR Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (17/3/16)
Surge in borrowing… as savings dwindle: Household savings are at an all-time low as families turn to cheap loans and credit cards Daily Mail, James Burton (1/4/16)
George Osborne banks on household debt time bomb to meet his Budget targets Mirror, Ben Glaze (29/3/16)
Britain’s free market economy isn’t working Guardian (13/1/16)

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

Questions

  1. What does it mean if individuals are financially distressed?
  2. How would we measure the financial well-being of individuals and households?
  3. What actions might individuals take it they are financially distressed? What might the economic consequences be?
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
  5. What measures can policymakers take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?
  6. What is meant by a balance sheet recession?
  7. Explain the difference between secured debt and unsecured debt.
  8. Should we be more concerned about the growth of consumer credit than secured debt?
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Global warning

Project Syndicate is an organisation which produces articles on a range of economic, political and social topics written by eminent scholars, political and business leaders, policymakers and civic activists. It then makes these available to news media in more than 150 countries. Here we look at four such articles which assess the outlook for the European and global economies and even that of capitalism itself.

The general tone is one of pessimism. Despite unconventional monetary policies, such as quantitative easing (QE) and negative nominal interest rates, the global recovery is anaemic. As the Nouriel Roubini articles states:

Unconventional monetary policies – entrenched now for almost a decade – have themselves become conventional. And, in view of persistent lacklustre growth and deflation risk in most advanced economies, monetary policymakers will have to continue their lonely fight with a new set of ‘unconventional unconventional’ monetary policies.

Perhaps this will involve supplying additional money directly to consumers and/or business in a so-called ‘helicopter drop’ of money. Perhaps it will be supplying money directly to governments to finance infrastructure projects – a policy dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing‘. Perhaps it will involve taxing the holding of cash by banks to encourage them to lend.

The Hans-Werner Sinn article looks at some of the consequences of the huge amount of money created through QE and continuing to be created in the eurozone. Although it has not boosted consumption and investment nearly as much as desired, it has caused bubbles in various asset markets. For example, the property market has soared in many countries:

Property markets in Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg have practically exploded throughout the crisis, as a result of banks chasing borrowers with offers of loans at near-zero interest rates, regardless of their creditworthiness.

The German property boom could be reined in with an appropriate jump in interest rates. But, given the ECB’s apparent determination to head in the opposite direction, the bubble will only grow. If it bursts, the effects could be dire for the euro.

The Jean Pisani-Ferry article widens the analysis of the eurozone’s problems. Like Roubini, he considers the possibility of a helicopter drop of money, which “would be functionally equivalent to a direct government transfer to households, financed by central banks’ permanent issuance of money”.

Without such drastic measures he sees consumer and business pessimism (see chart) undermining recovery and making the eurozone vulnerable to global shocks, such as further weakening in China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Finally, Anatole Kaletsky takes a broad historical view. He starts by saying that “All over the world today, there is a sense of the end of an era, a deep foreboding about the disintegration of previously stable societies.” He argues that the era of ‘leaving things to the market’ is coming to an end. This was an era inspired by the monetarist and supply-side revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that led to the privatisation and deregulation policies of Reagan, Thatcher and other world leaders.

But if the market cannot cope with the complexities of today’s world, neither can governments.

If the world is too complex and unpredictable for either markets or governments to achieve social objectives, then new systems of checks and balances must be designed so that political decision-making can constrain economic incentives and vice versa. If the world is characterized by ambiguity and unpredictability, then the economic theories of the pre-crisis period – rational expectations, efficient markets, and the neutrality of money – must be revised.

… It is obvious that new technology and the integration of billions of additional workers into global markets have created opportunities that should mean greater prosperity in the decades ahead than before the crisis. Yet ‘responsible’ politicians everywhere warn citizens about a ‘new normal’ of stagnant growth. No wonder voters are up in arms.

His solution has much in common with that of Roubini and Pisani-Ferry. “Money could be printed and distributed directly to citizens. Minimum wages could be raised to reduce inequality. Governments could invest much more in infrastructure and innovation at zero cost. Bank regulation could encourage lending, instead of restricting it.”

So will there be a new era of even more unconventional monetary policy and greater regulation that encourages rather than restricts investment? Read the articles and try answering the questions.

Articles
Unconventional Monetary Policy on Stilts Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/4/16)
Europe’s Emerging Bubbles Project Syndicate, Hans-Werner Sinn (28/3/16)
Preparing for Europe’s Next Recession Project Syndicate, Jean Pisani-Ferry (31/3/16)
When Things Fall Apart Project Syndicate, Anatole Kaletsky (31/3/16)

Questions

  1. Explain how a ‘helicopter drop’ of money would work in practice.
  2. Why has growth in the eurozone been so anaemic since the recession of 2009/10?
  3. What is the relationship between tightening the regulations about capital and liquidity requirements of banks and bank lending?
  4. Explain the policies of the different eras identified by Anatole Kaletsky.
  5. Would it be fair to describe the proposals for more unconventional monetary policies as ‘Keynesian’?
  6. If quantitative easing was used to finance government infrastructure investment, what would be the effect on the public-sector deficit and debt?
  7. If the inflation of asset prices is a bubble, what could cause the bubble to burst and what would be the effect on the wider economy?
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UK growth fuelled by consumption as households again lose affection for their piggy banks

The latest data in the Quarterly National Accounts show that UK households in 2015 spent £1.152 trillion, the equivalent of 62 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In real terms, household spending rose by 2.8 per cent in 2015 in excess of the 2.3 per cent growth observed in GDP. In the final quarter of 2015 real household spending rose by 0.6 per – the same rate of growth as that recorded for the UK economy. This was the tenth consecutive quarter of positive consumption growth and the twelfth of economic growth.

It is the consistent growth seen over the recent past in real household spending that marks it out from the other components of aggregate demand. Consequently, household spending remains the bedrock of UK growth.

Chart 1 helps to evidence the close relationship between consumption and economic growth. It picks out nicely the stark turnaround both in economic growth and consumer spending following the financial crisis. Over the period from 2008 Q1 to 2011 Q2, real consumer spending typically fell by 0.4 per cent each quarter. This weakness in consumption was mirrored by economic growth. Real GDP contracted over this period by an average of 0.2 per cent each quarter. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Since 2011 Q3 real consumption growth has averaged 0.6 per cent per quarter – the rate at which consumption grew in 2015 Q4 – while, real GDP growth has averaged 0.5 per cent per quarter. Over this same period the real disposable income (post-tax income) of the combined household and NPISH (non-profit institutions serving households), has typically grown by 0.4 per cent per quarter. (NPISHs are charities and voluntary organisations.)

The strength of consumption relative to income is evidenced by the decline in the saving ratio as can be observed in Chart 2. The ratio captures the percentage of disposable income that households (and NPISHs) choose to save. In 2010 Q3 the proportion of income saved hit 11.9 per cent having been as low as 4.5 per cent in 2008 Q1. By 2015 Q4 the saving ratio had fallen to 3.8 per cent, the lowest value since the series began in 1963 Q1. (Click here to download a PowerPoint.)

The historic low in the saving ratio in the final quarter of 2015 reflects the strength of consumption alongside a sharp fall in real disposable income of 0.6 per cent in the quarter. However, the bigger picture shows a marked downward trend in the saving ratio over the period from 2012.

When seen in a more historic context the latest numbers taken on even greater significance. Chart 3 shows the annual saving ratio since 1963. From it we can see that the 2015 value of 4.2 was the first year when the ratio fell below 5 per cent. With 2014 being the previous historic low, there must be some concern that UK consumption growth is not being underpinned by income growth. (Click here to download a PowerPoint.)

Of course, consumption theory places great emphasis on expected future income in determining current spending. To some extent it may be argued that households were liquidity-constrained following the financial crisis. They were unable to borrow to support spending and, as time moved on, to borrow against the expectation of stronger income growth in the future. This would have depressed consumption growth. But, there may also have been a self-imposed liquidity constraint as the financial crisis unfolded. Heightened uncertainty may have led households to be more prudent and divert resources to saving. Such precautionary saving would tend to boost the saving ratio and so may be a factor in the sharp rise we observed in the ratio.

The easing of credit constraints as we headed through the early 2010s allied with stronger economic growth may help to explain the strength of the recovery in consumption growth. However, it is the extent and, in particular, the duration of this strong consumption growth that is fuelling a debate over its sustainability. The current uncertainty around future income growth and the need for households to be mindful of the indebtedness built up prior to the financial crisis point to households needing to retain a degree of caution. Consequently, the debates around the financial well-being of households and the need to rebalance the UK economy away from consumer spending are likely to be further intensified by the latest consumption and saving data.

Data
All data related to Quarterly National Accounts: Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2015 Office for National Statistics
Office for National Statistics Office for National Statistics

Articles
Britons raid savings to fund spending as economists warn recovery ‘built on sand’ Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (31/3/16)
UK Growth Higher But Deficit Hits New Record Sky News, (31/3/16)
Britain is a nation that has forgotten how to save Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (31/3/16)
A vulnerable economy: the true cost of Britain’s current account deficit Guardian, Larry Elliott (31/3/16)
U.K. Manufacturing ‘In the Doldrums’ Leaves Growth Lopsided Bloomberg, Emma Charlton (1/4/16)
Pound drops as UK manufacturing languishes in the doldrums Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (1/4/16)

Questions

  1. Why is the distinction between nominal and real growth an important one when looking at many macroeconomic variables.
  2. Examine the argument that the historic low saving ratio in the UK is a cause for concern.
  3. What factors might we expect to impact on the saving ratio?
  4. To what extent do you think the current growth in consumer spending is sustainable?
  5. How important are expectations in determining consumer behaviour?
  6. Explain what you understand by consumption smoothing.
  7. Why would we would typically expect consumption growth to be less variable than that in disposable income?
  8. Why might consumption sometimes be observed to be less sensitive or more sensitive to income changes?
  9. What factors might cause households to be liquidity constrained?
  10. What is precautionary saving? What might affect its perceived importance among households?
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