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Articles for the ‘Economics for Business: Ch 29’ Category

Irrational exuberance

Both the financial and goods markets are heavily influenced by sentiment. And such sentiment tends to be self-reinforcing. If consumers and investors are pessimistic, they will not spend and not invest. The economy declines and this further worsens sentiment and further discourages consumption and investment. Banks become less willing to lend and stock markets fall. The falling stock markets discourage people from buying shares and so share prices fall further. The despondency becomes irrational and greatly exaggerates economic fundamentals.

This same irrationality applies in a boom. Here it becomes irrational exuberance. A boom encourages confidence and stimulates consumer spending and investment. This further stimulates the boom via the multiplier and accelerator and further inspires confidence. Banks are more willing to lend, which further feeds the expansion. Stock markets soar and destabilising speculation further pushes up share prices. There is a stock market bubble.

But bubbles burst. The question is whether the current global stock market boom, with share prices reaching record levels, represents a bubble. One indicator is the price/earnings (PE) ratio of shares. This is the ratio of share prices to earnings per share. Currently the ratio for the US index, S&P 500, is just over 26. This compares with a mean over the past 147 years of 15.64. The current ratio is the third highest after the peaks of the early 2000s and 2008/9.

An alternative measure of the PE ratio is the Shiller PE ratio (see also). This is named after Robert Shiller, who wrote the book Irrational Exuberance. Unlike conventional PE ratios, which only look at average earnings over the past four quarters, the Shiller PE ratio uses average earnings over the past 10 years. “Because this factors in earnings from the previous ten years, it is less prone to wild swings in any one year.”

The current level of the Shiller PE ratio is 29.14, the third highest on record, this time after the period running up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. The mean Shiller PE ratio over the past 147 years is 16.72.

So are we in a period of irrational exuberance? And are stock markets experiencing a bubble that sooner or later will burst? The following articles explore these questions.

2 Clear Instances of Irrational Exuberance Seeking Alpha, Jeffrey Himelson (12/2/17)
Promised land of Trumpflation-inspired global stimulus has been slow off the mark South China Morning Post, David Brown (20/2/17)
A stock market crash is a way off, but this boom will turn to bust The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/2/17)
The “boring” bubble is close to bursting – the Unilever bid proves it MoneyWeek, John Stepek (20/2/17)


  1. Find out what is meant by Minksy’s ‘financial instability hypothesis’ and a ‘Minsky moment’. How might they explain irrational exuberance and the sudden turning point from a boom to a bust?
  2. Is it really irrational to buy shares with a very high PE ratio if everyone else is doing so?
  3. Why are people currently exuberant?
  4. What might cause the current exuberance to end?
  5. How does irrational exuberance affect the size of the multiplier?
  6. How might the behaviour of banks and other financial institutions contribute towards a boom fuelled by irrational exuberance?
  7. Compare the usefulness of a standard PE ratio with the Shiller PE ratio.
  8. Other than high PE ratios, what else might suggest that stock markets are overvalued?
  9. Why might a company’s PE ratio differ from its price/dividends ratio (see)? Which is a better measure of whether or not a share is overvalued?
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A bridge to somewhere

Many politicians throughout the world,
not just on the centre and left, are arguing for increased spending on infrastructure. This was one of the key proposals of Donald Trump during his election campaign. In his election manifesto he pledged to “Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains”.

Increased spending on inffrastructure has both demand- and supply-side effects.

Unless matched by cuts elsewhere, such spending will increase aggregate demand and could have a high multiplier effect if most of the inputs are domestic. Also there could be accelerator effects as the projects may stimulate private investment.

On the supply side, well-targeted infrastructure spending can directly increase productivity and cut costs of logistics and communications.

The combination of the demand- and supply-side effects could increase both potential and actual output and reduce unemployment.

So, if infrastructure projects can have such beneficial effects, why are politicians often so reluctant to give them the go-ahead?

Part of the problem is one of timing. The costs occur in the short run. These include demolition, construction and disruption. The direct benefits occur in the longer term, once the project is complete. And for complex projects this may be many years hence. It is true that demand-side benefits start to occur once construction has begun, but these benefits are widely dispersed and not easy to identify directly with the project.

Then there is the problem of externalities. The external costs of projects may include environmental costs and costs to local residents. This can lead to protests, public hearings and the need for detailed cost–benefit analysis. This can delay or even prevent projects from occurring.

The external benefits are to non-users of the project, such as a new bridge or bypass reducing congestion for users of existing routes. These make the private construction of many projects unprofitable, except with public subsidies or with public–private partnerships. So there does need to be a macroeconomic policy that favours publicly-funded infrastructure projects.

One type of investment that is less disruptive and can have shorter-term benefits is maintenance investment. Maintenance expenditure can avoid much more costly rebuilding expenditure later on. But this is often the first type of expenditure to be cut when public-sector budgets as squeezed, whether at the local or national level.

The problem of lack of infrastructure investment is very much a political problem. The politicians who give the go-ahead to such projects, such as high-speed rail, come in for criticisms from those bearing the short-run costs but they are gone from office once the benefits start to occur. They get the criticism but not the praise.

Are big infrastructure projects castles in the air or bridges to nowhere? The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (16/1/17)
Trump’s plans to rebuild America are misguided and harmful. This is how we should do it. The Washington Post, Lawrence H. Summers (17/1/17)


  1. Identify the types of externality from (a) a new high-speed rail line, (b) new hospitals.
  2. How is discounting relevant to decisions about public-sector projects?
  3. Why are governments often unwilling to undertake (a) new infrastructure projects, (b) maintenance projects?
  4. Is a programme of infrastructure investment necessarily a Keynesian policy?
  5. What accelerator effects would you expect from infrastructure investment?
  6. Explain the difference between the ‘spill-out’ and ‘pull-in’ effects of different types of public investments in a specific location. Is it possible for a project to have both effects?
  7. What answer would you give to the teacher who asked the following question of US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers? “The paint is chipping off the walls of this school, not off the walls at McDonald’s or the movie theatre. So why should the kids believe this society thinks their education is the most important thing?”
  8. What is the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem? Why does it occur and what are the solutions to it?
  9. Why is the ‘castles in the air’ element of private projects during a boom an example of the fallacy of composition?
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A worrying rise in unsecured borrowing

Household borrowing on credit cards and through overdrafts and loans has been growing rapidly. This ‘unsecured’ borrowing is now rising at rates not seen since well before the credit crunch of 2008 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below). Should this be a cause for concern?

Household confidence is generally high and, as a result, people continue to take out more loans and so household debt continues to increase. Saving rates are falling and, at 5.1% of household disposable income, are the lowest rate since 2008, mirroring the high levels of spending and borrowing.

But as long as the economy keeps growing and as long as interest rates stay at record low levels, people should be able to continue servicing this rising debt. Indeed, with generous balance transfer offers between credit cards and many people paying off their full balance each month, only 56.6% are paying any interest at all on credit card debt, the lowest level on record.

But there could be trouble ahead! Secured borrowing (i.e. on mortgages) is at record highs as house prices have soared, limiting the amount people have to left to spend, even with ultra low interest rates. Student debt is growing, putting a brake on graduate spending.

With economic growth set to slow and inflation set to rise as the effects of the lower pound filter through into retail prices, this could initially boost borrowing further as people seek to maintain levels of consumption. But then, if unemployment starts to rise and consumer confidence starts to fall, real spending could decline, putting further downward pressure on the economy.

Confidence could then fall further and we could witness a repeat of 2008–9, when people became worried about their levels of borrowing and cut back on consumption in an attempt to claw down their debt. The economy was pushed into recession.

The Bank of England is well aware of this scenario and wants banks to ensure that their customers can afford loans before offering them.

Bank governor Mark Carney warns on household debt BBC News, Brian Milligan (30/11/16)
Credit crunch: Household debt is rising just as the economy’s future is uncertain The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/12/16)

Bank of England publication
Financial Stability Report, November 2016 Bank of England (30/11/16)

Money and lending Bank of England Interactive Database
United Kingdom Households Debt To GDP Trading Economics
Household debt OECD Data


  1. What determines the amount people borrow?
  2. What would cause people to cut back on the amount of debt they have?
  3. Distinguish between secured and unsecured borrowing and debt.
  4. Why has secured borrowing risen? Does this matter?
  5. What is meant by the term ‘re-leveraging’? What is its significance in terms of household borrowing?
  6. Find out what the affordability tests are for anyone wanting to take out a mortgage.
  7. What are the greatest risks to UK financial stability?
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US interest rates: edging upwards

On 14 December, the US Federal Reserve announced that its 10-person Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) had unanimously decided to raise the Fed’s benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to a range of between 0.5% and 0.75%. This is the first rise since this time last year, which was the first rise for nearly 10 years.

The reasons for the rise are two-fold. The first is that the US economy continues to grow quite strongly, with unemployment edging downwards and confidence edging upwards. Although the rate of inflation is currently still below the 2% target, the FOMC expects inflation to rise to the target by 2018, even with the rate rise. As the Fed’s press release states:

Inflation is expected to rise to 2% over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.

The second reason for the rate rise is the possible fiscal policy stance of the new Trump administration. If, as expected, the new president adopts an expansionary fiscal policy, with tax cuts and increased government spending on infrastructure projects, this will stimulate the economy and put upward pressure on inflation. It could also mean that the Fed will raise interest rates again more quickly. Indeed, the FOMC indicated that it expects three rate rises in 2017 rather than the two it predicted in September.

However, just how much and when the Fed will raise interest rates again is highly uncertain. Future monetary policy measures will only become more predictable when Trump’s policies and their likely effects become clearer.

US Federal Reserve raises interest rates and flags quicker pace of tightening in 2017 Independent, Ben Chu (14/12/16)
US Federal Reserve raises interest rates: what happens next? The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (15/12/16)
Holiday traditions: The Fed finally manages to lift rates in 2016 The Economist (14/12/16)
US raises key interest rate by 0.25% on strengthening economy BBC News (14/12/16)
Fed Raises Key Interest Rate, Citing Strengthening Economy The New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (14/12/16)
US dollar surges to 14-year high as Fed hints at three rate hikes in 2017 The Guardian, Martin Farrer and agencies (15/12/16)


  1. What determines the stance of US monetary policy?
  2. How does fiscal policy impact on market interest rates and monetary policy?
  3. What effect does a rise in interest rates have on exchange rates and the various parts of the balance of payments?
  4. What effect is a rise in US interest rates likely to have on other countries?
  5. What is meant by ‘forward guidance’ in the context of monetary policy? What are the benefits of providing forward guidance?
  6. What were the likely effects on the US stock market of the announcement by the FOMC?
  7. Following the FOMC announcement, two-year US Treasury bond yields rose to 1.231%, the highest since August 2009. Explain why.
  8. For what reason does the FOMC believe that the US economy is already expanding at roughly the maximum sustainable pace?
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What would Keynes say if he were alive today?

We’ve considered Keynesian economics and policy in several blogs. For example, a year ago in the post, What would Keynes say?, we looked at two articles arguing for Keynesian expansionary polices. More recently, in the blogs, End of the era of liquidity traps? and A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics, we looked at whether Donald Trump’s proposed policies are more Keynesian than his predecessor’s and at the opportunities and risks of such policies.

The article below, Larry Elliott updates the story by asking what Keynes would recommend today if he were alive. It also links to two other articles which add to the story.

Elliott asks his imaginary Keynes, for his analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 and of what has happened since. Keynes, he argues, would explain the crisis in terms of excessive borrowing, both private and public, and asset price bubbles. The bubbles then burst and people cut back on spending to claw down their debts.

Keynes, says Elliott, would approve of the initial response to the crisis: expansionary monetary policy (both lower interest rates and then quantitative easing) backed up by expansionary fiscal policy in 2009. But expansionary fiscal policies were short lived. Instead, austerity fiscal policies were adopted in an attempt to reduce public-sector deficits and, ultimately, public-sector debt. This slowed down the recovery and meant that much of the monetary expansion went into inflating the prices of assets, such as housing and shares, rather than in financing higher investment.

He also asks his imaginary Keynes what he’d recommend as the way forward today. Keynes outlines three alternatives to the current austerity policies, each involving expansionary fiscal policy:

•  Trump’s policies of tax cuts combined with some increase in infrastructure spending. The problems with this are that there would be too little of the public infrastructure spending that the US economy needs and that the stimulus would be poorly focused.
•  Government taking advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. “Governments could do this without alarming the markets, Keynes says, if they followed his teachings and borrowed solely to invest.”
•  Use money created through quantitative easing to finance public-sector investment in infrastructure and housing. “Building homes with QE makes sense; inflating house prices with QE does not.” (See the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy and Global warning).

Increased government spending on infrastructure has been recommended by international organisations, such as the OECD and the IMF (see OECD goes public and The world economic outlook – as seen by the IMF). With the rise in populism and worries about low economic growth throughout much of the developed world, perhaps Keynesian fiscal policy will become more popular with governments.

Keynesian economics: is it time for the theory to rise from the dead?, The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/12/16)


  1. What are the main factors determining a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?
  2. What are the benefits and limitations of using fiscal policy to raise global economic growth?
  3. What are the benefits and limitations of using new money created by the central bank to fund infrastructure spending?
  4. Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
  5. Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
  6. Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
  7. Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
  8. What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
  9. What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?
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A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics

The first article below, from The Economist, examines likely macroeconomic policy under Donald Trump. He has stated that he plans to cut taxes, including reducing the top rates of income tax and reducing taxes on corporate income and capital gains. At the same time he has pledged to increase infrastructure spending.

This expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to be accompanied by accommodating monetary policy. Interest rates would therefore rise to tackle the inflationary pressures from the fiscal policy. One effect of this would be to drive up the dollar and therein lies significant risks.

The first is that the value of dollar-denominated debt would rise in foreign currency terms, thereby making it difficult for countries with high levels of dollar debt to service those debts, possibly leading to default and resulting international instability. At the same time, a rising dollar may encourage capital flight from weaker countries to the US (see The Economist article, ‘Emerging markets: Reversal of fortune’).

The second risk is that a rising dollar would worsen the US balance of trade account as US exports became less competitive and imports became more so. This may encourage Donald Trump to impose tariffs on various imports – something alluded to in campaign speeches. But, as we saw in the blog, Trump and Trade, “With complex modern supply chains, many products use components and services, such as design and logistics, from many different countries. Imposing restrictions on imports may lead to damage to products which are seen as US products”.

The third risk is that the main beneficiaries of Trump’s likely fiscal measures will be the rich, who would end up paying significantly less tax. With all the concerns from poor Americans, including people who voted for Trump, about growing inequality, measures that increase this inequality are unlikely to prove popular.

That Eighties show The Economist, Free Exchange (19/11/16)
The unbearable lightness of a stronger dollar Financial Times (18/11/16)


  1. What should the Fed’s response be to an expansionary fiscal policy?
  2. Which is likely to have the larger multiplier effect: (a) tax revenue reductions from cuts in the top rates of income; (b) increased government spending on infrastructure projects? Explain your answer.
  3. Could Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal policy lead to crowding out? Explain.
  4. What would protectionist policies do to (a) the US current account and (b) dollar exchange rates?
  5. Why might trying to protect US industries from imports prove difficult?
  6. Why might Trump’s proposed fiscal policy lead to capital flight from certain developing countries? Which types of country are most likely to lose from this process?
  7. Go though each of the three risks referred to in The Economist article and identify things that the US administration could do to mitigate these risks.
  8. Why may the rise in the US currency since the election be reversed?
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No exit for credit as annual credit flows to individuals remain at £58 billion

We have frequently looked at patterns in lending by financial institutions in our blogs given that many economies, like the UK, display cycles in credit. Central banks now pay considerable attention to the possibility of such cycles destabilising economies and causing financial distress to people and businesses. There is also increased interest here in the UK in bank lending data in light of Brexit. Patterns in credit flows may indicate whether it is affecting the lending choices of financial institutions and borrowing choices of people and businesses.

Data from the Bank of England’s Money and Credit – September 2016 statistical release shows net lending (lending net of repayments) by monetary financial institutions (MFIs) to individuals in September 2016 was £4.65 billion. This compares with £8.89 billion back in March 2016 which then was the highest monthly total since August 2007. However, the March figure was something of a spike in lending and this September’s figure is actually very slightly above the monthly average over the last 12 months, excluding March, of £4.5 billion. In other words, as yet, there is no discernible change in the pattern of credit flows post-Brexit.

Leaving aside the question of the economic impact of Brexit, we still need to consider what the credit data mean for financial stability and for our financial well-being. Chart 1 shows the annual flows of lending by banks and building societies since the mid 1990s. The chart evidences the cycles in secured lending and in consumer credit (unsecured lending) with its consequent implications for economic and financial-welling being.(Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 1.)

After the financial crisis, as Chart 1 shows, net lending to individuals collapsed. More recently, net lending has been on the rise both through secured lending and in consumer credit. The latest data show that annual flows have begun to plateau. Nonetheless, the total flow of credit in the 12 months to September of £58 billion compares with £33 billion and £41 billion in the 12 months to September 2014 and 2015 respectively. Having said this, in the 12 months to September 2007 the figure was £112 billion! £58 billion is currently equivalent to around about 3 per cent of GDP.

To more readily see the effect of the credit flows on debts stocks, Chart 2 shows the annual growth rate of net lending by MFIs. In essence, this mirrors the growth rate in the stocks of debt which is an important metric of financial well-being. The chart nicely captures the pick up in the growth of lending from around the start of 2013. What is particularly noticeable is the very strong rates of growth in net unsecured lending from MFIs. The growth of unsecured lending remains above 10 per cent, comparable with rates in the mid 2000s. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 2.)

The growth in debt stocks arising from lending continues to demonstrate the need for individuals to be mindful of their financial well-being. This caution is perhaps more important given the current economics uncertainties. The role of the Financial Policy Committee in the UK is to monitor the financial well-being of economic agents in the context of ensuring the resilience of the financial system. It therefore analyses the data on credit flows and debt stocks referred to in this blog along with other relevant metrics. At this moment its stance is not to apply any additional buffer – known as the Countercyclical Capital Buffer – on a financial institution’s exposures in the UK over and above internationally agreed standards. Regardless, the fact that it explicitly monitors financial well-being and risk shows just how significant the relationship between the financial system and economic outcomes is now regarded.

Higher inflation and rising debt threaten millions in UK The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (5/11/16)
Consumer spending has saved the economy in the past – but we cannot bet on it forever Sunday Express, Geff Ho (13/11/16)
Warning as household debts rise to top £1.5 trillion BBC News, Hannah Richardson (7/11/16)
Household debt hits record high – How to get back on track if you’re in the red Mirror, Graham Hiscott (7/12/16)

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


  1. Explain the difference between secured debt and unsecured debt.
  2. What does it mean if individuals are financially distressed?
  3. How would we measure the financial well-being of individuals and households?
  4. What actions might individuals take it they are financially distressed? What might the economic consequences be?
  5. How might uncertainty, such as that following the UK vote to leave the European Union, affect spending and savings’ decisions by households?
  6. What measures can institutions, like the UK’s Financial Policy Committee, take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?
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Brazil: suffering from an old economic problem in the new world

The article below looks at the economy of Brazil. The statistics do not look good. Real output fell last year by 3.8% and this year it is expected to fall by another 3.3%. Inflation this year is expected to be 9.0% and unemployment 11.2%, with the government deficit expected to be 10.4% of GDP.

The article considers Keynesian economics in the light of the case of Brazil, which is suffering from declining potential supply, but excess demand. It compares Brazil with the case of most developed countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Here countries have suffered from a lack of demand, made worse by austerity policies, and only helped by expansionary monetary policy. But the effect of the monetary policy has generally been weak, as much of the extra money has been used to purchase assets rather than funding a growth in aggregate demand.

Different policy prescriptions are proposed in the article. For developed countries struggling to grow, the solution would seem to be expansionary fiscal policy, made easy to fund by lower interest rates. For Brazil, by contrast, the solution proposed is one of austerity. Fiscal policy should be tightened. As the article states:

Spending restraint might well prove painful for some members of Brazilian society. But hyperinflation and default are hardly a walk in the park for those struggling to get by. Generally speaking, austerity has been a misguided policy approach in recent years. But Brazil is a special case. For now, anyway.

The tight fiscal policies could be accompanied by supply-side policies aimed at reducing bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Brazil and the new old normal: There is more than one kind of economic mess to be in The Economist, Free Exchange Economics (12/10/16)


  1. Explain what is meant by ‘crowding out’.
  2. What is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’? Why are many countries in the developed world currently in a liquidity trap?
  3. Why have central banks in the developed world found it difficult to stimulate growth with policies of quantitative easing?
  4. Under what circumstances would austerity policies be valuable in the developed world?
  5. Why is crowding out of fiscal policy unlikely to occur to any great extent in Europe, but is highly likely to occur in Brazil?
  6. What has happened to potential GDP in Brazil in the past couple of years?
  7. What is meant by the ‘terms of trade’? Why have Brazil’s terms of trade deteriorated?
  8. What sort of policies could the Brazilian government pursue to raise growth rates? Are these demand-side or supply-side policies?
  9. Should Brazil pursue austerity policies and, if so, what form should they take?
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Fears for UK growth as consumer confidence slumps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission


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

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


  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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