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Articles for the ‘Economics for Business 6e: Ch 29’ Category

A full employment target

Unemployment and employment are concepts that are often talked about in the media. Indeed, the 7% unemployment target referred to by the Governor of the Bank of England has been a constant feature of recent headlines. However, rather than targeting an unemployment rate of 7%, George Osborne has now called for ‘full employment’ and believes that tax and welfare changes are key to meeting this objective.

Reducing the unemployment rate is a key macroeconomic objective and the costs of unemployment are well-documented. There are obviously big costs to the individual and his/her family, including lower income, dependency, stress and potential health effects. There are also costs to the government: lower income tax revenues, potentially lower revenues from VAT through reduced consumer expenditure and the possibility of higher benefit payments. There are other more ‘economic’ costs, namely an inefficient use of resources. Unemployment represents a cost to the economy, as we are operating below full capacity and we therefore see a waste of resources. It is for this reason that ‘full employment’ is being targeted.

Traditional economic theory suggests that there is a trade-off between unemployment and inflation, illustrated by the well-known Phillips curve. In the past, governments have been willing to sacrifice unemployment for the purpose of reducing inflation. There have also been attempts to boost the economy and create jobs through increased borrowing. However, George Osborne has said:

Unemployment is never a price worth paying, but artificial jobs paid for with borrowed money doesn’t work either.

A figure representing full employment hasn’t been mentioned, so it remains unclear what level of unemployment would be acceptable, as despite the name ‘full employment’, this doesn’t mean that everyone has a job. There are several definitions of full employment, in both an economic and political context. In the period of reconstruction after the Second World War, William Beveridge, architect of the welfare state, defined full employment as where 3% of people would be unemployed.

In more recent times, other definitions have been given. In the era of monetarism in the 1970s, the term ‘natural rate of unemployment’ was used to define the unemployment rate to which economies tend in the long run – after inflationary expectations have adjusted. Keynesians use the term the ‘non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU)’, where unemployment is confined to equilibrium unemployment and where there is no excess or deficiency of aggregate demand. Both the natural rate and the NAIRU relate to the rate of unemployment at which the long-run Phillips curve is vertical.

In its Economic and Fiscal Outlook of March 2013, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated the UK’s NAIRU to be 5.4%. George Osborne has not specified a particular rate. Rather, his speech refers to creating the ‘highest employment rate of any of the world’s leading economies’. He said the ambition was to make the UK:

…the best place in the world to create a job; to get a job; to keep a job; to be helped to look for another job if you lose one…A modern approach to full employment means backing business. It means cutting the tax on jobs and reforming welfare.

Therefore, while it appears that there is no target figure for unemployment, it seems that a new Conservative objective will be to focus on sustainable job creation and eliminate disequilibrium unemployment. This represents a move very much into Labour territory. Meeting the objective will be no easy task, given the past few years and such high levels of youth unemployment, as Labour were quick to point out, but the unemployment figures are certainly moving in the right direction. The following articles consider the objective of full employment.

Britain’s Osborne changes tone on economy with “full employment” target Reuters, William James (31/3/14)
George Osborne commits to ‘fight for full employment’ BBC News (including video) (1/4/14)
What does full employment mean? The Guardian (1/4/14)
What is full employment? The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (31/3/14)
’Jobs matter’, says George Osborne as he aims for full employment Independent, Andrew Grice (31/3/14)
Liam Bynre: Labour would aim for ‘full employment’ BBC News (17/5/13)
Osborne pledges full employment for UK Sky News (31/3/14)
Osborne commits to full employment as election looms Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (31/3/14)
Whatever happened to full employment? BBC News, Tom de Castella and Caroline McClatchey (13/10/11)

Questions

  1. What is meant by full employment?
  2. Is it a good idea to target zero unemployment?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate the difference between disequilibrium and equilibrium unemployment?
  4. How can full employment be achieved?
  5. What are the costs of unemployment?
  6. Use a diagram to illustrate the natural rate of unemployment and explain what it means in terms of the relationship between unemployment and inflation.
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A mini-stimulus for China

The growth of China over the past decade has been quite phenomenal, with figures recorded in double-digits. However, in the aftermath of the recession, growth has declined to around 7% – much higher than Western economies are used to, but significantly below the ‘norm’ for China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth target for this year is 7.5%, but there appear to be some concerns about China’s ability to reach this figure and this has been emphasised by a recent Chinese policy.

A mini-stimulus package has been put in place, with the objective of meeting the 7.5% growth target. Government expenditure is a key component of aggregate demand and when other components of AD are lower than expected, boosting ‘G’ can be a solution. However, it’s not something that the Chinese government has had to do in recent years and the fact that this stimulus package has been put in place has brought doubts over China’s economic performance to the forefront , but has confirmed its commitment to growth. Mizuho economist, Shen Jianguang, said:

It’s very obvious that the leaders feel the need to stabilise growth…Overall, the 7.5 per cent growth target means that the government still cares a lot about economic growth.

Data suggest that growth in China is relatively weak and there are concerns that the growth target will be missed, hence the stimulus package. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, there was a large stimulus package in place in China. This latest investment by the government is in no way comparable to the size of the 2008 package, but instead will be on a smaller and more specific scale. Mark Williams of Capital Economics said:

It’s a bit of a rerun of what we saw last year – something less than a stimulus package and more of piecemeal measures to ensure they reach their growth target.

It is the construction of public housing and railways that will be the main areas of investment this time round. A sum of $120–180bn per year will be available for railway construction and $161bn for social housing, and tax breaks are being extended for small businesses.

The 2008 stimulus package saw debt increase to some 200% of GDP, which did cause growing concerns about the reliance on debt. However, this latest package will be financed through the issue of bonds, which is much more similar to how market economies finance spending.

The fact that the government has had to intervene with such a stimulus package is, however, causing growing concerns about the level of debt and the future of this fast growing economy, though the new method of financing is certainly seen as progress.

It should be noted that a decline in growth for China is not only concerning for China itself, but is also likely to have adverse consequences other countries. In the increasingly interdependent world that we live in, Western countries rely on foreign consumers purchasing their exports, and in recent years it has been Chinese consumers that have been a key component of demand. However, a decline in growth may also create some benefits – resources may not be used up as quickly and prices of raw materials and oil in particular may remain lower.

It is certainly too early for alarm bells, but the future of China’s growth is less certain than it was a decade ago. The following articles consider this issue.

China’s new mini-stimulus offers signs of worry and progress BBC News, Linda Yueh (3/4/14)
China puts railways and houses at hear of new stimulus measures The Guardian (3/4/14)
China unveils mini stimulus to to boost slowing economy The Telegraph (3/4/14)
China stimulus puts new focus on growth target Wall Street Journal, Bob Davis and Michael Arnold (3/4/14)
China embarks on ‘mini’ stimulus programme to kick-start economy Independent, Russell Lynch (3/4/14)
China takes first step to steady economic growth Reuters (2/4/14)
China unveils fresh stimulus The Autstralian (3/4/14)
China’s reformers can triumph again, if they follow the right route The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (2/4/14)

Questions

  1. How has Chinese growth reached double-digits? Which factors are responsible for such high growth?
  2. The BBC News article suggests that the stimulus package is cause for concerns but also shows progress. How can it do both?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate how a stimulus package can boost economic growth.
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of high rates of growth for (a) China and (b) Western economies?
  5. Why does the method of financing growth matter?
  6. Railway and housing construction have been targeted to receive additional finance. Why do you think these sectors have been targeted?
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Japan’s recovery

It is rising inflation that typically causes problems for countries, whether it is demand-pull or cost-push. However, one country that has not been subject to problems of rising prices is Japan. Instead, this economy has been suffering from the gloom of deflation for many years and many argue that this is worse than high inflation.

Falling prices are popular among consumers. If you see a product whose price has fallen from one day to the next, you can use your income to buy more goods. What’s the problem with this? The Japanese economy has experienced largely stagnant growth for two decades and a key cause has been falling prices. When the prices of goods begin to fall over and over again, people start to form expectations about the future direction of prices. If I expect the price of a good to fall next week, then why would I buy now, if I can buy the same good next week at a lower price? But, when next week arrives and the price has fallen as expected, why would I purchase the product, if I think that the price fall is set to continue? The problem of deflation is that with continuously falling prices, consumers stop spending. Aggregate demand therefore declines and economic growth all but disappears. This is the problem that the Japanese economy has been faced with for more than 20 years.

However, the latest data from Japan shows core consumer prices growing faster than expected in December 2013, compared to the previous year. This figure was above market forecasts and was the fastest rate of growth in the past 5 years. These data, together with those on unemployment have given the economy a much needed boost.

Recent government policy has been focused on boosts in government spending, with an aim of reducing the value of the currency (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Such policies will directly target aggregate demand and this in turn should help to generate an increase in national output and push up prices. If the price trend does begin to reverse, consumers will start to spend and again aggregate demand will be stimulated.

The future of the economy remains uncertain, though the same can be said of many Western economies. However, the signs are good for Japan and if the recovery of other economies continues and gathers pace, Japan’s export market will be a big contributor to recovery. The following articles consider the Japanese economy.

Japan inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years BBC News (31/1/14)
Benchmark Japan inflation rate hits 1.3% Financial Times, Jonathan Soble (31/1/14)
Japan’s inflation accelerates as Abe seeks wage gains Bloomberg, Chikako Mogi, Masahiro Hidaka and James Mayger (31/1/14)
Japan inflation quickens to over 5-year high, output rebounds Reuters, Leika Kihara and Stanley White (31/1/14)
Japaense inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years at 1.3% in December 2013 Independent, Russel Lynch (31/1/14)
Why Abenomics holds lessons for the West BBC News, Linda Yueh (18/12/13)

Questions

  1. Why is deflation a problem?
  2. Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
  3. How will a lower currency help Japan?
  4. What is the likely effect of a sales tax being imposed?
  5. Does the fact that unemployment has declined support the fact that consumer prices are beginning to rise?
  6. What government policies would you recommend to a government faced with stagnant growth and falling prices?
  7. How important are expectations in creating the problem of deflation?
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Inflation back down to 2%

A recession is typically characterised by high unemployment, low or negative growth and low inflation, due to a lack of aggregate demand. However, since 2009, inflation levels in the UK have only added to the pressures facing the government and the Bank of England. Not only had there been a problem of lack of demand, but the inflation target was no longer being met.

Inflation had increased to above 5% – a figure we had not been accustomed to for many years. With interest rates at record lows with the aim of boosting aggregate demand, demand-pull inflation only added to cost-push pressures. However, data released by the ONS shows that inflation, as measured by the CPI, has now fallen back to its 2% target. Having been at 2.1% in November 2013, the figure for December 2013 fell by 0.1 percentage points.

The data for December include some of the energy price rises from the big six, but do not include the full extent of price decreases and discounting initiated by retailers in the lead up to Christmas. The key factors that have helped to keep prices down include some of the discounting throughout December and falling food prices, in particular bananas, grapes and meat.

With inflation back on target, pressures have been removed from the Bank of England to push up interest rates. Mark Carney has said that interest rates will remain at 0.5% until unemployment falls to 7%. With unemployment fast approaching this target, there has been speculation that interest rates would rise, but with inflation falling back on target, these pressures have been reduced. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Referring to this, Jeremy Cook, the chief economist at World First said:

The lack of inflation will help stay their hand especially if the pace of job creation seen in the second half of last year also shows.

These thoughts were echoed by Rob Wood, the chief UK economist at Berenberg Bank:

Inflation is the BoE’s ‘get out of jail free’ card for this year … The lack of inflation pressure gives them room to delay a first hike until next year.

Many economists now believe that the CPI rate of inflation is likely to remain at or below the target, in particular if productivity growth improves. This belief is further enhanced by the fact that tax rates are stable, the pound is relatively strong and the previous upward pressure on commodity prices from China is now declining. Some economists believe that CPI inflation could fall to 1.5% this year and the Treasury has said that it is ‘another sign that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working’. The following articles consider this latest macroeconomic data.

UK inflation falls to Bank of England’s 2pc target in December The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (14/1/14)
UK inflation falls to 2% target rate in December BBC News (14/1/14)
Carney’s lucky streak continues as UK inflation slows to 2% Financial Times, Claire Jones (14/1/14)
UK inflation fall gives Bank of England a lift Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley(14/1/14)
Inflation falls to Bank of England target Reuters, William Schomberg and Ana Nicolaci da Costa (14/1/14)
Inflation hits Bank of England’s target of 2% in December Independent, John Paul Ford Rojas (14/1/14)

Questions

  1. What is the relationship between interest rates and aggregate demand?
  2. Which factors have led to the reduction in the rate of inflation?
  3. Why have the latest data on inflation rates reduced the pressure on the Bank of England to increase interest rates?
  4. Why do stable tax rates, a strong pound and reduced pressure from China on commodity prices suggest that the CPI measures of inflation is likely to remain at similarly low levels?
  5. Why has the RPI increased while the CPI has fallen?
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Taking an annual gaze into the crystal ball

As the old year gives way to the new, papers have been full of economic forecasts for the coming year. This year is no exception. The authors of the articles below give their predictions of what is to come for the global economy and, for the most part, their forecasts are relatively optimistic – but not entirely so. Despite a sunny outlook, there are various dark clouds on the horizon.

Most forecasters predict a higher rate of global economic growth in 2014 than in 2013 – and higher still in 2015. The IMF, in its October forecasts, predicted global growth of 3.6% in 2014 (up from 2.9% in 2013) and 4.0% in 2015.

Some countries will do much better than others, however. The USA, the UK, Germany and certain developing countries are forecast to grow more strongly. The eurozone as a whole, however, is likely to see little in the way of growth, as countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy continue with austerity policies in an attempt to reduce their debt. Chinese growth has slowed, as the government seeks to rebalance the economy away from exports and investment in manufacturing towards consumption, and services in particular. It is still forecast to be 7.3% in 2014, however – well above the global average. Japanese growth has picked up in response to the three arrows of fiscal, monetary and supply-side policy. But this could well fade somewhat as the stimulus slows. The table shows IMF growth forecasts for selected countries and groups of countries to 2018.

Much will depend on what happens to monetary policy around the world. How quickly will monetary stimulus taper in the USA and in Japan? Will the ECB introduce more aggressively expansionary monetary policy? When will the Bank of England start raising interest rates?

Growth within countries is generally favouring those on higher incomes, with the gap between rich and poor set to continue widening over the coming years. The pay of top earners has continued to rise considerably faster than prices, while increasingly flexible labour markets and squeezed welfare budgets have seen a fall in living standards of many on low incomes. According to a Which? survey (reported in the Independent article below), in the UK:

Only three in ten expect their family’s situation to improve in the new year, while 60% said they are already dreading the arrival of their winter energy bill. The Which? survey also found that 13 million people could afford to pay for Christmas only by borrowing, with more than four in ten using credit cards, loans or overdrafts to fund their festive spending. A third of people (34%) also dipped into their savings, taking an average of £450 from their accounts.

If recovery is based on borrowing, with real incomes falling, or rising only very slowly, household debt levels are likely to increase. This has been stoked in the UK by the ‘Help to Buy‘ scheme, which has encouraged people to take on more debt and has fuelled the current house price boom. This could prove damaging in the long term, as any decline in confidence could lead to a fall in consumer expenditure once more as people seek to reduce their debts.

And what of the global banking system? Is it now sufficiently robust to weather a new crisis. Is borrowing growing too rapidly? Is bank lending becoming more reckless again? Are banks still too big to fail? Is China’s banking system sufficiently robust? These are questions considered in the articles below and, in particular, in the New York Times article by Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Articles
Global economy: hopes and fears for 2014The Observer, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (29/12/13)
Looking ahead to 2014 BBC News, Linda Yueh (20/12/13)
Low hopes for a happy new financial year in 2014 Independent, Paul Gallagher (29/12/13)
Brisk UK economic growth seen in 2014 fuelled by spending – Reuters poll Reuters, Andy Bruce (12/12/13)
GLobal Economy: 2014 promises faster growth, but no leap forward Reuters, Andy Bruce (29/12/13)
My 2014 Economic Briefing Huffington Post, Tony Dolphin (27/12/13)
Three UK Economy Stories that will Dominate in 2014 International Business Times, Shane Croucher (27/12/13)
Who You Calling a BRIC? Bloomberg, Jim O’Neill (12/11/13)
Hope and Hurdles in 2014 Project Syndicate, Pingfan Hong (27/12/13)
On top of the world again The Economist (18/11/13)
Digging deeper The Economist (31/10/13)
BCC Economic Forecast: growth is gathering momentum, but recovery is not secure British Chambers of Commerce (12/13)
Eight predictions for 2014 Market Watch, David Marsh (30/12/13)
Stumbling Toward the Next Crash New York Times, Gordon Brown (18/12/13)
Central banks must show leadership to rejuvenate global economy The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/1/14)
Global economy set to grow faster in 2014, with less risk of sudden shocks The Guardian, Nouriel Roubini (31/12/13)
A dismal new year for the global economy The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (8/1/14)

Forecasts and reports
World Economic Outlook (WEO) IMF (October 2013)
Economic Outlook OECD (November 2013)
Output, prices and jobs The Economist
Bank of England Inflation Report: Overview Bank of England (November 2013)

Questions

  1. What reasons are there to be cheerful about the global economic prospects for 2014 and 2015?
  2. Who will gain the most from economic growth in the UK and why?
  3. Why is the eurozone likely to grow so slowly, if at all?
  4. Are we stumbling towards another banking crisis, and if so, which can be done about it?
  5. Why has unemployment fallen in the UK despite falling living standards for most people?
  6. What is meant by ‘hysteresis’ in the context of unemployment? Is there a problem of hysteresis at the current time and, if so, what can be done about it?
  7. Explain whether the MINT economies are likely to be a major source of global economic growth in the coming year?
  8. Why is it so difficult to forecast the rate of economic growth over the next 12 months, let alone over a longer time period?
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Abenomics – one year on

It is one year since the election of Shinzo Abe in Japan. He immediately embarked on a radical economic policy to stimulate the Japanese economy, which had suffered from years of stagnation. There have been three parts (or three arrows) to his policy: fiscal policy and monetary policy to stimulate aggregate demand and supply-side policy to increase productivity.

As the previous post explains:

“The first arrow is monetary policy. The Bank of Japan has engaged in extensive quantitative easing through bond purchases in order to drive down the exchange rate (see A J-curve for Japan?), stimulate expenditure and increase the rate of inflation. A target inflation rate of 2% has been set by the Bank of Japan. Part of the problem for the Japanese economy over the years has been stagnant or falling prices. Japanese consumers have got used to waiting to spend in the hope of being able to buy at lower prices. Similarly, Japanese businesses have often delayed stock purchase. By committing to bond purchases of whatever amount is necessary to achieve the 2% inflation target, the central bank hopes to break this cycle and encourage people to buy now rather than later.

The second arrow is fiscal policy. Despite having the highest debt to GDP ratio in the developed world, Japan is embarking on a large-scale programme of infrastructure investment and other public works. The package is worth over $100bn. The expansionary fiscal policy is accompanied by a longer-term plan for fiscal consolidation as economic growth picks up. In the short term, Japan should have no difficulty in financing the higher deficit, given that most of the borrowing is internal and denominated in yen.

The third arrow is supply-side policy. On 5 June, Shinzo Abe unveiled a series of goals his government would like to achieve in order to boost capacity and productivity. These include increasing private-sector investment (both domestic and inward), infrastructure expenditure (both private and public), increasing farmland, encouraging more women to work by improving day-care facilities for children, and deregulation of both goods, capital and labour markets. The prime minister, however, did not give details of the measures that would be introduced to achieve these objectives. More details will be announced in mid-June.”

In the webcast and article below, Linda Yueh, the BBC’s Chief Business Correspondent, considers how effective the policies are proving and the challenges that remain.

Webcast
Has Abenomics fixed Japan’s economic fortunes? BBC News, Linda Yueh (16/12/13)

Articles
Why Abenomics holds lessons for the West BBC News, Linda Yueh (13/12/13)
Japanese business confidence hits six-year high, Tankan survey shows The Guardian (16/12/13)

Data
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (Oct 2013)
Bank of Japan Statistics Bank of Japan
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD
Country statistical profile: Japan 2013 OECD (15/11/13)

Questions

  1. Demonstrate on (a) an aggregate demand and supply diagram and (b) a Keynesian 45° line diagram the effects of the three arrows (assuming they are successful) in meeting their objectives.
  2. Why has Japan found it so hard to achieve economic growth over the past 20 years?
  3. How has the Japanese economy performed over the past 12 months?
  4. What lessons can be learnt by the UK and eurozone countries from Japan’s three arrows?
  5. Why is the second arrow problematic, given the size of Japan’s general government debt? Does the proportion of Japanese debt owed overseas affect the argument?
  6. In what ways do the three arrows (a) support each other; (b) conflict with each other?
  7. Why is the structure of the labour market in Japan acting as a break on economic growth? What policies are being, or could be, pursued to tackle these structural problems?
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1.43 trillion reasons for economists to better understand households

As of 31 October 2013, British households had a stock of debt close to £1.43 trillion. Economists are increasingly recognising that the financial well-being of economic agents is an important macroeconomic issue. The financial position of households, businesses and governments can be expected to affect behaviour and, hence, economic activity.

We can calculate the net financial wealth of households as the difference between their stock of financial assets (savings) and their financial liabilities (debt). The latest figures from the Bank of England’s Money and Credit show that as of Halloween 2013, British households had amassed a stock of debt of £1.4296 trillion. It is certainly a large figure since it not far short of the expected GDP figure for 2013 of around £1.6 trillion.

The chart above helps to show that of the aggregate household debt, £1.271 trillion is secured debt (debt secured against property). The remaining stock of £158.589 billion is unsecured debt (e.g. overdrafts, outstanding credit card debt and personal loans). In short, 89 per cent of the stock of outstanding household debt is mortgage debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

In January 1994 the stock of secured debt stood at £358.75 billion and the stock of unsecured debt at £53.773 billion. 87 per cent of debt then was secured debt and, hence, little different to today. The total stock of debt has grown by 247 per cent between January 1994 and October 2013. Unsecured debt has grown by 199 per cent while secured debt has grown by 254 per cent.

But, consider now the path of debt between the end of October 2008 and October 2013. During this period, the monthly series of the stock of unsecured debt has fallen on 52 occasions and risen on only 9 occasions. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has fallen on only 10 occasions and often by very small amounts. Consequently, the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by 22.8 per cent between the end of October 2008 and October 2013. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has risen by 3.9 per cent. The total stock of debt has risen by 0.1 per cent over this period and, therefore, it is essentially unchanged.

The amount of debt accumulated by households is example of the increasing importance of the financial system in our everyday lives. The term financialisation helps to capture this. Financialisation means that economists need to think much more about how financial institutions and the financial well-being of people, businesses and governments affect economic activity. There is little doubt that the financial position or financial health of economic agents, such as households, affects their behaviour. We would expect in the case of households for their financial well-being to exert an influence on their propensities to spending or save. But, just how is an area in need of much, much more research.

Articles
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)

Data
Money and Credit – October 2013 Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. Outline the ways in which the financial system could impact on the spending behaviour of households.
  2. Why might the current level of income not always be the main determinant of a household’s spending?
  3. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
  4. Explain what you understand by net lending to individuals. How does net lending to individuals affect stocks of debt?
  5. Outline the main patterns seen in the stock of household debt over the past decade and discuss what you consider to be the principal reasons for these patterns.
  6. What factors might explain the rather different pattern seen in the growth of debt since October 2008 compared with that in earlier part of the 2000s?
  7. What do you understand by the term financialisation? Of what importance is this phenomenon to economic behaviour?
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Deflation danger in the eurozone

‘Deflation could be replacing debt as the main problem – and there’s nothing to suggest the ECB is up to the job.’ So begins the linked article below by Barry Eichengreen, Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

The good news in this is that worries about debt in eurozone countries are gradually receding. Indeed, this week Ireland officially ended its reliance on a bailout (of €67.5 billion) from the EU and IMF and regained financial sovereignty (see also).

The bad news is that this does not mark the end of austerity. Indeed, many eurozone countries could get stuck in a deflationary trap, with austerity policies continuing to depress aggregate demand. Eurozone inflation is less than 1% and falling. Broad money supply growth is now below that of the US dollar, the yen and sterling (see chart: click here for a PowerPoint).

The ECB has been far more cautious than central banks in other countries in acting to prevent recession and deflation. Unlike the USA, Japan and the UK, which have all engaged in extensive quantitative easing, the ECB had been reluctant to do so for fear of upsetting German opinion and taking the pressure off southern European countries to reform.

But as Eichengreen points out, the dangers of inaction could be much greater. What is more, quantitative easing is not the only option. The ECB could copy the UK approach of ‘funding for lending’ – not for housing, but for business.

Europe’s economic crisis could be mutating again The Guardian, Barry Eichengreen (10/12/13)

Questions

  1. What problems are created by falling prices?
  2. What effect would deflation have on debt and the difficulties in repaying that debt?
  3. What measures have already been adopted by the ECB to stimulate the eurozone economy? (Search previous articles on this site.)
  4. Why have such measures proved inadequate?
  5. What alternative policies are open to the ECB?
  6. What are the arguments for the ECB being given a higher inflation target (such as 3 or 4%)?
  7. What are the arguments for and against relaxing fiscal austerity in the eurozone at the current time?
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Earning and spending in the UK

The ONS has just published two of its major annual publications on income and expenditure in the UK. The first is the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) and looks at earnings from 1998 to 2013. The second is Family Spending and looks at the level and pattern of household spending each year from 2001 to 2012.

Figures from the two publications show that average real incomes have fallen each year since 2008. This is illustrated in the first chart (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). They also show that household expenditure in real terms is falling and is at the lowest level since 2006.

Overall picture
In 2012, households’ average weekly disposable income was £597. In 2012 prices, this was down from £621 in 2010 (after the recession) and £659 in 2008 (before the recession).

Household expenditure is at its lowest level in real terms for over a decade. In 2012 households spent on average £489.00 per week. In 2012 prices, this compares with £521.90 in 2001/2 and £533.80 in 2006 (the peak year).

Picture for particular income groups and products
Although average real incomes have fallen, not everyone has been affected the same. For example, not all occupations have seen a fall in incomes (see the table at the end of the BBC article, Earnings rise slower than inflation for fifth year running). Also, as income distribution has become less equal, so those in lower income groups have seen their real incomes fall the fastest. This is partly the result of nominal wages rising less fast for low-paid workers and partly the result of price increases for various essentials, such as food and power being greater than the rate of inflation, and these products constituting a higher proportion of expenditure for poor people than rich people (see Squeezed Britain 2013).

Likewise expenditure hasn’t fallen on all categories of product. Since 2006, real expenditure on clothing and footwear and on housing, fuel and power has risen. The second chart illustrates expenditure on some of the different categories and how the balance has changed (click here for a PowerPoint). This partly reflects the changes in prices of products, with some items, such as electricity, gas and rent having risen faster than the average, and with the demand for such items being relatively price inelastic.

The changing pattern is also partly the result of different income elasticities of demand for different items. Thus, with falling real incomes, the proportion of income spent on products with a low income elasticity of demand is likely to rise.

Expenditure also varies by income group. People on higher incomes tend to spend a greater proportion of their income on things such as leisure activities (e.g. eating out and holidays), motoring, and clothing and footwear. Poorer people tend to spend proportionately more on food and drink, and on electricity, gas and rent (even net of housing benefit). These differences are illustrated in the third chart which looks at certain categories of expenditure of three different disposable income groups: the poorest 10% (decile), the richest 10% and the 6th decile (i.e. the 6th group up from the bottom – the group with average or just above average income) (click here for a PowerPoint for the chart). Detailed figures can be found here, which is Table 3.2 from Family Spending.

Just as the time-series data looking at changing income and expenditure over time can illustrate the different income elasticities of demand for different products, so can the cross-sectional data in Tables 3.1 and 3.2 of Family Spending.

Articles
Earnings rise slower than inflation for fifth year running BBC News (12/12/13)
Energy and rent are now the biggest family bills The Telegraph, Steve Hawkes (11/12/13)
Families spend £489 each week – on what? The Guardian, Mona Chalabi (11/12/13)
Cost of energy hits family budgets, says ONS BBC News (11/12/13)
Family spending interactive: how has it changed? The Guardian Datastore, Mona Chalabi (11/12/13)

Data
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results ONS (12/12/13)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results: Statistical Bulletin ONS (12/12/13)
Family Spending, 2013 Edition ONS (11/12/13)
Family spending in 2012: Infographic ONS (11/12/13)
Video Summary: Are you an average spender? ONS (11/12/13)
Household expenditure based on COICOP classification, 2001-02 to 2012 at 2012 prices: Table 4.1 of Family Spending ONS (11/12/13)
Detailed household expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure by disposable income decile group, 2012: Table 3.2 of Family Spending ONS (11/12/13)

Questions

  1. What are the determinants of the price elasticity of demand for a product?
  2. What are the limitations of using time-series data of prices and expenditure to estimate the price elasticity of demand for particular products?
  3. What are the determinants of the income elasticity of demand for a product?
  4. What are the limitations of using time-series data of incomes and expenditure to estimate the income elasticity of demand for particular products?
  5. What are the limitations of using cross-sectional data of expenditure of different income groups to estimate the income elasticity of demand for particular products?
  6. How do your answers to the above questions demonstrate the significance of the ceteris paribus (other things being equal) assumption?
  7. If real earnings are falling, why are people able to spend more in real terms?
  8. What are the macroeconomic implications of increased consumer spending at a time of falling real incomes?
  9. How could increased consumer spending help to reverse the fall in real incomes (a) in the short run (b) over a period of a few years? Distinguish between the effects on aggregate demand and aggregate supply.
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The burden of debt

Household debt in the UK has reached a record level. Individuals now owe £1430 billion. This compares with the UK’s general government debt of £1443 billion – also at a record level. These figures are illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

But these figures are nominal. If you look at the real figures (i.e. corrected for inflation), household debt has been falling. In today’s prices, household debt peaked at £1668 billion in March 2008. Also, if you look at household debt as a proportion of GDP, it fell from a peak of 100.96% in May 2009 to 87.43% in July 2013 (see chart). However, since then it has begun rising again, standing at 87.65% in October 2013.

So has household debt become less of a problem? In aggregate terms, the answer is probably yes. However, it is too early to know whether a continuing recovery in the economy will be fuelled by real debt rising again and whether the recovery will encourage people to take on higher levels of debt?

For many people, however, debt has become more and more of a problem. In other words, the aggregate figures conceal what has happened in terms of the distribution of debt. According to a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) study:

Indebted households in the poorest 10 per cent of the country have average debts more than four times their annual income. Average debt repayments within this group amounted to nearly half their gross monthly income.

And the poorest families, often with very poor credit ratings, are frequently forced to turn to payday lenders, charging sky-high interest rates (see Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?).

As mainstream banks reduced access to credit following the financial crash, the market for short-term high-cost credit (payday lenders, pawnbrokers, rent-to-buy and doorstop lenders) increased dramatically and is now worth £4.8 billion a year.

Payday lenders have increased business from £900 million in 2008/09 to just over £2 billion (or around 8 million loans) in 2011/12. Around half of payday loan customers reported taking out the money because it was the only form of credit they could get. The number of people going to loan sharks is also said to have increased – the most recent estimate puts it at 310,000 people.

With rising energy and food bills hitting the poorest hardest, this section of the population could find debt levels continuing to rise, especially if interest rates rise. As Chris Pond, who chaired the CJS study, stated:

The costs to those affected, in stress and mental disorders, relationship breakdown and hardship is immense. But so too is the cost to the nation, measured in lost employment and productivity and in an increased burden on public services.

Articles
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ The Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
UK debt crisis: poorest face ‘perfect storm’ Channel 4 News (20/11/13)
One in five struggle with serious debt The Telegraph, Nicole Blackmore (27/11/13)
It doesn’t matter what we do with Wonga: personal debt is about to rocket The Telegraph, Tim Wigmore (26/11/13)
Poorest families ‘need more help over debt’ BBC News (20/11/13)

Report
More than 5,000 people a year ‘homeless’ as household debt crisis deepens, CSJ warns Centre for Social Justice Press Release (20/11/13)

Data
Monthly amounts outstanding of total (excluding the Student Loans Company) sterling net lending to individuals and housing associations (in sterling millions) seasonally adjusted Bank of England
Public Sector Finances First Release – Public Sector Consolidated Gross Debt ONS
Household debt (Economics Indicators update) House of Commons Library (29/11/13)

Questions

  1. What are the macroeconomic implications of rising levels of household debt?
  2. Why may an economy which has high levels of household debt be more subject to cyclical fluctuations in real GDP?
  3. What are the problems of having a recovery driven largely by increased consumer expenditure?
  4. Why have many people in the poorest sectors of society found their debt levels rising the fastest?
  5. Why may rising levels of debt of the most vulnerable people make it harder for the Bank of England to use conventional monetary policy if recovery becomes established?
  6. What policies could be pursued to try to reduce the debts of the poorest people?
  7. Discuss the effectiveness of these various policies.
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