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

What can we read into signs of easing consumer confidence?

Economists spend a lot of time analysing consumers’ spending intentions. This is unsurprising given that UK household consumption is the equivalent to around two-thirds of Gross Domestic Product. One factor that is argued to affect spending decisions is consumer confidence. Despite a slight easing in recent months, survey data from the European Commission continue to show relatively high confidence levels among UK households. This follows a surge in consumer confidence during 2013 and into 2014.

Rising consumer confidence is identified frequently by economists as a positive demand-side shock. Therefore, rising confidence would be expected to boost an economy’s output levels as aggregate demand rises. The opposite holds for falling consumer confidence which is an example of a negative demand-side shock.

Given the impact that confidence can have on economies it is important to have measures which might be thought, however imperfectly, to capture consumer confidence. The European Commission’s confidence measure involves a monthly survey of around 2000 individuals in the UK. Across the 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 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. The balances are seasonally adjusted.

Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average of –8.8 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses. However, the current confidence balance is just above zero at +0.8. So, as well as indicating a generally positive disposition across UK households, confidence levels are well above the long-term average. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)


Chart 2 enables us to see what has been driving the European Commission’s confidence indicator for the UK by looking at its four component balances. From it we can see that the boost to confidence in 2013 and 2014 coincided with a dramatic improvement in expectations of the general economic situation in the year ahead and a rapidly falling proportion of respondents expecting unemployment to rise.

The easing in confidence since the turn of the year appears largely to be the result of deteriorating expectations over the general economy. In April the forward-looking general economic situation balance had fallen to –12.5 the lowest balance since June 2013. The deterioration in this balance slightly lags the growing belief that unemployment will rise over the next 12 months, which began to take hold last Autumn. Some commentators argue these trends might reflect the uncertainty caused by the EU referendum to be held in the UK on 23 June. (Click here download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

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 called ‘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. We can see a marked improvement in sentiment from around the middle of 2013.(Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

By the start of 2015 there was a positive balance of individuals feeling that now was the right time to make major purchases. While this balance remained positive in April 2016 at +5.9 this was down from +11.7 back in January. Meanwhile, the forward-looking major purchase balance has fallen slightly in each of the last three months. But, it is still on a par with levels at the end of 2015. Hence, it is perhaps a little too early to talk of any significant easing of forward-looking sentiment around more major purchases having yet become established.

Taking the two major purchase balances together the tentative evidence points to a relatively mild easing in sentiment. This is consistent with the overall consumer confidence indicator.

It would seem that while consumer confidence has eased a touch from the highs of the past couple of years, confidence levels remain strong. Nonetheless, policymakers will be keeping a very keen eye on any signs that this easing in confidence is becoming entrenched with its implications for weaker consumption growth.

Articles
Brexit and euro zone worries weigh on UK consumers Reuters, (31/3/16)
Brexit’s Mixed Messages Depress Consumer Confidence, GfK Says Bloomberg, Fergal O’Brien (29/4/16)
UK consumer confidence stumbles Herald Sun, Dan Cancian (25/4/16)
Consumer ‘depression’ mounts over uncertain economy The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (29/4/16)
Consumer confidence at zero as Brexit fears ‘hit home’ The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (31/3/16)
Consumer confidence in UK at lowest level in 15 months, survey suggests Guardian, Katie Allen (29/4/16)

Data
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission

Questions

  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. In recent times expectations about the path of the economy have been less optimistic. Yet at the same time more people are positive about how their financial situation will develop. What might explain this apparent contradiction?
  7. What might the long-term average value of the consumer confidence indicator reveal about peoples’ natural perceptions and expectations of their well-being?
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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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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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The political business cycle – mark II

During the 1970s, commentators often referred to the ‘political business cycle’. As William Nordhaus stated in a 1989 paper. “The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power.”

In the past, politicians would use fiscal, and sometimes monetary, policies to manipulate aggregate demand so that the economy was growing strongly at the time of the next election. This often meant doing unpopular things in the first couple of years of office to allow for popular things, such as tax cuts and increased government transfers, as the next election approached. This tended to align the business cycle with the election cycle. The economy would slow in the early years of a parliament and expand rapidly towards the end.

To some extent, this has been the approach since 2010 of first the Coalition and now the Conservative governments. Cuts to government expenditure were made ‘in order to clear up the mess left by the previous government’. At the time it was hoped that, by the next election, the economy would be growing strongly again.

But in adopting a fiscal mandate, the current government could be doing the reverse of previous governments. George Osborne has set the target of a budget surplus by the final year of this parliament (2019–20) and has staked his reputation on achieving it.

The problem, as we saw in the blog, Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets is that growth in the economy has slowed and this makes it more difficult to achieve the target of a budget surplus by 2019–20. Given that achieving this target is seen to be more important for his reputation for ‘sound management’ of the public finances than that the economy should be rapidly growing, it is likely that the Chancellor will be dampening aggregate demand in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, in the latest Budget, he announced that specific measures would be taken in 2019–20 to meet the target, including a further £3.5 billion of savings from departmental spending in 2019–20. In the meantime, however, taxes would be cut (such as increasing personal allowances and cutting business rates) and government spending in certain areas would be increased. As the OBR states:

Despite a weaker outlook for the economy and tax revenues, the Chancellor has announced a net tax cut and new spending commitments. But he remains on course for a £10 billion surplus in 2019–20, by rescheduling capital investment, promising other cuts in public services spending and shifting a one-off boost to corporation tax receipts into that year.

But many commentators have doubted that this will be enough to bring a surplus. Indeed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme said that “there’s only about a 50:50 shot that he’s going to get there. If things change again, if the OBR downgrades its forecasts again, I don’t think he will be able to get away with anything like this. I think he will be forced to put some proper tax increases in or possibly find yet further proper spending cuts”.

If that is the case, he will be further dampening the economy as the next election approaches. In other words, the government may be doing the reverse of what governments did in the past. Instead of boosting the economy to increase growth at election time, the government may feel forced to make further cuts in government expenditure and/or to raise taxes to meet the fiscal target of a budget surplus.

Articles
Budget 2016: George Osborne hits back at deficit critics BBC News (17/3/16)
George Osborne will have to break his own rules to win the next election Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (17/3/16)
Osborne Accused of Accounting Tricks to Meet Budget Surplus Goal Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell and Robert Hutton (16/3/16)
George Osborne warns more cuts may be needed to hit surplus target Financial Times, Jim Pickard (17/3/16)
6 charts that explain why George Osborne is about to make austerity even worse Independent, Hazel Sheffield (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: Osborne ‘has only 50-50 chance’ of hitting surplus target The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
How will Chancellor George Osborne reach his surplus? BBC News, Howard Mustoe (16/3/16)
Osborne’s fiscal illusion exposed as a house of credit cards The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
The Budget’s bottom line: taxes will rise and rise again The Telegraph, Allister Heath (17/3/16)

Reports, analysis and documents
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: documents HM Treasury (16/3/16)
Budget 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies (17/3/16)

Questions

  1. Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
  2. Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
  3. For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
  4. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
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A Brazilian legacy?

It doesn’t seem long ago that we were looking at the prospects of Brazil for hosting the Football World Cup. Now, we turn to the same economy, but this time for the Olympics. It is often the case that hosting big global sporting events can give a boost to the host nation, but is Brazil prepared for it? Did the World Cup bring the expected economic boosts? Some argue that the Olympics is just what Brazil needs, but others suggest it will only worsen the economic situation in the world’s seventh largest economy.

Brazil’s economic performance in the past year was not good. In fact, it was one of the worst performing nations of any major economy, with GDP falling by 3%. This is a very different country from the one that was awarded this biggest of sporting events. Despite these difficult times, Brazil’s government maintains that the country is ready and that the games will be ‘spectacular’.

Key to hosting a sporting event such as the Olympics is the infrastructure investment and as a key component of aggregate demand, this should be a stimulant for growth and job creation. However, with the economy still struggling, many are concerned that the infrastructure won’t be in place in time.

Other benefits from this should be the boost to growth driven by athletes and spectators coming from around the globe, buying tickets, memorabilia, accommodation, food and other items that tourists tend to buy. A multiplier effect should be seen and according to research has the potential to create significant benefits for the whole economy and not just the local regions where events take place. You can look at similar analysis in blogs written about Tokyo: 2020 Tokyo Olympics and London: The London Olympics legacy: a cost–benefit analysis and Does hosting the Olympics Games increase economic growth?

But, is this really likely to happen, especially given the somewhat lacklustre boost that the Brazil World Cup gave to the economy? The following articles consider this.

Rio 2016: Can Games bounce back from Brazil economic woes? BBC News, Bill Wilson (11/03/16)
Does hosting the Olympics actually pay off? It’s the economy, Binyamin Applebaum (5/08/14)
Rio Olympics no help to Brazil economy based on World Cup Bloomberg, Raymond Colitt (16/01/15)
The economic impact of Brazil’s 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics Saxo Group, Trading Floor, Sverrir Sverrisson (27/08/12)
Special Interview: Cost–benefit analysis of hosting the World Cup, Olympics Al Arabiya, Ricardo Guerra (3/7/14)

Questions

  1. How might you carry out a cost–benefit analysis to decide whether to host a big sporting event?
  2. Are there any externalities that might result from hosting the Olympics? How easy is it to estimate their monetary value? Should this be taken into account by a country when making a decision?
  3. Why might there be a boost to aggregate demand prior to the Olympics?
  4. Why might there be a multiplier effect when a nation hosts the Olympics or another sporting event?
  5. Might there be benefits to Brazil’s neighbours from its hosting the Olympics?
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Peak stuff

As most developed countries continue to experience low rates of economic growth, governments and central banks struggle to find means of stimulating aggregate demand. One explanation of sluggish demand is that people on higher incomes have enough of most things. They have reached ‘peak stuff’. As the Will Hutton article linked below states:

Around the developed world consumers seem to be losing their appetite for more. Even goods for which there once seemed insatiable demand seem to be losing their lustre. Last week, mighty Apple reported that in the last three months of 2015 global sales of the iPhone stagnated, while sales of iPads tumbled from 21m units in 2014 to 16m in the same three months of 2015. In the more prosaic parts of the economy – from cars to home furnishings – there are other warnings that demand is saturated.

People on lower incomes may still want more, but with income inequality growing in most countries, they don’t have the means of buying more. Indeed, a redistribution from rich to poor may be an effective means of increasing aggregate demand and stimulating economic growth.

It’s important to clarify what is meant by peak demand for such products. It is not being said that people will stop buying them – that future demand will be zero. People will continue to buy such products. In the case of durables, people will buy replacements when products such as furniture, fridges and cars wear out; or upgraded versions as new models of televisions, smartphones or, again, cars come out; or new music tracks or films as they become available for download, or clothing as new fashions appear in shops. In the case of foodstuffs, concerts, football matches and other consumables, they too will continue to be purchased. The point is, in the case of peak demand, the demand per period of time is not going to grow. And the more products there are that reach peak demand, the harder it will be for companies and economies to grow.

If peak demand has generally been reached, it is likely that the demand for material resources will also have peaked. Indeed, we could expect the demand for material resources to be declining as (a) there has also been an increase in the efficiency of production, so that a lower volume of material inputs is required to produce any given level of output and (b) there has been a general switch towards services and away from physical goods. The graph shows domestic material consumption in the UK in millions of metric tonnes. Domestic material consumption is defined as domestic extraction of resources minus exports of resources plus imports of resources. As you can see, domestic material consumption peaked in 2004.

But, although peak demand may have been reached in some markets, there are others where there is still the potential for growth. To understand this and identify where such markets may be, it is important to step back from simple notions of consumption to satisfy materialistic demand and focus on the choices people might make to increase their happiness or wellbeing or sense of self worth in society. Thus while we might have reached peak red meat, peak sugar, peak cars, peak furniture and even peak electronic gadgets, we have not reached peak demand for more satisfying experiences. The demand for education, health, social activities, environmental conservation and a range of fulfilling experiences may have considerable potential for growth.

There are business opportunities here, whether in the leisure industry, in building networks of like-minded people or in producing niche goods that satisfy the demands of people with specific interests. But without greater equality there may be many fewer business opportunities in the mass production industries producing standardised goods.

This is not a world in which goods and services are produced at scale as conventionally measured, but a honeycomb economy of niches and information networks whose new dynamics we barely understand, even if we have a better grasp of its values.

If having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’ The Guardian, Will Hutton (31/1/16)
Steve Howard, Ikea Exec, Says The World Has Hit ‘Peak Stuff’ Huffington Post, Zi-Ann Lum (20/1/16)
We’ve hit peak home furnishings, says Ikea boss The Guardian, Sean Farrell (18/1/16)
Peak stuff: the ‘growth’ party is over. So what next? The Ecologist, Bennet Francis and Rupert Read (22/1/16)
Have we reached peak ‘stuff’? The Mancunion, Tristan Parsons (22/2/16)
Ikea senses room to grow amid ‘peak stuff’ Financial Times, Aliya Ram and Richard Milne (18/1/16)
Peak Stuff ifs insights, Janet Hontoir (21/2/16)
UK retail sales soar as Brits splash their cash on ‘fun stuff’ The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/2/16)
How less stuff could make us happier – and fix stagnation The Guardian, Katie Allen (26/4/16)

Questions

  1. What are the implications of countries reaching ‘peak stuff’ for (a) the marginal utility of mass produced goods; (b) the marginal propensity to consume and the multiplier?
  2. Give some examples of goods or services where peak stuff has not been reached.
  3. If peak stuff has only been reached for certain products, does this mean that there may still be considerable potential for stimulating aggregate demand without a redistribution of income?
  4. Would it be in the interests of companies such as Asda to make a unilateral decision to pay their workers more? Explain why or why not.
  5. Why may we be a long way from reaching peak demand for housing, even without a redistribution of income?
  6. Make out a case for and against tax cuts as a way of stimulating (a) economic growth and (b) a growth in wellbeing? Do your arguments depend on which taxes are cut? Explain.
  7. The Ecologist article states that “Attaining one-planet living will probably involve in due course achieving degrowth in countries such as ours: building down our economy to a safe level.” Could such an objective be achieved through a mixed market economy? If so, how? If not, why not?
  8. Does the Telegraph article suggest that peak stuff has not yet been reached as far as most UK consumers are concerned?
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Riding the Japanese roller coaster

Sustained economic growth in Japan remains elusive. Preliminary Quarterly Estimates of GDP point to the Japanese economy having contracted by 0.4 per cent in the final quarter of 2015. This follows on from growth of 0.3 per cent in the third quarter, a contraction of 0.3 per cent in the second and growth of 1 per cent in the first quarter. Taken as a whole output in 2015 rose by 0.4 per cent compared to zero growth in 2014. The fragility of growth means that over the past 20 years the average annual rate of growth in Japan is a mere 0.8 per cent.

Chart 1 shows the quarter-to-quarter change in real GDP in Japan since the mid 1990s (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). While economies are known to be inherently volatile the Japanese growth story over the past twenty or years so is one both of exceptional volatility and of repeated bouts of recession. Since the mid 1990s Japan has experienced 6 recessions, four since 2008.

Of the four recessions since 2008, the deepest was that from 2008 Q2 to 2009 Q1 which saw the economy shrink by 9.2 per cent. This was followed by a recession from 2010 Q4 to 2011 Q2 when the economy shrunk by 3.1 per cent, then from 2012 Q2 to 2012 Q4 when the economy shrunk by 0.9 per cent and from 2014 Q2 to 2014 Q3 when output fell another 2.7 per cent. As a result of these four recessionary periods the economy’s output in 2015 Q4 was actually 0.4 per cent less than in 2008 Q1.

Chart 2 shows the annual levels of nominal (actual) and real (constant-price) GDP in trillions of Yen (¥) since 1995. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). Over the period actual GDP has fallen from ¥502 trillion to ¥499 trillion (about £3 trillion at the current exchange rate) while GDP at constant 2005 prices has risen from ¥455 trillion to ¥528 trillion.

Chart 2 reveals an interesting phenomenon: the growth in real GDP at the same time as a fall in nominal GDP. So why has the actual value of GDP fallen slightly between 1995 and 2005? The answer is quite simple: deflation.

Chart 3 shows a protracted period of economy-wide deflation from 1999 to 2013. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). Over this period the GDP deflator fell each year by an average of 1.0 per cent. 2014 and 2015 saw a pick up in economy-wide inflation. However, the quarterly profile through 2015 shows the pace of inflation falling quite markedly. As we saw in Japan’s interesting monetary stance as deflation fears grow, policymakers are again concerned about the possibility of deflation and the risks that poses for growth.

As Chart 4 helps to demonstrate, a significant factor behind the latest slowdown in Japan’s growth is household spending. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). In 2015 household spending accounted for about 57 per cent by value of GDP in Japan. In the last quarter of 2015 real household spending fell by 0.9 per cent while across 2015 as a whole real household spending fell by 1.3 per cent. This follows on from a 0.8 per cent decrease in spending by households in 2014.

The recent marked weakening of household spending is a significant concern for the short term growth prospects of the Japanese economy. The roller coaster ride continues, unfortunately it appears that the ride is again downwards.

Data
Quarterly Estimates of GDP Japanese Cabinet Office
Japan and the IMF IMF Country Reports
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD

Articles
Japan’s economy contracts in fourth quarter BBC News, (15/2/16)
Japanese economy shrinks again, raising expectations of more stimulus Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (15/2/16)
Japan’s economy shrinks again as Abenomics is blown off course Guardian, Justin McCurry (15/2/16)
Japan’s economy contracts in latest setback for Abe policies New Zealand Herald, (15/2/16)
Japan’s ‘Abenomics’ on the ropes as yen soars, markets plunge Daily Mail, (15/2/16)
Japan economy shrinks more than expected, highlights lack of policy options CNBC, Leika Kihara and Tetsushi Kajimoto (15/2/16)

Questions

  1. Why is the distinction between nominal and real important in analysing economic growth?
  2. How do we define a recession?
  3. Of what importance is aggregate demand to the volatility of economies?
  4. Why are Japanese policymakers concerned about the prospects of deflation?
  5. What policy options are available to policymakers trying to combat deflation?
  6. Why is the strength of household consumption important in affecting the path of an economy?
  7. Why has Japan experienced an increase in real GDP but a fall in nominal GDP between 1995 and 2015?
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