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

A remnant of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe

In the late 2000s, Zimbabwe experienced hyperinflation. As a post on this site in January 2009 said, two estimates of the inflation rate were made: one of 5 sextillion per cent (5 and 21 zeros); the other of 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion per cent (65 and 107 zeros). In January 2009, in a last attempt to save the Zimbabwean currency, a new series of banknotes was issued, including a Z$100 trillion note.

Prices were typically being adjusted at least twice a day and people had to carry large bags of money around even to buy a couple of simple items. The currency was virtually worthless. As the Guardian article below states:

Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe left pensions, wages and investments worthless and spread poverty as everyday items became unaffordable. It also caused severe cash shortages, because the government could not afford to print bank notes to keep pace with inflation.

The solution was to allow other currencies, mainly the US dollar and the South African rand, to be used alongside the local currency. Although the Zimbabwean currency was still legal tender, it effectively went out of use. Prices stabilised and since then inflation has been in single figures.

But many people still have stocks of the virtually worthless old currency, either in cash or in savings accounts. The Zimbabwean government has now said that it will exchange Zimbabwean dollar notes for US dollars at the rate of US$1 = Z$250tn (250,000,000,000). People have until September to do so. Up to now, they have mainly been used to sell as souvenirs to tourists! For people with Zimbabwean dollars in their bank accounts, they will get a minimum of US$5. For amounts beyond Z$175,000tn they will get an additional US dollar for each Z$35,000tn.

Historical examples of hyperinflation
As case study 15.5 in Economics 9e’s MyEconLab points out, several countries experienced hyperinflation after the First World War. In Austria and Hungary prices were several thousand times their pre-war level. In Poland they were over 2 million times higher, and in the USSR several billion times higher.

Germany in the 1920s
But even these staggering rates of inflation seem insignificant beside those of Germany. Following the chaos of the war, the German government resorted to printing money, not only to meet its domestic spending requirements in rebuilding a war-ravaged economy, but also to finance the crippling war reparations imposed on it by the allies in the Treaty of Versailles.

From mid 1921 the rate of monetary increase soared and inflation soared with it. By autumn 1923 the annual rate of inflation had reached a mind-boggling 7,000,000,000,000 per cent! As price increases accelerated, people became reluctant to accept money: before they knew it, the money would be worthless. People thus rushed to spend their money as quickly as possible. But this in turn further drove up prices. (The note shown above is in old billions, where a billion was a million million. So the note was for 50,000,000,000,000 marks.)

For many Germans the effect was devastating. People’s life savings were wiped out. Others whose wages were not quickly adjusted found their real incomes plummeting. Many were thrown out of work as businesses, especially those with money assets, went bankrupt. Poverty and destitution were widespread.

By the end of 1923 the German currency was literally worthless. In 1924, therefore, it was replaced by a new currency – one whose supply was kept tightly controlled by the government.

Serbia and Montenegro 1993–5
After the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992, the economy of the remaining part of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) collapsed. The government relied more and more on printing money to finance public expenditure. Prices soared.

The government attempted to control the inflation by imposing price controls. But these simply made production unprofitable and output fell further. The economy nosedived. Unemployment exceeded 30 per cent.

In October 1993, the government created a new currency, the new dinar, worth one million old dinars. In other words, six zeros were knocked off the currency. But this did not solve the problem. Between October 1993 and January 1994, prices rose by 5 quadrillion per cent (5 and fifteen zeros). Normal life could not function. Shops ran out of produce; savings were wiped out; barter replaced normal market activity.

At the beginning of January 1994 a ‘new new dinar’ was introduced, worth 1 billion new dinars. On 24 January this was replaced by a ‘novi dinar’ pegged 1 to 1 against the Deutsche Mark. This was worth approximately 13 million new new dinars. The novi dinar remained pegged to the Deutsche Mark and inflation was quickly eliminated.

Zimbabweans get chance to swap ‘quadrillions’ for a few US dollars The Guardian (13/6/15)
175 Quadrillion Zimbabwean Dollars Are Now Worth $5 Bloomberg, Godfrey Marawanyika and Paul Wallace (11/6/15)
Zimbabwe is paying people $5 for 175 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (12/6/15)
Zimbabwe dollars phased out BBC News Africa (12/6/15)
Zimbabwe ditches its all but worthless currency Financial Times (12/6/15)
Zeroing in Thomson Reuters, Breaking News, Edward Hadas (12/6/15)

Old articles
Could inflation fell Mugabe? BBC News (28/7/08)
ZIMBABWE: Inflation at 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent IRIN (21/1/09)
The Worst Episode of Hyperinflation in History: Yugoslavia 1993-94 Roger Sherman Society, Thayer Watkins (31/7/08)

Questions

  1. Why have several governments in the past been prepared to allow hyperinflation to develop?
  2. Itemise the types of cost imposed on people by hyperinflation.
  3. Does anyone gain from hyperinflation?
  4. What are the solutions to hyperinflation?
  5. What difficulties are there in eliminating hyperinflation? What costs are imposed on people in the process?
  6. Why might the causes of hyperinflation be described as always political?
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Eurozone: positive inflation

The eurozone has been suffering from deflation: that is, negative inflation. But, the latest data show an increase in the rate of inflation in April from 0% to 0.3%. This is still a very low rate, with a return to deflation remaining a possibility (though perhaps unlikely); but certainly an improvement.

The eurozone economy has been stagnant for some time but the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally appear to be working. Prices across the eurozone have risen, including services up by 1.3%, food and drink up by 1.2% and energy prices, albeit still falling, but at a slower rate. All of this has helped to push the annual inflation rate above 0%. For many, this increase was bigger than expected. Howard Archer, Chief European Economist at HIS Global Insight said:

“Renewed dips into deflation for the eurozone are looking increasingly unlikely with the risks diluted by a firming in oil prices from their January lows, the weakness of the euro and improved eurozone economic activity.”

Economic policy in the eurozone has focused on stimulating the economy, with interest rates remaining low and a €1.1 trillion bond-buying programme by the ECB. But, why is deflation such a concern? We know that one of the main macroeconomic objectives of a nation is low and stable inflation. If prices are low (or even falling) is it really as bad as economists and policy-makers suggest?

The problem of deflation occurs when people expect prices to continue falling and thus delay spending on durables, hoping to get the products cheaper later on. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. This decision by consumers to put off spending will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment and adding to problems of economic stagnation. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. In the eurozone, this has been a key problem, but it now appears that aggregate demand has stopped falling and is now slowly recovering, together with the economy.

It is important to note how interdependent all aspects of an economy are. The euro responded as news of better inflation data emerged, together with expectations of a Greek deal being reached. Enrique Diaz-Alvarez, chief risk officer at Ebury said:

“The move [rise in euro] got going with the big upside surprise in eurozone inflation data — especially core inflation, which bounced up from 0.6 per cent to 0.9 per cent. This is exactly what the ECB wants to see, as it is proof that QE is having the desired effect and removes the threat of deflation in the eurozone from the foreseeable future.”

One of the key factors that has kept inflation down in the eurozone (and also the UK) is falling oil prices. It is for this reason that many have been suggesting that this type of deflation is not bad deflation. With oil prices recovering, the general price level will also recover and so economies will follow suit. The following articles consider the fortunes of the eurozone.

Eurozone inflation shouldn’t shift ECB’s QE focus Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley (2/6/15)
Eurozone deflation threat recedes Financial Times, Claire Jones (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation rate rises to 0.3% in May BBC News (2/6/15)
Eurozone back to inflation as May prices beat forecast Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (2/6/15)
Boost for ECB as Eurozone prices turn positive in May Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation higher than expected due to quantitative easing International Business Times, Bauke Schram (2/6/15)
Euro lifted by Greek deal hopes and firmer inflation data Financial Times, Roger Blitz and Michael Hunter (2/6/15)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between the 0.3% and 0.9% figures quoted for inflation in the eurozone?
  2. What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
  3. Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
  4. How has the ECB’s QE policy helped to tackle the problem of deflation? Do you think that this programme needs to continue or now the economy has begun to improve, should the programme end?
  5. To what extent is the economic stagnation in the eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and USA? Explain your answer.
  6. Why has the euro risen, following news of this positive inflation data?
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Negative inflation or deflation? What’s the UK experiencing?

The CPI index fell by 0.1% in the 12 months to April 2015. This is partly the result of lower air and sea fares, as the upward ‘blip’ in these fares at Easter last year was not present in mid-April this year as Easter fell outside the period when the statistics are collected. What is more significant is that fuel, commodity and retail food prices have fallen over the past 12 months, and the exchange rate has risen, especially against the euro.

But how do we define what’s happened and how significant is it? It might seem highly significant as it’s the first time in 55 years that the CPI has fallen over a 12-month period. In fact, the effect is likely to be temporary, as fuel prices are now rising again and commodity prices generally are beginning to rise too. What is more, the pound seems to have peaked against the euro. Thus although aggregate demand remains relatively dampened, the main causes of falling prices and potential rises in the coming months are largely to be found on the cost side. This then brings us on to the definition of a falling CPI.

A falling CPI over a 12-month period can be defined as negative inflation. This is unambiguous. But is this ‘deflation’? The problem with the term ‘deflation’ is that it is ambiguous. On the one hand it can be defined simply as negative inflation. In that case, by definition, the UK has experienced deflation. But on the other, it is used to describe a situation of persistent falling prices as a result of declining aggregate demand.

If an economy suffers from deflation in this second sense, the problem can be very serious. Persistent falling prices are likely to discourage consumers from spending on durables (such as fridges, TVs, cars and furniture) and firms from buying capital equipment. After all, why buy an item now if, by waiting, you can get it cheaper later on? This mentality of waiting to spend leads to falling aggregate demand and hence falling output. It also leads to even lower prices. In other words deflation can get worse: a deflationary spiral.

If we define deflation in this second, much more serious sense, then the UK is not suffering deflation – merely temporary negative inflation. In fact, with prices now falling (slightly) and wages rising at around 2% per year, there should be an increase in aggregate demand, which will help to drive the recovery.

Videos
Should Britain Panic Over Negative Inflation? Sky News, Ed Conway (20/5/15)
UK inflation negative for first time since 1960; BoE says temporary Reuters, Andy Bruce and William Schomberg (19/5/15)
UK inflation negative for the first time since 1960 CNBC, Dhara Ranasinghe (19/5/15)

Articles
UK inflation rate turns negative BBC News (19/5/15)
Why there’s little to fear as the spectre of deflation descends on UK The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/5/15)
UK inflation turns negative The Guardian, Katie Allen (19/5/15)
Is the UK in the early stages of deflation? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (19/5/15)
Is the UK in deflation or negative inflation? Q&A The Guardian, Katie Allen and Patrick Collinson (19/5/15)
Market View: Economists unconcerned on temporary deflation FT Adviser, Peter Walker (19/5/15)

Questions

  1. Is negative inflation ever a ‘bad thing’?
  2. Explain the movement in UK inflation rates over the past five years.
  3. How do changes in exchange rates impact on (a) inflation; (b) aggregate demand? Does it depend on what caused the changes in exchange rates in the first place?
  4. Why is the current period of negative inflation likely to be short-lived?
  5. Would you describe the negative inflation as negative cost-push inflation?
  6. What factors could change that might make negative inflation more persistent and raise the spectre of deflation (in its bad sense)?
  7. If inflation remains persistently below 2%, what can the Bank of England do, given current interest rates, to bring inflation back to the 2% target?
  8. What is meant by ‘core inflation’ and what has been happening to it in recent months?
  9. What global factors are likely to have (a) an upward; (b) a downward effect on UK inflation?
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Insolvencies down – lessons learned?

Insolvencies in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest level since 2005, official records show. The Insolvency Service indicates that bankruptcy, individual voluntary arrangements and debt relief orders have fallen, with the largest and worst form of bankruptcy falling by 22.5 per cent compared to the same period in 2014. There has also been a fall in corporate insolvencies back to pre-crisis levels.

The British economy is recovering and despite an increase in consumer borrowing of £1.2 billion from February to March, which is the biggest since the onset of the credit crunch, the number of people in financial difficulty and living beyond their means has fallen. However, there are also suggestions that the number could begin to creep up in the future and we are still seeing a divide between the north and south of England in terms of the number of insolvencies.

There are many factors that could explain such a decline in insolvencies. Perhaps it is the growth in wages, in part due the recovery of the economy, which has enabled more people to forgo borrowing or enabled them to repay any loan more comfortably. Lower inflation has helped to reduce the cost of living, thereby increasing the available income to repay any loans. Interest rates have also remained low, thus cutting the cost of borrowing and the repayments due.

But, another factor may simply be that lending is now more closely regulated. Prior to the financial crisis, huge amounts of money were being lent out, often to those who had no chance of making the repayments. More stringent affordability checks by lenders may have a large part to play in reducing the number of insolvencies. President of R3, the insolvency practitioner body, Phillip Sykes said:

“It may be too early to draw conclusions but demand could be falling as a result of low interest rates, low inflation and tighter regulation. This trend is worth watching.”

Mark Sands, from Baker Tilly added to this, noting that fewer people were now in financial difficulty.

“As well as this, we are seeing lower levels of personal debt and fewer people borrowing outside of their means due to more stringent affordability checks by creditors.”

Whatever the main reason behind the data, it is certainly a positive indicator, perhaps of economic recovery, or that at least some have learned the lessons of the financial crisis. The following articles consider this topic.

Personal insolvencies fall to 10-year low Financial Times, James Pickford (1/5/15)
Personal insolvencies at lowest level since 2005 BBC News (29/4/15)
Personal insolvencies drop to lowest level in a decade The Guardian, Press Association (29/4/15)
Corporate insolvencies at lowest level since 2007 The Telegraph, Elizabeth Anderson (30/4/15)
Interview: R3 President Phillip Sykes Accountancy Age, Richard Crump (1/5/15)
North-South gap widens in personal insolvencies Independent, Ben Chu (27/4/15)
Insolvency rates show ‘stark’ north-south divide Financial Times, James Pickford (27/4/15)

Questions

  1. What is meant by insolvency?
  2. There are many factors that might explain why the number of insolvencies has fallen. Explain the economic theory behind a lower inflation rate and why this might have contributed to fewer insolvencies.
  3. How might lower interest rates affect both the number of personal and corporate insolvencies?
  4. Why has there been a growth in the north-south divide in terms of the number of insolvencies?
  5. Do you think this data does suggest that lessons have been learned from the Credit Crunch?
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The UK’s poor productivity record

Real GDP depends on two things: output per hour worked and the number of hours worked. On the surface, the UK economy is currently doing relatively well, with growth in 2014 of 2.8%. After several years of poor economic growth following the financial crisis of 2007/8, growth of 2.8% represents a return to the long-run average for the 20 years prior to the crisis.

But growth since 2010 has been entirely due to an increase in hours worked. On the one hand, this is good, as it has meant an increase in employment. In this respect, the UK is doing better than other major economies. But productivity has not grown and on this front, the UK is doing worse than other countries.

The first chart shows UK output per hour worked (click here for a PowerPoint). It is based on figures released by the ONS on 1 April 2015. Average annual growth in output per hour worked was 2.3% from 2000 to 2008. Since then, productivity growth has stalled and output per hour is now lower than at the peak in 2008.

The green line projects from 2008 what output per hour would have been if its growth had remained at 2.3%. It shows that by the end of 2014 output per hour would have been nearly 18% higher if productivity growth had been maintained.

The second chart compares UK productivity growth with other countries (click here for a PowerPoint). Up to 2008, UK productivity was rising slightly faster than in the other five countries illustrated. Since then, it has performed worse than the other five countries, especially since 2011.

Productivity growth increases potential GDP. It also increases actual GDP if the productivity increase is not offset by a fall in hours worked. A rise in hours worked without a rise in productivity, however, even though it results in an increase in actual output, does not increase potential output. If real GDP growth is to be sustained over the long term, there must be an increase in productivity and not just in hours worked.

The articles below examines this poor productivity performance and looks at reasons why it has been so bad.

Articles
UK’s sluggish productivity worsened in late 2014 – ONS Reuters (1/4/15)
UK productivity growth is weakest since second world war, says ONS The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/4/15)
UK productivity weakness worsening, says ONS Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/4/15)
Is the UK’s sluggish productivity a problem? Financial Times comment (1/4/15)
UK manufacturing hits eight-month high but productivity slump raises fears over sustainability of economic recovery This is Money, Camilla Canocchi (1/4/15)
Weak UK productivity unprecedented, ONS says BBC News (1/4/15)
Weep for falling productivity Robert Peston (1/4/15)
UK’s Falling Productivity Prevented A Massive Rise In Unemployment Forbes, Tim Worstall (2/4/15)

Data
Labour Productivity, Q4 2014 ONS (1/4/15)
AMECO database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs

Questions

  1. How can productivity be measured? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using specific measures?
  2. Draw a diagram to show the effects on equilibrium national income of (a) a productivity increase, but offset by a fall in the number of hours worked; (b) a productivity increase with hours worked remaining the same; (c) a rise in hours worked with no increase in productivity. Assume that actual output depends on aggregate demand.
  3. Is poor productivity growth good for employment? Explain.
  4. Why is productivity in the UK lower now than in 2008?
  5. What policies can be pursued to increase productivity in the UK?
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Fuelling the absence of inflation

The latest inflation figures, as detailed in February’s Consumer Price Inflation Statistical Bulletin, show that the annual rate of CPI inflation hit zero in February. This is down from 0.3 per cent in January. While inflation is now well outside the 1-3 per cent target range that the Bank of England is charged with meeting, perhaps a more pertinent question is whether the UK is teetering on the brink of deflation – and the risks that may carry.

To get a better sense of the latest inflation picture we need to delve deeper into the numbers and look at the patterns in the prices that make up the overall Consumer Price Index. Interestingly, these shows that five of the 12 principal product groups that make up the index are currently experiencing price deflation.

As explained in Consumer Price Inflation: The 2015 Basket of Goods and Services, produced by the ONS, around 180,000 prices quotations are collected each month for around 700 representative items. These goods and services fall into one of 12 broad product groups. These include, for example, food and non-alcoholic beverages and transport.

The items included in each of the 12 product groups are reviewed once a year so that the chosen items remain representative of today’s spending patterns. A monthly price index is calculated for these 12 broad groupings, known as divisions, and for sub-categories of these. For example meat is a category within food and non-alcoholic beverages. The overall CPI is a weighted average of the 12 broad groupings.

The annual rate of CPI inflation in February 2015 was zero. This means that the price of the representative basket of goods and services was unchanged from its level in February 2014. As Chart 1 shows (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart), the annual rate of CPI inflation series goes back to January 1989 and this is the first time it has fallen to zero. Its average over this period is in fact 2.7 per cent. The recent fall is quite stark with the rate of CPI inflation in June 2013 close to the top-end of the Bank of England’s target range at 2.9 per cent.

Of the 12 product groups, five constitute 10 per cent or more of the overall weight of the CPI index. These weights are dependent on the relative level of expenditure comprised by each division.

Chart 2 shows the annual rates of inflation for these five groups (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). The most heavily-weighted component is transport (14.9%), which includes the price of fuel and passenger transport. Here we observe deflation with prices 2.7 per cent lower year-on-year in February. This is the fourth consecutive month where its annual rate of price inflation has been negative.

The second most heavily-weighted component within the CPI index is recreation and culture (14.7%), which includes games, toys and audio-visual equipment. Here too we see the emergence of deflation. In February 2015 prices were 0.8 per cent lower than in February 2014. Deflation is most prevalent in the fifth most heavily-weighted component (11.0%): food and non-alcoholic drinks. The price for this division of the CPI was 3.3 per cent lower in February 2015 as compared with February 2014. In nine of the last ten months the price of food and non-alcoholic drinks, helped by aggressive price competition in the grocery sector, has been lower year-on-year.

February also saw a negative annual rate of inflation emerge for the first time in the CPI division capturing furniture and household equipment and appliances (-0.3 per cent). Further, miscellaneous services, which include personal care and personal effects (e.g. jewellery) saw an annual rate of deflation for the eight consecutive month. The annual rate of inflation for miscellaneous services stood at -0.4 per cent in February. However, February did see an upturn in price inflation for clothing and footwear with prices 1.7 per cent higher than a year earlier while the price of alcohol and tobacco was 3.8 per cent higher year-on-year.

The detailed inflation numbers do reveal the extent to which many CPI divisions are already characterised by deflation. It is interesting to note that in A Comparison of Independent Forecasts published monthly by HM Treasury, the forecast for the final quarter of 2015 is for the annual rate of CPI inflation to be running at 0.8 per cent. An important reason for this is that the effect of falling fuel prices from November 2014 will begin to drop out of the year-on-year inflation rate calculations. The removal of this effect should help to prevent the specter of deflation provided that peoples’ inflationary expectations remain anchored, i.e. exhibit stickiness. If these were to be revised down, however, this would further contribute to downward pressure on prices since input price inflation – including wage inflation – would again be expected to fall.

Articles
U.K. on Brink of Falling Prices as Inflation Rate Drops to Zero Bloomberg, Tom Beardsworth (24/3/15)
UK inflation rate falls to zero in February BBC News (24/3/15)
Britain sees no inflation in February for first time on record Reuters, David Milliken and Andy Bruce (24/3/15)
Inflation hits a record zero boosting household incomes Independent, Clare Hutchinson (24/3/15)
Inflation Hits 0% As Food Costs Fall Further Sky News (24/3/15)
Inflation falls to zero in February as Britain heads to deflation Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (24/3/15)
UK inflation hits zero for the first time on record Guardian, Angela Monaghan (24/3/15)

Data
Consumer Price Inflation, February 2015 Office for National Statistics
Consumer Price Indices, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between a decrease in the level of prices and a decrease in the rate of price inflation. Can the rate of price inflation rise even if price levels are falling? Explain your answer
  2. Explain what is meant by deflation.
  3. In what ways might deflation affect the behaviour of people? What effect could this have on the macroeconomy?
  4. Why do you think policy-makers, such as the Monetary Policy Committee, would be interested in the inflation rates within the overall CPI inflation rate?
  5. What factors do you think lie behind the fall in the transport component of the CPI?
  6. Explain why the rate of inflation would be expected to rise in the late autumn, a year on from when the transport component of the CPI began falling.
  7. Does the possibility of deflation mean that inflation rate targeting has failed?
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Deeper in debt

‘The world is sinking under a sea of debt, private as well as public, and it is increasingly hard to see how this might end, except in some form of mass default.’ So claims the article below by Jeremy Warner. But just how much has debt grown, both public and private? And is it of concern?

The doomsday scenario is that we are heading for another financial crisis as over leveraged banks and governments could not cope with a collapse in confidence. Bank and bond interest rates would soar and debts would be hard to finance. The world could head back into recession as credit became harder and more expensive to obtain. Perhaps, in such a scenario, there would be mass default, by banks and governments alike. This could result in a plunge back into recession.

The more optimistic scenario is that private-sector debt is under control and in many countries is falling (see, for example, chart 1 in the blog Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers for the case of the UK). Even though private-sector debt could rise again as the world economy grows, it would be affordable provided that interest rates remain low and banks continue to build the requisite capital buffers under the Basel III banking regulations.

As far as public-sector debt is concerned, as a percentage of GDP its growth has begun to decline in advanced countries as a whole and, although gently rising in developing and emerging economies as a whole, is relatively low compared with advanced countries (see chart). Of course, there are some countries that still face much larger debts, but in most cases they are manageable and governments have plans to curb them, or at least their growth.

But there have been several warnings from various economists and institutes, as we saw in the blog post, Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures. The question is whether countries can grow their way out of the problem, with a rapidly rising denominator in the debt/GDP ratios.

Only mass default will end the world’s addiction to debt The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (3/3/15)

Questions

  1. What would be the impact of several countries defaulting on debt?
  2. What factors determine the likelihood of sovereign defaults?
  3. What factors determine the likelihood of bank defaults?
  4. What is meant by ‘leverage’ in the context of (a) banks; (b) nations?
  5. What are the Basel III regulations? What impact will they have/are they having on bank leverage?
  6. Expand on the arguments supporting the doomsday scenario above.
  7. Expand on the arguments supporting the optimistic scenario above.
  8. What is the relationship between economic growth and debt?
  9. Explain how the explosion in global credit might merely be ‘the mirror image of rising output, asset prices and wealth’.
  10. Is domestic inflation a good answer for a country to the problems of rising debt denominated (a) in the domestic currency; (b) in foreign currencies?
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Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers

In recent times the notion that the financial sytem can be destabilising seems blindingly obvious. And, yet, for some time macroeconomic models of the economy tended to regard the financial system as benevolent. It served our interests. We were the masters; it was our servant. Now of course we accept that credit cycles can be destabilising. Policymakers, especially central banks, follow keenly the latest private-sector credit data. Here we look back at previous patterns in private-sector debt and crucially at what patterns are currently emerging.

First a bit of theory. The idea of credit cycles is not new. But the financial crisis of the late 2000s has helped to reignite analysis and interest. Economists are trying to gain a better understanding of the relationship between flows of credit and the state of the economy and, in particular, why might flows increase as the level of real GDP rises – why might they be endogenous variables in models of the determination of GDP. One possibility is the financial accelerator. This is the idea that as real GDP rises banks perceive lending to be less risky. After all, real incomes will tend to rise and collateral values (against which borrowing can be secured) are likely to be rising too.

Another possibility is growing exuberance as the economy grows. This has gained in popularity as an idea, with economists revisiting the work of Hyman Minsky (1919–96), an American economist. Here success breeds failure as the balance sheets of people and businesses deteriorate as they become increasingly burdened with debt. The balance sheets are said to be congested leading to a point when a deleveraging starts. A balance sheet recession then follows.

Now for the data. Consider first the stocks of debt acquired by households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions). The first chart shows debt stocks as a percentage of GDP. It illustrates nicely the phenomenon of financialisation. In essence, this is the increasing importance of MFIs to the economy. At the end of 2014, these two sectors had debt stocks outstanding equivalent to 90 per cent of GDP. In fact, this is down from a peak of 129 per cent in September 2009. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in debt, especially in the 1990s and for much of the 2000s, was through financial innovation. In particular, the bundling of assets, such as mortgages, to form financial instruments which could then be purchased by investors helped to provide financial institutions with further funds for lending. This is the process of securitisation. Some argue that this was part of a super-cycle which works alongside the normal credit cycle, albeit over a much lengthier period. It can be argued that these cycles coincided during the 1990s and for much of the 2000s until financial distress hit. The distress was hastened by central banks raising interest rates to dampen the rising rate of inflation, partly attributable to rising global commodity prices, including oil.

Some refer to 2008 as a Minsky moment. Overstretched balance sheets needed repairing. But, the collective act of repair actually caused financial well-being to worsen as asset prices and aggregate demand fell.

The global response to the events of the financial crisis has been for policy-makers to pay more attention to the aggregate level of credit provision. The Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC) has responsibility for monitoring and helping to ensure the soundness of the UK financial system.

Undoubtedly, the FPC will have constructed a chart similar to our second chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). This chart suggests some caution: the need for casting a ‘Minsky eye’ on lending patterns. Over 2014, the UK household sector undertook net lending (i.e. after deducting repayments) of £30 billion. While nothing like the £100 billion or so in 2007, this does mark something of a step up. Indeed it is almost exactly double the flow in 2013. In the months ahead we will continue to monitor the credit data. You can bet that the FPC will do too!

Articles
Comment: Household debt threatens return to spending Herald Scotland, Bill Jamieson (2/3/15)
Household debt rising at fastest rate for 10yrs moneyfacts.co.uk (10/2/15)
Housing starting to rally after home loan approvals rise in January London Evening Standard, Ben Chu (2/3/15)

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

Questions

  1. What is meant by the term the business cycle?
  2. What does it mean for the determinants of the business cycle to be endogenous? What about if they are exogenous?
  3. Outline the ways in which the financial system can impact on the spending behaviour of households. Repeat the exercise for businesses.
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households and businesses?
  5. What does it mean if bank lending is pro-cyclical?
  6. Why might lending be pro-cyclical?
  7. How might the differential between borrowing and saving interest rates vary over the business cycle?
  8. Explain what you understand by net lending to households or firms. How does net lending affect their stock of debt?
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Russia’s economic challenges: Good or bad for business?

Many important economic changes have occurred over the past two years and many have occurred in the past two months. Almost all economic events create winners and losers and that is no different for the Russian economy and the Russian population.

There is an interesting article plus videos on the BBC News website (see link below), which consider some of the economic events that, directly or indirectly, have had an impact on Russia: the fall in oil prices; the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine; the fall in the value of the rouble (see chart); the sanctions imposed by the West.

Clearly there are some very large links between events, but an interesting question concerns the impact they have had on the everyday Russian consumer and business. Economic growth in Russia has been adversely affected and estimates suggest that the economy will shrink further over the coming year. Oil and gas prices have declined significantly and while this is good news for many consumers across the world, it brings much sadder tidings for an economy, such as Russia, that is so dependent on oil exports.

However, is there a bright side to the sanctions or the falling currency? The BBC News article considers the winners and losers in Russia, including families struggling to feed their families following spending cuts and businesses benefiting from less competition.

Russia’s economic turmoil: nightmare or opportunity? BBC News, Olga Ivshina and Oleg Bodyrev (5/2/15)

Questions

  1. Why has the rouble fallen in value? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate this.
  2. What does a cheap rouble mean for exporters and importers within Russia and within countries such as the UK or US?
  3. One of the businesses described in the article explain how the sanctions have helped. What is the explanation and can the effects be seen as being in the consumer’s interest?
  4. Oil prices have fallen significantly over the past few months. Why is this so detrimental to Russia?
  5. What is the link between the exchange rate and inflation?
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Deficiency of demand: a global problem

The first link below is to an excellent article by Noriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Roubini was one of the few economists to predict the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. In this article he looks at the current problem of substantial deficiency of demand: in other words, where actual output is well below potential output (a negative output gap). It is no wonder, he argues, that in these circumstances central banks around the world are using unconventional monetary policies, such as virtually zero interest rates and quantitative easing (QE).

He analyses the causes of deficiency of demand, citing banks having to repair their balance sheets, governments seeking to reduce their deficits, attempts by firms to cut costs, effects of previous investment in commodity production and rising inequality.

The second link is to an article about the prediction by the eminent fund manager, Crispin Odey, that central banks are running out of options and that the problem of over-supply will lead to a global slump and a stock market crash that will be ‘remembered in a hundred years’. Odey, like Roubini, successfully predicted the 2008 financial crisis. Today he argues that the looming ‘down cycle will cause a great deal of damage, precisely because it will happen despite the efforts of central banks to thwart it.’

I’m sorry to post this pessimistic blog and you can find other forecasters who argue that QE by the ECB will be just what is needed to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone and allow it to follow the USA and the UK into recovery. That’s the trouble with economic forecasting. Forecasts can vary enormously depending on assumptions about variables, such as future policy measures, consumer and business confidence, and political events that themselves are extremely hard to predict.

Will central banks continue to deploy QE if the global economy does falter? Will governments heed the advice of the IMF and others to ease up on deficit reduction and engage in a substantial programme of infrastructure investment? Who knows?

An Unconventional Truth Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/2/15)
UK fund manager predicts stock market plunge during next recession The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (30/1/15)

Questions

  1. Explain each of the types of unconventional monetary policy identified by Roubini.
  2. How has a policy of deleveraging by banks affected the impact of quantitative easing on aggregate demand?
  3. Assume you predict that global economic growth will increase over the next two years. What reasons might you give for your prediction?
  4. Why have most commodity prices fallen in recent months? (In the second half of 2014, the IMF all-commodity price index fell by 28%.)
  5. What is likely to be the impact of falling commodity prices on global demand?
  6. Some neo-liberal economists had predicted that central bank policies ‘would lead to hyperinflation, the US dollar’s collapse, sky-high gold prices, and the eventual demise of fiat currencies at the hands of digital krypto-currency counterparts’. Why, according to Roubini, did the ‘root of their error lie in their confusion of cause and effect’?
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