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

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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A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2)

As we saw in Part 1 of this blog, oil prices have fallen by some 46% in the past five months. In that blog we looked at the implications for fuel prices. Here we look at the broader implications for the global economy? Is it good or bad news – or both?

First we’ll look at the oil-importing countries. To some extent the lower oil price is a reflection of weak global demand as many countries still struggle to recover from recession. If the lower price boosts demand, this may then cause the oil price to rise again. At first sight, this might seem merely to return the world economy to the position before the oil price started falling: a leftward shift in the demand for oil curve, followed by a rightward shift back to where it was. However, the boost to demand in the short term may act as a ‘pump primer’. The higher aggregate demand may result in a multiplier effect and cause a sustained increase in output, especially if it stimulates a rise in investment through rising confidence and the accelerator, and thereby increases capacity and hence potential GDP.

But the fall in the oil price is only partly the result of weak demand. It is mainly the result of increased supply as new sources of oil come on stream, and especially shale oil from the USA. Given that OPEC has stated that it will not cut its production, even if the crude price falls to $40 per barrel, the effect has been a shift in the oil supply curve to the right that will remain for some time.

So even if the leftward shift in demand is soon reversed so that there is then some rise in oil prices again, it is unlikely that prices will rise back to where they were. Perhaps, as the diagram illustrates, the price will rise to around $70 per barrel. It could be higher if world demand grows very rapidly, or if some sources of supply go off stream because at such prices they are unprofitable.

The effect on oil exporting countries has been negative. The most extreme case is Russia, where for each $10 fall in the price of oil, its growth rate falls by around 1.4 percentage points (see). Although the overall effect on global growth is still likely to be positive, the lower oil price could lead to a significant cut in investment in new oil wells. North sea producers are predicting a substantial cut in investment. Even shale oil producers in the USA, where the marginal cost of extracting oil from existing sources is only around $10 to £20 per barrel, need a price of around $70 or more to make investment in new sources profitable. What is more, typical shale wells have a life of only two or three years and so lack of investment would relatively quickly lead to shale oil production drying up.

The implication of this is that although there has been a rightward shift in the short-run supply curve, if price remains low the curve could shift back again, meaning that the long-run supply curve is much more elastic. This could push prices back up towards $100 if global demand continues to expand.

This can be illustrated in the diagram. The starting point is mid-2014. Global demand and supply are D1 and S1; price is $112 per barrel and output is Q1. Demand now shifts to the left and supply to the right to D2 and S2 respectively. Price falls to $60 per barrel and, given the bigger shift in supply than demand, output rises to Q2. At $60 per barrel, however, output of Q2 cannot be sustained. Thus at $60, long-run supply (shown by SL) is only Q4.

But assuming the global economy grows over the coming months, demand shifts to the right: say, to D3. Assume that it pushes price up to $100 per barrel. This gives a short-run output of Q3, but at that price it is likely that supply will be sustainable in the long run as it makes investment sufficiently profitable. Thus curve D3 intersects with both S2 and SL at this price and quantity.

The articles below look at the gainers and losers and at the longer-term effects.

Articles
Where will the oil price settle? BBC News, Robert Peston (22/12/14)
Falling oil prices: Who are the winners and losers? BBC News, Tim Bowler (16/12/14)
Why the oil price is falling The Economist (8/12/14)
The new economics of oil: Sheikhs v shale The Economist (6/12/14)
Shale oil: In a bind The Economist (6/12/14)
Falling Oil Price slows US Fracking Oil-price.net, Steve Austin (8/12/14)
Oil Price Drop Highlights Need for Diversity in Gulf Economies IMF Survey (23/12/14)
Lower oil prices boosting global economy: IMF Argus Media (23/12/14)
Collapse in oil prices: producers howl, consumers cheer, economists fret The Guardian (16/12/14)
North Sea oilfields ‘near collapse’ after price nosedive The Telegraph, Andrew Critchlow (18/12/14)
How oil price fall will affect crude exporters – and the rest of us The Observer, Phillip Inman (21/12/14)
Cheaper oil could damage renewable energies, says Richard Branson The Guardian,
Richard Branson: ‘Governments are going to have to think hard how to adapt to low oil prices.’ John Vidal (16/12/14)

Data
Brent crude prices U.S. Energy Information Administration (select daily, weekly, monthly or annual data and then download to Excel)
Brent Oil Historical Data Investing.com (select daily, weekly, or monthly data and time period)

Questions

  1. What would determine the size of the global multiplier effect from the cut in oil prices?
  2. Where is the oil price likely to settle in (a) six months’ time; (b) two years’ time? What factors are you taking into account in deciding your answer?
  3. Why, if the average cost of producing oil from a given well is $70, might it still be worth pumping oil and selling it at a price of $30?
  4. How does speculation affect oil prices?
  5. Why has OPEC decided not to cut oil production even though this is likely to drive the price lower?
  6. With Brent crude at around $60 per barrel, what should North Sea oil producers do?
  7. If falling oil prices lead some oil-importing countries into deflation, what will be the likely macroeconomic impacts?
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Eurozone deflation risk

The eurozone is made up of 18 countries (19 in January) and, besides sharing a common currency, they also seem to be sharing the trait of weak economic performance. The key macroeconomic variables across the eurozone nations have all seemingly been moving in the wrong direction and this is causing a lot of concern for policy-makers.

Some of the biggest players in the eurozone have seen economic growth on the down-turn, unemployment rising and consumer and business confidence falling once again. Germany’s economic growth has been revised down and in Italy, unemployment rose to a record of 13.2% in September and around 25% of the workforce remains out of work in Spain and Greece. A significant consequence of the sluggish growth across this 18-nation bloc of countries is the growing risk of deflation.

Whilst low and stable inflation is a macroeconomic objective across nations, there is such a thing as inflation that is too low. When inflation approaches 0%, the spectre of deflation looms large (see the blog post Deflation danger). The problem of deflation is that when people expect prices to fall, they stop spending. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. After all, if you think prices will be lower next week, then you are likely to wait until next week. This decision by consumers will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. This is the problem facing the eurozone. In November, the inflation rate fell to 0.3%. One of the key causes is falling energy prices – normally good news, but not if inflation is already too low.

Jonathan Loynes, Chief European Economist at Capital Economics said:

“[the inflation and jobless data] gives the ECB yet another nudge to take urgent further action to revive the recovery and tackle the threat of deflation…We now expect the headline inflation rate to drop below zero at least briefly over the next six months and there is a clear danger of a more prolonged bout of falling prices.”

Some may see the lower prices as a positive change, with less household income being needed to buy the same basket of goods. However, the key question will be whether such low prices are seen as a temporary change or an indication of a longer-term trend. The answer to the question will have a significant effect on business decisions about investment and on the next steps to be taken by the ECB. It also has big consequences for other countries, in particular the UK. The data over the coming months across a range of macroeconomic variables may tell us a lot about what is to come throughout 2015. The following articles consider the eurozone data.

Euro area annual inflation down to 0.3% EuroStat News Release (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation weakens again, adding pressure on ECB Nasdaq, Brian Blackstone (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation rate falls in October BBC News (28/11/14)
Eurozone recovery fears weigh on UK plc, says report Financial Times, Alison Smith (30/11/14)
€300bn Jean-Claude Juncker Eurozone kickstarter sounds too good to be true The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/11/14)
Eurozone area may be in ‘persistent stagnation trap’ says OECD BBC News (25/11/14)
Euro area ‘major risk to world growth’: OECD CNBC, Katy Barnato (25/11/14)
OECD sees gradual world recovery, urges ECB to do more Reuters, Ingrid Melander (25/11/14)

Questions

  1. What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
  2. Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
  3. What policies are available to the ECB to tackle the problem of deflation? How successful are they likely to be and which factors will determine this?
  4. To what extent is the economic stagnation in the Eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and US? Explain your answer.
  5. How effective would quantitative easing be in combating the problem of deflation?
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The state of the labour market in the UK

Figures for employment and unemployment give an incomplete picture of the state of the labour market. Just because a person is employed, that does not mean that they are working the number of hours they would like.

Some people would like to work more hours, either by working more hours in their current job, or by switching to an alternative job with more hours or by taking on an additional part-time job. Such people are classed as ‘underemployed’. On average, underemployed workers wanted to work an additional 11.3 hours per week in 2014 Q2. Underemployment is a measure of slack in the labour market, but it is not picked up in the unemployment statistics.

Other people would like to work fewer hours (at the same hourly rate), but feel they have no choice – usually because their employer demands that they work long hours. Some, however, would like to change to another job with fewer hours even if it involved less pay. People willing to sacrifice pay in order to work fewer hours are classed as ‘overemployed’.

Statistics released by the Office for National Statistics show that, in April to June 2014, 9.9%, or 3.0 million, workers in the UK were underemployed; and 9.7%, or 2.9 million, were overemployed.

The figures for underemployment vary between different groups:

11.0% of female workers 8.9% of male workers
19.6% of 16-24 year olds 9.9% of all workers
21.1% of people in elementary occupations (e.g. cleaners, shop assistants and security guards) 5.4% of people in professional occupations (e.g. doctors, teachers and accountants)
11.5% of people in the North East of England (in 2013) 9.2% of people in the East of England (in 2013)
22.1% of part-time workers 5.4% of full-time workers

As far as the overemployed are concerned, professional people and older people are more likely want shorter hours

The ONS data also show how under- and overemployment have changed over time: see chart (click here for a PowerPoint). Before the financial crisis and recession, overemployment exceeded underemployment. After the crisis, the position reversed: underemployment rose from 6.8% in 2007 to a peak of 10.8% in mid-2012; while overemployment fell from 10.5% in 2007 to a trough of 8.8% in early 2013.

More recently, as the economy has grown more strongly, underemployment has fallen back to 9.9% (in 2014 Q2) and overemployment has risen to 9.7%, virtually closing the gap between the two.

The fact that there is still significant underemployment suggests that there is still considerable slack in the labour market and that this may be acting as a brake on wage increases. On the other hand, the large numbers of people who consider themselves overemployed, especially among the professions and older workers, suggests that many people feel that they have not got the right work–life balance and many may be suffering consequent high levels of stress.

Articles
Rise in number of UK workers who want to cut back hours, ONS says The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/11/14)
Data reveal slack and stretch in UK workforce Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (25/11/14)
Will you graduate into underemployment? The Guardian, Jade Grassby (30/9/14)
Three million people would take pay cut to work shorter hours: Number who say they feel overworked rises by 10 per cent in one year Mail Online, Louise Eccles (26/11/14)
ONS: Rate of under-employment in Scotland lower than UK average Daily Record, Scott McCulloch (25/11/14)

ONS Release
Underemployment and Overemployment in the UK, 2014 ONS (25/11/14)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between unemployment (labour force survey (LFS) measure), unemployment (claimant count measure), underemployment (UK measure), underemployment (Eurostat measure) and disguised unemployment.
  2. Why is underemployment much higher amongst part-time workers than full-time workers?
  3. How do (a) underemployment and (b) overemployment vary according to the type of occupation? What explanations are there for the differences?
  4. Is the percentage of underemployment a good indicator of the degree of slack in the economy? Explain.
  5. How is the rise in zero hours contracts likely to have affected underemployment?
  6. How could the problem of overemployment be tackled? Would it be a good idea to pass a law setting a maximum number of hours per week that people can be required to do in a job?
  7. Would flexible working rights be a good idea?
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Deflation danger

The articles linked below look at the dangers of deflation and policies of central banks to counter it.

Deflation in economics has three meanings. The first is falling prices: i.e. negative inflation. The second, more traditional meaning, is a fall in real aggregate demand, resulting in lower output, higher unemployment and lower inflation – and quite possibly an actual fall in the price level. These first two definitions describe what is generally seen as an undesirable situation. The third is a slowing down in the growth of real aggregate demand, perhaps as a result of a deliberate act of fiscal and/or monetary policy. This third meaning could describe a desirable situation, where unsustainable growth is reduced and inflation is reduced from an above-target level.

Here we focus on the first definition. The first two articles look at the dangers of a fall in the price level. The chart below shows falling inflation, although not actually deflation, in China, France, Germany and the UK (click here for a PowerPoint). Several European countries, however, are experiencing actual deflation. These include: Greece, Spain, Hungary, Poland and Sweden. Inflation in the eurozone for 2014 is expected to be a mere 0.5%.

The most obvious danger of deflation (or expected deflation) is that people will delay spending on durable goods, such as cars, furniture and equipment, hoping to buy the items cheaper later. The result could be a fall in aggregate demand and a fall in output and employment.

For retailers, this is all spelling Christmas doom. Already the runup to the most crucial time of the year for shops is being characterised by a game of chicken. Shoppers are wondering how long they can leave their festive buying in the hope of late bargains.

Interest rates may be low, but for people with debts, this is being offset by the fact that inflation is no longer reducing the real value of that debt. For people with credit card debt, personal loans and most mortgages, the interest rate they pay is significantly above the rate of inflation. In other words, the real interest rate on their debt is still significantly positive. This may well discourage people from borrowing and spending, further dampening aggregate demand. And, with a Bank Rate of just 0.5%, there is virtually no scope for lowering the official interest rate further.

At least in the UK, economic growth is now positive – for the time being at any rate. The danger is becoming more serious, however, in many eurozone countries, which are already back in recession or close to being so. The ECB, despite its tentative steps to ease credit conditions, it moving closer to the day when it announces full-blown quantitative easing and buys sovereign bonds of eurozone countries. The Bank of Japan has already announced that it is stepping up it QE programme – a vital ingredient in getting Abenomics back on track and pulling Japan out of its latest recession.

In the USA, by contrast, there is little danger of deflation, as the US economy continues to grow strongly. The downside of this, has been a large rise in consumer debt (but not mortgages) – the ingredients of a possible future bubble and even a new financial crisis.

Forget what central bankers say: deflation is the real monster The Observer, Katie Allen (23/11/14)
Why Deflation Is Such A Big Worry For Europe NPR, Jim Zarroli (31/10/14)
Exclusive: China ready to cut rates again on fears of deflation – sources Reuters, Kevin Yao (23/11/14)
Central Banks in New Push to Prime Pump Wall Street Journal Jon Hilsenrath, Brian Blackstone and Lingling Wei (21/11/14)
Are Central Banks Panicking? Seeking Alpha, Leo Kolivakis (21/11/14)

Questions

  1. What are (a) the desirable and (b) the undesirable consequences of deflation? Does the answer depend on how deflation is defined?
  2. What is meant by a ‘deflationary gap’? In what sense is ‘deflationary’ being used in this term?
  3. Why have oil prices been falling? How desirable are these falls for the global economy?
  4. Is there an optimal rate of inflation? If so, how would this rate be determined?
  5. The chart shows that inflation in Japan is likely to have risen in 2014. This in large part is the result to a rise in the sales tax earlier this year. If there is no further rise in the sales tax, which there will probably not be if Mr Abe’s party wins the recently called election, what is likely to be the effect of the 2014 tax rise on inflation in 2015?
  6. If the Bank Rate is below the rate of inflation, why are people facing a positive real rate of interest? Does this apply equally to borrowers and savers?
  7. In what sense is there a cultural revolution at the Bank of England?
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