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Articles for the ‘Economics for Business 6e: Ch 31’ Category

Inequality and economic growth

What is the relationship between the degree of inequality in a country and the rate of economic growth? The traditional answer is that there is a trade off between the two. Increasing the rewards to those who are more productive or who invest encourages a growth in productivity and capital investment, which, in turn, leads to faster economic growth. Redistribution from the rich to the poor, by contrast, is argued to reduce incentives by reducing the rewards from harder work, education, training and investment. Risk taking, it is claimed, is discouraged.

Recent evidence from the OECD and the IMF, however, suggests that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. Inequality has grown massively in many countries, with average incomes at the top of the distribution seeing particular gains, while many at the bottom have experienced actual declines in real incomes or, at best, little or no growth. This growth in inequality can be seen in a rise in countries’ Gini coefficients. The OECD average Gini coefficient rose from 0.29 in the mid-1980s to 0.32 in 2011/12. This, claims the OECD, has led to a loss in economic growth of around 0.35 percentage points per year.

But why should a rise in inequality lead to lower economic growth? According to the OECD, the main reason is that inequality reduces the development of skills of the lower income groups and reduces social mobility.

By hindering human capital accumulation, income inequality undermines education opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.

The lower educational attainment applies both to the length and quality of education: people from poorer backgrounds on average leave school or college earlier and with lower qualifications.

But if greater inequality generally results in lower economic growth, will a redistribution from rich to poor necessarily result in faster economic growth? According to the OECD:

Anti-poverty programmes will not be enough. Not only cash transfers but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare, constitute long-term social investment to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.

Thus redistribution policies need to be well designed and implemented and focus on raising incomes of the poor through increased opportunities to increase their productivity. Simple transfers from rich to poor via the tax and benefits system may, in fact, undermine economic growth. According to the IMF:

That equality seems to drive higher and more sustainable growth does not in itself support efforts to redistribute. In particular, inequality may impede growth at least in part because it calls forth efforts to redistribute that themselves undercut growth. In such a situation, even if inequality is bad for growth, taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy.

Articles
Inequality ‘significantly’ curbs economic growth – OECD BBC News (9/12/14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
Income inequality damages growth, OECD warns Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/10/14)
OECD finds increasing inequality lowers growth Deutsche Welle, Jasper Sky (10/12/14)
Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/12/14)
Inequality Seriously Damages Growth, IMF Seminar Hears IMF Survey Magazine (12/4/14)
Warning! Inequality May Be Hazardous to Your Growth iMFdirect, Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry (8/4/11)

Videos
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD on YouTube (5/12/11)
The Price of Inequality The News School on YouTube, Joseph Stiglitz (5/10/12)

Reports and papers
FOCUS on Inequality and Growth OECD, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs (December 2014)
Trends in Income Inequality and its Impact on Economic Growth OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, Federico Cingano (9/12/14)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OCED (2011)
Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth IMF Staff Discussion Note, Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides (February 2014)
Measure to Measure Finance and Development, IMF, Jonathan D. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg (Vol. 51, No. 3, September 2014)

Data
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by a Lorenz curve and a Gini coefficient? What is the relationship between the two?
  2. The Gini coefficient is one way of measuring inequality. What other methods are there? How suitable are they?
  3. Assume that the government raises taxes to finance higher benefits to the poor. Identify the income and substitution effects of the tax increases and whether the effects are to encourage or discourage work (or investment).
  4. Distinguish between (a) progressive, (b) regressive and (c) proportional taxes?
  5. How will the balance of income and substitution effects vary in each of the following cases: (a) a cut in the tax-free allowance; (b) a rise in the basic rate of income tax; (c) a rise in the top rate of income tax? How does the relative size of the two effects depend, in each case, on a person’s current income?
  6. Identify policy measures that would increase both equality and economic growth.
  7. Would a shift from direct to indirect taxes tend to increase or decrease inequality? Explain.
  8. By examining Tables 3, 26 and 27 in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13, (a) explain the difference between original income, gross income, disposable income and post-tax income; (b) explain the differences between the Gini coefficients for each of these four categories of income in the UK.
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New Build: Foundations for a successful housing policy?

The housing market was at the heart of the 2014 Autumn Statement. Perhaps most eyecatching were the reforms to stamp duty. Stamp Duty is a tax on house purchases. Overnight we have seen the introduction of a graduated system of tax, along the lines of the income tax system – similar to the model to be adopted in Scotland from next April under the Land and Buildings Transactions Tax. For the rest of the UK, there will be five tax bands, including a zero rate band for property values up to £125,000. The total tax liability will be dependent upon the proportion of the value of the property that falls in each taxable band.

But, alongside the Stamp Duty announcement, the Autumn Statement was noteworthy for its references to new build. New build is clearly central to UK housing policy.

The Autumn Statement reaffirmed the government’s wish to see house building play a central role in easing pressures on the housing market. Over the past 40 years or more UK house prices have been characterised by considerable volatility and by a significant real increase. This can be seen clearly in the chart. Actual (nominal) house prices across the UK have grown an average rate of 10 per cent per year. Even if we strip out the effect of economy-wide inflation, we are still left with an increase of around 3.5 per cent per year. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

The economics point to supply-side problems that mean demand pressures feed directly into house prices. The commitment to build has now seen the announcement of a new garden city near Bicester in Oxfordshire. This is set to provide 13,000 or more new homes. The government has also pledged £100 million to the Ebbsfleet Garden City project to provide the infrastructure and land remediation necessary to bring in more private-sector developers to help deliver an expected 15,000 new homes.

An interesting development in housing policy is the willingness of government to consider being more actively involved itself in house building. The development of former barracks at Northstowe in Cambridgeshire will be spearheaded by the Homes and Communities Agency which will lead on the planning and construction of up to 10,000 new homes. This signals, at least on paper, that government is prepared to think more broadly about the way in which it works with the private sector in helping to deliver new homes.

The desire to facilitate new build appears to make some economic sense. But, the politics of delivering on new homes is considerably more difficult since the prospect of new developments naturally raises considerable local concerns. Furthermore, it does not deal with fundamental questions around the existing housing market stock. In particular, how we can further increase investment in our existing housing stock, especially given the significant land constraints that face a country like the UK. As yet, the debate around how to improve what we already have has not really taken place.

Autumn Statement
Autumn Statement: documents Gov.UK

Articles
Autumn Statement: Government will build tens of thousands of new homes Independent, Nigel Morris (2/12/14)
Government could build and sell new homes on public sector land Guardian, Patrick Wintour (2/12/14)
Bicester chosen as new garden city with 13,000 homes BBC News, (2/12/14)
Nick Clegg reveals coalition plan for new garden city in Oxfordshire Guardian, (2/12/14)
State to build new homes for first time in generation Telegraph, Steven Swinford (2/12/14)

Data
House Price Indices: Data Tables Office for National Statistics

Questions

  1. Explain the distinction between real and nominal house prices.
  2. Would you expect real house price inflation to always be less than nominal house price inflation?
  3. What factors are likely to affect housing demand?
  4. What factors are likely to affect housing supply?
  5. Show using a demand-supply diagram the impact of rising incomes on the demand for a particular housing market characterised by a price inelastic supply.
  6. Would we expect all housing markets to exhibit similar characteristics of housing demand and supply?
  7. What is the economic rationale for the government’s new build policy?
  8. What other measures could be introduced to try and alleviate the long-term pressure on real house prices?
  9. How might we go about assessing the affordability of housing?
  10. Would a policy which reduced for the stamp duty payment of most buyers help to curb inflationary pressures in the housing market? Explain your answer using a demand-supply diagram.
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Japan’s arrows missing their target

Since coming to office two years ago, Shinzo Abe’s government has been determined to revive the Japanese economy. The policy has involved ‘three arrows‘: expansionary fiscal policy, expansionary monetary policy and supply-side reforms. But figures just out show that the Japanese economy is back in recession. The economy shrank by 0.4% in quarter 3, having shrunk by 1.9% in quarter 2.

This has come as a huge disappointment for Mr Abe, who has staked his political reputation on escaping from deflation and achieving sustained economic growth. In response, he has called a general election to put a revised economic plan to the electorate.

The main cause of the reversal into recession has been an increase in the sales tax on all goods, which has dampened spending. The tax rise, planned by the previous government, was to help reduce the deficit and start tackling the huge public-sector debt, which, at over 230% of GDP, is by far the highest in the developed world. Another rise in sales tax is due in October 2015 – from 8% to 10%. Mr Abe hopes to cancel the rise and it is this that he may put to the electorate.

So what is the outlook for Japan? Will quarter 4 show economic growth, or will pessimism have set in? Will the Bank of Japan introduce even more quantitative easing, or will it wait for the latest increase in QE to take effect (see the blog post, All eased out: at least for the USA and UK)?

The following articles look at the implications of the latest news, both for Japan and globally, and at the options for the government and central bank.

Articles
Japanese economy falls into surprise recession Independent, Maria Tadeo (17/11/14)
Japan’s economy makes surprise fall into recession BBC News (17/11/14)
Coming to a crunch: Time is running out for Abenomics The Economist (20/11/14)
Japan’s economy: Delay the second consumption tax hike The Economist (17/11/14)
Defying Expectations, Japan’s Economy Falls Into Recession New York Times, Jonathan Soble (16/11/14)
Japan shocks as economy slips into recession CNBC, Li Anne Wong (17/11/14)
Japan Unexpectedly Enters Recession as Abe Weighs Tax: Economy Bloomberg, Keiko Ujikane and Toru Fujioka (17/11/14)
The world should be wary: Japan’s economic woes are contagious The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/11/14)
Why is Japan heading to the polls? BBC News (18/11/14)

Previous news items on this site
A new economic road for Japan? (January 2013)
A J-curve for Japan? (May 2013)
Japan’s three arrows (June 2013)
Abenomics – one year on (December 2013)
Japan’s recovery (January 2014)
Japan’s CPI: An Update (May 2014)
All eased out: at least for the USA and UK (November 2014)

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

Questions

  1. Give details of the Japanese government’s three arrows.
  2. Discuss the pros and cons of the rise in the sales tax. Is it possible for the rise in the sales tax to increase the size of the public-sector deficit?
  3. What have been the effects of Japanese government policies on (a) prices of goods and services; (b) living standards; (c) asset prices?
  4. Who have been the gainers and losers of the policies?
  5. How is the Japanese situation likely to effect the value of the yen? How is this, in turn, likely to affect its trading partners? Could this set off a chain reaction?
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The G20 Summit

This weekend, Australia will play host to the world’s leaders, as the G20 Summit takes place. The focus of the G20 Summit will be on global growth and how it can be promoted. The Eurozone remains on the brink, but Germany did avoid for recession with positive (just) growth in the third quarter of this year. However, despite Australia’s insistence on returning the remit of the G20 to its original aims, in particular promoting growth, it is expected that many other items will also take up the G20’s agenda.

In February, the G20 Finance Ministers agreed various measures to boost global growth and it is expected that many of the policies discussed this weekend will build on these proposals. The agreement contained a list of new policies that had the aim of boosting economy growth of the economies by an extra 2% over a five year period. If this were to happen, the impact would be around £1.27 trillion. The agreed policies will be set out in more detail as part of the Brisbane Action Plan.

As well as a discussion of measures to promote global growth as a means of boosting jobs across the world, there will also be a focus on using these measures to prevent deflation from becoming a problem across Europe. Global tax avoidance by some of the major multinationals will also be discussed and leaders will be asked to agree on various measures. These include a common reporting standard; forcing multinationals to report their accounts country by country and principles about disclosing the beneficial ownership of companies. It it also expected that the tensions between Russia and Ukraine will draw attention from the world leaders. But, the main focus will be the economy. Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott said:

“Six years ago, the impacts of the global financial crisis reverberated throughout the world. While those crisis years are behind us, we still struggle with its legacy of debt and joblessness…The challenge for G20 leaders is clear – to lift growth, boost jobs and strengthen financial resilience. We need to encourage demand to ward off the deflation that threatens the major economies of Europe.”

Many people have protested about the lack of action on climate change, but perhaps this has been addressed to some extent by the deal between China and the USA on climate change and Barak Obama’s pledge to make a substantial contribution to the Green Climate Fund. This has caused some problems and perhaps embarrassment for the host nation, as Australia has remained adamant that despite the importance of climate change, this will not be on the agenda of the G20 Summit. Suggestions now, however, put climate change as the final communique.

Some people and organisations have criticised the G20 and questioned its relevance, so as well as discussing a variety of key issues, the agenda will more broadly be aiming to address this criticism. And of course, focus will also be on tensions between some of the key G20 leaders. The following articles consider the G20 Summit.

Articles
Ukraine and Russia take center stage as leaders gather for G20 Reuters, Matt Siegel (14/11/14)
The G20 Summit: World leaders gather in Brisbane BBC News (14/11/11)
G20: Obama to pledge $2.5bn to help poor countries on climate change The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg (14/11/14)
G20 in 20: All you need to know about Brisbane Leaders summit in 20 facts Independent, Mark Leftly (13/11/14)
G20 leaders to meet in Australia under pressure to prove group’s relevance The Guardian, Lenore Taylor (13/11/14)
Australia PM Abbott accuses Putin of bullying on eve of G20 Financial Times, George Parker and Jamie Smyth (14/11/14)
G20: David Cameron in Australia for world leaders’ summit BBC News (13/11/14)
G20 summit: Australian PM Tony Abbott tries to block climate talks – and risks his country becoming an international laughing stock Independent, Kathy Marks (13/11/14)
Incoming G20 leader Turkey says groups must be more inclusive Reuters, Jane Wardell (14/11/14)
Behind the motorcades and handshakes, what exactly is the G20 all about – and will it achieve ANYTHING? Mail Online, Sarah Michael (14/11/14)
Is the global economy headed for the rocks? BBC News, Robert Peston (17/11/14)

Official G20 site
G20 Priorities G20
Australia 2014 G20
News G20

Questions

  1. What is the purpose of the G20 and which countries are members of it? Should any others be included in this type of organisation?
  2. What are the key items on the agenda for the G20 Summit in Brisbane?
  3. One of the main objectives of this Summit is to discuss the policies that will be implemented to promote growth. What types of policies are likely to be important in promoting global economic growth?
  4. What types of policies are effective at addressing the problem of deflation?
  5. What impact will the tensions between Russia and Ukraine have on the progress of the G20?
  6. Why are multinationals able to engage in tax evasion? What policies could be implemented to prevent this and to what extent is global co-operation needed?
  7. Discuss possible reforms to the IMF and the G20′s role in promoting such reforms.
  8. Should the G20 be scrapped?
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Job losses and labour mobility

Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.

The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.

And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.

One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.

What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.

So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.

As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.

Webcasts
Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)

Article
Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)

Reports
Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)

Questions

  1. Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
  2. What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
  3. What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
  4. Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
  5. What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
  6. What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?
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German confidence down again

In the Blog, A VW recession for the eurozone, as German growth revised down?, we discussed the pessimistic outlook for the eurozone, in part driven by the problems facing the engine of Europe: Germany. While the German government noted that the weak growth figures are due to external factors, it appears as though these external factors are now sending waves through the domestic economy.

Over the past 6 months, German confidence has fallen continuously and now stands at almost its lowest level in 2 years. Think tank data from a survey of 7000 firms in Germany fell from 104.7 to 103.2 for October – the weakest reading since December 2012. Confidence is always a key factor in the strength of an economy, as it affects consumers and businesses. Without consumer and business confidence, two key components of aggregate demand are weak and this downward pressure on total spending in the economy depresses economic growth. An economist from Ifo, the think-tank that produced this business climate index, said that firms felt ‘downbeat about both their current situation and the future.’

As confidence continues to decline in Germany, the economic situation is unlikely to improve. Unfortunately, it is something of a vicious circle in that without economic growth confidence won’t return and without confidence, economic growth won’t improve. The industrial sector is crucial to Germany and the data is concerning, according to Chief economist at Commerzbank, Joerg Kraemer:

The latest numbers from the industrial sector are very worrisome…The third quarter was probably worse than expected, the economy may have stagnated at best.

Numerous factors continue to depress the German economy and while negative growth is not expected, estimates for quarterly growth from July to September remain at around 0.3%. As Europe’s largest economy, such low growth rates will be of concern to the rest of the Eurozone and may also bring worry to other countries, such as the US and UK. With growing interdependence between nations, the success of countries such as Germany and Europe as a whole influences the economic situation abroad. Commentators will be looking for any signal that Germany is strengthening in the coming months and an improvement in business confidence will be essential for any prolonged recovery.

German business confidence falters again in October Wall Street Journal, Todd Buell (27/10/14)
German business morale weakens to lowest level in almost two years Reuters, Michelle Martin (27/10/14)
Zero growth best hope for Germany as confidence disappears The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (27/10/14)
German Ifo business confidence drops for sixth month Bloomberg, Stefan Riecher (27/10/14)
German business confidence plunges again as analysts urge fiscal stimulus International Business Times, Finnbarr Bermingham (27/10/14)
German business confidence falls again, Ifo says BBC News (27/10/14)
German business confidence tumbles The Guardian, Philip Inman (24/9/14)
The German way of stagnating BBC News, Robert Peston (11/11/14)

Questions

  1. Why is consumer and business confidence such an important element in explaining the state of an economy?
  2. Use an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the impact on national output of a decline business confidence. What are the other consequences for the macroeconomic objectives?
  3. What actions can a government take to boost confidence in an economy?
  4. If economic growth is weak and confidence is low, is there any point in cutting interest rates as a means of stimulating investment?
  5. If the eurozone did move back into recession, what could be the possible consequences for countries such as the UK and US?
  6. How useful are indices that measure business confidence?
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Gloomy assessments of the global economic outlook

In two posts recently, we considered the pessimistic views of Robert Peston about the prospects for the global economy (see Cloudy skies ahead? and The end of growth in the West?). In this post we consider the views of Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Lord Adair Turner, the former head of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) (which was replaced in 2013 by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority).

Christine Lagarde was addressing an audience at Georgetown University in Washington DC. The first four links below are to webcasts of the full speech and subsequent interviews about the speech. She gives a more gloomy assessment of the global economy than six months ago, especially the eurozone economy and several emerging economies, such as China. There are short- to medium-term dangers for the world economy from political conflicts, such as that between Russia and the West over Ukraine. But there are long-term dangers too. These come from the effects of subdued private investment and low infrastructure spending by governments.

Her views are backed up by the six-monthly World Economic Outlook, published by the IMF on 7 October. There are links below to two webcasts from the IMF discussing the report and the accompanying datasets.

In the final webcast link below, Lord Turner argues that there is a “real danger of a simultaneous slowdown producing a big setback to growth expectations.” He is particularly worried about China, which is experiencing an asset price bubble and slowing economic growth. Other emerging economies too are suffering from slowing growth. This poses real problems for developed countries, such as Germany, which are heavily reliant on their export sector.

Webcasts
The Challenges Facing the Global Economy: New Momentum to Overcome a New Mediocre IMF Videos, Christine Lagarde (full speech) (2/10/14)
Christine Lagarde downbeat on global economy BBC News Canada, Christine Lagarde interviewed by Katy Kay (2/10/14)
IMF’s Lagarde on Global Economy, Central Banks Bloomberg TV, Christine Lagarde interviewed by Tom Keene (2/10/14)
Lagarde: Global economy weaker than envisioned 6 months ago, IMF to cut growth outlook CNBC (2/10/14)
IMF Says Uneven Global Growth Disappoints IMF Videos, Olivier Blanchard (7/10/14)
Time Is Right for an Infrastructure Push IMF Videos, Abdul Ablad (30/9/14)
China slowdown poses ‘biggest risk to global economy’ The Telegraph, Adair Turner (4/10/14)

Articles
Global Growth Disappoints, Pace of Recovery Uneven and Country-Specific IMF Survey Magazine (7/10/14)
Global economy risks becoming stuck in low growth trap The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/10/14)
American Exceptionalism Thrives Amid Struggling Global Economy Bloomberg, Rich Miller and Simon Kennedy (4/10/14)
World Bank cuts China growth forecast for next three years BBC News (6/10/14)
Beware a Chinese slowdown The Guardian, Kenneth Rogoff (6/10/14)
IMF says economic growth may never return to pre-crisis levels The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/10/14)
IMF goes back to the future with gloomy talk of secular stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/10/14)

Data
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (7/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)

Questions

  1. What are the particular ‘headwinds’ facing the global economy?
  2. Why is the outlook for the global economy more pessimistic now than six months ago?
  3. Why are increasing levels of debt and asset price rises a threat to Chinese economic growth?
  4. Why may China be more able to deal with high levels of debt than many other countries?
  5. In what ways are commodity prices an indicator of the confidence of investors about future economic growth?
  6. What are the determinants of long-term economic growth? Why are potential economic growth rates lower today than in the 2000s?
  7. How might governments today boost long-term economic growth?
  8. What are the arguments for and against governments engaging in large-scale public investment in infrastructure projects? What would be the supply-side and demand-side effects of such policies?
  9. If confidence is a major determinant of investment, how might bodies such as the IMF boost confidence?
  10. Why does the IMF caution against over-aggressive attempts to reduce budget deficits?
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Cloudy skies ahead?

Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.

It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:

seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.

So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.

The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’

Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.

The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)

Questions

  1. What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
  2. What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
  3. Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
  4. Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
  5. Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
  6. What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
  7. What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
  8. Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.

The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.

And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.

So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?

There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.

The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.

Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.

This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.

There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.

As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.

Articles
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)

Data
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
StatExtracts OECD
Statistics database European Central Bank

Questions

  1. What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
  2. How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
  3. What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
  4. Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
  5. What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
  6. Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
  7. How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
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Keeping a Minsky-eye on credit

The instability of the economy was clearly demonstrated by the events of the late 2000s. Economists have devoted considerable energies to understanding the determinants of the business cycle. Increasing attention is focused on the role that credit cycles play in contributing to or exacerbating cycles. Therefore, data on lending by banks is followed keenly by policymakers who wish to avoid the repeat of the pace of growth in credit seen in the period preceding the financial crisis. Interestingly, the latest data from the Bank of England show that lending by financial institutions to households (net of repayments) rose in July to its highest level since November 2009.

The idea of credit cycles is not new. But, the financial crisis of the late 2000s has helped to reignite analysis and interest. Many economists have revisited the work of Hyman Minsky (1919–1996), a Belarus-born American economist, who argued that financial cycles are an inherent part of the economic cycle and contribute to fluctuations in real GDP. Notably, he argued that credit extended to households and businesses is pro-cyclical so that flows of credit extended by banks are larger when the growth of the economy’s output is stronger. Since credit flows are dependent on the phase of the business cycle, they are said to be endogenous to the path of output. The key point here is that there is an inherent mechanism within the economy which is potentially destabilising.

Banks, it is argued, may use the growth of the economy’s output as an indicator of the riskiness of its lending. Households and businesses may undertake a similar assessment. After a period of sustained growth banks and investors become more confident about the future path of the economy and, consequently, in the returns of assets. This means that there is a role for psychology in understanding the business cycle.

If we look at the chart, this period of heightened confidence may correspond with the period starting from the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2007 the average monthly net flow of credit to private non-financial corporations and households was £9.4 billion. In other words, households and businesses were acquiring a staggering £9.4 billion of additional debt from banks each month. But, this was as high as £14.0 billion per month in 2007. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

What helped to fuel the impact of heightened confidence on credit provision was 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. The result was that during the 2000s as households and businesses began to acquire larger debts their financial well-being became increasingly stretched. This was hastened by central banks raising interest rates. The intention was to dampen the rising rate of inflation, partly attributable to rising global commodity prices, such as oil. Suddenly, euphoria was replaced with pessimism.

Some argue that a Minsky moment had occurred. Many countries then witnessed a balance sheet recession. As individual households and businesses try and improve their own financial well-being they collectively contribute to its worsening. For instance, large-scale attempts to sell assets, such as shares or property, only help to cause their value to decline.

A 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 chart shows that lending in 2014 is more robust than it has been form some time. Across the first seven months of 2014 the average monthly net flow of credit extended by banks to households and businesses (private non-financial corporations) has been £2.2 billion.

However, the 2014-rebound of credit is wholly attributable to lending to households. Net lending to households has averaged £2.7 billion per month while businesses have been repaying credit to banks to the tune of £437 million per month – something that businesses have collectively done in each year from 2009. While net lending to households remains considerably lower than pre-financial crisis levels, it will be something that policymakers will be watching very closely. This, in turn, means that they will be paying particular interest to the housing and mortgage markets.

Articles
Appetite for loans picks up again, say major banks BBC News (23/9/14)
Business lending by UK banks is down by £941m Herald Scotland, Ian McConnell (27/8/14)
How bank lending fell by £365 BILLION in five years… much to the delight of controversial payday loan firms Mail, Louise Eccles (7/09/14)
U.K.’s Big Banks Cut Lending by $595 Billion, KPMG Says Bloomberg, Richard Partington (8/9/14)
UK banks’ home loan approvals fall to 12-month low – BBA Reuters, Andy Bruce and Tom Heneghan (23/9/14)

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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