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Fears for UK growth as consumer confidence slumps

In our blog What can we read into signs of easing consumer confidence? we noted the slight easing in consumer confidence that had occurred since the autumn of last year. Nonetheless, at that time, survey data from the European Commission was continuing to show consumer confidence levels still well above their long-run average. However, following the UK vote to leave the European Union consumer confidence has fallen sharply and now the headline confidence indicator has fallen below its long-term average for the first time since June 2013.

We take this opportunity to update our May blog to better understand the extent and nature of the decline in confidence. The importance of confidence changes is typically modelled by economists in their models of the macroeconomy as a demand-side shock. Falling consumer confidence would be expected to dampen an economy’s output levels since aggregate demand falls as households spend less. Consequently, a marked fall in confidence amounts to a negative demand-side shock.

The European Commission’s confidence measure is collated from questions in a monthly survey. In the UK around 2000 individuals are surveyed. Across the current 28 member states over 41 000 people are surveyed.

In the survey individuals are asked a series of 12 questions which are designed to provide information on spending and saving intentions. These questions include perceptions of financial well-being, the general economic situation, consumer prices, unemployment, saving and the undertaking of major purchases.

The responses elicit either negative or positive responses. For example, respondents may feel that over the next 12 months the financial situation of their household will improve a little or a lot, stay the same or deteriorate a little or a lot. A weighted balance of positive over negative replies can be calculated. The balance can vary from –100, when all respondents choose the most negative option, to +100, when all respondents choose the most positive option.

The European Commission’s principal consumer confidence indicator is the average of the balances of four of the twelve questions posed: the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations (with inverted sign) and savings, all over the next 12 months. These forward-looking balances are seasonally adjusted.

Sometimes other combinations of the 12 questions are averaged to produce alternative headline confidence numbers (see, for example, the newspaper articles below). These may include a mix of forward and backward-looking questions. However, in this blog we report on the European Commission’s principal confidence indicator as outlined above. The intention is that this or any other confidence indicator tracks developments in households’ spending intentions and, in turn, likely changes in the rate of growth of household consumption.

Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average of –8.7 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses.

In July the confidence balance stood at –9.2 down from –1.2 in June. This 8 point fall is the largest monthly fall in this particular headline indicator since January 1991 when it fell 11 points. The fall also means that not only do negative responses now dominate but more so than is usual. The fall in confidence is therefore very stark indeed. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Chart 2 is important because it enables us to see what drives the European Commission’s headline confidence indicator for the UK by looking at its four component balances. The sharp decline in confidence is reflected in a deterioration in all four components. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The most notable change in the individual confidence balances is the sharp deterioration in expectations for the general economy. In July the forward-looking general economic situation balance fell to –29.9 having stood at –15.7 in June. As recently as last December it registered –1.4. This is the lowest forward-looking general economy confidence balance since October 2012, though still some way above the –50.1 reported in July 2008 when the financial crisis was unfolding.

Alongside the 14 point drop in the balance for general economy expectations, the UK experienced 8 point drops in both the balances for households’ financial expectations and the expectations of saving over the next 12 months. In other words, households expect to become financially poorer and less able to save.

The monthly survey contains other questions that can help to predict future spending patterns. For example, we might expect the responses to questions relating to perceptions around what the survey call ‘major purchases’ to give us some important insight in households’ financial well-being and spending plans. ‘Major purchases’ are taken to be items such as furniture, electrical goods and electronic devices.

Chart 3 shows the balances to both whether now is the right time to make major purchases and to whether respondents expect to spend more on major purchases in the coming 12 months compared to the past 12 months. July’s data show a marked deterioration in sentiment towards making major purchases. The balance relating to whether now is the right time to make major purchases fell by 6.5 points, the largest fall since December 2011, while the forward-looking major purchase balance fell by 4.6 points, the largest fall since January 2011. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The fall in the major purchases balances is consistent with the idea that households are feeling a sense of heightened uncertainty. The implication of this is that households will tend to be more cautious, cutting back on expenditures, including major purchases.

The magnitude of the fall in UK consumer confidence following the outcome of the EU referendum on 23 June is even more stark when compared to developments in consumer confidence across the 28 member states of the European Union and in the 19 countries that make up the Euro area.

Chart 4 shows how UK consumer confidence recovered relatively more strongly following the financial crisis of the late 2000s. The headline confidence indicator rose strongly from the middle of 2013 and, as we noted earlier, was consistently in positive territory during 2014 and remained so at the start of this year. The slump in consumer confidence in the UK means that the headline confidence measure has now fallen below that across the EU as well as that in the euro area. In fact, confidence in the euro area has been consistently between –7 or –9 for the past six months. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Interest now turns to whether the slump in confidence in the UK will persist or, worse still, deepen further. The implied negative impact on aggregate demand would be expected to translate into weaker growth. The concern therefore is the extent to which we can expect UK growth to weaken in the months ahead. The prospect of weaker growth is likely to influence economic policy.

The government has already talked about ‘resetting fiscal policy’ which can be taken to mean a relative loosening in its fiscal policy relative to the Government’s original plans. Similarly we might yet see a further loosening of monetary policy. While the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee held the official Bank Rate at 0.5 per cent at its July meeting, many commentators expect a cut sooner rather than later. The confidence data will be one important consideration in the Bank’s calculations.

Articles
UK sees biggest fall in consumer confidence for 26 years after Brexit vote The Guardian, Katie Allen (29/7/16)
UK consumer confidence takes biggest drop since 1990s ITV News (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence suffers biggest drop in 26 years after Brexit vote The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence slides at fastest pace in 26 years after Brexit vote Indepedent, Ben Chu (29/7/16)
Housing Outlook ’Uncertain’ as Brexit Hits Consumer Confidence Bloomberg, Charlotte Ryan (28/7/16)
Brexit Sees U.K. Consumer Confidence Fall Most Since 1990 Bloomberg, Charlotte Ryan (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence nosedives in Scotland in wake of Brexit vote Herald Scotland, Helen McArdle (29/7/16)

Data
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission

Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
  2. Analyse the ways in which consumer confidence might affect economic activity.
  3. Explain what you understand by a positive and a negative demand-side shock. How might changes in consumer confidence initiate demand shocks?
  4. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate? (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity. (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence.
  5. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator hope that the indicator would help to predict?
  6. Analyse the possible economic implications of the fall in consumer confidence following the EU referendum vote.
  7. What economic effects might any persistence in the fall in consumer confidence have?
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What can we read into signs of easing consumer confidence?

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

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

Given the impact that confidence can have on economies it is important to have measures which might be thought, however imperfectly, to capture consumer confidence. The European Commission’s confidence measure involves a monthly survey of around 2000 individuals in the UK. Across the 28 member states over 41 000 people are surveyed.

In the survey individuals are asked a series of 12 questions which are designed to provide information on spending and saving intentions. These questions include perceptions of financial well-being, the general economic situation, consumer prices, unemployment, saving and the undertaking of major purchases.

The responses elicit either negative or positive responses. For example, respondents may feel that over the next 12 months the financial situation of their household will improve a little or a lot, stay the same or deteriorate a little or a lot. A weighted balance of positive over negative replies can be calculated. The balance can vary from –100, when all respondents choose the most negative option, to +100, when all respondents choose the most positive option.

The European Commission’s consumer confidence indicator is the average of the balances of four of the twelve questions posed: the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations (with inverted sign) and savings, all over the next 12 months. The balances are seasonally adjusted.

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


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

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

The monthly survey contains other questions that can help to predict future spending patterns. For example, we might expect the responses to questions relating to perceptions around what the survey called ‘major purchases’ to give us some important insight in households’ financial well-being and spending plans. ‘Major purchases’ are taken to be items such as furniture, electrical goods and electronic devices.

Chart 3 shows the balances to both whether now is the right time to make major purchases and to whether respondents expect to spend more on major purchases in the coming 12 months compared to the past 12 months. We can see a marked improvement in sentiment from around the middle of 2013.(Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

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

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

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

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

Data
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission

Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
  2. Analyse the ways in which consumer confidence might affect economic activity.
  3. Explain what you understand by a positive and a negative demand-side shock. How might changes in consumer confidence initiate demand shocks?
  4. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate? (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity. (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence.
  5. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator hope that the indicator would help to predict?
  6. In recent times expectations about the path of the economy have been less optimistic. Yet at the same time more people are positive about how their financial situation will develop. What might explain this apparent contradiction?
  7. What might the long-term average value of the consumer confidence indicator reveal about peoples’ natural perceptions and expectations of their well-being?
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Start your engines

There’s been much talk about the UK’s economic recovery and whether or not it has begun and whether consumer spending is actually the cause. The latest sector to post positive figures is the car industry, which has seen 2013 bring in the highest level of car sales since the onset of the credit crunch.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), vehicle registrations in 2013 were 2.26 million, which represented a 10.8% increase from 2012. That’s not to say that we have returned to the heights seen pre-crisis levels, as sales still remain some way below their 2007 figure, but the data is certainly moving in the right direction. The key questions are: What’s the cause of this growth and what does it mean for the UK economy?

The economy has certainly turned a corner and perhaps consumer confidence is improving to reflect this. With consumes more optimistic about future economic prospects, more luxury items may well be purchased. During the height of the recession, many families may well have said ‘it will last’ or ‘we’ll make do’, referring to their old cars. However, this improved confidence, together with attractive finance deals may have been instrumental in convincing consumers to splash out. This is reflected in the data, which indicates that some 75% of car sales involve a finance package. One further explanation that has been offered by industry analysts is that the refunds individuals are receiving through mis-sold payment protection insurance are providing a nice contribution towards the deposit.

PPI payments will certainly dry up, but as long as attractive finance packages remain, car sales should continue. A key factor affecting affordability may be interest rates. When they increase, any variable rate loans will become more expensive to service and this may act to deter consumers. However, if the car industry helps to stimulate other sectors and wages begin to increase, the overall effect may be to sustain and even further the growth of this key economic sector. The following articles consider the car industry.

UK car sales hit five-year high The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/1/14)
UK new car sales highest since 2007, SMTT says BBC News (7/1/14)
Car sales increased by almost 11% in 2013 Sky News (7/1/14)
UK new car sales rise to highest level since 2007 Reuters, David Milliken (7/1/14)
UK car sales up 11% in 2013, topping pre-crisis levels Wall Street Journal, Matthew Curtin and Ian Walker (7/1/14)
New car sales in UK at highest since before recession Independent, Sean O’Grady (7/1/14)
UK car sales top pre-recession levels Financial Times, Henry Foy (6/1/14)

Questions

  1. How important is the car industry in the context of the UK economy?
  2. How is the UK car industry performing relative to its Western rivals?
  3. Would a 30% single rate of income tax be equitable?
  4. Explain the way in which car sales have been affected by consumer confidence.
  5. How have finance packages helped to stimulate car sales?
  6. What are the key macroeconomic variables that are likely to affect the future performance of this key sector?
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Dreaming of a white Christmas

This autumn has been one of the mildest on record. Whilst this may be very nice for most of us, certain industries have been suffering. For example, gas and electricity consumption is down as people delay turning on their heating. One sector particularly badly hit has been clothing. Sales of winter clothes are substantially down and many retailers are longing for colder weather to boost their sales.

Of course, this is not helped by consumer incomes. With inflation at around 5% and average (pre-tax) weekly earnings currently rising by less than 2%, real incomes are falling. In fact over the year, even nominal disposable incomes are down 2.1%, given the rise in national insurance and income tax. And the problem of falling incomes is compounded by worries over the future state of the economy – whether it will go back into recession, with further falls in real income and rises in unemployment.

It’s no wonder that retailers are longing for some cold weather and for their customers to return from the seaside or their garden barbecues to the shopping malls. Look out for the ‘sales’ signs: they’re beginning to spring up as desperate retailers seek to attract wary customers.

Webcast
Retailers slash prices in Christmas build-up BBC News, Tim Muffett (25/11/11)

Articles
Winter woes: warm weather means shoppers aren’t buying as much Guardian, Zoe Wood (21/11/11)
Shoppers urged to be savvy as Christmas sales last for weeks The Telegraph, Victoria Ward (21/11/11)

Data
Earnings tables: Labour Market Statistics ONS (November 2011)
Personal Income and Wealth ONS
Price Indices and Inflation ONS
Personal Inflation Calculator (PIC) ONS

Questions

  1. Identify the determinants of demand for winter clothing.
  2. How responsive is demand likely to be to these determinants (a) over a period of a few weeks; (b) over a period of a few months?
  3. What factors should a retailer take into account when deciding whether to make pre-Christmas discounts?
  4. Assume that you are employed but are afraid of losing your job in a few months’ time. How would this affect your consumption of (a) seasonal goods; (b) durable goods; (c) day-to-day goods?
  5. What longer-term strategies could retailers adopt if they predict tough trading conditions over the next two or three years?
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Calls grow for a Plan B

With all the concerns recently about Greek and Italian debt and about the whole future of the eurozone, you would be forgiven for thinking that the problems of the UK economy had gone away. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Problems are mounting and pessimism is growing.

First there is the problem of a contracting eurozone economy. This will directly impact on the UK as almost half of UK exports go to eurozone countries. Second there is the impact of the government expenditure cuts, most of which have still not taken effect yet. Third there is the fact that, with the combination of inflation over 5% and nominal pay typically rising by no more than 2%, real take-home pay is falling and hence too is the volume of consumer expenditure. Fourth, there is the increasingly pessimistic mood of consumers and business. The more pessimistic people become about the prospects for their jobs and incomes, the more people will rein in their spending; the more pessimistic businesses become, the more they will cut back on investment and economise on stock holding.

Forecasts for the UK economy have become considerably bleaker over the past few weeks. These include forecasts by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the accountancy network BDO, Ernst & Young’s ITEM Club and the CBI in its SME Trends Survey and November Economic Forecast. The Treasury’s latest Forecasts for the UK Economy, which brings together forecasts by 29 different organisations, also shows a marked increase in pessimism from September to October.

So is it now time for the government to change course to prevent the economy slipping back into recession? Do we need a Plan B? Certainly, it’s something we’ve considered before on this news site (see Time for a Plan B?). The latest call has come from a group of 100 leading academic economists who have written to the Observer. In their letter they spell out what such a plan should contain. You’ll find a link to the letter below and to other articles considering the proposals.

The letter
We economists have a Plan B that will work, Mr Osborne Observer letters (29/10/11)

Articles
Plan B: the ideas designed to restart a stalled UK economy Observer, Daniel Boffey and Heather Stewart (29/10/11)
Plan B could have been even more aggressive, but it would definitely work Observer, Will Hutton (29/10/11)
The economy: we need Plan B and we need it now Observer editorial (30/10/11)
If tomorrow’s growth figures disappoint, Plan B will be a step closer, whatever David Cameron says The Telegraph, Daniel Knowles (31/10/11)
Plan B to escape the mess we are in Compass, John Weeks (7/11/11)

The report
Plan B; a good economy for a good society Compass, Edited by Howard Reed and Neal Lawson (31/10/11)

Questions

  1. What are the main proposals in Compass’s Plan B?
  2. How practical are these proposals?
  3. Without a Plan B, what is likely to happen to the UK economy over (a) the coming 12 months; (b) the next 3 years?
  4. Why might sticking to Plan A worsen the public-sector deficit – at least in the short term?
  5. What are the main arguments for sticking to Plan A and not easing up on deficit reduction?
  6. Find out what proportion of the UK’s debt is owed to non-UK residents? (See data published by the UK’s Debt Management Office (DMO).) How does this proportion and the average length of UK debt affect the arguments about the sustainability of this level of debt and the ease of servicing it?
  7. If you had to devise a Plan B, what would it look like and why? To what extent would it differ from Compass’s Plan B and from George Osborne’s “Plan A”?
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Has the US caught a cold?

The growing interdependence of economies has never been more true than over the past few years. The credit crunch began in the US and gradually spread to the rest of the world. As the saying goes, ‘when America sneezes, the world catches a cold’. The US economy is the largest in the world and with such a close relationship to the UK, its economic situation is critical. GDP growth in the first quarter was a mere 0.4% and in the second quarter, it was revised down from the US Commerce Department’s original estimate of 1.3% to just 1%. This was attributed to weaker growth in business inventories, a fall in exports and less spending from the state and local governments. Personal consumption expenditure and exports did rise, but the increase in the former was hardly noticeable (0.4%) and in both cases, the second quarter increase was significantly down on that in the first quarter.

With GDP growth remaining low, there’s not much better news when it comes to US unemployment, which remained at 9.1% from July. It was expected that a further 70,000 jobs would be created in August, but the latest figures suggest that no new jobs were created. It seems that the data on growth and the components of aggregate demand are enough to bring consumer and investor confidence down. Virginie Maisonneuve said:

‘Companies that are overall doing OK are hesitating to hire and invest further, creating some fragility for the economy… We will need some help from the Fed and the government to avoid a recession.’

President Obama is due to make a speech in which he will outline a new plan to boost economic growth. Crucial to this will be restoring confidence, as without it, businesses will not invest, consumers will save rather than spend, jobs will not be created and growth will remain sluggish. This will do nothing to help the still weak economies of Europe. Indeed, following news of the US job situation, stock markets across the world fell, as fears of recession set in. The Dow Jones opened 2% down, the FTSE 100 ended 2.3% down (although this was also affected by a weakening in the construction sector), markets in Germany, France and Spain were down by over 3% and in Italy by over 4%.

US GDP revised down to 1pc in second quarter as growth stalls Telegraph (26/8/11)
US economy: no new jobs added in August BBC News (2/9/11)
Jobs data confirm US growth fears Financial Times, Robin Harding and Johanna Kassel (2/9/11)
Markets fall on weak U jobs data BBC News (2/9/11)
FTSE falls after weak US jobs data The Press Association (2/9/11)
European stocks knocked by dire US jobs data Reuters (2/9/11)
Fears over US economy cause world market route Economic Times (2/9/11)
FTSE 100 extends losses after poor US non farm payroll figures Guardian (2/9/11)

Questions

  1. What is aggregate demand? Which component is the biggest engine of growth for an economy?
  2. Why did markets decline following the data on US jobs?
  3. Why is the economic situation in America so important to the economic recovery of other countries across Europe?
  4. Why are there suggestions that the US is underestimating its inflation?
  5. Why is the US economic data for the second quarter of 2011 so much worse than that of the first quarter? What could have caused this downturn?
  6. What action could the government and the Fed take to boost confidence in the US economy and stimulate economic growth? Can any of this be done without causing inflation?
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Time for a Plan B?

The government is sticking to its deficit reduction plan. But with worries about a lack of economic recovery, or even a double dip recession, some economists are calling for a Plan B. They back up their arguments by referring to the lack of consumer confidence, falling real incomes and rising commodity prices. Without a slowing down in cuts and tax rises, the lack of aggregate demand, they claim, will prevent a recovery.

The government maintains that sticking to the cuts and tax rises helps maintain international confidence and thereby helps to keep interest rates low. Also, it argues, if the economy does slow down, then automatic stabilisers will come into play. Finally, even though fiscal policy is tight, monetary policy is relatively loose, with historically low interest rates.

But will there be enough confidence to sustain a recovery? Economists are clearly divided. But at least the IMF seems to think so. In its latest assessment of the UK economy, although it has cut the growth forecast for 2011 from 2% to 1.5%, that is still a positive figure and thus represents a recovery, albeit a rather fragile one.

Articles
Coalition’s spending plans simply don’t add up Observer letters, 52 economists (5/6/11)
Is George Osborne losing his grip on Britain’s economic recovery? Guardian, Heather Stewart and Daniel Boffey (4/6/11)
George Osborne plan isn’t working, say top UK economists Guardian, Heather Stewart and Daniel Boffey (4/6/11)
How are the Coalition fixing the economy? The Telegraph, Tim Montgomerie (28/5/11)
Cameron’s new cuts narrative The Spectator, Fraser Nelson (27/5/11)
The changing narrative of Chancellor George Orborne Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (17/5/11)
The UK could be leading with a new economic approach, instead we follow Guardian, Will Hutton (4/6/11)
The coalition’s strategy is courting disaster Observer, (5/6/11)
Government faces fresh calls for a Plan B BBC News (5/6/11)
‘Serious debate’ needed on economy BBC Today Programme, Stephanie Flanders (6/6/11)
IMF cuts UK growth forecast for 2011 BBC News, John Lipsky (Deputy Director of the IMF) (6/6/11)
IMF says hope for best, plan for worst BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (6/6/11)
IMF set out a ‘Plan B’ for George Osborne BBC News, Paul Mason (6/6/11)
How to rebalance our economy Independent, Sean O’Grady (6/6/11)
IMF maps out a Plan B for the UK economy The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (6/6/11)
A long and hard road lies ahead for the British economy Financial Times, Martin Wolf (6/6/11)

IMF Report
United Kingdom – 2011 Article IV Consultation Concluding Statement of the Mission (6/6/11)

Forecasts
OECD Economic Outlook 89 Annex Tables (June 2011): see especially Annex Table 1
Output, prices and jobs The Economist

Questions

  1. Explain what is likely to happen to each of the components of aggregate demand.
  2. Is monetary policy loose enough? How could it be made looser, given that Bank rate is at the historically low level of 0.5% and could barely go any lower?
  3. What are automatic fiscal stablisers and how are they likely to affect aggregate demand if growth falters? What impact would this have on the public-sector deficit?
  4. What is meant by the ‘inventory cycle’? How did this impact on growth in 2010 and the first part of 2011?
  5. What is likely to happen to inflation in the coming months and why? How is this likely to impact on economic growth?
  6. Referring to the economists’ letter (the first link above), what do you think they mean by “a green new deal and a focus on targeted industrial policy” and how would this affect economic growth?
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The princess, mood music and weak mortgage approval numbers

There is no bigger purchase than a house. Ask most individuals who have at some point in their life purchased a house and they will tell you about the considerable time they devoted to making the decision to purchase. It’s not like rushing to a supermarket and purchasing a kilo of sugar. The decision to purchase a property is not taken lightly: the mood music has to be right. Consumer confidence is therefore an important ingredient for an active housing market. The latest mortgage approval data from the Bank of England suggest the music is not right!

April’s mortgage approval numbers continue to demonstrate the on-going fragility of the UK housing market and, in turn, of British households. April saw 45,166 mortgages approved for house purchase. What makes this figure particularly noteworthy is that it is the lowest level recorded in the month of April since the Bank of England figures started back in 1993. It is also 9% lower than April 2010. Some commentators have argued that the number of public holidays in April contributed to the fall in activity. But, 138,756 approvals over the period from February to April was 4.3% lower than over the corresponding period last year. This would suggest that we can’t lay the blame for low levels of mortgage approvals solely on hot cross buns and Kate Middleton!

The weakness in mortgage approvals data has been regular news for some time. Over the past two years the number of approvals per month has been close to 50K compared to about 89K over the past ten years. What makes the latest figures troubling is that there is no indication of recovery any time soon. Rather, the figures show that housing demand may be weakening yet again. If we exclude December’s low of 42,772, when housing market activity was hit by the harsh winter conditions, April’s figure is the lowest since March 2009.

The weakness in the demand for housing can in large part be attributed to the poor mood music: economic growth remains fragile, average real incomes have been declining and unemployment levels are expected to rise over the coming months. Furthermore, households are naturally reluctant to purchase property is they think house prices may fall further. All in all, we can expect the weakness in housing demand to persist for some time. The question seems to be one of just how weak housing demand will be. The next few months promise to be very interesting to say the least. Keep listening to the music!

Articles
UK mortgage approvals hit record low in April Telegraph, Emma Rowley and Harry Wilson (2/6/11)
Mortgage approvals fall to record April low Guardian, Mark King (1/6/11)
Mortgage approvals fall to two-year low Financial Times, Norma Cohen (1/6/11)
Mortgage approvals hit new low, Bank of England reports BBC News (1/6/11)
UK mortgage approvals drop to lowest in four months on lower confidence Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton (1/6/11) )
Pound drops on weak UK manufacturing PMI and mortgage approvals data RTT News (6/1/11)

Data
Mortgage approval numbers and other lending data are available from the Bank of England’s statistics publication, Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) (See Table A5.4.)

Questions

  1. How sensitive do you think mortgage approval numbers are likely to be both current and future economic conditions?
  2. Are there any other types of purchases which households make which you might expect to be especially sensitive to economic conditions?
  3. Is it just the weakness in the demand for housing which explains the current low levels of mortgage approvals? Explain your answer
  4. Do weak mortgage approval numbers mean that we should expect house prices to fall in the months ahead? Use demand and supply diagrams to help explain your answer.
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What would Keynes do?

The debate about how much and how fast to cut the deficit has often been presented as a replaying of the debates of the 1920s and 30s between Keynes and the Treasury.

The justification for fiscal expansion to tackle the recession in 2008/9 was portrayed as classic Keynesianism. The problem was seen as a short-term one of a lack of spending. The solution was seen as one of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. There was relatively little resistance to such stimulus packages at the time, although some warned against the inevitable growth in public-sector debt.

But now that the world economy is in recovery mode – albeit a highly faltering one in many countries – and given the huge overhang of government deficits and debts, what would Keynes advocate now? Here there is considerable disagreement.

Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, argues that Keynes would have supported the deficit reduction plans of the Coalition government. He would still have stressed the importance of aggregate demand, but would have argued that investor and consumer confidence, which are vital preconditions for maintaining private-sector demand, are best maintained by a credible plan to reduce the deficit. What is more, inflows of capital are again best encouraged by fiscal rectitude. As he argued in the New Statesman article below

One plausible explanation, from Olivier Blanchard of the IMF, is that the Keynesian model of fiscal policy works well enough in most conditions, but not when there is a fiscal crisis. In those circumstances, households and businesses react to increased deficits by saving more, because they expect spending cuts and tax increases in the future. At a time like this, fiscal multipliers decline and turn negative. Conversely, firm action to reduce deficits provides reassurance to spend and invest. Such arguments are sometimes described as “Ricardian equivalence” – that deficits cannot stimulate demand because of expected future tax increases.

Those on the other side are not arguing against a long-term reduction in government deficits, but rather that the speed and magnitude of cuts should depend on the state of the economy. Too much cutting and too fast would cause a reduction in aggregate demand and a consequent reduction in output. This would undermine confidence, not strengthen it. Critics of the Coalition government’s policy point to the fragile nature of the recovery and the historically low levels of consumer confidence

The following articles provide some of the more recent contributions to the debate.

Keynes would be on our side New Statesman, Vince Cable (12/1/11)
Cable’s attempt to claim Keynes is well argued — but unconvincing New Statesman, David Blanchflower and Robert Skidelsky (27/1/11)
Growth or cuts? Keynes would not back the coalition – especially over jobs Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/1/11)
People do not understand how bad the economy is Guardian, Vince Cable (20/5/11)
The Budget Battle: WWHD? (What Would Hayek Do?) AK? (And Keynes?) PBS Newshour, Paul Solman (29/4/11)
Keynes vs. Hayek, the Rematch: Keynes Responds PBS Newshour, Paul Solman (2/5/11)
On Not Reading Keynes New York Times, Paul Krugman (1/5/11)
Would a More Expansionary Fiscal Policy Be Effective Right Now? Yes: On the Invisible Bond Market and Inflation Vigilantes Once Again Blog: Grasping Reality with a Prehensile Tail, Brad DeLong (12/5/11)
Keynes, Crisis and Monopoly Capitalism The Real News, Robert Skidelsky and Paul Jay (29/4/11)

Questions

  1. What factors in the current economic environment affect the level of consumer confidence?
  2. What are the most important factors that will determine whether or not a policy of fiscal consolidation will drive the economy back into recession?
  3. How expansionary is monetary policy at the moment? Is it enough simply to answer this question by reference to central bank repo rates?
  4. What degree of crowding out would be likely to result from an expansionary fiscal policy in the current economic environment? If confidence is adversely affected by expansionary fiscal policy, would this represent a form of crowding out?
  5. Why may fiscal multipliers have ‘turned negative’?
  6. For what reasons might a tight fiscal policy lead to an increase in aggregate demand?
  7. Your turn: what would Keynes have done in the current macroeconomic environment?
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Is there a Plan B for the UK economy?

The government’s plan for the UK economy is well known. Reduce the public-sector deficit to restore confidence and get the economy going again. The deficit will be reduced mainly by government spending cuts but also by tax increases, including a rise in VAT from 17.5% to 20% on 1 January 2011. Reductions in public-sector demand will be more than offset by a rise in private-sector demand.

But what if private-sector demand does not increase sufficiently? With a fall in government expenditure, reduced public-sector employment and higher taxes, the danger is that demand for private-sector output may actually fall. And this is not helped by a decline in both consumer and business confidence (see, for example, Nationwide Consumer Confidence Index). What is more, consumer borrowing has been falling (see Consumer borrowing falls again) as people seek to reduce their debt, fearing an uncertain future.

So does the government have a ‘Plan B’ to stimulate the economy if it seems to be moving back into recession? Or will it be ‘cuts, come what may’? The Financial Times (see link below) has revealed that senior civil servants have indeed been considering possible stimulus measures if a return to recession seems likely.

Over in Threadneedle Street, there has been a debate in the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee over whether an additional round of quantitative easing may be necessary. So far, the MPC has rejected this approach, but one member, Adam Posen, has strongly advocated stimulating demand (see The UK inflation outlook if this time isn’t different, arguing that the current high inflation is the result of temporary cost-push factors and is not indicative of excessively strong demand.

So should there be a Plan B? And if so, what should it look like?

Articles
Gus O’Donnell’s economic ‘Plan B’ emerges BBC News, Nick Robinson (14/12/10)
Sir Gus O’Donnell asks ministers to consider possible stimulus measures Financial Times, Jim Pickard (14/12/10) (includes link to article by Philip Stephens)
Gus O’Donnell urges Treasury to prepare ‘Plan B’ for economy Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt (14/12/10)
Unemployment, and that ‘Plan B’ BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (15/12/10)
Inflation wars (cont’d) BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (16/12/10)
Don’t overreact to UK inflation – Bank’s Posen Reuters, Patrick Graham (16/12/10)
Bank of England’s Adam Posen calls for more quantitative easing The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick and Emma Rowley (29/9/10)
Don’t overreact to above-target UK inflation rate, cautions Posen Herald Scotland, Ian McConnell (17/12/10)
Posen calls for calm as inflation fears rise Independent, Sean O’Grady (17/12/10)

Data
OECD Economic Outlook OECD (see, in particular, Tables 1, 18, 27, 28 and 32)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM Treasury
UK Economic Outlook PricewaterhouseCoopers
Employment and Unemployment ONS
Inflation Report Bank of England

Questions

  1. What are likely to be the most important factors in determining the level of aggregate demand in the coming months?
  2. What are the dangers of (a) not having a Plan B and (b) having and publishing a Plan B?
  3. Why is inflation currently above target? What is likely to happen to inflation over the coming months?
  4. What are the arguments for and against having another round of quantitative easing?
  5. What else could the Bank of England do to stimulate a flagging economy?
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