The Economist is probably not the kind of newspaper that you will read more than once per issue – certainly not two years after its publication date. That is because, by definition, financial news articles are ephemeral: they have greater value, the more recent they are – especially in the modern financial world, where change can be strikingly fast. To my surprise, however, I found myself reading again an article on inequality that I had first read two years ago – and it is (of course) still relevant today.
The title of the article was ‘You may be higher in the global wealth pyramid than you think’ and it discusses exactly that: how much wealth does it take for someone to be considered ‘rich’? The answer to this question is of course, ‘it depends’. And it does depend on which group you compare yourself against. Although this may feel obvious, some of the statistics that are presented in this article may surprise you.
According to the article
If you had $2200 to your name (adding together your bank deposits, financial investments and property holdings, and subtracting your debts) you might not think yourself terribly fortunate. But you would be wealthier than half the world’s population, according to this year’s Global Wealth Report by the Crédit Suisse Research Institute. If you had $71 560 or more, you would be in the top tenth. If you were lucky enough to own over $744 400 you could count yourself a member of the global 1% that voters everywhere are rebelling against.
For many (including yours truly) these numbers may come as a surprise when you first see them. $2200 in today’s exchange rate is about £1640. And this is wealth, not income – including all earthly possessions (net of debt). £1640 of wealth is enough to put you ahead of half of the planet’s population. Have a $774 400 (£556 174 – about the average price of a two-bedroom flat in London) and – congratulations! You are part of the global richest 1% everyone is complaining about…
Such comparisons are certainly thought provoking. They show how unevenly wealth is distributed across countries. They also show that countries which are more open to trade are more likely to have benefited the most from it. Take a closer look at the statistics and you will realise that you are more likely to be rich (compared to the global average) if you live in one of these countries.
Of course, wealth inequality does not happen only across countries – it happens also within countries. You can own a two-bedroom flat in London (and be, therefore, part of the 1% global elite), but having to live on a very modest budget because your income (which is a flow variable, as opposed to wealth, which is a stock variable) has not grown fast enough in relation to other parts of the national population.
Would you be better off if there were less trade? Certainly not – you would probably be even poorer, as trade theories (and most of the empirical evidence I am aware of) assert. Why do we then talk so much about trade wars and trade restrictions recently? Why do we elect politicians who advocate such restrictions? It is probably easier to answer these questions using political than economic theory (although game theory may have some interesting insights to offer – have you heard of the ‘Chicken game‘?). But as I am neither political scientists nor a game theorist, I will just continue to wonder about it.
How much do you know about cryptocurrencies? Even if you don’t know much you are very likely to have heard about the most popular member of the family: Bitcoin. Bitcoin (BTC) has been around for some time now (see the blog Bubbling Bitcoin). It was first released in 2009 by its inventor (the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose real identity still remains unknown), and since then it has gradually increased in popularity.
According to the Bitcoin Market Journal (a specialised blog, commenting on trends in digital currencies – primarily Bitcoin), there are currently about 29 million digital wallets holding at least 0.001 BTC, although some individual users may own multiple wallets.
Although BTC is the most popular digital currency (and the first one to become widely recognisable), it is certainly not the only one. There are currently more than 400 recognisable cryptocurrencies traded in special digital exchanges (twice this number if you count smaller, less successful ones) with a total capitalisation of $700 billion at its peak (January 3, 2018) – although since then the market has lost a significant part of this value (but it’s still worth 100s of billion of US dollars).
If you have heard about Bitcoin before, chances are you first searched for it sometime between December 2017 and January 2018; that is when the value of Bitcoin soared to $20 000 a piece. A search on Google Trends (a Google utility that shows how many people have searched over a period of time for a certain term – in this case “Bitcoin”) shows this very clearly.
So what do people do with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? The truth is that the majority of users use them for speculative purposes: they buy and sell them, in the hope of making a profit. Due to its extreme volatility (it is very common for the price of the larger cryptocurrencies to fluctuate by 10–20% daily) and the unregulated nature of the cryptocurrency market, it is hardly surprising that most users treat them as very high-risk commodity. This is also why digital currencies tend to attract attention (and new users) when their price soars.
However, cryptocurrencies are not only used for speculation. They can also be used to facilitate transactions. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, there are currently more than 100 000 merchants accepting BTC as a form of payment (online or offline with wallet readers). Financial technology (‘Fintech’) is catching up with this market and some new companies try to compete with the traditional payment networks (Mastercard, Visa and others) by launching plastic cards linked with crypto-wallets (primarily Bitcoin).
Santander bank has expressed an interest in exploring this market further. It is certain that if the market for cryptocurrencies keeps growing at this pace, there will be a lot more challenger fintech firms launching new products that will make it easier to use digital currencies in everyday life.
Cryptocurrencies, therefore, are likely to have a significant impact on the way we pay for our transactions. They can be used to lower transaction costs (e.g. by simplifying the process of sending money abroad), speed up the processing of payments, facilitate microfinancing and transactions in some of the poorest places on earth – where the closest bank may be 50 miles away or further from where people live).
But there is a dark side to these products. They have been linked to tax-evasion for instance, as many people who trade digital currencies fail to declare capital gains to national tax authorities. They can be used to overcome capital controls and other restrictions imposed by national governments (the case of Greece comes to mind as a recent example).
They have also been blamed for facilitating illegal trading activities, such as in drugs and weapons, due to the anonymity that some of these coins are thought to offer to their users – although quite often they are much easier to trace than their users believe.
Cryptocurrencies do have the potential to change the way we live. They also have the potential to become the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of mankind.
Over the next few months, I will write a number of blogs to explore the literature on the economics of cryptocurrencies, and discuss some of the major challenges that needs to be overcome if this technology is to become mainstream.
I recently found myself talking about my favourite TV shows from my childhood. Smurfs aside, the most popular one for me (and I suppose for many other people from my generation) had to be Knight Rider. It was a story about a crime fighter (David Hasselhoff) and his a heavily modified, artificially intelligent Pontiac Firebird. ‘Kitt’ was a car that could drive itself, engage in thoughtful and articulate conversations, carry out missions and (of course) come up with solutions to complex problems! A car that was very far from what was technologically possible in the 80s – and this was part of its charm.
Today this technology is becoming reality. Google, Tesla and most major automakers are testing self-driving cars with many advanced features like Kitt’s – if not better. They may not fire rockets, but they can drive themselves; they can search the internet; they can answer questions in a language of your choice; and they can be potentially integrated with a number of other technologies (such as car sharing apps) to revolutionise the way we own and use our cars. It will take years until we are able to purchase and use a self-driving car – but it appears very likely that this technology is going to become roadworthy within our lifetime.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is already becoming part of our life. You can buy a robotic vacuum cleaner online for less than a £1000. You can get gadgets like Amazon’s Alexa, that can help you automate your supermarket shopping, for instance. If you are Saudi, you can boast that you are compatriots with a humanoid: Saudi Arabia was the first country to grant citizenship to Sophia, an impressive humanoid and apparently a notorious conversationalist who does not miss an opportunity to address a large audience – and it has done so numerous times already in technology fairs, national congresses – even the UN Assembly! Sophia is the first robot to be honoured with a UN title!
What will be the impact of such technologies on labour markets? If cars can drive themselves, what is going to happen to the taxi drivers? Or the domestic housekeepers – who may find themselves increasingly displaced by cleaning robots. Or warehouse workers who may find themselves displaced by delivery bots (did you know that Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, owns a warehouse where most of the work is carried out by robots?). There is no doubt that labour markets are bound to change. But should we (the human labour force) be worried about it? Acemoglu et al (2017) think that we should:
Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages […] According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 per cent.
Automation is likely to affect unskilled workers more than skilled ones, as unskilled jobs are the easiest ones to automate. This could have widespread social implications, as it might widen the divide between the poor (who are more likely to have unskilled jobs) and the affluent (who are more likely to own AI technologies). As mentioned in a recent Boston Consulting Group report (see below):
The future of work is likely to involve large structural changes to the labour market and potentially a net loss of jobs, mostly in routine occupations. An estimated 15 million UK jobs could be at risk of automation, with 63 per cent of all jobs impacted to a medium or large extent.
On the other hand, the adoption of automation is likely to result in higher efficiency, huge productivity gains and less waste. Automation will enable us to use the resources that we have in the most efficient way – and this is bound to result in wealth creation. It will also push human workers away from manual, routine jobs – and it will force them to acquire skills and engage in creative thinking. One thing is for certain: labour markets are changing and they are changing fast!
The last two weeks have been quite busy for macroeconomists, HM Treasury staff and statisticians in the UK. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Phillip Hammond, delivered his (fairly upbeat) Spring Budget Statement on 13 March, highlighting among other things the ‘stellar performance’ of UK labour markets. According to a Treasury Press Release:
Employment has increased by 3 million since 2010, which is the equivalent of 1,000 people finding work every day. The unemployment rate is close to a 40-year low. There is also a joint record number of women in work – 15.1 million. The OBR predict there will be over 500,000 more people in work by 2022.
To put these figures in perspective, according to recent ONS estimates, in January 2018 the rate of UK unemployment was 4.3 per cent – down from 4.4 per cent in December 2017. This is the lowest it has been since 1975. This is of course good news: a thriving labour market is a prerequisite for a healthy economy and a good sign that the UK is on track to full recovery from its 2008 woes.
The Bank of England welcomed the news with a mixture of optimism and relief, and signalled that the time for the next interest rate hike is nigh: most likely at the next MPC meeting in May.
But what is the practical implication of all this for UK consumers and workers?
For workers it means it’s a ‘sellers’ market’: as more people get into employment, it becomes increasingly difficult for certain sectors to fill new vacancies. This is pushing nominal wages up. Indeed, UK wages increased on average by 2.6 per cent year-to-year.
In real terms, however, wage growth has not been high enough to outpace inflation: real wages have fallen by 0.2 per cent compared to last year. Britain has received a pay rise, but not high enough to compensate for rising prices. To quote Matt Hughes, a senior ONS statistician:
Employment and unemployment levels were both up on the quarter, with the employment rate returning to its joint highest ever. ‘Economically inactive’ people — those who are neither working nor looking for a job — fell by their largest amount in almost five and a half years, however. Total earnings growth continues to nudge upwards in cash terms. However, earnings are still failing to outpace inflation.
An increase in interest rates is likely to put further pressure on indebted households. Even more so as it coincides with the end of the five-year grace period since the launch of the 2013 Help-to-Buy scheme, which means that many new homeowners who come to the end of their five year fixed rate deals, will soon find themselves paying more for their mortgage, while also starting to pay interest on their Help-to-buy government loan.
Will wages grow fast enough in 2018 to outpace inflation (and despite Brexit, which is now only 12 months away)? We shall see.
The President of the United States, Donald Trump, announced recently that he will be pushing ahead with plans to impose a 25% tariff on imports of steel and a 10% tariff on aluminium. This announcement has raised concerns among the USA’s largest trading partners – including the EU, Canada and Mexico, which, according to recent calculations, expect to lose more than $5 billion in steel exports and over $1 billion in aluminium exports.
A number of economists and policymakers are worried that such policies restrict trade and are likely to provoke retaliation by the affected trade partners. In recent statements, the EU has pledged to take counter-measures if the bloc is affected by these policies. In a recent press conference, the Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmstrom, stated that:
We have made it clear that a move that hurts the EU and puts thousands of European jobs in jeopardy will be met with a firm and proportionate response.
She added that, ‘I truly hope that this will not happen. A trade war has no winners.’
Why is everyone so worried about trade wars then? Trade wars, by definition, result in trade diversion which can hurt employment, wealth creation and overall economic performance in the affected countries. As affected states are almost certain to retaliate, these losses are likely to be felt by all parties that are involved in a trade war – including the one that instigated it. This results in a net welfare loss, the size of which depends on a number of factors, including the relative size of the countries that take part in the trade war, the importance of the affected industries to the local economy and others.
A number of studies have attempted to estimate the effect of trade restrictions and tariff wars on welfare: see for instance Anderson and Wincoop (2001), Syropoulos (2002), Fellbermayr et al. (2013). The results vary widely, depending on the case. However, there seems to be consensus that the more similar (in terms of size and industry composition) the adversaries are, the more mutually damaging a trade war is likely to be (and, therefore, less likely to happen).
As Miyagiwa et al (2016, p43) explain:
A country initiates contingent protection policy against a trading partner only if the latter has a considerably smaller domestic market than its own, while avoiding confrontation with a country having a substantially larger domestic market than its own.
As both Canada and the EU are very large advanced market economies, it remains to be seen how much risk (and potential damage to the local and global economy) US trade policymakers are willing to take.