These are challenging times for business. Economic growth has weakened markedly over the past 18 months with output currently growing at an annual rate of around 1.5 per cent, a percentage point below the long-term average. Spending power continues to be squeezed, with the annual rate of inflation in October reported to be running at 3.1 per cent compared to annual earnings growth of 2.5 per cent (see the squeeze continues). Moreover, consumer confidence remains fragile with households continuing to express particular concerns about the general economy and unemployment.
Here, we update our blog of July 2016 which, following the UK vote to leave the European Union, noted the fears for UK growth as confidence fell sharply. Consumer confidence is frequently identified by macro-economists as an important source of economic volatility. Indeed many macro models use a change in consumer confidence as a means of illustrating how economic shocks affect a range of macro variables, including growth, employment and inflation. Many economists agree that, in the short term at least, falling levels of confidence adversely affect activity because aggregate demand falls as households spend less.
The European Commission’s confidence measure is collated from questions in a monthly survey. In the UK around 2000 individuals are surveyed. Across the EU as a whole 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. The aggregate confidence indicator is thought to track developments in households’ spending intentions and, in turn, likely movements in the rate of growth of household consumption.
Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average of –8.6 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses. In November 2017 the confidence balance stood at -5.2 roughly on par with its value in the previous two months, though marginally up on values of close to -7 over the summer. However, as recently as the beginning of 2016 the aggregate confidence score was running at around +4. In this context, current levels do constitute a significant change in consumer sentiment, changes which do ordinarily mark similar turning points in economic activity.(Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Chart 2 allows to look behind the European Commission’s headline confidence indicator for the UK by looking at its four component balances. From it, we can see a deterioration in all four components. However, by far the most significant change in the individual confidence balances has been the sharp deterioration in expectations for the general economy. In November the forward-looking general economic situation stood at -25.5, compared to its long-run average of -11.6. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The fall in UK consumer confidence is even more stark when compared to developments in consumer confidence across the whole of the European Union and in the 19 countries that make up the Euro area. Chart 3 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 was consistently in positive territory during 2014, 2015 and into 2016. The fall in consumer confidence in the UK has seen the headline confidence measure fall below that for the EU and the euro area. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Consumer (and business) confidence is closely linked to uncertainty. The circumstances following the UK vote to leave the EU have undoubtedly created the conditions for acute uncertainty. Uncertainty breeds caution. Economists sometimes talk about spending being affected by two conflicting motives: prudence and impatience. While impatience creates a desire for spending now, prudence pushes us towards saving and insuring ourselves against uncertainty and unforeseen events. The worry is that the twin forces of fragile confidence and squeezed real earning are weighting heavily in favour of prudence and patience (a reduction in impatience). Going forward, this could create the conditions for a sustained period of subdued growth which, if it were to impact heavily on firms’ investment plans, could adversely impact on the economy’s productive potential. The hope is that the Brexit negotiations can move apace to reduce uncertainty and limit uncertainty’s adverse impact on economic activity.
UK consumer confidence slips in December – Thomson Reuters/Ipsos Reuters (14/12/17)
UK consumer confidence drops to lowest level since Brexit result Independent, Ben Chu (30/11/17)
2017 set to be worst year for UK consumer spending since 2012, Visa says Independent, Josie Cox, (11/12/17)
Carpetright boss warns of ‘fragile’ consumer confidence after profits plunge Telegraph, Jack Torrance (12/12/17)
UK consumers face sharpest price rise in services for nearly a decade Guardian, Richard Partington (5/12/17)
UK average wage growth undershoots inflation again squeezing real incomes Independent, Josie Cox (13/12/17)
Bank sees boost from Brexit progress BBC News (14/12/17)
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission
- Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
- Explain what you understand by a positive and a negative demand-side shock. How might changes in consumer confidence generate demand shocks?
- Analyse the ways in which consumer confidence might affect economic activity.
- Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence?
- What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator expect the indicator to predict?
- Analyse the possible short-term and longer-term economic implications of a fall in consumer confidence.
- How might uncertainty affect consumer confidence?
- What do the concepts of impatience and prudence mean in the context of consumer spending? When consumer confidence falls which of these might become more significant for consumer spending?
UK CPI inflation rose to 3.1% in November. This has forced Mark Carney to write a letter of explanation to the Chancellor – something he is required to do if inflation is more than 1 percentage point above (or below) the target of 2%.
The rise in inflation over the past few months has been caused largely by the depreciation of sterling following the Brexit vote. But there have been other factors at play too. The dollar price of oil has risen by 32% over the past 12 months and there have been large international rises in the price of metals and, more recently, in various foodstuffs. For example, butter prices have risen by over 20% in the past year (although they have declined somewhat recently). Other items that have seen large price rises include books, computer games, clothing and public transport.
The rate of CPI inflation is the percentage increase in the consumer prices index over the previous 12 months. When there is a one-off rise in prices, such as a rise in oil prices, its effect on inflation will only last 12 months. After that, assuming the price does not rise again, there will be no more effect on inflation. The CPI will be higher, but inflation will fall back. The effect may not be immediate, however, as input price changes take a time to work through supply chains.
Given that the main driver of inflation has been the depreciation in sterling, once the effect has worked through in terms of higher prices, inflation will fall back. Only if sterling continued depreciating would an inflation effect continue. So, many commentators are expecting that the rate on inflation will soon begin to fall.
But what will have been the effect on real incomes? In the past 12 months, nominal average earnings have risen by around 2.5% (the precise figures will not be available for a month). This means that real average earnings have fallen by around 0.6%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
For many low-income families the effect has been more severe. Many have seen little or no increase in their pay and they also consume a larger proportion of items whose prices have risen by more than the average. Those on working-age benefits will be particularly badly hit as benefits have not risen since 2015.
If inflation does fall and if real incomes no longer fall, people will still be worse off unless real incomes rise back to the levels they were before they started falling. That could be some time off.
UK inflation rate at near six-year high BBC News (12/12/17)
Inflation up as food costs jump – and gas crisis threatens worse to come The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (12/12/17)
UK worst for pay growth as rich world soars ahead in 2018 The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (12/12/17)
Inflation rises to 3.1%, adding to UK cost of living squeeze The Guardian, Larry Elliott (12/12/17)
UK inflation breaches target as it climbs to 3.1% Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (12/12/17)
Inflation surges to 3.1% in November, a near six-year high Belfast Telegraph (12/12/17)
CPI annual rate of increase (all items) ONS: series D7G7
Average weekly earnings, annual (3-month average) ONS: series KAC3
UK consumer price inflation: November 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (12/12/17)
Commodity prices Index Mundi
- Apart from CPI inflation, what other measures of inflation are there? Explain their meaning.
- Why is inflation of 2%, rather than 0%, seen as the optimal rate by most central banks?
- Apart from the depreciation of sterling, what other effects is Brexit likely to have on living standards in the UK?
- What are the arguments for and against the government raising benefits by the rate of CPI inflation?
- If Europe and the USA continue to grow faster than the UK, what effect is this likely to have on the euro/pound and dollar/pound exchange rates? What determines the magnitude of this effect?
- Unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975. Why, then, are real wages falling?
- Why, in the light of inflation being above target, has the Bank of England not raised Bank Rate again in December (having raised it from 0.25% to 0.5% in November)?
In three interesting articles, linked below, the authors consider the state of economies since the financial crisis of 2007–8 and whether governments have the right tools to tackle future economic shocks.
There have been some successes over the past 10 years, in particular keeping inflation close to central bank targets despite considerable shocks (see the Vox article). Also unemployment has fallen in most countries and to very low levels in some, including the UK.
But economic growth has generally remained well below the levels prior to the financial crisis, with low productivity growth being the main culprit. Indeed, many people have seen no growth at all in their real incomes over the past 10 years, with low unemployment being bought at the cost of a growth in zero-hour contracts and work in the gig economy. And what economic growth we have seen has been largely the result of taking up slack through unprecedentedly loose monetary policy.
Fiscal policy, except in the period directly following the financial crisis, has generally been tight as governments have sought to reduce their deficits and slow down the growth in their debt.
But what will happen if economies once more slow? Or, worse still, what will happen if there is another global recession? Do countries have the policies to tackle the problem this time round?
Quantitative easing could be used again, but many economists believe that it will have more limited scope if confined to the purchase of assets in the secondary market. Also, there is little scope for reducing interest rates, which, despite some modest rises in the USA, remain at close to zero in most developed countries.
One possibility is a combination of monetary and fiscal policy, where new money is used to finance government expenditure on infrastructure, such as road and rail, broadband, green energy, hospitals and schools and colleges. This would avoid the need for governments to borrow on open markets as the spending would be financed by new government securities purchased directly by the central bank.
An objection to such ‘people’s quantitative easing‘, as it has been dubbed, is that it would effectively end the independence of central banks. This independence has been credited by many with giving central banks credibility in controlling inflation. Would inflationary expectations rise with people’s quantitative easing and, with it, actual inflation? A lot would depend on the extent to which this QE could still be conducted within a framework of targeting inflation and whether people’s expectations of inflation could be managed jointly by the government and central bank.
How should recessions be fought when interest rates are low? The Economist. Free exchange (21/10/17)
The economy is failing. We need to think radically about how to fix it The Guardian, Liam Byrne (25/10/17)
Elusive inflation and the Great Recession Vox, David Miles, Ugo Panizza, Ricardo Reis, Ángel Ubide (25/10/17)
Economics since the crisis Vox on YouTube. Charles Goodhart (11/10/17)
Is the system broken? Vox on YouTube, Anat Admati (12/10/17)
Signs of a crisis Vox on YouTube, Christian Thimann (19/10/17)
Policy stances since 2007 Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (29/10/17)
Did policymakers get it right? Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (4/10/17)
- Why, during the next recession, will the “zero lower bound” (ZLB) on interest rates almost certainly bite again?
- Why would the scope for QE, as conducted up to now, be more limited in the future if a recession were to occur?
- Why have central banks appeared to have been so successful in keeping inflation close to target despite negative and positive demand- and supply-side shocks?
- Why are the pressures on government expenditure likely to increase in the coming years?
- How would a temporary price-level target help to tackle a recession when the economy next bumps into the ZLB? What would limit its success?
- Is it appropriate for central banks to stick to an inflation target in times when there is an adverse supply-side shock resulting in cost-push inflation?
- Why might monetary policy conducted in a framework of inflation targeting tend to lessen the impact of a fiscal stimulus?
- What are the arguments for and against relaxing central bank independence and pursuing a co-ordinated fiscal and monetary policy?
- What are the arguments for and against using helicopter money to boost private expenditure during a future recession where interest rates are already near the ZLB?
- What are the arguments for and against using ‘people’s QE’?
With the effects of the depreciation of sterling feeding through into higher prices, so the rate of inflation has risen. The latest figures from the ONS show that in the year to April 2017, CPI inflation was 2.7% – up from 2.3% in the year to March. The largest contributors to higher prices were transport costs and housing and household services.
But wage increases are not keeping up with price increases. In 2017 Q1, the average annual growth rate in regular pay (i.e. excluding bonuses) was 2.1%. In other words, real pay is falling. And this is despite the fact that the unemployment rate, at 4.6%, is the lowest since 1975.
The fall in real wages is likely to act as a brake on consumption and the resulting dampening of aggregate demand could result in lower economic growth. On the other hand, the more buoyant world economy, plus the lower sterling exchange rate is helping to boost exports and investment and this could go some way to offsetting the effects on consumption. As Mark Carney stated in his introductory remarks to the May 2017 Bank of England Inflation Report:
The combination of the stronger global outlook and sterling’s past depreciation is likely to support UK net trade. And together with somewhat lower uncertainty, stronger global growth is also likely to encourage investment as exporters renew and increase capacity.
According to the Bank of England, the net effect will be modest economic growth, despite the fall in real wages.
In the MPC’s central forecast, quarterly growth is forecast to stabilise around its current rate, resulting in growth of 1.9% in 2017 and around 1¾% in each of the next two years.
But forecasting is dependent on a range of assumptions, not least of which are assumptions about consumer and business expectations. These, in turn, depend on a whole range of factors, such as the outcome of the UK election, the Brexit negotiations, commodity prices, world growth rates and international events, such as the actions of Donald Trump. Because of the uncertainty surrounding forecasts, the Bank of England uses fan charts. In the two fan charts illustrated below (from the May 2017 Inflation Report), the bands on constructed on the following assumptions:
If economic circumstances identical to today’s were to prevail on 100 occasions, the MPC’s best collective judgement is that CPI inflation or the mature estimate of GDP growth would lie within the darkest central band on only 30 of those occasions and within each pair of the lighter coloured areas on 30 occasions.
The charts and tables showing the May 2017 projections have been conditioned on the assumptions that the stock of purchased gilts remains at £435 billion and the stock of purchased corporate bonds remains at £10 billion throughout the forecast period, and on the Term Funding Scheme (TFS); all three of which are financed by the issuance of central bank reserves. They have also been conditioned on market interest rates, unless otherwise stated.
The wider the fan, the greater the degree of uncertainty. These fan charts are wide by historical standards, reflecting the particularly uncertain future for the UK economy.
But one thing is clear from the latest data: real incomes are falling. This is likely to dampen consumer spending, but just how much this will impact on aggregate demand over the coming months remains to be seen.
UK real wages drop for first time in three years Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (17/5/17)
Bank of England warns Brexit vote will damage living standards The Guardian, Katie Allen (11/5/17)
UK wage growth lags inflation for first time since mid-2014 BBC News (17/5/17)
Britons’ Falling Real Wages Show Challenging Times Have Arrived Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton and Lucy Meakin (17/5/17)
Jobs market will suffer a Brexit slowdown, say experts The Guardian, Angela Monaghan and Phillip Inman (15/5/17)
Pay will continue to be squeezed, employers’ survey suggests BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (15/5/17)
Brexit latest: Real wages falling, Office for National Statistics reveals Independent, Ben Chu (17/5/17)
UK inflation climbs to four-year high, beating forecasts Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (16/5/17)
Why is UK inflation at a four-year high? Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (19/5/17)
A blip, or a test of hawks’ patience? Economists respond to high UK inflation data Financial Times, Nicholas Megaw (16/5/17)
UK inflation rate at highest level since September 2013 BBC News (16/5/17)
Inflation jumps to its highest level since 2013 as Brexit continues to bite Business Insider, Will Martin (16/5/17)
UK GDP growth weaker than expected as inflation hits spending The Guardian, Katie Allen (25/5/17)
UK economic growth estimate revised down BBC News (25/5/17)
Inflation Report, May 2017 Bank of England (11/5/17)
Labour Market Outlook, Sping 2017 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (May 2017)
Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England
Inflation and price indices ONS
Earnings and working hours ONS
Second estimate of GDP: Jan to Mar 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (25/5/17)
- Find out what has happened to the dollar/sterling and the euro/sterling exchange rate and the sterling exchange rate index over the past 24 months. Plot the data on a graph.
- Explain the changes in these exchange rates.
- Why is there negative real wage growth in the UK when the rate of unemployment is the lowest it’s been for more than 40 years?
- Find out what proportion of aggregate demand is accounted for by household consumption. Why is this significant in understanding the likely drivers of economic growth over the coming months?
- Why is uncertainty over future UK growth rates relatively high at present?
- Why is inflation likely to peak later this year and then fall?
- What determines the size and shape of the fan in a fan chart?
One of President Trump’s main policy slogans has been ‘America first’. As Trump sees it, a manifestation of a country’s economic strength is its current account balance. He would love the USA to have a current account surplus. As it is, it has the largest current account deficit in the world (in absolute terms) of $481 billion in 2016 or 2.6% of GDP. This compares with the UK’s $115bn or 4.4% of GDP. Germany, by contrast, had a surplus in 2016 of $294bn or 8.5% of GDP.
However, he looks at other countries’ current account surpluses suspiciously – they may be a sign, he suspects, of ‘unfair play’. Germany’s surplus of over $50bn with the USA is particularly in his sights. Back in January, as President-elect, he threatened to put a 35% tariff on imports of German cars.
In practice, Germany is governed by eurozone rules, which prevent it from subsidising exports. And it does not have its own currency to manipulate. What is more, it is relatively open to imports from the USA. The EU imposes an average tariff of just 3% on US imports and importers also have to add VAT (19% in the case of Germany) to make them comparably priced with goods produced within the EU.
So why does Germany have such a large current account surplus? The article below explores the question and dismisses the claim that it’s the result of currency manipulation or discrimination against imports. The article states that the reason for the German surplus is that:
… it saves more than it invests. The correspondence of savings minus investment with exports minus imports is not an economic theory; it’s an accounting identity. Germans collectively spend less than they produce, and the difference necessarily shows up as net exports.
But why do the Germans save so much? The answer given is that, with an aging population, Germans are sensibly saving now to support themselves in old age. If Germany were to reduce its current account surplus, this would entail either the government reducing its budget surplus, or people reducing the amount they save, or some combination of the two. This is because a current account surplus, which consists of exports and other incomes from abroad (X) minus imports and any other income flowing abroad (M), must equal the surplus of saving (S) plus taxation (T) over investment (I) plus government expenditure (G). In terms of withdrawals and injections, given that:
I + G + X = S + T + M
then, rearranging the terms,
X – M = (S + T) – (I + G).
If German people are reluctant to reduce the amount they save, then an alternative is for the German government to reduce taxation or increase government expenditure. In the run-up to the forthcoming election on 24 September, Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right CDU party advocates cutting taxes, while the main opposition party, the SPD, advocates increasing government expenditure, especially on infrastructure. The article considers the arguments for these two approaches.
The German economy is unbalanced – but Trump has the wrong answer The Guardian, Barry Eichengreen (12/5/17)
German economic data (in English) Statistisches Bundesamt (Federal Statistical Office)
World Economic Outlook Databases IMF
- Why does Germany have such a large current account surplus?
- What are the costs and benefits to Germany of having a large current account surplus?
- What is meant by ‘mercantilism’? Why is its justification fallacious?
- If Germany had its own currency, would it be a good idea for it to let that currency appreciate?
- What are meant by ‘resource crowding out’ and ‘financial crowding out’? Why might the policies of tax cuts advocated by the CDU result in crowding out? What form would it take and why?
- Compare the relative benefits of the policies advocated by the CDU and SPD to reduce Germany’s budget surplus.
- Would other countries, such as the USA, benefit from a reduction in Germany’s current account surplus?
- Is what ways would the USA gain and lose from restricting imports from Germany? Would it be a net gain or loss? Explain.