Category: Economics for Business: Ch 29

The latest consumer confidence figures from the European Commission point to consumer confidence in the UK remaining at around its long-term average. Despite this, confidence is markedly weaker than before the outcome of the EU referendum. Yet, the saving ratio, which captures the proportion of disposable income saved by the household sector, is close to its historic low. We consider this apparent puzzle and whether we can expect the saving ratio to rise.

The European Commission’s consumer confidence measure is a composite indicator based on the balance of responses to 4 forward-looking questions relating to the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations and savings.

Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average (median) of –6.25 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses. In October 2018 the confidence balance stood at –5.2, essentially unchanged from its September value of –5.8. While above the long-term average, recent values mark a weakening in confidence from levels before the EU referendum. At the beginning of 2016 the aggregate confidence score was running at around +4. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Chart 1 shows two periods where consumer confidence fell markedly. The first was in the early 1990s. In 1990 the UK joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). This was a semi-fixed exchange rate system whereby participating EU countries allowed fluctuations against each other’s currencies, but only within agreed bands, while being able to collectively float freely against all other currencies. In attempting to staying in the ERM, the UK was obliged to raise interest rates in order to protect the pound. The hikes to rates contributed to a significant dampening of aggregate demand and the economy slid into recession. Britain crashed out of the ERM in September 1992.

The second period of declining confidence was during the global financial crisis in the late 2000s. The retrenchment among financial institutions meant a significant tightening of credit conditions. This too contributed to a significant dampening of aggregate demand and the economy slid into recession. Whereas the 1992 recession saw the UK national output contract by 2.0 percent, this time national output fell by 6.3 per cent.

The collapses in confidence from 1992 and from 2007/08 are likely to have helped propagate the effects of the fall in aggregate demand that were already underway. The weakening of confidence in 2016 is perhaps a better example of a ‘confidence shock’, i.e. a change in aggregate demand originating from a change in confidence. Nonetheless, a fall in confidence, whether it amplifies existing shocks or is the source of the shock, is often taken as a signal of greater economic uncertainty. If we take this greater uncertainty to reflect a greater range of future income outcomes, including potential income losses, then households may look to insure themselves by increasing current saving.

It is usual to assume that people suffer from diminishing marginal utility of total consumption. This means that while total satisfaction increases as we consume more, the additional utility from consuming more (marginal utility) decreases. An implication of this is that a given loss of consumption reduces utility by more than an equivalent increase in consumption increases utility. This explains why people prefer more consistent consumption levels over time and so engage in consumption smoothing. The utility, for example, from an ‘average’ consumption level across two time periods, is higher, than the expected utility from a ‘low’ level of consumption in period 1 and a ‘high’ level of consumption in period 2. This is because the loss of utility from a ‘low’ level of consumption relative to the ‘average’ level is greater than the additional utility from the ‘high’ level relative to the ‘average’ level.

If greater uncertainty, such as that following the EU referendum, increases the range of possible ‘lower’ consumption values in the future even when matched by an increase in the equivalent range of possible ‘higher’ consumption values, then expected future utility falls. The incentive therefore is for people to build up a larger buffer stock of saving to minimise utility losses if the ‘bad state’ occurs. Hence, saving which acts as a from of self-insurance in the presence of uncertainty is known as buffer-stock saving or precautionary saving.

Chart 2 plots the paths of the UK household-sector saving ratio and consumer confidence. The saving ratio approximates the proportion of disposable income saved by the household sector. What we might expect to see if more uncertainty induces buffer-stock saving is for falls in confidence to lead to a rise in the saving ratio. Conversely, less uncertainty as proxied by a rise in confidence would lead to a fall in the saving ratio. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The chart provides some evidence that of this. The early 1990s and late 2000s certainly coincided with both waning confidence and a rising saving ratio. The saving ratio rose to as high as 15.2 per cent in 1993 and 12.0 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile the rising confidence seen in the late 1990s coincided with a fall in the saving ratio to 4.7 per cent in 1999.

As Chart 2 shows, the easing of confidence since 2016 has coincided with a period where the saving ratio has been historically low. Across 2017 the saving ratio stood at just 4.5 per cent. In the first half of 201 the ratio averaged just 4.2 per cent. While the release of the official figures for the saving ratio are less timely than those for confidence, the recent very low saving ratio may be seen to raise concerns. Can softer confidence data continue to co-exist with such a low saving ratio?

There are a series of possible explanations for the recent lows in the saving ratio. On one hand, the rate of price inflation has frequently exceeded wage inflation in recent years so eroding the real value of earnings. This has stretched household budgets and limited the amount of discretionary income available for saving. On the other hand, unemployment rates have fallen to historic lows. The rate of unemployment in the three months to August stood at 4 per cent, the lowest since 1975. Unemployment expectations are important in determining levels of buffer stock saving because of the impact of unemployment on household budgets.

Another factor that has fuelled the growth of spending relative to income, has been the growth of consumer credit. In the period since July 2016, the annual rate of growth of consumer credit, net of repayments, has averaged 9.7 per cent. Behavioural economists argue that foregoing spending can be emotionally painful. Hence, spending has the potential to exhibit more stickiness than might otherwise be predicted in a more uncertain environment or in the anticipation of income losses. Therefore, the reluctance or inability to wean ourselves off credit and spending might be a reason for the continuing low saving ratio.

We wait to see whether the saving ratio increases over the coming months. However, for now, the UK household sector appears to be characterised by low saving and fragile confidence. Whether or not this is a puzzle, is open to question. Nonetheless, it does appear to carry obvious risks should weaker income growth materialise.

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Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
  2. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence?
  3. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator expect the indicator to predict?
  4. How does the diminishing marginal utility of consumption (or income) help explain why people engage in buffer stock saving (precautionary saving)?
  5. How might uncertainty affect consumer confidence?
  6. How does greater income uncertainty affect expected utility? What affect might this have on buffer stock saving?

Would you like to be a millionaire? Of course you would – who wouldn’t, right? Actually the answer to this question may be more complicated than you might think (see for instance Sgroi et al (2017) on the economics of happiness: see linked article below), but, generally speaking, most people would answer positively to this question.

What if I told you, however, that you could become a millionaire (actually, scratch that – think big – make that “trillionaire”) overnight and be deeply unhappy about it? If you don’t believe me see what happened to Zimbabwe 10 years ago, when irresponsible money printing and fiscal easing drove the country’s economy to staggering hyperinflation (see the blogs A remnant of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and Fancy a hundred trillion dollar note?. At the peak of the crisis, prices were increasing by a factor of 130 each year. I have in my office a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note (see below) which I show in my lectures when I talk about hyperinflation to my first year Economics for Business students (if you are one of them, make sure not to miss it next February at UEA!). How much is this 100 trillion note worth? Nothing (except, may be, for collectors). It has been withdrawn from circulation as it ended up not even being worth the cost of the paper on which it was printed.

The Zimbabwean economy managed to pull itself out of this spiral of economic death, partly by informally replacing its hyperinflationary currency with the US greenback, and partly by keeping its fiscal spending under control and reverting to more sane economic policy making. That lasted until 2013, after which the government launched a Zimbabwean digital currency (known as “Zollar”) that had a nominal value set equal to a US dollar; and forced its exporters to exchange their greenbacks for Zollars. It then started spending these USD to finance a very ambitious and unsustainable programme of fiscal expansion.

The Economist published yesterday a story that shows the results of this policy – wild price increases and empty supermarket shelves are both back. According to the newspaper’s report:

At a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, the finance minister is staring aghast at a pack of nappies. ‘This is absolutely ridiculous!’, exclaims Mthuli Ncube. ‘$49!’ A manager says it cost $23 two weeks ago, before pointing out other eye-watering items such as $20 Coco Pops. […] Over the past two weeks zollars have been trading at as little as 17 cents to the dollar. The devaluation has led to a surge in prices—and not just in imported goods like nappies. Football fans attending the Zimbabwe v Democratic Republic of Congo game on October 16th were shocked to learn that ticket prices had doubled on match day.

How long will it take for the 100 trillion Zollar to make its appearance again? We shall find out. I am sure Zimbabweans will be less than thrilled!

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Questions

  1. Using an AS/AD diagram, explain the concept of hyperinflation. How can irresponsible fiscal policy-making lead to hyperinflation?
  2. What are the effects of hyperinflation on the people who live in the affected countries? Search the web for examples and case studies, and use them to support your answer.
  3. Once it has started, what policies can be used to fight hyperinflation? Use examples to support your answer.
  4. How does speculation affect hyperinflation?

The IMF has just published its six-monthly World Economic Outlook. This provides an assessment of trends in the global economy and gives forecasts for a range of macroeconomic indicators by country, by groups of countries and for the whole world.

This latest report is upbeat for the short term. Global economic growth is expected to be around 3.9% this year and next. This represents 2.3% this year and 2.5% next for advanced countries and 4.8% this year and 4.9% next for emerging and developing countries. For large advanced countries such rates are above potential economic growth rates of around 1.6% and thus represent a rise in the positive output gap or fall in the negative one.

But while the near future for economic growth seems positive, the IMF is less optimistic beyond that for advanced countries, where growth rates are forecast to decline to 2.2% in 2019, 1.7% in 2020 and 1.5% by 2023. Emerging and developing countries, however, are expected to see growth rates of around 5% being maintained.

For most countries, current favorable growth rates will not last. Policymakers should seize this opportunity to bolster growth, make it more durable, and equip their governments better to counter the next downturn.

By comparison with other countries, the UK’s growth prospects look poor. The IMF forecasts that its growth rate will slow from 1.8% in 2017 to 1.6% in 2018 and 1.5% in 2019, eventually rising to around 1.6% by 2023. The short-term figures are lower than in the USA, France and Germany and reflect ‘the anticipated higher barriers to trade and lower foreign direct investment following Brexit’.

The report sounds some alarm bells for the global economy.
The first is a possible growth in trade barriers as a trade war looms between the USA and China and as Russia faces growing trade sanctions. As Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF told an audience in Hong Kong:

Governments need to steer clear of protectionism in all its forms. …Remember: the multilateral trade system has transformed our world over the past generation. It helped reduce by half the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty. It has reduced the cost of living, and has created millions of new jobs with higher wages. …But that system of rules and shared responsibility is now in danger of being torn apart. This would be an inexcusable, collective policy failure. So let us redouble our efforts to reduce trade barriers and resolve disagreements without using exceptional measures.

The second danger is a growth in world government and private debt levels, which at 225% of global GDP are now higher than before the financial crisis of 2007–9. With Trump’s policies of tax cuts and increased government expenditure, the resulting rise in US government debt levels could see some fiscal tightening ahead, which could act as a brake on the world economy. As Maurice Obstfeld , Economic Counsellor and Director of the Research Department, said at the Press Conference launching the latest World Economic Outlook:

Debts throughout the world are very high, and a lot of debts are denominated in dollars. And if dollar funding costs rise, this could be a strain on countries’ sovereign financial institutions.

In China, there has been a massive rise in corporate debt, which may become unsustainable if the Chinese economy slows. Other countries too have seen a surge in private-sector debt. If optimism is replaced by pessimism, there could be a ‘Minsky moment’, where people start to claw down on debt and banks become less generous in lending. This could lead to another crisis and a global recession. A trigger could be rising interest rates, with people finding it hard to service their debts and so cut down on spending.

The third danger is the slow growth in labour productivity combined with aging populations in developed countries. This acts as a brake on growth. The rise in AI and robotics (see the post Rage against the machine) could help to increase potential growth rates, but this could cost jobs in the short term and the benefits could be very unevenly distributed.

This brings us to a final issue and this is the long-term trend to greater inequality, especially in developed economies. Growth has been skewed to the top end of the income distribution. As the April 2017 WEO reported, “technological advances have contributed the most to the recent rise in inequality, but increased financial globalization – and foreign direct investment in particular – has also played a role.”

And the policy of quantitative easing has also tended to benefit the rich, as its main effect has been to push up asset prices, such as share and house prices. Although this has indirectly stimulated the economy, it has mainly benefited asset owners, many of whom have seen their wealth soar. People further down the income scale have seen little or no growth in their real incomes since the financial crisis.

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Questions

  1. For what reasons may the IMF forecasts turn out to be incorrect?
  2. Why are emerging and developing countries likely to experience faster rates of economic growth than advanced countries?
  3. What are meant by a ‘positive output gap’ and a ‘negative output gap’? What are the consequences of each for various macroeconomic indicators?
  4. Explain what is meant by a ‘Minsky moment’. When are such moments likely to occur? Explain why or why not such a moment is likely to occur in the next two or three years?
  5. For every debt owed, someone is owed that debt. So does it matter if global public and/or private debts rise? Explain.
  6. What have been the positive and negative effects of the policy of quantitative easing?
  7. What are the arguments for and against using tariffs and other forms of trade restrictions as a means of boosting a country’s domestic economy?

Houses of Parliament: photo JSThe 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?

Money: photo JS

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.

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Data, Reports and Analysis

Questions

  1. What is monetary policy, and how is it used to fine tune the economy?
  2. What is the effect of an increase in interest rates on aggregate demand?
  3. How optimistic (or pessimistic) are you about the UK’s economic outlook in 2018? Explain your reasoning.

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.

Articles

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)

Data

Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission

Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
  2. Explain what you understand by a positive and a negative demand-side shock. How might changes in consumer confidence generate demand shocks?
  3. Analyse the ways in which consumer confidence might affect economic activity.
  4. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence?
  5. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator expect the indicator to predict?
  6. Analyse the possible short-term and longer-term economic implications of a fall in consumer confidence.
  7. How might uncertainty affect consumer confidence?
  8. 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?