It is impossible to make both precise and accurate forecasts of a country’s rate of economic growth, even a year ahead. And the same goes for other macroeconomic variables, such as the rate of unemployment or the balance of trade. The reason is that there are so many determinants of these variables, such as political decisions or events, which themselves are unpredictable. Economics examines the effects of human interactions – it is a social science, not a natural science. And human behaviour is hard to forecast.
Nevertheless, economists do make forecasts. These are best estimates, taking into account a number of determinants that can be currently measured, such as tax or interest rate changes. These determinants, or ‘leading indicators’, have been found to be related to future outcomes. For example, surveys of consumer and business confidence give a good indication of future consumer expenditure and investment – key components of GDP.
Leading indicators do not have to be directly causal. They could, instead, be a symptom of underlying changes that are themselves likely to affect the economy in the future. For example, changes in stock market prices may reflect changes in confidence or changes in liquidity. It is these changes that are likely to have a direct or indirect causal effect on future output, employment, prices, etc.
Macroeconomic models show the relationships between variables. They show how changes in one variable (e.g. increased investment) affect other variables (e.g. real GDP or productivity). So when an indicator changes, such as a rise in interest rates, economists use these models to estimate the likely effect, assuming other things remain constant (ceteris paribus). The problem is that other things don’t remain constant. The economy is buffeted around by a huge range of events that can affect the outcome of the change in the indicator or the variable(s) it reflects.
Forecasting can never therefore be 100% accurate (except by chance). Nevertheless, by carefully studying leading indicators, economists can get a good idea of the likely course of the economy.
Leading indicators of the US economy
At the start of 2019, several leading indicators are suggesting the US economy is likely to slow and might even go into recession. The following are some of the main examples.
Political events. This is the most obvious leading indicator. If decisions are made that are likely to have an adverse effect on growth, a recession may follow. For example, decisions in the UK Parliament over Brexit will directly impact on UK growth.
As far as the USA is concerned, President Trump’s decision to put tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from a range of countries, including China, the EU and Canada, led these countries to retaliate with tariffs on US imports. A tariff war has a negative effect on growth. It is a negative sum game. Of course, there may be a settlement, with countries agreeing to reduce or eliminate these new tariffs, but the danger is that the trade war may continue long enough to do serious damage to global economic growth.
But just how damaging it is likely to be is impossible to predict. That depends on future political decisions, not just those of the recent past. Will there be a global rise in protectionism or will countries pull back from such a destructive scenario? On 29 December, President Trump tweeted, ‘Just had a long and very good call with President Xi of China. Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!’ China said that it was willing to work with the USA over reaching a consensus on trade.
Rises in interest rates. If these are in response to a situation of excess demand, they can be seen as a means of bringing inflation down to the target level or of closing a positive output gap, where real national income is above its potential level. They would not signify an impending recession. But many commentators have interpreted rises in interest rates in the USA as being different from this.
The Fed is keen to raise interest rates above the historic low rates that were seen as an ’emergency’ response to the financial crisis of 2007–8. It is also keen to reverse the policy of quantitative easing and has begun what might be described as ‘quantitative tightening’: not buying new bonds when existing ones that it purchased during rounds of QE mature. It refers to this interest rate and money supply policy as ‘policy normalization‘. The Fed maintains that such policy is ‘consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective over the medium term’.
However, many commentators, including President Trump, have accused the Fed of going too fast in this process and of excessively dampening the economy. It has already raised the Federal Funds Rate nine times by 0.25 percentage points each time since December 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart). What is more, announcing that the policy will continue makes such announcements themselves a leading indicator of future rises in interest rates, which are a leading indicator of subsequent effects on aggregate demand. The Fed has stated that it expects to make two more 0.25 percentage point rises during 2019.
Surveys of consumer and business confidence. These are some of the most significant leading indicators as consumer confidence affects consumer spending and business confidence affects investment. According to the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook, an influential survey of Chief Financial Officers, ‘Nearly half (48.6 per cent) of US CFOs believe that the US will be in recession by the end of 2019, and 82 per cent believe that a recession will have begun by the end of 2020’. Such surveys can become self-fulfilling, as a reported decline in confidence can itself undermine confidence as both firms and consumers ‘catch’ the mood of pessimism.
Stock market volatility. When stock markets exhibit large falls and rises, this is often a symptom of uncertainty; and uncertainty can undermine investment. Stock market volatility can thus be a leading indicator of an impending recession. One indicator of such volatility is the VIX index. This is a measure of ’30-day expected volatility of the US stock market, derived from real-time, mid-quote prices of S&P 500® Index (SPXSM) call and put options. On a global basis, it is one of the most recognized measures of volatility – widely reported by financial media and closely followed by a variety of market participants as a daily market indicator.’ The higher the index, the greater the volatility. Since 2004, it has averaged 18.4; from 17 to 28 December 2018, it averaged 28.8. From 13 to 24 December, the DOW Jones Industrial Average share index fell by 11.4 per cent, only to rise by 6.2 per cent by 27 December. On 26 December, the S&P 500 index rallied 5 per cent, its best gain since March 2009.
Not all cases of market volatility, however, signify an impending recession, but high levels of volatility are one more sign of investor nervousness.
Oil prices. When oil prices fall, this can be explained by changes on the demand and/or supply side of the oil market. Oil prices have fallen significantly over the past two months. Until October 2018, oil prices had been rising, with Brent Crude reaching $86 per barrel by early October. By the end of the year the price had fallen to just over $50 per barrel – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) Part of the explanation is a rise in supply, with shale oil production increasing and also increased output from Russia and Saudi Arabia, despite a commitment by the two countries to reduce supply. But the main reason is a fall in demand. This reflects both a fall in current demand and in anticipated future demand, with fears of oversupply causing oil companies to run down stocks.
Falling oil prices resulting from falling demand are thus an indicator of lack of confidence in the growth of future demand – a leading indicator of a slowing economy.
The yield curve. This depicts the yields on government debt with different lengths to maturity at a given point in time. Generally, the curve slopes upwards, showing higher rates of return on bonds with longer to maturity. This is illustrated by the blue line in the chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) This is as you would expect, with people requiring a higher rate of return on long-term lending, where there is normally greater uncertainty. But, as the Bloomberg article, ‘Don’t take your eyes off the yield curve‘ states:
Occasionally, the curve flips, with yields on short-term debt exceeding those on longer bonds. That’s normally a sign investors believe economic growth will slow and interest rates will eventually fall. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has shown that an inversion has preceded every US recession for the past 60 years.
The US economy is 37 quarters into what may prove to be its longest expansion on record. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect gross domestic product growth to come in at 2.9 percent this year, up from 2.2 percent last year. Wages are rising as unfilled vacancies hover near all-time highs.
With times this good, the biggest betting game on Wall Street is when they’ll go bad. Barclays Plc, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and other banks are predicting inversion will happen sometime in 2019. The conventional wisdom: Afterward it’s only a matter of time – anywhere from 6 to 24 months – before a recession starts.
As you can see from the chart, the yield curve on 24 December 2018 was still slightly upward sloping (expect between 6-month and 1-year bonds) – but possibly ready to ‘flip’.
However, despite the power of an ‘inverted’ yield in predicting previous recessions, it may be less reliable now. The Fed, as we saw above, has already signalled that it expects to increase short-term rates in 2019, probably at least twice. That alone could make the yield curve flatter or even downward sloping. Nevertheless, it is still generally thought that a downward sloping yield curve would signal belief in a likely slowdown, if not outright recession.
So, is the USA heading for recession?
The trouble with indicators is that they suggest what is likely – not what will definitely happen. Governments and central banks are powerful agents. If they believed that a recession was likely, then fiscal and monetary policy could be adjusted. For example, the Fed could halt its interest rate rises and quantitative tightening, or even reverse them. Also, worries about protectionism may subside if the USA strikes new trade deals with various countries, as it did with Canada and Mexico in USMCA.
- A jarring new survey shows CEOs think a recession could strike as soon as year-end 2019
Business Insider, Joe Ciolli (17/12/18)
- 4 Recession Indicators to Watch Now
Barron’s, Campbell Harvey (20/12/18)
- 9 Reasons the US Will Have a Recession Next Year
24/7 Wall St, Douglas A. McIntyre (26/12/18)
- The global economy is living dangerously – but don’t expect superpowers to follow the 2008 script
Independent, Ben Chu (3/1/19)
- Could a recession be just around the corner?
The Conversation, Amitrajeet A Batabyal (6/12/18)
- The US is on the edge of the economic precipice – Trump may push it over
The Guardian, Robert Reich (23/12/18)
- US prepares to hit the wall as reckless Trump undoes years of hard work
The Guardian, (Business Leader) (23/12/18)
- The first signs of the next recession
New Statesman, Helen Thompson (23/11/18)
- Is a Recession Coming? CFOs Predict 2019 Recession, Majority Expect Pre-2020 Market Crash
Newsweek, Benjamin Fearnow (12/12/18)
- Trade slowdown coming at worst time for world economy, markets
Reuters, Jamie McGeever (19/12/18)
- How to spot the next recession
The Week, Jeff Spross (27/11/18)
- What Is a Recession, and Why Are People Talking About the Next One?
New York Times, Niraj Chokshi (17/12/180
- For the American Economy, Storm Clouds on the Horizon
New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (28/11/18)
- Don’t Take Your Eyes Off the Yield Curve
Bloomberg Businessweek, Liz McCormick and Jeanna Smialek (16/11/18)
- What to expect from 2019’s ‘post-peak’ economy
CNN, Larry Hatheway (19/12/18)
- Worried about the next recession? Here’s what to watch instead of the yield curve
Quartz, Gwynn Guilford (17/12/18)
- Leading Economic Indicators and How to Use Them
The Balance, Kimberly Amadeo (10/9/18)
Surveys and Data
- Define the term ‘recession’.
- Are periods of above-trend expansion necessarily followed by a recession?
- Give some examples of leading indicators other than those given above and discuss their likely reliability in predicting a recession.
- Find out what has been happening to confidence levels in the EU over the past 12 months. Does this provide evidence of an impending recession in the EU?
- For what reasons may there be lags between a change in an indicator and a change in the variables for which it is an indicator?
- Why has the shape of the yield curve previously been a good predictor of the future course of the economy? Is it likely to be at present?
- What is the relationship between interest rates, government bond prices (‘Treasuries’ in the USA) and the yield on such bonds?
I admit it, the title of my blog today is a little bit misleading – but at the same time very appropriate for today’s topic. Nancy Sinatra certainly wasn’t thinking about emigration when she was singing this song – it had nothing to do with it, after all. It is, however, very relevant to economists: Indeed, there are many economics papers discussing the effects of skilled immigration on host and source economies and regions.
Economists often use the term ‘brain drain’ to describe the migration of highly skilled workers from poor/developing to rich/developed economies. Such flows are anything but unusual. As The Economist points out in a recent article, ‘[I]n the decade to 2010–11 the number of university-educated migrants in the G20, a group of large economies that hosts two-thirds of the world’s migrants, grew by 60% to 32m according to the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.’.
The effects of international migration are found to be overwhelmingly positive for both skilled migrant workers and their hosts. This is particularly true for highly skilled workers (such as academics, physicians and other professionals), who, through emigration, get the opportunity to earn a significantly higher return on their skills that what they might have had in their home country. Very often their home country is saturated and oversupplied with skilled workers competing for a very limited number of jobs. Also, they get the opportunity to practise their profession – which they might not have had otherwise.
But what about their home countries? Are they worse off for such emigration?
There are different views when it comes to answering this question. One argument is that the prospect of international migration incentivises people in developing countries to accumulate skills (brain gain) – which they might not choose to do otherwise, if the expected return to skills was not high enough to warrant the effort and opportunity cost that comes with it. Beine et al (2011) find that:
Our empirical analysis predicts conditional convergence of human capital indicators. Our findings also reveal that skilled migration prospects foster human capital accumulation in low-income countries. In these countries, a net brain gain can be obtained if the skilled emigration rate is not too large (i.e. it does not exceed 20–30% depending on other country characteristics). In contrast, we find no evidence of a significant incentive mechanism in middle-income, and not surprisingly, high-income countries.
Other researchers find that emigration can have a significant negative effect on source economies (countries or regions) – especially if it affects a large share of the local workforce within a short time period. Ha et al (2016), analyse the effect of emigration on human capital formation and economic growth of Chinese provinces:
First, we find that permanent emigration is conducive to the improvement of both middle and high school enrollment. In contrast, while temporary emigration has a significantly positive effect on middle school enrollment it does not affect high school enrollment. Moreover, the different educational attainments of temporary emigrants have different effects on school enrollment. Specifically, the proportion of temporary emigrants with high school education positively affects middle school enrollment, while the proportion of temporary emigrants with middle school education negatively affects high school enrollment. Finally, we find that both permanent and temporary emigration has a detrimental effect on the economic growth of source regions.
So yes or no? Good or bad? As everything else in economics, the answer quite often is ‘it depends’.
- Open future: What educated people from poor countries make of the “brain drain” argument
The Economist, R.S. (27/8/18)
- Brain drain, brain gain, and economic growth in China
China Economic Review, Wei Ha, Junjian Yi and Junsen Zhang (April 2016)
- A Panel Data Analysis of the Brain Gain
World Development, Michel Beine, Ric Docquier and Cecily Oden-Defoort (Vol 39, No 4, pp 523–532, 2011)
- ‘The brain drain makes a bad situation worse, by stripping developing economies of their most valuable assets: skilled workers’. Discuss.
- Using Google, find data on the inflows and outflows of skilled labour for a developing country of your choice. Explain your results.
- ‘Brain drain’ or ‘brain gain’? What is your personal view on this debate? Explain your opinion by using anecdotal evidence, personal experience and examples.
- Referring to the previous question, write a critique of your answer.
Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of the World Trade Organization. ‘If they don’t shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO,’ he said. He argues that the USA is being treated very badly by the WTO and that the organisation needs to ‘change its ways’.
Historically, the USA has done relatively well compared with other countries in trade disputes brought to the WTO. However, President Trump does not like being bound by an international organisation which prohibits the unilateral imposition of tariffs that are not in direct retaliation against a trade violation by other countries. Such tariffs have been imposed by the Trump administration on steel and aluminium imports. This has led to retaliatory tariffs on US imports by the EU, China and Canada – something that is permitted under WTO rules.
Whether or not the USA does withdraw from the WTO, Trump’s threats bring into question the power of the WTO and other countries’ compliance with WTO rules. With the rise in protectionist sentiments around the world, the power of the WTO would seem to be on the wane.
Even if the USA does not withdraw from the WTO, it is succeeding in weakening the organisation. Appeals cases have to be heard by an ‘appellate body’, consisting of at least three judges drawn from a list of seven, each elected for four years. But the USA has the power to block new appointees – and has done so. As Larry Elliott states in the first article below:
The list of judges is already down to four and will be down to the minimum of three when the Mauritian member, Shree Baboo Chekitan Servansing, retires at the end of September. Two more members will go by the end of next year, at which point the appeals process will come to a halt.
This raises the question of the implication of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit – something that seems more likely as the UK struggles to reach a trade agreement with the EU. Leaving without a deal would mean ‘reverting to WTO rules’. But if these rules are being ignored by powerful countries such as the USA and possibly China, and if the appeals procedure has ground to a halt, this could leave the UK without the safety net of international trade rules. Outside the EU – the world’s most powerful trade bloc – the UK could find itself having to accept poor trade terms with the USA and other large countries.
- Explain the WTO’s ‘Most-favoured-nation (MFN)’ clause. How would this affect trade deals between the UK and the EU?
- Would the trade deals that the EU has negotiated with other countries, such as Japan, be available to the UK after leaving the EU?
- Demonstrate how, according to the law of comparative advantage, all countries can gain from trade.
- In what ways is the USA likely to gain and lose from the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminium?
- How could a country that supports free trade ever support the imposition of tariffs?
- Why are tariffs not the most serious restriction on trade?
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.
Articles and information
- Were you surprised by the statistics mentioned in this report? Explain why.
- Do you think that income inequality is a natural consequence of economic growth? Are there pro-growth policies that can be used to tackle it?
- Identify three ways in which widening income inequality can hurt economies (and societies).
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.
- Clouds gather over global economy, casting long shadow on Europe
Politico, Pierre Briançon (18/4/18)
- IMF warns rising trade tensions threaten to derail global growth
Reuters, David Lawder (17/4/18)
- IMF outlook contains cause for celebration but a horrendous hangover is looming
The Guardian, Greg Jericho (18/4/18)
- World trade system in danger of being torn apart, warns IMF
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/4/18)
- IMF Warns of Rising Threats to Global Financial System
Bloomberg, Andrew Mayeda (18/4/18)
- IMF issues warning on global debt
BBC News, Andrew Walker (18/4/18)
- The IMF has a simple message: the global recovery will peter out
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/4/18)
- Global growth is built, alas, on shaky foundations
The Irish Times, Martin Wolf (18/4/18)
- Government debt
The Economist (19/4/18)
- This Is How Much Money the World Owes
- For what reasons may the IMF forecasts turn out to be incorrect?
- Why are emerging and developing countries likely to experience faster rates of economic growth than advanced countries?
- What are meant by a ‘positive output gap’ and a ‘negative output gap’? What are the consequences of each for various macroeconomic indicators?
- 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?
- For every debt owed, someone is owed that debt. So does it matter if global public and/or private debts rise? Explain.
- What have been the positive and negative effects of the policy of quantitative easing?
- 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?