Category: Essential Economics for Business: Ch 12

Consumer credit is borrowing by individuals to finance current expenditure on goods and services. Consumer credit is distinct from lending secured on dwellings (referred to more simply as ‘secured lending’). Consumer credit comprises lending on credit cards, lending through overdraft facilities and other loans and advances, for example those financing the purchase of cars. We consider here recent trends in the flows of consumer credit in the UK and discuss their implications.

Analysing consumer credit data is important because the growth of consumer credit has implications for the financial wellbeing or financial health of individuals and, of course, for financial institutions. As we shall see shortly, the data on consumer credit is consistent with the existence of credit cycles. Cycles in consumer credit have the potential to be not only financially harmful but economically destabilising. After all, consumer credit is lending to finance spending and therefore the amount of lending can have significant effects on aggregate demand and economic activity.

Data on consumer credit are available monthly and so provide an early indication of movements in economic activity. Furthermore, because lending flows are likely to be sensitive to changes in the confidence of both borrowers and lenders, changes in the growth of consumer credit can indicate turning points in the economy and, hence, in the macroeconomic environment.

Chart 1 shows the annual flows of net consumer credit since 2000 – the figures are in £ billions. Net flows are gross flows less repayments. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.) In January 2005 the annual flow of net consumer credit peaked at £23 billion, the equivalent of just over 2.5 per cent of annual disposable income. This helped to fuel spending and by the final quarter of the year, the economy’s annual growth rate had reached 4.8 per cent, significantly about its long-run average of 2.5 per cent.

By 2009 net consumer credit flows had become negative. This meant that repayments were greater than additional flows of credit. It was not until 2012 that the annual flow of net consumer credit was again positive. Yet by November 2016, the annual flow of net consumer credit had rebounded to over £19 billion, the equivalent of just shy of 1.5 per cent of annual disposable income. This was the largest annual flow of consumer credit since September 2005.

Although the strength of consumer credit in 2016 was providing the economy with a timely boost to growth in the immediate aftermath of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, it nonetheless raised concerns about its sustainability. Specifically, given the short amount of time that had elapsed since the financial crisis and the extreme levels of financial distress that had been experienced by many sectors of the economy, how susceptible would people and organisations be to a future economic slowdown and/or rise in interest rates?

The extent to which the economy experiences consumer credit cycles can be seen even more readily by looking at the 12-month growth rate in the net consumer credit. In essence, this mirrors the growth rate in the stock of consumer credit. Chart 2 evidences the double-digit growth rates in net consumer credit lending experienced during the first half of the 2000s. Growth rates then eased but, as the financial crisis unfolded, they plunged sharply. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Yet, as Chart 2 shows, consumer credit growth began to recover quickly from 2013 so that by 2016 the annual growth rate of net consumer credit was again in double figures. In November 2016 the 12-month growth rate of net consumer credit peaked at 10.9 per cent. Thereafter, the growth rate has continually eased. In January 2019 the annual growth rate of net consumer credit had fallen back to 6.5 per cent, the lowest rate since October 2014.

The easing of consumer credit is likely to have been influenced, in part, by the resumption in the growth of real earnings from 2018 (see Getting real with pay). Yet, it is hard to look past the economic uncertainties around Brexit.

Uncertainty tends to cause people to be more cautious. With the heightened uncertainty that has has characterised recent times, it is likely that for many people and businesses prudence has dominated impatience. Therefore, in summary, it appears that prudence is helping to steer borrowing along a downswing in the credit cycle. As it does, it helps to put a further brake on spending and economic growth.

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Late January sees the annual global World Economic Forum meeting of politicians, businesspeople and the great and the good at Davos in Switzerland. Global economic, political, social and environmental issues are discussed and, sometimes, agreements are reached between world leaders. The 2019 meeting was somewhat subdued as worries persist about a global slowdown, Brexit and the trade war between the USA and China. Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Theresa May were all absent, each having more pressing issues to attend to at home.

There was, however, a feeling that the world economic order is changing, with the rise in populism and with less certainty about the continuance of the model of freer trade and a model of capitalism modified by market intervention. There was also concern about the roles of the three major international institutions set up at the end of World War II: the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO (formerly the GATT). In a key speech, Angela Merkel urged countries not to abandon the world economic order that such institutions help to maintain. The world can only resolve disputes and promote development, she argued, by co-operating and respecting the role of such institutions.

But the role of these institutions has been a topic of controversy for many years and their role has changed somewhat. Originally, the IMF’s role was to support an adjustable peg exchange rate system (the ‘Bretton Woods‘ system) with the US dollar as the international reserve currency. It would lend to countries in balance of payments deficit to allow them to maintain their rate pegged to the dollar unless it was perceived to be a fundamental deficit, in which case they were expected to devalue their currency. The system collapsed in 1971, but the IMF continued to provide short-term, and sometimes longer-term, finance to countries in balance of payments difficulties.

The World Bank was primarily set up to provide development finance to poorer countries. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then the WTO were set up to encourage freer trade and to resolve trade disputes.

However, the institutions were perceived with suspicion by many developing countries and by more left-leaning developed countries, who saw them as part of the ‘Washington consensus’. Loans from the IMF and World Bank were normally contingent on countries pursuing policies of market liberalisation, financial deregulation and privatisation.

Although there has been some movement, especially by the IMF, towards acknowledging market failures and supporting a more broadly-based development, there are still many economists and commentators calling for more radical reform of these institutions. They advocate that the World Bank and IMF should directly support investment – public as well as private – and support the Green New Deal.

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Questions

  1. What was the Bretton Woods system that was adopted at the end of World War II?
  2. What did Keynes propose as an alternative to the system that was actually adopted?
  3. Explain the roles of (a) the IMF, (b) the World Bank, (c) the WTO (formerly the GATT).
  4. What is meant by an adjustable exchange rate system?
  5. Why did the Bretton Woods system collapse in 1971?
  6. How have the roles of the IMF, World Bank and WTO/GATT evolved since they were founded?
  7. What reforms would you suggest to each of the three institutions and why?
  8. What threats are there currently to the international economic order?
  9. Summarise the arguments about the world economic order made by Angela Merkel in her address to the World Economic Forum.

The Christmas and new year period often draws attention to the financial well-being of households. An important determinant of this is the extent of their indebtedness. Rising levels of debt mean that increasing amounts of households’ incomes becomes prey to servicing debt through repayments and interest charges. They can also result in more people becoming credit constrained, unable to access further credit. Rising debt levels can therefore lead to a deterioration of financial well-being and to financial distress. This was illustrated starkly by events at the end of the 2000s.

The total amount of lending by monetary financial institutions to individuals outstanding at the end of October 2018 was estimated at £1.61 trillion. As Chart 1 shows, this has grown from £408 billion in 1994. Hence, indivduals in the UK have experience a four-fold increase in the levels of debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The debt of individuals is either secured or unsecured. Secured debt is debt secured by property, which for individuals is more commonly referred to as mortgage debt. Unsecured debt, which is also known as consumer credit, includes outstanding debt on credit cards, overdrafts on current accounts and loans for luxury items such as cars and electrical goods. The composition of debt in 2018 is unchanged from that in 1994: 87 per cent is secured debt and 13 per cent unsecured debt.

The fourfold increase in debt is taken by some economists as evidence of financialisation. While this term is frequently defined in distinctive ways depending upon the content in which it is applied, when viewed in very general terms it describes a process by which financial institutions and markets become increasingly important in everyday lives and so in the production and consumption choices that economists study. An implication of this is that in understanding economic decisions, behaviour and outcomes it becomes increasingly important to think about the potential impact of the financial system. The financial crisis is testimony to this.

In thinking about financial well-being, at least at an aggregate level, we can look at the relative size of indebtedness. One way of doing this is to measure the stock of individual debt relative to the annual flow of GDP (national income). This is illustrated in Chart 2. (Click hereto download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in debt among individuals owed to financial institutions during the 2000s was significant. By the end of 2007, the debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 88 per cent. Decomposing this, the secured debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 75 per cent and the unsecured debt-to-GDP ratio 13 per cent. Compare this with the end of 1994 when secured debt was 46 per cent of GDP, unsecured debt 7 per cent and total debt 53 per cent. In other words, the period between 1994 and 2007 the UK saw a 25 percentage point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio of individuals.

The early 2010s saw a consolidation in the size of the debt (see Chart 1) which meant that it was not until 2014 that debt levels rose above those of 2008. This led to the size of debt relative to GDP falling back by close to 10 percentage points (see Chart 2). Between 2014 and 2018 the stock of debt has increased from around £1.4 trillion to the current level of £1.61 trillion. This increase has been matched by a similar increase in (nominal) GDP so that the relative stock of debt remains little changed at present at around 76 per cent of GDP.

Chart 3 shows the annual growth rate of net lending (lending net of repayments) by monetary financial institutions to individuals. This essentially captures the growth rate in the stocks of debt, though changes in the actual stock of debt are also be affected by the writing-off of debts. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

We can see quite readily the pick up in lending from 2014. The average annual rate of growth in total net lending since 2014 has been just a little under 3½ per cent. This has been driven by unsecured lending whose growth rate has been close to 8½ per cent per annum, compared to just 2.7 per cent for secured lending. In 2016 the annual growth rate of unsecured lending was just shy of 11 per cent. This helped to fuel concerns about possible future financial distress. These concerns remain despite the annual rate of growth in unsecured debt having eased slightly to 7.5 per cent.

Despite the aggregate debt-to-GDP ratio having been relatively stable of late, the recent growth in debt levels is clearly not without concern. It has to be viewed in the context of two important developments. First, there remains a ‘debt hangover’ from the financial distress experienced by the private sector at the end of the 2000s, which itself contributed to a significant decline in economic activity (real GDP fell by 4 per cent in 2009). This subequently affected the financial well-being of the public sector following its interventions to cushion the economy from the full effects of the economic downturn as well as to help stabilise the financial system. Second, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The financial resilience of all sectors of the economy is therefore of acute concern given the unprecedented uncertainty we are currently facing while, at the same time, we are still feeling the effects of the financial distress from the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It therefore seems timely indeed for individuals to take stock of their stocks of debt.

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Questions

  1. How might we measure the financial distress of individuals?
  2. If individuals are financially distressed how might this affect their consumption behaviour?
  3. How might credit constraints affect the relationship between consumption and income?
  4. What do you understand by the concept of ‘cash flow effects’ that arise from interest rate changes?
  5. How might the accumulation of secured and unsecured debt have different effects on consumer spending?
  6. What factors might explain the rate of accumulation of debt by individuals?
  7. What is meant by ‘financial resilience’ and why might this currently be of particular concern?

One of the key questions about Brexit is its effect on UK trade and cross-border investment. Once outside the customs union, will the freedom to negotiate trade deals lead to an increase in UK exports and GDP, as many who support Brexit claim; or will the increased frictions in trade with the EU, and the need to negotiate new trade deals with those non-EU countries which already have trade deals with the EU, lead to a fall in exports and in GDP?

Also, how will trade restrictions or new trade deals affect capital flows? Will there be an increase in inward investment or a flight of investment to the EU or elsewhere? Will many companies relocate away from the UK – or to it?

Although there has been a cost up to now from the Brexit vote, in terms of a depreciation in sterling and a fall in inward investment (see the first article below), the future effects have been hard to predict as the terms on which the UK will leave the EU have been unclear. However, with a draft withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK government having been reached, the costs and benefits are becoming clearer. But there is still uncertainty about just what the effects on trade and investment will be.

  • First, the 585-page draft withdrawal agreement is not a trade deal. It contains details of UK payments to the EU, commitments on the rights of EU and UK citizens and confirmation of the transition period – initially until 31 December 2020, but possibly extended with mutual agreement. During the transition agreement, the UK would remain a member of the customs union and single market and remain subject to rulings of the European Court of Justice. The withdrawal agreement also provides for a continuation of the customs union beyond the transition period, if no long-term trade agreement is in place. This is to prevent he need for a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
  • Second, there is merely a 26-page ‘political declaration‘ about future trade relations. Negotiations on the details of these can only begin once the UK has left the EU, scheduled for 29 March 2019. So it’s still unclear about just how free trade in both goods and services will be between the UK and the EU and how freely capital and labour will move between them. But with the UK outside the single market, there will be some limitations on trade and factor movements – some frictions.
  • Third, it is not clear whether the UK Parliament will agree to the withdrawal agreement. Currently, it seems as if a majority of MPs is in favour of rejecting it. If this happens, will the UK leave without an agreement, with trade based on WTO terms? Or will the EU be prepared to renegotiate it – something it currently says it will not do? Or will the issue be put back to the electorate in the form of a People’s vote (see also), which might contain the option of seeking to remain in the EU?

So, without knowing just what the UK’s future trade relations will be with (a) the EU, (b) non-EU countries which have negotiated trade deals with the EU, (c) other countries without trade deals with the EU, it is impossible to quantify the costs and benefits from the effects on trade and investment. However, the consensus among economists is still that there will be a net cost in terms of lost trade and inward investment.

Such as view is backed by a government analysis of various Brexit scenarios, released in time for the House of Commons vote on 11 December. This concludes that the UK will be worse off under all Brexit alternatives compared with staying in the EU. The main brake on growth will be frictions in trade from tariff and non-tariff barriers.

This analysis was supported by a Bank of England paper which modelled various scenarios based on assumptions about different types of Brexit deal. While recognising the inherent uncertainty in some of the empirical relationships, it still concluded that Brexit would be likely to have a net negative effect. The size of this negative effect would depend on the closeness of the new relationship between the UK and EU, the degree of preparedness across firms and critical infrastructure, and how other policies respond.

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Questions

  1. Identify the main economic advantages and disadvantages for the UK from leaving the EU?
  2. How does the law of comparative advantage relate to the question of the relative trade gains from leaving and remaining in the EU?
  3. What is the difference between the following models of relationship with the EU: the Switzerland model; the Norway model; the Turkey model; the Canada (plus or plus, plus) model; trading on WTO terms?
  4. Why is the consensus among economists that there will be a net economic cost from leaving the EU, no matter on what terms?
  5. Is the UK likely to achieve more favourable trade deals with non-EU countries as an independent country or as a member of the EU benefiting from EU-negotiated trade deals with such countries?

An agreement in principle was reached on September 30 between the USA, Canada and Mexico over a new trade deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). President Trump had described NAFTA as ‘the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.’ The new deal, named the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is the result of 14 months of negotiations, which have often been fractious. A provisional bilateral agreement was made between the USA and Mexico in August. At the same time, President Trump threatened a trade war with Canada if it did not reach a trade agreement with the USA (and Mexico). The new USMCA must be ratified by lawmakers in all three countries before it can come into force. This could take a few months.

So is USMCA a radical departure from NAFTA? Does the USA stand to gain substantially, as President Trump claims? In fact, USMCA is little different from NAFTA. It could best be described as a relatively modest reworking of NAFTA. So what are the changes?

The first change affects the car industry. From 2020, 75% of the components of any vehicle crossing between the USA and Canada or Mexico must be made within one or more of the three countries to qualify for tariff-free treatment. The aim is to boost production within the region. But the main change here is merely an increase in the proportion from the current 62.5%.

A more significant change affecting the car industry concerns wages. Between 40% and 45% of a vehicle’s components must be made by workers earning at least US$16 per hour. This is some three times more than the average wage currently earned by Mexican car workers. Although it will benefit such workers, it will reduce Mexico’s competitive advantage and could hence lead to some diversion of production away from Mexico. Also, it could push up the price of cars.

The agreement has also strengthened various standards inadequately covered in NAFTA. According to The Conversation article:

The new agreement includes stronger protections for patents and trademarks in areas such as biotech, financial services and domain names – all of which have advanced considerably over the past quarter century. It also contains new provisions governing the expansion of digital trade and investment in innovative products and services.
 
Separately, negotiators agreed to update labor and environmental standards, which were not central to the 1994 accord and are now typical in modern trade agreements. Examples include enforcing a minimum wage for autoworkers, stricter environmental standards for Mexican trucks and lots of new rules on fishing to protect marine life.

Another area where the USMCA agreement has made changes concerns trade in dairy products. This particularly affects Canada, which has agreed to allow more US dairy products tariff-free into Canada (see the CNN article at the end of the list of articles below). New higher quotas will give US dairy farmers access to 3.6% of Canada’s dairy market. They will still pay tariffs on dairy exports to Canada that exceed the quotas, ranging from 200% to 300%.

The other significant change for consumers in Mexico and Canada is a rise in the value of duty-free imports they can bring in from the USA, including online transactions. As the first BBC article listed below states:

The new agreement raises duty-free shopping limits to $100 to enter Mexico and C$150 ($115) to enter Canada without facing import duties – well above the $50 previously allowed in Mexico and C$20 permitted by Canada. That’s good news for online shoppers in Mexico and Canada – as well as shipping firms and e-commerce companies, especially giants like Amazon.

Despite these changes, USMCA is very similar to NAFTA. It is still a preferential trade deal between the three countries, but certainly not a completely free trade deal – but nor was NAFTA.

And for the time being, US tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminium imports remain in place. Perhaps, with the conclusion of the USMCA agreement, the Trump administration will now, as promised, consider lifting these tariffs.

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Questions

  1. What have been the chief gains and losses for the USA from USMCA?
  2. What have been the chief gains and losses for Mexico from USMCA?
  3. What have been the chief gains and losses for Canada from USMCA?
  4. What are the economic gains from free trade?
  5. Why might a group of countries prefer a preferential trade deal with various restrictions on trade rather than a completely free trade deal between them?
  6. Distinguish between trade creation and trade diversion.
  7. In what areas, if any, might USMCA result in trade diversion?
  8. If the imposition of tariffs results in a net loss from a decline in trade, why might it be in the interests of a country such as the USA to impose tariffs?