The last two weeks have been quite busy for macroeconomists, HM Treasury staff and statisticians in the UK. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Phillip Hammond, delivered his (fairly upbeat) Spring Budget Statement on 13 March, highlighting among other things the ‘stellar performance’ of UK labour markets. According to a Treasury Press Release:
Employment has increased by 3 million since 2010, which is the equivalent of 1,000 people finding work every day. The unemployment rate is close to a 40-year low. There is also a joint record number of women in work – 15.1 million. The OBR predict there will be over 500,000 more people in work by 2022.
To put these figures in perspective, according to recent ONS estimates, in January 2018 the rate of UK unemployment was 4.3 per cent – down from 4.4 per cent in December 2017. This is the lowest it has been since 1975. This is of course good news: a thriving labour market is a prerequisite for a healthy economy and a good sign that the UK is on track to full recovery from its 2008 woes.
The Bank of England welcomed the news with a mixture of optimism and relief, and signalled that the time for the next interest rate hike is nigh: most likely at the next MPC meeting in May.
But what is the practical implication of all this for UK consumers and workers?
For workers it means it’s a ‘sellers’ market’: as more people get into employment, it becomes increasingly difficult for certain sectors to fill new vacancies. This is pushing nominal wages up. Indeed, UK wages increased on average by 2.6 per cent year-to-year.
In real terms, however, wage growth has not been high enough to outpace inflation: real wages have fallen by 0.2 per cent compared to last year. Britain has received a pay rise, but not high enough to compensate for rising prices. To quote Matt Hughes, a senior ONS statistician:
Employment and unemployment levels were both up on the quarter, with the employment rate returning to its joint highest ever. ‘Economically inactive’ people — those who are neither working nor looking for a job — fell by their largest amount in almost five and a half years, however. Total earnings growth continues to nudge upwards in cash terms. However, earnings are still failing to outpace inflation.
An increase in interest rates is likely to put further pressure on indebted households. Even more so as it coincides with the end of the five-year grace period since the launch of the 2013 Help-to-Buy scheme, which means that many new homeowners who come to the end of their five year fixed rate deals, will soon find themselves paying more for their mortgage, while also starting to pay interest on their Help-to-buy government loan.
Will wages grow fast enough in 2018 to outpace inflation (and despite Brexit, which is now only 12 months away)? We shall see.
The President of the United States, Donald Trump, announced recently that he will be pushing ahead with plans to impose a 25% tariff on imports of steel and a 10% tariff on aluminium. This announcement has raised concerns among the USA’s largest trading partners – including the EU, Canada and Mexico, which, according to recent calculations, expect to lose more than $5 billion in steel exports and over $1 billion in aluminium exports.
A number of economists and policymakers are worried that such policies restrict trade and are likely to provoke retaliation by the affected trade partners. In recent statements, the EU has pledged to take counter-measures if the bloc is affected by these policies. In a recent press conference, the Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmstrom, stated that:
We have made it clear that a move that hurts the EU and puts thousands of European jobs in jeopardy will be met with a firm and proportionate response.
She added that, ‘I truly hope that this will not happen. A trade war has no winners.’
Why is everyone so worried about trade wars then? Trade wars, by definition, result in trade diversion which can hurt employment, wealth creation and overall economic performance in the affected countries. As affected states are almost certain to retaliate, these losses are likely to be felt by all parties that are involved in a trade war – including the one that instigated it. This results in a net welfare loss, the size of which depends on a number of factors, including the relative size of the countries that take part in the trade war, the importance of the affected industries to the local economy and others.
A number of studies have attempted to estimate the effect of trade restrictions and tariff wars on welfare: see for instance Anderson and Wincoop (2001), Syropoulos (2002), Fellbermayr et al. (2013). The results vary widely, depending on the case. However, there seems to be consensus that the more similar (in terms of size and industry composition) the adversaries are, the more mutually damaging a trade war is likely to be (and, therefore, less likely to happen).
As Miyagiwa et al (2016, p43) explain:
A country initiates contingent protection policy against a trading partner only if the latter has a considerably smaller domestic market than its own, while avoiding confrontation with a country having a substantially larger domestic market than its own.
As both Canada and the EU are very large advanced market economies, it remains to be seen how much risk (and potential damage to the local and global economy) US trade policymakers are willing to take.
Since running for election, Donald Trump has vowed to ‘put America first’. One of the economic policies he has advocated for achieving this objective is the imposition of tariffs on imports which, according to him, unfairly threaten American jobs. On March 8 2018, he signed orders to impose new tariffs on metal imports. These would be 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium.
His hope is that, by cutting back on imports of steel and aluminium, the tariffs could protect the domestic industries which are facing stiff competition from the EU, South Korea, Brazil, Japan and China. They are also facing competition from Canada and Mexico, but these would probably be exempt provided negotiations on the revision of NAFTA rules goes favourably for the USA.
Assuming there were no retaliation from other countries, jobs would be gained in the steel and aluminium industries. According to a report by The Trade Partnership (see link below), the tariffs would increase employment in these industries by around 33 000. However, the higher price of these metals would cause job losses in the industries using them. In fact, according to the report, more than five jobs would be lost for every one gained. The CNN Money article linked below gives example of the US industries that will be hit.
But the costs are likely to be much greater than this. Accorinding to the law of comparative advantage, trade is a positive-sum game, with a net gain to all parties engaged in trade. Unless trade restrictions are used to address a specific market distortion in the trade process itself, restricting trade will lead to a net loss in overall benefit to the parties involved.
Clearly there will be loss to steel and aluminium exporters outside the USA. There will also be a net loss to their countries unless these metals had a higher cost of production than in the USA, but were subsidised by governments so that they could be exported profitably.
But perhaps the biggest cost will arise from possible retaliation by other countries. A trade war would compound the net losses as the world moves further from trade based on comparative advantage.
Already, many countries are talking about retaliation. For example, the EU is considering a ‘reciprocal’ tariff of 25% on cranberries, bourbon and Harley-Davidsons, all produced in politically sensitive US states (see the first The Economist article below). ‘As Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, puts it, “We can also do stupid”.’ In fact, this is quite a politically astute move to put pressure on Mr Trump.
But cannot countries appeal to the WTO? Possibly, but this route might take some time. What is more, the USA has attempted to get around WTO rules by justifying the tariffs on ‘national security’ grounds – something allowed under Article XXI of WTO rules, provided it can be justified. This could possibly deter countries from retaliating, but it is probably unlikely. In the current climate, there seems to be a growing mood for flouting, or at least loosely interpreting, WTO rules.
On 8 February, the Bank of England issued a statement that was seen by many as a warning for earlier and speedier than previously anticipated increases in the UK base rate. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, referred in his statement to ‘recent forecasts’ which make it more likely that ‘monetary policy would need to be tightened somewhat earlier and by a somewhat greater extent over the forecast period than anticipated at the time of the November report’.
A similar picture emerges on the other side of the Atlantic. With labour markets continuing to deliver spectacularly high rates of employment (the highest in the last 17 years), there are also now signs that wages are on an upward trajectory. According to a recent report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, US wage growth has been stronger than expected, with average hourly earnings rising by 2.9 percent – the strongest growth since 2009.
These statements have coincided with a week of sharp corrections and turbulence in the world’s largest capital markets, as investors become increasingly conscious of the threat of rising inflation – and the possibility of tighter monetary policy.
The Dow Jones plunged from an all-time high of 26,186 points on 1 February to 23,860 a week later – losing more than 10 per cent of its value in just five trading sessions (suffering a 4.62 percentag fall on 5 February alone – the worst one-day point fall since 2011). European and Asian markets followed suit, with the FTSE-100, DAX and NIKKEI all suffering heavy losses in excess of 5 per cent over the same period.
But why should higher inflationary expectations fuel a sell-off in global capital markets? After all, what firm wouldn’t like to sell its commodities at a higher price? Well, that’s not entirely true. Investors know that further increases in inflation are likely to be met by central banks hiking interest rates. This is because central banks are unlikely to be willing or able to allow inflation rates to rise much above their target levels.
The Bank of England, for instance, sets itself an inflation target of 2%. The actual ongoing rate of inflation reported in the latest quarterly Inflation Report is 3% (50 per cent higher than the target rate).
Any increase in interest rates is likely to have a direct impact on both the demand and the supply side of the economy.
Consumers (the demand side) would see their cost of borrowing increase. This could put pressure on households that have accumulated large amounts of debt since the beginning of the recession and could result in lower consumer spending.
Firms (the supply side) are just as likely to suffer higher borrowing costs, but also higher operational costs due to rising wages – both of which could put pressure on profit margins.
It now seems more likely that we are coming towards the end of the post-2008 era – a period that saw the cost of money being driven down to unprecedentedly low rates as the world’s largest economies dealt with the aftermath of the Great Recession.
For some, this is not all bad news – as it takes us a step closer towards a more historically ‘normal’ equilibrium. It remains to be seen how smooth such a transition will be and to what extent the high-leveraged world economy will manage to keep its current pace, despite the increasingly hawkish stance in monetary policy by the world’s biggest central banks.
Using supply and demand diagrams, explain the likely effect of an increase in interest rates to equilibrium prices and output. Is it good news for investors and how do you expect them to react to such hikes? What other factors are likely to influence the direction of the effect?
Do you believe that the current ultra-low interest rates could stay with us for much longer? Explain your reasoning.
What is likely to happen to the exchange rate of the pound against the US dollar, if the Bank of England increases interest rates first?
Why do stock markets often ‘overshoot’ in responding to expected changes in interest rates or other economic variables
In various blogs, we’ve looked at the UK’s low productivity growth, both relative to other countries and relative to the pre-1998 financial crisis (see, for example, The UK productivity puzzle and Productivity should we be optimistic?). Productivity is what drives long-term economic growth as it determines potential GDP. If long-term growth is seen as desirable, then a fall in productivity represents a serious economic problem.
Recent data suggest that the problem, if anything, is worse than previously thought and does not seem to be getting better. Productivity is now some 21% below what it would have been had productivity growth continued at the rate experienced in the years before the financial crisis (see second chart below).
In its latest productivity statistics, the ONS reports that labour productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) fell by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2017. This follows a fall of 0.5% in quarter 1. Over the whole year to 2017 Q2, productivity fell by 0.3%.
Most other major developed countries have much higher productivity than the UK. In 2016, Italy’s productivity was 9.9% higher than the UK’s; the USA’s was 27.9%, France’s was 28.7% and Germany’s was 34.5% higher. What is more, their productivity has grown faster (see chart).
But what of the future? The Office for Budget responsibility publishes forecasts for productivity growth, but has consistently overestimated it. After predicting several times in the past that UK productivity growth would rise towards its pre-financial crisis trend of around 2% per year, in its October 2017 Forecast evaluation Report it recognises that this was too optimisitic and revises downwards its forecasts for productivity growth for 2017 and beyond.
As the period of historically weak productivity growth lengthens, it seems less plausible to assume that potential and actual productivity growth will recover over the medium term to the extent assumed in our most recent forecasts. Over the past five years, growth in output per hour has averaged 0.2 per cent. This looks set to be a better guide to productivity growth in 2017 than our March forecast of 1.6 per cent.
Looking further ahead, it no longer seems central to assume that productivity growth will recover to the 1.8 per cent we assumed in March 2017 within five years.
But why has productivity growth not returned to pre-crisis levels? There are five possible explanations.
The first is that there has been labour hoarding. But with companies hiring more workers, this is unlikely still to be true for most employers.
The second is that very low interest rates have allowed some low-productivity companies to survive, which might otherwise have been driven out of business.
The third is a reluctance of banks to lend for investment. After the financial crisis this was driven by the need for them to repair their balance sheets. Today, it may simply be greater risk aversion than before the financial crisis, especially with the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.
The fourth is a fall in firms’ desire to invest. Although investment has recovered somewhat from the years directly following the financial crisis, it is still lower than might be expected in an economy that is no longer is recession. Indeed, there has been a much slower investment recovery than occurred after previous recessions.
The fifth is greater flexibility in the labour market, which has subdued wages and has allowed firms to respond to higher demand by taking on more relatively low-productivity workers rather than having to invest in human capital or technology.
Whatever the explanation, the solution is for more investment in both technology and in physical and human capital, whether by the private or the public sector. The question is how to stimulate such investment.