Category: Essentials of Economics: Ch 11

The latest figures from the ONS show that UK inflation rose to 2.3% for the 12 months to February 2017 – up from 1.9% for the 12 months to January. The rate is the highest since September 2013 and has steadily increased since late 2015.

The main price index used to measure inflation is now CPIH, as opposed to CPI. CPIH is the consumer prices index (CPI) adjusted for housing costs and is thus a more realsitic measure of the cost pressures facing households. As the ONS states:

CPIH extends the consumer prices index (CPI) to include a measure of the costs associated with owning, maintaining and living in one’s own home, known as owner occupiers’ housing costs (OOH), along with Council Tax. Both of these are significant expenses for many households and are not included in the CPI.

But why has inflation risen so significantly? There are a number of reasons.

The first is a rise in transport costs (contributing 0.15 percentage points to the overall inflation rate increase of 0.4 percentage points). Fuel prices rose especially rapidly, reflecting both the rise in the dollar price of oil and the depreciation of the pound. In February 2016 the oil price was $32.18; in February 2017 it was $54.87 – a rise of 70.5%. In February 2016 the exchange rate was £1 = $1.43; in February 2017 it was £1 = $1.25 – a depreciation of 12.6%.

The second biggest contributor to the rise in inflation was recreation and culture (contributing 0.08 percentage points). A wide range of items in this sector, including both goods and services, rose in price. ‘Notably, the price of personal computers (including laptops and tablets) increased by 2.3% between January 2017 and February 2017.’ Again, a large contributing factor has been the fall in the value of the pound. Apple, for example, raised its UK app store prices by a quarter in January, having raised prices for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers significantly last autumn. Microsoft has raised its prices by more than 20% this year for software services such as Office and Azure. Dell, HP and Tesla have also significantly raised their prices.

The third biggest was food and non-alcoholic beverages (contributing 0.06 percentage points). ‘Food prices, overall, rose by 0.8% between January 2017 and February 2017, compared with a smaller rise of 0.1% a year earlier.’ Part of the reason has been the fall in the pound, but part has been poor harvests in southern Europe putting up euro prices. This is the first time that overall food prices have risen for more than two-and-a-half years.

It is expected that inflation will continue to rise over the coming months as the effect of the weaker pound and higher raw material and food prices filter though. The current set of pressures could see inflation peaking at around 3%. If there is a futher fall in the pound or further international price increases, inflation could be pushed higher still – well above the Bank of England’s 2% target. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The higher inflation means that firms are facing a squeeze on their profits from two directions.

First, wage rises have been slowing and are now on a level with consumer price rises. It is likely that wage rises will soon drop below price rises, meaning that real wages will fall, putting downward pressure on spending and squeezing firms’ revenue.

Second, input prices are rising faster than consumer prices. In the 12 months to February 2017, input prices (materials and fuels) rose by 19.1%, putting a squeeze on producers. Producer prices (‘factory gate prices’), by contrast, rose by 3.7%. Even though input prices are only part of the costs of production, the much smaller rise of 3.7% reflects the fact that producer’s margins have been squeezed. Retailers too are facing upward pressure on costs from this 3.7% rise in the prices of products they buy from producers.

One of the worries about the squeeze on real wages and the squeeze on profits is that this could dampen investment and slow both actual and potential growth.

So will the Bank of England respond by raising interest rates? The answer is probably no – at least not for a few months. The reason is that the higher inflation is not the result of excess demand and the economy ‘overheating’. In other words, the higher inflation is not from demand-pull pressures. Instead, it is from higher costs, which are in themselves likely to dampen demand and contribute to a slowdown. Raising interest rates would cause the economy to slow further.

Videos

UK inflation shoots above two percent, adding to Bank of England conundrum Reuters, William Schomberg, David Milliken and Richard Hunter (21/3/17)
Bank target exceeded as inflation rate rises to 2.3% ITV News, Chris Choi (21/3/17)
Steep rise in inflation Channel 4 News, Siobhan Kennedy (21/3/17)
U.K. Inflation Gains More Than Forecast, Breaching BOE Goal Bloomberg, Dan Hanson and Fergal O’Brien (21/3/17)

Articles

Inflation leaps in February raising prospect of interest rate rise The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (21/3/17)
Brexit latest: Inflation jumps to 2.3 per cent in February Independent, Ben Chu (21/3/17)
UK inflation rate leaps to 2.3% BBC News (21/3/17)
UK inflation: does it matter for your income, debts and savings? Financial Times, Chris Giles (21/3/17)
Rising food and fuel prices hoist UK inflation rate to 2.3% The Guardian, Katie Allen (21/3/17)
Reality Check: What’s this new measure of inflation? BBC News (21/3/17)

Data

UK consumer price inflation: Feb 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/3/17)
UK producer price inflation: Feb 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/3/17)
Inflation and price indices ONS datasets
Consumer Price Inflation time series dataset ONS datasets
Producer Price Index time series dataset ONS datasets
European Brent Spot Price US Energy Information Administration
Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England

Questions

  1. If pries rise by 10% and then stay at the higher level, what will happen to inflation (a) over the next 12 months; (b) in 13 months’ time?
  2. Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation. Why are they associated with different effects on output?
  3. If producers face rising costs, what determines their ability to pass them on to retailers?
  4. Why is the rate of real-wage increase falling, and why may it beome negative over the coming months?
  5. What categories of people are likely to lose the most from inflation?
  6. What is the Bank of England’s remit in terms of setting interest rates?
  7. What is likely to affect the sterling exchange rate over the coming months?

When UK unemployment was 7.7% in July 2013, Mark Carney, the newly arrived governor of the Bank of England, said that the Bank would probably have to rise interest rates when the unemployment rate dropped below 7%. Below that rate, it was expected that inflation would rise. In other words, 7% was the NAIRU – the non-accelerating rate of inflation. The most recent figure for the unemployment rate is 4.8% and yet the Bank of England has not raised interest rates. In fact, in response to the Brexit vote, it cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% in August last year. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below.)

The NAIRU is a similar, although not identical, concept to the natural rate of unemployment. The natural rate is the equilibrium rate consistent with an overall long-term balance of aggregate labour demand and supply: i.e. the rate after short-term cyclical movements in unemployment have been discounted. It is thus a long-term concept.

The NAIRU, although similar, focuses on the relationship between inflation and unemployment. With inflation caused solely by demand-side factors, the natural rate and the NAIRU will be similar if not identical. However, if cost-push factors change – say there is a poor harvest, which pushes up food prices and inflation (temporarily), or a substantial depreciation of the exchange rate caused by political factors (such as Brexit) – the NAIRU would increase, at least in the short term, as a higher rate of unemployment would be necessary to stop inflation rising. In the long term, although being defined differently, the NAIRU and the natural rate will be the same.

In practice, because the Bank of England is targeting inflation at a 24-month time horizon, the NAIRU for the UK at that point could also be seen as the natural rate.

So with the Bank of England not raising interest rates despite the considerable fall in the unemployment rate, does this imply a fall in the natural rate of unemployment? The answer is yes. The reason has to do with changes in the structure of the labour market.

The proportion of young people and women with children returning to the labour market has fallen. Such people have a higher-than-average rate of unemployment since they typically spend a period of time searching for a job.

Tax and benefit reforms over the years have increased the incentive for the unemployed to take work.

Perhaps the biggest factor is a greater flexibility in the labour market. As union power has waned and as people are increasingly working on flexible contracts, including zero-hour contracts, so this has moderated wage increases. At the same time, many firms are facing increased competition both from abroad and domestically via the Internet. This has put downward pressure on prices and hence on the wages firms are willing to pay.

The effect has been a fall in the NAIRU and probably the natural rate. Frictions in the labour market have reduced and people losing their jobs because of changes in industrial structure find it easier to get jobs in low-skilled service industries, where employers’ risks of taking on such workers have fallen because of the loss of rights for such workers.

So what is the natural rate of unemployment today? It is certainly much lower than 7%; the consensus is that it is probably below 5%. As Kristin Forbes, External MPC Member of the Bank of England stated in a recent speech:

[Unemployment] is forecast to increase gradually from its current 4.8% to a high of 5.0% in the second half of 2017, before falling back to its current rate by the end of 2019. To put this in context, 5.0% was previously believed to be around the UK’s natural rate of unemployment – the rate below which unemployment could not fall without wages picking up to levels inconsistent with sustaining inflation around the 2% target. Unemployment at 5.0% is also below the average unemployment rate for the UK over the pre-crisis period from 1997 to 2007 (when it was 5.5%).

She went on to discuss just what the figure is for the natural, or ‘equilibrium’, rate of unemployment (U*). One problem here is that there is considerable uncertainty over the figure in the current forecast made by the Bank.

[An] assumption in the forecast about which there is substantial uncertainty is of the equilibrium unemployment rate – or U* for short. Since I have been on the MPC, the Committee has assumed that U* was around 5%. This implied that the more by which unemployment exceeded 5%, the more slack existed in the economy, and the less upward momentum would be expected in wages (controlling for other factors, such as productivity growth).

As part of our annual assessment of regular supply-side conditions this January, Bank staff presented several pieces of analysis that suggested U* may be lower than 5% today [see, for example]. The majority of the MPC voted to lower our estimate of U* to 4.5%, based partly on the persistent weakness of wage growth over the past few years after accounting for other factors in our models. [See page 20 of the February 2017 Inflation Report.]

My own assessment, however, suggested that although U* was likely lower than 5% today, it is likely not as low as 4.5%. If true, this would suggest that there is less slack in the economy than in the MPC’s central forecast, and wage growth and inflation could pick up faster than expected.

Against that, however, uncertainty related to Brexit negotiations could make firms more cautious about raising wages, thereby dampening wage growth no matter where unemployment is relative to its equilibrium. Moreover, even if we could accurately measure the level of U* in the economy today, it could easily change over the next few years as the labour force adjusts to any changes in the movement of labour between the UK and European Union.

Determining the precise figure of the current natural rate of unemployment, and predicting it for the medium term, is very difficult. It involves separating out demand-side factors, which are heavily dependent on expectations. It also involves understanding the wage elasticity of labour supply in various markets and how this has been affected by the increased flexibility of these markets.

Articles

When will Britons get a pay rise? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/2/17)
BoE decision, Inflation Report – Analysts react DigitalLook, Alexander Bueso (2/2/17)
Bank of England hikes UK economic growth forecasts but warns of rising inflation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/2/17)

Bank of England publications

Inflation Report Bank of England (February 2017)
A MONIAC (not manic) economy Bank of England Speeches, Kristin Forbes (8/2/17)
The labour market Bank of England Speeches, Michael Saunders (31/1/17)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between the following terms: natural rate of unemployment, NAIRU, equilibrium rate of unemployment, disequilibrium rate of unemployment.
  2. For what reasons did the Monetary Policy Committee members feel that the equilibrium rate of unemployment might be as low as 4.25%?
  3. Why might it be as high as 5%?
  4. How are changes in migration trends likely to affect (a) wage growth and (b) unemployment?
  5. How is the amount of slack in an economy measured? What impact does the degree of slack have on wage growth and inflation?
  6. What is meant by the ‘gig’ economy? How has the development of the gig economy impacted on unemployment and wages?
  7. Why has there been a considerable rise in self employment?
  8. How may questions of life style choice and control over the hours people wish to work impact on the labour market?
  9. If people are moving jobs less frequently, does this imply that the labour market is becoming less flexible?
  10. Why may firms in the current climate be cautious about raising wages even if aggregate demand picks up?

We’ve considered Keynesian economics and policy in several blogs. For example, a year ago in the post, What would Keynes say?, we looked at two articles arguing for Keynesian expansionary polices. More recently, in the blogs, End of the era of liquidity traps? and A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics, we looked at whether Donald Trump’s proposed policies are more Keynesian than his predecessor’s and at the opportunities and risks of such policies.

The article below, Larry Elliott updates the story by asking what Keynes would recommend today if he were alive. It also links to two other articles which add to the story.

Elliott asks his imaginary Keynes, for his analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 and of what has happened since. Keynes, he argues, would explain the crisis in terms of excessive borrowing, both private and public, and asset price bubbles. The bubbles then burst and people cut back on spending to claw down their debts.

Keynes, says Elliott, would approve of the initial response to the crisis: expansionary monetary policy (both lower interest rates and then quantitative easing) backed up by expansionary fiscal policy in 2009. But expansionary fiscal policies were short lived. Instead, austerity fiscal policies were adopted in an attempt to reduce public-sector deficits and, ultimately, public-sector debt. This slowed down the recovery and meant that much of the monetary expansion went into inflating the prices of assets, such as housing and shares, rather than in financing higher investment.

He also asks his imaginary Keynes what he’d recommend as the way forward today. Keynes outlines three alternatives to the current austerity policies, each involving expansionary fiscal policy:

•  Trump’s policies of tax cuts combined with some increase in infrastructure spending. The problems with this are that there would be too little of the public infrastructure spending that the US economy needs and that the stimulus would be poorly focused.
•  Government taking advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. “Governments could do this without alarming the markets, Keynes says, if they followed his teachings and borrowed solely to invest.”
•  Use money created through quantitative easing to finance public-sector investment in infrastructure and housing. “Building homes with QE makes sense; inflating house prices with QE does not.” (See the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy and Global warning).

Increased government spending on infrastructure has been recommended by international organisations, such as the OECD and the IMF (see OECD goes public and The world economic outlook – as seen by the IMF). With the rise in populism and worries about low economic growth throughout much of the developed world, perhaps Keynesian fiscal policy will become more popular with governments.

Article

Keynesian economics: is it time for the theory to rise from the dead?, The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/12/16)

Questions

  1. What are the main factors determining a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?
  2. What are the benefits and limitations of using fiscal policy to raise global economic growth?
  3. What are the benefits and limitations of using new money created by the central bank to fund infrastructure spending?
  4. Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
  5. Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
  6. Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
  7. Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
  8. What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
  9. What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?

The first article below, from The Economist, examines likely macroeconomic policy under Donald Trump. He has stated that he plans to cut taxes, including reducing the top rates of income tax and reducing taxes on corporate income and capital gains. At the same time he has pledged to increase infrastructure spending.

This expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to be accompanied by accommodating monetary policy. Interest rates would therefore rise to tackle the inflationary pressures from the fiscal policy. One effect of this would be to drive up the dollar and therein lies significant risks.

The first is that the value of dollar-denominated debt would rise in foreign currency terms, thereby making it difficult for countries with high levels of dollar debt to service those debts, possibly leading to default and resulting international instability. At the same time, a rising dollar may encourage capital flight from weaker countries to the US (see The Economist article, ‘Emerging markets: Reversal of fortune’).

The second risk is that a rising dollar would worsen the US balance of trade account as US exports became less competitive and imports became more so. This may encourage Donald Trump to impose tariffs on various imports – something alluded to in campaign speeches. But, as we saw in the blog, Trump and Trade, “With complex modern supply chains, many products use components and services, such as design and logistics, from many different countries. Imposing restrictions on imports may lead to damage to products which are seen as US products”.

The third risk is that the main beneficiaries of Trump’s likely fiscal measures will be the rich, who would end up paying significantly less tax. With all the concerns from poor Americans, including people who voted for Trump, about growing inequality, measures that increase this inequality are unlikely to prove popular.

Articles

That Eighties show The Economist, Free Exchange (19/11/16)
The unbearable lightness of a stronger dollar Financial Times (18/11/16)

Questions

  1. What should the Fed’s response be to an expansionary fiscal policy?
  2. Which is likely to have the larger multiplier effect: (a) tax revenue reductions from cuts in the top rates of income; (b) increased government spending on infrastructure projects? Explain your answer.
  3. Could Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal policy lead to crowding out? Explain.
  4. What would protectionist policies do to (a) the US current account and (b) dollar exchange rates?
  5. Why might trying to protect US industries from imports prove difficult?
  6. Why might Trump’s proposed fiscal policy lead to capital flight from certain developing countries? Which types of country are most likely to lose from this process?
  7. Go though each of the three risks referred to in The Economist article and identify things that the US administration could do to mitigate these risks.
  8. Why may the rise in the US currency since the election be reversed?

The article below looks at the economy of Brazil. The statistics do not look good. Real output fell last year by 3.8% and this year it is expected to fall by another 3.3%. Inflation this year is expected to be 9.0% and unemployment 11.2%, with the government deficit expected to be 10.4% of GDP.

The article considers Keynesian economics in the light of the case of Brazil, which is suffering from declining potential supply, but excess demand. It compares Brazil with the case of most developed countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Here countries have suffered from a lack of demand, made worse by austerity policies, and only helped by expansionary monetary policy. But the effect of the monetary policy has generally been weak, as much of the extra money has been used to purchase assets rather than funding a growth in aggregate demand.

Different policy prescriptions are proposed in the article. For developed countries struggling to grow, the solution would seem to be expansionary fiscal policy, made easy to fund by lower interest rates. For Brazil, by contrast, the solution proposed is one of austerity. Fiscal policy should be tightened. As the article states:

Spending restraint might well prove painful for some members of Brazilian society. But hyperinflation and default are hardly a walk in the park for those struggling to get by. Generally speaking, austerity has been a misguided policy approach in recent years. But Brazil is a special case. For now, anyway.

The tight fiscal policies could be accompanied by supply-side policies aimed at reducing bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Article

Brazil and the new old normal: There is more than one kind of economic mess to be in The Economist, Free Exchange Economics (12/10/16)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘crowding out’.
  2. What is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’? Why are many countries in the developed world currently in a liquidity trap?
  3. Why have central banks in the developed world found it difficult to stimulate growth with policies of quantitative easing?
  4. Under what circumstances would austerity policies be valuable in the developed world?
  5. Why is crowding out of fiscal policy unlikely to occur to any great extent in Europe, but is highly likely to occur in Brazil?
  6. What has happened to potential GDP in Brazil in the past couple of years?
  7. What is meant by the ‘terms of trade’? Why have Brazil’s terms of trade deteriorated?
  8. What sort of policies could the Brazilian government pursue to raise growth rates? Are these demand-side or supply-side policies?
  9. Should Brazil pursue austerity policies and, if so, what form should they take?