One of President Trump’s main policy slogans has been ‘America first’. As Trump sees it, a manifestation of a country’s economic strength is its current account balance. He would love the USA to have a current account surplus. As it is, it has the largest current account deficit in the world (in absolute terms) of $481 billion in 2016 or 2.6% of GDP. This compares with the UK’s $115bn or 4.4% of GDP. Germany, by contrast, had a surplus in 2016 of $294bn or 8.5% of GDP.
However, he looks at other countries’ current account surpluses suspiciously – they may be a sign, he suspects, of ‘unfair play’. Germany’s surplus of over $50bn with the USA is particularly in his sights. Back in January, as President-elect, he threatened to put a 35% tariff on imports of German cars.
In practice, Germany is governed by eurozone rules, which prevent it from subsidising exports. And it does not have its own currency to manipulate. What is more, it is relatively open to imports from the USA. The EU imposes an average tariff of just 3% on US imports and importers also have to add VAT (19% in the case of Germany) to make them comparably priced with goods produced within the EU.
So why does Germany have such a large current account surplus? The article below explores the question and dismisses the claim that it’s the result of currency manipulation or discrimination against imports. The article states that the reason for the German surplus is that:
… it saves more than it invests. The correspondence of savings minus investment with exports minus imports is not an economic theory; it’s an accounting identity. Germans collectively spend less than they produce, and the difference necessarily shows up as net exports.
But why do the Germans save so much? The answer given is that, with an aging population, Germans are sensibly saving now to support themselves in old age. If Germany were to reduce its current account surplus, this would entail either the government reducing its budget surplus, or people reducing the amount they save, or some combination of the two. This is because a current account surplus, which consists of exports and other incomes from abroad (X) minus imports and any other income flowing abroad (M), must equal the surplus of saving (S) plus taxation (T) over investment (I) plus government expenditure (G). In terms of withdrawals and injections, given that:
I + G + X = S + T + M
then, rearranging the terms,
X – M = (S + T) – (I + G).
If German people are reluctant to reduce the amount they save, then an alternative is for the German government to reduce taxation or increase government expenditure. In the run-up to the forthcoming election on 24 September, Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right CDU party advocates cutting taxes, while the main opposition party, the SPD, advocates increasing government expenditure, especially on infrastructure. The article considers the arguments for these two approaches.
The German economy is unbalanced – but Trump has the wrong answer The Guardian, Barry Eichengreen (12/5/17)
German economic data (in English) Statistisches Bundesamt (Federal Statistical Office)
World Economic Outlook Databases IMF
- Why does Germany have such a large current account surplus?
- What are the costs and benefits to Germany of having a large current account surplus?
- What is meant by ‘mercantilism’? Why is its justification fallacious?
- If Germany had its own currency, would it be a good idea for it to let that currency appreciate?
- What are meant by ‘resource crowding out’ and ‘financial crowding out’? Why might the policies of tax cuts advocated by the CDU result in crowding out? What form would it take and why?
- Compare the relative benefits of the policies advocated by the CDU and SPD to reduce Germany’s budget surplus.
- Would other countries, such as the USA, benefit from a reduction in Germany’s current account surplus?
- Is what ways would the USA gain and lose from restricting imports from Germany? Would it be a net gain or loss? Explain.
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.
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)
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)
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
- 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?
- Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation. Why are they associated with different effects on output?
- If producers face rising costs, what determines their ability to pass them on to retailers?
- Why is the rate of real-wage increase falling, and why may it beome negative over the coming months?
- What categories of people are likely to lose the most from inflation?
- What is the Bank of England’s remit in terms of setting interest rates?
- What is likely to affect the sterling exchange rate over the coming months?
Economists were generally in favour of the UK remaining in the EU and highly critical of the policy proposals of Donald Trump. And yet the UK voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump was elected.
People rejected the advice of most economists. Many blamed the failure of most economists to predict the 2007/8 financial crisis and to find solutions to the growing gulf between rich and poor, with the majority stuck on low incomes.
So to what extent are economists to blame for the rise in populism – a wave that could lead to electoral upsets in various European countries? The podcast below brings together economists and politicians from across the political spectrum. It is over an hour long and provides an in-depth discussion of many of the issues and the extent to which economists can provide answers.
Should economists share the blame for populism? Guardian Politics Weekly podcast, Heather Stewart, joined by Andrew Lilico, Ann Pettifor, Jonathan Portes, Rachel Reeves and Vince Cable (23/2/17)
- Why has globalisation become a dirty word?
- Assess the arguments for and against an open policy towards immigration?
- In what positive ways may economists contribute to populism?
- Do economists concentrate too much on growth in GDP rather than on its distribution?
- Give some examples of ways in which various popular interpretations of economic phenomena may confuse correlation with causality.
- Why did the proportions of people who voted for and against Brexit differ considerably from one part of the country to another, from one age group to another and from one social group to another?
- In what ways have economists and the subject of economics contributed towards a growth in human welfare?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the trend for undergraduate economics curricula to become more mathematical (at least until relatively recently)?
Both the financial and goods markets are heavily influenced by sentiment. And such sentiment tends to be self-reinforcing. If consumers and investors are pessimistic, they will not spend and not invest. The economy declines and this further worsens sentiment and further discourages consumption and investment. Banks become less willing to lend and stock markets fall. The falling stock markets discourage people from buying shares and so share prices fall further. The despondency becomes irrational and greatly exaggerates economic fundamentals.
This same irrationality applies in a boom. Here it becomes irrational exuberance. A boom encourages confidence and stimulates consumer spending and investment. This further stimulates the boom via the multiplier and accelerator and further inspires confidence. Banks are more willing to lend, which further feeds the expansion. Stock markets soar and destabilising speculation further pushes up share prices. There is a stock market bubble.
But bubbles burst. The question is whether the current global stock market boom, with share prices reaching record levels, represents a bubble. One indicator is the price/earnings (PE) ratio of shares. This is the ratio of share prices to earnings per share. Currently the ratio for the US index, S&P 500, is just over 26. This compares with a mean over the past 147 years of 15.64. The current ratio is the third highest after the peaks of the early 2000s and 2008/9.
An alternative measure of the PE ratio is the Shiller PE ratio (see also). This is named after Robert Shiller, who wrote the book Irrational Exuberance. Unlike conventional PE ratios, which only look at average earnings over the past four quarters, the Shiller PE ratio uses average earnings over the past 10 years. “Because this factors in earnings from the previous ten years, it is less prone to wild swings in any one year.”
The current level of the Shiller PE ratio is 29.14, the third highest on record, this time after the period running up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. The mean Shiller PE ratio over the past 147 years is 16.72.
So are we in a period of irrational exuberance? And are stock markets experiencing a bubble that sooner or later will burst? The following articles explore these questions.
2 Clear Instances of Irrational Exuberance Seeking Alpha, Jeffrey Himelson (12/2/17)
Promised land of Trumpflation-inspired global stimulus has been slow off the mark South China Morning Post, David Brown (20/2/17)
A stock market crash is a way off, but this boom will turn to bust The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/2/17)
The “boring” bubble is close to bursting – the Unilever bid proves it MoneyWeek, John Stepek (20/2/17)
- Find out what is meant by Minksy’s ‘financial instability hypothesis’ and a ‘Minsky moment’. How might they explain irrational exuberance and the sudden turning point from a boom to a bust?
- Is it really irrational to buy shares with a very high PE ratio if everyone else is doing so?
- Why are people currently exuberant?
- What might cause the current exuberance to end?
- How does irrational exuberance affect the size of the multiplier?
- How might the behaviour of banks and other financial institutions contribute towards a boom fuelled by irrational exuberance?
- Compare the usefulness of a standard PE ratio with the Shiller PE ratio.
- Other than high PE ratios, what else might suggest that stock markets are overvalued?
- Why might a company’s PE ratio differ from its price/dividends ratio (see)? Which is a better measure of whether or not a share is overvalued?
An earlier post on this site described a recent row between Tesco and Unilever that erupted when Unilever attempted to raise the prices it charges Tesco for its products. Unilever justified this because its costs have increased as a result of the UK currency depreciation following the Brexit decision.
It also appears that more general concerns that the fall in the value of sterling would lead to higher retail prices were prevalent around the time that the Tesco Unilever dispute came to light. Former Sainsbury’s boss, Justin King, made clear that British shoppers should be prepared for higher prices. He also said that:
Retailers’ margins are already squeezed. So there is no room to absorb input price pressures and costs will need to be passed on. But no one wants to be the first to break cover. No business wants to be the first to blame Brexit for a rise in prices. But once someone does, there will be a flood of companies because they will all be suffering.
It is interesting to consider further why the Tesco and Unilever case was the first to make the headlines and why their dispute was resolved so quickly. In addition, what are the more general implications for the retail prices consumers will have to pay?
Arguably, Unilever saw itself as having a strong hand in negotiations with Tesco because its product portfolio includes a wide variety of must-stock brands, including Pot Noodles, Marmite and Persil, that are found in 98% of UK households..
Unilever has been criticised for using the currency devaluation as an excuse to justify charging Tesco more, since most of its products are made in the UK. However, Unilever was quick to point outthat commodities it uses in the manufacture of products are priced in US dollars, so the currency devaluation can still affect the cost of products that it manufactures in the UK. In addition, Unilever’s chief financial officer, Graeme Pitkethly, insisted that price increases due to rising costs were a normal part of doing business:
We are taking price increases in the UK. That is a normal devaluation-led cycle.
On the other hand, even if the cost increases faced by Unilever are genuine, it is interesting to speculate whether it would have been so quick to adjust its prices downwards in response to a currency appreciation. After all, a commonly observed phenomenon across a range of markets is ‘rockets and feathers’ pricing behaviour i.e. prices going up from a cost increase more quickly than they go down following an equivalent cost decrease.
Compared to Unilever, some other suppliers are likely to have less bargaining power – in particular, those competing in highly fragmented markets and those producing less branded products. In such markets the suppliers may be forced to accept cost increases. For example, almost 50% of butter and cheese consumed in the UK comes from milk sourced from EU markets. Protecting such suppliers is one of the key roles of the Grocery code of conduct that the UK competition agency has put in place.
From Tesco’s point of view it will have benefited from good publicity by doing its best to protect consumers from price hikes. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:
Retailers are firmly on the side of consumers in negotiating with suppliers and improving efficiencies in the supply chain to control the inflationary pressure that is building through the devaluation of the pound.
However, it is also clear that Tesco had its own motives for resisting increased costs for Unilever’s products. In such situations both supplier and retailer should be keen to avoid a situation where they both impose their own substantial mark-ups at each stage of the supply chain. It is well established that this creates a double mark-up and not only harms consumers, but also the supplier and retailer themselves. Instead, the firms have an incentive to use more complex contractual arrangements to solve the problem. For example, suppliers may pay slotting allowances to get a place on the retailers’ shelves in exchange for lower retail mark-ups.
It has also been claimed that cutthroat competition in the supermarket industry, especially from discounter retailers Aldi and Lidl, made Tesco particularly keen to prevent price rises. Some arguments suggest that these discounters will be best placed to benefit from the currency devaluation as they sell more own brands, have a limited range, the leanest supply chains and benefit from substantial economies of scale. On the other hand, they source more of their products from abroad and it has been suggested that:
A fall in sterling will push prices up for everyone who sources products from Europe, but Aldi and Lidl will be affected more than most.
One prediction suggests that the overall impact of the currency depreciation on food prices will be an increase of around 3%. This may be particularly worrisome given concerns that the impact will fall most heavily on benefit claimants and other low-income households.
Outside of the food industry, Mike Rake, the chairman of BT, has highlighted the fact that:
Imported mobile phones and broadband home hubs were already 10% more expensive and the cost would have to be passed on to consumers in the near future.
It is therefore clear that the currency devaluation has the potential to create substantial tensions in the supply-chain agreements across a range of markets. The impact on the firms involved and on consumers will depend upon a wide range of factors, including the competitiveness of the markets, the nature of the firms involved and their bargaining power. Furthermore, evidence from an earlier currency depreciation in Latin America makes clear that the price elasticity of demand will be another factor that determines the impact price rises have.
Finally, it is also worth noting that a potential flip side of the currency depreciation is a boost for UK exports. However, it has been suggested that the manufacturing potential to take advantage of this in the UK is limited. In addition, even the manufacturing that does take place, for example in the car industry, often relies on components imported from abroad.
The Brexiteers’ Marmite conspiracy theories exposed their utter ignorance of how markets really work Independent, Ben Chu (16/10/16)
Tesco price dispute sends Unilever brand perceptions tumbling Marketing Week, Leonie Roderick (17/10/16)
Unilever and Tesco both benefit from their price row, but Brexit will bring more pain Marketing Week, Mark Ritson (19/10/16)
Why the Tesco v Unilever feud was good for British business campaign, Helen Edwards (20/10/16)
- What are some of the factors that affect a supplier’s bargaining power?
- How might the discount retailers respond to the currency devaluation?
- Use the figures from Latin America in the article cited above to calculate the price elasticity of demand.
- Explain why the price elasticity of demand is an important determinant of the effect of a price rise.
- Can you think of other examples of markets that may be particularly prone to price rises following a currency depreciation?