With the UK parliament in Brexit gridlock, the Labour opposition is calling for a general election. Although its policy over Brexit and a second referendum is causing splits in the party, the Labour party is generally agreed that pubic expenditure on health, education and transport infrastructure needs to increase – that there needs to be an end to fiscal austerity. However, to fund extra public expenditure would require an increase in taxes and/or an increase in government borrowing.
One of the arguments against increasing government borrowing is that it will increase public-sector debt. The desire to get public-sector debt down as a percentage of GDP has been central to both the Coalition and Conservative governments’ economic strategy. Austerity policies have been based on this desire.
But, in the annual presidential address to the American Economics Association, former chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, criticised this position. He has argued for several years that cutting government deficits may weaken already weak economies and that this may significantly reduce tax revenues and potential national income, thereby harming recovery and doing long-term economic damage. Indeed, the IMF has criticised excessively tight fiscal policies for this reason.
In his presidential address, he expanded the argument to consider whether an increase in government borrowing will necessarily increase the cost of servicing government debt. When the (nominal) interest rate (r) on government borrowing is below the nominal rate of economic growth (gn), (r < gn), then even if total debt is not reduced, it is likely that the growth in tax revenues will exceed the growth in the cost of servicing the debt. Debt as a proportion of GDP will fall. The forecast nominal growth rate exceeds the 10-year nominal rate on government bonds by 1.3% in the USA, 2.2% in the UK and 1.8% in the eurozone. In fact, with the exception of a short period in the 1980s, nominal growth (gn) has typically exceeded the nominal interest rate on government borrowing (r) for decades.
When r < gn, this then gives scope for increasing government borrowing to fund additional government spending without increasing the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, if that fiscal expansion increases both actual and potential income, then growth over time could increase, giving even more scope for public investment.
But, of course, that scope is not unlimited.
- What do you understand by ‘fiscal illusion’?
- What is the justification for reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- What are the arguments against reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Explain the significance of the relationship between r and gn for fiscal policy and the levels of government debt, government borrowing and the government debt/GDP ratio.
- Under what circumstances would a rise in the budget deficit not lead to a rise in government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Does Blanchard’s analysis suggest that a combination of both loose monetary policy and loose fiscal policy is desirable?
- Under Blanchard’s analysis, what would limit the amount that governments should increase spending?
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.
- How might we measure the financial distress of individuals?
- If individuals are financially distressed how might this affect their consumption behaviour?
- How might credit constraints affect the relationship between consumption and income?
- What do you understand by the concept of ‘cash flow effects’ that arise from interest rate changes?
- How might the accumulation of secured and unsecured debt have different effects on consumer spending?
- What factors might explain the rate of accumulation of debt by individuals?
- What is meant by ‘financial resilience’ and why might this currently be of particular concern?
One of the key developments in economics in recent years has been the growing influence of behavioural economics. We considered some of the insights of behavioural economics in a blog in 2016 (A nudge in the right direction?). As the post stated, ‘Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers.’ The post quoted from a Livemint article (see first linked article below):
According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.
Instead, people use heuristics. A heuristic technique is any approach to problem-solving, such as deciding what to buy, which is practical and sufficient for the purpose, but not necessarily optimal. For example, people may resort to making the best guess, or to drawing on past experiences of similar choices that turned out to be good or bad. On other accasions, when people are likely to face similar choices in the future, they resort to trial and error. They try a product. If they like it, they buy it again; if not, they don’t.
On other occasions, they may use various rules of thumb: buying what their friends do, or buying products on offer or buying trusted brands. These rules of thumb can lead to estimates that are reasonably close to the utility people will actually get and can save on time and effort. However, they sometimes lead to systematic and predictable misjudgements about the likelihood of certain events occurring.
In traditional models of consumer choice, individuals aim to maximise their utility when choosing between goods, or bundles of goods. The context in which the choices are offered is not considered.
Yet, in real life, we see that context is important; people will often make different choices when they are presented, or framed, in different ways. For example, people will buy more of a good when it is flagged up as a special offer than they would if there is no mention of an offer, even though the price is the same.
The recognition that framing is important to choices has led to the development of nudge theory. Indeed, it underpins many marketing techniques. These seek to persuade people to make a particular choice by framing it in an optimistic way or presenting it in a way that makes it easy to decide.
Governments too use nudge theory. In the UK, the Coalition government (2010–15) established the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) (also unofficially known as the Nudge Unit) in the Cabinet Office in 2010. A major objective of this team is to use ideas from behavioural economics to design policies that enable people to make better choices for themselves.
The podcast linked below, looks at the use of nudge theory. The presenter, Mary Ann Sieghart looks at how we are being encouraged to change our behaviour. She also looks at the work of UCL’s Love Lab which researches the way we make decisions. As the programme notes state:
Mary Ann is grilled in UCL’s Love Lab to find out how she makes decisions; she finds taking the pound signs off the menu in a restaurant encourages her spend more and adding adjectives to the food really makes it taste better.
Walking through the Nudge Unit, she hears how powerful a tiny tweak on a form or text can get be, from getting people back to work to creating a more diverse police force. Popular with the political left and right, it has been embraced around the world; from Guatemala to Rwanda, Singapore to India it is used to reduce energy consumption, encourage organ donation, combat corruption and even stop civil wars.
But the podcast also looks at some of the darker sides of nudging. Just as we can be nudged into doing things in our interests, so too we can be nudged to do things that are not so. Politicians and businesses may seek to manipulate people to get them to behave in ways that suit the government or the business, rather than the electorate or the consumer. The dark arts of persuasion are also something that behavioural economists study.
The articles below explore some of the areas where nudge theory is used to devise policy to influence our behaviour – for good or bad.
- New frontiers of human behaviour
Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
- It’s been 10 years since behavioral economics hit the mainstream
Quartz, Dan Kopf (13/10/18)
- What is ‘nudge theory’ and why should we care? Explaining Richard Thaler’s Nobel economics prize-winning concept
Independent, Ben Chu (9/10/17)
- Is Nudge Theory The Answer To Our Single-Use Plastics Problem?
HuffPost, Ollie Boesen (15/6/18)
- Re-enrolment key to ‘nudge’ UK into saving: survey
Investment and Pensions Europe Magazine (IPE), Elizabeth Pfeuti (22/10/18)
- Applying nudge strategies to higher education
Times Higher Education, Ben Castleman (6/7/18)
- Want to nudge others to install solar? Actions speak louder than words
Phys.org, Kevin Dennehy (25/10/18)
- DNA test and phone app to ‘nudge’ Waitrose shoppers towards healthier food
Imperial College London News, Caroline Brogan (12/10/18)
- “Nudge theory” explored to boost medication adherence
AMA Wire, Sara Berg (29/6/18)
- Simple ‘nudge’ letters can boost school attendance, new research suggests
The Seattle Times, Neal Morton (5/7/18)
- Using Behavioral Nudges to Treat Diabetes
Harvard Business Review, Thomas H. Davenport, James Guszcza and Greg Szwartz (10/10/18)
- Why nudge theory works until a kick in the backside is needed.
The Guardian, Andrew Rawnsley (22/10/17)
- Why Nudging Your Customers Can Backfire
Harvard Business Review, Utpal M. Dholakia (15/4/16)
- Explain what are meant by ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘heuristics’.
- How may populist politicians use nudge theory in their campaigning?
- Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
- Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
- Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
- How might we be nudged into using less plastic?
- How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
- To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded as nudging? Explain.
- Would you advise all GP surgeries and hospital outpatient departments to text reminders to people about appointments? What should such reminders say? Explain.
Would you like to be a millionaire? Of course you would – who wouldn’t, right? Actually the answer to this question may be more complicated than you might think (see for instance Sgroi et al (2017) on the economics of happiness: see linked article below), but, generally speaking, most people would answer positively to this question.
What if I told you, however, that you could become a millionaire (actually, scratch that – think big – make that “trillionaire”) overnight and be deeply unhappy about it? If you don’t believe me see what happened to Zimbabwe 10 years ago, when irresponsible money printing and fiscal easing drove the country’s economy to staggering hyperinflation (see the blogs A remnant of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and Fancy a hundred trillion dollar note?. At the peak of the crisis, prices were increasing by a factor of 130 each year. I have in my office a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note (see below) which I show in my lectures when I talk about hyperinflation to my first year Economics for Business students (if you are one of them, make sure not to miss it next February at UEA!). How much is this 100 trillion note worth? Nothing (except, may be, for collectors). It has been withdrawn from circulation as it ended up not even being worth the cost of the paper on which it was printed.
The Zimbabwean economy managed to pull itself out of this spiral of economic death, partly by informally replacing its hyperinflationary currency with the US greenback, and partly by keeping its fiscal spending under control and reverting to more sane economic policy making. That lasted until 2013, after which the government launched a Zimbabwean digital currency (known as “Zollar”) that had a nominal value set equal to a US dollar; and forced its exporters to exchange their greenbacks for Zollars. It then started spending these USD to finance a very ambitious and unsustainable programme of fiscal expansion.
The Economist published yesterday a story that shows the results of this policy – wild price increases and empty supermarket shelves are both back. According to the newspaper’s report:
At a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, the finance minister is staring aghast at a pack of nappies. ‘This is absolutely ridiculous!’, exclaims Mthuli Ncube. ‘$49!’ A manager says it cost $23 two weeks ago, before pointing out other eye-watering items such as $20 Coco Pops. […] Over the past two weeks zollars have been trading at as little as 17 cents to the dollar. The devaluation has led to a surge in prices—and not just in imported goods like nappies. Football fans attending the Zimbabwe v Democratic Republic of Congo game on October 16th were shocked to learn that ticket prices had doubled on match day.
How long will it take for the 100 trillion Zollar to make its appearance again? We shall find out. I am sure Zimbabweans will be less than thrilled!
Articles and Report
- A fist full of zollars: Zimbabwe’s shops are empty and prices are soaring
The Economist (28/10/18)
- Shelves Empty as Specter of Hyperinflation Stalks Zimbabwe
Bloomberg, Paul Wallace, Godfrey Marawanyika and Desmond Kumbuka (12/10/18)
- imbabwe currency crisis: No cash, no bread, no KFC
BBC News, Andrew Harding (12/10/18)
- Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe: money demand, seigniorage and aid shocks
Journal of Applied Economics, Tara McIndoe-Calder (Volume 50, Issue 15, 18/9/17)
- Understanding Happiness
A CAGE Policy Report: Social Market Foundation, Daniel Sgroi, Thomas Hills, Gus O’Donnell, Andrew Oswald and Eugenio Proto (January 2017)
- Using an AS/AD diagram, explain the concept of hyperinflation. How can irresponsible fiscal policy-making lead to hyperinflation?
- What are the effects of hyperinflation on the people who live in the affected countries? Search the web for examples and case studies, and use them to support your answer.
- Once it has started, what policies can be used to fight hyperinflation? Use examples to support your answer.
- How does speculation affect hyperinflation?
In December 2015, countries from around the world met in Paris at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The key element of the resulting Paris Agreement was to keep ‘global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.’ At the same time it was agreed that the IPCC would conduct an analysis of what would need to be done to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The IPPC has just published its report.
The report, based on more than 6000 scientific studies, has been compiled by more than 80 of the world’s top climate scientists. It states that, with no additional action to mitigate climate change beyond that committed in the Paris Agreement, global temperatures are likely to rise to the 1.5°C point somewhere between 2030 and 2040 and then continue rising above that, reaching 3°C by the end of the century.
According to the report, the effects we are already seeing will accelerate. Sea levels will rise as land ice caps and glaciers melt, threatening low lying coastal areas; droughts and floods will become more severe; hurricanes and cyclones will become stronger; the habits of many animals will become degraded and species will become extinct; more coral reefs will die and fish species disappear; more land will become uninhabitable; more displacement and migration will take place, leading to political tensions and worse.
The problem of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. This is where people overuse common resources, such as open grazing land, fishing grounds, or, in this case, the atmosphere as a dump for emissions. They do so because there is little, if any, direct short-term cost to themselves. Instead, the bulk of the cost is borne by others – especially in the future.
There is another related tragedy, which has been dubbed the ‘tragedy of incumbents’. This is a political problem where people in power want to retain that power and do so by appealing to short-term selfish interests. The Trump administration lauds the use of energy as helping to drive the US economy and make people better off. To paraphrase Donald Trump ‘Climate change may be happening, but, hey, let’s not beat ourselves up about it and wear hair shirts. What we do will have little or no effect compared with what’s happening in China and India. The USA is much better off with a strong automobile, oil and power sector.’
What’s to be done?
According to the IPCC report, if warming is not to exceed 1.5℃, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and by 100% by around 2050. But is this achievable?
The commitments made in the Paris Agreement will not be nearly enough to achieve these reductions. There needs to be a massive movement away from fossil fuels, with between 70% and 85% of global electricity production being from renewables by 2050. There needs to be huge investment in green technology for power generation, transport and industrial production.
In addition, the report recommends investing in atmospheric carbon extraction technologies. Other policies to reduce carbon include massive reforestation.
Both these types of policies involve governments taking action, whether through increased carbon taxes on either producers or consumer or both, or through increased subsidies for renewables and other alternatives, or through the use of cap and trade with emissions allocations (either given by government or sold at auction) and carbon trading, or through the use of regulation to prohibit or limit behaviour that leads to emissions. The issue, of course, is whether governments have the will to do anything. Some governments do, but with the election of populist leaders, such as President Trump in the USA, and probably Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and with sceptical governments in other countries, such as Australia, this puts even more onus on other governments.
Another avenue is a change in people’s attitudes, which may be influenced by education, governments, pressure groups, news media, etc. For example, if people could be persuaded to eat less meat, drive less (for example, by taking public transport, walking, cycling, car sharing or living nearer to their work), go on fewer holidays, heat their houses less, move to smaller homes, install better insulation, etc., these would all reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, there is the hope that the market may provide part of the solution. The cost of generating electricity from renewables is coming down and is becoming increasingly competitive with electricity generated from fossil fuels. Electric cars are coming down in price as battery technology develops; also, battery capacity is increasing and recharging is becoming quicker, helping encourage the switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric and hybrid cars. At the same time, various industrial processes are becoming more fuel efficient. But these developments, although helpful, will not be enough to achieve the 1.5°C target on their own.
Videos and audio
- We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or face more floods
The Guardian, Nicholas Stern (8/10/18)
- Rapid, unprecedented change needed to halt global warming – U.N.
Reuters, Nina Chestney and Jane Chung (8/10/18)
- Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’
BBC News, Matt McGrath (8/10/18)
- New UN report outlines ‘urgent, transformational’ change needed to hold global warming to 1.5°C
The Conversation, Mark Howden and Rebecca Colvin (8/10/18)
- Earth’s temperature to rise 1.5C as early as 2030 amid dire warnings from UN climate panel
The Telegraph (8/10/18)
- UN Climate Change Report: Everything You Need To Know
Huffington Post, Isabel Togoh (8/10/18)
- Thirty years of the IPCC
Physics World (8/10/18)
- 13 things you should know about 1.5
Unearthed, Zach Boren (8/10/18)
- Climate change impacts worse than expected, global report warns
National Geographic, Stephen Leahy (7/10/18)
- World to miss Paris climate targets by wide margin, says UN panel
Financial Times, Leslie Hook (8/10/18)
- We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN
The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (8/10/18)
- Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible – if there is political will
The Guardian, Christiana Figueres (8/10/18)
- The Trump administration has entered Stage 5 climate denial
The Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli (8/10/18)
- ‘Unprecedented changes’ needed to stop global warming as UN report reveals islands starting to vanish and coral reefs dying
Independent, Josh Gabbatiss (8/10/18)
- Explain the extent to which the problem of global warming is an example of the tragedy of the commons. What other examples are there of the tragedy?
- Explain the meaning of the tragedy of the incumbents and its impact on climate change? Does the length of the electoral cycle exacerbate the problem?
- With the costs of low or zero carbon technology for energy and transport coming down, is there as case for doing nothing in response to the problem of global warming?
- Examine the case for and against using taxes and subsidies to tackle global warming.
- Examine the case for and against using regulation to tackle global warming.
- Examine the case for and against using cap-and-trade systems to tackle global warming.
- Is there a prisoners’ dilemma problem in getting governments to adopt policies to tackle climate change?
- What would be the motivation for individuals to ‘do their bit’ to tackle climate change? Other than altering prices or using regulation, how might the government or other agencies set about persuading people to ‘be more green’?
- If you were doing a cost–benefit analysis of some project that will have beneficial environmental impacts in the future, how would you set about adjusting the values of these benefits for the fact that they occur in the future and not now?