This blog discusses economic issues in the news and relates these news items to key economic concepts and theories. Links are given to a range of articles and other relevant material and each blog post finishes with a set of discussion questions.
The UK’s Low Pay Commission has just published its annual report. This shows that the lowest-paid 20% of workers aged 25 and over benefited from last April’s 4.4% rise in the ‘National Living Wage (NLW)’, the name the government gives to the statutory minimum wage for people in this age group. Although only around 6.5% of such workers are paid at the NLW, when it rises this tends to push up wage rates which are just above the NLW as employers seek to maintain the differential.
If the new NLW is above the equilibrium rate for those receiving it, it would be expected that firms would respond by employing fewer workers. However, the Low Pay Commission found no evidence that rises in the NLW caused unemployment. Instead, employers responded by combinations of increasing prices, accepting lower profit margins, restructuring their workforce and reducing the gaps between pay bands.
Over the longer term, employers often seek to increase labour productivity to offset the higher cost per worker of paying increased minimum wage rates. This, however, could lead to a reduction in employment if it involves substituting capital for labour or if greater labour efficiency does not result in a sufficient increase in total output to compensate for an increase in output per worker.
Demonstrate on a supply and demand diagram for a perfectly competitive labour market the impact of a rise in the minimum wage on employment and unemployment in that market. Assume that the market is initially in equilibrium at the previous minimum wage rate.
For what reasons in such markets may a rise in the minimum wage not lead to a rise in unemployment?
Now demonstrate the effect of a rise in the minimum wage in a monopsonistic market. Assume that the previous minimum wage was previously being paid by the employer.
For what reasons may the employer in the previous question choose to retain employment at the current level?
For what reasons may the effect of a rise in the minimum wage be different in the long run from the short run?
How can employers avoid paying the minimum wage (a) when workers work in the ‘gig’ economy; (b) when workers have to travel as part of their job: e.g. care workers moving from house to house; (c) workers working from home producing items for an employer, such as clothing or jewelry, or providing a service such as telesales?
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.
The latest consumer confidence figures from the European Commission point to consumer confidence in the UK remaining at around its long-term average. Despite this, confidence is markedly weaker than before the outcome of the EU referendum. Yet, the saving ratio, which captures the proportion of disposable income saved by the household sector, is close to its historic low. We consider this apparent puzzle and whether we can expect the saving ratio to rise.
The European Commission’s consumer confidence measure is a composite indicator based on the balance of responses to 4 forward-looking questions relating to the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations and savings.
Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average (median) of –6.25 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses. In October 2018 the confidence balance stood at –5.2, essentially unchanged from its September value of –5.8. While above the long-term average, recent values mark a weakening in confidence from levels before the EU referendum. At the beginning of 2016 the aggregate confidence score was running at around +4. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Chart 1 shows two periods where consumer confidence fell markedly. The first was in the early 1990s. In 1990 the UK joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). This was a semi-fixed exchange rate system whereby participating EU countries allowed fluctuations against each other’s currencies, but only within agreed bands, while being able to collectively float freely against all other currencies. In attempting to staying in the ERM, the UK was obliged to raise interest rates in order to protect the pound. The hikes to rates contributed to a significant dampening of aggregate demand and the economy slid into recession. Britain crashed out of the ERM in September 1992.
The second period of declining confidence was during the global financial crisis in the late 2000s. The retrenchment among financial institutions meant a significant tightening of credit conditions. This too contributed to a significant dampening of aggregate demand and the economy slid into recession. Whereas the 1992 recession saw the UK national output contract by 2.0 percent, this time national output fell by 6.3 per cent.
The collapses in confidence from 1992 and from 2007/08 are likely to have helped propagate the effects of the fall in aggregate demand that were already underway. The weakening of confidence in 2016 is perhaps a better example of a ‘confidence shock’, i.e. a change in aggregate demand originating from a change in confidence. Nonetheless, a fall in confidence, whether it amplifies existing shocks or is the source of the shock, is often taken as a signal of greater economic uncertainty. If we take this greater uncertainty to reflect a greater range of future income outcomes, including potential income losses, then households may look to insure themselves by increasing current saving.
It is usual to assume that people suffer from diminishing marginal utility of total consumption. This means that while total satisfaction increases as we consume more, the additional utility from consuming more (marginal utility) decreases. An implication of this is that a given loss of consumption reduces utility by more than an equivalent increase in consumption increases utility. This explains why people prefer more consistent consumption levels over time and so engage in consumption smoothing. The utility, for example, from an ‘average’ consumption level across two time periods, is higher, than the expected utility from a ‘low’ level of consumption in period 1 and a ‘high’ level of consumption in period 2. This is because the loss of utility from a ‘low’ level of consumption relative to the ‘average’ level is greater than the additional utility from the ‘high’ level relative to the ‘average’ level.
If greater uncertainty, such as that following the EU referendum, increases the range of possible ‘lower’ consumption values in the future even when matched by an increase in the equivalent range of possible ‘higher’ consumption values, then expected future utility falls. The incentive therefore is for people to build up a larger buffer stock of saving to minimise utility losses if the ‘bad state’ occurs. Hence, saving which acts as a from of self-insurance in the presence of uncertainty is known as buffer-stock saving or precautionary saving.
Chart 2 plots the paths of the UK household-sector saving ratio and consumer confidence. The saving ratio approximates the proportion of disposable income saved by the household sector. What we might expect to see if more uncertainty induces buffer-stock saving is for falls in confidence to lead to a rise in the saving ratio. Conversely, less uncertainty as proxied by a rise in confidence would lead to a fall in the saving ratio. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The chart provides some evidence that of this. The early 1990s and late 2000s certainly coincided with both waning confidence and a rising saving ratio. The saving ratio rose to as high as 15.2 per cent in 1993 and 12.0 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile the rising confidence seen in the late 1990s coincided with a fall in the saving ratio to 4.7 per cent in 1999.
As Chart 2 shows, the easing of confidence since 2016 has coincided with a period where the saving ratio has been historically low. Across 2017 the saving ratio stood at just 4.5 per cent. In the first half of 201 the ratio averaged just 4.2 per cent. While the release of the official figures for the saving ratio are less timely than those for confidence, the recent very low saving ratio may be seen to raise concerns. Can softer confidence data continue to co-exist with such a low saving ratio?
There are a series of possible explanations for the recent lows in the saving ratio. On one hand, the rate of price inflation has frequently exceeded wage inflation in recent years so eroding the real value of earnings. This has stretched household budgets and limited the amount of discretionary income available for saving. On the other hand, unemployment rates have fallen to historic lows. The rate of unemployment in the three months to August stood at 4 per cent, the lowest since 1975. Unemployment expectations are important in determining levels of buffer stock saving because of the impact of unemployment on household budgets.
Another factor that has fuelled the growth of spending relative to income, has been the growth of consumer credit. In the period since July 2016, the annual rate of growth of consumer credit, net of repayments, has averaged 9.7 per cent. Behavioural economists argue that foregoing spending can be emotionally painful. Hence, spending has the potential to exhibit more stickiness than might otherwise be predicted in a more uncertain environment or in the anticipation of income losses. Therefore, the reluctance or inability to wean ourselves off credit and spending might be a reason for the continuing low saving ratio.
We wait to see whether the saving ratio increases over the coming months. However, for now, the UK household sector appears to be characterised by low saving and fragile confidence. Whether or not this is a puzzle, is open to question. Nonetheless, it does appear to carry obvious risks should weaker income growth materialise.
One of the announcements in the recent UK Budget was the ending of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), including its revised form, PF2. PFI was introduced by the Conservative government in 1992. Subsequently, it was to become central to the Labour government’s ‘Third-way’ approach of using the private sector to deliver public projects and services.
PFI involves a public–private partnership (PPP). The private sector builds and/or runs public projects, such as new schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, student accommodation, and so on. The public sector, in the form of government departments, NHS foundation trusts, local authorities, etc., then pays the private sector company a rent for the infrastructure or pays the company to provide services. The benefit of PFI is that it allows private-sector capital to be used for new projects and thus reduces the need for government to borrow; the disadvantage is that it commits the public-sector body to payments over the long-term to the company involved.
As the chart shows, PFI became an important means of funding public service provision during the 2000s. In the 10-year period up to financial year 2007/08, more than 50 new projects were being signed each year.
As the number of projects grew and with them the long-term financial commitments of the public sector, so criticisms mounted. These included:
Quality and cost. It was claimed that PFI projects were resulting in poorer quality of provision and that cost control was often poor, resulting in a higher burden for the taxpayer in the long term.
Credit availability. PFI projects are typically dependent on the private partner using debt finance to acquire the necessary funds. Therefore, credit conditions affect the ability of PFI to fund the delivery of public services. With the credit crunch of 2008/9, many firms operating PFI projects found it difficult to raise finance.
The financial health of the private partner. What happens if the private company runs into financial difficulties. In 2005, the engineering company Jarvis only just managed to avoid bankruptcy by securing refinancing on all 14 of its PFI deals.
Recognising these problems, in 2011 the government set up a review of PFI. The result was a revised form of PFI, known as ‘PF2’. PF2 projects involved tighter financial control, with the government acting as a minority co-investor; more robust tendering processes, with bidders required to develop a long-term financing solution, where bank debt does not form the majority of the financing of the project; the removal of cleaning, catering and other ‘soft services’.
Despite the government’s intention that PPPs remain an important plank of its funding of public services, the number of new PFI/PF2 projects has nonetheless declined sharply during the 2010s as the chart shows. Of the 715 PPP projects as of 31 March 2017, 631 had been signed before May 2010. Indeed, in 2016/17 only 1 new project was signed.
The collapse of Carillion
Concerns over PPPs remained despite the reforms under PF2. These were brought dramatically into focus with the collapse of Carillion plc (see the blog, Outsourcing, PFI and the demise of Carillion). Carillion was a British company focused on construction and facilities management (i.e. support services for organisations). It was a significant private-sector partner in PPP projects. By 2014 it had won 60 PPP projects in the UK and Canada, including hospitals, schools, university buildings, prisons, roads and railways.
However, Carillion had increasing burdens of debt, caused, in part, by various major acquisitions, including McAlpine in 2008. Events came to a head when, on 15 January 2018, an application was made to the High Court for a compulsory liquidation of the company.
A subsequent report for the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in light of the collapse of Carillion found that procurement procedures were fundamentally flawed. It found that contracts were awarded based on cost rather than quality. This meant that some contracts were not sustainable. Between 2016 and the collapse of Carillion the government had been forced to renegotiate more than £120m of contracts so that public services could continue.
The ending of PPPs?
On 18 January 2018, the National Audit Office published an assessment of PFI and PF2. The report stated that there were 716 PFI and PF2 projects at the time, either under construction or in operation, with a total capital value of £59.4 billion. In recent years, however, ‘the government’s use of the PFI and PF2 models had slowed significantly, reducing from, on average, 55 deals each year in the five years to 2007/8 to only one in 2016/17.’
At its conference in September 2018, the Labour shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said that, if elected, a Labour government would not award any new PFI/PF2 contracts. He claimed that PFI/PF2 contracts were set to cost the taxpayer £200bn over the coming decade. Labour policy would be to review all existing PFI/PF2 contracts and bring the bulk of them fully back into the public sector.
Then in the Budget of 29 October 2018, the Chancellor announced that no further PFI/PF2 projects would be awarded, although existing ones would continue.
I have never signed off a PFI contract as chancellor, and I can confirm today that I never will. I can announce that the government will abolish the use of PFI and PF2 for future projects.
We will honour existing contracts. But the days of the public sector being a pushover, must end. We will establish a centre of excellence to actively manage these contracts in the taxpayers’ interest, starting in the health sector.
But does this mean that there will be no more public-private partnerships, of which PFI is just one example? The answer is no. As the Chancellor stated:
And in financing public infrastructure, I remain committed to the use of public-private partnership where it delivers value for the taxpayer and genuinely transfers risk to the private sector.
But just what form future PPPs will take is unclear. Clearly, the government will want to get value for money, but that depends on the mechanisms used to ensure efficient and high-quality projects. What is more, there is still the danger that the companies involved could end up with unsustainable levels of debt if economic circumstances change and it will still involve a burden on the taxpayer for the future.
Find out how PF2 differs from PFI and assess the extent to which it overcame the problems identified with PFI.
The government is not bringing back existing PFI contracts into the public sector, whereas the Labour Party would do so – at least with some of them. Assess the arguments for and against bringing PFI contracts ‘in-house’.
Find out why Carillion collapsed. To what extent was this due to its taking on PFI contracts?
The government still supports the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs). What form could these take other than as PFI/PF2 contracts? Would the problems associated with PFI/PF2 also apply to PPPs in general?
In his Budget on 29 October, the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced a new type of tax. This is a ‘digital services tax’, which, after consultation, he is planning to introduce in April 2020. The target of the tax is the profits made by major companies providing social media platforms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), internet marketplaces (e.g. Amazon and eBay) or search engines (such as Alphabet’s Google).
The proposed digital services tax is a 2% tax on the revenues earned by such companies in the UK. It would only apply to large companies, defined as those whose global revenue is at least £500m a year. It is expected to raise around £400m per year.
The EU is considering a similar tax at a rate of 3%. India, Pakistan, South Korea and several other countries are considering introducing digital taxes. Indeed, many countries are arguing for a worldwide agreement on such a tax. The OECD is studying the implications of the possible use of such a tax by its 36 members. If an international agreement on such a tax can be reached, a separate UK tax may not go ahead. As the Chancellor stated in his Budget speech:
In the meantime we will continue to work at the OECD and G20 to seek a globally agreed solution. And if one emerges, we will consider adopting it in place of the UK Digital Services Tax.
The proposed UK tax is a hybrid between direct and indirect taxes. Like corporation tax, a direct tax, its aim is to tax companies’ profits. But, unlike corporation tax, it would be harder for such companies to avoid. Like VAT, an indirect tax, it would be a tax on revenue, but, unlike VAT, it would be an ‘end-stage’ tax rather than a tax on value added at each stage of production. Also, it would not be a simple sales tax on companies as it would be confined to revenue (such as advertising revenue) earned from the use in the UK of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. As the Chancellor said in his speech.
It is important that I emphasise that this is not an online-sales tax on goods ordered over the internet: such a tax would fall on consumers of those goods – and that is not our intention.
There is, however, a political problem for the UK in introducing such a tax. The main companies it would affect are American. It is likely that President Trump would see such taxes as a direct assault on the USA and could well threaten retaliation. As the Accountancy Age article states, ‘Dragging the UK into an acrimonious quarrel with one of its largest trading partners is perhaps not what the Chancellor intends.’ This will be especially so as the UK seeks to build new trading relationships with the USA after Brexit. As the BBC article states, ‘The chancellor will be hoping that an international agreement rides to his rescue before the UK tax has to be imposed.’