Tag: Consumer Spending

A constant feature of the UK economy (and of many other Western economies) has been record low interest rates. Since March 2009, Bank Rate has stood at 0.5%. Interest rates have traditionally been used to keep inflation on target, but more recently their objective has been to stimulate growth. However, have these low interest rates had a negative effect on the business environment?

Interest rates are a powerful tool of monetary policy and by affecting many of the components of aggregate demand, economic growth can be stimulated. This low-interest rate environment is an effective tool to stimulate consumer spending, as it keeps borrowing costs low and in particular can keep mortgage repayments down. However, this policy has been criticised for the harm it has been doing to savers – after all, money in the bank will not earn an individual any money with interest rates at 0.5%! Furthermore, there is now a concern that such low interest rates have led to ‘zombie companies’ and they are restricting the growth potential and recovery of the economy.

A report by the Adam Smith Institute suggests that these ‘zombie companies’ have emerged in part by the low-interest environment and are continuing to absorb resources, which could otherwise be re-allocated to companies with more potential, productivity and a greater contribution to the economic recovery. During a recession, there will undoubtedly be many business closures, as aggregate demand falls, sales and profits decline until eventually the business becomes unviable and loans cannot be repaid. Given the depth and duration of the recent recessionary period, the number of business closures should have been very large. However, the total number appears to be relatively low – around 2% or 100,000 and the report suggests that the low interest rates have helped to ‘protect’ them.

Low interest rates have enabled businesses to meet their debt repayments more easily and with some banks being unwilling to admit to ‘bad loans’, businesses have benefited from loans being extended or ‘rolled over’. This has enabled them to survive for longer and as the report suggests, may be preventing a full recovery. The report’s author, Tom Papworth said:

Low interest rates and bank forbearance represent a vast and badly targeted attempt to avoid dealing with the recession. Rather than solving our current crisis, they risk dooming the UK to a decade of stagnation … We tend to see zombies as slow-moving and faintly laughable works of fiction. Economically, zombies are quite real and hugely damaging, and governments and entrepreneurs cannot simply walk away.

The problem they create is that resources are invested into these companies – labour, capital, innovation. This creates an opportunity cost – the resources may be more productive if invested into new companies, with greater productive potential. The criticism is that the competitiveness of the economy is being undermined by the continued presence of such companies and that this in turn is holding the UK economy back. Perhaps the interest rate rise that may happen this time next year may be what is needed to encourage the re-allocation of capital. However, a 0.5 percentage point rise in interest rates would hardly be the end of the world for some of these companies. Perhaps a more focused approach looking at restructuring is the key to their survival and the allocation of resources to their most productive use. The following articles and the report itself consider the case of the trading dead.

Report
The Trading Dead The Adam Smith Institute, Tom Papworth November 2013

Articles
Zombie firms threaten UK’s economic recovery, says thinktank The Guardian, Gyyn Topam (18/11/13)
Zombie companies ‘probably have no long term future’ BBC News (18/11/13)
Rate rise set to put stake through heart of zombie companies Financial Times, Brian Groom (14/11/13)
Why we can still save the zombie firms hindering the UK economic rival City A.M., Henry Jackson (18/11/13)
Breathing new life into zombies The Telegraph, Rachel Bridge (9/11/13)

Questions

  1. Which components of aggregate demand are affected (and how) by low interest rates?
  2. Why do low interest rates offer ‘protection’ to vulnerable businesses?
  3. How is the reallocation of resources relevant in the case of zombie companies?
  4. If interest rates were to increase, how would this affect the debts of vulnerable businesses? Would a small rate irse be sufficient and effective?
  5. What suggestions does the report give for zombie companies to survive and become more productive?
  6. Is there evidence of zombie companies in other parts of the world?

In our blog How sustainable is UK consumer spending? we considered concerns of some commentators that consumer spending was growing unduly quickly given the absence of any sustained growth in disposable income. The Second Estimate of GDP, Q2 2013 reports that the economy grew by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of the year, with household expenditure growing by 0.4 per cent.

Because household spending makes up about two-thirds of aggregate demand in the UK it is important to keep an eye on it. The latest figures show that the real value of consumer spending by British households has risen in each quarter since 2011 Q4. In other words, the volume of household purchases has risen for seven consecutive quarters. Over the period, the growth in real consumer spending has averaged 0.4 per cent per quarter.

The chart helps to demonstrate the stark turnaround in the growth in consumer spending. Over the period from 2008 Q1 to 2011 Q3, real consumer spending typically fell by 0.4 per cent each quarter. As we noted in our previous blog, this was a period when the global financial system was in distress, with the availability of credit severely dampened, but also a period when households were concerned about their own financial balances and the future prospects for growth. Over the same period, real GDP typically fell by a little under 0.3 per cent each quarter. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The real value of consumer spending has yet to return to its 2007 Q4 peak (£242 billion at 2010 prices). In 2013 Q2 the real value of consumer spending is estimated still to be 3 per cent below this level (£235 billion at 2010 prices). These figures are mirrored by the economy at large. Real GDP peaked in 2008 Q1 (£393 billion at 2010 prices). Despite the back-to-back quarterly increases in real GDP of 0.3 per cent in Q1 and 0.7 per cent in Q2, output in 2013 Q2 (£380 billion at 2010 prices) remains 3.2 per cent below the 2008 Q1 peak.

While real consumption values are below their 2007 Q4 peak, the concern is whether current rates of growth in consumer spending are sustainable. In particular, should this growth cause the household sector financial distress there would be real pain for the economy further down the line. Some commentators argue that the latest GDP figures are consistent with a more balanced recovery. In Q2 economic growth was supported too by other parts of the economy. For instance, we saw a 3.6 per cent rise in export volumes and a 1.7 per cent rise in gross fixed capital formation (i.e. investment expenditure).

Nonetheless, it is the protracted period over which consumer spending has been growing robustly that concerns some economists. Hence, we will need to continue to monitor the growth in all components of aggregate demand and, in particular, changes in household consumption, income, saving and borrowing.

Data

Second Estimate of GDP, Q2 2013 Dataset Office for National Statistics

Articles

New articles
UK economic growth revised up to 0.7% BBC News, (23/8/13)
UK GDP revised up to 0.7pc in second quarter: reaction Telegraph, (23/8/13)
UK rallying faster than thought as exports leap boosts GDP Independent, Russell Lynch and Ben Chu (24/8/13)
UK economy expanding faster than first thought, GDP revision shows Guardian, Heather Stewart (23/8/13)
Growth upgrade points to ‘sustainable’ recovery Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/8/13)

Previous articles
UK wages decline among worst in Europe BBC News, (11/8/13)
Squeezing the hourglass The Economist, (10/8/13)
UK first-quarter growth unchanged BBC News, (28/5/13)
Summer heatwave triggers shopping spree in ‘Wongaland’ economy Telegraph, Steve Hawkes and Steven Swinford (15/8/13)
Retail sales data better than expected as UK economy enjoys summer bounce Guardian, Heather Stewart (15/8/13)
Mark Carney is banking on you to keep spending Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (10/8/13)
NIESR upgrades UK economy but warns on consumer spending Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (2/8/13)
Consumers ‘expect better economy’ Belfast Telegraph, (4/8/13)

Questions

  1. Explain what you understand by a ‘sustainable’ economic recovery.
  2. What are the expenditure components that make up Aggregate Demand?
  3. Explain what you understand by consumption smoothing.
  4. Why would we would typically expect consumption growth to be less variable than that in disposable income?
  5. Would we expect consumption growth to always be less variable than that in disposable income? Explain your answer.
  6. What impact do you think the financial crisis has had on consumer behaviour?
  7. To what extent do you think the current growth in consumer spending is sustainable?
  8. How important are expectations in determining consumer behaviour?

Household spending makes up about two-thirds of aggregate demand in the UK. Understanding its determinants is therefore important to understanding short-term economic growth. The real value of consumer spending by British households has risen in each quarter since 2011 Q4. Over the same period real disposable income has flat-lined. This suggests that the British household sector has stepped up attempts to smooth their longer-term spending profile despite the current absence of growth in their real incomes.

When viewed over many years, disposable income and consumer spending grow at very similar rates. After stripping out inflation we find that over the past 50 years both have grown at about 2½ per cent per annum. However, if we measure growth from one quarter of the year to the next we tend to find that consumption growth is less variable than disposable income. This is known as consumption smoothing.

Chart 1 shows the quarterly percentage change in consumption and disposable income since 1998. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).The variability in the disposable income series is generally greater than that in consumption so helping to illustrate consumption smoothing.

Consumption smoothing is facilitated by the financial system enabling us to either borrow to supplement our spending or to save to enjoy more spending in the future. The financial system can help households to avoid large variations in their spending over short periods.

Consumption smoothing does not prohibit falls in consumption nor periods when it is more variable than income. Over the period from 2008 Q1 to 2011 Q3, real consumption typically fell by 0.4 per cent each quarter while disposable income was flat. This was a period when the global financial system was in distress. Sharp contractions in credit meant that the financial system was no longer able to support economic activity as it had previously. Furthermore, households too looked to repair their balance sheets with economic uncertainty acting as an incentive to do so.

What is interesting is the extent to which British households are spending again. Since 2011 Q4 the real value of spending has typically expanded by 0.4 per cent each quarter while income growth remains largely absent. One might argue that this just demonstrates a willingness for households to engage in consumption smoothing. With credit conditions still tight, the growth in spending has been aided by a decline in the saving ratio. This can be seen from Chart 2.

In 2009 Q2 the proportion of income saved hit 8.6 per cent having been as low as 0.2 per cent in 2008 Q1. In 2013 Q1 the saving ratio had fallen back to 4.2 per cent. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

It is of course all too easy to over-interpret data. Nonetheless, there be will concern if households look to maintain consumption growth at rates substantially greater than those in disposable income for too long a period of time. Consumption smoothing could become a real problem for future economic activity if it was to result in a financially distressed household sector. Hence, an important question is the extent to which current rates of consumption growth are sustainable. Future consumption and income trends will therefore be analysed with enormous interest.

Data

Quarterly National Accounts, Q1 2013 Dataset Office for National Statistics

Articles

UK wages decline among worst in Europe BBC News, (11/8/13)
Squeezing the hourglass The Economist, (10/8/13)
UK first-quarter growth unchanged BBC News, (28/5/13)
Summer heatwave triggers shopping spree in ‘Wongaland’ economy Telegraph, Steve Hawkes and Steven Swinford (15/8/13)
Retail sales data better than expected as UK economy enjoys summer bounce Guardian, Heather Stewart (15/8/13)
Mark Carney is banking on you to keep spending Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (10/8/13)
NIESR upgrades UK economy but warns on consumer spending Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (2/8/13)
Consumers ‘expect better economy’ Belfast Telegraph, (4/8/13)

Questions

  1. Explain what you understand by consumption smoothing.
  2. Why would we would typically expect consumption growth to be less variable than that in disposable income?
  3. Would we expect consumption growth to always be less variable than that in disposable income? Explain your answer.
  4. What impact do you think the financial crisis has had on consumer behaviour?
  5. To what extent do you think the current growth in consumer spending is sustainable?
  6. How important are expectations in determining consumer behaviour?

How important are emotions when you go shopping? Many people go shopping when they ‘need’ to buy something, whether it be a new outfit, food/drink, a new DVD release, a gift, etc. Others, of course, simply go window shopping, often with no intention of buying. However, everyone at some point has made a so-called ‘impulse’ purchase.

There is only one article below, which is from the BBC and draws on data released from the National Employment Savings Trust’s survey. This report suggests that British people spend over £1 billion every year on impulse buys – purchases that are not needed, were not intended and are often regretted once the ‘high’ has worn off. Often, it is the way in which a product is advertised or positioned that leads to a spontaneous purchase – seeing chocolate bars/sweets at the tills; a product offered at a huge discount advertised in the window of a shop; 2 for 1 purchases; points for loyalty etc. All of these and more are simple techniques used by retailers to encourage the impulse buy. As consumer psychologist, Dr. James Intriligator says:

Retailers have clever ways of manipulating customers to spend more but if you stick to your plans you can avoid being affected by their tactics.

In other cases, it’s simply the frame of mind of the consumer that can lead to such purchases, such as being hungry when you’re food shopping or having an event to attend the next day and deciding to go window shopping, despite already having something to wear! Dr. Intriligator continues, saying:

Your ability to resist and make rational choices is diminished when your glucose levels are down … When you get irrational, you fall back on trusted brands, which often leads you to spend more money … Later in the shop, you’re more tired and less likely to resist [impulse buys]

But are such purchases irrational? One of the key assumptions made by economists (at least in traditional economics) is that consumers are rational. This implies that consumers weigh up marginal costs and benefits when making a decision, such as deciding whether or not to purchase a product. But, do impulse buys move away from this rational consumer approach? Is buying something because it makes you happy in the short term a rational decision? Behavioural economics is a relatively new ‘branch’ of economics that takes a closer look at the decisions of consumers and what’s behind their behaviour. The following article from the BBC considers the impulse buy and leaves you to consider the question of irrational consumers.

How to stop buying on impulse BBC Consumer (30/5/13)

Questions

  1. If the marginal benefit of purchasing a television outweighs the marginal cost, what is the rational response?
  2. Using the concept of marginal cost and benefit, illustrate them on a diagram and explain how equilibrium should be reached.
  3. What is behavioural economics?
  4. What are the key factors that can be used to explain impulse buys?
  5. How can framing help to explain irrational purchases?
  6. If a product is advertised at a significant discount, what figure for elasticity is it likely to have to encourage further purchases in-store?
  7. Is bulk-buying always a bad thing?

When you are next in town shopping, just keep in mind that consumer spending accounts for a little over 60 per cent of GDP. Therefore, consumption is incredibly important to the economy. How consumers behave is crucial to our short-term economic growth. The second estimate of British growth from the Office for National Statistics shows that the economy expanded by 0.3 per cent in the first three months of 2013. This follows a 0.3 per cent decline in the final quarter of 2012. Real household expenditure rose by just 0.1 per cent in Q1 2013. However, this was the sixth consecutive quarter in which the volume of purchases by households has grown.

The growth in the economy is measured by changes in real GDP. Chart 1 shows the quarter-to-quarter change in real GDP since Q1 2008. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). During this period the economy is thought to have contracted in 10 of the 21 quarters shown. Furthermore, they show a double-dip recession and so two periods in close proximity where output shrank for two or more quarters. While more recent output numbers are frequently revised, which could see the double-dip recession possibly ‘statistically wiped’ from history, the period since 2008 will always been one characterised by anemic growth. The average quarterly growth rate since Q1 2008 has been -0.12 per cent.

Chart 2 shows from Q1 2008 the quarterly growth in household expenditure in real terms, i.e. after stripping the effect of consumer price inflation. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Over the period, the volume of household consumption has typically fallen by 0.18 per cent per quarter. Hence, consumption has feared a little worse than the economy has a whole.

While the annualised rate of growth for the economy since Q1 2008 has averaged -0.47 per cent that for consumer spending has averaged -0.73 per cent. However, these figures disguise a recent improvement in consumer spending growth. This is because the volume of consumption has in fact grown in each of the six quarters since Q4 2011. In contrast, the economy has grown in only 2 of these quarters. It is, of course, much too early to start trumpeting consumption growth has heralding better times, not least because the 0.1 per cent growth in Q1 2013 is the weakest number since positive consumption growth resumed at the back end of 2011. Nonetheless, the figures do deserve some analysis by economists to understand what is going on.

A slightly less promising note is struck by the gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) numbers. These numbers relate to the volume of investment in non-financial fixed assets, such as machinery, buildings, office space and fixtures and fittings. Chart 3 shows the quarterly growth in the volume of GFCF since Q1 2008. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). The average quarterly rate of growth over this period has been -0.77 per cent. This is equivalent to an annual rate of decline of 3.9 per cent. GFCF has risen in only 7 of these quarters, declining in the remaining 14 quarters.

Worryingly, gross fixed capital formation has decreased in each of the last three quarters. While these figures may reflect continuing difficulties encountered by businesses in obtaining finance, they may also point to lingering concerns within the business community about the prospects for sustained growth. Therefore, it is important for economists to try and understand the drivers of these disappointing investment numbers and, hence, whether it is these or the slightly better consumption numbers that best hint at our short-term economic prospects.

Data

Second estimate of GDP, Q1 2013 Office for National Statistics
Second Estimate of GDP, Q1 2013 Dataset Office for National Statistics

Articles

UK GDP: concerns about underlying economy as 0.3pc growth confirmed Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/5/13)
UK investment fall among worst in G8 Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/5/13)
UK first-quarter growth unchanged BBC News (28/5/13)
U.K. Economy Grows 0.3% on Inventories, Consumer Spending Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (23/5/13)
Surge in consumer spending kept UK out of recession The Telegraph (28/5/13)
Boost in service sector activity The Herald, Greig Cameron (28/5/13)
Hopes dashed as household spending rises by just 0.1% The Herald, Ian McConnell (24/5/13)

Questions

  1. Why do we typically focus on real GDP rather than nominal GDP when analysing economic growth?
  2. What is meant by aggregate demand? Of what importance is consumer spending to aggregate demand?
  3. Why might the patterns we observe in consumer spending differ from those in other components of aggregate demand?
  4. What factors might influence the determination of consumer spending?
  5. What do you understand by gross fixed capital formation? What factors might help to explain how its level is determined?
  6. Of what significance is gross fixed capital formation for aggregate demand and for aggregate supply?
  7. What is a recession? What is a double-dip recession?
  8. What data would you need to collect to identify a recession?