Would you start a family if you were pessimistic about the future of the economy? Buckles et al (2017) (see link below) believe that fewer of us would do so and, therefore, fertility rates could be used by investors and central banks as an early signal to pick up subtle changes in consumer confidence and overall economic climate.
Their study titled ‘Fertility is a leading economic indicator’ uses ‘live births’ data, sourced from US birth certificates, to explore if there is any association between fertility changes (measured as the rate of change in number of births) and GDP growth. Their results suggest that, in the case of the USA, there is: dips in fertility rates tend to precede by several quarters slowdown in economic activity. As the authors state:
The growth rate of conceptions declines prior to economic downturns and the decline occurs several quarters before recessions begin. Our measure of conceptions is constructed using live births; we present evidence suggesting that our results are indeed driven by changes in conceptions and not by changes in abortion or miscarriage. Conceptions compare well with or even outperform other economic indicators in anticipating recessions.
Although this is not the first piece of academic writing to claim that fertility has pro-cyclical qualities (see for instance, Adsera (2004, 2011), Adsera and Menendez (2011), Currie and Schwandt (2014) and Chatterjee and Vogle (2016) linked below), it is, to the best of our knowledge, the most recent paper (in terms of data used) to depict this relationship and to explore the suitability of fertility as a macroeconomic indicator to predict recessions.
Economies, after all, are groups of people who participate actively in day-to-day production and consumption activities – as consumers, workers and business leaders. Changes in their environment should affect their expectations about the future.
Are people, however, forward-looking enough to guide their current behaviours by their expectations of future economic outcomes? They may be, according to the findings of this study.
Did you know, for instance, that sales of ties tend to increase in economic downturns, as men buy more ties to show that they are working harder, in fear of losing their job? But this is probably a topic for another blog.
In three interesting articles, linked below, the authors consider the state of economies since the financial crisis of 2007–8 and whether governments have the right tools to tackle future economic shocks.
There have been some successes over the past 10 years, in particular keeping inflation close to central bank targets despite considerable shocks (see the Vox article). Also unemployment has fallen in most countries and to very low levels in some, including the UK.
But economic growth has generally remained well below the levels prior to the financial crisis, with low productivity growth being the main culprit. Indeed, many people have seen no growth at all in their real incomes over the past 10 years, with low unemployment being bought at the cost of a growth in zero-hour contracts and work in the gig economy. And what economic growth we have seen has been largely the result of taking up slack through unprecedentedly loose monetary policy.
Fiscal policy, except in the period directly following the financial crisis, has generally been tight as governments have sought to reduce their deficits and slow down the growth in their debt.
But what will happen if economies once more slow? Or, worse still, what will happen if there is another global recession? Do countries have the policies to tackle the problem this time round?
Quantitative easing could be used again, but many economists believe that it will have more limited scope if confined to the purchase of assets in the secondary market. Also, there is little scope for reducing interest rates, which, despite some modest rises in the USA, remain at close to zero in most developed countries.
One possibility is a combination of monetary and fiscal policy, where new money is used to finance government expenditure on infrastructure, such as road and rail, broadband, green energy, hospitals and schools and colleges. This would avoid the need for governments to borrow on open markets as the spending would be financed by new government securities purchased directly by the central bank.
An objection to such ‘people’s quantitative easing‘, as it has been dubbed, is that it would effectively end the independence of central banks. This independence has been credited by many with giving central banks credibility in controlling inflation. Would inflationary expectations rise with people’s quantitative easing and, with it, actual inflation? A lot would depend on the extent to which this QE could still be conducted within a framework of targeting inflation and whether people’s expectations of inflation could be managed jointly by the government and central bank.
The article below looks at the economy of Brazil. The statistics do not look good. Real output fell last year by 3.8% and this year it is expected to fall by another 3.3%. Inflation this year is expected to be 9.0% and unemployment 11.2%, with the government deficit expected to be 10.4% of GDP.
The article considers Keynesian economics in the light of the case of Brazil, which is suffering from declining potential supply, but excess demand. It compares Brazil with the case of most developed countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Here countries have suffered from a lack of demand, made worse by austerity policies, and only helped by expansionary monetary policy. But the effect of the monetary policy has generally been weak, as much of the extra money has been used to purchase assets rather than funding a growth in aggregate demand.
Different policy prescriptions are proposed in the article. For developed countries struggling to grow, the solution would seem to be expansionary fiscal policy, made easy to fund by lower interest rates. For Brazil, by contrast, the solution proposed is one of austerity. Fiscal policy should be tightened. As the article states:
Spending restraint might well prove painful for some members of Brazilian society. But hyperinflation and default are hardly a walk in the park for those struggling to get by. Generally speaking, austerity has been a misguided policy approach in recent years. But Brazil is a special case. For now, anyway.
The tight fiscal policies could be accompanied by supply-side policies aimed at reducing bureaucracy and inefficiency.
The UK has voted to leave the EU by 17 410 742 votes (51.9% or 37.4% of the electorate) to 16 141 241 votes (48.1% or 34.7% of the electorate). But what will be the economic consequences of the vote?
To leave the EU, Article 50 must be invoked, which starts the process of negotiating the new relationship with the EU. This, according to David Cameron, will happen when a new Conservative Prime Minister is chosen. Once Article 50 has been invoked, negotiations must be completed within two years and then the remaining 27 countries will decide on the new terms on which the UK can trade with the EU. As explained in the blog, The UK’s EU referendum: the economic arguments, there are various forms the new arrangements could take. These include:
‘The Norwegian model’, where Britain leaves the EU, but joins the European Economic Area, giving access to the single market, but removing regulation in some key areas, such as fisheries and home affairs. Another possibility is ‘the Swiss model’, where the UK would negotiate trade deals on an individual basis. Another would be ‘the Turkish model’ where the UK forms a customs union with the EU. At the extreme, the UK could make a complete break from the EU and simply use its membership of the WTO to make trade agreements.
The long-term economic effects would thus depend on which model is adopted. In the Norwegian model, the UK would remain in the single market, which would involve free trade with the EU, the free movement of labour between the UK and member states and contributions to the EU budget. The UK would no longer have a vote in the EU on its future direction. Such an outcome is unlikely, however, given that a central argument of the Leave camp has been for the UK to be able to control migration and not to have to pay contributions to the EU budget.
It is quite likely, then, that the UK would trade with the EU on the basis of individual trade deals. This could involve tariffs on exports to the EU and would involve being subject to EU regulations. Such negotiations could be protracted and potentially extend beyond the two-year deadline under Article 50. But for this to happen, there would have to be agreement by the remaining 27 EU countries. At the end of the two-year process, when the UK exits the EU, any unresolved negotiations would default to the terms for other countries outside the EU. EU treaties would cease to apply to the UK.
It is quite likely, then, that the UK would face trade restrictions on its exports to the EU, which would adversely affect firms for whom the EU is a significant market. Where practical, some firms may thus choose to relocate from the UK to the EU or move business and staff from UK offices to offices within the EU. This is particularly relevant to the financial services sector. As the second Economist article explains:
In the longer run … Britain’s financial industry could face severe difficulties. It thrives on the EU’s ‘passport’ rules, under which banks, asset managers and other financial firms in one member state may serve customers in the other 27 without setting up local operations. …
Unless passports are renewed or replaced, they will lapse when Britain leaves. A deal is imaginable: the EU may deem Britain’s regulations as ‘equivalent’ to its own. But agreement may not come easily. French and German politicians, keen to bolster their own financial centres and facing elections next year, may drive a hard bargain. No other non-member has full passport rights.
But if long-term economic effects are hard to predict, short-term effects are happening already.
The pound fell sharply as soon as the results of the referendum became clear. By the end of the day it had depreciated by 7.7% against the dollar and 5.7% against the euro. A lower pound will make imports more expensive and hence will drive up prices and reduce the real value of sterling. On the other had, it will make exports cheaper and act as a boost to exports.
If inflation rises, then the Bank of England may raise interest rates. This could have a dampening effect on the economy, which in turn would reduce tax revenues. The government, if it sticks to its fiscal target of achieving a public-sector net surplus by 2020 (the Fiscal Mandate), may then feel the need to cut government expenditure and/or raise taxes. Indeed, the Chancellor argued before the vote that such an austerity budget may be necessary following a vote to leave.
Higher interest rates could also dampen house prices as mortgages became more expensive or harder to obtain. The exception could be the top end of the market where a large proportion are buyers from outside the UK whose demand would be boosted by the depreciation of sterling.
But given that the Bank of England’s remit is to target inflation in 24 month’s time, it is possible that any spike in inflation is temporary and this may give the Bank of England leeway to cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% or even 0% and/or to engage in further quantitative easing.
One major worry is that uncertainty may discourage investment by domestic companies. It could also discourage inward investment, and international companies many divert investment to the EU. Already some multinationals have indicated that they will do just this. Shares in banks plummeted when the results of the vote were announced.
Uncertainty is also likely to discourage consumption of durables and other big-ticket items. The fall in aggregate demand could result in recession, again necessitating an austerity budget if the Fiscal Mandate is to be adhered to.
We live in ‘interesting’ times. Uncertainty is rarely good for an economy. But that uncertainty could persist for some time.
What are the main elements of a balance of payments account? Changes in which elements caused the depreciation of the pound following the Brexit vote? What elements of the account, in turn, are likely to be affected by the depreciation?
What determines the size of the effect on the current account of the balance of payments of a depreciation? How might long-term effects differ from short-term ones?
Is it possible for firms to have access to the single market without allowing free movement of labour?
What assumptions were made by the Leave side about the economic effects of Brexit?
Would it be beneficial to go for a ‘free trade’ option of abolishing all import tariffs if the UK left the EU? Would it mean that UK exports would face no tariffs from other countries?
What factors are likely to drive the level of investment in the UK (a) by domestic companies trading within the UK and (b) by multinational companies over the coming months?
What will determine the course of monetary policy over the coming months?
Project Syndicate is an organisation which produces articles on a range of economic, political and social topics written by eminent scholars, political and business leaders, policymakers and civic activists. It then makes these available to news media in more than 150 countries. Here we look at four such articles which assess the outlook for the European and global economies and even that of capitalism itself.
The general tone is one of pessimism. Despite unconventional monetary policies, such as quantitative easing (QE) and negative nominal interest rates, the global recovery is anaemic. As the Nouriel Roubini articles states:
Unconventional monetary policies – entrenched now for almost a decade – have themselves become conventional. And, in view of persistent lacklustre growth and deflation risk in most advanced economies, monetary policymakers will have to continue their lonely fight with a new set of ‘unconventional unconventional’ monetary policies.
Perhaps this will involve supplying additional money directly to consumers and/or business in a so-called ‘helicopter drop’ of money. Perhaps it will be supplying money directly to governments to finance infrastructure projects – a policy dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing‘. Perhaps it will involve taxing the holding of cash by banks to encourage them to lend.
The Hans-Werner Sinn article looks at some of the consequences of the huge amount of money created through QE and continuing to be created in the eurozone. Although it has not boosted consumption and investment nearly as much as desired, it has caused bubbles in various asset markets. For example, the property market has soared in many countries:
Property markets in Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg have practically exploded throughout the crisis, as a result of banks chasing borrowers with offers of loans at near-zero interest rates, regardless of their creditworthiness.
The German property boom could be reined in with an appropriate jump in interest rates. But, given the ECB’s apparent determination to head in the opposite direction, the bubble will only grow. If it bursts, the effects could be dire for the euro.
The Jean Pisani-Ferry article widens the analysis of the eurozone’s problems. Like Roubini, he considers the possibility of a helicopter drop of money, which “would be functionally equivalent to a direct government transfer to households, financed by central banks’ permanent issuance of money”.
Without such drastic measures he sees consumer and business pessimism (see chart) undermining recovery and making the eurozone vulnerable to global shocks, such as further weakening in China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Finally, Anatole Kaletsky takes a broad historical view. He starts by saying that “All over the world today, there is a sense of the end of an era, a deep foreboding about the disintegration of previously stable societies.” He argues that the era of ‘leaving things to the market’ is coming to an end. This was an era inspired by the monetarist and supply-side revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that led to the privatisation and deregulation policies of Reagan, Thatcher and other world leaders.
But if the market cannot cope with the complexities of today’s world, neither can governments.
If the world is too complex and unpredictable for either markets or governments to achieve social objectives, then new systems of checks and balances must be designed so that political decision-making can constrain economic incentives and vice versa. If the world is characterized by ambiguity and unpredictability, then the economic theories of the pre-crisis period – rational expectations, efficient markets, and the neutrality of money – must be revised.
… It is obvious that new technology and the integration of billions of additional workers into global markets have created opportunities that should mean greater prosperity in the decades ahead than before the crisis. Yet ‘responsible’ politicians everywhere warn citizens about a ‘new normal’ of stagnant growth. No wonder voters are up in arms.
His solution has much in common with that of Roubini and Pisani-Ferry. “Money could be printed and distributed directly to citizens. Minimum wages could be raised to reduce inequality. Governments could invest much more in infrastructure and innovation at zero cost. Bank regulation could encourage lending, instead of restricting it.”
So will there be a new era of even more unconventional monetary policy and greater regulation that encourages rather than restricts investment? Read the articles and try answering the questions.