Interest rates are the main tool of monetary policy and have a history of being an effective tool in creating macroeconomic stability. There has been much discussion since the end of the financial crisis concerning when interest rates would rise in the US (and the UK) and for the US, the case is stronger, given its rate of growth, which has averaged at 2.2% per annum since June 2009.
As in the UK, the question of ‘will rates rise?’ has a clear and certain answer: Yes. The more challenging question is ‘when?’. Much of the macroeconomic data for the US is promising, with positive economic growth (and relatively strong in comparison to the UK and Eurozone), a low unemployment rate and inflation of 0.3%. This last figure is ‘too low’, but it comes in at a much more attractive 1.2% if you exclude food and energy costs and there is an argument for doing this, given the price of oil. The data on unemployment and growth might suggest that the economy is at a stage where a rate rise could be managed, but the inflation data indicates that low interest rates might be needed to keep inflation above 0%. Furthermore, there are concerns that the low unemployment figure is somewhat misleading, given that under-employment is quite high at 10.3% and there are still many who are long-term unemployed, having been out of work for more than 6 months.
Interest rates can be a powerful tool in affecting the components of aggregate demand (AD) and hence the macroeconomic variables. If interest rates fall, it can help to stimulate AD by reducing borrowing costs for consumers and businesses, reducing the incentive to save, cutting variable rate mortgage payments and depreciating the exchange rate. Collectively these effects can stimulate an economy and hence create economic growth, reduce unemployment and push up prices. However, interest rates have been at almost 0% since the financial crisis, so the only way is up. Reversing the aforementioned effects could then spell trouble, if the economy is not in a sufficiently strong position.
For many, the strength of the US economy, while relatively good, is not yet good enough to justify a rate rise. It may harm investment, growth and unemployment and none of these variables are sufficiently high to warrant a rate rise, especially given the slowdown in the emerging markets. Karishma Vaswani, from BBC News said:
“The current global hand-wringing and head-holding over whether the US Fed will or won’t raise interest rates later has got investors here in Asia worried about what this means for their economies.
The Fed has become the favourite whipping boy of Asia’s central bankers, with cries from India to Indonesia to “just get on with it”.”
There are many, including Professor John Taylor from Stanford University and a former senior Treasury official, a rate rise is well over-due. The market is expecting one and has been for some time and these expectations aren’t going away, so ‘just get on with it.’ Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Federal Reserve is in a tricky situation. She knows that whatever is decided, markets around the world will react – no pressure then! The following articles consider the interest rate debate.
FTSE slides ahead of Fed interest rates decision The Telegraph, Tara Cunningham (17/9/15)
US’s interest rate rise dilemma BBC News, Andrew Walker (17/9/15)
US interest rate rise: how it could affect your savings and your mortgage Independent (17/9/15)
All eyes on Federal Reserve as it prepares for interest rate announcement The Guardian, Rupert Neate (16/9/15)
Federal Reserve meeting: Will US interest rates rise and should they? The Telegraph, Peter Spence (16/9/15)
Markets push US rate rise bets into 2016 as China woes keep Fed on hold: as it happened The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (17/9/15)
Federal Reserve puts rate rise on hold The Guardian (17/9/15)
US central bank leave interest rates unchanged BBC News (17/5/15)
Fed leaves interest rates unchanged Wall Street Journal, Jon Hilsenrath (17/9/15)
Asian markets mostly rally, US Futures waver ahead of Fed interest rate decision International Business Times, Aditya Tejas (17/9/15)
Selected US interest rates Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (see, for example, Federal Funds Effective rate (monthly))
- What happened to US interest rates in September?
- Present the main arguments for keeping interest rates on hold.
- What were the arguments in favour of raising interest rates and do they differ depending on whether interest rates rise slowly or very rapidly?
- How did stock markets around the world react to Janet Yellen’s announcement? Is it good news for the UK?
- Using a diagram to support your explanation, outline why interest rates are such a powerful tool of monetary policy and how they affect the main macroeconomic objectives.
- Do you think other central banks will take note of the Fed’s decision, when they make their interest rate decisions in the coming months? Explain your answer.
Labour markets can be a key indicator of the strength of an economy, with emphasis placed on measures including the unemployment rate and the rate of job creation. Over the past few decades, we have seen many changes in the UK labour market, with more women, more part-time jobs, flexible hours and a shift towards services. After the financial crisis, unemployment declined and more and more people were entering the labour market. But one criticism of this was zero-hours contracts. They are nothing new and were considered in earlier blogs.
Zero hours contracts are essentially what they say: a contract where you are guaranteed to work for zero hours. This means that under such a contract, there is no guarantee that you will have employment on any given day/week and hence this creates uncertainty. However, on the other side, there can be more flexibility with such a contract and with growth in female participation and part-time work, flexibility is essential for many people. James Sproule, Director of Policy at the Institute of Directors said:
“Zero hours contracts offer businesses and employees an important degree of flexibility. For skilled professionals, a degree of flexibility can boost their earning power, while flexibility also suits students and older people – the main users of zero-hours contracts – who cannot commit to a set number of hours each and every week.”
The ONS has found that businesses are using more zero-hours contracts, with a 6% rise. This reflects a growth in January from 1.4 million to 1.5 million zero-hours contracts, though this increase was not statistically significant. Over the past year, the use of these contracts has increased by 19%, from 624,000 people employed on them in 2014 to 744,000 people in 2015.
Although there has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts, there is also more recognition of these contracts. Therefore, part of the increase in the numbers could be down to this recognition and not just due to more and more people moving onto these contracts. With this greater flexibility, comes more opportunities for more people to enter the labour market. While this is a good thing, it can hide some other aspects. For example, if more people are working, it may suggest a fall in the rate of unemployment and a rise in employment, but perhaps this is misleading if some of those in employment are under-employed. The data revealed that:
On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week, with around 40% of them wanting more hours, most from their current job, rather than in a different or additional one.
Furthermore, for some people there may be very few other options. However, there was also evidence that the possibility of zero-hours contracts has created opportunities for those who may otherwise not have entered the labour market: perhaps women re-entering the labour market and students in full time education. They also offer businesses greater flexibility and this may be a key way for the UK to improve efficiency and productivity. Jon Ingham from Glassdoor, an employment analyst said:
“It’s no great surprise to see the number of people on these contracts is on the up … It’s safe to say that employees who accept a zero hours contract do not do so as a career choice. For most it’s because they have limited options. For some it might be beneficial to have the flexibility to fit around their lifestyle but for others it’s a substandard contract which offers little in the way of benefits or security.”
The change in the structure of the labour market has been on-going and this may be a small change in amongst a much larger structural change. As the economy continues its recovery, we may see a return to the more typical working contract, but it appears that there will always be this greater demand for flexibility in working patterns and hence perhaps the zero-hours contracts do have a place in Britain. The following articles consider the implications of this data.
Employee contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours: 2015 udpate Office for National Statistics September 2015
Number of workers on zero-hours contracts up by 19% The Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/9/15)
Zero-hours contracts hold their place in UK labour market Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (2/9/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump 19% in a year Sky News (2/9/15)
19 per cent rise in people on zero hours contracts recorded across Britain over the last year Independent (2/9/15)
Use of zero-hours contracts rises by 6% BBC News (2/9/15)
Insecure ‘zero-hours’ jobs on the rise in Britain – ONS Reuters (2/9/15)
- What is a zero-hours contract?
- Outline the main advantages and disadvantages of zero-hours contracts to both workers and businesses. You should think about different types of workers in your answer.
- How do you think the increase in zero-hours contracts has affected the unemployment rate in the UK?
- What is meant by under-employment? Would you class this as inefficient?
- What other changes have we seen in the UK labour market over the past 30 years? Have these changes made the labour market more or less flexible?
- Zero-hours contracts create greater flexibility. Do you think that they create greater functional, numerical of financial flexibility?
- If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
- Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
The eurozone is made up of 18 countries (19 in January) and, besides sharing a common currency, they also seem to be sharing the trait of weak economic performance. The key macroeconomic variables across the eurozone nations have all seemingly been moving in the wrong direction and this is causing a lot of concern for policy-makers.
Some of the biggest players in the eurozone have seen economic growth on the down-turn, unemployment rising and consumer and business confidence falling once again. Germany’s economic growth has been revised down and in Italy, unemployment rose to a record of 13.2% in September and around 25% of the workforce remains out of work in Spain and Greece. A significant consequence of the sluggish growth across this 18-nation bloc of countries is the growing risk of deflation.
Whilst low and stable inflation is a macroeconomic objective across nations, there is such a thing as inflation that is too low. When inflation approaches 0%, the spectre of deflation looms large (see the blog post Deflation danger). The problem of deflation is that when people expect prices to fall, they stop spending. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. After all, if you think prices will be lower next week, then you are likely to wait until next week. This decision by consumers will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. This is the problem facing the eurozone. In November, the inflation rate fell to 0.3%. One of the key causes is falling energy prices – normally good news, but not if inflation is already too low.
Jonathan Loynes, Chief European Economist at Capital Economics said:
“[the inflation and jobless data] gives the ECB yet another nudge to take urgent further action to revive the recovery and tackle the threat of deflation…We now expect the headline inflation rate to drop below zero at least briefly over the next six months and there is a clear danger of a more prolonged bout of falling prices.”
Some may see the lower prices as a positive change, with less household income being needed to buy the same basket of goods. However, the key question will be whether such low prices are seen as a temporary change or an indication of a longer-term trend. The answer to the question will have a significant effect on business decisions about investment and on the next steps to be taken by the ECB. It also has big consequences for other countries, in particular the UK. The data over the coming months across a range of macroeconomic variables may tell us a lot about what is to come throughout 2015. The following articles consider the eurozone data.
Euro area annual inflation down to 0.3% EuroStat News Release (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation weakens again, adding pressure on ECB Nasdaq, Brian Blackstone (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation rate falls in October BBC News (28/11/14)
Eurozone recovery fears weigh on UK plc, says report Financial Times, Alison Smith (30/11/14)
€300bn Jean-Claude Juncker Eurozone kickstarter sounds too good to be true The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/11/14)
Eurozone area may be in ‘persistent stagnation trap’ says OECD BBC News (25/11/14)
Euro area ‘major risk to world growth’: OECD CNBC, Katy Barnato (25/11/14)
OECD sees gradual world recovery, urges ECB to do more Reuters, Ingrid Melander (25/11/14)
- What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
- Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
- What policies are available to the ECB to tackle the problem of deflation? How successful are they likely to be and which factors will determine this?
- To what extent is the economic stagnation in the Eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and US? Explain your answer.
- How effective would quantitative easing be in combating the problem of deflation?
Figures for employment and unemployment give an incomplete picture of the state of the labour market. Just because a person is employed, that does not mean that they are working the number of hours they would like.
Some people would like to work more hours, either by working more hours in their current job, or by switching to an alternative job with more hours or by taking on an additional part-time job. Such people are classed as ‘underemployed’. On average, underemployed workers wanted to work an additional 11.3 hours per week in 2014 Q2. Underemployment is a measure of slack in the labour market, but it is not picked up in the unemployment statistics.
Other people would like to work fewer hours (at the same hourly rate), but feel they have no choice – usually because their employer demands that they work long hours. Some, however, would like to change to another job with fewer hours even if it involved less pay. People willing to sacrifice pay in order to work fewer hours are classed as ‘overemployed’.
Statistics released by the Office for National Statistics show that, in April to June 2014, 9.9%, or 3.0 million, workers in the UK were underemployed; and 9.7%, or 2.9 million, were overemployed.
The figures for underemployment vary between different groups:
||11.0% of female workers
||8.9% of male workers
||19.6% of 16-24 year olds
||9.9% of all workers
||21.1% of people in elementary occupations (e.g. cleaners, shop assistants and security guards)
||5.4% of people in professional occupations (e.g. doctors, teachers and accountants)
||11.5% of people in the North East of England (in 2013)
||9.2% of people in the East of England (in 2013)
||22.1% of part-time workers
||5.4% of full-time workers
As far as the overemployed are concerned, professional people and older people are more likely want shorter hours
The ONS data also show how under- and overemployment have changed over time: see chart (click here for a PowerPoint). Before the financial crisis and recession, overemployment exceeded underemployment. After the crisis, the position reversed: underemployment rose from 6.8% in 2007 to a peak of 10.8% in mid-2012; while overemployment fell from 10.5% in 2007 to a trough of 8.8% in early 2013.
More recently, as the economy has grown more strongly, underemployment has fallen back to 9.9% (in 2014 Q2) and overemployment has risen to 9.7%, virtually closing the gap between the two.
The fact that there is still significant underemployment suggests that there is still considerable slack in the labour market and that this may be acting as a brake on wage increases. On the other hand, the large numbers of people who consider themselves overemployed, especially among the professions and older workers, suggests that many people feel that they have not got the right work–life balance and many may be suffering consequent high levels of stress.
Rise in number of UK workers who want to cut back hours, ONS says The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/11/14)
Data reveal slack and stretch in UK workforce Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (25/11/14)
Will you graduate into underemployment? The Guardian, Jade Grassby (30/9/14)
Three million people would take pay cut to work shorter hours: Number who say they feel overworked rises by 10 per cent in one year Mail Online, Louise Eccles (26/11/14)
ONS: Rate of under-employment in Scotland lower than UK average Daily Record, Scott McCulloch (25/11/14)
Underemployment and Overemployment in the UK, 2014 ONS (25/11/14)
- Distinguish between unemployment (labour force survey (LFS) measure), unemployment (claimant count measure), underemployment (UK measure), underemployment (Eurostat measure) and disguised unemployment.
- Why is underemployment much higher amongst part-time workers than full-time workers?
- How do (a) underemployment and (b) overemployment vary according to the type of occupation? What explanations are there for the differences?
- Is the percentage of underemployment a good indicator of the degree of slack in the economy? Explain.
- How is the rise in zero hours contracts likely to have affected underemployment?
- How could the problem of overemployment be tackled? Would it be a good idea to pass a law setting a maximum number of hours per week that people can be required to do in a job?
- Would flexible working rights be a good idea?
Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.
The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.
And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.
One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.
What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.
So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.
As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.
Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)
Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)
Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)
- Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
- What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
- What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
- Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
- What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
- What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?