Author: Dean Garratt

In the midst of the election campaign we can well imagine that economic data are analysed in minute detail by politicians looking to make political capital. Of particular interest are likely to be the labour market numbers. So here we ‘digest’ a few of the latest numbers from the latest ONS labour market release.

The ONS reports that in the three months to February 2010 the number unemployed in the UK rose above the 2½ million mark to stand at 2.502 million. Of these, 61.2% were male and 38.8% female. The rise of 43,000 on the previous three months (i.e. the three months to November) took unemployment to its highest level since the three months to December 1994.

While unemployment rose, employment fell by 90,000 over the same period to 28.824 million. Of those in employment, 53.2% were male and 46.8% female. Employment levels are now at their lowest since the three months to December 2005. The latest unemployment and employment numbers mean that the number of economically active individuals in the three months to February stood at 31.326 million (53.9% male and 46.1% female), down by 47,000 on the previous three months. Therefore the unemployment rate, which is expressed as a percentage of those economically active, has now edged up to 8% (9.1% amongst males and 6.7% amongst females); it was 6.8% a year ago (7.6% amongst males and 5.9% amongst females) and 5.2% two years ago (5.6% amongst males and 4.8% amongst females).

If we look at the number who have been unemployed for at least one year we see a rather worrying trend with a rise of 89,000 over the past three months to some 726,000. This compares with 486,000 in the same period a year ago and 390,000 two years ago. Another potentially problematic trend is the rise in inactivity rates. The proportion of individuals of working age who are now inactive, so neither employed or actively seeking work, rose to 21.5% in the three months to February (17.5% amongst men and 25.8% amongst females), up from 20.7% in the same period last year (16.2% amongst men and 25.7% amongst females).

Finally, part-time employment fell by 30,000 in the three months to February to 7.671 million. However, it rose by 6000 amongst men to 1.880 million. We now observe that 12.2% of men in employment are employed part-time compared with 43.0% of females in employment. Further, of all part-time workers 24.5% – that’s effectively one-quarter – are male, double the share back in 1984 when these numbers were first recorded.

Articles

UK Unemployment hits 2.5 million mark The Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Winning and Ilona Billington (21/4/10)
UK unemployment at 16-year high Financial Times, Brian Groom (21/4/10)
UK unemployment increases to 2.5 million BBC News (21/4/10) )
Unemployment breaks through 2.5 million Guardian, Graeme Wearden (21/4/10)
UK unemployment surges to 15-year high The Times, Grainne Gilmore (21/4/10)

Data

Latest on employment and unemployment Office for National Statistics (21/4/10)
Labour Market Statistics, April 2010 Office for National Statistics (21/4/10)
Labour market statistics page Office for National Statistics
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission

Questions

  1. The current rate of unemployment is 8%. During the downturn of the early 1990s it peaked at 10.7%. What might explain this difference? Do you think the current rate may have now peaked?
  2. What might explain the rise in inactivity rates? Does this rise have any implications for potential output?
  3. Does the rise in the number of those unemployed for over a year have implications for our potential output?
  4. Go back through the commentary: are there any notable gender differences in the figures? What factors might help to explain these?
  5. In 1984 part-time employment stood at 4.985 million while currently the figure is 7.671 million. Is it possible to explain this growth in part-time employment in the UK?

So how are you feeling? Is now a good time to shop? Or, is it perhaps time to put money aside for that rainy day? Well, these types of questions capture the essence of what we might label as ‘sentiment’ or ‘confidence’. Polling organisations each month undertake surveys to try to measure sentiment amongst consumers and businesses. In doing so, they ask questions relating to, amongst other things, perceptions as to the current and future states of the economy, the labour market and finances. The responses to these individual questions are then combined to give an overall indicator which, it is then hoped, can be used to track sentiment over time. Two widely reported surveys of sentiment are the EU economic sentiment indicator and the Nationwide Building Society consumer confidence indicator.

The Nationwide’s indicator focuses solely on households. Its sentiment figure for March suggests that the gains in confidence amongst households enjoyed in the first couple of months of this year have been lost. In other words, the decline in March was significant enough not only to wipe out the effect of the typical ‘January bounce’ seen in most measures of sentiment but also the further rise that occurred in February. Nonetheless, consumer sentiment remains above the levels seen through much of 2008 and 2009 amidst the economic downturn.

The European Union’s economic sentiment index measures sentiment across both households and firms, although separate indicators are available for households and for different sectors of industry. Figures are also available for each individual EU country as well as across the EU. 2009 saw a record low score in the UK for the economic sentiment index – a series which goes back to 1985. But in March 2010 the sentiment index was, perhaps surprisingly, above its long-term average. Interestingly, this reflects further strengthening in sentiment amongst businesses, while sentiment amongst consumers fell slightly in March after recent gains.

So what should we read into these sentiment indices? Well, firstly, consider the patterns in the sentiment scores. The sentiment indices rose markedly in the second half of last year and into the beginning of this year, although sentiment amongst households may have now weakened while continuing to rise amongst firms. Now, secondly, consider these patterns alongside evidence which shows that economic sentiment indices tend to track the direction of economic growth. So last year, the rise in both the EU and Nationwide sentiment indices was indeed mirrored by improvements in the rate of economic growth with initially smaller contractions followed by positive growth in the final quarter.

One of the advantages of these sentiment measures is their timeliness. The first provisional estimate of growth in Q1 2010 is not available until the end of this month and, of course, is then subject to revision. But, if we reflect on the sentiment measures, the fact that sentiment appears no weaker across the first quarter of this year as a whole and, when measured across both households and firms, may actually be higher, indicates that the growth number for the first quarter of this year may not be too different from the 0.4% growth recorded in Q4 2009. Stay cheerful!

Articles

Consumer confidence has sharpest fall this recession The Times, Grainne Gilmore (15/4/10)
U.K. consumer confidence fell in March The Wall Street Journal, Paul Hannon (15/4/10)
Election drives down consumer confidence Sky News, Adam Arnold (15/4/10) )
Consumer morale suffers biggest fall since July 2008 Reuters UK (15/4/10)

Data

Business and Consumer Surveys The Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, European Commission
Consumer Confidence Nationwide Building Society

Questions

  1. What factors do you think might influence sentiment or confidence amongst households?
  2. What factors might affect sentiment or confidence amongst businesses?
  3. In what ways do you think sentiment and economic activity might be connected?
  4. Some commentators are arguing that the general election might be impacting on consumer confidence. Why do you think this might be the case?
  5. If you were going to assess the economic sentiment of consumers or businesses, what sorts of questions do you think you might ask?

Housing Equity Withdrawal, or HEW for short, is new borrowing that is secured against property which is not reinvested in the housing market. In other words, it is borrowed money that is not used by households to purchase property or to undertake major refurbishments, such as extensions to existing residential properties. The latest HEW statistical release from the Bank of England shows that HEW in Q4 2009 was again negative, making it the seventh consecutive quarter of negative HEW. But, what does a negative HEW figure mean?

Negative HEW occurs when the total saving by households in housing (either by paying back mortgages or by purchasing property directly without borrowing) is greater than new borrowing secured against housing. It results in an increase in housing equity held by the household sector. In the fourth quarter of 2009, the Bank’s seasonally-adjusted figures show that negative HEW was just over £4.3 billion, equivalent to 1.6% of disposable income.

But why might the household sector have wanted to save through housing and how might this impact on consumer spending? In truth there is no single reason, but one potentially important reason is likely to be the sector’s desire to rebuild its balance sheets. In times of uncertainty, such as those that we face now, a perfectly understandable response by households is to try to reduce their exposure to debt. During the seven quarters in which HEW has been negative, households have used housing as a vehicle for saving to the tune of £36.5 billion, equivalent to 2.2% of the sector’s disposable income. To some extent the fact that, as a result of the banking crisis, house-buyers have had to put down larger deposits when purchasing housing helps to reduce their exposure to debt. But, the extent of the negativity of HEW means that households more generally have been actively looking to repay some of their outstanding mortgage debt.

So what of the impact of HEW on consumer spending? Negative sums of HEW mean that consumers are either reducing consumer spending, reducing holdings of financial assets, increasing levels of unsecured debt (e.g. personal loans or credit card debt) or, of course, undertaking some combination of these. Given that the stock of unsecured debt has actually declined by £7.9 billion to £224.8 billion in the 12 months to February, the impact would seem to be falling on consumer spending.

Some commentators are pointing to the weakening pace with which households are saving through housing. The current level of saving through housing is, as we said earlier, equivalent to 1.6% of disposable income, down from the 3.0% recorded in both Q4 2008 and Q1 2009. But, this would seem to simply highlight the extent of the precautionary behaviour by households in the midst of the economic downturn. It would be a surprise to see any significant end soon to the UK household sector’s precautionary behaviour.

Articles

Britons plough cash into repaying debt The Times, James Charles (6/4/10)
The great mortgage payback Reuters, Harry Wallop (6/4/10)
Home owners’ housing equity still increasing BBC News (6/4/10) )
Brits pay off £4bn of mortgage debt Press Association (6/4/10)
UK Q4 housing injection smallest since Q2 2008 – BOE MarketNews.com (6/4/10)

Data

Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by positive and negative values of HEW.
  2. What implications might additions to housing equity have for consumer spending?
  3. What factors do you think lie behind the seven consecutive quarters of negative HEW?
  4. If house price inflation were to start picking up in the near future, would you expect to see positive values of HEW and, if so, how strongly positive?
  5. Other than through HEW, how might the housing and mortgage markets impact on consumer spending?

The Quarterly National Accounts from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that the output of the UK economy grew by 0.4% in the fourth quarter of 2009. This is another upward revision to the growth number for Q4; the first estimate put growth at 0.1% and the second estimate at 0.3%.

The ONS release also reported the value of the UK economy’s output in calendar year 2009. In the release, GDP in 2009 is estimated at £1.396 trillion. Now, this is what economists call the nominal estimate because it measures the economy’s output using the prevailing prices, e.g. in the case of output in 2009, the prices of 2009. Of course, the problem arises when we compare nominal GDP – or GDP at current prices – over time. If prices are changing how can we know whether the volume of output is actually rising or falling? Therefore, constant-price or real estimates are reported which aim to show what GDP would have been if prices had remained at their levels in some chosen year (the base year). The base year currently used in the UK is 2005.

If we look at nominal GDP estimates for the UK from 1948 up to 2008 we find that they rise each year. So, regardless of the fact that in some of these years output volumes fell, price rises (inflation) have been sufficient to cause nominal or current-price GDP to rise. But, this was not true in 2009!

But, why did nominal GDP fall in 2009? Well, firstly, the average price of the economy’s output, which is measured by the GDP deflator, rose by only 1.36% in 2009. This was the lowest rate of economy-wide inflation since 1999 (although real GDP or output rose by 3.9% in 1999). And, secondly, in 2009 output fell by 4.9%. The extent of the fall in output meant that price increases were not sufficient for nominal GDP to rise. In fact, the actual value of GDP in 2008 was £1.448 trillion as compared with £1.396 trillion in 2009. This means that nominal GDP fell by 3.6% in 2009. The next lowest recorded change, since comparable figures began in 1948, was actually in 2008 when nominal GDP rose by 3.5% (real GDP rose too in 2009, albeit by only 0.5%).

So, in short, the decline in both nominal and real GDP in 2009 indicates just how deep the economic downturn has been.

Articles

Britain’s economic growth revised up to 0.4% The Times, Gary Parkinson and Grainne Gilmore (30/3/10)
UK pulls out of recession faster than thought Reuters, Matt Falloon and Christina Fincher (30/3/10)
UK growth unexpectedly revised up to 0.4% BBC News (30/3/10) )
UK Q4 growth revised upward again to 0.4 pct Associated Press (AP), Jane Wardell (30/3/10)
Instant view – Q4 final GDP revised up to 0.4 per cent Reuters UK (30/3/10)

Data

Latest on GDP growth Office for National Statistics (30/3/10)
Quarterly National Accounts, Statistical Bulletin, March 2010 Office for National Statistics (30/3/10)
United Kingdom Economic Accounts, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission

Questions

  1. Explain what you understand by the terms ‘nominal GDP’ and ‘real GDP’. Can you think of other examples of where economists might distinguish between nominal and real variables?
  2. Explain under what circumstances nominal GDP could rise despite the output of the economy falling.
  3. The average annual change in nominal GDP since 1948 is 8.2% while that for real GDP is 2.4%. What do you think we can learn from each of these figures about long-term economic growth in the UK?
  4. What do you understand to be the difference between short-term and long-run economic growth? Where, in the commentary above, is there reference to short-term growth?

An important measure of activity in the housing market is the number of mortgage approvals. Figures released by the Bank of England show that the number of mortgage approvals for house purchase, after seasonal adjustment, fell from 48,099 in January to 47,094 in February. This was the third consecutive monthly fall in the number of mortgage approvals and the lowest number since the 46,551 recorded back in May 2009.

If we take the latest three months as a whole (December 2009 to February 2010), there were 153,446 approvals worth £20.89 billion. Now, when compared with the same three months a year earlier we can see just how thin activity in the housing market was back then: the number of approvals is now 45.2% higher, while the value of approvals is 30.8% higher. But, it is short-term growth or, more accurately, the lack of it which is worrying commentators. It appears that much of the autumnal recovery in housing market activity is petering out. When we compare the figures for latest three months with those in the previous three months (September to November 2009) we find approval numbers down 10.7%, while the value of approvals is down 11.4%. In other words, it appears that housing demand is again weakening.

If we take a slightly longer-term perspective it becomes even clearer just how low, by historic standards, current activity levels are. Over the past ten years the average number of mortgage approvals for house purchase each month has been 94,443 – this is more than double the number reported for February. So, while the clocks may have gone forward, mortgage approvals are reluctant to move forward. But, more than this, it will be fascinating to watch in the months ahead the patterns in mortgage approvals and so monitor the demand for housing.

Articles

Mortgage lending falls to a nine-month low Times Online , Robert Lindsay (29/3/10)
Mortgage slowdown continues, Bank of England data shows BBC News (29/3/10)
Mortgage approvals fall to a nine-month low Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott (29/3/10)
BoE reports fall in February mortgage approvals Home Move, Kay Murchie (29/3/10)

Data

Mortgage approval numbers and other lending data are available from the Bank of England’s statistics publication, Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) (See Table A5.4.)

Questions

  1. Between September 2008 and the end of 2009, the government introduced what became known as a ‘Stamp Duty holiday’. This meant that buyers became liable to pay Stamp Duty (a tax on house purchases) on property purchases worth over £175,000 rather than over £125,000. How would you have expected the ‘Stamp Duty holiday’ to have affected activity levels during this period? And what types of buyers would have most benefited?
  2. The government announced in the March 2010 Budget that it is removing Stamp Duty for first-time buyers on properties up to £250,000 for a 2-year period starting from 25th March 2010. What impact might this have on current activity levels? What about in the run-up to its removal in 2012?
  3. In the March 2010 Budget, the government announced that a 5% rate of Stamp Duty was being introduced on properties of over £1 million from tax year 2011-12. Currently, a top rate of 4% is applied to properties over £500,000. How would you expect this to affect activity levels now, the closer we get to next April and then after April 2011?
  4. What can we infer from the recent patterns in mortgage approvals about the strength of housing demand?
  5. Do patterns in the number of mortgage approvals have implications for house prices? Explain your answer.