Category: Economics 10e: Ch 19

It is perhaps timely given the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit to revisit and update our blog Desperately seeking confidence written back in January. Consumer and business confidence reflects the sentiment, emotion, or anxiety of consumers and businesses. Confidence surveys therefore try to capture these feelings of optimism or pessimism. They may then provide us with timely information for the short-term prospects for private-sector spending. For example, declining levels of confidence might be expected to play a part in weakening the growth of consumption and investment spending.

Attempts are made to measure confidence through the use of surveys. One long-standing survey is that conducted for the European Commission. Each month consumers and firms across the European Union are asked a series of questions, the answers to which are used to compile indicators of consumer and business confidence. For instance, consumers are asked about how they expect their financial position to change. They are offered various options such as ‘get a lot better, ‘get a lot worse’ and balances are then calculated on the basis of positive and negative replies.

The chart plots confidence in the UK for consumers and different sectors of business since the mid 1990s. The chart captures the volatility of confidence. This volatility is generally greater amongst businesses than consumers, and especially so in the construction sector. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Confidence measures rebounded across all sectors during the 2010s, with positive balances being recorded consistently from 2013 to 2016 in services, retail and industry. Subsequently, confidence indicators became more erratic though often remaining at above-average levels. However, confidence indicators have eased across the board in recent months. In some cases the easing has been stark. For example, the confidence balance in the service sector, which contributes about 80 per cent of the economy’s national income, fell from +10.9 in February 2018 to -16.2 in February 2019, though recovering slightly to -9.2 in March 2019.

Chart 2 shows how the recent easing of consumer confidence has seen the confidence balance fall below its long-term (median) average of -7. In March 2019 the balance stood at -11.7 the lowest figure since November 2013. To put the easing into further perspective, the consumer confidence balance had been as high as +8.2 in September 2015. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Changes in confidence are used frequently as an example of a demand shock. In reality changes in consumer confidence are often likely to be an amplifier of shocks rather than the source. For example, the collapse in aggregate demand in 2007/8 that followed the ‘credit crunch’, the severe tightening of credit conditions and financial distress of many sectors of the economy is likely to have been amplified by the collapse in consumer confidence. The weakening of confidence since 2016 is perhaps a purer example of a ‘confidence shock’. Nonetheless, falls in confidence, whether they amplify existing shocks or are the source of shocks, are often a signal of greater economic uncertainty.

Greater uncertainty is likely to go and hand in hand with lower confidence and is likely to reflect greater uncertainty about future income streams. The result is that people and businesses become more prudent. In the context of households this implies a greater willingness to engage in self-insurance through increased saving. This is known as buffer stock or precautionary saving. Alternatively, people may reducing levels of borrowing. In uncertain times prudence can dominate our impatience that encourages us to spend.

Chart 3 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 greater 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 of this. The early 1990s and late 2000s coincided with both waning confidence and a rising saving ratio, whilst the rising confidence seen in the late 1990s coincided with a fall in the saving ratio. However, the easing of confidence since 2016 has coincided with a period where the saving ratio has been historically low. In the first quarter of 2017 the saving ratio was just 3.3 per cent. Although the saving ratio has ticked up a little, in the final quarter of 2018 it remained historically low at just 4.9 per cent. Hence, the available data on the saving ratio does not provide clear evidence of the more cautious behaviour we might expect with waning confidence.

Consider now patterns in the consumer confidence balance alongside the annual rate of growth of consumer credit (net of repayments) to individuals by banks and building societies. Consumer credit is borrowing by individuals to finance current expenditure on goods and services.

Data on consumer credit is more timely than that for the saving ratio. Therefore, Chart 4 shows the relationship between consumer confidence and consumer credit into 2019. We observe a reasonably close association consumer credit growth and consumer confidence. Certainty, the recent easing in confidence is mirrored by an easing in the annual growth of net consumer credit. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The year-to-year growth in net consumer credit has eased considerably since the peak of 10.9 per cent in November 2016. In February 2019 the annual growth rate of net consumer credit had fallen back to 6.3 per cent, its lowest rate since September 2014. As we noted in our recent blog Riding the consumer credit cycle (again) it is hard to look much past the effect of Brexit in acting as a lid on the growth in consumer credit. Therefore, while the recent falls in consumer confidence have yet to markedly affect the saving ratio they may instead be driving the slowdown in consumer credit. The effect will be to weaken the growth of consumer spending.

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Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect both consumer and business confidence. How similar are both these lists?
  2. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives confidence?
  3. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer and business confidence indicators expect each indicator to predict?
  4. What is meant by the concept of ‘prudence’ in the context of spending? What factors might determine the level of prudence
  5. How might prudence be expected to affect spending behaviour?
  6. How might we distinguish between confidence ‘shocks’ and confidence as a ‘propagator’ of shocks?
  7. What is meant by buffer stock or precautionary saving? Draw up a list of factors that are likely to affect levels of buffer stock saving.
  8. If economic uncertainty is perceived to have increased how could this affect the consumption, saving and borrowing decisions of people?

Consumer credit is borrowing by individuals to finance current expenditure on goods and services. Consumer credit is distinct from lending secured on dwellings (referred to more simply as ‘secured lending’). Consumer credit comprises lending on credit cards, lending through overdraft facilities and other loans and advances, for example those financing the purchase of cars. We consider here recent trends in the flows of consumer credit in the UK and discuss their implications.

Analysing consumer credit data is important because the growth of consumer credit has implications for the financial wellbeing or financial health of individuals and, of course, for financial institutions. As we shall see shortly, the data on consumer credit is consistent with the existence of credit cycles. Cycles in consumer credit have the potential to be not only financially harmful but economically destabilising. After all, consumer credit is lending to finance spending and therefore the amount of lending can have significant effects on aggregate demand and economic activity.

Data on consumer credit are available monthly and so provide an early indication of movements in economic activity. Furthermore, because lending flows are likely to be sensitive to changes in the confidence of both borrowers and lenders, changes in the growth of consumer credit can indicate turning points in the economy and, hence, in the macroeconomic environment.

Chart 1 shows the annual flows of net consumer credit since 2000 – the figures are in £ billions. Net flows are gross flows less repayments. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.) In January 2005 the annual flow of net consumer credit peaked at £23 billion, the equivalent of just over 2.5 per cent of annual disposable income. This helped to fuel spending and by the final quarter of the year, the economy’s annual growth rate had reached 4.8 per cent, significantly about its long-run average of 2.5 per cent.

By 2009 net consumer credit flows had become negative. This meant that repayments were greater than additional flows of credit. It was not until 2012 that the annual flow of net consumer credit was again positive. Yet by November 2016, the annual flow of net consumer credit had rebounded to over £19 billion, the equivalent of just shy of 1.5 per cent of annual disposable income. This was the largest annual flow of consumer credit since September 2005.

Although the strength of consumer credit in 2016 was providing the economy with a timely boost to growth in the immediate aftermath of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, it nonetheless raised concerns about its sustainability. Specifically, given the short amount of time that had elapsed since the financial crisis and the extreme levels of financial distress that had been experienced by many sectors of the economy, how susceptible would people and organisations be to a future economic slowdown and/or rise in interest rates?

The extent to which the economy experiences consumer credit cycles can be seen even more readily by looking at the 12-month growth rate in the net consumer credit. In essence, this mirrors the growth rate in the stock of consumer credit. Chart 2 evidences the double-digit growth rates in net consumer credit lending experienced during the first half of the 2000s. Growth rates then eased but, as the financial crisis unfolded, they plunged sharply. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Yet, as Chart 2 shows, consumer credit growth began to recover quickly from 2013 so that by 2016 the annual growth rate of net consumer credit was again in double figures. In November 2016 the 12-month growth rate of net consumer credit peaked at 10.9 per cent. Thereafter, the growth rate has continually eased. In January 2019 the annual growth rate of net consumer credit had fallen back to 6.5 per cent, the lowest rate since October 2014.

The easing of consumer credit is likely to have been influenced, in part, by the resumption in the growth of real earnings from 2018 (see Getting real with pay). Yet, it is hard to look past the economic uncertainties around Brexit.

Uncertainty tends to cause people to be more cautious. With the heightened uncertainty that has has characterised recent times, it is likely that for many people and businesses prudence has dominated impatience. Therefore, in summary, it appears that prudence is helping to steer borrowing along a downswing in the credit cycle. As it does, it helps to put a further brake on spending and economic growth.

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Questions

  1. What is the difference between gross and net lending?
  2. Consider the argument that we should be worried more by excessive growth in consumer credit than on lending secured on dwellings?
  3. How could we measure whether different sectors of the economy had become financially distressed?
  4. What might explain why an economy experiences credit cycles?
  5. Explain how the growth in net consumer credit can affect economic activity?
  6. If people are consumption smoothers, how can credit cycles arise?
  7. What are the potential policy implications of credit cycles?
  8. It is said that when making financial decisions people face an inter-temporal choice. Explain what you understand this by this concept.
  9. If economic uncertainty is perceived to have increased how could this affect the consumption, saving and borrowing decisions of people?

The Christmas and new year period often draws attention to the financial well-being of households. An important determinant of this is the extent of their indebtedness. Rising levels of debt mean that increasing amounts of households’ incomes becomes prey to servicing debt through repayments and interest charges. They can also result in more people becoming credit constrained, unable to access further credit. Rising debt levels can therefore lead to a deterioration of financial well-being and to financial distress. This was illustrated starkly by events at the end of the 2000s.

The total amount of lending by monetary financial institutions to individuals outstanding at the end of October 2018 was estimated at £1.61 trillion. As Chart 1 shows, this has grown from £408 billion in 1994. Hence, indivduals in the UK have experience a four-fold increase in the levels of debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The debt of individuals is either secured or unsecured. Secured debt is debt secured by property, which for individuals is more commonly referred to as mortgage debt. Unsecured debt, which is also known as consumer credit, includes outstanding debt on credit cards, overdrafts on current accounts and loans for luxury items such as cars and electrical goods. The composition of debt in 2018 is unchanged from that in 1994: 87 per cent is secured debt and 13 per cent unsecured debt.

The fourfold increase in debt is taken by some economists as evidence of financialisation. While this term is frequently defined in distinctive ways depending upon the content in which it is applied, when viewed in very general terms it describes a process by which financial institutions and markets become increasingly important in everyday lives and so in the production and consumption choices that economists study. An implication of this is that in understanding economic decisions, behaviour and outcomes it becomes increasingly important to think about the potential impact of the financial system. The financial crisis is testimony to this.

In thinking about financial well-being, at least at an aggregate level, we can look at the relative size of indebtedness. One way of doing this is to measure the stock of individual debt relative to the annual flow of GDP (national income). This is illustrated in Chart 2. (Click hereto download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in debt among individuals owed to financial institutions during the 2000s was significant. By the end of 2007, the debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 88 per cent. Decomposing this, the secured debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 75 per cent and the unsecured debt-to-GDP ratio 13 per cent. Compare this with the end of 1994 when secured debt was 46 per cent of GDP, unsecured debt 7 per cent and total debt 53 per cent. In other words, the period between 1994 and 2007 the UK saw a 25 percentage point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio of individuals.

The early 2010s saw a consolidation in the size of the debt (see Chart 1) which meant that it was not until 2014 that debt levels rose above those of 2008. This led to the size of debt relative to GDP falling back by close to 10 percentage points (see Chart 2). Between 2014 and 2018 the stock of debt has increased from around £1.4 trillion to the current level of £1.61 trillion. This increase has been matched by a similar increase in (nominal) GDP so that the relative stock of debt remains little changed at present at around 76 per cent of GDP.

Chart 3 shows the annual growth rate of net lending (lending net of repayments) by monetary financial institutions to individuals. This essentially captures the growth rate in the stocks of debt, though changes in the actual stock of debt are also be affected by the writing-off of debts. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

We can see quite readily the pick up in lending from 2014. The average annual rate of growth in total net lending since 2014 has been just a little under 3½ per cent. This has been driven by unsecured lending whose growth rate has been close to 8½ per cent per annum, compared to just 2.7 per cent for secured lending. In 2016 the annual growth rate of unsecured lending was just shy of 11 per cent. This helped to fuel concerns about possible future financial distress. These concerns remain despite the annual rate of growth in unsecured debt having eased slightly to 7.5 per cent.

Despite the aggregate debt-to-GDP ratio having been relatively stable of late, the recent growth in debt levels is clearly not without concern. It has to be viewed in the context of two important developments. First, there remains a ‘debt hangover’ from the financial distress experienced by the private sector at the end of the 2000s, which itself contributed to a significant decline in economic activity (real GDP fell by 4 per cent in 2009). This subequently affected the financial well-being of the public sector following its interventions to cushion the economy from the full effects of the economic downturn as well as to help stabilise the financial system. Second, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The financial resilience of all sectors of the economy is therefore of acute concern given the unprecedented uncertainty we are currently facing while, at the same time, we are still feeling the effects of the financial distress from the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It therefore seems timely indeed for individuals to take stock of their stocks of debt.

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Questions

  1. How might we measure the financial distress of individuals?
  2. If individuals are financially distressed how might this affect their consumption behaviour?
  3. How might credit constraints affect the relationship between consumption and income?
  4. What do you understand by the concept of ‘cash flow effects’ that arise from interest rate changes?
  5. How might the accumulation of secured and unsecured debt have different effects on consumer spending?
  6. What factors might explain the rate of accumulation of debt by individuals?
  7. What is meant by ‘financial resilience’ and why might this currently be of particular concern?

Would you like to be a millionaire? Of course you would – who wouldn’t, right? Actually the answer to this question may be more complicated than you might think (see for instance Sgroi et al (2017) on the economics of happiness: see linked article below), but, generally speaking, most people would answer positively to this question.

What if I told you, however, that you could become a millionaire (actually, scratch that – think big – make that “trillionaire”) overnight and be deeply unhappy about it? If you don’t believe me see what happened to Zimbabwe 10 years ago, when irresponsible money printing and fiscal easing drove the country’s economy to staggering hyperinflation (see the blogs A remnant of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and Fancy a hundred trillion dollar note?. At the peak of the crisis, prices were increasing by a factor of 130 each year. I have in my office a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note (see below) which I show in my lectures when I talk about hyperinflation to my first year Economics for Business students (if you are one of them, make sure not to miss it next February at UEA!). How much is this 100 trillion note worth? Nothing (except, may be, for collectors). It has been withdrawn from circulation as it ended up not even being worth the cost of the paper on which it was printed.

The Zimbabwean economy managed to pull itself out of this spiral of economic death, partly by informally replacing its hyperinflationary currency with the US greenback, and partly by keeping its fiscal spending under control and reverting to more sane economic policy making. That lasted until 2013, after which the government launched a Zimbabwean digital currency (known as “Zollar”) that had a nominal value set equal to a US dollar; and forced its exporters to exchange their greenbacks for Zollars. It then started spending these USD to finance a very ambitious and unsustainable programme of fiscal expansion.

The Economist published yesterday a story that shows the results of this policy – wild price increases and empty supermarket shelves are both back. According to the newspaper’s report:

At a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, the finance minister is staring aghast at a pack of nappies. ‘This is absolutely ridiculous!’, exclaims Mthuli Ncube. ‘$49!’ A manager says it cost $23 two weeks ago, before pointing out other eye-watering items such as $20 Coco Pops. […] Over the past two weeks zollars have been trading at as little as 17 cents to the dollar. The devaluation has led to a surge in prices—and not just in imported goods like nappies. Football fans attending the Zimbabwe v Democratic Republic of Congo game on October 16th were shocked to learn that ticket prices had doubled on match day.

How long will it take for the 100 trillion Zollar to make its appearance again? We shall find out. I am sure Zimbabweans will be less than thrilled!

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Questions

  1. Using an AS/AD diagram, explain the concept of hyperinflation. How can irresponsible fiscal policy-making lead to hyperinflation?
  2. What are the effects of hyperinflation on the people who live in the affected countries? Search the web for examples and case studies, and use them to support your answer.
  3. Once it has started, what policies can be used to fight hyperinflation? Use examples to support your answer.
  4. How does speculation affect hyperinflation?

Ten years ago, the financial crisis deepened and stock markets around the world plummeted. The trigger was the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest US investment bank. It filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. This was not the first bank failure around that time. In 2007, Northern Rock in the UK (Aug/Sept 2007) had collapsed and so too had Bear Stearns in the USA (Mar 2008).

Initially there was some hope that the US government would bail out Lehmans. But when Congress rejected the Bank Bailout Bill on September 29, the US stock market fell sharply, with the Dow Jones falling by 7% the same day. This was mirrored in other countries: the FTSE 100 fell by 15%.

At the core of the problem was excessive lending by banks with too little capital. What is more, much of the capital was of poor quality. Many of the banks held securitised assets containing ‘sub-prime mortgage debt’. The assets, known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), were bundles of other assets, including mortgages. US homeowners had been lent money based on the assumption that their houses would increase in value. When house prices fell, homeowners were left in a position of negative equity – owing more than the value of their house. With many people forced to sell their houses, prices fell further. Mortgage debt held by banks could not be redeemed: it was ‘sub-prime’ or ‘toxic debt’.

Response to the crisis

The outcome of the financial crash was a series of bailouts of banks around the world. Banks cut back on lending and the world headed for a major recession.

Initially, the response of governments and central banks was to stimulate their economies through fiscal and monetary policies. Government spending was increased; taxes were cut; interest rates were cut to near zero. By 2010, the global economy seemed to be pulling out of recession.

However, the expansionary fiscal policy, plus the bailing out of banks, had led to large public-sector deficits and growing public-sector debt. Although a return of economic growth would help to increase revenues, many governments felt that the size of the public-sector deficits was too large to rely on economic growth.

As a result, many governments embarked on a period of austerity – tight fiscal policy, involving cutting government expenditure and raising taxes. Although this might slowly bring the deficit down, it slowed down growth and caused major hardships for people who relied on benefits and who saw their benefits cut. It also led to a cut in public services.

Expanding the economy was left to central banks, which kept monetary policy very loose. Rock-bottom interest rates were then accompanied by quantitative easing. This was the expansion of the money supply by central-bank purchases of assets, largely government bonds. A massive amount of extra liquidity was pumped into economies. But with confidence still low, much of this ended up in other asset purchases, such as stocks and shares, rather than being spent on goods and services. The effect was a limited stimulation of the economy, but a surge in stock market prices.

With wages rising slowly, or even falling in real terms, and with credit easy to obtain at record low interest rates, so consumer debt increased.

Lessons

So have the lessons of the financial crash been learned? Would we ever have a repeat of 2007–9?

On the positive side, financial regulators are more aware of the dangers of under capitalisation. Banks’ capital requirements have increased, overseen by the Bank for International Settlements. Under its Basel II and then Basel III regulations (see link below), banks are required to hold much more capital (‘capital buffers’). Some countries’ regulators (normally the central bank), depending on their specific conditions, exceed these the Basel requirements.

But substantial risks remain and many of the lessons have not been learnt from the financial crisis and its aftermath.

There has been a large expansion of household debt, fuelled by low interest rates. This constrains central banks’ ability to raise interest rates without causing financial distress to people with large debts. It also makes it more likely that there will be a Minsky moment, when a trigger, such as a trade war (e.g. between the USA and China), causes banks to curb lending and consumers to rein in debt. This can then lead to a fall in aggregate demand and a recession.

Total debt of the private and public sectors now amounts to $164 trillion, or 225% of world GDP – 12 percentage points higher than in 2009.

China poses a considerable risk, as well as being a driver of global growth. China has very high levels of consumer debt and many of its banks are undercapitalised. It has already experienced one stock market crash. From mid-June 2015, there was a three-week fall in share prices, knocking about 30% off their value. Previously the Chinese stock market had soared, with many people borrowing to buy shares. But this was a classic bubble, with share prices reflecting exuberance, not economic fundamentals.

Although Chinese government purchases of shares and tighter regulation helped to stabilise the market, it is possible that there may be another crash, especially if the trade war with the USA escalates even further. The Chinese stock market has already lost 20% of its value this year.

Then there is the problem with shadow banking. This is the provision of loans by non-bank financial institutions, such as insurance companies or hedge funds. As the International Business Times article linked below states:

A mind-boggling study from the US last year, for example, found that the market share of shadow banking in residential mortgages had rocketed from 15% in 2007 to 38% in 2015. This also represents a staggering 75% of all loans to low-income borrowers and risky borrowers. China’s shadow banking is another major concern, amounting to US$15 trillion, or about 130% of GDP. Meanwhile, fears are mounting that many shadow banks around the world are relaxing their underwriting standards.

Another issue is whether emerging markets can sustain their continued growth, or whether troubles in the more vulnerable emerging-market economies could trigger contagion across the more exposed parts of the developing world and possibly across the whole global economy. The recent crises in Turkey and Argentina may be a portent of this.

Then there is a risk of a cyber-attack by a rogue government or criminals on key financial insitutions, such as central banks or major international banks. Despite investing large amounts of money in cyber-security, financial institutions worry about their vulnerability to an attack.

Any of these triggers could cause a crisis of confidence, which, in turn, could lead to a fall in stock markets, a fall in aggregate demand and a recession.

Finally there is the question of the deep and prolonged crisis in capitalism itself – a crisis that manifests itself, not in a sudden recession, but in a long-term stagnation of the living standards of the poor and ‘just about managing’. Average real weekly earnings in many countries today are still below those in 2008, before the crash. In Great Britain, real weekly earnings in July 2018 were still some 6% lower than in early 2008.

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Information and data

Questions

  1. Explain the major causes of the financial market crash in 2008.
  2. Would it have been a good idea to have continued with expansionary fiscal policy beyond 2009?
  3. Summarise the Basel III banking regulations.
  4. How could quantitative easing have been differently designed so as to have injected more money into the real sector of the economy?
  5. What are the main threats to the global economy at the current time? Are any of these a ‘hangover’ from the 2007–8 financial crisis?
  6. What is meant by ‘shadow banking’ and how might this be a threat to the future stability of the global economy?
  7. Find data on household debt in two developed countries from 2000 to the present day. Chart the figures. Explain the pattern that emerges and discuss whether there are any dangers for the two economies from the levels of debt.