Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
The latest UK house price index reveals that annual house price growth in the UK slowed to just 1.2 per cent in May. This is the lowest rate of growth since January 2013. This is being driven, in part, by the London market where annual house price inflation rates have now been negative for 15 consecutive months. In May the annual rate of house price inflation in London fell to -4.4 per cent, it lowest since August 2009 as the financial crisis was unfolding. However, closer inspection of the figures show that while many other parts of the country continue to experience positive rates of annual house price inflation, once general inflation is accounted for, there is widespread evidence of widespread real house price deflation.
The average UK house price in May 2019 was £229,000. As Chart 1 shows, this masks considerable differences across the UK. In England the average price was £246,000 (an annual increase of 1.0 per cent), in Scotland it was £153,000 (an increase of 2.8 per cent), in Wales £159,000 (an increase of 3.0 per cent) and in Northern Ireland it was £137,000 (an increase of 2.1 per cent). (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
The London market distorts considerably the English house price figures. In London the average house price in May 2019 was £457,000 (an annual decrease of 4.4 per cent). House prices were lowest in the North East region of England at £128,000. The North East was the only other English region alongside London to witness a negative rate of annual house price inflation, with house prices falling in the year to May 2019 by 0.7 per cent.
Chart 2 allows us to see more readily the rates of house price growth. It plots the annual rates of house price inflation across London, the UK and its nations. What is readily apparent is the volatility of house price growth. This is evidence of frequent imbalances between the flows of property on to the market to sell (instructions to sell) and the number of people looking to buy (instructions to buy). An increase in instructions to buy relative to those to sell puts upwards pressure on prices whereas an increase in the relative number of instructions to sell puts downward pressure on prices. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
Despite the volatility in house prices, the longer-term trend in house prices is positive. The average annual rate of growth in house prices between January 1970 and May 2019 in the UK is 9.1 per cent. For England the figure is 9.4 per cent, for Wales 8.8 per cent, for Scotland 8.5 per cent and for Northern Ireland 8.3 per cent. In London the average rate of growth is 10.4 per cent per annum.
As Chart 3 illustrates, the longer-term growth in actual house prices cannot be fully explained by the growth in consumer prices. It shows house price values as if consumer prices, as measured by the Retail Prices Index (RPI), were fixed at their January 1987 levels. We see real increases in house prices or, expressed differently, in house prices relative to consumer prices. In real terms, UK house prices were 3.6 times higher in May 2019 compared to January 1970. For England the figure is 4.1 times, for Wales 3.1 times, for Scotland 2.9 times and for Northern Ireland 2.1 times. In London inflation-adjusted house prices were 5.7 times higher. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
The volatility in house prices continues to be evident when adjusted for changes in consumer prices. The UK’s annual rate of real house price inflation was as high as 40 per in January 1973, yet, on the other hand, in June 1975 inflation-adjusted house prices were 16 per cent lower than a year earlier. Over the period from January 1970 to May 2019, the average annual rate of real house price inflation was 3.2 per cent. Hence house prices have, on average, grown at an annual rate of consumer price inflation plus 3.2 per cent.
Chart 4 shows annual rates of real house price inflation since 2008 and, hence, from around the time the financial crisis began to unfold. The period is characterised by acute volatility and with real house prices across the UK falling at an annual rate of 16 per cent in 2009 and by as much 29 per cent in Northern Ireland. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
The UK saw a rebound in nominal and real house price growth in the period from 2013, driven by a strong surge in prices in London and the South East, and supported by government initiatives such as Help to Buy designed to help people afford to buy property. But house price growth then began to ease from early/mid 2016. Some of the easing may be partly due to any excessive fizz ebbing from the market, especially in London, and the impact on the demand for buy-to-let investments resulting from reductions in tax relief on interest payments on buy-to-let mortgages.
However, the housing market is notoriously sensitive to uncertainty, which is not surprising when you think of the size of the investment people are making when they enter the market. The uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the UK’s future trading relationships will have been a drag on demand and hence on house prices.
Chart 4 shows that by May 2019 all the UK nations were experiencing negative rates of real house price inflation, despite still experiencing positive rates of nominal house price inflation. In Wales the real annual house price inflation rate was -0.1 per cent, in Scotland -0.2 per cent, in Northern Ireland -0.9 per cent and in England -2.0 per cent. Meanwhile in London, where annual house price deflation has been evident for 15 consecutive months, real house prices in May 2019 were falling at an annual rate of 7.2 per cent.
Going forward the OBR’s Fiscal Risks Report predicts that, in the event of a no-deal, no-transition exit of the UK from the European Union, nominal UK house prices would fall by almost 10 per cent between the start of 2019 and mid-2021. This forecast is driven by the assumption that the UK would enter a year-long recession from the final quarter of 2019. It argues that property transactions and prices ‘move disproportionately’ during recessions. (See John’s blog The costs of a no-deal Brexit for a fuller discussion of the economics of a no-deal Brexit). The danger therefore is that the housing market becomes characterised by both nominal and real house price falls.
- Explain the difference between a rise in the rate of house price inflation a rise in the level of house prices.
- Explain the difference between nominal and real house prices.
- If nominal house prices rise can real house price fall? Explain your answer.
- What do you understand by the terms instructions to buy and instructions to sell?
- What factors are likely to affect the levels of instructions to buy and instructions to sell?
- How does the balance between instructions to buy and instructions to sell affect house prices?
- How can we differentiate between different housing markets? Illustrate your answer with examples.
Confidence figures suggest that sentiment weakened across several sectors in June with significant falls recorded in retail and construction. This is consistent with the monthly GDP estimates from the ONS which suggest that output declined in March and April by 0.1 per cent and 0.4 per cent respectively. The confidence data point to further weakness in growth down the line. Furthermore, it poses the risk of fuelling a snowball effect with low growth being amplified and sustained by low confidence.
Chart 1 shows the confidence balances reported by the European Commission each month since 2007. It highlights the collapse in confidence across all sectors around the time of the financial crisis before a strong and sustained recovery in the 2010s. However, in recent months confidence indicators have eased significantly, undoubtedly reflecting the heightened uncertainty around Brexit. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
Between June 2016 and June 2019, the confidence balances have fallen by at least 8 percentage points. In the case of the construction the fall is 14 points while in the important service sector, which contributes about 80 per cent of the economy’s national income, the fall is as much as 15 points.
Changes in confidence are thought, in part, to reflect levels of economic uncertainty. In particular, they may reflect the confidence around future income streams with greater uncertainty pulling confidence down. This is pertinent because of the uncertainty around the UK’s future trading relationships following the 2016 referendum which saw the UK vote to leave the EU. In simple terms, uncertainty reduces the confidence people and businesses have when forming expectations of what they can expect to earn in the future.
Greater uncertainty and, hence, lower confidence tend to make people and businesses more prudent. The caution that comes from prudence counteracts the inherent tendency of many of us to be impatient. This impatience generates an impulse to spend now. On the other hand, prudence encourages us to take actions to increase net worth, i.e. wealth. This may be through reducing our exposure to debt, perhaps by looking to repay debts or choosing to borrow smaller sums than we may have otherwise done. Another option may be to increase levels of saving. In either case, the effect of greater prudence is the postponement of spending. Therefore, in times of high uncertainty, like those of present, people and businesses would be expected to want to have greater financial resilience because they are less confident about what the future holds.
To this point, the saving ratio – the proportion of disposable income saved by households – has remained historically low. In Q1 2019 the saving ratio was 4.4 per cent, well below its 60-year average of 8.5 per cent. This appears to contradict the idea that households respond to uncertainty by increasing saving. However, at least in part, the squeeze seen over many years following the financial crisis on real earnings, i.e. inflation-adjusted earnings, restricted the ability of many to increase saving. With real earnings having risen again over the past year or so, though still below pre-crisis levels, households may have taken this opportunity to use earnings growth to support spending levels rather than, as we shall see shortly, looking to borrow.
Another way in which the desire for greater financial resilience can affect behaviour is through the appetite to borrow. In the case of consumers, it could reduce borrowing for consumption, while in the case of firms it could reduce borrowing for investment, i.e. spending on capital, such as that on buildings and machinery. The reduced appetite for borrowing may also be mirrored by a tightening of credit conditions by financial institutions if they perceive lending to be riskier or want to increase their own financial capacity to absorb future shocks.
Chart 2 shows consumer confidence 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 and it comprises borrowing through credit cards, overdraft facilities and other loans and advances, for example those financing the purchase of cars or other large ticket items. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
The chart allows us to view the confidence-borrowing relationship for the past 25 years or so. It suggests a fairly close association between consumer confidence and consumer credit growth. Whether changes in confidence occur ahead of changes in borrowing is debatable. However, the easing of confidence following the outcome of the EU referendum vote in June 2016 does appear to have led subsequently to an easing in the annual growth of consumer credit. From its peak of 10.9 per cent in the autumn of 2016, the annual growth rate of consumer credit dropped to 5.6 per cent in May 2019.
The easing of credit growth helps put something of a brake on consumer spending. It is, however, unlikely to affect all categories of spending equally. Indeed, the ONS figures for May on retail sales shows a mixed picture for the retail sector. Across the sector as a whole, the 3 month-on-3 month growth rate for the volume of purchases stood at 1.6 per cent, having fallen as low as 0.1 percent in December of last year. However, the 3 month-on-3 month growth rate for spending volumes in department stores, which might be especially vulnerable to a slowdown in credit, fell for the ninth consecutive month.
Going forward, the falls in confidence might be expected to lead to further efforts by the household sector, as well as by businesses, to ensure their financial resilience. The vulnerability of households, despite the slowdown in credit growth, so soon after the financial crisis poses a risk for a hard landing for the sector. After falls in national output in March and April, the next monthly GDP figures to be released on 10 July will be eagerly anticipated.
- Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives confidence?
- Explain the difference between confidence as a source of economic volatility as compared to an amplifier of volatility?
- Discuss the links between confidence, economic uncertainty and financial resilience.
- Discuss the ways in which people and businesses could improve their financial resilience to adverse shocks.
- What are the potential dangers to the economy of various sectors being financially distressed or exposed?
Latest data from the UK banking trade association, UK Finance, show that cash payments have continued to decline, while contactless and mobile payments have risen dramatically. In 2018, cash payments fell 16% to 11.0 billion payments and constituted just 28% of total payments; the compares with 60% in 2008 and a mere 9% projected for 2028. By contrast, in 2018, debit card payments increased 14% to 15.1 billion payments. Credit card payments increased 4% to stand at 3.2 billion payments. Mobile payments though media such as Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay, although still a relatively small percentage, have also increased rapidly, with 16% of the adult population registered for mobile payments, compared with just 2% in 2016.
But what are the implications of this ‘dash from cash’? On the plus side, clearly there are advantages to consumers. A contactless payment is often more convenient than cash and does not require periodic visits to a cash machine (ATM) – machines that are diminishing in number and may be some distance away if you live in the countryside. What is more, card payments allow purchasing online – a form of shopping that continues to grow. Also, if a card is stolen or lost, you can cancel it; if cash is stolen or lost, you cannot cancel that.
Then there are benefits to vendors. Cashing up is time consuming and brings little or no benefit in terms of bank charges. These are typically around 0.75% for cash deposits and roughly the same for handling debit card payments (around 0.7%). What is more, with the closure of many bank branches, it is becoming harder for many businesses to deposit cash.
Finally, there is the problem that many illegal activities involve cash payments. What is more, cash payments can be used as a means of avoiding tax as they can be ‘kept off the books’.
But there are also dangers in the dash from cash. Although the majority of people now use cards for at least some of their transactions, many older people and people on low incomes rely on cash and do not use online banking. With bank branches and ATMs closing, this group is becoming further disadvantaged. As the Access to Cash Review, Final Report states:
Millions of people could potentially be left out of the economy, and face increased risks of isolation, exploitation, debt and rising costs.
Then there is the danger of fraud. As the Financial Times article below states:
The proliferation of new types of payment method has raised concerns over security. Criminals stole £1.2bn in 2018, according to previous data from UK Finance, up from £967m in 2017. This included a rise in fraudsters illegally accessing customers’ accounts and cards.
Complaints about banking scams reached a record high in the past financial year, according to figures in May from the UK’s Financial Ombudsman Service.
One of the biggest dangers, however, of the move to card payments, and especially contactless payments, is that people may be less restrained in their spending. They may be more likely to rack up debt with little concern at the time of spending about repayment. As the Forbes article below states:
Because items purchased with a credit card have been decoupled from emotion, shoppers can focus on the benefits of the purchase instead of the cost. Thus, paying with a credit card makes it more difficult to focus on the cost or complete a more rational cost–benefit analysis. For example, if a person had to count out $0.99 to purchase an app, they might be less inclined to buy it. However, since we can quickly buy apps with our credit card, the cost seems negligible, and we can focus on the momentary happiness of the purchase.
Finally, there is the issue of our privacy. Card payments enable companies, and possibly other agencies, to track our spending. This may have the benefits of allowing us to receive tailored advertising, but it may be used as a way of driving sales and encouraging us to take on more debt as well as giving companies a window on our behaviour.
- Millions choose a cashless lifestyle
BBC News, Kevin Peachey (6/6/19)
- The decline of cash in the UK – in charts
BBC News (7/6/19)
- One in 10 adults in UK have gone ‘cashless’, data shows
The Guardian, Rupert Jones (6/6/19)
- Going contactless is gloriously convenient – for all the wrong people
The Guardian, Peter Ormerod (7/3/19)
- Mobile banking and contactless cards continue to surge in popularity
Financial Times, James Pickford (6/6/19)
- Is a cashless society in Britain near? Banking data suggests just 9% of all payments will be cash by 2028
This is Money, George Nixon (6/6/19)
- Older and poorer communities are left behind by the decline of cash
The Conversation, Daniel Tischer, Jamie Evans and Sara Davies (16/5/19)
- As cash declines, research shows the most deprived communities are left behind
University of Bristol Press Release (16/5/19)
- Do People Really Spend More With Credit Cards?
Forbes, Bill Hardekopf (16/7/18)
- Why Cash Is Quickly Disappearing From China’s Economy—Data Sheet
Fortune, Aaron Pressman and Clay Chandler (5/6/19)
- Cashless in China: Why It Matters
CNA Insider on YouTube, Joshua Lim (28/10/17)
- Summarise the main findings of the UK Payments Market Report 2019
- What are the relative merits of using (a) cash; (b) debit cards; (c) mobile payment?
- Find out what has happened to consumer debt in a country of your choice over the past five years. What are the main determinants of the level of consumer debt?
- How has UK money supply changed over the past five years? To what extent does this reflect changes in the ways people access money in their accounts?
- Why and how is China going ‘cashless’? Does this create any problems?
- Make out a case for and against increasing the £30 limit for contactless payments in the UK.
Latest resesarch from the independent American think tank The Conference Board paints a worrying picture about the growth of UK labour productivity. While global growth in labour productivity has weakened following the financial crisis, its weakness in the UK is singled out in the Board’s 2019 Productivity Brief. It finds that amongst large mature economies the decline in labour productivity growth rates has been greatest in the UK. This has important implications for the country’s longer-term well-being and, specifically, it peoples’ living standards.
The UK saw the growth in real GDP (national output) fall from 1.8 per cent in 2017 to 1.4 per cent in 2018. The Conference Board predicts that this will fall further to 0.8 per cent in 2019. In the context of living standards, the growth in real GDP per capita is particularly important. An increase in the population will, other things being equal, lower living standards because more people will be sharing a given amount of real national income. The growth in real GDP per capita fell from 1.1 per cent in 2017 to 0.7 per cent in 2018 and is predicted to fall to just 0.1 per cent in 2019.
Chart 1 shows the annual rates of growth in real GDP and real GDP per capita from the 1950s. The average growth rates are 2.4 and 1.9 per cent respectively. The other series shown is the annual growth in real GDP per person employed. This is a measure of the growth in labour productivity. Its average annual growth rate is also 1.9 per cent. This illustrates the intrinsic long-run relationship between labour productivity growth and the growth rate of GDP per capita and hence in general living stanadards. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
In the short term, rates of growth in output per worker (labour productivity) and GDP per capita (general living standards) can be less similar. For example, when unemployment rates rise labour productivity rates may be little affected despite GDP per capita falling. Nonetheless, the important point here is the close long-run relationship between the growth in labour productivity and GDP per capita. This then raises an important question: what factors contribute to the growth in output and labour productivity?
An approach known as growth accounting helps to identify four key contributors to the growth of total output. The first is the quantity of labour, commonly measured in labour hours. The second is the quality of labour, also known as labour composition. Third is capital services which are physical inputs into production and include machinery, structures and IT capital. Capital services are affected by quantity and quality, but, unlike labour, it is practically more difficult to separate out these dimensions. Fourth, is Total Factor Productivity (TFP).
TFP it is essentially the residual contribution to output growth that cannot be explained by changes in the quantity and quality of the individual inputs. Hence, in principle, it is capturing changes in how effectively the labour and capital inputs are being employed and combined in production. The Conference Board’s Productivity Brief describes the growth in TFP as providing ‘a more accurate picture of the overall efficiency by which capital, labour and skills are combined in the production process’.
Chart 2 shows Conference Board estimates of the percentage point contribution of these four sources of growth since 1990. Over this period, output growth averaged 2 per cent per year. The contribution of capital services and, hence, what is known as capital accumulation is particularly significant at 1.5 percentage points per year. This has been significantly larger than the contribution of labour hours which averaged only 0.3 percentage points per year since 1990. This evidences the importance played by capital deepening for output growth in the UK. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
Capital deepening captures the growth in capital services relative to the growth in the labour input. It takes on even greater significance when we think about the growth in labour productivity since, after all, this is the growth in output relative to the quantity of labour. It is significant though that since 2015 the growth of capital services has contributed only 1 percentage point to output growth while the growth of labour hours has contributed an average of 0.7 percentage points. This points to a slowdown in capital deepening and hence in the growth of labour productivity.
Chart 2 also illustrates the importance of TFP growth to overall output growth. It is also important (along with capital deepening and the growth in labour quality) for the growth in labour productivity. Interestingly, we observe significant fluctuations in the growth of TFP. This is thought to reflect fluctuations in the utilisation of inputs. For example, if the utilisation of inputs falls (rises) when output falls (increases) this will be mirrored by a disproportionately large fall (increase) in TFP. In the longer-term, however, changes in TFP capture aspects of technological progress and advancement that enable more effective production methods and techniques to be deployed. In other words, the growth of TFP captures the ability of production to benefit from the advancement in ideas, products, processes and know-how.
A decline in the growth in TFP growth following the financial crisis is found quite widely in mature economies. The annual rate of growth of TFP across mature economies fell from 0.5 per cent year in 2000-2007 to 0.2 per cent in 2010-2017. In the UK this fall was from 0.5 per cent to -0.1 per cent. Hence, the decline in TFP growth of 0.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2017 was double the 0.3 percentage point fall across all mature economies. In 2018 the Conference Board estimate that TFP in the UK fell by 0.1 percent further exacerbating the downward pressure on labour productivity.
As our final chart shows, it is the magnitude to which labour productivity has eased following the financial crisis that sets the UK apart. While across all mature economies the growth of output per labour hour (another measure of labour productivity growth) fell from an average of 2.3 per cent per year in 2000-2007 to 1.2 per cent in 2010-2017, in the UK the fall was from 2.2 per cent to 0.5 per cent per year. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
While the productivity problem facing the UK is not new, the latest figures comes as a very timely reminder of the extent of the problem. To some extent the uncertainty around Brexit and the negative impact on capital accumulation has only helped to exacerbate the problem. But, this may mask a more systemic problem facing the UK. Getting to the root of this problem matters. It matters most significantly for our long-term wellbeing and prosperity. The productivity gap with our major industrial competitors is a gap that policymakers need not only to be mindful of but one that needs closing.
- What do you understand by the term labour productivity. How could we measure it?
- Why is it important to look at the growth of output per capita when assessing the benefits of long-term growth?
- Why is labour productivity important for the long-term well-being of a country?
- What do you understand by the method of growth accounting?
- What is the distinction between capital accumulation and capital deepening?
- What might explain why the growth of labour productivity has been lower in the years following the post-financial crisis?
- What do you understand by Total Factor Productivity (TFP)?
- What does the long-term growth of TFP attempt to capture?
- If you were an economic advisor to the government, what types of policy initiatives might you recommend for a government concerned about low rates of growth of labour productivity?