Policymakers around the world have used Gross Domestic Product as the main gauge of economic performance – and have often adopted policies that aim to maximise its rate of growth. Generation after generation of economists have committed significant time and effort to thinking about the factors that influence GDP growth, on the premise that an expanding and healthy economy is one that sees its GDP increasing every year at a sufficient rate.
But is economic output a good enough indicator of national economic wellbeing? Costanza et al (2014) (see link below) argue that, despite its merits, GDP can be a ‘misleading measure of national success’:
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country. Meanwhile, researchers have become much better at measuring what actually does make life worthwhile. The environmental and social effects of GDP growth is a misleading measure of national success. Countries should act now to embrace new metrics.
The limitations of GDP growth as a measure of economic wellbeing and national strength are becoming increasingly clear in today’s world. Some of the world’s wealthiest countries are plagued by discontent, with a growth in populism and social discontent – attitudes which are often fuelled by high rates of poverty and economic hardship. In a recent report titled ‘The Living Standards Audit 2018’ published by the Resolution Foundation, a UK economic thinktank (see link below), the authors found that child poverty rose in 2016–17 as a result of declining incomes of the poorest third of UK households:
While the economic profile of UK households has changed, living standards – with the exception of pensioner households – have mostly stagnated since the mid-2000s. Typical household incomes are not much higher than they were in 2003–04. This stagnation in living standards for many has brought with it a rise in poverty rates for low to middle income families. Over a third of low to middle income families with children are in poverty, up from a quarter in the mid-2000s, and nearly two-fifths say that they can’t afford a holiday away for their children once a year. On the other hand, the share of non-working families in poverty has fallen, though not by enough to prevent an overall rise in poverty since 2010.
Their projections also show that this rise in poverty was likely to have continued in 2017–18:
Although the increase in broad measures of inequality were relatively muted last year, our nowcast suggests that there was a pronounced rise in poverty (measured after housing costs[…]. The increase in overall poverty (from 22.1 to 23.2 per cent) was the largest since 1988. But this was dwarfed by the increase in child poverty, which rose from 30.3 per cent to 33.4 per cent. […]The fortunes of middle-income households diverged from those towards the bottom of the distribution and so a greater share of households, and children, found themselves below the poverty threshold.
A simple literature search on Scope (or even Google Scholar) shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of journal articles and reports in the last 10 years on this topic. We do talk more about the limitations of GDP, but we are still using it as the main measure of national economic performance.
Is it then time to stop focusing our attention on GDP growth exclusively and start considering broader metrics of social development? And what would such metrics look like? Both interesting questions that we will try to address in coming blogs.
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.
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.
Explain the major causes of the financial market crash in 2008.
Would it have been a good idea to have continued with expansionary fiscal policy beyond 2009?
Summarise the Basel III banking regulations.
How could quantitative easing have been differently designed so as to have injected more money into the real sector of the economy?
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?
What is meant by ‘shadow banking’ and how might this be a threat to the future stability of the global economy?
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.
How much do you know about cryptocurrencies? Even if you don’t know much you are very likely to have heard about the most popular member of the family: Bitcoin. Bitcoin (BTC) has been around for some time now (see the blog Bubbling Bitcoin). It was first released in 2009 by its inventor (the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose real identity still remains unknown), and since then it has gradually increased in popularity.
According to the Bitcoin Market Journal (a specialised blog, commenting on trends in digital currencies – primarily Bitcoin), there are currently about 29 million digital wallets holding at least 0.001 BTC, although some individual users may own multiple wallets.
Although BTC is the most popular digital currency (and the first one to become widely recognisable), it is certainly not the only one. There are currently more than 400 recognisable cryptocurrencies traded in special digital exchanges (twice this number if you count smaller, less successful ones) with a total capitalisation of $700 billion at its peak (January 3, 2018) – although since then the market has lost a significant part of this value (but it’s still worth 100s of billion of US dollars).
If you have heard about Bitcoin before, chances are you first searched for it sometime between December 2017 and January 2018; that is when the value of Bitcoin soared to $20 000 a piece. A search on Google Trends (a Google utility that shows how many people have searched over a period of time for a certain term – in this case “Bitcoin”) shows this very clearly.
So what do people do with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? The truth is that the majority of users use them for speculative purposes: they buy and sell them, in the hope of making a profit. Due to its extreme volatility (it is very common for the price of the larger cryptocurrencies to fluctuate by 10–20% daily) and the unregulated nature of the cryptocurrency market, it is hardly surprising that most users treat them as very high-risk commodity. This is also why digital currencies tend to attract attention (and new users) when their price soars.
However, cryptocurrencies are not only used for speculation. They can also be used to facilitate transactions. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, there are currently more than 100 000 merchants accepting BTC as a form of payment (online or offline with wallet readers). Financial technology (‘Fintech’) is catching up with this market and some new companies try to compete with the traditional payment networks (Mastercard, Visa and others) by launching plastic cards linked with crypto-wallets (primarily Bitcoin).
Santander bank has expressed an interest in exploring this market further. It is certain that if the market for cryptocurrencies keeps growing at this pace, there will be a lot more challenger fintech firms launching new products that will make it easier to use digital currencies in everyday life.
Cryptocurrencies, therefore, are likely to have a significant impact on the way we pay for our transactions. They can be used to lower transaction costs (e.g. by simplifying the process of sending money abroad), speed up the processing of payments, facilitate microfinancing and transactions in some of the poorest places on earth – where the closest bank may be 50 miles away or further from where people live).
But there is a dark side to these products. They have been linked to tax-evasion for instance, as many people who trade digital currencies fail to declare capital gains to national tax authorities. They can be used to overcome capital controls and other restrictions imposed by national governments (the case of Greece comes to mind as a recent example).
They have also been blamed for facilitating illegal trading activities, such as in drugs and weapons, due to the anonymity that some of these coins are thought to offer to their users – although quite often they are much easier to trace than their users believe.
Cryptocurrencies do have the potential to change the way we live. They also have the potential to become the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of mankind.
Over the next few months, I will write a number of blogs to explore the literature on the economics of cryptocurrencies, and discuss some of the major challenges that needs to be overcome if this technology is to become mainstream.
The IMF has just published its six-monthly World Economic Outlook. This provides an assessment of trends in the global economy and gives forecasts for a range of macroeconomic indicators by country, by groups of countries and for the whole world.
This latest report is upbeat for the short term. Global economic growth is expected to be around 3.9% this year and next. This represents 2.3% this year and 2.5% next for advanced countries and 4.8% this year and 4.9% next for emerging and developing countries. For large advanced countries such rates are above potential economic growth rates of around 1.6% and thus represent a rise in the positive output gap or fall in the negative one.
But while the near future for economic growth seems positive, the IMF is less optimistic beyond that for advanced countries, where growth rates are forecast to decline to 2.2% in 2019, 1.7% in 2020 and 1.5% by 2023. Emerging and developing countries, however, are expected to see growth rates of around 5% being maintained.
For most countries, current favorable growth rates will not last. Policymakers should seize this opportunity to bolster growth, make it more durable, and equip their governments better to counter the next downturn.
By comparison with other countries, the UK’s growth prospects look poor. The IMF forecasts that its growth rate will slow from 1.8% in 2017 to 1.6% in 2018 and 1.5% in 2019, eventually rising to around 1.6% by 2023. The short-term figures are lower than in the USA, France and Germany and reflect ‘the anticipated higher barriers to trade and lower foreign direct investment following Brexit’.
The report sounds some alarm bells for the global economy.
The first is a possible growth in trade barriers as a trade war looms between the USA and China and as Russia faces growing trade sanctions. As Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF told an audience in Hong Kong:
Governments need to steer clear of protectionism in all its forms. …Remember: the multilateral trade system has transformed our world over the past generation. It helped reduce by half the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty. It has reduced the cost of living, and has created millions of new jobs with higher wages. …But that system of rules and shared responsibility is now in danger of being torn apart. This would be an inexcusable, collective policy failure. So let us redouble our efforts to reduce trade barriers and resolve disagreements without using exceptional measures.
The second danger is a growth in world government and private debt levels, which at 225% of global GDP are now higher than before the financial crisis of 2007–9. With Trump’s policies of tax cuts and increased government expenditure, the resulting rise in US government debt levels could see some fiscal tightening ahead, which could act as a brake on the world economy. As Maurice Obstfeld , Economic Counsellor and Director of the Research Department, said at the Press Conference launching the latest World Economic Outlook:
Debts throughout the world are very high, and a lot of debts are denominated in dollars. And if dollar funding costs rise, this could be a strain on countries’ sovereign financial institutions.
In China, there has been a massive rise in corporate debt, which may become unsustainable if the Chinese economy slows. Other countries too have seen a surge in private-sector debt. If optimism is replaced by pessimism, there could be a ‘Minsky moment’, where people start to claw down on debt and banks become less generous in lending. This could lead to another crisis and a global recession. A trigger could be rising interest rates, with people finding it hard to service their debts and so cut down on spending.
The third danger is the slow growth in labour productivity combined with aging populations in developed countries. This acts as a brake on growth. The rise in AI and robotics (see the post Rage against the machine) could help to increase potential growth rates, but this could cost jobs in the short term and the benefits could be very unevenly distributed.
This brings us to a final issue and this is the long-term trend to greater inequality, especially in developed economies. Growth has been skewed to the top end of the income distribution. As the April 2017 WEO reported, “technological advances have contributed the most to the recent rise in inequality, but increased financial globalization – and foreign direct investment in particular – has also played a role.”
And the policy of quantitative easing has also tended to benefit the rich, as its main effect has been to push up asset prices, such as share and house prices. Although this has indirectly stimulated the economy, it has mainly benefited asset owners, many of whom have seen their wealth soar. People further down the income scale have seen little or no growth in their real incomes since the financial crisis.
Would you start a family if you were pessimistic about the future of the economy? Buckles et al (2017) (see link below) believe that fewer of us would do so and, therefore, fertility rates could be used by investors and central banks as an early signal to pick up subtle changes in consumer confidence and overall economic climate.
Their study titled ‘Fertility is a leading economic indicator’ uses ‘live births’ data, sourced from US birth certificates, to explore if there is any association between fertility changes (measured as the rate of change in number of births) and GDP growth. Their results suggest that, in the case of the USA, there is: dips in fertility rates tend to precede by several quarters slowdown in economic activity. As the authors state:
The growth rate of conceptions declines prior to economic downturns and the decline occurs several quarters before recessions begin. Our measure of conceptions is constructed using live births; we present evidence suggesting that our results are indeed driven by changes in conceptions and not by changes in abortion or miscarriage. Conceptions compare well with or even outperform other economic indicators in anticipating recessions.
Although this is not the first piece of academic writing to claim that fertility has pro-cyclical qualities (see for instance, Adsera (2004, 2011), Adsera and Menendez (2011), Currie and Schwandt (2014) and Chatterjee and Vogle (2016) linked below), it is, to the best of our knowledge, the most recent paper (in terms of data used) to depict this relationship and to explore the suitability of fertility as a macroeconomic indicator to predict recessions.
Economies, after all, are groups of people who participate actively in day-to-day production and consumption activities – as consumers, workers and business leaders. Changes in their environment should affect their expectations about the future.
Are people, however, forward-looking enough to guide their current behaviours by their expectations of future economic outcomes? They may be, according to the findings of this study.
Did you know, for instance, that sales of ties tend to increase in economic downturns, as men buy more ties to show that they are working harder, in fear of losing their job? But this is probably a topic for another blog.