The latest consumer confidence figures from the European Commission point to consumer confidence in the UK remaining at around its long-term average. Despite this, confidence is markedly weaker than before the outcome of the EU referendum. Yet, the saving ratio, which captures the proportion of disposable income saved by the household sector, is close to its historic low. We consider this apparent puzzle and whether we can expect the saving ratio to rise.
The European Commission’s consumer confidence measure is a composite indicator based on the balance of responses to 4 forward-looking questions relating to the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations and savings.
Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average (median) of –6.25 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses. In October 2018 the confidence balance stood at –5.2, essentially unchanged from its September value of –5.8. While above the long-term average, recent values mark a weakening in confidence from levels before the EU referendum. At the beginning of 2016 the aggregate confidence score was running at around +4. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Chart 1 shows two periods where consumer confidence fell markedly. The first was in the early 1990s. In 1990 the UK joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). This was a semi-fixed exchange rate system whereby participating EU countries allowed fluctuations against each other’s currencies, but only within agreed bands, while being able to collectively float freely against all other currencies. In attempting to staying in the ERM, the UK was obliged to raise interest rates in order to protect the pound. The hikes to rates contributed to a significant dampening of aggregate demand and the economy slid into recession. Britain crashed out of the ERM in September 1992.
The second period of declining confidence was during the global financial crisis in the late 2000s. The retrenchment among financial institutions meant a significant tightening of credit conditions. This too contributed to a significant dampening of aggregate demand and the economy slid into recession. Whereas the 1992 recession saw the UK national output contract by 2.0 percent, this time national output fell by 6.3 per cent.
The collapses in confidence from 1992 and from 2007/08 are likely to have helped propagate the effects of the fall in aggregate demand that were already underway. The weakening of confidence in 2016 is perhaps a better example of a ‘confidence shock’, i.e. a change in aggregate demand originating from a change in confidence. Nonetheless, a fall in confidence, whether it amplifies existing shocks or is the source of the shock, is often taken as a signal of greater economic uncertainty. If we take this greater uncertainty to reflect a greater range of future income outcomes, including potential income losses, then households may look to insure themselves by increasing current saving.
It is usual to assume that people suffer from diminishing marginal utility of total consumption. This means that while total satisfaction increases as we consume more, the additional utility from consuming more (marginal utility) decreases. An implication of this is that a given loss of consumption reduces utility by more than an equivalent increase in consumption increases utility. This explains why people prefer more consistent consumption levels over time and so engage in consumption smoothing. The utility, for example, from an ‘average’ consumption level across two time periods, is higher, than the expected utility from a ‘low’ level of consumption in period 1 and a ‘high’ level of consumption in period 2. This is because the loss of utility from a ‘low’ level of consumption relative to the ‘average’ level is greater than the additional utility from the ‘high’ level relative to the ‘average’ level.
If greater uncertainty, such as that following the EU referendum, increases the range of possible ‘lower’ consumption values in the future even when matched by an increase in the equivalent range of possible ‘higher’ consumption values, then expected future utility falls. The incentive therefore is for people to build up a larger buffer stock of saving to minimise utility losses if the ‘bad state’ occurs. Hence, saving which acts as a from of self-insurance in the presence of uncertainty is known as buffer-stock saving or precautionary saving.
Chart 2 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 more 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 that of this. The early 1990s and late 2000s certainly coincided with both waning confidence and a rising saving ratio. The saving ratio rose to as high as 15.2 per cent in 1993 and 12.0 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile the rising confidence seen in the late 1990s coincided with a fall in the saving ratio to 4.7 per cent in 1999.
As Chart 2 shows, the easing of confidence since 2016 has coincided with a period where the saving ratio has been historically low. Across 2017 the saving ratio stood at just 4.5 per cent. In the first half of 2018 the ratio averaged just 4.2 per cent. While the release of the official figures for the saving ratio are less timely than those for confidence, the recent very low saving ratio may be seen to raise concerns. Can softer confidence data continue to co-exist with such a low saving ratio?
There are a series of possible explanations for the recent lows in the saving ratio. On one hand, the rate of price inflation has frequently exceeded wage inflation in recent years so eroding the real value of earnings. This has stretched household budgets and limited the amount of discretionary income available for saving. On the other hand, unemployment rates have fallen to historic lows. The rate of unemployment in the three months to August stood at 4 per cent, the lowest since 1975. Unemployment expectations are important in determining levels of buffer stock saving because of the impact of unemployment on household budgets.
Another factor that has fuelled the growth of spending relative to income, has been the growth of consumer credit. In the period since July 2016, the annual rate of growth of consumer credit, net of repayments, has averaged 9.7 per cent. Behavioural economists argue that foregoing spending can be emotionally painful. Hence, spending has the potential to exhibit more stickiness than might otherwise be predicted in a more uncertain environment or in the anticipation of income losses. Therefore, the reluctance or inability to wean ourselves off credit and spending might be a reason for the continuing low saving ratio.
We wait to see whether the saving ratio increases over the coming months. However, for now, the UK household sector appears to be characterised by low saving and fragile confidence. Whether or not this is a puzzle, is open to question. Nonetheless, it does appear to carry obvious risks should weaker income growth materialise.
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!
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.
I recently found myself talking about my favourite TV shows from my childhood. Smurfs aside, the most popular one for me (and I suppose for many other people from my generation) had to be Knight Rider. It was a story about a crime fighter (David Hasselhoff) and his a heavily modified, artificially intelligent Pontiac Firebird. ‘Kitt’ was a car that could drive itself, engage in thoughtful and articulate conversations, carry out missions and (of course) come up with solutions to complex problems! A car that was very far from what was technologically possible in the 80s – and this was part of its charm.
Today this technology is becoming reality. Google, Tesla and most major automakers are testing self-driving cars with many advanced features like Kitt’s – if not better. They may not fire rockets, but they can drive themselves; they can search the internet; they can answer questions in a language of your choice; and they can be potentially integrated with a number of other technologies (such as car sharing apps) to revolutionise the way we own and use our cars. It will take years until we are able to purchase and use a self-driving car – but it appears very likely that this technology is going to become roadworthy within our lifetime.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is already becoming part of our life. You can buy a robotic vacuum cleaner online for less than a £1000. You can get gadgets like Amazon’s Alexa, that can help you automate your supermarket shopping, for instance. If you are Saudi, you can boast that you are compatriots with a humanoid: Saudi Arabia was the first country to grant citizenship to Sophia, an impressive humanoid and apparently a notorious conversationalist who does not miss an opportunity to address a large audience – and it has done so numerous times already in technology fairs, national congresses – even the UN Assembly! Sophia is the first robot to be honoured with a UN title!
What will be the impact of such technologies on labour markets? If cars can drive themselves, what is going to happen to the taxi drivers? Or the domestic housekeepers – who may find themselves increasingly displaced by cleaning robots. Or warehouse workers who may find themselves displaced by delivery bots (did you know that Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, owns a warehouse where most of the work is carried out by robots?). There is no doubt that labour markets are bound to change. But should we (the human labour force) be worried about it? Acemoglu et al (2017) think that we should:
Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages […] According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 per cent.
Automation is likely to affect unskilled workers more than skilled ones, as unskilled jobs are the easiest ones to automate. This could have widespread social implications, as it might widen the divide between the poor (who are more likely to have unskilled jobs) and the affluent (who are more likely to own AI technologies). As mentioned in a recent Boston Consulting Group report (see below):
The future of work is likely to involve large structural changes to the labour market and potentially a net loss of jobs, mostly in routine occupations. An estimated 15 million UK jobs could be at risk of automation, with 63 per cent of all jobs impacted to a medium or large extent.
On the other hand, the adoption of automation is likely to result in higher efficiency, huge productivity gains and less waste. Automation will enable us to use the resources that we have in the most efficient way – and this is bound to result in wealth creation. It will also push human workers away from manual, routine jobs – and it will force them to acquire skills and engage in creative thinking. One thing is for certain: labour markets are changing and they are changing fast!
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.