Category: Essentials of Economics: Ch 01

In the third of our series on the distinction between nominal and real values we show its importance when analysing retail sales data. In the UK, such data are available from the Office for National Statistics. This blog revisits an earlier one, Nominal and real retail sales figures: interpreting the data, written in October 2023. We find that inflation-adjusted retail sales data reveal some stark patterns in the sector. They help contextualise some of the challenges faced by high streets up and down the UK.

The Retail Sales Index

Retail sales relate to spending on items such as food, clothing, footwear and household goods. They involve sales by retailers directly to final consumers, whether in store or online. Spending on services such as holidays, air fares and train tickets, insurance, banking, hotels and restaurants are not included, as are sales of motor vehicles. The Retail Sales Index for Great Britain is based on a monthly survey of around 5000 retailers across England, Scotland and Wales and is thought to capture around three-quarters of turnover in the retail industry.

Estimates of retail sales are published in index form. There are two indices published by the ONS: a value and volume measure. The value index reflects the total turnover of business, while the volume index adjusts the value index for price changes. Hence, the value estimates are nominal, while the volume estimates are real. The key point here is that the nominal estimates reflect both price and volume changes, whereas the real estimates adjust for price movements to capture only volume changes.

The headline ONS figures for May 2024 showed a rise by 2.9 per cent in the volume of retail sales, following a 1.8 per cent fall in April. In value terms, May saw a 3.3 per cent rise in retail sales following a 2.3 fall in March. Monthly changes can be quite volatile, even after seasonal adjustment, and sensitive to peculiar factors. For example, the poor weather in April 2024 helped to depress retail spending. It is, therefore, sensible to take a longer-term view when looking for clearer patterns in spending behaviour.

Growth of retail sales

Chart 1 plots the monthly value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain since 1996. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). In value terms, monthly spending in the retail sector has increased by 169 per cent since January 1996, whereas in volume terms, spending has increased by 77 per cent. Another way of thinking about this is in terms of the average annual rate of increase. This shows that the value of spending has risen at an annual rate of 3.5 per cent while the volume of spending has risen at an annual rate of 2.0 per cent. This difference is to be expected in the presence of rising prices, since nominal growth, as we have just noted, reflects both price and volume changes.

Chart 1 helps to identify two periods where the volume of retail spending ceased to grow. The first of these is following the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. The period from 2008 to 2013 saw the volume of retail sales stagnate and flatline, with a recovery in volumes only really starting to take hold in 2014. Yet in nominal terms retail sales grew by around 14 per cent.

The second of the two periods is from 2021. Chart 2 helps to demonstrates the extent of the struggles of the retail sector in this period. It shows a significant divergence between the volume and value of retail sales. Indeed, between April 2021 and October 2023, while the value of retail sales increased by 8.0 per cent the volume of retail sales fell by 11.0 per cent.

The recent value-volume divergence reflects the inflation shock that began to emerge in 2021. This saw consumer prices, as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), rise across 2022 and 2023 by 9.1 per cent and 7.3 per cent respectively, with the annual rate of CPI inflation hitting 11.1 per cent in October 2022. Hence, while inflation was a drag on the volume of spending it nonetheless meant that the value of spending continued to rise. Once more this demonstrates why understanding the distinction between nominal and real is important. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

To illustrate the longer-term trend in the volume of retail spending alongside its volatility, Chart 3 plots yearly retail sales volumes and also their percentage change on the previous year.

The chart nicely captures the prolonged halt to retail sales growth following the global financial crisis, the fluctuations caused by COVID and then the sharp falls in the volume of retail spending in 2022 and 2023 as the effects of the inflationary shock on peoples’ finances bit sharply. This cost-of-living crisis significantly affected many people’s disposable income. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

Categories of retail sales

We conclude by considering categories of retail spending. Chart 4 shows volumes of retail sales by four broad categories since 1996. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). These are food stores, predominantly non-food stores, non-store retail and automotive fuel (i.e. sales of petrol and diesel “at the pumps”).

Whilst all categories have seen an increase in their spending volumes over the period as a whole, there are stark differences in this rate of growth. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most rapid growth is in non-store retail. This includes online retailing, as well as market stalls and catalogues.

The volume of retail spending in the non-store sector has grown at an average annual rate over this period of 6.3 per cent, compared with 2.6 per cent for non-food stores, 1.2 per cent for predominantly food stores and 1.0 per cent for automotive fuels. The growth of non-store retail has been even more rapid since 2010, when the average annual rate of growth in the volume of purchases has been 10.2 per cent, compared to 1.8 per cent for non-food stores, 1.0 per cent for automotive fuels and zero growth for food stores.

If we focus on the most recent patterns in the categories of retail sales, we see that the monthly volume of spending in all categories except non-store retail is now lower than the average in 2019. Specifically, when compared to 2019 levels, the volume of spending in non-food stores in May 2024 was 2.6 per cent lower, while that in food stores was 4.4 per cent lower, and the volume of spending on automotive fuels was 10.8 per cent lower. In contrast, spending in non-store retail was 21.2 per cent higher. Yet this is not to imply that this sector has been immune to the pressures faced by their high-street counterparts. Although it is difficult to disentangle fully the effects of the pandemic and lockdowns on non-store retail sales data, the downward trajectory in the volume of retail sales in the sector that occurred as the economy ‘reopened’ in 2021 and 2022 continued into 2023 when purchases fell by 3.5 per cent.

Final thoughts

The retail sector is an incredibly important part of the economy. A recent research briefing from the House of Commons Library reports that there were 2.7 million jobs in the UK retail sector in 2022, equivalent to 8.6 per cent of the country’s jobs with 314 040 retail businesses as of January 2023. Yet the importance of the retail sector cannot be captured by these statistics alone. Some would argue that the very fabric and wellbeing of our towns and cities is affected by the wellbeing of the sector and, importantly, by structural changes that affect how people interact with retail.

Articles

Research Briefing

Statistical bulletin

Data

Questions

  1. Which of the following is/are not counted in the UK retail sales data: (i) purchase of furniture from a department store; (ii) weekly grocery shop online; (iii) a stay at a hotel on holiday; (iv) a meal at your favourite café or restaurant?
  2. Why does an increase in the value of retail sales not necessarily mean that their volume has increased?
  3. In the presence of deflation, which will be higher: nominal or real growth rates?
  4. Discuss the factors that could explain the patterns in the volume of spending observed in the different categories of retail sales in Chart 4.
  5. Discuss what types of retail products might be more or less sensitive to changes in the macroeconomic environment.
  6. Conduct a survey of recent media reports to prepare a briefing discussing examples of retailers who have struggled or thrived in the recent economic environment.
  7. What do you understand by the concepts of ‘consumer confidence’ and ‘economic uncertainty’? How might these affect the volume of retail spending?
  8. Discuss the proposition that the retail sales data cast doubt on whether people are ‘forward-looking consumption smoothers’.

In the first of a series of updated blogs focusing on the importance of the distinction between nominal and real values we look at the issue of earnings. Here we update the blog Getting Real with Pay written back in February 2019. Then, we noted how the macroeconomic environment since the financial crisis of the late 2000s had continued to affect people’s pay. Specifically, we observed that there had been no growth in real or inflation-adjusted pay. In other words, people were no better off in 2019 than in 2008.

In this updated blog, we consider to what extent the picture has changed five years down the line. While we do not consider the distributional impact on pay, the aggregate picture nonetheless continues to paint a very stark picture, with consequences for living standards and financial wellbeing.

While the distinction between nominal and real values is perhaps best known in relation to GDP and economic growth, the distinction is also applied frequently to analyse the movement of one price relative to prices in general. One example is that of movements in pay (earnings) relative to consumer prices.

Pay reflects the price of labour. The value of our actual pay is our nominal pay. If our pay rises more quickly than consumer prices, then our real pay increases. This means that our purchasing power rises and so the volume of goods and services we can afford increases. On the other hand, if our actual pay rises less quickly than consumer prices then our real pay falls. When real pay falls, purchasing power falls and the volume of goods and services we can afford falls.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in January 2000 regular weekly pay (excluding bonuses and before taxes and other deductions from pay) was £293. By April 2024 this had risen to £640. This is an increase of 118 per cent. Over the same period, the consumer prices index known as the CPIH, which, unlike the better-known CPI, includes owner-occupied housing costs and council tax, rose by 82 per cent. Therefore, the figures are consistent with a rise both in nominal and real pay between January 2000 to April 2024. However, this masks a rather different picture that has emerged since the global financial crisis of the late 2000s.

Chart 1 shows the annual percentage changes in actual (nominal) regular weekly pay and the CPIH since January 2001. Each value is simply the percentage change from 12 months earlier. The period up to June 2008 saw the annual growth of weekly pay outstrip the growth of consumer prices – the blue line in the chart is above the red dashed line. Therefore, the real value of pay rose. However, from June 2008 to August 2014 pay growth consistently fell short of the rate of consumer price inflation – the blue line is below the red dashed line. The result was that average real weekly pay fell. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Chart 2 show the average levels of nominal and real weekly pay. The real series is adjusted for inflation. It is calculated by deflating the nominal pay values by the CPIH. Since the CPIH is a price index whose value averages 100 across 2015, the real pay values are at constant 2015 consumer prices. From the chart, we can see that the real value of weekly pay peaked in April 2008 at £473 at 2015 prices. The subsequent period saw rates of pay increases that were lower than rates of consumer price inflation. This meant that by March 2014 the real value of weekly pay had fallen by 6.3 per cent to £443 at 2015 prices. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Although real (inflation-adjusted) pay recovered a little after 2014, 2017 again saw consumer price inflation rates greater than those of pay inflation (see Chart 1). This meant that at the start of 2018 real earnings were 3.2 per cent lower than their 2008-peak (see Chart 2). Real earnings then began to recover, buoyed by the economic rebound following the relaxation of COVID lockdown measures and increasing staffing pressures. Real earnings finally passed their 2008-peak in August 2020. By April 2021 regular weekly pay reached £491 at 2015 prices which was 3.8 per cent above the pre-global financial crisis peak.

However, the boost to real wages was to be short-lived as inflationary pressures rose markedly. While some of this was attributable to the same pressures that were driving up wages, inflationary pressures were fuelled further by the commodity price shock arising from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, in particular, its impact on energy prices. This saw the CPIH inflation rate rise to 9.6 per cent in October 2022 (while the CPI inflation rate peaked in the same month at 11.1 per cent). The result was that real weekly earnings fell by 2.7 per cent between January and October 2022 to stand at £471 at 2015 consumer prices. Consequently, average pay was once again below its pre-global financial crisis level.

Although inflationary pressures have recently weakened and real earnings have begun to recover, real regular weekly earnings in April 20024 (£486 at 2015 prices) were a mere 2.7 per cent higher than back in the first half of 2008. This compares to a nominal increase of around 58 per cent over the same period thereby demonstrating the importance of the distinction between nominal and real values in understanding what developments in pay mean for the purchasing power of households.

Chart 3 reinforces the importance of the nominal-real distinction. It shows nicely the sustained period of real pay deflation (negative rates of pay inflation) that followed the financial crisis, and the significant rates of real pay deflation associated with the recent inflation shock.

The result is that since June 2008 the average annual rate of growth of real regular weekly pay has been 0.1 per cent, despite nominal pay increasing at an annual rate of 2.9 per cent. In contrast, the period from January 2001 to May 2008 saw real regular weekly pay grow at an annual rate of 2.1 per cent with nominal pay growing at an annual rate of 4.0 per cent. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

If we think about the growth of nominal earnings, we can identify two important determinants.

The first is the expected rate of inflation. Workers will understandably want wage growth at least to match the growth in prices so as to maintain their purchasing power.

The second factor is the growth in labour productivity. Firms will be more willing to grant pay increases if workers are more productive, since productivity helps to offset pay increases and maintain firms’ profit margins. Consequently, since over time the actual rate of inflation will tend to mirror the expected rate, the growth of real pay is closely related to the growth of labour productivity. This is significant because, as John discusses in his blog The Productivity Puzzle (14 April 2024), labour productivity growth in the UK, as measured by national output per worker hour, has stalled since the global financial crisis.

Understanding the stagnation of real earnings therefore nicely highlights the interconnectedness of economic variables. In this case, it highlights the connections between productivity, levels of investment and people’s purchasing power. It is not surprising, therefore, that the stagnation of both real earnings and productivity growth since the global financial crisis have become two of the most keenly debated macroeconomic issues of recent times. Indeed, it is likely that their behaviour will continue to shape macroeconomic debates and broader conversations around government policy for some time.

Articles

Questions

  1. Using the examples of both GDP and earnings, explain how the distinction between nominal and real relates to the distinction between values and volumes.
  2. In what circumstances would an increase in actual pay translate into a reduction in real pay?
  3. In what circumstances would a decrease in actual pay translate into an increase in real pay?
  4. What factors might explain the reduction in real rates of pay seen in the UK following the financial crisis of 2007–8?
  5. Of what importance might the growth in real rates of pay be for consumption and aggregate demand?
  6. Why is the growth of real pay an indicator of financial well-being? What other indicators might be included in measuring financial well-being?
  7. Assume that you have been asked to undertake a distributional analysis of real earnings since the financial crisis. What might be the focus of your analysis? What information would you therefore need to collect?

The distinction between nominal and real values in one of the ‘threshold concepts’ in economics. These are concepts that are fundamental to a discipline and which occur again and again. The distinction between nominal and real values is particularly important when interpreting and analysing data. We show its importance here when analysing the latest retail sales data from the Office for National Statistics.

Retail sales relate to spending on items such as food, clothing, footwear, and household goods (see). They involve sales by retailers directly to end consumers whether in store or online. The retail sales index for Great Britain is based on a monthly survey of around 5000 retailers across England, Scotland and Wales and is thought to capture around 75 per cent of turnover in the sector.

Estimates of retail sales are published in index form. There are two indices published by the ONS: a value and volume measure. The value index reflects the total turnover of business, while the volume index adjusts the value index for price changes. Hence, the value estimates are nominal, while the volume estimates are real. The key point here is that the nominal estimates reflect both price and volume changes, whereas the real estimates adjust for price movements to capture only volume changes.

The headline ONS figures for September 2023 showed a 0.9 per cent volume fall in the volume of retail sales, following a 0.4 per cent rise in August. In value terms, September saw a 0.2 per cent fall in retail sales following a 0.9 per cent rise in August. Monthly changes can be quite volatile, even after seasonal adjustment, and sensitive to peculiar factors. For example, the unusually warm weather this September helped to depress expenditure on clothes. It is, therefore, sensible to take a longer-term view when looking for clearer patterns in spending behaviour.

Chart 1 plots the value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain since 1996. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this and the other two charts). In value terms, retail sales spending increased by 165 per cent, whereas in volume terms, spending increased by 73 per cent. This difference is expected in the presence of rising prices, since nominal growth, as we have just noted, reflects both price and volume changes. The chart is notable for capturing two periods where the volume of retail spending ceased to grow. The first of these is following the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. The period from 2008 to 2013 saw the volume of retail sales stagnate and flatline with a recovery in volumes only really starting to take hold in 2014. Yet in nominal terms retail sales grew by around 16 per cent.

The second of the two periods is the decline in the volume of retail sales from 2021. To help illustrate this more clearly, Chart 2 zooms in on retail sales over the past five years or so. We can see a significant divergence between the volume and value of retail sales. Between April 2021 and September 2023, the volume of retail sales fell by 11%. In contrast, the value of retail sales increased by 8.4%. The impact of the inflationary shock and the consequent cost-of-living crisis that emerged from 2021 is therefore demonstrated starkly by the chart, not least the severe drag that it has had on the volume of retail spending. This has meant that the aggregate volume of retail sales in September 2023 was only back to the levels of mid-2018.

Finally, Chart 3 shows the patterns in the volumes of retailing by four categories since 2018: specifically, food stores, predominantly non-food stores, non-store retail, and automotive fuel. The largest fall in the volume of retail sales has been experienced by non-store retailing – largely online retailing. From its peak in December 2020, non-store retail sales decreased by almost 20 per cent up to September 2023. While this needs to be set in the context of the volume of non-store retail purchases being 14% higher than in February 2020 before the pandemic lockdowns were introduced, it is nonetheless indicative of the pressures facing online retailers.

Importantly, the final chart shows that the pressures in retailing are widespread. Spending volumes on automotive fuels, and in food and non-food stores are all below 2019 levels. The likelihood is that these pressures will persist for some time to come. This inevitably has potential implications for retailers and, of course, for those that work in the sector.

Articles

Statistical bulletin

Data

Questions

  1. Why does an increase in the value of retail sales not necessarily mean that their volume has increased?
  2. In the presence of deflation, which will be higher: nominal or real growth rates?
  3. Discuss the factors that could explain the patterns in the volume of spending observed in the different categories of retail sales in Chart 3.
  4. Discuss what types of retail products might be more or less sensitive to the macroeconomic environment.
  5. Conduct a survey of recent media reports to prepare a briefing discussing examples of retailers who have struggled or thrived in the recent economic environment.
  6. What do you understand by the concepts of ‘consumer confidence’ and ‘economic uncertainty’? How might these affect the volume of retail spending?
  7. Discuss the proposition that the retail sales data cast doubt on whether people are ‘forward-looking consumption smoothers’.

The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.

In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.

The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.

In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.

These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.

New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.

New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.

Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.

A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.

Podcast

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
  2. What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
  3. How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
  4. Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
  5. How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
  6. How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
  7. What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?

For those of you embarking on a course in economics, one of the first things you’ll come across is the distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics. The news is full of both microeconomic and macroeconomic issues and you’ll quickly see how relevant both branches of economics are to analysing real-world events, problems and policies.

As we state in Economics (updated 10th edition), ‘microeconomics is concerned with the individual parts of the economy. It is concerned with the demand and supply of particular goods, services and resources such as cars, butter, clothes, haircuts, plumbers, accountants, blast furnaces, computers and oil.’ In particular, it is concerned with the buying, selling, production and employment decisions of individuals and firms. When you go shopping and make choices of what to buy you are making microeconomic decisions. When firms choose how much of particular products to produce, what techniques of production to use and how many people to employ, these choices are microeconomic ones.

Microeconomics examines people’s behaviour when they make choices. In fact many of the recent developments in microeconomics involve analysing the behaviour of individuals and firms and the factors that influence this behaviour.

Open any newspaper, turn on the TV news or access any news site and you will see various microeconomic issues covered. Why are rents soaring? How is AI affecting various businesses’ productivity? How rapidly is the switch taking place to green energy? How do supermarkets influence spending patterns? Why are wages so low in the social care sector? Why are private PCR tests so expensive for holidaymakers retuning from abroad?

Many of the blogs on this news site will examine microeconomic issues. We hope that they provide useful case studies for your course.

Articles

Questions

  1. Look through news sites and identify five current microeconomic issues. What makes them ‘micro’ issues?
  2. If world oil and gas prices rise, why is this a microeconomic issue?
  3. What do you understand by ‘scarcity’? How is microeconomics related to scarcity?
  4. Are all goods scarce?
  5. What is meant by ‘opportunity cost’? Give some examples of how opportunity cost has affected recent decisions you have made.