The OBR are forecasting that household spending will fall in real terms in 2011 by 1.1 per cent and grow by only 0.2 per cent in 2012. This is not good news for retailers nor, of course, for the economy. The drag on consumer spending growth is largely attributed to expected falls in real disposable (after-tax) incomes in both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the household sector’s real income is forecast to decline by 2.3 per cent and then by a further 0.3 per cent in 2012.
The OBR’s figures on spending growth critically depend on the ability of households to absorb the negative shock to their real income. Empirical evidence tends to show that household spending growth is less variable than that in income and that households try and smooth, if they can, their spending. This means that the marginal propensity of households to consume out of changes to their income is below 1 in the short-run. In fact, the shorter the period of time over which we analyse income and consumption changes the smaller the consumption responses become. This is consistent with the idea that households are consumption-smoothers disliking excessively volatile spending patterns. In other words, the size of our monthly shop will usually vary less than any changes in our real income.
Of course, consumption-smoothing cannot be taken for granted. Households need the means to be able to smooth their spending given volatile and, in the current context, declining real incomes. Some economic theorists point to the importance of the financial system in enabling households to smooth their spending. In effect, households move their resources across time so that their current spending is not constrained solely by the income available to them in the current time period. This could mean in the face of falling real income perhaps borrowing against future incomes (moving forward in time expected incomes) or drawing down past savings.
The ability of households to move future incomes forward to the present has probably been impaired by the financial crisis. Banks are inevitably less cautious in their lending and therefore households are unable to borrow as much and so consume large amounts of future income today. In other words, households are credit-constrained. Furthermore, it is likely that households are somewhat uneasy about borrowing in the current climate, certainly any substantial amounts. Uncertainty tends to increase the stock of net worth a household would like to hold. A household’s net worth is the value of its stock of physical assets (largely housing wealth) and financial assets (savings) less its financial liabilities (debt). If households feel the need for a larger buffer stock of wealth to act as a sort of security blanket, they will not rush to acquire more debt (even if they could) or to draw down their savings.
The impairment of the financial system and the need for a buffer stock are two impediments to households smoothing their spending. They tend to make consumption more sensitive to income changes and so with falling incomes make it more likely that consumption will fall too. There are other related concerns too about the ability and willingness of consumers to smooth spending. Uncertainty arising from the volatility of the financial markets imposes liquidity constraints because households become less sure about the value of those savings products linked to the performance of equity markets. Consequently, they become less certain about the money (liquidity) that could be raised by cashing-in such products and so are more cautious about spending. Similarly, the falls in house prices have reduced the ability of households to extract housing equity to support spending. Indeed, with fewer transactions in the housing market the household sector is extracting less housing equity because it has been quite common, at least in the past, for households to over-borrow when moving and use the excess money borrowed to fund spending.
In short, there are many reasons to be cautious about the prospects for household spending. The expected decline in real income again in 2012 will ‘hit’ consumer spending. The question is how big this ‘hit’ will be and crucially on the extent to which households will be able to absorb it and keep spending.
With banks around the world revealing massive profits and huge bonuses, governments are getting increasingly uneasy that their bailouts have lined the pockets of bank executives. Not surprisingly voters are demanding that bankers should not be rewarded for their reckless behaviour. After all, it was taxpayers’ money that prevented many banks going bankrupt during the credit crunch.
Banks, of course, seek to justify the bonuses. If you don’t pay large bonuses, they maintain, then senior staff will leave and profits will suffer. It’s nothing to do with ‘morality’, they claim. It’s the market. ‘If you don’t pay the market rate, then executives will leave and take higher-paid jobs elsewhere.’
So are governments calling this bluff? In his pre-Budget report in December, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, announced a 50% tax on bank bonuses over £25,000. This was followed by an announcement by Nicholas Sarkozy that the French government would impose a similar 50% tax on bonuses over €27,500.
Then in mid January, President Obama proposed a tax on financial institutions with balance sheets above $50 billion. This would be levied at a rate of 0.15 percent of certain assets. But this was not a tax on bank bonuses, as favoured by the British and French governments, nor a tax on financial transactions – a type of Tobin tax – as favoured by Angela Merkel (see Tobin or not Tobin: the tax proposal that keeps reappearing). Nevertheless, it was another way of recouping for the taxpayer some of the money used to rescue banks and prevent a banking collapse.
So is this payback time for bankers, or will it simply be bank shareholders that suffer? And why can banks pay such large bonuses in the face of so much public hostility? The following articles explore the issues.
To leave or not to leave: the supertax question Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins and Kate Burgess (9/1/10)
French tax to raise €360m Financial Times, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Ben Hall (13/1/10)
Oversized bank bonuses: classic case of overcharging The Business Times (Singapore), Anthony Rowley (15/1/10)
Obama vows to recoup ‘every dime’ taxpayers lent banks Belfast Telegraph (15/1/10)
Obama outlines $117bn bank levy (including video) BBC News (14/1/10)
Obama lays out his proposal to tax big US banks Sydney Morning Herald, Jackie Calmes (16/1/10)
Obama’s bank tax will only work if there’s a master plan in place Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (14/1/10)
Turning the tables The Economist (14/1/10)
Obama’s bigger rod for banks BBC News, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (14/1/10)
Will Obama’s tax go global? BBC News, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (15/1/10)
Darling: I won’t do an Obama and tax the banks Scotsman, Eddie Barnes (16/1/10)
Obama tax is only the beginning of the banking Blitz Telegraph, Edmund Conway (15/1/10)
Bank taxes edge closer to the real target Guardian, Dan Roberts (15/1/10)
- Compare the incentive effects on bankers of the British, French and US measures discussed in the articles.
- Why does the ‘market’ result in high bank bonuses? Where does economic power lie in the market?
- Assume that you hold shares in Bank A. Would you welcome (a) high bonuses for executives of Bank A; (b) a tax on bank bonuses; (c) a ceiling on bank bonuses; (d) a tax on certain bank assets? Explain.
- What insights can game theory provide for the likely success in clawing back bank bonuses without doing damage to the economy?
- Consider whether Obama’s tax will “go global”.
Commentators and policy makers are casting far and wide to try to find policies that may offer solutions to the banking crisis and the financial situation it has caused. One proposal (considered in two articles below) is the introduction of a Tobin tax. A Tobin tax is a levy on currency transactions and the argument is that this will act as a disincentive for short-term speculation and therefore force traders in financial and currency markets to look more at medium- to long-term rather than short-term gain.
Tobin’s nice little earner Guardian (15/10/08)
Make state capitalism pay its way Guardian (26/9/08)
||Explain what is meant by a Tobin tax.
||Assess the arguments for and against the imposition of a Tobin tax on currency transactions.
||Discuss whether changes to the regulatory structure of currency markets may be more effective than the introduction of a Tobin tax.