These are challenging times for business. Economic growth has weakened markedly over the past 18 months with output currently growing at an annual rate of around 1.5 per cent, a percentage point below the long-term average. Spending power continues to be squeezed, with the annual rate of inflation in October reported to be running at 3.1 per cent compared to annual earnings growth of 2.5 per cent (see the squeeze continues). Moreover, consumer confidence remains fragile with households continuing to express particular concerns about the general economy and unemployment.
Here, we update our blog of July 2016 which, following the UK vote to leave the European Union, noted the fears for UK growth as confidence fell sharply. Consumer confidence is frequently identified by macro-economists as an important source of economic volatility. Indeed many macro models use a change in consumer confidence as a means of illustrating how economic shocks affect a range of macro variables, including growth, employment and inflation. Many economists agree that, in the short term at least, falling levels of confidence adversely affect activity because aggregate demand falls as households spend less.
The European Commission’s confidence measure is collated from questions in a monthly survey. In the UK around 2000 individuals are surveyed. Across the EU as a whole over 41 000 people are surveyed. In the survey individuals are asked a series of 12 questions which are designed to provide information on spending and saving intentions. These questions include perceptions of financial well-being, the general economic situation, consumer prices, unemployment, saving and the undertaking of major purchases.
The responses elicit either negative or positive responses. For example, respondents may feel that over the next 12 months the financial situation of their household will improve a little or a lot, stay the same or deteriorate a little or a lot. A weighted balance of positive over negative replies can be calculated. The balance can vary from -100, when all respondents choose the most negative option, to +100, when all respondents choose the most positive option.
The European Commission’s principal consumer confidence indicator is the average of the balances of four of the twelve questions posed: the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations (with inverted sign) and savings, all over the next 12 months. These forward-looking balances are seasonally adjusted. The aggregate confidence indicator is thought to track developments in households’ spending intentions and, in turn, likely movements in the rate of growth of household consumption.
Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average of –8.6 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses. In November 2017 the confidence balance stood at -5.2 roughly on par with its value in the previous two months, though marginally up on values of close to -7 over the summer. However, as recently as the beginning of 2016 the aggregate confidence score was running at around +4. In this context, current levels do constitute a significant change in consumer sentiment, changes which do ordinarily mark similar turning points in economic activity.(Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Chart 2 allows to look behind the European Commission’s headline confidence indicator for the UK by looking at its four component balances. From it, we can see a deterioration in all four components. However, by far the most significant change in the individual confidence balances has been the sharp deterioration in expectations for the general economy. In November the forward-looking general economic situation stood at -25.5, compared to its long-run average of -11.6. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The fall in UK consumer confidence is even more stark when compared to developments in consumer confidence across the whole of the European Union and in the 19 countries that make up the Euro area. Chart 3 shows how UK consumer confidence recovered relatively more strongly following the financial crisis of the late 2000s. The headline confidence indicator rose strongly from the middle of 2013 and was consistently in positive territory during 2014, 2015 and into 2016. The fall in consumer confidence in the UK has seen the headline confidence measure fall below that for the EU and the euro area. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Consumer (and business) confidence is closely linked to uncertainty. The circumstances following the UK vote to leave the EU have undoubtedly created the conditions for acute uncertainty. Uncertainty breeds caution. Economists sometimes talk about spending being affected by two conflicting motives: prudence and impatience. While impatience creates a desire for spending now, prudence pushes us towards saving and insuring ourselves against uncertainty and unforeseen events. The worry is that the twin forces of fragile confidence and squeezed real earning are weighting heavily in favour of prudence and patience (a reduction in impatience). Going forward, this could create the conditions for a sustained period of subdued growth which, if it were to impact heavily on firms’ investment plans, could adversely impact on the economy’s productive potential. The hope is that the Brexit negotiations can move apace to reduce uncertainty and limit uncertainty’s adverse impact on economic activity.
UK consumer confidence slips in December – Thomson Reuters/Ipsos Reuters (14/12/17)
UK consumer confidence drops to lowest level since Brexit result Independent, Ben Chu (30/11/17)
2017 set to be worst year for UK consumer spending since 2012, Visa says Independent, Josie Cox, (11/12/17)
Carpetright boss warns of ‘fragile’ consumer confidence after profits plunge Telegraph, Jack Torrance (12/12/17)
UK consumers face sharpest price rise in services for nearly a decade Guardian, Richard Partington (5/12/17)
UK average wage growth undershoots inflation again squeezing real incomes Independent, Josie Cox (13/12/17)
Bank sees boost from Brexit progress BBC News (14/12/17)
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission
- Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
- Explain what you understand by a positive and a negative demand-side shock. How might changes in consumer confidence generate demand shocks?
- Analyse the ways in which consumer confidence might affect economic activity.
- Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence?
- What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator expect the indicator to predict?
- Analyse the possible short-term and longer-term economic implications of a fall in consumer confidence.
- How might uncertainty affect consumer confidence?
- What do the concepts of impatience and prudence mean in the context of consumer spending? When consumer confidence falls which of these might become more significant for consumer spending?
According to the theory of the political business cycle, governments call elections at the point in the business cycle that gives them the greatest likelihood of winning. This is normally near the peak of the cycle, when the economic news is currently good but likely to get worse in the medium term. With fixed-term governments, this makes it harder for governments as, unless they are lucky, they have to use demand management policies to engineer a boom as an election approaches. It is much easier if they can choose when to call an election.
In the UK, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, the next election must be five years after the previous one. This means that the next election in the UK must be the first Thursday in May 2020. The only exception is if at least two-thirds of all MPs vote for a motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ or ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.’
The former motion was put in the House of Commons on 19 April and was carried by 522 votes to 13 – considerably more than two-thirds of the 650 seats in Parliament. The next election will therefore take place on the government’s chosen date of 8 June 2017.
Part of the reason for the government calling an election is to give it a stronger mandate for its Brexit negotiations. Part is to take advantage of its currently strong opinion poll ratings, which, if correct, will mean that it will gain a substantially larger majority. But part could be to take advantage of the current state of the business cycle.
Although the economy is currently growing quite strongly (1.9% in 2016) and although forecasts for economic growth this year are around 2%, buoyed partly by a strongly growing world economy, beyond that things look less good. Indeed, there are a number of headwinds facing the economy.
First there are the Brexit negotiations, which are likely to prove long and difficult and could damage confidence in the economy. There may be adverse effects on both inward and domestic investment and possible increased capital outflows. At the press conference to the Bank of England’s February 2017 Inflation Report, the governor stated that “investment is expected to be around a quarter lower in three years’ time than projected prior to the referendum, with material consequences for productivity, wages and incomes”.
Second, the fall in the sterling exchange rate is putting upward pressure on inflation. The Bank of England forecasts that CPI inflation will peak at around 2.8% in early 2018. With nominal real wages lagging behind prices, real wages are falling and will continue to do so. As well as from putting downward pressure on living standards, it will tend to reduce consumption and the rate of economic growth.
Consumer debt has been rising rapidly in recent months, with credit-card debt reaching an 11-year high in February. This has helped to support growth. However, with falling real incomes, a lack of confidence may encourage people to cut back on new borrowing and hence on spending. What is more, concerns about the unsustainability of some consumer debt has encouraged the FCA (the financial sector regulator) to review the whole consumer credit industry. In addition, many banks are tightening up on their criteria for granting credit.
Retail spending, although rising in February itself, fell in the three months to February – the largest fall for nearly seven years. Such falls are likely to continue.
So if the current boom in the economy will soon end, then, according to political business cycle theory, the government is right to have called a snap election.
Gloomy economic outlook is why Theresa May was forced to call a snap election The Conversation, Richard Murphy (18/4/17)
What does Theresa May’s general election U-turn mean for the economy? Independent, Ben Chu (18/4/17)
It’s not the economy, stupid – is it? BBC News Scotland, Douglas Fraser (18/4/17)
Biggest fall in UK retail sales in seven years BBC News (21/4/17)
Sharp drop in UK retail sales blamed on higher prices Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (21/4/17)
Shoppers cut back as inflation kicks in – and top Bank of England official says it will get worse The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (21/4/17)
Retail sales volumes fall at fastest quarterly rate in seven years Independent, Ben Chu (21/4/17)
Retail sales in Great Britain: Mar 2017 ONS (21/4/17)
- For what reasons might economic growth in the UK slow over the next two to three years?
- For what reasons might economic growth increase over the next two to three years?
- Why is forecasting UK economic growth particularly difficult at the present time?
- What does political business cycle theory predict about the behaviour of governments (a) with fixed terms between elections; (b) if they can choose when to call an election?
- How well timed is the government’s decision to call an election?
- If retail sales are falling, what other element(s) of aggregate demand may support economic growth in the coming months?
- How does UK productivity compare with that in other developed countries? Explain why.
- What possible trading arrangements with the EU could the UK have in a post-Brexit deal? Discuss their likelihood and their impact on economic growth?
Economic forecasting came in for much criticism at the time of the financial crisis and credit crunch. Few economists had predicted the crisis and its consequences. Even Queen Elizabeth II, on a visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008, asked why economists had got it so wrong. Similar criticisms have emerged since the Brexit vote, with economic forecasters being accused of being excessively pessimistic about the outcome.
The accuracy of economic forecasts was one of the topics discussed by Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England. Speaking at the Institute for Government in London, he compared economic forecasting to weather forecasting (see section from 15’20” in the webcast):
“Remember that? Michael Fish getting up: ‘There’s no hurricane coming but it will be very windy in Spain.’ Very similar to the sort of reports central banks – naming no names – issued pre-crisis, ‘There is no hurricane coming but it might be very windy in the sub-prime sector.” (18’40”)
The problem with the standard economic models which were used for forecasting is that they were essentially equilibrium models which work reasonably well in ‘normal’ times. But when there is a large shock to the economic system, they work much less well. First, the shocks themselves are hard to predict. For example, the sub-prime crisis in 2007/8 was not foreseen by most economists.
Then there is the effect of the shocks. Large shocks are much harder to model as they can trigger strong reactions by consumers and firms, and governments too. These reactions are often hugely affected by sentiment. Bouts of pessimism or even panic can grip markets, as happened in late 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Markets can tumble way beyond what would be expected by a calm adjustment to a shock.
It can work the other way too. Economists generally predicted that the Brexit vote would lead to a fall in GDP. However, despite a large depreciation of sterling, consumer sentiment held up better than was expected and the economy kept growing.
But is it fair to compare economic forecasting with weather forecasting? Weather forecasting is concerned with natural phenomena and only seeks to forecast with any accuracy a few days ahead. Economic forecasting, if used correctly, highlights the drivers of economic change, such as government policy or the Brexit vote, and their likely consequences, other things being equal. Given that economies are constantly being affected by economic shocks, including government or central bank actions, it is impossible to forecast the state of the macroeconomy with any accuracy.
This does not mean that forecasting is useless, as it can highlight the likely effects of policies and take into account the latest surveys of, say, consumer and business confidence. It can also give the most likely central forecast of the economy and the likely probabilities of variance from this central forecast. This is why many forecasts use ‘fan charts’: see, for example, Bank of England forecasts.
What economic forecasts cannot do is to predict the precise state of the economy in the future. However, they can be refined to take into account more realistic modelling, including the modelling of human behaviour, and more accurate data, including survey data. But, however refined they become, they can only ever give likely values for various economic variables or likely effects of policy measures.
Andy Haldane in Conversation Institute for Government (5/1/17)
‘Michael Fish’ Comments From Andy Haldane Pounced Upon By Brexit Supporters Huffington Post, Chris York (6/1/17)
Crash was economists’ ‘Michael Fish’ moment, says Andy Haldane BBC News (6/1/17)
The Bank’s ‘Michael Fish’ moment BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (6/1/17)
Bank of England’s Haldane admits crisis in economic forecasting Financial Times, Chris Giles (6/1/17)
Chief economist of Bank of England admits errors in Brexit forecasting BBC News, Phillip Inman (5/1/17)
Economists have completely failed us. They’re no better than Mystic Meg The Guardian, Simon Jenkins (6/1/17)
Five things economists can do to regain trust The Guardian, Katie Allen and Phillip Inman (6/1/17)
Andy Haldane: Bank of England has not changed view on negative impact of Brexit Independent, Ben Chu (5/1/17)
Big data could help economists avoid any more embarrassing Michael Fish moments Independent, Hamish McRae (7/1/17)
- In what ways does economic forecasting differ from weather forecasting?
- How might economic forecasting be improved?
- To what extent were the warnings of the Bank of England made before the Brexit vote justified? Did such warnings take into account actions that the Bank of England was likely to take?
- How is the UK economy likely to perform over the coming months? What assumptions are you making here?
- Brexit hasn’t happened yet. Why is it extremely difficult to forecast today what the effects of actually leaving the EU will be on the UK economy once it has happened?
- If economic forecasting is difficult and often inaccurate, should it be abandoned?
- The Bank of England is forecasting that inflation will rise in the coming months. Discuss reasons why this forecast is likely to prove correct and reasons why it may prove incorrect.
- How could economic forecasters take the possibility of a Trump victory into account when making forecasts six months ago of the state of the global economy a year or two ahead?
- How might the use of big data transform economic forecasting?
Project Syndicate is an organisation which produces articles on a range of economic, political and social topics written by eminent scholars, political and business leaders, policymakers and civic activists. It then makes these available to news media in more than 150 countries. Here we look at four such articles which assess the outlook for the European and global economies and even that of capitalism itself.
The general tone is one of pessimism. Despite unconventional monetary policies, such as quantitative easing (QE) and negative nominal interest rates, the global recovery is anaemic. As the Nouriel Roubini articles states:
Unconventional monetary policies – entrenched now for almost a decade – have themselves become conventional. And, in view of persistent lacklustre growth and deflation risk in most advanced economies, monetary policymakers will have to continue their lonely fight with a new set of ‘unconventional unconventional’ monetary policies.
Perhaps this will involve supplying additional money directly to consumers and/or business in a so-called ‘helicopter drop’ of money. Perhaps it will be supplying money directly to governments to finance infrastructure projects – a policy dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing‘. Perhaps it will involve taxing the holding of cash by banks to encourage them to lend.
The Hans-Werner Sinn article looks at some of the consequences of the huge amount of money created through QE and continuing to be created in the eurozone. Although it has not boosted consumption and investment nearly as much as desired, it has caused bubbles in various asset markets. For example, the property market has soared in many countries:
Property markets in Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg have practically exploded throughout the crisis, as a result of banks chasing borrowers with offers of loans at near-zero interest rates, regardless of their creditworthiness.
The German property boom could be reined in with an appropriate jump in interest rates. But, given the ECB’s apparent determination to head in the opposite direction, the bubble will only grow. If it bursts, the effects could be dire for the euro.
The Jean Pisani-Ferry article widens the analysis of the eurozone’s problems. Like Roubini, he considers the possibility of a helicopter drop of money, which “would be functionally equivalent to a direct government transfer to households, financed by central banks’ permanent issuance of money”.
Without such drastic measures he sees consumer and business pessimism (see chart) undermining recovery and making the eurozone vulnerable to global shocks, such as further weakening in China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Finally, Anatole Kaletsky takes a broad historical view. He starts by saying that “All over the world today, there is a sense of the end of an era, a deep foreboding about the disintegration of previously stable societies.” He argues that the era of ‘leaving things to the market’ is coming to an end. This was an era inspired by the monetarist and supply-side revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that led to the privatisation and deregulation policies of Reagan, Thatcher and other world leaders.
But if the market cannot cope with the complexities of today’s world, neither can governments.
If the world is too complex and unpredictable for either markets or governments to achieve social objectives, then new systems of checks and balances must be designed so that political decision-making can constrain economic incentives and vice versa. If the world is characterized by ambiguity and unpredictability, then the economic theories of the pre-crisis period – rational expectations, efficient markets, and the neutrality of money – must be revised.
… It is obvious that new technology and the integration of billions of additional workers into global markets have created opportunities that should mean greater prosperity in the decades ahead than before the crisis. Yet ‘responsible’ politicians everywhere warn citizens about a ‘new normal’ of stagnant growth. No wonder voters are up in arms.
His solution has much in common with that of Roubini and Pisani-Ferry. “Money could be printed and distributed directly to citizens. Minimum wages could be raised to reduce inequality. Governments could invest much more in infrastructure and innovation at zero cost. Bank regulation could encourage lending, instead of restricting it.”
So will there be a new era of even more unconventional monetary policy and greater regulation that encourages rather than restricts investment? Read the articles and try answering the questions.
Unconventional Monetary Policy on Stilts Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/4/16)
Europe’s Emerging Bubbles Project Syndicate, Hans-Werner Sinn (28/3/16)
Preparing for Europe’s Next Recession Project Syndicate, Jean Pisani-Ferry (31/3/16)
When Things Fall Apart Project Syndicate, Anatole Kaletsky (31/3/16)
- Explain how a ‘helicopter drop’ of money would work in practice.
- Why has growth in the eurozone been so anaemic since the recession of 2009/10?
- What is the relationship between tightening the regulations about capital and liquidity requirements of banks and bank lending?
- Explain the policies of the different eras identified by Anatole Kaletsky.
- Would it be fair to describe the proposals for more unconventional monetary policies as ‘Keynesian’?
- If quantitative easing was used to finance government infrastructure investment, what would be the effect on the public-sector deficit and debt?
- If the inflation of asset prices is a bubble, what could cause the bubble to burst and what would be the effect on the wider economy?
There is a lot of pessimism around about the state of the global economy and the prospects for more sustained growth. Stock markets have been turbulent; oil and other commodity prices have fallen; inflation has been below central bank targets in most countries; and growth has declined in many countries, most worryingly in China.
The latest worry, expressed by finance ministers at the G20 conference in Shanghai, is that UK exit from the EU could have a negative impact on economic growth, not just for the UK, but for the global economy generally.
But is this pessimism justified? In an interesting article in the Independent, Hamish McRae argues that there are five signs that the world economy is not doomed yet! These are:
||There are more monetary and fiscal measures that can still be taken to boost aggregate demand.
||Despite some slowing of economic growth, there is no sign of a global recession in the offing.
||US and UK growth are relatively buoyant, with consumer demand ‘driving the economy forward’.
||Deflation worries are too great, especially when lower prices are caused by lower commodity prices. These lower costs should act to stimulate demand as consumers have more real purchasing power.
||Inflation may start to edge upwards over the coming months and this will help to increase confidence as it will be taken as a sign that demand is recovering.
So, according to McRae, there are five things we should look for to check on whether the global economy is recovering. He itemises these at the end of the article. But are these the only things we should look for?
Five signs that the world economy is not doomed yet Independent, Hamish McRae (27/2/15)
- What reasons are there to think that the world will grow more strongly in 2016 than in 2015?
- What reasons are there to think that the world will grow less strongly in 2016 than in 2015?
- Distinguish between leading and lagging indicators of economic growth.
- Do you agree with McRae’s choice of five indicators of whether the world economy is likely to grow more strongly?
- What indicators would you add to his list?
- Give some examples of ‘economic shocks’ that could upset predictions of economic growth rates. Explain their effect.