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 93 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 2021, non-store retail sales decreased by 18% up to September 2023. While this needs to be set in the context of the volume of non-store retail purchases being 15% 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.
- Why does an increase in the value of retail sales not necessarily mean that their volume has increased?
- In the presence of deflation, which will be higher: nominal or real growth rates?
- Discuss the factors that could explain the patterns in the volume of spending observed in the different categories of retail sales in Chart 3.
- Discuss what types of retail products might be more or less sensitive to the macroeconomic environment.
- 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.
- What do you understand by the concepts of ‘consumer confidence’ and ‘economic uncertainty’? How might these affect the volume of retail spending?
- Discuss the proposition that the retail sales data cast doubt on whether people are ‘forward-looking consumption smoothers’.
China has been an economic powerhouse in recent decades – a powerhouse that has helped to drive the world economy through trade and both inward and outward investment. At the same time, its low-priced exports have helped to dampen world inflation. But is all this changing? Is China, to use President Biden’s words, a ‘ticking time bomb’?
China’s economic growth rate is slowing, with the quarterly growth in GDP falling from 2.2% in Q1 this year to 0.8% in Q2. Even though public-sector investment rose by 8.1% in the first six months of this year, private-sector investment fell by 0.2%, reflecting waning business confidence. And manufacturing output declined in August. But, despite slowing growth, the Chinese government is unlikely to use expansionary fiscal policy because of worries about growing public-sector debt.
The property market
One of the biggest worries for the Chinese economy is the property market. The annual rate of property investment fell by 20.6% in June this year and new home prices fell by 0.2% in July (compared with June). The annual rate of price increase for new homes was negative throughout 2022, being as low as minus 1.6% in November 2022; it was minus 0.1% in the year to July 2023, putting new-home prices at 2.4% below their August 2021 level. However, these are official statistics. According to the Japan Times article linked below, which reports Bloomberg evidence, property agents and private data providers report much bigger falls, with existing home prices falling by at least 15% in many cities.
Falling home prices have made home-owners poorer and this wealth effect acts as a brake on spending. The result is that, unlike in many Western countries, there has been no post-pandemic bounce back in spending. There has also been a dampening effect on local authority spending. During the property boom they financed a proportion of their spending by selling land to property developers. That source of revenue has now largely dried up. And as public-sector revenues have been constrained, so this has constrained infrastructure spending – a major source of growth in China.
The government, however, has been unwilling to compensate for this by encouraging private investment and has tightened regulation of the financial sector. The result has been a decline in new jobs and a rise in unemployment, especially among graduates, where new white collar jobs in urban areas are declining. According to the BBC News article linked below, “In July, figures showed a record 21.3% of jobseekers between the ages of 16 and 25 were out of work”.
The fall in demand has caused consumer prices to fall. In the year to July 2023, they fell by 0.3%. Even though core inflation is still positive (0.8%), the likelihood of price reductions in the near future discourages spending as people hold back, waiting for prices to fall further. This further dampens the economy. This is a problem that was experienced in Japan over many years.
Despite slowing economic growth, Chinese annual growth in GDP for 2023 is still expected to be around 4.5% – much lower than the average rate for 9.5% from 1991 to 2019, but considerably higher than the average of 1.1% forecast for 2023 for the G7 countries. Nevertheless, China’s exports fell by 14.5% in the year to July 2023 and imports fell by 12.5%. The fall in imports represents a fall in exports to China from the rest of the world and hence a fall in injections to the rest-of-the-world economy. Currently China’s role as a powerhouse of the world has gone into reverse.
- Using PowerPoint or Excel, plot the growth rate of Chinese real GDP, real exports and real imports from 1990 to 2024 (using forecasts for 2023 and 2024). Use data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database. Comment on the figures.
- Explain the wealth effect from falling home prices.
- Why may official figures understate the magnitude of home price deflation?
- Explain the foreign trade multiplier and its relevance to other countries when the volume of Chinese imports changes. What determines the size of this multiplier for a specific country?
- How does the nature of the political system in China affect the likely policy response to the problems identified in this blog?
- Is there any good news for the rest of the world from the slowdown in the Chinese economy?
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.
Deflation is currently a concern in the UK and across Europe. However, relative to Japan, the deflation concern is small. In Japan, deflation has been problematic for more than two decades and this has had significant implications for the Japanese economy.
‘Abenomics’ has been in practice in Japan, as the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been trying to reflate the economy. Growth has been improving and the deflation concern appeared to be under control. However, GDP data now shows that the economy is once again declining and so with aggregate demand falling, this pushes down average prices across the economy and so the deflation risk re-emerges. This article from BBC News and another from The Guardian look at the economic policy known as ‘Abenomics’ and how the Japanese economy is faring.
Off target: Is it the end of ‘Abenomics’ in Japan? BBC News, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes (15/2/16)
Japan’s economy shrinks again as Abenomics is blown off course The Guardian, Justin McCurry (15/2/16)
Japan’s deflation fears grow (update) (27/2/16)
Riding the Japanese roller coaster (15/2/16)
Japan’s interesting monetary stance as deflation fears grow (14/2/16)
Japan’s arrows missing their target (17/11/14)
Japan’s recovery (3/2/14)
Abenomics – one year on (16/12/13)
Japan’s three arrows (6/6/13)
- What are the key features of Japan’s ‘Abenomics’?
- Why is deflation such a concern? Surely falling prices are good for consumers and hence the economy.
- How has Japan been trying to reflate its economy and why has this failed?
- The yen is getting stronger, but how will this affect the Japanese economy? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate what has caused the value of the yen to fall and an aggregate demand and supply diagram to show the impact.
- Negative interest rates have been implemented in Japan. What does this mean for savers and borrowers and the economy?
- How do you think Japan’s stance on immigration and structural change is affecting its macroeconomy?