With an election approaching in the UK, uncertainty is a term we will hear frequently over the next few weeks. Until we know which party or parties will be in power and hence which policies will be implemented, planning anything is difficult. This is just one of the factors that has caused the British pound sterling to fall last week by 2% to an almost five year low against the dollar.
In the last election, uncertainty also prevailed and continued even after the election before the Coalition was formed. Given how close this election appears to be at present, another Coalition may have to be formed and this is adding to the current election uncertainty. A currency strategist at Standard Bank said:
“A $1.40 level for sterling/dollar is certainly not out of reach if the election aftermath turns ugly”
With such uncertainty, investors are refraining from putting their money into the UK and this has contributed towards the deprecation of the British pound against the dollar.
Another factor adding to this downward pressure on the pound is the latest data on industrial output. Although economic growth figures for the UK in 2014 were very positive, there are some suggestions that 2015 will not be as good as expected, though still a strong performance. The first quarter data will not be available until just before the election, but data from the ONS on industrial output shows very minimal growth at just 0.1% from January to February. Chris Williams at Markit said:
“Clearly this all bodes ill for economic growth in the opening quarter of the year. It’s now looking like the economy slowed, and possibly quite markedly, compared to the 0.6% expansion seen in the closing quarter of 2014 … The trend should improve in March, however, according to survey data.”
These two factors have combined to push the pound down, with investors preferring to hold their money in dollars, despite the weak US unemployment data. However, it is not only against the dollar that we must consider sterling’s performance. Against the euro, it has performed better, rising by 1.5%. Whether this is positive for the UK or very negative for the Eurozone is another question. The following articles consider the performance of the British pound.
Sterling falls to five-year low Financial Times, Neil Dennis (10/4/15)
Sterling plummets to five year low as economic slowdown looms The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (10/4/15)
Pound at five-year low against dollar on weak output BBC News (10/4/15)
Sterling falls after Bank of England’s Haldane says even chances of rate cut or rise Reuters (10/4/15)
Pound falls to five-year low as volatility jumps before election Bloomberg, Anooja Debnath and David Goodman (11/4/15)
Pound falls to a five-year low against the dollar as polls suggest election will create economic uncertainty Mail Online, Matt Chorley (10/4/15)
- Draw a diagram illustrating the way in which the $/£ exchange rate is determined.
- Explain why the election is causing economic uncertainty in the UK.
- How would uncertainty affect the demand and supply of sterling and hence the exchange rate?
- US job data is worse than expected. Shouldn’t this have caused the dollar to depreciate against the pound and not appreciate?
- Industrial output data for the UK economy is lower than expected. What has caused this?
- Why does slower growth in industrial output cause the exchange rate to depreciate?
- In order to keep the UK’s inflation rate on target, Haldane has said that we could expect a cut or rise in interest rates and policy should be prepared for both. How has this affected the exchange rate?
- Are there any advantages of having a lower pound?
A big expenditure for many households is petrol. The price of petrol is affected by various factors, but the key determinant is what happens in the oil market. When oil prices rise, this pushes up the price of petrol at the pumps. But, when they fall, do petrol prices also fall? That is the question the government is asking.
The price of oil is a key cost of production for companies providing petrol and so when oil prices rise, it shifts the supply curve up to the left and hence prices begin to increase. We also see supply issues developing with political turmoil, fears of war and disruption and they have a similar effect. As such, it is unsurprising that petrol prices rise with concern of supply and rising costs. But, what happens when the opposite occurs? Oil prices have fallen significantly: by a quarter. Yet, prices at the pump have fallen by around 6%. This has caused anger amongst customers and the government is now urging petrol retailers to pass their cost savings from a lower price of oil onto customers. Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:
“I believe it’s called the rocket-and-feather effect. The public have a suspicion that when the price of oil rises, pump prices go up like a rocket. But when the price of oil falls, pump prices drift down like a feather … This has been investigated before and no conclusive evidence was found. But even if there were a suspicion it could be true this time it would be an outrage.”
However, critics suggest that tax policy is partly to blame as 63% of the cost of petrol is in the form taxation through fuel duty and VAT. Therefore even if oil prices do fall, the bulk of the price we pay at the pumps is made up of tax revenue for the government. Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation said:
“It’s a simple story. Before tax we have just about the cheapest petrol and diesel in Europe. After tax we have just about the most expensive … It’s right to keep the pressure on fuel retailers but if drivers want to know what’s behind the high pump prices of recent years all they have to do is follow the trail back to the Treasury … if ministers are serious about reducing fuel prices further then they should cut duty further.”
(Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
However, even taking out the fuel duty and VAT, Arthur Renshaw, an analyst at Experian has said that the actual price of petrol has fallen by 21% since last year. Still, a much bigger decrease than we have seen at the pumps. One further reason for this may be the fact that dollars is the currency in which oil is traded. The pound has been relatively weak, falling by almost 7% over the past few months and hence even though the price of oil has fallen, the effect on UK consumers has been less pronounced.
The big supermarkets have responded to government calls to cut petrol prices, but how much of this cut was influenced by the government and how much was influenced by the actions of the other supermarkets is another story. A typical oligopoly, where interdependence is key, price wars are a constant feature, so even if one supermarket cut petrol prices, this would force others to respond in kind. If such price wars continue, further price cuts may emerge. Furthermore, with oil production still at such high levels, this market may continue to put downward pressure on petrol prices. Certainly good news for consumers – we now just have to wait to see how long it lasts, with key oil producing countries, such as Russia taking a big hit. The following articles consider this story.
Supermarkets cut fuel prices again The Telegraph, Nick Collins (6/11/14)
Petrol retailers urged to cut prices in line with falling oil costs The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/11/14)
Supermarkets cut petrol prices after chancellor’s criticism Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (6/11/14)
Governent ‘watching petrol firms’ Mail Online (6/11/14)
Our horrendous tax rates are the real reason why petrol is still so expensive The Telegraph, Allister Heath (6/11/14)
Osborne ‘expects’ fuel price drop after fall in oil price BBC News (6/11/14)
Danny Alexander tells fuel suppliers to pass on oil price cuts to drivers The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (5/11/14)
Further UK fuel cuts expected as pound strengthens The Scotsman, Alastair Dalton (6/11/14)
Spot oil prices Energy Information Administration
Weekly European Brent Spot Price Energy Information Administration (Note: you can also select daily, monthly or annual.)
Annual Statistical Bulletin OPEC
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate the impact that a fall in the price of oil should have on the price of petrol.
- What is the impact of a tax on petrol?
- Why is petrol a market that is so heavily taxed? You should think about the incidence of taxation in your answer.
- Why does the strength of the pound have an impact on petrol prices in the UK and how much of the oil price is passed onto customers at the pumps?
- Does the structure of the supermarket industry help customers when it comes to the price of petrol? Explain your answer.
- Militant action in some key oil producing countries has caused fears of oil disruption. Why is that oil prices don’t reflect these very big concerns?
Economic journalists, commentators and politicians have been examining the possible economic effects of a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September. For an economist, there are two main categories of difficulty in examining the consequences. The first is the positive question of what precisely will be the consequences. The second is the normative question of whether the likely effects will be desirable or undesirable and how much so.
The first question is largely one of ‘known unknowns’. This rather strange term was used in 2002 by Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, in the context of intelligence about Iraq. The problem is a general one about forecasting the future. We may know the types of thing that are likely happen, but the magnitude of the outcome cannot be precisely known because there are so many unknowable things that can influence it.
Here are some known issues of Scottish independence, but with unknown consequences (at least in precisely quantifiable terms). The list is certainly not exhaustive and you could probably add more questions yourself to the list.
|Will independence result in lower or higher economic growth in the short and long term?
|Will there be a currency union, with Scotland and the rest of the UK sharing the pound and a central bank? Or will Scotland merely use the pound outside a currency union? Would it prefer to have its own currency or join the euro over the longer term?
|What will happen to the sterling exchange rate with the dollar, the euro and various other countries?
|How will businesses react? Will independence encourage greater inward investment in Scotland or will there be a net capital outflow? And either way, what will be the magnitude of the effect?
|How will assets, such as oil, be shared between Scotland and the rest of the UK? And how will national debt be apportioned?
|How big will the transition costs be of moving to an independent Scotland?
|How will independence impact on Scottish trade (a) with countries outside the UK and (b) with the rest of the UK?
|What will happen about Scotland’s membership of the EU? Will other EU countries, such as Spain (because of its concerns about independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque country), attempt to block Scotland remaining in or rejoining the EU?
|What will happen to tax rates in Scotland, with the new Scottish government free to set its own tax rates?
|What will be the consequences for Scottish pensions and the Scottish pensions industry?
|What will happen to the distribution of income in Scotland? How might Scottish governments behave in terms of income redistribution and what will be its consequences on output and growth?
Of course, just because the effects cannot be known with certainty, attempts are constantly being made to quantify the outcomes in the light of the best information available at the time. These are refined as circumstances change and newer data become available.
But forecasts also depend on the assumptions made about the post-referendum decisions of politicians in Scotland, the rest of the UK and in major trading partner countries. It also depends on assumptions about the reactions of businesses. Not surprisingly, both sides of the debate make assumptions favourable to their own case.
Then there is the second category of question. Even if you could quantify the effects, just how desirable would they be? The issue here is one of the weightings given to the various costs and benefits. How would you weight distributional consequences, given that some people will gain or lose more than others? What social discount rate would you apply to future costs and benefits?
Then there are the normative and largely unquantifiable costs and benefits. How would you assess the desirability of political consequences, such as greater independence in decision-making or the break-up of a union dating back over 300 years? But these questions about nationhood are crucial issues for many of the voters.
Scottish Independence would have Broad Impact on UK Economy NBC News, Catherine Boyle (9/9/14)
Scottish independence: the economic implications The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/9/14)
Scottish vote: Experts warn of potential economic impact BBC News, Matthew Wall (9/9/14)
The economics of Scottish independence: A messy divorce The Economist (21/2/14)
Dispute over economic impact of Scottish independence Financial Times, Mure Dickie, Jonathan Guthrie and John Aglionby (28/5/14)
10 economic benefits for a wealthier independent Scotland Michael Gray (6/3/14)
Scottish independence, UK dependency New Economics Foundation (NEF), James Meadway (4/9/14)
Scottish Jobs and the World Economy Scottish Economy Watch, Brian Ashcroft (25/8/14)
Scottish yes vote: what happens to the pound in your pocket? Channel 4 News (9/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (7/9/14)
Economists can’t tell Scots how to vote BBC News, Robert Peston (16/9/14)
Books and Reports
The Economic Consequences of Scottish Independence Scottish Economic Society and Helmut Schmidt Universität, David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann (eds) (August 2014)
The potential implications of independence for businesses in Scotland Oxford Economics, Weir (April 2014)
- What is a currency union? What implications would there be for Scotland being in a currency union with the rest of the UK?
- If you could measure the effects of independence over the next ten years, would you treat £1m of benefits or costs occurring in ten years’ time the same as £1m of benefits and costs occurring next year? Explain.
- Is it inevitable that events occurring in the future will at best be known unknowns?
- If you make a statement that something will occur in the future and you turn out to be wrong, was your statement a positive one or a normative one?
- What would be the likely effects of Scottish independence on the current account of the balance of payments (a) for Scotland; (b) for the rest if the UK?
- How does inequality in Scotland compare with that in the rest of the UK and in other countries? Why might Scottish independence lead to a reduction in inequality? (See the chapter on inequality in the book above edited by David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann.)
- One of the problems in assessing the arguments for a Yes vote is uncertainty over what would happen if there was a majority voting No. What might happen in terms of further devolution in the case of a No vote?
- Why is there uncertainty over the amount of national debt that would exist in Scotland if it became independent?
’The steepest and longest recession of any developed country since World War II.’ This has been the case for Ireland, which has seen national income fall by 20% since 2007. Many countries across the globe have experienced pretty bad recessions, but what makes Ireland stand out is how it has been dealt with.
In the UK, the government has continued spending in a bid to stimulate the economy and to use Gordon Brown’s phrase from 2008, we have aimed to ‘spend our way out of recession’. Ireland, however, did not have that option. With too much borrowing, Ireland was unable to stimulate the economy and needed to cut its debts in order to maintain its credibility in the eurozone. Last year, significant cuts in government spending were accompanied by tax rises equal to 5% of GDP. Similar action is to be expected in the UK following the election, where popular benefits may have to be reduced, as transfer payments do account for the majority of government spending. Whoever is in government following the election will have some hard decisions to make and everyone will be affected. Read the article below and listen to the interview and think about what the UK can learn from Ireland.
Irish lessons for the UK (including interview) BBC Stephanomics (9/4/10)
- In the interview, Brian Lenihan said that the UK was expecting too much from the falling value of sterling. What was the UK expecting following significant depreciations in the value of sterling and why has that not happened?
- What is a deflationary spiral? Why has it caused Ireland’s public debt to rise so much?
- Why does Brian Lenihan argue that there are limits to how much taxes can be increased? What are diminishing returns to taxation?
- Would the UK be any better off had we joined the euro? What about other countries: would they have benefited had we joined the euro?
The pound is regarded as an international currency, but its value has been declining throughout the financial crisis. Indeed, this downward trend is one of the factors that has prevented the recession in the UK from getting worse. As the exchange rate changes, the relative competitiveness of a country’s products changes and this therefore affects exports and imports.
However, despite a declining pound, exports from the UK have fallen and this has contributed to an unexpected global goods trade deficit in January of nearly £8 billion – the largest level since August 2008 and well above the forecast of £7 billion. This is putting further pressure on the pound. A key to the UK’s economic recovery was argued to be growth in exports, but this now appears to be a somewhat forlorn hope. The figures released show that exports slumped 6.9% to £19.5 billion in January, whilst imports only fell by 1.6%. A contributing factor might be the bad weather that hit the UK in January, but the long-term decline of manufacturing in Britain has also been put forward as a reason.
The following articles consider the UK’s trade deficit and the possibility of an export-led recovery.
January trade deficit widens as exports fall Guardian, Kathryn Hopkins (9/3/10)
UK trade gap widens to worst in 17 months BBC News (9/3/10)
Exports plunge heaps pressure on pound Independent (9/3/10)
Pound slides back against dollar and euro Guardian, Ashley Seager (21/9/09)
Trade gap widens despite weak pound Financial Times (9/3/10)
UK exports plunge by £1.4 billionThe Press Association (9/3/10)
Pound falls again on deficit fears Guardian (9/3/10)
UK trade gap widens as exports sink Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Winning (9/3/10)
Rebalancing, deferred BBC News blogs, Stephanomics Stephanie Flanders (9/3/10)
Global recovery is helping UK, says Bank of England’s Sentance Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/3/10)
Pound Declines as Investors Bet Bank of England Will Hold Rates BusinessWeek, Lukanyo Mnyanda (20/3/10)
For UK balance of trade data, see UK Trade (Office for National Statstics)
For exchange rate data, see Statistical Interactive Database (Bank of England)
- How is the value of the pound determined?
- Illustrate a depreciation of the pound on a diagram. What are the factors that could cause this?
- When the value of the pound falls, why should UK goods become more competitive?
- Explain why an export-led recovery was a possibility for the UK economy. How can we use the transmission mechanisms to help explain this?
- Despite a weak pound, exports have fallen. What are the explanations for this?
- What are the consequences of a widening trade deficit and how can it be tackled?