One of the major economic concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic has been the likely long-term scarring effects on economies from bankruptcies, a decline in investment, lower spending on research and development, a loss of skills, discouragement of workers, disruption to education, etc. The result would be a decline in potential output or, at best, a slower growth. These persistent effects are known as ‘hysteresis’ – an effect that persists after the original cause has disappeared.
In a speech by Dave Ramsden, the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor for Markets & Banking, he argued that, according to MPC estimates, the pandemic will have caused a loss of potential output of 1.75%. This shortfall may seem small at first sight, so does it matter? According to Ramsden:
The answer is definitely yes for two reasons. First, a 1¾% shortfall as a share of annual GDP for the UK … represents roughly £39 billion – for context, that’s about half of the education budget. And second, that 1¾% represents a permanent shortfall, or at least a very persistent one, on top of the impact of the immediate downturn. If you lose 1¾% of GDP every year for ten years, then in total you have lost 17.5% of one year’s GDP, or around £390bn in 2019 terms
However, as the IMF blog linked below argues, there may be positive supply-side effects which outweigh these scarring effects, causing a net rise in potential GDP growth. There are two possible reasons for this.
The first is that the pandemic may have hastened the process of digitalisation and automation. Examples include ‘video conferencing and file sharing applications to drones and data-mining technologies’. According to evidence from a sample of 15 countries cited in the blog, a 10% rise in such intangible capital investment is associated with about a 4½% rise in labour productivity. ‘As COVID-19 recedes, the firms which invested in intangible assets, such as digital technologies and patents may see higher productivity as a result.’
The second is a reallocation of workers and capital to more productive sectors. Firms in some sectors, such as leisure, hospitality and retail, have relatively low labour productivity. Many parts of these industries have declined during the pandemic, especially those with high labour intensity. At the same time, there has been a rise in employment in firms where output per worker is higher. Such sectors include e-commerce and those where remote working is possible. The greater the reallocation from low labour-productivity to high labour-productivity sectors, the more will overall labour productivity rise and hence the more will potential output increase.
The size of these two effects will depend to a large extent on expectations, incentives and government policy. The blog cites four types of policy that can help investment and reallocation.
- Improved insolvency and restructuring procedures to enable capital in failed firms to be reallocated to sectors with potential for growth.
- Promoting competition to enable the exit and entry of firms into expanding sectors and to prevent powerful firms from blocking the process.
- Refocusing policy from retaining labour in existing jobs to reskilling workers for new jobs, thereby improving labour mobility from declining to expanding sectors.
- Addressing financial bottlenecks, so as to ensure adequate access to financing for viable firms.
Whether there will be a net increase or decrease in productivity from the pandemic very much depends on the extent to which firms and workers are able and willing to take advantage of new opportunities and the extent to which government supports investment in and reallocation to high-productivity sectors.
Blogs, articles and speeches
- Can actual economic growth be greater than potential economic growth (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
- Give some example of scarring effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
- What effects might short-term policies to tackle the recession caused by the pandemic have on longer-term potential economic growth?
- What practical policies could governments adopt to encourage the positive supply-side effects of the pandemic? To what extent would these policies have negative short-term effects?
- Why might (endogenous) financial crises result in larger and more persistent reductions in potential output than exogenous crises, such as a pandemic or a war?
- Distinguish between interventionist and market-orientated supply-side policies to encourage the reallocation of labour and capital to higher-productivity sectors.
Sales during the weeks leading up to Christmas often make a significant contribution to retailers’ profits. For many consumers, it is a time to spend money on food, presents and decorations and this often means increased borrowing.
Data indicate that borrowing by consumers in the lead-up to Christmas increased by the biggest amount for almost 8 years: a figure of £1.5 billion. As a result, there were likely to have been many happy families at Christmas, with lots of gifts being exchanged. But what does this mean for the New Year? There are concerns about the increase we will see in consumer debt throughout 2016 and the number of borrowers who will, perhaps, be unable to repay their debts.
Could this significant increase in borrowing be a signal that we haven’t learnt from our past? This article from BBC News considers the borrowing data and their implications.
Borrowing jumped ahead of Christmas, Bank of England says BBC News, Brian Milligan (4/01/16)
- Is borrowing good or bad for the economy? Explain your answer.
- If borrowing is good for the economy, why are there concerns about the current level of borrowing?
- How will this higher level of borrowing affect aggregate demand? Use an AD/AS diagram to explain the impact this will have.
- Could this higher level of borrowing affect unemployment and inflation? In what ways?
- If interest rates had been higher, do you think the level of consumer borrowing would have been lower?
Insolvencies in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest level since 2005, official records show. The Insolvency Service indicates that bankruptcy, individual voluntary arrangements and debt relief orders have fallen, with the largest and worst form of bankruptcy falling by 22.5 per cent compared to the same period in 2014. There has also been a fall in corporate insolvencies back to pre-crisis levels.
The British economy is recovering and despite an increase in consumer borrowing of £1.2 billion from February to March, which is the biggest since the onset of the credit crunch, the number of people in financial difficulty and living beyond their means has fallen. However, there are also suggestions that the number could begin to creep up in the future and we are still seeing a divide between the north and south of England in terms of the number of insolvencies.
There are many factors that could explain such a decline in insolvencies. Perhaps it is the growth in wages, in part due the recovery of the economy, which has enabled more people to forgo borrowing or enabled them to repay any loan more comfortably. Lower inflation has helped to reduce the cost of living, thereby increasing the available income to repay any loans. Interest rates have also remained low, thus cutting the cost of borrowing and the repayments due.
But, another factor may simply be that lending is now more closely regulated. Prior to the financial crisis, huge amounts of money were being lent out, often to those who had no chance of making the repayments. More stringent affordability checks by lenders may have a large part to play in reducing the number of insolvencies. President of R3, the insolvency practitioner body, Phillip Sykes said:
“It may be too early to draw conclusions but demand could be falling as a result of low interest rates, low inflation and tighter regulation. This trend is worth watching.”
Mark Sands, from Baker Tilly added to this, noting that fewer people were now in financial difficulty.
“As well as this, we are seeing lower levels of personal debt and fewer people borrowing outside of their means due to more stringent affordability checks by creditors.”
Whatever the main reason behind the data, it is certainly a positive indicator, perhaps of economic recovery, or that at least some have learned the lessons of the financial crisis. The following articles consider this topic.
Personal insolvencies fall to 10-year low Financial Times, James Pickford (1/5/15)
Personal insolvencies at lowest level since 2005 BBC News (29/4/15)
Personal insolvencies drop to lowest level in a decade The Guardian, Press Association (29/4/15)
Corporate insolvencies at lowest level since 2007 The Telegraph, Elizabeth Anderson (30/4/15)
Interview: R3 President Phillip Sykes Accountancy Age, Richard Crump (1/5/15)
North-South gap widens in personal insolvencies Independent, Ben Chu (27/4/15)
Insolvency rates show ‘stark’ north-south divide Financial Times, James Pickford (27/4/15)
- What is meant by insolvency?
- There are many factors that might explain why the number of insolvencies has fallen. Explain the economic theory behind a lower inflation rate and why this might have contributed to fewer insolvencies.
- How might lower interest rates affect both the number of personal and corporate insolvencies?
- Why has there been a growth in the north-south divide in terms of the number of insolvencies?
- Do you think this data does suggest that lessons have been learned from the Credit Crunch?
The IMF has just published its 6-monthly World Economic Outlook report. The report is moderately optimistic, arguing that ‘global activity has broadly strengthened and is expected to improve further in 2014–15’. World growth is expected to rise from 3.0% in 2013 to 3.6% in 2014 and 3.9% in 2015,
Much of the impetus for an acceleration in growth is expected to come from advanced countries. Growth in these countries is expected to average 2¼% in 2014–15, a rise of 1 percentage point compared with 2013. Part of the reason is that these countries still have large output gaps and thus have considerable scope to respond to rises in aggregate demand.
Monetary policy in advanced countries remains accommodative, although the USA has begun to taper off its quantitative easing programme. It is possible, however, that the ECB may make its monetary policy more accommodative, with signs that it might embark on quantitative easing if eurozone growth remains weak and if the risks of deflation rise. If the average price level in the eurozone does fall, this could dampen demand as consumers defer consumption until prices have fallen.
As far as emerging economies are concerned, growth is projected to ‘pick up gradually from 4.7 percent in 2013 to about 5 percent in 2014 and 5¼% in 2015’. Although predicted growth is higher in emerging countries than in advanced countries, its acceleration is less, and much of the predicted growth is dependent on rising export sales to the advanced countries.
Global growth, however, is still fragile. Emerging market economies are vulnerable to a slowing or even reversal of monetary flows from the USA as its quantitative easing programme winds down. Advanced countries are vulnerable to deflationary risks. ‘The result [of deflation] would be higher real interest rates, an increase in private and public debt burdens, and weaker demand and output.’
The UK is predicted to have the strongest growth (2.9%) of the G7 countries in 2014 (see above chart). But the IMF cautions about being too optimistic:
Growth has rebounded more strongly than anticipated in the United Kingdom on easier credit conditions and increased confidence. However, the recovery has been unbalanced, with business investment and exports still disappointing.
IMF: World economy stronger; recovery uneven USA Today, Paul Davidson (8/4/14)
Emerging markets feel the pressure The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (8/4/14)
IMF cuts downturn danger to near zero Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/4/14)
IMF warns eurozone and ECB on deflation threat RTE News (8/4/14)
Recovery strong but risk shifts to emerging markets: IMF CNBC, Kiran Moodley (8/4/14)
IMF: World economy is stronger but faces threats Bloomberg Businessweek, Christopher S. Rugaber (8/4/14)
IMF: UK economic growth to reach 2.9% in 2014 BBC News (8/4/14)
IMF: UK economic growth to reach 2.9% in 2014 BBC News, Hugh Pym (8/4/14)
Five signs that the global economic recovery may be an illusion The Guardian, Larry Elliott (6/4/14)
Report and data
World Economic Outlook (WEO) International Monetary Fund (8/4/14)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (8/4/14)
- Why does the IMF expect the world economy to grow more strongly in 2014 and 2015 than in 2013?
- What are the greatest risks to economic growth for (a) advanced countries; (b) developing countries?
- What geo-political events could negatively affect economic growth in (a) the eurozone; (b) the global economy?
- In what ways is the UK’s economic growth unbalanced?
- How much credence should be given to economic forecasts?
- Should countries’ economic performance be judged primarily by their growth in GDP?
Household debt in the UK has reached a record level. Individuals now owe £1430 billion. This compares with the UK’s general government debt of £1443 billion – also at a record level. These figures are illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).
But these figures are nominal. If you look at the real figures (i.e. corrected for inflation), household debt has been falling. In today’s prices, household debt peaked at £1668 billion in March 2008. Also, if you look at household debt as a proportion of GDP, it fell from a peak of 100.96% in May 2009 to 87.43% in July 2013 (see chart). However, since then it has begun rising again, standing at 87.65% in October 2013.
So has household debt become less of a problem? In aggregate terms, the answer is probably yes. However, it is too early to know whether a continuing recovery in the economy will be fuelled by real debt rising again and whether the recovery will encourage people to take on higher levels of debt?
For many people, however, debt has become more and more of a problem. In other words, the aggregate figures conceal what has happened in terms of the distribution of debt. According to a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) study:
Indebted households in the poorest 10 per cent of the country have average debts more than four times their annual income. Average debt repayments within this group amounted to nearly half their gross monthly income.
And the poorest families, often with very poor credit ratings, are frequently forced to turn to payday lenders, charging sky-high interest rates (see Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?).
As mainstream banks reduced access to credit following the financial crash, the market for short-term high-cost credit (payday lenders, pawnbrokers, rent-to-buy and doorstop lenders) increased dramatically and is now worth £4.8 billion a year.
Payday lenders have increased business from £900 million in 2008/09 to just over £2 billion (or around 8 million loans) in 2011/12. Around half of payday loan customers reported taking out the money because it was the only form of credit they could get. The number of people going to loan sharks is also said to have increased – the most recent estimate puts it at 310,000 people.
With rising energy and food bills hitting the poorest hardest, this section of the population could find debt levels continuing to rise, especially if interest rates rise. As Chris Pond, who chaired the CJS study, stated:
The costs to those affected, in stress and mental disorders, relationship breakdown and hardship is immense. But so too is the cost to the nation, measured in lost employment and productivity and in an increased burden on public services.
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ The Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
UK debt crisis: poorest face ‘perfect storm’ Channel 4 News (20/11/13)
One in five struggle with serious debt The Telegraph, Nicole Blackmore (27/11/13)
It doesn’t matter what we do with Wonga: personal debt is about to rocket The Telegraph, Tim Wigmore (26/11/13)
Poorest families ‘need more help over debt’ BBC News (20/11/13)
More than 5,000 people a year ‘homeless’ as household debt crisis deepens, CSJ warns Centre for Social Justice Press Release (20/11/13)
Monthly amounts outstanding of total (excluding the Student Loans Company) sterling net lending to individuals and housing associations (in sterling millions) seasonally adjusted Bank of England
Public Sector Finances First Release – Public Sector Consolidated Gross Debt ONS
Household debt (Economics Indicators update) House of Commons Library (29/11/13)
- What are the macroeconomic implications of rising levels of household debt?
- Why may an economy which has high levels of household debt be more subject to cyclical fluctuations in real GDP?
- What are the problems of having a recovery driven largely by increased consumer expenditure?
- Why have many people in the poorest sectors of society found their debt levels rising the fastest?
- Why may rising levels of debt of the most vulnerable people make it harder for the Bank of England to use conventional monetary policy if recovery becomes established?
- What policies could be pursued to try to reduce the debts of the poorest people?
- Discuss the effectiveness of these various policies.