Two reports on business confidence in the UK have just been published. The first, by Lloyds TSB Commercial, is its twice-yearly Business in Britain Report. The second is the Quarterly Economic Survey by the British Chambers of Commerce. Both reports paint a mixed picture about business confidence.
First the good news: the export sector is booming. Demand for exports is being boosted by (a) the depreciation of the pound, with the sterling exchange rate index some 20% lower now compared with the start of 2008 and (b) rapid economic growth in China, India and many other developing countries. Not surprisingly many exporting companies are looking to a bright future and are willing to invest.
Now the bad news. Domestic demand for many products is declining, especially services. This is not surprising given the rise in VAT, cuts in public spending and consumers cautious about their employment and income prospects in the coming year. With rapid cost-push inflation from higher oil and commodity prices, real incomes are set to fall and with it the level of real consumer demand (see Bosses gain – workers’ pain).
So where is the economy heading? The mixed picture painted by the two reports mean that the economy is likely to remain on the cusp. But with the export sector being much smaller than the domestic market, worries are likely to persist that economic growth may well slow significantly and the economy might return to recession. The main hope is that the restocking and replacement investment that follow a recession may be enough to provide just enough extra demand to avoid the ‘double dip’.
UK Business Confidence Hit By Domestic Demand Fears-Survey NASDAQ, Emma Haslett (4/1/11)
More doom and gloom as business confidence falls? Management Today, Nicholas Winning (5/1/11)
Smaller businesses do not share optimism Financial Times, Brian Groom (5/1/11)
New Year business confidence hit by domestic demand fears The Telegraph, James Hurley (5/1/11)
UK’s fragile services sector risks undermining recovery, BCC warns The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (11/1/11)
Companies fear double-dip recession Oxford Mail, Andrew Smith (10/1/11)
Firms ‘planning investment freezes’ Press Association (4/1/11)
Surveys paint bleak picture for British economy Reuters, David Milliken (11/1/11)
Kern Says U.K. Services Industry Growth Is `Mediocre’ Bloomberg, Watch Video, David Kern (11/1/11)
UK economic growth rate slowing, BCC says BBC News (11/1/11)
Business in Britain, December 2010 Lloyds TSB Commercial (January 2011)
Quarterly Economic Survey, Q4 2010: Summary British Chambers of Commerce (January 2011)
Quarterly Economic Survey, Q4 2010: Tables British Chambers of Commerce (January 2011)
Interest Rates and Exchange Rates Bank of England (for sterling effective exchange rates)
Economic and Labour Market Review Office for National Statistics (see Tables Chapter 1, worksheets in Table 1.03 for components of aggregate demand)
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs (see latest ESI – Economic Sentiment Indicator, Table 1)
- Summarise the findings of the two reports.
- Using the data in Table 1.03 of the Economic and Labour Market Review, calculate the percentage of UK GDP accounted for by each of the main elements of aggregate expenditure.
- Why is the manufacturing sector as a whole experiencing relatively strong economic growth?
- If the service sector shrank by x% and the manufacturing sector grew by x%, what would be likely to happen to the rate of economic growth in the economy? What else would you need to know to establish the precise rate of economic growth?
- The BCC said both the government and the Bank of England must “act forcefully to support growth”. What measures would this include?
- If real wages fall, what could cause real aggregate demand to rise in these circumstances?
- What is likely to drive the level of investment in the coming months?
Happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus. In fact, this analysis can be traced back to the work of the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham reffered to it as hedonic or felicific calculus (see also and also).
Now, of course, whether people actually behave in this way is an empirical question: one that behavioural and experimental economists have been investigating over a number of years. Nevertheless, it remains central to neoclassical analysis of ‘rational behaviour’.
But if happiness is central to a large part of economic analysis, how is happiness to be measured? At a micro level, this has proved problematic as it is virtually impossible to have inter-personal comparisons of utility. As a result, consumer theory uses indifference analysis, characteristics analysis, revealed preference and other approaches to analyse consumer demand.
But what about at the macro level? How is a nation’s happiness or well-being to be measured? There is general acceptance that GDP is a relatively poor proxy for national well-being and is more a measure of production. There have been various indices developed over the years (see, for example, Box 14.7 on ISEW in Economics, 7th edition) as alternatives to GDP. None has been adopted by governments, however, with the exception of a Gross National Happiness index in Bhutan.
Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in developing an index of well-being. In France, President Sarkozy commissioned two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to examine the issues in developing such a measure. In the light of the Stiglitz/Sen report, David Cameron has asked the Office of National Statistics to measure the UK’s general well-being. The articles below look at the difficulties that could arise in producing an index of well-being, of meauring the elements and in using it for policy.
UK Prime Minister Cameron Moves on UK Happiness Index Triple Pundit, Kristina Robinson (17/11/10)
David Cameron’s happiness index finds support despite impending decade of austerity Daily Record, Magnus Gardham (16/11/10)
How can we measure happiness? Telegraph, Philip Johnston (16/11/10)
David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP Guardian, Allegra Stratton (14/11/10)
An unhappiness index is more David Cameron’s style Guardian, Polly Toynbee (16/11/10)
Happiness is a warm baguette? The Economist (13/1/08)
‘Stiglitz-Sen Moving in the Right Direction, but Slowly’ IPS, Hazel Henderson (18/9/09)
The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P. New York Times Magazine (13/5/10)
Happiness doesn’t increase with growing wealth of nations, finds study Guardian, Alok Jha (13/12/10)
Should governments pursue happiness rather than economic growth? The Economist (25/11/10)
M&S’s Sir Stuart Rose among UK’s expert happiness panel BBC News (27/1/11)
The Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi report
Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Jean-Paul Fitoussi (September 2009)
- What are the shortcomings of using GDP as a measure of a nation’s well-being?
- Summarise the main findings of the Stiglitz/Sen/Fetoussi report.
- What items would be included in a happiness or well-being index that (a) are not included in GDP; (b) not included in Stiglitz and Sen’s proposed net national product measure? How would such an index be compiled?
- Would it be satisfactory to compile such an index purely on the basis of survey evidence? Why might such evidence prove unreliable?
- What are the political advantages and disadvantages of using such an index?
- Is utilitarianism the best basis for judging the progress of society?
Forecasting the future state of economies is difficult at the best of times. Forecasters frequently get it wrong. To see this, just look at forecasts for the current point in time made two or three years ago – or even six months ago, given the current dire circumstances. They were often way-off mark.
But why are forecasts often so inaccurate? The problem is that in the short run the state of the economy depends on the level of aggregate demand; and that, in turn, depends crucially on confidence – both of consumers and business. But confidence is a ‘will-o’-the-wisp’ thing. Confidence can evaporate with bad news, making the situation much worse. Likewise, good news can lead to rapidly growing optimism, which in turn stimulates consumption, investment and growth. Humans are fickle creatures – and the media do not help here, playing on fears or hyping-up good news.
The following articles look at forecasts made in April 2009, when economies around the world were deep in recession. Was this recession the start of something much worse? Or were economies soon to bounce back, taking up the slack created by the recession? Forecasters were being sorely tested. It will be interesting to see in a year’s time just how accurate, or inaccurate, they were.
Are there any signs of recovery? BBC News (16/4/09)
Merkel debates economic woes amid grim forecasts Guardian (22/4/09)
IMF is being unduly alarmist: Jeremy Warner Independent (24/4/09)
What the experts say: the shrinking economy Guardian (24/4/09)
Economic surveys signal that worst could be behind Europe EarthTimes (24/4/09)
Darling’s economic forecast “unrealistic” Moneywise (23/4/09)
Crisis deepens in Europe, Japan AsiaOne News (24/4/09)
IMF warns that worldwide slump will be deeper than thought Times Online (23/4/09)
World Economic Outlook: April 2009 IMF (24/4/09). See also webcast.
- Why do forecasters differ so markedly from each other?
- Other than an unexpected rise or fall in confidence, what else could make forecasts turn out to be wrong?
- To what extent is economic forecasting similar to and different from weather forecasting?