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It is the private sector, not the state, that has enabled America’s economic recovery

It is the private sector, not the state, that has enabled America’s economic recovery

The American economy continues to power ahead. The widely respected and independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reckons that the actual level of GDP in the US in 2017 is finally back at the level of potential output.

The potential level of GDP is the amount of output which would be produced if there were no spare capacity in the economy. In a service and internet-oriented economy, any estimates of it are fraught with difficulties.

The maximum output of a car plant or steel mill is reasonably straightforward to work out, at least in the short term. But it is less obvious what the constraints are on any web-related business.

Still, the concept of potential output is taken seriously by policy-makers. And the CBO does a better job than most at guessing what it is.

On their figures, the last time actual and potential GDP were in balance was in the year immediately prior to the crisis, 2007, which at least makes sense.

In 2009, the depth of the recession, the CBO calculates the gap between the two to be six per cent. That may not sound a lot, but in money terms that represents more than one trillion dollars.

American GDP is now almost 15 per cent more than it was in 2007, and 20 per cent more than in 2009.

Along with this, employment has surged, with 17.2m net new jobs being created from the low point of December 2009. As in the UK, employment is at record highs.

The increase in employment is entirely due to the private sector, where it has grown by 17.3m.

In contrast, the numbers employed by the government, whether federal or state, have been cut by 100,000.

The same applies on the output side. Again, it is the private sector which is driving the recovery.

Compared to the bottom of the recession in 2009, and after stripping out inflation, public sector spending is down by $200bn.

In contrast, private sector investment has risen more than 10 times this amount – an increase of $2.1 trillion.

So, despite strict restraints on the public sector, the American economy has recovered well from the crisis – indeed, better than the best performing main European economies, Germany and the UK.

The evidence has been there all along, as soon as the US began to pull out of the recession in the early part of this decade. It is evidence which seems to be studiously ignored by the strident voices in British academic circles calling for an end to “austerity”.

Of course, there have been tax cuts, and these stimulate the private sector. But the risk over the longer term is that growth will not be rapid enough to bring in enough revenue to curb the growth in public sector debt.

Indeed, the CBO sees the potential rise in this debt as an important threat to the long-term growth of America. Higher public borrowing, in its view, reduces the private sector investment which is needed for growth.

As published in City AM Wednesday 6th December 2017

Image: New York via Pixabay is licensed under CC by 0.0
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The OBR’s forecasts should be taken not just with a pinch of salt, but with the contents of an entire mine

The OBR’s forecasts should be taken not just with a pinch of salt, but with the contents of an entire mine

There has been a great deal of crowing in metropolitan liberal circles over the report of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), published with the Budget last week.

The OBR revised downwards its projections for GDP growth for each of the next five years. Annual average growth to 2022 is predicted to be just 1.4 per cent a year.

The OBR believes that the UK is experiencing a “negative supply shock”.

But forecasts are merely forecasts. They do not constitute scientific evidence at all. This is especially true of economic predictions.

One section of the OBR’s report which relates to facts rather than views about the future has been seized on. This is that growth in the euro area during 2017 has been both stronger than it was in 2016, and stronger than in the UK. This is represented as showing that the EU is dynamic, and the UK is fading away.

But the experience of just a few months data – we only have official data to, at the very latest, the end of September – needs to be put into context.

Since 2007, the year immediately before the financial crisis, GDP in the UK has grown by just over 10 per cent.

This does indeed represent a decade of growth which, by historical standards, is low.

But the figure is very similar in Germany. In France, output is only around six per cent higher than it was 10 years ago. In Spain, GDP has risen by five per cent.

In Italy, however, the economy has shrunk by some five per cent since 2007. The Italians have had a decade not just of low growth, but of negative growth. They have gone backwards.

Despite over 40 years of EU membership, the UK economy remains far more synchronised with the US in terms of the year-on-year fluctuations of the business cycle.

So over this period, we see some years when economies in the EU have grown faster than in the UK, and some years when they have grown more slowly. This is precisely what to expect when the cycles are not coordinated.

The OBR itself is fully aware of the huge potential for error in economic forecasts.

Indeed, the report illustrates the uncertainty around its five-year projection of 1.4 per cent annual GDP growth in a so-called “fan chart”. This shows the potential range around the prediction, based on past errors made in official forecasts.

At worst, growth could be negative, with an annual average fall of one per cent. But at best, we could have a sustained boom with growth of over four per cent a year.

Based on how wrong past forecasts have been, the next five years could see a cumulative fall in GDP of over five per cent, or a cumulative rise of over 20 per cent.

The OBR’s forecasts should be taken not just with a pinch of salt, but with the contents of an entire mine.

As published in City AM Wednesday 29th November 2017

Image: Philip Hammond via Wikimedia is licensed under CC by 2.0
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There’s a difference between priceless and worthless, but economics can’t measure it

There’s a difference between priceless and worthless, but economics can’t measure it

The so-called “productivity puzzle” just does not go away.

The October, employment figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) brings it into focus.

The number of people in work rose to a new record high of 32.1m, with an increase of around one per cent compared to a year ago.

Total output, measured by GDP, continues to rise, but modestly. We do not yet have official estimates for the year to October, but GDP seems to be up by some 1.5 per cent.

Productivity is defined as output per worker, so it is only around 0.5 per cent higher than a year ago. No scientific consensus has yet emerged to explain why productivity growth continues to be so low.

But there is increasing evidence that the rate of growth of output is being systematically underestimated.

The economy cannot be put in a set of scales and measured. Its size has to be estimated, and the ONS uses a wide variety of methods to do this.

The fundamental problem is that the foundations for estimating GDP were built in the 1930s and 1940s, when the economy was dominated far more by manufacturing. Measuring how many things have been produced is inherently easier than measuring services.

The ONS does not stand still, and tries to take account of the massive changes in the economy which have taken place. But the rise of the internet economy brings entirely new problems to solve.

A key one is what the futurologist Alvin Toffler many years ago called the “prosumer” sector.

Traditionally, products are developed and sold by companies, and consumed by, well, consumers.

In the prosumer sector, consumers themselves participate in the production and development of products and services.

A good example is the statistical package R. This is open source, and freely and readily downloadable by anyone.

In recent years, R has become the package of choice for young scientists in a wide range of disciplines around the world. They both use it, and contribute to its development by uploading their own algorithms.

A huge range of routines can be downloaded. Its graphics features are amazing. Software is appearing on it that has the potential to take on commercial giants such as Word and Powerpoint.

It has become a very valuable tool for scientific research, using the word “valuable” in its every day sense of the word. But it is run by a small not-for-profit foundation, so in ONS terms its value is close to zero.

The problem is that R is what economic theory describes as a “public good”.

This jargon phrase applies to anything where anyone can consume it, and where the supply never runs out. No matter how many people use R, it is always available for the next person.

For most goods and services, this is just not true. When I put my swimming towel on the pool lounger, it is no longer available to you.

The prosumer sector creates a lot of output. But economics has not yet solved the question of how to value public goods.

As published in City AM Wednesday 8th November 2017

Image: Vintage Scales by Public Domain Pictures is licensed under CC by 0.0
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It’s time to question the macroeconomic orthodoxy on interest rates and inflation

It’s time to question the macroeconomic orthodoxy on interest rates and inflation

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, is getting his retaliation in early.

Faced yet again with the Bank failing to deliver its designated target of a two per cent inflation rate, in a speech last week he suggested that his remit was broader.

“We face a tradeoff between having inflation above target and the need to support, or the desirability of supporting, jobs and activity”, the governor stated.

In other words, he claimed that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank should be concerned not just with inflation, but with what economists describe as the “real” economy, output and jobs.

The Federal Reserve in the US is explicitly mandated to take account both inflation and the real economy when it sets interest rates. This is definitely not the case with the Bank of England. When Gordon Brown made it independent in 1997, its remit was unequivocal. It was to ensure that inflation was two per cent a year.

This time round, inflation is above the Bank’s target. The current level of some three per cent may even rise in the short term because the weakness of sterling is pushing up the cost of imports.

But in recent years, inflation has been below the two per cent desired rate, even falling to zero in 2015.

All this time, Bank rate has been essentially flat. The MPC cut it to just 0.5 per cent in March 2009, where it remained until the reduction to 0.25 per cent in August 2016.

To put this into perspective, when the rate fell to 1.5 per cent in January 2009, this was the first time it had been below two per cent since the Bank was created in 1694, well over 300 years ago.

So here is a puzzle for mainstream macroeconomists, whether in central banks or universities. Central banks are meant in theory to be able to control inflation by setting short term interest rates. Inflation has been low since 2009. But at the same time, the Bank rate has been at all-time record lows.

Perhaps more pertinently, inflation has fluctuated from year to year, even though interest rates have to all intents and purposes not changed. It was 4.5 per cent in 2011, and 0.7 per cent in 2016.

In short, inflation seems to lead a life of its own, independently of what the experts on the MPC either say or do.

Inflation really is a naughty boy all round. A central concept in orthodox economic thinking, encapsulated in the quote from Carney above, is that there is a tradeoff between inflation and jobs and output. The faster the economy grows and unemployment falls, the higher inflation will be.

But starting in the early 1990s, for around 15 years across the entire Western world, both inflation and unemployment experienced prolonged falls.

The idea that a central bank can control inflation by adjusting interest rates is shown by the evidence to be absurd.

It is yet another example of the limits to knowledge in orthodox macroeconomics.

As published in City AM Wednesday 25th October 2017

Image: Mark Carney by Bank of England is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Cautious corporates sitting on hoards of cash are to blame for our slow recovery

Cautious corporates sitting on hoards of cash are to blame for our slow recovery

The slow recovery since the financial crisis remains a dominant issue in both political and economic debate.

The economy has definitely revived since 2009, the depth of the recession, in both Britain and America. The average annual growth in real GDP has been very similar, at 2.0 and 2.1 per cent respectively. This is much better than in the Mediterranean economies, where growth over the 2009-2016 period is still negative. Even so, the Anglo-Saxon countries have not expanded as rapidly as they have done in previous recoveries.

A key reason for this is the lack of vision being shown by the corporate sector. True, highly innovative companies like Facebook have emerged over the past decade, and start ups continue to proliferate.

But the longer standing major firms in both the UK and the US have become real stick in the muds. Caution, safety first and an increasingly stultifying bureaucracy envelop them.

The contrast in the behaviour of the corporate sector in the two major financial crises of the 1930s and late 2000s makes this clear. The US national accounts only have data going back to 1929, the year before the Great Recession. But in that year, the net savings of non-financial companies was 3.5 per cent of GDP.

When the recession struck, firms ran down their accumulated cash. Between 1930 and 1934, their net savings were negative, averaging -2.4 per cent of GDP. That amounts to a shift during the recession from a surplus of $650 billion in 1929 to an annual overspend of $450 billion in today’s prices.

In the United States, during the decade prior to the crash, 1998-2007, companies on average had net savings of 2.6 per cent of GDP each year. Since 2009, this has averaged 4.0 per cent. So instead of spending their assets, as they did in the 1930s, companies this time round have simply saved more.

To be fair, American firms are gradually moving back towards their savings patterns prior to the crisis. From 5.4 per cent of GDP in 2010, net savings in 2016 were back down to 3.1 per cent. They are gradually getting their confidence back, their “animal spirits” as Keynes called it.

There are signs of this happening in Britain as well. Between 1998 and 2007, net savings by non-financial companies averaged 1.3 per cent of GDP.  From the trough of the recession to now, the annual average has been 2.7 per cent. As in the US, the figure has come down from 2009-2011, when it averaged 3.8 per cent. But firms remain cautious.

But in both the UK and the US, companies are sitting on piles of cash and lack the entrepreneurial spirit to spend it. Boards obsess about fashionable concepts such as lean and agile processes and management. At the same time they set up procurement systems more suited to the old Soviet Union in terms of the tick box mentality which prevails.

Capitalism must be seen to be delivering the goods, and many of our major companies are simply not doing this.

As published in City AM Wednesday 12th July 2017

Image: London Construction by Bonny Jodwin is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Does the productivity gap actually exist?

Does the productivity gap actually exist?

Whoever wins the election tomorrow will have to grapple with what appears to be a fundamental economic problem. Estimated productivity growth in the UK is virtually at a standstill.

The standard definition of productivity is the average output per employee across the economy as a whole, after adjusting output for inflation – or “real” output, in the jargon of economics.

The amount in 2016 was the same as it was almost a decade ago in 2007, immediately prior to the financial crisis.

Productivity is not just some abstract concept from economic theory. It has huge practical implications. Ultimately, it determines living standards.

Productivity is real output divided by employment. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has a pretty accurate idea of how many people are employed in the economy. They get data from company tax returns to HMRC.

What about output? The ONS uses a wide range of sources to compile its estimates. But these essentially provide it with information about the total value of what the UK is producing.

The ONS has the key task of breaking this number down into increases in value which are simply due to inflation, and those which represent a rise in real output.

This problem, easy to state, is fiendishly difficult to solve in practice. To take a simple illustrative example, imagine a car firm makes exactly 10,000 vehicles of a particular kind in each of two successive years, and sells them at an identical price. It seems that real output is the same in both years.

But suppose that in the second year, the car is equipped with heated seats. The sale price has not changed. But buyers are getting a better quality model, and some would pay a bit extra for the seats. So the effective price, taking into account all the features, has fallen slightly.

Assessing the impact of quality changes is the bane of national accounts statisticians’ lives. The car example above is very simple. But how do you assess the quality change when, for example, smartphones were introduced?

The ONS and its equivalents elsewhere, such as the Bureau of Economic Analysis in America, are very much aware of this problem. But even by the early 2000s, leading econometricians such as MIT’s Jerry Hausman were arguing that the internet alone was leading inflation to be overestimated by about 1 per cent a year, and real output growth correspondingly underestimated.

Martin Feldstein is the latest top economist adding his name to this view. Feldstein is a former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, so he is no ivory tower boffin.

In the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives, Feldstein writes:

“I have concluded that the official data understate the changes of real output and productivity. The measurement problem has become increasingly difficult with the rising share of services that has grown from about 50 per cent of private sector GDP in 1950 to about 70 per cent of private GDP now”.

The Bean report into national accounts statistics last year acknowledged these problems. It could well be that there is.

As published in City AM Wednesday 7th June 2017

Image: Smartphone by JÉSHOOTS  is licensed under CC by 2.0
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