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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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Don’t believe the myths: Capitalism has performed well since the financial crisis

Don’t believe the myths: Capitalism has performed well since the financial crisis

Ten years ago, the financial crisis began to grip the Western economies. During the course of 2007, GDP growth slowed markedly everywhere. By the end of 2008, output was in free fall.

A key theme in economic commentary is the sluggishness of the subsequent recovery of the developed economies.

The picture is not quite as bad as it is usually painted. True, last week the Office for National Statistics announced a dip in UK growth in the first quarter of this year. But from 2009, the trough of the recession, to 2016, GDP growth averaged 2.0 per cent a year.  Not exactly a stellar performance. But from 1973, the year prior to the major oil price shock, to 2007, the British economy expanded by just 2.3 per cent a year on average. The contrast between the two periods in the US is slightly greater. From 1973 to 2007, growth averaged 3.0 per cent a year, and since 2009 it has been 2.1 per cent.

There is a very stark contrast with the experience of the 1930s, the last time there was a global financial crisis. This time is different, things have only got better. The recovery may be slower than desirable, but it has been much more widespread than in the years following the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A decisive indicator is the length of time it took not just for growth to resume, but for the previous peak level of GDP to be regained.  So in the UK, for example, the economy started to grow again in 2010. But it was not until 2013 that there had been enough growth for the economy to get back to its 2007 size.

Looking at a group of 18 developed economies, which includes all the main and medium sized ones, GDP had regained its previous peak within 3 years in no fewer than 8 of them. By 2016, everyone in the group except Finland, Italy and Spain had a GDP which exceeded its previous peak.

Three years after output began to fall in 1930, not a single economy had managed to regain its 1929 level of output. Even by 1938, output was below its 1929 level in Austria, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain.

Perhaps Keynes’ most powerful insight was why the slump was so prolonged. He developed the concept of “animal spirits”, which are not a mathematically based prediction of the future, but the sentiment of the narratives which companies form about the future. He wrote: “the essence of the situation is to be found in the collapse of animal spirits…. this may be so complete that no practicable reduction in the rate of interest will be enough.”

Zero interest rates and low growth! Keynes got there before us.

Still, capitalism has performed much better in the aftermath of the financial crisis of the late 2000s than it did in the crisis of the early 1930s. Animal spirits may not be buoyant, but they are in much better shape than in the 1930s.

As published in City AM Wednesday 2nd May 2017

Image: Day 20 Occupy Wall Street by David Shankbone is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Government debt addiction means you can be sure of one thing: Stealth taxes will rise

Government debt addiction means you can be sure of one thing: Stealth taxes will rise

Elections create uncertainty. But we can be sure of one thing. Regardless of the result, during the course of the next Parliament, stealth taxes will rise. This week, we have a sharp rise in speeding fines. Even doing between 31 and 40mph in a 30mph zone can now land you with a penalty of 50 per cent of your weekly income.

Governments across the West are running out of ways to pay for the spending levels which the electorates appear to demand.

A key way in which public spending has been financed over the past 40 years has been through debt. Almost everywhere, the level of public sector debt relative to GDP has risen sharply.

A few years ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published long runs of historical data on the public debt to GDP ratio for countries across the globe. The Bank of International Settlements (BIS) updates the ratio regularly.

In 1977, gross public debt in the United States was 39 per cent of GDP. In 2016, it was 98 per cent. Over the same period, the UK, using the IMF and BIS definitions, the rise was from 49 to 115 per cent of GDP. In France, the ratio went up from 15 to 115 per cent. Even in debt-wary Germany, there was an increase from 27 per cent in 1977, to 78 per cent in 2016.

There are different ways of defining public debt, and no two measures are the same. But regardless of how we put the figures together, the conclusion is clear.

Public sector debt has risen massively. The simple fact is that most governments in most years now routinely spend more than they dare raise in taxes. The resulting deficit has to be financed by issuing debt. But the limits are now being reached, a lesson the Greeks have learned so harshly in recent years.

Over the course of history, public sector debt, relative to the size of the economy, has been at much higher levels than it is now, with no apparent serious consequences. In 1946, for example, UK public debt was 270 per cent of GDP.

But in the past, governments with high debt levels typically did one of two things. They either defaulted, or they tried to pay it off. The left wing Labour government of Clement Attlee ran huge budget surpluses in the late 1940s, peaking at around £100bn a year in today’s terms.

Most debt used to be incurred as a result of war. In 1861, US public debt was less than 2 per cent of GDP. The Civil War bumped this up to 30 per cent. In the late 1810s, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the first truly global conflict, British debt was 260 per cent of GDP. It took decades to get it down to sustainable levels, but governments did succeed and pay it off.

In stark contrast, debt has been built up in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century to finance the services provided to voters. It is simply unsustainable.

As published in City AM Wednesday 26th April 2017

Image: Speed Trap by Peter Holmes is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Britain’s debt dilemma: Not too high, not too low or the UK economy risks disaster

Britain’s debt dilemma: Not too high, not too low or the UK economy risks disaster

The Bank of England Financial Policy Committee (FPC) has signalled that it has become worried again about debt. Its specific focus is households. Consumer credit, for example, grew by 10 per cent during 2016, far faster than the economy as a whole. A lot of household debt is in the form of a mortgage, so there is at least an asset which might support the loan. The particular concern of the FPC is unsecured loans, such as credit card balances, personal loans and the like. If someone becomes unemployed, he or she will no longer have the income to repay the money. And if a shock were to hit the economy as a whole, defaults on loans would rise sharply.The intense competition in personal finance markets is making credit much easier to obtain. The Halifax, for example, is offering up to 41 months interest free if you switch your credit card balance to them. In the laconic words of the FPC minutes, the recent rapid growth in consumer credit “could principally represent a risk to lenders if accompanied by weaker underwriting standards”. In other words, the risk to lenders could become too high.

How justified are these fears? The Bank for International Settlements publishes data on the stocks of debt held by consumers, companies and governments as a percentage of the economy. There is a bit of delay before its data comes out, so we only have it to the end of September 2016.

In the first quarter of 2007, just prior to the financial crisis bursting onto the scene, the debt of UK households was 90.7 per cent of GDP. In the third quarter of 2016 it was 87.6 per cent, and the FPC indicates that it has risen since then. So in terms of household debt, we are back to pre-crisis levels.

The German economy is in a much more comfortable position in this respect. In early 2007, household debt was 63.7 per cent of GDP, much lower than in the UK, and it has since fallen to 53 per cent. Germany’s problem is the loans its banks issued to both the personal and public sectors in economies like Greece and Spain.

The FPC is in something of a dilemma. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, consumer credit boomed. In 1977, household debt was only 29.6 per cent of GDP, compared to the 90-plus in the late 2000s. Even in Germany, the percentage rose from 40 to 64 over this period. A substantial amount of the increase in spending over the past 40 years was financed not by income but by debt.

Loans are denominated in money terms, so high inflation erodes their value. But in our current low inflation economy, these debts are for real. They are a genuine burden. Yet if consumers suddenly started to pay them off big time, spending would collapse and we would be in a major recession.

Getting consumers to manage their debt is the baby bear’s porridge problem facing the FPC. Not too little, not too much, but just right.

As published in City AM Wednesday 12th April 2017

Image: Rainbow of Credit by Frankieleon is licensed under CC by 2.0
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