Economics blog

With its linked trade and innovation deficits, the UK seems as unprepared for a currency war as it was for real war in 1939. Countries are trying to export deflation somewhere else, using currency manipulation to do so…

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “UK looks ill-prepared if a global currency war breaks out” was written by Larry Elliott economics editor, for The Guardian on Sunday 17th November 2013 19.41 UTC

Rumours of war are in the air. Currency war, that is. The US treasury has forged an alliance with Brussels to attack Germany’s beggar-thy-neighbour approach to the rest of the eurozone. Last week the Czech government said it would defend its economy by driving down the value of  the koruna, following the aggressively interventionist example of  Japan and Switzerland.

It’s not hard to see why the atmosphere is becoming less cordial. This is a low growth world marked by over-capacity. Wages are under downward pressure and this is leading to ever-stronger deflationary pressure. A lack of international policy co-operation means that countries are trying to export deflation somewhere else, using currency manipulation to do so.

If a full-scale currency war does break out Britain looks as ill-prepared as it was for a military fight in 1939. We like to think of ourselves as a nation of buccaneering traders but only 16% of small and medium enterprises, with a turnover of over £20m, are actually exporting. We like to think of ourselves as the nation of innovators, yet as Richard Jones, of Sheffield University, notes, the UK is a less research and development intensive country than it was 30 years ago, and it lags well behind most of its rivals. The UK has linked trade and innovation deficits.

Jones, in a paper for the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, examines in detail how during the past 30 years the UK’s corporate laboratories have vanished and how big R&D spenders such as ICI and GEC switched from being companies that thought about long-term investment to ones where the prevailing doctrine was to return the money spent on R&D to shareholders.

Those in charge of UK manufacturing companies became more interested in the next bid, the next deal and the next set of quarterly results than in developing new product ranges.

The consequences of decades of neglect of the country’s productive base and an over-reliance on North Sea oil and financial services are now glaringly apparent. In the past, recessions have ended with the current account broadly in balance. This recovery starts with a current account deficit of more than 3%  of national output.

This is despite a fall of 20% in the value of the pound between 2007 and 2013, which in theory should have boosted exports. In reality, exports grew by 0.4% a year between early 2009 and the start of 2013, compared with 1% a year in the previous decade.

Ministers have a pat answer when quizzed about the poor performance of exports. It is, they say, the result of geography. More than 40% of UK exports go to the eurozone, where growth is weak and demand for imports has collapsed. So the impact of sterling’s depreciation has been blunted.

This view is not shared by the Bank of England. While admitting that the global recovery is patchy, the bank noted in its February inflation report that “the relative weakness of UK exports does not reflect particular weakness in its major trading partners”. It concluded that some other explanation was needed “to explain the disappointing performance of UK exports”, and found it in a sharp drop in exports of financial services and the tendency of UK firms to use a cheaper pound to boost profits rather than increase market share. The decline in exports from the City since the crash highlights the risks for Britain of the “eggs in one basket” approach.

As Ken Coutts and Bob Rowthorn note in a paper on the prospects for the balance of payments, the UK has gone from being a country that had a 10% of GDP surplus in trade in manufactures in 1950 to running a 4% of GDP deficit by 2011. North Sea oil and gas were in decline, so energy added to the deficit by 1.3% of GDP. Food and government transfers to overseas bodies such as the EU, World Bank and UN were the other big debits.

On the other side of the ledger there were three sources of surpluses: financial services and insurance (3.1% of GDP); other knowledge-intensive services, which include law, consultancy and IT (2.5% of GDP); and investment income (1.1% of GDP). Once all the debits and credits were totted up Britain had a current account deficit of 1.9% of national income. This rose to 4% of GDP in 2012.

The recession has taken a heavy toll on two of the surplus sectors. Investment income has turned negative, and global demand for financial services has fallen. This has affected the UK more than the other big global providers of financial services, the US and EU.

According to the Bank of England, “This could reflect lower demand for UK financial services in general, or a particularly sharp fall in demand for those financial products in which the UK specialised prior to the crisis.” This is a polite way of saying that no one any longer wants what Lord Turner once dubbed the City’s “socially useless” products.

Coutts and Rowthorn model what happens to the current account using assumptions for growth in the UK domestic economy and world trade, the level of UK competitiveness, oil prices, North Sea oil and gas production, and returns on financial assets.

The baseline projection is that the current account is 3% of GDP in 2022. Using a slightly more pessimistic assumption, the deficit swells to 5% of GDP. As the authors note: “A deficit of this magnitude would be a cause for serious alarm.”

It certainly would be. The outgoing trade and investment minister, Lord Green, told a conference in the City to mark export week that there was no guarantee the rest of the world would be prepared to finance deficits of this size for ever. The government has a target for raising exports to £1tn a year by 2020 – which will require them to grow by 9% a year. (The average since 2012 has been 5%.)

We have heard the “export or die” message many times in the past, to little effect it has to be said. It is not impossible to improve Britain’s export performance, though doing so with the current economic model is a pipe dream. It will require nurturing manufacturing, knowledge-based services and those bits of the financial services sector for which there is long-term demand.

Britain, Jones says, “needs to build a new developmental state, a state that once again takes responsibility for large-scale technological innovation as the basis for sustainable growth and prosperity”. Amen to that. If a currency war is brewing, we need the can-do spirit of 1940, not the head-in-the-sands approach of 1938.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.


USA 

While jobs growth and output are rising fast in the construction industry, retail offers a more mixed picture of the UK economy. Forecasting groups have modest expectations for growth in 2014: a 2% increase in GDP following 1.4% in 2013…

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Construction and retail – contrasting perspectives on UK economic recovery” was written by Larry Elliott, economics editor, for The Guardian on Tuesday 5th November 2013 00.01 UTC

Construction and retailing offer contrasting perspectives on Britain’s economic recovery. On the UK’s building sites, things are looking up . The monthly construction industry health check from CIPS/Markit showed jobs growth and output rising at their fastest for six years. Although that may be more a reflection of the deep hole the sector plunged into during the recession, sentiment has certainly improved. The Government’s Help to Buy scheme has boosted house building, but Monday’s report suggests demand for commercial property is also on the up.

Tuesday’s report from the British Retailers Consortium is more mixed. After a strong summer, spending growth in the high street has cooled in the last couple of months. That could be because sales of new winter fashions have been hit by unseasonally warm weather, or it could be that consumers are saving up for a big splurge at Christmas. It could be that individuals are finding it hard to make the sums add up during a prolonged period when prices have been rising more quickly than wages. In all probability, the cautious mood is a combination of all three.

Rising consumer spending is the reason economic activity picked up in the second and third quarters of the year. There was little boost from the other components of growth -– investment, exports and the state – so the expansion was the result of higher household spending. How is this possible when real earnings are falling? In part, spending has been encouraged by rising employment. In part, it has been aided by stronger consumer confidence, which has led to people running down the precautionary savings they built up when they were more pessimistic about the future.

Clearly, consumers will be unable to continue dipping into their savings to fund their spending for ever. That’s why forecasting groups such as the National Institute for Economic Research have only modest expectations for growth in 2014: a 2% increase in GDP following 1.4% in 2013. NIESR sees little prospect of stronger investment kicking in, and with the prospects for exporters decidedly mixed that means consumers will again bear the strain.

Even so, the NIESR forecast looks too low. There will be some recovery in investment in response to stronger consumer spending. More significantly, perhaps, the housing market now has real momentum and that will lead to some further drop in the savings ratio to compensate for squeezed incomes.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

Larry Elliott: It is hard to see how the Fed can start to scale back its quantitative easing program this year. Nobody is sure any longer what the Fed is really up to. What will it take for the Fed to start winding down the stimulus?…

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Federal Reserve tapering decision has baffled the markets” was written by Larry Elliott, economics editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 19th September 2013 17.19 UTC

The dust was still settling on Thursday after the Federal Reserve delivered one of the biggest surprises to financial markets in many a year. This was a return to the central banking practices of the past when policymakers liked to keep people guessing about their intentions. These days central bankers pride themselves on their transparency.

But nobody is sure any longer what the Fed is really up to. Clearly it got cold feet about announcing even the most modest reduction in the amount of stimulus provided to the US economy through its long-term asset purchase programme, but both the decision and the way it was announced raised more questions than they answered.

Why was there no warning to the markets that the Fed was worried about the slowdown in growth? Why, in the absence of such a warning, did it not go ahead with a tokenist reduction in the stimulus, of say $5bn (£3.17bn) a month, that would have made good the commitment to start tapering but had no material impact on growth? What will it now take for the Fed to start winding down the stimulus?

But although the Fed’s communications strategy now lies in tatters, some conclusions can be drawn from the postponement of the taper. Firstly, policy is going to remain loose for longer than the markets envisaged. It is hard to see how the Fed can start to scale back its quantitative easing programme this year, and the prospect of the process being completed in 2014 – as originally envisaged – is as good as dead.

Secondly, the Fed is even more doveish than the markets thought. When Ben Bernanke first floated the idea of the taper back in May, the notion was that the trigger for the taper would be falling unemployment. But despite a continued moderate improvement in the labour market, the Fed still feels the time is not ripe to act. It took fright when speculation about the taper led to rising bond yields, making mortgages more expensive. It looked askance when share prices fell. And it is worried about the possible consequences of the looming budget showdown between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. So when the time came to act, it blinked.

Thirdly, the Fed has provided a respite – albeit probably temporary – to emerging markets that had seen their currencies fall against the dollar in anticipation of a gradual withdrawal of the stimulus.

Finally, the muted second day reaction to the decision was the reaction to one final unanswered question: does the Fed have the remotest idea how to unwind the stimulus? As Stephen Lewis of Monument Securities put it: Bernanke has given the “impression of being astride a tiger he dare not dismount.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

It is time for the European Central Bank to show its independence and act in the interests of all eurozone citizens– not just Angela Merkel’s, writes The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott.  A different approach is needed to save the eurozone…

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “European Central Bank must heed eurozone warning signs” was written by Larry Elliott, economics editor, for The Guardian on Tuesday 30th April 2013 12.57 UTC

The warning signs are flashing red for the eurozone. Inflation is plunging, unemployment is rising and activity is weakening across the board. Unless Europe wants to become the next Japan, mired in permanent deflation and depression, action is needed now.

Stage one of the process should be a cut in interest rates from the European Central Bank (ECB) when it meets in Bratislava on Thursday. The latest inflation figures show the annual increase in the cost of living across the 17-nation single-currency area fell from 1.7% to 1.2%, its lowest in three years and well below the ECB's 2% ceiling. Even Jens Weidmann, the ultra-hawkish president of Germany's Bundesbank, would be hard pressed to say there is a threat to price stability.

It's not hard to see why inflationary pressure is abating: the eurozone economy has been flat on its back for the past 18 months. Unemployment rose by 62,000 in March, taking the eurozone jobless rate to yet another record high of 12.1%. Spain and Greece remain the weak spots, but even in Germany labour market conditions are becoming more difficult. Across the eurozone, almost one in four young people are out of work.

Why is unemployment rising? Again, you don't have to be John Maynard Keynes to figure it out. Europe's banking system is bust, there is a shortage of credit, real incomes are under pressure and the deficiency of demand is being exacerbated by austerity overkill. Retail sales figures from Greece show that in February spending was more than 14% lower than a year earlier.

The malaise is spreading from the eurozone's periphery to its core. It will be mid-May before the official growth data for the first quarter of 2013 is published, but the early evidence from Spain, where GDP fell by 0.5%, is not encouraging. Judging by the grim forward-looking surveys of business and consumer confidence, the second quarter will suffer more of the same.

Monetary policy works only with a lag, so whatever the ECB does on Thursday will be too late to prevent the recession deepening. Angela Merkel has made it clear that she does not want to see a cut in the cost of borrowing, but it is time for the ECB to show its independence and act in the interests of all eurozone citizens, not just the one seeking re-election in the German polls this autumn.

In itself, a quarter-point cut in interest rates to 0.5% would do little to revive demand, ease the credit crunch or create jobs. Instead, it should be part of a three-pronged approach to boost growth. The cut in rates should be accompanied by an ECB announcement that it is willing to embrace the unconventional methods deployed by the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and Japan to underpin activity. It should also be the catalyst for a less aggressive approach to cutting budget deficits, with countries given more time to bring their deficits below the eurozone ceiling of 3% of GDP.

For the past three years, macroeconomic policy in the eurozone has been run on sadomasochistic principles: that only regular doses of pain will ensure countries stick to strict reform programmes.

The upshot of this policy is clear for all to see. Businesses that are starved of credit are mothballing investment and cutting their workforce. Weaker growth means higher-than-expected budget deficits. Permanent austerity has bred social dislocation and political extremism. A different approach is needed to save the eurozone from catastrophe – starting on Thursday.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

Europe could have dealt with Cyprus cheaply and painlessly with a pan-European body able to recapitalize the country’s banks. Next could be Malta and Slovenia where the government is already making contingency plans for coping with bank losses…

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Eurozone crisis demands one banking policy, one fiscal policy – and one voice” was written by Larry Elliott, economics editor, for The Guardian on Monday 1st April 2013 13.24 UTC

It had all started to look quite promising. The US was picking up, China had avoided a hard landing and in Japan the early signs from the new government's anti-deflation approach were encouraging. Even in Britain, the first couple of months of 2013 provided some tentative hope – from the housing market and consumer spending, mainly – that the economy might escape another year of stagnation.

Then Cyprus came along. The last two weeks of March brought the crisis in the eurozone back into the spotlight, and by the end of the month the story was no longer rising share prices on Wall Street on the back of strong corporate profitability or the better prospects for Japanese growth. It was, simply, which country in the eurozone would be the next to require a bailout.

The past few days has seen what Nick Parsons, head of strategy at National Australia Bank, has called the "reverse Spartacus" effect after the scene at the end of Stanley Kubrick's epic in which captured slaves are offered clemency if they identify the rebel leader. All refuse.

In the aftermath of Cyprus, it has been a case of "I'm not Spartacus". Four members of the eurozone felt the need to issue statements explaining why they were different from the troubled island in the eastern Med. We now know that Portugal is not Spartacus, Greece is not Spartacus, Malta is not Spartacus and Luxembourg, which has the highest ratio of bank deposits to GDP in the eurozone, is not Spartacus. As Parsons noted wryly, Italy was unable to say it was not Spartacus because it still doesn't have a government to speak on its behalf. Otherwise it would probably have done so.

Few of the independent voices in the financial markets take such attempts at reassurance seriously. Another crisis in the eurozone could be avoided, but only if those in charge (sic) act more speedily and effectively than they have in the past. As things stand, another outbreak of trouble looks inevitable.

Cyprus has enough money to get by for a couple of months, but by then will be feeling the impact of a slow-motion bank run as depositors remove their money at the rate of €300 (£250) a day. The economy has been crippled by the terms of the bailout, a Carthaginian peace if ever there was one, and the country's debt ratio is bound to explode.

Investors are already casting a wary eye over Malta, which appears to have been the short-term beneficiary of capital flight from Cyprus, but the bookies favourite for the next country to need a bailout is Slovenia, where the government is already making contingency plans for coping with bank losses.

By focusing on the eurozone's minnows, the markets are in danger of overlooking a much bigger potential problem. If attempts to put together a new government in Rome fail, Italy will be facing a second general election and in such a scenario opinion polls currently put Silvio Berlusconi ahead.

It is not hard to sketch out a sequence of events in which Berlusconi completes a political comeback, the markets take fright, Italian bond yields go through the roof, the European Central Bank (ECB) under Mario Draghi says it will only buy Italian debt if Berlusconi agrees to a package of austerity and structural reforms, the new government refuses and then calls a referendum on Italy's membership of the single currency. Italy has already had six consecutive quarters of falling GDP and is on course for a seventh, making the recession the longest since modern records began in 1960. So when Berlusconi says he cannot let the country fall into a "recessive spiral without end", he strikes a chord.

If policymakers are alive to the threat posed by one of the six founder members of the European Economic Community back in 1957, they have yet to show it. The assumptions seem to be that Cyprus is exceptional, that the ECB will ride to the rescue if it proves not to be, and that Europe will be dragged out of the danger zone by the pick-up in the rest of the global economy.

This is the height of foolishness. The factors causing the crisis in Cyprus are replicated in many other member states. The ECB's "big bazooka" – buying the bonds of struggling governments without limit – has yet to be tested, and because Europe is the world's biggest market, the likelihood is that the re-emergence of the sovereign debt crisis will seriously impair growth prospects in North America and Asia.

Economists at Fathom Consulting draw a comparison between the eurozone today and the UK at the very start of the financial crisis. Mistakes were made with the handling of Northern Rock because of fears that a bailout would create problems of moral hazard – in other words helping a bank that had got itself into trouble through its own stupidity would encourage bad behaviour by others. The systemic risks were not recognised, with disastrous consequences.

Similarly, the eurozone has not understood the systemic potential of the current crisis, Fathom argues, not least the "doom loop" between fragile banks and indebted governments. Austerity is making matters worse because cuts to public spending and higher taxes hit economic activity by more than they reduce government deficits. Public debt as a share of national incomes goes up, not down.

Austerity can work, but conditions have to be right for it. It helps if a country's trading partners are growing robustly, because then the squeeze on domestic demand can be offset by rising exports. It helps if the central bank can compensate for tighter fiscal policy by easing monetary policy, either through lower interest rates or through unconventional measures such as quantitative easing (QE). And it helps if the exchange rate can fall. Not one of these conditions applies in the eurozone, which is why the fiscal multipliers – the impact of tax and spending policies on growth – are so high. Put bluntly, removing one euro of demand through austerity leads to the loss of more than one euro in GDP.

So what should be done? Clearly, the self-defeating nature of current policy needs to be recognised. Countries need to be given more time to put their public finances in order. The emphasis should be shifted from headline budget deficits to structural deficits so that some account is taken of the state of the economic cycle, and the ECB needs to be ready with its own version of QE.

Simultaneously, work needs to speed up on creating a banking and fiscal union. Europe could have dealt with Cyprus cheaply and painlessly had there been a pan-European body capable of recapitalising the country's banks. Delay in setting up such a body threatens to be costly.

Finally, the eurozone needs to start talking with one voice. A bit of "I'm Spartacus" would not go amiss.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

The Japanese economy is looking decidedly shaky. Exports and domestic consumption are falling, while the current account deficit is growing. After years of rising spending and debt, the world’s third largest economy could find itself spiraling downwards…



Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Is Japan really on the brink of a sudden downward spiral?” was written by Phillip Inman, economics correspondent, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 23rd November 2012 19.42 UTC

First Britain was compared to Greece – sunk by debt. Then when the worst of the financial crisis passed and a battered exchequer was still solvent, Britain was likened to another capitalist basket case – Japan.

With two lost decades under its belt, Tokyo is considered the capital of stasis, a place where nothing grows.

Hardly a week goes by without someone arguing that Japan’s lack of growth, its ageing population, massive debts or its strong currency spell the end of a renaissance that propelled the country into the first rank during the 1970s.

To many people the situation remains benign. If you are happy with your domestic situation, job and income, an economy that is going nowhere does little to provoke the forces of change. So far outside investors have adopted a similar view.

However, not everyone is content.

The traditional prop for a government that repeatedly spends more than it generates in taxes, is the Japanese saver. They put their money aside to lend to their own government. Japanese government bonds (JGBs) are famously 95% owned by Japanese investors (who believe misguidedly that it is better to get a return on loans to the government than pay tax, which has no return).

Japan’s savers have been ageing for some time. Every year there are fewer people putting money aside. In recent times the banks have made up the difference, but this has only made the situation worse as they tie themselves to the fortunes of the government in an ever-closer union.

Polls this week showed the refusal to pay enough tax persists and voters are turning to opposition leader Shinzo Abe’s plans to unleash unlimited amounts of free cash to push inflation up to 3% and interest rates below 0%.

This free cash is printed by the central bank and will flood the Japanese financial markets in the hope that some people will spend it. It is a scheme that has worked in the US, but in Japan is more likely to mimic the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme, which has flopped as a spur to growth. In the UK, the people who benefit – those who discover their debt payments are cheaper – tend to hoard the savings while those without debts find their income cut as savings interest declines. All the new money gets swallowed by the banks, which are grateful because they are also suffering terribly, and recycled back to the government.

Japanese banks are by some measures in better shape than their UK counterparts, but the rest of the economy is looking decidedly shaky.

Exports fell in October by 6.5% on the previous year (imports dropped by 1.6%). Exports to the EU are down 20%, while exports to China have slumped by 11.6%, in part due to tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Sony, Panasonic, Sharp are on the slide along with much of the tech sector.

Worse, domestic consumption dropped 0.5% and capital expenditure fell 3.2%, both registering the second-largest falls since the height of the 2008-09 recession.

Graham Turner at GFC Economics says Japan stands on the brink of an almost complete reversal in fortunes. After years of rising spending and debt, supported by domestic and foreign lenders, the government could find itself spiralling downwards.

He says: “The determination of the government to beat deflation via a loose fiscal policy could be the tipping factor, which drives the current account deeper into deficit. In this respect, Japan may begin to mirror the peripherals of the eurozone, prior to the euro crisis, where a loose fiscal policy goes hand in hand with poor external fundamentals.”

The poor external fundamentals he refers to are the lack of demand for Japanese goods and the increasing unease of foreign lenders at Japan’s plight. Already the interest rate the government pays on its debt has risen. It doesn’t need to go up by much to add billions of pounds to the bill.

George Osborne is also looking at rising debts and zero growth. He is relying on the Bank of England to create growth with money created in the bowels of Threadneedle Street. We didn’t want to follow Greece, and we don’t want to be the next Japan. If we continue on the same path we will undoubtedly have the same outcome.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

The Japanese economy is looking decidedly shaky. Exports and domestic consumption are falling, while the current account deficit is growing. After years of rising spending and debt, the world’s third largest economy could find itself spiraling downwards…

Demand for Britain’s manufactured goods is being choked off by the prolonged and deepening slump in the eurozone. Events overseas – the US fiscal cliff, China’s slowdown, and the travails of the eurozone casting a shadow over UK manufacturing…



Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Europe to blame for UK manufacturing downturn” was written by Larry Elliott, economics editor, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 1st November 2012 12.03 UTC

There’s a one-word explanation for the disappointingly weak survey of manufacturing out on Thursday: Europe.

Despite some modest success recently in diversifying into the faster growing markets of the globe, Britain’s nearest neighbours represent by far the biggest destination for goods sold overseas. Demand for those goods is being choked off by the prolonged and deepening slump in the eurozone.

What’s worse, the uncertainty caused by whether Greece will get a new bailout and whether Spain will have to seek financial help from the European Central Bank is depressing business confidence and causing investment projects to be mothballed. November’s health check on industry from CIPS/Markit showed that demand for capital goods remains weak, and that is wholly consistent with a corporate sector unwilling to spend money until the uncertainty is lifted.

The one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy report was that demand for consumer goods was up. That chimed with recent evidence that spending in the high street is on the up, although the fact that orders for exported consumer goods also rose is something of a puzzle.

As the CBI noted on Thursday, events overseas – the US fiscal cliff and China’s slowdown in addition to the travails of the eurozone – are casting a long shadow over the UK manufacturing sector. There are hopes that China has bottomed out, that the Americans will step away from the fiscal cliff and that Europe is finally getting its act together.

For now though, Thursday’s figures suggest that recovery will remain weak, that rebalancing is a pipedream. At this stage, the City is betting against further stimulus from the Bank of England next week but if the surveys for construction and services are as weak as those for manufacturing there may be a crash re-think.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.