David Smith's other articles Archives
Sunday, August 30, 2015
The world struggles when the trade winds don't blow
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It has been a nasty scare, and it is not yet over. Though I think they are overstated, the doubts about China will persist. Though the sell-off appears to have reduced the ardour among central banks in America and Britain to raise rates – as was suggested in these pages last weekend – that bridge will still have to be crossed at some stage, and Mark Carney said at Jackson Hole yesterday that the rate decision will come into sharper focus around the turn of the year, an unchanged message.

Inevitably, there were fears that we were going back into a huge financial crisis. Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary, helpfully tweeted that there were echoes of August 1997 (the start of the Asian financial crisis), August 2007 (the start of the global financial crisis) and August 2008 (just before the Lehman collapse).

If that was the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre, I thought a more sensible parallel was with August 2011. That was the month when the eurozone crisis escalated, America was downgraded following fraught debt ceiling negotiations in Washington and, by the by, riots broke out across England.

That sell-off did not presage a new global crisis and recession – most do not – but it ushered in a period of uncertainty and weaker growth, including a second recession in the space of four years in the eurozone, albeit one that was milder than the first.

It has been a while since markets have been quite so panicked as in recent days. Underpinning the uncertainty among investors, over and above Chinese growth worries, Greek exit fears and rate hike concerns, is the fear that something is not right about the global economy. The world was knocked off balance by the financial crisis and it is yet to recover its stability.

Are such worries justified? On the face of it, global growth is not too bad. The International Monetary Fund, in its latest world economic outlook update, published last month, sees 3.3% global growth this year, 3.8% next.

This year’s forecast is slightly below the 3.4% achieved in both 2013 and 2014, and all four years will see growth weaker than the pre-crisis world norm of 4% a year. But this is a long way from a growth crisis. The IMF, for what it is worth, shares my view of China, which is that we are seeing an adjustment, though a tricky one, to slower but ultimately better balanced growth.

There is something missing from the global economy, however. The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calls it a “B-minus” world economy. I would call it a world lacking one of its key drivers.

That driver is world trade. A few days ago CPB Netherlands, the Dutch think tank which is a centre of expertise for monitoring world trade, reported that despite a rise in June world trade in goods in the second quarter was down by 0.5%, following a drop of 1.5% in the first quarter. According to CPB: “Import momentum was negative or zero in all major regions. Export momentum was positive in advanced economies, but negative in emerging economies.” Unless the June figures signal a sustained upturn, which looks unlikely given everything, this looks like a weak year for world trade.

CPB monitors trade in goods. Services are also important. But taking goods and services together, we are seeing a prolonged period of weak growth in trade. Alongside the IMF’s estimate of 3.4% economic growth in 2013 and 2014, world trade in goods and services expanded by 3.3% and 3.2% respectively.

For most of the post-war period world trade grew significant faster – often twice as fast – as global gross domestic product. If we take the period 1990-2007, world trade grew by an average of nearly 7% a year, despite a recession at the start of the period and a slowdown at the turn of the millennium.

In contrast, even leaving aside the collapse and rebound in world trade in 2009-10, trade growth in recent years has averaged only 4% a year and – as noted – has often struggled to achieve that.

That is reflected in Britain’s trade figures. Though exports had a good second quarter, helping to boost gross domestic product, until then export volumes had only grown by 1% a year over three years. Import volumes did a little better, though not spectacularly so.

Why the weakness in world trade? In the case of Britain, weak growth in the eurozone has been an important factor. Indeed, Europe’s slow growth has removed an important source of world trade growth.

But there are other factors. Exporters blame the failure of trade credit to get back to pre-crisis levels, even when governments are on hand to help out; some more than others. Risk aversion on the part of businesses may also have undergone a long-term shift as a result of the crisis.

Protectionism has not obviously increased but it may have done so discreetly. Certainly, the momentum for trade liberalisation, which was a key driver of global growth in the second half of the 20th century, has faded badly.

The Doha round, under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation, was launched as long ago as 2001 and shows no sign of reaching the finishing line. Initiatives like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) have run up against a coalition of protectionists, vested interests and left-wing protest groups. Politicians seem to have decided they have enough on their plate without fighting the good fight on free trade.

The result is that the world economy is not firing on all cylinders. It is missing the trade winds that have blown us to prosperity in the past. What that means is that countries are having to generate growth under their own steam.

That is true in Britain, where net trade has made virtually no contribution to the recovery in recent years, though the latest figures were rather more encouraging. It is true in China, notwithstanding this month’s small devaluation of the renminbi.

When world trade is weak, adjustments to domestically-generated growth like those the Chinese authorities are trying to achieve become more abrupt, and more challenging. Recoveries like those in Britain are almost bound to be unbalanced. We would all benefit from stronger world trade. Sadly, it does not appear to be on the horizon.

Sunday, August 23, 2015
QE or not QE? A slippery slope to breaking the Bank
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It is more than six years since the Bank of England launched quantitative easing (QE) and more than three years since it last actively did any. But QE opened up a Pandora’s box, and it may be only now that we are seeing the consequences of that.

The Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn has talked of a “QE for the people”, in which the Bank would print money to pay for infrastructure and other projects. Some economists have picked up on an idea, “helicopter money”, originally attributed to Milton Friedman but floated again by Lord (Adair) Turner a couple of years ago, in which in the event of a downturn – or even in the absence of a downturn – the Bank would print money in an open-ended way to finance the budget defciit, and perhaps to hand out to households.

It was perhaps inevitable that a policy which appears to magically conjure up money out of thin air, which can then be used to boost the economy, risked being the first step on a slippery slope. The Bank, in my view, could and should have done more to prevent that from happening.

Let me elaborate, starting with a brief account of what the QE undertaken by the Bank QE is and what it was meant to achieve.

QE was launched in March 2009, the moment the MPC reduced official interest rates to an all-time low of 0.5%. That was when it launched its asset purchase programme (its name for QE); buying assets, overwhelmingly British government bonds – gilts – using newly created “money”. “Money” in this case means, not cash, but central bank reserves. The new “money” is not costless. Interest has to be paid, at Bank rate, on the reserves created.

Over a 10-month period in 2009-10, the Bank created £200bn of such reserves and used it to purchase £200bn of assets. This was not, as is often wrongly thought, part of the bank bailout programme. The assets were largely bought from pension funds and insurance companies, as well as foreign investors in gilts.

QE in 2009 was hard not to support. I certainly did. This was an emergency “all hands to the pumps” period, when the economy needed rescuing. The institutions which sold assets to the Bank used the proceeds to buy corporate bonds, equities (shares) and other assets. This ensured that businesses, particularly larger ones, could access capital markets to keep going, and fund growth.

The key effect of QE was to reduce long-term interest rates. Cutting Bank rate to 0.5% had reduced short-term rates. Asset purchases reduced long rates – significant for investment – and also lowered the spread between government bond yields and those on other long-term investments. Not only did QE make it possible for larger businesses to raise money, bypassing the banks, but it made it cheaper for them to do so.

There were other routes QE boosted the economy, boosting confidence, signalling to the market the Bank was prepared to do whatever was necessary and improving liquidity. It may have helped keep sterling down. The effects of that first £200bn were significant. The Bank estimated it boosted GDP by between 1.5% and 2% and, when there were worries about “bad” deflation – falling prices due to weak growth – it pushed up inflation by 0.75 to 1.5 percentage points.

There were two important things about 2009’s QE. It was fully reversible. The gilts the Bank bought meant that it has assets alongside the reserves it created. When the gilts are sold back into the markets, or allowed to run off as they mature, the “money” created – will also be wound down.

The other is that it was undertaken very much in emergency circumstances, which was why I was less enthusiastic about the second wave of an additional £175bn of QE, which began in the autumn of 2011 and lasted well into 2012. You could argue that with the euro apparently on the brink of falling apart, hitting confidence and growth in Britain, this was also an emergency. But it was less pressing than in 2009.

So what about Corbyn’s “People’s QE” and helicopter drops? I am not sure how serious the Labour leadership candidate is about the policy. It may be a way of diverting discussion from some of his other policies, which I will look into in more detail in coming weeks. Certainly, he does not seem to know a lot about it.

Responding to questions on Radio 4’s World at One a few days ago, he described QE as a £325bn (sic) “loan” to banks, and suggested part of that loan instead should go towards the setting up of a new National Investment Bank, promising to establish a commission to investigate.

In his speech The Economy in 2020 he talked about People’s QE as “one option, under which the Bank would “be given a new mandate to upgrade our economy to invest in new large scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects”. The other option was to slash what he described as £93bn of “huge tax reliefs and subsidies” and fund infrastructure spending that way.

There is nothing new about what some of Corbyn’s supporters think of as a slightly different kind of “People’s QE”. A few years ago I used to get lots of e-mails from advocates of “Green QE” who said the Bank should invest in green projects rather than in the banks. I pointed out to them that QE was not about the banks and that to work, these green projects would need to be funded by the issue of government-backed bonds, which the Bank could buy if it chose to. Issuing these government-backed bonds to fund spending would, of course, add to government debt.

The twist in the People’s QE debate, from Corbyn’s supporters if not yet from him, is that the Bank would be compelled to buy bonds issued by a National Investment/Infrastructure Bank, and not just in emergencies. Compelling the Bank to undertake this kind of QE would kill Bank independence, one of Labour’s proudest achievements. Unless there was a commitment to sell these bonds back, the policy would be irreversible. It would be a strange and roundabout way of doing things, destroying the Bank’s reputation on the way.

Helicopter money would have a similar effect. Handing out cheques to households would clearly be irreversible. The Bank would not take any assets in return. It would have huge liabilities on its balance sheet, but no offsetting assets, requiring the Treasury to keep it keep it solvent. As David Miles, the outgoing MPC member, put it to me last week: “When people say helicopter drop, what they mean is, why doesn’t the government run a larger fiscal deficit?”

An article by Fergus Cumming, a Bank official, on the Bank’s new “blog” site says any extra boost from helicopter money “is either non-existent or comes with a sky-high price tag”. If Lord Turner was suggesting it in his interview to be Bank governor ahead of Mark Carney’s appointment, I can understand why he did not get the job.

That said, you can see why these ideas are around. When the Bank launched QE in 2009, it did not expect to be stimulating a debate six years later. In my view it could have done more to head it off. While the MPC’s reluctance to raise interest rates has been clear, there was no strong reason why it could not have begun to move away from “emergency” policy by selling off in the past couple of years some of the gilts it acquired in 2009-10 and 2011-12.

Had it done so even passively, not reinvesting the proceeds when the gilts it has on its books mature, then including its latest decision it could have run down the stock of gilts it has by around £52bn. But it has decided not do so before raising interest rates.

As for rates, the longer they are kept at 0.5%, the more the clamour will grow for experiments such as People’s QE and helicopter money in the event of the next downturn. The common feature of these is the belief that you can have money for nothing. Sadly, it is not true.

Sunday, August 16, 2015
Productivity lift-off will keep pushing up pay
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

I did wonder if this was the week when, in the light of Corbynmania, and what appears to be the Labour party’s longest suicide vote in history, I should tackle Corbynomics. But, though a victory for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest is confidently predicted, I note that some of those making the predictions also assured us that Ed Miliband would now be prime minister. So I’ll hold off for now.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of other things going on. Greece is not yet out of the woods and China, as I discuss below, has grabbed the markets’ attention. We have also had some interesting job market numbers which, on the face of it, suggest the election came not a moment too soon for the Tories. Before it, employment growth in jobs was powering ahead and unemployment falling.

Since it, the figures show employment falling and, as every new bulletin told us, unemployment rising for two months in a row, something that has been as rare as hen’s teeth in recent years.

Worse, for a government committed to reducing immigration, most of the reporting of the figures suggested that the lion’s share of the new jobs is going to foreigners, particularly foreigners from the rest of the European Union.

A bit of clarification is in order. The labour market numbers can be confusing and as a result are prone to misreporting. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) takes three-month periods as its basis for the employment and unemployment numbers. The latest three-month period is April-June. The three-month period reported in July was March-May. The unemployment number for April-June, 1.852m was slightly lower than the 1.853m for March-May, not higher. Employment, 31.035m, was just over 50,000 up on the 30.982m figure reported for March-May; higher not lower.

So where did the rising unemployment-falling employment story come from? This is because the ONS compares the latest three months with the previous three months, in this case January-March. On that basis, employment was down 63,000 and unemployment up 25,000, but that is different from saying the jobless total rose for a second successive month. Indeed, unemployment on the old claimant count measure – people on jobseeker’s allowance – has fallen every month this year.

As for those jobs going to migrants, having decided to publish the numbers a few years ago, the ONS has been fighting a losing battle since to persuade people not to confuse new jobs with net jobs. It is quite possible, indeed highly likely, that most new jobs are going to natives, because they – UK nationals – account for almost 90% of people in work (for UK-born the figure is 84%).
But it is also true that when it comes to net jobs – jobs added minus jobs lost – most of the gains over the past year have gone to non-UK nationals (61%), or non-UK born (75%), overwhelmingly from the rest of the EU. The distinction is important but does not defuse the tricky politics in this debate.

Having said all that, what is the bigger picture? It is that the job market recovery is maturing, so that in the past year there was an increase of 422,000 in the number of full-time employees, easily outweighing the 63,000 rise in the number of part-timers. Self-employment, which has risen strongly in recent years, has fallen by 95,000 over the latest 12 months. That tells us that there is a shift within the job market back towards conventional full-time employee jobs and away from part-time work and self-employment.

That is important, but arguably more important is that, alongside a recovery in pay, we may finally have arrived at productivity lift-off. It has to be a tentative claim at this stage but the prolonged weakness of productivity, which has puzzled economists for years, may have come to an end.

So in the second quarter, overall employment fell by 0.2% while gross domestic product rose by 0.7%, suggesting a healthy rise of around 0.9% in GDP per worker. Compared with a year earlier, GDP was up by 2.6%, employment by 1.2%.

A similar picture emerges when we look at GDP per hour, another way of measuring productivity. Hours worked fell by 0.2% in the second quarter, when GDP rose 0.7%. Hours worked in the past year were up by 1%.

One swallow does not make a summer but if productivity is indeed reviving, why is it happening? In an important sense, it is happening because it had to. There was a limit to how much unemployment could continue to fall and employment rise without running into serious bottlenecks – in spite of the EU migration safety valve – and skill shortages. The BBC had a nice example last week of a firm which had invested in a machine and doubled a worker’s output. Most productivity-enhancing investment is not so straightforward, but it is happening.

What will rising productivity mean? Two things. The first is that the turbocharged rise in employment we have seen over the past three years will be replaced by a gentler upward trend and that, peering through the latest numbers, may be what we are already starting to see. Unemployment can fall further, though also at a slower pace than we have been used to. Do not forget that when Mark Carney took over as Bank of England governor in the summer of 2013, the Bank did not expect the unemployment rate to fall to 7% until 2016. It is now 5.6%.

The second implication is that the growth in wages will become both more entrenched and, for employers, justifiable. Indeed, many will be looking at ways of pushing through productivity improvements ahead of the introduction of George Osborne’s new national living wage of £7.20 an hour next April.
As it is, the latest figures show total pay rising at an annual rate of 2.4% (2.8% in the private sector) and regular pay by 2.8% (3.3% private sector). Most of Britain is enjoying a meaningful pay rise. Rising productivity should mean that continues.

Sunday, August 02, 2015
Another milestone on the road to normality
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

An economic recovery is all about barriers and milestones. It is a story of getting over the barriers and counting off the milestones as you pass them. Britain has just passed an important milestone. It is one which suggests that at the very least talk of a lost decade for the economy, which was once very common, was misplaced.

It is two years since gross domestic product (GDP), adjusted for inflation, surpassed the pre-crisis level achieved in early 2008 but is only now - or more accurately in the April-June quarter - that GDP per head has regained its earlier peak.

These milestones do move around. As GDP figures get revised, it is quite likely that both will be seen to have occurred earlier than the current numbers suggest. We should not expect miracles, however. The economy was left weak and groggy by the crisis and was always going to take time to get back on its feet.

The barriers to recovery in recent years – from outside Britain – have been several. High global oil and commodity prices gave us high inflation in 2011, intensifying the squeeze on real incomes, a factor that did not dissipate until about 18 months ago.

The eurozone crisis, at its height three years ago, affected Britain’s economy directly through trade, and indirectly by spilling over into renewed concerns about the banking system. What may or not be its last gasp, the Greek crisis of recent months, is no longer critical, but one of its side-effects has been to push sterling up to €1.40-plus heights against the euro, which is hurting exporters.

Now China has emerged as a potential barrier to recovery, though my sense is that any negative effect from China’s stock market woes will be balanced by its effect on oil and commodity prices. Sometimes, as with last year’s sharp fall in oil prices, which has not been significantly reversed, external forces can be more of a springboard than a barrier.

Now that the GDP per head milestone has been passed, what other milestones are there? One is the length of recovery. If we define a recovery as a period of growth unbroken by two successive quarterly GDP falls, this one has now lasted almost six years. It is still in the foothills compared with the 16-year growth marathon between the autumn of 1991 and early 2008 but is catching up on the Thatcher 1981-90 nine-year recovery.

The biggest milestone of all would be if growth in coming years were strong enough to eliminate the “lost” years, in other words to make up for the ground lost as a result of the recession of 2008-9 when GDP fell by 6%.

The five years it took for GDP to get back to pre-crisis levels (seven years on a per capital basis), meant those years of potential growth – when the economy might have been expected to expand by 2.5% a year – were lost. Though growth is now above its long-run average, it is not enough above it to make up that lost ground other than at a snail’s pace. Those years of potential growth, and the rise in living standards associated with them, were largely lost for ever.

That’s enough milestones. Two questions arise. One is whether there is anything to suggest growth will become better balanced than it has been. The other is whether strong growth – the second quarter rise of 0.7% made it six out of the past eight when the economy has grown by that much or better – will be enough to persuade the Bank of England to hike interest rates.

That the recovery could do with being better balanced is not in doubt. The service sector bounced back quickly, getting back to pre-crisis levels of output as long ago as 2011. But manufacturing has yet to do so; it is 4.9% below its early-2008 levels, while construction is still 3.2% down.

Though both sectors disappointed in the latest quarter, perhaps a more nuanced picture is provided by the performance of the three sectors from their recession low points. Construction and manufacturing fell further, so had more to make up. From their respective recession low points, the service sector is up by 11.9% and manufacturing by 8.8%. Construction is actually the strongest of the three, up by 16.8% from its recession trough. But manufacturing could and should be doing a lot better.

What about interest rates? Every quarter of 0.7% growth is a quarter in which a little more spare capacity is used up. We will hear a lot more about this on “super Thursday” this week when the Bank publishes its quarterly inflation report, interest rate decision and monetary policy committee (MPC) minutes simultaneously. In the past these three events were been spread over three weeks.

Will the Bank, while acknowledging the strength of recovery, tone down its language on rate hikes because of the renewed weakness of oil and commodity prices? Brent crude oil is back in the low $50s, while broader commodity price measures dropped to a 13-year low last week.

We will see what happens. But I would be surprised if some MPC members do not vote for a rate hike this week and if the Bank’s broader message is not that people and businesses should be prepared for the start of a gradual rise in rates in the coming months.

When oil and commodity prices were high, the Bank “looked through” the temporary boost they provided to inflation, deciding instead that the economy was not ready for a hike in rates. Now prices are low, they are likely to take the opposite view; that they cannot postpone indefinitely the process of “normalising” interest rates. The new normal will, of course, be lower than the old normal.

Starting to raise interest rates will, when it comes, be a milestone in itself after more than six years in which there has been no change. It will be a milestone of the road back to normality.

Sunday, July 26, 2015
Cuts: the big bad wolf's howl is worse than his bite
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Sometimes I think that when George Osborne looks in the mirror each morning, he thinks: “Now how can I put the wind up the Labour party today?” Then, while holding that thought, he goes on to: “And how can I put the fear of God into people working in the public sector?”

A few days ago, the Treasury produced a 24-page document called ‘A country that lives within its means: Spending Review 2015’. Signed by the chancellor and his Treasury chief secretary, Greg Hands, this was not the spending review itself; that will not be published until November 25.

No, it was the Treasury’s opening gambit in the coming negotiations between it and the spending departments. Unlike in 2010, when the coalition’s first and most important spending review was a bit of the back of the envelope affair, the chancellor does not want to be accused this time of not following proper procedure.

Actually procedure has become a lot more formal during the time I have been following these things. There was a time when to extract from the Treasury, or more likely from disgruntled Whitehall departments, what the mandarins were demanding was gold dust. Now it is set out in black and white in an official document.

Osborne and Hands have asked “unprotected” departments to model two scenarios, of 25% and 40%, for real-terms reductions in their so-called resource budgets. Even in an official document, that is big news. The BBC led on it all day.

Does it mean, as some have suggested, that the Treasury is setting a target for cuts that can never be achieved? Does it mean an ideologically driven plan to shrink the state beyond recognition, so people have no choice but to use the private sector?

I suspect it means neither of those things. There is an interesting question to be asked about what kind of spending review we might have had, if the budget deficit had come down as much as expected in the last parliament. It is falling, but at £88bn in 2014-15 was some £50bn more than Osborne intended in 2010.

Even if the deficit had come down by more, however, there would have been a case for a proper look at public spending, the Canadian-style review the Tories used to talk of fondly before the 2010 election. Time and manifesto commitments have, however, taken their toll.

The government is committed to raising NHS spending in England by £10bn in real terms by 2020-21, to protecting per-pupil funding for schools, and to increasing the Ministry of Defence budget by 0.5% a year in real terms. The overseas aid commitment of spending 0.7% of national income will be met.

Being inside the ringfence, as this spending is, does not preclude efficiency savings, indeed the NHS will be required to deliver significant ones. But it is the non-ringfenced departments – all the rest – which will be bearing the brunt. Will they be cutting by 25% or even 40%? No, the resource budget only encompasses some Whitehall spending, excluding for example capital spending, which is significant for some departments. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the actual real-terms cut for non-ringfenced departments will be 12.6%. Whitehall should not be as afraid of the big bad wolf as the headlines might have suggested.

This is even more the case if we look at the overall numbers for public spending. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, it has come down from 45.7% of gross domestic product in 2009-10 to an estimated 39.6% this year. The task for the next five years is to get it down to 36.3%.

How much will overall government spending be cut over the next few years? Not at all. In real terms – 2013-14 prices – it will rise from £724bn this year to £746.5bn in 2020-21, an increase over and above inflation of 3%. Public sector current expenditure rises by more than 2.5% over the same period. We can argue over the composition of spending, and whether the ringfence is in the right place. Some bits of government will see their budgets reduced but in most cases this is a long way from savage cuts. I can understand why Osborne wants to play the big bad wolf but his howl is a lot worse than his bite.

There is another fiscal issue to be touched on here. After the budget I bemoaned the absence of serious tax reform, in particular the failure to mention merging income tax and National Insurance. Since then, though I would not claim cause and effect, it has emerged that the chancellor has commissioned a Treasury study into the integration of income tax and NI into a single “earnings tax”.

The name earnings tax, if it happens, is important. Merging tax and NI and applying it to all incomes would create a large swathe of losers among pensioners, who do not pay NI.

Michael Johnson of the Centre for Policy Studies, who wrote a report last year on NI, called The End Should be Nigh, argued for a single earnings tax with three rates, 32%, 42% and 47%. The lowest rate would kick in at the existing personal allowance, £10,600, which is well above the NI lower earnings limit (£5,824) and the more relevant primary threshold (£8,060). The change would thus help lower earners.

One reason why chancellors have been reluctant to merge income tax and NI is because the latter preserves a semblance of the Beveridge contributory principle, though the Mirrlees review commissioned by the Institute for Fiscal Studies declared in 2010 that NI “is not a true social insurance scheme; it is just another tax on earnings”. Another is that NI is a good stealth tax. Under the last Labour government the basic rate of income tax – which people are more aware of - went down but NI went up.

There is the bigger question of what to do about employers’ contributions, which are responsible for a substantial chunk of the £109bn NI brought in last year. Johnson suggests that these could be replaced by higher corporation tax, though that would go against the grain for a government bent on reducing the corporation tax rate to 18%. The easiest thing would be just to rename employers’ NICs as an employer earnings or payroll tax.

Osborne will not be the first chancellor to have considered merging income tax and NI. Let us see if he will be the one to do it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015
Bank ponders a rate rise as job market changes gear
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Things are getting rather interesting. In the past few days we have had what looks like a concerted attempt by the Bank of England to prepare people for an interest rate rise in the coming months, coupled with an equally explicit effort by Janet Yellen, chairwoman of the Federal Reserve Board, to say America’s rates will also soon be rising.

Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, travelled up to Lincoln to tell the world that the decision on interest rates would move into sharper focus around the turn of the year, which most people interpreted as signalling the first rate rise since 2007 and the first move in any direction since 2009.

And yet, on the face of it, the numbers have been going against the idea of a rate rise, certainly in Britain. Inflation, having popped up to a heady 0.1% in May, subsided to zero in June. “Core” inflation dipped slightly and British Gas has announced the start of what might be a new round of energy price reductions with a 5% cut in gas prices. Though inflation will rise as we get towards the end of the year, it is not about to race away.

Even more tellingly, the latest job market figures were a lot softer - at least as far as employment and unemployment were concerned – than expected. Could the Bank, having held off from raising rates when jobs were booming possibly do so when employment is slipping and unemployment going up?

The answer is that it depends, and it depends on two things: whether the latest figures were a temporary blip and whether, if they were not, they signal a change of direction we should celebrate, or be worried about.

The headlines from the job figures were that the number of people in employment fell by 67,000 to 30.98m in the March-May period, which was the first quarterly fall since February-April 2013. That, to remind you, was when the air was thick with worries – misplaced as it turned out – that Britain was sliding into a triple-dip recession. As we now know, there was not even a double-dip.

The fall in employment coincided, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a small rise in unemployment, up 15,000 in the March-May period, with the unemployment rate ticking up from 5.5% to 5.6%. This was the first quarterly increase in unemployment since early 2013.

Was it a blip? The quarterly falls in unemployment have been getting smaller in recent months, even as employment growth was continuing quite strongly. That would suggest that the obvious blip factor, uncertainty over the general election, was not entirely to blame. The fact that the claimant count, a narrower measure of unemployment, edged higher in June, supports that verdict. So election uncertainty may have played some part in the unemployment rise but it is far from the full story.

What is also happening, very clearly, is that as the economic recovery matures, so the job market is evolving. In the latest three months there was a 45,000 increase in employees working full-time, alongside a 40,000 drop in part-time employees and a 55,000 fall in the number of self-employed.

We should be wary of reading too much into quarterly changes like these but they are part of a longer-run trend. So over the past 12 months there has been a hefty 382,000 rise in the number of full-time employees, while the rise in the number of part-time employees has slowed to a crawl, up just 46,000 in a year. The number of self-employed people, meanwhile, dropped by 131,000.

So we are seeing a shift from self-employment into employment and from part-time into full-time work. As I noted recently, some people who opted for self-employment as a stop-gap are moving pack into working for somebody else as opportunities become available. Though you would not want this to run alongside rising unemployment and falling employment, it is a healthy development.

The other part of the non-blip story is what is happening to wages and, it appears, productivity. Average earnings growth has been accelerating for some time. Last summer, total pay was up by less than 1% on an annual basis. Now it is rising by 3.2%, with private sector pay in the latest three months up 3.8% on a year earlier. That will settle down a little in the coming months but we appear to have moved back into a world in which private sector pay – the best guide to underlying labour market pressures – rises by 3% or more.

A quick verdict on the latest numbers might be that the old relationship between wages and unemployment, the Phillips curve, is reasserting itself; as wages go up, employment goes down. I am not sure that is the correct verdict because, alongside the uptick in wages – and thanks to zero inflation real wages are now growing very rapidly indeed – there has been an upturn in productivity.

We will not know the official productivity figures for some time, but looking at what we do know in terms of hours worked, it looks like output per hour was up about 0.8% in the second quarter and by at least 2% on a year earlier. That is starting to look like more like normal productivity growth, which is another healthy development.

It will be healthier still, of course, if rising productivity can be combined with rising employment and falling unemployment, albeit with both occurring at a slower pace than we have become accustomed to in the past 2-3 years. So, instead of strong employment growth alongside weak productivity and stagnant or falling real wages, employment rises more modestly but real wages and productivity also increase. That would be a more normal state of affairs.

It would also be consistent with a gradual “normalisation” of monetary policy. David Miles, who is nearing the end of his six years on the Bank’s monetary policy committee (MPC), was if anything more interesting than Carney. He has yet to be part of a vote to change interest rates in either direction. But even he, known to be one of the most “dovish” MPC members said last week that waiting too long to raise rates would be “a bad mistake” and that “the time to start normalisation is soon”. That is unlikely to mean before he leaves the MPC at the end of August but, if the Bank’s reading of the labour market squares with mine, it may not be many months after that.

Sunday, July 12, 2015
Osborne gambles on a pay rise to cushion the cuts
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Five days on from any budget is always a bit of a challenge, particularly one that has been picked over more intensely than most. Fortunately there is still a lot to say on George Osborne’s first budget of the new parliament.

Let me first give thanks for a measure that was not in the budget. Three weeks ago I wrote that a cut in the very top 45% tax rate alongside welfare cuts would send out the worst possible signals. The chancellor was being urged to do it by some senior Tories but fortunately resisted the temptation.

The other omission, which was much less welcome, was sensible tax reform. There was nothing about merging income tax and National Insurance but instead a continuation of the coalition policy of lifting the personal income tax allowance, combined this time with raising the higher rate threshold. Merging tax and NI would help the lower-paid more, while messy aspects of the income tax system remain, including the 60% marginal rate that kicks in at £100,000.

The tax changes that were in the budget, including the new £1m inheritance tax threshold for couples on homes (though not until 2020) and restricting mortgage interest relief for buy-to-let landlords to the basic rate, added to the complexity of the tax system rather than reduced it. Neither the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Paul Johnson nor me are champions of buy to let, but he is right when he points out that owner-occupation has tax advantages over being a landlord, and will have even more now.

So what was the budget all about? Three things. The budget, rightly, got rid of the roller coaster that the chancellor found himself with after his March budget, because ahead of the election he wanted to rid himself of the silly charge that he planned to cut spending to its lowest since the 1930s.

Though the Treasury was keen to keep that as a surprise, it should not really have come as a surprise that we now have a more measured pace of deficit reduction. I wrote as much on the Sunday after the March budget.

The planned budget surplus, of £10bn, does not arrive until 2019-20, rather than 2018-19, and spending is significantly higher in three years – 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 – than set out in March. But this is overwhelmingly a story of smoothing rather than largesse. At the end of the parliament overall government spending is just £7.1bn, or 0.8%, higher than under the previous “savage cuts” scenario.

The second thing of note was that, for a government that said fiscal adjustment would come through spending restraint, there were some significant tax increases in the budget. Overall, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility tax policy changes will be raising a net £6.5bn a year more by the end of the parliament.

The new dividends tax will eventually raise more than £2 billion a year, vehicle excise duty reforms nearly £1 billion and increasing insurance premium tax from 6% to 9.5% £1.5 billion. Most of the burden of adjustment will still be on spending, together with the clampdown on tax evasion and avoidance, but these are big revenue raisers and rather stealthily done. If he could bring himself to admire anything Osborne does, Gordon Brown would be proud.

I have left the biggest budget change until last. With his reduction in tax credits and the new national living wage - £7.20 from April, rising to more than £9 (£9.35) by 2020 – Osborne has given us a variation on traditional Tory philosophy: reduce the size of the state, not by assuming the private sector will move into the gap, but intervening to make sure they do so.

The new national living wage is a kind of super minimum wage. I remember when Labour introduced the minimum wage alongside tax credits in the late 1990s Ed Balls telling me that it was essential to have a wage floor so employers could not exploit the new system. Osborne has just raised that floor.

Just as the BBC is taking on some of the welfare bill by funding free TV licences for the over-75s, so business will take on some of the costs of welfare, particularly tax credits, by paying its workers more.

What should we think of this? It is a fair question for people to ask what the response to this might have been if it had been introduced by an Ed Miliband Labour government. It would probably have been dismissed, including by me, as an anti-business, job-destroying intervention by a party that does not understand how the economy works.

This, indeed, is the response of some in business, including the low-wage sectors that will bear the brunt of this, such as care homes and catering. The minimum wage has not been a destroyer of jobs, but only because its level has been carefully calibrated each year by the Low Pay Commission.

Labour, on the other hand, would not have accompanied a proposal to force wages up with welfare cuts on the £12bn scale Osborne announced. Politically, and perhaps economically, the pill needed to be sweetened.

The IFS is perfectly correct when it says that the national living wage will not, on its own, compensate for welfarte cuts. The numbers, £4bn extra from the living wage versus £12bn of welfare cuts, demonstrate that clearly. Some welfare losers will not gain from the living wage.

There will be losers from the welfare cuts, whatever happens to wages and employment. That is inevitable, as is the fact that most of the losses will be for households on lower incomes. What the Treasury has in mind, however, is a more dynamic process than that implied by the raw numbers, in which the living pushes up pay at higher levels and employment grows even more strongly than the 1m over the next five years expected by the OBR. Osborne expects 2m. More, in other words, could be lifted off welfare.

I am still not sure this was the best way of doing it. One of the consequences of the welfare cuts will be that the “why work?” syndrome gets worse. Some people on low incomes will face marginal tax/benefit withdrawal rates of nearly 80%. The issue I have touched on in recent weeks, that what needs to be freed up are the restrictions on the hours people are willing to work under current welfare arrangements, has not obviously been tackled. The new national living wage may make employers less willing to offer more hours. It is in danger of being seen as a sledgehammer to crack a nut

What we are seeing, to use a word that appeared frequently in Osborne’s speech, is a bold experiment. It is intended, not just to raise wages at the bottom but to have knock-on effects right up the pay scale. The aim is indeed to give Britain a pay rise.

Whether this forces the rise in productivity that will justify higher pay is one aspect of the experiment. Whether it leads to bigger job losses than the 60,000 assumed by the OBR – hugely offset by the 1m net new jobs it expects over the next five years – is another. Let us hope so. Boldness is good. But fortune does not always favour the brave.

Sunday, July 05, 2015
Syriza dreamers snuffed out growth and made a difficult situation worse
Posted by David Smith at 12:00 PM
Category: David Smith's other articles

From The Sunday Times, July 5 2015

At the start of this year, things were looking up for the beleaguered Greek economy. Economists polled by Consensus Economics predicted growth of 2% this year, following last year’s modest 0.8% expansion. Unemployment, while still sky-high, had edged lower. There was a flickering light at the end of the tunnel.

That has now been blown out. The latest Consensus Economic assessment is that Greece will experience a small outright recession this year, a consensus forecast that could get a lot worse in the coming days and weeks. Nor can this be blamed on what is happening in the wider eurozone. Forecasters have become more optimistic about eurozone growth in recent months, raising their 2015 forecast from just over 1% to 1.5%.

The gloom has a single explanation. The election of the Syriza government in late January, and the chaotic months of negotiation with Greece’s creditors that followed, plunged the economy into uncertainty and snuffed out the embryonic recovery. The closure of the banks last week, inevitable once the Greek government announced a referendum for today on a bailout package that has since expired, was the final chaotic act by a government that has set new standards of incompetence.

The battle between Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, and his country’s creditors has been seen in some quarters, including in Britain, as David versus Goliath, dignity versus dictatorship, growth versus austerity, democracy versus the faceless bureaucrats. It could have been all of these things. When Syriza won power it brought with it to the negotiations with its creditors a lot of goodwill. It immediately won a fourth-month extension on its €240bn (£170bn) bailout, which dwarfs the other eurozone rescues, for Ireland, Portugal and the Spanish banking system.

The problem has been that if Syriza wanted to negotiate seriously, it showed little sign of doing so. A competent left-wing government, which built alliances and elicited sympathy for the pain the Greek people have suffered, could have won substantial concessions. Instead, Greece’s creditors were driven to distraction by negotiating positions that appeared to change with each meeting.
Elected on an anti-austerity programme, it has come to accept it, while simultaneously disowning it. It first opposed and promised to reverse privatization before changing its view.

It reversed some reforms previous Greek governments had agreed to, before partially reversing its reversal. It has flipped and flopped; within a few hours last Wednesday Tsipras was apparently willing to accept most of the creditors’ proposals, before going on TV to condemn them. TV images last Sunday showing a smiling Yanis Varoufakis, taking to the streets to join a protest march hours before the country’s banks were shut, told their own story.

If Greek voters say “no” in the referendum today, it will be the second time in six months that they have backed Syriza on a false promise. In January it was the false promise that there would be no more austerity and that the reforms insisted upon by creditors could be reversed. This time it is that a no vote will mean a better deal. It will not. A no vote would mean a return to the negotiating table for a Syriza government that the creditors have already decided they cannot deal with. Even the normally diplomatic Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has talked of the need for “adults” in the room. If a no vote does not mean a Greek exit from the euro, it is hard to see what would.

Though a “yes” vote should mean the end of Syriza, and its replacement by an alternative government, perhaps a government of technocrats, who would then negotiate with the creditors, Greece’s problems would be far from over. Its six-month experiment with a dysfunctional government of academics and dreamers have set the Greek economy back some years. It has also been expensive.

The IMF, in a “debt sustainability analysis” released last week said that “very significant changes in policies and in the outlook since early this year have resulted in a substantial increase in financing needs”. Having thought Greece would need no further debt relief, it now thinks it will need €50bn (£35bn) of support over the 2015-18 period, €36bn (£27bn) of it from Europe. The Syriza bill is a large one.

Osborne must press the right buttons on tax and productivity
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Given the sheer unpredictability of events in Greece we cannot be sure that George Osborne’s first post-election budget, his seventh in all, will be the biggest economic story this week. But it will be important for all that.

One thing is clear. A budget that merely fills in the details of where the welfare axe will fall will not get the parliament off to a good start. As I wrote last week, there is plenty of scope for savings but they must be in the context of weaning people off welfare and into work, or into working more hours.

There are two other priorities. One is tax reform. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is always worth listening to and his proposals for a tax reform programme for this parliament, beginning this week, make a lot of sense.

So the chancellor should begin the process of integrating income tax and national insurance, tackle absurdities such as the 60% marginal rate on earnings between £100,000 and £121,200 (tricky when the beneficiaries of any change are high earners) and reintroduce sensible indexation into taxation.

Johnson points out that we have a hotch-potch of indexation arrangements, with some parts of the system using the consumer prices index and others the now discredited retail prices index. More often, I would add, the decision to index or not, for example in the case of fuel duty, has become highly political. I have lost count of the number of times this chancellor has decided to “be kind to motorists” by not indexing fuel duty. Over time, these things add up to a lot of lost revenue.

The biggest failure to index, as the IFS director points out, is in the council tax system, where the system is based on valuations of nearly quarter of a century ago. This is bonkers.

The chancellor would make his life a lot easier if we were to return to the days when indexation, using a sensible inflation measure, was the normal thing to do. And there is no better time to do that when inflation is very low. If Osborne is to embark on sensible tax reform, not something that stood out in his first five years, now is the time to start. I am not clear that raising the inheritance tax threshold on main homes to £1m, paid for by reducing pension tax relief, is the kind of reform I would have in mind.

What else? Most chancellors, even those like Gordon Brown who introduced his own productivity agenda, have not had to worry overmuch about weak productivity growth.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics show that productivity – output per hour – rose 0.3% in the first quarter and is 1.3% up on a year earlier. They also show, however, how far there is to go.

In the first quarter productivity was just 5% up on its level 10 years earlier. The period straddles the crisis and recession but, even so, for productivity growth to average a little under 0.5% a year over a decade is remarkably weak. It was slowing even before the crisis hit.

For comparison, productivity rose by 22% in the previous decade; 1995-2005; 26% from 1985 to 1995, and 28% from 1975 to 1985. Roughly speaking, we have had a fifth of the productivity growth over the past decade that we should have had.

There are, as noted before, some special factors in that; the shift in the financial services sector from productivity driver to productivity drag and the decline of North Sea oil. Some sectors have bucked the trend. Manufacturing productivity has been up and down recently but is 18% higher than 10 years ago.

But productivity is a bigger problem for Osborne than for his predecessors. Hence the “productivity plan” we will see unveiled this week around the time of the budget.

There is no great mystery about what should constitute a productivity plan. Politicians cannot wave a wand and boost productivity though they can create the conditions under which the private sector can deliver improvements.

That means tackling the usual suspects, the productivity "drivers", though Osborne also appears to have in mind the dynamic drivers of productivity, the cities and other clusters in which those productivity drivers can trhive.

Of the traditional drivers, business investment has been improving recently but the single biggest explanation for why the output of British workers is below that of competitor countries such as France is that they invest more. So expect some modest investment incentives, notably an increase in the annual investment allowance.

A productivity plan means boosting education and skills, incentivising training and apprenticeships. Plenty is being done on this, though governments can probably never do enough.

It should also mean investing in and updating the infrastructure in a timely way and it is here that you realise that this productivity thing is not so easy. In presenting the findings of his Airports Commission Sir Howard Davies fired the starting gun, not on the diggers breaking ground for Heathrow’s third runway but on a prolonged period of argument, dithering and uncertainty.

The announcement a few days earlier of delays in what had been billed as the biggest rail investment programme since the Victorian era, including the postponement of at least one project pivotal to the chancellor’s northern powerhouse, confirmed that we do not do these things well. Anybody waiting for Transpennine electrification to deliver productivity improvements will be waiting a long time.

There is, of course, nothing new in Britain being bad at infrastructure, in business tending to under-invest and in more work being needed to improve education and skills. None of this, however, prevented good rates of productivity growth being achieved in the past.

If you were to put your finger on one big difference since the crisis, it is finance. Availability of credit, of funding for business growth is a factor most people can agree has significantly held back productivity. The process of creative destruction long ago identified by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter has been held back. Banks have kept bad businesses alive while failing to finance new, creative and productive firms. It remains the case that bank lending to business is falling in year-on-year terms, six years into the recovery.

There have been plenty of initiatives in this area, and there are sources of finance, but it is still a problem. Osborne’s current priority is to get Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland back into the private sector. Maybe that will deliver stronger lending to business but probably it will not.

It is good that the chancellor has a productivity plan. It has some good elements as well as some familiar ones. But if productivity improves it will probably do so because of an easing of the effects of the crisis and a return to some kind of normality, not because of what will be announced in the next few days. If Osborne is lucky, his plan will coincide with an improvement in productivity. If not, it will be back to the drawing-board.

Sunday, June 28, 2015
Cut tax rates at the bottom, not at the top
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

There is more than a touch of déjà vu about George Osborne’s summer budget on July 8. In June 2010, when Osborne presented his first “emergency” budget, Greece dominated the headlines, having agreed to its first bailout package amid deadly riots and a flurry of ratings downgrades.

Then as now, Britain had a substantial budget deficit which had to be tackled. And, while it has fallen by more than half as a percentage of gross domestic product, at 4.9% of GDP or nearly £90bn in 2014-15 (though falling this year) it remains too high for comfort. Hence, one of the sounds you hear from the Treasury is that of knives being sharpened.

True, this is the first budget in a Conservative-only government since Ken Clarke’s last outing nearly two decades ago in November 1996 (at that time the spring budget had been abolished). And true, the fact the chancellor no longer has to get everything past coalition partners will change the character of next month’s budget. In other respects, however, things are rather familiar.

Let me address three aspects of the upcoming budget: the economic backdrop, whether welfare cuts can be achieved and whether in the context of such cuts, the first Tory budget for almost 20 years should include a cut from 45% to 40% in the top rate for very high earners.

The economic backdrop to the budget is one of a strong job market, low inflation and rising real wages. Independent forecasters expect 2.5% growth this year and, in forecasts published since the election, 2.4% next. Though the talk is of tough, front-end loaded austerity, forecasters do not expect this to have a significant impact on growth.

If so, this would follow the pattern of the last parliament. Though there is a view around that growth stopped as soon as Osborne embarked on austerity (in addition to that he inherited from the previous Labour government), and only started when deficit reduction was relaxed or even abandoned, it is a myth.

Growth in 2010-11 was 2.3% and 1.4% in 2011-12, even as austerity was biting hardest (reducing growth by 1.1 percentage points each year according to the Office for Budget Responsibility). Non-oil growth, which adjusts for sharply falling North Sea oil production, and is a fairer measure of underlying economic activity, was 2.7% and 1.9% respectively. Though tax increases and spending cuts hit growth, as did several other factors, low interest rates and quantitative easing by the Bank of England boosted it. With Bank rate at 0.5% for more than six years, monetary policy remains loose now.

What could hit growth is what happens in the eurozone. Growth slowed to 0.7% (1% excluding oil) in 2012-13, when euro break-up fears were at their height and the eurozone was in a full-blown recession, its second in the space of three years. Currently growth in the eurozone is picking up, which is good. The hope has to be that that continues, notwithstanding a Greek saga that has lurched into new uncertainty this weekend, with the Syriza government's decision to call a referendum next Sunday on a deal which may well have evaporated by then.

The two solid elements of the budget are the planned £12bn of welfare cuts and £5bn of savings from curbing tax avoidance. Nobody will argue with the latter. Plenty will criticise the former.

On welfare, as was made clear in the joint piece in this newspaper last Sunday from Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, and a speech a few days ago by David Cameron, the aim is not just to cut but to reform, improving incentives to work and ending what the prime minister called the “merry go round”. Essentially, the more that people receive in pay, the less they will need from working-age benefits.

Is this feasible? There is little evidence that employers deliberately play the system of tax credits by paying the minimum they can get away with (usually the minimum wage), knowing that the government will top it up with tax credits.

There is plenty of evidence, however, that benefit and tax credit rules do affect the hours that people are willing to work, and their willingness to receive bonuses. A Low Pay Commission report earlier this year, the Minimum Wage, Taxes and Benefits, found that over half of employers found that employees did not more hours, because it would affect their entitlement to in-work benefits. This was particularly the case among lone parents at 16 hours, and single adults at 30 hours, in each case the threshold for receiving tax credits and other benefits.

This is because of a longstanding flaw in the system, that higher earnings can result in a marginal effective tax rate of more than 100%. Unsurprisingly, people respond to such disincentives. The system can act as a trap. The switch to universal credit will help, though the Low Pay Commission report notes that effective tax rates of over 70% will remain. Osborne, Duncan Smith and Cameron have the right aim, to reduce welfare dependency, and it seems there is demand from employers to increase working hours – shifting the burden from taxpayers to business – but it is ambitious. Taking £12bn out of a £94bn working-age welfare bill means taking some prisoners.

Whatever the chancellor announces on welfare, it will be greeted as draconian by many, the more so if he were to combine it with a cut in the top rate of tax. This was the intriguing possibility raised by the Financial Times a couple of days ago, citing the fact that Lord Lawson, the former Tory chancellor, is urging Osborne to do it.

Lawson, of course, cut the top rate from 60% to 40% in his penultimate budget in 1988. The current chancellor announced a cut in the top rate from 50% to 45% in 2012, a budget that for a variety of reasons was not his finest hour.

Is there a case to go further, taking it back down to the level that prevailed for 22 years after Lawson’s historic announcement? He did it in the first budget of a new parliament, so there is precedent. The closer you get to an election, the harder it is. Combined with a package of measures that hit higher earners – further limiting pension tax relief and abolishing non-dom status for anybody born here – it could be presented as a fiscally neutral. It would delight many Tory backbenchers.

But, while I am normally as much in favour of lower taxes as anybody, it would look terrible. A tax cut for those earning more than £150,000 alongside significant welfare cuts would confirm very stereotype about the Tories. Getting the top rate down to 40% is a laudable aim. It should wait until the public finances are closer to being fixed.

Sunday, June 21, 2015
Booming job market gives Britain a pay rise
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Apart from a Greek crisis that is in danger of giving a whole new meaning to the term brinkmanship – the usual idea is to stop before you go over the edge – the past few days have brought some other interesting developments.

Though the latest figures show that Britain has edged out of deflation after just a month, the combination of negligible inflation and a strengthening of pay growth means real wages are growing at their fastest since 2007; before the crisis hit home.

Some said this would not happen for a very long time, or that the return of real wage growth last year was merely a product of very low inflation. But the latest rise in average earnings, 2.7%, is enough to outstrip inflation even when it returns to the 2% target.

It runs alongside what the Office for National Statistics says is the longest spell of sustained retail sales growth since records began almost two decades ago. In May, retail sales volumes were 4.6% up on a year earlier. Low inflation has certainly helped here. A drop in petrol prices of more than 10% over the past 12 months has had the predictable effect of increasing the volume of spending, not just on fuel but on other products as well.

The earnings figures provide me with a peg to address three things. One is that the job market is changing as its recovery matures. The second is the sustainability of stronger pay growth when overall productivity is weak. The third is what the numbers tell us about the consumer recovery.

Let me take these in turn. Though the average earnings figures were the most eye-catching element of the latest labour market numbers, they were not the only information of note.

We have an economy which has generated a rise in employment of 424,000 and a fall in unemployment of 349,000 in the past year. There are more than three-quarters of a million unfilled vacancies, which is why many employers complain of problems in recruiting.

Behind these headline figures, something rather interesting is happening. One of the refrains of recent years has been the casualization of employment; the rise of self-employment, part-time jobs and zero hours contracts.

This has been a caricature for some time. Over the latest 12 months there has been an increase of 453,000 in the number of employees working full-time. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that this exceeds the overall rise in employment over the period. This is because, as well as a smaller increase in the number of part-time employees (92,000), there have been falls in self-employment (91,000), unpaid family workers (14,000) and people on government schemes (15,000).

The death of the traditional full-time job - working for somebody else - was greatly exaggerated. Over the past two years, to offer a slightly longer comparison, three quarters of net new jobs created have been for full-time employees.

Some will bemoan the decline of self-employment over the past year, and it is too early to declare it as a trend, but it seems likely that at least some people who were going it alone have been lured back to the security of being a full-time employee as opportunities became available. There is still plenty of scope for entrepreneurs but we may be seeing the beginnings of a decline in involuntary self-employment.

Companies do not recruit, of course, unless they have jobs for people to do. And in general they do not pay higher wages unless they need to do so to recruit and retain staff or because it is justified by higher productivity. Though there is clearly an element of the former in what is happening at the moment, we should not ignore the latter.

This brings me on to my second point. Though the overall numbers for productivity remain weaker than they should be, something is stirring. I have noted before that the sectors and sub-sectors in which jobs are strongest are typically those where output is also rising strongly.

The construction industry increased employment by 1.3% in the year to the first quarter. Earnings growth has also started to pick up quite strongly in the building industry. But output, we now know, showed a hefty 4.4% annual rise in the first quarter, suggesting productivity is on the up. The same is true for wholesaling and retailing – employment up 2%, output 4.7% - real estate, 0.3% and 1.7% respectively; transport and communications, 1.4% and 4.7%, and several other parts of the economy.

The process clearly has further to go, indeed a long way to go. The productivity numbers are still weighed down by North Sea oil and financial services, and by the fact that availability of finance continues to inhibit the growth of younger, high-productivity businesses. But there are signs of change. Even with these factors, the aggregate figures point to productivity growth of between 1% and 1.5%, which is a step in the right direction.

Finally, the latest earnings figures offer an opportunity to bury a myth I often hear repeated, which is that the British economy has been carried along by “debt-fuelled consumption”. The remarkable thing about the past few years is how little household debt has risen, not how much.

Bank of England figures show that household debt stands at £1,434bn, overwhelmingly in the form of mortgages. It has risen by £43bn, or just 3%, from its pre-crisis peak just ahead of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. In the previous seven years, for comparison, it rose by £602bn, or 76%. Unsecured credit has fallen by nearly a fifth from pre-crisis levels.

And, while lending to households has picked up recently, it is running at a modest 2.5% growth rate, compared with 15% or more at times in the pre-crisis period. For its effects on consumer spending, it is dwarfed by rising incomes.

Tucked away in the official GDP (gross domestic product) figures is a series for compensation of employees, overwhelmingly wages and salaries. It picks up both the growth in earnings and the effects of rising employment. What matters for spending power in the economy is not just the pay rises received by individual workers but the number of people in receipt of wages.

In the first quarter, compensation of employees was up by 4.2% on a year earlier, having risen by 3.2% in 2014 and 3.1% in 2013. Though some of this – a diminishing proportion – was eaten up by inflation, most provided the basis for the growth in consumer spending, which has been running at around 2.5% recently. When incomes are rising, people still need to borrow to move house, and many choose to take out finance to buy cars and other big-ticket items. Overwhelmingly, however, spending is out of rising incomes.

Sunday, June 14, 2015
First get your budget surplus, then try to keep it there
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Neither will welcome the comparison but George Osborne since the election reminds me of Gordon Brown in the weeks after Labour’s 1997 victory. Both hit the ground running, with a flurry of announcements and initiatives while their cabinet colleagues were getting used to being in office or, in the case of the Tories, back but with an overall majority.

For Osborne, it is like a weight has been lifted. Though I am sure he enjoyed the company of Danny Alexander, his former Liberal Democrat Treasury chief secretary, and all those “quad” meetings with Nick Clegg and Alexander as well as David Cameron, the sense of liberation is palpable. The sometimes Eeyore-ish presence of Vince Cable at the business department might have meant slower progress on selling the rest of Royal Mail and embarking on the disposal of RBS. No more.

The chancellor’s biggest offering, however, is what he described in his Mansion House speech as his “new settlement” for the public finances, “a permanent change in our political debate and our approach to fiscal responsibility”.

That new settlement, to legislate for future governments to run a budget surplus “in normal times”, “to bear down on debt and prepare for an uncertain future”, has been widely greeted as a political trick, intended to kick Labour when it is down, by forcing the main opposition party to commit to a fiscal rule it is probably not comfortable with.

There is some truth in that, as there is in the fact that fiscal rules, even those enshrined in law, are made to be broken, and that no government can bind the hands of its successors. On the latter, however, the chancellor may be aiming for the kind of consensus there is now on Bank of England independence. Just as it is hard to see any new government reversing that, it could be a very big deal if future politicians decided to abolish the proposed fiscal law.

Let me leave the politics aside and take the proposed surplus rule at face value. While some see it as a return to the Victorian era, there is much later experience, if not with permanent surpluses, then at least with far tighter public finances than the recent norm.

Reliable figures for the public finances go back to 1948 and, while it is true that there have only been 12 years in that period when the government has run a budget surplus, the deficit over the period 1948-72 averaged just 0.6% of gross domestic product. This, remember, was the period of fiscal activism, Keynesian demand management.

The current budget – excluding public sector investment – was in surplus in every year from 1948 to 1974, that surplus averaging 3.8% a year. The figures, incidentally, give the lie to the suggestion that tight public finances mean governments cannot undertake necessary investment in the economy.

In the three decades from 1948, when the average overall budget deficit was a tiny 0.6% of GDP, public sector net investment averaged 4.6% of GDP annually. That is roughly three times its average over the past 20 years, not least because much of that investment used to be by nationalised industries.

We are a long way from the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. The budget deficit has averaged 3.6% of GDP since the early 1970s and, pending revisions, was 4.8% of GDP in 2014-15.

Budget deficits are the norm. Even Canada and Sweden, praised by the chancellor for their successful reforms of their public finances in the 1990s are running deficits, though admittedly lower ones than Britain. For those who believe in legislating for these things, Germany is the current poster boy.

In 2009 it initiated its Schuldenbremse or debt brake legislation, embodied in Article 109 of the country’s basic law, which required the federal government to run a structural budget deficit of no more than 0.35% of GDP. So far it is working.

Aiming for a small budget surplus in normal times –as long as that is not at the expense of an adequate level of public sector investment – is perfectly laudable. It produces a gradual fall in public sector debt and a much more rapid drop in debt as a percentage of GDP. The lesson of recent years, discussed last week, is that if you go into a crisis with a significant deficit the subsequent pain is much greater.

There would be battles between the politicians and the fiscal watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, charged with determining what the public finances should be in a given year. For the Treasury this would be ultimately be a good thing; the OBR would be an ally in reining in the spending ministries.

The first big task, however, is to get to a surplus, the equally challenging second to is keep it there. Neither will be easy. Though official projections are for a small budget surplus of 0.2% of GDP in just three years’ time, there is a serious risk that this represents the triumph of hope over experience.

Now he has been liberated from coalition, Osborne has a chance to do what should have been done in 2010; a Canadian-style root and branch review of the role and limits of government, together with a mechanism for ensuring that the lower level of spending is permanent, not just the temporary low point achieved after a long squeeze. Though Canada is now running a small deficit, its public finances are far healthier than Britain’s.

There is a chance to do this in this autumn’s spending review, with the new Treasury chief secretary Greg Hands charged with achieving it. It may be the only chance. Public spending is the equivalent of roughly 40% of GDP, having peaked at nearly 46% of GDP in 2009-10. Tax receipts appear to be stuck at just over 36% of GDP. So spending needs to be brought down to 36% of GDP or less.

That will not be easy, and neither will be keeping it there. The OBR’s latest fiscal sustainability report, which looks at the public finances over the long-term, has some striking findings. Scottish Nationalists hoping to build an economic future on North Sea oil will have discovered that the cupboard is bare. The OBR expects only £2bn of North Sea revenues in the 20 years from 2020 – in total – down £37bn from the OBR’s assessment a year ago.

The ageing population, the biggest source of extra spending, will add 1% of GDP to public spending each decade on current policies. The OBR sees public sector debt falling as a percentage of GDP on current policies until the 2030s, assuming accidents can be avoided, after which it starts to rise strongly again.

In the long run, as Keynes said, we are all dead. But in the long run too there will be significant upward pressures on spending at a time when the outlook for some of the taxes to pay for it is at best uncertain, at worst dire.

It makes sense to try to prepare the public finances for such pressures. If, over the next 25 years, the result was a small budget deficit of the kind we saw from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, rather than the surplus Osborne aims to enshrine in law, it would still be a considerable achievement. But, as I say, it requires some hard thinking about the role and scope of the state. The election campaign, rich with promised giveaways on both spending and tax, was not notable for such hard thinking. Let us see what the next few months bring.

Sunday, June 07, 2015
After wasting five years, Labour will struggle to rebuild economic credibility
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The general election is becoming a fading memory but its implications will be with us for some time. For the Conservatives, there is the task of delivering the spending cuts necessary to complete the task of eliminating the budget deficit.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has offered advice, suggesting to George Osborne that “evening out the profile of fiscal consolidation” would make sense. I don’t think this piece of OECD advice will be particularly unwelcome.

In his March budget, the chancellor left us with a “roller-coaster” public spending outlook; down sharply in the first two years of the parliament, then up dramatically at the end. As I have written before, it will be very surprising if, now he is safely back in 11 Downing Street, he does not take the opportunity, in his July 8 budget and the spending review later in the year, to indeed even out this profile. Thursday’s announcement of a £4.5bn package of cuts and asset sales, includingof £3bn of a £1.5bn sell-off of the government’s remaining 30% stake in Royal Mail, were part of the smoothing process.

To the victors go the spoils, however, and the challenges for the Tories are as nothing compared with those for Labour. Labour has now lost two elections, largely because of a lack of public trust in its ability to run the economy. The task for its leadership hopefuls is to rebuild economic credibility, and it will not be easy.

We will never know whether Labour was ever in with a shout of winning the election, or even being the largest party. One thing that helped guarantee it would not happen, even apart from Ed Miliband’s absurd “Ed Stone”, was the Labour leader’s refusal to concede that his party had overspent when in government.

In 2011, Miliband appeared to be on the brink of wiping the slate clean, apologising for the regulatory failures that contributed to the crisis. Given that London was at the heart of the crisis that was probably the least he could have done. And, given that politicians do not get themselves directly involved in financial regulation, blaming the failure of officials at the Financial Services Authority, Treasury and Bank of England was not too hard.

That same year Ed Balls, then the shadow chancellor, also appeared to be on the brink of truth and reconciliation, apologising both for regulatory failings and for the fact that “we didn’t spend every pound of public money well”. But that was it. The attitude then appeared to shift to blaming everything on the bankers and conceding nothing on the disaster that befell the public finances.

This was strange. While some Labour die-hards insist the party has nothing to apologise for, resorting to the absurd “spending increases did not cause the global financial crisis” the evidence is clear.

Public spending increased by a plainly unsustainable 51% in real terms between 1999-2000 and 2009-10, overwhelmingly ahead of the crisis. The OECD says Britain had an underlying or structural budget deficit of 5% of gross domestic product in 2007, behind only Greece and Hungary. Though its estimate at the time was lower, it believed and said at the time that Britain’s was the fifth largest structural deficit among its members.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s measure of the underlying deficit, cyclically adjusted net borrowing, hit 4.1% of GDP in the mid-2000s. Between 40% and 50% of the record peacetime structural deficit was in place before the crisis hit. Incidentally, that underlying deficit is now back to where it was in the mid-2000s, suggesting the effects of the crisis have been eliminated, but not the overspending that preceded it. The OBR points out that Britain was one of a tiny number of countries to increase debt as a percentage of GDP from 2004 to 2007.

Overspending was recognised at the time. Martin Weale, the distinguished former director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, pointed out repeatedly that the government was bending its own fiscal rules. So did other bodies and commentators.

So, belatedly, did Labour. In 2007, Gordon Brown prepared the ground for a shift from public spending growing more rapidly than GDP to restricting its growth to less than rise in GDP. Spending would still rise, but by 2% a year in real terms, rather than 5%. Whether that slower spending growth would have been achieved in the run-up to a general election with Brown in 10 Downing Street, we will never know. The crisis intervened. The good things Labour did, including Bank of England independence, a strengthened competition regime and some of the increased spending on public services and infrastructure, got lost in the reputational collapse.

The pre-crisis deficit had two implications. One was that the size of the deficit meant the temporary fiscal stimulus introduced to limit the economic damage from the crisis – mainly a 13-month reduction in Vat – had to be small. The second was that roughly half of the austerity programme adopted by the coalition government in 2010 was necessitated, not by the crisis, but by Labour’s pre-crisis spending largesse.

How are the Labour leadership candidates doing in wiping the slate clean and trying to move Labour on? It is given added piquancy by the fact that two of them, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, were Treasury chief secretaries, and so responsible for spending, though in both cases mainly after the damage had been done. Burnham did the job from mid-2007 to early 2008 and Cooper from then until June 2009, when the unfortunate Liam (“there’s no money left) Byrne took over.

Burnham has made an encouraging start. “If we are to win back trust we have to start by admitting that we should not have been running a significant deficit in the years before the crash,” he said recently. Liz Kendall, who should also make it on to the final ballot, has said bluntly: “We were spending too much before the crisis.” But Cooper, who is married to Balls, while shifting her position a little, appears most closely wedded to the line that helped lose Miliband the election. The deficit was small before the crisis, she has said, focusing on its narrowest definition, and it would not have made much difference if there was a small surplus. Voters, rightly, do not believe that.

Whether Labour can begin to wipe the slate clean therefore partly depends on its choice of leader. By 2020, of course, the 2010 legacy will be a distant memory, but these things have a habit of sticking. After the International Monetary Fund crisis of 1976 and the winter of discontent of 1978-9, a lack of economic credibility kept Labour out of power for 18 years, even failing to win in April 1992 when the general perception was that the economy was still in recession.

It required a combination of Tory self-inflicted economic wounds, including the September 1992 ERM (exchange rate mechanism) humiliation and the rebuilding of a Labour economic policy platform under Brown and Tony Blair, to tilt the balance decisively.

Something similar will be needed again, whether or not the Tories implode. Labour has to be trusted to spend prudently, tax sensibly and pursue pro-business policies. After wasting five years not doung any of that, it will be an uphill task.

Sunday, May 31, 2015
Trade is such a drag for Britain's economy
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A new government is in place and we have had its first Queen’s speech. As far as the economy is concerned, the two most important aspects of its programme are the referendum on European Union membership and the second-half of the deficit reduction programme.

On the first, of which much more no doubt in coming months, I still think it will be a story of some occasionally fraught renegotiation, followed by a yes vote, but we shall see.

On the second, the task for the Tories – given that many people seem to feel curiously cheated by the election result – will be to make deficit reduction seem fair. Without the cover provided by the Liberal Democrats, George Osborne will be under even greater pressure to demonstrate that we are all in it together. Anyway, more on that later too, in the run-up to and after the July 8 budget.

As always, what happens to the economy is not exclusively reliant on what politicians do. They can declare until they are blue in the face that they want to raise productivity but in the end the decisions by tens of thousands of private sector firms will determine whether it happens or not.

Similarly they can set a target, as Osborne has, for doubling Britain’s exports but, again, in a period of slow world trade growth, they cannot guarantee it will happen.

Trade is a big issue for Britain’s economy, as figures a few days ago showed. Against expectations of an upward revision in first quarter gross domestic product growth, the quarterly increase was left unchanged at 0.3%. Manufacturing and construction were stronger than first estimated but services a little weaker. Business services and finance appear to have had an unusually weak quarter.

In the detail of the figures, however, the standout drag on growth was what economists call net trade; exports less imports. Net trade, in fact, was not so much a drag as a giant millstone round the economy’s neck.

So, while there was a decent 0.5% quarterly rise in consumer spending, an encouraging 1.7% increase in business investment and even a small 0.1% upward tick in government consumption, exports fell by 0.3% on the quarter, while imports jumped by 2.3%.

Putting all that together gives you the extent to which our poor export performance and appetite for imports impacts on growth. In the first quarter net trade reduced the change in GDP by 0.9 percentage points. Had the contribution of net trade to the economy been merely neutral, in other words, the rise in GDP in the first quarter would have been more than 1%, rather than just 0.3%.

Or, taking last year as a whole, 2014’s growth of 2.8%, which was perfectly respectable, would have been a heady 3.3% without the 0.5 point drag on growth from net trade.

These things move around from quarter to quarter, and the net trade picture in the first quarter was particularly disturbing. But, while there is some evidence of rebalancing in the pick-up in business investment, the opposite is happening when it comes to net exports.

Is there are any reason to think this might change? After all, this is not just a question of growth being stronger if exporters were doing better (and importers rather worse). Britain’s large current account deficit, 5.5% of GDP, reflects weak investment income but also puts the onus on exporters of both goods and services to raise their game.

One source of hope is the eurozone. The stronger the growth bin the rest of Europe, the better Britain’s exporters should do. The eurozone crisis, and its 2011-13 recession, which followed the deep 2008-9 downturn, were a factor in Britain’s slowdown a couple of years ago.

The unfortunate thing about the first quarter numbers, however, was that they coincided with signs of stronger growth in the eurozone. Though I expect Britain’s first quarter figure to be eventually revised higher, as things stand the 0.4% rise in eurozone GDP in the first quarter exceeded Britain’s 0.3%.

Stronger eurozone growth could yet be threatened by the instability that would follow a Greek exit, though I do not expect that to happen. For the moment, however, even stronger growth in Europe is not helping Britain’s trade position. If anything the opposite is happening.

A pick-up in world trade would help. The odd thing about the post-crisis global recovery has been that, while the rise in GDP has not been that bad, the recovery in world trade – after an initial spurt in 2010 – has been muted. Normally world trade would grow at double or more the rise in global GDP. That has not been happening, perhaps because of the weakness of trade credit, perhaps because of discreet protectionism.

The upshot is that, to the extent that exporters have geared up for a global trade upturn, and refocused their efforts on faster-growing emerging markets, they have got all dressed up with nowhere to go.

What about the exchange rate? Many blame the strength of the pound for Britain’s disappointing export performance. But sterling is below its long-term average against the dollar and does not look fundamentally overvalued against the euro. The fact that exports did not respond well to sterling’s 25% fall between November 2007 and early 2009 suggests we should look elsewhere for the causes of the problem. Maybe a more stable currency would help, though attempts to stabilise sterling in recent decades have ended in tears.

There are two sides, of course, to net trade. Our appetite for imports continues unabated, not just because of consumers. Many manufacturers rely on imported components. Another aspect of disappointing trade performance has been the absence of import substitution among both consumers and business buyers. Again, this is not obviously in the gift of government.

It would be good to predict better times ahead for trade. If you wanted to be optimistic you would look at Britain’s service sector exporters, many of whom genuinely are world beaters. Even in a disappointing first quarter, Britain’s service sector exports totalled nearly £55bn and exceeded service sector imports by more than £22bn.

But if you wanted to be gloomy you would look at those first quarter GDP figures and conclude that one of our traditional Achilles’ heels is continuing to hold us back, and will continue to do so. The traditional complaint, that we do not make enough of what we want to consumer, has some validity.

Britain’s trade performance, like Britain’s productivity performance, needs to improve. As things stand, it is not obvious that it will do so.

Sunday, May 24, 2015
A little bit of deflation does you good
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Britain’s drop into deflation has produced a mix of curiosity, celebration and, in some quarters, alarm. The fact that the consumer prices index (CPI) last month was 0.1% lower than a year earlier (as distinct from unchanged in February and March) is of little practical significance.

But it has certainly provoked a lot of curiosity. Though the CPI was not even a twinkle in the statisticians’ eyes in 1960 – back then inflation was measured by the retail prices index – the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has managed to “backcast” the data to then. So we have been treated to comparisons which show this is the first episode of CPI deflation since Princess Margaret married the future Lord Snowdon, the skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan topped the charts and Wolverhampton Wanderers last won the FA Cup.

If the current deflation episode is as short-lived as many believe, it is a slightly sobering thought that in 55 years’ time somebody could be looking back and running comparisons to the quaintness of life in 2015, and which tunes we were all whistling from the charts. I should probably add a "not" there.

Mostly, the reaction to the drop into mild deflation has been to celebrate it. This has to be right. When I wrote about “good” deflation last year, I think I was one of the first, if not the first in this episode, to do so.

Good deflation in when prices fall in response to a favourable global price shock, in this case a sharp fall in oil prices. Bad deflation is when prices are dragged down by a lack of demand in the economy and is associated with stagnation.

Though the supermarkets might argue there are elements of bad deflation in the current picture – they are fighting like cat and dog for the consumer pound – it is overwhelmingly good. Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, says that we should enjoy it while we can and he is right. An oil glut has delivered a welcome boost to household incomes and energy-using businesses. Good indeed.

For evidence of good deflation, look no further than the latest retail sales figures, which showed a 1.2% increase in spending volumes last month, for a rise of 4.7% up on a year earlier. A 3.2% drop over 12 months in what the ONS calls shop prices, but in practice was largely driven by a big fall in petrol prices, was a big reason for what is a mini consumer boom.

Some, of course, will always look a gift horse in the mouth and worry that we are about to return to the 1930s, though there was less of this this time than I might have feared.

But the fact that inflation is temporarily sub-zero, and will fluctuate around this rate for the next few months, raises an interesting question; one I have been asked a lot over the past few days. If inflation at close to zero is such good news why do we not make zero the permanent aim? Why do politicians and central bankers talk about price stability and then adopt a 2% inflation target? After all, after 20 years of 2% inflation, prices at the end would be nearly 50% higher than at the start.

Governments do not go for zero inflation targets for a variety of well-known reasons. Sometimes, as often over the past six years, they want a negative real (inflation-adjusted) interest rate, in other words an interest rate that is lower than the inflation rate, to boost the economy. If zero is the target and the norm, the only way that can be achieved is through negative actual interest rates, which are not generally to be recommended.

Aiming for zero would also run the risk of prolonged periods of deflation. At any time there would be an equal risk of inflation being negative and positive. Given the wayward inflation forecasting record of the Bank since the crisis, overshoots into deflationary territory could be prolonged. That would bring into play some of the dangers economists tend to emphasise about deflation, notably the fear that households and businesses will delay purchases until prices are lower. Deflation also raises the real value of debt; not something you want when you have a lot of it.

Because of these and other effects, economists caution against aiming for zero inflation. Almost 20 years ago a group of economists led by George Akerlof, did research for the Washington-based Brookings Institution, and calculated that a zero inflation target would lead to a permanent loss of gross domestic product and jobs of 1% to 3%. The big reason they cited was that zero inflation makes it hard for wages in different parts of the economy to adjust; pay cuts can be as awkward as negative interest rates. Real wages end up too high, and employment too low. Akerlof, as well as being a Nobel laureate, is the husband of Janet Yellen, chairman of America’s Federal Reserve Board.

In all likelihood this period of “noflation”/mild deflation will be short-lived. A one-off price shock will drop out of the inflation comparison by the end of the year. The last time we were briefly negative, all those years ago, inflation rose quite sharply afterwards.

There is a possibility, however, that very low inflation becomes entrenched. Fathom Consulting points out that core inflation, excluding energy, food, alcohol and tobacco, is at a record low of 0.8% and falling. Service sector inflation, which normally outstrips overall inflation, has come down to 2%.

Meanwhile, so-called pipeline inflation pressures are very low. “Factory gate” prices for manufactured goods last month were 1.7% down on a year earlier, or zero excluding energy and food. Raw material and fuel prices, down 11.7%, are still reflecting sharp oil and commodity price falls.

It may be, as noted last week, that rising wage pressures compensate for some of these deflationary impulses, though one of the reasons why both the Treasury and the Bank are keen to emphasise the temporary nature of the current episode is that they do not want employers to respond to zero inflation with zero pay rises.

One thing is reasonably clear. We are now in a prolonged period – 16 months so far – in which inflation has been below the 2% target. It pre-dated the sharp fall in oil prices. It was preceded by 48 months in which inflation was above the target, exceeding 5% at times.

If that tells you we should be sceptical of the ability of central banks to keep inflation on target, whether that target is 2% or zero, it is a good lesson to draw. If it tells you we should expect big inflation swings in the coming years, in both directions, that is a good lesson too.

Sunday, May 17, 2015
Crunch looms as pay picks up but productivity struggles
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The dust has settled, though the politicians – on the winning side at least – have not yet paused for breath. George Osborne, when he has not been trying to turn the north into a powerhouse, has been laying the groundwork for renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union.

These are early days for both of those, so I shall leave them for this week. More interesting is whether the economy has been given a post-election splash of cold water. The Bank of England, whose praises I was singing last week, left it until the new government had its feet under the table before unveiling a downgrading of its growth forecasts.

Had the Bank told us that during the election campaign, say some, it could have eroded the Tory “stick with us for a stronger economy” message. The post-election shock was not a rise in interest rates – that is still perhaps 12 months off – but a gloomier growth outlook.

Hand on heart, I do not think we should get too excited about this. Until Wednesday, the striking thing about the Bank’s growth forecasts was how upbeat they were. Growth of almost 3% a year this year and next – 2.9% in each year - was perkier than almost all other forecasters.

Its new forecast of 2.5% growth this year (an inevitable downgrade following a weak first quarter) and 2.6% next brings the Bank more into line with the consensus. The Treasury’s latest compilation of independent forecasts has an average prediction of 2.6% growth this year, 2.3% next. There was no drama in the Bank’s downgrade. Nothing to see here.

In other respects, however, the combination of the latest very strong labour market figures and the Bank’s inflation report has exposed a dilemma for the British economy. A crunch may be looming, partly as a result of what John Hawksworth, PWC’s chief economist, describes as Britain’s “incredible job creating machine”.

Let me explain. The latest labour market numbers continued what has been an extraordinary story. In the most recent three months, January-March, there were 202,000 more people in work than in the previous three months, with the new total 31.1m. The proportion of 16-64 year-olds in work rose to 73.5%, the highest since records began in 1971, and no mean feat when 200,000 of the 1.25m rise in employment over the past two years has been among those aged 65 and over.

In the first three months of the year we were collectively working 20m, or 2.1% more hours than a year earlier and 84m more than five years before. Unemployment over the past year has dropped by 386,000 to a new post-crisis low of 5.5% of the workforce. Job vacancies, 736,000 in the latest three months, are close to their highest since records began in 2001.

The labour market is tightening quite rapidly; slack is disappearing, and the really interesting thing about this is that it is now starting to be reflected in the pay figures. The first three months were expected to be difficult for average earnings comparisons, because of a tax-related surge in bonus payments in the first quarter of 2014.

If there was a difficulty, however, pay has sailed through it. In March, total pay – including bonuses – was 3.3% up on a year earlier. The latest three months, a better comparison, showed an increase of 1.9%. The figures for the private sector, not subject to government-imposed pay limits, were 4.3% and 2.4% respectively.

For regular pay, not subject to bonus distortions, there was a 12-month rise of 2.7% across the whole economy in March, and 2.2% in the January-March period. The private sector figures were 3.3% and 2.7% respectively.
One swallow does not make a summer. Pay has ticked up before, only to slip back again. But if this is the start of stronger pay growth, which would fit the picture of a tightening job market, it opens up some interesting possibilities.

The Bank’s inflation report, and the fact that it once again downgraded its productivity forecasts, has put the focus again on this important issue. As I have pointed out before, the productivity picture is more nuanced than is usually reported. Some sectors, such as motor manufacturing, have recorded good productivity growth in recent years and output per job across the whole of manufacturing is 14% up on its recession low point in 2009. Across services the rise is 4.9%.

What is not in doubt is that productivity is a lot weaker than it should be. Had output per hour increased over the past seven years by as much as over the previous seven it would be 15% higher than it is.

For most of that seven years, weak productivity was unfortunate but not hugely problematical. It was the counterpart to strong employment growth, and thus preferable to strong productivity and weak employment. It was also accompanied by weak wages. Indeed, low productivity growth was the usual economic explanation for non-existent growth – and often falling real (inflation-adjusted) wages.

But what happens when wages pick up but productivity does not? This is when a benign combination starts turning malign. Rising real wages – and thanks to zero inflation they are rising strongly now – in combination with weak productivity means that unit labour costs go up. Unit labour costs are the key determinant of competitiveness. The risk is that they now start rising quite rapidly.

Economists would say that firms will keep a lid on pay if productivity growth remains weak. Sometimes, however, theory and practice diverge. In a tight labour market with skilled workers in short supply, businesses may have no option but to pay up.

There is, of course, a safety valve for the labour market in the form of immigration. The tighter the job market, the more employers will turn to foreign workers. Of the 576,000 rise in employment over the past year, 294,000, or 51%, has been among non-UK nationals. No wonder firms are not keen on a clampdown on net migration.

So we have reached an interesting point. Productivity remains weak but pay is picking up. Net migration and other ways of increasing the effective supply of labour – older workers and existing workers doing longer hours – can ease the pressure, as the Bank pointed out. But sooner or later something has to give. And the hope has to be that finally, it is the meaningful acceleration in productivity growth the Bank has been predicting for the past few years.


Sunday, May 10, 2015
A victory for common sense - and the Bank
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

This time last week, when you could still get very good odds on a Tory majority, I missed out on yet another good investment opportunity. In other respects, however, the election showed that, outside Scotland at least, the wisdom of crowds works.

The election, and the unexpected Tory majority, was a victory for economic common sense, though I was sorry to see the Liberal Democrats so badly punished. Whatever voters thought about the future fiscal plans of the parties, they had enormous doubt about putting Labour back in charge of the economy.

Had Ed Miliband conceded when he became leader in 2010 that Labour both messed up on banking regulation and overspent, he would have endured flak but could have had a clean slate. Denying overspending right up to election day, when the numbers show it clearly with hindsight, was a fatal error.

As it is, George Osborne now faces having to accommodate a series of campaign pledges – right to buy for housing association tenants, a law not to raise any of the main taxes and £8bn more for the NHS by the end of the parliament – into a tight fiscal framework. Whether these pledges made any difference is hard to say, but compared with the alternative of defeat, these are headaches the chancellor will regards as the most minor of ailments.

What was most encouraging for me was that voters did not fall for Labour’s populist interventions. I do not want to revisit the columns of recent weeks but there was something fundamentally wrong about an agenda of price freezes and rent controls, a return to “government knows best” interventions in business and the attempt to persuade people that pain could be avoided by soaking the rich, preferably the foreign rich. I have no doubt that all this would have harmed the economy. It is good that voters recognized that.

The other encouraging thing was that the markets never panicked about the election, even when a hung parliament looked likely. For this, we should pay some tribute to the strength of Britain’s institutional set-up, and in particular the independent Bank of England.

The Bank has been a quiet place, a haven of tranquility, amid the pre-election political uncertainty. Mark Carney, no doubt enjoying a quiet cup of Nespresso with his lieutenants, was able to keep a calm eye on what looked like a close race for power in Westminster.

When Gordon Brown announced independence for the Bank five days after the May 1997 election (alongside a rise in interest rates) he perhaps did not have events of the past few days in mind.

Ed Balls, who did much to initiate and design Bank independence back then, certainly would not have expected the outcome he suffered early on Friday morning.

Had things turned out differently, he would have been chancellor this week (I don’t think we would have had an easy relationship). He almost was before the 2010 election. Now I suspect he never will be.

But the independent Bank Brown and Balls forged proved its worth in the run-up to the election, and it will do so again now.

Markets approached the election, if not in a state of serenity, then a long way from panic. The pound’s average or trade weighted value, measured by the sterling index, stood at 89.1 on the eve of the election, 1% up on its level at the start of the year, and 2.5% up on 12 months earlier. The pound is lower against the dollar (though it jumped when the election result became clear) but higher vis-à-vis the euro.

That stability, which also applies looking forward, has much to do with the fact that the Bank has control of the monetary levers.

The markets no longer wait with trepidation for a post-election rise in interest rates. Rates increased soon after the polls of 1979, 1987 and 1997. They did not after the three post-independence elections, in 2001, 2005 and 2010. They will not now.

The Bank’s nine-member monetary policy committee (MPC) deliberated on Thursday and Friday about interest rates and will announce its decision at noon tomorrow. It is fair to say that it will be the shock to end all shocks if it announces a rise. The most we can expect from Carney this week is another open letter to explain why inflation is more than a percentage point below the official 2% target.

There will be a few more “no change” meetings if the markets, which do not expect a rate rise for the next 9 to 12 months, are right. Bank independence takes the pressure off the politicians.

Where do we go from here? Osborne did not like to be reminded a few days ago that Britain has a bigger budget deficit than Greece; 4.8% versus 0.8% of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund. More comfortable for him, perhaps, is the fact that Britain’s deficit is smaller than Japan’s, 6.2%, and only a bit above America, 4.2%.

But it was a reminder that there is work to do. In contrast to Greece’s brutal austerity, most of which is complete, deficit reduction in Britain has been milder. Though much of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and though there are those campaign pledges to accommodate, I think it can continue to be milder than people fear, though getting from 4.8% to zero will require grit and imagination.

The interaction of weak productivity and weak wages of recent years is another challenge. It is clear from the latest US figures, weak productivity is a problem afflicting most advanced economies.

In the end, higher productivity requires an economic climate that encourages business investment and innovation.

This should be the time when it can occur, with post-crisis pressures on funding and credit availability easing. I do not think there is a serious prospect of EU exit, so there are good post-election reasons to be optimistic on productivity and investment. Let us hope so. Finally, politicians from all parties — except perhaps the Greens — talk a good game when it comes to streamlining the planning system and pushing through infrastructure and housing projects, but nothing much happens.

There is a crying need for more airport capacity in London and for investment in transport and energy infrastructure around the country. There is a similar need for much more housing. Planning is the sand that gets into the cogs and stops the economy operating efficiently. It needs fixing, and there is no reason now to delay.

Sunday, May 03, 2015
Deja vu - but the choice is starker this time
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The election is upon us, the party leaders’ voices are getting hoarser, and I don’t suppose many people would mind if they never heard a “cast-iron pledge” aimed at “hard-working families” again.

You will have heard pundits say we have never seen anything quite like this election before. Certainly the rise of the Scottish National Party, and to a lesser extent Ukip, makes it different.

In other respects things are quite familiar. To confirm my sense of déjà vu, I looked back to what I wrote on the Sunday before the May 2010 election.

All three parties were on the receiving end of a battering from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), then run by Robert Chote, now chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility, for not coming clean about their policies. Opposition parties took their lead from the government; Labour’s refusal to spell out how it would cut spending (Alistair Darling, under pressure from Downing Street, postponed his spending review). Change the names and not much has changed.

It looked then, as now, that we were heading for a hung parliament, though the Tories were well ahead in the polls. While not then knowing there would be a full coalition, I wrote of a first budget for a new Tory government with Liberal Democrat input and the “obvious” a rise in Vat to 20%. I also warned of a post-election hangover for the economy, whoever won. The eurozone crisis was intensifying, the banking system had not been fixed and deficit reduction was just getting going.

How has the past five years gone? Just in case the LibDems do not make it into government again – and it will be a surprise if they do not lose half of their current parliamentary seats – let me praise them.

All politicians have their eyes on power but the LibDems entered coalition with the Tories in the national interest and have mainly made a positive contribution. The coalition has been more stable and less argumentative than many majority governments.

Nick Clegg has been a calming influence, Vince Cable a solid business secretary and Danny Alexander, who I remember as a young press officer for Britain in Europe, a capable Treasury chief secretary. The LibDems deserve better than the punishment voters appear likely to inflict upon them.

For Labour, the timing of the 2010 election was unfortunate. It presided over the crisis but had no time to clean up afterwards. Even so, the party has been a disappointment in opposition. The great achievement of Tony Blair was to turn Labour into a pro-business left-of-centre party.

Under Ed Miliband that achievement has been junked and, as well as “the cost of living crisis” we have had a string of policy interventions, from price freezes to rent controls, whose common theme is that they never worked in the past. It can only be a matter of time before we have a prices and incomes policy.

The Tories, and George Osborne, deserve credit for not bending under extreme pressure, particularly when the economy almost stalled in 2012. The chancellor has one big reform under his belt, the liberalisation of pensions that took effect last month, and deserves credit for recognising the importance of regional regeneration with his northern powerhouse.

In other respects it has been a bitty chancellorship, with too many initiatives and too little tax simplification. The initiatives may have been there to distract attention from the overriding need to get the deficit down or, as Treasury economists argue, it was necessary to try a series of different things, particularly to get credit flowing.

In the end, it is the overall record that matters and the coalition, under Osborne’s economic leadership, has a good story to tell. The first quarter gross domestic product figures, a 0.3% rise, were disappointing but should be taken with a pinch of salt. Their equivalent five years ago, for the first quarter of 2010, were initially reported as a 0.2% rise but now show a 0.5% increase.

There was no “sharp slowdown” in the first quarter. Non-oil GDP in the final quarter of last year was initially reported as a 0.5% rise. Last week’s preliminary reading for the first quarter was 0.4%.

Even after those figures, Britain’s gross domestic product has risen by more than 9.5% in real terms over the past five years. Non-oil GDP, which is a better measure of underlying activity, is up almost 11%.

The job market story has been astonishing, with a record 31m, or 73.4% of working-age people in jobs, unemployment falling, and private-sector job creation, almost 3m over the past five years, comfortably exceeding the near-1m public sector job cuts. It has been a long time coming but inflation at zero has restored growth in real wages.

Most of all, though deficit reduction has been slower than hoped, because of weak tax revenues, it has ceased to become a crisis issue. Britain has been brought back from the edge of an abyss which, whatever some say now with the benefit of hindsight, was real in 2010.

What about all that we have heard in the past few weeks? A positive economic story has been in danger of being drowned out by the negatives. What should have been a straightforward “sound money” approach to pushing on with eliminating the deficit has too often come over as austerity for its own sake.

As for all the gimmicks and giveaways that the parties have been showering around in recent days, the intelligent voter should ignore most of them. David Cameron, in promising to legislate against any rise in major taxes, is trying to close off the Labour charge that if re-elected he would put Vat up again. It would not have happened anyway, but the fear must have been picked up in focus groups. Like Labour’s silly pledge to reduce the budget deficit every year, there would be a get-out clause. No chancellor could deprive himself of the right to raise tax in all circumstances.

Similarly, the main parties have been trying to outdo each other by throwing money at home-buyers, whether it is the Tories’ planned very large right-to-buy discounts for housing association tenants or Labour’s stamp duty holiday on purchases up to £300,000. None of this addresses the problem of housing supply. Given capacity in the industry I will eat my hard-hat if 1m new homes are built over the next five years.

The big issues affecting the economy: productivity, improving export performance and the current account deficit, rebalancing are not in the gift of politicians. As Osborne discovered, it is one thing to talk about the “march of the makers”, another thing to deliver it.

That said, there is more of a choice this time, though the prospect of a hung parliament makes it a difficult one. Even the most expert of tactical voters could not plan their vote in a way that ensures the continuation of a current coalition. Labour voters may hate the idea of a government propped up by the SNP but may end up getting it. So might Ukip voters.

The choice, in the end, comes down to whether people favour a return to greater interventionism, and policies aimed at taxing the rich more which could make Britain a less attractive location for inward investment, together with higher levels of government debt. We will know in a few days which way the dice has fallen.

Sunday, April 26, 2015
The budget black hole still matters in this election
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It was a big week for the public finances, both where we have been and where we might be going. We can now make a judgment on the past five years and say something meaningful about the next five, though through the murk that passes for serious political debate on debt and the deficit.

Let me start with the record of the past five years. Though the numbers for the public finances are prone to revision – usually downwards in the case of the budget deficit – the Office for National Statistics’ latest figures, released on Thursday, tell the story reasonably well of the past five years.

Public sector net borrowing in 2014-15 was £87.3bn, £3bn less than was expected in last month’s budget. In five years the deficit has come down from £153.5bn, the 2009-10 figure the coalition inherited. That is a drop of 43%, though relative to gross domestic product it has fallen from 10.2% to 4.8%, a fall of more than half.

What about the debt? Public sector net debt at the end of March – the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year – was £1,484bn, 80.4% of GDP, compared with £956bn at the end of 2009-10.

It has thus increased significantly under the coalition, as it was bound to do; you cannot eliminate a £150bn-plus deficit overnight. Nigel Farage keeps saying that debt has doubled under this government, which is wrong; the rise is 55%, though it did more than double in the previous five years under Labour, rising from £448bn in 2004-5 to £956bn in 2009-10, an increase of 113%.

This measure of debt, incidentally, excludes the public sector banks, mainly Lloyds and RBS. Include them and the debt is larger, £1,796bn, but has fallen by £449bn under the coalition.

How much more has George Osborne borrowed than he planned? The official Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast in June 2010 was for borrowing of £37bn in 2014-15, so the outturn was £50bn higher than intended.

Interestingly, that June 2010 forecast envisaged that debt would rise by more than £500bn over this parliament, and it has done so. Definitional and other changes suggest, however, it is fair to say that Osborne has borrowed around £100bn more than planned.

Why has this happened? If you want a rare example of an astonishingly accurate five-year forecast, look at what the OBR was saying about spending back in 2010. It predicted £737bn of overall government spending in 2014-15 and its latest estimates suggest spending was precisely that. There was no relaxation on the spending side: the government stuck to its plans.

Where the extra borrowing has occurred has been because of the weakness of revenues, some £50bn in the latest year below what was expected five years ago. Some of that was deliberate, reflecting the aggressive raising of the personal income tax allowance to £10,000 and now £10,600. Most of it was accidental, reflecting weak earnings growth; now starting to unwind.

When you hear opposition politicians claiming that they would not have presided over such weakness in pay, treat it with the contempt it deserves. We are many decades from the era of the “going rate” and the idea that politicians can determine what employers choose to pay. What we have had over the past five years – very strong growth in employment alongside subdued pay rises – has been infinitely preferable to the alternative.

What does the recent history of the public finances tell us about the outlook for the next five years? The differences between the parties on deficit reduction are fairly clear, even if some are doing their best to obscure them. Labour, for example, wants to have its cake and eat it; selling itself to voters as the party of significantly less austerity than the Tories but not wanting voters to realise that its definition of “balancing the books” will mean borrowing £25-30bn a year in normal times, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out in a typically useful analysis last week.

Though some economists, who I would call the Martini set, strangely dismiss the need for austerity any time, any place, anywhere, there is a sensible debate to be had over whether governments should continue to borrow to invest – eliminating only the so-called current budget deficit – or whether they should go the whole hog and aim for an overall budget surplus.

The coalition, after all, had the aim of getting rid of the current deficit, not the whole lot. Gordon Brown’s golden rule was borrowing only to invest over the economic cycle. The lower the interest rates on government debt, the stronger the argument for borrowing to invest in infrastructure and other projects.

There are, however, problems with it. Politicians tend to miss their deficit targets, as we have seen. Brown’s golden rule creaking well before the financial crisis hit, and was destroyed by it. We know now that a supposedly fiscally responsible government was running a structural, or underlying, overall budget deficit of roughly 5% of gross domestic product in 2007.

The coalition followed suit. It probably never would have been credible to eliminate an overall budget deficit of more than 10% of GDP in a single parliament – and that was never the government’s aim – but even getting rid of the current deficit has proved too challenging.

Another difficulty, although I would not overstate it, is that “borrowing to invest” could cover a multitude of sins, allowing governments to boost what they define as investment without limit, although there official checks and balances on this.

The other is the opposite one: some things that should properly be defined as investment these days, such as spending on training and skills, are generally not.

The problem I have with this goes deeper, however. The IFS did its best with the thin gruel the parties provided, but was obliged to take at face value their broad promises. On their stated plans Labour will cut less than the Tories but borrow £90bn more over the next parliament.

The difficulty I have is imagining Labour cutting at all, particularly if it is reliant on Scottish National Party (SNP) support. Labour’s record on cuts is, frankly, almost non-existent. It did so after the International Monetary Fund bailout in 1976, though only under extreme duress. When Labour took office in 1997 it stuck to Tory plans for two years, temporarily earning Brown the sobriquet “iron chancellor”.

In the run-up to the 2010 election, aides and cabinet colleagues found it almost impossible to get Brown the words “cuts” at all. That was why there never was a Labour plan to deal with the deficit, merely a sketch, an artist’s impression.

Not much has changed. When pressed on the cuts Labour would make Ed Miliband mentions a couple of small-scale privileges for better-off pensioners, which would save peanuts, and then moves swiftly on. You could say the Tories and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats are not much better but at least they have a track record.

Labour does not. If a minority Labour government did indeed require the support of the SNP, which is committed to ending austerity even if its policies do not imply that, it is hard to see tough decisions on spending getting through the House of Commons. The deficit, which is still closer to £100bn than zero, could easily get becalmed.

After two successive five-year periods in which Britain has added more than £500bn to government debt, a sizeable black hole remains which has to be dealt with. Whether or not that matters to most voters, it should. And it matters to me.

Sunday, April 19, 2015
Parties obsess about "costings", while ignoring the elephants in the room
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

I would not want anybody to think a theme is developing here but, having warned last week that we should take economists’ views on austerity with a pinch of salt, this week I have another warning about this kind of thing.

When you see the words “fully funded” or “properly costed” attached to the plans of political parties, take great care.

Be also sceptical about fake precision. I know why it made the headlines but the difference between an International Monetary Fund forecast that there would still be budget deficit of £7bn in 2020 and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s prediction of a £7bn surplus is margin of error territory.

The IMF predicts a deficit of 0.3% of gross domestic product in five years’ time, the OBR a surplus of a similar amount. This is small change, even when you factor in the possibility that we may have a government in place which is not even aiming to eliminate the overall budget deficit.

The IMF produces its fiscal monitor every six months. The 0.6% of GDP difference between it and the OBR’s projections is not untypical of the size of the IMF’s six-monthly forecast revisions for Britain’s deficit –in either direction – not for five years’ time but for the coming year. Until they have quite a lot of monthly data to go on, forecasters struggle to get within £10bn of the deficit for the current fiscal year, let alone what it will be in 2020. The difference between a small surplus and a small deficit in five years is, as the IMF managing director Christine Lagarde has pointed out, fake precision.

This is not to say that we should just allow the political parties to say what they like, without any nod in the direction of fiscal reality. This may be good enough for those at the fantasy end of the spectrum, like the Greens and the Scottish Nationalists, but neither are going to form a government and, it is to be hoped, will have little influence on the government that is formed.

But there is also a danger in going too far the other way, in which the parties fight over a tiny amount of fiscal territory, ignoring what really matters. In this environment, the political accountants take over. So Labour was keen to show that, as Ed Balls put it: “Every policy fully costed, fully funded, fully paid for with no additional borrowing.”

The Tories followed suit with some things, explaining how they would pay for raising the inheritance tax threshold on homes to £1m and enhanced childcare (reducing pension tax relief for £150,000-plus earners) and the right to buy programme for social housing tenants (sell expensive council properties), while not spelling out how they would pay for £8bn of extra health spending, or how they would fund raising the personal allowance and higher rate threshold.

A looser approach has something to be said for it when you look at some of what else is on offer. So Ukip accompanied its manifesto with a costing exercise produced by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

The CEBR dutifully looked at the savings from reducing overseas aid, cancelling HS2, the absence of EU contributions (when Britain exits) and scrapping the Barnett formula, and set them against the cost of Ukip’s proposals, including income tax cuts and the abolition of inheritance tax.

What it could not look at, however, was the elephant in the room. What would be the effect on the economy, and on the public finances, of Britain leaving the EU? I cannot tell you precisely what that effect would be, but it would be bigger than all Ukip’s measures combined and overwhelmingly negative for growth and tax revenues, at least in the early years. It is the elephant in the room.

There are other elephants. In December the OBR set out three different scenarios for the economy and the public finances, based on what it described as low and high assumptions for productivity – output per worker - alongside its central forecast or some recovery in productivity growth.

The differences were striking. If productivity growth stays low, essentially the deficit stays high, and government debt rises. But in a high productivity scenario, growth is stronger, the deficit comes down more sharply, and debt falls smartly as a percentage of GDP. The differences were enormous. On a high productivity scenario debt at the end of the decade would be more than £600bn lower than if productivity is weak.

But, while we should be sceptical about the ability of governments to wave magic wands and boost productivity, have we heard anything in this campaign on this subject which is remotely convincing?

Or, when it comes to the outlook for the public finances for the next few years, the oil price is hugely important. In March 2014 the OBR expected the oil price to average $100 a barrel over the next five years. Now it expects $70 a barrel.

The drop in prices was the equivalent of a tax cut that no government could have afforded. As the Ernst & Young Item Club will say in its new forecast, to be published this week, the boost to real incomes from cheap oil, weak commodity prices and supermarket price wars will trump political uncertainty as far as the economy’s performance this year is concerned. If the oil price were to rise, reversing that effect, growth would suffer, and vice versa.

To a certain extent I am saying that Harold Macmillan’s “events, dear boy, events” are more important influences than the relatively things the political parties are arguing, and often deliberately obfuscating, about but there is more to it than that.

What matters is the supply-side of Britain’s economy can be invigorated, delivering the productivity growth that would reduce the need for further fiscal pain and put government debt on a decisive downward track. Labour has proposals that for the most part would damage the supply-side by increasing government intervention, reducing Britain’s appeal to inward investors and making the labour market more flexible.

But the Tories, as noted, have done little to suggest they have taken hold of the productivity issue. And they worry many people in business with the fear, though it is exaggerated, that they will take Britain out of the EU, and by worries that they will indeed clamp down in immigration. For many in business, this is a Tory policy they hope continues to fail.

Maybe there are no votes in the supply-side, when set against the “fully costed” promises the politicians matter. But it is the supply-side rather than those which will determine our future prosperity.

Sunday, April 12, 2015
On austerity, take economists with a pinch of salt
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Should you listen to economists during this election campaign? I say that in the full knowledge that it may encourage some to stop reading now, and that the excellent work done by economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and other bodies is rightly used as a check on the claims and counter-claims of the parties.

No, I ask because of a survey of mainly academic economists published a few days ago by the Centre for Macroeconomics, which is based at the London School of Economics but which also encompasses researchers from the Bank of England, Cambridge University and other institutions.

The survey asked two questions. One was whether the coalition’s policies had been good or bad for growth over the past five years. The second was whether the outcome of the election would make any difference to growth and employment over the next five years.

The answer to the first question was clear-cut. Two thirds of the economists questioned said that coalition policies – “austerity” – had been bad for growth. The answer to the second question was slightly less clear but the majority view was that the slower the pace of deficit reduction – the less the austerity - the better it would be for economic activity.

I know this survey because each month I take part in it, on a range of different questions. This one got noticed more than usual because of the timing and because it was picked by Robert Peston of the BBC. It was quoted during the televised party leaders’ debate.

I disagreed with the majority verdict. The coalition had been for good growth, I said, because it had pulled Britain back from the abyss and away from a fiscal crisis that could have been hugely damaging.

Sometimes it is said that fears of such a crisis were artificial and that a country with its own currency and central bank should not worry about such matters. But Britain has had more than here fair share of past crises. Attempting to spend our way to growth gave us the IMF crisis of 1976.

As for the next parliament, the most important question is not the relatively small differences in the pace of deficit reduction between the main parties but what the next government can do for the supply-side, for incentives, and for productivity.

I was not alone in saying the coalition has been good for growth. Several distinguished economists, including Patrick Minford of the Cardiff Business School, Nicholas Oulton of the LSE, Costas Milas of Liverpool and Jagjit Chadha of the University of Kent took the same view, and for similar reasons.
Minford argued that the coalition had achieved a balance between deficit reduction and destabilising the economy, Oulton that “austerity has been greatly exaggerated” and Chadha that “sound money” deficit reduction had created the room for aggressive quantitative easing by the Bank of England, alongside low long and short-term interest rates. Milas pointed to Britain’s respectable growth performance in recent years, particularly on IMF figures.

Indeed, the pattern of growth during this parliament was not, as is often said, that growth stopped as soon as the coalition started implementing austerity, roughly two-thirds of which it inherited from Labour. Growth in non-oil gross domestic product, the best undistorted measure of economic activity, exceeded 2% in both 2010 and 2011, only slowing to 1% in 2012 – the height of the euro crisis – before picking up again.

If I am honest, however, I would admit that in my response I was aiming off, as a counter to the inevitable large majority on the other side. If you ask a group of British academic economists whether austerity has been good or bad for growth, whatever the circumstances, the majority answer will be as predictable as if you asked them whether there should be more or less university funding. In that respect, most academic economic opinion has not moved much since 364 economists signed a round-robin letter in 1981 warning that Margaret Thatcher’s policies would deepen the recession. The letter famously coincided with the start of a long upturn.

The correct answer to the first question in my view, though it would not have made for an interesting survey, would have been for respondents to adopt the classic two-handed economist – “on the one hand, on the other hand” – approach. The coalition might have been good for growth, but it might not have been. It depends, and it depends on things we cannot possibly be certain about.

I cannot say for certain there would have been a fiscal crisis if austerity had been abandoned in 2010 but neither can the critics of austerity say there would not have been. We do not know what would have happened to long-term interest rates, or what the Bank would have done. Would sterling have succumbed, pushing inflation even higher and exacerbating the squeeze on living standards? Possibly, but we do not know.

Fortunately, you do not have to take just my word for this. Wouter den Haan, co-director of the Centre for Macroeconomics, who took the neutral view, put it well. “I think the macroeconomics profession doesn’t have the evidence to answer this question,” he said.

Charlie Bean, the former Bank deputy governor, another neutral, also put it well. Coalition austerity was not undertaken in the belief “it would boost demand directly but rather that it would reduce the likelihood of a loss of market confidence in the UK government's economic policies, which - had it occurred - would have necessitated a much sharper consolidation.”

Just as economists cannot really know what would have happened in the absence of austerity, so we should take with a pinch of salt their recommendations on future austerity. Indeed, for some, there should be none at all, even though Britain is running a £90bn deficit.

On this I would give some credit to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Though their version of “balancing the books” means running a permanent deficit of around £30bn a year, at least they recognise the need for further deficit reduction.

Both Miliband and David Cameron have found themselves up against other leaders from the smaller parties, most of whom blithely wave away the need for austerity, knowing they will not have to carry the can if Britain goes into the next downturn with the deficit still large and government debt rising. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon is the worst but not the only offender in this.

In 2010, the coalition took a judgment that the deficit had to be reduced to bring Britain back from the fiscal edge. Whether or not the net effect of that was to reduce or ultimately boost growth, we cannot know but it gave Britain stability in what could have been a very rocky period..

As things stand now, with the economy growing well and interest rates still low – they have not increased for the whole of this parliament – it is hard to argue that this is not the right time for further deficit reduction, alongside supply-side policies to boost long-run growth. Sensible politicians know this. They have to live in the real world.

Sunday, April 05, 2015
The economy's doing better - have voter memories of past chaos faded too?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A landmark has been passed, and sooner than expected. Living standards, measured in the conventional way, are higher than they were than the coalition took office, as George Osborne was quick to pick up on a few days ago.

Now, the last thing you want to read is somebody slapping themselves on the back but it has long been my expectation – rehearsed here on a number of occasions – that this parliament would not see the first fall in living standards in living memory, as some repeatedly said, but a rise.

The danger was that we would not know about this rise until after the election – had the recovery in real household disposable income per head to spring 2010 levels come in the first quarter of the year rather than the final quarter of 2014 the figures would not have been available until June – so it would have been a forecast rather than a cat. It is now a fact.

Of course, based on current data, the rise since May 2010 – the second quarter of 2015 – is minuscule, just 0.2%. In the circumstances, however, even that is a considerable achievement. It was always the case that the financial crisis was going to make us poorer, as was the task of tackling a record peacetime budget deficit that resulted from a combination of crisis-induced recession and the public spending splurge of the 2000s.

One of the mechanisms for supporting living standards, aggressive cuts in interest rates, had already happened when the coalition took office. Bank rate was cut to 0.5% in March 2009. In May 2010 there was little or no room to cut further. Add commodity price rises (now reversed), negligible credit growth, and the eurozone to the necessary deficit reduction measures and even a modest rise in living standards is much better than it might have been.

The real household income figures came with the latest gross domestic product numbers, which saw growth revised up last year to 2.8%, from 2.6%. Before too long 2014 growth will be shown to have been 3% or more, which is what most of us thought anyway.

We have got so used to this being described as the slowest recovery on record – which we will not know for sure until we have had years of data revisions - and to certain politicians saying there was no growth at all in the coalition’s first three years - that it is worth reminding ourselves of the numbers.

Growth in 2010 was 1.9%, 2011 1.6%, 2012 – when the euro seemed on the verge of break-up – 0.7%, 2013 1.7% and 2014 2.8%. That is an average of 1.75% a year on current data; slow growth but not no growth, at any time.

Take sharply declining North Sea production out of the figures (Scottish Nationalists please note), and you get a better picture of underlying growth. The numbers there are 2.3%, 2.2%, 1%, 1.7% and 2.9%, an even more respectable average of just over 2% a year. Not bad in the circumstances. The mistake was to think normal service could be resumed quickly in the aftermath of the biggest crisis in a century.

Not only are the official economic numbers looking better but so are measures of consumer confidence. The GfK-NOP consumer confidence index has been running since the 1970s and last month rose to its highest level for nearly 13 years.

Nick Moon, the veteran pollster, head of social research at GfK, had thought consumer confidence had hit a plateau at the end of last year after one if its strongest rises on record. In fact it has risen by eight points over the past three months. Much of this reflects public perceptions of the economic situation, up 16 points in the past year, and willingness to make major purchases, up by a similar amount.

The reason I highlight these numbers is that, as well as being a source of fierce debate among the political parties, they have the potential to be an important determinant of the way people will vote on May 7.

The usual narrative on this is that the Tories should be doing a lot better than they are in the polls given the state of the economy, to which the usual counter is that they would be doing better if only most people felt the recovery, which they are not. It takes time, in other words, for an upturn to filter through.

There has to be some truth in that. Real household disposable incomes per head are a mere 0.2% up on the spring of 2010. That average conceals a lot of falls, as well as rises. Most analysis suggests the rises have been particularly concentrated among older voters, who my mailbag and e-mails tell me are inclined to be a little curmudgeonly about it, and do not regard the past few years as a cause of great celebration.

Even so, most people do not, either, ask themselves the Ronald Reagan question – am I better off than four or five years ago? They look at how they are doing now, and here the numbers are rather good. Real disposable incomes per head are up 1.9% over the latest 12 months. Aggregate wages and salaries have risen by 5.3% at a time of virtually no inflation. A rise in employment is included in that but it is still a hefty increase, the biggest for seven years.

All of which raises a second possibility, supported in particular by the consumer confidence index but also by some of the other numbers. This is that, for many voters, the fear has gone. Falling unemployment and low inflation make for a very low misery index but they also make people worried less about the future.

The days when the banks were collapsing are a long time ago. The period when Britain was running a budget deficit which caused the then head of Pimco, the world’s biggest fund manager – which counts Ed Balls’s brother among its senior employees – to say Britain was sitting on “a bed of nitroglycerine” is also a long time ago.

A Labour government may well be chaotic – I cannot remember an opposition less prepared for government – but the potential descent into national chaos under Labour evoked by David Cameron and George Osborne is a hard sell to people who are generally upbeat. People may not think ‘crisis, what crisis?’ but the extreme conditions of 2007-9 have faded in the memory.

Governing parties face a dilemma on this. They want living standards to be rising and for recovery to seem secure, and both those conditions are currently met. The risk for the coalition is that they have also made the economy safe for Labour in the eyes of some floating voters.

It has to be better to have rising confidence and a strong economy to sell to voters than the alternative. It should pull votes back to the Tories and the Liberal Democrats and there is some evidence of that in the polls. But the better people feel, the less they may fear change. That is why this election is far from plain sailing.

Sunday, March 29, 2015
Don't forget asset prices. Cutting rates is not the right response to zero inflation
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A big fat zero. No inflation at all. Though it is not guaranteed, a run of deflation – prices lower than a year earlier – seems highly likely in the next 2-3 months.

For many people this is uncharted territory. Though retail price inflation fell to zero in February 2009, and was negative for the following eight months, this reflected the sharp reductions in interest rates of the time. Inflation measured by the consumer prices index (CPI) remained positive throughout.

No, you have to go back 55 years, I suspect before many readers were born, for anything like this. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has usefully modelled the current CPI back to January 1950. It shows that inflation last fell to zero in December 1959, and was negative by 0.5%-0.6% for three months.

Zero inflation is proving to be good news for the economy. Retail sales volumes rose by 0.7% last month and were a booming 5.7% up on a year earlier. As far as retailing is concerned, deflation is not merely on the way. It has been with us for some time.

So what the ONS describes as average store prices fell by 3.6% in the 12 months to February, a record. Stores include petrol stations, so much of this reflected the drop in fuel prices over the past year. But prices were also modestly lower for both food and non-food stores. Falling prices genuinely are putting money into people’s pockets.

At this point it is customary to warn that, while a temporary bout of deflation is a good thing, you would not want to make a habit of it. Indeed.

There are, however, a couple of other aspects to this. History rarely repeats itself but if we look at what happened when inflation last fell to zero and turned negative, it did not usher in prolonged deflation.

By the end of 1960, inflation was heading back up towards 2%. By the end of 1961 it was 4% and by the middle of 1962 it was 5.6%. The 1960s were not a particularly high inflation period, but even with a very low start, prices rose by an average of 3.4% a year over the decade.

Not only that, but it is easy to forget how recent this experience of ultra-low inflation is in Britain. After four years above the 2% official target, inflation only dropped below it at the beginning of last year. As recently as September 2011, Britain had an inflation rate of 5.2%, and as recently as last 2013, the country’s “natural” or normal inflation rate seemed to be 3% rather than 2%. It is far too early to say whether anything fundamental has changed.

The bigger danger is that this brush with deflation will take central bankers’ eyes off the ball. Before the crisis, the criticism was that the obsession with inflation targets allowed a toxic build-up of risk in the financial system and a huge rise in asset prices, particularly house prices but also financial assets.

There is a powerful echo of that today. At exactly the same moment the ONS released the latest inflation numbers a few days ago, it also published figures showing house prices up by 8.4% on a year earlier. Though this is slightly off the pace of last year, the juxtaposition neatly encapsulated the question I get asked very often: How can inflation be so low when house price are rising so fast? Housing, after all, is a significant component of most people’s expenditure.

Inflation measures do not deal particularly well with housing costs. But those that do incorporate housing, the ONS’s CPIH measure and the old retail prices index, while not showing zero inflation, have it very low; 0.3% and 1% respectively.

Nor is housing the only asset price which has been rising strongly. The stock market had a touch of the wobbles last week but is well up on its level of a year ago. Government bonds, gilts, show a 12-month rise of more than 15% on average.

The Bank of England would say some of this is deliberate. Keeping long-term interest rates low has been an aim of policy, and the counterpart to that is rising gilt prices. The housing market has been part of the recovery story, and a deliberate policy target, and a by-product of that is higher prices. Whether or not there is a government bond bubble remains to be seen but there is not a housing bubble yet, and the parts of London where there was the greatest risk of it has been gently deflating.

The risk, however, is that leaving interest rates too low for too long inflates new bubbles. Already the sharp drop in inflation has persuaded the two hawks on the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (MPC), Martin Weale and Ian McCafferty, to drop for now their call for higher rates.

Mark Carney, the governor, having tried to pull the markets back from the view that rates were never going to go up, has in recent speeches pushed them out again, citing not only the threat from “persistent external deflationary forces” but also the pound’s rise against the euro. Andy Haldane, the Bank’s chief economist, reckons that “policy needs to stand ready to move of either foot”, and that in his view the next move in rates is as likely to be down as up.

That worries me. Kristin Forbes, another MPC member, rightly pointed out in a London Evening Standard article that most domestically-based measures of inflation are stable. Service-sector inflation, which is above 2%, has actually edged up in the past two months.

To be fair, Carney, along with Ben Broadbent, a deputy governor, made clear on Friday that they will not over-react to the drop in inflation, and that they expect the next move in rates to be up.

The one-off effects of the big fall in oil prices will drop out over the next 6-9 months, though second-round effects could last for a little longer. Even so, the right response for the Bank to either high or low oil prices is, to quote Rudyard Kipling, “to treat those two impostors just the same”.

That means preparing the ground for a gradual “normalization” of interest rates over the next 2-3 years, in other words slowly raising them starting later this year or early next, and forgetting talk of further cuts. After all, nobody would forgive the Bank for squandering the gift of low inflation it has been given, and repeating the experience of the early 1960s. And nobody would forgive it for allowing dangerous bubbles to inflate again. Inflation at zero is a happy accident, it should not be allowed at develop into an nasty accident.

Sunday, March 22, 2015
No roller coaster - but the tail wagged the dog in a curious budget
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

This is a strange world, and we have just had a rather strange budget. There was some jam today, though it was spread pretty thinly. There was also less austerity tomorrow, as suggested here last week. But the overall impression was odd.

George Osborne had two aims: to demonstrate that only he can be trusted on the deficit and debt, and to kill the silly idea that he was planning, if re-elected, to cut public spending to the levels of the 1930s.

The fact that achieving both of these aims means, at this stage, merely ensuring consistency with the forecasts of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – which even its best friends would say has a forecasting record that leaves a lot to be desired – added to the Alice in Wonderland quality of all this.

We have policy driven by forecasts which will almost certainly turn out to be wrong and, perhaps even worse, we have a fiscal watchdog, the OBR, which has produced a “rollercoaster” projection for spending by government departments over the next few years (down very steeply then up), which no sane person thinks is remotely likely.

How did it come to this? How did the forecasting tail come to wag the policy dog? Why did the OBR, having given us that 1930s’ comparison after the autumn statement in December, give us the rollercoaster this time?

For Osborne, having determined that he would not fight the election with a giveaway but by reinforcing his reputation as the man who brought Britain back from the fiscal brink, it was necessary to resort to a few gimmicks to achieve his original aim of having public sector debt falling as a percentage of gross domestic product by the end of the parliament.

This, you may remember, was one of his original 2010 aims, but appeared to have been pushed out well into the next parliament in 2012. Wrenching it back again was a coup, though lewss of one than it looks.

I imagine the conversation between Osborne’s team and the OBR went along the lines of; Treasury: “What do we need to get debt falling in 2015-16?” OBR: “Quite a lot because that is not what our forecasts are showing.” Treasury: “What if we sold some assets?” OBR: “That could do it.”

So debt is coming down, from 80.4% of GDP this year, 2014-15, to 80.2% in 2015-16, if the new forecasts are right. To achieve it, Osborne has raided the piggy bank. £13bn of Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley assets acquired in the crisis will be sold off, as will £9bn of Lloyds Bank shares. Nothing wrong with that – their place is in the private sector – but if the timing of the sales is simply to meet a debt target there is a real danger that taxpayers will not get value for money.

The other imperative, to get away from the charge that he was cutting spending to 1930s’ levels as a percentage of GDP, produced even stranger outcomes. I thought I had been pretty hard on the silliness of this comparison, but the eminent economic historian Professor Nick Crafts took me to task for not being even harder. In the 1930s, he points out, public spending was typically 25% of GDP. Spending on social services – education, health, welfare, pensions and housing – was 9% of GDP, compared with 28% now. Overall public spending by 2020 will be at least nine times what it was in real terms in the 1930s.

Nonsensical or not, Osborne felt obliged to respond to it, hence the bizarre lurch at the end of the parliament, when the projected budget surplus of £23bn for 2019-20 (1% of GDP) is slashed to £7bn (0.3% of GDP). Public spending, having fallen, suddenly starts rising strongly, simply to get the ratio of public spending to GDP up from 35.2% - that 1930s’ comparison – to 36%, Gordon Brown in 2000 before the splurge. The tail, again, is wagging the dog.

Because of this, which I suspect happened very late in the budget process, and because of what in the end seems to have been a serious breakdown in relations between the Treasury and the OBR, we now have little idea about public spending in the next parliament. The OBR will not take account of Osborne’s planned £12bn of welfare cuts and £5bn of savings from reducing tax avoidance and evasion because the former are not coalition policy and have not been detailed, and the latter have not been detailed.

The result is a bit of a mess. I am sure that, as the always reliable Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies put it: “We won’t be on the OBR’s rollercoaster” - whoever is in charge. But the OBR could only work with the material it had and the upshot is that, even with an independent fiscal watchdog and work by bodies such as the IFS, we know precious little about the main parties’ plans. I criticised Labour in 2010 for ducking a comprehensive spending review. It is little better now.

Which is a pity. Even on the OBR’s cautious forecasts, it is quite likely that the lion’s share of austerity is already behind us, given the positive effects of lower inflation and lower interest rates on government debt. Osborne’s claim in the budget that Britain is “walking tall again” chimes with most of the data.

For two years the economy has been growing well, even as deficit reduction has continued. Britain compares well with her G7 peers.

The labour market has been a particular success, with the employment rate a record 73.3%, a near 2m increase in employment in this parliament in the context of public sector job cuts, and the growth in jobs concentrated in full-time roles; 85% of the net new jobs created over the past two years.

Real household disposable incomes per head are an appropriate measure of living standards and, as I have frequently pointed out here and the OBR confirms, will be higher at the end of this parliament than at the beginning. This year should see the sharpest rise in living standards since 2001.

It is a good electoral platform. Osborne’s very obvious message was that all this and more would be put at risk by a change of government. Repeated often enough, it should move the Tory dial up in the polls. It is a pity, however, that the budget, and it should be said Labour’s response, merely reinforces the impression that politicians are playing games with the voters. Transparent, it is not.

Sunday, March 15, 2015
Osborne: some jam today, will there be less austerity tomorrow?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

George Osborne’s sixth budget may not go down as his most memorable – the expectation is that it will be a political rather than an economic event – but it will be no less important for that.

The backdrop to the budget is better than the chancellor might have hoped, and not just the “feelgood” effects discussed here last week. The public finances are also looking a little better.

Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) predicts that the fall in oil prices and lower gilt (government bond) yields will reduce the budget deficit in each of the next five years compared with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s autumn statement forecast. The cumulative undershoot, £32bn, is not huge but it not to be sneezed at either.

Goldman Sachs predicts a deficit undershoot of £8bn for this year alone, followed by £13bn next year, 2015-16. Its prediction of £83bn of borrowing this year would take Osborne close to halving the deficit in cash terms, in addition to as a percentage of gross domestic product. Next year’s £63bn prediction would take us closer to normality; in the five years leading up to the crisis, the last government borrowed an average of £45bn a year in today’s prices.

The improving public finances should allow Osborne to sprinkle around a few sweeteners; some jam today. They should include a further raising of the personal income tax allowance, now and next year, as reported by this newspaper last week, as well as populist measures on beer, wine and petrol duty. I think we can safely assume that the chancellor will not take advantage of the fall in oil prices to push up petrol duty.

He is constrained by the fact that the deficit, while falling, is still very large, and that this will still be a coalition budget. But Osborne may still give us some old tunes, such as inheritance tax, if only as an ambition if re-elected rather than hard action.

Though pre-election budgets are often holding operations – Alistair Darling’s 2010 effort did not stick long in the memory – there is nothing to stop Osborne being bolder, and I am sure he will try to be. Setting out a series of announcements that will only be implemented if you are returned to office has a certain appeal.

Can Osborne combine jam today with less austerity – or at least a less austere image – in the next parliament? He has a good recent record of wrongfooting Ed Balls, his Labour opposite number, on the deficit and the recovery. He is helped by the fact that his opponent rarely resists the temptation to exaggerate.

The Balls’ approach is often to think of a number and double it. Balls is intelligent – in a New Statesman profile the former cabinet minister Peter Hain says he has the best economic brain in parliament – and affable. But he comes over as a bulldozer and, perhaps because he is intelligent enough to know when he is laying it on too thickly, never entirely convincing.

So in a speech last week he said Osborne had borrowed “a staggering £200bn” more than he planned in 2010. The true figure, confirmed last month by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is £100bn.

Balls said wages after inflation are down by more than £1,600 a year since 2010. The true figure, using the consumer prices index he was instrumental in making the main measure of inflation, is £700 a year. Adjusted for the old retail prices index, no longer regarded by the Office for National Statistics as being worthy of national statistic status, the fall is bigger but well under £1,600 a year.

As for public spending, and Balls’s “unprecedented” £70bn of cuts, the figures are clear. In cash terms overall public spending will rise by £43bn between now and 2019-20; the duration of the next parliament (assuming it lasts five years). In real terms there is a planned cut, though less than £20bn. To get to £70bn, or anything like it, you have to add up all the areas where the coalition is planning to increase spending, including public investment, and subtract the rest. It is, to say the least, an odd approach.

That said, as I wrote here on February 8, Osborne has got himself into a less than ideal position on public spending. Spending has been cut by much less than most people think (day-to-day spending has not been cut at all in real terms) yet the chancellor is in danger of being seen as a mad axeman, determined to slash the state for ideological reasons.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), by saying after December’s autumn statement that Osborne’s plans implied the lowest public spending to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio since the 1930s, 35.2%, gave Labour an economic lifeline. It is an almost meaningless comparison. But it has political force.

Part of the chancellor’s task, therefore, is to convince voters, and sceptical financial markets, that his fiscal plans are credible, and can be delivered without extreme pain. Part of the reason Goldman Sachs is more optimistic than the OBR about the budget deficit over the next 2-3 years but not over the longer-term is because, as its UK economist Kevin Daly puts it, it doubts the spending numbers outlined in the autumn statement will be delivered. If there is another coalition after the election, they may never have to be.

Will the public finances improve by enough to allow Osborne to say that he can meet his ambition of delivering a budget surplus while running higher levels of spending than OBR projections suggest?

Those projections suggested spending would need to fall to 36% of GDP to generate a small budget surplus; slightly higher than when Gordon Brown was chancellor in 1999-2000. But to get a surplus of 1% of GDP, it would need to fall to 35.2%.

Can Osborne cast off those comparisons with the Neville Chamberlain era? He could, though it should be said that the Treasury is playing down the extent of any improvement in the public finances since the autumn statement.

They probably would say that but officials say there are swings and roundabouts: lower oil prices hit North Sea revenues first and may or may not boost other revenues later. Low inflation and gilt (government bond) yields produce some savings on debt interest but the effect should not be overstated.

Even so, the budget this week looks like being a combination of some jam today coupled with a little less austerity tomorrow. Whether it works, and whether it is even noticed by voters, will become clearer in the next few weeks. Depending on what the election throws up it may not, of course, be the only budget this year.

Sunday, March 08, 2015
The feelgood factor's back - will it work for the Tories?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The feelgood factor is often elusive. But it is back. Consumer confidence is riding high, wages are once more outstripping inflation and unemployment continues to fall.

The misery index, invented by the American economist the late Arthur Okun, is arrived at by adding the country’s unemployment and inflation rates together. Currently, with an unemployment rate of 5.7% and inflation of just 0.3%, it is at its lowest level since the late 1960s, according to Capital Economics. Both Capital and Oxford Economics expect further falls – a lessening of misery – as inflation and unemployment fall further.

If misery is in retreat, confidence is strong. The GfK-NOP measure of confidence, which has been running for more than three decades, has risen by 30 points over the past two years, is well above both its long-run average and pre-crisis levels and has not been higher for more than a decade.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies attracted a lot of coverage a few days ago for its report that living standards – real household incomes – are broadly back to pre-crisis levels. In fact that was not news; the Office for National Statistics said as much last year on the basis of its real household disposable income per head measure.

There was, though, plenty of interest in the IFS report. One surprise was that the fall in real incomes as a result of 2008-9 recession, the deepest in the post-war period, was at 4% smaller than the 5.7% drop in the early 1980s. That is testimony to The Bank of England’s alacrity in cutting interest rates hard, Alistair Darling’s temporary fiscal stimulus and the fact that benefits were protected until well into the coalition’s period in office.

The IFS also noted that real incomes are now increasing, if not at a riproaring pace, with some of the fastest increases coming through for young people, who were disproportionately hit by the fall in real wages.

The rise in real incomes now under way should mean this will not, as Labour sometimes claims, the first parliament in living memory in which living standards have fallen. The ONS real income per head measure is still a little lower than it was when the coalition took office in May 2010. In the third quarter of 2014, the latest data available, it was 0.8% lower than in the second quarter of 2010. When the numbers are available for the second quarter of this year, which unfortunately will not be until late September, it should confirm an admittedly small rise in living standards.

Labour appeared to switch in recent days to a safer claim, which is that real wages will fall during this parliament. That is still more likely than not. Since May 2010 average earnings have risen by 8.9% while consumer prices are up by 11.1%. But the gap is smaller than many think, and it is closing, though official earnings growth may be adversely affected in the next couple of months by bonus distortions a year ago.

Even so, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, in its latest report on jobs, published on Friday, noted that permanent and temporary employment is increasing strongly, and that salaries are rising at a “marked” pace across a range of sectors. Engineering, construction, medical and executive and professional roles are where staff demand is strongest and running up against skill shortages.

Nothing will change the fact that the rise in living standards now coming through compares unfavourably with previous recoveries, as the IFS noted. That is part of the price the economy has paid for the cushioning of the fall in real incomes when the crisis hit. It is also a reflection of weak productivity.

It is mainly, and politicians on both sides should be honest about this, the consequence of the permanent loss of prosperity inflicted upon the economy by the crisis. We lost a chunk of gross domestic product that we will never get back, and weak living standards have been a part of the economy’s adjustment to that.

What we do not know, of course, is whether the improving feelgood factor showing through now will translate into votes. Though there is tentative evidence that the Tories are edging up in the polls, they have yet to decisively break away from Labour. In Britain’s electoral system, where the existing boundaries favour Labour, neck and neck is not good enough for the Conservatives. George Osborne’s March 18 budget, of which more next week, may provide a trigger for stronger Tory support but that remains to be seen.

Though the default position for many pollsters is that elections come down in the end to the wallet and purse, what are known in America as “pocketbook” elections, there are important exceptions to the rule. In 1997, Labour won a landslide victory in spite of the fact that real household disposable incomes per head rose by more than 9% in the three years leading up to polling day.

In 1979, astonishingly, real incomes per head rose by more than 15% in just two years leading up to the May poll of that year but voters rewarded Labour by electing Margaret Thatcher.

In both cases there were extenuating circumstances. For Kenneth Clarke, chancellor in 1997, it was an uphill struggle against public perceptions of a Tory party fractured on Europe, tarnished by sleaze, and living with the embarrassing legacy of Britain’s exit from the ERM (exchange rate mechanism) in 1992. For Labour in 1979, there was the humiliation of the International Monetary Fund bailout of 1976 and, more importantly, the winter of industrial relations’ discontent of 1978-9.

This time, the Tories cannot hope to match the pre-1997 and pre-1979 rises in real incomes, still have issues with Europe and have a harsher image with many voters than the actual austerity the coalition has imposed justifies. Labour has the legacy of being in charge when the economy crashed in 2008-9, a leader who does much worse than his party in the polls and a perception, which even many of its best friends would agree with, that it is not ready for a return to government.

It is better for a governing party to be fighting an election against a backdrop of strongly rising employment and rising real incomes than the alternative. Whether the latter has come too late, and will be enough to overcome voter scepticism, remains to be seen. Either it will be a pocketbook election, or another exception to the rule.

Sunday, March 01, 2015
If Europe keeps growing, Brexit won't happen
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Greece’s negotiations with its creditors have provided us all with an entertaining glimpse into the dysfunctional family that is the eurozone. So we have had Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s finance minister, playing the part of the stern, unbending father figure, almost taking it beyond caricature.

Yanis Varoufakis, his Greek counterpart, has won admirers for his style and his straight-talking approach, the antithesis of most professional politicians. But ultimately he has been cast in the role of the rebellious teenager who insisted over and over again that he would never tidy his bedroom but has now got the vacuum cleaner out.

It remains to be seen where the Greek episode goes next. Syriza’s tactics have alienated many of its eurozone partners and the “deal” (or no deal) it achieved – which if not nothing was not far from nothing – has led to understandable disillusionment at home. Maybe Greek voters always took their new government’s promises with a pinch of salt but Syriza has made the mistake of over-promising and under-delivering, the opposite of what good governments try to do.

There are further episodes in this family struggle to go but, in a curious way, and despite its dysfunctional aspects, it has probably strengthened the euro. The chances of Greece leaving are smaller than they were, and the risks of other governments seeking to overturn austerity – which in many cases has already run its course – are quite low. Germany may not have won many friends but it has prevented what it would see as fiscal anarchy. “Grexit” – Greek exit – is off the agenda for now, and the 19-member euro lives to fight another day.

Less noticed amidst all this is that the eurozone economy, having looked like something of a basket case just a few months ago, has been quietly gaining strength. Maybe most people and businesses in Europe never took the prospect of Grexit seriously, or if they did were not troubled by it, but the eurozone is looking better, even before this month's bond-buying quantitative easing programme from the European Central Bank.

It began with the official figures for growth in the final quarter of 2014, published earlier this month. Though eurozone quarterly growth of 0.3% was weaker than Britain’s 0.5% expansion, it represented an improvement from the 0.1% and 0.2% increases of the previous two quarters. Some eurozone members, notably Germany and Spain, both of which saw a 0.7% rise in gross domestic product, outperformed Britain.

That improvement has carried through into this year, according to the purchasing managers’ index for the eurozone produced by Markit. Its composite measure for February showed a third successive monthly rise, was at its highest for seven months and showed the fastest pace of job creation since 2011.

Germany’s official unemployment figures showed a 20,000 fall for February, with the jobless rate of 6.5% remaining at a record post-unification low. With two of Germany’s biggest industries – metals and electronics – having struck a 3.5% pay deal, Oxford Economics predicts that this year will see the biggest rise in real household incomes since 1991.

Even France, which seemed to be in real trouble, is looking up. Unemployment fell by more than expected in January, admittedly from a record high of 3.5m, and consumer confidence is rising. Italy, judging from its purchasing managers’ survey, is growing. Ireland, Spain and Portugal are looking better.

Eurozone unemployment remains much too high, at 11.4% of the workforce, but is coming down. Growth in the money supply M3, a necessary precondition for continued economic growth, perked up to a perky 4.1% in January.

Nobody is suggesting, of course, that the eurozone is enjoying anything other than a modest recovery. If it grows by 1.5% this year, a percentage point or so below Britain, it will have done well. The eurozone is benefiting from a similar “good” deflation boost to spending power as Britain, though with a bigger risk that deflation becomes entrenched. But a weaker euro may help head off that danger, while also boosting exports.

Though we sometimes take pleasure in the eurozone’s dysfunctional family tearing itself apart, stronger growth in Europe is good for Britain. Much of the growth disappointment in Britain in the early stages of recovery was down to the eurozone’s woes. The better it does, in general, the better we do too.

The performance of the eurozone also has another important British dimension. If Labour policies worry business, the prospect of an in-out EU referendum is the big concern for many of them about the Conservative agenda.

I think fears of “Brexit” – Britain leaving the EU – are overstated. A few days ago a YouGov showed record support of 45% for staying in the EU (in a question that has been asked since 2010), against 35% of people who would vote to leave. The 10-point margin in favour of staying in was also the highest since 2010.

Attitudes to remaining in the EU reflect two things. One is the state of Britain’s economy. The better that people feel about the economy in Britain, the less they will be inclined to take a risk by voting to leave the EU. The second is the state of the eurozone economy. Support for staying in the EU was just 28% during 2012, at the height of the eurozone crisis, and head of Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” commitment to holding it together.

A situation in which Britain’s economy is doing pretty well and the eurozone growing slowly but surely is one in which voters in Britain are likely to opt for the status quo, as they did in Scotland when faced with a similarly big decision last September. Open Europe, a think tank, puts only a 17% probability currently on Brexit.

Things could change, of course, between now and 2017, though other polling evidence suggests that voters will not casually vote for EU exit. When people are asked whether they would want to remain in a renegotiated EU, support is around three to one in favour.

That could change if current evidence of a eurozone upturn proves to be a false dawn, and the euro lurches back into crisis. Those who want Britain to stay in the EU have a vested interest in Europe doing better.

Sunday, February 15, 2015
'Good' deflation boosts growth - will it bring forward rate rises?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It is easy to get depressed about deflation. Deflation and depression are linked in the mind for good reason. In what economic historians call the first great depression, which lasted from 1873 to 1896, prices fell by a fifth. In the more familiar second great depression, in the 1930s, prices in 1934 were 12% lower than in 1928.

So why, when these gloomy associations are so powerful, has the Bank of England’s response to the prospect of deflation in Britain in the coming months been something close to hanging out the bunting?

Mark Carney, the first Bank governor to predict deflation (though he prefers to call it “temporarily negative inflation”) since Montagu Norman in the inter-war years – and back then the Bank did not do anything so vulgar as issuing a public forecast – was positively upbeat about the “stronger underlying dynamics” affecting the British economy.

The halving of oil prices over the past six months, the main factor pushing inflation towards negative territory is “unambiguously positive” for the global economy, he said. It is also, according to the Bank, manna from heaven for Britain.

Three months ago it expected real post-tax household incomes to rise by just 1.25% this year. Now it expects a 3.5% increase, which Carney reminded us will be the best for a decade. The difference, by the way, is equivalent to a boost to spending power of roughly £25bn.

Some of this will be familiar territory to those of you who have followed my recent pieces on this theme. This, the Bank is saying, is “good” deflation with knobs on, a gift from America’s frackers and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries to every oil-consuming economy, including Britain.

It is a very far cry from the “bad” deflation of the late 19th century and the 1930s, when falling prices were the product of economic weakness. Bad deflation which becomes entrenched is dangerous for many reasons, not least because the real burden of debt increases, which further hampers growth. A vicious cycle of stagnation and deflation can develop.

The surprise about the Bank’s “good deflation” assessment is not that it is upbeat but that it is quite so upbeat. Britain will enjoy three more years of overall economic growth of close to 3% (2.9% 2015, 2.9% 2016, 2.7% 2017), driven by strongly rising consumer spending but also robust business investment.

Consumer spending will grow at 3.75% this year and 3.5% next, without a meaningful drop in the saving ratio. Households will be spending out of their strongly rising real incomes, with inflation close to zero for most of this year, and set to drop below zero for a month or two in the spring.

Unemployment will continue to fall. Export growth will outstrip that of imports this year. The members of the monetary policy committee (MPC), far from reading from the depression script, are overcome with optimism. Economic spring has sprung early. Had the Treasury produced such a forecast less than three months before a general election, it would have been accused of producing politically-driven predictions. The independent Bank is, of course, above such things.

There are two questions about this. One is whether the Bank may have overdone the optimism, and is at risk of overdosing on happy pills. The other is whether the net effect of a bout of temporary deflation will end up bringing forward the first hike in interest rates.

Is the Bank over optimistic? In its last published minutes, some MPC members fretted about the response of employers to an inflation rate that will fluctuate either side of zero in the coming months. If workers are experiencing no inflation, or a month or two when prices are lower than a year earlier, why award pay increases? Could pay settlements follow inflation down, notwithstanding David Cameron’s plea to firms to boost wages?

The risk is there but the Bank’s central forecast has chosen to ignore it. Currently, average earnings are rising by less than 2%. This year, it predicts, they will accelerate to a 3.5% growth rate – more than it expected three months ago – rising further to 4% in each of the following two years. Such increases, which imply real wage increases running well ahead of productivity, are central to the Bank’s upbeat forecast.

I don’t think there will be an outbreak of pay freezes as a result of the zero inflation/deflation in coming months. If there was it would elevate the risk of prolonged deflation. But it also looks a bit of a stretch that in this environment earnings will soon be rising at double their current rate. The mechanism is that a tightening labour market – falling unemployment – will leave employers with little option but to be more generous on pay. But it is a big uncertainty.

The other is whether the impact of cheap oil on the global economy will be quite so unambiguously good. There is no doubt that it will be beneficial. The question is whether it is beneficial enough to offset other dampening factors, including the continuing uncertainties in the eurozone.

To take my second question, and assuming the Bank is right to be so upbeat, could this bout of temporary deflation bring us closer to the first interest rate hike since 2007, and the first move in any direction since 2009? Some of the headlines generated by the Bank’s inflation report suggested that it was ready to cut interest rates further and unleash another bout of quantitative easing if the temporary dip into deflation proves to be more enduring.

Though that is true, it is not the message the Bank wanted to convey. It thinks its main response on those circumstances would be to keep interest rates at 0.5% for longer.

The broader message was that this year’s zero/negative inflation will pave the way, not only for stronger growth now but for higher inflation and interest rates later, as that stronger growth feeds through to higher prices. Though this was the first inflation report to allow for the possibility of deflation, it was also the first in a long time to suggest that inflation in just over two years will be above the official 2% target.

That does not mean the MPC is going to shock us with sudden and dramatic interest rate hikes; “gradual and limited” are still the watchwords. It does mean, on this forecast at least, that by the time Carney leaves the Bank in the summer of 2018, he expects to have a few rate hikes under his belt.

Sunday, February 08, 2015
Osborne needs to be careful with that axe
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

George Osborne has, in spite of everything, a pretty good story to tell on the budget deficit. The scale of the borrowing problem the coalition inherited in 2010 was huge, and was subsequently discovered to be even bigger.

Yet the deficit has come down significantly. Depending on which measure you choose, and where the final destination for borrowing is, between 55% and two-thirds of the necessary action has been taken. Getting there requires a bit more than one more heave but looks far from impossible.

The question is why the chancellor is choosing to present the task ahead in quite the way he does. Stay with me is his message, and there will be years more of spending cuts. Not only will taxes not be used to help achieve the remaining reduction in the deficit but they will be cut. Merely eliminating the deficit, meanwhile, will not be enough. The aim will be to achieve a permanent surplus. I shall return to this curious pre-election message in a moment.

First, the record, and I draw on the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ always excellent annual green budget, which has been published for more than three decades, and is often more interesting than the budget itself. There is also an interesting new report on debt from the consultancy McKinsey.

What has been the story of fiscal policy on Osborne’s watch? Many people think that in 2010 he pledged to eliminate the budget deficit by the May 2015 election. That is not the case. The aim was to get the so-called cyclically-adjusted current budget deficit down to zero (and beyond), but public sector net borrowing – the overall deficit – was predicted to be 2.1% of gross domestic product this year, 2014-15.

There has been slippage, quite a lot of it, so the overall deficit is officially predicted to be 5% of GDP this year. But that slippage is rather less than often portrayed.

Borrowing over this parliament has been higher than Osborne hoped but, as the IFS points out, the true figure for the cumulative overshoot compared with the coalition’s 2010 plans is £100bn, rather than the £200bn Labour is using in its election literature.

Had the plans sketched out by Labour before it left office been followed, the IFS says there would have been “significantly more borrowing”, which would have deferred but not avoided “the need for greater fiscal consolidation”.

The other misunderstanding about fiscal policy is that the chancellor, worried about a stagnating economy, somehow abandoned deficit reduction in 2012, thereby paving the way for recovery.

Again, that is not the case. What actually happened, as the IFS points out, was that official estimates of the size of the “structural” budget deficit – that which is not dependent on the economic cycle – increased between 2010 and the end of 2012. Osborne could have tried to compensate for that underlying deterioration but chose instead to defer the additional deficit reduction needed until the next parliament.

There are therefore three components to Britain’s deficit problem. There was the structural deficit Labour was running before the crisis, estimated to be between 3.9% and 5.3% of GDP. There was the increase in that deficit as a result of the crisis, and there was the further deterioration when it became clear that the supply-side of the economy – and productivity growth – had been damaged.

How much of the deficit has been eliminated? The IFS, noting Osborne’s aim of achieving a budget surplus of 1% of GDP by 2020, calculated that 55% of the tax has been completed, with 45% still to go. It is worth noting, however, that on the original aim of merely eliminating the current budget deficit (in other words continuing to borrow to invest), the chancellor is rather closer to finishing the job.

The IFS also used figures from the International Monetary Fund to compare Britain with other countries. They show that the scale of underlying deficit reduction in some countries has been staggering. In Greece it has been 20.3% of GDP, Iceland 17%, Ireland 9.9%, Latvia 8.2%, Portugal 8.1% and Spain 6.7%.

Underlying deficit reduction in Britain has been 6.6% of GDP, with 3.5% still to go. That ranks only seventh among advanced economies to date, a far cry from the idea that some kind of mad Frankenstein austerity experiment has been carried out. Another myth, that America under Barack Obama has eschewed austerity, is confounded by the figures. America’s deficit reduction has been 5.8% of GDP, not a million miles from Britain’s.

Indeed, figures I highlighted last week showing Britain is further above its pre-crisis level of GDP than all but two other G7 countries – Canada and America – give the lie to the argument that austerity has been to blame for weak growth. Germany, France, Japan and Italy have all had much less action to reduce their budget deficits, typically less than half that in Britain, and much weaker growth.

The other encouraging part of the story is provided by McKinsey, in their report Debt and (not much) deleveraging. Government debt has risen in Britain, as everybody knows. But Britain is rare in that corporate and household debt have fallen in relation to GDP. The result is that the increase in overall debt – leveraging – has been much smaller in Britain than in most other advanced economies.

So Britain is in 13th place overall in what McKinsey describes as real-economy debt, well below Japan, and below France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and others. That is a big change.

So there is much to commend about what has been achieved. Why then, to return to the question I posed at the start, is Osborne risking that he will not be around to finish the job by parading the hair shirt?

If more than 1% of voters know the difference between eliminating the cyclically adjusted current budget deficit and achieving an overall budget surplus, I would be surprised. Even if they do, many would share the scepticism of a good proportion of economists that it will ever be achieved.

If there is private polling showing that people want further deep cuts in public services, it runs counter to all the public polling I have seen. Instead, the chancellor’s commitment to achieving his budget surplus through such cuts has opened him up to the dishonest but potentially potent charge that he is taking the state back to the pre-NHS 1930s.

The tax cuts that the Tories are promising, notably raising the personal allowance to £12,500, are mainly more of the same. Many people would like to see the higher rate threshold raised but are likely to take the promise that it will happen with a pinch of salt. Increasing the inheritance tax threshold was a vote-winning move in 2007 but times have changed.

So I am genuinely puzzled. Osborne has a pretty good story to tell on deficit reduction and Labour has very little credibility on the issue. It would have been enough to say that he was sticking to his original plan (eliminating that cyclically-adjusted current budget deficit)- which is now Labour and Liberal Democrat policy - but that it is taking a couple more years to achieve it, allow us to finish the job, etc. Then, if the wind is fair, you can press on with trying to achieve that overall surplus.

Instead, he in danger of being portrayed as a mad axeman shrinking the state for ideological reasons, and he has allowed Ed Balls, his Labour shadow, as well as his coalition Liberal Democrat partners, to claim that they occupy the centre ground on deficit reduction.

There may be method in what looks like a bit of madness. As I say, I can’t quite see it.

Sunday, February 01, 2015
Consumers are buoyed by the 'feel-better' factor
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A month into the year and questions about the recovery are already being asked. Growth slowed at the end of last year, with the smallest quarterly rise in gross domestic product for a year.

Are these the “red warning lights” David Cameron warned about coming into sharp focus? Is the recovery past its sweet spot? And what happened to that boost from lower oil prices that we have all been talking about?

The answer is to the last question is that it is still there. As Professor Peter Spencer, chief economic adviser to the EY Item Club puts it, if you put money into the hands of the British consumer, you can safely assume that he or she will spend it.

This is not just conjecture. Figures on Friday showed that the main measure of consumer confidence in Britain, produced by GfK-NOP, rose strikingly in January, by five points.

Every measure of the index rose, with people’s perception of their financial situation over both the past 12 months and the next 12 months each up by four points, their perception of the general economic situation over the past 12 months up by 5 points and over the next 12 months by four. Their willingness to make major purchases rose by six points on the month.

Even more dramatic are the comparisons with a year ago. People’s assessment of how the economy has been doing is up 15 points, while perceptions of their own financial position have shown a 10-point improvement. As Michael Saunders, an economist at Citi, puts it: “The ‘feel-better’ factor is back.”

There is a similar message in the Markit household financial index. Though launched only in 2009, the depths of the crisis, its January readings were the best in six years.

Nor is this just a theoretical “feel better” factor. The CBI, in its latest distributive trades survey, said retailers enjoyed “robust” sales growth in January, even after an exuberant Christmas. Not only did 39% more retailers say sales were up compared with January last year than reported falls, but they were also optimistic about prospects for this month. “Consumers have a bit more money in their pockets,” said Rain Newton-Smith, the CBI’s director of economics. “We expect to see this translate into strong sales growth in the months ahead.”

This, it should be repeated, came after a very strong festive season. Retail sales volumes rose 2.3% in the final quarter of last year, their strongest for 12 years.

Why is it happening? None of this should be too much of a surprise. The most visible price in the economy is for petrol, displayed in big letters outside every service station. Petrol prices have come down from an average of 131p a litre to an average of 106p.

To update a calculation I did in December, the fall is equivalent to a substantial tax cut. Had the chancellor achieved a 25p a litre cut in the price of petrol through duty reductions, it would have cost roughly £13bn. Add cuts in diesel and household gas tariffs, and the indirect effects of cheaper energy on other prices, and it is huge.

A report last April by the Treasury and HM Revenue & Customs, entitled “Analysis of the dynamic effects of fuel duty reductions”, suggested lower fuel prices have lasting growth-boosting effects, for both firms and households. It is not the only boost.

Employment growth continues to be strong, though its pace has slowed a little in recent months. Nevertheless, it is up more than half a million in the past year, overwhelmingly for full-time roles.

Nor is the usual dampener for consumers — higher interest rates — looming as a worry. Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, visiting north Wales, suggested in an interview with the Daily Post that the Bank is in no hurry to raise rates, as noted here last week, but that when they do rise they may do so at no more than half a percentage point a year.

That is his personal view rather than the collective view of the Bank’s monetary policy committee but, if correct, it suggests higher interest rates are not going to get in the way of growth for several years.

The big reason why people are more optimistic, and converting that optimism into higher spending, is that the cost-of-living crisis is over. The Labour party’s narrative is that this is a miserable recovery accompanied by falling living standards. The evidence from the surveys is that this kind of thing will increasingly fall onto deaf ears. Combine falling unemployment with low inflation and rising living standards and you have a recipe for optimism.

All this is good news for the government, though the Tories are inching rather than racing up in the polls and the Liberal Democrats have yet to emerge from the political doldrums.

There are those who say, despite George Osborne and Cameron’s claim this is all due to their “long-term economic plan”, it has nothing to do with it. The coalition is a lucky beneficiary of events outside its control. There is some truth in that, but those who live by the cost-of-living sword must also die by it.

Much of the squeeze on real wages in recent years came from price changes in global energy and commodities outside the government’s control. You cannot blame them for one and expect them not to claim credit for the other.

What about those GDP figures, which showed that while 2014 was the best for growth since 2007, the economy expanded by “only” 0.5% in the fourth quarter?
Apart from the fact that not so long ago 0.5% growth would have been regarded as a cause for celebration, the usual health warning applies. Part of the reason for weaker growth was a drop in the volatile construction sector. If that figure does not get revised I am prepared to eat a very large hat.

Similarly, energy production was hit by the mild weather in the first half of the winter. That is not a meaningful loss of momentum.

Meanwhile, the figures also showed that Britain’s recovery compared with where the economy was before the crisis now ranks behind only Canada and America in the G7. Not so long ago, people bemoaned the fact that we were not doing as well as Germany and France. No longer.

Of course, we want stronger growth in exports, though here we are reliant on the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing injecting some life into the eurozone economy and Greek contagion not spreading. And of course we want businesses to respond to rising domestic demand by investing more.

But if consumers are more optimistic, more than half the battle is won. Their spending accounts for 62% of GDP. There was not much of a growth pause at the end of 2014, and it should not last.

Sunday, January 25, 2015
Near-zero rates and QE look to be here to stay
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It has been a big week for monetary policy, led of course by the European Central Bank’s €1 trillion-plus quantitative easing (QE) programme but also here, with the two hawks on the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee having unexpectedly flown into the dovish nest.

The only big central bank that seems to be on track to raise interest rates this year is the Federal Reserve, with the markets expecting a move from the summer onwards. Even that may be a movable feast, however. On Wednesday the Bank of Canada, admittedly managing monetary policy in an economy vulnerable to oil price falls, surprised markets by cutting its main interest rate from 1% to 0.75%.

If you needed evidence that we are in a highly unusual period for monetary policy, there has been plenty of it in the past few days. This is becoming the near-zero decade for interest rates, even leaving aside the unusual and controversial tool of QE. Not since the period covering the 1930s, the Second World War and the few years after it have we seen anything like it, and Bank rate was higher back then than today’s 0.5%. And we did not have QE.

Will we ever see the return to anything like normal as far as monetary policy is concerned? Let me start with the European Central Bank’s QE “bazooka”, before coming closer to home.

There are a few things you need to know about eurozone QE, announced on Thursday by the ECB president Mario Draghi. The headline announcement of €60bn (£45bn) a month of asset purchases from March until at least September next year was a bit bigger than the markets were expected. The total size of the programme announced is €1.08 trillion, but about a third of that will be in assets other than eurozone government bonds, mainly private assets such as covered bonds and asset-backed securities.

Only 20% of the programme is what you might call unconstrained or pure QE, in which Europe collectively covers the losses if the assets bought fall below their purchase price. The rest will be undertaken by national central banks and any losses will be the responsibility of the taxpayers of the countries concerned. This was to meet German concerns that the citizens of Hamburg or Heidelberg should not be responsible for losses on Italian or Spanish bonds.

Will it work? It goes without saying that the eurozone’s problems go deep, and that supply-side reforms. Including more flexible markets, are essential, as well as infrastructure investment and growth-friendly tax policies. It may be that no amount of QE can rescue a flawed system.

Eurozone QE is late, six years after America and Britain, and is not as big as it looks. The bazooka is roughly twice the size of the UK’s QE programme but for a eurozone economy five times the size. “Too little, too late” – and compromised - was what characterised Japan’s QE programme in the early 2000s. The risk, as with other things, is that Europe repeats Japan’s experience.

I would not be entirely negative. The announcement of QE has pushed down the euro, which will help eurozone exporters. In a short time Draghi has established a reputation for pulling the eurozone back from the brink. Eurozone QE is a necessary but not sufficient condition for making things better. The question is whether there is rapid follow-through on the other necessary things.

What about Britain, where the latest developments were more of a hand-gun than a bazooka? The news last week was that the two rate-hikers on the Bank’s monetary policy committee (MPC), Martin Weale and Ian McCafferty, who from August to December last year had been voting to increase the cost of borrowing, this month changed their view.

Having previously argued that the MPC should “look through” the temporary weakness in inflation caused by falling oil and commodity prices, the scale of those falls finally persuaded the two to blink. With Bank staff saying it is 50-50 whether inflation, currently 0.5%, goes negative at some stage in the coming months, they feared that raising rates now could lock Britain into permanently very low inflation; well below the 2% target. They have not necessarily become doves for ever, but it is hard to see either voting for higher interest rates for many months.

It means that, as we approach the sixth anniversary of 0.5% Bank rate in March, there can be no solid expectation that we will see a hike this side of the seventh, in March 2016. Some analysts have already stretched out their expectations until 2017. Near-zero starts to look like the new norm.

Those who follow what the Bank does are entitled to be a little puzzled. Less than 18 months ago Mark Carney, its governor, set out his original forward guidance on rates. This was that the MPC would consider rate hikes when the unemployment rate, then 7.8%, fell to 7%, which the Bank did not then expect to happen until 2016.

Well 7% has come and gone. The latest figures, also out last week, show unemployment has dropped to 5.8%. Job vacancies, at 700,000, are at a record level. Pay growth is picking up, which at a time of very low inflation is translating into real wage increases.

True, there is tentative evidence that job creation has slowed from its previous breakneck pace. Yet this is, by any measure, a labour market which is tightening, alongside an MPC which has become more dovish. To the extent that we were being guided by the governor, we were being guided in the wrong direction.

Would I be raising rates now? No. But there have been times over the past few years when I would have done, notably when inflation was above-target. Had it been premature to do so, at least it would have established the principle that rates can go up as well as stay low. Rates would have risen to a level at which they could have been cut. As it is, the longer they stay the same, the higher the hurdle for a move. As things stand, the circumstances in which the MPC would raise rates are hard to see. High inflation did not do it and neither did strong growth. Very low inflation rules it out.

Though most of the attention has been on Europe, the likely delay in any interest rate increase has implications for the Bank’s £375bn QE programme. I do not think we will get more QE from the Bank but until rates begin to rise it will continue to reinvest the proceeds of any of the maturing gilts (government bonds) in its portfolio. Until rates have risen quite a lot, to a level from which they can “materially” be cut. QE, like near-zero rates, looks to be here to stay.

Sunday, January 18, 2015
How to prevent good deflation turning bad
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

How unusual is deflation? The Office for National Statistics has an inflation measure which goes back to 1800, mainly based on the retail prices index (RPI). In nearly 70 of those years, prices fell -Britain experienced deflation - though the closer you get to today, the rarer the phenomenon is.

So in the 19th century, slightly more than half the years, 52, had annual deflation. This dropped to 15 out of 50 in the first half of the 20th century, including much of the 1920s and the early 1930s. From 1950 onwards, however, deflation has been very unusual. In only one year, 2009, did prices fall on the ONS’s measure, by 0.5%, and this only because it was distorted by the very sharp reductions in interest rates. Other measures showed modest inflation even in the depths of the crisis.

To add a bit more historical perspective, prices at the end of the 19th century were 34% lower than that at the start. Some of that reflected developments in commodity prices, but much of it reflected technical progress and lower prices for industrial products.

The story of the 20th century was very different. Prices at the end were 73 times those at the start, 72,000% higher. Most of that occurred in the second half. While prices in 1950 were 3.5 times their level in 1900, in 2000 they were 20 times their 1950 level. Most of us have only known inflation, and often very high inflation.

Did the deflation of the 19th century inhibit economic growth? I only have numbers going back to 1830 – the Bank of England’s “three centuries of data” series - but they show that real gross domestic product in 1900 was more than four times its level 70 years earlier. Mostly it was good deflation.

I write this because, as everybody will have noticed, Britain’s inflation rate fell to just 0.5% last month. On this measure, based on the consumer prices index which is not directly influenced by interest rate changes, inflation in 25 years has only been this low once, in May 2000. Nobody took any notice of this particular measure back then. Only when it became the Bank of England’s target measure a few years later did we pay attention.

It seems certain that records will be broken in the coming months. Petrol and diesel prices have further to fall, as do household energy bills. Inflation should fall to zero, and may even temporarily dip below it. It is unlikely that we will get deflation for the year as a whole, but perfectly possible that inflation this year will be the lowest in more than a quarter of a century. To do that it needs to get below 2000’s annual inflation, which was 0.8%.

We will never again see the wild harvest-related swings from inflation into deflation we saw in the 19th century – one year prices could be up 12%, the next down 23% - but there is an echo of that in what is happening now. At a time of low inflation, big swings in commodity prices can tip economies from a modest rise in the price level into deflation.

A few weeks ago I wrote here about “good” and “bad” deflation, a distinction which many have taken up. Good deflation arises from a favourable international price shock, the kind we are seeing with the sharp fall in the price of oil and other commodities. Bad deflation arises from weak demand.

Back in 2000 Britain was also benefiting from “good” influences, which bore down on inflation, most notably the so-called China effect which reduced the prices of manufactured goods, even while service-sector inflation remained quite high.

Today, as then, Britain does not have deflation, and may not do so, but it has “good” low inflation, again mainly arising from international influences. The EY Item Club, in a forecast to be published tomorrow, says that inflation will average close to zero this year and by boosting real disposable incomes – it predicts a very strong rise of 3.7% this year – the fall in inflation will help deliver growth of close to 3%; 2.9%. It is, it says, a timely boost, given that the economy was losing some momentum at the end of last year.

I agree with that. The right way to view the drop in oil prices is as the equivalent of a tax cut. “It will provide a major boost to disposable incomes and consumption in 2015 and help stay the hand of the MPC (monetary policy committee) on interest rates,” says Item. “It should also stimulate our European and American export markets and support business confidence and investment.”

Is there a risk that good deflation, or good low inflation, could turn bad? As one who wrote some years ago that the sustainable price of oil was closer to $40 a barrel than $100 or $150, I have an interest in the current low price. But there is a danger that for oil and other commodities, the fall becomes a rout. In some respects it already has, hitting the stock market. If oil falls too far now, it guarantees that it will be higher later, because exploration and development will be cut back sharply.

There is also a risk that those who benefit from falling oil prices and very low inflation do not use it. In microcosm in Britain, we now have BP cutting back and it and other North Sea producers crying out for help, while most non-oil businesses are in rude health, official figures showing that their profitability in the third quarter of last year was the highest for 16 years. But if they sit on that cash rather than invest it, the benefit will be lost.

Similarly, if employers were to use the opportunity of zero inflation to drive down pay increases, the real income boost to demand would be muted, if not lost, a point taken up by David Cameron on his trip to Washington.

What is true of Britain is also true globally. The World Bank does not usually cause much excitement with its economic forecasts but its downgrading of global growth prospects did sent a frisson through the markets. It still expects world growth to accelerate this year, from 2.6% in 2014 to 3%, but not as much as it did. It made the point that the beneficiaries of lower oil prices – most countries – use those benefits to more than offset cutbacks by the oil producers.

John Llewellyn of Llewellyn Consulting makes a similar point, and warns of the danger that while the first effects of the falling oil price are to boost consumer spending in the West, the second will be to hit exports to countries hurt by it.

Those effects must be counteracted, in Britain and elsewhere. In Europe it means building on the benefits of the lower oil price with some aggressive quantitative easing. We must not look this gift horse in the mouth.

Sunday, January 11, 2015
Why politicians struggle to even trim the size of the state
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It may already be too late, given that the election campaign is already in full swing and the claims and counter claims about the public finances and public services will be flying thick and fast for many weeks to come. If you are not confused now, you very soon will be.

But, just in case there is still time to offer some context, let me attempt to do so. All of my figures come from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. Some of them may surprise you.

Let me start with the numbers for overall government spending, total managed expenditure. George Osborne is accused of wanting to take Britain back tom the 1930s, while the Tories, for their part, say Labour would take us back to the fiscal irresponsibility of the Blair-Brown era.

In inflation-adjusted terms, 2013-14 prices, there was a massive increase in total managed expenditure over the 2000-2010 period. Spending in real terms in 2009-10, £737.3bn, was 51% higher than it was in 1999-2000, £488.5bn.
Think about that for a second. In a decade, the size of the state increased by just over a half. It was the biggest sustained increase in public spending in British history.

Some may say that the comparison is unfair, because spending was skewed sharply higher at the end of the period by the economy’s dive into crisis and recession. That, however, is not true. The increase in spending in the last 2-3 years was not out of line with its average in the rest of the 2000s. The rise in spending was overwhelmingly deliberate.

Now, using those same OBR figures, updated following last month’s autumn statement, what is in prospect? This is what might surprise you. Osborne’s overall aim over the 10 years 2010-2020 is to reduce total managed expenditure from £737.3bn in 2009-10, again in real terms, to £703.7bn in 2019-20. That is a reduction of 4.6% over 10 years, less than a single year’s increase during the splurge years.

How much of this has already been done? Slightly more than half. Total managed expenditure in 2013-14, £719.9bn, was 2.4% down on its 2009-10 level.

That is also broadly the message from the deficit numbers. There has been a slightly odd debate about whether the budget deficit has halved or not. As far as most economists are concerned, it has, public sector net borrowing having fallen from 10.2% of gross domestic product in 2009-10 to an estimated 5% of GDP this year. Adjusted for the cycle, it has dropped from 8.1% to 4.2% of GDP. So we are halfway there to eliminating the deficit, or slightly less than half to meet Osborne’s ambition of running a budget surplus of 1% of GDP

What would happen under Labour to overall spending? Nobody in British politics has a copyright on fiscal credibility but Labour has more work to do to convince voters after leaving office with a record peacetime budget deficit. Its softer ambition of just eliminating the so-called current budget deficit, in other words continuing to borrow to invest, would allow it a real level of public spending some £45bn higher than the Tories in 2019-20.

That is quite a big difference, though it does not mark a return to the years of irresponsible plenty. Total spending in real terms would be about 4% higher than now, compared with 2% lower under the Tories.

Why, if the numbers suggest either a modest real cut in overall spending – to take it back to 2007 levels - or a small increase under Labour, is the air so thick with talk of savage cuts, of a return to the 1930s? Why are NHS accident and emergency departments creaking so badly, just a few years after the health service – which did disproportionately well in the Blair-Brown era – received a near-doubling of real resources?

The answer, and it is a depressing one, is in three parts. The first is that, for the most part, once government spending is spent, it is spent, gone for ever.
Gordon Brown used to talk about investment in public services but the overwhelming majority is here today, gone tomorrow. You can talk about infrastructure spending and, perhaps, investment in education. But, even in health, where it should, spending more now does not spend you can spend less tomorrow.

In fact, and this is my second point, spending more now means you probably need to spend at least as much tomorrow. Public spending is subject to a ratchet effect. Once it has been increased, to whatever level, it becomes curiously hard to cut. New entitlements quickly become established provisions, over which fierce battles are fought. Increasing spending is the easiest thing in the world for any politician, cutting it much harder.

The third reason is that, perhaps because of this, politicians do not like to cut. Osborne has got a reputation as the most savage wielder of the axe since Margaret Thatcher was in office, despite the fact that day-to-day spending has not been cut. There was remarkable unity between Labour and the Conservatives on cutting public capital spending – government investment – the coalition ran with the plans it inherited from Labour.

But public sector current spending is in real terms a little (1%) higher than its 2009-10 level, and has been flat over the past 3-4 years. On the assumption that public investment will not be cut further, day-to-day spending has to take the strain.

I should say that even a steady level of current spending has required spending cuts – deep for local government and some departments and mainly without an adverse effect on services – because debt interest has risen by around £20bn and welfare spending is up.

Even so, the fundamental question remains. Why is it so easy to increase government spending, even enormously as happened in the 2000s, and so hard to cut it?

My e-mail inbox is not necessarily typical of the population as a whole, but a constant theme of it is that people are uncomfortable with high and rising government debt, currently £1,457bn, and want to see it reduced. Treasury projections in the autumn statement suggested that you could only get debt back to 40% of GDP in a reasonable timeframe (it is currently 79.5%) and reduce it in cash terms by running the kind of budget surplus (1% of GDP - if it is not used for tax cuts) Osborne has as his ambition.

If there is an appetite for reducing government debt, is there one for cutting public spending, even relatively modestly in overall terms? I am not sure. People tend to approve cuts except when they affect them. The problems in the NHS are a walking advertisement for more public spending. Amid the dossiers of uncosted spending commitments and claims of a return to the 1930s, you will struggle to find a sensible debate on spending in the coming months.

We need such a debate, over what the priorities should be for spending and how non-priority areas can be cut back. Without it, the public finances will never be properly repaired and we will lurch from one crisis to the next. It can be done. The question is whether it will be.

Sunday, January 04, 2015
Election and the current account will weigh down on sterling
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It would be nice not to have to look ahead into the reminder of 2015 at this point. Barely have we got over thinking about 2014 when another year comes along.

Nor, just a few days in, do we yet have much of a feel for how 2015 is doing. How much better, and potentially much more accurate, this piece might be if I were able to postpone writing it until after the May 7 general election or, even better, until November.

But needs must – it has to be written now - and I mention the election for good reason. There are some general election years which pass without much direct impact on the economy. These, it should be said, are usually the predictable ones.

So the elections of 1983, 1987 (Margaret Thatcher’s second and third victories) , 1997, 2001 and 2005 (Tony Blair’s three wins) all coincided with periods of strong growth and saw no significant post-election slowdowns.

John Major’s surprise April 1992 victory probably gave the economy a boost: it only really started growing after it, while Gordon Brown’s defeat in May 2010 was followed by slower growth as the eurozone crisis and austerity (Labour’s delayed measures and the coalition’s new ones) kicked in. I note, however, that the infamous snow-affected drop in gross domestic product at the end of 2010 has now been revised away by the official statisticians.

That is now water well under the bridge but, as readers often remind me, these downbeat initial estimates for GDP do have a wider effect on confidence. That late 2010 GDP estimate was no exception.

This year’s general election will have an effect, I think. Those effects could be profound if Labour were elected and proves to be as anti-business in practice as some of the party’s rhetoric currently suggests. But the Conservatives also have work to do to demonstrate that deficit reduction can be both fair and effective, and also to convince voters that they are doing the right thing. Voters and markets tend not to fret too much about the deficit as long as it is coming down.

The bigger short-term worry is over the economic impact of political uncertainty. There is a good chance that the outcome of the May election will be inconclusive. There is a possibility that there will have to be a second election within the year, something that has not happened since 1974.

Last September’s Scottish referendum provided a glimpse into the economic impact of political uncertainty. Though cause and effect cannot be conclusively proved, a 1.4% drop in business investment in last year’s third quarter could have been driven by fears of a break-up in the UK.

A more visible effect could be for the pound. Sterling’s fall in the second half of last year, from $1.70-plus to the mid $1.50s was more of a gentle trickle than a rout. But political uncertainty, in combination with a current account deficit running at £27bn a year (6% of GDP) and the prospect of the Federal Reserve hiking interest rates before the Bank of England could put significant pressure on the pound. I am normally wary of joining the pack and predicting dark days for sterling. But I would be surprised not to see it drop decisively below $1.50 over the next few months, though it could rebound after the election, depending on result.

Sterling should rise against the euro, into the 1.30 to 1.35 range I have long predicted, though that may not compensate for its dollar fall.

How will growth survive the politics? The growth numbers were thrown into some disarray by pre-Christmas revisions, as noted last week. It seems likely that 2015 will see slower growth than in 2014, though not by too much. Against the political uncertainty there are positives, including the prospect of real – after-inflation – wage rises. The consensus growth forecast for 2015 is 2.6% and 2.5% is a nice round number.

One of the lessons of last year was not to over-estimate inflation, which dropped to 1% by November and spent the whole of 2014 below the 2% target. Economists expect it to be heading back towards the target by the end of the year – around 1.7% - though this may not have fully factored in the recent weakness of prices, particularly oil prices.

I expect oil prices to fluctuate in a $50-70 a barrel range and, in spite of the risks to sterling, inflation is likely to start the year very weak – quite a bit below 1% - and end it close to 1%. Continued low inflation will, of course, help deliver real wage rises. Forecasters expect nominal wage increases – pay rises in cash terms – of around 2.5% this year. That will provide decent support for consumer spending. Business investment may weaken around the election but the hope has to be that this is temporary.

Does the prospective weakness of inflation mean the Bank of England can stand down on interest rates and leave it another year before adjusting a Bank rate that has been stuck at just 0.5% since March 2009? This is a tough one. There is no question of a big interest rate hike in 2015. The question is whether there will be a small one. Most economists think there will be, with the highest end-year prediction for a 2% rate.

I am torn on this one but think if there is a move it will be a token one, in anticipation of higher inflation to come later. So, just a quarter-point hike in 2015, to 0.75%.

Will the job market continue to perform minor miracles? As we moved towards the end of 2014 there were subtle changes in labour market performance, including what we can hope is the start of a sustained rise in productivity in the third quarter. I doubt we will see employment growth of close to 600,000, as in 2014, though 300,000-400,000 is quite likely. The wider measure of unemployment should drop from 6% to 5.5% while the claimant count, currently 900,000, should come down to 700,000.

That leaves the question of the twin deficits. Even while the budget deficit has been gradually improving – and we should see firmer signs of this when the January tax numbers are published next month – the current account deficit has been getting worse.

At one time I thought that sterling’s 25% depreciation in 2007-9 would bring a big improvement in Britain’s external position. In fact it is getting worse. The current account of the balance of payments was in deficit by £62bn in 2012 and £77bn in 2013. The £27bn deficit in the third quarter of last year puts Britain on track for a £100bn deficit in 2014. The fact that trade is less to blame than a deterioration in investment income does not make it easier to bear. There has to be an improvement in 2015, though perhaps only to a deficit of £70bn, but even that is more in hope than firm expectation.

The one thing one can say with certainty about 2015 is that there will be surprises, not all of them nice ones.

Sunday, December 28, 2014
A better year than most expected
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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The table to accompany this piece is available on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk

My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

What did we make of that? Whether we should lay it down and save it for later (rather than lay it down and forget it, as for some recent years) , there is no doubt that 2014 was a good year for the economy. It started well and ended better. A year ago there were doubts about whether the recovery starting to build would last. Now we know it did.

The job market continued to perform minor miracles, with the latest figures showing a rise in the number of people in work of 588,000 over the past year, 95% of them full-time roles. Unemployment has dropped by more than 450,000.

The icing on the cake was provided by the drop in oil prices in the final months of the year and the consequent weakness of inflation. Strong growth and low inflation are an unusual combination. At the end of the year Britain has an economy growing by 3% alongside inflation of just 1%.

That November inflation rate of 1% will not mark the low point for inflation in this cycle; Mark Carney has his inkwell filled ready to write that letter of explanation next month when it drops further. It is also one reason why real wages – earnings adjusted for inflation – have begun to rise in recent months.

I took part in a debate organised by the Resolution Foundation in January in which there was unanimity that 2014 would be the year of the real wage rise. All the panellists have been saved from red faces. Eventually 2014 was the year of the real wage rise.

On interest rates, things blew a little hot and cold. This time last year we were still in the early phase of Mark Carney’s forward guidance, which pointed to no rate rise until 2016 (conditional on unemployment no falling too fast).

Though markets were sceptical about the Bank of England’ forecasts given the pace of the fall in unemployment even 12 months ago, few expected an early move in rates. That changed in June, the Bank governor’s Mansion House speech, in which h he appeared to point the way towards a hike before the end of this year. Things move on from that, but only as far as an early 2015 hike by the start of autumn. Now are close to coming full circle to the original guidance.

Who successfully steered their way through all these hurdles? Regular readers will know that for very many years, going back to the 1990s, I have been running an annual league table for forecasters, based on their ability to get closest to the outcomes – or what we current believe to be the outcomes – for the traditional four goals of economic policy; growth, inflation, unemployment and the balance of payments, together with one of the instruments of policy – interest rates.

People have asked me why I do not include other important variables like the budget deficit. This is not due to Ed Miliband-style amnesia but simply because, while the deficit is clearly very important, the timing is wrong. We do not get a decent handle on the outcome for the budget deficit for the fiscal year until almost the middle of the calendar year.

A word on the data used in this year's comparison. Two days before Christmas the often-exasperating Office for National Statistics had one of its periodic bouts of revision madness, just a few weeks after a huge shake-up of the gross domestic product figures.

Its revisions, going back to 2013, will initially make 3% growth for 2014 more difficult to achieve though I and the Bank of England have no doubt that in the fullness of time 2014 growth will be at least that. As last year, when the revisions were in the other direction, it is unfair that forecasters are judged on the whims and timing of the official statisticians' revisions. We have been a 3% growth economy for many months.

That was the Office for Budgets Responsibility's December number, and the consensus among independent economists two weeks ago. So it is the number I use for the comparison.

Similarly, while the pre-Christmas balance of payments figures will probably push up the current account deficit for 2014, I have stuck with the December consensus figure (few were close to even the smaller deficit anyway).

Anyway, who got the economy right in 2014? This year’s clear winner was Capital Economics. Many years ago Roger Bootle, its founder, wrote a book called The Death of Inflation. Forecasting that inflation would have another near-death experience was one of the reasons for Capital’s triumph.

It is not its first success. It topped the table in 2005, came second in 2011, and has done well in other years, interspersed with the occasional off year.

Mention should also be made of Peter Spencer and his colleagues at the EY Item Club, sponsored by the accountants formerly known as Ernst & Young. Item stands for independent Treasury economic modellers, named because when the Treasury model was made available to outside users many years ago, a group of businesses got together to use it to forecast the business climate.

Things have changed. The Office for Budget Responsibility is now the official forecaster and Item has had to adjust. But it is still turning out good forecasts.

I must also mention Kevin Daly and his team at Goldman Sachs and Michael Saunders at Citigroup, third and fourth. Goldman topped the table last year, which can sometimes be a prelude for a slump to the bottom of the table next time. To stay close to the top shows skill and tenacity. The same is true for Citigroup, and regular strong performer over the years.

Where did forecasters go wrong? Mainly by overestimating inflation. At the start of the year most forecasters expected inflation to stay above the official 2% target, in some cases significantly so. Some thought Carney would have to write an open letter explaining an inflation overshoot. In fact, inflation dropped below the official target in January and has stayed below it all year. For once, it surprised on the downside.

How did I do? My forecasts, published on January 5, were for 2.75% growth, 1.75% inflation, 1m unemployment and Bank rate staying at 0.5%. The one I got wrong was the current account, which I expected to narrow to £42bn rather than widen further.

That forecast would have been enough for eight points, enabling me to share the glory with Capital Economics. But that would be unwary. You cannot be judge, jury and winner at the same time.

So congratulations to Capital, and to the forecasters who ran them close. Next year promises to be just as challenging, if not more so.

Sunday, December 21, 2014
Don't be too afraid of the big bad wolf of deflation
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A few days ago something happened which I have not experienced for a very long time, if ever. Inflation fell to just 1% and will surely go even lower when the figures for December are published next month.

This will mean that Mark Carney will be obliged to write an open letter to George Osborne to explain why inflation has deviated by more an a percentage point from the 2% target. This will also be, for now at least, a unique occasion.

There have been 14 such Bank of England governor letters since Gordon Brown announced Bank independence in 1997. All of them were written by (Lord) Mervyn King, and all of them were to explain an inflation overshoot; a rate of more than 3%. This will be the first undershoot letter and, while Bank governors are meant to be neutral on these things, Carney wouldn’t be human if, with interest rates already at record lows, he will find this one easier to write.

Why is 1% so unusual? After all, the Office for National Statistics said last week that this was merely the lowest rate of consumer price inflation for 12 years. Twelve years ago, however, we did not know much about the consumer prices index. It was promoted by Brown in 2003 – and became the Bank’s target – ostensibly to make it easier for Britain to join the euro, which may surprise you. This was because, as a “harmonised” inflation measure, it was used by other countries in Europe.

In the early 2000s, we still used the retail prices index, and its close relative, the retail prices index excluding mortgage interest payments (RPIX). Both fell very sharply in the crisis in 2009, but by that time we had moved on. Until then the RPIX measure had never been as low as 1% and you had to9 go back to 1960 for the last time RPI inflation was 1%. Even I wasn’t following these things closely then.

The great inflation that followed means that prices now are 21 times what they were in 1960. For most of the past half century or so, a 1% inflation rate would have seemed like a fantasy.

If there is a rule about these things, it is that as soon as inflation falls to low levels, people start screaming about deflation; a sustained fall in prices. Thanks to one silly comparison, we are supposed to be heading for the lowest public spending since the 1930s. It is not a giant leap, for some, to imagine that we are heading for the deflation of that decade.

People should calm down, for three reasons. The first is that, while it is possible if oil prices were to collapse to, say, $40 a barrel, inflation could go negative, it is unlikely to stay negative. Even in the highly uncertain conditions of 2009, a sharp fall in oil and commodity prices passed through only into temporarily low inflation. What economists call “base effects” – you can only benefit from a one-off price shock once – are likely to push inflation higher as we move into the latter part of 2015.

Second, it is very clear where the downward pressure on prices is coming from. Food and non-alcoholic drinks were 1.7% lower last month than a year earlier, reflecting lower commodity prices and supermarket competition. Fuels and lubricants for cars were 5.9% lower, as a result of the drop in world oil prices, with more to come.

There has also been a drop in so-called core inflation, excluding food, energy, alcohol. But, even more than the consumer prices index, it is unlikely to go negative for any sustained period of time.

A better measure of domestically-generated inflation is service-sector inflation. Last month this was running at 2.4%. In June it was 2.5%. This does not point to an economy sliding into deflation.

The final point is to elaborate on what I wrote last week about the eurozone, and the idea of good and bad deflation. Bad deflation is that which results from chronically weak demand. Nobody could pin that on Britain. In November, helped by Black Friday madness, we bought 6.4% more goods than a year earlier. Exclude petrol and diesel and the rise was an even more heady 6.9%.

We will have to wait to see whether there is some payback this month, but these were boom-like numbers of Klondike proportions, the best for more than decade.

Good deflation, by contrast, is when prices fall because of a beneficial price shock. The plunge in oil prices and the weakness of commodity prices is delivering a gift to the economy that we should seize with both hands. Good deflation is good news.

We can see that with the latest average earnings figures. Though these were not strong – more of an uplift might have been expected with the 3% rise in the national minimum wage in October – the growth in regular pay of 1.6% and in total pay of 1.4% in the latest three months compared with a year earlier is outstripping inflation.

The details of the numbers suggest there is more of this to come. Since the spring, regular pay has been rising at an annualised rate of more than 3%.

The Bank’s monetary policy committee noted this in its latest monthly minutes, published on Wednesday, which maintained the 7-2 split on interest rates, with the same two members, Martin Weale and Ian McCafferty, continuing to vote for a quarter-point rate hike.

For the rest, the prospect of what it described as a “significant period” ahead of below-target inflation, one senses that they will take some shifting. The pick-up in pay, which is “promising”, will have to go a lot further even to be consistent with the 2% inflation target.

It may be that the Bank will hike rates, late next year, even when inflation is running below target, if it believes that the only way is then up. But that will be a challenge. After what will then be more than six years of a record low 0.5% rate, the Bank might be accused of responding to phantom fears.

Weale and McCafferty argue that the Bank should “look through” the current weakness of inflation, just as it looked through earlier post-crisis overshoots. But the Bank will want to be sure of tis ground. Low inflation pushes out the timing of the first hike. This time next year we may still not have seen a move.

Sunday, December 14, 2014
Relax: lower oil prices will be good for growth
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Rejoice. That is my normal response to lower oil prices. Filling up the car ranks second only to paying gas and electricity bills as the kind of spending you would rather not do. Anything that brings down the cost of such spending has to be good news.

The average price of a litre of petrol has dropped below 120p a litre, compared with more than 131p in the summer, with a similar reduction in the price of diesel. Had the reduction so far been achieved through cuts in excise duty, the cost would have been £6bn.

With the oil price having fallen by more than 40% to under $65 a barrel, and with analysts predicting that petrol could drop to just over £1 a litre, there should be more of this to come. By the time the process is done, consumers will be benefiting from the equivalent of a tax cut of £10-15bn, much more than in any recent budget.

That is not the only effect. Falling oil prices are cutting industry’s costs. In the past 12 months raw material and fuel costs have fallen by 8.4%, driven by the fall in oil prices. Cheaper oil is cutting inflation directly – it is now just over 1% - and will keep it low in coming months as these very weak pipeline pressures (no pun intended) feed through to energy bills and the price of goods in the shops.

Lower oil prices are helping narrow Britain’s trade deficit, which in October fell to £2bn, half its level a year earlier. Britain is a net oil importer, and has been for many years.

The drop in the cost of crude will also boost the global economy. Oxford Economics, which has a global economic model to estimate the effects of oil price changes, estimates that every $20 a barrel fall in the crude oil price boosts global growth by 0.3 to 0.4 percentage points, sustained over several years.

The benefits are heavily skewed to oil consuming nations. Growth in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) is reduced by around 0.7 percentage points a year by the effect of a $20 oil price fall.

For Britain, according to the Oxford simulations, growth will average 2.6% a year in 2015-16 if oil averages $84 a barrel, but close to 3% if it comes down to $40, which many in the industry are talking about (with some talking about even lower prices). Cheap oil is a growth booster.

As Rob Wood, UK economist at Berenberg, the bank, puts it: “What a Christmas present. Thank you oil men of Dakota. Cheap oil, cheap food, and cheap money give us all the reasons we need to forecast continued strong UK growth and low inflation. We cannot know how permanent the fall in oil prices will prove to be but the further Brent falls, and the longer it stays low, the bigger the upside risks to UK growth in 2015 become.”

So why is there a sense of nervousness about the plunge in the oil price, a worry that it may be not such good news? Why did the FTSE-100 fall by 2.5% on Friday, and 6.6% in the past week?

Some people – including Scottish Nationalists – still see Britain’s North Sea oil as a huge cash cow that pays for public services and will be hard hit. That horse had already bolted, even before the latest fall in oil prices and well before the Scottish independence referendum in September.

The Office for Budget Responsibility noted in its latest assessment, published alongside the autumn statement, that North Sea revenues have dropped by 75% to £2.8bn a year since 2008, on the back of a 50% drop in production and tax changes that allow oil companies to offset more of their capital spending against tax. A lower oil price may knock a few hundred million more off North Sea revenues but that is small beer when set against the benefits.

As it is, the Nationalists’ economic case for independence has been further undermined. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, stands out among political leaders – with the possible exception of the Greens – in praying for the oil price to go back above $100 a barrel.

What are the other fears? The last time oil prices fell this fast, culminating in a drop to just over $30 a barrel (from a high of $147) was in 2008, when the banks were in meltdown and the global economy falling off a cliff. Some argue that if the oil price is a proxy for the strength of the global economy, in which case it is looking like a seven-stone weakling.

No. The oil price does partly reflect weaker demand but most of that is a combination of greater efficient in energy use in the West, coupled with a slowdown in emerging economy growth – including China – from the turbocharged rates of the 2000s. Most of the price fall, of course, reflects greater supply; America’s shale oil and gas revolution coupled with Saudi Arabia’s refusal to perform its traditional role as Opec swing producer by slashing output.

The International Energy Agency, in its latest oil market report, released on Friday, noted that non-Opec supply has risen at a record rate this year and predicts a continued supply surplus in 2015.

Should we worry that the fall in the oil price will batter the budgets of oil producers to the extent that it leads to instability, not just in the Middle East but in countries such as Venezuela and Russia? I think we should limit such concerns. The oil price did not rise above $40 a barrel on a sustained basis until 2004. These countries have enjoyed a 10-year bonanza on the back of an oil price that has usually been well over $100 a barrel. If they squandered it, more fool them. We should also not shed too many crocodile tears for the oil companies.

What about the spectre of deflation? Will not a falling oil price push many countries, and perhaps even the eurozone as a whole, into outright deflation? It might. A $40 a barrel oil price would, according to Oxford Economics, push 21 of the 45 economies it monitors into deflation next year, including many members of the eurozone and the eurozone itself, and Britain.

There is, however, good and bad deflation. Falling prices as a result of domestic deflation are bad. Falling prices as a result of a correction in global energy prices are good, because they boost real income growth.

The oil price, remember, has come part of the way back down to earth but remains significantly higher than it was. We did not pay more than £1 a litre for petrol and diesel in Britain until the autumn of 2007. The fall in prices is a relief, and a welcome boost. Enjoy it for that.

Sunday, December 07, 2014
Eliminating the deficit: hard work but not impossible
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Has the world changed? We knew before Wednesday’s autumn statement that George Osborne would be forced to concede that the budget deficit remains uncomfortably close to £100bn, so there would rightly be no room for a meaningful pre-election giveaway.

We knew that the growth numbers would be better but that it would be hard to generate too much of a political lift out of essentially rearranging the deckchairs.

So how was it? The budget deficit is uncomfortably large but Osborne wrong-footed Labour, and most commentators, by announcing that this year’s borrowing total, £91.3bn, will be below last year’s £97.5bn. That is still an overshoot of nearly £5bn compared with the official forecast in the March budget but it is still on the way down.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which slightly encouraged the idea that borrowing this year would be up rather than down in its monthly commentaries, might turn out to be wrong. But a good rule of thumb is that this chancellor will find always a way of announcing that his deficit reduction plan has not gone into reverse.

Similarly, by deft footwork involving debt interest and a few other factors, Osborne managed to avoid the prolonged deficit overshoot confidently predicted by many economists. Again the OBR may be wrong but the big picture is that a slightly higher deficit this year and next is balanced by lower deficits later. That does not mean, of course, that the public finances are in any sense healthy.

As for growth, the OBR was over optimistic early on in its existence but has become too pessimistic since. Its forecast of 3% growth for this year, 2.4% next, was indeed revised up but looks downbeat compared with the Bank of England’s 3.4% and 2.9% predictions. The official forecast is also cautious on long-term growth, just over 2% a year.

In terms of content, Osborne did manage a small political gain. Stamp duty was sold as a tax cut for most homebuyers but in reality it was a sensible and long overdue reform of a clumsy “slab” tax, which had no place in any tax system. A few other Labour foxes were wounded, if not killed outright, and it is probably the case that the chancellor just about reinforced his reputation as a responsible custodian of the public finances, which is no mean feat when you are running a £91bn deficit.

Today, however, I want to look to the future, and in particular the big question that has arisen since the autumn statement. Have we reached the point where the chancellor is obliged to offer what many economists are calling “fantasy” ideas about eliminating the budget deficit, based on unspecified and undeliverable future cuts in public spending? Osborne accused the BBC of “hyperbolic” reporting of future cuts, which to be fair to him it sometimes is. But if he thought that was bad, he had not seen my e-mail inbox, full to the brim of commentary which, if not hyperbolic, was certainly highly sceptical.

I sense a little tension between the OBR and the Treasury. The OBR was not told in time of Osborne’s plan to spend more on the NHS, while its observation that to achieve a budget surplus public spending will have to be cut to its lowest for 80 years (the sub-text of which is “not a chance”) has not gone down too well with the chancellor, provoking some of that hyperbolic coverage. The Treasury thinks the OBR may be overstating the extent to which deficit reduction has to come through spending cuts.

Is it all fantasy? The first thing we should do, I think, is get away from that 80-year figure. Even if it were useful to use it, it would mean that, since the economy is six times the size it was in the 1930s, the government is aiming for a real level of public spending which is also six times what it was then.

That figure, total managed expenditure, is 40.5% of gross domestic product this year, having come down steadily from 45.3% in 2009-10. According to the OBR it needs to come down to 36% of GDP by 2018-19 to eliminate the budget deficit and give a small – 0.2% of GDP – surplus. It needs to come down to 35.2%, which we have not seen since before the war, to produce Osborne’s ambitious goal of a 1% of GDP budget surplus.

The reason why the 80-year comparison is a bad one is that for most of the period in question, capital spending by government, on roads, hospitals and schools (the building of) and other infrastructure was a lot higher than it is now, gross investment reaching 10% or more of GDP at times in the 1960s and 1970s. Currently it is just over 3.5%. In a pre-privatization era, the nationalised industries swelled public sector investment.

So a better measure of the squeeze on day-to-day spending is public sector current expenditure, which is mainly the spending on public services. This also needs to come down, to 32.7% of GDP to eliminate the deficit and 31.9% to achieve a 1% surplus. You also have to go back into history for times when this measure of spending was this low. It was 32.4% in 1973-4 and 31.1% in 1972-3. The economy, by the way, is roughly 2.5 times the size it was then.

Is it pie in the sky to think such numbers can be achieved? Does it mean, as Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, “spending cuts on a colossal scale” and the smallest state for generations?

I bow to nobody in my respect for the IFS but I think that is overstating it. Public spending on this measure has come down from its peak of 40% of GDP in 2009-10 to an estimated 36.9% this year and a projected 36% in 2015-16. Reducing it further, by just over three percentage points of GDP to eliminate the deficit, will be very hard but it is not impossible.

It would be a lot easier, of course, if the government did it properly, and freed its own hands. The more spending that is ringfenced – the National Health Service, schools, overseas aid – the more the burden of cuts is shifted to local authorities, and other non-ringfenced departments, as well as welfare.

We are, unfortunately, in a an environment in which every party is desperately scrambling to ensure it is in power, without thinking what it will do when it gets there. Labour, to be fair, talks of a zero-based spending review but it is hard to see that breaking too many eggs.

A proper review of spending is, however, needed. The coalition is still running on the basis of the rushed spending review it carried out in the summer of 2010. What was needed then, and what is needed now, is a fundamental review of the size and scope of the state, including a full public debate, with no sacred cows, including health, education and pensioner benefits.

If that were to happen, and if tough but realistic decisions were taken, total government spending of 35% of GDP and current spending of 32% of GDP is perfectly possible. If not, the public finances will be on a wing and a prayer.

Why not, to finish, just raise taxes to ease the burden on spending cuts, as favoured by Labour and the Liberal Democrats? There may be a small role for higher taxes in cutting the deficit but it would be wrong to think there is much. One lesson of the past 25 years is that it is hard to get tax receipts much above 36% of GDP. If you want to eliminate the deficit you have to get spending down to that level. The question is whether there is the appetite to do so.

Sunday, November 30, 2014
Osborne confronts his failure on the deficit
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The autumn statement, George Osborne’s fifth and possibly final one, is on Wednesday and it is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu. I have previewed very many of these over the years, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the times when I have expected a chancellor to stand up and announce that the budget deficit is coming in lower than he expected.

On Wednesday, the chancellor will do the opposite, as is often the case, and confront his failure. This year the budget deficit will be close to £100bn, with the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) set to revise up the prediction it made in March by around £10bn. It is touch and go whether the deficit will be up or down this year compared with last. It was, of course, supposed to fall, by 12% or nearly £12bn.

So it will be another miss, and an even bigger one compared with Osborne’s original June 2010 plan. The definitions have changed, making precise comparisons more difficult, but this year the deficit was supposed to be below £40bn, with all the hard work of deficit reduction completed ahead of the election. At £100bn, there is another parliament’s work to be done, if politicians and voters have the appetite for it.

Osborne’s deficit failure is not, as I say, untypical. We have had autumn statements since 1976, though there was a time under the Tories in the 1990s when they were known as single unified budgets (the March budget was scrapped) and Gordon Brown called them pre-budget reports. ‘Chancellor to miss borrowing targets’ is usually a pretty safe headline for these events.

It matters more now though, and not only because the deficit is still so big. Deficit reduction was central to the coalition government’s programme; its main purpose. It has not been achieved. Theresa May, the home secretary, admitted the other day that David Cameron’s target of reducing net migration to the high tens of thousands would not be met, by a mile.

The autumn statement will confirm that for the budget deficit. Both the things Ed Miliband forgot to mention in a party conference speech widely regarded as a disaster – immigration and the deficit – are not going well for the government. Yet stewardship of the economy, if not Britain’s borders, will be central to the Conservative May 2015 election campaign. Can it possibly work when the deficit is still £100bn?

Osborne has a good story to tell on growth, jobs and inflation. The recovery in real wages is late in the day but it will help. Depending on what the OBR says about the amount of spare capacity in the economy, he might be able to claim that the underlying, or structural budget deficit, has been brought down to Labour’s pre-crisis figure, as a percentage of gross domestic product.

That is true on the International Monetary Fund’s estimates, which suggest that Gordon Brown was running a structural deficit of 5% of GDP in the pre-2008 good times. So he could say he has dealt with the damage from the crisis but still needs to deal with the damage from Labour.

But there’s still the matter of a £100bn deficit, which makes playing the fiscal responsibility card difficult, as does the prime minister’s promise of unfunded tax cuts after the election. The idea of enshrining in law a commitment to eliminating one definition of the deficit (the cyclically adjusted current budget deficit), which Osborne is set to announced, has the smack of desperation about it. Labour pledged a similar legal commitment to halve the deficit in 2010. Voters know such laws are made to be broken.

In general, as I have noted before, the problem has been with weak revenues rather than missed targets on public spending. Even on spending, however, where debt interest payments have been lower than expected, helping the totals, the coalition could have done better.

This week we will almost certainly hear of more spending for the National Health Service. When Ed Balls suggests something in the run-up to an important announcement – using the recent fines on the banks to pump £1bn more into the NHS – it is often because he has got wind of what the Treasury has been working on.

It is elsewhere, though, that the evidence of largesse during austerity has been most notable. There is a protected species in Britain, and they are called pensioners. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, wrote in a piece for The Times last week that by 2018-19 spending on pensioners will be £12bn higher than in 2010-11. This is partly because there will be more of them: a 2m or 20% increase in the number of over-65s in 2020 compared with 2010.

But it is also because the coalition, as Johnson noted, “those currently retired and hitting the state pension age over the decade have been spared most of the effects of austerity”.

That includes those reliant on the state pension, pension credit and handouts such as the apparently sacrosanct winter fuel allowance. But it also includes those receiving public sector pensions. The government will spend £36bn on these this year which, as Johnson put it, “are hugely more generous than almost anything in the private sector”. In a different era, Osborne used to talk about sharing the proceeds of growth. In this era he has distributed the pain to the extent that some people are not experiencing it.

We should look after pensioners, particularly at a time when their savings income has been hit by years of ultra low interest rates. But the largesse looks excessive and has hampered deficit reduction. And if it was intended to pay political dividends, so far it is not working.

According to a You Gov poll a couple of days ago, though 35% of over-60s back the Tories, against 29% for Labour, it is in this age group that support for Ukip – 22% - is strongest. Only 6% support the Liberal Democrats. Pensioners have responded to the coalition’s largesse by shifting their support to other parties. Ungrateful, or what?

That is not the only way in which Osborne has made deficit reduction more difficult for himself. Tory MPs and supporters love tax cuts. The only issue for them about the increase in the personal tax allowance to £10,000 was whether they or the LibDems should take the credit.

As it is, as I have written, in combination with weak growth in wages the allowance has made deficit reduction much harder. So did the repeated postponements of duty increases on petrol and diesel, which the chancellor easily acceded to under gentle pressure from his own backbenchers and white van man.

The deficit could and should have been brought down more. Slow progress is better than no progress at all, and maybe part of Osborne’s calculation is that if the deficit had been eliminated voters might have concluded that the country was safe again for Labour. But that’s too subtle. On deficit reduction , the chancellor has failed.

Sunday, November 23, 2014
Risks aplenty - but the world isn't about to go pop
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The Cassandras are out in force, from the prime minister down, predicting doom and gloom for the world economy and by extension a knock-on effect for Britain.

If China sneezes, Japan starts going backwards and Germany is forced to retire to bed with a warming glass of gluhwein, then surely the world will catch a cold. Britain’s plucky consumers, who in October bought 4.3% more than a year earlier, cannot after all keep us going on their own.

Is the world economy about to lurch downwards? Even more worrying, looking at some of the headlines generated by David Cameron’s “red warning lights … flashing on the dashboard of the global economy” are we about to have a re-run of the global financial crisis?

Nobody doubts that there are risks out there. The Russia-Ukraine crisis, unspeakable Islamic State murders in the Middle East and the Ebola epidemic in parts of Africa are all things we could do without.

Japan, the world’s third biggest economy, has gone back into recession. Germany, fourth biggest, is barely keeping its head above water. China, probably still the second biggest although the world’s largest on some measures, may never see a 10% growth rate again and has plenty of problems, including fast-falling property prices. France, fifth biggest, is stagnating.

The slowdown in China, and a disappointing performance by other emerging economies, explains the big fall in commodity prices and the fact that Brent crude oil is now less than $80 a barrel. A little bit more of a fall and oil will be half the level reached in the middle of 2008, on the eve of the worst phase of the financial crisis.

So how bad is it? Let me start with what forecasters are saying about the global economy. Consensus is always a dangerous thing but the consensus among leading forecasters is that global growth prospects for 2015 and 2016 are not looking as good as they were a few months ago but that the global economy will do better in both years than in 2013 and 2014.

So the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in forecasts prepared for the recent G20 meeting in Australia, predicts 3.7% global growth in 2015 and 3.9% in 2016, after 3.3% this year and 3.1% last year. America will be a star performer, with growth rates of 3.1% and 3%, but even eurozone growth will pick up a little, it says, while China will grow at close to 7%, with India not far behind and Brazil picking up.

The Bank of England also sees stronger global growth, 3.75% and 4% respectively for 2015 and 2016 as, with slightly different numbers, does the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Forecasts are forecasts, and they could all be wrong. All the forecasters emphasise that there are risks, particularly in the eurozone. But if we look at the detail of what is happening, it suggests we should not be too pessimistic.

Japan’s surprise slip into recession was, for example, not quite what it seemed. A sharp drop in business inventories – stocks – led to the 0.4% quarterly drop in GDP and gave the prime minister Shinzo Abe an excuse for a snap election to seek a mandate to postpone next year’s planned increase in the country’s sales tax. Economists at Barclays expect growth to bounce back sharply in the current quarter, by around 1%, as the inventory drop unwinds. The outlook for Japan is more or less as it was before Abe embarked on his “three arrows” strategy, with annual growth of around 1%.

That is also the outlook for the eurozone, but it is important to distinguish between the current growth weakness, centred on France, Italy and Germany, and the earlier pronounced weakness of the so-called peripheral economies – Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece – which threatened to break up the system. There is much less risk of euro break-up, which would have given us a second global financial crisis, then than now.

As for China, we should get used to it being a 7% growth economy rather than it being a 10% one. That was inevitable and is largely intentional. China's central banks cut its main interest rate from 6% to 5.6% on Friday to prevent that slowdown going too far.

The bigger China got, the more it was bound to experience a moderation of growth; extrapolate 10% for too long and you get world domination. There are strains in China but there is nothing to suggest imminent collapse now, any more than at any time over the past 35 years.

The world economy is not perfect, and the eurozone is a long way from perfect. World trade, which bounced back strongly in 2010, has disappointed since, barely growing at all. The global recovery is uneven.

There is, however, nothing to suggest an imminent second financial crisis and there are positives. The fall in the oil price is the equivalent of a tax cut for most Western countries (remember all those expensive deferrals of duty increases on petrol by George Osborne). Cheaper oil will boost growth and makes it easier for central banks to maintain cheap money.

As for Britain, the recovery now looks a lot better. Chris Williamson of Markit points out that Britain’s GDP is now 3.4% above pre-crisis levels, better than Germany (3.1%), France (1.4%), Spain (-5.8%) and Italy (-9.4%). America and Canada do better, though their 2008-9 recessions were milder.

The one thing Britain’s recovery does not need is bloodcurdling warnings from the prime minister, for his own narrow political reasons, which suggest, intentionally or not, that another crash is looming.

Some damage may already have been done. A YouGov poll a couple of days ago showed that of people now expect another global financial crisis over the next 12 months. Business and consumer confidence need to be nurtured. Frighten too many people for electoral reasons and we will all suffer.

Sunday, November 16, 2014
The Bank conjures up a sweet spot for Osborne
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The Bank of England’s latest quarterly inflation report has attracted a lot of comment, mainly because it confirmed the Bank’s “lower for longer” view on interest rates and because of an upbeat assessment of prospects for wage inflation.

What has received rather less attention is that, even apart from its views on wages, the Bank has set out an economic scenario which any chancellor would die for. If the Bank is right, the main risk of the sweet spot it sees for the economy in election year is that it will be too sugary.

Consider the evidence. The Bank’s forecast for growth next year is 2.9%, close enough to 3% to make no difference. Unemployment, now 6% of the workforce, will continue its fall, to 5.4%, on its way down to a near-normal 5% rate.

Inflation, after a period in which Labour has based its pitch to voters on the so-called cost of living crisis, will run at close to 1% over the next year, the Bank expects, with Mark Carney, the governor, saying it is “more likely than not” that he will have to write an open letter to George Osborne, explaining why it has dropped below 1%.

This will be a significant moment. There have been 14 open governor-chancellor letters, all of them from Mervyn (now Lord) King, during the 2007-2012 period. All of them were to explain why inflation was more than a percentage point away from the 2% target on the upside; an overshoot.

Never has a governor had to explain an undershoot, because consumer price inflation has never been below 1% in the time it has been the official target. Food and petrol prices are falling and household energy inflation has slowed to a crawl.

The Bank cannot do anything about the eurozone crisis, Carney’s “spectre of economic stagnation” but it does expect a continued strong recovery in business investment; up 10% next year.

Productivity, the dog that has not barked so far in this recovery, will not exactly be howling. The Bank expects a rise of only 0.75% next year, similar to this, followed by 1.5% in 2016. But it is heading in the right direction.

And then there are those wages. 2% wages growth alongside 5% inflation, which we had not so long ago, was a Micawberite recipe for misery. Wage growth of 3.25% alongside inflation of roughly 1% is the macroeconomic equivalent of Mr Micawber’s recipe for happiness.

And, of course, though two members of the Bank’s monetary policy committee have been voting to raise interest rates, most seem set to sit on their hands until autumn of next year. Carney’s original forward guidance of August 2013, which pointed towards 2016 as the most likely date for the first interest rate hike, may end up coming good. Mind you, it has been a bumpy ride.

The Bank would not, of course, accept for a moment that either its forecast or the fact that interest rates now seem to be on hold until after the election have anything to do with politics. One way to rile its occasionally tetchy governor is to suggest that his forward guidance has not been an unalloyed success. Another is to accuse him of political motives.

Forecasts are forecasts, and the Bank’s forecast, that the recovery will be supported by rising real wages, buoyant consumer confidence and strongly rising investment may turn out to be wrong.

Nor would I suggest for a moment that this pre-election sweet spot for the economy reflects Osborne’s pinpoint planning. This is more of an accident than a master strategy. The chancellor did not expect or want real wages to be depressed for so long, or for the economy to be so slow to get into its stride.

Indeed, over the next few months we may find out something useful about the lags between economic change and public perception. The default position of voters is to be curmudgeonly. Even when times are good people are reluctant to concede it. Our YouGov polls show that most people think the economy is in a bad way and that the recovery has yet to lift the Tories’ poll rating, though it may have knocked Labour’s. It will take a long time before the so far tiny recovery in real wages starts to feed through to public perceptions. It should gain strength, but it may have come too late.

Osborne also has a tricky hurdle to negotiate on the budget deficit, though it is not something that keeps many voters awake at night. Official figures this week for the public finances will be important. They are the last before the Office for Budget Responsibility does its calculations for the December 3 autumn statement, and they will show whether the Exchequer is getting a boost from corporation tax revenues.

I think the coalition has a pretty good story to tell about deficit reduction. According to the latest International Monetary Fund fiscal monitor, the cyclically-adjusted deficit has come down from 10.3% of gross domestic product in 2009 to 4.1% this year, a big reduction. One reason is that there is still a lot left to do is that Osborne toughened his own target, aiming for an overall budget surplus in the next parliament rather than just eliminating the current deficit.

As for reports that Treasury officials are unsettled by the tax promises made by David Cameron and others, I should tell you that the Treasury always gets unsettled at this stage in the political calendar. Last time some of them were very troubled by fears of a Gordon Brown victory.

Even so, the budget deficit remains worryingly close to £100bn and, like the Tory poll rating, is not being moved much by economic recovery. Stronger growth in wages will help but low inflation will depress other tax receipts, notably VAT.

Osborne will still have a good economic story to tell in his autumn statement on December 3. The sweet spot contained in the Bank’s forecasts is, as I say, better than he could have expected. His message will be that the sacrifices have been worthwhile and the economy is reaping the benefits, His message on the deficit will be that there is still a lot of work to be done, and that only he can be trusted to do it.

Whether it works politically remains to be seen.

Sunday, November 09, 2014
In many ways, business in Britain has never had it so good
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Is Britain a good place to do business? It is, in the end, the most fundamental question for the economy. If not, then we are condemned to a future of low growth and stagnant living standards.

We need a successful private sector to provide the tax revenues to get the budget deficit down and provide public services. We also need private sector businesses to generate jobs, as they have been doing pretty effectively recently.

On Tuesday, as part of the events marking 50 years of the Sunday Times Business section, I will be chairing a debate on precisely this subject. Organised in conjunction with the London Business School, it promises to be a very good one, featuring Lord (Terry) Burns, chairman of Santander, Carolyn McCall, Jim Ratcliffe and Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executives of easyJet, Ineos and WPP respectively.

They will have their own views, which I am keen to hear. As it happens the 50th anniversary is an interesting moment for me; I have been economics editor of this newspaper for exactly half that time, 25 years. I don’t think we marked the 25th anniversary of the section back in 1989, so I had no idea that I was joining at a historic moment.

Let me give an economic perspective on the question. It will not surprise you to learn that it has been a story of ups and downs for business, given that we are just getting over the biggest “down”, the 2008-9 recession, in the post-war period.

In general, though, it has been a game, if not of two halves, then at least an improving picture. For the 25 years I have been at The Sunday Times, and for a few years before, the business environment has been generally good and, I would argue, improving. The contrast with the 1960s and in particular the 1970s, when free enterprise was in retreat a, profit almost a dirty word and the trade unions all-powerful, has been stark.

In those days business wanted low and stable inflation and, in the main, that is what it has got. Low-inflation re-emerged during the 1980s, was temporarily lost at the end of the decade, but has been the story, excepting one or two blips, during my time. At just over 1% now, inflation is, if anything, a little too low, and unimaginable in the dark days of the 1970s.

Business wanted industrial relations peace, and it has got it. Last year there were just 443,600 working days lost as a result of industrial disputes, fewer than 20% of them in the private sector. That compares with an average of nearly 9m working days lost annually between 1964 and 1989 and a post-war peak of 29.5m in 1979.

Business wanted to end the damaging wage-price spirals of the 1960s and 1970s and that has happened, partly as a result of low inflation itself, but also trade union reform and other measures to improve labour market flexibility.
Again, if anything, this has gone too far, with the current prolonged period of falling real wages. But the days when firms were held to ransom by pay demands are long gone.

Business’s ability to hire the workers it needs, meanwhile, is arguably greater than ever. Though there are some complaints about some aspects of the government’s immigration policies, and though the conclusions of last week’s UCL study on migration were accepted too uncritically – there are huge uncertainties about the costs and benefits in this area – firms have a larger pool of labour on which to draw than ever before.

Remember the days when Britain’s businesses were some of the most heavily taxed in the world? No longer. The main rate of corporation tax has come down from 52% just over 30 years ago to the current 21%. Next April the rate will drop to 20%, equalling the lowest in the G20.

The main rate of corporation tax will have been cut from 28% to 20% in an era of fiscal retrenchment in this parliament. Though corporation tax is far from the only tax paid by firms – many of which say business rates are a bigger burden – this is a powerful signal.

The climate has improved. Interest rates are at record lows and business investment is rising quite strongly. The share of profits in gross domestic product has risen. The environment for setting up, expanding and financing a business took a big knock during the crisis but is on the mend.

Is it all good? Of course not. The long-term problems that have dogged the British economy: skills, inadequate infrastructure and under-investment, remain. In the case of infrastructure there is a serious risk that a lack of investment in new energy capacity will leave industry, and the economy more generally, facing uncertain supply and high prices, at a time when America, through its shale gas revolution, is doing much better.

There is political risk, most notably in the anti-business rhetoric of the Labour party under Ed Miliband. Oppositions tend not to be as scary if and when they get into government but as things stand, businesses regard the prospect of a change of government with trepidation they did not feel when Tony Blair was Labour leader.

Even then, it is not all one way. Many in business also fear divorce from the EU, and worry that David Cameron is being pushed to a point of no return on the EU. I think the fear - hope for some - of EU exit is greatly exaggerated, but that does not prevent it being an issue.

There is also a tendency to load business with more red tape and cost, not all of it from the EU. Last week’s employment appeal tribunal ruling on holiday pay was another straw in the wind on this, possibly a significant one. The default position of bureaucrats, and often the courts, is to increase bureaucracy.

There was never a golden age in which Britain was a red tape free zone for business, though we probably came closest to it in the mid-1990s. Since then, despite pledges from politicians to ease the burden, it has increased.

We should never take business for granted. In most respects, as I say, Britain has become a better place for doing business. In several respects, businesses have never had it so good. But these things can change, and they can do so quickly, particularly if anti-business sentiment is allowed to gain traction.

Sunday, October 26, 2014
Eurozone starts to look a lot like Japan
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

How worried should we be about the eurozone? Is the single currency area, the weakest link in the global economic chain since the crisis, about to enter its third recession in the space of little more than six years? Worse, are those fears of euro break-up, which paralysed business and consumer confidence, returning?

The Bank of England is clearly concerned. Though two members of the monetary policy committee (MPC), Martin Weale and Ian McCafferty, continued to vote for higher interest rates this month, most MPC members were concerned, among other things, about the impact of the eurozone on Britain’s economy.

“There was mounting evidence of a loss of momentum in the euro area, including in Germany, where growth appeared to have stalled and industrial production had fallen sharply,” the MPC’s October minutes said. And: “Further downside news in the euro area had increased the risks to the durability of the UK expansion in the medium term.”

Today is quite a big day for the eurozone. The results of the Asset Quality Review (AQR) for the eurozone’s banks will be published, ahead of the European Central Bank taking responsibility for euro area banking supervision on November 4.

Though these stress test exercises have been criticised in the past for being too soft, there have been reports that up to 10% of the 130 banks covered will fail. The aim of the exercise is to demonstrate that the eurozone’s banking system is secure. At the margin, however, some banks will have to raise additional capital and this will depress bank lending.

The big picture in the eurozone, which the Bank of England was responding to, is one of desperately weak growth and very low inflation. Eurozone gross domestic product was flat in the second quarter and up by just 0.7% on a year earlier. The best that can be hoped for in coming quarters is growth of 0.1% or 0.2%. The fear is that GDP will turn negative again, following the recessions of 2008-9 and 2011-13.

Unemployment, while down from its highs is nevertheless 11.5%, 18.3m people, with a rate of 23.3% for young people.

Inflation is down everywhere but it is down particularly in the eurozone, averaging just 0.3% last month. Five of its members, Greece, Spain, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia, have negative inflation; deflation. Several others are very close to it.

So how bad is it? I always have mixed feelings writing about the eurozone. On the one hand this is a system which, as some of us warned repeatedly, combines the worst of all worlds. Europe’s politicians over-reached themselves in launching and expanding a system which defied economic logic. The eurozone’s problems were entirely predictable.

A grouping of a small number of similar economies might have worked but once the euro became effectively open to all trouble was inevitable. As it is the long-term future of the eurozone rests on creating the conditions for what economists would call an optimal currency, which means some kind of central Treasury or properly co-ordinated fiscal policy, wage flexibility and genuine geographical mobility of labour. Incidentally, free movement of people is much more important for euro members than for non-euro EU countries such as Britain.

All that will take a long time, if it can ever be achieved. It means supply side reform, and it means institutional reform, and it will mean individual euro members accepting a loss of control of fiscal as well as monetary policy. Many are unwilling to do that.

I do not in any way celebrate the eurozone’s problems. It was the biggest single factor holding back Britain’s recovery, and it remains the biggest factor preventing a rebalancing of the economy towards exports.

The eurozone’s current woes are, however, slightly different to those of a couple of years ago, when Europe was staring into the abyss. Ireland, after its harsh austerity programme, is now showing remarkable growth, with GDP up an astonishing 7.7% over the past year. Spain is also picking up as, somewhat more patchily, is Portugal. Greece remains a problem but may also be ready to return to modest growth.

The problem is in the eurozone’s core, with France at best stagnant – no growth at all over the latest six months, Italy already in its third recession in the space of a few years and Germany on the brink after a disastrous August and a 0.2% drop in GDP in the second quarter.

These “core” eurozone economies are not going to leave the single currency, which was the big fear with Greece and some of the other peripheral economies. But their weak performance will weigh down on the rest and, as long as it continues, make it hard for the eurozone as a whole to stage a decent recovery.

What can be done? The European Central Bank, having cut interest rates to rock bottom and then reduced them further, is running through its unconventional “whatever it takes” monetary policy options, to include purchases of covered bonds, asset backed securities and perhaps eventually full-blown quantitative easing, involving government bond purchases.

What about fiscal policy and the infrastructure spending recommended to boost the eurozone by the International Monetary Fund and others? This should be looked at, though we should be realistic about the hurdles.

The eurozone’s budget deficit last year was 2.9%, about half that in Britain, according to Eurostat data based on the new methodology, the so-called ESA2010 data. The trouble is that the deficits were unevenly spread. Greece, for example, still had a deficit of more than 12% of GDP. France’s was 4.1%, still above what the EU authorities regard as acceptable. Italy’s deficit is 2.8% of GDP, but alongside debt of 128% of GDP, compared with a high eurozone average of just over 90%.

A few countries have scope for a fiscal boost. Germany has a budget surplus of 0.1% of GDP, beaten only by Luxembourg with 0.6%. Some others, such as Austria and the Netherlands, have relatively small deficits.

Germany, however, appears to be an immovable object on relaxing fiscal policy and boosting infrastructure spending, insisting on protecting a balanced budget which is now enshrined in law.

An infrastructure boost in Germany would, in any case, while generating some extra growth in the Federal Republic, have a limited effect elsewhere. The eurozone crisis has evolved. Its slow growth, which is starting to look rather like Japan, is here to stay.

Sunday, October 19, 2014
Bank may eventually rue leaving rates low for too long
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Even before the stock market had an attack of the vapours, other factors — a sharp fall in Britain’s inflation rate, renewed weakness in the eurozone, and doubts about the strength of the job market — had led some in the City to push out their expectations of when the Bank of England will begin to lift interest rates.

Some, having thought the Bank would begin raising rates early next year, now think it will not happen until the second half of 2015, or possibly not even then.

Sure enough, on Friday morning Andy Haldane, the Bank’s new chief economist, offered plenty of succour to the “lower for longer” school on interest rates. Haldane, who said in June he marginally favoured being on the front foot on rates – raising them earlier – said he had now shifted to the back foot, mainly because he was on balance gloomier about the economic outlook.

Though his comments could be taken to mean that he thinks the peak for rates will be lower than he thought, they have been universally interpreted as signalling a delay in the first rate hike until later. And, while he is only one vote on the MPC, it is likely that his view is close to others in the Bank, including Mark Carney, the governor.

I shall return to the Bank in a moment. First, let me look at some of the other elements. The drop in inflation from 1.5% to 1.2% in September, its lowest for five years, was welcome. We should be wary, however, of concluding that Britain is about to join parts of the eurozone in experiencing deflation — falling prices.

Core inflation in Britain, excluding the more volatile energy, food, alcohol and tobacco components, is running at 1.5%. Service sector inflation, a better guide to domestic inflation, is running at 2.4%. Retail price inflation is 2.3%. Deflation is some way away.

Britain’s inflation rate is likely to run at close to 1% for the next two to three months. Next year, however, it is much more likely to rise than fall, pushing back up toward 2%.

Is the job market weakening? There has been a record annual fall in unemployment of 538,000 over the past year, taking the level down to 1.97m and the rate to 6%, a full percentage point below the earlier 7% forward guidance threshold (for considering rate hikes) which, a year ago, the Bank did not expect to be hit until 2016.

The weakness was that in the latest three months (June to August) employment rose by only 46,000, its smallest quarterly increase for more than year. Annual growth in total pay was only 0.7%, below even the lower 1.2% inflation rate.

The small rise in employment looks, however, to be misleading. The monthly numbers show there was an unexplained drop in employment in June, followed by strong increases in July and August. When June drops out of the three-monthly comparison in the next set of figures we should see stronger employment growth, and this concern will subside.

As for pay, something odd is happening there too. We expected weakness in bonus payments in April and May because a year ago people shifted their incomes to take advantage of the cut in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45%. Even in August, however, with the exception of public sector bonuses (which for some reason showed a 75% annual rise), bonuses continued to fall. A better guide to wages is regular pay, which in August was 1.2% up on a year earlier. The big picture remains one of a strong job market, alongside weakish wages.

Where there is cause for concern, apart from the risk that market turmoil could become self-feeding, is in the eurozone. We knew the eurozone’s growth problems had transferred themselves to its three big “core” economies, France, Germany and Italy (which, to be fair, has long been weak) — but what also emerged in recent days were what could be the first murmurings of a re-run of the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis, centred initially on Greece again. That should be watched closely.

So what should the MPC make of all this? A 2014 rate rise has been off the agenda for some time. The question now is when, or if, the Bank will start to hike in 2015.

On inflation, you will remember the MPC decided to “look through” the high inflation of recent years, which at one time hit 5%, because it was mainly due to global rather than domestic factors. Logic suggests it should do the same for the current low rate of inflation, explained by weak energy and commodity prices and the earlier strength of sterling.

As for the labour market, the key issue is that the further unemployment falls the less slack there will be in job market. The unemployment rate, as noted, is already well below the level at which the MPC had said it would consider rate rises. On wages, there is nothing in the latest figures to change the Bank’s view that a recovery in wage inflation — mainly next year — is still on the cards.

So I have some sympathy with the views of Weale, one of the two rate-hikers on the MPC in recent months. He put it well in a lecture a few days ago. He would, he said, consider what was happening in the eurozone and the wider international economy in deciding on his MPC vote. But his main focus domestically would be on the rate at which spare capacity was being used up in the economy because this provided a good guide to what would happen to wages. “The best indicator of this is probably the rate at which unemployment is falling,” he said.

Of course the MPC should not be raising rates if markets are in turmoil, or if the eurozone returns to its darkest days. Though the dangers of the latter are clearly there, I still think we have moved beyond fears of euro break-up and a re-run of the sovereign debt crisis.

But I also think the MPC should, as Weale says, be thinking about the fundamentals of a tightening labour market and the fact that the current weakness of inflation is likely to be temporary.

In the end, there are always reasons to delay raising rates, particularly when they have been low for so long. But, having prepared the ground for rate hikes in the first half of next year, the Bank would be unwise to kick things too far into the long grass. That would make the eventual decision harder but could also mean bigger increases will be needed when the time comes. The Bank may regret leaving rates low for too long.

Sunday, October 12, 2014
Time to join the dots on infrastructure spending
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

How do we build the infrastructure the economy is crying out for and the new housing a growing population sorely needs?

Through the haze of the party conferences, I got that Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to borrow more to fund additional public investment in infrastructure – roads, railways, energy, schools, hospitals, flood prevention, etc - and social housing, with the LibDems rather bolder on this than Labour.

Superficially this makes sense. Government borrowing costs – gilt yields in Britain’s case - are very low, so why should the government not go directly to the markets to fund such spending?

The International Monetary Fund, concerned about the slowdown in the eurozone’s already anaemic growth, has called for debt-financed infrastructure spending – even in countries with debt and deficit problems – to generate activity.

Of course Britain’s government, like others, already directly funds infrastructure spending. Net capital spending will be around £28bn this year, just over 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP). The trouble with adding to it significantly would be that borrowing for investment is not ringfenced; to the markets it would be indistinguishable from borrowing for everyday spending.

It would be seen, in other words, as weakening the commitment to deficit reduction. Nor, as recent experience shows, can we rely on governments not to cut capital spending when the public finances come under pressure.

So it is probably not sensible to think of the public purse, which will be severely constrained for many years to come, for a big increase in infrastructure and housing investment. Nor is it sensible to think of the banks, which were active in this area, and were an important source of funding for housing associations which build most of Britain’s social housing. The banks too are severely constrained.

There is another way, and on the face of it looks like a no-brainer. Globally there are hundreds of billions of pounds of institutional money anxious to find a home in infrastructure investment. Britain’s financial institutions – the pension funds and insurance companies – want long-term investments with stable returns, not sky-high ones.

Six of Britain’s insurers – Prudential, Aviva, Legal & General, Standard Life , Friends Life and Scottish Widows – a few months committed an initial £25bn to invest in UK infrastructure over the next few years. The National Association of Pension Funds has set up a pensions’ infrastructure platform, with the aim of directing pension fund money into the infrastructure.

I have been thinking about this. A couple of weeks ago I chaired a seminar on the issue at the Tory conference in Birmingham, organised by the think tank Reform and sponsored by Prudential, one of the insurers keen to do more infrastructure investment.

I have also had a long dialogue with Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal & General, who is a passionate advocate of institutional investment in infrastructure. What we need, says Wilson, is what he describes as “slow money investment”; housing and urban regeneration.

“Economic growth is created by modern efficient cities - we should be discussing how we build these cities instead of spending all our time discussing the timing of interest rate increases,” he says. “Urban regeneration requires slow money (20-year plus) and a lot of institutional support.”

Most of the insurers can point to some progress in increasing investment in infrastructure, including student accommodation and affordable housing. None would say there is enough. At the Birmingham event William Nicoll, head of fixed income at M & G, which is owned by Prudential, bemoaned the fact that too much institutional money in search of infrastructure investment ends up going overseas.

Priti Patel, the Exchequer Secretary representing the Treasury, took note. Lord Deighton, her Treasury colleague, its commercial secretary, is charged with driving additional infrastructure spending.

The situation is not completely dire. The Construction Products Association predicts that infrastructure spending as it directly affects the construction industry will rise from £14.6bn this year to £20.3bn in 2018. On this measure, while infrastructure spending has been flat over the past four years, it has been significantly higher in real terms than over the previous 15 years.

But it could be a lot better. A report by Scape, a construction procurement company, notes that construction output is currently 26% lower than if it had followed pre-crisis trends. Even after its recent recovery, we are building half the number of houses we need.

Why is it proving so difficult to join the dots between a government and an economy in need of more capital spending and institutions with the funds to make it possible?

One perennial issue is planning. The government has an infrastructure pipeline, just updated, with a huge number of projects and a combined value of hundreds of billions. But many projects are stuck in the pipeline and planning is usually the culprit. There is no better way to deter even long-term investors than to sink them in the planning morass.

Bureaucratic inertia is a problem. Civil servants are rightly risk averse but that risk aversion often extends to deep suspicion of the private sector. Not only that but the public sector rarely takes advantage of its economies of scale; it is highly fragmented.

Insurance companies will tell you of a social housing or other project they have successfully undertaken in one local authority, often for a low return, in the expectation that it will serve as a template for similar projects elsewhere. But each bit of central and local government does things in its own way, and each project has to expensively start from scratch.

It would be wrong, too, to pretend that everything is hunky dory on the institutional side. MPs at my Birmingham meeting pointed out that many pension funds, particularly local authority pension funds, are too small to undertake meaningful infrastructure investment. It is a point that has been taken up by Boris Johnson; combining these funds would allow them to scale up their investments.

But, with one or two exceptions, there is also institutional caution, sometimes forced on them by actuaries, trustees or shareholders. We have nothing yet comparable with the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, which has substantial stakes in Birmingham, Bristol, Brussels and Copenhagen airports; HS1; Scotia Gas Networks; and energy, container ports, desalination and other projects across the world.

We are, then, missing an opportunity. Every serious long-term report on the British economy says we need much more infrastructure. The money is there. We need to make it happen.

Sunday, October 05, 2014
Don't forget the budget deficit's ugly sister
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

We have had the two main party conferences and the big revisions to Britain’s economic numbers. We now know the economy’s pre-crisis peak was exceeded in the third quarter of last year rather than in the second quarter of this one. This is not, of course, the end of the story.

I want to try to draw these political and economic themes together. At the party conferences the biggest announcement, of course, was David Cameron's pledge to raise the personal tax allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate threshold to £50,000 by 2020. The cost of doing so, over and above the normal indexation of allowances, will be some £7bn.

This policy, as I wrote last week, does not in combination with weak wages growth make deficit reduction easy. In fact it seriously hampers it.

But some of the reaction to this pledge from economists and commentators is overdone. The prime minister clearly did not want to do a Roy Jenkins: emulate the 1967-70 Labour chancellor whose hairshirt stewardship of the public finances probably helped Labour lose the 1970 election.

And, if a £7bn tax cut, just over half the £12-13bn the coalition has spent raising the personal allowance during this parliament, is the worse that we will get between now and May - it may not be - we should relax.

As it is, the Tories are calculating that because Labour is perceived to have very little fiscal credibility, fairly or not, they can afford to lose some, and still remain well ahead in the credibility stakes. In fact, we can put a number on that. Labour's plans imply about £28bn less fiscal tightening than the Tories - becaused it has a less demanding deficit goal - and £7bn is a quarter of that. Despite the Cameron pledge, the Tories will continue to be seen by the markets and the public as more credible on deficit reduction.

Not that the rest of what we have seen during the party conference season was very encouraging on that score.

Ed Balls, for Labour, announced that he would limit the rise in child benefit to 1% a year until 2017, to demonstrate he means business about cutting the deficit.

George Osborne went much further. While the Balls plan would save a small amount – he estimates £400m, others less – the chancellor’s proposed two-year freeze on most working age benefits would save £3bn, part of £25bn of proposed spending additional spending cuts in the next parliament.

I have to say I was not very impressed with all this. Protecting the NHS, and in the case of the Tories anything involving pensioners, is seriously distorting the balance of public spending. Labour’s mansion tax will be a nightmare to introduce, and is a clumsy attempt to pull off the old political trick of offering the majority more while getting somebody else to pay for it.

Osborne, meanwhile, is determined to demonstrate only he can be trusted on the deficit, and that the best way to do this is to clamp down further on benefits, however harsh this sounds, not least because polling and focus groups show this to be popular. Those who would never vote Tory anyway will hate it but those who have been flirting with Ukip may be encouraged.

There has to be a better way. It is good that deficit reduction will be a theme of next year’s election – even if Ed Miliband forgot to mention it – but on the evidence of the last two weeks we may get more heat than light.

On benefits, for example, the chancellor has allowed himself to get way behind the curve. In the coalition’s first 2-3 years, welfare recipients, including many working people, benefited from the high inflation that squeezed wages hard. To make freezing them a pledge for the next parliament merely confirms how much work on the deficit Osborne has left himself to do.

There is still no sense that either party is thinking sensibly or strategically about the size of public sector the economy can afford. Before the 2010 election, the Tories looked and apparently learned from Canada’s experience in the 1990s, when a 20% reduction in the size of the state was achieved, affecting the majority of government functions. But in government the coalition’s approach has been piecemeal.

Labour promises a zero-based spending review, in which every item of spending will be up for grabs. I am not holding my breath, and this has already been partly over-ridden by the party’s commitment to put more into the NHS.

On budget deficit reduction, the parties will fight it out in the coming months over relatively small amounts of territory. We should take both parties’ plans – the Tories’ to achieve an overall budget surplus and Labour’s a so-called current surplus (excluding public sector capital spending) – with a pinch of salt until we get more detail. Osborne will probably win the credibility battle, though may lose some floating voters who find his approach too harsh.

I said I would bring this back to the new economic numbers. They were generally good news, particularly on investment, which is now seen to have been much stronger than previously thought. This stronger trend is continuing, with business investment up by 11% in the year to the second quarter.

Overall investment, up 9.1%, has made a much bigger contribution to growth over the past year, twice as much in fact, as consumer spending. This is encouraging, even if the continued disappointing performance of productivity – 0.3% lower in the second quarter than a year earlier – was not.

But there was another aspect of the latest slew of numbers that was also worrying; the balance of payments. Britain has its own extreme version of the “twin deficits” made famous by Ronald Reagan’s America in the 1980s.

Alongside a big budget deficit, we have a very large current account deficit. In the second quarter that widened to £23.1bn, from £20.5bn in the first quarter. It increased from 4.7% to 5.2% of gross domestic product. In fact it has averaged 5.2% of GDP over the latest 12 months, which is more red ink than we have ever had before, in records that go back to the mid-1950s.

Why is it so bad? Britain’s stronger growing economy attracts imports and export performance has been weak, but for once the trade deficit is not the explanation. It has been improving and was only 1.4% of GDP in the second quarter.

No, the reason was what is starting to become a familiar one. Britain used to have a surplus on investment income – we earned more from overseas investments than foreigners earned in Britain – but now it is the other way around.

Whether this is now the permanent state of things can be debated, though the current account deficit may turn out to be harder to eliminate than the budget deficit.

Whether we should be worried about it can be questioned. Ben Broadbent, the new deputy governor of the Bank of England, suggested in the recent speech that we should not worry overmuch. As long as Britain has what he described as hard-won credibility, the current account should not “pose some independent, existential threat to UK growth”. As long as capital can be attracted to Britain to offset the current account deficit things will be OK.

Let us hope so. But the twin deficits mean that the economy is reliant on investors to fund the budget deficit and capital inflows from abroad. Hard-won credibility can easily be lost. In a time of political uncertainty that threat is a real one.

Sunday, September 28, 2014
Osborne's deficit plan gets lost in the statistical fog
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Maybe Ed Miliband should have talked about the budget deficit, and not just for the obvious reasons.

Had the Labour leader done so he could have provided George Osborne and David Cameron with a bit of discomfort ahead of their conference this week. As far as we can tell, the budget deficit so far this year is up rather than down, and the chancellor is in danger of missing his deficit reduction targets. The “long-term economic plan” will look more than a little tarnished if the deficit starts going up again.

I shall return to that in a moment. I say “as far as we can tell” because the figures for Britain’s public finances have just been put through the statistical mill. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has redone the numbers to comply with the new European System of Accounts (ESA10) requirements, which apply to all EU member states, and it has introduced a new measure of the budget deficit.

These changes have had even the experts scratching their heads. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility said the new figures make it “more difficult to draw inferences from the latest data for performance against our latest forecast".

The Institute for Fiscal Studies was a little more willing to look through the “significant methodological changes” – which include increasing the level of public sector net debt by £130bn to £1,432bn – but conceded that there were uncertainties about what will happen in the rest of the current fiscal year.

This process of methodological upheaval for the statistics will get even more attention this week, when the ONS updates its GDP (gross domestic product) figures to meet the new ESA10 standard.

Though the ONS has warned against extrapolating the GDP re-estimates it has done so far – to 2012 – on the face of it, this week’s figures will show that the economy surpassed its pre-crisis peak last year rather than this, and is currently some 3% above it.

They may also show that this is no longer the slowest recovery since the dawn of time. Though they will still show that it took longer to get back to where we were before, a big reason for this is the scale of the 2008-9 downturn. When it comes to how fast the economy has recovered from its low point, there is a good chance that this week’s figures will show that the current recovery is slightly better than the 1970s.

Though these revisions are necessary – ONS officials will say they are required to implement these changes and that it would be wrong not to incorporate the latest thinking into their estimates – they are also infuriating.

Much of the debate about the recovery over the past 3-4 years will in time be seen to have been hot air, blown away by statistical revisions. Those initial underestimates of growth did affect business confidence and could easily have resulted in self-fulfilling gloom. The lesson, set out here on many occasions, is to take early unrevised data with a pinch of salt.

When it comes to the budget deficit and government debt, it so happens that the data changes are less welcome than the GDP revisions, in the sense that the headline numbers are higher than before. But, by making comparisons more difficult, they also make it harder to scrutinise the government’s progress against its fiscal targets. The goalposts have moved.

What do the figures for the public finances tell us through the fog? In most respects the story is a familiar one. Borrowing on the new definition (the public sector excluding banks) in the first five months of the current fiscal year, the April-August period, was £45.4bn, compared with£42.8bn in the corresponding period of last year.

That increase in borrowing is, as I say, embarrassing for a government engaged in deficit reduction, though both the OBR and IFS cite factors that will help the public finances as the year progresses.

These temporary timing factors, most notably depressed income tax receipts compared with a year ago – when bonuses and some regular pay were shifted from 2012-13 to 2013-14 to take advantage of the top rate cut from 50% to 45% - will gradually unwind. It remains more likely than not that the 2014-15 budget deficit will turn out to be lower than 2013-14.

Something else is happening in the public finance numbers, however, which suggests that when it comes to deficit reduction the government has inadvertently shot itself in the foot.

If you listen to the chancellor’s critics on the Tory right, you might think that the slow pace of deficit reduction is entirely due to the fact that the government has not been tougher on public spending. What Osborne should have done, they say, is slash spending harder, and use the leeway both to cut taxes and reduce borrowing faster.

In fact, public spending is coming in around £10bn a year lower than the chancellor intended in his June 2010 emergency budget, partly as a result of additional measures to cut spending and partly because departments have underspent. Spending is down in real terms, and some departments and much of local government have faced very big cuts. Public sector employment has fallen by more than 7%, excluding classification changes.

The problem, instead, is on the tax side, and it may lie with one particular tax change. More than 30 years ago in 1981, Geoffrey Howe introduced his austerity budget, as I describe in our special Fifty Years of Business supplement today. The centrepiece was a freeze in the personal income tax allowance, at a time of high inflation. The effect was to increase income tax for the majority of people, hastening the process of deficit reduction.

The coalition, as a result of the deal between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has done the opposite. Instead of an austerity freeze on the personal allowance, we have had a big income tax cut, as it has been raised in large steps to its current £10,000.

It is laudable to take people out of tax and increase the incentives for those at the bottom end of the income scale. But it is also expensive and, it appears, has made it harder to reduce the budget deficit.

The interaction of subdued wage rises and the relative shift from high to lower paid jobs means that the £10,000 allowance costs much more. In an unchanging labour market and something like normal pay rises relative to inflation – which not so long ago official forecasters expected – a smaller share of people’s earnings would have been tax-free. As it is, the tax-free proportion – which higher earners do not benefit from – is one reason why tax receipts are depressed.

We should keep an eye on this. It is, as I say, more likely that we are still in a situation of gradual deficit reduction than not. But the chancellor has deprived himself of quite a lot of tax. The tax take is at least £12-13bn a year lower than it would otherwise have been. He should not be too surprised that it is taking longer to get the deficit down.

Sunday, September 21, 2014
Weak pay and low inflation mean no rate hikes just yet
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

After all the excitement - and for me the right result - time to return to some normal but rather interesting fare. While we have been preoccupied with other things, there have been developments. The question is which way they are pointing.

On the face of it the job market continues to roar away. The unemployment rate, now just 6.2%, is at its lowest since October 2008 – just as the financial crisis was starting to do really serious damage – and is down from 7.7% a year ago.

Without rubbing salt into old wounds, a year ago the Bank of England though it would take until 2016 just to get down to 7%, let alone to be knocking on the door of 6%.

The fall in unemployment over the past year, the fastest for 25 years, takes the wider jobless total down to just above 2m (2.02m), while the narrower claimant count has dropped below the symbolically important 1m level; it is now 966,500.

Add the rise in employment, an extraordinary 774,000 over the past year, with a record 30.61m people in work, and a near-record 73% of the workforce, and it looks like a job market on steroids.

Nor is this without its wider economic effects. Another set of official numbers, for retail sales, showed that spending last month was an inflation-adjusted 3.9% up on a year earlier.

For those thinking we have an economy a little too strong for comfort, all this was ammunition. Martin Weale and Ian McCafferty, two members of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (MPC) voted for a second consecutive month for a hike in Bank rate.

They, according to the Bank’s minutes, think the economy is flying high on the stimulus of ultra-low interest rates and while policy remains so “expansionary” spare capacity will be used up, wage pressures will increase and inflation will rise. Modest rate rises now will help cut that danger off at the pass.

For all the strength of these numbers, however, there is another side to the story. Inflation, at 1.5%, is below target and still falling, according to new figures last week. The growth in average earnings has turned positive again, rising by 0.6% in the latest three months compared with a year earlier, or 0.7% for regular pay.

While the unemployment and retail sales numbers look very strong indeed on the surface, some other bits of evidence suggest an economy in which growth is moderating. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimates that growth in the June-August period was 0.6%, slower than its recent quarterly growth rate of 0.8%.

Even in the labour market figures, and even apart from the weak pay figures, there were one or two signs that things were not as strong as they have been. The latest three-monthly rise in employment, 74,000, was the smallest since the spring of last year. Though it is too soon to call a break in the trend, the number of people characterised as economically inactive rose by 114,000 in the latest three months, its biggest increase since late 2009/early 2010. It had been falling.

On the face of it too, the figures for pay are going nowhere. Manufacturing is the only significant sector of the economy in which pay in the latest three months outstripped inflation but not by much (2% versus 1.5%). One area where pay was doing well – the large wholesaling, retailing, hotels and restaurants sector – has seen pay growth slow to just 0.6%; in line with the national average increase. It could be that pay increases in this sector are being delayed until the minimum wage goes up from £6.31 to £6.50 an hour next month but it will be a long time until we see this in the figures.

Some of this weakness in pay is hard to square with on-the-ground experience. Last week I helped chair the Countryside/What House? new homes debate at Molineux, Wolverhampton, where the talk was of skill shortages driving pay higher, and materials shortages doing the same for other costs. It may be that we are seeing the first inklings of this in the numbers. For one month only, July, the official statistics showed construction pay up by a hefty 4% (by recent standards) on a year earlier. But again, too early to call a trend.

Similarly, there are the first stirrings of a revival in productivity in the fact that the rise in employment, and the total number of hours people are working, was smaller than the increase in economic output. But we need more data to be sure that faster productivity growth is finally kicking in.

So the economy is genuinely quite hard to read at the moment. Growth has been very strong, as has the job market, but both are showing tentative signs of softening. Inflation is below target, and likely to remain so. We may be looking at a low point of just above 1%, with no return to the 2% target for a long time.

As for pay, its weakness was a puzzle when the job market was so strong. It may become less of a puzzle if the growth in employment really is weakening.

What does this mean for interest rates? Though I have some sympathy for Weale and McCafferty on the MPC, and though they are correct to say that the MPC has to anticipate, not merely respond, I would not vote for a rate rise at the moment.

One reason is the uncertainties about the data, outlined above. The other is that the first hike in rates since 2007 (and the first move from 0.5% since March 2009) would have to be clearly explained to households and businesses.

Mark Carney had a go in his recent speech to the Trades Union Congress but more will need to be done. Raising rates for the reasons set out by the two hikers in the MPC minutes – the concern that spare capacity will be used up rapidly, generating inflationary pressures, does not quite do it.

It may be that come early next year, the evidence is coming through strongly on rising pay. And it may be that recent tentative evidence of slowing growth turns out to have been a false signal. Under those circumstances, a rate rise would be fully justified. Doing it now would look premature.

Sunday, September 14, 2014
Don't go, but Scotland needs the UK a lot more than the UK needs Scotland
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

With days to go, it it is still not clear whether Scotland will avoid the economic car-crash that would follow independence. It could still, as Deutsche Bank's chief economist puts it, be on the brink of a historic economic and political mistake.

The fact that independence will be bad for Scotland’s economy is so clear that it surprises and rather saddens me when some business people north of the border either say there will be little difference whichever way Thursday’s vote goes or that Scotland will be better off.

For a sensible business view of independence, I would look to Terry Scuoler, the Glaswegian chief executive of the EEF, which represents Britain’s manufacturers. As he wrote in The Times on Thursday: “A ‘yes’ vote would be deeply damaging for the Scottish economy, and thereby the living standards of ordinary Scots, for decades to come.”

That’s enough on that, without reprising all last week’s arguments. Let me move on to a different tack. Last week’s dash up to Scotland my the prime minister and the other Westminster leaders, together with the general air of panic about the risks of a “yes” vote, have led to some nationalists making an interesting claim. The reason the rest of the UK is so worried, they say, is because it has been exploiting Scotland all these years.

There are three things wrong with this argument. The first is that it is hard to claim exploitation when Scotland’s income per head – measured by gross value-added - is the highest in the UK outside London and the south-east, even without allocating it a geographic share of North Sea oil. Wales, Northern Ireland and the north-east of England, with income per head on this measure less than 80% of the Scottish level, are entitled to feel hard done by. Scotland is not.

Second, the UK is an economic and monetary union that works. The sum really is greater than the parts. The rest of the UK can regret the loss of Scotland, not because it exploits it, but because if you remove part of any integrated economic system it leads to short-term dislocation – and in this case the short-term could mean several years – and significant adjustment problems.

Separation has economic consequences. When retailers and other companies warn of higher prices in an independent Scotland, they are not bluffing. Once you remove the benefits of an integrated system, and a genuine single market, Scottish consumers will be hit by higher distribution costs and the loss of economies of scale. The greater the currency uncertainty, the bigger such effects will be.

Thirdly, and most importantly, in the long-term the rest of the UK would do very well without Scotland. If there has been a criticism from readers about my take on Scottish independence, it is that I have not emphasised the benefits of separation to the rest of the UK.

We are already seeing some of those effects. A “yes” vote on Thursday will see a substantial migration of Scotland’s banking and financial services industry southwards. Royal Bank of Scotland, desperate to try to please both sides, has said a shift of head office need not mean a reduction of operations and jobs north of the border.

That, however, is an untenable position. The Bank of England is not going to provide lender of last resort facilities and regulatory oversight to a bank that remains substantially Scottish in the event of independence. There will be a large-scale and meaningful migration.

Other businesses are also likely to shift. The problem for England’s northern regions, and for Wales, has been competing with the inducements on offer to invest in Scotland. Veterans of UK trade promotion tell of Scotland, with the support of UK taxpayers, paying perhaps three times per job in investment inducements as the English regions.

Those days will be over, or such inducements will be balanced by the disadvantage for Scotland of being outside the UK. Over the long-term, England’s regions, Wales and Northern Ireland will benefit both from the outflow of investment from Scotland and a greater share of inward investment from overseas.

Britain’s or rather the rest of the UK’s fiscal position will also benefit. As my piece a week ago pointed out, Scotland has run a bigger budget deficit than the UK as a whole for the past 25 years. Oil revenues are in long-term decline. In future, as a result of this, the subsidy from taxpayers in the rest of the UK to fund Scotland’s higher per capita public spending will increase. Removing this liability will benefit the rest of the UK’s public finances, not hugely, but it will benefit them.

Surely, however, Independence would expose the fundamental weakness of Britains’s trade position. In July, the trade deficit in goods was £10.2bn, reduced to £3.3bn by the surplus on services. Last year North Sea oil exports were £39bn. Scotland’s “geographic” 90% share of that would be £35bn. That is a lot of exports for the UK to lose.

It is, but it would be offset by Scotland’s £12bn trade deficit with the rest of the UK, the fact that around £20bn of North Sea profits are currently remitted abroad and, over the long-term, by the shift in activity southwards. An independent Scotland would lose a substantial chunk of her financial services exports, and probably other exports as well. In any event, Britain has to adjust to declining North Sea production and exports. This would merely hasten that adjustment.

In trade, as in everything else, Scotland needs the UK a lot more than the UK needs Scotland. Nearly half of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK. The end of three centuries of economic and monetary integration would hurt the smaller economy moving away a lot more than it would the larger one staying. Losing Scotland would take the UK’s population back to where it was in 2000.

The economic tail, if it does patter off into the distance, would not wag the dog.
None of this should be taken to mean that I want to see a vote for independence this week. This is no time for economic and financial disruption.

At a time when an unsuccessful economic and monetary union is being held together in Europe, it would be bizarre to break up a successful one in the UK. The question is whether voters in Scotland see the sense of that.

Sunday, September 07, 2014
An independent Scotland would be poorer, more unstable and fiscally weak
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

In 11 days, voters in Scotland will decide on whether their country should go it alone. The latest Sunday-Times YouGov poll shows a two-point lead for the "yes" camp. The outcome is now too close to call.

The closeness of the polls has been matched by a shift in the tone of some economic commentary on independence. Some say it would be a close-run thing whether an independent Scotland would be better or worse off than if it remains part of the UK. If this is the case, then Scots are free to vote with their emotions, their hearts.

Such talk is dangerously misleading. The economics of independence are not close at all. Scotland will be worse off in the short-term, in the medium-term and in the long-term if it votes for independence.

A vote for independence will be a vote for a Scotland that is poorer, more unstable, and will require deeper cuts in public spending than if it remains part of the UK.

In the short-term, a vote for independence would be followed by turbulence. Goldman Sachs has warned of a euro-style currency crisis within Britain, with the break-up threat providing investors with “a strong incentive to sell Scottish-based assets and households with a strong incentive to withdraw deposits from Scottish-based banks”.

Robert Wood of Berenberg, the private bank, warns of a yes vote being followed by “serious short-term pain”, in the period of uncertainty over Scotland’s future currency arrangements and EU membership. The UK authorities, including the Bank of England, would be obliged to step in, but as the experience of 2008 showed, financial panics can be hard to contain.

These uncertainties, in the transitional period, have the potential to hit Scotland hard. They could mean that the independence vote is followed by a recession in Scotland and a significant slowdown for the rest of the UK. The longer-term challenges are arguably even greater.

To understand why, we need not get bogged down for the moment in questions about the currency, which many people appear to regard as too confusing, though I shall return to it.

Instead, let me start with the two fundamental economic forces arguing against Scottish independence. The first is declining North Sea production and revenues.

This year the North Sea will produce around 830,000 barrels a day of oil, just 28% of the peak of 2.92m barrels in 1999. Oil and gas production together will be some 75m tonnes of oil equivalent, 31% of the 1999 peak of 243.7m.

There is no doubt at all that North Sea oil and gas production, while far from exhausted, is in long-term decline. That decline has averaged 7.8% a year since the 1999 peak. Production has fallen particularly sharply since 2010, mostly as a result of a sharp drop in production efficiency.

The costs of extracting the remaining oil have increased sharply. The days of big fields being operated by the big oil companies have given way to a situation in which production is from some 300 fields mainly operated by smaller businesses.

According to the Wood Review, chaired by Sir Ian Wood and published earlier this year, development costs per barrel have risen five-fold over the past decade. Oil and Gas UK, the industry body, says exploration activity is at an all-time low.

The result of all this is that oil is ceasing to be a significant revenue-raiser for Scotland. In 2012-13, The North Sea brought in £5.6bn of revenues for Scotland, assuming an independent Scotland would get a “geographic” 90% share of revenues. This was less than half the £11.6bn of 2008-9.

For last year, 2013-14, Scotland’s oil and gas revenues appear to have dropped further, to £4.2bn. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts for North Sea revenues imply further falls over the next few years, to £3.3bn this year, £3.4bn in 2015-16, £2.9bn in 2016-17, £3.1bn in 2017-18 and £3.2bn in 2018-19.

Nor do things get any better after that. Robert Chote, the OBR chairman, recently wrote to the Scottish parliament to explain why he was revising down projected North Sea receipts over the period 2019-20 to 2040-41 from £51.9bn to £39.3bn.

There were predictable cries of foul from the nationalists, though Chote patiently explained how North Sea production and revenues had persistently disappointed. Nor was the OBR taking a gloomy view on output; the assumption is that it will be flat until the end of the decade before resuming its decline, but at a slower 5% a year rate. The OBR’s forecasts imply that Scotland’s North Sea revenues in the 2020s and 2030s will average a modest £1.6bn a year.

Surely, however, any oil revenues are better than no oil revenues? Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister repeatedly says that no country ever got poor by having oil.

The trouble for Scotland, however, is that its public finances can only be made to add up if it is has significant oil revenues. This is where Scotland falls foul of the second fundamental force; high and rising public spending.

Scotland spends much more than the rest of the UK. Spending per head in Scotland is between 12% and 16% higher than the UK average. Part of the reason Scotland is relatively well off (income per head excluding oil is around 94% of the UK average) is that it is boosted by this higher level of public spending. The pressures for higher spending, not least from the country’s ageing population, will intensify.

In 2012-13, the latest Scottish government figures, public spending in Scotland was £65.2bn. Taxation, excluding North Sea revenues, was £47.6bn. The gap was equivalent to 14% of GDP; bigger than the UK deficit at the height of the crisis. Only by including North Sea revenues was Scotland’s budget deficit brought down to 8.3% of GDP; bigger than the 7.3% for the rest of the UK.

This, in fact, has been the position for the past 25 years. Even with a geographic share of oil revenues, and even in a period when North Sea production was at a peak, Scotland has run a bigger deficit than the whole of the UK.

Its position can only get worse as North Sea revenues decline. The Scottish government, taking what appears to be an unrealistically optimistic view of oil revenues, predicts a budget deficit for Scotland in 2016-17 of 3.2% of GDP, compared with 2.4% for the UK as a whole. Independent assessments from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Citibank and others suggest a deficit of between 5% and 6%.

It could easily be much worse. If, as feared, the uncertainties following independence hits the Scottish economy hard then this, in combination with weak oil revenues, could easily push the deficit to 10% of GDP or more. Scotland would start independent life on the shakiest of fiscal footings.

Every independent assessment of Scotland’s fiscal position points to the need for bigger spending cuts than the UK government’s austerity programme and tax hikes. “If an independent Scotland wanted to achieve a sustainable medium and long-term fiscal position, further tax increases and/or spending cuts would be needed after independence,” the IFS says.

To replace the falling oil revenues and achieve a manageable budget deficit, Scotland will either need its own austerity – over and above the planned £400m in defence cuts – and higher taxes. The IFS suggests that over the medium term tax increases equivalent to 10 points on the basic rate of income tax and an eight-point hike in the main rate of VAT.

The Scottish government’s response to its fiscal problem has been to pretend it does not exist. Its white paper in the summer proposed net giveaways of more than £1bn. John Swinney, its finance secretary, has promised to end the Westminster government’s austerity. Salmond, astonishingly, has won support by pledging to protect an NHS he already has control of form privatisation and cuts.

Politicians say a lot of things before votes. When fiscal reality hits home, things will look very different.

THE FISCAL DEBATE is not the only issue for an independent Scotland. Its voters have been subjected to the spectacle of businesses lining up on both sides of the debate. “Yes” supporters in the business community have in general been more vocal and willing to nail their colours to the mast, while those backing maintaining the union have been more circumspect, and in many cases have emphasised that they are only expressing a personal position.

If there is a pattern to these declarations it is the smaller firms operating mainly within Scotland appear keener on independence, while larger firms do not want it. The Scottish government is offering a 3% cut in corporation tax to stop firms from leaving, and to attract new ones.

Scotland’s problem, however, is that it does not have enough private-sector businesses now, and independence is likely to result in a loss of big taxpaying firms, notably but not exclusively in financial services.

Scotland has 740 private businesses per 10,000 adults, lower than any UK region apart from the north-east of England. Most businesses will worry that, behind the prospect of a small cut in corporation tax, there is the bigger danger of other taxes going up. Post-independence, those who want access to the market of the rest of the UK would be able to do so from Ireland, with a corporation tax rate of 12.5%.

In his Gresham lecture earlier this year, Professor Douglas McWilliams predicted that much of Scotland’s financial services industry would migrate to London, with a consequent loss to Scotland of high-paying jobs and tax revenues. Scotland’s banks, in particular Royal Bank of Scotland, will have little option but to re-domicile. What Scotland may gain in a few entrepreneurs emboldened by a yes vote it will more than lost in the departure of large businesses.

That will be compounded if the Scottish government carries out its threat not to take on its share of UK public debt, if it is not allowed to be part of a currency union with the rest of the UK.

Such a move would make a newly independent Scotland a pariah in the financial markets – a country that reneges on its debts once can do so again – and a pariah in the rest of the UK. A country that walks away from its debts deserves to be condemned. In the latest five years alone, the Scottish government’s figures show Scotland has run up debts of £88bn, or more than £51bn if its ‘geographic’ oil revenues were backdated.

Scotland’s currency arrangements threaten to be its biggest problem of all. Westminster’s insistence that it would not allow Scotland to be part of a formal currency union is taken seriously by all but the nationalists, mainly because it would not be the rest of the UK’s interest.

Salmond’s insistence that the rest of the UK would want to be in a currency zone with Scotland because the two form an “optimal currency area” is either extreme ignorance or a deliberate attempt to mislead. Once Scotland left the UK and established its own fiscal policy with its own Treasury, the optimal currency area would have ceased to exist.

As it is, Scotland’s lack of currency preparation is shocking. It took Europe decades to prepare the ground for a single currency that nevertheless had significant launch problems. The Scottish first minister’s throwaway insistence that all options are open for an independent Scotland does not deserve to be taken seriously.

As it is, the only option on the table, taking the Scottish government’s statements at face value, is the worst of all worlds; use of the pound but without any influence on it (sterlingisation), accompanied by a reneging on past debts. There would be no lender of last resort for what remained of the Scottish banking sector. That is the policy of a banana republic, not a proud nation

FOR SUPPORTERS of independence, all of the above will be dismissed by what has been the problem for the “No” campaign; how do you enthuse people by pointing out the risks. People want to vote for positive reasons and they are also tempted to vote for a change. Is there a positive message among the many negatives that would be associated with independence?

Yes. Capital Economics, in a report, says that a no vote would lead to an economic resurgence in Scotland, at least in the short term, as uncertainty fell away. Scottish firms quoted on the stock market have suffered an uncertainty effect, depressing their share prices relative to the rest of the market and, while Scotland’s economy has been growing, its unemployment has fallen more slowly than the rest of the UK.

Longer-term, Scotland has been pledged greater powers even in the event of a rejection of a no vote. Scottish voters will get a version of “devo max”, greater devolution but without the huge risks and economic damage associated with independence. A canny Salmond will even be able to present that as a victory.

And if the Scots were to use these extra powers to build a stronger economy, without its current fiscal vulnerabilities and with a workable currency plan, they might even be able to make the economic case for independence in the future. There is no case for it now.

Sunday, August 31, 2014
French lessons in how not to run an economy
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Britain and France are two nations separated by just 21 miles of sea but sharply divided by their economic performance. France, economically stagnant, is experiencing rising unemployment and disagreements over policy which last week forced a serious cabinet shake-up.

Britain, in contrast, is growing well, unemployment is tumbling and, against the predictions of many when the coalition government was formed more than four years ago, has kept policy disagreements to a minimum.

This is not a “what I did on my holidays” piece. I did not contribute to the roughly 9m annual visits by Britons to France this year. But what is happening in France is interesting, and in some respects a warning; it could have happened to Britain.

The French economy did not grow in 2012, managed just 0.2% in 2013, and has growth by just 0.1% in the past 12 months, with little better in prospect for the rest of the year. That is what you really do call flatlining.

Britain did not grow much in 2012, 0.3%, but picked up to 1.7% in 2013 and has grown by 3.2% in the past 12 months.

Britain’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6.4%, a fall of 437,000 in the past 12 months to just over 2m. French unemployment, by contrast, is 10.2% of the workforce, has risen for 36 months in a row and stands at more than 3.4m. Business and consumer confidence in Britain is strong; in France it is weak.

France’s problems go deep. It suffered a milder recession in the crisis than Britain and, with a smaller financial sector and budget deficit, initially recovered more quickly. But that soon faded and the government’s efforts to foster stronger growth with economic reforms look doomed to disappoint.

Fitch, the ratings agency, published an assessment following President Francois Hollande’s dismissal of ministers opposed to his economic programme and appointment of a new cabinet.

“The impact of recent reforms is unclear but in our view they do not look sufficient to reverse the decline in long-term growth and competitiveness,” it said. “We think estimates of long-term growth potential around 1.5% are plausible. A weak labour market will constrain private consumption, while an uncertain economic outlook and low profit margins will subdue business investment.”

Britain has three big advantages over France. Reforms of the kind the French government is trying to introduce were implemented in Britain 30 years ago, though France’s are more timid. France’s supply-side reforms are not only late but there is little political support for them and they are being introduced against the backdrop of a stagnant economy.

Indeed, there was an echo in last week’s French cabinet shake-up, and the removal of anti-reform ministers, of the wet-dry battles in Margaret Thatcher’s early years. She got rid of most of the “wets” and stuck to it. You would not want to bet on Hollande doing the same.

The second factor is the euro. Britain, very sensibly, stayed out of the euro. Though euro membership has not been as big a constraint on France as it has been for the eurozone’s peripheral economies, it inevitably limits the government’s room for manoeuvre. France, like other eurozone countries, is finding life tough in a German-dominated currency union and, with an inflation rate of just 0.6%, is flirting with deflation.

Most importantly of all, France’s problems show the danger of policy lurches, even if they are in a sensible direction. Hollande was elected on a ticket of defying austerity, hitting the financial services industry hard and soak-the-rich tax policies. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, should be embarrassed by his open admiration for the French president’s then programme.

Hollande has now moved to a programme of spending cuts to pay for tax reductions alongside measures to reduce the costs of doing business and employing people, as set out in a major speech in January. Any sinner who repents is to be welcomed but the effect is to breed uncertainty.

Britain’s coalition government, in contrast, has mainly stuck to what it said it would do on the economy. Policy certainty breeds confidence. The policy has been steady deficit reduction policies alongside loose monetary policy. This is not always well understood by those who should know better; I was astonished to hear John Longworth, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, say on the radio the other day that there has been no austerity in Britain.

How much should we worry about what is happening in France and the rest of the eurozone? Can Britain carry on growing while there is stagnation so close to home?

From the middle of 2011 to the spring of 2013, when the eurozone’s double-dip recession coincided with fears of imminent euro break-up, Britain was significantly affected. Falling demand for Britain’s exports and, more importantly, the confidence effects of a eurozone apparently on the brink hampered growth.

The eurozone overall is not quite as weak as France but is weaker than is comfortable to support Britain’s recovery. In the latest 12 months the eurozone has grown by just 0.7%. It needs to be rather stronger, and the European Central Bank will almost certainly need its version of quantitative easing to bring that about and head off the danger of system-wide deflation.

We should not, however, expect strong growth in the eurozone, or in France, any time soon. A couple of weeks ago I pulled out some figures for growth in Italy, Germany and France since the launch of the euro in 1999; all of them much weaker than Britain.

The same is true of the eurozone as a whole. Its economy has risen by 18% in real terms since 1999, compared with 30% for Britain. Britain can grow at a decent pace when the eurozone is merely growing weakly. Achieving good and sustained growth in Britain when the eurozone is stagnating, as exemplified by the problems in France, is possible. But it is more of a challenge.

Sunday, August 17, 2014
Baby-boomers take some of the rap for falling pay
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Strange things are happening. Pay should not be falling at a time when employment is booming – up by 820,000 over the past year – and unemployment is tumbling.

Yet it is. As most people will have noticed, the latest average earnings figures showed that total pay, including bonuses, was down 0.2% on a year earlier in the April-June period. This was not the first time this has happened – there was a bigger, though temporary, fall in pay in the depths of the crisis and recession in the early part of 2009.

This one will also be temporary. When the Office for National Statistics reports the next set of labour market numbers in a month’s time, I think I can guarantee that pay growth will have turned positive again. This is because part of the big distortion in the figures – both bonuses and regular pay were boosted in the spring of last year to take advantage of the cut in the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% - will have dropped out.

Most of this effect was in April, when total pay on a single-month basis was down by 1.5% on a year earlier, though some carried through into May and June.

That is the good news. The bad news is that, even as the pay picture turns positive, it will remain subdued. Getting back to 1% pay growth will take a while. Getting back above inflation, currently just below 2%, will take even longer.

I thought pay would slightly outstrip inflation this year, giving us modest real earnings growth. It did in the first quarter, when pay growth of 1.9% moved just ahead of average consumer price inflation of 1.7%. But this unwound in the second quarter, partly because of the bonus distortion, but partly because of other factors.

So what is happening? Why is pay apparently weakening when the job market is getting tighter? It would be easy to blame the official statistics, and the contrast with other surveys, notably from the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, which point to rising pay pressures.

It is important, though, to dig a little deeper into the figures. The average weekly earnings figures are affected, not just by the timing of bonus payments, but by two so-called compositional factors.

One is the fact that pay in some high-earning sectors, notably financial services, has been falling, dragging down the average. The other is changes in the mix of employment, with the strongest growth in lower-paid jobs.

The Office for National Statistics adjusts for this second effect deep in the entrails of its statistical releases. So in June, for example, wages were up by 1.5% on a year earlier in total, with regular pay up 1.2%, but in both cases the average was dragged down by this employment effect. These figures give a better idea of the wage increases people actually receive.

But they are still very weak by past standards. On this same measure, wage increases of between 4% and 5% were the norm before the crisis, and you do not have to go back too far for a time when they were very much higher. I don’t suppose anybody in the 1970s would have ever imagined that we would one day worry about too low a rate of wage inflation.

The many explanations of why it is happening include immigration- discussed here two weeks ago - the collapse of union power, the possibility that pay settlements have not yet adjusted to fast-falling unemployment and welfare reforms pushing people more effectively off benefit and into the job market. It is interesting that the claimant count, which measures the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance, is now just over 1m, compared with 2.08m for the wider Labour Survey measure of unemployment.

I quite like another explanation. As a baby boomer I am used to being blamed for many things, from destroying the planet to pushing house prices up to unaffordable levels and keeping them there. Now, it seem, we may also be to blame for weak wages.

There was a time, in the relatively recent past, when Britain’s occupational pension system was the envy of the world and the Saga generation retired in their fifties to travel the world or potter in their sheds.

No more. I am not saying age discrimination has disappeared from the job market – no letters please – but older workers are on the rise. In the 50-64 age group, 68.5% of people now work, compared with 60% in the year 2000. The proportion of 65-plus people working has doubled from 5% to 10% over the same period.

Now, 26% of those in employment are aged 50-plus, compared with 24% immediately before the crisis and 22% in 2000. Overall employment trends are up but those for older workers are particularly strong.

Why? The Bank of England, which had a look at this in its inflation report, cited several factors, including the rise since 2010 in the state pension age for women, the abolition of the default retirement age and – perhaps most importantly – in an era of ultra-low interest rates on savings and lousy pension returns, many people have no option but to carry on working.

The more people in work, whatever their age, the more incomes are generated, and the more growth there is. But older workers staying in the job market probably spend less of their income, are less likely to be less demanding when it comes to pay and dampen down on pay pressures, like immigrants, by increasing the pool of available labour.

If I wanted to really controversial I would say they may also be less productive than younger workers, though while that may have been true in an age of manual labour, where muscles mattered, there is no good research evidence that it is true now. Older office workers are less technologically adept than their younger colleagues but spend less time on Facebook.

I am not suggesting for a moment that older workers should carry the can for all the weakness of wages. But they are part of a phenomenon in which rising labour demand creates additional supply, whether that supply is from overseas or from changes in working patterns at home. Nor, given that government policy involves increasing the number of older workers in work, and getting them to do so for longer, is this going to fade. Ultimately it is a good thing.

So where is pay headed? In September last year I did a piece headed ‘This squeeze on pay is not about to go away’, citing research by Bill Wells, a labour market expert at the Department of Business. His theory was that pay increases were “shocked” into a 1% to 3% range by the crisis and – were likely to stay there until something new came along to shock them out of it.

At the moment pay rises are at the lower end of that range. They could move to the top of it in time, as the Bank and others expect, allowing modest rises in real wages. But modest is the word. The forces weighing down on pay are not going away.

Sunday, August 03, 2014
It can get sticky when you're a honeypot for migrants
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Immigration is an issue it would be easy to file away in the “too difficult” drawer. Is it one of those where good economics – most economists would say it brings net benefits for the country – can never be good politics? Or is it a bit more complicated than that?

A few days ago the International Monetary Fund, in its annual assessment of Britain’s economy, was generally supportive of the coalition government’s policies but warned that “restrictive immigration policies could have a negative impact on productivity growth”.

It called for a relaxation of immigration restrictions in areas where there are labour shortages, as well as a loosening the visa regime for foreign students, which it said “could contribute to expanding the skilled labour force and to improving the prospects of higher education exports”.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the government’s fiscal watchdog, in its latest assessment of Britain’s long-term fiscal sustainability, demonstrated that the lower the level of net migration, the higher the level of future government debt. Migrants tend to be of working-age and pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits.

In 50 years’ time, in 2063-64, public sector net debt will be just over 40% of gross domestic product in a “high migration” assumption; net migration continuing at 225,000 a year, similar to its recent rate. If, however, net migration was reduced into the “tens of thousands” as suggested by ministers – the OBR uses a figure of 90,000 a year – net debt in half a century will be closer to 90% of GDP. Migration is good for the public finances.

I can hear some harrumphing as I write that sentence, about the inability of anybody to predict the state of the public finances in half a century, about the assumption that the economic benefits of migration outweigh the costs and about the fact that it is easy for bodies with three-letter acronyms to ignore the politics of immigration.

Those politics were exposed about the time the IMF published its recommendations. Following up on a newspaper article and broadcast coverage, David Cameron invited me (by e-mail) to “share the facts” on an “immigration system that puts Britain first”.

The Conservatives, he said, were closing bogus colleges, cutting benefits for EU immigrants – reducing the time they can claim them from six to three months – and outlawing the practice of advertising British jobs in other countries but not here.

The prime minister’s announcement that he was cutting benefits for immigrants drew much mockery, while his apparent claim that it would save £500m over the next few years brought a clarification from the OBR. Its chairman, Robert Chote, pointed out that the £500m referred to a series of measures unveiled in the March budget, for which the costings were uncertain. The measure to limit benefits from six to three months will affect only a few thousand people.

There is a tendency among the chattering classes to dismiss any measures that target the benefits immigrants receive, or the use by foreigners of the National Health Service. Most migrants do not come here to receive benefits but to work, and heath tourism is a bigger issue in the tabloid newspapers than it is in reality.

Perceptions are important, however, and though neither benefit nor health tourism are not huge, there is some of each, and no government in the current climate could get away with ignoring it.

Cameron’s problem, of course, is that he can tinker around the edges of immigration but he is competing against two fundamental difficulties. One is that he there is very little he can do about EU migration. The other is that the more successful the economy and job market, the more that Britain becomes a honeypot for migrants.

Net migration to Britain, which for many years was negative or insignificant, has fluctuated between 150,000 and 300,000 for the past decade. Last year’s figures of 212,000 (up from 177,000 in 2012) was roughly in line with its recent average.

Most people, I suspect, think that recent migration is all about the enlargement of the European Union to the east in 2004 and the Labour government’s decision to admit the EU’s new citizens. In fact, while EU migration to Britain – 124,000 last year – is important, it was exceeded by non-EU migration, 146,000, though this was the lowest since 1998. The other key fact was that there was net migration of 57,000 by British citizens moving overseas.

If we take the last 10 years, there was 900,000 of net migration into Britain from the rest of the EU, less than half the 1.98m of non-EU net migration. Over the same period, there was net outward migration of 780,000 by British citizens. So, net migration of 2.1m over 10 years. The proportion of non-UK born workers in Britain, now just over 9%, is almost three times its 1997 level, though is probably not as high as most people would guess.

What has been the effect of this migration? In surveys of the evidence produced by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, there has been some negative impact on employment for British workers, though this effect is mainly when the economy is weak. Immigration has also reduced the wages of lower-paid workers, including earlier migrants, because they tend to compete most in the job market with new migrants. It is quite likely that higher levels of migration have contributed to the weak growth in wages of recent years.

The other big effect is on housing. Though not every migrant worker requires their own house or flat, met migration is running at roughly twice the level of new housebuilding. More than 2m of net migration puts a lot of pressure on available housing. The IMF is right to say, as it also did in its report, that Britain needs a lot more new housing. But we know this is far easier said than done, and for the moment, its encouragement of more immigration will add to housing shortages and the upward pressure on prices.

I said this was difficult. Immigration brings long-term fiscal benefits and probably does raise growth more than population (it boosts per capita GDP as well as GDP itself). But it also produces short-term losers in the job market and adds to pressure on available resources including housing, as Bob Rowthorn pointed out in a report for the think tank Civitas on Friday.

It also leads to political responses that take us close to the worst of all worlds. The prime minister is obliged to oversell policies that make little difference, and fail to satisfy those, including the UKIP tendency, who want a clampdown on migration that they only think can be achieved by leaving the EU.

Meanwhile, though non-EU migration remains high, businesses and universities complain that the restrictions that have been introduced make it hard for them to attract key employees and the best students. The result is a policy that satisfies nobody. It is all a bit of a mess.

Sunday, July 27, 2014
The black hole's still huge - but Osborne's slowly filling it
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The latest figures for Britain’s public finance a few days ago produced an interesting reaction. Either Britain’s budget deficit is soaring, and George Osborne’s strategy for reducing it is in tatters, or it has stopped falling, which is hardly any better.

Neither of those verdicts is correct, as we will see in the coming months. But they are part of a wider problem when it comes to assessing Britain’s fiscal policy. Those on the right of the chancellor – there are some – say he should have cut spending harder in the face of disappointing deficit reduction, claiming that he has left all the hard work, two-thirds of it some say, until the next parliament.

Those on the left, meanwhile, accuse Osborne of inflicting untold misery on large sections of the population with his unremitting austerity, while some economists – mainly on the left – say the only reason Britain’s economy is recovering is because he abandoned that austerity.

Let me guide you through this minefield, starting with the latest figures. They showed that the budget deficit, public sector net borrowing, was £11.4bn last month, up £3.8bn on June 2013. The figures a year ago were, however, artificially helped by a £3.9bn payment from the Bank of England to the Treasury of interest it receives on its holdings of gilt-edged securities under the quantitative easing (QE) programme. Adjusting for that, borrowing last month was marginally (£111m) down on a year earlier.

That does not sound like much of a deficit reduction programme and borrowing in the April-June period, the first three months of this fiscal year, was £36.1bn, £2.5bn up on a year earlier.

Again, however, there were special factors at work. In the spring of 2013, as noted here before, both wages and salaries and income tax receipts benefited from income being shifted into the 2013-14 tax year to benefit from the cut in the top rate of tax from 50% to 45%. The silver lining for this year, as the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) pointed out, will be that self-assessment receipts due in January will be similarly boosted.

This “end-loading” to tax receipts, coupled with the strong revenue growth in June – Vat up 5.5% on a year earlier, corporation tax 17.6%, stamp duty 43.1%, National Insurance contributions 3.3% - should mean that the borrowing overshoot of the first three months turns into an undershoot. Borrowing this year in line with the official forecast of £95bn, after £105.8bn in 2013-14, remains in prospect. This is better, incidentally, than the OBR expected in March 2013, when it thought borrowing would be becalmed at £120bn for three years and only slip to £108bn this year.

But £95bn is still a big number, and is a lot bigger than the OBR expected when it published its first forecast alongside Osborne’s first budget, back in June 2010, when it predicted a deficit of only £37bn for this year. Doesn’t this tell us that the critics are right, and that the chancellor has soft-pedalled on austerity, kicking the can down the road?

No. If we take public spending, which is where the chancellor gets it in the next from his right-wing critics, the striking thing is not that that spending has been relaxed but that it has been tightened – cut – relative to the 2010 plans.

According to those plans, the government intended to spend £722bn in the 2013-14 fiscal year, that one that ended this spring. In fact it spent £714bn.

Spending has been lower each year than set out then. Public sector current spending was originally intended to be £679bn in 2013-14. In fact it was £668bn. Unusually, for any government, spending has come in comfortably within budget. There has been no slippage.

Where there has been slippage is in tax receipts, which have been weaker than expected. A small amount of that was due to deliberate policy choices – not raising fuel duty and increasing the personal income tax allowance to £10,000 more quickly – but most of it was not.

The weakness of the recovery until 2013, due in part to deficit reduction but mainly weak credit, the squeeze on real wages and the eurozone crisis – hit tax receipts. As long as growth persists, and the International Monetary Fund last week revised its forecast for Britain up to 3.2% this year and 2.7% next, and with figures on Friday showing GDP back above pre-crisis levels, tax receipts will continue their comeback, reducing the deficit more quickly.

Did Osborne abandon his austerity? No, of course not. The always excellent Institute for Fiscal Studies, in an analysis by Gemma Tetlow, one of its economists, sets out the numbers clearly on its website. Starting in 2010-11, there was a discretionary fiscal tightening of 1.6% of gross domestic product, followed by 2.4%, 1.4%, 1% and a planned 0.6% this year. The pace of tightening has slowed, but that “front-loading” was always intended. Over the course of the parliament the coalition will have tightened by 7% of GDP, slightly less than the 7.9% originally planned because of the tax changes described above, but only slightly.

Why is there still so much to do? By the end of this year, says Tetlow, 55% of the planned tightening will have occurred, leaving 45% to the next parliament. It is important to be aware, however, that the goalposts have been moved.

They were moved in November 2011 when the OBR changed its view on the economy’s productive potential, so more of the deficit was deemed to be structural – and thus requiring tax hikes or spending cuts – and less of it cyclical, in other words disappearing with the recovery.

The second goalpost shift was by Osborne himself, when he set himself the goal of achieving a sustained budget surplus, rather than merely getting the deficit down to zero. Between them, these moves increased the amount of work to be done, so there is more to do. But a lot will have been achieved. By 2018-19, according to the IFS, a deficit reduction programme equivalent to 11.5% of GDP will have been achieved. Apart from in the special conditions of moving from war to peace, I do not think that has ever been done before.

It is disappointing more than four years after Britain’s budget deficit hit a record £157bn, that it is still closer to £100bn than it is to zero. But progress is being made. It has to continue.

Sunday, July 20, 2014
An independent Scotland risks a Greek tragedy
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

This will not be my last look at Scottish independence between now and the September 18 referendum but it will keep us going for now. I urge readers in other parts of the UK not to switch off now. It matters, and it matters rather a lot.

Independence is not all about economics but if the economics does not work it will be a pyrrhic and ultimately damaging victory for its supports.

My focus today is on Scotland’s fiscal and financial position, not least because voters are not in my view getting the true picture. Of course this piece, along with pretty much everything else produced south of the border, will be dismissed by the nationalists. But it is accurate.

So, I have two aims. The first is to briefly set out a few basic facts on Scotland’s fiscal position. The second, more substantive aim is to introduce a rather interesting forthcoming report from Fathom Consulting, a firm which has no political axe to grind on independence, one way or the other, but which has a new take on it.

Let me begin with those fiscal facts. You may get the impression from listening to some Scottish politicians that Scotland is in a healthy fiscal position. Most nationalists have stopped claiming that Scottish taxpayers pay more into the UK Exchequer than they take out but nonetheless give the impression of rude fiscal health.

It is not true. The latest Scottish official figures, taken from Government Expenditure and Revenues Scotland (GERS), show that if calculated on the same basis as the rest of the UK, a so-called per capita basis – with oil revenues shared equally across the UK - Scotland had a budget deficit of 13.3% of gross domestic product in 2012-13, the latest year for which figures are available. That compares with 7.3% for the UK as a whole; the Scottish deficit is nearly twice as large.

The Scottish deficit, on this same basis, peaked at 16.5% in 2009-10, when the whole of the UK deficit was 11% of GDP. Edinburgh has a fiscal problem. High levels of public spending are not matched by the onshore tax base.

But surely, you will say, Scotland has North Sea oil. Yes it does, and it might be allocated 90% of it post-independence. But every reputable forecast, including the most recent from the Office for Budget Responsibility, shows a future decline in output and revenues from the North Sea. Even with 90% oil, Scotland’s budget deficit in 2012-13, 8.3% of GDP, was bigger than that for the whole of the UK. It has been bigger on that basis for the past 25 years.

It will get even larger if John Swinney, the Scottish finance secretary, follows through on his recent suggestions that an independent Scottish government would deliberately borrow more to boost public spending.

That is the backdrop, now for that Fathom Consulting report, ‘Economic consequences of independence for Scotland and the rest of the UK’, written by Florian Baier and Erik Britton, in response to requests from clients – some of them north of the border – for an assessment. I shall return on another occasion to the implications of independence for the rest of the UK.

Fathom’s report is a balanced one. It sets out the conditions under which an independent Scotland could succeed. But it also describes a scenario, one that it is in danger of following, in which an independent Scotland would be seen by investors as being as risky as Greece.

Fathom’s sovereign fragility index shows that the government bonds of an independent Scotland without a geographic (90%) oil share would be so far into junk status as to be beyond Greece. Those very large (13.3%) budget deficits on a per capita basis would scare investors.

Even if Scotland gets a geographic share of oil, however, it would not be out of the fiscal woods. Fathom estimates that it would still be as fragile as Greece, not because its budget deficits are a bit larger than the whole UK but because it would carry too much banking risk.

As things stand, Scotland’s banking assets – in practice the potential liabilities of an independent Scottish government in the event of independence – are a staggering 1,100% of GDP. Scotland has a potential banking liability of Icelandic proportions, and much bigger than those (700% of GDP) which almost bankrupted the Irish economy.

To be viable, Scotland has to get rid of its banks, or at least their domicile, and keep a much smaller level of banking operations and assets. Some would say this process will happen anyway, or is happening; RBS’s Gogarburn headquarters on the outskirts of Edinburgh, otherwise known as Fred’s folly, as in Goodwin, is said to be a shadow of its former self in terms of the numbers employed there. But the nationalist position appears to be that they can hold on to their banks, and the rest of the financial services industry. Even if that could be achieved, it would be a fatal error.

A Scotland with geographic oil and a greatly shrunken banking sector would still not be financially viable, according to Fathom. The other ingredient is an independent currency. Having been rebuffed on monetary union by the three main parties in Westminster, Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, insists an independent Scotland will continue to use the pound. That would be the worst of all worlds.

The case for an independent currency is simple. Though North Sea oil is diminishing it would still be disproportionately important for an independent Scotland. When oil prices are strong, that would boost the Scottish economy, and vice versa when they are weak. Stuck in an unofficial currency zone with the rest of the UK, or an official one at some later date as a member of the euro, Scotland would lack the currency flexibility needed to respond to these shifts. It needs its own independently floating currency, a petrocurrency.

Could an independent Scotland work? Yes if it allows the banks to leave, establishes an independent currency and takes tough but gradual fiscal action – spending cuts and tax hikes – to make its public finances healthy. Unfortunately, none of these three policies appears to be on the Scottish government’s agenda.

That could be very bad news. According to Fathom: “Any other settlement … could make it impossible for Scotland to borrow, forcing the government into a severe tightening of fiscal policy and Scotland into recession. Scotland would face a situation worse than the one that has been facing Greece for the last few years.”

I don’t know what effect that conclusion will have on floating independence voters but it would certainly scare me.

Sunday, July 13, 2014
Don't blame Superpound for Britain's export woes
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Official figures a few days ago for industrial production in Britain produced a surprise. And, for once, it was not a pleasant one. Overall industrial output fell by 0.7% between April and May and within that manufacturing recorded a hefty 1.3% drop.

It was not the only disappointment. Britain’s trade deficit widened from £2.1bn in April to £2.4bn in May on the back of a meagre £0.1bn monthly rise in exports, more than offset by a bigger rise in imports. In the latest three months exports of goods have risen by just 0.1% to £72.6bn, while imports are up 0.5% to £98.9bn.

The industrial figures appear to be an aberration and are at odds with much stronger survey evidence. Manufacturing output in the latest three months was up by 1.1% on the previous three and, this – annual growth of around 4% - is a better guide to what remains a pretty robust industrial recovery.

But the trade figures tell a familiar and more believable story, which is that the great export revival that was going to be an important driver of growth and rebalance the economy, is still eluding us. Total exports in the latest three months in cash terms were 3.6% down on a year earlier. The volume of goods exports was 2% down. It is a strange kind of revival when exports are falling.

The question is whether this is due to the strength of the pound. Sterling Is flavour of the month among currency traders, At $1.71 it is more than 20 cents up on where it was a year ago, and at more than €1.25, it has gained roughly 10 euro cents.

Why is the pound so strong, will it last, and is it the thing holding back our exporters? Simon Derrick, BNY Mellon’s currency strategist, and “a big fan of sterling” says that there is a simple interest-rate story to tell about the pound’s strength.

The Bank of England, while it left interest rates unchanged again last week, is paving the way for the start of a series of hikes, beginning in the next few months. The European Central Bank, in contrast, is still cutting rates – though it has probably now cut them to rock bottom – and is contemplating other ways of relaxing monetary policy.

Reading what America’s Federal Reserve plans to do under its chairman Janet Yellen is far from easy, but two things should be remembered about the Fed. The first is that, while the Bank has not done any quantitative easing (QE) since July 2012, the Fed is still doing it. Though it is tapering its QE asset purchases, it will not stop them until later this year, probably October. The second is that it will not raise rates before the Bank.

Britain’s economy is surprising with its strength and the Bank has suddenly become the muscle man among the seven-stone weaklings. That’s exaggerating it but, when other central banks are bending over backwards to be dovish, even a sparrow can look like a hawk.

CrossBorder Capital, which monitors liquidity flows between different economies, offers another reason for sterling’s strength. Mike Howell, its chief executive, says the interest-rate explanation is important but so too are private sector cash flows, which have rebounded. “British firms are generating sizeable cash flows and this is providing major support to the currency because it signals a robust domestic economy and a strong rebound in corporate profitability,” he notes.

Will it last? In time the Fed will move from relaxing monetary policy to hiking rates, though that is unlikely to be for several months after the Bank has begun to raise rates. Higher interest rates in Europe are a very long way away.

The biggest threat to the pound may be political rather than economic. Derrick notes that sterling’s volatility is unusually low given that we are into the 12-month run-in to the election, normally a period when markets start to factor in some political risk.

He thinks there is not much danger to the pound from September’s Scottish independence referendum, given the state of the polls, but that there is from next May’s general election. For this and other reasons, the pound is unlikely to repeat its rise of the past 12 months. Against the dollar, the story of sterling’s climb may be coming to an end, though it probably has further to rise against the euro.

Is the pound harming industry and exports? We should put its recent rise in perspective. What is the current sterling-dollar rate? $1.71. What is its average for the past 10 years? Also $1.71. For the euro the figures are €1.26 and €1.28 respectively. Before the pound began its slide in 2007, it traded at $2.11 and a fraction under €1.50. Exporters are still benefiting from a significantly lower pound than in the past.

Vince Cable, the business secretary, put it well in a speech to the Social Market Foundation last week. While he acknowledged industry’s concerns about the strength of sterling, he also noted that there was evidence that Britain’s exports were less price-sensitive than in the past and that “there has been a weaker connection between sterling’s crisis-driven depreciation and the strength of UK exports than we might have expected and hoped for”.

Exports depend on whether markets are growing or stagnant and having the right products, services and trade support. They depend on quality, reliability and timely delivery and, as Cable pointed out, British industry raising its productivity game.

We should not blame the pound, which is not in the grand scheme of things particularly strong, for a disappointing export performance.

Sunday, July 06, 2014
Inequality: always with us but less than it was
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Inequality is always with us and it never loses its power to provoke debate. This year, of course, we have had a bestselling book on it, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

The politics of inequality will feature in the run-up to the next election. Though official estimates suggest a 50p top of income tax will raise no additional net revenue compared with 45p, Labour is pledged to reintroduce it if re-elected.

The default position of the comfortably off, whether they are Church of England bishops, Bank of England governors, academics or think-tank researchers, is that “something must be done”.

Often, of course, that something would end up damaging those on low incomes, whether it is requiring all employers to pay a co-called living wage, or paying over-generous benefits that trap people on welfare.

I quite liked the formulation used by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which was that governments should strive to improve equality of opportunity but accept that inequality of outcomes are inevitable. Such inequalities can be and are reduced by the tax and benefits system but take that too far and you destroy incentives and growth.

Enough preamble, what do the numbers tell us about inequality? Let me bring in some evidence. Hottest off the press is an analysis by the Office for National Statistics of wage trends in recent decades; UK Wages Over the Past Four Decades.

Though there is probably too much of an obsession with the top 1% and 0.1% in this debate, it shows that the top 1% of earners (strictly speaking those at the 99th percentile) earned 11 times as much per hour as the bottom 1% (those at the 1st percentile) in 2013. That sounds quite a lot but it is down from almost 13 times in 1998. The minimum wage has supported people on low wages, while higher earners have suffered the biggest drop in incomes since 2011.

Exhibit 2, also from the ONS, is a report The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, published a few days ago. The ONS has a measure called equivalised income, which is income adjusted for both inflation and the size of household.

The striking result in this report was that since 2007-8 – when the crisis first hit – the richest 20% of households have seen a drop of 5.2% in this measure of real incomes. The poorest 20%, in contrast, have seen a rise of 3.5%.

I should say in the interests of completeness that the poorest fifth of households have done well largely thanks to the pensioners among them, whose real incomes have risen by 14% since the crisis (pensioners in general have seen a 7.9% rise). But, because benefits were initially better protected than wages, the smallest fall in real incomes among non-retired households – 2% since 2007-8 – was among this bottom 2%. Inequality has fallen as a result of the crisis.

This is also the message from another piece of official analysis, called Households Below Average Income, published a few days ago. It found that income inequality in 2012-13 was little changed from 2011-12, but again was well down on where it was. It takes two income measures; before and after housing costs. The former showed inequality down to where it was in the mid-2000s, the latter preferred measure down to mid-1990s’ levels.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies put it, describing the squeeze on earnings and the fact that benefits were protected: “Benefits account for a relatively large share of household income towards the bottom, whereas earnings account for a relatively large share further up. After almost two decades in which inequality had changed little, this was enough to return it to its lowest level since 1996-7.”

That last IFS point is worth noting. We should not celebrate overmuch if it takes a massive financial crisis and huge recession to produce a drop in inequality, which may be reversed as the recovery proceeds.

What we should note, instead, is that contrary to most people’s impression, income inequality in Britain, on ONS data, has been remarkably flat for almost a quarter of a century. Among retired households, it peaked in 1991 and has been declining gently since. Among non-retired households it has been broadly stable.

Income inequality has moved around in the past. It fell in the 1960s and 1970s, rose under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s but since then it has largely been a case of much ado about nothing.

You do not, by the way, have to take my word on this, or that of the ONS. Professor Tony Atkinson of Oxford University, Piketty’s great collaborator, noted in his chartbook of economic inequality, published in March, that while income inequality in Britain is higher than it was in 1980. “most of the increase took place in the 1980s”.

There have been significant income increases over time for all households. On ONS data real incomes for the top 20% were 2.53 times their level in 1977, while for the bottom 20% the multiple was 1.86. People move in and out of these groups, of course, but the top 20% mainly pulled ahead in the 1980s.

What about wealth inequality? Wealth is less evenly distributed than income. The latest ONS data shows that the top fifth of households own 44% of Britain’s wealth, while the bottom 20% have 7%.

However, the distribution of wealth is, like the distribution of income, stable. Again, not just my words or those of the ONS, but also Atkinson: “Downward trend in top wealth shares from 1923 to end of 1980s; now levelled off.”

There is a debate about whether the distribution of wealth should be properly measured by a survey, as the ONS does, or by data from estates. But both show a broadly stable pattern. Britain, taking the evidence together, has a more even distribution of wealth than most countries, including those normally thought of as more equal such as Sweden.

This is because of the nature of wealth in Britain, the vast bulk of which is in property and private pensions, rather than “capital” or financial wealth. That, by the way, is the fundamental flaw of Piketty’s book, that it confuses wealth and capital.

That is for another day. The big picture in Britain is that inequality is with us and always will be. But it has gone down, if only temporarily, in the past few years, and has been broadly stable for more than two decades. Not that you would know it.

Sunday, June 29, 2014
Global winds can blow us to a long-haul recovery
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Britain’s economy is expanding at a healthy rate. This month, for the first time, the average growth prediction for 2014 has hit 3% among the independent forecasters surveyed each month by the Treasury.

With half the year gone, you may say that this is not a particularly bold forecast. The numbers and the surveys are heading that way, with no sign yet of the feared slowdown in the second half of the year. If anything, growth is looking stronger.

It is, however, a milestone. This year see the strongest growth since 2007, the year when the crisis began to wreak havoc but before its economic impact was felt. This year’s growth is a powerful sign that the crisis’s deadly grip is weakening.

Not only that but I began to fear that growth numbers beginning with a “3”, normal in past recoveries, were going to be denied to us this time. Maybe those banking and fiscal hangovers had left us so groggy that the last thing we could do was run faster.

So this is good news. The question is whether this is the only 3% year we see, a bit of a flash the pan, or whether there can be more of them. In other words, is this stronger recovery sustainable?

The Office for Budget Responsibility is typically cautious. Though it thinks the upturn will last, its March forecast had not a single year of 3% growth, including this one, and a slowdown to 2.3% next year.

The Bank of England is much more upbeat, with a 3.4% growth forecast this year slowing only slightly (to 2.9% and 2.8%) in 2015 and 2016. Though it would be nice if that 2.9% was a tenth of a percentage point higher, nobody would complain too much if its prediction proves correct.

For some, however, the flash in the pan argument is a powerful one. Even the Bank of England governor says the economy is unbalanced and over-reliant on consumers whose incomes are squeezed. The balance of payments, though improving, is in a sorry state and productivity is becalmed at pre-crisis levels. So what hope is there for a sustained recovery?

For reassurance I turned to a perhaps surprising source. Capital Economics, the consultancy founded by Roger Bootle, is not known for an excessively sunny disposition. But its latest economics focus report seeks to answer the question: “Is the recovery sustainable?”

The answer it comes up with is a positive one. “Providing that interest rates rise only gradually over the years ahead, the UK economy looks set for a prolonged period of strong growth which mends rather than exacerbates its existing imbalances,” it says.

Capital points out, as I have here, that the recovery so far has often been unfairly labelled. The contribution of consumer spending over the past year or so, for example, has been low by historic standards and smaller than its share of the economy. Now investment has started to increase it is punching above it weight in the recovery.

Capital also notes that the recovery is broad-based by sector. Of the 20 main sectors of the economy, 16 are growing significantly, a similar proportion to the long upturn in the 1990s and 2000s.

How about those imbalances? Though they do not expect a return to the pre-crisis norm for average earnings growth of 4% to 5%, Capital’s economists see a gradual strengthening of real income growth alongside a recovery in productivity. They think the business investment upturn, now it has begun, is likely to continue.

Revised first quarter GDP figures, released on Friday, confirm the "better balanced" story. Business investment rose by 5% in the quarter, for an increase of more than 10% on a year earlier. Investment is much smaller as a proportion of GDP than consumer spending but over the past year it has made as big a contribution to growth.

Capital also believes that, while export performance has disappointed so far, it is likely to pick up. British exporters are diversifying, they say, and world trade weighted by Britain’s export markets should pick up “significantly” over the next couple of years.

What could derail the recovery? The Bank of England, with last week’s move to limit high (4.5-plus) loan-to-income mortgages, has taken modest action to head off what it sees as the main internal danger; housing boom turning to bust.

The biggest risk – and the biggest potential – comes from outside Britain. Whether or not exports grow is one big way in which the world economy affects Britain’s economy but it is far from the only one.

A research paper in the latest Bank of England quarterly bulletin - How have world shocks affected the UK economy? – concludes that Britain has been malignly affected by global influences in recent years.

In the long upturn that preceded the global financial crisis the world economy provided a leg-up to Britain. Not only did the China effect push down prices, lifting real incomes, but there were big growth benefits through trade, confidence and international capital flows. Policymakers in Britain took a lot of credit for riding helpful global waves.

Since then, according to the Bank’s research, global influences have worked the other way. Two-thirds of the weakness in Britain’s economy since 2007 can be attributed to them, both in the 2008-9 recession and the slow upturn in 2011-12. Part of that negative influence comes through trade but it is mainly via what the Bank describes as the financial and uncertainty channels.

Those who blame Britain’s austerity for the disappointing recovery usually fail to allow for these global factors. At most, home-grown austerity has been responsible for part – and probably not a large part – of a third of the economy’s weakness, in other words not much at all.

That is why, according to Capital, the economy can grow through the austerity that is yet to come. But it is also why, ultimately, the question of whether the recovery is sustainable will not be decided in the Treasury or Threadneedle Street.

Britain’s economy, as always, is buffeted by international events. If you were looking for trouble you might look in Iraq and the wider Middle East, or America’s weather-affected first-quarter slump (followed by a decent second-quarter bounce).

If you were looking for reassurance, it could be in the fact that international forecasters like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development expect the global recovery to strengthen. What we should not do is ignore what is happening beyond these shores. As far as the economy is concerned, Britain is not an island.

Sunday, June 22, 2014
Enough 'will they, won't they?' - time for the Bank to act
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The Bank of England has got itself into a terrible tangle over interest rates, which is threatening to make it look rather foolish.

The big question for monetary policy was how, after more than five years with Bank rate at a record low of 0.5%, the Bank would approach the tricky task of managing the first of what will be a sequence of hikes.

We have become so used to announcements of unchanged rates each month from the Bank that the first move was always going to be a very big story. Maybe not on the scale of the moon landing but big nonetheless.

So far at least, the Bank has botched the job of preparing the ground for that first hike. And I am afraid the buck for this has to stop with Mark Carney, the big-bucks earning Bank governor.

In August last year Carney launched forward guidance, which tied the point at which the Bank’s monetary policy committee (MPC) would begin considering rate hikes to the unemployment rate. The MPC would not necessarily hike rates when unemployment hit 7% but it would think about it. But, because unemployment was unlikely to fall that much until 2016, people and businesses could relax.

We all make mistakes and, though the outgoing deputy governor Charlie Bean disagrees, it was a mistake to link rate decisions to so wayward a mistress as the unemployment rate. As it is, figures this month showed it has already dropped to 6.6%.

But the policy had its heart in the right place; allowing the recovery time to breathe before the Bank started to withdraw the exceptional stimulus implied by a 0.5% Bank rate. That, at least, was the right thing to do.

The problems came this year. In February, when it was clear that unemployment was falling more rapidly than the Bank expected, the original forward guidance was re-cast in the Bank’s inflation report. Interest rate moves would still be informed by spare capacity, but on the basis of a range of indicators rather than just unemployment. Most significantly, out of this fuzzier guidance, the Bank – and Carney – acknowledged that the market path for interest rates, a gradual rise starting next year, was not a million miles from what the Bank had in mind.

What should have happened then, as the economy strengthened, was a reinforcement of this message in May, the next inflation report. Growth had picked up strongly, the governor should have said, and this logically added to the case for raising rates.

Instead, we had the madness of May, when Carney appeared to bend over backwards not to endorse the market view on rates, even a rise in the first half of next year, and none of his MPC colleagues moved to correct him. As far as markets were concerned, the signal was clear. Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight said it “put to bed” the idea of a rate hike before the end of 2014. Capital Economics said it cooled expectations of a hike even in the first quarter of 2015.

After the madness of May came the lurch of June, starting with one sentence in Carney’s June 12 Mansion House speech, in which he said rates could rise sooner than markets expect and continuing with last week’s June minutes, in which the MPC said (for a second time) that the decision on rates was becoming more balanced and that the low probability attached in the markets to a hike this year was “somewhat surprising”.

To say I was flabbergasted to read that understates it. When the message in May rang loud and clear that markets should not get ahead of themselves in pricing in rate rises, why should anybody have factored in a 2014 hike? And if the 15% probability the markets were attaching to a 2014 rate rise when the MPC met two weeks ago was too low, what is the right probability now: 40%, 70%, 100%?

What will happen? Everybody has been looking for the first vote on the MPC for a rate hike, which will then pave the way for a gradual shift of opinion on the committee. Some in the markets were disappointed that Martin Weale, seen as the most likely to break ranks first, did not do so earlier this month.

We are more likely, I think, to see the MPC shifting en masse. Danny Gabay of Fathom Consulting notes, and not in an approving way, the fact that a remarkable “unanimity and harmony have reigned” on the committee “at a time when uncertainty over the UK economy is so high”.

Now, that unanimity appears to be extending to the question of when and by how much interest rates will rise. In the past few days we have heard from most MPC members, including Weale, David Miles, Bean, Ian McCafferty and Andy Haldane.

The view they are expressing is almost identical, though they have managed to find different ways of saying it, including what may be the most analogy-rich speech in the Bank’s history from Haldane. If we thought the sporting analogies had left the Bank with Mervyn King, Haldane’s “corridor of uncertainty” speech proved us wrong, which ended by saying it is probably better for the Bank to be on the front foot.

Even the newest recruit to the MPC, the American academic Kristin Forbes, who admits she has a lot to learn about the British economy (and worryingly says she will be talking to the International Monetary Fund to find out more) told MPs that the committee’s main challenge over the next three years will be “normalizing” monetary policy, Normalizing is Bank-speak for raising interest rates.

The view they are commonly expressing is no rate rise yet but, if we want to limit the eventual rise to 2.5% to 3%, better not to leave it too long. An early rate rise, a stitch in time, will help limit the eventual peak. That is this month’s view anyway.

When? All this “will they, won’t they” speculation is going to get very wearing very quickly. It feels like the MPC, unsure of its ground, is through minutes and speeches undergoing a collective public therapy session. By the time they do get around to raising rates – and November is the current favourite – we will all have been bored into submission.

I think they should put us out of our misery. If they think rates have to rise – and there seems to be no argument about that – and if they also think that an early hike will genuinely mean that rates can be held below 3% in the medium-term, why wait?

There are risks – the crisis in Iraq and the rise in the price of oil is one such risk now – but there are always risks. Having clumsily prepared the ground for higher rates, the MPC should get on with it. August, when the changes in MPC personnel will have fully taken effect, is probably the earliest it could happen. But August, when the Bank publishes its new quarterly inflation report, also fits in that respect. Don’t dither, do it.

Sunday, June 15, 2014
GDP revisions will give us a different picture
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Gross domestic product, which came into being in Britain just before the D-Day landings we were commemorating earlier this month, is about to undergo one of its periodic transformations, and this is one of the dramatic ones.

It may change the way we think about how the economy has done, and is doing. It may help solve the puzzle of strong employment growth and weak productivity. It will inevitably result in more flak for the Office for National Statistics (ONS), after the ribaldry it has endured for including the proceeds of illegal drugs and prostitution in GDP (as part of new international statistical conventions).

The context of this is that a few days ago the National Institute of Economic and Social Research declared to some fanfare that Britain's economy surpassed its pre-crisis peak - recorded in early 2008 - at the end of May. The economy, now 0.2% above that pre-crisis peak, has taken nearly five years to recover the 7.2% plunge in GDP it suffered in 2008-9 and – taking that plunge into account – more than six years to get back to where it started. If you can remember where you were in early 2008, on current figures you are back there now.

It has taken a long time, reflecting both the extent of the 2008-9 drop in GDP, which on existing figures was easily the worst in the post-war period, and the stop-start recovery that followed it. It is, the National Institute says, the slowest of any recovery in living memory, including those that followed the recessions of the early 1920s, early 1930s (in both cases for which the institute constructed GDP data), the mid 1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s.

We should savour comparisons like these, and not merely because they show that the economy has belatedly made it back to the recession's starting point all those years ago. No, it is also because they will soon come to be seen as a historical curiosity, rendered meaningless by data revisions.

I have argued before that it is unwise to compare recoveries based on largely unrevised recent GDP data with those from earlier decades. The latter have been through the statistical mill over and over again, to the point where revisions have fundamentally changed the picture as it appeared at the time.

The last recession before the crisis, in the early 1990s, looks for example about half as deep as was recorded at the time and ended much sooner. What looked like a tentative recovery in that period, which took an age to get going, in fact started quite soon and lasted for a very long time; more than 16 years. Though it is possible to argue that a couple of mild recessions over that 16-year period would have done some good by reminding people, businesses and banks that there was a downside, it was a reminder that lasting recoveries can start from unpromising beginnings.

Two things are under way in the numbers. The first is the normal process by which the ONS gets more complete information, often many years after the event, on what was really happening to GDP. Sometimes that means marrying different sets of data and ironing out inconsistencies. Sometimes it means discovering where growth was under-recorded.

The other process is more dramatic, and it will pan out between now and the end of September. Under changes known in the jargon as ESA10, where ESA stands for the European System of Accounts, what the ONS describes as “improvements” in the national accounts are being introduced. All European Union countries are making the changes, though so too are most other advanced economies, under System of National Accounts changes.

A few days ago, the ONS revealed that changes in the measurement of research and development (the biggest single change), pensions, weapons expenditure and other smaller modifications, will collectively add £65bn, or 4.6%, to the cash value of GDP in 2009. There will be an average GDP boost of 3.6% over the period 1997 to 2009.

On June 30, the ONS will tell us how these changes affect real GDP growth over the 1997-2009 period, and in July it will reveal how the revisions will affect the balance of payments and the different sectors of the economy. In August, new figures will be produced for recent growth, 2010 to 2012, culminating on September 30 with numbers on the new basis that will take us right up to the middle of this year.

The changes will be significant, though we should remember that we are talking mainly about revisions that affect the level of GDP. That is not insignificant. Though separate changes will affect the public finances, the new numbers should make magnitudes like debt to GDP and deficit to GDP ratios look a little better.

Where will the process end up in what it tells us about the economy? Nobody knows, I suspect including at this stage the official statisticians. My guess would be that the recession of 2008-9 will end up being milder than the pre-revised data shows, perhaps a 5%-6% drop in GDP rather than the current 7%-plus.

You may question this, and point to the sharp 2008-9 swing into record deficit in the public finances as supporting evidence. A budget deficit of 11% of GDP does not happen without a huge downward lurch in the economy. Remember, however, that the very mild recession of the early 1990s gave us a budget deficit of 8% of GDP, and the 2008-9 one hit the revenue-generating financial sector squarely between the eyes.

I think we will also see that the post-2009 recovery was stronger than it currently looks. Why do I say this? Because in the context of lacklustre GDP figures (until the past 12-18 months) we have seen exceptionally strong growth in employment and exceptionally weak productivity. Some productivity weakness is explicable, as discussed here on previous occasions. But the idea that the productivity switch was suddenly switched off in 2008 seems highly implausible.

In the 1990s, it took eight years for employment to get back to its pre-recession peak, in the context of 1993-98 GDP growth averaging almost 4% a year. This time it took just over four years – and employment has strengthened significantly since then – despite apparently much weaker growth.

We shall see. The revisions will not alter the fact that we suffered a big economic shock. But they may well mean that at least some of the wailing and gnashing of teeth over “flatlining” and non-existent productivity growth, was misplaced. Whether they will do anything for public and users’ confidence in the GDP figures is another matter. Moving the goalposts, as they say in Brazil, can ruin the game.

Sunday, June 08, 2014
Bank grapples with a strange kind of housing boom
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Even by the standards of Britain’s housing market, the announcement a few days ago of a 3.9% May increase in house prices was a humdinger. The Halifax house price index has recorded bigger increases in its 31-year history but not that many. This was its fourth biggest monthly rise, and you have to go back 12 years for anything bigger.

There are caveats. The Halifax index can be a skittish beast, prone to occasional lurches. May’s big rise was preceded by two (smaller) falls. The 2% rise in prices over the latest three months, which translated into an 8.7% rise on a year earlier, showed a lower rate of house-price inflation than some other measures.

Even so, there is exuberance there, which the Bank of England’s financial policy committee (FPC) will respond to later this month. Before coming on to my main theme – the fact that there is something very odd at the heart of this rise in house prices – I should do us all, and the Bank, a favour by opening the lid on the FPC.

The Bank appears to have realised, perhaps a little late, that it has a problem on its hands with the FPC. The monetary policy committee, now 17 years old, is pretty well understood by most people. It meets once a month, decides whether to adjust interest rates (or not for more than five years) or do more quantitative easing. To the extent these things can ever be straightforward, it is.

The FPC, however, is a shadowy body which meets on a quarterly basis. There is the cult of ther amateur about it. The fact that this shadowy body may be about to make decisions that could affect people’s ability to get a mortgage explains the flurry of activity from the Bank, including tweeting photos of the committee and a speech by Richard Sharp, one of its external members. The title of his speech, however, “An experiment in macroprudential management” did not exactly inspire confidence.

The FPC has 10 members, three of which it shares with the MPC – Mark Carney, Charlie Bean and Sir Jon Cunliffe, as well as two other Bank insiders, Andrew Bailey and Spencer Dale. Martin Wheatley of the Financial Conduct Authority is a member, as well as four external members, Sharp, Dame Clara Furse, Donald Kohn and Martin Taylor.

It may be that, by the end of the month, we will know quite a lot more about the FPC. It meets on June 17 and its recommendations, which are expected to include restrictions on high loan to income mortgages, as well as others, with be made public nine days later, when the Bank’s financial stability report is published.

The delay between meeting and announcement is said to be because it is dealing with more complex and nuanced decisions than whether interest rates should go up or down by a quarter of a point. It is, however, a recipe for uncertainty. The Bank can and should do better than this.

Anyway, after all the build-up, the FPC is almost honour-bound to do something on housing. It has, moreover, to get it right. The question is how it, and we, should be reading the market.

Everybody involved in prime central London housing says the market has slowed significantly. Knight Frank, the estate agent, attributes it to high prices and uncertainty over next year’s general election. Other parts of London and the south-east remain strong but are also likely to level off for similar reasons, and because some lenders – Lloyds and RBS – have decided to unilaterally impose constraints on £500,000-plus mortgages.

The really interesting thing, however, is what is happening to activity. Alongside its report of a 3.9% jump in house prices last month, the Halifax noted that transactions had recently fallen (though they were still up on a year earlier).

The monthly numbers for mortgage approvals suggest anything but a housing market awash with cash. The figures, from the Bank of England, showed approvals dropped to just under 63,000 in April, from almost 76,000 in January. Just as approvals were getting into their strike, they have fallen back, and they are an important lead indicator of housing activity. The long run average for approvals – 1993-2007 – was nearly 99,000 a month.

Some of that fall is due to the run-up to the mortgage market review, introduced at the end of April, which disrupted some lending. Some of it may have been the refocusing of the Funding for Lending Scheme away from mortgages, announced in November. The Office for National Statistics, in its latest economic review, notes that net mortgage lending is barely increasing.

A significant factor, also, is the lack of availability of property. This is not, for once, the traditional complaint about not enough new housing, at least not directly. An arguably more important factor, which is pushing prices up even as activity remains well below normal levels, is that existing homeowners do not want to sell.

RICS, the royal institution of chartered surveyors, reports “a dearth” of new instructions to sell, with nine of its 12 regions reporting a drop in properties coming on the market. The other day I saw an estate agents’ window with 40 properties displayed but all but two of them sold.

Why is it happening? Older people looking to downsize appear reluctant to do so, perhaps because the returns they can get on the savings they unlock are so abysmal, and cannot compare with the strongly rising price of the property they own. Instead of being a source of properties for sale, they have become the so-called “bed blockers” of the housing market.

High transaction costs, including stamp duty rates of 3% above £250,000, 4% above £500,000, 5% above £1m and 7% above £2m, may be taking their toll on transactions elsewhere in the market. Expanding families often find it easier, and cheaper, to extend.

The cumulative effect of too little new housing over many years is also a factor, says Simon Rubinsohn of RICS. The tightness of supply damages the market by severely restricting choice. If there is not enough out there to buy and move into, owners will not sell.

So, we have an odd challenge for the FPC. The London market, which has grabbed its attention, looks to be slowing. Elsewhere, the problems in the market do not appear to be driven by runaway mortgage growth but by supply shortages, for both new and existing homes. The Bank cannot do anything about them, as Carney has said. The question, unless it has evidence that the banks under its supervision are taking unwarranted risks, is whether it should be doing anything at all.

Sunday, June 01, 2014
No longer downhearted. A nation on happy pills
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

During the worst of the global financial crisis, people were fond of quoting Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of India’s planning commission. In his phrase: “Confidence grows at the rate a coconut tree grows but falls at the rate a coconut falls.”

Confidence rises only gradually but drops sharply. During the crisis business and consumer confidence collapsed. The edge of the abyss looked dangerously close. Many feared plunging over.

If you were looking for a single reason for the turnaround in the economy, you could do worse than look at confidence. Rising business and consumer confidence partly reflect stronger growth and rising employment but are also driving that growth.

Not so long ago we were stuck in a mire of weak growth and depressed confidence. Now it has turned into a virtuous circle of rising confidence and strengthening growth. It is hard to overstate the importance of the return of confidence.

The latest figures from the European Commission tell the story. The main economic sentiment measures, covering business and consumer confidence, rose in May in both the EU and the Eurozone and, perhaps surprisingly, are a little above their long-run (1990-2013) averages.

The picture for Britain was even more encouraging, indeed remarkable. Though the overall sentiment measure slipped a little in May, it was nevertheless at its second highest since 1988, the highest having been achieved in April.

The Commission’s consumer confidence figures for Britain suggest a nation on happy pills. Overall confidence is at its highest since the series began in 1985. The related GfK-NOP measure is rising at its fastest rate for 37 years. In the detail, as Michael Saunders of Citi points out, is the highest proportion of consumers who think the economy has improved over the last 12 months since 2000, the most optimism on unemployment since 1998 and the best time for major purchases since 2007.

Full-time employees are more optimistic than at any time since the question was first asked of this group in 1990, while for other workers optimism is at 16-year highs. Perhaps most surprising of all, optimism among young (16-29) people is also at its best since 1990.

Businesses are, if anything, firms even more upbeat than households. The longest running of all the surveys, the CBI’s industrial trends, has business optimism at its highest since April 1973.

All this is very encouraging, but raises three important questions. Why is it happening? Is this as good as it gets? And, for the politicians, why amid so much optimism is there so much discontent, as we saw across Europe in last weekend’s parliament elections?

Why is confidence so high? Households, we are told, have rarely been more squeezed and businesses are frozen into inactivity by caution, hardly the recipe for confidence at multi-decade highs.

As regular readers will know, I think the extent of the squeeze on households is exaggerated by the regular average earnings figures. Real household disposable incomes in aggregate only had one really bad year, 2011, and on a per capita basis recovered to pre-crisis levels in the second half of last year. Real take-home pay has being doing better than real earnings, because of the big increase in the personal income tax allowance. Wages and salaries data from the national accounts suggest a stronger real wage picture for some time.

I would accept, however, that compared with previous periods, this is not a time of strong growth in real incomes or wages. In the late 1980s, for a while, average earnings were growing by 7.5% against inflation of 2.5%.

Firms, meanwhile, have been building up cash in readiness to start spending and are doing so. The pick-up in investment, though not rip-roaring, stretches back five quarters.

In both cases, confidence is up so sharply because things have turned out better than expected. Confidence is all about expectations. When they are exceeded, it goes up. In the case of employment growth, which has been very strong, it has easily exceeded expectations.

Will it last? The fact that confidence is so high should make us cautious about predicting further big gains. Sometimes confidence soars just before something nasty happens, as in 1973 and 1990, both on the eve of recession. Mainly, confidence levels off or slips back because expectations are merely achieved rather than exceeded. That is not bad news: people come to expect stronger growth and their expectations are validated.

There may be a particular reason now why confidence is high, and why it will not go up much from here. The economy is in the sweet spot in which growth has come through strongly but the Bank of England has yet to respond with higher interest rates.

That will not last. With the monetary policy committee’s Martin Weale warning that rates will need to rise “sooner rather than later” the debate is hotting up.

He and some other MPC members are probably sceptical of the impact of financial policy committee measures directed at the housing market, echoing the scepticism expressed here last week. The first votes for higher rates could come in late summer or autumn. I still think the first hike will come next year, though some City economists are now targeting November 2014.

Higher rates need not derail the recovery, and I don’t think they will, but they are likely to create enough uncertainty to rein back confidence.
Finally, why when confidence is so high are elected politicians having such a tough time? In Europe, the return to growth and the end of the worst phase of the eurozone crisis did not prevent a surge in the Eurosceptical vote last weekend.

In Britain, with confidence high, the coalition parties might have expected to reap the benefits of recovery in the May elections more than they did. But while the Tories avoided collapse, the Liberal Democrats did not.

It may be that another year will do the trick but clearly more is happening than just confidence and recovery. While Labour is blamed for over-spending and failing to regulate the banks, the coalition parties get the blame for austerity and, in the case of the Tories, will always be seen as too close to the City. Curiously Nigel Farage, the only party leader who worked a long time in the City – more than 20 years – gets away with it. The coming general election could be one where a strong economy benefits the incumbents less than usual.

Confidence is very important. Its economic effects are seen in stronger growth in consumer spending and business investment, both of which should last. Its political effects are harder to judge.

Sunday, May 25, 2014
New-style corsets face old-style problems
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Unaccustomed as I am to delving into the subject of what used to be called ladies’ foundation garments the time has come to to talk about the corset.

The corset, to avoid any misunderstandings or hot flushes, was the nickname given to a Bank of England scheme of the 1970s, intended to control bank lending. Under the supplementary special deposits scheme, banks were required to operate within limits specified by the authorities, and faced penalties for not doing so.

It lasted from 1973 to 1980, in three phases, and was not the only mechanism for controlling credit. Hire purchase controls, scrapped in 1982, set the proportion of the purchase price people had to put up before buying on instalment.

Mortgage lending was controlled by the simple expedient of rationing. Until banks were allowed to enter the mortgage market in the early 1980s prospective borrowers queued. I was once told by a building society - now a bank - I would have to wait two years for a loan.

The point of reviving these memories now is that they were all examples of what we now call financial policy. There is very little new under the sun, and there is nothing new about seeking to restrict lending growth by direct means.

Indeed, given the Labour party’s current shift towards direct interventions to tackle the “cost of living crisis” - though shop prices and petrol were 0.6% lower last month than a year earlier - maybe we should all be studying the 1970s.

The history of the corset was not a glorious one. It coincided with one of the most turbulent periods, until the recent crisis, in Britain’s modern economic history. It ran alongside very high interest rates. It did what you would expect any system of direct controls to do, encouraging lending growth to shift into other, non-controlled channels.

When it was abolished in 1980, provoking a row which meant Margaret Thatcher never really trusted the Bank again - it failed to warn her of the one-off boost to her precious money supply - that seemed to be that for such policies.

The corset was rendered redundant because lending could then as easily flow into Britain from foreign banks, or overseas subsidiaries of British banks. The Bank’s own assessment, in 1982, was that the corset “exemplifies the difficulties of relying excessively on direct controls on the banking system as a means of influencing monetary developments”.

I raise it now because there is a danger of repeating past errors. The Bank is once more concerned about lending excesses in the housing market. Its financial policy committee(FPC) will meet on June 17, and is set to announce measures to seek to cool housing lending.

The FPC’s next scheduled meeting after that, September 26, means those measures will be given a little time to take effect, after which there could be more. Its final quarterly meeting of the year is on December 8.

In some ways it is odd that the FPC is considering action to restrain mortgage lending. Its own figures show net mortgage lending in the year to March was up only 1.1%. A decade ago this lending measure was rising 15% a year.

I accept it is concerned about new lending, so gross lending may be more important, and it was up 31% in March on a year earlier. After a long period of mortgage famine, however, this only took it to £16.8bn, half its pre-crisis peak of more than £32bn in June 2007.

Will such measures cool the London housing market? Foreign buyers, cash-rich buy-to-let landlords and people getting hold of their pension pots to put into property mean the main effect of curbing mortgage availability would be to further limit the chances of genuine owner-occupiers. Reducing the scope of Help to Buy would be in irrelevance in London.

The prospect of success looks more remote than in the case of the corset in the 1970s. The market may slow, but not mainly as a result of FPC actions.

The Bank probably knows this but that will not stop it trying and the dangers are twofold. The first is that it will disappoint on house prices. Rising house prices have effects that go beyond financial stability. They have social consequences and may ultimately be inflationary.

The second danger, and this is the biggest, is that financial policy - direct measures - comes to be seen as a substitute for monetary policy; higher interest rates.

Charlie Bean, the Bank’s deputy governor, is hard to characterise as either a hawk or a dove on interest rates, but he is the wisest owl on the monetary policy committee. He is also on the FPC.

In a speech at the London School of Economics ahead of his retirement at the end of next month, he set out both the role of direct measures, so called “macroprudential” policy, and the limitations.

As he put it: “Compared to the impact of changes in interest rates, we have relatively little experience of deploying macroprudential instruments. And there will often be scope for those affected to work out ways to circumvent them, including by moving activities outside the regulatory perimeter.”

The latter, of course, was what happened under the corset in the 1970s. “There may well be times when moentary policy is the only game in town,” he added, so that even at a time of below-target inflation - with no inflationary danger in sight - the Bank should “lean against the wind” by raising rates.

We may be moving towards that point. The minutes of this month’s MPC meeting, released last week, showed the first stirrings of discussion about hiking rates, with some members arguing that the decision was becoming “more balanced” and others arguing that raising rates early could be the best of ensuring that they do not need to rise too much.

The minutes, coming on the day when official figures showed the volume of retail sales last month nearly 7% up on a year earlier reignited the debate on rates, it having been kicked into the long grass by Carney a few days earlier. But with the MPC about to undergo a big shake-up of its membership, we do not know whether this month’s stirrings will turn out to be a false signal.

The Bank does not need to be precipitate. There is a case for waiting until the economy is back above pre-crisis levels and real wage growth is more firmly established. That does not mean a hike now, but should mean the process starts next year, ahead of the May election.

The risk is that the Bank leaves it too long, in to hope that financial policy takes care of it. Experience suggests it will not. Corsets, I gather, can be uncomfortable. But they rarely deal with the underlying problem.

Sunday, May 18, 2014
Carney goes back to keeping everybody guessing
Posted by David Smith at 08:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

July 2007. Roger Federer won Wimbledon for the fifth time and Venus Williams the ladies’ title. Gordon Brown had only just become prime minister and spent much of the month dealing with devastating summer floods. The European Union nominated Dominique Strauss-Kahn as managing director of the International Monetary Fund, a nomination that did not end well.

It was also the last time interest rates in Britain rose. In July 2007, paradoxically just as the global financial crisis was rumbling into view, the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee(MPC) raised rates from 5.5% to 5.75%.

I would encourage you to savour that sentence for a moment, not only because it is so long since it happened but also because the level of rates at the time: 5.75% is so far away from the current Bank benchmark of 0.5% as to look like another world.

At the time, an rate rise was unremarkable, as was a 5%-plus rate. The MPC had raised rates in May, as it had on many occasions - 18 in all interspersed with cuts - since independence in 1997.

But that, as things stand, was that. The Bank raised rates repeatedly in its first decade of independence. For reasons we know only too well, it has not done so at all in the first seven years of its second decade. When will it do so?

Before answering that let me remind you what an unusual period we are in. Until it was cut to the current 0.5% in March 2009, Bank rate had never been as low as this, in a history stretching back to 1694, when the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street was a bouncing baby girl. The previous low was 2%. In 1694, by the way, Bank rate was 6%.

This is now, in addition, the longest period of unchanged rates since the Depression and Second World War. Then, there was a cut to 2% in 1931 and no increase until 1951.

There is another exceptional feature, which is that the MPC decided even a prolonged period of 0.5% rates did not provide enough of a monetary stimulus, so it undertook £375bn of purchases of gilts - UK government bonds - in its quantitative easing programme.

The Bank provided some new guidance last week on what it intends to do about that £375bn of gilts, which it still holds. Some will be run down automatically as they mature, though even that process will not begin before interest rates have started to rise.

Large-scale asset sales, and this was new, will not begin until interest rates have reached a level from which they can be “materially cut”. The MPC does not want to get itself into a position in which it sells gilts back to the markets but is forced to buy them back again because the economy weakens. As for the level of interest rates at which they can be materially cut, I judge that to be when Bank rate has reached 2.5% or 3%.

That is also the rate we are being encouraged by the Bank to think of as the new norm, implying it will be well into the Bank’s third decade of independence before we see an official interest rate starting in a 5. Normality is a long way away. For the next few years, on present thinking, we will go no higher than 3.

When will the Bank begin to scale that peak? When, in other words, will rates start to rise? Had you asked me that question a week ago, I would have had no hesitation. In its February inflation report the MPC, and its governor Mark Carney, seemed happy to endorse the market view that the first hike would come next spring. Martin Weale, the most hawkish member of a dovish MPC, said explicitly households and businesses should prepare for higher rates then.

Now, however, a terrible fuzziness has taken over. In presenting the Bank’s May inflation report, Carney was unwilling to endorse any view on rates, let alone the market view of the first hike occurring in a year’s time. Short of a magician-like flurry, producing some white birds from the lining of his jacket and releasing them into the room, he could not have been more dovish.

It was not just his sporting analogy - a reference to the World Cup - that this seemed like a return to the Mervyn King era. We appear to have returned to the pre forward guidance period in which the MPC takes one meeting at a time and the only determinant of when it decides to raise rates will be the data.

I still think rates will start to rise in roughly a year’s time but why the fuzziness? There are three possibilities.

One is that, with the MPC in a state of flux, Carney cannot pre-judge what his new colleagues will decide. Soon Spencer Dale, the Bank’s chief economist, Charlie Bean, deputy governor, and Paul Fisher, executive director for financial markets, will leave the MPC.

They will be replaced by Andy Haldane, Minouche Shafik and Kristin Forbes, an American professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once a member of George W Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. Haldane has made many speeches, though not on monetary policy. The others are unknown quantities.

A second reason may be that, the closer a rate rise gets, the less precise the Bank will want to be. If a hike were seen in the markets as set in stone and for some reason did not happen, the Bank could lose credibility.

Related to this, had the Bank provided an endorsement of a rate rise in the early part of next year then, markets being markets, it would not have rested there. Any strong data would be interpreted as bringing the expected hike forward into this year; speculation I judge the Bank does not want.

Finally, it may be that Carney has not quite given up on his initial forward guidance of last summer, which you will remember signalled that no hike was likely until 2016. The key question for the Bank is how soon it acts before spare capacity in the economy - which it estimates at 1% to 1.5% of gross domestic product - will be used up.

It thinks it will take three years for that to happen, but will not wait until that point before hiking rates. The question is how long in advance it decides to pull the trigger.

As I say, I think the first move will be in roughly a year, and the Bank’s own forecasts imply that. But instead of clear guidance, we now have a rather fuzzy interest rate outlook. Forward guidance was meant to provide clarity on interest rates to households and businesses. The current guidance is anything but clear.

Sunday, May 11, 2014
Bank must beware bubble hysteria
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Let me take you to the West Midlands, if not the land of our fathers then certainly the land of my father, the place I grew up. It has been through tough times but things are looking up.

Unemployment is falling and employment rising. Manufacturing is bouncing back. None of the West Midlands’ football teams got relegated this year - breaking the pattern of recent seasons - and one, Wolves, was promoted.

Why the West Midlands? Because Sir Jon Cunliffe, the Bank of England’s deputy governor for financial stability, chose to focus on it in his important recent speech on the housing market.

House prices in the West Midlands, he noted, fell 15% between 2007 and 2009, while transactions - sales and purchases - halved from 10,000 to 5,000 a month. After that, transactions recovered a little but prices were flat until spring last year.

Since then, as he also noted, prices in the region have risen just under 10%, while transactions averaged 7,000 a month. Prices are 7% below their 2007 peaks. He did not say it but in real terms - adjusted for consumer price inflation - prices are down a quarter.

Cunliffe’s choice of the West Midlands was for two reasons. One was to show the Bank is not overinfluenced by the bright lights of Mayfair, Kensington and Chelsea. It looks beyond the capital.

The other was to show that house-price inflation and rising transactions are not confined to London. The West Midlands, for house prices, is in line with the national average. It used to be the bellwether region of the British economy. Now, in at least one respect, it is again.

What does it, and the country as a whole, tell us about the housing market? We have seen an outbreak of housing hysteria, which I fear is far from over.

The Bank is thought to be readying itself for action on what Cunliffe described as the brightest warning light on the Bank’s dashboard. The Bank’s quarterly inflation report press conference, on Wednesday, will be dominated by housing questions.

Three ex chancellors, Lords Lamont and Lawson and Alistair Darling, have expressed concern about George Osborne’s Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has called for “timely prudential measures to address the risks of excessive house price inflation”, which it says should accompany monetary policy tightening, in other words higher interest rates. The clamour is growing.

We will learn more about the Bank’s interest rate intentions this week. On Thursday it left Bank rate unchanged at 0.5% for the 62nd successive month. How long can this go on?

For a while yet, I would think, unless it has had a radical change of heart. The message coming from the Bank in recent weeks was that its first port of call to dampen irrational housing exuberance would be the tools at the disposal of the financial policy committee (FPC).

Only if the FPC’s actions fail will the monetary policy committee (MPC) be called into action. That should mean the first hike in rates is some months away; I still think next year rather than this.

What are those tools? The Bank’s FPC, if it fears housing boom could turn to bust, has the power to direct banks to ensure they have the capital to weather the storm.

It could, as Cunliffe pointed out, make recommendations which directly affect lenders’ underwriting standards, as well as loan to value (LTV), loan to income(LTI) and debt-service to income ratios. It could cool the market by making mortgages tougher to obtain.

If it chooses to do so, and its deputy governor acknowledges it will be a “challenging judgment”, it may be curtains for the second phase of Osborne’s Help to Buy scheme; mortgage guarantees. It would look like a topsy-turvy world in which the Bank was at the same time reining back mortgage availability while implicitly endorsing a government scheme to increase such availability.

Should the Bank act? My favourite housing valuation measure, prices relative to their long run “real” trend has prices undervalued by almost 10%. That big fall in the West Midlands, and nationally, has not yet been fully recovered.

The only house price-earnings ratio worth considering is for first-time buyers (almost all existing homeowners have equity). This, according to the Nationwide, stands nationally at 4.7, 13% down on its pre-crisis peak. Only in London and the south-east is it up.

As for Help to Buy, there is a lot of misunderstanding. The first phase, equity loans to help buyers of new homes, will be with us until 2020. Since April last year, when it was launched, 19,394 Help to Buy 1 mortgages have been advanced, overwhelmingly (87.5%) for first time buyers, and overwhelmingly outside London and the south-east. NHBC, which monitors the new homes market, says 7% more were built in the first quarter compared with a year earlier.

Help to Buy 2, launched in October, was responsible for just 2,572 guaranteed mortgages in its first three months, again overwhelmingly to first-time buyers, and with an average house prices of £148,048. Scrapping it, or even reducing the limit from £600,000 to £400,000, might have a psychological effect but its practical impact would be close to zero.

The other possibility, which should not be ignored, is that the market is already self-correcting. The latest Halifax house price index showed a fall of 0.2% last month and has shown no tendency to accelerate in the past year. Mortgage approvals, a key driver, have fallen for two months in a row.

In the stratosphere of the top end of the London market, Grosvenor Estates has sold £240m of property in the belief the peak is nigh, while some agents report that the combination of sky-high prices and a strengthening pound has cooled the market.

These signs are far from uniform. The latest LSL-Acadata house price index, using Land Registry data, shows a 7.3% annual rise and price strength spreading around the country. The latest RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) survey was also strong.

But the Bank has to take things carefully. It has taken time to get housing going and to generate an upturn in housebuilding. Nipping it in the bud too soon, despite justifiable concerns about house prices in some areas, could backfire.

Professor Paul Cheshire, in a spirited piece for the London School of Economics' Centrepiece magazine estimates that between 1994 and 2012, between 1.6m and 2.3m fewer houses were built than were needed. More land in Surrey is devoted to golf courses than housing he points out, and more have been built in recent years in Doncaster and Barnsley than Oxford and Cambridge. Planning reform is desperately needed but it is also important to nurture the current upturn in activity and building, not slam the brakes on.

Sunday, May 04, 2014
Milestones that show the nightmare is over
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Milestones are either in sight or have been passed. The latest quarterly rise in gross domestic product (GDP), 0.8%, takes us within a whisker, 0.6%, of its pre-crisis peak.

“Onshore” GDP, excluding North Sea oil and gas, is already 0.4% above pre-crisis levels, because of the weakness in recent years of Britain’s offshore energy production (Scotland please note).

There are other games you can play with the figures. Exclude financial services where the whole thing started - but which has seen a 21% slump in activity - and GDP is 2% or so up on its peak.

Allow for the inevitable statistical revisions and we will discover, at some stage, that GDP recovered to pre-crisis levels some time ago, That is for another time.

The significance of these GDP milestones is that we are waking from the nightmare Britain entered almost seven years ago, when the financial crisis hit.

At times it has been a close run thing. In 2010, when the general election was inconclusive and eurozone collapse began to loom large, Britain teetered on the brink of a full-blown fiscal crisis.

The failure of recovery to take off prompted worries Britain was turning into Japan, lost decades of stagnation and high unemployment in prospect.

Even early last year, when the fear was of a triple-dip recession and an increase in the budget deficit, it was touch and go. There were a lot of worried people in the Treasury and Bank of England. But growth came through just in time, a strong 3.1% rise in GDP in the past year. The double-dip never happened, let alone a triple one.

It has taken time to get back to the pre-crisis peak. One reason for that was the depth of the recession: the 7.2% drop in GDP in 2008-9 was much bigger than America’s 4.3% fall.

After that, several factors came together to put a dampener on recovery. They included tax hikes and spending cuts, though these were no more of a factor than the eurozone crisis, the high inflation squeeze on real incomes and the sudden shift from easy credit growth to no credit growth at all, effectively cutting off the economy’s oxygen supply.

Perhaps as important as all these was the time factor. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, the influential American economists who in their book This Time is Different examined previous financial crises, highlighted this.

Taking nearly seven years to get back to pre-crisis levels of GDP, and perhaps 10 years to return to pre-crisis levels of per capita GDP (population has grown since the onset of the crisis) is not untypical. We should perhaps have been a little more patient.

One of the effects of “balance”, as operated by the broadcasters, is if a report on an important economic number includes George Osborne, it also has to include Ed Balls, his Labour shadow.

So viewers and listeners were treated to the shadow chancellor’s view that the economic upturn was only working for the rich and that “most people are not feeling any recovery at all”.

I think I even heard him suggest that wages increases should be measured against the retail prices index rather than the consumer prices index. People may have forgotten that, as Treasury chief economic adviser and Gordon Brown’s right-hand man, Balls was instrumental in the 2003 Bank of England switch from an RPI-based target to CPI.

Is it true that for most people the recovery is a mirage and the cost-of-living squeeze is as intense as ever? A few days ago the latest GfK-NOP consumer confidence index, which has been running since 1974, was released.

It showed overall confidence at its highest level since June 2007. Optimists outnumber pessimists about their personal financial situation over the next 12 months and the country’s prospects. You would not get results like this if most were feeling as grim as Labour suggests.

The other important clue is in the labour market numbers. Apart from showing continuing strong rises in employment, they demonstrate that the benefits of recovery are not only well spread but that, if anything, the highest paid are lagging behind.

So private sector pay in the most recent three months was up by 2%, outstripping CPI inflation. The private sector accounts for 81% of employment.

Even more interesting was the breakdown, Manufacturing pay in the latest three months was up 3.2% on a year earlier, construction by 3.1% and “wholesaling, retailing, hotels and restaurants” - hardly bastions of high pay - by 3.5%. Not only were these increases comfortably ahead of CPI inflation (now 1.6%) but they also outstripped RPI inflation (currently 2.5%).

If you want to shed any tears, shed them for those in finance and business services, where pay was up just 0.1%, dragged down by falling earnings in financial services. This is a mirror image of the picture suggested by Labour.

Telling people they are squeezed and hard done by may be politically smart; few people are satisfied with their lot. I was always surprised during the long upturn from the early 1990s to the start of the crisis how much discontent there was. Consumer confidence is now higher than its average over that long upturn.

But we should also be honest. The rise in GDP is well spread between the different sectors of the economy and it is benefiting the majority of people. The longer the recovery in GDP goes on, the more those benefits will spread.

That recovery is not guaranteed. There are political risks, most notably next year’s general election. There is also the question of how the economy will respond when the Bank starts to raise interest rates. But the nightmare looks to be over. And that is worth celebrating.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
The problems with Piketty
Posted by David Smith at 05:00 PM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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Everybody has had a go at the phenomenon of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. Here's a version of my Sunday Times piece of a few days ago.

Most people in Britain will never have heard of Thomas Piketty, a 42-year old professor from the Paris School of Economics, but that may be about to change.

If you believe the hype, Piketty is shaking capitalism to its foundations, and he is about to bring his message to Britain.

Piketty, an unassuming, softly-spoken Frenchman, has set the world of economics alight and taken America by storm. His book, a muscle-straining 685-page tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published last month, is top of the Amazon bestseller charts in America, and has sold out its initial print run. His publisher, Harvard University Press, is busy getting the presses rolling again for what is likely to be easily its biggest seller in its 101-year history.

On his whistle-stop US tour a few days ago, Piketty wowed the chat shows, met the US treasury secretary Jack Lew and the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers and held forth at a seminar at the International Monetary Fund. New York magazine described him as the “rock-star economist”.

Though his book shows he is no admirer of America’s economics tradition, he appeared alongside two admiring US Nobel prize winners, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. Krugman, one of America’s most influential economists, with a column in the New York Times, assessing Capital for the New York Review of Books, described it as a “magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality”, which explained “why we’re in a new gilded age”.

“Capital in the Twenty First Century is an extremely important book on all fronts,” he concluded. “Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.” Robert Solow, another American Nobel winner, reviewed the book in New Republic under the headline “Thomas Piketty is Right”.

All this praise in the land of the free, the home of capitalism, is for a book that deliberately invokes Marx in its title and uses 300 years of data to claim that he has exposed the system’s fundamental flaw. Capitalism, according to Piketty, will always result in damaging and dangerous inequality that can only be corrected by taxes on wealth and sky-high income tax rates on the better-off of more than 80%.

Now he is about to bring his road show to Britain and word is starting to get out. The £29.95 book is seventh on Amazon’s UK list and the publishers, having expected to satisfy demand with copies imported from America, are now arranging a large print run in Britain.

On Wednesday Piketty will take the Eurostar from Paris, meeting senior journalists at The Guardian, hold a seminar at the London School of Economics, pre-record an interview with the BBC and give a sold out lecture on his book to an Institute for Public Policy Research event at King’s College. Prospect magazine has him at 27th in its list of 50 top world thinkers, with his long-time collaborator Emmanuel Saez.

He will be back again in June for more lectures and for a discussion in the House of Commons with Lord Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband’s senior adviser. Perhaps ominously for those worried about soak-the-rich policies under a Miliband-led Labour government, Wood says: “We must respond to Piketty’s challenge with ambition and imagination, not with pessimism.”

What is all the fuss about? Piketty’s appeal, certainly to US liberals, is that he has provided an intellectual framework for the challenge to capitalism that was expected in the wake of the banking meltdown and global financial crisis but never happened. The Occupy movement, which targeted the richest 1%, and claimed to speak on behalf of the remaining 99%, had a brief flurry, which in Britain included the occupation of St Paul’s churchyard. But it faded. Capitalism has picked itself up, dusted itself off and carried on more or less as before, though with the regulators keeping a closer eye on things, particularly in the banks.

Piketty, if he is right, has exposed a flaw in capitalism that existed before the crisis and will become increasingly evident as the 21st century progresses. The tendency towards greater inequality, to the rich becoming richer and the masses being left behind, may not bring about the collapse of capitalism – he insists he is not as “apocalyptic” as Marx – but it will put the system under increasing strain.

Measures to correct what he describes as “the fundamental force for divergence” and “the central contradiction of capitalism” will not only be needed on grounds of fairness but will also be required because they threaten democratic societies.

Part of the appeal of the book is that it is readable, despite its length, thanks to Piketty and his English translator Arthur Goldhammer. Frequent references to Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac and other classical novelists, show that this is one economist who has not spent all his life with his nose in economics texts. There is a grand sweep of history in his use of data stretching back 300 years, particularly French data on incomes and inheritances, but also statistics – carefully assembled by Piketty and his fellow researchers – for Britain and other countries.

He also has a nice self-deprecating touch, when he criticizes economists for being “all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves”. “There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France,” he writes. “Here, economists are not widely respected in the academic and intellectual world or by financial and political elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy.”

There are two essential conclusions in Piketty’s book. Simon Kuznets, one of the giants of American economics in the 20th century – he lived from 1901 to 1985 – published a seminal paper in the 1950s to demonstrate what became known as the “Kuznets curve”. This was that, while societies had a tendency to become much more unequal during the early stages of industrialization, in which the rewards go to the magnates and landowners, there is a natural tendency towards greater equality in capitalist societies towards greater equality. The longer the process of growth goes on, in other words, the more that the masses will share the fruit of that growth. Capitalism survives by spreading its rewards.

For Piketty, however, Kuznets had identified what was a temporary and special case. Yes, there had been a tendency towards greater equality for much of the 20th century but that was “above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war”. Since 1980, capitalist economies have been reverting to their 18th and 19th century norms, faithfully recorded by novelists as well as the numbers, in which inequality widens. The rich get richer, the rest stagnate.

The reason why this is the second central claim of Piketty’s Capital, which could be summed up as money will always go to those who already have it. The wealthy will always grow wealthier – inequality will increase – because, according to Piketty, the rate of return on their capital or wealth, r, will always exceed the rate of growth of the economy, g. Most people are stuck in the slow lane, held back by the economy’s growth rate – which he thinks will be quite modest in the 21st century. The rich are in their own fast lane. Money begets money.

If he is right, we may only be seeing the opening skirmishes in the defining battle of the 21st century. When Vince Cable, the business secretary, writes to Britain’s FTSE 100 businesses telling them to curb executive pay, or when a sizeable minority of Barclays’ shareholders votes against higher pay and bonuses, these may just be the early rumblings of far bigger wars to come. If the future is one of ever greater inequality, the wealthy may need very large walls to keep out the dispossessed.

But is Piketty right? Before jumping onto the Piketty bandwagon, however, we should note that the recent history of economics bestsellers changing the world is decidedly mixed. In the 1990s, Will Hutton’s The State We’re In appeared to set the agenda but its theme of stakeholder capitalism was dropped by Tony Blair’s New Labour as quickly as it picked it up. Hutton, predictably, has been singing Piketty’s praises.

A few years ago another book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, was widely attacked for its use of statistics, even prompting a book-sized riposte.

Though Piketty is basking in the warm glow of effusive praise, much of it unthinkingly effusive, the criticisms are starting to mount, even from some who might be expected to be sympathetic to Piketty. Tyler Cowen, the well-regarded professor of economics at George Mason University and co-author of the hugely popular Marginal Revolution website, finds serious flaws.

“Overall, the main argument is based on two false claims,” he wrote recently. “Firstly, that capital returns will be high and non-diminishing … Second, that this can happen without significant increases in real wages … I’m not convinced by the main arguments and the positive reviews I have read worsen rather than alleviate my anxieties.”

James K Galbraith, son of the legendary Keynesian economist J.K. Galbraith, and like Cowen an economist who has done a lot of work on wages and income distribution, has been even more critical. Writing in Dissent, a quarterly journal, Galbraith accuses Piketty of a “terrible confusion” between physical capital – the plant, machinery and buildings needed to make things – and financial wealth.

In straightforward terms, leaving aside academic niceties, Galbraith accuses Piketty of getting his understanding, and his facts, wrong. “In global comparison, there is a good deal of evidence, and (so far as I know) none of it supports Piketty’s claim that US income today is more unequal than in the major developing countries,” he writes. Branko Milanović identifies South Africa and Brazil as having the highest inequalities. New work from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) places Indian income inequality well above that in the United States.”

Piketty does not, he concludes, “provide a very sound guide to policy” and the book “is not the accomplished work of high theory that its title, length and reception (so far) suggest.”

Economists are meant to disagree and, though nobody would accuse Cowen and Galbraith of it, Piketty’s success is provoking more than a little professional jealousy. That said, there are three important flaws in the book. The first is that the idea that the rate of return will always exceed the economy’s growth rate is assertion, and most likely incorrect assertion, rather than fact. The period leading up the financial crisis of 2007-9, indeed the prime cause of the crisis, was the quest for a higher rate of return – the search for yield – in a world of low returns. That led to the taking of big and in the end highly destructive risks.

The second flaw is that Piketty is guessing. He is assuming, because it happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, and has been happening in the past three decades, that rising inequality is the new norm. Nobody knows whether that is the case or not. Inequality is diminishing between countries, thanks to the rise of economies like China and India, which is raising living standards in those countries. Inequality is rising in those countries, as happened in Britain, France and America after their industrial revolutions. But you would expect inequality to diminish in these countries, as Kuznets recorded in America, not least because mass production requires a mass of consumers.

The third flaw, as even Krugman concedes, is that Piketty’s model might explain why plutocrats are getting ever wealthier but does not explain the phenomenon of the past three decades, the rise of top salaries. Chief executives, in banks elsewhere, are paid sums relative to the average worker that their predecessors could only dream of. That reflects their bargaining power and persuading enough people – maybe in some cases wrongly – that their talent is in short supply and has to command premium international rates. You do not need three centuries of data, Austen and Balzac to explain it. And already there are signs of a self-generated backlash against some of these boardroom excesses.

Bigger than any of these problems, however, is when Piketty gets into policy recommendations. He would have been better advised to present his conclusions and left it to others to decide what to do with them. As it is, he proposes a global tax on capital – wealth – which he concedes is “a utopian idea” which “is hard to imagine the nations of the world agreeing on any such thing anytime soon”.

Worse, is when he gets on to income tax. In 2007 Piketty backed and worked with Segolene Royal, the French socialist and former partner of Francois Hollande, for the French presidency. She did not get it, but is now back in Hollande’s cabinet. Hollande went for a 75% top tax rate. Piketty thinks it should be 80%.

This is dangerous territory. Piketty refers with a hint of admiration to Britain in the 1970s, when the top rate of income tax – on earned and unearned income – reached a record-breaking 98%. Nobody, of course, paid it, and the effect was not just to kill the golden goose but to stuff it and cook it as well.

Perhaps he thinks 80% sounds modest in comparison with 98%. “The evidence suggests that a rate on the order of 80% on incomes over $500,000 or $1 million a year not only would not reduce the growth of the US economy but would in fact distribute the fruits of growth more widely while imposing reasonable limits on economically useless (or even harmful) behaviour,” he writes.

That does not just apply to America. “According to our estimates, the optimal top tax rate in the developed countries is probably over 80%, he adds. Such “confiscatory” rates are in his view the only way to stem the growth of high salaries.

This is bizarre. Have we learned nothing since the 1970s about the impact of very high tax rates on growth and incentives? Does anybody really think that the prospect of eye-wateringly high tax rates on success will not stop people striving for success, to take the necessary risks needed to stimulate innovation? The Levellers had nothing on Piketty when it comes to tax.

As it is, we have discovered in Britain that lower top tax rates both incentivised success and brought a bonanza for the taxman. The top 1% of income earners account for 30% of income tax revenues, compared with 11% in 1979. The main effect of high tax rates is to boost the tax avoidance industry.

Wealth is Piketty’s great concern. But it, according to Credit Suisse’s latest Global Wealth Report, is more evenly distributed in Britain than in Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Holland, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden Switzerland and America. It is also more evenly spread in Britain than in most developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, including China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and South Africa.

A glance at The Sunday Times Rich List, or lists of global wealth, shows moreover that the money begets money model does not fit. Yes we can envy the mega-rich. Or maybe not, but they are usually not the same mega-rich as 20 or 30 years ago. The main effect of sky-high tax rates would be to preserve differences in wealth, by killing entrepreneurialism and the rise of new wealth-creators at at birth, not eliminate them.

Piketty, the rock-star economist, has written a huge book, and sold more copies than he could have dreamt of. Mostly, it has been well-received, though it is flawed. But his conclusion, slap huge taxes on the rich, is as crude as it could be. And if politicians are tempted to take it up, they will find that it comes back and bites them. Piketty has been greeted as some kind of inequality messiah. The one way to guarantee the slow growth he fears is to take his advice and tax it out of existence.

Sunday, April 27, 2014
Self-employed may hold key to rate hikes
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Today I want to talk about a subject dear to the hearts of many millions in Britain, 4.5m to be precise. I am referring to self-employment, which is booming, and which, for reasons I shall explain, may hold the key to the timing of when interest rates rise.

The rise of self-employment is one of the big stories of the recovery in the job market, and the changing nature of employment. There are now 700,000 more self-employed people in Britain, a rise of 18% compared with early 2008, before the economy slid into recession.

The optimistic view is that the banking meltdown and recession have resulted in a flowering of the entrepreneurial spirit. Faced with uncertain employment opportunities and the appeal of being their own boss, hundreds of thousands of people chose to turn the financial crisis into an opportunity.

Or, less benignly, could it be that pride has prompted many to describe themselves as self-employed when, to all intents and purposes, they are not employed at all? Could self-employment be the equivalent of some zero-hours contracts, except in this case, people spend many hours doing zero work?

It is a big question and, before answering it, let me provide a few more numbers. Much of the increase in self-employment, roughly half a million, has come in the past three years, though self-employment held up far better than employment – which dropped sharply - during the 2008-9 recession.

To put the 700,000 rise in self-employment since the eve of the crisis in perspective, the number of full-time employees, though rising strongly, is still some 200,000 below pre-crisis highs. The overall number of employees, admittedly, is up, though that reflects a rise in the number of part-timers.

To add a bit more statistical colour, the 1.15m rise in employment over the past three years divides into a 515,000 rise in the number of full-time employees, that 500,000 increase in self-employment and the rest - between 130,000 and 140,000 – in a rise in the number of part-time employees. Full-time employment during the recovery phase has kept ahead of self-employment, but only just.

What do Britain’s 4.5m self-employed do? Pretty well everything. Around 850,000 are in construction and civil engineering. Other big categories include retailing, 256,000; education, 246,000, building services and landscaping, 225,000; washing and dry-cleaning, 218,000; transport, 215,000; “human health” (including personal trainers), 188,000; farming, 175,000; legal and accountancy, 136,000; creative arts, 130,000; social work, 118,000, and architecture and engineering, 104,000.

Why does self-employment matter for interest rates? The Bank of England’s monetary policy committee(MPC) minutes for this month, released a few days ago, were significant because they were the last under Mark Carney’s original forward guidance, linking future interest rate changes to the unemployment rate.

Since the MPC met earlier this month the unemployment rate has dropped through the 7% threshold, falling to 6.9%, thus ending that first phase of forward guidance (while not prompting the Bank to think about a rate hike yet).

When it will do so, as was clear from the minutes, has a lot to do with if we should interpret t he rise in self-employment optimistically or pessimistically.

“A key question was whether the amount of slack in the labour market was understated by measured unemployment, as might be the case if many of the self-employed were underemployed and searching for work as employees.” the Bank’s minutes said.

There was “a range of views” among MPC members about whether the rise in self-employment was genuine, or a form of disguised unemployment.

If you are a hawk on the MPC, thinking about when to swoop for a hike in interest rates, you are more likely to think that the rise in self-employment is genuine. If you are a dove, and I would put Mark Carney, the governor, firmly in this category, you are more likely to question the self-employment numbers.

Though there is a range of views on the MPC, it has been hard so far when it comes to hawkishness to spot a sparrowhawk, let alone a golden eagle.

What is really happening to self-employment? Talking to the Office for National Statistics, which admits there is more it would like to know about the self-employed, several things stand out.

Most people do not flit in and out of self-employment, in response to redundancy or anything else. Self-employed people tend to be older than the average worker and have been doing it for some time, typically 10-20 years.

Why, if most are in it for the long run, have we seen such a strong rise in self-employment over the past few years? The ONS has an interesting explanation for this, which feels right. It is that many fewer self-employed have been retiring, perhaps because of inadequate pension arrangements or other factors. So, in the jargon, there have been fewer outflows from self-employment into retirement.

Combine that with a steady increase in the number of people becoming self-employed - the inflows - and you have the reason for the rise in numbers.

There are three other reasons to think the rise is genuine. The strong revival of construction and house-building would be expected to lead to a rise in the number of self-employed, and it has. Numbers of self-employed in construction and civil engineering are up more than 100,000 over the past 2-3 years.

The recent overall rise, moreover, has been concentrated in full-time self-employed people, up 243,000 in the latest 12 months, compared with a 54,000 rise in part-time self-employed. If self-employment was disguised unemployment, you would expect the biggest rise to be among people declaring themselves part-time self-employed.

Not only that, but self-employment is rising strongly even as more jobs become available, with a 100,000 increase in vacancies in the past year alone.

So, it looks genuine, and I suspect the MPC will come to that view too. Does that mean interest rates are about to go up? Not yet. I think the unspoken deal on the MPC is for no rate hike this year but that forward guidance will have served its purpose if there are rate rises next year. The question is whether that will come to be seen as too late.

Sunday, April 20, 2014
Union blues: Would an independent Scotland honour her debts?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

There are still nearly five months to go until the referendum on Scottish independence but the debate is definitely hotting up. The polls are getting more interesting.

Buoyant is the default position of Alex Salmond, SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister but he is unusually buoyed up at present. He, after all, has a history of winning in Scotland.

Were I a Scot living in England I would be frustrated to the point of distraction by not having a vote in this, the most important decision for my country. For many Scots living in Scotland, I suspect, emotional arguments pull against the considerable economic risks of independence.

Recent evidence on the UK economy adds to those risks. Britain has turned into a formidable job creation machine, with nearly 700,000 new jobs created over the latest 12 months and an unemployment rate now below 7%, something the Bank of England said last summer it did not expect to happen until 2016.

Not only is the national labour market doing well, but Scotland is doing well within it. It has an unemployment rate of 6.5%, compared with 6.9% for the UK as a whole. Its employment rate, 73.3%, compares with a national rate of 72.6%.

10% of the new jobs created in the past 12 months have been in Scotland, bigger than its share in the UK economy. Would an independent Scotland do as well? Maybe, but there is a big risk it would not.

My last big piece on independence, ‘Separate Scotland will have to take the low road’, in September last year, described that and other risks. I will revisit it nearer the referendum but, without anticipating that entirely, the economic case has looked shakier even as support for independence in some polls has increased.

It was thought, for example, that Scotland’s budget deficit, assuming a geographical share of North Sea oil and gas, would initially be smaller than the rest of the UK, the big fiscal challenges coming later.

Now we know, from the Scottish government itself, it ran a budget deficit of 8.3% of gross domestic product in 2012-13, bigger than the 7.3% deficit for the whole of the UK.

Today I want to tackle a separate issue. When all three national parties (“Westminster parties” in SNP terminology) say they do not want Scotland to become independent, but if it did would not allow it to be in the currency union with the rest of the UK, there are three responses from the nationalists.

The first is that it is bullying of plucky little Scotland by the bigger boys in Westminster. I must say I’ve never seen Danny Alexander as school bully.

The second is that it is bluff, though it has to be said that it is a curious world in which the nationalists give greater weight to the off-the-record words of an unnamed minister than to the three parties’ economic spokesmen and the Treasury’s top official. If a future Westminster government opted for a currency union with an independent Scotland, it would do so against Treasury advice.

What about the third argument, which is that if the rest of the UK is so desperate to keep Scotland, this must show that Scotland is being exploited, either for her oil, or for other reasons?

Many English readers, I know, are entirely relaxed about Scottish independence. Some say the rest of the UK would be better off without Scotland. So why the keenness on the part of the Westminster political establishment to keep it?

One point can be dismissed. Salmond and his SNP colleagues insist that a post-independence rest of the UK would be desperate for a currency union for fear of losing the balance of payments support provided by North Sea oil.

This is a strange argument. Britain already runs a sizeable trade deficit in oil, and crude oil imports are between two and three times greater than exports. And, currency union or not, Scotland would have a separate balance of payments. That is what independence means. It would have a trade surplus in oil, partly offset by a deficit (including with the rest of the UK) on other goods and services.

The rest of the UK would have its own balance of payments and the level of sterling would be determined by that, not what was happening north of the border. There would be times when the right currency level for Scotland’s petro-dominated economy would be higher than that of the rest of the UK, and times when it would be lower. But the idea that an independent Scotland would provide balance of payments support for the rest of the UK does not wash.

There is, however, a genuine financial reason – among plenty of other reasons – why the rest of the UK wants to keep Scotland. This is the fact that an independent Scotland would almost certainly start life owing the rest of the UK a lot of money.

The latest paper from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research on independence, just published, suggests the negotiating range for Scotland’s share of UK debt will be between £102bn and £143bn, up to 86% of GDP.

The key point is that Scotland will not be able to pay off the rest of the UK immediately but is likely to be forced to issue an IOU.

This will have two implications. One is that until that IOU is honoured, gross public debt for the rest of the UK will be pushed up to more than 100% of GDP which, as the National Institute says, is likely to attract the attention of the ratings agencies.

The other is that the rest of the UK will be reliant on Scotland not reneging on her debts. Since some SNP politicians have warned that this is exactly what Scotland might to if not allowed to participate in a currency union, this would be a fiscal problem Britain could do without.

Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Treasury permanent secretary, has dismissed the nationalists’ warning that Scotland could renege on her debt as “not a credible threat”. The National Institute points out, though, that an independent Scotland would need to run tougher fiscal policy than the UK as a whole has had over the past four years to both take on her share of UK debt and bring it down to manageable levels.

There are many reasons why the rest of the UK wants to keep Scotland. But not being able to trust the Scots to take the tough fiscal decisions to honour her debts is one of them.

Sunday, April 13, 2014
Plenty of lessons for France in Britain's recovery
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Being British means we are easily embarrassed even by modest success. The default position, when it comes to the economy, is to grumble. There is usually plenty to grumble about even in the good times, so that keeps us happy.

So how should we respond to the fact that the International Monetary Fund now predicts that Britain’s growth rate this year, which it thinks will be 2.9%, will be the fastest in the G7?

Should we celebrate, or worry that all too often in the past pride in our economic performance has come before a fall? Can it, in other words, last?

Actually we should celebrate a little. Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s chief economist, went much too far a year ago, warning George Osborne that he was “playing with fire” with his policies and has been proved spectacularly wrong. Hence the chancellor’s upbeat “victory roll” speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Friday.

Blanchard was not alone - misreading Britain’s economy from the other side of the Atlantic (and sometimes from this side) proved to be an occupational hazard - but he was perhaps the most prominent.

There is also a delicious irony, against the French-run IMF, in that if you were looking for an economy with growth problems, look no further than France, predicted to grow by just 1% this year after 0.3% last year and zero in 2012.

Its new prime minister, Manuel Valls, has outlined a programme of spending cuts, tax reductions and labour market reforms that almost sound Thatcherite. Time will tell whether it will work.

What about Britain’s place in the economic sun? The IMF expects Britain to grow by 2.5% in 2015, second only to America. It expects inflation slightly below the 2% target and, to take up last week’s theme, a welcome narrowing of the current account deficit to just over 2% of gross domestic product next year.

That’s enough IMF. It was, after all, wrong in one direction a year ago, so could easily be wrong in the other direction now. Are there other reasons to be optimistic?

The answer to that is yes. Britain’s better growth performance reflects improved credit availability, reduced fears of new crises, rising business and consumer confidence and a strong labour market.

One paricularly positive development is that industrial production, having hit a post-recession low in 2012, is now on a firm upward trend, with manufacturing output up nearly 4% on a year ago.

Industry is being supported by stronger retail and consumer spending, rather than exports. Exports of goods and services in the latest three months were 1.7% down on a year earlier. There may, though, be some import substitution going on. The latest figures show that while exports have been disappointing, imports were even weaker.

Indeed, import substitution may be our best hope when it comes to the growth contribution from trade. Delta Economics, which specializes in analysing and forecasting trade, predicts that this year will be lacklustre, with just 1% world merchandise trade growth. Export success will be hard-won in this environment.

Much more positive, as the Ernst & Young Item Club points out in its new forecast, a distinct shift is happening in the labour market. So far it has been a case of strong employment growth balanced by weak wages.

The new Item forecast has both rising together, with employment threatening to meet Osborne’s full employment target, which he defined as the highest employment rate in the G7. Canny politicians know that you should never set yourself a target unless you believe you have a good chance of meeting.

Professor Peter Spencer, who runs the Item forecast, says Britain will challenge Germany for the highest employment rate in the G7. Alongside that, a combination of stronger wages growth and weak commodity prices should mean sustained growth in real wages, from now.

Item, like the Office for Budget Responsibility, sees plenty of a kick from business investment, with more than 9% growth this year followed by only slightly slower rates of expansion later.

2014 could turn out to the sweet spot of this recovery - though some economists think next year will be just as strong - but even the gloomy do not think there will be a return to the relapses the economy was prone to in the period from 2010 to 2012. The debate is over the strength of recovery, not whether it will last, and that has to be an improvement.

Could it be a case of pride coming before a fall? One worry, almost an ever-present in Britain, is housing. Prices, according to the latest LSL-Acadata index, are up by 7.2% in the past 12 months, with London up 13.3%. Other measures are even stronger.

A few days ago I took part in the HSBC great housing debate, organised by the Wriglesworth Consultancy. Though house prices are indeed buoyant, many at the debate saw reasons why they will cool, including the mortgage market review, which sets tougher tests for loan applicants, and which takes effect in less than a fortnight.

It is also the case that the contribution of the Help to Buy scheme to the housing market is greatly exaggerated. Fewer than 17,000 Help to Buy mortgages have been advanced since the first phase of the scheme was launched a year ago, and only just over 1,000 in London. The Help to Buy total, so far, is running at under 4% of all new mortgages.

Is everything perfect? No, there is still plenty to grumble about, and that will keep us happy. The recovery is better than it was but not as good as it could be. We may not even be top of the G7 growth league for too long. But things are a lot better than they looked a year ago. And that can’t be bad.

Sunday, April 06, 2014
Britain's balance of payments sinks in a sea of red ink
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

One question keeps coming back to me from readers. Why, when it was such a big issue in the past, does the balance of payments no longer seem to matter anymore?

And, related to this, are we now entering a period in which it may indeed start to matter again, perhaps quite a lot?

There has never been a better time to write this piece than now and it may help to start by defining terms. The trade deficit is the gap between exports and imports of goods and services.

Traditionally we used to talk about the visible trade deficit – the gap in goods (£108bn last year) - but now it is customary, and helpful to Britain, to include services (the goods and services deficit in 2013 was a more manageable £27bn).

The current account deficit - £71bn last year - is the trade deficit plus two other flows, income and transfers, of which more in the moment. The current account deficit is the one to watch. Because the balance of payments has to balance, as every economics student is taught, there are two other accounts, the capital and financial accounts.

Actually, when I was first taught economics, we always expected the capital account to balance any red ink we recorded on the current account.

But, as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reminds us, the combined current and capital account has been in deficit since 1983. For three decades we have relied on the financial account – direct and portfolio investment and, perhaps scarily, financial derivatives – to keep our heads above water.

The current account was more important in the past, certainly in the 1960s, because current flows (trade and invisible earnings) were not then dominated by capital flows, and because it was an era of fixed exchange rates. Balance of payments pressures required a swift response from the authorities in the form of higher interest rates.

Now there are reasons why we should take note again. Not only were the numbers for last year awful, but they took a decided turn for the worst in the second half of the year.

When, a few weeks ago, the ONS released current account figures for the third quarter of 2013, showing a deficit of more than £20bn, my initial thought, given there was such a lurch into larger deficit from under £10bn the previous quarter, was that it must be an aberration and would probably be revised lower.

A few days ago, however, that third quarter figure was revised up, to £22.8bn, and the number for the fourth quarter came in at a high £22.4bn.

Moreover, the fourth quarter deficit was 5.4% of Britain’s gross domestic product, only marginally down on the 5.6% figure for the third. Add the two together and you get a deficit of 5.5% of GDP, the biggest for any six-month period in post-war history.

For once the problem was not with the trade deficit, which narrowed from £10bn to £5.7bn on the back of a record high for service sector exports.

No, the problem lay elsewhere, and in particular for investment income, which showed a deficit of £10.3bn in the final quarter and £17bn for 2013 as a whole, up from £3.7bn in 2012.

The turnaround in Britain’s investment income has been sudden. In 2008, there was a surplus of £33.2bn from this source. As recently as 2011 Britain was in the black to the tune of £22.7bn. Losing this source of balance of payments is like a star racehorse going lame.

It has happened, say official statisticians, because of losses abroad by British banks – or the realization of earlier losses – together with a drop in income on overseas investments by British firms.

Tied to this, there has been a turnaround in relative returns on investment. Michael Saunders of Citi points out that from 1998 to 2011 the annual rate of return on British investments overseas, 3.9%, exceeded the return on foreign-owned assets in Britain, 3.5%.

Since then, the position has been reversed. Both sides suffered as a result of the crisis but at the end of last year British investments overseas were only returning 1.7% annually while foreign-owned assets in Britain returned 2.2%.

It is possible some of this is temporary. It may, in part, be an aftershock of the financial crisis.

But these shifts can be long-lasting. Though we came in recent years to regard investment income as one of the sure things of the balance of payments, there was a deficit on it for all but a couple of years over the period 1977 to 1997, partly as a result of the income paid to foreign owners of North Sea oilfields. There was a trade surplus on North Sea oil most of that time, but an outflow of investment income.

This time, according to an interesting analysis by James Carrick, an economist with Legal & General Investment Management, the big shift has been in Europe. Depressed demand in the eurozone, coupled with strong export performance by countries such as Germany, led to a sizeable current account surplus.

In the final quarter of last year, that surplus was 66.8bn euros (£55bn), well over double Britain’s deficit. So Britain’s poor numbers for investment income partly reflect what is happening in the eurozone. British investors, and British businesses with operations in Europe, have been getting poor returns.

Europeans, however, have been happy to use their current account surplus to pour money into Britain, and not just into London housing. We are relying on the rest of the European Union to fund our current account deficit, a point it might have been worth Nick Clegg raising in his debate with Nigel Farage.

How risky is this? Britain’s current account deficit, Carrick points out, is in similar territory to the so-called “fragile five” emerging economies. The financial flows that have kept Britain afloat could be vulnerable to political uncertainty and change, such as a yes vote in September’s Scottish independence referendum and, even more, a vote to leave the EU in an in-out referendum.

The best long-term solution is to trade our way into a stronger current account position. Until then the pound, and ultimately interest rates, will be worryingly dependent on the willingness of others to fund our current account deficit.

Sunday, March 30, 2014
Falling inflation lifts the mood and helps the Bank
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Inflation has been below the official 2% target for two months in a row, something it has not been possible to write for a long time.

You have to go back to 2009, five years ago, when the economy was falling off a cliff, for the last time this happened.

Inflation at 1.7%, as it was in February, has come down from more than 5% in the space of less than two and half years. Even last autumn it seemed we were stuck at closer to 3% than 2%.

The fall is a feather in Mark Carney's cap though I am sure, given the lags in monetary policy, he would give some credit to his predecessor, Lord King.

One set of crossroads has been written about a lot. Is this the point when wages - average earnings - start to rise faster than prices, the consumer prices index? As regular readers will know, my view is that this has been happening for some but it will not be generally accepted until the monthly data from the Office for National Statistics confirms it.

The second set of crossroads, what it means for the Bank of England, is as important. The course of inflation over the next 12-18 months matters. Some, like Fathom Consulting think this is the briefest of below-target interludes.

Fathom thinks lack of spare capacity in the economy will, alongside stronger growth, push inflation back up to 3% by the end of the year. They have a bit of history on their side. Even in the deep recession of 2009 inflation was below target for just five months. Why should it be better during a period of recovery?

In the opposite camp are regular inflation optimists such as Capital Economics, who expect inflation to drop to 1% later this year. They see the pressure from global commodities, and thus food price inflation, continuing to ease.

Even more optimistic is David Owen, an economist with the City firm Jefferies International, who sees sub-1% inflation. Falling inflation is common in recoveries, he notes, and there is more evidence of price discounting by retailers, including supermarkets.

Energy price rises, which have pumped up inflation in recent years, are being replaced by freezes, led by SSE. Generalised energy price falls, like the recent drop in petrol and diesel prices, are a possibility.

Tellingly, as Owen points out, the proportion of goods and services in the CPI (consumer prices index) basket rising by more than 3% has come down sharply. That is reflected in the drop in inflation but may also be a sign of things to come.

The Bank of England is somewhere in the middle. Based on market interest expectations (which are for a mdoest rise starting in a year’s time), it expects inflation to go back above 2% shortly and stay there until the autumn, before dropping a little below it - in a 1.7% to 1.9% range - through to the early part of 2017.

Interestingly, if Bank rate were to stay at 0.5%, inflation would stay above 2%, though not by much, perhaps averaging 2.2% or 2.3%.

I know what you are thinking. Given the vagaries of the data, though inflation numbers are trusted more than most, this is dancing on the head of a pin.

Given Britain’s past inflation gyrations, the difference between 1.9% and 2.2% is small beer. So, in the grand scheme of things, is the difference between 1% and 3%.

But it matters. If inflation is 1% over the next 12 months, that guarantees a rise in real wages for the four-fifths of people who work in the private sector. Earnings in the private sector in the latest three months were up 1.7% on a year earlier and the trend is for faster growth.

We will soon reach the point in which growth in real pay for private sector workers is incontrovertible. The only thing that will stand in the way of it is a rise in inflation back up towards 3%.

Politically, rising real wages are important, neutering if not destroying the Labour party’s cost of living argument. But it is important for the economy too. Sustained real wage growth is the only sound long-term basis for rising consumer spending.

The evidence, from the national accounts and the annual survey of hours and earnings, is that real wages have been rising for a while now. The latest retail sales figures, showing a 1.7% jump in spending last month and a 4.3% increase in the latest three months compared with a year earlier, lend support to that view. But perception is important and risijng real wages need to be in the headlines, not the statistical detail.

What about public sector workers? We are in a time, unusual in recent years, in which private sector pay is rising faster than in the public sector, where the latest rise is a mere 0.5%. That, however, is dragged down by falling pay in the state-owned banks, Royal Bank of Scotland and (for now) Lloyds.

Take them out and public sector earnings are rising by 0.9% and the growth in pay is accelerating. Even public sector workers could find themselves with real pay rises if inflation drops to 1%.

Low inflation also matters for the Bank and its credibility. If inflation were to go back up to 3%, its process of beginning to raise interest rates, set to start next year, would be from a position of weakness.

It would also, given that under those circumstances it would probably coincide with a continued squeeze on real wages, be harder to do, adding to the pressure on hard-pressed households.

Raising rates at a time of below-target inflation, on the other hand, would be a good thing from every perspective. It would show the Bank was responding to the risks of future inflation, not reacting to existing inflation. Households would be better able to take it with real wages rising. Savers would love it.

When it comes to low inflation it is possible, of course, to have too much of a good thing. If inflation falls so much that deflation is seen as a risk, the Bank would be reluctant to embark on an even a gradual rise in rates. 1% inflation would be good. Too far below 1% maybe not so good.

Sunday, March 23, 2014
Export gloom rains on Osborne's parade
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

So, was it one of those budgets that will last about as long in the memory as the spring daffodils, or was it more enduring than that?

In the two pieces I wrote ahead of Wednesday’s budget, one said there should and could be no big giveways given the state of the public finances. The other, last Sunday, said the budget must be firmly focused on lifting Britain’s dismal productivity performance.

Though the Institute for Fiscal Studies rightly pointed out that the budget was not quite as neutral as claimed, because small giveaways now are funded by unspecified spending cuts later, my judgment is that Osborne passes the “no significant giveaway” test.

Not only that but, apart from the pledge to raise the personal allowance to £10,500, and maybe even including that, these modest adjustments (which added up to a net cost of just over £0.5bn in bother 2014-15 and 2015-16) fell into the “good giveaway” category.

You cannot be too hard on a budget which doubles the annual investment allowance to £500,000 and increase incentives for savings, with a new ISA limit of £15,000 and, as touched on here ahead of the budget, no limit within that on how much can be put into a cash ISA.

Some, like the shadow chancellor Ed Balls, argue it cannot have been a budget for saving because the Office for Budget Responsibility is predicting a drop in the saving ratio from 5% last year to 3% by 2018. But this misunderstands the saving ratio. It is falling, not because households are saving less, but because some are borrowing more. It was a budget for saving.

It was also, and this is where it should make it into the pantheon of memorable budgets, a big reform of pensions. Freeing people from the prison of annuities carries some risks, but these will be greatly outweighed by the benefits.

Was it a budget for productivity? The increase in investment allowances for firms, and the OBR’s prediction of annual rises in business investment averaging more than 8% over the next five years, will help lift productivity. There were bits and pieces on apprenticeships and other measures, dotted around the budget, that will help at the margin.

But this was not a budget for productivity in any meaningful sense. For the moment, the chancellor seems happier that employment is rising - and predicted to continue to do so - than that productivity rebounds.

Though the OBR predicts a gradual pick up in the growth of productivity, output per hour, as the economy strengthens, itr also warns that productivity growth “remains below the rate consistent with historical trends throughout the forecast”.

That forecast, which extends until 2018, may be wrong. But the OBR’s argument, that damage to the financial system is preventing the allocation of capital to more productive use, has merit, and was not seriously addressed.

What about the balance of the recovery? After a three-year interlude in which he was keener for growth, any growth, than the nature of that growth, the chancellor was able to return to his 2010 agenda of trying to secure a more balanced recovery.

I was gratified to see the Treasury, in its analysis, take up some of the themes and numbers that have featured in recent columns here. So it noted, as I did, that the annual survey of hours and earnings shows that people in continuous employment - around two-thirds of all employees - have seen above-inflation pay increases in most recent years.

It also picked up on, as I have done, the myth of a consumer-dominated recovery driven by debt. Consumer spending’s contribution to growth has been lower than its long-term share of the economy and similar to previous recoveries. Business investment has kicked in over the past year.

In my pieces on this I emphasised that the export shoe has yet to drop. The Treasury is a bit more circumspect, focusing instead on more generous export credits and lower tax rates on flights to some of the more promising export markets outside Europe.

But the OBR was clear. Not only has the export shoe not dropped, but it will never do so. the new official forecast is resolutely downbeat on the contribution of exports to recovery. This, if the OBR is right, is a home-grown recovery, and not in a good way.

The OBR has revised down its forecast for export growth this year from 4% to 2.6% since December. Even when export growth picks up to 5% from next year onwards, it will be slower than the growth in world trade.

One of the saddest charts you can draw, Britain’s share of world trade is stuck firmly in a downward trend. Britain’s trade share dropped by a fifth between 1998 and 2010, and will drop by a further tenth by 2019.

The contribution of net exports (exports minus imports) to growth will be negative by 0.2 percentage points this year and, in what looks like a decisive burying of the prospects for export-led recovery, the OBR notes that “net trade is expected to make little contribution to growth over the remainder of the forecast period, reflecting the weakness of export market growth and a gradual decline in export market share”.

This is all a bit depressing. It has been possible to put export disappointment in recent years down to the eurozone crisis and exporters choosing to widen their margins when sterling fell rather than chase market share. Now the pound has recovered some losses, providing another excuse for export weakness.

The export malaise goes deep if the official forecaster is to be believed, and the budget measures did little to address it. We have to hope it is too gloomy about Britain’s external trade. If not, we need a change of export culture. Until we have it, we will wait in vain for that export-led recovery.

Sunday, March 16, 2014
George, we need to talk about productivity
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Wednesday's budget will be the latest in a very long line. I say that with enthusiasm even though I have covered enough to last a lifetime.

And were I to say how many of them were genuinely memorable, the answer would be a rather small number. I’m struggling, as I write, to remember much about George Osborne’s 2013 budget, and that was only a year ago.

My list of memorable budgets would probably include Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1979 and 1981, Nigel Lawson in 1984 and 1988, Norman Lamont in 1991 and again, with Kenneth Clarke, in the two tax-raising budgets of 1993.

Gordon Brown would make it with his 1997 budget and, possibly, 2002, when he raised National Insurance to pay for health spending, Alistair Darling’s 2009 budget, the one that included the new top rate of 50%, squeezes in.

Osborne’s memorable one was his June 2010 “emergency” budget, which set the parameters for the parliament and raised Vat to 20%, though his 2012 “omnishambles” sticks in the memory.

Just as budgets quickly fade in the memory, so it is important not to overstate their impact. Though there are exceptions, 1981 and 1988 particularly, economic policy is usually incremental. The chancellor as conjuror, waving a wand to transform the economy, is appealing but usually wrong.

There is, however, a central issue hanging over Wednesday’s budget. It is not, for once, the question of whether the economy is growing or the budget deficit coming down. As discussed last week, unless Osborne has a rush of blood to the head and is tempted into unaffordable giveaways, the public finances will slowly continue to mend.

No, the issue is productivity. Britain’s productivity, whichever way it is measured - the economic output produced by each worker, or each job, or each hour worked - is notoriously weak.

So, compared with its level in 2010, latest figures show that output per job across the whole economy is up just 0.5%, while output per hour is down 1.1%. This weakness is true of manufacturing, unusually, and it is true of services. Stronger economic growth has boosted the number of people in work but it has not yet boosted productivity.

Weak productivity matters because it matters. The only line I am likely to quote from the American economist Paul Krugman these days is “productivity isn’t everything but in the long run it is almost everything”. Raising productivity is the key to prosperity.

It matters too because the weaker productivity is, the sooner the Bank of England will decide spare capacity in the economy - 1% to 1.5% of gross domestic product - is used up. At that point, or before, interest rates will start to rise.

And it matters particularly for the public finances. Nearly three years ago, accompanying Osborne’s 2011 autumn statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), taking a gloomier view of the economy’s supply potential, revised up its estimate of the underlying - or structural - budget deficit.

This is the deficit that will not permanently disappear even as the economy recovers and has to be dealt with by spending cuts and tax hikes.

The result was to kill the chancellor’s ambitions of “dealing with the deficit” in this parliament, forcing him to extend austerity beyond the election.

Some fear history is about to repeat itself. In December, in the economic and fiscal outlook published alongside the 2013 autumn statement, the OBR was quick to say that the upturn was cyclical, rather than reflecting any underlying improvement in growth potential.

It also noted that, because the weakness of productivity was unexpected, it was hard to say when, or if, it would return to past rates of growth.

Whether or not the OBR takes an even gloomier view now, with serious implications for the public finances, there is an imperative for the chancellor to try to do more to boost productivity.

What could it be? Some things being done, shifting people from traditionally low-productivity public services to the higher-productivity private sector should be helping more than it is.

There is talk of measures to boost business investment, perhaps through more generous capital allowances, building on the recovery we have seen.

One explanation for productivity weakness is that firms have preferred to recruit workers, who can be unrecruited if demand falls short, rather than make the bigger and less reversible commitment to new investment.

Britain’s low productivity in relation to Germany and France - where output per hour is 31% and 32% higher respectively - is in large part due to lower levels of investment in this country.

Another budget theme is expected to be boosting exports, perhaps via better-focused export credit. Again, this is a promising route to lifting productivity.

Export sectors tend to have higher productivity than sectors supplying only to the domestic economy, with Japan the most dramatic example of this.

There is much more. Another reason for weak productivity has been the lack of “creative destruction” in recent years - too few bad businesses going under and being replaced by dynamic, high-productivity start-ups.

That reflects what has been happening in parts of the banking system: keeping too many zombie firms alive while starving new ventures of the finance they need. That is changing, but it needs to change faster. The Funding for Lending scheme has been refocused towards small and medium-sized firms but lending to that key sector has yet to turn round.

Achieving high productivity requires more than pulling a few budget levers. It means changing the culture. But the budget must make a start. George, we have to talk about productivity.

Sunday, March 09, 2014
There's still no money left for tax cuts
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Where is all the pre-budget speculation? In just 10 days George Osborne will deliver his fifth budget and there has been so little fuss you could be forgiven for thinking it had been cancelled. Even the Treasury seems reluctant to talk about it.

Actually, as I shall come onto, it might be no bad thing if the budget were to be cancelled but let me first set the scene. Anybody looking at Britain’s public finances is entitled to conclude that the crisis into which they were plunged six years ago is far from over.

This year, 2013-14, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts a budget deficit - public sector net borrowing - of £111bn. Monthly figures suggest it may come in a little below this forecast but still well above £100bn.

To put that in perspective, borrowing on this measure had never been higher than £100bn until the 2009-10 fiscal year, when it ballooned to £157bn. This year’s deficit, in other words, is the fifth biggest in cash terms on record.

We get used to big numbers, but only a few years ago a budget deficit of £60bn would have been regarded as a crisis, let alone one in three figures (and staying in three figures for five successive years).

To add another bit of perspective, the budget deficit this year is, according to the OBR, 6.8% of gross domestic product. That is only the merest touch lower than 1975-6, a borrowing level that helped trigger Britain’s 1976 rescue by the International Monetary Fund.

Public sector net debt, £1,239.6bn excluding the direct effects of support for the banking system, is two and a half times what it was before the crisis. A decade ago it was a healthy 30% of GDP. Now it is just under 75% and rising.

By the time it turns down as a percentage of GDP, in 2016-17, it will have hit 80% of GDP and more than £1.5 trillion. There is a lot of red ink still to flow.

A man from Mars looking at these numbers would be aghast that, to the extent there is budget talk around, it is about how much Osborne will be able to afford to give away in pre-election tax cuts.

I am as keen on tax cuts as anybody. The fiscal drag that means a record 4.4m people are paying the higher 40% rate of tax this year - up from 1.6m two decades ago - needs fixing.

So does the absurd anomaly in which people earning between £100,000 and £120,000 (from next month) pay a marginal rate of 60% (62% including National Insurance).

The coalition has raised the personal allowance to £10,000 and Osborne may move further, though this reform has gone beyond where it helps genuinely low paid. Better to raise the threshold at which people start to pay NI, just £111 a week, £5,772 a year, from April.

Business investment is improving but why not help it along with generous capital allowances, particularly for smaller firms? Actually we might see some of that. Why not help firms more with business rates?

Why not acknowledge we are in a low interest era by doubling the amount savers can put in tax-free cash Isas (individual savings accounts)? And why not help first-time buyers, complementing Help to Buy, by getting rid of stamp duty altogether on properties below £250,000?

There is much more, and not just on tax. Every housing gathering I attend - a few days I was at the National Housing Federation in Brighton - rightly bemoans the low level of housebuilding, and in particular social housing. The government complains about the squeeze on real wages but one easy way of easing it, given that the public sector acts as wage-setter in many areas, would be to lift the 1% cap on public sector pay.

Everybody will have their own wish list. Mine only scratches the surface. Some Tory MPs would like to see Osborne slash taxes across the board. Britain’s bishops are praying for hikm to ease up on the squeeze on welfare.

The point is that you do not need a man from Mars to tell you that most of the pre-budget wish list is pie in the sky. All you need is the man from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, its director Paul Johnson, who rightly points out that with so much fiscal adjustment still to come if the chancellor is to achieve a budget surplus, it would be inconsistent to have any kind of meaningful giveaway now.

The situation has not changed much since Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour Treasury chief secretary, famously wrote a note for his coalition successor saying there was no money left.

Why has it taken so long to get the deficit down? Disappointing growth, until now, has been a factor. Weak productivity has raised official estimates of the strctural deficit.

Because of the constraints of coalition or for other reasons, Osborne has opted for gradualism in reducing borrowing. The short, sharp shock of, say, Sir Geoffrey Howe’s legendary 1981 budget in Margaret Thatcher’s first term, has been avoided.

To an extent this has given him the worst of both worlds - getting blamed for harsher cuts than he has delivered - and there may be more of this in the budget when he announces his 2015 cap on welfare spending in the budget.

Progress has been made. This year’s cyclically adjusted bugdet deficit is about half the 2009-10 record. In real terms about £60bn has been lopped off the deficit, with more to come.

But there is also much more the Treasury should be doing which does not involve opening the Exchequer purse-strings. We should not be hearing Nigel Wilson, Legal & General’s chief executive, bemoaning the fact that there are too few ready-to-go infrastructure projects for the insurer to invest in.

The bureaucratic delays that have prevented institutional money from filling the gap left by cuts in government infrastructure spending, including housing, are an appalling waste of opportunity. That, rather than tax wheezes for March 19, is where the chancellor should be directing his efforts.

For the budget itself, he should be busy doing nothing. It will be a long time, given the state of the public finances, before a chancellor’s spring thoughts can turn to big tax cuts.

Sunday, March 02, 2014
The recovery's better-balanced than you think
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

You hear it a lot. Britain has a recovery that is fragile and unbalanced. It is reliant almost exclusively on consumers spending money they do not have - or running down savings - and the government’s short-term boost to housing.

But it is wrong.

For those who never expected a recovery as long as George Osborne was chancellor, hopping onto its supposedly unbalanced and unsustainble nature has been highly convenient.

But this kind of thinking, oddly enough, is not confined to the government’s critics. Mark Carney, in presenting the Bank of England’s inflation report last month, talked of “a few quarters of above-trend growth driven by household spending”, which he said were “a good start but they aren’t sufficient for sustained momentum”.

Even the chancellor himself caught the bug during his recent stopover in Hong Kong. “I’m the first to say that the recovery is not yet secure and our economy is still too unbalanced.” he said. “We cannot rely on consumers alone for our economic growth, as we did in previous decades.”

There has been, it is true, some blurring of this interpretation since the release of revised fourth quarter gross domestic product (GDP) figures a few days ago. But this was mostly “one swallow doesn’t make a summer”. A quarter of better-balanced growth, in other words, changed nothing.

Let me be clear about one thing. It is possible to have an economic recovery without a rise in consumer spending but that recovery is likely to be very weak.

Consumer spending accounts for nearly two-thirds of gross domestic product, 62%. Expecting all growth to come from the remaining 38% is asking too much.

By the same token, to say that this recovery relies on consumers alone flies in the face of the facts.

Let us look at the evidence. In the year to the final quarter of 2013, GDP rose by 2.7%. Consumer spending rose by a reasonable 2.4% over that period - slower than overall GDP - and its rise was dwarfed by the increase in overall investment, 8.7%, and business investment, which rose by 8.5%.

Consumers played their part in the recovery. Of the 2.7% rise in GDP, 1.5 percentage points came from consumer spending. Their contribution to growth, just over half, was however smaller than their long-run 62% share of GDP.

Investment, meanwhile, accounted for a percentage point of the GDP rise, and there were also contributions from net trade (exports minus imports) and government spending. If there was a glitch it was that net trade only contributed 0.1 points to the 2.7% growth rate. Much of that, however, reflected an unusually bad third quarter of 2013, when for no obvious reason Britain’s trade lurched into much bigger deficit.

The story of a better-balanced recovery is also in the GDP breakdown by sector. All three of the main sectors of the economy grew over the past year; industrial production by 2.3%, services by 2.7% and construction by 4.3%.

What about the argument that, even if consumers are not driving the recov
ery, their spending should not be going up at all given the continued squeeze on real wages? Again, this is wrong.

In the year to the final quarter of last year the official figures for “compensation of employees” contained in the GDP data,showed a rise of 3.9%, faster than any measure of inflation.

Though employees’ compensation includes employer pension contributions they tend to rise in line with wages and salaries. Helped by rising employment, there has been a significant real increase in the amount of money being received by the household sector as a whole, and thus available to spend.

Does not the drop in the saving ratio, from 7.9% of disposable income in early 2012, to 5.4% in the latest reading (for the third quarter of last year), not tell us households are only able to spend because they are eating into savings?

No. The saving ratio fall mainly reflects the fact that some households are now able to borrow whereas previously they were not. Most of this borrowing is in the form of mortgages to finance house purchase, not current spending. The pre-crisis norm, using housing equity for holidays, cars and kitchens, went into reverse in 2008 and is still in reverse now.

That’s enough on the numbers. The pattern of recovery will evolve in coming months and years - very many years - to the point where the upturn we think we have now will look very different.

But I also think the recovery can get better. The investment shoe has dropped but the contribution of exports - net trade - can improve, and should. Sterling has risen but remains competitive.

The bigger picture is that the worries about this recovery being neither balanced nor sustainable are misplaced. No recovery is perfect but this one has been unfairly castigated.

When does the recovery become sustainable enough for a rise in interest rates? Some, such as former monetary policy committee member Andrew Sentance, think it has been for some time.

The MPC has, however, reached a compromise in which it can talk about eventual rate rises - committee member Martin Weale has been most explicit about the prospect of higher rates in about a year’s time, while maintaining the formula that there is no immediate need to act.

David Miles, another MPC member, thinks that when rates do rise, the neutral or equilibrium level of Bank rate will be at or below 3% for some time to come. That may be for his successors. He is due to leave the Bank after a six-year MPC term on May 31 next year, and may do so without ever having voted for a rate hike (the last was in July 2007).

That is all for the future. In the meantime, let us enjoy the recovery. It is healthier than you think.

Sunday, February 16, 2014
Carney's fuzzy guidance sets a path for higher rates
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A few years ago I developed a theme, which I used more than once in books, and often in talks, called the seven ages of monetary policy. The story started in 1976, with the International Monetary Fund imposing monetarism on a reluctant Labour government and reached its seventh phase in the Eddie George/Mervyn King era of an independent Bank of England targeting inflation.

Seven different versions of monetary policy over 30 years or so suggests a very changeable picture, though each lasted for an average of four years or so.

So what are we to make of Mark Carney’s forward guidance, launched in August and abandoned a few days ago? Six months is barely a brief encounter, let alone an age. It may not even merit a footnote in future accounts of monetary policy.

I’ll come on in a moment to what I think is the significance of the successor to forward guidance, the best description of which is fuzzy guidance. But how did the Bank governor get himself into such a tangle?

This is not to condemn his intentions. When Carney arrived at the Bank last summer, the first stirrings of stronger growth were emerging but there had been false dawns before. He wanted a mechanism to be able to reassure firms and households that the monetary policy committee (MPC) would not be trigger-happy on interest rates and that it would give the recovery time to breathe.

There is some evidence, presented by the Bank in its inflation report, that the governor and MPC members saying this gave businesses more confidence to invest, though it appears to have gone over the heads of individuals.

But it is stretching things to breaking point to regard forward guidance 1, as we must now call it, as a success. A policy that was supposed to kick the question of rate rises into the very long grass quickly became one in which every bit of good news on unemployment was accompanied by a wave of speculation about the timing of interest rate hikes.

It is impossible to do a controlled experiment with these things but there has probably been more such speculation in recent weeks than there would have been in the absence of guidance. In the past, a few well-timed nods and winks would have been enough to dampen rate speculation – the legendary governor’s eyebrows – now the Bank is forced to use its full armoury to get across what should be a simple message.

How did it go wrong? Carney, an urbane and well-informed Canadian central banker, lacked expertise and experience on the British economy. His choice of a 7% unemployment rate as the threshold before which a rate hike would be considered reflected that, though Bank staff and other MPC members should have alerted him.

He rightly pointed out that the rapidity of the fall in unemployment took everybody by surprise. But it took the Bank, which did not expect it to happen until 2016, more by surprise than most.

Carney says he regrets nothing about the first phase of forward guidance, though he gave a broad hint that he wished he had chosen a lower unemployment rate, say 6.5%, for the threshold.

Had he done in August what he did last week, however, by linking future rate decisions to a range of measures of spare capacity, but accompanying it with the message that those measures pointed to a prolonged period of unchanged interest rates, he would have done himself a big favour.

So where are we now? Forward guidance 2 has had plenty of people scratching their heads. A rate rise will not be considered, it says, until more of the margin of spare capacity in the economy has been used up.

That spare capacity is, however, estimated at just 1% to 1.5% of gross domestic product. Taken in conjunction with the Bank’s punchy new growth forecasts, 3.4% for this year (up from 2.9%), and 2.7% for next year (up from 2.5%), it implies that rates could be rising very soon.

But not too soon. If forward guidance 1 was simple but flawed, its successor is complex. The Bank has released an array of assumptions and forecasts used to underpin its expectations about spare capacity.

Spare capacity, to complicate things further, is not the same as the “output gap”, which is conventionally used (including by the Office for Budget Responsibility) to measure the amount of headroom in the economy.

The Bank’s measure of spare capacity is a movable feast. At present the Bank thinks what it calls the medium-term equilibrium unemployment rate is between 6% and 6.5%. But it also thinks that, as the recovery progresses that equilibrium rate will come down. Business investment, which it predicts will rise 11.5% this year, 12.75% in 2015 and 13.75% in 2016, will add to the amount of capacity in the economy.

The result of this is that, on the Bank’s projections, which run through to the early part of 2017, spare capacity in the economy is not used up. Those forecasts come with a huge health warning, given the experience of recent months. But do they imply that we will see no rise in Bank rate from its historic low of 0.5% for another three years?

No. For me the most interesting aspect of the new guidance, and the inflation report, is that it has begun to look forward to the day when interest rates will rise. Yes, Carney was keen to stress that when rates do rise, they will only move to levels well below the pre-crisis norm of about 5%. And yes, he may be one of the last MPC members to actually vote for a hike.

But, in response to a question I asked, Charlie Bean, the deputy governor, said the MPC would begin to raise rates before spare capacity in the economy was used up, because to leave it until it was would be too late.

Carney, for his part, did not demur over the market path for interest rates, which implies the first hike in the second quarter of next year and a gradual rise to 2%-3%, where it sticks, over the next three years.

That looks like a sensible path. An emergency level of interest rates cannot last forever. Personally, I would like to see the first hike next year coming before the May general election. The Bank, after a bit of a battering, needs to reassert its independence. That would be a pretty good way of doing it.

Sunday, February 09, 2014
Pay and productivity are both due a rise
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Pay is of vital importance to most people in this country, productivity holds the key to our long-term prosperity.

So two vital questions. Will this be the year when real wages finally start rising again after a prolonged squeeze? And, closely related, is this when productivity shrugs off its post-crisis stagnation and starts growing?

The question of whether 2014 is the year of the real wage rise is a big one, economically and politically. On the most straightforward measure used by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), average weekly earnings adjusted for the consumer prices index, real wages began falling on annual basis in 2008, and they have not stopped falling yet.

This is highly unusual. The ONS has good data stretching back to 1964 and comparisons well back into the 19th century. A long run of falling real wages is rare and the cumulative scale of it, 6% or more, breaks all modern precedents.

The good news, to judge by a Resolution Foundation event I spoke at a few days ago, is that the squeeze may be over and we should see modest real wage growth this year. Before coming on to that, let me address one of the puzzles in the real wage story of falling real wages which has bothered me for some time.

People may be familiar with a regular finding about the US economy, which is that real earnings (measured by the real median wage) have been stagnant for decades. How could an economy grow, and benefit from rising spending, if people were not getting better off?

The answer is that they were getting better off. So, if we take the period 1980-2005, before the crisis, the US real median wage grew by a mere 3%, equivalent to stagnation. Within that, however, every group recorded much bigger increases: 75% for white women, 62% for non-white women, 16% for non-white men and 15% for white men.

How so? The composition of the workforce changed. In a period of rising employment, there was a big rise in the proportion of low-paid, many of them women, dragging down the median. In an apparent reversal of mathematical logic, everybody beat the average.

Something similar appears to have been happening in Britain. This is not to dispute that many have suffered a real wage squeeze, but the picture has been distorted by changes in composition.

The overall level of employment is just above where it was pre-crisis. Within that, however, there has been a significant rise in part-timers (with lower weekly earnings) - relative to full-timers. There has also been a fall in the proportion of public sector workers, who on average earn more, and a rise in the share of private sector jobs.

One striking result from the official annual survey of hours and earnings is that people who have stayed in work continuously (defined as more than a year in each survey) have done pretty well.

So, taking the 12 months to April in each case their pay rose by 6.8% in 2008, 4% in 2009, 4% again in 2010, 3.7% in 2011, 3.6% in 2012 and 3.3% in 2013. Their pay, and this is a large group, has mainly stayed ahead of inflation.

Does that suggest all the pain has been felt by everybody else, those new to employment or the job-changers? Possibly, though there may be other factors. One phenomenon in recent years has been the near-doubling, to almost 1.1m, in the number of over-65s working. For a variety of reasons, their pay requirements are lower than younger workers.

So what is the big picture? As I say, there was a real wage squeeze, though it may have been less intense than it appeared. Though this is not yet the message from the regular monthly data, I think that squeeze came to an end last summer, for reasons set out here before, notably broader wages and salaries data in the gross domestic product figures.

As for this year, the consensus at the Resolution Foundation - me, Nicola Smith from the TUC, John Philpott of the Jobs Economist and Ian Stewart from Deloitte, was that we should see modest real wage growth this year.

For me, the drivers were a tightening job market, with unemployment falling quite sharply and emerging skill shortages. Philpott saw the bargaining power of workers increasing as vacancies rise. Stewart attributed it to growing optimism in the corporate sector, while the TUC’s Smith attributed it to unions negotiating better terms for members.

What would turn modest real wage increases into the rises - averaging 2% a year - that used to be the norm? The answer is stronger productivity growth. The faster the growth in output per worker or per hour, the bigger the real pay rises that can be justified.

The ONS, in its latest economic review, points out how different the economy’s productivity performance has been this time. At this stage after the recession of the early 1980s, output per hour was 12.6% above its pre-recession peak. In the 1990s it was 19.9% up. This time it is 4.4% down.

Much of that reflects weak service sector productivity, down 6.9% on pre-recession levels, while manufacturing productivity is just 0.8% lower. Both, of course, should be well up.

“If recent reductions in labour productivity are reversed as the economy strengthens, the potential for more rapid and sustained economic growth without rising inflation may be greater,” the ONS says. The economy would shift out of the vicious circle of low productivity and weak real wages, into a virtuous circle as both move into a higher gear.

Can it happen? If it does not do so soon, it may never do so, and the productivity pessimists will have been proved right. I think it will, on the back of stronger growth in demand, rising investment and the scope for moving workers into higher-productivity roles. The tighter the labour market, the greater the incentives for managers to introduce productivity-enhancing measures.

That's the theory anyway. Let's hope it works in practice.

Sunday, February 02, 2014
Giving the regions a bigger slice of the cake
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Mark Carney has been up in Scotland, querying whether one part of the UK could split away from the rest, while retaining the pound.

The Centre for Cities, in a report, said London was attracting talent from the rest of the country, though also highlighted the return of growth and successful job creation in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Leeds.

So, as promised, the third and final part of my mini-series. I have written about London’s dominance of the economy and that, in my view, London’s success is, on balance, good for the rest of the country.

That leaves the question of how to improve the performance of the regions, which have seen their share of the UK economic cake decline, and which suffer from slower growth and higher levels of economic inactivity.

This is, of course, familiar ground. For many years I immersed myself in regional policy, with its two broad thrusts, taking work to the workers, or workers to the work. This had some success in the 1950s and 1960s but fell apart from the 1970s with the onset of high unemployment.

In some cases regional policy, by directing more public sector functions to less successful areas, backfired by making those areas more vulnerable to cuts.

So what do the regions need? It is a big subject with many answers but, fresh from visits to the North, the West Country and Wales, let me offer the three ‘i’s. The regions need more investment, more innovation and more infrastructure.

By investment and innovation I mean a more vibrant and entrepreneurial private sector. The figures are stark. In London official figures show there are 1,266 businesses per 10,000 adults, followed by 1,119 in the south-east, 1,061 in the south-west, 1,056 in eastern England, 844 in the East Midlands, 835 in the West Midlands and north-west, 820 in Yorkshire & the Humber, 785 in Northern Ireland, 740 in Scotland and just 633 in the north-east.

Figures from StartUp Britain for businesses created in 2013 showed that more than a quarter were in London, with a long, and in most cases very thin, tail spreading to the rest of the country.

The problems in generating more entrepreneurial activity are formidable. Often in the old industrial areas the culture passed through the generations was one in which people were accustomed to being employed — in shipyards, mines, steel or heavy engineering plants — rather than setting up in business themselves. Add to that the often deadening overlay of too big a public sector and the absence of entrepreneurial activity was unsurprising.

Efforts are being made to change that. The entrepreneurs’ forum in the northeast, chaired by Nigel Mills, brings together 400 private sector businesses, which offer example, encouragement and mentoring to new entrepreneurs. It is starting to make a difference.

In Scotland there is the Entrepreneurial Exchange, set up by the Kwik-Fit founder Sir Tom Farmer in the 1990s. Other examples are springing up.

Businesses in the regions can also use their cost advantage to grab business from London and southeast England. I came across two in the past few days who are doing precisely this. There is a danger, reflected in London’s sky-high house prices, that the capital could price itself out of the market.

Innovation and investment can come to the regions in other ways. Faced with a blank sheet of paper (and some regional investment incentives), many foreign firms chose their inward investment locations well away from London. One of the most successful, Nissan, has just launched an updated version of its Qashqai. Fears that these projects would bring no wider benefits were misplaced.

It may be that more British businesses, and not just in manufacturing, should adopt the blank sheet of paper approach when it comes to new investment. Inertia, and convenience, means firms tend to look for the location closest to them. If they and their executives are based in London and south-east England, that may mean less willingness to look for locations further afield. Breaking that pattern of inertia would help the regions hugely.

What would help massively in that is my third ‘i’, infrastructure. When I travel around the country I am often struck by how hard it can be to get a train back, even quite early in the evening, and the patchy nature of regional air services.

Anyone who has driven between Leeds and Newcastle will know how the A1 goes from fast-flowing motorway, the A1(M), to lorry-clogged dual carriageway.

The Institute for Public Policy Research, and in particular IPPR North, its northern arm, has identified what it says is a huge London bias in planned infrastructure expenditure, with roughly three-quarters of the spending due between now and 2020 in London and the south-east. HS2, which I support, will add to that bias, at least in its initial stages.

There is some dispute, it should be said, about the precise figures, with the Treasury and transport department querying the extent of the regional bias suggested by the IPPR. But the broad thrust of its analysis seems undeniable, despite the fact that suppliers outside London and the south-east benefit from orders associated with infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, in and around the capital.

The rest of the country needs a lot more infrastructure. IPPR is putting together a list of five infrastructure schemes (some of which will be collections of smaller schemes), which it says will bring easy economic wins for the north. Other parts of the country will have their ideas. Linking the regions with each other is as important as linking them with London.

So is it possible to see those three ‘i’s linking together in a way that brings sustained prosperity to the regions, reversing London’s increasing share of the cake? It is, but it will take a very big effort, so maybe not. But we can hope.

Sunday, January 26, 2014
Another fine forecasting mess you've got me into
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

When Mark Carney took up his job as Bank of England governor in July last year, he impressed everybody with how well he had been briefed, or briefed himself, on the British economy and financial system.

In two important respects, however, he could have done with a bit more briefing. The first was that he should have been more aware of the Bank’s recent very poor forecasting record.

The second, which is related, is that he should have been more cautious about using the unemployment rate as the basis for his forward guidance strategy.

As I wrote in August, when the policy was announced: “Is it the best-designed policy in the world? No. Frankly, it looks as if it was designed by committee, which it was. The unemployment rate threshold of 7%, at which point the monetary policy committee (MPC) will start thinking of higher rates, suffers from familiar flaws.”

Those chickens are coming home to roost, of which more in the moment. But let me first put in a good word for forward guidance, which I genuinely think helped the recovery along by reducing interest-rate uncertainty, if in the end only briefly, for households and firms. Carney said on Friday that the MPC will consider a range of options to update its guidance, which I think is the right thing to do.

The appeal of using the unemployment rate was its simplicity. The question about the updated guidance, which may have to feature a combination of indicators, is whether it will be possible to convey the Bank’s message – rates will not be raised until the recovery has had plenty of time to breathe – in as straightforward a way.

Let me also speak up for the labour market. It is a pretty rum state of affairs when a big fall in unemployment, and the strongest rise in employment on record (280,000 in the September-November period) is interpreted as bad news. The job market is strong across the board, from sharply rising working hours to a falling jobless total on all measures.

This is something to be celebrated and, to answer a question often put to me, is not mainly a reflection of government measures to clamp down on bogus benefit claimants. Such actions do not affect the wider, and fast-falling Labour Force Survey measure of unemployment.

We also appear to have reached the point where real wages are no longer falling. In fact, it appears to have happened at about the time when the Labour party switched from attacking the coalition’s austerity to focusing on the cost of living.

I base this not on the government’s analysis showing a rise in real take-home pay in 2012-13 for all but the top 10% but on the wages and salaries data in the most recent gross domestic product figures. They showed a rise in total wages and salaries compared with a year earlier of 3.7% in the second quarter of last year, and 3.3% in the third. Adjusted for rising employment they suggest earnings per employee were rising at an annual rate of around 2.6% during the two quarters, broadly in line with inflation. The big squeeze is over.

But what about the Bank’s terrible unemployment forecast? Carney was right to say that it is better to get it wrong in this direction than if the jobless total was going up. That does not, however, redeem it. The Bank’s forecast has given him exactly what he did not want, intense speculation about an imminent rate rise, which he has had to deal with, less than six months into his forward guidance strategy.

This is an interesting time to talk about economic forecasting. This year is the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Sunday Times Business section. One of the earliest innovations in the section was to introduce the regular London Business School economic forecast, prepared by such luminaries as James Ball, Terry Burns and Alan Budd.

As a very young reader, I remember being fascinated by these forecasts. How could anybody look into the future? There was a mystique about it which implied that forecasters were endowed with magical qualities. The Treasury, remember, did not publish its forecast until the mid-1970s, and the Bank did not do so until the 1990s.

Why have forecasts not got better? The old joke used to be that economists produced forecasts to make weather forecasters look good. Weather forecasts, however, have become significantly more accurate, thanks to satellite and computer technology. Why has there been no similar improvement in economic forecasts? The answer may be that there are too many aspects of economic behaviour which are simply unpredictable.

In the case of the Bank, Charlie Bean, one of its two deputy governors, took the issue of its forecasting record on the chin in a recent speech. The Bank, like most other forecasters, failed to spot the severity of the downturn in 2008-9. In 2010, it was guilty of being over-optimistic about both growth and inflation.

Growth, it predicted in 2010, would be supported by improved credit conditions and a reduction in uncertainty, boosting consumer spending and business investment, while exports would provide a “significant stimulus” as the pound’s big 2007-8 fall “worked its magic”. As for inflation, it would be boosted temporarily by George Osborne’s January 2011 VAT hike, but swiftly return to the 2% target.

It did not, as Bean ruefully admitted turn out like that. Growth was much weaker than it expected, and business investment has only just started to turn up. Net exports contributed to growth in the first half of last year, but have taken an age to do so. Inflation only belatedly returned to the target last month.

Why did the Bank get it so wrong? Bean’s explanation was a variation of Harold Macmillan’s “Events, dear boy, events.” Things intervened, like the eurozone crisis and soaring commodity prices to scupper the forecast. But forecasters are employed to at least keep an eye out for these things, and the Bank should have had more intelligence on them than it did.

You could argue that the Bank’s errors did not do great harm. Its optimistic forecast did not result in damaging interest rate hikes. Had it known what was really going to happen to inflation, maybe it would have done so.

Is there any point to forecasting? Yes. But forecasters have to be smarter and more aware than the Bank’s (and most other forecasters) have been in recent years. Providing alternative scenarios is one way of demonstrating the uncertainty.

As for Carney, wiping a little egg off his face for believing too much in the Bank’s unemployment forecast, he now has to ensure that his new forward guidance rules are as error-proof as they can be. Once- bitten, twice-shy.

Sunday, January 19, 2014
Inflation balloon starts to deflate
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Inflation is back at the official 2% target. Even though that news came out a few days ago, I was determined to write that sentence, not least because it is so long since I have been able to do so.

The last time inflation was at or below the 2% target was in November 2009, since which time we have been through the long nightmare of above-target inflation, at the very time when it was able to inflict maximum damage on a fragile economy.

That nightmare saw inflation at or above 4% through 2011, only partly because of George Osborne’s Vat hike that year to 20%. It peaked at 5.2% in September 2011, which hurt the public finances because that is the monthly inflation rate used for the annual pension and benefits uprating.

Even before then, in fact for the past 8-9 years, inflation was usually above target. In September 2008, when the banks were collapsing, inflation also hit 5.2%. For 85 of the past 100 months it has exceeded 2%.

Above-target inflation has been a key element in constraining recovery. I have cited before Bill Wells, an economist in Vince Cable’s business department, who points out that real take-home pay would not have fallen at all had inflation remained at the 2% target over the past few years.

Lord (Mervyn) King, the former Bank of England governor, argued that had the monetary policy committee tried to keep inflation at 2% in the face of international pressures, with higher interest rates, the consequences for the economy would have been much more severe.

His successor Mark Carney is proving, if nothing else, timing is everything. He would be the first to admit the combination of low inflation and strong growth is not all his doing. But it is far better than weak growth and high inflation.

I am obliged, before getting on to whether this is just a brief return to target before normal service resumes, to mention the retail prices index (RPI). Retail price inflation is higher than consumer price inflation and edged up between November and December, the latest month, from 2.6% to 2.7%, even as consumer price inflation dipped from 2.1% to 2%.

Many people regard the retail prices index as the only true inflation measure. I think this is a mistake. The independent Office for National Statistics has relegated the RPI to pariah status, saying it does not meet the standard required to be a national statistic. Its successor, using a different method of calculation, called RPIJ, is also at 2% and got there earlier than the CPI.

That’s enough of that. Consumer price inflation is back to target and raises three questions. Will it stay there, does it mean the end of the cost of living squeeze, and when do we start to worry, not that inflation is too high, but that it is too low?

On the first question, I do think I will be able to write my opening sentence many more times in the coming months. Inflation is set for a prolonged period of on-target, or even below-target inflation.

The Ernst & Young Item Club, in a new forecast to be published this week, predicts that inflation will average 1.8% this year and only inch back above 2% in the second half of 2015.

That looks right. Suddenly the air has gone out of the inflation balloon. From an inflation perspective, all that needs to happen for the rate to fall is for prices to stop rising, or at least stop rising so fast.

In the case of global commodity and energy prices, things have gone further. They have fallen significantly over the past year. One factor that was contributing to their rise was aggressive quantitative easing (QE) by the Federal Reserve in Washington. The Fed’s “tapering” of its QE will reduce the impetus from this source.

What about real wages and the cost of living? This is the big question, one I will discuss at a Resolution Foundation event early next month. Even with inflation back at 2%, it is running well ahead of average earnings growth, currently 0.9%.

There is a strong possibility this is understating growth in pay, as discussed here before. Even if that is not the case, however, we should see a combination of stronger growth in earnings alongside lower inflation.

The tide is turning. The chancellor says the government backs an above-inflation increase in the national minimum wage, currently £6.31 an hour. Rising demand for labour, and skill shortages, will support an increase in earnings growth.

You would hope that any increase in real wages is natural rather than artificial. The minimum wage is an artificial construct, and business groups and free-market think tanks warn that increasing it will rebound on the low-paid. It may, to an extent, but the effect is likely to be quite small. We do not want a return to the days when governments (and the unions) established pay norms. But as long as recovery brings stronger growth in productivity, higher pay should be both natural and affordable.

There will not be a sudden lurch from falling to strongly rising real wages. This year, however, should see pay at the very least keep up with inflation, giving way to meaningful real wage rises (conveniently timed for the election) next year.

When do we start to worry inflation is too low? Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned last week of “rising risks of deflation” - falling prices - as “the ogre that has to be fought decisively”.

I see it a little differently. We have been through a period in which inflation was higher than warranted by domestic conditions, mainly because of strong rises in commodity prices driven by emerging-market demand.

We are now through that period, which means inflation is more in line with domestic realities. That means low inflation in Britain but it will not mean deflation. Nor will it in America, where inflation is running at 1.5%.

The eurozone, where inflation is running at 0.8%, is slightly different. But inflation in most of its “core” economies is running at between 1% and 2%. Where it is lower, in Spain (0.3%) or Portugal (0.2%) or where there is already deflation, as in Greece (-1.8%), it is in economies that need to boost their competitiveness with smaller increases in costs and prices.

We should celebrate lower inflation, and hope it lasts, which it should, not fret unduly about deflation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014
What's good for London is mainly good for Britain
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Is London good or bad for the rest of the Britain? I posed this question a few weeks ago and since then, perhaps by coincidence. there has been quite a lot on it.

Most notable was Vince Cable, the business secretary, who last month said London “is becoming a giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country”. For a cabinet minister who constituency is in a London borough, albeit one whose constituents do not want to see a Heathrow expansion, that was brave.

Is he right? As promised, my answer, and I want to be methodical. So it comes in three parts. Does London distort monetary policy by imposing higher interest rates on the rest of the country than it needs?

Second, on fiscal policy, does London prop up other regions or drain fiscal resources from them? And finally, what are the dynamic and supply-side effects of London’s dominance: does the business it generates for the rest of the country outweigh the talent it draws from them?

London’s dominance is not in doubt. Its population exceeds the next 14 British cities combined. The Greater London built-up area, as defined by the Office for National Statistics, has more people, 10m, than the next six (Greater Manchester, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Liverpool, South Hampshire, Tyneside) put together.

How does that affect monetary policy? The late Eddie George (Lord George) got into trouble in the 1990s after Bank of England independence for implying high north-east unemployment was a price worth paying for low southern inflation.

Monetary policy has to balance the different economic performance of regions in the area in which it operates. That task is a lot more demanding in the eurozone.

In the case of Britain, however, it is a stretch to say that monetary policy over the past two decades (including the period immediately before independence) has been too tight because of the London effect.

Most economists would agree interest rates should have been higher in the period running up to the crisis to curb demand for credit and cool housing and commercial property. It is hard to argue that the ultra-loose monetary policy of the past five years would or should have been any looser.

So London is not guilty on the monetary policy charge, with a caveat. This was sterling’s strength from 1996 to 2007, which helped cut manufacturing’s share of gross domestic product from nearly 20% to 11%.

That strength, we now know, was directly linked to overseas flows into Britain’s banking system, as banks expanded at breakneck pace. This was a period, admittedly encouraged by the then government, when London’s role as an international financial centre was in conflict with the success of manufacturing.

What about London’s fiscal position? It may surprise some people to learn that spending on public services per head in London, £9,757 in 2011-12, is above both the English (£8,618) and UK (£8,877) averages. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have higher spending per head than London but no other English region does.

Fortunately, London typically pays more into the Exchequer than it gets out. Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics estimates that surplus of revenues over spending to be between £10bn and £20bn in normal times.

He chaired Boris Johnson’s London Finance Commission, which argued for greater fiscal autonomy for the capital, not least to provide greater local incentives for, for example, more housebuilding. His report fell a long way short of calling for “city-state” independence for London, though there is a far stronger fiscal case for that than Scottish independence.

What about the trickier question: the “suction effect” of the London economy versus its ability to generate growth elsewhere in Britain? Costas Milas of Liverpool University has just done an exercise comparing growth rates in London and the rest of the country from 1997 to 2012.

Though growth rates vary between regions, they are always positively correlated. Growth in London is not, in other words, at the expense of the rest of the country, to the point where the regions experience a decline in economic activity.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research, under Doug McWilliams, came up with similar findings a few years ago, concluding that London, by providing demand for goods and services in the regions, and fiscal transfers, was good for the rest of the country.

This positive London effect can be seen in detailed data. Most of the jobs and orders for London’s Crossrail project are outside the capital. In 2012-13 the project supported 13.800 full-time jobs, 8,310 of which were outside London, as are 62% of the firms which have won orders on the project.

A study by PWC for London First found central London office developments are worth £1.7bn a year of economic output and 34,600 jobs, £1.1bn and 22,400 of which are outside London. The capital is sucking in goods and services from the rest of Britain, and that is a good thing.

Even financial and professional services, often thought to be a London-only thing, are regionally well spread. Of the combined employment total of just over 2m, slightly fewer than a third, 663,600, is in London and 41% of gross value-added.

It is not all one way. The CEBR’s McWilliams wonders whether what looks like a straightforward economic message - what’s good for London is generally good for the rest - fully picks up dynamic effects. When does London’s advantage become so great, that other regions become starved of investment, drive and talent to the point that they can never keep up? When does London become the cuckoo in the nest?

It may happen. In more normal times London could become the equivalent of Germany in the eurozone, and impose too high interest rates and too high an exchange rate on the rest. The brain drain from the regions could do irreversible damage. Some say it already has.

None of this means we should embark on a process to restrain London’s growth. That was the failure of post-war regional policy. Levelling-down leads to disaster.

London’s success is Britain’s success. It does, on balance, benefit the rest of the country. The key is to increase that success, by improving growth prospects in the regions. I’ll address that very big subject in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, January 05, 2014
Looking for a pay, productivity and investment boost
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

What are the hopes and fears for 2014? One fear is that economists are now generally now much more optimistic about the British economy, which is sometimes a dangerous sign.

Another is that the eurozone, the dog that didn’t bark in 2013, still has a few crisis woofs left in it. The shift of focus from Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland to troubled France means we cannot yet relax about Europe.

Paradoxically, given that the Franco-German axis is central to any EU project, and always will be, France’s difficulties may not pose the kind of terminal anxieties about the euro that the problems in the peripheral economies did. But we’ll see.

In terms of hopes, I hope the return of growth has seen off the stale debate about the impact of austerity, and in particular contributions from supposedly eminent American commentators and economists who just do not understand the data.

I also hope that the word “bubble” will be used sparingly and judiciously, particularly when applied to the housing market. Both may be too much to hope for.

Anyway, what about the outlook? 2013, as everybody now knows, exceeded most people’s expectations and, while we will not get a fourth quarter gross domestic product figure until January 28, looks to have ended on a strong note. We may not quite get there this month but 2% growth for 2013 is now within statistical reach.

Before I get on to this year’s numbers, let me pick out two themes: there wil be time for plenty more in the coming weeks and months. Both of them, unfortunately, are in areas where the statistics pose more challenges than most.

The first is pay and the so-called cost of living crisis. Monthly figures from the Office for National Statistics show that pay remains depressed, up just 1.1% in the latest 12 months, still significantly below even a falling rate of consumer price inflation, currently 2.1%.

A different message was offered by the ONS in its annual survey of hours and earnings (Ashe), which suggested that the squeeze on real wages more or less came to an end in the 12 months to April.

It is possible to reconcile the two sets of figures. Pay was boosted in the monthly numbers in April by bonus payments (some of them to avoid the 50% top tax rate that applied in the previous fiscal year) and the Ashe could have reflected some of that.

I suspect, though, that the earnings picture is genuinely more robust, despite tight controls on public sector pay. But on both measures we should be nearing the end of the squeeze. After a dismal four years, wages should move modestly ahead of prices this year, alongside a necessary improvement in productivity.

Will this end the cost of living debate? It will take some of the sting out of it. But it takes time before such changes feed through, and not everybody will benefit.

And even if wages do creep ahead of prices, John Philpott, a labour market expert who runs the Jobs Economist consultancy, thinks real wages will not achieve the kind of growth rates (roughly 2% a year) we used to think of as normal until the unemployment rate gets down to 5%. That will not happen this year. So better news on pay, but no bonanza.

Why has consumer spending been rising alongside the pay squeeze? One possibility, as I say, is that the earnings figures have exaggerated the squeeze. Another, a favourite of mine, is that households are spending their lower mortgage payment windfalls. Unrecorded incomes, as a result of a 20% Vat rate that is tempting to avoid, may also be contributing. But this has not been a credit-fuelled spending surge, and nor is it likely to be this year.

The other area where the statistics can be a challenge is business investment. It may be that we have to re-think what we think of as investment, given that even today’s depressed levels are not much different from the norm - apart from a brief pre-crisis flurry - for most of the 2000s.

It may be that once we moved beyond conventional manufacturing plant and machinery, investment just became too hard to measure. It may be that business investment in Britain will always be lower than it should be, though America is similarly afflicted.

That said, a business investment recovery in Britain does now appear to be under way, and should be reflected in a 5%-6% increase this year. That is no boom, but better than the alternative.

What other numbers are we likely to see this year? Growth should resemble something closer to a normal recovery, maybe not quite 3% but 2.75%. The unemployment claimant count, now 1.27m, should drop to 1m. Though not the preferred measure these days, a drop below 1m will be a significant moment.

The current account should improve from last year’s very provisionally estimated £55bn deficit, but perhaps only to £45bn, leaving plenty of room yet for proper export-led growth. Inflation should end the year below target, 1.75%.

Because of this, and finally, I think Bank rate will remain at 0.5% all year, despite growing speculation in the City that this year will see the first hike in interest rates since July 2007 as the unemployment rate drops below 7%, which it surely will.

Why will that not result in a rate hike? When Carney set out his forward guidance it was to give the economy time to breathe and to grow at an above-trend rate for some time, inflation permitting, before starting to apply the monetary brakes.

Growth will be stronger, barring accidents, this year, but not by enough to convinced him or the rest of the MPC that it is time to start raising rates. It will, after all, only just have got back to where it was before the great fall. I’m not even sure rates will rise in 2015 but that’s another story.

Monday, December 30, 2013
2013: a year that shone increasingly brightly
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

What a strange year. Britain’s economy, this time last year, appeared to be on the brink of another huge disappointment. The Olympic growth boost had come and gone, leaving the outlook apparently very stodgy.

George Osborne’s deficit reduction strategy, it seemed, was turning into a deficit-increasing programme, predictions for 2012-13’s borrowing pointing to more not less borrowing compared with the previous year.

At the Bank of England, Mark Carney’s appointment had been announced but there was deep scepticism about whether a change of governor would also mean a change in policy. All the monetary levers had been pulled, it seemed, and most were not attached to anything.

The economy was moribund, as was the housing market. A eurozone collapse had been staved off, mainly by the actions of the European Central Bank, but nobody knew whether this was just the lull before another storm.

But things turned out better and, if recoveries are self-feeding, this one has gained legs as time has gone on. What was initially very tentative growth in the first quarter now looks quite convincing, giving way to stronger growth in the second and third quarters. The surveys suggest the year has ended on a strong note, providing a good platform for 2014.

People fret about the balance of growth, though the latest figures suggest net exports made a significant contribution to the economy in the first half of the year and that business investment began what will ideally be sustained upturn in the third quarter. Manufacturing, services and construction are all doing well.

Consumers have been spending more, a puzzle perhaps given the apparent continuing fall in real wages. Some figures (the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings in particular) cast doubt on the extent of that fall, certainly this year. The squeeze on pay also looks less extreme when mitigated by the rise in the personal tax allowance.

It is also important to distinguish beween the wage experience of individuals and that for the economy as a whole. Thanks to rising employment, up nearly half a million in the past year, the overall amount being paid out in wages and salaries has been rising in real terms.

Most important has been the return of confidence, and of credit. Businesses and individuals are never cock a hoop but the current picture is less negative than for many years. The fear of falling has given way to renewed optimism.

Our view of 2013 will, of course, evolve as time goes on. And that brings me on to my annual forecasting league table, an Economic Outlook ritual for many years now, and one that was trickier than usual this year.

Let me explain. Until December 20, the consensus for growth in 2013 was 1.4%. That was the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) figure published alongside George Osborne’s autumn statement in December.

Then the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a string of data revisions going back to the beginning of 2012, the effect of which will be to raise Britain’s likely growth rate this year to 1.8% or 1.9%. In the fullness of time, based on the usual pattern of revisions, 2013’s growth rate is likely to have been above 2%, and growth in earlier years will come more into line with the strong rise in employment.

For the moment, however, the question was whether to go with the stronger figure suggested by the revisions or the 1.4% we had before, and I have decided on the latter. Forecasters cannot be expected to predict the timing of the ONS’s revisions.

The other matter to clear up is about the forecasts themselves. We know that the strength of the recovery this year has taken economists by surprise - and some by complete surprise - yet in the context of 1.4% growth (if not 1.9%), forecasters did not do badly. The OBR, the official forecaster, predicted 1.2%.

Unfortunately, forecasters did not stick with the predictions they made at the beginning of the year. By spring the OBR had come down to 0.6% and the forecast consensus to 0.8%. This was the time of maximum pessimism, which gradually lifted as the stronger numbers came through.

As you will see, this year’s contest was a close-run thing. Kevin Daly of Goldman Sachs, who takes the trophy, did not join in with the general rush to downgrade in the spring, and his generally optimistic view of the British economy in recent years has achieved its just reward this year. He took the view that the economy could recover through Osborne’s fiscal tightening and was right to do so.

The only thing he did not get, and this was common to all but one of the forecasters in this year’s league table, was the strength of the job market. The majority view was that the piece of recovery would not be strong enough to make a serious dent in unemployment, but 2013 ended with both the main jobless measures falling quite sharply.

I should also mention four other forecasters who came very close this year. They are the CBI, ING Financial Markets, Oxford Economics and Lonbard Street Research. All missed out very narrowly in a photo finish. In other years, any would have won the top prize. Nine out of 10 is a formidable score.

I give an honourable mention to Patrick Minford’s Liverpool Macroeconomic Research, with its 2% growth forecast for this year, which is likely to be closer to the eventual outcome than any other forecast. Even if I had moved the goalposts to the higher growth number, however, Liverpool’s overall forecast performance would not have been quite enough to top the league this year.

Right now, we approach 2014 with forecasters much more optimistic about the outlook. 2% was a bold forecast for 2013 but is below consensus for 2014. More on this next week. Let us hope that optimism is justified.

Sunday, December 22, 2013
The fall and rise of the London economy
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It has been a big week, with the Federal Reserve’s tapering decision, good news on inflation and unemployment, and the question of what the Bank of England does when the jobless rate gets down to 7%.

But let me this week tackle a subject which I know is of intense interest. I know this because when I dropped a small pebble into the pond last week, asking for input on whether London helps the rest of the economy or drains it, I was indundated.

Some have made up their mind. Vince Cable, the business secretary, said in a Today interview on Thursday that Lodnon sucked the life out of other parts of Britain.

We have had a London-centric few days, with Sir Howard Davies’s Airports Commission, set up to investigate the issue of UK airport capacity, publishing a short-list of London solutions. It is tempting, to coin a phrase, to say “I agree with Vince”.

What I want to do, however, given that this is a very big subject, is something slightly different. Today I want to set out the extent of London’s dominance, and the reasons for it. Then, events permitting, I will do two pieces next month.

One will try to answer the question of whether London is good or bad for the rest of the country. The other, without prejudging that answer, will examine what can be done to improve the performance of Britain’s regions, and the balance of the economy.

When I arrived in London in the 1970s, it was a city in decline. New York went bankrupt then and, while that does not happen in Britain, the capital was in a sorry state.

London’s population was falling - it dropped three-quarters of a million between 1971 and 1981, with good reason. It was dirty, strike-prone and, crime-ridden, its Victorian infrastructure crumbling. The swinging sixties had come and gone.

The comeback was, however, swift. The London School of Economics’ Growth Commission found there was a step-change in Britain’s economic performance around 1980 - GDP per capita suddenly began growing more rapidly than in the rest of the G7 - and there was a similar change in London. The sick man of Europe, and its sick capital, suddenly started to recover.

From 1980 Britain started to do better than other countries, and London started to do better than the rest of Britain. Population reversed its earlier decline and began to grow. By the end of the 1980s the north-south divide had re-established itself.

A book of mine published then, North and South, just republished as an e-book, chronicled that rise. As an aside it reminded me in 1982 the Monopolies Commission ruled against bids by HSBC and Standard Chartered for Royal Bank of Scotland (things might have been different).

Why did London revive? There have been three broad trends in recent decades, all of which have fuelled London’s growth.

The first is the rise of global cities, which some call modern city-states. Modern globalisation has benefited strategically-placed cities just as in an earlier era trade led to great prosperity for the ports.

The second is the shift from manufacturing to services, and the so-called knowledge-based economy. Though London was and is an important manufacturing centre, its great advantage during Britain’s deindustrialization was its economic diversity.

The third is financial services. Though it is easy to overstate the contribution of the City, it should not be underestimated, or the impact of Big Bang in 1986, which effectively opened up a closed and protected sector to the world.

There are other factors. When I wrote my book in the 1980s, the shift of regional head offices to London waa in full flood. Now very few top firms have head offices outside London. The civil service, despite waves of regional relocation, remains firmly London based. So does the media, despite the BBC shifting some activities to Salford. Regional newspapers are an endangered species. Last week saw the final edition of the Liverpool Daily Post.

The numbers for London’s domination are striking, as is the fact that the capital has prospered since the crisis. It is the smallest of the Office for National Statistics’ standard regions, accounting for just 1% of the UK’s land area.

It houses, within that, 13% of the country’s population and, as noted last week, has a 22.4% share of the economy, measured by gross value-added. That share is up from 18.5% in 1997 and 20.7% in 2007.

To put London’s 22.4% share of the economy in perspective, it is bigger than Wales, the northeast, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire & Humberside and the West Midlands combined. They have a combined population share of 29%, more than double that of London.

There are many other such indicators. London’s gross value-added per head, £37,232, is 75% above the UK average. Only four parts of the country: Scotland, the rest of the southeast, the east of England and the southwest, have a GVA per head more than 50% of the London figure.

Put like that London’s higher incomes - wages and disposable incomes are 25-30% above the UK average - look quite modest, though house prices, averaging £437,000 versus £234,000 in the rest of the country, put that in context.

London has the youngest population, a median age of 34 comparing with a 39.7 average. If you wanted evidence it sucks in young talent from the rest of the country (and the rest of the world), that may be it.

The question is whether it sucks in all the economic life. I think I know what my answer will be when I return to this early in the new year. I can tell you that most of the very large number contacting me agree with Vince. What everybody accepts is that, for good or bad, Britain has become regionally very lopsided.

London and the southeast combined account for 37% of the UK economy, a share that is rising inexorably towards 40%. It is not unthinkable it could reach 50% in this century, which would be a nightmare vision of an overcrowded corner pulling along an underdeveloped and unproductive economic tail. Would that be remotely healthy? Surely not. To be continued ...

Sunday, December 15, 2013
Carney looks on the bright side of life

carneycheerful.jpg

My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Mark Carney, having been exposed to the British economy for six months (though he also lived in London in the 1990s) has emerged more optimistic about both the short and the long-term. Normally the opposite happens.

The new Bank of England governor's optimism is in sharp contrast to his predecessor. Lord King had many estimable qualities but nobody would accuse him of having a sunny disposition when it came to the economy in recent years. Colleagues on the Bank's monetary policy committee (MPC) learned that it was hard to out-gloom the governor since the crisis.

His successor set out his optimistic stall in a speech a few days ago to the Economic Club in New York, though he has been building up to it. Citing positive economic news, including a drop in inflation from over 5% to 2.2% in the space of two years and job creation of 60,000 a month, he declared that "the cumulative run of economic surprises has dwarfed those of the other major advanced economies". The news, in other words, has exceeded expectations more in Britain than elsewhere.

The recovery, he said, reflected an easing back of extreme uncertainty, successful repairs to a damaged financial system and an improvement in household balance sheets.

More importantly, Carney robustly challenged the idea, sometimes known in the jargon as "secular stagnation", that growth has somehow come to an end in advanced economies and the best we can look forward to is a never-ending series of lost decades. That idea, perhaps unsurprisingly, originated in the Depression years and is usually attributed to Alvin Hansen, an American economist and follower of Keynes.

In Britain, much of the pessimism is now about productivity, but also investment. Growth, in the pessimists' view, can be pumped up by repeated injections of debt but has no underlying supply-side strength. So it will always be fragile and unbalanced.

That view does not reflect what appears to be a broad-based upturn now in the economy, with manufacturing, construction and services all growing strongly and, within that, business-to-business spending and production of capital goods (normally associated with higher investment) leading the way.

Nor, according to Carney, does it reflect the outlook for Britain. Though the near-record deficit on the current account (of the balance of payments) is troubling, it largely reflects economic weakness elsewhere in Europe.

And: “Although the current account position underscores the need for the recovery to shift over time towards investment and export growth, it would be unreasonable to expect that to have happened already. Recoveries are seldom led by investment.”

He also has an interesting take on productivity, which is that workers priced themselves into low-productivity jobs when demand in the economy was weak, but will move into higher-productivity work as growth strengthens. The productivity switch was not, in other words, suddenly turned off in 2008.

“Given the flexibility of its labour market, the continued openness of the economy and the credibility of macro policy, it is hard to think of any reason why there should have been a persistent deterioration in the rate of potential growth in Britain,” he said.

So, a glass “more than half full” view of the economy. Carney's most telling blow against the pessimists, perhaps, was that they have always been wrong before. “There is a long history of pessimism in economics, from Thomas Malthus through Alvin Hansen to Robert Gordon,” he said. “Such worries have proven misplaced in the past and scepticism is warranted now. Don’t forget that the US economy is more than 13 times larger than when Hansen first formulated his ideas.”

Should a central banker be optimistic? As a breed, are they not supposed to be constantly looking in the dark corners for the risks and dangers, a job they failed to do very well before the crisis?

The role of a central banker, according to former Federal Reserve chairman William McChesney Martin’s much-quoted dictum, is to take away the punchbowl just as the party is getting going. Carney instead is a genial mine-host, not only filling up the punchbowl but lining up the glasses along the bar.

Should they not now be starting to withdraw the exceptional monetary stimulus - near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing - which has helped drive the upturn? Andrew Sentance, a former member of the MPC, argues that this is precisely the moment to begin edging interest rates up.

Carney sees it differently. His policy of forward guidance - a pledge to keep Bank rate at the current 0.5% at least until the unemployment rate gets down to 7% - is in the best sense of the word a confidence trick. The trick is to boost confidence.
.
His MPC colleague Martin Weale used a speech to point out that the direct economic effects of forward guidance, in comparison with what the markets were expecting to happen to interest rates, is probably very small.

Weale’s scepticism was justified. The Bank’s latest forecast assumed the mere announcement of forward guidance would have a significant impact on growth but these things take time, particularly as far as the public is concerned.

The Bank’s own NOP survey of inflation attitudes, just published, shows that 34% of people think rates will rise over the nexct 12 months. Mind you, 22% believe they have risen over the past 12 months.

So Carney’s optimism is genuine, but it is also a deliberate attempt to build on his forward guidance policy by making it more effective. If people are worried that a housing bubble is on the way and will mean higher interest rates, they need not be, because the Bank will use other means at its disposal, targeting the lenders with so-called macro-prudential tools, instead.

Similarly, if households and businesses are reluctant to take advantage of ultra-low rates because they fear growth will not last, he is assuring them that historical precedent suggests that it will.

If pessimism has negative effects - evident in very low levels of business and consumer confidence until recently - optimism can have positive consequences as it gains traction. The governor is happy to be a cheerleader for this process.

Is this is a risky strategy? There is always a danger that interest rates are too low for too long. The MPC, according to Carney, believes the “equilibrium real interest rate” is currently negative, in other words that it is appropriate for Bank rate to be below inflation.

That will change as the economic evidence improves. The sooner the governor’s confidence is reflected in a stronger and more durable recovery, and the risks of a setback become much lower, the sooner it will be appropriate to raise rates.

That will not be for some time but the interest-rate worriers should not begrudge Carney his optimism. In the end, he will be on their side.

Carney looks on the bright side of life

carneycheerful.jpg

My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Mark Carney, having been exposed to the British economy for six months (though he also lived in London in the 1990s) has emerged more optimistic about both the short and the long-term. Normally the opposite happens.

The new Bank of England governor's optimism is in sharp contrast to his predecessor. Lord King had many estimable qualities but nobody would accuse him of having a sunny disposition when it came to the economy in recent years. Colleagues on the Bank's monetary policy committee (MPC) learned that it was hard to out-gloom the governor since the crisis.

His successor set out his optimistic stall in a speech a few days ago to the Economic Club in New York, though he has been building up to it. Citing positive economic news, including a drop in inflation from over 5% to 2.2% in the space of two years and job creation of 60,000 a month, he declared that "the cumulative run of economic surprises has dwarfed those of the other major advanced economies". The news, in other words, has exceeded expectations more in Britain than elsewhere.

The recovery, he said, reflected an easing back of extreme uncertainty, successful repairs to a damaged financial system and an improvement in household balance sheets.

More importantly, Carney robustly challenged the idea, sometimes known in the jargon as "secular stagnation", that growth has somehow come to an end in advanced economies and the best we can look forward to is a never-ending series of lost decades. That idea, perhaps unsurprisingly, originated in the Depression years and is usually attributed to Alvin Hansen, an American economist and follower of Keynes.

In Britain, much of the pessimism is now about productivity, but also investment. Growth, in the pessimists' view, can be pumped up by repeated injections of debt but has no underlying supply-side strength. So it will always be fragile and unbalanced.

That view does not reflect what appears to be a broad-based upturn now in the economy, with manufacturing, construction and services all growing strongly and, within that, business-to-business spending and production of capital goods (normally associated with higher investment) leading the way.

Nor, according to Carney, does it reflect the outlook for Britain. Though the near-record deficit on the current account (of the balance of payments) is troubling, it largely reflects economic weakness elsewhere in Europe.

And: “Although the current account position underscores the need for the recovery to shift over time towards investment and export growth, it would be unreasonable to expect that to have happened already. Recoveries are seldom led by investment.”

He also has an interesting take on productivity, which is that workers priced themselves into low-productivity jobs when demand in the economy was weak, but will move into higher-productivity work as growth strengthens. The productivity switch was not, in other words, suddenly turned off in 2008.

“Given the flexibility of its labour market, the continued openness of the economy and the credibility of macro policy, it is hard to think of any reason why there should have been a persistent deterioration in the rate of potential growth in Britain,” he said.

So, a glass “more than half full” view of the economy. Carney's most telling blow against the pessimists, perhaps, was that they have always been wrong before. “There is a long history of pessimism in economics, from Thomas Malthus through Alvin Hansen to Robert Gordon,” he said. “Such worries have proven misplaced in the past and scepticism is warranted now. Don’t forget that the US economy is more than 13 times larger than when Hansen first formulated his ideas.”

Should a central banker be optimistic? As a breed, are they not supposed to be constantly looking in the dark corners for the risks and dangers, a job they failed to do very well before the crisis?

The role of a central banker, according to former Federal Reserve chairman William McChesney Martin’s much-quoted dictum, is to take away the punchbowl just as the party is getting going. Carney instead is a genial mine-host, not only filling up the punchbowl but lining up the glasses along the bar.

Should they not now be starting to withdraw the exceptional monetary stimulus - near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing - which has helped drive the upturn? Andrew Sentance, a former member of the MPC, argues that this is precisely the moment to begin edging interest rates up.

Carney sees it differently. His policy of forward guidance - a pledge to keep Bank rate at the current 0.5% at least until the unemployment rate gets down to 7% - is in the best sense of the word a confidence trick. The trick is to boost confidence.
.
His MPC colleague Martin Weale used a speech to point out that the direct economic effects of forward guidance, in comparison with what the markets were expecting to happen to interest rates, is probably very small.

Weale’s scepticism was justified. The Bank’s latest forecast assumed the mere announcement of forward guidance would have a significant impact on growth but these things take time, particularly as far as the public is concerned.

The Bank’s own NOP survey of inflation attitudes, just published, shows that 34% of people think rates will rise over the nexct 12 months. Mind you, 22% believe they have risen over the past 12 months.

So Carney’s optimism is genuine, but it is also a deliberate attempt to build on his forward guidance policy by making it more effective. If people are worried that a housing bubble is on the way and will mean higher interest rates, they need not be, because the Bank will use other means at its disposal, targeting the lenders with so-called macro-prudential tools, instead.

Similarly, if households and businesses are reluctant to take advantage of ultra-low rates because they fear growth will not last, he is assuring them that historical precedent suggests that it will.

If pessimism has negative effects - evident in very low levels of business and consumer confidence until recently - optimism can have positive consequences as it gains traction. The governor is happy to be a cheerleader for this process.

Is this is a risky strategy? There is always a danger that interest rates are too low for too long. The MPC, according to Carney, believes the “equilibrium real interest rate” is currently negative, in other words that it is appropriate for Bank rate to be below inflation.

That will change as the economic evidence improves. The sooner the governor’s confidence is reflected in a stronger and more durable recovery, and the risks of a setback become much lower, the sooner it will be appropriate to raise rates.

That will not be for some time but the interest-rate worriers should not begrudge Carney his optimism. In the end, he will be on their side.

Saturday, December 07, 2013
A stronger growth forecast: now to beat it
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

osbornelaughing.png

My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Set pieces like budgets and autumn statements are like selection boxes. There is a lot to choose from so you are tempted to try everything.

For George Osborne's fourth autumn statement, delivered on Thursday, there are many things I could dwell on, from measures to ease the burden on business - including rates - to action to encourage firms to take on young workers by abolishing employers’ National Insurance contributions for under-21s.

I could talk about fuel duty freezes that in a couple of years will be worth an average of £11 a tankful (compared with increases under the now-abandoned escalator) or the decision to hit foreign property owners with capital gains tax.

Let me, however, concentrate on just two aspects of the statement, the most important aspects: growth and the public finances. The upward revision to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s growth forecasts, taking this year up from 0.6% to 1.4%, was inevitable given the run of the quarterly gross domestic product numbers,

By normal standards, 1.4% growth would be a disappointing year and 2.4% - the OBR’s forecast for next year - merely middling. These are not, of course, normal times. Britain’s quarterly growth of 0.8% in the third quarter was good enough for a couple of hours to take Britain to the top of the G7 league, until an upward revision of America’s GDP figures took them to 0.9%.

Even so, the OBR’s upward revision of 2013 growth from 0.6% to 1.4% was, as Osborne pointed out, the biggest such in-year revision for 14 years. It also left room for further improvement.

Growth should exceed the new official forecasts of 2.4% in 2014 and just 2.2% in 2015. The OBR is quite cautious even in the short-term, predicting quarterly growth rates of just 0.5% through next year. There is scope for further pleasant surprises.

Not only would that be nice, it is essential. The striking thing about the economy over the past few years, which the OBR brings out well, is how much ground there is to make up. It is as if, five or six years ago, Britain went on a long detour, which has taken us a very long way from our destination. Indeed, we may never get there.

By the early part of 2019, according to the OBR’s new forecast, Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) will be 15% larger than at the beginning of 2008, the eve of the 2008-9 recession. That does not sound bad, except 15% over 11 years averages out to little more than 1% a year.

That average is dragged down, plainly, by the economy’s 7.2% dive in 2008-9. But the big picture, of an economy hit extremely hard and only gradually getting back to its feet, remains even after last week’s upward revisions. Now contrast that, as the OBR does, with the economy as envisaged by the Treasury back in 2008. Projecting forward its assessment of trend growth, as the OBR does, gives you an economy 35% higher in 2019 than 2008.

The gap between the two estimates, nearly a fifth of GDP (roughly £300bn) explains why we do not just need growth, we need much stronger growth. Otherwise the damage that we suffered as a result of the crisis makes us permanently poorer.

Can it happen? Can we see a few growth numbers starting with a “3” rather than a 2? The answer is yes. The new official forecast assumes no export-led recovery. Through the period 2012-2018, the contribution of net exports to growth is negative.

Replacing that with a positive number would take us back to the kind of growth envisaged on the back of a competitive pound a few years ago, it would also help close the GDP gap. Some fear sterling’s recent revival will nip any export revival in the bud. It is a bit more complicated than that. Exports can do better.

Is there room for much faster growth? The OBR is downbeat on productivity and believes there is a relatively small amount of spare capacity in the economy, 2.2% of GDP. You do not know how much spare capacity you have until you reach its limit but that is too gloomy. In a service-based economy, capacity can be very flexible.

Let us hope so. It was the OBR’s gloomy supply-side view which, two years ago, pushed Osborne into abandoning his original hope of squeezing all the fiscal pain into a single parliament.

His measure of when the job was done - eliminating the so-called structural current budget deficit - was in June 2010 predicted to be achieved in the 2014-15 fiscal year. Now it will not be reached until 2017-18 and the path there is slightly slower than the OBR expected in March (stronger growth does not help cyclically-adjusted borrowing).

That may be no bad thing. Out of the adversity of a deficit taking longer to come down than he hoped, Osborne has forged an opportunity. Instead of a “Hey Presto” fiscal magician ready to hand over things over to the next set of politicians who want to spend taxpayers’ money, he has become a keeper of the Treasury keys, determined that his “responsible recovery” means responsible public finances.

So there will be an overall budget surplus by 2018-19, from a downward-revised (but still high) £111bn this year, which as the OBR says “suggests that underlying net borrowing will have fallen by 11.1% of GDP since 2009-10”. That, by the way, is equivalent to bringing the budget deficit down by £180bn. It may yet be that progress is a little quicker — I am still hoping for a deficit of less than £100bn this year.

There will be a strengthened Charter of Budget Responsibility, to be presented to parliament in a year’s time. There will be measures, notably bringing forward increases in the state pension age, to save significant sums in future (£500bn over 50 years in the case of pensions). And the government will aim for a budget surplus of 1% of GDP in the good years in the long term.

Politicians, and chancellors - including very political chancellors like this one - come and go. One extraordinary statistic from the OBR is that before the end of this decade, core government spending on services (excluding welfare, debt interest and other transfers) will be its lowest percentage of GDP since 1948.

The good news is that Osborne is trying to impose a discipline on spending that will tie the hands of him and his successors. The question is whether such constraints will be more effective than in the past. They need to be.

Sunday, December 01, 2013
Growth's back: now to rebalance it
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

osbormelaughs.png

George Osborne’s autumn statement this Thursday could have been very different. The chancellor might even have been struggling to hang on to his job.

A few months ago the vultures were hovering over Britain’s economy, ready to swoop on the dead body of the recovery.

In what turned out to be one of the most poorly-timed interventions since 364 economists attacked the Thatcher government in 1981, just as recovery was getting going, Olivier Blanchard, the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist, warned Osborne he was “playing with fire”.

A year ago even respected bodies like the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned Osborne’s deficit-reduction strategy risked turning into a deficit-increasing strategy.

Public borrowing for 2012-13 of £135bn, which the IFS feared, would have been a huge setback. Instead it was £115bn. The deficit is falling and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) will say it is falling a little more rapidly than it predicted in March.

I think this year, 2013-14, will see the first deficit in double instead of triple figures since 2008-9 (when it was £99.5bn), though the OBR may not go so far.

Had growth not materialised, Britain would have been the poster boy for the fashionable debate about whether Western economies are suffering “secular stagnation”. This, permanently weaker long-run growth, has been popularised by Larry Summers, former US treasury secretary.

We do not know yet what will happen to Britain’s growth over the long run, but quarterly growth rates of 0.4%, 0.7% and 0.8% so far this year, the latter confirmed in new gross domestic product figures, is a long way from short-term stagnation. The OBR will revise its growth forecasts higher.

Now the growth cavalry has arrived, just in time, what will Osborne do with it? The broad message this week will be the programme is workimg and that he intends to stick with it. It will also be to emphasise that there is a very long way to go.

That should mean two more things. One is that growth has to be nurtured. The other is that the coalition has not given up on achieving better balanced growth.

The latest GDP figures showed the scale of the challenge. Despite recent stronger growth, it will be well into next year before the gap between where we are now and where we were when the economy dived into recession in 2008, 2.5%, is eliminated.

On the question of balance, the recovery was always going to need consumer spending. So far it has needed it a bit too much. I have to mention business investment, which rose in the third quarter. But it was up a mere 1.4% on the quarter, and down 6.3% on a year earlier.

There are doubts about the reliability of the business investment numbers, as Mark Carney points out, but its fall contrasts sharply with a 2.4% rise in consumer spending over the past year. Business investment and net exports subtracted from growth. Consumer spending, helped by government and inventories, drove it.

Had exports and investment made a suitable growth contribution, we might have had 2.5% growth in the past year rather than 1.5%. Had they done so at the pace of the 1990s, growth could have topped 3%.

The announcement from the Bank of England, agreed with the Treasury, that in future the Funding for Lending scheme will focus on business rather than household lending, can with other tweaks be seen as evidence that lending to individuals can stand on its own feet, albeit it with the help of record low interest rates.

That can be tied with some Bank concerns about the housing market, reflected in its latest financial stability report. I would not bet on Help to Buy surviving for anything like its full three years.

But the move was also a recognition that business lending, to small and medium-sized firms (SMEs) still needs a lot of nurturing. On its own that will not give us an investment-led recovery but it will help. Lack of finance prevented some firms from exploring new export markets.

Lending to SMEs is still falling, according to Bank figures on Friday, so the shift of emphasis is welcome. We wait to see whether it works.

As for the decision to reduce implicit support for the housing market, we should not look for too much of an effect. Michael Saunders of Citi points out that of the 42 banks which signed up to use the Funding for Lending scheme (FLS), 14 have not used it at all, and use by the rest has been declining, from a peak of £9.5bn in the final quarter of 2012 to just £1.1bn in the second quarter of this year.

As he puts it: “Credit growth [to households] has picked up recently, but this seems to reflect the general improvement in banks’ health and the economic outlook, plus the Help to Buy (HTB) scheme, rather than the FLS.”

For this reason some dismiss Carney’s move as irrelevant but that is going a bit too far. It is the first explicit use of financial policy, in addition to the other weapons at the authorities’ disposal; monetary policy (interest rates and quantitative easing) and fiscal policy (tax and spending).

The two strongest messages we should take from the move is firstly, that the Bank does not intend to allow housing history to repeat itself, so there may be further more meaningful moves to calm the market if its financial policy committee deems it necessary.

The second is that Carney intends to be a financial policy activist while keeping rates low under his forward guidance. Indeed, this use of financial policy should be seen as pushing out the date when interest rates eventually rise

The trick for Osborne and Carney is to keep the consumer side of the economy growing - interestingly, taking the second and third quarters together, wages and salaries were 3.7% up on a year earlier - while boosting the contribution from exports and investment.

Some of that is outside Osborne’s hands - the latest eurozone numbers suggest the move away from the abyss has not resulted in the return of much growth - so Britain’s exports will continue to struggle.

Some of it is within his gift. Business thinks the government is moving too slowly on infrastructure, is deaf to its pleadings on business rates (bigger for many firms than corporation tax), and continues to load on costs and red tape. In this environment, it is unsurprising many firms have chosen to remain in their shells.

Businesses do not expect too much from politicians, and are wary of small changes trumpeted by chancellors as transformational. But they will be looking for something, amid the political pressure on the chancellor to respond to popular concerns about the rising cost of living.

The return of growth should not, under any circumstances, mean a big giveaway this week. Even if it sneaks down into double figures, public borrowing remains very high by past standards.

Growth provides an opportunity to ensure the deficit continues to fall and politicians, now and in future, are not tempted to spend or tax cut their way to popularity.

Two think tanks, Reform and Policy Exchange, set out proposals last week. Reform favours targeting pensioners and pensions, ending their exemption from National Insurance contributions and questioning the future of tax relief on pensions.

Policy Exchange called for new fiscal rules which would commit the government to reducing the public sector debt to GDP ratio every year, against the penalty of scrapping the annual indexartion of the personal tax allowance, benefits and any increases in public sector pay.

I doubt we will see too much of that this week, though the ball is in the chancellor’s court. At the Tory conference in September he pledged to deliver a budget surplus by 2020. We await the details of that, either this week or in the March budget.

In the meantime his task for the next 12 months is to enable growth that is not only stronger but better balanced.

Saturday, November 23, 2013
Cash has been king for long enough: now for some investment
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

pounds.png

My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The figures for business investment do not get the same attention as those for gross domestic product, unemployment and inflation.

Business investment is, however, important and in three days' time we will get the figures for the third quarter. An investment-led recovery is the prize for policymakers. A recovery driven by investment and exports is the holy grail.

So far investment is not delivering and exports, while they have grown in recent years, have been neutralised in their economic impact by rising imports.

The Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, in its latest deliberations, said “a successful handover from household to business spending would play a crucial role in underpinning the recovery in the medium term”.

The previous set of official figures, for the second quarter, showed whatever else we have been having it has not been an investment-led recovery. Business investment was down by 2.7% on the quarter and by 8.5% on a year earlier. It was more than 25% below its pre-crisis peak.

Growth in the economy has surprised on the upside this year but investment has done the opposite, so much so the Bank questions the figures, pointing out initial estimates are “prone to large revisions”.

Even such revisions may not change the picture fundamentally because it is not purely a British phenomenon. The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted last week that “business capital spending has been subdued in recent years, even allowing for soft demand growth.”

This is not supposed to happen. We expect businesses to anticipate upturns, or respond quickly to them, turning a modest increase in demand into something stronger. Economists used to spend a lot of time analysing this accelerator effect.

In recent years, business has been happier to wait and see, to sit on its hands until the outlook becomes much clearer. In the past, that would have been a recipe for allowing competitors to steal a march.These days the game has changed.

I’ll return to that. But if you wanted reassurance the investment train had been delayed but not cancelled, you would draw on two factors.

One is that firms have been deterred from investing by economic uncertainty. The banking crisis, followed by the eurozone crisis, with any number of other crises running in tandem or threatening to break out, has been a powerful dampener on corporate investment ardour.

The other is that damage to the banking system (and its extreme lending caution) has deprived new and expanding businesses of the finance they need to expand.

Most investment is done by larger firms but to the extent smaller businesses have been deprived of funding, this has been a factor, not just in weak investment but also poor productivity growth. The “creative destruction” economies need after recessions has been held in check.

The good news is that both of these factors are easing. The Bank’s MPC cites evidence from its agents that economic uncertainty is fading fast as a constraint on investment. A year ago a net 50% of firms cited uncertainty as a factor dragging on investment plans. Now it is 5%.

The optimistic view would be that as the clouds of uncertainty lift, so will investment. Business confidence is up, as so is the outlook (the latest CBI survey showed the strongest growth in manufacturing since 1995), so investment should follow.

Availability of finance, similarly, is not what it should be but showing signs of improvement. We have just seen the first tentative rise in bank lending to small and medium-sized firms since 2009.

These are two good reasons to think we might start to see an upturn in business investment. We will see this week whether it is too early for that to show in the official figures. There are, though, gloomier views. One is that the incentive structures within firms are biased against investment.

Chief executives have relatively short time horizons. Most last longer than football managers but not that much longer, with an average tenure of 3-4 years. In that time they get plaudits from shareholders for increasing dividends or buying back their own shares. This, in turn, pushes the share price higher, on which the chief executive’s bonuses are usually based.

This is not to say chief executives undertake no investment. Plainly they do, even if the benefits will be felt by their successors, But they do not do as much as they should.

The other argument is that there are not enough good prospects for businesses to invest in. An influential paper last year by Professor Robert Gordon of America’s Northwestern University, asked the question “Is US economic growth over?”.

His deliberately provocative title was to discuss whether, temporarily or permanently, America - and by extension other advanced economies - were in a prolonged quiet phase for innovation.

The IT and telecommunications revolution, the latest of the innovation waves that date back to the industrial revolution, has on this view run most of its course.

As Gordon put it: “Many inventions that replaced repetitive clerical labour with computers happened a long time ago, in the 1970s and 1980s. Invention since 2000 has centred on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable but do not fundamentally change labour productivity or living standards in the way electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.”

Many reading this will argue that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities of new technology. Others would argue that the changing economy means we should think of investment differently. When manufacturing dominated, business investment was big and tangible: plant and machinery, new factory buildings and so on.

Now it is different, so we should think of investment as less tangible. The Office for National Statistics will next year incorporate intangible investment, including goodwill, into the GDP figures. We should also think of it as investment in people - recruitment and training - strong even as traditional investment has been weak.

We should not think, as some suggest, of government investment as an alternative to business investment. The two are fundamentally different. Government investment, in for example infrastructure, can help create the conditions under which the private sector can invest and grow. Rarely can it be a substitute for it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013
Carney won't be raising rates any time soon
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Let me take Margaret Thatcher's famous words on becoming prime minister in 1979, when she quoted St Francis of Assisi, and adapt them to deal with interest rates and the Bank of England.

Where there was certainty now there is confusion. Where there was harmony, now there is discord. Will forward guidance, Mark Carney’s big idea, turn out to be one of the shortest-lived monetary policy experiments in history?

I shall come on to that. The big question, of course, is when interest rates will start to rise. In August, shortly after the new governor arrived fresh from the Canadian prairies, the answer as he launched forward guidance appeared clear enough.

The monetary policy committee (MPC) would not even contemplate a hike in Bank rate from its current record low of 0.5% until the unemployment rate got down to 7%, and it did not expect that to happen until the latter part of 2016 at the earliest.

Though dependent on the state of the economy, the clear message was that people and businesses could relax about a rise in interest rates for three years (savers, of course, are desperate for a rate rise but that is another story).

Now fast forward to last Wednesday and the publication, three months on, of the Bank’s latest inflation report. To say that the Bank has shifted its view on the economy is an understatement. To stay with the religious theme, there have been few bigger changes of mind since Paul was on the road to Damascus.

On the same basis that the Bank thought in August that unemployment would not get down to 7% until mid to late 2016 - the assumption Bank rate stays at 0.5% - it now thinks there is a 50-50 chance of getting there roughly two years earlier, in the fourth quarter of 2014, just a year from now.

Even assuming rates rise a little in line with market expectations (which seems a bit of a contradiction) the unemployment rate gets down to 7% in mid-2015.

In the space of three months, forward guidance has apparently moved from the MPC not contemplating a rate move for three years to it being firmly on its agenda in 12-18 months time. For a policy that was supposed to enable firms and individuals to plan for the medium-term, this looks worryingly skittish.

Let me try to interpret and adjudicate, starting with the Bank’s new forecast. Now I am as optimistic as anybody but I fear that the Bank may have had a little too much sun on that road to Damascus. It may have jumped too far into the optimistic camp.

Its growth forecast for next year on the assumption of no change in interest rates is 3.4%. To set that in context, the average new independent forecast for growth next year is 2.2% and the most optimistic is 3%. The Bank has gone out on a limb.

The Bank's growth forecast on the market interest rate assumption (in other words that rates gradually creep up to 1.7% by 2016) is just under 3%. Still very strong.

I hope it is right but, while most of the recent economic news has been gratifyingly upbeat, we should not assume it is plain sailing. Retail sales, for example, fell by 0.7% last month and were merely flat over the past three months. Eurozone gross domestic product rose by just 0.1% in the third quarter and in some leading economies, including France and Italy, it fell.

It is this very strong forecast that drives the Bank’s prediction of a much earlier fall in unemployment that it previously predicted. Here again, it is worth questioning the numbers.

The latest unemployment reading is 2.47m, 7.6% of the workforce. If you thought unemployment had been close to 2.5m for some time, you would be right. Despite strong growth in employment, 377,000 over the past year, the level of unemployment has barely moved from that 2.5m level. The unemployment rate has fallen over that period because the size of the workforce has grown, but only from 7.8% to 7.6%.

Now, if the Bank is right about 3.4% growth next year, it is possible that employment will rise even faster than its very big rise over the past year. Three large falls in the monthly claimant count, a different measure of unemployment, have increased optimism among forecasters about the pace of the fall in unemployment.

But it still seems to me to be what sports commentators call a big ask for the unemployment rate to get down to 7% in a year, or even 18 months. It could, if productivity growth continues very weak, which would endorse fears that there is not as much spare capacity in the economy as thought.

Equally, however, if we believe a record 1.46m people are working part-time but really want a full-time job and if some of the growth in employment continues to come from people beyond normal retirement age, the unemployment rate could be slow to fall.

It is complicated, and it is one reason why I said when forward guidance was launched in August that it was not the best-designed policy in the world, looking very much as if designed by committee, which of course it was. The Bank is now finding that out.

The debate will continue on when unemployment gets down to 7%. Whenever it happens it has to be said the Bank’s new forecast is a victory for the many economists who criticised it for stretching 7% too far into the future.

For everybody else, what matters is when interest rates rise. Carney’s mantra on this is a familiar one: that 7% unemployment is a threshold not a trigger. When it is reached the MPC will start thinking about whether to hike rates but is under no obligation to do so.

Though the Bank’s new forecast made the governor’s task uncomfortable last week, he was helped by a sharp drop in inflation, from 2.7% in September to 2.2% in October. If inflation is close to target, and predicted to remain so, there may be no reason to raise rates even if unemployment has fallen to the threshold level.

A better way of looking at it is to stand back from the unemployment numbers. This, by the way, is how I beliecve Carney looks at it.

The economy is still roughly 2.5% smaller than it was before the crisis. The gap relative to what it might have been if the economy had avoided crisis and recession (a big if) is even larger, perhaps 15%. Some of that gap will be permanent but the hope has to be that not all of it is.

So what is the Bank trying to do with forward guidance? To give the recovery time to breathe, not just until the level of gross domestic product gets well above those pre-crisis levels, but also to permit what could be a long period of above-trend growth to claw back as much of that lost output as possible. That process is still in its infancy, despite recent stronger growth. As a result, I would not be looking for any movement on interest rates for the next two years, and possibly quite a bit longer.

So is forward guidance still alive? The past few days have not helped it, though the policy was only ever going to tested when growth picked up. Carney says that households and businesses should have confidence that rates will stay low and “not just that the glass is half full, but that it will be filled”. He is still guiding us not to expect rates to go up.


Sunday, November 10, 2013
Calm down dears, this isn't a debt-fuelled recovery
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

One of the functions of this column is to separate myth from reality. One myth, that the economy could never recover as long as the government was pursuing a deficit-reduction strategy. is being comprehensively disproved.

The latest evidence from the purchasing managers’ surveys of construction, manufacturing and services is that growth is at its strongest since 1997 and gross domestic product is on course for a rise of more than 1% in the fourth quarter.

Nobody should be too surprised by the return of growth: every modern-day British recovery has occurred against the backdrop of action to cut budget deficits. This time is no different.

Now that myth is being replaced by another, which is that the economy is only recovering because of a debt-fuelled consumer and housing boom.

The myth was given added impetus by a reporting error by the Bank of England a few days ago. Having initially reported that unsecured consumer credit rose by £411m in September, it rushed out revised figures showing that the correct total was, in fact, £864m.

Cue headlines about Britain embarking on a credit card binge or, worse, repeating the excesses that led us into the financial crisis. Some people got very excited.

Michael Winner is sadly no longer with us, but the only response to all this is “calm down, dears”. If we take the credit card component of the £864m, £151m, it was actually the lowest for five months, and below the monthly average since the financial crisis took its most devastating turn in September 2008.

Compared with the pre-crisis period, when credit card borrowing sometimes topped £1bn a month, the plastic is barely being flashed.

As for the wider picture, unsecured borrowing of £864m sounds a lot, but September is one of the two peak months in the year for new car-buying; along with March it is when registration plates change.

In September last year, partly as a result of this, unsecured borrowing hit £1.1bn. This year’s increase was smaller. As for rates of change, the amount of unsecured borrowing outstanding showed an increase of 3.9% on a year earlier but that is a pale shadow of the 13%, 14% and 15% growth rates of the pre-crisis period.

As always when it comes to household borrowing, it is necessary to look at the bigger picture, and that means mortgages, which account for 89% of household debt. The bigger picture shows that lending to individuals, including mortgages, has risen by just 1% over the past year, so is not even keeping pace with inflation.

The amount owed by individuals, £1.43 trillion on Bank figures, is lower in cash terms than in September 2008, and 15% lower in real terms. Far from going on a debt binge, households have bene quietly deleveraging.

You can see this in a number of ways. Real household disposable incomes are nearly 4% above pre-crisis levels but consumer spending is more than 2% below. Housing equity withdrawal, the amount people take out out of the equity in their properties for other purposes, supported consumer spending in the run-up to the crisis. But it has been negative since 2008 and in the second quarter of this year hit £15.4bn, its biggest negative since the crisis.

When this turns around maybe it will be possible to talk about echoes of the pre-crisis era, but not before.

Or, if you are still not convinced, how about this from Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, which compiles the purchasing managers’ surveys. The very strong growth in services last month was driven by financial services, computing and IT and business-to-business services, he says. Consumer-facing services, ranging from hotels, restaurants and catering through to hairdressing, were the weakest components of the survey.

None of this is to dismiss the importance of the consumer or an improved flow of credit - for both households and businesses - to the economy. Too much credit is dangerous but too little stifles growth to the point of stagnation.

An important part of the recent recovery story, probably the most important part is that the years of ultra-loose monetary policy, coupled with Funding for Lending and Help to Buy, are finally gaining traction. Stronger money supply growth, and the shift from negative to modestly positive credit growth, is supporting a strengthening recovery.

At some stage, particularly as rising mortgage lending feeds through to the numbers, household debt will rise.

Unless you are a Russian oligarch, Middle East potentate or Chinese zillionaire, you need a mortgage to buy a property. People entering the housing market do so by taking on debt; those leaving it, either for the Sunnyside retirement home or that great suburb in the sky, have paid off their debt.

The normal condition is for overall household debt to rise, though we should never forget that household assets, at over £10 trillion according to the Office for National Statistics, are more than seven times the total of outstanding debt.

That is for later. But if recovery so far has not been driven by debt-fuelled consumers, what has it been driven by? To the extent consumers have contributed, and they have, the absence of new crises and strongly rising employment - which may be about to get stronger - have been important counterweights to the squeeze on real wages.

Even more improtant, I suspect, is the delayed impact of very low interest rates. The windfall from drastic reductions in monthly mortgage payments was not initially spent by many households, partly because their confidence was battered into submission and partly because they feared low rates would not last.

Thursday marked the the 56th month at which the Bank’s monetary policy committee has held Bank rate at 0.5%. On the same day the European Central Bank cut its key interest rate to 0.25%. Even without forward guidance, people had guessed that rates in Britain were not about to rise. With it, they have become more secure in that belief, hence stronger spending, without so far any meaningful rise in debt. Forget talk of a debt-fuelled recovery.

Sunday, October 27, 2013
Productivity versus unemployment: the new interest-rate battleground
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Friday’s gross domestic product figures, showing a 0.8% rise on the quarter, confirmed, instead of a triple-dip predicted by some earlier this year, Britain has has three consecutive quarters of pretty good growth.

This is still not the longest sequence in what has been a stop-start recovery. In 2009 and 2010 there were four successive growth quarters before the snow-affected GDP dip in late 2010. In 2011 growth resumed for three quarters in a row.

The expectation this time among policymakers is that this upturn will prove more durable. That explains George Osborne’s bullishness and Ed Ball’s decision to switch his attack on the government to living standards.

Members of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (MPC) are also notably more optimistic. They have moved from a position in which their growth forecasts were upbeat but they were not, to a more consistent recovery message.

Charlie Bean, the Bank’s deputy governor, last week contrasted its upbeat summer 2010 forecasts, based on “a steady improvement in credit conditions amd a gradual decline in uncertainty” with the much more subdued outturn. The uncertainty, particularly over the eurozone, increased rather than declined and credit conditions did not improve.

Now, both those headwinds have eased. Credit is coming through, even for businesses; September saw a rise in net lending to non-financial businesses according to the British Bankers’ Association. Fear of imminent eurzone collapse, with all the chaos that would bring, is greatly reduced, even if the single currency’s underlying problems have yet to be resolved.

So Bean is surely right to argue that this looks like a sustained recovery, unlike previous post-crisis episodes. I also agree with him that we should not expect it to continue at the searing pace suggested by some surveys over the summer.

Growth has surprised on the upside but that does not mean it is a 3%-plus expansion all the way from now on. The latest CBI manufacturing survey pointed to some easing in the pace of growth.

But growth it is, and with it comes the big question, or rather two related questions. Will it resolve the puzzle of exceptionally weak productivity? To remind you, output per worker was fractionally lower in the second quarter than in 2010: normally you would expect it to rise about 2% a year. Output per hour worked was even weaker, down more than 1%.

Related to this is the question of how growth will impact on unemployment. If productivity remains weak, stronger growth will be immediately converted into a faster rise in employment, and a sharper fall in unemployment.

If, on the other hand, productivity picks up as growth strengthens, all the extra workers taken on by the private sector over the past 2-3 years will have to earn their corn. Productivity will rise, reducing the need to take on more staff.
Employment will grow, but not particularly rapidly, and unemployment will take time to fall from its current 2.49m level, 7.7% rate.

This matters in its own right. We need an economy that combines a decent productivity growth with rising employment and falling unemployment. A rise in employment alongside weak productivity is neither healthy nor sustainable.

It matters also because of the Bank’s new approach to monetary policy under Mark Carney’s forward guidance regime. Everybody will know that 7% is the unemployment rate at which the MPC will start to think about raising interest rates.

The Bank is currently revisiting its forecasts ahead of its November inflation report. But the clear message from its last forecast, in August, was that everybody can relax about interest rates. Even after three years, the unemployment rate will not be down to 7% (the MPC’s “best guess” was 7.3%) and, subject to the so-called inflation and financial stability “knockouts” not being breached, rates will stay low. Built into that story was the expectation that as growth recovers, so will productivity.

Some disagree fundamentally. Fathom Consulting, which precedes each inflation report with its own monetary policy forum of ex-MPC members, thinks policymakers are whistling in the dark in waiting for a productivity upturn. Waiting for the productivity bounce is like waiting for Godot.

Its economists believe that Britain suffered a huge supply shock in 2008 from which it has yet to recover. That supply shock has inflicted permanent damage on the economy’s ability to generate productivity growth, with important short-term and long-term consequences.

The biggest short-term consequence is that stronger growth will be converted rapidly into falling unemployment. Far from waiting until 2016 or beyond to get down to a 7% unemployment rate, Fathom thinks it will happen next year.

There is support for its view in the most recent numbers for the unemployment claimant count, a narrower jobless measure. It fell 41,700 in September, its biggest monthly fall since the 1990s, after a drop of 41,600 in August. The unemployment rate on this measure has dropped from 4.7% to 4% in a year. If it is a harbinger of the wider measure, that could indeed race down towards 7% very quickly.

So what will it be? Growth, as noted earlier, may not persist at its very strong summer pace. Productivity, surely, must come back a bit. One prominent theory at the Bank about weak productivity is that it is due to the lack of credit supply to new, rapid growth start-up businesses. Another related argument is that we will see a strong upturn in business investment from now on, which will also help generate stronger productivity growth.

The other get-out is that 7% unemployment is, the Bank insists, a “threshold” not a trigger. Even if unemployment fell rapidly to 7% the MPC would not be impelled to hike rates, merely think about it.

It would, however, also have to issue a new form of forward guidance at that point. A policy that has already generated a lot of controversy would have to be redrafted, if Fathom are right, at an embarrassingly early stage. The Bank has to hope for a productivity revival.

Sunday, October 20, 2013
The inflation balloon's still up in Britain
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Britain has become, once more, a high-inflation economy. Normally as a nation we like to top any European league. But when that league is for inflation rates across Europe, that is more than a little embarrassing.

New Eurostat figures, which the Labour party was quick to pick up on, show that last month Britain had the highest inflation rate in the European Union. Yes, of all 28 EU members states, Britain’s inflation rate was the highest.

Britain’s 2.7% rate last month was more than double the EU (1.3%) and eurozone (1.1%) averages. Previously high-inflation EU countries, which included Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Netherlands, have come back down to earth.While Britain’s rate is close to 3%, more than half of the members of the EU - 15 in all - have prices rising at an annual rate of 1% or less.

If we take a wider comparison, the advanced economies of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), only Turkey (8.2%), Mexico (3.5% and Iceland (3.8%) have higher inflation. In the G20, Britain’s rate is higher than China’s.

Some people are intensely relaxed about Britain’s 2.7% inflation rate based on the consumer prices index (inflation based on the longer-running retail prices index was 3.2%). There is, they say, nothing remarkable about 2.7% inflation. In this respect at least they are right.

Inflation has been 2.7% for seven of the past 12 months. It has averaged 2.7% over those 12 months. It is sticky, if not stuck. The inflation target, remember, is 2%.

Actually, 2.7% inflation over 12 months is better than the recent record. In the past 24 months it averaged 3%, over three years 3.4%, over four years 3.3%, over five 3.2%, over six 3.2% and over seven 3.1%. If Britain had a 3% inflation target, this would be acceptable. With a 2% target it is not.

Taking that seven-year average, the level of prices is 8% higher than it would have been had the Bank of England consistently hit the 2% inflation target. As noted here recently, real take-home pay would have held up if inflation had not overshot.

Why is inflation so much higher in Britain? It is easy to blame quantitative easing, though the weakness until recently of money supply growth would suggest that is not a huge factor, and it has not been confined to Britain.

Once it was possible to tell the story through the performance of the pound. Sterling’s weakness pushed up import prices, of food, energy and other globally-traded commodities. Higher inflation,, it seemed, was the price we had to pay for a competitive pound.

All that, however, is a long way behind us. Sterling’s fall was concentrated in the period from the autumn of 2007 to the early part of 2009. The pound is higher now than at its low-point then. To blame the sterling weakness of 5-6 years ago for high inflation since is a stretch too far.

Another explanation is that Britain never really had properly low inflation, even in the glory days of the first decade of Bank of England independence. In those days, indeed, there appeared to be a bigger chance of inflation undershooting.

Inflation then was, however, flattered by the China effect which produced falling prices for goods, before the rise of China began to put big upward pressure on commodity prices. Domestically-generated inflation, in particular service-sector inflation, was never brought to heel.

That remains the case now. Service-sector inflation last month was 3.4%. Some goods are barely rising in price - clothing and footwear inflation was 1.1%, furniture 0.7% - but overall goods prices were up by 2.1% compared witha year earlier. Result: the highest inflation rate in Europe.

At one time a ready excuse for high inflation was pay. But with official figures showing total pay in the latest three months up just 0.7% on a year earlier that is hard for anybody to argue, even bringing in the additional factor of weak productivity growth (which pushes up unit labour costs). Pay is the dog that is not barking.

So what is it, apart from the factors outlined above? For reasons that are not entirely clear, firms appear to be able to push through price rises in Britain in a way they find hard to do in other countries.

Let me give you, courtesy of Richard Ramsey, an economist with Ulster Bank, a couple of figures that I think will amaze. According to the Office for National Statistics the big contributors to Britain’s inflation over the past few years have been food and (non-alcoholic) drink; housing, water, electricity, gas & other fuels; and transport (including petrol and diesel).

So what has happened to food and drink prices? In the past six years they have risen by a hefty 35.6% in Britain, enough to make a huge dent in any household budget. We have come to believe, that this is the inevitable result of global factors.

In Ireland, however, which Ramsey is well-placed to monitor, the rise in food and drink prices over that period is, remarkably, just 1%. Irish people are paying the same for food as six years ago, while Britons are paying over a third more.

If we take gas and electricity prices, in the news again following British Gas’s announcement of hefty price hikes averaging 9.2%, the difference is also huge. British prices have gone up 61% in six years, Irish prices by 28%.

Unsurprisingly, Britain has had a lot more inflation than Ireland; a 20.7% increase in consumer prices over six years compared with just 3.2% in the Republic. Had Britain had Ireland’s inflation, households would never have had it so good.

How do we account for this? The supermarkets will insist they operate in a highly competitive environment, as do the utilities. So too will every other business. But price increases have become ingrained in the culture in Britain, in a way they are not in many other countries.

Of course 2.7% inflation is not particularly high by past standards, particularly for those of us who lived through a bout of near-27% inflation. So should we not chill out about a bit of an overshoot?

No. It it matters. Labour’s “cost of living crisis” is opportunistic but inflation is significantly too high for the current rate of earnings growth, when it is far from obvious what will push pay rises higher.

You would not, either, want to start from a position of relatively high inflation when moving into a period of stronger growth. There are scenarios in which stronger growth pushes inflation down but there are plenty more in which the opposiute occurs. Inflation is already too high. We cannot afford for it to go higher.

Sunday, October 13, 2013
Help to Buy will help lift housing transactions
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Many moons ago I suggested, drawing on Professor Nick Crafts’ research on the 1930s, that housebuilding was an essential route out of Britain’s post-crisis torpor.

Some disagreed, suggesting that housebuilding was somehow wasted spending, and only “productive” investment, in plant and machinery and the like, is worthwhile. The answer is that you need both, and the advantage of housebuilding is that it is a great job generator.

These days, however, every Tom, Dick and Harry calls for more housebuilding. It has become the panacea. Critics of George Osborne’s Help to Buy scheme say we do not want the government to boost the supply of mortgages but just to increase the supply of new housing.

That is a very odd. Ask any builder why housebuilding has been weak in recent years and they will put finance at the top of the list: the finance to develop new sites and the mortgage finance that enables customers to buy.

While there is case for more social housing, it is naive to expect even an echo of the post-war council housing boom. These days, when we talk about new housing supply we are mainly talking about private sector supply.

Why has housebuilding been so weak in the past few years? Immediately before the crisis, nearly 220,000 new homes were being built. When mortgage availability dried up in 2007-8, new building slumped by nearly 40%. The failure of housebuilding to recover after that, until very recently, was a direct product of the mortgage famine.

Social housing, these days almost exclusively the preserve of housing associations, has responded in a counter-cyclical way, filling some of the gap left by the private sector. But on the eve of the crisis in 2006-7, housing associations and local authorities only accounted for 12% of new homes completed.

That proportion has gone up to around 25% (and will probably go down again now) but we are a long way from the days, last seen in the early 1970s, when there was more social housing built - mainly then by local authorities - than by the private sector. This was in the context of nearly 380,000 homes being built a year.

The shift from mortgage feast to famine as a result of the crisis was dramatic. Bank of England figures show that in 2005 there was £91bn of net mortgage lending (gross lending less repayments), peaking at £110bn in 2006 before subsiding slightly to a still very strong £108bn in 2007. Even in 2008, the eye of the storm, net mortgage lending was £41bn.

For the next four years nothing happened. Net lending averaged less than £10bn a year, achieving less over four years what was achieved in the single annus horribilis of 2008.

Another way of looking at it is in the Bank’s figures for housing equity withdrawal, the amount extracted by homeowners from the housing market.

For most of the 2000s, housing equity withdrawal was huge, totalling £232bn between 2000 and the spring of 2008, when the economy dived into recession. Then the process reversed itself dramatically. Since then, households have collectively injected £209bn back into housing. There are many reasons why the consumer recovery has been weak but this is high on the list.

The key point is that boosting mortgage supply and increasing housebuilding are not alternatives; they are intimately related. The first phase of the chancellor’s Help to Buy scheme, which offers interest free equity loans of up to 20% of the value of a new home has, together with Funding for Lending, provided a decisive boost for housebuilding.

Official figures show housing orders are rising at their fastest rate since 2007, while the more timely construction purchasing managers’ survey from Markit shows housebuilding accelerating at its strongest since 2003. Help to Buy, as predicted here, is helping to build.

If so, why do we need the second phase, brought forward from January by George Osborne at the Tory conference? In this, the government will guarantee up to 15% of a property’s value, in return for a fee charged to the lenders.

The answer takes us back to where I started. New housebuilding is great but it cannot do everything. The read-across from new housing to the wider market is not perfect - you cannot newly-build Victorian houses with character (or large gardens) and the numbers will always be against new housing. Even in a good year, new housing will add less than 1% to the housing stock. It is, as I say, no panacea.

A proper housing recovery requires things to move in the market for existing homes. People who have hung on instead of selling because the market was dormant; perhaps older people contemplating downsizing. Younger households stuck in a home too small for their growing families need to be able to trade up. This too will feed through to more housebuilding in a way a stagnant market would never do.

Defending Help to Buy is a lonely task. The trite argument that it will only push up prices is too easy a soundbite.

Fortunately I have some company. The always-sensible Michael Saunders, an economist with Citi - not a mortgage lender - puts it well. Help to Buy is artificial but no more than the myriad schemes, including ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing, introduced to lift the economy. This one has the merit that, in its first phase at least, it is working.

Peter Spencer, economic adviser to the Ernst & Young Item club, says the policy is “well timed and well targeted”. He adds: “The main benefits will be felt outside London, where they will help to restore a level playing field between first-time, first-move and cash-rich buyers,”

House prices have adjusted a lot. Saunders points out that they are 25% lower in real terms than pre-crisis. The house price-earnings artio, calculated by the Halifax, is 20% lower than it was.

The test for Help to Buy 1 was whether it would boost housebuilding. It has. The test for Help to Buy 2 is whether it results in a significant increase in transactions - currently barely more than half pre-crisis levels. I think it will.

Sunday, October 06, 2013
Osborne boldly goes for a budget surplus
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

What is said in the conference hall, rightly, normally stays in the conference hall. The things politicians say to please the party faithful often do not easily translate into practical policies.

The question is whether George Osborne gave us something last week that will prove to be more durable and significant in terms of future economic policy in Britain.

It was not, in spite of its short-term appeal, the chancellor’s pledge to try to freeze fuel duty between now and the election. It was not, either, the bringing forward of the second phase of the Help to Buy scheme, on which more I hope next week.

No, it was his promise that “when we’ve dealt with Labour’s deficit, we will have a surplus in good times as insurance against difficult times ahead”.

“Provided the recovery is sustained, our goal is to achieve that surplus in the next parliament,” he added. “That will bear down on our debts and prepare us for the next rainy day.”

A couple of sentences in a speech does not amount to a fully-worked policy. But the chancellor’s advisers produced a four-page briefing note to accompany it and the aim is to work this up into fully-fledged fiscal mandate by the May 2015 election.

That new mandate will not necessarily appear in autumn statement or budget documents between now and the election. The constraints of coalition mean that, because this is so far only Tory policy, the Liberal Democrats would also have to adopt it for it to becoem government policy.

What does it mean? At its simplest, it means the Tories will go into the next election promising a budget surplus before the end of the next parliament. In 2019-20 or 2020-21 instead of public sector net borrowing, there will be a debt repayment.

Is that possible? Current projections from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that public borrowing, £115.7bn in 2012-13, will be £42bn by 2017-18. Osborne believes that, even without further real cuts in overall public spending, that trajectory will lead to a budget surplus in at least one of those two fiscal years around 2020.

That, in itself, is no great shakes. A temporary budget surplus, after years of austerity and in the context of a recovering economy is rarel but not unprecedented. It happened in 1969-70 and 1970-71, then again in 1988-89 and 1990-91 and, most recently, in 1998-99, 1999-2000 and 2000-01, the last one helped by £22.5bn of 3G mobile phone proceeds.

Temporary surpluses like this are, however, the political equivalent of a huge itch that has to be scratched. Even if chancellors do not necessarily think that a budget surplus is better spent in tax cuts or higher public spending, you can bet plenty of their colleagues will, particularly when there are elections looming.

Roy Jenkins, Labour chancellor during one temporary surplus period, was blamed by some colleagues for losing the 1970 general election.

Longer-term surpluses - prolonged periods of debt repayment - are much rarer. Successive governments reduced the debt overhang left after the Second World War mainly by allowing its real value to erode, rather than cutting it outright.

For a sustained period of falling debt you have to go back to the late Victorian era, and famous chancellors like William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Randolph Churchill, as well as not so famous ones like Sir William Vernon Harcourt and Sir Michael Hicks Beach.

Can Osborne recreate those Victorian values? Fiscal rules do not have a great reputation. Gordon Brown’s golden rule (only borrowing to fund investment) and sustainable investment (keep debt below 40% of gross domestic product) disappeared in a puff of smoke when the crisis hit.

The coalition’s original rules, to eliminate the current budget deficit and have debt falling as a percentage of GDP by the end of the parliament, have had to be stretched out well beyond the election.

The fiscal rule, or mandate, Osborne has in mind this time is that, subject to economic cirumstances, the government will run a budget surplus, will repay debt. “Subject to economic circumstances” sounds woolly. The mandate could get around it by targeting cycically-adjusted borrowing, though that opens up the kind of can of worms that discredited Brown’s golden rule even before the crisis. Deciding where the economy is in the cycle is a matter of judgment and, even if that judgment is devolved to the OBR, there would be plenty of room for doubt and debate.

Instead we might see Osborne taking a leaf out of Mark Carney’s book. So just as there are “knockouts”, mainly relating to inflation, when the Bank of England’s forward guidance on interest rates will no longer apply, so there would be knockouts in which the government would no longer have to run a budget surplus.

So, if unemployment rises above a certain level, or growth drops below a certain rate, the chancellor would not have to run a surplus; the so-called automatic stabilisers of allowing spending to rise and revenues to fall would apply.

Is running a budget surplus a good idea? It depends where you start from. Brown’s 40% debt rule was not necessarily a bad one, though it proved fragile, and countries that went into the crisis with lower debt levels also found themselves in trouble.

But the fact is that, on almost any scenario, Britain in 2020 will have significantly higher government debt - both in absolute terms (perhaps £1.7 trillion) and relative to GDP (over 80%) - than was the norm for the 40 years leading up the crisis.

That leaves Britain with little room to cope with emergencies or face the pressures of an ageing population, which the OBR expects to push debt to 100% of GDP over the next 50 years. Aiming for a sustained surplus, given this, is a good idea. If you think of the crisis as the equivalent of a war, peacetime is when you unwind the rise in debt that occurred as a result of it.

Will it ever be achieved? 2020 is a long way away. Politics will change - the Tories might not be in government - and so will the economy. But there is a chance, at least, that we have just witnessed the launch of what could be a profound change in the way governments approach the public finances.

Sunday, September 29, 2013
The Bank trumpets recovery: now to lift investment
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Since Mark Carney took over at the beginning of July, most of the economic news has been significantly better than expected.

Not only that but members of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (MPC), including the new governor, are both sounding decidedly upbeat and stressing their collective role in driving recovery. It is not quite “the Bank wot won it” but there is an element of it.

Though in Tory conference week George Osborne would like to all the recovery credit to be directed at him, he will not be too troubled by the Bank’s new-found optimism. After all, he has long argued that his policy of fiscal conservatism alongside monetary activism would deliver recovery.

Revised figures last week confirmed that the economy grew by 0.7% in the second quarter, after rising by 0.4% in the first. City economists are looking for a 0.9% rise in the third quarter, which ends tomorrow. Though there was some less than welcome detail in the latest figures, which I shall return to, the economy appears to have come through its stop-start phase.

David Miles, an MPC member, certainly thinks so. “I would guess that right now we might have a rate of growth in the economy of between 2.5% and 3.5%,” he said in a speech, adding: “The recent rise in activity and confidence in the UK could be — I believe - sustainable and self-confirming.”

His MPC colleague Ben Broadbent, in a speech that required an equation-laden technical appendix, pointed to surveys suggesting the market sector of Britain’s economy “is expanding at an annualised rate of 5% or so”. And, while that could be an overestimate: “The economy has clearly picked up significantly faster than the majority of forecasts (including those of the MPC) made last year.”

Paul Tucker, the Bank’s outgoing deputy governor, joined the celebration. Recovery he said, was “finally underway” and it should not come as a surprise.

Why is it happening? While they could be accused of talking their own book, all three had a similar message, which is that monetary policy has started to work.

For Tucker it is “the massive amount of monetary stimulus of recent years”, including four and a half years of 0.5% Bank rate, £375bn of quantitative easing, Funding for Lending and huge liquidity provision.

While many - too many - economists argued that only a fiscal stimulus (a “Plan B”) would lift the economy, Tucker argues that what he perhaps mischievously calls the Bank’s “Keynesian” monetary stimulus is doing the trick.

Broadbent agrees, pointing out that while neither the Bank nor other central banks cut interest rates last year, their actions significantly reduced bank funding costs, which had a similar effect. Last year’s actions led to this year’s recovery.

The aim of the Bank now, and this was Miles’s central point, is to ensure that the monetary stimulus is given time to work to its full extent, which is what forward guidance on interest rates is all about. So stronger growth will not mean higher interest rates for a long time to come.

The role of a central banker, in the cliche, is to take away the punchbowl just as the party gets going. The MPC instead intends to keep it topped up, the more so because it believes what it is doing is working.

If anybody takes the punchbowl away these days it is the Office for National Statistics. I mentioned that there was some unwelcome detail in the latest figures and they were for investment. While overall investment rose by 0.8% in the second quarter, boosted by housebuilding and infrastructure, business investment dropped by 2.7%. Worse, it was down by 8.5% on a year earlier.

This was a surprise. Previous official figures showed a small rise in business investment in the second quarter, in line with business surveys. The British Chambers of Commerce, for example, said manufacturers’ investment intentions in the second quarter were their strongest since 2007. There was a similar message last month from the EEF, the engineering employers.

Business investment, it should be said, is a curious beast. The figures are subject to greater revision than most official numbers and will be revised even more extensively than usual next year when new estimates for so-called intangible investment are incorporated into the figures.

Business investment in Britain, moreover, does not behave as it should. Remember the 2000s before the crisis hit? It was an era of easy credit, growth and no return (apparently) to boom and bust. Was it also a time of booming investment?

Curiously no. After rising modestly (1.4%) in 2000, business investment fell every year from 2001 to 2004, by 8% in total. It burst upwards in 2005, by 14.9%, before falling by 14.4% in 2006. After that businesses got their investment timing spectacularly wrong. Investment got back into its stride in 2007, up 13.7%, even rising by 4% in 2008 as the economy fell into the abyss. That may help explain the caution now.

All that said, a healthy recovery, and as importantly a rebalanced economy, needs a sustained rise in business investment. One theory about why private sector employment has been so strong is that firms have been happier to commit to taking on more people than committing to a significant - and perhaps more permanent - increase in capital spending.

Though it is hard to quantify alongside the effects of weak business confidence, availability of finance has also been an issue holding back investment, particularly for smaller firms. But it is fair to say that the Bank, and the chancellor, will only really be able to pat themselves on the back when business investment takes up its rightful place in the recovery.

Investment intentions surveys suggest it will. The CBI predicts a strong 7.3% rise in business investment next year, after a 2.8% fall this year. The most recent official forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) was for 6.1% growth in business investment next year, and nearly 9% annually for the following three years.

Anything like that and it really would be a healthy and sustained recovery.

Sunday, September 22, 2013
Scotland will find it cold outside the UK
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

In less than a year, on September 18 2014, Scotland will have a referendum on independence. Though polls currently suggest otherwise, more than three centuries of union between England and Scotland could end.

People have strong views on this and I don’t want to get into the politics. But with Tories perennially unpopular north of the border and a lacklustre Labour leadership making the case for continued union, it is good the Better Together campaign is in the safe hands of Alistair Darling.

Like many in England I don’t want the Scots to go but they have the right to decide. Independence wouldn’t mean border guards at Berwick on Tweed.

There is, however, a strong economic dimension to the debate - many Scottish voters say they will be swung by the economic arguments - hence this piece.

Several recent assessments have been published on the economics of independence, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the National Institute of Econokmic and Social Research (Niesr) and the Westminster government.

To sum these up: Scottish public spending per head is significantly higher than the UK average. Allocating Scotland a 90% geographical share of North Sea revenues would make it easier for Scotland to pay for this higher spending initially, but with those revenues set to decline, tough spending decisions would be needed.

Scotland’s need for spending cuts would be made greater by having to pay more to borrow, and by some revenue losers. Scotland could no longer discriminate against UK students by charging them tuition fees.

The central issue is Scotland’s higher public spending, £12,629 per head in 2011-12 (in today’s prices) according to the IFS, 11% higher than the £11,381 for the UK as a whole. On the basis of population, Scotland’s public spending in 2011-12 was 50.6% of gross domestic product, five percentage points above the UK average.

Proponents of independence will argue that if most of the North Sea is allocated to Scotland, public spending is lower, relative to GDP, than the UK average. But this does not get Scotland off the hook.

Under projections from the Office for Budget Responsibility, the IFS points out, “Scotland’s budget deficit may be 2.2% of GDP further into the red than that of the UK as a whole in 2017–18. To fill this hole would require a further £3.4bn of tax rises or spending cuts.” This is as well as the £2.5bn of cuts already planned.

The National Institute (Niesr) was no more comforting. In Scotland’s Currency Options it highlighted one important monetary consequence of independence, a Scottish economy dependent on oil would not be suitable for a one-size-fits-all monetary policy operated by the Bank of England.

An independent Scotland would also face the task of issuing a huge number of bonds to fund the share of UK government debt it would acquire on splitting. Such debt issuance would threaten market indigestion. Scotland’s borrowing costs would be between 0.72 and 1.65 points higher than for the UK, Their broad message is that, fiscally, it would be cold out there.

“Our baseline scenario ... indicates that a very tight fiscal adjustment would be necessary for Scotland to achieve a 60% debt to GDP target in 10 years,” it says. “The greater the share of debt and the smaller the share of assets (primarily oil and gas) which Scotland receives at independence, the greater the fiscal adjustment necessary.”

The government, quoting the Centre for Public Policy for Regions, also knocks down the idea that an independent Scotland could use oil revenues to establish a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund. Scotland will need all the revenues it can get, and more, to fund annual outgoings.

So the fiscal prospect for an independent Scotland looks grim, even compared with the less than rosy prospect for the rest of the UK. This should make Scottish voters pause. But so should what in my view is even more important.

In the end, the success of an economy depends on its ability to create wealth, through private sector businesses.

The Westminster government’s latest Scotland analysis has useful background on the border effect; how separation leads to a drop on bilateral trade. Prior to the split of Czechoslovakia 20 years ago, 22% of what are now Czech Republic “exports” went to Slovakia. Within five years it was less than 10%. The effect for Slovakia was even more dramatic, a drop from nearly 45% to 15%. Ireland saw a drop over decades from 90% of trade with Britain to around 25%.

So Scottish businesses will face the challenge of replacing a likely loss of trade with the rest of the UK. Nine in 10 customers of Scotland’s financial services industry are in the rest of the UK; as are 60% of its business services exports and a third of the exports of its key food and drink sector.

Behind these dangers lies what is perhaps a bigger challenge for Scottish businesses. There are not enough of them.

I am not disparaging Scottish entrepreneurial talent when I say Scotland is one of the least entrepreneurial parts of the UK. But, since the days of empire, many Scots have been entrepreneurial only outside Scotland. Scotland has long been the natural home of the public sector.

The number of private businesses per 10,000 adults is just 735 in Scotland, compared with 1,231 in London, 1,098 in the rest of the southeast, 1,096 in the southwest and 1,080 in the east of England. The Scottish figure is lower than in Northern Ireland (798), Wales (769) and every other region of the UK except for the northeast.

The yes lobby will say Scottish entrepreneurs have been held back by Westminster’s southern bias. I cannot think of a single reason why this should be. Scotland has enjoyed greater prosperity than most English regions, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland.

Would independence rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit in Scotland? Some pro-independence business people argue that it would but they are in the minority.

Certainly, if the intention of a Scottish government would be to keep public spending high, thus requiring high rates of taxation, on and offshore, it is hard to be optimistic about prospects for the country’s brave band of entrepreneurs.

It is hard indeed, in such circumstances, to be optimistic about the economic prospects for an independent Scotland.

Sunday, September 15, 2013
We had it so good - but this pay squeeze will last
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Thanks to Mark Carney’s forward guidance, the unemployment rate is the economic indicator of choice. We will see the great debate - when will the unemployment rate get down to 7% and how soon after that will the Bank of England raise interest rates? - twist and turn in coming months.

This month the pendulum has swung to those in financial markets who think 7% will be achieved well before the 2016 date implied by the Bank’s forecasts. In the past year the unemployment rate has dropped from 8.1% to 7.7%, suggesting 2015, or even before, is more likely.

But there will, as I say, be twists and turns. The more employers extract higher productivity from workers, the slower will be the growth in net new jobs (a strong 276,000 over the past year) and the more gradual the fall in unemployment.

The Bank would also stress that a 7% unemployment rate wlll not be the trigger for higher interest rates, but merely the point at which the monetary policy committee considers them. More on that in coming months.

This week I want to tackle a couple of puzzles. Why, when the job market has been so strong, is pay so weak? And why are people spending again when wages and salaries are apparently falling inexorably in real terms.

This is, of course, Labour’s new line of attack on government policy; that the recovery is not worth the name as long as living standards are falling. And the latest figures showed that the fall, which dates back to the onset of the crisis, persists.

Average earnings - total pay - rose only 1.1% in the 12 months to May-July. Regular pay, excluding bonuses, rose only 1%. There will be a new inflation number out on Tuesday but the last one was 2.8%. Prices are easily outstripping pay.

The weakness of pay has some puzzling aspects, Surveys of private-sector pay settlements show they average 2% to 3%. Public sector pay, it is true, has moved more into line with the government’s 1% limit; earnings in the latest 12 months were up by 0.9% (excluding the publicly-owned banks).

The earnings figures imply, however, that as well as the public sector, pay must be very weak in the hundreds and thousands of smaller firms not covered by formal agreements.

Assume the earnings figures are right. Why, apart from public sector pay policy, are they so low? The stock answer is that unemployment, and fear of it, is keeping a lid on pay. It seems the Phillips curve, a negative relationship between unemployment and wage rises, lives.

Bill Wells, an economist with Vince Cable’s Business, Innovation and Skills department (BIS) takes a different view. Wells, who digs deep into the labour market numbers, and has given a number of recent presentations, argues that wages have become less responsive to short-term economic signals, including unemployment and inflation.

The recent story of wages, according to him, is that they had settled into a 3% to 5% range before the crisis but were shocked down to between 1% and 3% by the crisis.

Most employers still award annual pay rises but few believe they need to award more than inflation, let alone make up for the drop in real wages of recent years. Until pay is shocked out of its range - and it is not clear what will bring this about - this may be the new normal for pay.

Real wages are not, however, the whole story. The broadest measure of money flowing into households, real household disposable income, has only fallen in one year, 2011. It rose by 1.4% last year. It held up during the 2008-9 crisis, and has fared better than, say, during the 1970s, when it fell for three years in four in the 1974-77 period. Households have sources of income other than pay.

Wells also draws the distinction between real wages, down by a around 7% since mid-2007, and real take-home pay, which has benefited from tax changes, most notably the coalition’s big increase in the personal tax allowance, which will reach £10,000 in April. Low pay is also being topped up by tax credits.

Though the drop in take-home pay is smaller than the fall in real wages - around 3% and it would not have occurred at all if the Bank had met its 2% inflation target - it is still a fall. Yet consumer spending has risen for six consecutive quarters and some areas are booming; such as 18 months of strongly growing private new car registrations.

Credit may be playing a part, though consumer credit remains weak. Some households may be responding to low interest rates and forward guidance by spending out of savings. I suspect, however, the next estimate of gross domestic product later this month will show a rise in the saving ratio.

Consumers are spending for a complex array of reasons. One, which I have noted before, is that households with large borrowings have only belatedly started spending the ongoing windfall they are getting from very low interest rates. Borrowers tend to be bigger consumers than the savers who are suffering from low rates. Other windfalls, such as payment protection misselling compensation, may have helped.

It may be, however, we have to get away from the idea that workers can expect pay rises that outstrip inflation, year-in, year-out. Wells points out that Britain is unusual in that workers came, over decades, to expect annual real wage hikes.

The result, and this is a statistic that will surprise many, is that on OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) figures, Britain’s average take-home pay last year the third highest among advanced economies.

Only Switzerland and South Korea ranked higher, while Britain outstripped America, Germany, Sweden, Japan, France and 26 other countries. The comparison with America is particularly striking. Since the mid-1960s Britain’s real earnings index has doubled while America’s has not risen at all. Maybe Britain will now become more like other countries.

The good news from all this is that the squeeze on real incomes has not been as intense as it appears, hence the fact that spending is rising modestly. The bad news is that the squeeze may not go away even as the recovery gathers strength. Whether that means the recovery lacks legs remains to be seen. At the very least, it cannot rely too heavily on the consumer.

Sunday, September 08, 2013
No more Plan B: Growth kills the fiscal stimulus debate
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The return of growth in Britain means the debate has moved into a new phase. The argument that has, often tediously, dominated over three years - whether or not George Osborne should abandon his deficit-reduction strategy and have a “Plan B” fiscal stimulus - now looks dead and buried.

I shall return to that in a moment, and I will return to the debate about whether Mark Carney’s Bank of England can or should keep interest rates low as the upturn gathers momentum has heated up.

First let me talk about growth. People may not realise how strong recent numbers have been, particularly surveys. The purchasing managers’ index (PMI) showed manufacturing output rising at its fastest since July 1994, and orders at their most rapid since August that year. Britain’s factories “are booming again” said Rob Dobson of Markit, which compiles the data.

The equivalent survey for construction, responsible more than any other sector for reducing growth last year, showed the fastest rise in construction output since September 2007. Construction, lifted initially by housebuilding, appears to be enjoying a broad-based recovery.

You cannot have a modern-day recovery without the service sector playing its part. Fortunately it is. Service sector activity in August rose at its sharpest pace since December 2006, with growth in new business its best for 16 years. It was, according to Markit, “a stellar performance”.

Adding these up gives an economy firing on all cylinders, with construction, manufacturing and services all growing, and at their fastest pace on record, or at least a record going back to 1998, when Markit’s composite PMI was first calculated.

The August surveys, which followed strong July readings, are consistent, say economists, with annual growth of 4% to 5% and a rise of at least 1% in gross domestic product in the third quarter (more than once expected for the whole of 2013), following 0.7% in the second.

Whether or not the Office for National Statistics endorses this, we shall see. Official industrial production and trade figures for July, released on Friday, were a touch disappointing. But the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development sees 0.9% third quarter growth and and 0.8% in the fourth.

This will be the strongest period of sustained growth since the crisis, and is supported by other evidence. Retail sales and new car registrations are up, the latter for the 18th month in a row. Britain’s exporters have improved their performance and business investment is picking up. The economy has got back its mojo.

Why is it happening, and can it last? The absence of new crises, particularly the eurozone, has boosted business and consumer confidence. What I call the “sod it” factor and others would describe as the delayed effects of exceptionally stimulative monetary policy, is boosting spending. As long as these conditions hold, this stronger recovery will persist.

The effect, as I say, has been to kill the argument for a fiscal U-turn by Osborne. The International Monetary Fund, whose chief economist was among those urging a such a shift, now sees global recovery as being driven by advanced economies such as Britain, echoing last week’s piece.

Its briefing for the Russian G20 meeting, describing what governments should be doing on deficits - sticking to the plan but allowing so-called automatic stabilizers to operate - sums up Britain’s approach.

The argument for a fiscal stimulus in Britain always suffered from serious shortcomings. A country running its largest peacetime budget deficit and teetering on the edge of an extreme fiscal crisis, had little option in practice but to pursue a credible strategy for reducing borrowing.

Not only that, but within that deficit-reduction strategy, government spending has been supportive of recovery. Between the second quarters of 2010 and 2013, government current spending rose by 4.4% in real terms to £88bn (in 2010) prices, significantly faster than the rise in GDP.

Capital spending by government, infrastructure, has fallen but less than most people think. In the second quarter of this year it was £8.4 billion (in 2010 prices), less than £500m below its level three years earlier. The argument that weak growth was due to “the cuts” does not hold water.

One response to the stronger growth now, and you hear this from Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, is that it barely compensates for three years of “flatlining”
That overstates it. The economy has grown under the coalition, by a little over 1% a year if you exclude the distorting effects of much weaker North Sea oil production, by a little under 1% if you include it. Employment has been strong.

The trouble with fiscal policy to achieve stronger growth than that is that it rarely gets its timing right. Infrastructure spending cannot be switched on and off at will. Had Osborne been persuaded the infrastructure cuts he inherited from Labour were a mistake and should be reversed, we might just be seeing some extra spending coming through now, just when momentum is building without it.

Infrastructure spending is needed. But as Sir John Armitt pointed out last week, echoing the LSE Growth Commission, it is for the long-term, and should be taken out of short-term political decisions by establishing an infrastructure commission. It is not a short-term fiscal fix. Given the experience of government with big projects, it can be a great way of wasting money for limited economic benefit.

The fiscal stimulus crowd will not lie down quietly. Lord Skidelsky, Keynes’s biographer, will no doubt continue to argue what he sees as his master’s case.

But as long as this stronger growth persists, the stimulus crowd will dwindle, leaving just a few like those Japanese soldiers encountered on Pacific islands in the years after 1945, still fighting the last war.

What about stronger growth and forward guidance? Will it not scupper Carney’s hopes of keeping rates low?

This is the wrong way of looking at it. Low rates, and the commitment to keep them low until recovery is well-established, are a means to an end, not an end in themselves If sustained growth is achieved sooner rather than later, and if forward guidance helped, nobody would be happier than the new governor

Sunday, September 01, 2013
Tortoises catch up on emerging-market hares
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Much attention is rightly being directed towards Syria and the risk Middle East turmoil poses to the global and British recoveries.

Certainly, the Middle East has taken over from the eurozone as the biggest economic threat. An oil price not far short of $120 a barrel, with predictions it could hit $150, is not what the world needs, particularly when something is happening which should be bringing the oil price down: a sharp slowdown in emerging economies.

It is this slowdown, which has evolved into full-blown currency crises in some countries, notably India, that I want to focus on today, and for good reason.

For years I have been telling anybody who would listen the future lay in the emerging world. A book of mine six years ago, The Dragon and the Elephant, looked at the two emerging-economy giants, China and India and predicted great things for them. Never before had we had two such populous countries, each with well over a billion people, growing so strongly and in tandem.

The emerging-economy story was strengthened by the global financial crisis which most of them sailed through. In 2009, the annus horribilis for advanced economies, which suffered a collective 4% fall in gross domestic product (Britain’s was more than 5%), emerging economies grew. Some, such as China with with 9% growth and India with 7%, almost boomed.

After the crisis, the advanced world seemed destined for two enduring hangovers: the financial hangover that meant their banking systems would need a prolonged period of convalescence and the fiscal hangover requiring tax hikes and spending cuts.

Emerging economies, mostly free of such constraints, were where exporters - and selectively investors - needed to be. The big criticism of Britain’s exporters was that they sold too much to sclerotic Europe and too little to the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Remember all those stories about Britain exporting more to Ireland than to the Brics? It has not been true for a while but it appeared to be a powerful indictment of British failure.

But now, with the Brics apparently crumbling, were exporters sold a pup? Was all that exhortation to go east, or elsewhere in the emerging world, a cruel trick?

Last year only China, which grew 7.8%, achieved the kind of growth associated with the Brics. Brazil, 0.9%, India, 3.2% and Russia, 3.4%, barely deserved to be members of the club. Emerging economy growth dipped below 5%, before the crisis of plunging stock markets and tumbling currencies this year. One emerging darling, Indonesia, is in a currency crisis. Another, Thailand, is in recession.

Advanced economies, on the other hand, have perked up, including Britain but also the eurozone, America and Japan. On one estimate advanced countries contributed more to global growth in the second quarter than the emerging world, the first time this has happened for years.

The pessimistic case on emerging economies is easily made. It is that they been beneficiaries of two developments made in the advanced world. The first was pre-crisis debt-fulled growth, which provided the demand to pull the emerging world along.

The second was the response of the big central banks to the crisis, particularly the Federal Reserve. The crisis in emerging economies has at least in part been driven by the big financial market event this year, indications from the Fed that it will soon begin “tapering” its asset purchases under quantitative easing.

Some emerging economies had become too dependent on a regular fix of the QE drug. Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley cites International Monetary Fund research showing cumulative capital inflows to the emerging world of $4 trillion (£2.6 trillion) since 2009.

Add in to the pessimistic mix worries about rising Chinese debt and it is not hard to be concerned. If China falls it would drag other emerging economies with it. There are signs, evident in the trial of the ex political rising star Bo Xilai, the cast-iron grip of the authorities in Beijing has weakened.

So is it time to throw in the towel? No. Most emerging economies have years of strong growth ahead of them, including China. We are seeing an adjustment there from three decades of super-strong strong, averaging 9.5% a year from 1978 to 2008, to a more modest and sustainable rate of around 7%, with the balanced tilted towards domestically-generated growth. Such adjustments are not easy but predictions of Chinese downfall, ever-present since the late 1970s, have been wrong before and are likely to be wrong again.

India may be different. While the dragon can continue roaring, the elephant may be condembed to a lumbering existence, a far cry from the 10% growth its government was targeting not so long ago.

India is in some respects back to the crossroads it faced in 1991, when a chronic current account deficit (it is 5% of GDP now) and a run on the rupee was the wake-up call that led to the country’s successful economic reforms. The wake-up call is being sounded but it is not clear the country’s politicians have the appetite or ability to push through reforms. The prospects for India and her 1.2bn people, soon to grow into the world’s biggest population, are a lot cloudier than they were.

As for the rest of the emerging world. there remain plenty of bright spots, in Asia, central and eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Even at 5% average emerging-world growth, some countries will achieve more than this, and this year that includes the likes of Vietnam, Indonesia ((despite the rupiah crisis), Ghana and Nigeria.

What we have learned, once again, is for these countries it can be a rocky ride. But for emerging economies, as a whole, the ride is far from over. Britain’s exporters should carry on boarding those planes.

Sunday, August 25, 2013
Growth's back - but the deficit's still huge
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

Public sector net borrowing:

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

When will we know the recovery is genuinely making a difference? A sustained increase in gross domestic product (GDP), taking it above and beyond pre-crisis levels, is one obvious test. A reduction in unemployment, which has remained stuck at about 2.5m in spite of record numbers in work, is another.

Both are very important. For George Osborne and the Treasury, however, one vital measure is the budget deficit.

Growth this year has come through in time to get many of the chancellor’s critics off his back. At the point when the International Monetary Fund appeared ready to join those calling for a major rethink of his fiscal strategy, the economy perked up.

Friday's figures showing an upward revision to growth to 0.7% in the second quarter, with that growth remarkably well balanced between sectors and the different components of expenditure, were very good news.

Osborne will not be off the hook, however, without firm evidence that the deficit is decisively on the way down. So far that evidence is more elusive than it should be.

Recent days brought news of a rare July budget deficit, with public borrowing, adjusted for the various special factors, of £0.5bn, compared with a surplus (a debt repayment) of £0.8bn a year earlier.

We should not make too much of that. Borrowing is the difference between two big numbers. July 2012 was initially reported as a deficit but later revised.

But the trend for the first four months of this fiscal year, April-July, did not suggest a deficit on its way down. Public borrowing so far in 2013-14 is £36.8bn, compared with £35.2bn for the corresponding period of 2012-13.
Growth has returned but it is not, it seems, reflected in the public finances.

In some ways this is a mirror image of the past three years. As the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has noted, public borrowing - like employment - has been better than expected given GDP.

One explanation for that is that the GDP figures will be revised. Another is that the deficit is not as automatically linked to growth as we have come to expect.

In June 2010, at the time of Osborne’s June 2010 emergency budget, the OBR predicted £354bn of borrowing during the coalition’s first three years, partly on the back of a recovery strengthing from 1.2% growth in 2010 to 2.3% in 2011 and 2.8% in 2012.

In the event, the coalition borrowed a little more, £374bn, despite a big growth undershoot. The numbers we have at present for growth over that period are 1.7% for 2010, 1.1% 2011 and just 0.2% 2012.

True, the profile is different from that envisaged by the OBR. 2012-13 borrowing was predicted to be £89bn, rather than the £116.5bn currently estimated. That is likely to be revised, but only an extreme optimist would expect it to get down to £89bn.

So where do we go from here? Is this the recovery that does not get rid of the budget deficit? After all, five years of good growth was enough, alongside austerity, to move Britain from a very large budget deficit, 8% of GDP, to a surplus in the 1990s.

Treasury officials, responding to the latest figures, pointed out that tax revenues are consistent with the growth story, up 3.6% in April-July on a year earlier, against a 3% OBR forecast for the full year.

Some of that, however, is due to top rate taxpayers shifting income into the current tax year, so that it would be taxed at 45% rather than 50%. The explosion of bonuses in April, with some follow-through in May, was no accident.

Overall bonuses in 2012-13 were up by just 1% on the previous year. In April, however, with the new 45% rate in place, bonuses showed a 62% rise on a year earlier, followed by a 22% increase in May.

The Treasury also pointed out that borrowing may have been boosted by the timing of public spending, particularly by grants to local authorities, where there was a greater concentration of spending at the start of the new fiscal year, as well as health, education and overseas aid.

Whitehall’s current expenditure in April-July was £217bn, up 4.3% on a year earlier. That is a strange kind of austerity. For once this was not driven by benefits, up a modest 1.5%, but other spending.

Some of this spending is front-loaded, particularly grants to local authorities. It needs to be. The OBR forecast for full-year current spending, 2.2%, is barely half the rate at which it has risen so far this year.

So what will happen? There is a good chance that borrowing numbers will improve as the year goes on, as last year. Only a few months ago many predicted a borrowing outturn of £135bn or more for 2012-13, well above the £116.5bn outturn.

In theory, the deficit will rise this year if the OBR’s latest forecast is accurate. Its prediction, made in March, was for borrowing of £120bn. I think there is a good chance it will come in quite a bit below that, no more than £110bn, as stronger growth (the OBR expected only 0.6% this year) feeds through to revenues. Some City economists, including Philip Shaw at Investec, agree.

Osborne will be relieved that borrowing remains on a downward track, as it has each year so far he has been at the Traesury. What we are not seeing yet is a decisive reduction in the deficit of the kind we saw in the 1990s. Anything above £100bn for annual public borrowing is still enormous, around 6% of GDP, adding to the £1,193bn stock of public net debt.

There are reasons for that, beyond the fact that growth has yet to gain cruising altitude. Weak pay weighs down on income tax revenues and, via in-work benefits that top up people’s incomes, adds to public spending.

Corporate tax receipts are likely to remain subdued, because multinationals have become more adept at avoiding tax and because the cash cow of the financial sector has turned into a tiny calf.

We should not be too pessimistic, Some of these factors will fade over time. But the numbers confirm what we probably already knew. It is a lot easier acquiring a budget deficit than getting rid of one.

Sunday, August 18, 2013
Carney battles the markets - but no knockout yet
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Mark Carney has been Bank of England governor for just seven weeks but already we have had the first tiff on the monetary policy committee (MPC). His relationship with the markets, meanwhile, is approaching the plate-throwing stage.

The new governor is finding his eight colleagues on the MPC - all men - can be an argumentative bunch. His actions are subject to closer scrutiny in the cauldron of the City of London than when he was setting rates for Canada in gentler Ottawa.

Carney gave the first hint of his new policy of forward guidance on interest rates on July 4, when the MPC issued a statement saying the rise in market interest rates was unwarranted, and not justified by anything the Bank was planning to do.

The bells and whistles version of the new approach, unveiled at Carney’s first inflation report press conference on August 7, gave us the now familiar 7% unemployment threshold, at which point - barring accidents - the MPC will begin contemplating interest rate hikes. On the Bank’s forecasts that will not be until 2016.

That was not the end of the story. A few days ago we had the minutes of the August MPC meeting at which forward guidance was agreed. They showed one member, Martin Weale, unhappy with one whistle associated with the policy: one of the so-called inflation “knockouts”, which will override the 7% unemployment rate.

Instead of a Bank forecast of inflation above 2.5% in 18-24 months’ time, Weale would have preferred a more timely warning of above-target inflation, perhaps a year out. Not only that, but other unnamed MPC members did not think the markets, which are pricing in rate hikes well before 2016, were obviously out of line.

To add to the mix - some say the confusion - other MPC members, presumably ultra-doves Paul Fisher and David Miles, have not given up on quantitative easing. They think the case for adding to the Bank’s £375bn of QE remains “compelling” and may vote for it in the coming months.

All this did not go down too well in the City. Ross Walker of Royal Bank of Scotland said the forward guidance framework was “less robust or cohesive” than expected.

Rob Wood of Berenberg Bank called it “Undermining a policy the Bank of England way”. “Markets are unconvinced over the extent to which the MPC will commit to its forward guidance,” said Investec’s Philip Shaw. Harshest was Nick Beecroft of Saxo Bank, who said: “Forward guidance is hardly worth the paper it is written on.”

The markets, apart from pricing in the first rate hike sooner than 2016, have pushed up the yield on government bonds - 10-year gilts - to their highest since 2011 and a percentage point above where they were in the spring. Both amount to a tightening of policy at a time when the new governor is saying it will stay loose.

So is it all up for Carney’s forward guidance when it has barely begun? Despite saying that this is not the best designed policy in the world I do not think so.

Anybody relying on markets for rate guidance recently would have been caught out badly. From March 2009, when Bank rate was cut to 0.5%, the market default position has been to price in rate hikes. Those expectations never came to pass.

The current situation, in which strong economic data runs up against the Bank’s commitment to keep rates low, is exactly the one which will test the strategy. Carney’s arrival coincided with a sustained burst of activity but I do not think he will mind that. Had his launch of forward guidance come at a time of moribund activity, nobody would have paid much attention.

The battle between markets convinced it will not take much of an economic lift to force a rate hike and a governor saying it will take a lot to do so will be a fascinating one. For forward guidance to work it is a battle he has to win.

Though it is as important for firms and individuals to believe low rates are here to stay, rising market rates affect borrowing costs in the wider economy, so need to be nipped in the bud.

Some of that battle will be settled by the data. If inflation continues to fall, as last week, dropping to 2.8% in July, it will calm talk of higher rates. If the unemployment rate is slow to fall that will do so too.

While there are City economists who think 7% unemployment could be hit quite soon, that looks optimistic.. The Bank says even if 250,000 net new jobs are created a year, 7% will not be achieved until 2016.

Recent experience suggests it could be longer. In the past year a 301,000 rise in employment resulted in only a small drop in the unemployment rate, from 8% to 7.8%. With that kind of progress it could require 1.2m net new jobs, and at least four years, to get down to the threshold.

Only if productivity really has permanently collapsed, and it does not take much growth to get unemployment down, would 7% be reached much faster. In those circumstances, the Bank would be right to worry.

What about the MPC minutes and Weale’s dissent? Two things. The MPC, including Weale, will operate on the basis of the framework adopted 8-1 by the majority. As importantly, the discussion about the inflation “knockouts” shows the Bank has not abandoned its commitment to 2% inflation. That, given some of the initial worries about the new strategy, should be positive for Britain’s monetary policy.

As for rising 10-year gilt yields, the new governor is probably realistic about his ability to influence them. They partly reflect international developments, not least events in America. They also reflect the view that such yields, which have been exceptionally low, have to normalise at some time. I doubt the Bank thinks it can or should try to stop that happening.

The big picture is that the new policy is bedding-in, with some teething troubles, not that it has stalled or failed.

The possibility remains that Carney will only resolve his battle with the markets with actions as well as words. That could involve him joining ultra doves in voting for more QE, which I hope he does not do.

It could mean the Bank contemplating a Bank rate cut from 0.5% to 0.25%, to underline its dovishness, though it will be reluctant to do that for fear of upsetting the operation of the money markets.

More likely will be more words. So far we have only really heard from Carney on forward guidance with no strong sense of how genuinely committed the rest of the MPC is to the new strategy. A few speeches from them could help resolve the market doubts.

Sunday, August 11, 2013
Forward guidance aims to give the recovery time to flower
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

They may not be everybody's cup of tea but it has been my privilege to be present at some big Bank of England announcements.

In May 1997, I was among journalists invited to the Treasury for the announcement of Bank of England independence. Handing interest rate policy from the Treasury to the Bank was momentous.

Last week I was among journalists at the Bank for another momentous announcement, the forward guidance that Mark Carney has persuaded his monetary policy committee (MPC) colleagues to adopt. Not as big as independence but still a big deal.

The contrast with 1997, not to labour it, is interesting. Then, in response to a strongly growing economy, the Bank embarked on a series of interest rate hikes to establish its anti-inflation credibility.

This time, despite evidence recovery is gathering momentum, the Bank’s clear message was that rate hikes are a long way off. Indeed, on present plans the MPC will not even think about them for three years.

I will come on to recovery evidence but that, in a nutshell, is what the Carney-run Bank’s new policy is about. Growth is picking up and the first thing markets do when that happens is price in rate hikes.

The Bank’s clear message is that the recovery will be given time to mature, to achieve “escape velocity” from the doleful influence of the global financial crisis.

Is it the best-designed policy in the world? No. Frankly, it looks as it was designed by committee, which it was. The unemployment rate threshold of 7%, at which point the MPC will start thinking of higher rates, suffers from familiar flaws.

This week will almost certainly see a jobless rise because of the volatility of the monthly numbers. Since mid-2009 nearly 1m more are in jobs, yet the unemployment rate has only edged down from 7.9% to 7.8%. Older workers staying in jobs and inward migration could mean 7% unemployment is further than three years away. In the 1990s the rate only fell below 7% as the Bank hiked rates in summer 1997.

The three “knock-outs”, which could persuade the MPC to raise rates sooner, look like playful sparring. The Bank’s financial policy committee could declare that low rates threaten stability but it, like the MPC, is chaired by Carney and there is membership overlap.

The MPC itself could predict a “knock-out” inflation rate of 2.5% or more but its default position is to forecast 2%, in line with the target. Having seen inflation expectations move around a lot in recent years, the MPC is unlikely to shoot itself in the foot by suddenly concluding expectations were no longer “well-anchored”.

Without the knock-outs, of course, people might have concluded the Bank had given up on inflation. But they cloud the simple message that the Bank will seek to hold rates at 0.5% until recovery is well-established (making this the longest period of unchanged rates since 1939-51).

Will recovery become well-established? Since we had news in April that Britain had avoided a triple-dip recession, followed by the revising away of the earlier double-dip, surveys and numbers have been overwhelmingly stronger than expected.

So 0.3% first quarter growth gave way to 0.6% in the second and, to judge by the surveys, something even stronger in the third. Official figures for manufacturing showed an encouraging jump in June and retail sales showed a healthy rise in July.

The really striking evidence, however, is from the surveys. The July purchasing managers’ surveys showed manufacturing, construction and services all growing, as they did in the official data for second quarter GDP, but more strongly.

The manufacturing purchasing managers’ index showed its strongest growth in 28 months and construction output picked up to its fastest rate since June 2010. Most spectacular of all was the service sector, its July index reading of 60.2 pointing to the fastest increase in business activity since late 2006.

Another survey, the KPMG/Recruitment and Employment Confederation report on jobs, also from the information provider Markit, showed the biggest increase in permanent jobs since March 2010 and the strongest rise in vacancies for six years.

Why is it happening? We are seeing a frequently-made claim of recent years, that Britain could never recover alongside a fiscal tightening, disproved. More on that in coming weeks. Growth was held back by several factors and some are now easing.

So the eurozone appears to be coming out of its second recession in five years, with important implications for British exports and business confidence. The flow of credit to households and businesses, while still weak, is starting to improve.

Even the squeeze on real incomes is easing. The gap between wage growth and inflation is narrowing and individuals are benefiting from the coalition’s increases in the personal tax allowance. Consumer and business confidence has risen, a necessary precondition for stronger growth.

Does it matter what kind of recovery we have? Yes, but in the early stages beggars cannot be choosers. There is a lot of nonsense talked about lack of rebalancing - the trade deficit in the first half was down by a third on a year earlier - and even more about housing market bubbles.

After three years in which everybody has bemoaned lack of demand in the economy now some worry that - horror of horrors - some of it is coming from consumers. The bald fact is that if you do not have a recovery in consumer spending, two-thirds of GDP, you do not have a recovery. I believe the Bank when it says stronger investment will follow, and an apparent downward lurch in the saving ratio in the first quarter reflected distortions that will be reversed in the second.

None of this has much to do, yet, with forward guidance, but by heading off talk of higher rates, even when growth rises above 2.7% (on Bank forecasts) in the early part of next year, it will nurture recovery.

If growth accelerated much more than this, even if unemployment stays high, the Bank has to be alert. Forward guidance is just that. In an uncertain world the path of interest rates can never be set in stone. And a rise in rates can be good news, showing the economy is strong enough to take it.

Inflation also still matters and any repeat of the experience of recent years, when on two separate occasions it has breached 5%, would be fatal for the credibility of the new policy.

The oldest cliche about monetary policy is that central bankers have to be ready to take away the punchbowl just as the party gets going. Carney intends to leave that punchbowl in place for some time. At some stage he will have to take it away. Judging when to do that will be the hard part.

Sunday, July 28, 2013
Three cheers for dull growth
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

At one time when you would struggle to get a 0.6% rise in gross domestic product to lead the business pages, let alone every news bulletin. A 0.6% GDP rise, which we had in the second quarter, is pretty dull.

These days, however, dullness is good. After the excitement of recent years, including quarters when the Office for National Statistics shocked with a figure nobody expected, it was nice not to be surprised.

Quarterly changes in GDP in recent years have ranged from plus 1.3% (the second quarter of 2007) - a modest boom - to minus 2.5% (the first quarter of 2009), a spectacular bust. So 0.6% was a steady, safe number, neither breaking the speed limit nor driving so slowly as to be dangerous.

Indeed, if you could be assured of 0.6% growth, each quarter, for the next few years, most policymakers, I suspect, would grab it with both hands.

It would mean the hole in the economy left by the crisis was mainly permanent; by now in normal circumstances we would expect to be 13% above early 2008, not 3.3% below. But it would also mean our ability to grow had not been damaged for good.

Growth of 0.6% a quarter, roughly 2.5% a year, is close to what most economists would think of as the trend, or normal, long-run growth rate. It is a lot better than the Japanese “lost decade” rate of closer to 1% Britain has been achieving, on currently-available data, since the economy turned up in the middle of 2009.

Perhaps it was because 0.6% was in line with expectations it sparked a frenzy of navel-gazing about the kind of growth being achieved. This is the charge that the authorities failed to rebalance the economy away from debt and consumer spending and towards exports and investment. Though it was predictable the debate would shift from the lack of growth to the composition of it, I still get a little irritated by it.

This is not, remotely, a recovery led by consumer spending or household debt. Household debt has fallen in relation to annual household income, from just under 170% to just over 140%. We have the slowest consumer recovery of modern times, with spending still 3% below pre-crisis levels

The performance of exports and investment is indeed disappointing. But the Bank of England and Treasury were happy to preside over a huge fall in the pound to stimulate exports. The fact exporters have not responded as well as hoped (or when they have importers have responded in kind) reflects longstanding structural weaknesses and the time it takes to switch to the faster-growing parts of the world.

As for investment, the government has done its bit to make Britain a more attractive location for inward investment, at a time of huge strains on the public finances, by cutting corporation tax. By 2015 the rate will be 20%. When Nigel (Lord) Lawson cut corporation tax in the 1980s, it led to an investment boom. This time businesses have preferred to hold on to their cash.

Governmments and central banks can provide the incentives but cannot make the private sector do things it is unwilling to do. To judge from some commentary, you would think these things were in the gift of the authorities. But we do not live in a centrally-planned economy. All policymakers can do is lead the horse to water.

Nor would a recovery driven by even more government spending do anything for the cause of rebalancing, in fact the opposite. I have said many times the government got the mix wrong between current and capital (infrastructure) spending - the latter cut harder than it should have been. That is now water under the bridge.

The question is where we go from here. Can we maintain a 0.6% quarterly growth rate, and can we hope for better from exports and investment?

Recent surveys, including a strong CBI manufacturing survey, the regular purchasing managers’ surveys for services, manufacturing and construction, and others for property, housing and retail point to momentum in the third quarter.

The anecdotal evidence I pick up, from readers and others, also suggests more confidence in recovery than for some time. The “sod it” factor I mentioned a couple of weeks ago - we can’t carry on doing nothing - may be kicking in.

There are also more tangible reasons for cautious optimism. Nobody pretends that the eurozone’s problems are solved. Currently it is Portugal, who knows who next of the eurozone’s 17 members will be casting doubts on the ability of the single currency to ride out the crisis?

But fear of imminent collapse has faded, a year after Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, pledged to do whatever was necessary to preserve the system.

Perhaps as significant as Britain’s growth figure, there are indications, after six successive quarterly declines, the eurozone is returning to growth. Its composite purchasing managers’ index jumped to 50.4 in July, from 48.7 in June. Levels above 50 are consistent with growth. The European Commission says consumer confidence is at its highest since August 2011.

What happens in the eurozone is important. Uncertainties there have undoubtedly been a factor holding back investment and weak demand from Europe has stood in the way of a rebalancing of the economy towards exports. One reason America has enjoyed a better recovery than Britain (though weak by its standards) is it does not have the drag of Europe on its doorstep.

There are other reasons for hope. The squeeze on real incomes is easing, as earnings growth edges up and inflation heads bumpily lower. By next year, real wages may be rising. The money supply, for so long apparently immune to the Bank of England’s ultra-loose policy, is growing. Simon Ward, chief economist at Henderson Global Investors, says this is the key factor in the recent stronger performance.

So there are reasons to take heart, for believing that the second quarter’s 0.6% growth was no flash in the pan. We don’t like flashiness when it comes to growth. Dullness is a virtue. Let us have more of it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013
What else is in the Bank's box of tricks?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

It is early days but the Carney effect is already discernible at the Bank. Mark Carney, the new governor, took over three weeks ago today and has made a difference. The question is what else is in his box of tricks.

The first difference was the release of of a statement, after the first meeting of the monetary policy committee he chaired, on July 3-4, to hose down market interest rate expectations.

The markets had begun to discount a rise in Bank rate in less than two years’ time, in contrast to the position weeks earlier, when no hike was seen before late 2016. Nudged by its new governor, the MPC said this change of view was unwarranted.

The second change, which occurred at that same meeting but was not revealed until the publication of the minutes last week, was that the MPC, which had been split on the issue of quantitative easing since November, voted unanimously for unchanged policy this month.

Last month three of its number, David Miles, a long term enthusiast for QE; Paul Fisher and Sir Mervyn King, the former governor, wanted more asset purchases. This time, with King enjoying his retirement, the other two withdrew their call for more QE.

The new governor brought harmony where there was discord, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s famous St. Francis of Assisi quote. His first meeting saw a 9-0 vote for no more QE - £375bn is the total so far - and no change in Bank rate, 0.5%. Neither he nor anybody else was outvoted.

Interesting though these developments were, they represented the appetisers to next month’s main course, to be unveiled on August 7. While many will be enjoying the beach, the Bank under its new governor will set the tone and parameters for Britain’s monetary policy over the next few years.

Does it mean we have seen the last of QE? Though I would not mourn its passing it is too early to conclude, as some have done, that there will be no more. The International Monetary Fund, in a comprehensive report on the British economy, its so-called Article IV consultation report, said the Bank should consider more QE, alongside other policies.

Even the minutes of the 9-0 vote left the door ajar for more QE, with those who had previously been enthusiastic agreeing that “an expansion of the asset purchase programme remained one means of injecting stimulus, but the committee would be investigating other options during the month, and it was therefore sensible not to initiate an expansion at this meeting”.

Having said that, QE will not be the focus next month. It will be the policy most associated with the new governor, forward guidance on interest rates.

In the March budget, having talked to Carney, George Osborne updated the Bank’s remit to make clear, as he put it, that the MPC “may wish to issue explicit forward guidance, including using intermediate thresholds in order to influence expectations on the future path of interest rates”.

There is a danger, in the language used by the chancellor, and talk of intermediate thresholds and “state-contingent” forward guidance, of complicating a very simple idea. That idea is that interest rates will not be raised until certain conditions are met, and the Bank is working on its formulation for what those conditions should be.

It could be the unemployment rate, the measure used by the Federal Reserve. The US unemployment rate is currently 7.6% and the Fed is looking for 6.5% before it tapers its QE programme (its additional asset purchases) to zero.

Britain’s unemployment rate is 7.8% and, according to the Office for Budget responsibility’s latest forecast, will be 6.9% as late as 2017, implying on a 6.5% rule no increase in interest rates before then.

An intermediate unemployment threshold is not perfect - you can have strong economic growth which is not reflected in a drop in unemployment if the workforce is expanding - but is likely to be part of next month’s guidance.

Other variables are being examined, including the “output gap”, the amount of spare capacity in the economy, which is hard to measure. Above-trend growth, and the number of quarters it is achieved (if and when), and the level of “money” GDP merit consideration.

I suspect, however, the Bank will want to keep it simple, finding the most straightforward way of conveying the message that rates will be kept low until such time as growth is properly established, as measured by unemployment. There will be caveats: an exchange-rate crisis or domestically-generated inflation surge could force the MPC to override its guidance. But that will be the aim.

Will forward guidance work? It is important to recognise that not doing something can still provide a stimulus. So even if there were to be no more QE, the £375bn already done, which will not be unwound until well after interest rates have risen, is still providing a monetary boost.

Similarly, and perhaps more obviously, not raising interest rates, or holding them down beyond the point firms and individuals might have expected them to rise, should stimulate some growth.

It will not be a panacea. The victims of low rates, savers and particularly pensioners, will shout even louder about the iniquities of indefinitely low rates. It will not prevent, say, 10-year bond yields from rising if, led by stronger US data, that is where markets want to take them.

The IMF, in its assessment, said forward guidance is unlikely “by itself” to instigate recovery, citing the need to boost the supply of credit. With the latest figures from the Bank showing a continued drop in len ding to small and medium-sized firms, even with the Funding for Lending scheme in place, it is a point well made.

Though this week’s figures should show growth picking up significantly in the second quarter - the Bank expects 0.6% - there is a long way to go. Forward guidance is definitely worth trying. But that box of tricks may have to be raided again.

Sunday, July 14, 2013
Exports becalmed on a sea of disappointment
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

There is no other way to describe Britain’s trade performance than as becalmed. Exports, which were supposed to drive Britain’s recovery, have mainly stayed at home. The question is whether they will continue to do so.

According to figures released a few days ago by the Office for National Statistics, Britain had a trade deficit in goods and services of £2.4bn in May, split between an £8.5bn deficit on goods and the traditional surplus on services, in this case £6.1bn.

If you were looking for progress on Britain’s external trade, you would not find it in these figures. A year earlier, in May 2012, the overall deficit was smaller, £2.1bn.

Looking for a trend in these numbers, in either direction, probably does not make sense. The trade deficit is flat, stuck or, as I say, becalmed. Rather than making the hoped-for big contribution to growth, net trade - exports minus imports - has effectively done nothing to boost the economy.

The only year it did, 2011, it added 1.2 percentage points to growth, the effect previous experience suggested was achievable over a sustained period. But 2011 was bookended by 2010, when net trade subtracted 0.5 percentage points from growth, and 2012, when it did so by 0.6 points.

This does not mean there has been no growth in exports since the low point of the recession in mid-2009. Exports of goods and services in volume terms are up by 13.3%. But imports, which are of course bigger, are up by 10.2%.

Exports are fractionally below their pre-crisis peak, recorded in the second quarter of 2008, though to be fair imports are down rather more. To the extent there has been any rebalancing, that is the extent of it.

Nor have things gathered momentum as the recovery has progressed. On a slightly different measure, the value of trade, the ONS notes “the value of both exports and imports has remained flat since mid-2011”.

The big picture is that in an age of instability, Britain’s trade deficit has been remarkably stable. Pencil in between £23bn and £24bn for the quarterly deficit in goods trade and you will not be far wrong.

Since the beginning of 2007, the quarterly goods deficit has moved within a narrow, £19.6bn to £27.8bn range, and between 5.6% and 7.2% of gross domestic product. The earth has moved but the trade deficit has not.

Were we wrong to expect export-led growth on the back of sterling’s sharp fall in 2007-8? The pound’s average value fell by nearly 30% between the middle of 2007 and the end of 2008 and remains roughly 25% below pre-crisis levels.

The template was the performance of exports after the rather smaller sterling devaluation when sterling plunged out of the European exchange rate mechanism in September 1992. Over the following four years, a sterling fall which reached a maximum of 17%, was enough to drive a 37% rise in the volume of exports.

Conditions have been different this time, of course. All advanced economies, which comprise most of Britain’s export trade, have been struggling to shake off the effects of the crisis and are experiencing slow growth.

For a time there was a clear distinction between Britain’s exports to the European Union, which were falling by roughly 10% a year, and the rest of the world, where they were rising at a similar rate.

That gap has narrowed. Over the latest 12 months, exports to the EU, in value terms, are down 1.1%, while non-EU exports are up a modest 2.6%. There are some bright spots within that; exports to China are up 18% and those to Japan by 8%. But there are not enough of them.

Weak growth in markets is one thing, though the Bank of England noted in its last inflation report that Britain’s share of world trade has also been declining.

What ails exporters? I go to a lot of meetings at which, with the encouragement of UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), the official body, exporters are urged to step up their efforts and given official help to do so.

There is no lack of enthusiasm, among companies large and small. Exploiting export markets, particularly new ones, is not an easy business, however. It requires investment, something credit-constrained smaller firms, in particular, are cautious about committing to. It involves taking risks. which risk-averse businesses are keen to avoid.

It also requires, for Britain’s economy, a significant change of emphasis. After the post-ERM export boost of the 1990s, Britain settled down to growth driven by domestic demand. Between 1998 and 2007 net trade substracted an annual average of 0.1 percentage points from growth.

Firms got out of the exporting habit and, in recent years when they needed to, have not priced to compete in overseas markets, despite the advantages of a low pound. Enthusiasm for exporting is not enough.

Can things change? Recent surveys have been positive on exports, including the British Chambers of Commerce quarterly survey which suggested service sector exports are at their best in the survey’s 24-year history.

The Ernst & Young Item Club, in a report to be published this week, suggests a 4.6% increase in export volumes next year, after a modest 1.2% this year.

“There are hopeful signs for the world economy, which will lead to a pick-up in demand from the UK’s key export markets,” says Peter Spencer, its chief economic adviser. “The US has successfully negotiated the fiscal cliff, the Chinese economy is beginning to rebalance away from investment to consumption, and there is also a move towards pro-growth policies in the Eurozone. If managed successfully these factors could be a real boon for UK exporters.”

Let us hope so. So far, however, waiting for export-led growth has been a triumph of hope over recent experience. It could stay that way.

Sunday, July 07, 2013
Carney tries to ensure lift-off won't be aborted by higher rates
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Two related events dominate the discussion this week. The first is the growing evidence that Britain’s recovery is strengthening. The second was the signal from the new Mark Carney-run Bank of England that stronger growth does not mean early interest rate rises.

There will be time a-plenty to analyse the Carney approach next month, when the new Bank governor sets out his approach to so-called forward guidance on interest rates. There may even be, though I hope not, more quantitative easing.

He has, however, already made an impact, the monetary policy committee’s statement that the recent rise in market interest rates was unwarranted sent the pound down sharply. This will help exporters, which is good, but push up inflation, which is bad.

Anybody who had doubts that Carney intends to give the recovery plenty of time to breathe, which was why George Osborne was so keen to appoint him, should have shed them at noon on Thursday. This is a governor who does not intend fears of higher rates to take hold for a long time.

When people at the Bank asked me about the value of forward guidance on rates - at a time a few weeks ago when nobody was giving any thought to rate hikes - I said it would be when stronger numbers were starting to make the markets think about higher rates.

So it proved to be and the explicit message from the Bank was that it will take a lot more such stronger data, sustained over a very long period to make the MPC raise rates. I would be surprised to see a rate hike over the next 2-3 years.

But what about that recovery evidence? What is it and is it likely to last? It has come with the monthly purchasing managers’ indices, which measure business to business activity, all of which have recently beaten expectations.

So the June manufacturing PMI rose from 51.5 to 52.5, construction was up from 50.8 to 51 and, most impressive of all, that for services rose from 54.9 to 56.9, a 27-month high. Chirs Williamson of Markit, which produces the data, says the PMIs are consistent with growth of at least 0.5% in the second quarter “with more growth to come”. The economy, in other words, has acquired a lot of momentum.

Alongside the PMIs the British Chambers of Commerce, in its quarterly survey, showed rising business confidence and increases in most of the key measures it monitors, for employment, orders and, in the case of manufacturers, investment.

Service sector exports rose to their best since the survey began in 1989, while export orders were at their strongest since 1994, when Britain was enjoying an export-led recovery.

Perhaps most encouraging was the rise in confidence. Confidence among manufacturers that turnover will improve rose seven points to +51%, while confidence in profitability rose six to 39%. Among service-sector firms the figure for turnover was up six to 46% and on profitability up 12 to 34%.

This is potentially very important. Everybody has heard the expression “animal spirits” and everybody also knows they have been depressed. Businesses need to have confidence to invest, and for the past few years it has been a case of one thing after another giving them reason not to. If that is changing it is a very welcome sign.

The same is true of consumers. Consumer confidence is depressed compared with “normal”, as in pre-crisis levels, but it is definitely on the up. Mostly, according to the GkK-NOP measure, it is because people are more optimistic about the wider economy. The pick-up in housing activity and prices is both a symptom and a case of greater consumer confidence.

The question is why the data and confidence measures are looking much better when, on the face of it, nothing has changed. All the factors apparently holding back recovery are still with us.

So George Osborne has not abandoned fiscal consolidation, and indeed has just announced £11.5bn of new cuts for 2015-16.

The squeeze on real wages continues, with inflation close to 3% and earnings growth roughly 1%. Eurozone surveys have been looking better but not by enough to prevent a seventh successive quarterly drop in gross domestic product in the April-June period. Bank lending to small and medium-sized firms continues to fall.

There are three possible reasons why things are looking up. The first is the absence of new shocks. After the big one in 2008-9, the subsequent period has been interspersed with worries about imminent collapse, particularly in the eurozone. Those fears have faded, largely thanks to the European Central Bank.

The second possibility is that the long years of very easy monetary policy - Bank rate has been 0.5% since March 2009 - are along with new measures to stimulate lending, particularly for housing, starting to have an effect. The lags in monetary policy are notoriously long I have used the analogy of trying to start a damp bonfire with copious amounts of petrol. Maybe this time the fire is finally getting going.

The third is what I would indelicately call the “sod it” factor. People and businesses have hung on for long enough, maybe expecting rates to rise, perhaps waiting for clearer signals that it was the right time to spend than they were ever going to get. At least some of them are now deciding to do it anyway.

You see it in new car registrations, particularly to private buyers, which in June were up by 21.3% on a year earlier, within a rise of 13.4% for the overall market. In the first half of this year private buyers have bought over 80,000 more new cars than they did in the corresponding period of last year, a rise of 17.1%. We may yet see the sod it factor reflected in stronger business investment as the year progresses.

Can the stronger upturn last? The better news means a second wave of revisions to growth forecasts. The first wave came after the better than expected 0.3% rise in GDP in the first quarter. The prospects of an even better number in the second quarter means forecasts are being torn up again.

So J.P.Morgan has revised this year’s growth forecast up from 1.2% to 1.6% and next year’s from 2% to 2.6%. That, if achieved, would be the best since 2007. Forecasters have been wrong before during this recovery, of course, but upward revisions make a welcome contrast with the relentless tide of downgrades of recent years.

There are plenty of risks. Events in Portugal remind us that the eurozone crisis is far from over. The military overthrow of the Egyptian government produced an unwelcome rise in oil prices. We are not yet out of the woods. Maybe, however, the path is getting a bit clearer.

Sunday, June 30, 2013
Osborne's slow march to a smaller state
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Gathered in a single room were several former chancellors, as well as the current one and his shadow, the only surviving former Bank of England governor, and very many current and former Bank and Treasury officials, including most who have served on the monetary policy committee.

The occasion, of course, was Sir Mervyn King’s retirement, and if you wanted to put together a collection of people who have tried to manage the ups and downs of Britain’s economy over the past three decades, last week’s would be hard to beat, though Gordon Brown, surely invited, would have been a useful addition.

I feel I have lived with these people during the rollercoaster ride. We have held hands, though usually not literally, during the scarier moments. All the economic expertise assembled in that room would, however, struggle to explain fully the economy now.

New gross domestic product figures from the Office for National Statistics have deepened the puzzle. They showed the double-dip recession of late 2011 and early 2012 was revised away, as long predicted here. The bigger story, however, was that as things stand the economy is even further below pre-crisis levels of GDP than we thought.

The ONS now believes, thanks to what it regards as more accurate corporate data, the economy’s plunge off the cliff in late 2008 and early 2009 was even more dramatic than it seemed at the time.

So GDP fell by 7.2% from peak to trough (compared with the 6.3% previously estimated), and in the first quarter was 3.9% below its level in the first quarter of 2008, compared with the previous estimate of 2.6%.

Think about that 3.9% for a moment. Let us round it to 4%. The five years of deep recession and modest recovery from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2013 have left the economy 4% smaller than it was. Though its composition has changed, employment is up by nearly 1% over the same period, hence the sharp drop in productivity: output per worker.

Had the economy grown in line with its 3.2% average in the 10 years before the crisis, it would now be 17% bigger than it was in early 2008. Had it grown at a more modest 2% rate, it would be over 10% bigger. It did not, and the gap between what might have been and what is - equivalent to as much of a fifth of GDP or more than £300bn - is enormous.

We are where we are, or at least until the next big set of ONS revisions, so what does it tell us? The people gatrhered in that room have seen pretty well all variations of economic policy. The current mix of very loose monetary policy and tight fiscal policy is not unprecedented, but the extent of it, on the monetary side at least, is.

George Osborne’s spending round did not contain anything that will affect the short-term economic outlook. It confirmed, however, that the road back to fiscal health is a long and difficult one.

The spending round, with its additional £11.5bn of cuts, covered only the 2015-16 fiscal year. Even that year, when public spending is set at £745bn, it will be the equivalent of 43.1% of GDP. The 40% of GDP target that any Tory chancellor would normally regard as the maximum acceptable level of spending, will not even be achieved, on present plans, by 2017-18, when the level will be equivalent to 40.5% of GDP.

By then, even on these figures (which will surely change), a decade of austerity will have only got us back to where public spending was in 2007-8, the eve of the crisis, 40.7% of GDP. For 10 years, Britain will have been spending more than, on any reasonable estimate of the tax base, the country can afford, hence the big rise in public sector debt. Some of that spending has been hard to avoid, but it is still a sobering thought.

How sobering is it? There were three things in Osborne’s statement that could make a difference over the long run: the annual cap on welfare spending, from April 2015, to be policed by the Office for Budget Responsibility; the merging of health and long-term care and the ending of automatic, so-called progression payments in the public sector.

Each of these provides the opportunity, in the next parliament rather than this one, to exercise proper long run control of spending, in the way that countries like Canada have done but Britain has so far failed to manage. The weakness of the welfare cap is that it excludes most pensioner benefits, but it still leaves the possibility that the failure in this parliament to make serious inroads into the overall level of spending will not be repeated in the next one.

There is another consequence of the latest decisions. They mean the government is already well on the way to achieving a smaller state in the non-ringfenced areas of spending: most departmental spending excluding health, schools and overseas aid. If a combination of stronger growth and the new welfare cap were to mean that this huge element of spending is controlled or cut, it is possible that Britain’s public finances could look healthy in a few years’ time, with a smaller and more affordable state and borrowing under control. There are a lot of “ifs” in that but it is something to hope for.

What about that loose monetary policy? Should it, under the new Bank governor Mark Carney, be even looser. Some City economists have seized on the new GDP figures as evidence that there is more room for the Bank to act with additional quantitative easing (QE) than was thought.

After all, an economy languishing 4% below pre-crisis levels has an enormous amount of catching-up to do, and a lot of spare capacity. The output gap, a measure of that capacity, is bigger than we thought.

Tie that to the fact that in the past three months, the yield on 10-year gilts (UK government months) has risen from 1.7% to roughly 2.4% - and the one proven effect of QE is to get those yields down. You could make the case, on these two factors, for restarting the QE programme this week.

It is possible but it would make me very uneasy. The ONS revisions represent a change in our view of economic history, not the pace of the current recovery, which is unaffected. A monetary policy change driven by a revised view of what happened 4-5 years ago would be odd, and we are many years away from the last official word on what is happening now.

As for the rise in gilt yields, I repeat what I said last week. That rise is due to the markets’ reaction to Ben Bernanke’s very broad hints that the Federal Reserve will taper its asset purchases in the coming months. Bond yields have to normalise at some stage. As long as it does not get out of hand, that process should be encouraged, not artificially halted.

Sunday, June 23, 2013
Bernanke adds to Mark Carney's challenges
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

When Sir Mervyn (soon to be Lord) King took over as Bank of England governor 10 years ago, inflation was below target, the economy was more than a decade into a prolonged upturn and the banking crisis was not even a twinkle in anybody’s eye.

Today, as he hands over to Mark Carney, things are rather different. On July 1 2003, the latest published reading for consumer price inflation was 1.3% and, while the official target at the time was specified differently, inflation had not been above the current 2% benchmark in over six years.

Now, inflation is 2.7% and has not been at or below the 2% target since autumn 2009. Indeed, for 81 of the past 96 months it has been above target.

2003, with hindsight, was a year of very strong growth for the economy, 3.8%, though the Bank’s monetary policy committee still felt concerned enough to vote for a reduction in interest rates to the then daringly low level of 3.5% at King’s first meeting as governor in July 2003.

Now, while forecasts for growth this year are creeping higher, the consensus is only for 0.9% this year, even though Bank rate has been at the record low level of 0.5% for more than four years.

Worries about the banking system did not trouble King in his first four years or so. Up to the outbreak of the crisis in the summer of 2007, his publicly expressed view was that British banks were sound, and perfectly capable of weathering storms arising from bad US subprime loans.

Now, the banking system is still being repaired, with banks required by the new Prudential Regulation Authority (part of the Bank) to raise another £27bn of capital. The outgoing governor insisted in his final Mansion House speech on Wednesday that this will enhance their ability to lend.

The banks see it differently and, while mortgage lending is picking up - in May gross lending was at its strongest since the autumn of 2008 - business lending and overall credit growth remains very weak.

I am not suggesting these changes can all be laid at King’s door, or that he is handing over a poisoned chalice to his successor. The picture looks better than a year ago and, indeed, considerably better than the 2-3 years before that. When he took over in 2003 he was in some respects inheriting from himself, having been deputy governor and before that chief economist.

Even so, Carney faces some serious challenges and he has given himself only half the time; five years compared with the 10 years in office that has been the norm for recent governors. He is a man in a hurry.

The first challenge is the issue of the moment, quantitative easing (QE), or central bank asset purchases. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, has ably demonstrated the markets’ addiction to QE by indicating when the Fed will reduce, or taper, its current $85bn (£54bn) of monthly asset purchases. He suggests the tapering will begin later this year and that QE will stop altogether by the middle of next year.

The turmoil this timeline has generated could, if it impacts adversely on economic activity, force the Fed into keeping QE going. In the meantime, however, it creates a dilemma for the new governor.

Though growth has a long way to go before it is anything like normal (and normal now is nothing like what the economy achieved in 2003), it has been picking up. Retail sales jumped 2.1% in May and purchasing managers’ surveys and other evidence point to stronger growth in the second quarter than the 0.3% rise in gross domestic product in the first. Official figures this week may nudge up some of Britain’s growth history.

Signs of stronger growth can be taken together with the fact that inflation rose from 2.4% to 2.7% last month, and seems certain to go higher when this month’s figures are released in July (the new governor would be forced into a letter to the chancellor if it goes to 3.1% or more). This should be enough to kill talk of an early resumption of the Bank’s £375bn QE programme.

When you add the fact that the Fed is starting to think about its exit strategy, it would be odd for the Bank to contemplate doing the opposite. The only argument for doing so, the rise in gilt yields (the interest rate on UK government bonds) that has resulted from the Fed’s exit talk, is surely no reason at all. It would be a bizarre world if one central bank felt obliged to ease policy in response to another’s attempt to begin the process of tightening.

Carney’s task, surely, should be to work with other central banks to find a painless way - if there is one - of weaning the markets off this extraordinary support.

His second challenge is to come up with policy that makes a difference. Here, the buzz-phrase is explicit forward guidance. A Carney-led MPC might say Bank rate will stay at 0.5% until the unemployment rate has fallen below, say, 6.5% from 7.8% now - similar to earlier Bernanke guidance on QE. Or it might say that there will be no change in rates until GDP - in either real or money terms - has reached a certain level. The new governor is known to favour this kind of forward guidance.

It is not, however, as straightforward as it sounds. Unlike the Bank of Canada, where the governor makes the final decisions on monetary policy, the nine-member, one person-one vote MPC is democratic. Carney no doubt knew this when he took the job, but that was before King was outvoted in each of his last five meetings. The culture shock could be considerable.

Even if he can get the rest of the MPC to agree on forward guidance, it may not be particularly effective, as Russell Jones, an economist with Llewellyn Consulting, points out. If the markets sense the Bank will not necessarily stick to its pledges, perhaps because future MPC members will not feel obliged to abide by them, they will see through them. “If a central bank lacks credibility, it is effectively powerless,” he says.

The third challenge is the biggest of all. Britain, for a time at least, was an economy that could grow by 3% a year alongside sub-2% inflation. Now it is a sub-2% growth economy alongside 3% inflation. The trade-off has worsened significantly.

The longer inflation persists at near-3% rates, the more firms, households and markets will believe the 2% target is a fiction. Carney’s biggest task in his five years will be to return to Britain to lower inflation and higher growth. It is not clear whether he as the tools, or the scope, to do so.

Sunday, June 16, 2013
Don't write off Britain's productivity yet
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The news on pay and productivity has been bleak. Britain, it seems, has become a lower-paid, faling-productivity economy, a land of squeezed incomes, low investment and declining ambition.

For those tempted to switch off now, stay with me for a while. Let me start some of those gloomy numbers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), in a series of studies, reported that real wages at the end of last year were 6% lower than on the eve of the recession in early 2008.

Real wages have fallen more over the past five years than in any comparable period, the IFS noted, with large numbers of workers subject to pay freezes (at a time of rising prices) and cuts.

Nor, according to another IFS analysis, have households been making up this wage squeeze elsewhere. Depending on which measure of inflation you use, but based on official Department of Work and Pensions data, it demonstrated that median real incomes dropped by between 4% and 6% between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

The IFS was not the only organisation to highlight what has been happening to pay. The Trades Union Congress reported that total pay in 2012 was £52bn lower, in 2012 prices, than in 2007, a 7.5% fall. In some regions, according to the TUC, the fall was close to or in some cases exceeded 10%: worst hit were the north-west, the wesd midland, the south-west and Scotland.

This is, of course, very unusual, “unprecedented” according to the IFS. The forces of supply and demand are conspiring to keep wages down. Though a record number of people are in work, nearly 30m, demand is barely keeping up with supply, so unemployment remains close to 2.5m.

That supply is partly the result of immigration but mainly a consequence of the fact that many older workers are no longer retiring gracefully (a record 1m over-65s workers are in employment). Also, partly as a result of government policy, many more single parents have stayed in the labour market.

It is also the case that declining union representation has made it easier for employers to freeze or reduce wages. Had the unions retained their power base and influence of, say, the 1960s, there would have been less of a fall in real wages for those who stayed in work, though almost certainly at the price of much higher unemployment. Fact 1, however, is that we have seen a big drop in real wages.

Fact 2 is that alongside that there has been a big fall in productivity. The latest official figures show that output per hour, across the whole economy, is still below its level in 2009, the recession’s low point. Output per worker and output per job are up, but only fractionally.

This, so far, is the recovery lacking productivity growth. Output per hour worked is more than 4% below its pre-crisis peak, a break with the past. As Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, noted: “The difference is remarkable. Output per hour worked started rising at a healthy pace very soon after the start of each of the last two recessions and within five years of the start of the recession had reached a level 15% above its starting point.”

All very gloomy. How can I possibly extract anything even remotely optimistic from all that? It is difficult but when it comes to pay - average earnings - it is clear that recently at least there have been some distorting factors at work.

Earnings growth has been particularly subdued for most of the past year but at least some of that, and I would not want to overstate it, has been the result of higher earners avoiding the 50% top rate of tax.

So private sector total earnings in March were down by 0.9% on a year earlier, while in April they were up 4.2%. That jump was driven by an explosion on bonus pay in April, up 47.5% in the private sector on a year earlier, and including sectors such as construction and manufacturing as well as financial services. Even the public sector joined in: its bonus payments in April were 32% up on a year earlier.

A bigger reason for hope is on productivity. Have we turned ionto a low-productivity economy in which low, or even falling real wages are fully justified? I do not think so.

The most interesting bit of IFS research, for me, was on this point. It showed that productivity and wages have held up relatively well in large firms but fallen among medium-sized businesses, those with 50-249 employees, and even more for small firms, with fewer than 50 workers.

Why have productivity and wages fallen among smaller firms? They have been credit-constrained, so have not been able to invest in productivity-enhancing equipment. They have been able to call on their workers to make pay sacrifices, without falling foul of the unions; most smaller firms are non-unionised and not subject to national pay agreements. And they have been keener to hold on to staff even in a time of subdued growth, because of the cost of recruiting and retraining.

But the IFS found that these firms are not instrinsically low-productivity businesses. Most had good rates of productivity before the crisis, suggesting that productivity can and will bounce back as the recovery gathers pace. We should not write it off yet.

That is my view and it is also the view of the CityUK’s independent economist group, chaired by the former monetary policy committee member Andrew Sentance. One of the biggest falls in productivity has been in financial services.

It thinks that this, along with the wider weakness of productivity, is more likely to be cyclical and thus temporary, rather than structural and therefore permanent. Solving the productivity puzzle will take time, But solved it will be and with a return to more normal rates of productivity growth. Let us hope so anyway.

Sunday, June 09, 2013
Still no money left, so the squeeze goes on
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

I once had a long and exasperating discussion with Gordon Brown. The former chancellor and prime minister could not be shifted from his view that the economy Labour inherited in 1997 was in a terrible state.

I and others present pointed out that an economy in its sixth year of robust recovery, with inflation low, unemployment falling, the budget deficit dropping and the current account of the balance of payments nearly in the black, was in remarkably good shape.

Most oppositions would not get anywhere near inheriting such an economy but the capacity of the Tories for self-destruction had presented Labour with a gift. But he would not budge.

Old habits die hard and Ed Balls clearly learned much at the feet of his old master. In setting out Labour’s plan to abolish the winter fuel allowance for better-off pensioners - saving a tiny £100m (0.05%) from a welfare budget of over £200bn - the shadow chancellor bemoaned the “bleak inheritance” Labour could expect in 2015.

Now it is clear that the economy in 2015 will not be in remotely as good a shape as it was in 1997. But it is also clear that it will be a lot better than in 2010, when the country was knee-deep in a banking crisis and teetering on the brink of a fiscal crisis.

The shadow chancellor has chutzpah, or you could say balls, but his comments may merely remind people of that 2010 inheritance. Taken together with his claim that Labour was not profligate on spending, you could sense a disappointment that the coalition has not done better in sorting out the public finances, thus opening the way for normal spending service to resume.

The Balls’ speech, together with Ed Miliband’s pledge that the next Labour government will introduce a three-year cap on do-called structural welfare spending - as well as not reversing coalition child benefit cuts - are political positioning.

Before the 1997 election Labour said it would stick to Tory spending plans for two years. This time Miliband and Balls say they will stick to the 2015-16 plans currently being hammered out, as well as making other pledges intended to persuade voters they can be trusted.

Behind the politics, however, there is also the economic reality. The coalition, having inherited a situation in which in the former Labour Treasury chief secretary Liam Byrne’s memorable phrase, there was no money left, intended to get to 2015 with the toughest period of austerity over.

Public spending, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast in June 2010, would be down to the equivalent of 39.8% of gross domestic product - below the 40% deemed acceptable and sustainable - by 2015-16. Job done.

Or not. The OBR’s latest forecasts, in March, showed public spending in 2015-16 at 43.1% of GDP (against receipts of 38.1%) and spending not getting down to 40% over a forecast horizon that stretches to 2017-18.

The main reason for this is the weakness of growth. The lower the level of GDP, the denominator, the higher other measures, whether borrowing or spending, will be as a percentage of it.

Three years ago the OBR expected GDP in 2015-16 to be £1,902bn. Now it expects it to be £1,728bn. That is nearly a £200bn difference; a huge amount. Signs of stronger growth mean some forecasters are revising up their recovery predictions and there is more optimism around. But there is a lot of lost ground to make up and spending continues to be too high relative to GDP.

One puzzle, for many, is that spending continues to be so high, both in absolute terms and relative to GDP, at a time when many government departments, and providers of public services, are squealing so much about cuts.

Osborne and Danny Alexander, the current Treasury chief secretary, have done a reasonable job controlling overall spending. The OBR expects total managed expenditure in 2015-16 to be £745bn, lower that the £757bn it expected three years ago.

This is despite higher welfare spending than was expected - a combination of inflation-related benefit uprating and weak growth in wages - and the continued ringfencing of the National Health Service, overseas aid and the schools budget.

The squeeze on the non-ringfenced departments has, however, been intense. With overall departmental spending due to drop 10% in real terms this parliament, and a further 7.6% in the three years beyond 2015, those without the the ringfence have been hit very hard. Deep cuts much beyond the election may be hard to achieve, which is why the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned of post-election tax hikes.

Unless there is a better way. All the headlines when the results of this spending round are published on June 26, covering 2015-16 only, will be about the £11.5bn of cuts hammered out in negotiations with departmental minitsers. There will, no doubt, have been blood on the carpet.

The bigger story, though, may be about what Osborne intends to do about spending which is outside these departmental negotiations, so-called annually managed expenditure, or as the chancellor put it in the budget, annually “unmanaged” expenditure.

While departments have been squeezed, this ‘AME’ spending, £352bn this year, has been growing, a cuckoo in the spending nest. Mostly it is is welfare but also some other items of spending. Osborne will set out ways in which this will be controlled, bringing some essential discipline.

Many would say this should have been done long ago. Why not in 2010, when the coalition had its first spending review? But these things often involve trial and error. We admire Canada’s successful spending regime, which cut spending by roughly a fifth in the 1990s and then held it down.

But, as an Institute for Government briefing on Friday pointed out, Canada did not get there straight away. Its attempts to control spending began in 1984 but only got into its stride more than a decade later.

The hope has to be that we can bring a permanent end to the public spending boom and bust much sooner than that. If he has time, maybe Mark Carney could tell ministers how it was eventually done successfully in Canada.

Sunday, May 26, 2013
No guarantee Carney will get the presses rolling
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Two weeks ago I pointed out that, while there were a few reasons for the stock market’s strength, quantitative easing(QE) by central banks was the most important.

Sure enough, a hint that America’s QE programme may not continue at its present $85bn (£56bn) pace , from Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, sent markets tumbling, led by a 7% sell-off in Japan. We may not have seen the end of the equity rally, but it relies on central banks playing the accommodative game.

One question is what this means for the Bank of England and its new governor, Mark Carney, who will take the helm in just over a month’s time.

A few days ago the International Monetary Fund concluded its annual health check on Britain’s economy, its Article IV assessment, with recommendations that had something for everybody. As a medical verdict, it was less radical surgery and more that the patient could do with taking a bit more exercise to speed up growth.

So George Osborne will continue with his fiscal strategy, although with a further nod towards boosting infrastructure spending where possible. Bringing forward £10bn such spending, to start now, as the IMF wants, may be easier said than done.

Where the chancellor has no quibble with the IMF is on monetary policy. Responding to its report, he described his approach as “monetary activism, a credible fiscal plan and structural reform”.

The Bank of England, in other words, has to do the heavy lifting on growth, while his fiscal consolition cuts the budget deficit. Structural reform, such as changes in education, welfare and tax, aims to raise growth over the medium and longer term.

What more monetary activism can the Bank do under Carney? Bank rate has been 0.5% for more than four years and there has been £375bn of quantitative easing through purchases of gilts (British government bonds), equivalent to roughly a quarter of Britain’s annual gross domestic product.

The new governor has not given too many clues recently. His valedictory speech, called Canada Works, lauded the performance of the Canadian economy and contrasted his country’s successful monetary union with the eurozone’s travails.

It would be nice if, in five years, Carney could reflect on the British economy with such a glowing assessment, though I suspect five years at the Bank will imbue him with a little more caution.

One thing we are unlikely to get is a cut in interest rates. Paul Fisher, the Bank’s executive director for markets and a dovish member of the monetary policy committee (MPC), warned on Friday that a rate cut from the current low level could have “perverse” effects and might not boost demand.

That does not mean the Bank has no ammunition. According to the IMF: “In addition to considering further purchases of gilts, the Bank of England could provide assurance to households and investors that policy rates will be kept low until the recovery reaches full momentum.”

Its second recommendation, so-called forward guidance, is likely to be adopted. Carney used it Canada at the height of the financial crisis. There is a question about how useful it would be now, when the markets already think Bank rate will not rise above the present 0.5% level until late 2016.

What it might do, however, is prevent the markets from responding to stronger economic data (if and when it comes) by pricing in an early rise in interest rates. The role of the MPC could be to point out that as long as the economy is so far below where it should be - real per capita GDP is 6% below pre-crisis levels - there will be no question of rates rising. Savers will hate it, but it could be a useful tool.

What about more QE? There has been an assumption that when Carney rides into town, the result will be an aggressive expansion of the Bank’s already aggressive programme of asset purchases.

For those of us who think this policy has already gone further than it should have done, this has been a disturbing prospect. There has to come a time when QE is put on ice. At some stage, of course, it will have to be put into reverse, and the gilts sold back, though not for a while.

Fortunately, it may not be as easy for the new governor to press the stimulus button as he, the chancellor and IMF might like.

The first obstacle is the rest of the MPC. The minutes of is meeting this month show that while three MPC members voted for £25bn more QE, including Fisher and Sir Mervyn King, six did not.

They warned that further asset purchases “could contribute to an unwarranted narrowing in risk premia and complicate the transition to a more normal monetary stance at some point in the future” The MPC majority wants to see whether the Funding for Lending scheme will work and, as the quote shows, is worried that the more QE it does the harder it will be to return to normal policy settings.

There is a view in the Bank that when Carney comes, the MPC will not want to see him in a minority. What was acceptable for King, an Aston Villa fan whose time as governor is nearly over, would not be acceptable for the star Edmonoton Oilers enthusiast from across the Atlantic.

That may not mean, however, that the rest of the MPC bends to his wishes. He may find that, if the prevailing mood is still against more QE when he takes over, it is best to keep his powder dry for another day.

The second obstacle could come from the data. Though details of the first quarter GDP numbers were disappointing - 0.3% growth came in spite of falling exports and investment - there is an expectation thatt growth will accelerate, to 0.5% or 0.6%, in the second. The service sector gained momentum during the first quarter.

Would more QE be warranted in August if second quarter GDP shows growth of 0.5% or 0.6%, alongside continued above-target inflation? Probably not.

The third obstacle could be what is happening elsewhere. There is no prospect of the Bank of Japan scaling back its QE but if Bernanke’s hints are taken at face value, late summer could be the time when the Fed is starting to wind down its programme. It could look odd if Britain were re-starting its QE at the same time.

Nothing is set in stone. Markets are split on what the new governor will do, and views shift with every data release. But the easy assumption that the arrival of Careny will bring a big and immediate increase in QE, is not nearly as easy as it was.

Sunday, May 19, 2013
The governor's eyebrows point to an upturn
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The CBI, the employers’ organisation, says Britain’s economy is “moving from flat to growth”. The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says its latest leading indicators point to growth in Britain at “close to trend rates”.

Most of all, Sir Mervyn King, presenting his final inflation report as governor, concluded his 82nd such press conference (he used to do them when he was chief economist and deputy governor), with the nearest thing to a hop, skip and a jump we have seen for a long time.

As he put it: “Today’s projections are for growth to be a little stronger and inflation a little weaker than we expected three months ago. This is the first time I have been able to say that since before the financial crisis.”

The Bank’s forecast is for “a modest and sustained recovery over the next three years”. Partly this is because some factors dragging growth down over the past 2-3 years - sharply falling North Sea and construction output - will cease to be a drag.

But mainly it is because it thinks more than four years of 0.5% Bank rate and £375bn of quantitative easing, together with better credit conditions as a result of the Funding for Lending scheme, and an improving global economic environment, will gradually strengthen the recovery. The upturn will remain weak by past standards, because of the hangover from the banking crisis. But an upturn it will be.

Specifically, the Bank expects the economy to build on the first quarter’s 0.3% growth with 0.5% in the second. Consumer spending will show sustained growth, though weaker than its 0.9% quarterly rise in 1998-2007. Business investment will grow, as will private sector employment, though more slowly than its astonishing 708,000 rise between December 2011 and December 2012.

It sounds almost too good to be true, or possibly a hospital pass from King to his successor. Wouldn’t it be terrible if Mark Carney’s first act as governor were to be to announce a forecast downgrade?

But King and his colleagues appear be genuine. Though this is not the first time since the crisis the Bank has predicted recovery - far from it - it means it about green shoots. Mention of green shoots takes me back to that very first inflation report of February 1993. I am pretty sure I was at that first press conference, albeit in short trousers, though details are grainy.

We have all changed a lot over 20 years and the Bank and its inflation report are no exception. In February 1993, blinking into the sunlight of greater transparency than in the previous three centuries of existence, the Bank stuck firmly to its brief.

There were no growth predictions (they did not come until 1997) and where the Bank touched on real economic variables, it was a touch pessimistic. So it expected rising unemployment to persist - in fact it peaked around the time that reported was published. It feared that big budget deficits would put upward pressure on inflation, though they soon began to fall.

Inflation was paramount. Coming off the high inflation of the late 1980s, there was a fascination about whether these new arrangements (with the Bank publicly advising the chancellor) could keep it under control. Growth, and forecasting it, was the Treasury’s job.

Some are nostalgic for those days, or at least a time when the Bank declared “inflation is a monetary phenomenon” and made it its mission, very successfully for the most part, to tame it.

Nowadays however most people are hungrier for what the Bank says about growth. When the governor is more optimistic about recovery, it makes the front pages (as it does when he is downbeat). The question is whether his cautious optimism now is justified.

On the day the latest inflation report was published official figures showed a 15,000 rise in unemployment to 2.52m over the January-March period and a 43,000 fall in employment to 29.71m. Is not that evidence of an economy getting weaker?

Probably not. The evidence is that the labour market strengthened during the quarter and I would expect a fall in unemployment, probably around 50,000, when the next figures are out in a month’s time. Employment is no longer growing as rapidly as it was, but has not gone into reverse.

The bigger worry, described here on April 21, is the weakness of pay, and falling real wages. Average earnings growth of 0.4% alongside inflation of 2.8% is a Micawberite recipe for misery.

It is also a puzzle. Consumer spending has risen for five quarters and. according to the Bank, probably rose in the first quarter. Private new car sales last month were 32% up on a year earlier. People are getting money somewhere, and only part of it is stronger growth in consumer credit.

I shall explore this further soon. But it is an odd sort of recovery in which real wages are falling and the Bank, to be fair, acknowledges consumer spending could be weaker than it expects, with households permanently shifting to a higher level of saving.

The other concern, of course, is Europe. Though France’s dip back into recession has attracted a lot of coverage - a 0.2% drop in GDP in the first quarter being the second in a row - its economy has essentially been flat over the past two years.

The problems are elsewhere. Italy’s 0.5% GDP drop was the seventh in a row and is starting to look like a proper and rather serious recession from which there is no obvious escape route.

Others, including Greece (GDP down 5.3% over 12 months), Cyprus (4.1%), Spain (2%) and Portugal (3.9%), remain in deep trouble. The European Central Bank has papered over the cracks but fundamental problems, and risks, remain.

The Bank has taken the view that policymakers will succeed in generating sustained recovery in the global economy, and even the eurozone will look better in the second half of the year. It acknowledges, however, that “disorderly adjustment” in the eurozone remains a risk. The hope is that it can be contained. Otherwise, the next governor’s eyebrows will be wearing an embarrassed frown.

Sunday, May 12, 2013
Central banks drive the stock market boom
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Spring has sprung with a vengeance for stock market investors. In recent days we have seen the Dow Jones industrial average close above 15,000 for the first time, Germany’s Dax hit record levels and the MSCI world equity index reaching its highest level since before the worst of the global financial crisis in 2008.

Even the FTSE 100 has been joining the party, trading comfortably above 6,500 and within sight, though not for the first time, of its all-time high of 6,930, reached as long ago as December 1999.

What lies behind this outbreak of stock market optimism and is it a harbinger of better economic news to come, or just a flash in the pan? Are markets, as some suggest, divorced from economic reality? A strong German stock market is, on the face of it, hard to square with an ongoing eurozone crisis and a European Commission forecast of continuing recession this year.

Stock market strength coincides with some evidence that, partly as a result of the eurozone’s woes, world growth is slowing. The April J.P.Morgan/Markit global purchasing managers’ index (PMI) dropped from 53 to 51.9 in April, signalling that while upturn was continuing, it was at its slowest rate sionce October last year.

Some economic news, it should be said, is consistent with market optimism. Investors were cheered by the 165,000 April rise in America’s non-farm payroll employment and a drop in the unemployment rate to 7.5%. Strong March German industrial production and manufacturing orders encouraged the view that its economy is riding out the eurozone recession.

Though the FTSE 100 is more usually moved by global developments, Britain’s economic data has improved. The 0.3% rise in first quarter gross domestic product was followed by stronger purchasing managers’ surveys for April and the announcement of a 1.1% bounce in manufacturing output in March.

The better news, together with the National Institute of Economic and Social Research’s estimate that GDP grew by 0.8% in the three months to April (helped by the recovery from a very weak January), has taken the sting out of the International Monetary Fund’s current visit to Britain.

Even Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director and George Osborne ally, warned last month that Britain’s growth numbers were not good. They are still not great but they are looking better.

Ian Harwood, economist with Redburn Partners, says there is nothing in the global PMI to suggest that growth in the world economy is seriously faltering, and he sees some evidence that the upturn in global trade - which had stalled - is gaining momentum again.

But the stock market rally is not, to repeat, mainly a reflection of better economic news, though that does not make it irrelevant to the economy.
Equity markets are reflecting the fact that risks appear to have diminished.

Though the eurozone is still in trouble, the fear of imminent collapse has abated. Banks are not out of the woods but are inching towards something that resembles normality. Investors have moved from “risk-off” towards “risk-on” behaviour.

Stock markets are also benefiting, however, from what looks like a win-win situation, for the moment at least. Share prices gain when economic news is good, because that means companies should do better. But they can also gain when the news is not so good, because that increases the likelihood central banks will engage in further asset purchases - quantitative easing - thus boosting markets via that route.

Johannes Jooste of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management notes that even when economic data has disappointed, as some recent numbers from America and China have, “continued easy monetary policy supported global equity markets”.

The Bank of England’s monetary policy committee stayed its hand on Thursday but other central banks are engaging in plenty of unconventional activity in the form of asset purchases, including America’s Federal Reserve, $85bn (£55bn) a month, and the Bank of Japan with a monthly $79bn (£51bn).

The European Central Bank, which cut interest rates earlier this month, is contemplating purchases of asset-backed securities made up of loans to small firms. The Bank, with Mark Carney set to arrive within weeks, may not have done yet. This month has seen a slew of interest rate cuts, from central banks in India, Poland, Denmark, Korea, Vietnam and Australia, amongst others.

Central banks will see the rise of stock markets as a good thing. It is one way their policy gets transmitted to real economic activity. Booming markets boost wealth, increase business confidence and make it easier for firms - larger ones at least - to finance expansion.

Rising equity prices do not always signal there are better times on the way (or, for that matter, worse times when they are falling) but they are better than the alternative. In Japan, the rising Nikkei, up more than 60% since August last year, is regarded as a sign that the Abenomics of prime minister Shinzo Abe is working.

But you can have too much of a good thing. When does the rise in stock markets, given that much of it is driven by the actions of central banks, become dangerous? When does it become a bubble whose bursting would be very damaging?

The risks are there, and they are present in the fact that markets have moved well ahead of real economic activity. Markets that are mainly driven by monetary policy are, by their nature, unsustainable.

Any sign central banks were ready to start tightening policy, by raising rates or selling back some of the assets they have purchased, would send markets diving.

That may not be entirely logical: central banks would only start tightening if they believed the economy was well through the worst, but markets are not always logical. The danger is that central banks get trapped by the markets into keeping their foot on the monetary accelerator too long.

Sunday, May 05, 2013
Britain starts to pull away from Europe
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

On Thursday the European Central Bank (ECB) cut its official interest rate from 0.75% to 0.5%, its president Mario Draghi citing the fifth successive quarterly decline in gross domestic product (the eurozone has only escaped a triple-dip because it is still in a double-dip) and very weak economic sentiment.

Economic weakness has spread from the periphery to “core” economies such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, which had been doing much better. While the ECB expects an improvement in the eurozone economy later in the year, it warns that the risks are on the downside.

The English Channel is not that wide but it seems some clear blue water is opening up between Britain and the eurozone. It has been there for some time when it comes to unemployment. Eurozone unemployment, at 12.1%, is more than half as much again as Britain’s 7.9% rate. Youth unemployment, which ranges as high as 59% in Greece and 56% in Spain, is also significantly higher on average.

Britain’s growth performance, while nothing to write home about, is also beginning to pull away from the eurozone. The latest forecast from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research is for another year of recession in the eurozone, with gross domestic product contracting by 0.4% after a 0.5% fall last year. It predicts that Britain will grow by 0.9% following last year’s 0.3% rise. Next year it expects 0.9% growth in the eurozone but 1.5% in Britain.

These differences do not, of course, alter the big picture of a weak recovery in Britain, or the fact that there is nothing to celebrate about Europe’s troubles, given the dependence of the UK economy on eurozone trade.

Even on that, however, there are signs of something stirring; a hint of the necessary rebalancing away from excessive reliance on Europe.

The latest Markit purchasing managers’ index for Britain’s manufacturing sector showed a rise from 48.6 in March to 49.8 in April, while its eurozone equivalent slipped from 46.8 to 46.7.

More importantly, Britain’s manufacturers reported the strongest rise in export orders since July 2011, driven by “increased sales to clients in North America, the Middle East, Latin America and Australia”. Eurozone export orders, by contrast, remained depressed.

This is part of an ongoing story. In 2008, Britain exports of goods to the rest of the EU totalled £142bn. They slumped to £125bn in 2009, recovered to £142bn in 2010 and grew well in 2011, rising to £159bn. But last year they dropped again to £151bn, helping to explain 2012’s weak GDP growth.

Exports to the rest of the world, in contrast, fell by less in the crisis - dropping from £110bn to £103bn from 2008 to 2009 - but have been rising since: £124bn in 2010, £140bn in 2011 and £149bn last year.

It has been nip and tuck in recent months whether exports to the rest of the world are marginally higher or lower than those to the EU. In the latest three months, non-EU exports were ahead, and this is likely to be the shape of things to come.

Comparing 2012, when there was a rough 50-50 split between EU and non-EU exports, with the position 10 years earlier, shows how things are changing. In 2002 nearly 62% of exports went to the EU. This is quite a shift.

Though Britain’s top five export destinations last year - America, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Ireland, in that order - were the same as three years earlier, plenty is happening further down the list.

China is now Britain’s seventh largest export destination (from ninth in 2009) and Russia is up from 22nd to 12th. The old chestnut about Britain exporting more to Ireland than Brazil, Russia, India and China put together, has not been true for a while. Last year 7.9% of exports went to the BRICs, 5.8% to Ireland. Not a big enough shift yet but a move in the right direction. A decade ago only 2% of exports went to these economies.

Britain’s biggest exports by category last year, incidentally, were mechanical machinery, electrical machinery, medicinal and pharmaceutical goods, and cars.

It seems reasonable to plan on the basis of European markets continuing to be weak, as the eurozone crisis plays out. The structural, fiscal and demographic challenges Europe faces argue for subdued growth, at best, in coming years.

The question is whether Britain’s exporters can do more than just substitute stronger markets elsewhere for eurozone weakness, but create a long-lasting upturn on the back of the faster-growing parts of the world.

When economists look for a rapid response from exporters they often underestimate the challenge firms face in establishing themselves in new markets, a challenge that is particularly acute for smaller firms. These things cannot be just turned on with the flick of a switch, they require planning and investment and help from official bodies such as UK Trade & Investment (UKTI).

But there are at least some reasons to be optimistic. Research by the EEF, the engineering employers’ federation, suggests firms are gearing up rapidly in emerging markets, with a clear majority of the businesses it surveyed planning to invest in the development of these markets.

The EEF notes that the fastest growth in Britain’s exports over the past six years has been to Qatar, China, Russia, Brazil, Thailand, India, Australia, Singapore, Norway and Malaysia.

The main problem, it found, was that firms encounter protectionism in countries like Brazil and Russia, and threats to their intellectual property in China.

The government’s aim is to increase Britain’s exports of goods and services to £1 trillion by 2020, from £488 billion last year. It is a huge challenge, requiring export values to grow more than 9% a year, with most of the heavy lifting in exports to the emerging world. But it is challenge exporters have to take up - they need it to succeed. So does the rest of the economy.

Sunday, April 28, 2013
A little growth takes a lot of pressure off Osborne
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

0.3 is a very small number, but in recent days it has been hugely significant for George Osborne. It featured, most obviously, in the first quarter gross domestic product figures, the 0.3% rise breaking the hearts of the chancellor’s critics and allowing him to claim the economy is healing. That may be premature; the recent pattern means further quarterly GDP declines cannot be ruled out.

But as small mercies go, this was welcome and should lead to upward revisions of 2013 growth forecasts. The consensus was for 0.1% and the Office for National Statistics has a penchant for nasty surprises.

The other 0.3 relates to public borrowing: the deficit. Since December, when the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) endorsed the Treasury view that borrowing in 2012-13 would be down on 2011-12 (against the run of the numbers), the worry was that this would turn out wrong.

In last month’s budget, even after strenuous efforts by Treasury ministers and officials, the OBR concluded the margin would be wafer-thin, just £0.1bn. It was indeed wafer-thin, but £0.3bn - borrowing fell from £120.9bn to £120.6bn - and as the OBR pointed out, initial figures have tended to be revised lower in recent years.

Growth, of course, is still weak, and borrowing very high; about £30 billion higher in 2012-13 than officially predicted at the time of Osborne’s first budget in June 2010. Public sector net debt is rising and at the end of March was £1,186bn, 75.4% of GDP.

So what’s changed? Well, the heat has been taken out the International Monetary Fund’s visit to Britain next month. A GDP fall would have lent weight to the call by Olivier Blanchard, its chief economist, for Britain to relax austerity.

That was never going to happen. Osborne told the IMF he would continue with his medium-term deficit reduction plan. The IMF’s own research, showing so-called fiscal multipliers are very small in Britain - tax hikes and spending cuts do less harm than elsewhere - made its chief economist’s advice look odd.

If too much austerity is doing damage it is in the eurozone, where latest German surveys were weak and Spanish unemployment has hit 27.2%. But the IMF declared eurozone fiscal policy broadly appropriate.

IMF fireworks have been avoided, as probably have fireworks at the forthcoming monetary policy committee meeting on May 9. The MPC will probably refrain from further quantititative easing, particularly with the extension of the Funding for Lending scheme until 2015. This does not rule out action when the new governor, Mark Carney, arrives, though he is playing down expectations.

The great virtue of the GDP figure, however, was it should allow a sense of perspective to be restored. Anybody listening to the debate over the past week might conclude that the case for austerity had evaporated as a result of errors and omissions in research by two American economists, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff.

Reinhart and Rogoff, famous for their book This Time is Different, on financial crises, published research three years ago showing government debt above 90% of GDP is associated with slower growth.

That is still their finding, as they are at pains to point out. One always implausible result - debt levels above 90% are associated with negative growth of 0.1% - has been rightly removed from the record by the discovery by University of Massachusetts economists of the error. But the big picture, growth around a percentage point a year slower at high debt levels, remains.

There are two essential points on this. The first is that many studies have shown high debt is associated with slow growth. A 2011 Bank for International Settlements (BIS) paper by Stephen Cecchetti and others, concluded: “Our results support the view that, beyond a certain level, debt is a drag on growth. For government debt, the threshold is around 85% of GDP.”

The IMF said in this month’s World Economic Outlook high debt overhangs lead to lower public and private investment and reduce room for manoeuvre. Other IMF studies found a 10% rise in the debt ratio associated with a growth reduction of 0.2%, while a 2011 study found significant negative growth effects with debt above 70%.

Of course there is nothing magical about 70%, 85% or 90%. Circumstances matter. When Britain ran debt of over 250% of GDP at the end of the Second World War it necessitated austerity but there was also a route out. The economy would return to peacetime spending, as war operations were run down. Debt to GDP halved in a decade.

It is different, however, when - as the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out in its green budget - without action to rein back the deficit - public sector debt would have been on a trajectory that would have taken it back up to 250% of GDP.

So we should step back from the often vicious debate among American economists. The case for austerity was never based on one paper, or mainly on the growth consequences of high debt.

It was about trying to stabilise an appalling deterioration in the public finances: a record peacetime budget deficit, a huge structural deficit and rocketing government debt and interest payments. It was about trying to avert a fiscal crisis.

That was why Labour proposed a Fiscal Responsibility Act with debt falling as a percentage of GDP by 2016, and why the coalition aimed, though will not achieve, an earlier fall. The sustainability of the public finances meant not letting debt rip.

What if the cure is worse than the disease? For austerity critics, the direction of causation is from growth to debt. In other words, if austerity had been less, growth would have been stronger.

That may be true in the short-term, though in Britain growth would have been weak even in the absence of austerity because of the credit crunch, falling real incomes and the eurozone crisis. Growth might have been slightly better at most but debt would have risen more.

In the long run, growth depends on the supply-side, not short-term fiscal or monetary activism. Look at high debt/slow growth economies like Italy and Japan. Japan’s current burst of expansionary policy will not change this. It is a slow-growth model Britain has to avoid.

Sunday, April 21, 2013
Low pay begins to do more harm than good
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

The old labour market rules have been turned on their head: there has been a revolution.

One of those rules is that when growth is weak, employment does not grow. That has not been true in the past 2-3 years. Even last week’s softer job numbers, which showed employment slipping by 2,000 to 29.7m in the latest three months, showed an increase of 488,000 on a year earlier.

And even in those numbers, full-time employment rose by 60,000 in the latest three months, while part-time employment fell by 62,000. Economic inactivity fell to its lowest rate since 1991.

The other rule, also apparently broken, is that pay (average earnings) rises more than inflation. I know this should be true, and not just in recent times. In the 1990s, the Bank of England marked its 300th anniversary (it was founded in 1694) by looking back on three centuries of inflation.

Its analysis showed that after a torrid time for workers in the Bank’s first 100 years or so, things then improved a lot. By the end of the 20th century real wages (i.e. adjusted for inflation), were six times their level in 1800.

Rising real wages were the norm, independently of the ebbs and flows of trade union power. In the 1980s inflation dropped as low as 2.4% but average earnings growth never fell below 7.5%. Now, of course, things are different.

The latest average earnings figures show growth of just 1% over the past 12 months. That is the lowest since the current data series began in 2001 but you would have to go back very many decades, probably to the 1930s, for anything lower. Excluding bonuses, earnings rose by only 0.8%.

Inflation, on the latest figures, is running at 2.8% (3.3% for retail price inflation). Real earnings are falling, as they have been for most of the past five years.

These two broken rules, employment rising in a subdued economy and prices outstripping prices, are part of the same story. Looked at positively, it reflects the great flexibility of Britain’s labour market: pay restraint making possible a higher level of employment.

Looked at negatively, as some do, it is employers exploiting economic fragility to hold down pay. Either way, it means that the wage bill is being shared among a larger number of people.

Flexibility has kept a greater number of people in jobs. Most of the recent net increase in employment, 88% of it in the past year, has been among British nationals. My attitude so far is that this is good news. Far better to have more people in work, even if their real pay is falling.

Now I am wondering if you can have too much of a good thing. Even if inflation gets back to the official 2% target, it will still be running ahead of current earnings growth. In fact, we may be entering a period in which both employment and wages are weak. That is not quite the worst of all worlds but it is heading that way.

So what should happen? Some say the minimum wage, which will rise from £6.19 to £6.31 in October, should rise much more. Others think that all employers should pay what has been defined as the living wage, the minimum needed to get by, defined as £7.45 an hour (£8.55 in London).

The living wage is an interesting idea, and has been taken up by some employers, but I do not think it would be good to impose either it or a much larger minimum wage on employers. That would not only hurt marginal workers but it could be the last straw for marginal firms.

I do think, however, the private sector as a whole would benefit from higher wages. They would feed directly into stronger domestic demand, sorely needed by business. Consumer spending remains well below pre-crisis levels and retail sales are struggling to gain any kind of momentum.

The weakness of private sector pay is striking. Total private sector pay in February was 0.5% down on a year earlier. Though this was dragged down by lower bonuses, the picture for regular pay, up just 0.6%, was barely better. Public sector pay, up 1.1%, was stronger.

Imagine the difference it would make to demand if private sector workers, 79% of the total, were given increases of 3% rather than next-to-nothing. The CBI would risk a a re-run of the “Red Adair” headlines it attracted when Lord Turner was its director-general and bemoaned the decline in the workers’ share of GDP, but should it not encourage its members to sign up to a 3% club, for employers happy to award pay rises that at least keep pace with inflation?

The potential advantages would not, of course, just come through in stronger demand. Thanks to the tax credits introduced by Labour and other in-work benefits, employers have been able to free-ride on government largesse. That gets more difficult now most working-age benefits are now capped at 1% (in line with earnings growth) but has meant many workers have been spared the full pain of the real squeeze on wages, because the state tops them up.

Stronger wage growth would benefit the public finances both directly and indirectly, restraining welfare spending and boosting tax revenues.

I know what you are thinking. If private sector firms paid their workers more, they would employ fewer of them. Wages going up would mean employment going down.

That is possible, though could be balanced by two factors. One is the employment-generating impact of the greater demand resulting from higher wages. The other is that firms, particularly large ones, have very healthy balance sheets. They may not feel confident enough to invest but for most a relaxation of wage restraint would be easily manageable.

The more telling argument is about productivity, which has barely risen in the past three years and on some measures has fallen. Isn’t weak pay the natural corollary of weak productivity growth?

Perhaps, but it may be possible to turn things around. It is not quite a question of paying peanuts and getting monkeys but declining real wages may not be a recipe for rising productivity. If workers are demoralised, stuck in a rut, it could take a decent pay rise to jolt them out of it, and into higher productivity. That 3% club could be worth joining.

Sunday, April 14, 2013
Supply-side reform: the winning formula of the 1980s
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Lady Thatcher's death has produced an avalanche of remininscence and interpretation of the 1980s' decade. I was around in the 1980s, and have the suits and Filofax to prove it, The first chancellor I interviewed was her first, Sir Geoffrey Howe. But fear not, this is not going to be another stroll down memory lane.

Rather, I wanted to draw out a more fundamental lesson. At the recent Royal Economic Society conference, LSE professors Tim Besley and John Van Reenen presented the findings and recommendations of its Growth Commission. One of the most striking was in what they called “the economic story of the UK”.

From 1870 to 1980, Britain suffered more than a century of relative economic decline. The British economy grew but France, Germany, America and other competitor economies grew faster.

Since 1980 that has not been true. On a range of measures, Britain’s relative performance improved. There was a turnaround. From 1980 to 2011 - including the 2008-9 recession and some of the subdued recovery - gross domestic product per capita outgrew America, Germany and France. So did GDP per working-age adult. The productivity gap narrowed and in some cases was reversed. Things got better. North Sea oil helped in the first haf of the 1980s but made little difference over the period as a whole.

Some people are determined not credit Thatcher for any of this, or say that it was more than outweighed by the huge negative of the crisis. I’ll return to that.

I regard the LSE’s Van Reenen as a fair witness. He was no fan of Thatcher when younger. Had he been at the LSE in 1981 he would no doubt have joined the 364 economists who signed a letter protesting at her policies. The rise in inequality and failure to invest enough in infrastructure were significant downsides of the Thatcher era, he says. But he also gives credit where it is due for the supply-side changes that led to the improvement in Britain’s performance.

Those changes: union and other labour market reforms, removing industrial subsidies, privatising and regulating state industries, strengthening competition policy, membership of the EU single market, opening the door to inward investment and expanding the higher education system all contributed to the improvement. As he puts it: “Most, but not all of these were initiated by Mrs Thatcher.”

Her supply-side changes mainly survived, Helped by changes in the structure of the economy, there was no return to destructive union power or, despite some huffing and puffing from Labour, no renationalisation of privatised industries.

Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 there was some re-regulation of the labour market but this was partly balanced by an improved competition regime, with the Office for Fair Trading and Competition Commission. Tax got much more complicated, though until the very end of new Labour the consensus held that low rates of direct taxation were best.

In the long run, it is the supply-side that matters and Thatcher enacted a series of supply-side reforms. Those changes laid the foundation for Britain’s improved perforamce over three decades.

We should remember that. Though we devote acres to whether George Osborne should relax austerity or whether the Bank of England should announce £25bn of quantitative easing, supply-side policies matter much more.

So cutting corporation tax to 20% and other changes to try to make Britain a magnet for inward investment; tax and welfare changes to improve work incentives;, education reforms and the cut in the top rate back to 45% matter a lot more than the fiscal picture set out in the next budget or autumn statement, or the next meeting of the monetary policy committee.

You can see that in the macroeconomic record of the Thatcher government. Though fiscal policy was prudent - average cyclically-adjusted net borrowing of less than 0.5% of GDP over the period 1981-9 was close to a balanced budget - it was too tight at the start and too loose at the end.

Monetary policy was a dog’s breakfast. Sir Alan Walters, her economic adviser, pointed out in the early 1980s that 17% Bank rate and a sky-high exchange rate inflicted unnecessary damage on industry.

When, after many twists and turns, her period in office ended with Britain in the European exchange rate mechanism, Walters told me it would undo 30% of the economic gains made. As it was, despite an average Bank rate of 12%, she left with inflation back in double figures.

The consensus is that inflation-targeting in 1992, followed by Bank independence in 1997, improved considerably on the turbulence of the 1980s. It certainly led to much greater stability, with low inflation and interest rates. But that, in turn, fostered excessive risk-taking. Once fear of sharp upward lurches in rates went, many of the normal constraints were removed.

The search for the Goldilocks macroeconomic policy middle-ground - which neither scares the hell out of people nor encourages them to throw caution to the wind - will go on. But through short-term macro trials and tribulations, we should remember the supply-side. Anything that can be done to improve it, even or perhaps especially in difficult times, will pay dividends in the long run.

What about the crisis? Wasn’t there a direct route from Big Bang in 1986 to the banking collapse in 2008? Wasn’t that the legacy? No. People forget Big Bang was all about ending the stock exchange’s restrictive practices. It was not just unions forced to change their ways: the City’s cosy cartel ripped off its customers.

Big Bang helped London regain its position as the world’s leading financial centre but did not give a green light for irresponsibility to investment banks, which occurred long after she left office. If you want to pin the crisis on anything, pin it on the rise of America’s shadow banking system and the relaxation and eventual abolition of the Glass-Steagall restrictions on its banks.

She would have taken a dim view of the irresponsibility. Given her unhappiness with the Bank in the early 1980s, I suspect she would have taken a dim view of independence too. That would have left the Bank in charge of banking supervision. Whether it would have done better than the Financial Services Authority we will never know.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013
Margaret Thatcher's four ages of monetary policy
Posted by David Smith at 04:00 PM
Category: David Smith's other articles

Monetary policy changed dramatically during Margaret Thatcher's period as prime minister, from hard-line or 'punk' monetarism to membership of the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM). This, from my book Free Lunch, explains how her period in office accounted for four of my seven ages of modern UK monetary policy. By comparison, the past 16 years have been remarkably stable.

There are seven ages of man and there are seven ages of modern UK monetary policy. It is a good way of looking at the trials and errors. Other countries have also groped for the ideal monetary policy, although few have done so as ineptly as Britain. If we go back a quarter of a century so, to the 1970s, this was a time of enormous turbulence for the world economy and near-disaster for Britain. It is also my first age of modern UK monetary policy, reluctant monetarism. In 1976 a near-bankrupt government had to call in the International Monetary Fund. This was the occasion for the burying of Keynesian fine-tuning. Peter Jay, sometime British ambassador to Washington, and economics editor of The Times and the BBC, drafted a speech for his father in law James Callaghan for the 1976 Labour party conference, which contained the immortal words ‘I tell you in all candour that you can’t spend your way out of recession’. The IMF’s prescription contained two main elements. It insisted on sharp cuts in public spending – the biggest by any government in the post-war period. And it forced the government to adopt monetary targets, to control the money supply or, more particularly, two measures of ‘money’, sterling M3 and for domestic credit expansion. There is no need to worry about the detail of what these were. The essential point was a simple one. To stabilise the economy, and to control inflation (which had risen above 26 per cent during 1975) it was necessary to control the money supply. There will be more on this when we meet Milton Friedman in the next chapter but the basis of this policy was quite simple – just as you cannot drive a car without petrol, you cannot have inflation without money. The faster that money is printed, and credit allowed to grow, the higher will be inflation. Targeting the money supply was by no means trouble-free. The Labour government found, as many governments have, that it was not possible to control the money supply and the exchange rate at the same time. By the time it lost the 1979 election inflationary pressures were starting to build up strongly. Even so, this ‘reluctant monetarism’ helped to save the economy.

In 1979, we had the second age, willing monetarism, under a Thatcher government philosophically committed to controlling the money supply as a means of limiting inflation.

Despite being acolytes of Friedman, the Conservatives chose a ‘broad’ monetary target, sterling M3, which he would not have recommended. They then proceeded to undertake other policy actions, notably the abolition of exchange controls – limits on the amount of currency and capital that could be taken in and out of the country - and of the Bank of England ‘corset’ (controls on the banks’ lending), which made it impossible to hit the targets for sterling M3. To this day many people think monetarism has something to do with public spending cuts. This was because the Thatcher government’s choice of money supply target was linked to the level of public borrowing, and therefore the amount of government spending. This phase of willing monetarism lasted two or three years, before giving way to third age, pragmatic monetarism.

By the early 1980s Charles Goodhart, then chief monetary adviser to the Bank of England, had come up with Goodhart’s Law, a kind of Murphy’s Law for economics. This did not say that if you drop a piece of toast it is bound to fall buttered side down but, rather, that any measure of the money supply you try to target will automatically become subject to distortions that make it hard to control. So the Conservative government adopted a more relaxed approach, making it clear that they still believed in controlling the money supply but also choosing to target a range of measures and not losing too much sleep if one or more of them missed the target. This approach worked pretty well. From 1982 until 1985 Britain had reasonable economic growth, albeit alongside high unemployment, and low inflation.

Unfortunately, sterling, the traditional Achilles heel of the UK economy, was still subject to periodic crises. In January 1985, not long after I had joined The Times as economics correspondent, the month began with interest rates at 9.5 per cent and ended the month at 14 per cent, sterling having come within a whisker of one-to-one parity with the dollar in the process. These days, we get excited when interest rates change by a quarter of a percentage point in a month and at time of writing they had not changed at all for well over two years. And so, in about 1985, Nigel Lawson, the then chancellor, became rather keen on taking sterling into the European exchange rate mechanism – the system of ‘fixed-but-adjustable’ exchange rates in Europe that had come into being in 1979 as a forerunner to the single currency. When Thatcher rebuffed him, he developed an alternative. Under the cloak of international efforts to stabilise currencies, the so-called G5 (Group of Five) and G7 (Group of Seven) Plaza and Louvre accords, that alternative was unofficial exchange rate targeting – shadowing the D-mark, my fourth age of monetary policy. How much was this responsible for the boom and bust of the late 1980s? Quite a lot, because interest rates were cut to try to hold the pound down. The earlier pragmatism was replaced by dogmatism, with dogma directed at preventing the pound from rising above three D-marks (Germany’s currency before the euro).

My fifth age is official targeting of the exchange rate – the ERM period. John Major was more successful than Lawson in persuading Thatcher of the virtues of joining the ERM, partly because he persuaded her that it was the route to lower interest rates. And so, when in October 1990 it was announced that the pound would be joining the ERM at an exchange rate of DM2.95, it was also announced that interest rates would be reduced at the same time. The problem with ERM membership was, however, the opposite of the one Major suggested, Far from being a route to lower interest rates, it blocked interest rate cuts at the very time they were needed. The combination of what was seen as a high exchange rate and the persistence of high interest rates meant that the period of ERM membership coincided with the 1990-92 recession. There was an additional complication. As a result of the pressures created by the unification of East and West Germany, German interest rates were higher than usual, and they set the pattern for the rest of Europe including, at the time, Britain. By the summer of 1992, the Conservative government, having narrowly won re-election in April 1992 (this time with Major as prime minister) was hanging on for dear life in the ERM. On September 16, 1992 the game was up. ‘Black’ Wednesday to the headline writers, ‘White’ or ‘Golden’ Wednesday to others, this was the day the Bank of England ran out of the reserves needed to prop up the pound within the system (it bought large quantities of sterling with its own foreign currency) but, thanks to George Soros and other speculators, it was to no avail.

The sixth age came after Black Wednesday and sterling’s departure from the ERM, and it can be called quasi Bank of England independence. In putting together a monetary policy framework out of the ruins of the ERM failure, and in doing it both quickly and in an environment where it seemed the government could fall at any moment, the Treasury and the then chancellor, Norman Lamont, performed a minor miracle. That framework, adopting an inflation target instead of money supply or exchange rate targets, requiring the Bank of England to produce a quarterly inflation report, and getting the Bank to advise openly and regularly on interest rate changes (this became the ‘Ken and Eddie show’ after Kenneth Clarke, Lamont’s successor and Eddie George, the Governor of the Bank) was enormously successful. It paved the way for the 1990s to be a period, after the disasters at the start, of non-inflationary growth, the holy grail of economic policy. From there it was a relatively short step to giving the Bank the job.

The seventh age is thus operational independence for the Bank in which the Bank sets rates to meet an inflation target, 2 per cent, set by the government Is this the final resting place for monetary policy? One is tempted to say yes. The possibility of Britain embracing Europe’s monetary union, the euro, under which the governor of the Bank would simply become a voting member of a large European Central Bank council, seems very remote. A question may arise over the Bank’s wider responsibilities, acquired in the wake of the crisis, for supervising the banks and the wider financial system. Errors made in this area could compound criticism of the Bank that emerged before, during and after the crisis. That criticism centred on the Bank’s failure, during a period its governor Mervyn King described as the ‘Nice’ decade (non-inflationary, consistently expansionary), to respond to sharply rising asset prices – mainly property – and rapid credit growth. This criticism, which was also directed at other central banks, and most notably the Federal Reserve, argued that an obsession with achieving low inflation meant that other dangerous developments were ignored. Had central banks adopted a more rounded approach, it was argued, they would have kept interest rates higher and used other methods to restrain credit growth, even if it meant measured inflation was below the official target. Such criticism persisted after the crisis, when soaring commodity prices and in Britain’s case a weak pound, pushed inflation up sharply. The ‘Nice’decade, more generally known as the ‘Great Moderation’, in which central banks seemed all-powerful, appeared to have benefited from considerable good fortune.

Sunday, April 07, 2013
Household debt no longer as big a burden
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

What's changing in the economy? The promised rebalancing towards exports and investment has not occurred.

Nor, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), should we hold our breath. Thnough it is optimistic on business investment from next year onwards, it does not see net trade contributing significantly to growth for the next five years.

Some things are changing, however. Last week I noted the financial sector’s shift from boosting growth to dragging on it. George Osborne wanted less reliance on financial services and has got it, though the effect on the measured recovery and the public finances suggests chancellors should be careful what they wish for.

There is another big change I want to focus on, and it concerns household debt. The rise and rise of debt has been one of the stories of our age. A nation of homeowners - nine-tenths of the debt is in mortgages - combined with easy credit availability to produce a striking increase in the amount owed by households.

From £239 billion at the beginning of 1987, household debt saw a more than fivefold rise to a peak of £1,550 billion at the end of 2008. Roughly £1 trillion occurred from the end of 1996. Though inflation played a part, debt rose from under 100% of annual household income to a high of 167.5%.

Times have changed. Household debt does not normally fall. In cash terms it carried on rising through the recession of the early 1990s, before regaining momentum as the recovery gathered strength.

This time, it has fallen. Not much, but it has fallen. At the end of 2011, household debt was £21bn lower than three years earlier. Though it has edged up a little since, it remains below its pre-crisis peak.

A more striking demonstration of this is when debt is measured against income. From that 2008 peak of 167.5%, it dropped to 141.4% in the final quarter of last year, according to the Office for National Statistics in its latest monthly economic review.

Nothing like this has happened before. Debt edged lower as a percentage of income in and after the recession of the early 1990s but not to any significant extent. This time the adjustment has been dramatic, and it many not yet have finished.

Why has it happened? If debt is to rise it needs to be available. Six years ago two-thirds of new mortgages came from so-called wholesale funding sources, rather than conventional bank and building society deposits. When the financial crisis hit, wholesale funding slowed to a dribble, turning mortgage feast into famine.

Even if mortgages had been available, households would still have been reluctant to take on debt. Debt appetite was replaced by an almost Pavlovian debt aversion.

If not, you might have expected individuals to compensate for the squeeze on their incomes by borrowing more. They did not do so, which is why consumer spending, despite a gentle rise since late 2011, is still 4% below pre-crisis levels.

People borrow when real incomes are rising and confidence high. It is not surprising falling real incomes and weak confidence results in a reluctance to borrow.

What happens now? The housing market is the key. Rising household debt is the natural consequence of a normally functioning housing market. Those who enter it, first-time buyers, do so with with debt, having taken on a mortgage to do so. Those who leave it, mainly older people, do so having paid off their mortgages years before. The net effect is a rise in debt.

Will the housing market ever function again in a normal way? The Funding for Lending scheme (FLS) has done a better job at boosting mortgage availability than it has in boosting small business lending, notwithstanding a small dip in mortgage approvals in the latest figures.

The Help to Buy scheme unveiled by George Osborne in the budget takes it further and has produced a curious reaction. The centrepiece of the scheme - £12bn of government guarantees to support £130bn of new mortgages over three years - seeks to address the mortgage famine that has so depressed housing activity.

Some of the criticism, suggesting it will create a sub-prime crisis in Britain, is preposterous. If we see mortgage lenders doling out loans to borrowers with no income, no jobs and no assets, America’s infamous Ninja borrowers, you might believe it. But that is not going to happen.

As for taking action at all, governments have always intervened in the housing market. In the 1970s local authorities were an important source of mortgage lending. For more than three decades homeowners received tax relief on their mortgage interest payments. A three-year time-limited scheme is modest in comparison.

Will the scheme pump up pver-inflated house prices? Prices have adjusted significantly, falling by by 26% in real terms since autumn 2007, according to the Nationwide building society. As Oxford Economics pointed out in the Institute for Fiscal Studies green budget, prices are now undervalued relative to their long-run trend.

The house price-earnings ratio is not a very useful measure of anything, but it has fallen by a quarter since before the crisis and, as Oxford Economics also pointed out, is in line with its average since the period of low interest rates began in the 1990s.

Will not government mortgage guarantees lead to the household debt burden rising? No. Even if Help to Buy results in £130bn of new mortgages over three years, which may be optimistic, the household debt ratio would not rise, based on what has happened to incomes in recent years. Nor is it likely to produce a new house-price boom: the scale is not there. Net mortgage lending was rising by well over £100bn annually before the crisis. £130bn over three years is small by comparison.

Should not people be encouraged to run down their debt further? There has already been unprecedented deleveraging and household balance sheets are healthy. Household assets are large in relation to income - 8.5 times according to the OBR - meaning that household net worth is 700% of household annual income.

That is not a bad position to be in. Some people took on too much debt in the run-up to the crisis and the overall level rose too quickly. But household debt, typically 25-year debt, of under 150% of annual income is sustainable. Encouraging it down much further will simply deprive the economy of the demand it needs.

Sunday, March 31, 2013
Britain's hidden growth explains the jobs boom
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

This is not a great time to be in the garden centre or outdoor attraction business. If you are a retailer hoping to sell spring and summer clothing lines, this may be time for a quiet weep.

Anybody selling last minute holidays in the sun is probably feeling pretty smug, notwithstanding the fact that this will add to a balance of payments deficit that swelled to a worrying £58bn last year. Our current account is badly overdrawn.

The combination of the bad weather and an early Easter has put gross domestic product(GDP) in the first quarter on a knife edge. It does not take much to tip a fragile economy into negative territory, though both the Office for Budget Responsibility and the OECD expect Britain to avoid the dreaded triple-dip by a wafer-thin margin.

Revisions last week to past data mean the double-dip at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 has now almost disappeared, as we knew it probably would, but that does not change the big picture. An economy that by now would normally be growing well is struggling to gain cruising altitude, for all the reasons we know about.

Today I want to present a slightly more nuanced picture. Some parts of the economy, we know, are growing. A 0.3% rise in service sector output in January, just announced, is the main reason for hoping there will be first quarter growth.

The service sector, which accounts for 77% of GDP, had a milder recession than the rest of the economy and has has a better recovery, growing by 1.1% in 2010, 1.2% in 2011 and 1.2% again in 2012. It is just, 0.3%, above its pre-crisis peak, while the overall economy is still nearly 3% below its peak.
Dig a little deeper into services and an even more interesting picture emerges. Financial services, including insurance, account for just over a tenth of GDP (10.4%) and just over an eighth of services.

They have had a torrid time. Turnover in this broad definition of financial services is 9% down since 2009 - when the economy began to recover - and 12% below pre-crisis levels. Though there is tentative evidence that the decline in financial services is levelling off, it will be a long time before it contributes significantly to growth, as it did in the heady days before the crisis struck.

What happens if you exclude weak financial services from the rest of the service sector? You are left with 66% of the economy and you are left with a picture in which growth has been reasonably healthy by today’s standards. This two-thirds of the economy grew by 6% from mid-2009 to the end of 2012 and is 2% above pre-crisis levels.

Not all of this two-thirds of the economy could properly be regarded as strong. Retail, for example, has been roughly flat in volume terms since the economy turned up in mid-2009. Air transport is down.

There are, however, areas of considerable strength. The motor trade is up 11.4% since 2009, wholesaling 5%, publishing, audiovisual and broadcasting up 15.8%.

What the Office for National Statistics calls accommodation is up 6%, telecommunications 6.3%, computer programming and consultancy 14.6%, arts, entertainment and recreation 6.7%, legal, accountancy and architecture 9.2%, other professional and scientific services 17.4%, and healthcare (including the ringfenced National Health Service) 10.4%.

The fact that these services are doing well may seem to be of small comfort if the rest of the economy is collapsing. Even there, though, the picture is more nuanced than often thought. Within manufacturing, output of capital equipment is up 21% since 2009, while transport equipment, notably cars, is up a stunning 46%.

If you add the parts of manufacturing where growth is good to the lion’s share of services doing fine, the result is that 70% to 75% of the economy is growing at a reasonable rate but is dragged down by the rest.

We know what the rest is, apart from financial services. It includes North Sea oil and gas, down 32% since 2009. It includes those bits of manufacturing, including chemicals, basic pharmaceuticals, wood and paper and textiles, where growth has disappointed. And it includes construction which, though marginally up on 2009, it is more than 10% down on this time in 2011.

What are the implications of all this? For British economy-watchers, the biggest current puzzle is why employment has been so strong when recovery is so weak. This, I think, goes a long way to explaining it.

The number of people in work is 3.3% higher than its 2009 recession low point and 0.7% above pre-crisis levels. Service sector employment is 722,000 up on the 2009 low and 490,000 higher than at the start of 2008, when recession struck. Those increases are 2.8% and 1.9% respectively.

The weaker bits of the economy, meanwhile, have not been shedding jobs as much as expected, either because they are hoping for something to turn up, or for safety reasons. So North Sea employment, while not huge, is up over the past three years and manufacturing employment only down by 30-40,000. Employment in financial services, overall, is barely down.

The main exception is construction, where more than 200,000 jobs have been shed since the recovery began. But the big picture is that the bulk of the service sector is generating jobs at a significant pace (while also raising its productivity). The jobs puzzle may have been solved.

The second big question is about those parts of the economy that are dragging down the rest. Some of them may be beyond saving. There are parts of low-value manufacturing which will struggle even with a competitive exchange rate.

The decline of two of the struggling sectors, the North Sea and financial services, is explicitly linked to the unbalanced economy and that huge current account deficit. We still need to sell financial services to the rest of the world. It is important the sector is better regulated but not over-regulated to the point of impotence.

North Sea oil and gas has come through a period in which taxation provided a major disincentive and is now looking up but will take time to turn around. Construction is highly cyclical. The government’s own test for the Help to Buy initiative George Osborne unveiled in the budget is whether it results in more housebuilding.

The broader message is that most of the economy has been able to grow at a reasonable rate in a very challenging period. Some of the growing parts are the high-skilled sectors we will need in the future. In fact we will need more of them.

Sunday, March 24, 2013
Don't bet on the Bank to pump up the recovery
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

What is left to say on the budget? By now, most people will have devoured the detail and it hasn't yet unravelled, though it is a bit battered around the edges.

Given George Osborne’s fourth budget was put together with considerably more care than his third, the chances of a big unravelling are not that high. Though this was a budget that disappointed on growth and borrowing, as foreshadowed last week, it was reasonably well-constructed.

On content, while it did not tick every box I set out last Sunday, it did quite a few of them, as well as a few I had not suggested. With little to play with, the chancellor found a lot to say.

This was never a budget with a large-scale assault on spending to pay for aggressive tax cuts. It was never going to be a “Plan B” spending budget.

Instead, there were positive, if modest, measures on jobs, including a new £2,000 employment allowance. Stamp duty is scrapped for “gazelles” (fast-growing firms) and there are funds for an industrial strategy aimed at replicating car industry success in 11 other sectors. The corporation tax cut to 20% in 2015 and a personal allowance in 2014 of £10,000 will top the list of coalition achievements.

Achieving the £10,000 target for the allowance may move it beyond the stealth tax cut described here last week. “Your first £10,000 free of tax” is not a bad slogan.

Some reaction to the Help to Buy scheme - equity loans and mortgage guarantees - was just silly. Anything that increases housebuilding and gets housing turnover up, as this scheme can if the details are got right, is welcome.

Housing turnover is half pre-crisis levels. Boosting it improves economic efficiency - allowing people to move for job reasons - and generates additional spending. When people move, they tend to improve.

There has even been some mildly encouraging post-budget news. The day after the budget official figures showed public borrowing in the first 11 months of the year nearly £3bn below last year’s levels, a significantly wider margin that the wafer-thin full-year £0.1bn deficit reduction predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The OBR had access to some but not all the figures, and March could be a bad month. But it is also quite possible some of the chancellor’s scramble to secure a face-saving deficit reduction this year will prove to have been unnecessary. There was also a welcome post-budget announcement of a 2.1% jump in retail sales last month.

One good retail sales figure does not, of course, turn muted growth into a strong recovery. It is how to generate that recovery, built on what Osborne described as combining “monetary activism with fiscal responsibility and supply side reform”, that I want to concentrate on.

What exactly might monetary activism mean? On budget day the Treasury published a 68-page review of monetary policy, the main conclusion of which was that the 2% inflation target, “which applies at all times”, should be kept.

So, sensibly, there was no adoption of a target range for inflation, or replacing the 2% target with one for the money value of gross domestic product. Though “at all times” means the Bank can choose when and how quickly it tries to hit the target, it was important to retain it.

The Bank has also been tasked with three things. When it is missing the inflation target it will have to set out clearly the trade-offs causing it do so so, for example if trying to get it down too quickly would push unemployment up too much. The Bank will be required to communicate.

It will be required to ensure that decisions by its new financial policy committee are co-ordinated with those of the monetary policy committee. To take a simple example, it would be odd if the FPC were reining back credit growth by recommending tougher capital controls on the banks while the MPC was trying to get more lending into the economy.

The Bank has also been set a specific task of investigating, in its August inflation report, whether it should issue what is known in the jargon as forward guidance based on intermediate thresholds.

That is a mouthful but in practice it means that the Bank would follow America’s Federal Reserve in, say, committing itelf to undertake further quantitative easing on a montholy or quarterly basis, until such time as unemployment drops below a certain level. The significance of the August inflation report is that it will be the first under Mark Carney, the new governor, who used such forward guidance in 2009 to signal to the markets that interest rates would stay low.

Is it a good idea? Sir Mervyn King has always insisted that the MPC takes one month at a time, not tying its hands for future meetings. Forward guidance would do that and could also run into the problem of leads and lags in monetary policy.

Suppose the MPC said it would do £25bn of QE each quarter until such time as unemployment is back to its pre-crisis level of 1.5m. Apart from the fact that the new norm for unemployment could be 2.5m rather than 1.5m, because of the damage the economy’s has suffered, the Bank could find itself overdosing on QE because it takes time for monetary policy decisions to be reflected in real economic data.

Would such guidance work? There is a lot of scepticism around. At a time when nobody expects a rise in Bank rate for the foreseeable future and most in the City expect more QE, why should forward guidance make any difference.

The circumstances when it might could be if growth picks up and the markets get it into their heads that interest rates will quickly rise in response. Guidance from the Bank that they won’t could prevent fear of higher rates nipping recovery in the bud.

Similarly, as it did last month, the Bank could make a habit of signalling to the markets that it will “look through” above-target inflation. The risk, of course, is that it looks through high inflation for so long getting back to 2% becomes unattainable.

The bottom line is that Osborne wants the Bank to become less opaque and mysterious, and more transparent. That, and the imaginative use of even more unconventional policies than the Bank has employed so far (an easy example of which is buying other assets than gilts) might help growth at the margin. But we should not expect it, on its own, to transform a slow-growing economy into something stronger. That will take time and patience.

Sunday, March 17, 2013
Five things that might just boost growth
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

This week’s budget, it can be safely said, will be disappointing. George Osborne’s fourth risks being his most discordant yet.

It will be disappointing on growth. Weak fourth quarter gross domestic product and January’s awful manufacturing and construction numbers mean the Office for Budget Responsibility will revise down growth forecasts it made only three months ago.

It will be disappointing on borrowing. Unless Osborne has come up with another fiscal trick, his autumn statement triumph of announcing a drop in the budget deficit this year, badly wrongfooting Ed Balls, will have proved shortlived.

Both Osborne and the OBR will have egg on face if, as is likely, this year’s outturn is instead heading for an overshoot of several billion. It should be an open goal for Balls.

It will be disappointing in content. The more the chancellor is constrained by the deficit overshoot and the loss of the AAA rating, the more strident the demands have grown. To call some of those demands naive scarcely does them justice.

Perhaps a Tory government unencumbered by coalition could have slashed spending in its first three years, a Canadian-style short, sharp shock to cut the deficit faster and leaving room for the deep tax cuts beloved of the party’s right-wingers. It did not happen then and is not going to happen now.

Similarly, there are those who would have liked Osborne to emulate the Denis Healey of 1974-5, expanding spending when everybody else was showing restraint, and driving Britain into the arms of the International Monetary Fund.

It would also have been good then to seek an alternative to the big cuts in capital spending inherited from Labour. But that did not happen either. Osborne will announce a further shift from current into capital spending on Wednesday and the big cuts are in any case now behind us. More capital spending will be a theme of the June 26 spending review (surprisingly announced ahead of the budget).

I would be surprised, however, to see a big and explicit increase in borrowing to pay for more infrastructure. That would be too close to a Plan B to present it as a continuation of Plan A, particularly after last month’s ratings downgrade by Moody’s.

Any activism, it seems, will be on the monetary side, with speculation focusing on a looser inflation target for the Bank of England and the new governor, Mark Carney, being given carte blanche to do whatever it takes to boost the economy.

How disappointing will the numbers on Wednesday be? John Hawksworth of Price Waterhouse Coopers expects an £8bn borrowing overshoot this year - so not even close to the deficit reduction officially predicted in December - and for similar overshoots to carry forward to future years.

As for growth, Ross Walker of RBS expects the OBR to predict 1% growth this year, 1.8% next. These forecasts are down marginally on the autumn statement predictions but well down on a year ago, when they were 2% and 2.7% respectively.

What can Osborne do to make his budget less disappointing? He has to do a better job defending the government’s srategy than David Cameron did 10 days ago. To those who say austerity has been a failure, he could point as the Institute for Fiscal Studies did in its green budget to the alternative of Britain’s public sector debt being propelled on an unsustainable path, taking it first to 100% and then to more than 200% of gross domestic product.

The alternative might have been a full-blown fiscal crisis, an International Monetary Fund programme, many ratings downgrades and 10-year bond yields closer to Italy’s (BBB+ rated) near-5%, rather than below 2% as Britain’s are.

Though GDP continues to disappoint, it is not hard to think of an alternative in which employment growth would have been weak or non-existent and unemployment, instead of being under 8%, closer to the eurozone’s 12%, or even the higher rates among its weakest members.

So things could have been worse, but that is not much to build a budget around. What else should there be? I would like to see five things.

On tax, Osborne has spent many billions raising the personal allowance towards its £10,000 target, heading off increases in petrol duty and moving towards a target corporation tax rate of 20%.

All have merits but also shortcomings. Raising the personal allowance is a stealth tax cut. Most do not notice it, while they did notice the 2011 Vat hike. Postponing duty hikes, similarly, means petrol prices have merely risen somewhat less steeply. Business has not responded to lower coporation tax with an investment boom.

So, to the extent that there is any money at Osborne’s disposal, and there always is a little, it should be targeted at specific incentives to get firms to invest in new capacity and home-owners to invest in job-generating home improvements.

On infrastructure, I can’t understood why, when so much of the 2010 Tory mainfesto was torn up for coalition reasons, the commitment on no new airport capacity in the south-east remained sacrosanct.

That is unjustified and the most positive infrastructure signal Osborne could send now would be a commitment to build a third runway at Heathrow. A new London airport in the Thames Estuary is, like HS2, a project for later. We cannot wait that long.

On housing, a proven generator of jobs and growth, progress is being made, via the Funding for Lending scheme (FLS) and an array of other initiatives aimed at first-time and new home buyers.

These should be expanded and talk of redirecting Funding for Lending away from housing forgotten. Social housing has a big role too. Housing associations have been bypassing the banks, raising money directly for new developments through bond issues. We need much more of that.

As for small and medium-sized firms, the FLS is the latest in a series of damp squibs for the sector. While some banks have broken through the barrier of mutual suspicion, others have not, or do not want to. The case for direct lending, giving a government-backed business bank genuine financial welly, grows stronger by the day.

Finally, on the Bank of England, Osborne should be wary of changing its remit in a way that endorses a permanent inflation overshoot but he should encourage the Bank to think more imaginatively about ways of boosting growth.

I would get the Bank to take an active role in building markets for securitised (packaged) small business loans and infrastructure bonds. These and housing association bonds could be swapped for some of the £375bn of gilts the Bank has bought under quantitative easing. Whether this would succeed in generating growth we do not know. You never know until you try.

Sunday, March 10, 2013
The eurozone crisis could still blow Britain away
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

What happens in Europe doesn’t stay in Europe, and right now the picture there is downbeat.

The dampening effect of the eurozone crisis will be one of the factors George Osborne cites in his March 20 budget (of which more next week), and was highlighted by David Cameron in his infamous economic speech a few days ago.

He meant to say that the eurozone, high oil prices and the prolonged banking crisis explained why growth has undershot the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts of three years ago, not the tax increases and spending cuts it had alreday incorporated into its forecasts. But it came out differently, hence the rebuke from the OBR.

But the eurozone is the biggest risk to Britain’s recovery hopes this year, and it remains the central threat to the world economy, in spite of the calming effect of the European Central Bank’s pledge to buy the government bonds of troubled eurozone economies.

Figures last week confirmed that eurozone gross domestic product fell by 0.6% in the final quarter of last year, which included falls of 0.8% in Spain, 0.9% in Italy and 1.8% in Portugal. Even Germany succumbed, down 0.6%. A quarterly figure for Greece was not available, but its GDP was 6% down year-on-year; grim for a recession that began in 2008.

Eurozone unemployment, 19m, or 11.9% of the workforce, has risen by 1.9m in the past year. The European Central Bank, like the Bank of England, sat on its hands on Thrusday but confirmed a 2013 recession for the eurozone, predicting a drop of between 0.1% and 0.9% in GDP this year.

Some say Britain’s problems are unrelated to the eurozone’s woes but that is plainly not the case. Apart from the crisis’s effects on confidence and bank funding, it has impacted heavily on Britain’s hoped-for export-led recovery.

Between 2009 and 2012 exports did recover, by 11% in volume terms, though imports rose at a similar rate. Exports to non-EU countries have risen strongly, by 31% in volume terms, while EU exports have been much weaker.

Since 2009, Britain’s GDP has risen by 2.9%. Had exports to the EU risen as strongly as non-EU exports, GDP would have increased by 8.7%, close to 3% a year, and nobody would be talking about the economy’s failure to recover.

Even if a stronger eurozone economy had simply resulted in 21% rather than 11% overall export growth. the recovery would have averaged a respectable 2% a year.

But the eurozone crisis is the cross Britain’s exporters have to bear. When will it end or is Europe doomed, like Sisyphus, to keep trying to push the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down again?

We are used to visions of eurozone disaster as set out by British economists. Roger Bootle of Capital Economics did it well recently at the Institute of Economic Affairs, arguing convincingly that the eurozone is not sustainable in its present form, that it will condemn Europe to prolonged economic misery and that partial break-up will be part of the solution, not the problem, for Europe.

What you do not expect is to get equally doom-laden assessments of the eurozone’s prospects from the heart of Europe. The Munich-based CESifo is one of Germany’s “five wise men” institutes, and is headed by Professor Hans-Werner Sinn, one of the country’s leading economists. It has just published its 2013 European economic advisory group (EEAG) report on Europe.

The report highlights, as I have taken to doing, the fact that there is not a single eurozone crisis but three inter-linked ones: the sovereign debt crisis, the banking crisis and what it describes as a balance of payments crisis.

As it puts it: “Large imbalances have emerged in the euro area since 2000 in the form of current account deficits and surpluses. The euro area periphery countries of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland in particular experienced credit bubbles that led to current account deficits and corresponding capital imports.”

Credit bubbles were accompanied by a loss of competitiveness, with the troubled eurozone economies gradually moving further and further away from Germany, Europe’s benchmark economy, losing between 20% and 30% competitiveness since the euro came into being.

What that means, as well as sorting out banking problems and putting sovereign debt on a secure footing (which for countries like Greece will mean further write-offs), the problem economies have to claw back that lost competitiveness.

There are two ways of doing that. One is so-called internal devaluation; cutting their costs, in particular their wage costs. It is, as the EEAG report notes, likely to be painful, involving “prolonged recession and high unemployment”.

The other route, external devaluation - leaving the euro- is no easier, it says, boosting public sector debt, driving companies into mass bankruptcy, with even anticipation of a euro exit causing “destabilising capital flight and contagion effects”.

It is not all bad news. Ireland is held up as an example of a country that is meeting the challenge of clawing back competitiveness, not least because its crisis erupted about two years before the others.

For most of the others, however, progress is painfully slow or non-existent. Italy, having had chronically weak growth for years, is in a political crisis and was downgraded to BBB-plus by Fitch on Friday. France, which is having a torrid 2013 judging by the surveys, is not immune.

Does not the euro hold together as long as Germany will finance it? As Sinn put it wryly: “We love the French, they lover our money.” But German pockets are not bottomless. Germans are suffering a wage squeeze and face the challenge of an ageing and declining population.

Not everybody is so gloomy. Berenberg, a German bank, in a new report, says: “If the eurozone and its member countries stay the course, the euro crisis could be largely over by the end of the year.”

It thinks the weaker countries are making better progress in restructuring their economies than CESifo believes. Even here, however, there is a sting in the tail. France, it says, is not making progress and urgently needs economic reform. My take would be harsher; that France is goijng backwards under Francois Hollande.

We need to hope that the optimists are right and that the eurozone is closer to resolving its crises than appears. Britain needs growth, not fog, across the Channel. But Europe has disappointed before. The fear is that it will do so again.

Sunday, March 03, 2013
The Bank of England has lost its compass
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

When the Bank of England was made independent in 1997, I thought it was an excellent move. What better way was there to protect the economy from flaky politicians? The days of interest rate cuts timed for party conferences or to secure a pre-election political advantage would surely be over. Low inflation would be safe in the Bank’s hands.

Now, the boot is on the other foot. George Osborne, responding to the Moody’s downgrade, has shown a lack of flakiness so far, saying it strengthens his determination to cut the deficit. The Bank is another story. It has taken me longer than some but I am no longer so sure monetary policy is safe in its hands.

As most will have seen from the headlines, a few days ago Paul Tucker, one of the deputy governors, took the Bank into new territory by floating the idea of negative interest rates. “I hope we will think about whether there are constraints to setting negative interest rates,” he said in evidence to MPs on the Treasury committee. “This is an idea that I have raised.”

He was talking about the possibility of a negative rate on some of the £280bn of reserves commercial banks hold at the Bank, with a view to encouraging them instead to lend into the economy. He probably did not expect it to be reported as a new assault on savers.

The confusion was, however, justified. Bank rate is what the banks receive on their reserves. To pay them a negative rate without penalising everybody would require an entirely different system, which is one reason why Charlie Bean, Tucker’s fellow deputy, distanced himself from it the following day. He would need some convincing that such a policy would work to justify the shake-up it would require.

The confusion did not end there. Markets, encouraged by speeches by Sir Mervyn King, and the monetary policy committee’s (MPC’s) own minutes, had got used to the idea that quantitative easing, £375bn so far, was being paused while the Bank gave the £80bn Funding for Lending scheme time to work.

Now, the Bank appears back in full QE mode. It emerged 12 days ago that three of its members, including King, voted for a further £25 billion of QE. Tucker told MPs that “nobody on this committee thinks that QE has reached the end of the road”.

Paul Fisher, his colleague, the Bank’s executive director for markets, said in a speech he favoured a “prolonged run” of gilt purchases. He also said, curiously, the Bank was wary of distorting markets. Surely purchases of gilts equivalent to 25% of gross domestic product are distorting?

This outbreak of hyperactivity from senior Bank people does not seem to have been driven by any deterioration in the economy. The bottom line is that the Bank is prepared to relax policy further - nobody will be surprised by another £25bn of QE this Thursday - even as its forecasts (which are usually optimistic) show inflation above target for at least the next two years.

This has not gone unnoticed in markets. BNP Paribas says there is “total confusion” over the Bank’s use of its policy tools. J.P. Morgan says the Bank’s policy framework is “creaking” and that there is a “shambles” over the issue of when it will seek to bring inflation back to target.

These are not the only worries. The Bank, by tradition, refrained from comments on the pound. I recall, at an IMF meeting in Prague in autumn 2000, trying to get Eddie George, the previous governor, to say something about sterling, which was strong (1.70) against a sickly euro.

I thought it was a subtle question but Eddie saw straight through it. He didn’t quite say: “I didn’t get where I am by talking down the pound”, but it was close. The last thing the Bank wanted was to be associated with a sterling slide.

Times have changed. Short of erecting a sign on the front of the Bank saying “Sell Sterling”, it could barely do more than signal its desire for a lower pound. King has been a champion of sterling depreciation, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

When he introduced the Bank’s November inflation report he said it was hard to see anything other than a “slow and protracted recovery” in the absence of a fall in the real exchange rate. The pound duly obeyed, vying wih the yen as the weakest major currency of 2013. In its latest minutes, the MPC noted the “expansionary impetus” from the pound’s fall.

Martin Weale, a fellow MPC member, in the most explicit endorsement of a lower pound, said in a speech on February 16 it was the “most natural” way of resolving Britain’s balance of payments problem.

The trouble with this is that we have already had one of the the biggest sterling falls in history, the 25% drop in its average value in 2007-8, the effect of which has been to push up inflation through higher import prices while doing little for exports. There is no reason to believe a further fall would be any different in its effects.

The pound, clearly overvalued against the euro in 2000 when it was 1.70, is undervalued now at 1.16. It should not be falling against a euro whose problems go beyond the tendency of Italians to vote for clowns. For the Bank to try to push it down is wrong.

What can be said in the Bank’s defence? Its senior officials seem determined to show, before the summer arrival of Mark Carney, that they are capable of imaginative thinking on monetary policy, even if those ideas come to nothing.

There is something in this, though it represents a late flowering for what has always come over as a conservative institution. There is also a proper way to convey new ideas, not in impromptu answers to Treasury committee questions.

The Bank can also argue that the inflation it influences is under control. Average earnings are rising by 1.4%, while the gross domestic product (GDP) deflator, which measures economy-wide inflation, rose just 1.1% in the past 12 months.

These are not, however, the things the Bank is supposed to target. It has rarely hit the 2% inflation target in the past eight years and, on its own forecasts will not do so in the next 2-3 years. A decade of above-target inflation is, for any central bank, flaky. The Bank has lost its compass.

Sunday, February 17, 2013
Close the productivity gap, or we get even poorer
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Why is Britain's productivity - the amount we produce per worker - in such a bad way? Why, relative to other countries, is it going backwards?

Official figures showed that in 2011, output per hour in Britain was 16 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 (America, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Canada). The productivity gap, on this basis, has not been wider for two decades, since 1993.

Every hour worked in America produces 27% more output than in Britain; 26% more in France, 22% in Germany and even 3% more in Italy.

The gap when measured by output per worker was even larger, 21 percentage points. The rest of the G7, in other words, is roughly a fifth more productive than Britain. America, on this basis, is 39% more productive than Britain.

Should we be bothered? Yes. In another release, unusually, the Office for National Statistics(ONS) quoted Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate turned New York Times columnist, and his observation that: “A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise output per worker.”

Krugman’s slightly snappier version is that “productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything”.

The weakness of productivity is directly linked to another phenomenon highlighted by the ONS: falling real wages. Adjusted for inflation, average earnings in Britain have been falling since 2009 and are now back at the levels of 2002-3. For the self-employed, the picture is even grimmer: real incomes are a fifth lower than they were a decade ago.

As far as the growth in real pay is concerned, it is almost as if the period between the Queen’s golden and diamond jubilees never happened. Worse, with inflation still running more than a percentage point above average earnings, the fall in real wages is not yet over.

I had always thought that the drop in real wages was a function of what we must now call the Bank of England’s “flexible” inflation targeting regime, as elaborated on by Sir Mervyn King in presenting his penultimate inflation report.

The Bank, in other words, is prepared to tolerate years of above-target inflation because it thinks the alternative would be worse. But that above-target inflation, as often noted here, stands in the way of meaningful consumer spending recovery.

The productivity numbers, however, suggest another explanation, which is that real wages are so weak because we are falling behind on productivity. It is not quite “pay peanuts and you get monkeys” but it does suggest employers have little choice but to hold down pay because productivity is so poor.

Britain, is seems, is turning into a low wage/low productivity economy or even a falling wage/falling productivity economy. It is particularly galling because only a couple of weeks ago I quoted figures showing that, starting in about 1980, Britain had reversed her long-term relative productivity decline. The good work, it seems, is being undone.

So how worried should we be? Are we condemned to falling living standards and never trading our way out trouble? If you have ever wondered why Britain’s exports are not doing better, a chart in the Bank’s inflation report provided an explanation.

Wages have been weak, but productivity even more so. Combining the two gives unit labour costs and Britain’s relative unit labour costs, what the Bank calls the real effective exchange rate, is up by between 15% and 20% over the past four years.

The question is how permanent is the poor productivity performance. Here, there are one or two grounds for optimism. Weak productivity since the financial crisis hit has been a European phenomenon, experienced by Germany, which we do not think of as busted flush, as well as Britain.

Countries that have done well in maintaining jobs, such as Germany and Britain, have done much worse on productivity. America, in contrast, had a much bigger drop in employment (and still suffers from higher unemployment than Britain) but has done better on on productivity. That is the way the arithmetic, always of course subject to statistical revision, works.

Second, most economists believe that Britain’s productivity weakness is temporary and will recover. History suggests it is is rare for economies to hit a brick wall.

Even the Bank’s monetary policy committee, which has been accused of productivity pessimism, is basing its new forecasts on what it describes as “a gradual revival in productivity growth” and allows for the the possibility that it could recover more rapidly than expected.

Finally, we should look at the particular causes of the productivity problem in recent years, over and above the need for more investment (the more capital per worker, the higher the labour productivity) and higher skills.

ONS research shows that plunging North Sea output, without a matching drop in the number of workers, has hit productivity hard in recent years. Without this, measured productivity would have grown by 1% a year more. Though North Sea output appears to have stopped slumping, we may have to wait for shale gas for a sustained productivity boost from energy.

The other important sector is financial services. Before the financial crisis iits productivity growth rate was more than 4% a year. Since it, productivity has been falling by nearly 3% a year.

That is not the only consequence of a smaller and neutered financial services sector. The Bank governor lamented the drop in Britain’s financial services exports, another reason why the current account deficit has remained stubbornly large.

The North Sea will never get back to its glory days and, whether glorious or not, the City will struggle to regain its former highs. That leaves the onus on the rest of the economy, particularly the wider service sector where productivity is below levels at the depths of the recession, to raise its game, partly by adopting better and more efficient ways of doing things. The alternative is declining living standards.

We do not have to be productivity pessimists. But we do need to work at generating higher productivity.

Sunday, February 10, 2013
Carney's no messiah but can he work miracles?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

In the past few days we have heard for the first time in Britain from the new Bank of England governor, we had a report on the economy from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and we have had the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ always insightful Green Budget.

Any of these, in a normal week, would provide sufficient material for a column. Let me deftly, I hope, combine them.

Regular readers will not need reminding of the difference between fiscal and monetary policy, though the lines may have become a little blurred.

Fiscal policy, the preserve of the chancellor, is being tightened, through tax hikes and spending cuts. That leaves monetary policy, which from July 1 will be under the leadership of Mark Carney, to do the heavy-lifting or, as George Osborne put it: “Action by the Bank of England can and should continue to support the economy”.

The Bank, which on Thursday left interest rates unchanged at 0.5%, as it has for nearly four years, and maintained the amount of quantitative easing (QE) at £375 billion, would argue that this is precisely what it has done.

This loose money/tight fiscal demarcation - cut the deficit but keep the economy afloat with the lowest interest rates on record, topped up with QE - is the OECD’s favoured prescription. In its annual survey of Britain’s economy, it said that “monetary policy is the primary tool to stimulate the economy” and that “the fiscal stance remains appropriate”.

It backed Osborne’s decision in his December autumn statement to allow the so-called automatic stabilisers to operate - don’t raise taxes or cut spending further to offset a deterioration in the public finances due to weak growth - but does not think the solution to Britain’s growth problems lie with a “Plan B” or any other junking of the coalition’s fiscal strategy.

The question, however, is why loose money/tight fiscal, having generated strong recovery in the 1930s, late 1970s, 1980s (eventually) and 1990s, has struggled this time. Compared with the 1990s, sterling has fallen a lot more - 25% versus 14% - interest rates are plainly lower (real interest rates more so), and QE was not even a twinkle in the Bank’s eye then.

One explanation is that a damaged banking system means monetary policy is far less effective than usual, and there is plainly some truth in that. The other is that it could have been done a lot better.

Carney, in a marathon evidence session to the House of Commons Treasury committee, was urbane, polite about his new colleagues and mainly gave straight answers. He dismissed Lord (Adair) Turner’s idea of a “helicopter drop” of money (not literally) to boost the economy.

Advocates of a ripping-up of the Bank’s existing framework, and its replacement by a money GDP target with a more explicit commitment to growth, did not receive much encouragement. He praised what he described, and which Sir Mervyn King has taken to calling, Britain’s “flexible” inflation targeting regime. If that means the Bank doesn’t hit the target very often, it is a pretty good description.

But coming through the new governor’s testimony - accompanied by a 45-page written submission - were two messages. The first was that monetary policy has not yet reached the end of the road; I doubt if he would have taken the job merely to mop up what was done under King.

The second is that the Bank under Carney will be more open in the way it communicates its actions (there was a hint of that with the long statement that accompanied its no-change decision on rates). And it will be more imaginative in its use of “unconventional” policy - I cannot imagine him being content merely to carry on buying large quantities of gilts (UK government bonds). It will look for new ways of stimulating the economy.

The Bank’s slavish commitment to QE through gilt purchases, which has run into quite significant opposition for its effects on pensioners, is in some ways forgivable. Nothing quite like this, or at least on this scale, had been tried in Britain until 2009.

But if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, there is an element of this in the Bank’s decision to persist with its existing model of QE. Quite what a new model might be is not clear but at the very least should widen the range of assets the Bank is prepared to buy.

If monetary policy could be improved, so very clearly could fiscal policy. The IFS’s Green Budget was clear that spending cuts and tax hikes were necessary, without them the budget deficit would still be around 11% of GDP and public sector debt would be on a trajectory that would take it to 250% of GDP in the coming decades.

But the IFS was also clear of the serious shortcomings in fiscal policy. Both Labour and the coalition thought the path to budgetary salvation lay with slashing public investment: the element of spending that has the biggest impact on growth.

Under current plans, meanwhile, welfare spending will rise from 28.5% of all government spending by 2010 to 32.5% by 2017-18. Some would say welfare feeds directly into the economy because those who receive it spend everything they get.

But the lion’s share of extra welfare is going to the elderly and, while those on low incomes do spend what they receive, that is not true for old people as a whole: they have relatively low propensity to spend.

If the “welfare up/investment down” split looks illogical, so does the fact that, in spite of headline government commitments to squeezing public sector pay, it has continued to go up, managers choosing instead to shed workers, which they will continue to do, to the tune of 1.2m in all.

There is also, as the IFS identified, a huge question about whether cuts to departmental spending can be delivered. These, real-terms reductions of a third in non-ringfenced departments by 2017-18, have barely begun. Only 21% have so far been delivered. Small wonder the IFS thinks tax hikes after the 2015 election will be used an alternative to some of them.

So there is a lot of work to be done to improve the effectiveness - and deliverability - of fiscal and monetary policy. Faster growth, the IFS notes, would help resolve some of the fiscal dilemmas.

As the excitement over Carney’s arrival has grown, I have taken to paraphrasing Monty Python and saying: He’s not the Messiah, he’s only a central banker. If he can deliver the growth that gets the government out of the fiscal mess, however, he really would be a miracle-worker. It promises to be an interesting year.

Sunday, February 03, 2013
Britain's not broken: but needs to shift up a gear
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A few days ago an unusual report was published on Britain’s economy. It set out some good ideas about how to generate growth over the medium and long-term through infrastructure, innovation, education and skills.

More striking, for me at least, the London School of Economics (LSE) Growth Commission stressed that Britain approaches the future with very conisderable advantages, and an economy that is far from broken.

I count myself an optimist but even I was surprised at some of the findings about our recent economic history. In the past 30 years or so, for example, gross domestic product per head has risen more rapidly than in advanced-country competitors.

As the Commission put it: “Despite the current gloom, the UK has many assets that can be mobilised to its advantage, including strong rule of law, generally competitive product markets, flexible labour markets, a world-class university system and strengths in key sectors, with cutting edge firms in manufacturing and services.

“These and other assets helped reverse the UK’s relative decline over the century before 1980. Over the following three decades, they supported faster growth per capita than in the UK’s main comparator countries – France, Germany and the US.”

Yes you are thinking but wasn’t this all the City? The financial services sector may not be broken but it is badly damaged and likely to remain so for some time.

Again, however, the report finds that the idea of a City-dependent Britain before the crisis is an urban economic myth. Between 1997 and 2007 market (private) sector productivity, output per hour, grew by 2.8% a year, of which only 0.4% came from financial services.

Business services contributed twice as much (0.8%) to productivity growth, industry (1.1%) almost three times. On other measures, as the report notes, growth before the crisis was no “finance-driven statistical mirage”.

The problem since the crisis has, of course, been lack of productivity; jobs are up while GDP has struggled. Again, however, Britain has been far from alone on this. The pos-crisis producivity record has been almost identical to Germany, and similar to Italy and France. Only America stands out among the big advanced economies, because the shakeout of jobs was much more brutal there.

The Commission’s co-chairs were tLSE economics professors Tim Besley and John Van Reenen and its members included Rachel Lomax (ex Bank of England deputy governor), Chris Pissarides (Nobel prize-winning LSE economist), Richard Lambert (ex CBI director-general), Lord Browne (former BP chief executive) and Lord Stern (economist and climate guru).

The LSE is on a roll. Last week it was granted a Regius professorship of economics by the Queen, an improvement in royal relations compared with autumn 2008, when she famously asked at the LSE why nobody had spotted the crisis coming and was not impressed with the answer.

The Growth Commission uses a German word, Schadenfreude, to describe what it sees as the attitude many Britons have to the economy and the way it is reported, “revelling in stories of national decline”.

This is not just the bonkers fringes of the City, media and internet with their constant talk of imminent national collapse. It has always been the case that doom-laden economic stories are more likely to find their way to the top of a news bulletin or the front page of a paper.

The economy is the ultimate political football. Nobody is happier than an opposition politician when economic news is dire. Ministers rarely acknowledge the contribution of an opposing party, When did you last see politicians of different parties working together in the national economic interest?

Yet the lesson of the past 30 years is the reversal of a century-long relative economic decline was not the product of one leader’s time in office. It may have started with the Thatcher reforms of the 1980s but it continued under John Major and Tony Blair.

There are some very good recommendations in the report. On infrastructure, it calls for a new strategy board, planning commission and bank, to get plans approved, financed and implemented, particularly in transport and energy.

On “human capital” it calls for a range of further improvements in schools and teacher quality, and to ensure Britain’s universities can continue to attract international talent, by exempting bona fide students from the cap on net immigration. It also has a range of proposals for tackling the traditional Achilles’ heel, intermediate workplace skills.

These and other proposals to boost investment and innovation, including a greater competition in retail banking, a business bank and new regulatory incentives to encourage long-termism in investment decisions, add up to a meaty package, which politicians should take seriously.

Perhaps the most serious message, however, is for politicians themselves. One reason for the success of the past 30 years was continuity. Eighteen years of Tory government folowed by 13 of Labour offered a degree of stability. Labour did not tear up much it inherited from the Tories.

That cannot be guaranteed. The LSE Commission suggests a National Growth Council whose role would be to challenge governments when growth-friendly policies were not being pursued, and to offer the continuity to pursue a long-term growth programme. As it says: “The absence of stable machinery at the centre of of government makes it more difficult to develop a long-term strategy for promoting economic growth.”

Politicians are not good at the long-term, though perhaps the commitment to HS2, the new high-speed train, is an example of a new approach. Typically, they think of the next budget or, as now, the next Bank governor.

But, while the Right sees the solution in tax cuts, and the Left in boosting spending, and while Mark Carney is seen by some as an economic messiah, the solution to Britain’s growth difficulties does not lie with short-term fiscal and monetary measures.

People have to believe that history did not end with the crisis, and the Growth Commission offers some encouragement. It does not believe, for example, that Britain’s growth rate has been permanently lowered, or that “the pre-2008 improvements in the UK’s economic position relative to the EU and the US are likely to unravel”.

For that optimism to be justified, the economy needs a sustained increase in investment in infrastructure, private sector capacity, education and skills. The gauntlet has been thrown down. The politicians should pick it up.

Sunday, January 27, 2013
Financial hangover is Britain's biggest growth headache
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Thanks to Friday’s figures, gross domestic product once again dominates the agenda. The GDP numbers, showing a 0.3% drop in the fourth quarter of 2012, completed a year in which Britain’s GDP was exactly flat, both comparing 2012 with 2011 and the fourth quarter of 2012 with the corresponding quarter of a year earlier.

Squaring that with another measure of how the economy is doing, the 552,000 rise in employment over the past 12 months, the biggest since the late 1980s’ boom, is hard to do. Squaring it with a 113,000 rise in full-time employment in the September-November period is as challenging.

The fact that GDP fell owes a lot to energy shutdowns, which reduced it by 0.2% over the quarter and a drop in "sporting activities" (you can't have the Olympics every quarter) which had a similar effect. Even so, when the economy is weak enough to be pushed off course by such factors, it is weak.

So GDP it is. Does its weakness mean, as Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund has suggested, the government should re-think its austerity plans by the March budget?

No. The IMF is a strange body. Christine Lagarde, its managing director, has been something of an international cheerleader for the coalition’s fiscal strategy.

Last month the IMF published a working paper by three of its economists, Anja Baum, Marcos Poplawski-Ribeiro and Anke Weber, showing that the impact of tax increases and spending cuts on Britain’s economy, so-called fiscal multipliers, is very small.

Blanchard has a different view, which the Treasury is not taking too seriously because, though he is chief economist, his is not the IMF view. Whether or not the IMF does recommend a change of strategy we will not know until May, and its next detailed consultation, known in the jargon as an Article IV consultation.

It looks unlikely, not only because that work on the multipliers suggests austerity is not to blame, but also because the government has not tried to stick to deficit reduction willy-nilly. In the face of weaker growth it allowed borrowing to take some of the strain, allowing what economists call the automatic stabilisers to operate.

So why is GDP growth so weak? A paper by economists from Liverpool and Manchester universities, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference in April, argues strongly for a financial rather than a fiscal explanation for the slow recovery.

The most striking result from the research, which chimes in with the IMF’s detailed work, is how little difference the coalition’s austerity has made to growth. You cannot raise taxes and cut spending without some impact on growth. The point is that this impact has been small.

The economy has grown by roughly 0.5% a year since the coalition took office. In the absence of austerity, it would have grown only a little more strongly, perhaps 0.75%, the research suggests. The unemployment rate would have been a fractional 0.1 points lower annually.

Given the risks Britain faced if there had not been a programme to cut the deficit - the danger was of a full-blown fiscal crisis - this is a small price to pay.

The paper, The Impact of Stock Market Illiquidity on Real UK GDP Growth, by Chris Florackis, Gianluigi Giorgioni, Alexandros Kostakis and Costas Milas, focuses on the key role of liquidity - the availability of funds in the banking system and elsewhere - in Britain’s recent performance.

The drying up of liquidity in 2007, when the financial crisis hit, was a key factor in the severity of the recession. By the same token, it has been a significant constraint on recovery.

The Bank of England, responding to the crisis by providing liquidity to the financial system, and through quantitative easing, has tried to offset the liquidity drought and credit crunch. It has not, however, been able to eliminate the financial hangover.

Sir Mervyn King, in Tuesday’s final regional speech as Bank governor, in Belfast, barely mentioned fiscal policy as a factor in the slow recovery. Instead, as well as the high-inflation squeeze on real take-home pay and the eurozone, he focused on another financial factor.

The problem, he said, was “the extent to which the balance sheets of the major UK banks had grown before the crisis hit, and had been financed primarily by borrowing.

“So the subsequent reduction in bank lending – the deleveraging – was greater here than in many other countries. That deleveraging has as its counterpart a reduction in the amount of (broad) money in the economy and a reduced willingness on the part of banks to expand lending.”

These effects - the financial hangover - were predicted in one of the most important books of recent years, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.

It demonstrated that not only are banking and financial crises more common than we think but that they also lead to far deeper downturns and slower recoveries than normal cyclical recessions.

Rogoff is a former chief economist at the IMF who speaks sense. There is a debate among economists, particularly Americans such as Robert Gordon, about whether the West has reached the end of growth, because the technological progress that has driven living standards for 250 years has, no pun intended, run out of steam.

Rogoff does not believe that, though does think there is a risk the malaise we are suffering after the financial meltdown undermines long-run prospects. One danger is if new businesses that typically drive innovation and new products are strangled at birth by lack of credit.

When I asked him about the dilemma of economies such as Britain caught in a Reinhart-Rogoff slow recovery, he was clear that the solution does not lie on the fiscal side, or at least not with a fiscal stimulus.

The government, he said, could to shift resources to those areas of spending which boost long-term growth, such as infrastructure and education, and away from what he describes as entitlements. George Osborne has been trying to do a bit of this.

What the government also has to do is avoid getting to what he describes as the “rarefied air” of government debt rising above 90% of GDP. Britain has passed an important milestone, according to figures released last week, with public sector net debt rising from 69.3% of GDP in November to 70.7% in December, thus rising above 70% for the first time since the early 1970s.

Get above 90%, says Rogoff, and you get lower growth on a sustained basis that can last for decades. The financial hangover would be compounded by a fiscal millstone. That has to be avoided.

Sunday, January 20, 2013
Everybody gets hurt in a currency war
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

A point that is not often made about the long period since the global financial crisis struck is that the world has behaved pretty well in these difficult times.

Beginning with the big G20 (Group of 20) meetings in 2008, countries decided co-operation was better than confrontation. The feared mass outbreak of protectionism, one of the great errors of the 1930s, never happened.

It is as well that it did not. World trade has slowed even without new trade barriers being erected. 2012 looks to have been one of those rare years when world trade grew more slowly than world GDP (gross domestic product). Normally trade grows roughly twice as fast.

Before we congratulate ourselves too much, however, we should keep an eye on what Simon Derrick, chief currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon, describes as an outbreak of currency wars.

There is more than one way of skinning a cat in times when growth is hard to come by. Protectionism is one. Currency manipulation, often harder to detect, is another. And now we are seeing it.

Much of the focus so far has been on Japan, under its new Liberal Democratic Party prime minister Shinzo Abe, elected late last year. Earlier this month he unveiled a 10.3 trillion yen (£72bn) stimulus to boost the moribund Japanese economy.

But he also signalled what many saw as an explicit attempt to drive the yen lower, in order to boost exports, by urging the Bank of Japan to adopt a looser monetary policy and a higher inflation target.

Abe was pushing at an open door. The yen had already weakened significantly in the final few weeks of the outgoing government, also following a clear lead from the authorities that they favoured a lower exchange rate.

So what? Why should not Japan, which needs all the growth it can get - and some inflation to break out of its deflationary trap - not engage in a deliberate depreciation of its currency? Isn’t this its affair?

Well no, as Derrick points out. Deliberate currency depreciation is counter to the pledges that countries, including Japan, have made in the G20 not to do it. Not only that but one country’s competitive advantage is another’s loss.

South Korea, Japan’s big competitor in electronics, cars and other products, has seen its currency, the won, rise 22% against the yen since last summer. A Hyundai executive described the won’s rise and yen’s fall as “a double-torture situation”.

While describing it as “smoothing operations”, the governor of the Bank of Korea confirmed last week that it has been intervening to try to restrain the won’s rise.

A battle among two of Asia’s most formidable exports does not yet amount to a full-blown currency war but the danger is that it is heading that way.
There are only three big currencies in the world, the dollar, the euro and the yen, with sterling coming in fourth.

European officials appeared relaxed about the euro’s rise since the summer. A stronger euro could be seen as a vote of confidence in the single currency’s survival; market approval for the European Central Bank’s monetary “bazooka” - its outright monetary transactions - and Germany’s more conciliatory attitude towards Greece.

Lately, though, European leaders have been getting restive. The euro’s climb includes a 14% ascent against the weak yen, a fact not lost on German exporters who often have to compete head to head with their rivals from Japan.

Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, said on Wednesday that the single currency’s rise had taken it to “dangerously high” levels. With domestic demand depressed across the eurozone, exports have been seen as the escape route from its problems. But a sharp slowdown in the German economy to 0.7% growth last year, with a fall in GDP in the final quarter, suggests growth from that source is fading.

Everybody, it seems, wants a weak currency. America, despite its currency quarrels with China, has quietly been pursuing a weak dollar policy since the crisis began, the Federal Reserve under Ben Bernanke ensuring the dollar stayed low with repeated bouts of quantitative easing (QE).

The dollar’s average value is 12% lower than it was before the crisis. Its average value in 2012 was a huge 31% down on its level of a decade earlier.
America’s weak dollar policy has had repercussions. Brazil was one of the countries which protested, and took action, when the effect of Washington’s QE was to push its currency, the real, lower.

Switzerland, caught between the race to the bottom between euro and dollar, established a ceiling for its currency against the euro, and intervened to make it stick.

Britain is not immune from these skirmishes. On Thursday, the pound dropped below 1.20 euros for the first time in nearly 10 months, mainly as a result of the euro’s strength but also because of worries over the the potential loss of Britain’s Triple-A sovereign debt rating and the size of the current account deficit.

There were times when the pound’s fall would have been regarded as bad news. Indeed, there were times when it would have led to a rise in interest rates to defend it. These days it is different.

Sir Mervyn King said in November that sterling’s rise last year was “not a welcome development”. Introducing the latest inflation report, he said: “It may be unreasonable to expect anything other than a slow and protracted recovery absent a further fall in the real exchange rate.”

The Bank should be careful what it wishes for. Though Britain’s large current account deficit - more than £50bn last year - argues for a lower pound, and some of sterling’s safe-have appeal has been wearing off - a lower pound is no panacea.

Indeed, the response of Britain’s trade to sterling’s 25% fall over the course of 2007-8 can only be described as disappointing. Add in that a lower pound undoubtedly contributed to higher inflation, pushing up both industry’s costs and squeezing household incomes. Sterling’s fall was a big factor in the unprecedented weakness of consumer spending in this recovery.

Some countries, including Japan where the ongoing danger is deflation not inflation, are better placed to benefit from a lower exchange rate. But there is one clear and simple fact. All currencies are relative to each other. It is a logical impossibility for everybody to have a lower currency.

Competitive devaluations, as we have seen, cause tensions. The danger is that those tensions lead to a full-blown currency war. That has to be avoided.

Sunday, January 13, 2013
Glimmers amid the gloom as risks start to fade
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Stock market performance does not always reflect what is happening in the real economy. Many emerging economies have lousy stock markets. Though it has picked up recently, China’s Shanghai composite index is barely a third of the peak it reached a few years ago, in spite of the Chinese economy’s rise.

Conversely, this year’s strong opening for the FTSE-100, taking it to its highest levels since well before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, does not seem to reflect any discernible improvement in Britain’s economic performance.

It does, however, reflect something that may impact on that performance, a perception among investors that the risks of another nasty downward lurch in the global economy have diminished.

So China, predicted by some pundits in recent months to be facing a definite hard landing, appears to have come through its mini-crisis rather gently and is gaining a strength which should mean growth of more than 8% this year.

America, judging from the data and surveys, was not too worried about the fiscal cliff shenanigans and has started 2013 with what looks like reasonable momentum.

Even the eurozone appears to be out of the emergency ward with Olli Rehn, the economic affairs commissioner, declaring that the dangers of a eurozone split are over, and Herman van Rompuy, the EU president, declaring that the “existential threat” to the euro was over and that growth should soon resume.

A pinch of salt is necessary. If we listened to the predictions of EU leaders there would never have been a eurozone crisis, let alone one that posed the biggest risk to the world economy and threatened the single currency’s very survival.

Stephen Lewis, veteran City economic commentator with Monument Securities, warns that America’s fiscal problems and the eurozone crisis will return to haunt markets, with Cyprus and Portugal as the next likely flashpoints.

Even so, the nature of the process of recovering from crises is that things do not go from dreadful to perfect overnight. Healing takes time. The more confidence there is that the healing process is under way, however, the better things will start to look, including in Britain.

What does the economy need this year? It needs the supply of credit to improve, so there is a big onus on the Treasury-Bank of England Funding for Lending scheme. It needs inflation to come down and stay down, restoring real incomes and boosting consumer spending. It needs some of the government’s initiatives on infrastructure spending to start showing through.

And it needs, as described above, the fear of new crises to be replaced by a sense that the world is coming through it. Apart from the direct effects on Britain of the eurozone crisis - with exports to the region down by 6% over the past year - it has been the biggest dampener on business confidence.

There are one or two glimmers of a change. The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), in its latest quarterly survey, reported stronger readings for most of the measures of activity among its members it monitors. There is, it said, “resilience among UK businesses, coupled with rising confidence that the outlook will improve”.

The fourth quarter showed an improvement compared with the third, the BCC said, including a “marked increase in confidence which ... reinforces our view that the economy will recover slowly in 2013.” Though business still yearns for those untroubled pre-crisis days, export readings for the service sector were better than their pre-recession average in 2007.

The BCC, interestingly, sees a very different picture for what was happening last year than the Office for National Statistics. When the official figures were in double-dip territory in the first half of the year, it thinks there was growth, though is sceptical about whether there was any Olympic lift in the third quarter.

It is not the only hopeful sign. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation, with KPMG, takes the temperature of the job market each month. Its latest survey showed employment continuing to rise and job vacancies at their highest for 20 months.

So what will 2013 look like? Four years into a recovery 1% growth is not a lot to ask for. But, though it partly depends on the fourth quarter gross domestic product number in 12 days’ time, which will be depressed by Friday's weak manufacturing numbers. We can hope for more if the international clouds really do lift, but 1% may be as good as it gets.

The job market, having performed extremely well, will continue to generate new jobs. But employment may merely rise in line with the increase in the workforce, so the claimant count measure of unemployment will probably stay close to 1.6m and the wider Labour Force Survey measure remain within sight of 2.5m, barring a growth surprise.

As for the great rebalancing of the economy, we await final figures but the 2012 deficit is likely to have been well over £50 billion, from £20 billion in 2011. If the eurozone does hold up, a narrowing to £40 billion is likely this year; still very large.

I hope inflation will be closer to 2% than 3% or even 4% by the end of the year but anything lower than 2.5% looks optimistic.

There will be plenty to write about Mark Carney, the new Bank of England governor, before and after his arrival from Canada in the summer. He may signal that rates will remain low for a long time (as they have already) but I would not look for any change from 0.5%.

One day Bank rate will go up, reflecting a shift to more favourable economic conditions and a belief among the rate-setters that the economy is strong enough to take it. But, though I hope and believe things are slowly improving, we are not there yet I fear.

Sunday, January 06, 2013
Welfare: the elephant in every room
Posted by David Smith at 09:01 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Somehow, one senses, the word "triple" is going to feature quite a lot in discussions of the economy in the coming months: the triple-A rating ands the debate over a triple-dip recession..

Some City economists had thought it unlikely gross domestic product will have slipped back in the final quarter of 2012 (which would give the first leg of a triple-dip).

But weak purchasing managers' surveys for construction and services in December have put it back on the agenda - Markit, which prepares the data, expects a 0.2% quarterly GDP fall, and it is always unwise to second guess the Office for National Statistics, which will have its first stab on January 25. More before then.

This week let me look at that other triple, the triple-A rating. Britain’s AAA sovereign rating, having survived until now, is plainly under threat. All three of the main ratings agencies, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch, now have the country on negative watch or negative outlook.

I know what you are thinking. Why should we take any notice of ratings agencies, which have still not redeemed themselves for their performance ahead of the global financial crisis, when they scattered AAA ratings like confetti around securities that turned out to be junk.

The loss of the AAA rating, more likely than not from at least one of the agencies this year, matters less than it did. Had it happened three years ago, when America and France still enjoyed AAA status, it would have emphasised Britain’s particular vulnerability. But it would be a big political event, embarrassing for George Osborne, and reflect genuine concerns about Britain’s public finances.

There are many reasons why you might worry about Britain’s public finances. The loss of the revenue cash cows of the past, including corporation tax revenues from the City and the North Sea, is biting hard.

Weak growth, for reasons mainly not connected with fiscal tightening, is preventing the kind of virtuous circle Britain enjoyed in the 1990s, when a strong upturn under Norman Lamont and Kenneth Clarke resulted in a rapid deficit reduction.

One of the biggest problems, however, and it is not a new one, is welfare. Britain, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ excellent A Survey of the UK Benefit System points out, really is a welfare state.

Some 30m people, almost half the population, receive one or more benefit. The bill for all this is more than £200 billion a year, “£3,324 for every man, woman and child in the country”, and the equivalent of 13.5% of GDP and 29% of spending.

Seventy years from Sir William Beveridge’s hugely significant report, which called for the elimination of the “Five Giant Evils” of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease, the welfare state has spread far beyond what he would have envisaged, without eliminating those evils.

Social security spending was just 4% of GDP at the dawn of the welfare state. In 40 years, from the early 1970s, it has risen more than 300% in real terms, double the increase in the size of the economy.

Welfare spending rises in good times and bad. It is hard to think of a period more conducive to control of welfare spending than the Blair years, 1997-2007.

But Labour ignored its welfare reform minister Frank Field’s good ideas. And, without pressures from rising unemployment, spending rose nearly 3% a year in real terms. The welfare state and entitlement culture expanded.

It goes on. So far this fiscal year (April-November) cash spending on net social benefits is up by 5.9% on a year ago, largely because of the 5.2% April uprating of most benefits. Welfare is easily the fastest-growing element of government spending.

Can it be turned around? The coming year is a big one for welfare. 2013-14, the fiscal year that begins in April, will on official forecasts be a rare year in which spending falls in cash terms.

The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts the cost of social security and tax credits will drop from £210.4bn this year to £207.7bn in 2013-14, under the impact of child benefit restrictions, restricting the employment support allowance and limiting to £500 a week total household benefits.

Then it resumes its rise, reaching a projected £230.7bn in 2017-18. That incorporates the 1% limit on annual rises in most working-age benefits for three years, on which parliament will vote on Tuesday.

The 1% limit announced in the autumn statement preserved the so-called automatic stabilisers (not taking money out of the economy when public finances have deteriorated for cyclical reasons) by recycling the cash saved - and more - in extra capital spending and raising the personal tax allowance.

It does not, in itself, represent the kind of far-reaching reform Britain’s welfare state needs. It is not yet clear the plans of Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, which revolve around the new universal credit, do so either.

As with other elements of government spending, we need to re-examine what the country can afford. This does not mean an attack on the poorest, nor should it. It does mean trying to steer the welfare state, for working-age people as well as pensioners, back towards its original purpose. A country in which half of people are on some kind of benefit can never be healthy, even if every attempt to rein it back results in squeals of protests from interest groups.

The 1% limit is a stop-gap. But this week’s vote is nevertheless important. Labour is opposing the change, as it has opposed other cuts, even some of those it set in train when in government.

If the coalition were to be defeated, which looks unlikely, the signal it would send out would be that Britain lacks the political will to tackle the welfare state and deal with the deficit.

Labour would no doubt celebrate the loss of the AAA rating, and the pressure it would put on the government. But something has to give. The fiscal arithmetic requires either further welfare cuts, as Osborne has indicated, or cuts in public services that may be impossible to deliver. This week’s political battle over welfare is the first of many.

Sunday, December 30, 2012
Jobs the bright spot in a downbeat year
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt. The table that accompanies this article in the newspaper is also available on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk

Even in a flat year the mood ebbs and flow, often quite dramatically.

This time last year the eurozone appeared to be teetering on the edge of the abyss, threatened by its own internal economic contradictions as well as by the politics. I know some very prominent people who thought it was only a matter of time before Europe dragged us back into extreme crisis.

Maybe it was only disaster postponed but it has to be said that this both underestimated the readiness of the European Central Bank, under Mario Draghi, to do “whatever it takes” to keep the euro show on the road, and the determination of European politicians not to let the single currency fall apart.

So the euro survived, and hedge funds and others made money out of betting that it would. There were some tricky moments, notably between the first and second Greek elections, but the eurozone, battered and weak though it is, struggles on.

There was a time when, as far as Britain was concerned, the dreaded double-dip looked like being avoided. In January and February surveys suggested some surprising spring in the economy’s step, despite the eurozone's woes.

One bit of the economy, however, had only concrete in its boots. The construction industry, down very sharply in the first quarter, weakened further in the second and third. Without teh fall in construction there would have been no drop in gross domestic product in the first quarter and a smaller fall in the jubilee-affected second.

As it is, we will have to wait for a few more data revisions to see whether the double-dip, and in particular the small 0.2% quarterly fall at the start of the year, survives long enough to make it into the economic history books.

Nobody expected much growth in 2012. We await fourth quarter GDP figures, which will be published on January 25, but for the moment there is no reason to doubt the assessment of the Office for Budget Responsibility, and the consensus, which is that the economy contracted by a modest 0.1% last year.

Unusually, there were some growth forecasts that were too gloomy. Standard Chartered’s bold prediction that the economy would contract by 1.3% proved to be a little too bold. On the other hand, the hope of some forecasters, that this would be when the economy finally got into its stride was also too optimistic.

Most forecasters, it should be said, did OK by aiming low on growth, but not too low. However, most were also taken by surprise by the continued strength of the labour market.

The lowest forecast for the unemployment claimant count at the start of the year was 1.6m and the average was a shade under 1.8m. The outturn was 1.58m. I will say it again: there is something odd about an economy that apparently does not grow but generates something like half a million net new jobs.

Long ago, economists used to swear by the Phillips curve, the inverse relationship between unemployment and (wage) inflation. The good news on employment and unemployment has indeed been balanced by disappointment on inflation, though not wage inflation, which has remained subdued at sub-2% rates of increase.

The Bank of England gets kicked for always predicting that inflation will return to the official 2% target. To be fair to the Bank’s beleaguered forecasters, however, that was the consensus view at the start of the year, with an average prediction of 2.1%.

Some thought weak growth would drag inflation below target but it was not to be, even if we came close to target in September. The latest inflation reading, for November, was 2.7%, closer to 3% than 2%.

The other disappointment has been on the twin deficits - the budget deficit and the current account. 2012 was the year when deficit reduction ran into serious headwinds after a couple of successful years.

This had less to do with the government’s austerity programme being self-defeating than two other factors: the sharp and unexpected weakness of corporate tax revenues, particularly North Sea revenues, and the fact thaat the low hanging fruit of deficit reduction has already been picked.

We are on the brink of the most important month of the year as far as the deficit is concerned. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) is looking to healthy January self-assessment receipts to put the public finances on track. But it is touch and go whether the deficit falls this fiscal year and there will be egg on face for the chancellor and OBR if it does not. I imagine Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, is looking forward to that one.

As for the current account deficit, official figures just before Christmas showed that it narrowed to £12.8bn in the third quarter, from £17.4bn in the second. But that still meant a deficit of 3.3% of GDP, and red ink for the first three quarters of the year of £42bn. I have not reason to doubt the consensus view the full-year deficit will be around £54bn.

Exporters have been hit by the eurozone’s weakness but this is still hugely disappointing. The current account deficit narrowed from £37.4bn in 2010 to £20.4bn in 2011, suggesting the economy was undergoing some kind of rebalancing. Now that process has gone backwards.

The economy could do better but which forecasters did best. The clear winner this time is the Economist Intelligence Unit, and congratulations to them. They have been pushing upwards in my forecasting league table for the past couple of years, from 11th in 2010 to 3rd last year. Now they are unchallenged for the top spot.

The EIU got most of the big numbers spot on, only slipping up slightly on unemployment. But nine out of 10 is a great performance in what remains an unpredictable era.

Congratulations too to Deutche Bank, oln its own in second place. Its forecast was closer on growth than the EIU but a little further away on the other variables. Along with most others, they expected the current acoount to do better than it did.

The OBR, like the Bank, gets a lot of flak for its forecasts but its 2012 effort was not bad, and was in the top half of the table. Some of those in the relegation zone at the bottom suffered, like Standard Chartered, from being too bold. Others appear in the Treasury’s monthly compilation of forecasts but handicap themselves by not predicting all the variables.

We will see whether things reverse themselves next year.

Sunday, December 23, 2012
Big bucks for Carney. But can he deliver?
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

More than two decades ago Richard Giordano, an American, became the first boss of a British firm, the industrial gases group BOC, to be paid £1m a year.

Now another North American, Mark Carney, Canadian governor-designate of the Bank of England, is blazing the trail for salaries in the public sector. He will get no less than £874,000 a year, including a £250,000 housing allowance.

This is the equivalent of the pay of 42 newly-qualified nurses though perhaps a fairer comparison is within the Bank itself, where the new governor will get more than Sir Mervyn King (£305,368) and Paul Tucker and Charlie Bean, his two deputies (£258,809 each), combined.

External members of the monetary policy committee, on £131,771 - £30,000 of which is intended for them to put into their pensions - may suddenly feel impoverished. External members of the new financial policy committee, on £55,000, are Threadneedle Street’s poor relations.

There are caveats. Carney, like external MPC members, must make his own pension arrangements. The Bank’s non-executive directors say including him in the generous but now-closed pension fund for King and his deputies would have cost at least 100% of salary. The cost of employing him would have been at least double King’s £305,368 salary. That does not, however, explain the big housing allowance.

The Treasury insists you get what you pay for and, in an internationally competitive market, securing a man George Osborne describes as “the outstanding central banker of his generation” is worth a significant public investment.

Certainly if the new governor had steered Britain through the crisis relatively unscathed, as with Canada and her banks, nobody would begrudge adding a couple of zeros to that salary. We will never know. The two economies are very different and we cannot have an exact re-run.

Carney will earn his salary and more, however, if he helps deliver the economic holy grail of non-inflationary growth alongside a safe banking system that supports such growth.

On the latter, he will inherit a system already undergoing far-reaching changes. The challenge is to combine banking safety, including higher capital requirements, with a sufficient supply of credit into the real economy. We are some way away from that.

As for the quest for non-inflationary growth, the challenge is just as great. Last week saw disappointing inflation figures, with consumer price inflation remaining at 2.7% in November, still stubbornly above the 2% target, and set to go higher.

Some analysts think King will have one final letter to write to the chancellor in the coming months, explaining why inflation has risen above 3%. RBS, in a new medium-term projection, sees inflation staying above the 2% target until the end of 2014.

The MPC, in its latest minutes, warned that inflation was likely to be above target “for the next year or so”, blaming factors such as higher domestic gas and electricity bills and university tuition fees that it could not directly influence.

Higher inflation, it seems, is bedding in. The Bank used to blame international factors, such as oil and food prices, for overshooting inflation. But the latest figures show that stripping out energy, food, alcohol and tobacco, inflation, at 2.6%, is very close to the headline 2.7% rate.

The service sector is where the damage is being done, with inflation of 4.2%.