Austerity, household debt and Brexit: the case for a weaker pound

What are we to make of the current performance and future prospects for the British economy and for the JAM (Just About Managing) households which the Conservative government proclaims to be trying to help?

According to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), households, on average, became net borrowers in 2017 for the first time since records began in 1987. The savings ratio fell to its lowest annual level since 1963.

Household spending growth also fell to 1.7%, the lowest since 2011.

There was some better news on the current account deficit for 2017, which fell to 4.1% of GDP, also the lowest figure since 2011. And in the fourth quarter of last year, it fell to 3.6%. The improvement is at least partly down to the weakness of the pound and a stronger world economy boosting net exports and net earnings on foreign investments.

But the improvement in the current account is also being flattered by weaker growth in imports due to their higher cost reducing real household income and consumption growth. In an open economy, part of household income is inevitably spent on imported goods and services. A fall in the current account deficit can come from a reduced demand leakage into imports as well as increased growth in exports.

With the weaker pound and higher inflation reducing real household income, and interest rates still at very low levels, households are taking the opportunity to add to their already substantial levels of debt, rather than reduce consumption even further.

With the household sector spending more than its income, it is adding to the growth of aggregate demand, as credit acts as a net injection of purchasing power into the economy.

But with household debt already high, interest rates set to rise gradually, and real wage growth still negative, these trends will prove unsustainable. Although inflation has perhaps peaked, and real wages should start to grow once again, there is some way to go before the JAMs start to see a sustained and substantial rise in living standards. Continue reading

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Lies, damned lies and living standards

Money-poundsThere is a disconnect between economic growth and living standards in the UK and ordinary workers are bearing the brunt. While politicians seize on data showing that the economy is growing at a reasonable pace, average real wages have largely stagnated for the past decade.

Simon Wren-Lewis illustrates here the uniqueness of the UK economy among rich countries, in that it experienced positive overall GDP growth and falling real wages between 2007 and 2015. This implies of course that job growth has been strong, and indeed it has, with record numbers in work. Unemployment has fallen, but there has also been significant population growth. So while our political masters crow about record employment levels, they keep fairly quiet about the fact that this has been made possible by the immigration flows that they claim will slow after Brexit. Continue reading

Neoliberalism Was Supposed to Make Us Richer: Three Reasons Why It Didn’t

By Chris Dillow

Chris Edwards says the privatizations started by Thatcher “transformed the British economy” and boosted productivity. This raises an under-appreciated paradox.

The thing is that privatization isn’t the only thing to have happened since the 1980s which should have raised productivity, according to (what I’ll loosely call) neoliberal ideology. Trades unions have weakened, which should have reduced “restrictive practices”. Managers have become better paid, which should have attracted more skilful ones, and better incentivized them to increase productivity. And the workforce has more human capital: since the mid-80s, the proportion of workers with a degree has quadrupled from 8% to one-third […]

via Neoliberalism Was Supposed to Make Us Richer: Three Reasons Why It Didn’t – Evonomics

The media and the effects of a weaker currency: missing the point

Contando_Dinheiro_(8228640)What are the likely impacts on the UK economy from the weaker pound? A recent report from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has warned of sluggish growth in the UK during 2017 and beyond. It blames uncertainty over Brexit, along with higher imported inflation and weaker consumer spending due to the sharp fall in the value of the pound since the June referendum on EU membership.

The BCC focuses on a squeeze on consumer spending in the months ahead. This is one effect of a weaker currency: higher prices of imported goods and services will tend to push up overall inflation, meaning consumers will be worse off in real terms if real wages do not rise. Put simply, the pound in our pockets will not go as far. Continue reading

‘For he that hath, to him shall be given’: the problem of regional inequality

DSC00234Success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. This seems to be the trend in the UK’s regional inequalities, as pointed out last week by Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England. The division in growth rates and income levels between London and the South East, and the North, are particularly stark. Only in the former are income levels now above those before the Great Recession, which began more than eight years ago, while the latter has fallen further behind.

This regional divide is not a new phenomenon. It has been the result of decades of uneven economic development in the regions of the UK. The almost relentless decline in the share of manufacturing output and jobs for the UK as a whole, particularly since the 1980s, hit the North of England and parts of Wales hard. Private sector dynamism has tended to be concentrated in London and the South East, particularly in the service sector, which makes up the majority of GDP and employment.

Successive governments have responded in different ways to regional inequality. Continue reading

UK debt reduction: how can ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ do it?

Money-poundsLast week the UK government’s new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, known to some as ‘spreadsheet Phil’, gave his first Autumn Statement to parliament. This outlines the state of the UK economy and the government’s finances, and announces new policies on government tax and spending.

The forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility for the UK economy’s likely trajectory over the next few years were somewhat gloomy, and laid much of the blame for this at the door of the decision to leave the EU, or Brexit. Growth will be slower, investment weaker, and public borrowing and debt higher than otherwise.

I will avoid reiterating details regarding the Autumn Statement that were covered in last week’s press, and instead focus on the potential for debt reduction and overall economic performance over the next few years, which the government is trying to manage and improve upon: the Prime Minister wants an economy that ‘works for all’. Fine aspirations indeed. Continue reading