Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Bargain Low Interest Rates to Continue in 2015

Borrowing is likely to stay cheap in 2015 as a drop in inflation puts pay to talk of higher interest rates

Christmas is usually followed by a rush off to the sales but borrowers need not hurry as cut-price loans are likely to remain for most, if not all, of 2015.  Acting like retailers with surplus stock to sell after Christmas, central banks slashed interest rates after the global financial crisis.  Six years later, there are growing calls for this to be reversed in countries such as the US and the UK due to as a strengthening economic recovery backed by more people finding jobs.  Yet, plans for higher interest rates have been way laid with falling inflation suggesting that all is not well with the economy.  With unemployment and inflation likely to fall further in 2015, there seems to be few reasons for any changes to be made to interest rates over the next 12 months.

Shopping around

The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England are in the midst of a dilemma – like a shopper not sure of where to head first to snap up some bargains after Christmas.  Unemployment data suggests that the economic recovery is becoming more entrenched with the proportion of Americans and Brits without jobs now below 6%.  Yet, despite more workers being hired, companies are still holding back from investing to expand output.  Aggregate demand is also suffering due to cuts to government spending resulting in an economic recovery that is still patchy.

If the stuttering economy is giving central banks reason to worry, it is inflation that is the real sticking point getting in the way of higher interest rates.  The extent at which prices are rising (or falling) has been adopted by central banks as a gauge for the health of the economy.  It is thus a point of frustration that inflation is heading downward as other signs, such as lower unemployment, suggest that the economy is picking up.  These mixed signals from the economy mean that Federal Reserve and the Bank of England are caught in two minds in terms of what do to with interest rates.

Best to stay put

Things are not likely to get any easier for central banks considering that the trends in unemployment and inflation are not likely to change any time soon.  With companies not yet willing to spend big on new equipment, it makes sense to employ more workers (who are relatively cheap) to get things done.  Lower commodity prices is the main cause behind falling inflation and a rebound in commodity markets is not likely as shifts in demand and supply of commodities taking years to change.  Neither are consumers in any mood for higher prices considering that wages have not kept up with inflation over the past few years. 

All this suggests that 2015 will be more of the same and interest rates are also unlikely to change.  Some will argue that interest rates need to rise to give central banks leeway to act in case of other threats to the economy.  Others will claim that the economic recovery means that inflation will be just around the corner and central banks need to pre-empt any jumps in prices.  But these are risky strategies considering that a bit of inflation in the future will do less damage to the economy than a premature hike in interest rates. 

A still fragile recovery means that, like any shopper out after Christmas, the economy could also do with a bargain (in the form of low interest rates).

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Let's not (Christmas) party like it's 2007

The heady days leading to the global financial crisis were never meant to last so there is no point in expecting to turn back the clock

It is the time for great merriment but Christmas office parties across London still leave many wishfully thinking back to the good old days.  Despite much talk of an economic recovery, it can still be tough to find reasons to be cheerful about and less cash being spent by companies on seasonal festivities is another reminder of this.  But we should not be asking Santa for a return to the days of lavish Christmas dos with workmates and big entertainment budgets (if they ever did exist).  The economy of old which allowed such excesses could only bring in a few good years of partying before the good times inevitably turned bad. 

Living the high life on borrowed time

The boom times that were still in swing a decade ago seem a long way off.  It was a time when all seemed good with the economy and nothing much would go wrong.  This spirit seemed best exemplified by the exuberance among economists who (mistakenly) thought that their ideas had conquered the ups and downs of the economy.  The great evil of past decades, inflation, had been kept in check and the recession following the dotcom bust passed without much strife. 

This new stable economic environment seemed to benefit the finance sector most of all.  Banks came up with new ways of making lots of money with bankers themselves reaping much of the rewards.  Even some among the rest of us got to enjoy a sprinkling of the good life with many companies splashing out the odd treat on their workers (especially around Christmas time) even if this generosity was not reflected in wages.

The enthusiasm was infectious and we all wanted our share.  The result was loads of new debt as our spending reflected these new aspirations even if our income was lagging behind.  Even the governments in many countries spent beyond their means and got their finances in a mess.  Since inflation remained subdued despite the elevated spending, interest rates never rose by much enabling the debt levels to soar beyond what was prudent.  And banks were only too happy to lend since new financial products, such as mortgage-backed securities, allowed them to pass on increasingly dubious loans to others.

Not banking on trouble

This was one party that could not go on for ever.  An increase in debt is good for spurring the economy along but this can only go so far until lending becomes more reckless.  The final straw was mortgage lending in the United States where new rules encouraged housing loans to individuals who were never likely to be able to afford repayments (so-called sub-prime mortgages).  The many who lost their jobs (including Your Neighbourhood Economist) and even their homes in the ensuing financial turmoil ended up with little to show from the good years.  Yet, on the other hand, the exorbitant pay packets received by many bank employees left them sitting pretty whatever was to happen.

We should all feel repentant like Christmas drinks where we get carried away and make a fool of ourselves.  One way of stopping ourselves getting into trouble is to rein in the banking sector.  This does not mean the equivalent of alcohol-free Christmas festivities but just stricter rules to make sure that things don’t get out of hand.   The perils of too much debt should have always been obvious but it is inability of the banking sector and the financial markets to suitably regulate lending that is perhaps the biggest lesson that we need to address.

Time to sober up

Any economic growth does not count for much if we have to give back most of the gains after a few good years.  Yet, giving up on this easy way of making ourselves richer also means that we cannot expect the economy to grow like in the past.  It will take hard work and sensible policies rather than financial wizardry to make genuine improvements in our standard of living.  The trade-off being that we can create a world where our jobs and what we make for ourselves is more secure.

The government could have a big role to play in this especially since companies are not investing as much as they used to.  Greater spending on infrastructure and education as well as lower medical costs would be a good start to help increase productivity (and wages) as well as going some way to propping up spending.  The solution sounds simple enough but politics is never easy especially at a time when the easy option is for politicians to offer up false promises.  It is voters most of all that need to be realistic in terms of what is achievable.  No party is worth a hangover on the scale of the global financial crisis.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Getting more from Monetary Policy

Japan has made lots of mistakes and it is time that Europe learnt from them

We can all learn from watching others make mistakes and the experiences of Japan continue to provide valuable lessons.  Japan has stumbled into another recession following a hike in taxes to fix the government’s finances.  The other key policy doing the rounds in Japan, using expansive monetary policy to put an end to deflation, also seems to be flagging.  It is Europe that has most to learn from the unfortunate trials and tribulations in Japan since many of the same problems are shared by both.  What should Europe do to avoid making the same mistakes and decades of stagnation?

Following in the same footsteps

Japan has been hit first with many of the same problems that are increasingly expected to plague Europe and other Western countries.  For starters, new-borns in Japan are increasingly outnumbered by pensioners which have pushed the population into decline in recent years with an aversion to immigration further accentuating this trend.  This translates to fewer workers to provide the taxes needed for the rising costs involved with taking care of old people.  The situation is made worse by government debt which is already more than double GDP due to years of inefficient government spending.

Japanese consumer prices have been falling for years as a reflection of the weak demand.  There are few opportunities to profit from in Japan due to the falling population and even Japanese firms are looking elsewhere to invest.  Weak global demand means that even one of Japan’s strengths, exporting, offers only limited respite even with a weaker yen due to its loose monetary policy.  All of this means that the Japanese economy itself is like a tottery pensioner - even a small rise of sales tax from 5% to 8% was enough to push Japan back into recession.  This does not bode well for Europe where the economy is sputtering along due to many of the same problems while the governments there are also trying to get a grip on their finances.

Trying different directions

Having been stuck with these problems for longer, policy makers in Japan are increasingly more aggressive in coming up with solutions.  The current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, launched a raft of new measures dominated by a massive expansion of the money supply to target falling prices.  This new aggressive approach to monetary policy was facilitated by the government installing a new governor to the Bank of Japan who was willing to give up its independence and toe the line.

This is the complete opposite to the situation in Europe.  The head of the European Central Bank is eager to do more with monetary policy but is prevented from doing so by the German government.  German politicians want to reforms to come first due to an expectation that their neighbours will not implement the necessary policies. Whereas, in Japan, the aim was to use the loose monetary policy to help build momentum that will allow the government to implement reforms. 

Yet, the Abe government has been disappointing in its reform efforts (as Your Neighbourhood Economist predicted) and this will bolster the stance taken by Germany.  With the Bank of Japan finding it tough to generate sufficient inflation despite a rapidly expanding money supply through quantitative easing, many will question about the reasons behind using a similar policy in Europe.  Central banks are struggling to have much influence in a world that is already awash with surplus cash.  

Time for Plan C

It seems like the key lesson from Japan is that monetary policy cannot do much by itself.  Japan still languishes despite the best efforts of the central bank as the Abe government shirks the much needed measures to free up the economy.  Yet, bullying countries in Europe to reform by withholding the full extent of monetary policy is not helpful either.  A grand bargain marrying reforms with looser monetary policy, as was supposed to be the case in Japan, seems the obvious solution. 

This takes more political willpower when the many countries of Europe are involved but is not something beyond the realms of possibility.  Ironically, the chances for such a deal may be improving as deflation becomes more of a concerns and the economic stagnation in Europe also spreads to Germany.  Japan has already paid the price for years of economic mismanagement – there is no reason for Europe to do the same.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Commodity Prices – Swings and Roundabouts

Commodity markets had gone off in their own direction but are now back on track to help out with the global economy

The global economy has suffered more downs than ups over the past few years but lower commodity prices will provide some long needed cheer.  Long after the onset of the global financial crisis, prices for everything from copper to vegetable oil continued to rise stoked by demand from places such as China.  Weaken global demand has finally taken affect and relief in on the way for consumers everywhere.  It is likely to provide a bigger boost than just a bit of extra cash.

A guide to the road ahead

Commodity markets often follow their own roadmap.  Demand for different materials can rise and fall depending on changes in technology or consumption patterns.  The rising wealth of China and India has pushed up prices for everything from gold to milk powder.  New fracking technology has lowered the price of oil while corn became more expensive due to its use in producing ethanol in the United States. 

Supply further complicates matters as rising demand for any commodity will prompt companies to increase output but this often takes time.  There is a lag of a year or so for farmers to shift from growing one crop to another and even longer for a new mine or source of oil to be developed.  The changing demand and the delayed response on the supply side means that twists and turns in the commodity markets are often accentuated.

Back on the map

Prices in the commodity markets had long been out of kilter with the slump in global demand but this seems to be over.  The price of oil, which has been making news recently, is indicative of this new trend.  Increased output in the US coupled with a tailing off of demand from energy-hungry China has resulted in a sharp turnaround in prices.  High prices for commodities such as oil often do not last as more money gets spend on both finding more oil as well as on increasing energy efficiency to lower money spent on oil.  Both of these factors act to stop the price of oil getting out of hand. 

Market correcting forces move in both directions and also work to prevent excessive falls in prices.  Investments in producing commodities are put on hold if prices drop back and low supply tempers a decline in prices.  Lower prices also mean that interest in using resource more efficiently tends to fade.  This is why commodity prices tend to fluctuate in big swings of boom and bust.  With the world economy have just endured a period of high prices, the commodity market seems to be swinging in the opposite direction.  Considering the big swings in commodity prices, this trend is not likely to be reversed any time soon. 

Heading in the right direction

The benefits of lower commodity prices extend beyond the obvious effects of cheaper prices at the petrol pump, on our gas and power bills, and when stocking up at the supermarket.  Less money will go to places such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, where high oil prices only add to the riches of already wealthy individuals, and consumers across the globe will instead have more money in their pockets.  As such, the global economy will benefit as this extra cash will likely to spent rather than piling up in the bank accounts of rich Saudis or Russians.

A further benefit of lower commodity prices is that cheaper commodities mean lower inflation and lower inflation allows more scope for looser monetary policy.  An uptick in inflation would be one excuse that central banks would use to raise interest rates.  But with inflation likely to be subdued (and deflation becoming more of a concern), interest rates are more likely to stay at their current low levels or hardly rise at all when interest rates are eventually raised.  The absence of inflation could even result in a long-needed rethink of what central banks should be doing in terms of monetary policy.  That may work out to be even be more valuable than a few extra notes in your pocket.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Interest Rates – Looking for the right temperature

The economic climate is changing but that may not necessarily mean that interest rates have to change too

Setting interest rates can be as frustrating as fiddling with the heating as the seasons change.  We can rely on the weather forecast as a guide to the outside conditions but it is harder to get a measure of whether the economy is running hot or cold.  This is particularly tricky at a time when some central banks are switching from policies to warm up the economy to measures for preventing the economy from overheating.  The poor economic outlook suggests that the current monetary policy measures may be here to stay despite calls for higher interest rates.

Neither too hot nor too cold

Interest rates are often raised or lowered to nudge the economy toward what is seen as an appropriate rate of growth.  Once the economy is humming along as it should (with inflation in check), interest rates are ideally set to a level that neither helps nor hinders economic growth.  This is the concept of neutral interest rates which should be higher for fast growing economies and lower for economies with weaker growth.  Not only are there differences between countries but the neutral interest rate for one particular country can change over time.

The neutral interest rates have been slipping downward for many countries as their prospects for growth deteriorate.  Many consumers as well as governments are focusing on paying back debt leaving less money to spend.  Companies are hoarding cash instead of investing which takes away another driver of growth.  With most developed countries suffering from the same problems, exports don’t offer much help either.  Even economic growth in China, which has been one of the few bright spots in the global economy, is likely to slow from a boil to a simmer as focus shifts from investment to consumption.

Turning up the heat

There are signs that the global economy is heating up in places.  The British economy is expected to expand by around 3.0% in 2014 while around 2.0% growth is forecast for the US economy.  Yet, the effects of this are not being felt by consumers due to stagnating wages and cuts to government spending.  Low inflation is a further indication that not all is well even these economic hot spots.  These mixed signals have prompted a cautious approach by the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England who have kept interest rates at record lows close to zero.

The lingering hangover from the global financial crisis continues to hold back the economic recovery.  Consumers are less willing to take on debt after the disastrous results of the previous borrowing binge.  Any plans of investment are reigned amid worried about the prospects for the economy.  Proactive policies tend to go out the window as politics regresses to squabbling over limited government resources.   The likelihood for these factors to lower the neutral interest rates means that interest rates are unlikely to go up by much at all

Don’t touch that knob

Depending on the extent to which the neutral interest rates have fallen, it could even be argued that interest rates should stay close to zero until the medium term prospects improve.  There is no immediate reason for interest rates to be raised considering that the main concern of central banks, inflation, is not a concern.  Even looking forward, inflation is likely to remain subdued when factoring in falling commodity prices and weak wage growth.

Moreover, lending has not gotten out of hand except for in isolated sectors such as real estate in certain countries (such as the UK).  Other worries also include low rates of return pushing investors to chase after higher pay-outs by putting money into increasingly riskier investments.   Yet, these issues can be dealt with using targeted policies rather than relying solely on interest rates.  Higher interest rates are seen as helpful in that it will give central banks more capacity to respond in the case of another downturn.  But setting interest rates has less of an effect when the financial markets are awash with cash. 

Like a bickering couple arguing whether the heating is set too high or too low, expect the debate over the right level for interest rates to drag on.  Despite all this, it looks as if interest rates might be best left where they are for now.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Question – where next for Japan

An inquiry from a reader prompts Your Neighbourhood Economist to look into the prospects for Japan

There has been another knock at the door of Your Neighbourhood Economist, with a reader what I thought Japan should be doing in the short and medium term?  The question arrived just days before another big policy development in Japan with the central bank ramping up its monetary policy.  This is the latest attempt by policy makers in Japan to resurrect an economy that has been languishing for decades.  To get an idea of what Japan should be doing, we need to start with what went wrong and why Japan has not made much progress.

What is not going right?

Japan got itself into trouble in the 1980s with the spectacular collapse of a financial bubble from which it has never recovered.  Property prices have fallen almost every year for two decades while prices for consumer goods have been inching lower for almost as long.  Japan has repeatedly tried to use fiscal stimulus but higher government spending has been unable to mask deeper problems with the economy.  Along with numerous roads and bridges which are hardly used, the main result of these rescue attempts has been a ballooning amount of government debt which only adds to Japan’s woes.

Monetary policy has been adopted recently as the potential saviour in the fight against what has been deemed as the main problem – deflation.  Falling prices were seen as prompting consumers to hold off spending and preventing companies from investing.  With this in mind, the central bank in Japan announced plans to double the money supply in early 2013.  But the policy of pumping more money into the economy was based on the false logic that deflation was a problem rather than just the symptom of a weak economy.  Instead, it is likely the case that deflation persists because prices rises had gotten out of hand in the past and need to fall back to appropriate levels.

Fix-up job not working

The result of this monetary policy has been as Your Neighbourhood Economist might have expected with just a brief and temporary boost to inflation.  Prices for consumer goods cannot rise consistently if consumers themselves do not get a similar rise in pay.  Higher wages in Japan seem unlikely as a declining population hurts aggregate demand and Japanese firms invest more overseas than domestically.  Yet, rather than change tact, Japan’s central bank has opted for more of the same. 

This involves the Bank of Japan aiming for an even larger boost to the money supply in Japan with annual purchases of 80 trillion yen (US$720 billion or £450 billion) in government bonds.  The timing of the new policy comes as the Japanese economy is faltering under the added weight of a tax hike designed to fix the government’s finances.  Japan has gotten itself deeper and deeper into trouble and seems likely to be an example of what not to do in terms of fiscal and monetary policy.   

Where to from here

The best option left to the Japanese government is to reform the economy so as to increase competition and improve efficiency.  There is substantial domestic opposition to reforms even within the current government headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who included reforms as one of his key policies.  An easy way to sidestep domestic politics would be to jump on-board to plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  This is a free trade agreement with the United States, Australia, Mexico, Chile, and other countries around the Pacific Rim.

Left to themselves, Japan will probably continue to stagnated due to the stifling effects of its consensus style of politics which make it tough to come up with reforms that keep everyone happy.  As such, Japan has a history of positive change only coming when imposed from the outside and this free trade agreement looks likely to follow this trend.  Greater competition from foreigners will help lower costs of business and create impetus for freeing up businesses in Japan from a host of restricting rules.  Facing up to the outside world looks like the best way to inject life back into a Japanese economy that has been slowly decaying for years.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Monetary Policy – Germany to feel the pinch

A taste of its own medicine may prompt Germany to rethink its tough guy approach to Europe

No one like a bully but that seems to be Germany’s role in Europe.  It makes other countries walk the line in policy terms (for their own good) even amid simmering discontent among its neighbours.  Germany has been mean in terms of pushing for monetary policy to be less expansive as elsewhere in spite of struggling countries needing help.  Yet, things may change as the German economy is starting to suffer from similar problems to those it bullies.  Germany is likely to be stuck with monetary policy that is too harsh for even its own economy and this may result in it softening up its approach to others in Europe.

Help wanted

It is a given that the economy in Europe could do with a boost.  Weak demand from consumers and firms means that unemployment remains stubbornly high and inflation for Europe as a whole is not far off zero.  But Germany continues to push its policy of tough love onto Europe.  As with most other developed countries, fiscal stimulus is not an option as governments deal with high levels of public debt.  Germany has gone further in cajoling other governments in Europe to sort out their budget deficits despite the likelihood of adverse economic effects.  

Germany has also not allowed the use of monetary policy as an alternative means of stimulating the economy.  Measures such as quantitative easing have been utilised with some benefits in the US and in Britain but not in Europe even though Europe needs a boost more than anywhere else.  The reasoning behind this approach by Germany is that, by offer laggards in Europe an easy way out, the current problems which are holding them (and Europe as a whole) back will remain in place.  As a result, the European Central Bank has had to be creative and try other measures such as negative interest rates.  But it is difficult for monetary policy to have much effect when its scope is limited.

Turning the tables

Germany may have been able to bully others in Europe but it may be the Germans turn to feel the pain.  The German economy is beginning to flag amid weakening demand for its exports from places such as China.  Forecasts for economic growth in Germany are being cut as its prospects deteriorate while inflation has fallen to below 1%.  The normal response to a weakening economy anywhere else would be for looser monetary policy.  But having not allowed other European countries this option, Germany’s tough stance on others may result it also being tough on itself. 

It is funny to think that the Germans would have likely allowed itself to have more stimulus via monetary policy if there was just a German central bank looking after just the German economy.  But its own actions in influencing monetary policy will mean that Germany may have to endure monetary policy that does not reflect the weak state of its economy (along with most everyone else in Europe).  When framed in this way, Germany must rethink its ideas on economic policy for Europe if just for its own good. 

Continued stubbornness by the Germans would be unconstructive even in comparison to the often dysfunctional politics in Europe.  Deflation is another concern that will only get worse with the current policy measures.  Germany was never going to go easy on others in Europe while its economy was riding high.  It is only a Germany that has been laid low that may soften up and be more willing to help itself by helping others.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Euro as the new Deutsche Mark

Germany practically controls the euro as if it were its own currency but it would gain more being less in charge

Being a big fish in a small pond can have its benefits as Germany is discovering in its dealing with Europe.  Its powerhouse economy means that Germany was one of the few countries left standing after the Eurozone crisis.  Germany has used this position of strength to turn the euro into its own de-facto currency.  It dominates the decisions over monetary policy and has influences spending decisions by politicians outside of its borders.  This level of control is alienating many others in Europe while still being insufficient to keep Germans happy.  As a result, more could be gained by Germany trading away its power to secure a brighter future for Europe as a whole.

Benefits of being the boss

Control over monetary policy is not something that Germany fought for but it came as a by-product of the Eurozone crisis that hobbled the other powers in Europe.  More prudent management of government finances meant that the government has less debt and the economy has been resilient due in part to its exporting prowess.  This left its Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as one of the few politicians who is backed by voters and in a strong position to dominate European politics.

It has allowed Germany to impose its own policy measures over the Eurozone.  Germany has set the tone regarding austerity as well as its concerns over inflation limiting the scope of monetary policy.  Countries such as Spain and Italy would benefit in the short term from more government spending and looser monetary policy.  But Germany has pushed for a range of policies which are a better fit for its own economy than others in Europe where the shortfall in demand is more pronounced.  The aim is to bring others into line in terms of implementing reforms which would improve the outlook for Europe in the future.

Along with setting policies, being the boss of a widely used currency comes with a host of benefits.  For starters, investors looking for the safest place to park their euros will choose Germany over other European countries and this keep down interest rates in Germany.  Worries about a sluggish economy in Europe are a further boost to Germany by keeping the value of the euro weak.  The euro is both too strong considering the economic circumstances of many of the countries in Europe but considerably below what a truly German currency (a new Deutsche Mark) could be valued at. 

Getting more from less

As is often the case, its power has become like a poisoned chalice.  Not only is Germany out of tune with many of its neighbours but the euro is also increasingly unpopular at home.  The rapid rise of an anti-euro party in Germany (called the Alternative for Germany party) suggests that there are many Germans who feel as if they are getting a raw deal from being part of the Eurozone.  This party joins a growing list of populist parties in Europe worried about the level of integration needed to maintain the euro. 

If a position of strength does not come with many rewards, sometimes more can be gained from giving power away.  Germany could soften its strict stance on fiscal and monetary policy as a trade for more reforms in other countries.  This bargain would help deal with the short-term issues of a weak economy needing stimulus as well as concerns about the prospects for Europe over the long term.  Compromise also seems more likely now that deflation is a growing threat and the German economy itself is flagging.  It is time for Germany to cash in now as it may be too late if the situation in Europe gets worse. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Europe – finding a way out

Europe seems trapped with a sluggish economy but a way out may be close

Getting out of a hole that you have dug for yourself can be tough.  This is what Europe is struggling with as the Eurozone crisis seems to have passed only to be replaced with a slow strangling at the hands of deflation.  Infighting among politicians about the best way to deal with the economic stagnation in Europe has resulted in few reasons for hope of an escape.  Yet, this may change due to recent developments such as a flagging German economy and the rise of reform-minded governments in some countries.  Sometimes things need to get worse before a way out is possible and the situation in Europe may have finally got bad enough for positive change to occur.

An economic escape route…

An economic recovery is typically an automatic progress but may not always be easy.  Companies going bankrupt and workers losing their jobs cause considerable pain but is actually something that is good for the overall health of the economy.  A cull of weaker businesses provides more space for more successful firms to grow and prosper.  This process has the label of “creative destruction” in economic theory due to the idea of the old needing to give way for the new. 

In this way, economic growth returns after a recession as resources such as workers move to more productive uses.  The economy can grow faster as a result but a certain level of economic freedoms are needed to allow this to happen.  In this way, there is a trade-off between economic growth and the potential for instability.  It is not possible to have the former without the latter but any instability can be limited through controlling economic excesses (which often show up in the financial system).

Getting the balance right is not easy.  Companies in finance have been given too much leeway and created havoc as a result.  Yet, in other areas, businesses have been burdened with too many rules.  One example is regulation which makes it difficult for firms to fire workers.  This may seem like a good way of keeping people in jobs but such regulation has an adverse effect in that companies will not want to take on new workers if their employment is almost permanent.

… and the politics to make it happen

Many countries in Europe are in desperate need of policies to free up business from such regulation but implementation is often tricky.  At a time of rapid change, voters often crave stability of bygone eras that are no longer viable.  This does not stop populist parties making false promises to turn back time and dismissing the need for reforms.  It is heartening for the outlook in Europe that some countries such as Spain have made progress with its reforms.  Others such as France and Italy also have governments that are making the right noises in terms of reforms even if not actually putting new policies in place.

The lack of reforms has been preventing the recovery in Europe in other ways.  Germany, who has a firm grip on the reins of power in Europe, has stubbornly refused to offer much help to struggling European countries.  The reasoning behind this is that offering an easy way out would mean that these countries would not deal with the problems within their own economies.  The flip side is that, once reforms begin, Germany may be more accommodating in providing support. 

This opens up the possibility of a grand bargain, such as reforms as a trade for looser monetary policy and less focus on austerity.  More action from the central bank seems likely as the German economy is beginning to falter and genuine fears about deflation in Europe grow.  Its own weak economic growth and low inflation will highlight to the Germans that the problems are plaguing Europe as a whole rather than just individual problem countries.

Your Neighbourhood Economist penned this posting with comments from readers in mind.  Europe and the euro was seen as a lost cause by one reader while others have been annoyed that this blog always had to be so pessimistic.  Hopefully, this post will hopefully prove them wrong (but in a good way).

Monday, 15 September 2014

Monetary Policy – who to save?

Central banks have a host of people needing help in the economy but it may be those not yet in trouble that get priority

There are still many people struggling in the economy but the central bank does not know which of the victims to save.  Like a lifeguard having to decide which of a handful of struggling swimmers to save, central banks have some difficult choices.  Unemployment is falling but many people are still stuck in low paying jobs.  Inflation is low but fears are running high that loose monetary policy will inevitably see prices start to rise.  There is also potential for financial markets to go haywire considering all of the loose money around.  Yet, it seems as if central banks will deal with issues that have not yet arisen despite all of the people still in the water.

Monetary policy to the rescue

The global financial crisis has expanded the role of central banks.  No longer is inflation their sole concern as other issues such as unemployment or financial stability take on increasing importance.  Fulfilling one primary objective, keeping prices from rising too much, is much easier than achieving competing goals.  This was not a problem in the past as a weak economy created an overriding emphasis on shoring up the economy.  The improving situation in the UK and the US will push the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England into sorting out their priorities. 

A falling unemployment rate in both countries means that more people are being put to work.  This suggests that the economy might be close to reaching full capacity and inflation might follow as a result.  However, at the same time, wages are not rising which is what would be expected if firms are employing more workers.  Improvements in productivity have also been poor due to low level of business investment.  This is a problem as firms need to be more productive to pay higher wages and bigger pay packets are needed to boost consumer spending.

The uncertainty would suggest caution but there is one more issue worrying central banks – financial instability.  Low interest rates and printing of more cash through quantitative easing has not made much of a mark on the actual economy but has been a considerable boost to financial markets.  The prices of stocks continue to push relentlessly upward in many countries despite the cloudy economic outlook.  The mass of cheap money has also seen a boom in property prices in some countries.  The continuation of existing loose monetary policies can only result in these problems getting larger.

Saving us from the phantom menace

Central banks have to keep all of this in mind when setting policy.  Interest rates in particular should be raised sooner if fears about inflation or financial instability are given precedence.  But a weak economy may not be able to cope with higher interest rates and the job market might suffer.  Changes to interest rates will affect all of us in different ways but there will be both good and bad. 

We are all consumers so few of us would want to see a jump in inflation as we could not buy as much.  Most of us have a little bit stashed away in the bank or in our pension funds so higher interest rates and less volatility in financial markets will be helpful.  But it is the overall health of the economy that will be felt most keenly.  Economists, with an eye on the bigger picture, are worried about the threat from inflation and financial instability with many pushing for the central banks to respond according.

Yet, the concern is that higher interest rates will be used to deal with problems that exist on paper but not in reality.  Central banks will forsake those already in trouble to save people that are not yet drowning.  Some of the worries of economist might on exist in their theories.  Inflation is different now than in the past and has not caused trouble for decades.  There are also other ways of dealing with issues in finance rather than the blunt instrument of interest rates.   Better to deal with what actually is than what might be.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Deflation – déjà vu with a twist

Signs of deflation I have seen before start showing up in my neighbourhood but falling prices have been with us for a long time

Your Neighbourhood Economist has been getting a sense of déjà vu recently – to do with deflation.  My past experiences of falling prices come from years spent living in Japan and I am seeing the same things again in my neighbourhood in London.  Japan and deflation make for a scary combination considering that Japan is a byword for prolonged economic stagnation and poor policy choices.  But deflation may have already been lurking around unnoticed for a while. 

This looks familiar

The symptoms of déjà vu started with the fast food chains such as McDonald’s and KFC offering cheaper menu options.  This first started in London a few years back but it was a sign that consumers did not have much cash to spend.  It is a sorry state of affairs when even the least expensive places to eat out need to provide food with even lower prices to attract customers.  But it is the same tact that similar companies had adopted in Japan around a decade ago in the face of increasing price conscious consumers.

The other memory of deflation in Japan was from buying groceries at the supermarket.  The most notable place was shopping at my local 100 yen store (which is like a pound shop or a dollar shop).  While the prices of the products on the shelves did not change (obviously), there was a noticeable increase in the range of goods that could be brought for 100 yen.  The same trend is becoming more obvious in the UK in the success of discount supermarkets such as Lidl and Aldi.  To keep up, the mainstream supermarkets have been slashing prices but shoppers are still switching to their cheaper rivals. 

The only areas in the economy where prices are still rising are sectors where the pressures of price competition are less fierce.  UK companies such as energy providers or train operators function in imperfect markets where consumers have less choice and few other options.  Spending on energy or transport often cannot be avoided so companies do not have to try hard to sell their products.  As such, it is large energy bills and higher transport costs that are increasingly responsible for inflation.  With nowhere else to go, consumers have increasingly turned to the government to prove an answer despite there being little that politicians can do.

We live in deflationary times

Yet, for good or bad, this may be the new world that we live in now rather than just a temporary blip amid a slow economic recovery.  In a new global era, firms and consumers can scourge the world for the cheapest places to buy whatever they want.  This impacts what we buy off the shelves at our local store as well as what we can purchase off the internet.  Technology further aids this trend by providing information on what is on offer outside of our neighbourhoods and for what price.  And we are increasingly consuming services through the internet at cheaper rates than ever before.

This is great for us as consumers but the flipside is that companies in our local economies face growing pressures and will not be able to provide the same level of employment opportunities or pay the same wages as before.  This is a problem for governments who want their national economies to prosper.  Jobs are seen as the primary gauge of the health of the economy but boosting employment is tricky when competing on a global scale.

Here today and here tomorrow

Deflation is often seen as a problem in itself.  The standard economic theory goes that, if prices are falling, consumers will wait to spend as goods will be cheaper tomorrow.  Yet, globalization and technology are not something new and we have had downward pressure on prices for a long time.  Inflation has been low for the past few decades suggesting that deflation may have not been that far away.  It is perhaps only the voracious appetite for raw materials in China and elsewhere that pushed up global commodity prices and stopped deflation setting in sooner.    

If it has been around for so long, deflation by itself may not be so bad after all.  Yet, an overreaction by policy makers might be.  The European Central Bank seems set to ramp up its measures to fight off threats of deflation (and a morbid economy in Europe).  The central bank in Japan has launched a renewed onslaught against falling prices but to little avail.  Yet, the forces of globalization and technology cannot be reversed using just monetary policy.  Falling prices are something that may be with us for a while so it is better to get used to living with the potential for deflation and focus our efforts on other economic evils.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Quantitative Easing – Waiting while Europe Sinks

As Europe cries out for more action against deflation, the central bank must wait until the situation gets even worse

It would be strange to hold off saving people in a sinking ship until the ship is just about to go under, but this is how monetary policy works in Europe.  The situation in European grows continues to get worse as economic growth stagnates and deflation sets in.  Yet, the central bank cannot help, as it is hamstrung by politics, and must hold off until the cost of inaction is too high.  This means that Europe will have to take on a lot of water until a rescue package can eventually be put in place. 

Politics muddies the water

Monetary policy is tough enough in one country, let along for the 18 countries which use the euro.  The European Central Bank has acted boldly when given the chance.  It took a stand in 2012 stating that it was willing to do “whatever it takes” to save the Eurozone.  This was the lifeboat that saved Europe from collapse at a time when national governments were absorbed riding out wave after waves of turmoil.  But the European Central Bank was only free to jump in once it seemed as if Greece and other countries were about to let go of the euro. 

Despite a temporary reprieve, the economies of Europe have been like a listless ship with leaks.  Reforms have been put off in the hope that the worst is over and economic growth would return without any further encouragement.  Yet it is not a surprise that Europe is close to being sunk again but this time in slow motion.  The problem is the rules and regulations that get in the way of more efficient ways of doing business.  Economic growth cannot be seen as a given and government policies must allow resources to move to more productive uses.   

Such reforms tend to be unpopular as the costs are borne upfront while it takes time for the benefits to show.  So politicians in Europe have put off these measures as pleasing voters is proving tough enough as it is.  Instead, it has been easier to blame others and wait in the hope that economic growth will return.  This wait-and-see approach relies on the central bank to help out with the economy but this is beyond what the European Central Bank can achieve.

The politics behind the European Central Bank is made even more difficult in dealing due to some countries floundering more than others.  Amid all of the concerns about deflation, it is already a fact of life in some countries such as Greece and Spain.  Yet, even Europe as a whole is edging closer to deflation which is typically the symptom of a sluggish economy.  The fear is that deflation will create its own problems if falling prices prompt consumers to hold of spending in the hope for cheaper goods in the future.

Waiting until things get worse

The central bank has already responded to the threat of deflation through a policy of negative interest rates.  Quantitative easing, which has already been used (with limited success) in other countries, is the obvious choice to ramp up monetary policy.  This option has been kept off the table due to its potential to cause inflation which raises hackles among Germans.  Since any measures by the central bank could be deemed to be inflationary, Germany has used its influence to restrict the ability of the central bank to act. 

Yet, even the Germans will eventually have to see deflation as the greater threat.  But, at the same time, it is tough to gauge when too little inflation (or too much deflation) will be enough for a change of tack.  Germany has stuck to its guns since the outbreak of the Eurozone backed by an economy which had until recently remained buoyant.  So Europe is likely to get quantitative easing sometime (soon) and hopefully before the Eurozone is too far under water.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Interest Rate Hike – not expecting the worst

People tend to fear the worst but higher interest rates may not mean interest rates that are actually that high

Some things that people normally dread as not so bad in reality – such may be the outcome with the upcoming hikes in interest rates.  Interest rates are set to levels which relate to the strength of the underlying economy (as reflected in the level of inflation).  But the pressure to push up interest rates is likely to be limited considering that the long-term prospects for the economy are a bit grim.  On top of this, there is a growing range of policy tools that central banks can use instead of interest rates to manage the economy.  So when higher interest rates do come, like a visit from the in-laws, it may not be as painful as had been expected.

Inflation not so scary

One of the main jobs of central banks is to set interest rates so as to keep inflation low.  This is because inflation in itself is seen as having a negative influence as well as being a sign that an economy might be overheating.  Inflation comes about as firms increase prices typically when their costs are rising or when demand is strong.  Yet, neither is the case at the moment.  Stagnating wages, which is the largest expense for many firms, mean that higher costs are not likely to translate into higher prices. Sluggish consumer spending is prompting some firms to cut prices so as not to lose customers.

This is more than just the result of a sluggish economic recovery as shown by growing concerns about the long-term prospects for the economy.  Investment by businesses continues to remain weak despite record low interest rates.  The expanding operations of companies would help to fuel gains in productivity which further feed into higher wages.  But, with firms not wanting to spend and consumers not likely to get their hands on much extra cash, economic activity is expected to remain subdued.  Austerity measures are a further damper on the economy as governments rush to sort out their finances.

The most glaring reason to not expect any trouble from inflation is prices have barely budged despite everything that has happened over the past decade.  Inflation has remained subdued (mostly 5% or (much) lower) despite a surge in bank lending in the lead up to the crisis or central banks printing billions in new cash in more recent times.  The only time inflation popped up on the radar of policy makers during the depth of economic recession in 2011 due to high commodity prices (more on that later).

This time is different

Not only is inflation expected to remain low but influences over monetary policy are also likely to act to keep interest rates low.  For starters, the potential for a slower pace of economic growth will make it difficult to justify central banks raising interest rates.  Calls for a hike to interest rates at the Bank of England (which is likely to go first among the larger central banks) may be premature considering low inflation and the stuttering economic recovery. 

Monetary policy is also developing so that central banks have more options available to them to deal with inflation and other negative aspects of a buoyant economy.  The most promising of these are macroprudential measures such as caps on mortgage lending and other controls on banks.  These will enable central banks to rein in overheating parts of the economy without having to increase interest rates.

There have also been changes to inflation itself.  As mentioned above, any inflation recently has tended to come from outside sources such as commodity prices rising in global markets in line with growing demand in emerging markets.  Higher interest rates can only have an effect when a rise in prices is due to factors within the economy itself.  So if inflation is due to external causes, central banks will likely hold off increasing interest rates.

Hope for the best

So, there is likely to be no rush to increase interest rates, and when the inevitable does happen, interest rates are not actually going to rise by that much.  This is welcome news for places where buoyant property prices have push new home owners to take on large mortgages relative to their income.  Higher interest rates still have the potential to stall an economic recovery that is still fragile.  But if central banks wait for the right timing, the eventual interest rate hikes may be like going to the dentist expecting to have some teeth pulled but instead just getting a clean and a lollipop.  

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Economic Recovery - Downgraded

Amid talk of economic recovery, we may not get back to living the life we had in the past

Being downgrading can be tough – no one likes having to get by with less – but this is what we might have to put up with regard to the economy.  Life was much easier around a decade ago when we were enjoying the perks of strong and steady economic growth.  But the upgrade was likely temporary when considering that it was funded with a borrowing binge that was unsustainable.  With wages likely to continue to stagnate for years to come, we may not have it so good again for a long time.

Anything but first class

Gains in wages are typically the main route to the good life for most of us.  Bigger pay packets at the each of the month give us more money to spend.  This money goes back into the economy to create a virtuous cycle helping create a healthy economy so that wages to rise again in the future.  The main avenue through which wages rise is higher output per worker.  This involves people being put to more productive use whether through raising their levels of skills, working together with machines or computers, or doing business in a better way.  The economy usually operates to ensure that this happens automatically as businesses, which want to maximized their profits, will try and make the most of their staff. 

Yet, the past few years, if not the past few decades, have shown us that the tendency for higher wages is not something that we can take for granted.  This is because the two forces of globalization and technology have made life tougher for many people in richer countries.  The sectors of the economy which typically supported the middle class with stable and steady jobs have been eroded.  Jobs such as those in manufacturing along with clerical work have been either moved to countries where labour is cheap or increasingly carried out by machines or computers. 

This has led to a polarization of the work force between high and low skilled areas with a shrinking middle ground.  At one end of the spectrum are bankers, IT experts, and professionals whose knowledge and training ensure a high level of pay.  The rest of the workforce is left with menial jobs such as taxi drivers, shop assistants, and delivery personal only because these are jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.  On top of this, austerity measures in many countries also mean that public sector workers are also suffering.

No route out

With many of us now competing with machines or overseas workers, our bargaining has been considerably diminished.  So while wages rises is a perk that many are missing out on, profits for many businesses have never been higher.  Profitable firms could be the agents of economic growth by expanding their operations and investing in more equipment.  Yet, with weak wages crimping consumer spending, most companies prefer to hoard their cash until the economic recovery is more robust.   What seems like a common sense strategy for each firm has added up to a prolonged slump for the economy as a whole.

The government could step into the breach and provide the investment in worker training or infrastructure to boost productivity.  Yet, the infiltration of pro-market economic theory has pushed the government to the sidelines of the economy.  Even the wealth that had been created in the boom years before the crisis was only benefiting a small portion of the economy.  One example is the finance sector that was creating wealth that mostly went to those working in finance rather to the economy as a whole.  Building a road or new schools creates benefits now and in the future while repackaging of loans only generates money for a lucky few working in banking.

Stuck with a second class economy

Workers have been battling with the consequences of globalization and technology for decades but could rely on debt in the past to enjoy some of the high life.  But like an ever expanding credit card balance, this spending spree was never built to last.  To make things worse, even politicians got involved.  The US government with Bush junior in charge slashed tax rates while the Labour government spent lavishly on the UK public sector around the turn of the century. 

Government finances had been boosted by economic growth fuelled by debt but this was a luxury that would prove fleeting.  Now government is like the rest of us in having to cut back.  Without many goodies going around, voters are likely to become increasing tetchy.  Politics is also getting ugly with constructive policy making likely to go out the window.  Low interest rates and more debt have been offered up as a way out but this creates even more problems in the absence of economic growth.

Something special will be needed to get both consumers and businesses to hope for something better.  Yet, the grim realities of life mean that this may not happen anything soon.  Like being in a long haul flight in economy class, we might be stuck here for a while.  

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Economic Recovery and the Politics of Slow Growth

When the economic pie stops expanding, everyone wants their fair share and politicians are unfortunately only to keen to oblige

Slow economic growth is like hot weather – people become easily irritable and argue a lot.  This because, while economic growth makes it easier for everyone to feel better off, the opposite is true when the economy stagnates.  A sluggish economy leads to a shift in focus from creating more wealth to dividing up whatever is already there.  This creates fights over resources with people mostly looking out for themselves. 

Politicians pander to such self-interest among voters and constructive policy making goes out the window.  Voters are get all hot and flustered as the economic recovery since the global financial crisis has proven anything but balmy.  With the outlook for the economy not looking so bright for years to come, politics may continue to get people steamy under the collar.

Politics turns cold

Democracy is the best political system we have for ensuring the implementing of policies for the common good.  Politicians get elected by pushing a package of measures that the majority of voters believe will make them better off.  When times are good, policies tend to be aspiration in promoting economic growth with some resources also going to the less well off.  But things are not going so well, the focus of voters narrows to their own specific well-being.  As such, voters become less generous in terms of social spending and immigration while wanting the government to do more for them. 

The result is that politics become short-sighted and politicians pick more policies that target their own particular support base.  Honest assessment of the economic ills are typically in short supply while voters grow increasing frustrated as timid government policies can only provide limited relief.  Many voters have been tempted with the false hopes of more extreme policies offered by populist politicians.  However, turning back time with less government or less globalization will only create bigger problems rather than providing answers. 

The political infighting comes at a bad time for many developed countries who are increasingly feeling the heat of global competition.  This process was already underway with the rise of China and other emerging economies and the global financial crisis has been a further setback.  The narrow-minded politics currently prevailing in many countries will further hasten the relative decline of the West.  On top of this, government action is also hampered by economic theory that argues for less intervention in the economy

Still sweating it out

It is more than a tad ironic that it is now more than ever that positive and proactive government measures are needed more than ever.  This is because government has traditionally been the guardian of the long-term health of society.  The government has even more to offer at a time when businesses are not investing and gains in productivity (output per worker) are proving hard to come by.  Higher productivity is the main route to increases in wages and consumer spending at a time when low skilled work is carried out in developing countries.   

Yet, as described above, governments have been more of a hindrance rather than helpful with regard to the economy.  A push for austerity has dominated in many countries such as the UK despite going against the grain of economic theory.  In the place of increasingly distracted politicians, central banks have take centre stage in reviving the economy (which comes with its own problems).  With minor squabbles often dominating politics, it may take time before governments and voters are ready to sweat over the big issues.  Like a muggy summer that never seems to end, the combination of economic and politic malaise is not a problem that will go away any time soon.