Archive for the ‘UK Economy’ Category

file4741270417603The UK can be thankful it has experts at the Bank of England, because its seems that they are all that stand between the UK economy and recession.

Ever since the result of the EU referendum was revealed, economic forecasters have been warning of the possibility, and in many cases the probability, of a UK recession later this year.

Indeed, before the referendum, Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, warned of precisely that danger. But then Mark Carney, along with the rest of the economic forecasters, is a so called expert, and as we all know in this post referendum era, they know nothing.

But maybe, we can ignore experts and instead look at the data.

The monthly purchasing managers’ indices, or PMIs, covering UK manufacturing, construction and services are a reasonably reliable guide to the state of the economy at any one time. They are not perfect, but then again nothing is, and when they pick-up, the UK economy seems to pick-up soon afterwards and when they fall, the UK economy usually dips soon afterwards.

The latest batch have been released in the last few days, and they were awful.

The good news is that of the three PMIs, the first to see the light of day, the PMI covering manufacturing, wasn’t too bad. The index rose to 52.1, a five month high.  It was good to see the index rise, but even so, by historical standards, it was a pretty lacklustre score.

Bear in mind, that when it comes to PMIs, the magic number is 50. Any score over is meant to suggest expansion, any score below is meant to suggest contraction.

And that takes me to the PMI tracking construction. In June, the index crashed, falling from 51.2 in May, which itself was seen as pretty woeful, to 46.0, that’s the lowest reading since December 2012.

Then, finally we got the PMI for services. The Business Activity Index which experts tell us is the index that matters – not that they know anything – fell from 53.5 in May to 52.3 In June, the lowest reading since December 2012.

Collectively, and based on past findings, the three PMIs point to growth of just 0.1 per cent in Q2. A recession is defined as two successive quarters of negative growth, so if the PMIs are accurate, then the UK only needs to slow very slightly from the June level and it’s in recession territory.

Most worrying of all, the three PMIs relate to a period before the EU referendum.   It seems likely that the UK economy has slowed more than slightly since then.

But not all are fretting.

Take Standard and Poor’s. It has taken time off from downgrading the UK’s credit rating, to suggest that the UK will avoid recession. It said that the fall in the pound will support exporters, that the UK chancellor, a certain George Osborne, will relax on his austerity drive, but most important of all, the Bank of England will cut interest rates and go for another burst of QE.

But the story of pound devaluations giving the UK economy a lift is mixed. Besides, sterling’s falls against the euro have been more modest.

George has already confirmed that he will go back on his pre-election promise to create a budget surplus by the end of the decade.

But it seems to me that the fate of the UK economy in the short term, and whether it can avoid recession, is dependent on the experts at the Bank of England. Let’s hope that really do know something after all.

Article originally posted on Fresh Business Thinking:  http://www.freshbusinessthinking.com/can-the-uk-avoid-a-brexit-recession/

file0001300785481Question, what does the Swedish economy and George Osborne’s dream have in common?

Answer: Setting aside that Sweden is still somewhat concerned about such issues as equality, welfare and workers’ rights, the Swedish economy is, quite probably, Mr Osborne’s dream.

Like the UK, Sweden once suffered a banking crisis. Unlike the UK, the Swedish crisis occurred a quarter of a century ago. Lots of dust has settled since, but today, Sweden is a country with a firm check on public finances. Today, Swedish public debt to Sweden’s GDP is just 44 per cent, roughly half of the UK equivalent. Since 1997, the Swedish government has targeted a one per cent budget surplus over the course of an economic cycle.

You could say that its prudence writ large. Sweden has become one of the most competitive economies in the world, a major technology hub and a centre for entrepreneurism, all this with a growth rate since 2008 that the UK can only envy.

So that’s austerity for you. Cut the size of the state, and the private sector can grow into the void that is left – at least that’s the theory. But maybe Sweden bears the theory out.

There is just one snag. Since 1997, household debt to disposable income in Sweden has risen from 90 per cent to a staggering, and very worrisome, 190 per cent.

It does rather seem as if the price Sweden has paid for reducing government debt is for household debt to rise. When you think about it, across the global economy, if savings are at a certain level, and governments are trying to cut debt, that must mean that private debt must rise, otherwise, all that money that is saved leaks out of the economy.  It’s a point that gets forgotten.

But George, or so it appears, has abandoned his dream.  It is no longer his target to create a budget surplus by 2020. Brexit has made this impossible.

The truth, of course, is that for all the talk of prudence, of how you can’t fight a crisis caused by too much debt by borrowing more, of how the Keynesian idea of demand stimulus in times of trouble is dead, Mr Osborne has done the opposite of what he said he was doing. Year in year out, targets for government finances have been missed. Borrowing each year was higher than was predicted the year before.  On the other hand, while household debt to disposable income has been rising of late, it is way below the pre-2008 level and nowhere near the level in Sweden.

And now, thanks to the Brexit vote, it appears even more targets will be missed.

Before the referendum, Mr Osborne threatened an austerity budget if Leave won. Instead, it appears we are getting more Keynesian stimulus.

If the Brexit supporters, such as Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom, have a dream, it is for the UK to be like Singapore, a dynamic independent hub off a mainland. Can that happen? It is hard to imagine the whole of the UK being like Singapore, but London . . . well, if you squint your eyes, and apply a large dollop of thinking outside of one of those box things, then maybe London can become Europe’s Singapore.

And now George Osborne is talking about cutting corporation tax from 20 to 15 per cent, the lowest such tax rate amongst the world’s major developed economies. So is that good thinking, or has he boxed himself into creating a low tax haven even though social discontent was the main driver of the referendum result?

The Keynesians argue that in times of economic trouble you should forget about government finances and spend instead.

But the government tells us that this philosophy is irresponsible, that we must live within our means.

In reality, we are being told to forget about government finances and cut corporate taxes instead.

This article was originally posted on Fresh Business Thinking http://www.freshbusinessthinking.com/keynesian-osborne-opts-for-tax-cuts/

file0001742232424The UK economy grew by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2015, and by 2.6 per cent over the past year. The US economy grew at an annualised pace of 2.3 per cent. The media and markets greeted the figures with relief, but they were wrong.

To understand why, first consider what things were like in the first quarter of this year. The UK grew by 0.4 per cent, that’s quarter on quarter, and the US grew by 0.6 per cent– annualised. Actually, the data for Q2 had been revised upwards, so the markets had a kind of double celebration. They were chuffed by the okay figures for Q2, and even more chuffed by the upwards revision for Q1. Even so, bear in mind that in the latest quarter both the UK and US economies grew at a rate that was still way below average. As for Q1, the data may say that the US grew by 0.6 per cent annualised in Q1, but frankly that is a pretty awful performance. It’s just not as awful as the figures originally suggested. It is like coming last in a race, and then celebrating because the judges discovered they had made a mistake and in fact you only came second from last.

History tells us that economies tend to enjoy a period of above average growth when coming out of recession. History tells us that when an economy suffers a one off shock, which is supposed to have been what happened in Q1 of this year, then the following quarter should expand at a faster than normal pace to make up for the lost production of the previous quarter.

We are told that poor figures on the first quarter were down to a shockingly bad winter in the northeast corner of the US. This even affected US imports to the UK, knocking the UK economy. If that is so, however, shouldn’t the second quarter have seen unusually fast expansion, making up for lost ground?

In the US, the Federal Reserve is losing patience, it will be a big surprise if US interest rates don’t go up very soon, September most likely. Rates will be rising in the UK soon too, probably January.

Once again, consider the lesson of history. The Fed increased rates in 1994, after a period in which they had been at 3 per cent for 18 months or so. A year and a half later, US interest rates were at 6 per cent. Crisis soon followed, however. The global economy had got used to low US interest rates, when they rose capital left developing markets and headed west. We had the Asian crisis of 1997 and the Russian crisis of 1998. The global banking system tottered.

A similar story occurred all over again the following decade. This time though, US rates were cut to 1 per cent, stayed there for about a year, and then gradually began to rise. Within a year or two, come 2008, the global banking system did more than totter, it fell over. We all know how nasty that was.

This time US rates have been at near zero per cent for almost seven years. As they rise, the shockwaves across the world will be nasty.

The problem is compounded. Critics of the Fed say that by cutting interest rate to near zero, it has nothing left to give in the event things make a turn for the worse. The snag with that is that if the Fed hadn’t cut rates so low its economy may have suffered an even more nasty turnaround. It is like a runner in a race, holding back for a sprint finish. But if the race leader sets a fast pace, and our runner goes with the leader and has the sprint run out of him, or indeed her. You can’t criticise the runner for going too fast, there was no choice.

In short, rates are low because they had to be, now they are rising because they have to. Neither the US or UK economy are strong though, indeed they are more like a wheezy athlete, about to start a long uphill climb.

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It was November 2012 when Jens Weidmann, President of the Bundesbank, likened quantitative easing, or QE, to a Faustian pact with the devil.  But it was even earlier, back in 2010, when Brazil’s finance minister talked about currency wars.

It was during that era that QE was seen as leading a kind of race to the bottom, as countries fell over themselves to try and achieve a cheaper currency.  It didn’t work out like that, of course. It is no more possible for every country to have a cheaper currency then it is for every Premiership football team to win on the same day.

The critics of QE were legion. They said QE was behind currency wars, and that the inevitable result would be hyperinflation. And they saw the words of Jens Weidmann as a kind of official endorsement of that view.

It was in this environment that the buy gold bandwagon got moving. BUY GOLD, they said. It was the only safe refuge in a world gone mad under QE.

They overlooked that across the world there was a chronic shortage of demand, a savings glut and that the west was suffering from a balance sheet recession.

There are lots of things wrong with QE, the main critique might be that it is a blunt weapon. But it was never likely to lead to hyperinflation, not in a world starved of demand.

But what it did do was lead to a cheaper dollar. And when the dollar fell, so gold rose.

Back in 1999, when UK chancellor Gordon Brown sold the UK government’s gold supply, the yellow metal was trading at less than $300 an ounce. In the summer of 2009 it was trading at just shy of $900. Those two years stood either end of the great gold market, when it rose in value by around 300 per cent.

Gold continued to rise in the aftermath of the crisis of 2008. In September 2009 it was trading at $1,000 and in August 2011 it finally passed $1,900. That was when the gold hype was at its peak.

But in 2015, currency wars has turned to currency normality and inflation stands at close to zero across the developed world. QE didn’t create hyperinflation, it was not even enough to fight the threat of deflation.

In 2015 the US economy began to improve, the Fed made noises about increasing interest rates, the dollar rose, the euro fell, and gold went out of fashion.

As of this moment (21 July 2015) it is trading at $1,108 an ounce.

Why didn’t gold rise above $2,000, or even $3,000 as was once predicted? The reason is simple. QE was the not the devil’s tool it was made out to be, the global economy suffered from lack of demand.  The risk of hyperinflation was built upon a myth.

ID-100109044There are two big question marks hovering over the UK economy. The answers  may determine whether the UK is seeing a temporary recovery or something a good deal more real.

First consider the surveys. Every month Markit and CIPS get together to produce Purchasing Managers Indices (PMIs) covering UK manufacturing, construction and services. Then they add them all together and produce a composite index. Over the last few months these indices have been really rather exceptional. A couple of months back the composite PMI hit an all time high. Okay data only goes back to 1998, even so it was impressive stuff.  Since then the PMIs have fallen back a tad, but they still remain way above historic averages.

Some economists reckon that the PMIs are consistent with quarter on quarter growth of around 1.5 per cent. To put that into perspective, there aren’t many emerging markets growing that fast.

But here is the thing, the hard data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) is not so good. For the third quarter of last  year the ONS had quarter on quarter growth at 0.8 per cent. That growth rate is good, compared to what we have become used to it is marvellous, but it was less than the level the PMIs were indicating.

As for Q4 of last year, the PMIs suggested that was even better than Q3. Alas, not so the data from the ONS, it had the economy growing by 0.7 per cent. Okay, that growth rate may get revised upwards, but it is still way down on what the PMIs suggest.

Drilling down, construction may provide a partial answer. The ONS had this contracting 0.3 per cent in the last quarter of last year, the PMIs had it surging to its highest level in several years. Since then the PMIs tracking construction have got even better. This suggests that the ONS will either revise its estimate of construction’s contribution to UK growth in Q4 upwards, or we will show a marked improvement in Q1.

The latest PMIs also point to the largest backlogs in orders within the services sector since May 2007. That seems to suggest we are either set to see the sector’s output surge, or we may get rising prices instead. Or both.

Then there is business confidence, in the services sector this rose to its highest level since 2012.

These days, it’s popular to talk about that elephant in the living room. You hear the phrase so often, that is a wonder there are any elephants left in the wild, so busy are they filling up our livings rooms. Well apologies for adding to living room congestion, but as far as the UK economy is concerned there are two elephants in the living room

Elephant number one is household debt/house prices. Part of the UK’s recovery is coming on the back of rising house prices, making households feel richer, encouraging them to spend more. This is not new, the idea that the government is repeating the mistakes that led to the finance crisis in the first place is rehearsed most days in the media, and indeed by politicians.  Some deny it of course. But one piece of hard data needs to borne in mind. The fact is in Q3 of last year the savings ratio fell, this was the main contributor to growth. We haven’t got the data for Q4 yet. But given the imminent retirement of the baby boomers, is creating growth via less households savings really a good idea?

The other elephant in the living room is cash sitting on corporate balance sheets. If they could be persuaded to spend it, ideally invest it, the UK economy would boom like it hasn’t done for a very, very long time.

Just to remind you, according to the PMIs work backlogs are soaring, business confidence is rising, might that be enough to get companies spending again?

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As far as the Bank of England is concerned, the inflation panic is over for now. You may recall that many feared that one of Mark Carney’s first acts as governor of the Bank of England would be to put pen to paper and knock off a quick letter to George Osborne explaining why he was doing such a bad job at keeping inflation close to target. If inflation moves by more than one percentage point above the 2 per cent target, the UK’s most powerful central bank is required to write a letter of explanation to the chancellor.

As it turned out, inflation was 2.8 per cent in June – less than was feared and 0.2 percentage points down on the level that would have triggered a letter. This week the data for August was out, and this time inflation was just 2.7 per cent.

Will it continue to fall? Answer: unless something odd happens, surely yes. For one thing sterling is up, and recently rose to its highest level against the euro and dollar since January. For another thing, past movements in commodity prices suggest food inflation should fall sharply.

But thirdly, sheer maths seems to make it inevitable. Last autumn the UK saw prices rise quite sharply – up 1.5 per cent between August and December. Between May and August, prices rose by just 0.2 per cent. If the inflation rate we have seen over the last three months continues for the next three months, annual inflation will fall to just 1.3 per cent.

Now look at house prices and apply the same approach.

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According to the ONS, house prices rose by 3.1 per cent in the year to July. But between August and December last year, houses prices fell slightly. If house prices rise at the same pace seen in the past five months over the next five months, then that will mean house price inflation will be running at 9.4 per cent by December.

Yesterday’s ‘Daily Mail’ headlined: “Property price bubble is a MYTH”, and described the latest 3.3 per cent house price inflation rate as “modest”. But simple maths shows why this will change very soon and a bubble is, in fact, being created in our midst.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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“Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world,” or so said Archimedes – supposedly. He was expounding upon the benefits of levers. A small action can lead to a massive reaction, if the picots and levers are right. It is like that with the economy too, although economists often fail to grasp this point – which is why so few predicted the crisis of 2008. But it can work the other way too; a few small changes can have a radical upwards effect. Neither economists nor the markets realise how dramatic the economic impact might be.

The dangers of a housing bubble have been outlined many, many times. The point those who dismiss such dangers are not getting is the British psychology. It is as if the British DNA has been hardwired to expect house prices to rise, and to be in permanent fear of missing out on the opportunity to jump on or climb up the housing ladder. In the long run, this expectation may prove wrong; indeed the very idea that there is such a thing as a housing ladder may be wrong. But expectations are such that it takes very little government interference to create a housing boom. And because of the way UK households see the value of their homes as a kind of extension of their salary, or as the main part of their pension, when house prices rise consumer demand rises and with it GDP.

But this is not the reason why it is being suggested here that that the UK economy may be set to boom – although it will help.

Bear in mind that the UK economy today is around 15 per cent smaller than if it had carried on growing at the pre-2008 trajectory. Squint a bit, look at the data through glasses that may be a touch tinted by roses, and could it not be said that the UK economy has room for a period of catch-up. Let’s say it will take five years before the UK gets back to where it would have been had the pre-2008 growth rate continued. Let’s say the underlying growth rate for the UK is 2.5 per cent. This means that growth over the next five years will be around 5.5 per cent a year.

That is crazy, you might say. Well maybe a growth rate like that is crazy, but it might happen all the same.

Take corporate cash. According to Capita Registrars, no less than £166 billion in cash sits on corporate balance sheets. Since 2008 cash minus short-term debt has risen from £12.2 billion to £73.9 billion.

If you want to know why the downturn has been so severe, the above numbers give the reason. Just imagine the economic implications, not to mention the implications for equity values, if some of this money was released to fund investment, higher dividends, and mergers and acquisitions.

The reality though, is that this is understating what might happen. When you think about it, the build-up of this cash mountain at a time when interest rates were at record lows was extraordinary.

If the corporate world was to start thinking that economic growth is set to accelerate, it won’t just start spending its cash, it will engage in leverage to make Archimedes’ ideas for moving the earth look quite modest.

Now consider what the surveys are saying. The latest composite Purchasing Managers’ Index from Markit/CIPS covering August hit its highest level since record began in 1998. According to Markit, the survey pointed to quarter on quarter growth of between 1 and 1.3 per cent – so you see a year on year growth of 5.5 per cent is not that far off what the surveys are suggesting may be happening already.

Interest rates are set to rise. The time to engage in leverage is now, before rates rise too high. And engage in leverage is what companies will do. The Vodafone Verizon deal is just the beginning.

Will we see a bubble? Will it be too good to last? Maybe. But the Institute of Economic Affairs is taking the opposite approach; it is saying that from now on the UK’s sustainable growth rate will be a mere 1 per cent year.

What the pessimists overlook, and they are being led by an economist called Robert Gordon, is technology. If you shop in Luddites‘r’us, you may well conclude such predictions are absurd.

© Investment & Business News 2013