Archive for the ‘United Kingdom’ Category

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?

350

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.

349

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

file000837594608

“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

347

George Osborne recently tried to assure us. “I don’t think in the current environment a house price bubble is going to emerge in 18 months or three years,” or so he told parliament this week. The Bank of England governor promises us he won’t let it happen – no bubble here, thank you, not today, tomorrow, or for as long as he is boss. Yet a poll among economists found that around half reckon a new bubble in the market is likely. The latest survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) may even provide evidence that such a bubble is underway right now. Why then, do we see such complacency? And how dangerous is it?

Actually the no bubble here argument seems to come from two different sides of the spectrum of economic thought. There are those, such as Capital Economics, who tend to be on the bearish side. House prices won’t shoot up in price, it suggests, because prospective new home owners can’t afford higher prices, and real wages are, after all, still falling. From the other side of the spectrum seems to come the view that there is no bubble because the very word bubble seems to suggest something negative. It may be true to say that this other side of the spectrum sees rising house prices as a good thing.

Okay, let’s look at the surveys. The latest Residential Market Survey from RICS may or may not provide evidence of a bubble but it certainly seems to provide evidence of a boom. The headline index, produced by taking the percentage number of surveyors who said prices fell in their region from the percentage number who said they rose, hit plus 40 – that’s for the month of August. It was the highest reading for the index since November 2006. The survey also found a rise in supply as more properties come on the market, but that the rise in demand was even greater.

As has been pointed out here before, the RICS index is not only a good guide to the housing market, it seems to provide a good barometer reading of the UK economy. The trajectory of history of this chart, and its correlation with the GDP a few months later, suggests the UK economy is set to see growth accelerate.

Now let’s turn to the other survey. This one comes courtesy of Reuters. A total of 29 economists were surveyed and asked about the prospects of another housing bubble. Nine said the chances are small, seven said the chances were even; 11 said likely; two said very likely.

Mark Carney suggests, however, that he won’t let it happen. He recently told the ‘Daily Mail’: “I saw the boom-bust cycle in the housing sector, the damage it can do, the length of time it took to repair.” These are encouraging words. He is saying trust me. Just bear in mind however that a housing bubble appears to have developed in Canada during his time as boss of the country’s central bank.

George Osborne turned his attention to the topic. On the subject of loan to value ratios, and the way in which first time buyers have had to find such enormous deposits in recent years, he said: “This change is not something we should welcome. It is both a market failure and a social problem – imagine if you’d had to find twice as big a deposit for your first home. 90 per cent and 95 per cent LTV mortgages are not exotic weapons of financial mass destruction. They are a regular part of a healthy mortgage market and an aspirational society.”

Here are two observations for you to ponder.

Observation number one is the British psyche. It is as if it is hardwired into the DNA of the British public. They are driven by fear to jump on the housing ladder, driven by more fear to rise up it, yet without questioning the view they believe that when the equity in their homes rises, they are better off, have more wealth, meaning they don’t need to save so much for their retirement. In short the UK housing market is prone to bubbles. The UK economy can often boom when house prices rise, and the reason is deep rooted in the British psyche. Whether this is good thing or not is open to debate. However, this point about the psychology does not seem to be understood by many economists, the markets or the government.

Observation number two: The new governor of India’s central bank Raghuram G Rajan used to be the chief economist of the IMF. Between his stint at the IMF and his new role in India, he wrote a book called ‘Fault Lines’. In it he suggested that rising house prices was the way in which democratically elected government were able to compensate their electorate for the fact that their wages had only risen very modestly. Mr Rajan was not suggesting a conspiracy; merely that the economic fix found by authorities proved to be the path of least resistance.

A boom in which the UK economy becomes more dynamic, maybe one in which QE funds investment into infrastructure, entrepreneurs, and education, creating a work force better equipped to cope with the innovation age we now live in, would be a wonderful thing. A boom based on rising house prices, however, would be a much easier thing to create, so no wonder Mr Osborne is so keen on the idea.

© Investment & Business News 2013

345

If 10cc were to write a song about the latest surveys on the UK economy they might say: “I don’t like surveys. Oh no, I love them.” The fact is that the surveys are not just good; they are remarkable, but can they really be right?

It was told here on Tuesday how the latest Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) on UK manufacturing and construction were pretty darned impressive. The last index tracking manufacturers’ output and another for new orders, both produced by Markit/CIPS each rose to their highest level since 1994. Another index, this time tracking construction, rose to its highest level since 2007.

Then yesterday came the PMI for services, and a composite index which combines the PMI readings for manufacturing, construction and services. The PMI for services rose to its second highest level in the 15 year history of the index – the record was set in December 2006.

As for the composite PMI, this rose to 60.7. Now you might say 60.7 what? Well to put this reading in context, any score over 50 is meant to be consistent with growth. And the 60.7 reading just happens to have been the highest reading ever recorded during the 15 years that these composite indices have been produced.

So what does this mean? Markit reckons its surveys points to growth in Q3 of between 1 and 1.3 per cent compared to Q2.

Also this week, the OECD was busy revising upwards. It is one of those strange-but-true quirks that forecasters tend to revise their predictions downwards when we enter a downturn, and revise upwards when we exit. The OECD is now predicting that the UK economy will expand by 3.7 per cent in Q3 on an annualised basis. Incidentally, if its forecasts are right the UK will be the fastest growing economy across the G7 in the second half of this year. But if the PMI indices are right, the OECD will in fact be understating the truth.

So far then it is all good stuff.

Can it last? It is clear that the Help to Buy Scheme has helped to buy the UK economy more growth. The danger remains, however, that the chancellor is creating growth from a new housing bubble. The Bank of England dismisses this, but do members of the MPC, for all their cleverness, understand the British psyche, and how prone it is to getting behind housing booms, even when they are built on smoke, mirrors and the naive belief that interest rates will stay at near record lows for the 25 years during which they still have a mortgage.

But there are reasons for hope, however. Take for example the news that Nissan is creating 1,000 new jobs, as it expands its factory in Sunderland – a car factory by the way that some people claim is the most efficient in the world.

Or take UK trade. Since the end of 2011, UK imports have grown by 5 per cent and exports by 6 per cent. According to the ONS, UK exports to the BRICS countries as a percentage of total UK exports have increased from 2.6 per cent to 9.1 per cent over the last 15 years. 6.0 percentage points of this rise have occurred since 2006. Okay imports have risen too, but in the last couple of years UK exports growth to the BRICS has outstripped import growth to those same countries.

It is just a shame the chancellor cannot put the same level of commitment into what we might call a Help for Business Scheme as he has put into the housing market.

© Investment & Business News 2013

file4741270417603

The Bank of England says a rate hike is not likely until 2016; the markets are pricing in a 2015 hike. But might they rise even sooner than that?

These days it’s about unemployment. The Bank of England now says that for as long unemployment is above 7.0 per cent it won’t be upping rates. It says this is not likely to happen until 2016, that the markets are too optimistic, and that there is just a one in three chance of a rate hike sooner than that.

One of the lessons of the last few years is that when the economy is entering a downturn, economists and markets alike tend to underestimate the speed of contraction. Yet it seems equally clear that when things are improving, markets and economists tend to underestimate the speed of recovery.

The OECD has joined a long list of economic forecasters to revise its projections for UK growth upwards. The latest Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) from Markit/CIPS point to quarter on quarter growth of between 1 and 1.34 per cent in Q3. In fact, the latest composite PMI tracking construction, services and manufacturing has hit its highest level ever since records began in the late 1990s.

So if the UK economy is expanding so much faster than the wildest optimists forecast just a few months ago, is it not possible that UK unemployment will be back to 7 per cent faster than both the Bank of England and markets are predicting?

Yet more evidence to support this case comes from recent data from the ONS. It has recently begun experiments with month on month data on UK unemployment and recorded a fall from 7.8 to 7.4 per cent in July. A recent survey from the CIPD has its headline index tracking employers’ intentions to hire more staff hitting its highest level since 2008. The PMIs for July pointed to the fastest rate of job creation since 2007. And if we really do see the boom in residential construction that many are predicting, the effect on employment will surely be significant.

There are problems with these rosy forecasts, however.

For one thing, data on month on month changes in the jobs markets are highly volatile – the August data may see July improvement cancelled out. The PMI for August may have pointed to faster growth, but as far as job creation is concerned, it was nowhere near as positive as the July reading.

The big doubt related to what they call the productivity puzzle.

Until recently a characteristic of the UK economy has been disappointing growth in GDP, but surprisingly robust jobs figures given the state of the economy. Of course the mathematics of poor growth but reasonable job creation has meant poor productivity. Lots of theories abound for the poor growth in productivity, with one of the most popular being that employers have been choosing labour which has low upfront costs, over investment into capital equipment. In other words, they prefer staff, who they can always fire, to labour efficient machinery which requires a bit of upfront outlay, and cannot not be easily sold. Is it not possible that as the economy improves, so will productivity, and just as unemployment was relatively low in the recession, it will be relatively high in the recovery? If that is right, then interest rates may stay at half a per cent for some time yet – regardless of whether the recovery exceeds expectations.

© Investment & Business News 2013

file000712580802

It was good news across most of the world yesterday – at least it was good news as far as manufacturing went. And for the UK, which really needs a recovery made of more than just rising house prices, the news was especially good. Nay, ignore that. It was spectacularly good. Can it last?

Do you remember the summer of 1994? In July a chap called Tony Blair became the new leader of the British Labour Party. In August the Provisional Irish Republican Army declared a cease-fire. In that summer Brian Lara scored the highest individual score by a batsman in first class cricket and Wet Wet Wet’s song ‘Love Is All Around” went to number one and stayed there for what seemed like forever.

Something else happened in 1994. The Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) tracking UK manufacturing saw its index for manufacturing output and another tracking new orders hit a peak. Neither of the indices has been higher since.

But in August 2013, according to the latest PMI for Markit/CIPS, the index tracking output rose to its highest levels since July 1994, and as for new orders, this hit its highest point since August 1994.

Not a bad set of results.

That does not mean, however, that the latest data was all good. According to the Markit/CIPS report, input prices rose at the highest rate for two years.

The overall PMI takes it all into account: new orders, output input prices and a number of other measures. The surge in input prices meant that overall the index scored 57.2. That was a two year and a half year high. To put the reading into perspective, any score over 50 is meant to suggest growth.

The truth is that the apparent recovery in manufacturing across these shores provides genuinely encouraging news on UK plc.

A recovery led by rising house prices and consumers running up debt would be worrisome. One led by manufacturing, investment and exports, especially if those exports are to emerging markets which are themselves growing, is more encouraging. Right now, there are signs that the UK is enjoying both.

But, sorry to introduce a niggle, the index tracking new export orders points to growth, but it has not risen for a while now. Some fret that this may be a sign that much of the UK recovery in UK manufacturing is being led by internal demand, which itself is coming off the back of leverage.

The hope is we will get a kind of virtuous upwards circle. Remember, at the moment wage rises are lagging behind inflation. If consumers are spending more on average, they are doing this by running up debts. But if as a result of this, manufacturing output rises, and we see a rise in construction – especially residential construction – then we may see the creation of more better-paid jobs. This may help to create a more sustainable recovery. The fear is that we are just re-running the noughties. Back then consumers ran up debts, they spent, and the UK economy became more and more imbalanced.

What we need is more investment. Alas the latest lending data points to more mortgage lending and less business lending. It is tempting to say that the UK has the same old weaknesses, and that despite a very severe recession, nothing has really changed.

It may be more accurate to say we have seen changes, but also that banks and their models have not changed much. Before 2008, it was they who loved providing mortgages, but were reluctant to provide what they saw as high risk business loans. They feel the same today.

© Investment & Business News 2013