Posts Tagged ‘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

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It is kind of assumed that savings are good, debt is bad. If that is so, then there has been good news from the EU and bad news from the UK. In the EU savings ratios are rising, according to recent data, while in the UK they are falling. So that is EU good, UK bad. It is just that the real story is quite different, because there is something missing, and that missing ingredient is called investment.

Across the global economy savings equal investment. They have to; it is a matter of definition. GDP equals consumption plus exports, minus imports, government spending and investment. But across the global economy exports must equal imports. Drill down and look at government spending and actually it is one of two things: consumption or investment. So GDP really equals consumption plus investment.

But what are savings? By definition they are income that is earned but not spent on consumption. So by definition, savings equal investment.

But supposing we all decide we want to save more, and we all park more of our earnings in our savings account. Supposing there is no corresponding rise in investment. If this were to happen, given the equation that GDP equals consumption and investment, then either as we save more, other people borrow more, or the money we save is lost forever.

To put it another way, across the economy there is no point in saving unless this is matched by investment.

Now take the EU. According to data yesterday (30 July) in the EU27, the household saving rate was 11.0 per cent, compared with 10.7 per cent in the previous quarter. In contrast the household investment rate was 7.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2013, compared with 8.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Now take the euro area. In the first quarter of 2013, the household saving rate was 13.1 per cent, compared with 12.4 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2012. The household investment rate was 8.4 per cent, compared with 8.7 per cent in the previous quarter.

In short, savings ratios are rising, but investment ratios are not. This is not merely a negative development, it borders on being disastrous.

In contrast, the household savings ratio in the UK was 4.2 per cent in Q1 2013, the weakest since Q1 2009 when it was 3.4 per cent. The UK savings ratio is too low, but what really matters is not savings, it is investment.

In the UK investment remains way too low, but here is some rare good news. 2013 looks to be on course for seeing the highest levels of investment in the UK since before the crisis of 2008.

© Investment & Business News 2013

Back in May 2010, increases in average wages were less than the rate of inflation. It has been that way every month since. Consumers may be feeling more confident, retail sales may be up, but one thing is sure, the improvements in sentiment are not down to rising wages. But in the latest data from the ONS there was a whiff of hope. Is it possible that wages are at last set to rise faster than prices?

In May 2010 inflation was 3.4 per cent. Wages (that’s including bonuses, by the way) rose by 2.5 per cent. Ever since then it has just got worse. The gap peaked in October 2011, when inflation was 5 per cent, and averages wages rose by 2 per cent, and until very recently the gap was almost as large. In March, for example, inflation was 2.8 per cent, while average wages rose by just 0.6 per cent. But since then things have begun to look better – that’s despite inflation getting worse. In May inflation was 2.9 per cent, but wages rose by 1.9 per cent. This was the highest level of annual increase in average wages since January 2012.

Looking forward, inflation may pick up over the next few months, but it is likely to fall later in the year.
So, if the rate of increase in average wages can carry on rising for a little longer, within a few months we might once again find wages are rising faster than inflation.

Many economists believe that a sustainable recovery in the UK economy can only occur once wages rise faster than inflation.

That, by the way, has been the snag with recent reports pointing to rising house prices and retail sales. How can they rise, if real wages – that is wages relative to inflation – are falling? Answer: they can only rise if household debt increases, and as it was told here the other day, UK housholds have enough debt as it is. See: What will happen to households as rates rise? 

In fact the hard data provides the evidence. UK households have been saving a lot less of late and borrowing more.

 

And so returning to wages and inflation, if it is the case that at last wages can rise faster than inflation then that is reason to celebrate.

It is just that in the long run, wages can only rise faster than inflation if productivity is improving. Alas there seems to be precious little evidence of that occurring at the moment.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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In the UK there is something confusing going on. They call it the productivity puzzle. Why is it that during the worst downturn ever suffered by the UK – at least it’s the worst since the beginning of the last century which is how far back the data goes – employment has kept growing to the extent that this year it passed an all-time high? Data provides a hard answer: productivity has been falling. But what the data does not do is provide the reason why.

Maybe the reason can be provided by the existence of Zombie companies. Once again, hard data comes to our aid – they really do appear to exist.

So interest rates were slashed to record lows, and then just to be sure they were slashed some more. That was the story of the great downturn: record low rates. If things had been different, if central banks have been more circumspect, had fretted about inflation, and moral hazard, then the great recession of 2008/09, and the downturn that began in 2008 would have been far far worse.

Company liquidations and indeed individual insolvency levels would have soared. House prices might have crashed. Unemployment would have risen to horrendous levels, and youth unemployment would have topped 50 per cent in some regions. In fact if the Bank of England and the Fed had adopted that policy, the UK and the US would have ended up looking a lot like the Eurozone.

Fortunately, in the democratic countries of the UK and the US the electorate would have never have tolerated such a state of affairs. It appears that the electorate in certain Eurozone countries was powerless to act; their cross on the electoral ballot had as much meaning as an Egyptian voting for the Muslim Brotherhood.

But just because record low rates stopped the UK from suffering an even worse downturn, it does not mean that the policy hasn’t come with disadvantages.

A year or so ago, the then FSA issued data showing that between 5 and 8 per cent of mortgages could be subject to forbearance. At that time, Dr Angus Armstrong at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said: “This has a familiar ring of the zombie firms in Japan which were insolvent but the banks would not close to avoid crystallising a loss.”

But what about the corporate world? We keep hearing about zombie companies, but are they for real?

So here is the data:

First off here is the chart that shows something is wrong:

And now here is the chart that shows why zombie companies may provide a partial explanation.

The Bank of England put it this way: “Liquidations have risen only modestly since the financial crisis, even though data from companies’ accounts suggest that the proportion of companies making a loss is higher than in the early 1990s. Insolvency professionals suggest that more businesses have been able to survive the 2008/09 recession because of the low level of Bank Rate, coupled with increased forbearance. That includes forbearance by banks on existing loans, by HMRC on outstanding tax payments, and by other companies on late payments.

Forbearance and low interest rates will allow some viable businesses to remain in operation through a temporary period of weak demand. But in other cases, where businesses will find it hard to compete in their markets when demand recovers, forbearance acts as an impediment to the efficient reallocation of capital and labour, reducing underlying productivity growth. Similarly, it may have dampened the incentives to carry out the restructuring needed by some companies in order to grow strongly.”

But in the US, where the central bank has been just as proactive as the Bank of England in promoting low interest rates, things have been different.

As far as households are concerned, there is a key difference in the way in which the mortgage market operates. In the UK if you find yourself with negative equity, having your home repossessed does not help because it is still your responsibility to pay the shortfall. In the US, it is the bank’s responsibility. This has led to a more ruthless approach to mortgage repossessions in the US, but at least this is kinder on those with negative equity and who cannot meet commitments, and it is has led to fewer so-called zombie households.

As for companies and entrepreneurs, in the US the same stigma does not apply to bankruptcy as there is in the UK. Indeed for US entrepreneurs, it sometimes feels as if facing bankruptcy is a sort of rite of passage. Chapter 11 is often applied very effectively in the US – consider GM for example.

In the US, we have seen record low interest rates, but creative destruction too.

In the UK where –to a large extent – we have only had record low rates, it may become a problem as the economy recovers, and rates finally rise.

© Investment & Business News 2013

If UK consumers open their wallets and purses and start spending in any significant way soon something is wrong. But there are reasons to think that exporters and investment may lead the UK forward. This is where we enter a danger period. A recovery built on correcting imbalances will be a good thing. But recovery built on consumer debt, as rising house prices encourage them to go out and buy, would be most worrisome and may even give credence to the prophets of doom.

The truth is that growth in UK wages has been lagging behind inflation since the beginning of 2010. Savings have been much higher too. In the second quarter of 2008, the UK was entering recession, but at that point economic forecasters had not woken up to this, and many were still forecasting a mild slow down. During this quarter the UK savings ratio was just 0.2 per cent.

This was surely evidence we had entered a time of madness. But a year later, the savings ratio had risen to 8.6 per cent. That was a staggering rise. UK households, scared by the prospect of falling house prices, had hit a big red button with the legend danger emblazoned on it. They saved more, and soon after, their wages fell.

So what do you get when consumers spend a lower proportion of their wages, while wages relative to inflation fall? Answer: a very severe dip in spending. No wonder the recession was so severe.

But the solution to this problem is surely not to encourage households to save less and borrow more. It is to try to get wages to rise, and for business and the government to use the money that households are saving to fund investment. At the same time, UK company profits are surging, and corporate cash sitting in deposit accounts at UK banks has hit 25 per cent of GDP, which is a 25 year high.

The UK can go one of two ways. The money that is not being spent, and is instead sloshing around the banking system, could be used to fund mortgages and in turn create a housing boom. Writing in the ‘Telegraph’ recently, Jeremy Warner said: “UK housing was not the cause of the financial crisis; in fact, UK mortgage lending has remained a haven of calm and safety for the banks throughout the storm.” See: Unbalanced and unsustainable – this is the wrong kind of growth

Maybe he is right, but isn’t that the problem. For too long, whatever money that is available has been used to fund mortgages, even buy-to-let mortgages because they are seen as safe, instead of funding entrepreneurs and wider investment because this is seen as risky. Even many would-be entrepreneurs have been seduced by the allure of easy and low risk money from buy-to-let, and have left the path of wealth creation and joined the path of re-shuffling wealth, which is all that buy-to-let achieves.

If the UK goes down the path of creating a housing boom, the causality may be true entrepreneurism and a boom based on debt rather than productivity. Alternatively, if savings were used instead to fund investment, the result would be truly exciting.

Despite George Osborne’s efforts to administer the first of the alternatives – the cheap and easy way to growth, election victory and an unsustainable economy in which falling government debt is paid for by rising household debt – there are signs that the second approach is occurring anyway.

The UK’s export recovery has been held back by the rather unfortunate fact that the Eurozone, our largest trading partner, is in the midst of an economic depression. But since 2002 exports to China have risen sevenfold. According to a report published by the ONS a few days ago: “In the latest three months the value of exports was 17 per cent higher than the average 2012 quarterly level. Import values from China were little changed, so the trade deficit with China, which had averaged £5.2 billion a quarter in 2012 shrank to £4.8 billion in the latest three months.”

Just as is the case in the US, there are also signs of manufacturing led recovery. UK car exports are beginning to outstrip imports. There is also anecdotal evidence of companies returning their manufacturing to the UK. As Capital Economics said: “The decline in offshoring has reflected a variety of factors. For a start, the trend towards more capital intensive production as technology improves means that the savings in labour costs that can be achieved by switching production to Asia have become a smaller component of total costs.

Western manufacturers are also increasingly specialising in high-tech sectors in which production cannot necessarily be replicated elsewhere. The strengthening of Asian currencies has also reduced the savings from offshoring. In addition, fast supply chains are increasingly valued, so that production can respond quickly to consumer tastes and inventory costs can be reduced. “

As for the UK, it said: “According to the manufacturers’ organisation EEF, the proportion of firms repatriating some output rose from 15 per cent in 2009 to 40 per cent last year.” It continued: “Low-value sectors such as textiles have been declining, while high-value markets such as pharmaceuticals and transport have been growing rapidly. The destination of UK manufacturing exports has also evolved. The share of goods exports going to the fast-growing BRIC economies increased from 5 per cent in 2007 to 8 per cent last year and has also persuaded some firms to produce domestically.”

There other reasons to be optimistic. Demographics are looking favourable. Population growth in the UK in this decade is likely to be at its fastest rate since the first decade of the 20th century. The shortage of homes to population is a problem, but there are signs this may be fixed as the government tries to reform planning laws. A house price bubble will do little for the UK in the long term, but a house building boom is different thing altogether, and this may happen.

North Sea oil output is on the rise again, and the shale gas revolution may or may not be a mixed blessing, but it should at least help to promote growth. And don’t forget that in a growing global economy the UK has certain innate advantages: its time zone being one. The UK working day overlaps with working days in both California and East Asia. The fact that English is spoken rather widely in the UK is another advantage. Add to that political stability and a strong legal system.

Yet, for all that optimism, something broken remains. The UK is not well disposed to encouraging risky investment. That may not sound like such a bad thing, but remember that risk is the key to innovation and growth in the long run.

The government can do more to help and it could start by using money created by the Bank of England via QE to directly fund investment into infrastructure and in entrepreneurs.

© Investment & Business News 2013

When the UK economy was recovering in 2010 a lot of people assumed the downturn was over, that the bad economic times were drawing to a close. This column often expressed puzzlement. The markets were buoyant, but the reasons unpinning their enthusiasm seemed as solid as an especially ethereal ghost. This time it is happening again, but are there better reasons for confidence?

Actually you can really put the confidence into categories. There is confidence based on reality; based on very exciting developments. And there is confidence based on the same old ills that got us into trouble in the first place.

Recent surveys and other data have been promising. See: Can this be true: “impressive stuff on UK economy”? 

But dig deeper and there are other reasons for optimism. Take the car industry. UK car exports have soared by 178 per cent since 1998. Over the same time period, car imports have risen by 102 per cent.

The growth in exports has been constant too. In Q1 1998 they were worth £2.2 billion; in 2005 £3.2 billion; they passed £4 billion in 2008 and in Q1 of this year they were worth £6.2 billion. In fact between 1998 and the first quarter of this year, there have only been three quarters in which exports of motor vehicles exceeded imports, but those three quarters all occurred in the last 15 months. And as is the case that US companies are, as it were, re-shoring or bringing their manufacturing back to their home country, much the same thing is happening in the UK, albeit on a smaller scale, and lagging somewhat behind.

Recent Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) and a survey from the British Chamber of Commerce both point to rising exports, while data from the ONS shows that exports to China have increased seven-fold since 2002. Growth in exports to the rest of the BRICS has not been so fast, but has nonetheless been impressive. In December 2012 the BRICS collectively represented the UK’s third largest export market, behind the US and Germany. Okay imports have risen too, but in recent years the pace of export growth to the BRICS has been greater than import growth.

For years the UK relied on exporting its wares to the Eurozone. It was generally agreed that the UK needs to re-balance from consumer to export led growth, but that is not an easy thing to do when your main trading partner is in economic depression. It has taken time to reduce our reliance on this region, but at last this appears to be happening.

Looking further forward, 3D printing may provide a new opportunity. Retailers may start making clothes on demand, and shop assistants could become experts in computer aided design. We may even see the return of craftsman on the high street, making products for niche markets or on demand, using 3D printing to make products as cheaply as was once only possible with assembly line production.

Although there are reasons to be cautious about a buoyant housing market, it does appear that construction is set to take off, quite significantly.

Recently, Capital Economics said: “While some economists fear that the economy’s underlying growth rate is now as low as 1 per cent, we think that it will revert to its pre-crisis average of about 2.5per cent. Demographic developments should remain favourable. The rate of technological progress should remain strong. And the reduction in the role of the public sector in the economy will create opportunities for more efficient firms.”

But, and this is the really promising bit, Capital Economics reckons growth will be around 4 per cent a year in the UK during the second half of this decade as the economy catches up with potential after years of operating below potential.

So far so good. But what are the catches?

Well there are several. For one thing, wages are still not growing as fast as prices. This means that workers are finding that month on month they are worse off than they were a year previously.

Here are two more catches and they go like this: UK house prices are too high, and UK households are in too much debt. See: Is that a sword of Damocles hanging over the UK housing market? 

© Investment & Business News 2013

In April wages, including bonuses, fell by 0.3 per cent. This was a staggeringly awful piece of economic data, but was it just a one-off?

This morning data for May was out, and it was much better, with average wages rising 3.3 per cent in the year to May. During the same period, inflation was 2.4 per cent, so for the first time in a very long while, average wages rose faster than prices, meaning that average workers were better off.

There are some buts, however.

Firstly, it appears that the figures were distorted by the end of the tax year. Bonus payments were delayed until after April to take advantage of lower income tax rate. So that at least partially explains why the data for April looked so awful, but so good for May.

The ONS prefers to look at a three month periods. And in the three months to April, average wages rose by 1.3 per cent compared to a year ago. That was better than April when they rose by 0.6 per cent, but still at the lower end of what we have seen over the last few years. In other words, once again, the average worker was worse off in the three months to May, after taking into account inflation compared to the same period in 2012.

Secondly, because the end of the tax year distorted bonus payments, maybe on this occasion we should consider wages before bonuses – or regular pay as the ONS calls it. In May regular pay rose by 1.3 per cent, but in the three months to May it rose by just 0.9 per cent, which was the second lowest increase in the last 12 months.

Inflation is expected to rise over the next few months, so there is little reason to believe wages will grow faster than inflation meaning that there will be no positive growth in real wagesfor many months.

This is the flip side to better data on the jobs front. At 1.51 million, the unemployment rate in the three months to January (the latest period for which we have data) was at a two year low.

But relatively low unemployment – that is to say low considering where the economy is at – is being paid for by low wage growth. So the economy is still in a downturn, unemployment is surprisingly high given this, but look to wages for a partial explanation. This is why some say we have a problem of zombie companies in the UK, maybe even a zombie workforce, keeping low paid jobs, with low levels of productivity growth.

© Investment & Business News 2013