Posts Tagged ‘george osborne’

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/

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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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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

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April was a good month for bonuses. The reason is not hard to see. The upper tax rate was cut from 50 to 45 per cent in April so a lot of bonuses were deferred from the previous financial year. In all, April saw no less than £4.2 billion paid out in bonuses; that was £1.7 billion up on last year.

Not bad.

Of the total amount paid out, the finance industry saw £1.3 billion. The ‘FT’ reckons that by deferring bonuses in this way, roughly £35 million was saved in tax.

But this begs the question: did the cut in income taxes just impact upon the timing of the bonuses, or, as a result of the lower tax rates, did companies choose to pay out higher bonuses?

The government reckons that by cutting the top tax rate, pay awards will rise, and its tax receipts will increase too. Economic theory has a name for it. It is called the Laffer curve. If the tax rate was say 100 per cent, in a free society no one would bother to work, and tax receipts would be zero. If the tax rate was zero, tax receipts would also be zero. So the government has to find the optimal level.

The current government seems to be saying that level is less than 45 per cent. Is that right?

© Investment & Business News 2013

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It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Not so long ago, people were talking about Belgium as being the country in northern Europe that was most in danger of going the way of Spain, Portugal and co. And for a long time, Holland – along with Germany and Finland – had been lecturing the rest of Europe about the need to live within one’s means. All of a sudden it looks a lot different. Holland is fast becoming the sick man of northern Europe, and the reason? Well, let’s hope George Osborne is paying attention, because it is a lesson he could do with learning.

According to data out recently, the Eurozone is out of recession. The German economy grew by 0.7 per cent, France by 0.5 per cent, and at face value it was encouraging stuff, but among all that good news there was one piece of worrisome news. The Dutch economy contracted by 0.2 per cent. It was not really a surprise. It contracted in the last quarter too, and the one before that and before that. In fact the country has been in recession for 18 months now. That makes this one nasty recession, but just remember, it was also in recession in 2008/09, so for Holland it has been a double dip of truly unpleasant proportions.

The reason is not rocket science.

During the boom years Dutch house prices rose too high – way too high. Seduced by the idea that owning a house in Holland was a sure-fire investment winner, sucked into the narrative that a shortage of land meant that house prices across the Netherlands were guaranteed to rise, urged on by a government that subsidised mortgages, the Dutch borrowed against their home, and borrowed against the belief their home would rise in value and they ran-up huge debts.

It really is a puzzle. Among those who lecture us the most about the need to live within our means – so that is Dutch and British finance ministers for example – there seems to be a kind of casual disregard for household debt. We must live within our means, unless that is to say you are a voter, in which case, borrow, put it on the plastic – it matters not, your home will rise in value.

According to OECD data, household gross debt to gross disposable income in the Netherlands is 285 per cent. This is the highest ratio across the OECD. To put those numbers in context, the equivalent ratio in the US for 2008 was just 108 per cent. In the UK the ratio is 146 per cent – which most would agree is worryingly high – and yet the UK household debt levels seem like prudence personified compared to those of the Dutch. Dutch house prices fell sharply in the first quarter of 2013, in 2012 and 2011. Yet despite the falls, Dutch house prices to incomes are still above the average for the country – although admittedly not by much.

Government debt is not so bad. Gross government debt is 71 per cent of GDP, net debt just 33 per cent, which is the lowest among the Eurozone’s bigger economies. Holland’s government appears to be in love with the idea of austerity; of prudence keeping government debt under control.

Yet consider what might happen if households find they just can’t afford their debt. Imagine what might happen if global interest rates rise, which they are likely to do over the next few years. If households find they cannot pay their way; if there is a surge in the number of properties repossessed by the banks, the chances that Holland will experience its own Northern Rock type moment seems real. The possibility of a Dutch banking crisis is very real. Yet the consensus among economists towards Holland seems to be one of relaxation. The country still boasts a top notch credit rating, for example.

The thing about austerity is that it matters not how prudent a government is, how clearly it balances its books (not that the Dutch government is balancing its books), when households run-up debts, and house prices crash, household debt can become government debt. This is what happened in Spain two years ago. It may happen in Holland, and may well happen in any country where the government tries to stimulate house prices, creating consumer confidence, in turn creating growth. Are you listening Mr Osborne?

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The last couple of days has seen news on the UK to delight all but the most cynical. Alas it has also seen news to make the cynical look smug, and say ‘I told you so’.

The good news relates to trade. Exports of goods in the second quarter of 2013 reached £78.4 billion, the highest on record. Okay, imports were up too, rising to £103.3 billion, the highest level since the three months to November 2011. But when it comes to records, ‘best ever’ would normally be seen to score the ‘best in 18 months’.

The UK’s deficit in goods and services in June was £1.5 billion, the lowest deficit since January.

But the real encouragement relates to exports outside the EU. In June exports of goods outside the EU rose, while imports fell. In fact exports to non-EU countries increased by £1.3 billion (10 per cent) to £14.2 billion and imports from non EU countries decreased by less than £0.1 billion (0.2 per cent) to £16.8 billion.

Within the EU, exports of goods also rose, but not by as much (£0.9 billion or2.3 per cent), while imports increased by £0.3 billion or 0.6 per cent to £52.9 billion.

In Q2, UK exports to the US rose by £348 billion while imports were £96 billion, and exports to China were up £153 billion while imports shrunk by £17 billion. The rise in UK exports to China seems to be part of a trend. They have risen sevenfold since 2002.

Don’t over-egg the trade data; it is good, but not brilliant. It is encouraging, however.

Less pleasing was data compiled by the House of Commons Library at the request of the Labour Party. It found that since 2010, of the 27 countries in the EU only three have seen real wages (that’s wages after inflation) fall so steeply. It turns out that UK wages, after inflation, have fallen by 5.5 per cent since 2010. Only in Portugal, Greece and Holland have wages relative to inflation fallen more than that.

Those two sets of data show the two sides of the UK economy at the moment. There are signs, albeit not overwhelming signs, of exports leading recovery. But as long as wage rises continue to lag behind inflation, the UK’s economy looks fragile. Much of the growth we are seeing is coming on the back of consumers spending more, which itself occurs because they are once again running up debts.

The fix lies with getting productivity up, and that surely depends on more investment. That is why George Osborne’s approach to creating growth via rising house prices is dangerous, but we don’t seem to have learnt from past lessons.

Not enough investment and rising house prices were characteristics of the UK economy before 2008. They are becoming characteristics again.

© Investment & Business News 2013