Sunday, July 23, 2017
Inequality is down - but people don't notice when real wages are falling
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

After a week in which we have been offered a joyous glimpse into what some of the BBC’s highest paid on-air presenters and stars earn – and I know all the arguments about whether or not they could earn more in the commercial sector – it is a good time to look again at inequality.

Inequality has raced up the political agenda even though for the past quarter of a century or so it has either been falling or at worst flat, as a useful new report form the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out a few days ago.

The IFS report, Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2017, noted that income inequality fell significantly during the crisis and recession, particularly between 2007-8 and 2011-12, and has not increased since.

Incomes for people at the 10th percentile – in other words those at the top of the poorest 10% of the population – are up 7.7% since 2007-8, while those in the middle (the 50th percentile) are up 3.7%, and those at the 90th percentile, people better off than 90% of the population, have fallen by 0.6%.

As a result, and depending how it is measured, income inequality is either quite a lot lower than it was in the late 1980s, or is roughly the same as it was 25 years ago. The 90:10 ratio shows a distinct fall in inequality, while another widely-used measure, the Gini coefficient, shows the flatter picture. Neither show rising inequality.

The difference between the two is that the Gini, a traditional measure of inequality, takes into account the top 1%’s rising share of income. Though the figures for earnings in this group are open to dispute, in the 1960s and 1970s, the top 1% accounted for between 3% and 5% of income, rising to 8% by 2000 and nearly 9% on the eve of the crisis, before dropping back to 7% as the crisis hit, and then subsequently recovering some of its lost ground.

The 90:10 ratio, meanwhile, has fallen particularly sharply in London since the financial crisis. The capital’s streets are no longer as paved with gold as they were.

So why, if inequality is flat or falling, is it such a hot button issue? And how do you prevent public concerns over inequality from creating the climate for economically-damaging, incentive-destroying tax changes, such as those proposed by Labour in the recent election?

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Sunday, July 16, 2017
We need more globalisation, not less
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

One of the great disadvantages of being a member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (MPC) is that unless you say something about interest rates, people do not take much notice of your speeches.

That was the fate that befell Ben Broadbent, the Bank’s deputy governor for monetary policy, a few days ago. His interesting and welcome speech on globalisation steered clear of any mention of interest rates, though he offered his views on rates in a subsequent interview (he is not an early hiker).

On globalisation, which it is fair to say has had a terrible press in recent years, and is blamed for the rise of populism in many countries including Britain, he pointed out a simple truth. Yes, there will be losers from globalisation, and before her political implosion Theresa May seemed overly concerned with compensating them, but they are greatly outweighed by the winners. And the gains from globalisation are spread among the population, not confined to a small elite.

This is a frustrating time for economists. It is, as Broadbent point out, nearly 250 years since Adam Smith demolished mercantilism; the idea that trade is a zero-sum game and one country’s gains are another’s losses. It is exactly 200 years since David Ricardo gave us the law of comparative advantage, which explained why countries specialise, or should specialise, in the products and services they are relatively better at doing.

And yet, centuries later, we have an American president whose protectionism is based on a mercantilist view of the world. And globalisation, far from being seen as a route to improved living standards, is blamed for their weakness.

To illustrate his theme, Broadbent used the apparently unhelpful example of textiles and clothing. Since the mid-1970s, when import penetration began to rise sharply under the impact of lower tariffs, employment in the sector has fallen significantly; by around 90%. Then It used to count for one in 30 jobs;, now it is one in 370. So people who were employed in this sector were losers from globalisation.

British consumers were, however, significant winners as a result of falling clothing prices. Household incomes are 3% higher in real terms than they would have been in the absence of the fact that, both in absolute terms and relative to other prices in the economy, clothing is a lot cheaper than it was.

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Sunday, July 09, 2017
Businesses are hungry for certainty, not thin gruel
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Businesses are troubled, and so are consumers. The election a month ago delivered the worst possible outcome in terms of the stability and certainty that the economy needs. The combination of a minority government and a Brexit negotiation that the minister responsible has described as more complicated than the first Moon landing, is undermining confidence.

This is not surprising. I wrote on June 11 that the hung vote would hang over the economy, and so it is, and we have the evidence. All three of the purchasing managers’ surveys, for the manufacturing, construction and service sectors, showed declines in June compared with May.

Their relative strength in the pre-election period will probably mean a slight uptick in quarterly gross domestic product growth in the second quarter compared with the very weak first. But the omens are not encouraging. May official figures for manufacturing and construction were weak.

Services are the dominant part of Britain’s economy and, according to its June purchasing managers’ survey, has seen both a drop in activity and a bigger fall in business optimism.

As Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit, which complies the survey, put it: “It is clear that the economy heads into the third quarter losing momentum. With business optimism having been hit by the intensification of political uncertainty following the general election and commencement of Brexit negotiations, at the same time that households are battling against rising inflation, the indications are that the economy’s resilience is being tested.”

The latest GfK consumer confidence barometer, meanwhile, shows households too regard the political situation with concern. The barometer dropped by five points in the wake of the election to -10, a similar bow to confidence as the one that followed last summer’s referendum.

Households have become gloomier about their personal financial situation over the next 12 months, which showed a four-point drop between May and June. They are downbeat about the economy, with a balance of 23% of households expecting it to deteriorate over the next 12 months. People’s willingness to splash out, known in the jargon as the major purchase index, slumped by eight points.

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Sunday, July 02, 2017
When the cap doesn't fit, worry about the deficit
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

What do you need for a successful policy of deficit reduction, of eliminating the government’s annual borrowing and beginning the process of reducing public sector debt?

Well, you certainly need a strong government which is willing and able to take unpopular decisions. You also need a belief in the policy across government. And you need political leaders looking to the long-term.

You do not have to be Sherlock Holmes to spot that, as a result of Theresa May’s election cock-up, all those ingredients are now missing. The signs of slippage are there to see. Austerity fatigue has set in, and not just among some voters. Many ministers are also baulking at the last push to eliminate a budget deficit officially projected to be £58bn this year, even a last push that was intended to take all of eight years.

A further rise in public sector net debt, currently £1.74 trillion or 86.5% of gross domestic product, is inevitable, and the weaker the economy the more it will go up.

What are the signs of slippage? The first was the cost of the prime minister’s agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a £1bn “bung” which old Treasury hands say will merely be a downpayment, and will lead to increased demand for extra spending from other parts of the UK. That election gets more expensive by the day.

Then there were the hints from Downing Street of a softer approach to public sector pay, as foreshadowed here a couple of weeks ago, followed by an insistence that it remains in place. The 1% pay cap may not survive the autumn, many Tories having decided that it cost them a lot of votes in the election.


Public sector pay has been falling in real terms since the cap was introduced, as a useful analysis by the Resolution Foundation pointed out. But then private sector pay has also been falling in real terms too.

It remains the case, moreover, that public sector pay levels exceed those on average in the private sector, either in absolute terms or, when adjusted for the different mix of skills and qualifications in the public sector. To head off responses from readers, I should also point out that most public sector workers enjoy more generous pensions.

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Sunday, June 25, 2017
Britain's Brexit journey could yet end up in Norway
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

One year on from the vote, and a couple of weeks on from an election that threw an almighty spanner into the works, the formal negotiations to take Britain out of the European Union have begun.

There will be plenty of ups and downs over the next 21 months, though the “row of the summer” promised by David Davis, the Brexit secretary, never transpired because the government agreed to the EU’s negotiating timetable of divorce bill and citizens’ rights first, a new deal and new trading arrangements later.

There is, however, a puzzling absence from the negotiating stance of both sides, and even of the politicians pushing for a softer Brexit. Philip Hammond did not mention it in his Mansion House speech, and neither did the 50 Labour MPs, or the London mayor Sadiq Khan, who are pushing for Britain to remain in the EU single market.

I am referring to continued British membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) after Brexit, the so-called Norway option. EEA membership would provide for continued membership of the single market but not the customs union, so freeing Britain to negotiate its own trade deals with the rest of the world.

The idea of post-EU EEA membership used to be very popular, particularly among Brexiteers in the run-up to the referendum. Many argued that Britain would be mad to leave the single market, and would not need to do so, and that the be like Norway – “rich”, “happy” and “self-governing” to quote one – was the thing to aim for. One plus for them, apart from the freedom to conduct trade deals, was that EEA membership does not include agriculture and fisheries, thus sparing us the hated common agricultural and fisheries’ policies. The big minus was that EEA membership meant accepting, with one or two wrinkles, free movement of people.

People like me argued that EEA membership would be inferior to being in the EU. We would be subject to single market rules (most of the “laws” imposed by Brussels), but not be able to influence them. We would still pay the equivalent of an EU budget contribution. There were questions about whether the rest of the EU, while happy to accept the smaller economies of Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland into the family, would be prepared to do so for Britain, or see us as a cuckoo in the nest. Switzerland like these three is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the body Britain helped found in 1960, but its people rejected EEA membership in a referendum in the early 1990s.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017
Austerity has further to run, however you define it
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category:

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

Many years ago, as somebody who took a keen interest in monetarism, I was interested to see how a precise economic term – controlling the money supply to keep inflation under control and stabilise the economy – became a catch-all for much more.

So in the 1980s monetarism became, for many people, “the cuts” in public spending, laws to reduce the powers of the trade unions, in fact pretty much anything announced by the Thatcher government.

So it is now with austerity. The 1940s and 1950s version was about paying for an expensive war and accepting the loss of empire, and the years of rationing and other constraints.

21st century British austerity is different and should be easy to define; the process of deficit reduction, mainly by restraining and in some cases cutting public spending but also some tax increases. Even on that narrow definition I have heard some strange contributions in recent days from people purporting to be economists.

Austerity has like monetarism taken on a wider definition. It includes deficit reduction and conventional austerity, which for some takes in the appalling Grenfell Tower fire in London.

But it also includes falling real wages, now lurching downwards at an accelerating pace. It is that, while the jobs being created in Britain are overwhelmingly full-time and permanent, a sense of insecurity stalks the labour market, hence the unusual weakness of wages at a time of near full employment. It is the fact that, eight years on from the financial crisis, interest rates are still at rock bottom and savers cannot get a decent return on their money.

When people say they want an end to austerity, therefore, they want to go back to how things were. For some that would be a return to the time when public spending grew in line, or faster, than the economy as a whole and pay in the public sector grew in line with the private sector average.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017
Hung vote hangs over the economy
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

This time last week I devoted quite a lot of space to the prospect of a hung parliament, pointing out that whereas two years ago it was the expected outcome for one Tory prime minister, David Cameron, this time it would be seen as a catastrophe for Theresa May. Combine a hung parliament with EU exit negotiations scheduled for June 19, and you had a recipe for something really destabilising.

Though a hung parliament was a risk, as set out then, I thought along with most other people that the Tories would secure a somewhat larger majority than the one May inherited from Cameron. It would have been one of the least deserved majorities in recent political history. So, while a hung parliament has made us something of a laughing stock and is on the face of it bad for the country – more in a moment on whether it is or not – there was quite a lot of poetic justice in it.

Why undeserved? Any prime minister who ignores the economy in an election campaign and expects voters to troop loyally into the polling booths when their real wages are falling did not deserve victory. People need something to latch onto, some grounds for economic hope and May’s Tories did not provide it. Austerity fatigue is another factor on which no reassurance was offered.

I also think that she made a huge miscalculation, which goes back some time, about Brexit. As a Remainer, albeit a soft one, she overcompensated by either focusing exclusively on the 52% who voted to leave the EU – and implying that those did not were “citizens of nowhere” – or wrongly suggesting that the country was coming together on the issue when it was clearly not. As many people think it was wrong to vote to leave the EU as think it was right,
according to polls. Some out and out Leavers, such as the Brexit secretary David Davis, took a more conciliatory approach to Remainers.

And the hard line Brexit that she decided on – out of the single market and customs union and cutting net migration to less than 100,000 a year, even apart from the “no deal is better than a bad deal” nonsense – appeared designed to inflict maximum damage on the economy.

What does the hung parliament mean for the economy? I think it useful to split this into the short term and the longer-term.

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Sunday, June 04, 2017
Election uncertainties to be followed by many more
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

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My regular column is available to subscribers on www.thesundaytimes.co.uk This is an excerpt.

I know you are as keen for this general election to be over as much as I am, and that you are probably not expecting Friday morning to mark the dawn of a bright new era. We have all learned that you can have too much of politicians and that reputations can be lost, or diminished, as well as enhanced.

There is still a possibility, of course, that the election could throw up something really destabilising. Two years ago a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party was the expected outcome. Now it would be greeted as a catastrophe, not least for the prime minister.

Combine a hung parliament with Brexit and you compound the uncertainty considerably, though some would see it is as pushing the country towards a softer Brexit. The narrowing of the polls has been driving the currency markets, and sterling, in recent days, but it should be said that markets are still assuming a Conservative majority.

If that turns out not to be the case we can expect a much bigger market reaction, though Simon Derrick, veteran chief markets strategist at BNY Mellon, points out that markets are not always averse to hung parliaments and coalition governments over the medium-term.

Sterling was stable when Labour lost its majority in 1977. It fell briefly, by around 5%, after the May 2010 election, when the election failed to deliver a Tory majority, but reached its low point a week after the election, a low point that was to last for several years. It recovered when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed. As he puts it: “Neither a minority government nor a moderate coalition is an automatic negative for the pound.”

Those earlier episodes did not, however, have the additional huge complication of Brexit. As in the past few months, we can expect sterling to be a Brexit barometer. For the moment, to repeat, the assumption in markets is of a Conservative majority this week, though there is not a great deal of enthusiasm for it.

The election is just the latest hurdle for the economy, and business, to negotiate. It is a reminder that these things are never as straightforward as they appear beforehand. This was, after all, expected to be a cake walk for Theresa May.

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