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Sunday, 28 December 2008

Greedy economic forecasting


I was enjoying the Christmas television yesterday when the news came on the TV. It showed thousands of people rushing into Selfridges on Oxford Street to get the very best sales items they could. Then came the grim news that despite all this it wouldn't be enough to save the economy...according to some economics forecasting house.

This economics forecasting house had released their revised forecasts to coincide with Christmas and the boxing day sales. They were some of the most bearish forecasts around, helping to paint a very bleak and miserable picture at this happy time of year.

What amazes me is how easily these economic forecasting houses abuse the media so freely. This was clearly a bad news story timed for release to coincide over Christmas when a) there is little other news and b) people are thinking about shopping and retail performance.

Worst of all these forecasts are likely to be no better than what the average man on the street could come up with. In these times of uncertainty these economic forecasting houses have so little idea about where the economy is going that any forecasts made beyond next week are pointless.

The independent forecasters tend to have teams of about 10 people. Many of them will be newly out of university and not working specifically on macroeconomics. Most of the forecasts will have been dreamt up to be both headline grabbing but also near enough to the general consensus of the time. As a result we get these slow creep as forecasts are constantly revised each week.

Don't get me wrong forecasting is very difficult at the moment but when these forecasting houses use the media so brazenly to build up their brand they are playing with the economic sentiment in a dangerous and damaging fashion.

I would ask economics journalists to think twice before they mindlessly publish the next round of forecasts they get. Have a look back just a month ago to what the previously forecasts were, they are likely to be so way off that this round of forecasts won't be much better.

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Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Budget 2008 – how to make a financial crisis seem dull

Today saw the announcement of Alistair Darling’s first budget. Not the most interesting budget because the Chancellor had little room to manoeuvre. On the one hand, the government is becoming increasingly unpopular which is stopping them from making any major steps towards raising taxes. On the other hand, the Treasury has overspent in previous years, which has reduced their ability to increase spending now the economy is entering a period of slower growth – and could really do with a little help from the Government.

One major announcement was that the 2008 GDP growth forecast for the UK was revised down by 0.25% to between 1.75% and 2.25% in today’s budget. This still looks like a very high estimate given that the survey of independent forecasts, as mentioned on page 169 of the Red Book, presents forecasts that range from between -0.1% to 2.1% and average of 1.7% in 2008. Independent forecasts are also in a period of being downwardly corrected by many banks and consultancies. As the year continues the Treasury forecasts are likely to look increasingly unrealistic.

Other measures that will impact upon work and working life:

• Income tax changes confirmed for April. Basic rate drops from 22 per cent to 20 per cent and the 10 per cent band is abolished.

• New charge on non-domiciled residents to be introduced from April and won’t change during this parliament, and next if Labour remain in power.

• Public sector employment has fallen in the past year; private sector employment risen.

• Around £60m to be spent over the next three years to encourage people to move into work and to move up the employment ladder.

• Spend of £10m over the next five years to create a new science fund for teachers in secondary schools.

• Increase in the amount of funding for adult training. Investment of £200m in poorly performing schools to try and improve GCSE grades by 2011.

• Long-term sick to attend “work capability assessments” from April 2010.

• New contract to help parents into work involving a commitment to find employment. Benefits for working families will be boosted.

• Child benefit will be up to £20 per week for the first child in 2009, a year earlier than planned. Child element of child tax credit to be raised by £50 above inflation a year.

• Tax-exempt limits on individual savings accounts increased to £7,200 a year for standard accounts and to £3,600 a year for cash accounts.

• Launch of a “savings gateway” in 2010 to encourage people to invest.

…and worst of all:

• Beer duty to increase by 4p per pint, wine up 14p a bottle, cider up 3p a bottle and spirits up 55p a bottle.

Increasing taxation on alcohol and large cars were the only areas the Chancellor could get away with any major increases in taxation. With all the fuss about “binge” drinking and anti-social behavior the Treasury has decided to take advantage of this situation, increasing the duty on alcohol by 6% above inflation. This has been welcomed by the British Medical Association, but has raised concerns from breweries that sales will fall and more pubs will continue to shut.

It is unlikely that the Chancellor was too worried about the health benefits of high taxes on alcohol, and was more interested in the raising revenue, but perhaps that’s just the cynical views of a man who likes a pint.

All in all this was an uneventful budget that will not be widely remembered. The key things to take from this are: the government are likely to have got their sums wrong; there have been some moves towards reducing child poverty; there has been some simplification of the tax system (a good thing but could go further); and if you smoke, drive a big car and like to drink then the government thinks you are a bad person and wants you to pay for it.

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Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Labour market statistics - hiding the start of slowdown 2008

As I mentioned yesterday the Labour market statistics were released today, and as I expected they have yet to highlight the slowdown in the wider economy. However, with economic statistics, looking at one months worth of data can be very misleading, especially when you fail to put it in the wider context.

Looking at the monthly data nearly all the data was good news for the UK economy. Unemployment was down, employment was up and the number of people claiming benefits was down. This looked like a continuation of a very successful period of labour market expansion.

Nevertheless, these figures hide the variations caused by end of year demand for employment in financial services and Christmas employment in the retail and leisure sectors.

I would expect to see in first quarter of 2008 being a much less impressive year for the labour market. With retailers likely to have suffered a very tough Christmas, employment in these sectors is set to fall. The banks and other financial institutions are also expected to cut employment. Citi has already announced planned cuts of around 20,000 jobs worldwide - many of these are likely to be in London.

What is of a greater concern is that these figures may delay decisive action by the Bank of England. Today's release indicated a pick up in the rate of wage inflation, which in turn will stimulate general levels of inflation. As such, with the prospect of increased inflationary pressures, the Monetary Policy Committee may decide to be more cautious about cutting rates.

Today's data is likely to be one of the last bits of positive labour market news in 2008. Tougher times have already arrived for many people, the data will catch up in February and March to prove this.

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Thursday, 23 August 2007

Gross Value Added - pub speak for geeks

I was in the pub last night and was talking to two guys who studied masters economics with me at university and was amazed to find out that none of them knew what GVA was.

To the majority that won't know (which is fair enough) GVA stands for gross value added and is a measurement of economic output. Essentially it is very similar to GDP (if your interested GVA = GDP - taxes on production + subsidies on production) and is calculated by summing the value added in each stage of production minus the cost of intermediate goods in the production stage.

E.g. I buy some paint and paper for £10 and paint a picture for which sells for £20 then the GVA is £10.

Anyway moving on from the GVA thing, this discussion got me thinking about education and careers. When it comes down to it these guys (and so have I) forgotten a lot of what we were taught at university. Nevertheless we all remain employed in pretty good jobs.

It really shows in many ways that us economists are right about eduction - it is more useful as a signal to employers than it is in increasing production. Unless - like myself - you are working in the same field that you studies, most of what you learnt will go to waste. However, by the very fact that you passed your degree shows you have the ability to think at a higher level and have proof that you can achieve. The person with no degree might be better than you but without the university certificate then the employer has no proof, making the risk of employing them that much greater.

This seems like a very good argument for a) going to university / working hard at school and for b) making exam grades more widely distributed (not a fifth A* and A like GCSEs) so that employers can take full advantage of what a lot of education is about - showing them that you're better than the next guy.

Oh and yes I have shown my true geekiness by admitting to talking economics in the pub when the England Germany match is going on behind me!

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Sunday, 19 August 2007

Article 1 - Tough times 2008

On the surface all is looking very rosy for the UK labour market if you’re looking for a job. Despite a huge inflow of migrant workers since the enlargement of the European Union the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has consistently remained below the one million mark in the last two years and has fallen by over 100,000 in 2007.

Nevertheless cracks are starting to show in the economy. Interest rates have risen five times since July 2006 and are likely to rise one more time by the end of the year. Higher interest rates are likely to hit both consumers and businesses alike as debt repayments become even more of a stretch. It should be noted that increases in interest rates take about a year to feed through to the economy so get ready for last years rate rises to start to hit!

Other weaknesses are showing. The slowdown in the US economy has been going on for most of the year without major consequences for the UK. The recovery in the major EU countries has helped to buffer the reduction in US demand for UK exports. However, the EU recovery is starting to look short-lived. The Italian economy posted very weak growth figures in the second quarter of year, whilst higher European Central Bank (ECB) interest rates are starting to hinder Germany and France.

Nevertheless on the surface it would seem that the slowdown is not having much of an impact on people’s day-to-day lives. Last week’s financial market chaos would have been a big headache for those working in the City of London or those with large share portfolios, but that’s a minority of the country.

The financial chaos should however start alarm bells ringing. It is not yet clear how the current mess in the international financial markets will play out, but if this turmoil continues then the cracks in the economy could well become holes for jobs to fall through. The financial crisis has exacerbated problem – few had been predicted that the United States could potentially move into recession until the events of last week.

It seems unlikely that the UK will suffer as much as the US. There are no credible analyst suggesting that the UK will enter a period of recession, but as the economy is squeezed by higher interest rates and as chaotic financial markets hit business confidence there will be those that will lose their jobs.

The first possible group to see job losses will be those working in the financial and business services sector in the City of London. Initial estimates had suggested that job losses in the City are likely to number a few thousand, but this number is likely to be revised upwards. The impact of this will be relatively limited to the London area.

The next sign to watch out for is a slowdown in consumer and business spending. With the financial markets looking wobbly and with higher debt repayments businesses will reduce their spending on goods and services, and also on headcounts.

Uncertainty in the financial markets leads to uncertainty in the business environment. Plans to invest will be hit as uncertainty increases the risk that they may not be able to afford the repayments in the future.

A slowdown in consumer spending is likely to follow. Higher interest rates will increase the cost of consumer debt repayments, primarily mortgages. However, this is likely to have a limited impact according to the Bank of England.

Consumer spending will also be constrained by the reduction in business spending. As businesses reduce spending employment growth will slow as will wage growth. With less money in their pockets the consumer will stay at home, rather than spending on the high street.

With business spending less on goods and services, those that supply those goods and services will have a reduction in turnover. With consumers spending less on goods and services these suppliers will also see reduced turnover. Lower turnover cause firms to fold or reduce costs; inevitably job cuts will be part of this process.

So when will this all come to a head? Most analysts suggest that 2008 will be the crunch point when the various factors come together to produce an economic slowdown. Expect to feel the pinch wherever you work, there are unlikely to be many sectors that don’t see an impact.

With this warning in hand I would suggest knuckling down and making sure your boss realises that you’re indispensable, even when business is bad! 2008 is going to be a tough year try to limit the suffering.

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