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Saturday, 24 January 2009

When will the global recession end?


It came as no surprise yesterday that the UK is now officially in a recession. With the economy shrinking in the third quarter of the year, the economy certainly hadn't improved in the final three months of the year. The economy contracted by 1.5% in the final quarter of the year, having shrank 0.6% in the third quarter.

These figures confirmed that despite the government's attempts to stimulate the economy through measures such as a cut to VAT and capital injections into the banks, and the Bank of England's historic interest rate cuts, the economy shrank at an accelerated pace.

Like the USA, Japan and the eurozone, which were confirmed as in recession at the end of the third quarter, the UK is now officially in recession, and is unlikely to emerge from recession for some time.

Historically recessions tend to last about fifteen months, but given the global nature of this recession and the severity of the economic imbalances in the UK this recession could last longer. It will almost certainly be longer before the UK returns to its natural rate of economic growth (approximately 2.5% per annum).

Given that the USA is further through its recessionary cycle than other economies, it is likely that they will emerge from their recession before other parts of the world. The country also has the capacity to spend its way out of this recession. Given the massive fiscal stimulus planned by the new Obama administration, this could pull the US out of recession by the middle of 2009.

Increased optimism following the election of President Obama should also help to stimulate the economy as consumers feel positive enough to spend and businesses prepare for an upturn. This break from the old could have a significant impact on the economy.

The eurozone and Japan are likely to follow the United States. Once the US starts to grow again global demand and global confidence is likely to improve. Japan and eurozone countries like Germany rely heavily upon exports and therefore global demand is fundamental in their economic revival.

These countries also benefit from having less consumer debt and fewer economic imbalances (e.g. house price over valuation) than countries such as the UK and USA. Therefore the downwards economic cycle should have less corrections to make before stability returns. Less personal debt and higher savings will mean that consumers in places such as France and Germany will be able to benefit from falling prices, prompting an increase in consumption that will aid the recovery.

The UK is likely to be one of the last developed countries to come out of the global downturn. It faces a number of problems that will prolong the correction in the economy. For one the UK economy relies heavily upon global finance as a proportion of GDP and as an employer. Therefore with this sector in chaos the economy has been hit hard.

Secondly UK households do not have a massive amount of savings to protect themselves through the economic slowdown. Having spent heavily and saved little in previous years the UK consumer is likely to sharply cut consumption in order to build up protective savings. This will reduce retail spending, a key part of the economy.

Third, with the UK government attempting to support the banking sector it has built up a massive debt. Like the UK consumer the British government did not save in the good years and therefore does not have a surplus available to add much extra stimulus to the economy.

Finally, UK house prices were some of the most over valued in the developed world and as a result will need to fall further than in other countries. This will again weigh on consumer confidence and will also hit bank balance sheets.

This is not to say that the UK will be in permanent decline. The rapid weakening of the pound will stimulate exports from the UK. This will take some time to occur as the world economy slows and as international importers adjust their supply chain to the UK.

The UK also benefits from a highly skilled and flexible labour market. Unlike some European countries the UK's labour laws encourage the use of temporary workers and place less barriers to employment. They also allow employees to be sacked or made redundant more easily. Although not a great thing if you are one of the people losing their job, but it will mean that British businesses can reorganise and cut costs more quickly and cheaply than other countries.

Finally the Bank of England has cut interest rates quickly and will continue to cut to near zero. Along with quantitative easing ("printing money") this will act as a further stimulus.

In all these countries, particularly the USA and the UK, the way out of recession will require the banking system to move back to some sense of normality. This is not going to be easy and could be some way off. Without it though, businesses will continue to be unable to borrow and therefore invest and consumers will be unable to get mortgages or loans to buy houses, consumer or start entrepreneurial activities.

So as it stands here are my forecasts for when recession will end (i.e. first quarter of positive growth):

USA - Q3 2009

eurozone - Q4 2009

Japan - Q4 2009

UK - Q1 2010

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Monday, 8 December 2008

Light at the end of the tunnel?

It has been a couple of months since the Lehman Brothers and the subsequent fall out. Over the last few months it seems that things in the financial markets have stabilised and because of global government actions we shouldn't see too many more major financial institutions collapsing. I'm sure some firms will get into trouble but for now I don't think another Lehman's will happen - particularly as Citi was rescued.

Sadly the downturn in the wider economy is still in full force and likely to get worse before it gets better. Nevertheless, with interest rate cuts, falling prices, government fiscal stimuli and the early indications of stability in the financial markets could we be reaching a bottom?

Well it seems possible that we might be reaching the bottom in financial markets. Equity prices seem to be very undervalued and presenting great opportunities to those with capital to invest.

Sadly the real economy lags the stock market and will continue to weaken over the next six months before reaching anything like a bottom. In countries like the UK the bottom is likely to take much longer.

As the real economy falters this will have a negative impact upon financial markets once more, limiting the extent of the rebound, and keeping us bouncing along the bottom for some time yet.

Being full of seasonal joy I am optimistic that this is the light at the end of the tunnel that we've all been looking for...I just hope that that light isn't a train coming in the opposite direction.

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Thursday, 10 April 2008

Interest rate cut to 5% - helpful but pain in 2008 cannot be avoided

The Bank of England cut interest rates today to 5%. It has been said by many of my colleagues that this won't make any difference to the economy. This is clearly not the case and I think they are thinking more about their own economies rather than the rest of the UK.

It is fair to say that most of my colleagues won't see an instant impact upon their mortgage rates. Tracker mortgages will see a benefit but given the rapid decline of mortgages repayment costs for those looking to remortgage will probably remain high for some time. Nevertheless, they would be higher had the Bank not cut today.

For the wider economy this move should help to take some of the strain off the financial markets. Don't get me wrong, the problems in the financial markets can not be overcome by the Bank making a few interest rate cuts and the problems in the markets are likely to continue for some time. Nevertheless, this cut provides some breathing room which will give the financial some more time to sort out the mess they are in. Fundamentally, the problems in the financial markets is one of a lack of confidence, if the markets can maintain some sort of stability for a few straight months then maybe we will see of confidence return.

We continue to be in for a very rough ride with the problems in the financial markets compounding the growing problems in the wider economy.

The outlook for the jobs market is not great. First to go will be jobs in the financial sector - we have seen Capital One and the Royal Bank of Scotland announce job cuts this week. Next will follow job cuts in industries that support the financial sector such as business services and retail surrounding financial hubs like the City of London and finally cuts should be expected in the wider economy.

Although unemployment fell in January and February, the statistics will show this reversing very soon.

Be prepared for painful 2008 and a pretty average 2009.

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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, 6 December 2007

Interest rate cuts

With the Bank of England cutting interest rates today it seems like some of my predictions for 2008 seem to be coming true - not that they were that hard to see. Hopefully the Bank has acted quick enough to stem some of the worst outcomes for the year.

The housing market will slow but if rates continue to fall then those people who have been holding off buying may start to come back into the market and look for bargains. This could help to keep prices from falling too far.

The banking crisis will continue to be a problem for both the banking sector and the wider economy. However, this positive move by the bank could help to reduce the cost of commercial borrowing and start to reduce the risk premium banks have currently placed upon borrowing. As a result businesses will struggle to find capital to expand but by the middle of the year liquidity problems could start to lessen.

The consumer is set to be squeezed in 2008. The previous interest rate cuts will hit home owners, especially with many coming off their fixed rates in 2008. However, some of the major building societies have already taken the positive steps of reducing their mortgage costs as a result of today's cut.

There continue to be many downsides facing the economy in 2008, however I think we must avoid talking ourselves into a recession. There are upsides and downsides. A period of slower growth will probably be good for the economy in the long run as it will make us reconsider some of the poorer decisions made over the boom years. However a sharp slide into recession will leave scars that will take a long time to heal.

As I always mention, whatever happens, people will be losing their jobs in 2008 and as such competition at interview will become more intense. Take advantage of this site and many others to try and stay ahead of the game.

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