Thursday, June 30, 2011

We are poorer than we think....

I will start this post by jumping back in time. In June of 2008 I wrote a post called 'The Cigarette Lighter Problem' and a sharp commentator argued that we (in the UK) were not poorer than we thought. I responded to the comment as follows:

You correctly identify that exchange rates are out of line with PPP. In this case I could change £1 and buy several lighters if I took that money into a Chinese shop.

This has been one of the consistent arguments of this blog. Exchange rates are going to have to shift.

You suggest that is that there is not much difference in the value created by our cheap labour and that of China, so we will not be poorer in the future. However, it is evident from your own argument that our purchasing power is being significantly subsidised by China (and I would add - many others).

The imbalance in the exchange rates means that we have not been paying the full value for the goods that we purchase. We have had our purchasing subsidised by China.

If we take away that subsidy (exchange rate corrects), then our purchasing power will diminish significantly. This, by any reasonable definition, means that we will be poorer. At its most simple, the lighter we bought for 59p will go up in price.
Right from the commencement of the blog, I have made similar arguments, and proposed that the UK will see a fall in the general standard of living as illusory forms of wealth disappear, in particular illusory wealth founded in debt accumulation. Over the last year, the illusion of wealth has finally started to fade in the most visible way - through inflation outstripping earnings:

For the regular readers of this blog, this inflation rate will only surprise in that it is not much higher. However, expectations of further rises in inflation are coupling with severe declines in consumer confidence. If you would like to see the reason for the fall in confidence, it is apparent in the following chart:

Interestingly, the rate of personal insolvency and house repossession has ameliorated, but it seems to be reasonable to question whether this might continue.

The reason for why we can expect these trends to reverse are explained in the Wall Street Journal:

U.K. households' disposable income fell for the second consecutive quarter in the first three months of 2011, forcing consumers to eat into their savings to maintain their lifestyles, official data showed Tuesday.

The weakness of consumer spending is one of the major headwinds facing the U.K. economy and reduces the likelihood the Bank of England will raise its key interest rate in the near term.

In its final reading of the economy's first-quarter performance, the Office for National Statistics said gross domestic product grew an unrevised 0.5% between January and March after shrinking 0.5% in the fourth quarter. However, the ONS lowered estimated GDP growth on an annual basis to 1.6% from 1.8% due to a revisions in previous quarters of 2010.

The ONS said household real disposable income fell by 0.8% in the first quarter after a fall of 0.9% in the fourth quarter of last year. The drop in real disposable income is a result of households being squeezed between inflation of 4.5%—more than twice the Bank of England's 2% target—and stagnant wage growth.

The household savings ratio fell to 4.6% in the first quarter from 5.1% in the fourth quarter. The drop in savings came despite an increase in wages—which grew by 0.9% in the first quarter compared with a 0.5% increase in the previous quarter—indicating that consumers are having to dip into their savings to maintain their lifestyles due to high inflation.

It seems that the answer to the reduction in real income is to pull out the credit cards and supplement income with debt. From the Bank of England (here), they chart the growth in consumer borrowing, and it is notable that whilst growth rates for credit card debt declined for a while, there is a new upwards trend. Of particular interest is that other forms of unsecured lending seem to be increasing even more dramatically, and also secured lending is on the increase. Some of this might be explained by higher university fees, but I do not have the statistics to hand to see the impact of this factor. As a note, for those who look at the figures at the BOE, note that this is changes in growth of borrowing. Needless to say, the savings rate is also in decline.

Overall, what we are seeing is a real decline in the ability of people to live to the standard of living to which they are used, and the response is to use borrowing as crutch for their standard of living. What should be happening is the opposite. With ongoing uncertainty, consumers should be rebuilding their balance sheets, and preparing and adapting to tougher times. The problem is that this is all taking place in an environment of astoundingly low interest rates and an ongoing massive government fiscal deficit. This from Liam Halligan in the Telegraph:

Yes, I know the entire political debate has shifted and the Conservatives seem to have won reasonably wide support for their “austerity” programme. This doesn’t surprise me. Some of us argued for years that if the Tories abandoned their misguided pledge to “match Gordon Brown’s spending plans” and actually admitted that UK borrowing was far too high under Labour, and Government expenditure out of control, then they would win popular support.

What does surprise me, though, is that despite the broad support the Tories have received since taking office, and despite endless rhetoric about “living within our means”, UK fiscal policy is actually becoming more profligate. Far from insulating ourselves from systemic dangers, we are making the UK even weaker.

During April and May, the first two months of this fiscal year, the Government borrowed £27.4bn according to figures released last week, up from £25.9bn during the same months in 2010. That’s right, we’re borrowing more – despite all the Treasury’s tough talk.

These borrowing rises happened despite higher tax receipts in April and May – up around 8pc on last year. But spending was also higher, not only on benefits and social services, but debt interest too. Interest payments, in fact, were up a staggering 18pc on last year, even though gilt yields have been kept artificially low by so-called “quantitative easing” – that is, creating money from thin air in order to buy your own government bonds, an activity the UK has practised to a greater extent than any other major economy on earth.

In addition to the 2011 borrowing increase, a further borrowing rise was also sneaked through last week, when the 2010 total borrowing figure was revised upwards from £139.4bn to £143.2bn.

Add to this that the UK is still in trouble with the current account balance (which is just not as bad as before), and we have a picture of an economy that is sliding to further ruin. The government and Bank of England are both trying to lift the economy out of the doldrums, but the only result is an ongoing slide in real standard of living. Has it not occurred to either the government or the BoE that they seem to be, at best, holding the country on the brink, but doing so at such an astounding cost? Surely, this must lead to some change in thinking? The situation is not improving, and there are still external shocks still to be fully felt. For example, the Euro-Greek crisis still has yet to really bite.

I do not often post now, so I must by necessity be broad in my approach. As such, I will end the post with a single point. We have now watched governments managing to keep plates spinning, and prevent an all out collapse of the economy. They have expended all their ammunition, and do not have anything left in their dubious armoury. I did not believe that they could possibly keep the plates spinning this long, but they have done so. However, as much as they try to magic the ongoing crisis away, it just keeps coming back. And the longer they delay, the more they tinker and seek to direct the economy, the greater the accumulation of problems. The one thing that nobody wants to do is to acknowledge that the world has changed.

The world that was taken for granted by countries like the UK started to evaporate a decade ago. The world is now one of hyper-competition, and it is a competition for a finite supply of resource. The economic fight is over the distribution of the finite resources. There is only one solution in such a situation, and that is to reform and make your economy lean and efficient. That is the one thing that is barely addressed....and no amount of expenditure of magic bullets will fix this.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The European Situation

I thought I would make a brief return again, as I have been watching the slide of Europe into a morass with that feeling of watching a slow motion car crash. I am writing this as a very general post, without referring to the specifics of individual countries, but highlighting the principles of why the European financial crisis just will not go away. There are differences in detail and circumstance, but I think that the general principles will hold. As a light introduction, I just saw an amusing Youtube clip, which seems (in a simlistic but effective way) to sum up the madness that is facing the EU.

Since the alarm bells about the debt of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain were first rung, there have been a series of deals, bailouts, negotiations, austerity measures, and on and on...but still the crisis pops back into life. The problem is something I have long discussed, which is that you cannot easily reverse the direction of an economy. In all of the above cases, the economies were living on too much borrowed money, and that borrowed money shaped the structure of the economies. The direction of that money was into consumption, and the consumption beyond the actual income was unsustainable. However, a county that has lived on borrowed money has developed an economic structure to support the consumption of the wealth creation of other countries.

In simplistic terms, this translates into the means of importing and distributing goods and services paid for by the wealth creation of other countries. In practical terms this means the over-development of retail, the restaurant and entertainment sectors, the government services, and all of the infrastructure that supports these. In a madly self-destructive cycle, the more the country borrowed, the more the activity in the economy, the higher the employment and the higher the reports of GDP, and the greater the confidence of lenders to keep on lending. The problem with the cycle is that it keeps feeding on itself right up to the point that it does not. It does not even matter what finally triggers the loss of confidence by creditors, as at some point there must be a moment of realisation of the inherent unsustainability of the cycle.

The problem with the policy actions of all of the parties seeking to save Europe from the crisis is that, once the cycle breaks, the real underlying economy emerges. As the flood of borrowed money diminishes, all of the activities that were supported by borrowed money go into reverse, unemployment rises, GDP sinks, and government revenues fall. The debt to GDP ratio starts spiralling, and fresh borrowing comes at an ever greater cost as the weakness of the economy becomes apparent. The ability to service existing debt dimimishes, and the crisis emerges once again in full force, as the downward spiral continues. Even as bailouts are calculated and handed over, the ability for the country in question to support the existing debt (let alone the new debt) is diminishing. The bailouts are chasing a downwards moving target.

In the end, the only answer is austerity. Somehow, it is necessary for consumption within a crisis country to come back into balance with the wealth creating capacity of the country. The problem is that, the deeper and longer the debt accumulation, the more the structure of the economy will have been distorted towards the consumption of debt. The real income per capita, without the addition of debt into the economy, is much, much lower than people had come to believe. It is as if the entire country has been spending their salary X, but were unkowingly supplementing their income with a slowly rising credit card debt of Y.

When the credit stops flowing into the country, and the supplement of the borrowing disappears, it is apparent what the actual income is. It is far lower than everyone thought. As it is, there are large numbers of people who are actually supplementing their income with debt, but they were unaware of how much additional debt they were personally liable for when their government borrowed. They were also unaware of how much of the whole economy was reliant on the continual debt accumulation, and can not understand why their job has evaporated. And that of their neighbour. And their brother. It is no surprise that they feel angy. They just did not realise that the promises made by their governments were not built upon sound foundations, and that the shiny new businesses making so much money were reliant upon borrowing for their survival. That is, the aggregate borrowing over the whole economy was supporting so many businesses, so much employment.

It is quite understandable that people were deceived. When all around you, you see the signs of growing wealth, it seems only natural that it must be built upon real wealth creation. It is the great illusion that debt equals wealth. The reality is that debt for consumption equals a higher quality of life, right up to the point that the debt becomes due. Then, as has always been the case, ruin follows. What we are watching in the ongoing European crisis is the slow and painful emergence of the real size of the economies in question. The problem is that, when looking at many of the non-crisis economies, they also look to be troublingly reliant upon debt.