Will UK real wages and its banks ever escape the depression they seem trapped in?

Today brings the UK labour market into focus and in particular the situation regarding both real and nominal wage growth. Before we get to that there was news yesterday evening from the Bank of England on one of the highest paid categories.

The 2019 stress test shows the UK banking system is resilient to deep simultaneous recessions in the UK and global economies that are more severe overall than the global financial crisis, combined with large falls in asset prices and a separate stress of misconduct costs. It would therefore be able to withstand the stress and continue to meet credit demand from UK households and businesses.

Yes it is time for the results of the annual banking stress tests which of course are designed to look rigorous but for no-one to fail. So far the Bank of England has avoided the embarrassment of its Euro area peers who have seen a collapse quite soon after. In terms of the detail there is this.

Losses on corporate exposures are higher than in previous tests, reflecting some deterioration in asset quality and a more severe global scenario. Despite this, and weakness in banks’ underlying profitability (which reduces their ability to offset losses with earnings), all seven participating banks and building societies remain above their hurdle rates. The major UK banks’ aggregate CET1 capital ratio after the 2019 stress scenario would still be more than twice its level before the crisis.

As you can see the Bank of England is happy to slap itself on the back here as it notes capital ratios. Although of course higher capital ratios have posed their own problems abroad as we have seen in the US Repo crisis.

Major UK banks’ capital ratios have remained stable since year end 2018, the starting point of the 2019 stress test. At the end of 2019 Q3, their CET1 ratios were over three times higher than at the start of the global financial crisis. Major UK banks also continue to hold sizeable liquid asset buffers.

Actually the latter bit is also an explanation as to why banks struggle to make profits these days and why many think that their business model is broken.

Also I note that their view is that the highest rate of annual house price growth in the period 1987-2006 was 6.6% and the average 1.7%. I can see how they kept the average low by starting at a time that then saw the 1990-92 drop but only 6.6% as a maximum? Odd therefore if prices have risen so little that house prices to income seem now to have become house prices versus household disposable income and thereby often two incomes rather than one.

In terms of share prices this does not seem to have gone down that well with Lloyds more than 4% lower at 64 pence, Royal Bank of Scotland more than 3% lower at 252.5 pence and Barclays over 3% lower at 186 pence. Meanwhile it is hard not to have a wry smile at the fact that the UK bank which you might think needs a stress test which is Metro Bank was not included in the test. Although it has not avoided a share price fall today as it has fallen over 3% to 198 pence. Indeed, this confirms that it is the one which most needs a test as we note it was £22 as recently as January.

Labour Market

Let us start with what are a couple of pieces of good news.

The UK employment rate was estimated at 76.2%, 0.4 percentage points higher than a year earlier but little changed on the previous quarter; despite just reaching a new record high, the employment rate has been broadly flat over the last few quarters.

They get themselves into a little bit of a mess there so let me zero in on the good bit which is tucked away elsewhere.

There was a 24,000 increase in employment on the quarter.

There was also a favourable shift towards full-time work.

This was driven by a quarterly increase for men (up 54,000) and full-time employees (up 50,000 to a record high of 20.71 million), but partly offset by a 30,000 decrease for women and a 61,000 decrease for part-time employees.

I do not know why there was some sexism at play and suspect it is just part of the ebb and flow unless one of you have a better suggestion.

The next good bit was this.

the estimated UK unemployment rate for all people was 3.8%, 0.3 percentage points lower than a year earlier but largely unchanged on the previous quarter…….For August to October 2019, an estimated 1.28 million people were unemployed. This is 93,000 fewer than a year earlier and 673,000 fewer than five years earlier.

There were fears that the unemployment rate might rise. But the reality has been reported by the BBC like this.

UK unemployment fell to its lowest level since January 1975 in the three months to October this year. The number of people out of work fell  by 13,000 to 1.281 million.


This area more problematic and complex so let me start my explanation with the data.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain slowed to 3.2% for total pay (including bonuses) and 3.5% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

The first impact is simply of lower numbers than we have become used to especially for total pay. Let us move to the explanation provided.

The annual growth in total pay was weakened by unusually high bonus payments paid in October 2018 compared with more typical average bonus payments paid in October 2019.

I have looked at the detail and this seems to have been in the finance and construction sectors where bonus pay was £12 per week and £6 per week lower than a year before. I have to confess I am struggling to think why October 2018 was so good as the numbers now are in line with the others? Anyway this should wash out so to speak in the next 2 months as October 2018 really stood out. Otherwise I would be rather troubled about a monthly increase this year that is only 2.4% above a year before.

So if we now switch to regular pay then 3.5% is a bit lower than we had become used to but in some ways is more troubling. This is because the spot figure for October was 3.2% and it looks as if it might be sustained.

This public sector pay growth pattern is affected by the timing of NHS pay rises which saw some April 2018 pay increases not being paid until summer 2018. As a result, public sector pay estimates for the months April to July 2019 include two NHS pay rises for 2018 and 2019 when compared with 2018. In addition, the single month of April 2019 included a one-off payment to some NHS staff.

Thus public-sector pay growth has faded away and is also now 3.2% on a spot monthly basis.

Anyway the peaks and troughs are as follows.

construction saw the highest estimated growth at 5.0% for total pay and 5.4% for regular pay…….retail, wholesale, hotels and restaurants saw the lowest growth, estimated at 2.3% for total pay and 2.5% for regular pay; this is the sector with the lowest average weekly pay (£339 regular pay compared with £510 across the whole economy)


There are elements here with which we have become familiar. The quantity numbers remain good with employment rising and unemployment falling although the rate of change of both has fallen. Where we have an issue is in the area of wage growth. The context here is that it did improve just not as much as we previously thought it did. However we still have this.

In real terms (after adjusting for inflation), annual growth in total pay is estimated to be 1.5%, and annual growth in regular pay is estimated to be 1.8%.

That is calculated using the woeful CPIH inflation measure but by chance it at CPI are pretty similar right now, so I will simply point out it would be lower but still positive using RPI.

Thus we see that wage growth and inflation seem both set to fall over the next few months as we wait to see how that balances out. But the underlying issue is that we have an area which in spite of the recent improvements is still stuck in a depression.

For October 2019, average regular pay, before tax and other deductions, for employees in Great Britain was estimated at £510 per week in nominal terms. The figure in real terms (constant 2015 prices) is £472 per week, which is still £1 (0.2%) lower than the pre-recession peak of £473 per week for April 2008.

The equivalent figures for total pay in real terms are £502 per week in October 2019 and £525 in February 2008, a 4.3% difference.

Fingers crossed that we can escape it…..


Stresses abound at the Bank of England

The last 24 hours have seen something of a flurry of activity from the Bank of England. Yesterday Nishkam High School was the latest stop in what was supposed to be a grand tour of the country by its Chief Economist Andy Haldane. The was designed to show that he is a man of the people and combined with the expected ( by him) triumph of his shock and awe Sledgehammer QE and “muscular” monetary easing of August 2016 was supposed to lead for a chorus of calls for him to be the next Governor of the Bank of England. Whereas in fact he ended up revealing that at another school he had been asked this.

“Two questions”, she said. “Who are you? And why are you here?”

According to Andy this is in fact a triumph.

Several hours of introspection (and therapy) later, I now have an answer. The key comes in how you keep score. If in a classroom of 50 kids you reach only 1, what is
your score? Have you lost 49-1? No. You have won 1-0.

Perhaps that is the dreaded counterfactual in action. Could you imagine going to Roman Abramovich and saying that losing 49 games and winning one is a success? Of course you would be long gone by then. Anyway there is one girl at the “Needs Improvement” school who has shown distinct signs of intelligence as we note for later how Andy’s somewhat scrambled view of success might influence the bank stress tests released this morning.

What about monetary policy?

Andy has a real crisis here as of course he pushed so hard for the easing in August 2016 then a year later ( too late for the inflation it encouraged) started to push for a reversal of the bank rate cut and then voted for that earlier this month. Here is how he reflects on that.

The MPC’s policy actions in November were described as “taking its foot off the accelerator” to hold the car
within its “speed limit”. This was intended to convey the sense of monetary policy slowing the economy
slightly, towards its lower potential growth rate, while still propelling it forward overall.

According to Andy such a metaphor is another triumph.

It was a visual narrative. Because most people (from Derry to Doncaster, Dunfermline to Dunvant, Delphi to Delhi) drive cars, it was a local and personal narrative too. The car metaphor was used extensively by UK media.

Some are much less sure about Andy’s enthusiasm for dumbing down.

Andy Haldane cites the MPC’s recent use of the “car metaphor” as a success in attempting to engage the public. Which is fine. But I’d like to hear his thoughts on damage caused by bad/inaccurate metaphors (eg. “maxing out the country’s credit card”) ( Andy Bruce of Reuters )

Also there was a particularly arrogant section on inflation which I think I am the only person to point out.

This unfamiliarity with economic concepts extends to a lack of understanding of these concepts in practice.
For example, the Bank of England regularly surveys the general public to gauge their views on inflation.
When given a small number of options, less than a quarter of the public typically identify the correct range within which the current inflation rate lies. More than 40% simply say that they do not know.

Perhaps they find from their experience that they cannot believe the numbers and once you look at the data the 40% may simply be informed and honest.

Bank stress tests

The true purpose of a central bank stress test is to make it look like you are doing the job thoroughly whilst making sure that if any bank fails it is only a minor one. Also if any extra capital is required it needs to be kept to a minimum.This was illustrated in 2013 by the European Central Bank. From the Financial Times.

The European Central Bank has appointed consultants who said Anglo Irish was the best bank in the world, three years before it had to be nationalised, to advise on a review of lenders. Consultants Oliver Wyman, which made the embarrassing Anglo Irish assessment in 2006 in a “shareholder performance hall of fame”, has since been involved in bank stress tests in Spain last year and Slovenia this year.

To do this you need a certain degree of intellectual flexibility as Oliver Wyman pointed out.

Today one sees that differently.

Today’s results

Here is the scenario deployed by the Bank of England. From its Governor Mark Carney.

The economic scenario in the 2017 stress test is more severe than the deep recession that followed
the global financial crisis. Vulnerabilities in the global economy trigger a 2.4% fall in world GDP
and a 4.7% fall in UK GDP.
In the stress scenario, there is a sudden reduction in investor appetite for UK assets and sterling
falls sharply, as vulnerabilities associated with the UK’s large current account deficit crystallise.
Bank Rate rises sharply to 4.0% and unemployment more than doubles to 9.5%. UK residential
and commercial real estate prices fall by 33% and 40%, respectively.

Everybody at the Bank of England must have required a cup of calming chamomile tea or perhaps something stronger at the thought of all the hard won property “gains” being eroded. But what did this do to the banks? From the Financial Times.

In the BoE exercise, RBS’s capital ratio fell to a low point of 7 per cent – below its 7.4 per cent minimum “systemic reference point”, while Barclays’ capital ratio fell to a low point of 7.4 per cent – below its 7.9 per cent minimum requirement.

Regular readers will not be surprised to see issues at the still accident prone RBS which always appears to be a year away from improvement. Those who have followed the retrenchment of Barclays such as its retreat from Africa will not be shocked either. Students will also be hoping that falling below the minimum requirement will be graded as a pass by their examiners!

One move the Bank of England has made is this.

The FPC is raising the UK countercyclical capital buffer rate from 0.5% to 1%, with binding effect from
28 November 2018.  This will establish a system-wide UK countercyclical capital buffer of £11.4 billion.

This sounds grand and may be reported by some as such but it is in reality only a type of bureaucratic paper shuffling as the banks already had the capital so reality is unchanged. Oh and we cannot move on without noting the appearance of the central bankers favourite word in this area.

Given the tripling of its capital base and marked improvement in funding profiles over the past
decade, the UK banking system is resilient to the potential risks associated with a disorderly


We see the UK establishment in full cry. No I do not mean the royal marriage as that is not until next year. But we do see on what might be considered “a good day to bury bad news” with the bank stress tests occupying reporters time this from the Financial Conduct Authority.

The independent review found that there had been widespread inappropriate treatment of SME customers by RBS…….The independent review found that some elements of this inappropriate treatment of customers should also be considered systematic

We may end up wondering how independent the review is as we note it has only taken ten years to come to fruition! People who were bankrupted have suffered immensely in that dilatory time frame. Next on the establishment deployment came as I switched on the television earlier whilst doing some knee rehab to see the ex-wife of a cabinet minister Vicky Pryce expounding on the bank stress tests on BBC Breakfast. If only all convicted criminals saw such open-mindedness.

If we return to Andy Haldane then he deserves a little sympathy on the personal level after all it must be grim doing a tour of the UK when the purpose has long gone. It is revealing that his list of supporters has thinned out considerably although most have done so quietly rather than taking the mea culpa road. At what point will the criteria for success or failure that would be applied to you or I be applied to the Chief Economist at the Bank of England?