Has the Bank of England forgotten about its currency reserves?

We are in the season for a raft of UK economic data although at the moment markets are being driven by Brexit developments, or rather the apparent lack of them. One consequence of this was a nearly 2 cent fall versus the US Dollar to below US $1.26 and around a 1 cent fall versus the Euro to below 1.11. I await the exact numbers on the change in the trade weighted or effective exchange rate index but the move was such that we saw something that under the old rule of thumb was equivalent to a 0.25% Bank Rate cut. That reminded me of this from early April ( no not the 1st…) 2016 in City AM.

Britain’s foreign currency reserves reached a new record high last month, passing $100bn (£70.5bn) for the first time, as the UK looks to be building a buffer to defend the pound against the prospect of a currency crisis ahead of the EU referendum.

 

Another $4.5bn in reserves was acquired in March, taking the total amount held to $104.2bn and fuelling speculation that the Treasury and Threadneedle Street are getting their ducks in a row to deal with wild swings in the value of sterling around the time of the referendum.

Actually the Bank of England has been building up its foreign exchange reserves in the credit crunch era and as of the end of October they amounted to US $115.8 billion as opposed as opposed to dips towards US $35 billion in 2009. So as the UK Pound £ has fallen we see that our own central bank has been on the other side of the ledger with a particular acceleration in 2015. I will leave readers to their own thoughts as to whether that has been sensible management or has weighed on the UK Pound £ or of course both?!

But my fundamental point is to enquire as to under what circumstances would the Bank of England intervene to support the currency? This is what it is officially for.

The EEA was established in 1932 to provide a fund which could be used for “checking undue fluctuations in the exchange value of sterling”.

This, in my opinion could not contrast much more with the UK Gilt market which has surged due to expectations, or fears if you prefer of more QE bond buying from the Bank of England. It does not get reported much but the UK ten-year Gilt now yields a mere 1.24%.

Labour Market

Productivity

Yesterday our official statistician’s produced some research which backed up a long-running theme of my work.

Productivity gap narrows

As a reminder I wrote this back on January 18th on the subject.

I have regularly argued that it is very likely we have miss measured productivity and therefore the crisis will to some extent fade away……..If we go back to the peak headlines where for example the Bank of England argued we were some 19% below where we would have been projecting pre crisis trends we are left wondering how much is due to miss measurement?

Or in musical terms we need some Imagination

Could it be that it’s just an illusion
Putting me back in all this confusion
Could it be that it’s just an illusion now?

That was partly in response to some new work by Diane Coyle suggesting that the telecoms sector had in fact seen more growth than the official statistics recorded. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that the official response was a somewhat woeful tweaking of the numbers to give basically the same answer as before,

But now there has been a new development.

Historically each country has used the best data available to it, but the OECD’s working paper shows that, when using a more consistent method to compare total hours worked, the UK’s labour productivity improves significantly relative to other countries. For example, the UK’s productivity gap with the US would reduce by about 8 percentage points from 24% to 16% when adopting the simple component method approach.

I do not know about you but when I compare numbers I always look to do them on as “like for like” basis as possible and find it not a little breathtaking that this has not been done before. But the good news is that it has now.

Not everyone’s numbers improve as for example Greece sadly gains little. Oh and if I was looking at these numbers I would be thinking of words like “offshoring” and phrases like “Gross National Product” about the stellar performances of Luxembourg and Ireland.

A clear signal was of course given earlier this year by the Office of Budget Responsibility going bearish on productivity trends.

Good news on wages

Here we go.

Latest estimates show that average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in nominal terms (that is, not adjusted for price inflation) increased by 3.3%, both excluding and including bonuses, compared with a year earlier.

As we welcome this let us take the rare opportunity to congratulate the Bank of England on beginning to look correct. After all this has come after many years of pain for it. The official view tells us this about real wages.

Latest estimates show that average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in real terms (that is, adjusted for price inflation) increased by 1.0% excluding bonuses, and by 1.1% including bonuses, compared with a year earlier.

The catch is that the number above relies on an inflation number called CPIH which is dragged lower by the use of Imputed Rents. If we switch to the previous measure CPI real wage growth falls to 0.7% or so as the depressing influence of Imputed Rents falls out of the data. If we use RPI then rather than real wage growth we find that it is at least no longer falling. Can anybody think why the establishment does not like the RPI measure? Apart from when it is used in their own defined benefit pensions I mean.

The numbers for October on its own provided some further cheer as at 3.9% it even exceeded RPI by 0.6% as the numbers were pulled higher by the service sector (4.2%).

Employment continues to grow as well.

There were an estimated 32.48 million people in work, 79,000 more than for May to July 2018 and 396,000 more than for a year earlier.

Not so good was the rise in unemployment for men of 27,000 and I am putting it like that as female unemployment fell by 7,000. It was due to a shift out of the inactivity sector so we will have to wait to see what it really means.

Comment

There is a lot to consider right now but let us remind ourselves that producers of official statistics need to consume a slice of humble pie every now and then. Yesterday saw two clear examples of this with the large revision to UK trade especially ( surprise,suprise ) for the services sector and then a solid chunk of the productivity gap faded away. Or rather the perceived productivity gap. The latter had been on my mind Sunday evening because as I went for a run around Battersea Park after 8 pm and noted the shop selling Christmas trees was still open. Great for consumers but bad for one way at least of measuring productivity.

But left me leave you with the question of the day. When would Mark Carney and the Bank of England actually use our currency reserves?

 

 

 

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UK wage growth rises but awkwardly productivity falls

It is hard not to have a wry smile as we note that Tuesday is now the day that the official UK labour market data is released. This is because Members of Parliament apparently need 24 hours to digest it before Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday lunchtime. Hopefully it is leading to an improvement in the standard of debate. Meanwhile the Bank of England was on the case yesterday and it started well for the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent as he remembered to turn up at CNBC. So what did he tell us? From Reuters.

Broadbent also said the BoE had seen signs of pay pressure strengthening.

“We’ve certainly seen stronger figures, not just in the official data but in many of the pay surveys, than we’ve seen for many years,” he said.

“I, certainly the (Monetary Policy Committee)… always believed that the same old rules applied — that as the labor market tightened you would begin to see faster wage growth, and that’s indeed what we’ve seen.”

Whether that will continue depends on whether the economy continues to grow enough so that the labor market keeps tightening, Broadbent said.

Deputy-Governor Broadbent is for once telling us the truth or at least some of it. We have seen some signs of pay growth in nominal terms and he has clung to the “same old rules” like a drowning man clings to a piece of wood. But what he does not tell CNBC viewers if that it is certainly not the “same old scene” that Roxy Music sang about. The new scene has seen Bank of England guidance on an unemployment rate that should see wages rising drop from 7% to 4.25%. They have been like a centre forward who strides into the penalty area and shoots only for the ball to go out for a throw-in. Or to put it another way wages growth should now be above 5% as opposed to there being hopes of a rise above 3%. There is a world of difference here if we consider what the impact of some genuine real wage growth would have on people’s circumstances and the economy generally.

As to actual evidence the view of the Bank of England Agents for the third quarter was this.

Employment intentions remained positive in most sectors except for consumer services, which weakened slightly. Recruitment difficulties remained elevated. Average pay settlements were a little higher than a year ago, in a range of 2½%–3½%. Growth in total labour costs picked
up due to the increase in employers’ pension auto-enrolment contributions, the Apprenticeship Levy, and ad hoc payments to retain staff with key skills.

Firstly let me note that several of you pointed out ahead of time the likely implications of pension auto-enrolment on wage growth.

Immigration

The impact of this on wage growth has been contentious in that the establishment view in both economics and officially is that immigration has not reduced wage growth. Yet the Financial Times last week more than hinted that the reverse may not be true.

Some companies are expecting it will become even more difficult to recruit once the UK leaves the EU because the government is proposing a new immigration regime that lets some high skilled workers into the UK but places curbs on untrained labour. After years of sluggish wage growth, low unemployment is now starting to hit companies’ profits: JD Wetherspoon, Royal Mail and Ryanair have recently complained about rising labour costs.

As many of the replies point out perhaps they need to increase wages which is awkward for those who argued that immigration has not depressed pay growth.

Today’s Data

There was some better news.

Latest estimates show that average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in nominal terms (that is, not adjusted for price inflation) increased by 3.2% excluding bonuses, and by 3.0% including bonuses, compared with a year earlier.

As you can see total pay growth reached 3% which will help real wages although not as much as we are told.

Latest estimates show that average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in real terms (that is, adjusted for price inflation) increased by 0.9% excluding bonuses, and by 0.8% including bonuses, compared with a year earlier.

That is because the official measure of inflation or CPIH uses Imputed Rents and is therefore inappropriate to use as a wage deflator. Why not use CPI well real wage growth then falls to more like 0.7% for regular pay and 0.5% for total pay. If we use the Retail Price Index or RPI then real wage growth pretty much disappears. So in fact whilst any real wage growth is welcome the reality is that it is depending on the redefinitions of or as it is officially put “improvements” in the measurement of inflation.

Was it productivity?

Perhaps not because we know GDP growth picked up to 0.6% on a quarterly basis but look at hours worked.

Between April to June 2018 and July to September 2018, total hours worked increased (by 10.7 million) to 1.04 billion. This reflected an increase of 23,000 in the number of people in employment and an increase in average weekly hours worked, particularly by those working full-time,

So an increase of a bit more than 1%. So in terms of a direct link no although it may have been driven previous changes. Thus the answer to those hoping to find an oasis of productivity gains is definitely maybe.

Output per hour – Office for National Statistics’ (ONS’) main measure of labour productivity – decreased by 0.4% in Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2018. This follows a 0.5% increase in the previous quarter (Apr to June) 2018. In contrast, output per worker increased by 0.5%.

Underemployment

We got a little bit of a clue yesterday from the UK Deputy Statistician Jonathan Athow who blogged on employment.

The share of people working very short hours – fewer than six hours a week – is very low, around 1.5 per cent, or a little over 400,000 people out of the 32.4 million people in work. This is down from around 2 per cent in the early to mid-1990s. The next category – from 6 to 15 hours a week – has also shrunk as a share of employment over the same period of time.

So measuring that might give us a clue to wage pressure as it is a signal of reducing underemployment. However it cannot be the full picture as otherwise wage growth would be more like the 1990s and I wonder how much of a role the rise in self-employment has had in this?

Comment

The good news is that the UK has some wage growth but the not so good news is that it remains relatively weak. Also the last three months have gone 3.3%,3.1% and now 2.8% which is a trend in the opposite direction! The last number was influenced by the annual rate of pay growth in the financial sector falling to 1.2% in September. So fingers crossed as we note that there is still a long road ahead.

£493 per week in constant 2015 prices, up from £490 per week for a year earlier, but £29 lower than the pre-downturn peak of £522 per week for February 2008.

At the current rate of progress we will get back to the previous peak by inflation measurement “improvements” rather than wage growth.

Also let me remind you that the self-employed and those in smaller businesses are not counted in the wages data. So let us mull some of the other issues.

employed (has worked at least one hour in the last two weeks);

It is hard not to think of  the Yes Prime Minster critique of labour market data as you read that. Also think of the issues involved in extrapolating this into the whole labour force.

As noted above, all of this information comes from our Labour Force Survey. Every three months, we ask approximately 90,000 randomly selected people for a few minutes of their time to respond to our Labour Force Survey interviewers face-to-face or over the phone.

I wonder how many do respond?

 

 

The Italian economy looks to be heading south again

Today has opened with what is more disappointing economic news for the land of la dolce vita. From the Italian Statistics Office or Istat.

In July 2018 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index decreased by 1.8% compared with the previous month. The percentage change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three months was -0.2.
The calendar adjusted industrial production index decreased by 1.3% compared with July 2017 (calendar working days being 22 versus 21 days in July 2017);

As you can see output was down both on the preceding month and on a year ago. This is especially disappointing as the year had started with some decent momentum as shown by the year to date numbers.

 in the period January-July 2018 the percentage change was +2.0 compared with the same period of 2017.

However if we look back we see that the push higher in output came in the last three months of 2017 and this year has seen more monthly declines on a seasonally adjusted basis ( 4) than rises (3). Looking ahead we see that things may even get worse as the Markit PMI business survey for manufacturing tells us this.

Italy’s manufacturing sector eased towards
stagnation during August. Both output and new
orders were lower, undermined by weak domestic
demand, whilst employment increased to the
weakest degree since September 2016……..Expectations were at their lowest for over five years.

This seems set to impact on the wider economic position.

At current levels, the PMI data suggest industry
may well provide a net negative contribution to
wider GDP levels in the third quarter of the year.

With Italy’s ongoing struggle concerning economic growth that is yet another problem to face. But it is something with which it has become increasingly familiar as the industrial production sector is still in a severe depression. What I mean by that is the peak for this series was 133.3 in August of 2007 and the benchmarking at 100 for eight years later (2015) shows what Taylor Swift would call “trouble,trouble,trouble” . The initial fall was sharp and peaked at an annual rate of 26% but there was a recovery however, in that lies the rub. In 2011 Italy saw a bounce back in production to 111.9 at the peak but then the Euro area crisis saw it plunge the depths again. It did respond to the “Euroboom” in 2016 and 17 but looks like it is falling again and an index of 105.2 in July tells its own story.

So all these years later it is still 21% lower than the previous peak. We worry in the UK about a production number which is 6.1% lower but as you can see we at least have some hope of regaining it unlike Italy.

The wider outlook

Italy’s economy is heavily influenced by its Euro area colleagues and they seem to be noting a slow down as well. From @stewhampton

The ECB committee that oversees the compilation of the forecasts now sees the risks to economic growth as tilted to the downside.

Perhaps they have suddenly noted their own money supply data! At which point they are some time behind us.  Also in the language of central bankers this is significant as they do not switch from “broadly balanced” to “tilted to the downside” lightly, and especially not when they are winding down a stimulus program.

So we see that the Italian economy will not be getting much of a boost from its neighbours and colleagues into the end of 2018.

Employment

Yet again this morning’s official release poses a question about the economic situation in July?

In the most recent monthly data (July 2018), net of seasonality, the number of employees showed a slight decrease compared to June 2018 (-0.1%) and the employment rate remained stable.

This modifies the previous picture which had been good.

The year-on-year trend showed a growth of 387 thousand employees (+1.7% in one year), concentrated among temporary employees against the decline of those permanent (+390 thousand and -33 thousand, respectively) and the growth of the self-employed (+30 thousand).

So more people were in work which is very welcome in a country where a high level of unemployment has persisted. We keep being told that the unemployment rate in Italy has fallen below 11% ( in this instance to 10.7%) but then later it gets revised back up again. Of course even 10.7% is high. I would imagine many of you have already spotted that the employment growth is entirely one of temporary jobs which does not augur well if things continue to slow down.

Some better news

Italy is a delightful country so let us note what some might regard as a triumph for the “internal competitivesness” policies of the Euro area.

Italy’s current account position is one of the country’s most improved economic fundamentals since the financial crisis. As the above chart shows, it improved by 6.2 percentage points to a sizable surplus of 2.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) last year—the highest level since 1997—from a deficit of 3.4% of GDP in 2010.

That is from DBRS research who in this section will have the champagne glasses clinking at the European Commission/

external cost competitiveness gains related to relatively slower domestic wage growth.

The Italian worker who has been forced to shoulder this will not be anything like as pleased as we note that some of the gain comes directly from this.

In response to the recession, nominal imports of goods declined significantly by around 5% a year between 2012 and
2013.

Also Italy has benefited from lower oil prices.

Since then, lower energy prices further contributed to the improvement in the current account, and Italy’s imported energy bill bottomed out at 1.6% of GDP in 2016, down from a peak of 3.9% of GDP in 2012.

Not quite the export-led growth of the economics textbooks is it? Still maybe there will be a boost from tourism.

Why everyone is suddenly going to Milan on vacation ( Wall Street Journal)

According to the WSJ Milan has  “been hiding in plain sight for decades ” which must be news to all of those who have been there which include yours truly.

Comment

The downbeat economic news has arrived just as things seemed to have got calmer regarding the new coalition government. Or as DBRS research puts it.

More recently, the leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to adhere to the European Union (EU) framework. In DBRS’s view, this is a positive development.

This has meant that the ten-year bond yield which had risen above 3.2% is now 2.75%. So congratulations to anyone who has been long Italian bonds over the past ten days or so and should you choose you will be able to afford to join the WSJ in Milan as a reward. However bond yields have shifted higher if we return to the bigger picture so this will continue to be a factor.

In DBRS’s view, total interest expenditure as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) may slightly narrow this year compared with the 3.8% of GDP recorded in
2017.

As new issuance has got more expensive than in 2017 I am not sure about the narrowing point.

Also there is the ongoing sage about the Italian banks which has become something of a never-ending story. Officially Unicredit has been the success story here and yet if it is such a success why were rumours like these circulating yesterday?

The other rumour was a merger with Societe Generale of France. Anyway the current share price of around 13 Euros is a long way short of the previous peak of 370 or so. This reminds us of the news stories surrounding the fall of Lehman Bros. a decade ago as it has been a dreadful decade for both Unicredit and Italy as we note the economy is still 5% smaller than the previous peak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Has UK employment peaked and if so why aren’t wages rising faster?

After yesterday’s generally good economic news from the UK we turn to the labour market today. This has been if we switch to a football analogy a story of two halves. The first half continues an optimistic theme as we note how the quantity numbers such as employment and unemployment have developed. Indeed it was the rally in employment that signaled the  turn in the UK economy at the opening of 2012 and set the trend some time before the output numbers caught up. If we take a broad sweep the number of people employed in the UK has risen from 29.4 million to 32.4 million. That is not a perfect guide due to problems with how the numbers are measured and the concept of underemployment, but if we switch to hours worked we see they have risen from 935 million per week to 1032 million per week over the same time period.

But the ying to that yang has come from the price of labour or wage growth which has consistently struggled. This has been associated with what has come to be called the “productivity puzzle”. These are issues which are spread far wider than the UK as for example whilst the rise in US wage growth seen on Friday was welcome the reality was that it was to 2.9%. Or to put it another way the same as the July CPI inflation number. That sets a first world context where growth is not what it used to be as I looked at only on Friday. The truth is that it was fading even before the credit crunch and it gave it a further push downwards.

Unfortunately whilst we face the reality of something of a lost decade for wage growth the establishment has not caught up. It continues to believe that a change is just around the corner. For example the Ivory Tower at the Bank of England has forecast year after year that wage growth will pick up in a rinse, fail and repeat style. This is based on the “output gap” theory that has been so regularly debunked by reality over the past decade.

The MPC continues to judge that the UK economy currently has a very limited degree of slack. ( August Minutes)

This has been its position for some years now with the original starting position being that the “slack” was of the order of 1% to 1.5%. In that world wages would be on their way to the 5 1/2% growth rate predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility back in the summer of 2010.

Does this really matter? I think it does. This is because when an official body becomes something of a haven for fantasies it allows it to avoid facing up to reality especially if that reality is an uncomfortable one. A particular uncomfortable reality for the establishment is the fact that the decline in wage growth has accompanied the era of low and negative interest-rates and the QE era. If you try to take credit for employment growth ( I recall Governor Carney claiming that he had “saved” 250.000 jobs with his post EU leave vote actions) then you also have to face the possibility that you have helped to reduce wage growth. Propping up larger businesses and especially banks means that the “creative destruction” of capitalism barely gets a look in these days.

Today’s data

Wages

Looked at in isolation we got some better news this morning.

Between May to July 2017 and May to July 2018, in nominal terms: regular pay increased by 2.9%, higher than the growth rate between April to June 2017 and April to June 2018 (2.7%)……..total pay increased by 2.6%, higher than the growth rate between April to June 2017 and April to June 2018 (2.4%).

Should you wish to cherry pick in the manner of the Bank of England then your focus would turn to the 3% growth of private-sector regular pay and perhaps to its 3.2% growth in July alone. Indeed you could go further and emphasise the 3.5% growth in regular pay in the wholesale retail and hotel/restaurant category which was driven by 4.4% growth in July.

But the problem for the many cherry pickers comes from the widest number which cover everyone surveyed and also includes bonuses. You see it started 2018 at 2.8% as opposed to the 2.6% in the three months to July. Also if we look back we see that weekly total wages fell in July of 2017 from £509 to £504 so the 3.1% increase in July is compared to a low base. Thus even after what is six years now of employment gains we find ourselves facing this situation.

Please take their numbers as a broad brush. It is welcome that they provide historical context,  but also disappointing that they use the CPIH inflation measure which via its use of imputed or fantasy rents is an inappropriate measure for this purpose. Pretty much any other inflation measure would overall show a worse situation.

Employment

The long sequence of gains may now be fading.

Estimates from the Labour Force Survey show that, between February to April 2018 and May to July 2018, the number of people in work was little changed………..There were 32.40 million people in work, little changed compared with February to April 2018 but 261,000 more than for a year earlier.

On the surface it looks like the composition of employment at least was favourable.

Figure 4 shows that the annual increase in the number of people in employment (261,000) was entirely due to more people in full-time employment (263,000).

Due to the way full-time employment is officially counted (for newer readers rather than being defined it is a matter of choice/opinion) we need confirmation from the hours worked numbers.

Between February to April 2018 and May to July 2018, total hours worked increased (by 4.0 million) to 1.03 billion. This increase in total hours worked reflected an increase in average weekly hours worked by full-time workers, particularly women.

Work until you drop?

There has been a quite noticeable change in one section of the workforce.

The number of people aged 65 years and older who were in employment more than doubled between January 2006 and July 2018, from 607,000 to 1.26 million. The same age group had an employment rate of 6.6% in 2006 and this increased to 10.7% in the three months to July 2018.

We get some suggested reasons for why this might be so.

the improved health of the older population, which increases older workers’ desire to continue working for reasons of status, identity and economic well-being.

 

changes to the state pensionable age for both men and women.

 

changes to employment laws that prohibit discrimination based on age.

 

older people’s desire for financial independence and social interaction.

To my mind that list misses out those who continue to work because they feel they have to. Either to make ends meet or to help younger members of their family.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider today and this time around it concerns employment itself. At some point the growth had to tail off and that has perhaps arrived and it has come with something else.

The level of inactivity in the UK went up by 108,000 to 8.76 million in the three months to July 2018, resulting in an inactivity rate of 21.2%. Inactivity increased by 16,000 on the year.

That is an odd change when the employment situation looks so strong and I will be watching it as the rest of 2018 unfolds.

Moving to wages we find ourselves yet again at the mercy of the poor quality of the data. The exclusion of the self-employed, smaller businesses and the armed forces means that they tell us a lot less than they should. Also the use of a broad average means that the numbers are affected by changes in the composition of the workforce. For example if many of the new jobs created are at lower wages which seems likely that pulls the rate of growth lower when they go into the overall number. So it would be good to know what those who have remained in work have got. Otherwise we are in danger of a two or more classes of growth and also wondering why so many in work need some form of income support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UK real wage growth continues to disappoint

Today brings us back to the domestic beat and in fact the heartbeat of the UK economy which is its labour market. This has in recent years seen two main developments. The first is a welcome rise in employment which has seen the unemployment rate plunge. But the second has been that wage growth has decoupled from this leaving the Ivory Towers of the establishment building what might be called castles in the sky.  In that fantasy world wage growth would now be around 5% except it is not and in fact it is nowhere near it.

Oh tell me why
Do we build castles in the sky?
Oh tell me why
Are the castles way up high? ( Ian Van Dahl)

Or if we look at the Bank of England Inflation Report from earlier this month.

A tightening labour market and lower unemployment is typically associated with higher pay growth  as it becomes more difficult for firms to recruit and retain staff.

This is another way of expressing the “output gap” theory which keeps needing revision as it keeps being wrong. As this from Geoff Tily shows that has been a consistent feature of Governor Carney’s term at the Bank of England.

In 2014, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney told the TUC Congress that wages should start rising in real terms “around the middle of next year” and “accelerate” afterwards” .

They did rise in the first half of 2015, but then decelerated afterwards.

Actually the Inflation Report does address the issue but only with what George Benson described as “hindsight is 20/20 vision”.

During the financial crisis, output fell and unemployment rose, as companies reduced hiring and increased redundancies. The number of additional hours people wanted to work also rose, perhaps in response to a squeeze in their real incomes. Taken together, these factors led to a substantial degree of spare capacity opening up in the labour market over this period. This, in turn, was a significant factor behind subdued wage growth during 2009–15.

It is a shame they did not figure that out at the time and looking forwards seems to be stuck on repeat.

Pay growth has risen over the past year  and tightness in the labour market is expected to push up pay growth slightly further in coming years.

At least there has been a slight winding back here but something rather familiar in concept pops up albeit that the specific number keeps changing.

This was broadly in line with the MPC’s judgement of the equilibrium rate of unemployment of 4¼%, suggesting little scope for unemployment to fall further without generating excess wage pressure.

The problem here is that an unemployment rate of 7% was supposed to be significant when Forward Guidance began although it went wrong so quickly that we then had a 6.5% equilibrium rate then 5.5% then 4.5%. The February Inflation Report gave us  “a statistical filtering model” which seems to have simply chased the actual unemployment rate lower. Along the way I spotted this.

The relationship between wage growth and
unemployment is assumed to be linear

You basically need to have lived the last decade under a stone to think that! Or of course be in an Ivory Tower.

Today’s data

This brought some excellent news so let’s get straight to it.

The unemployment rate (the number of unemployed people as a proportion of all employed and unemployed people) was 4.0%; it has not been lower since December 1974 to February 1975.

This of course has an implication for the Bank of England which has signaled an equilibrium rate of 4.25% as discussed above. Thus we can move on knowing that its improved models ( we know they are improved because they keep telling us so) will be predicting increased wage growth.

Returning to the quantity or employment situation we see that it looks good.

There were 32.39 million people in work, 42,000 more than for January to March 2018 and 313,000 more than for a year earlier.The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years who were in work) was 75.6%, unchanged compared with January to March 2018 but higher than for a year earlier (75.1%).

This is good news but needs to come with some caveats. The first is that the rate of improvement looks to be slowing which is maybe not a surprise at these levels. The next issue is more theoretical which is the issue of how we record employment and the concept of underemployment where people have work but less than they want. We do get some flashes of this and this morning’s release did give a hint of some better news.

There were 780,000 people (not seasonally adjusted) in employment on “zero-hours contracts” in their main job, 104,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

But if we switch back to the unemployment rate we know from looking at Japan that it can drop to 2.2% which means that we cannot rule out that ours will go lower and maybe a fair bit lower. So there could be a fair bit of underemployment out there still which is backed up by the attempts to measure it.

By this measurement, the number of underemployed people in the three months to June 2018 stood at 2.39 million, down 121,000 when compared with the previous quarter.

This compares to under 2 million pre credit crunch although I am not clear why these numbers consider the working week to be 48 hours?

Wages

This should be a case of “the only way is up” if we look at the Bank of England analysis.

regular pay increased by 2.7%, slightly lower than the growth rate between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018 (2.8%)……total pay increased by 2.4%, slightly lower than the growth rate between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018 (2.5%)

There is an initial feeling of deja vu as we were told this last month so the past has seen an upwards revision but there is little or no sign of the “output gap” pulling it higher. In fact bonuses fell by 6.6% on a year ago in June meaning that total pay growth fell to 2.1%. This means that in the first half of 2018 the rate of total pay growth has gone from 2.8% to 2.1% via 2.6% (twice) and 2.5% (twice). Unless you live in an Ivory Tower that is lower and not higher.

The Bank of England response mirrors their response when inflation was a particular problem for them which is to keep breaking the numbers down until you find one that does work. In this instance it takes two steps moving first to the private-sector to eliminate the public-sector pay caps and then to regular pay eliminating the bonus weakness. On that road you can point out a 2.9% increase although attempts to say it is rising have the issue of it being 3% in February and 3.2% in March. If they want more they could point us to regular pay in construction which is rising at an annual rate of 5.6% ( which of course begs a question about the official output statistics there).

Comment

The credit crunch era has been one where we have found ourselves ripping whole chapters out of economics 101 textbooks. By contrast both the establishment and the Ivory Towers have clung  to them like a life raft in spite of the evidence to the contrary. Of course one day their persistent lottery ticker buying will likely bear fruit but there is little sign of it so far. Instead they have the Average White Band on repeat.

Let’s go ’round again
Maybe we’ll turn back the hands of time
Let’s go ’round again
One more time (One more time)
One more time (One more time)

For the rest of us we see that there is more work but that wage growth seems to get stuck in the 2% zone. Even at the extraordinary low-level of unemployment seen in Japan the wage position remains Definitely Maybe after plenty of real wage falls. I am not sure that the productivity data helps as much as it used to as we have switched towards services where it is much harder to measure and somewhere along the way capital productivity got abandoned and now it is just labour. Of course all of this simply ignores the self-employed as they are not in the earnings figures and nor are smaller businesses.

 

 

The economy of Italy returns to its former coma status

We are in a spell where there has been a burst of economic news about Italy and the headline brings back memories of my main theme. So let us take a look at why the idea of it being like a “girlfriend in a coma” is back.

In the second quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 0.2 per cent with respect to the first quarter of 2018 and by 1.1 per
cent in comparison with the second quarter of 2017. ( ISTAT)

Along the way I note that the statement below from only last week of European Central Bank President Mario Draghi does not seem to apply that well to his home country.

 the euro area economy is proceeding along a solid and broad-based growth path.

For newer readers my “girlfriend in a coma” theme comes from the fact that for quite some time now Italy has struggled to grow its economy at more than 1% per annum. So a fall to 1.1% reminds us of that especially as we note that annual growth only got as high as 1.7% in the “Euroboom” and since then has gone 1.6%,1.4% and now 1.1%. If we switch to the quarterly numbers then the trend is clearly not our friend as the peak of 0.5% at the end of 2016 was held in the opening quarter of 2017 but has since gone 0.4%, 0.3%,0.3%,0.3% and now 0.2%. Indeed there has also been a downgrade of the past as we had two 0.4% previously.

Perspective

The tweet below sums up the overall theme where Italy is not only still well below its pre credit crunch peak but has grown so little this century or if you prefer in the Euro era.

Also Italy has seen a fair bit of population growth meaning that the numbers on an individual or per capita basis are even worse and I have been waiting for them to rise back to where they were at the beginning of this century. Unfortunately growth has slowed to a crawl but they should be somewhere around them now.

Labour Market

We have seen in the credit crunch era that employment trends can be a leading indicator for an economy but get little solace here either.

In June 2018, 23.320 million persons were employed, -0.2% over May

The picture had been improving as the 330000 jobs gain over the past year illustrates but now the picture is not so clear. If we switch to unemployment we see that the sense of unease increases.

Unemployed were 2.866 million, +2.1% over the previous month.

This meant that the annual picture here was of only a fall of 8000 in the ranks of the unemployed. Also I have pointed out before that the unemployment rate falls below 11% to media cheers and then climbs back up to it as if it is on repeat. Well it has not yet gone back to 11% but not far off it.

unemployment rate was 10.9%, +0.2 percentage points over May 2018

The disappointing picture continues when we look at the bugbear which is youth unemployment.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 32.6%, +0.5 percentage points over the previous month and
youth unemployment ratio in the same age group was 8.6%, +0.2 percentage points over May 2018.

Inflation

If we switch to the other component of what used to be called the Misery Index ( where the annual rate of inflation was added to the unemployment rate) we see this.

In July 2018, according to preliminary estimates, the Italian harmonised index of consumer prices (HICP) decreased by 1.4% compared with the previous month and increased by 1.9% with respect to July 2017 (from +1.4% in June).

So the Misery Index rose to 12.8% if we use the latest figures albeit that unemployment is for June and not July. Just for clarity the HICP above is the measure we use in the UK as Italy kept the CPI moniker for its own measure. Some of the inflation rise was due to the summer sales starting a week later than in 2017.

Wages

There was better news here but it comes with a bit of a kicker. So let us start with the good news.

In June 2018 the hourly index and the per employee index increased by 0.9 per cent from last month.

Compared with June 2017 both indices increased by 2.0 per cent.

That was something of a burst and meant that there was some real wage growth and the numbers cover a lot of the economy.

At the end of June 2018 the coverage rate (share of national collective agreements in force for the wage setting aspects) was 86.8 per cent in terms of employees and 87.4 per cent in terms of the total amount of wages.

In fact wage growth for most changed very little but it rose to an annual rate of 4% in the public administration sector driven by a 6.4% rise for the military and 6.1% for the police. Well I suppose that is one way of boosting defence spending to please President Trump! But returning to the economics we see that whilst higher wages in that sector should boost areas such as retail sales the ordinary Italian taxpayer may be nervous of higher taxes to pay for it. Also is it ominous that the government is seemingly getting the police and military onside?

Looking Ahead

This mornings private-sector survey or PMI for the manufacturing sector did not start well.

Manufacturing growth eases in July to lowest since October 2016

The detail in fact questioned whether there was any growth at all.

Growth rates of both output and new orders
weakened during July to near standstills amid
reports of an ongoing slowdown in underlying
market activity. There were reports that both
domestic and external market conditions were
faltering. Indeed, new export orders rose to the
weakest degree since August 2016 according to the
latest data.

Indeed the conclusion was downbeat when we try to add this report to the overall picture.

Based on the latest set of PMI survey data, and
with worries mounting over any escalation of global
trade tensions on export trade, Italy’s industrial
base may well struggle to meaningfully contribute to
wider economic growth in the second half of 2018

Comment

There is a familiar drumbeat about all of this as we see Italy slipping back into what is normal for it. For a start there is the still very expansionary monetary policy of the ECB with its -0.4% deposit rate although the monthly QE purchases are reducing which drives the thought that even at its height Italy gained only a little. Economic growth since the beginning of 2014 totals a mere 4.5%.

Next comes the issue of Italy’s high national debt which has risen above 2.3 trillion Euros and of course now faces higher bond yields  (ten-year is 2.76%) as it looks to refinance maturing debt and raise new finance. The essential issue here has not been one of overspending but much more one of lack of economic growth.

Italy is in many ways a delightful country so let us end with something more positive which I note from the purchase of Ronaldo by the grand old club Juventus. Like all football transfers it starts not so well as it the fee is an import and subtracts from GDP but more positively the hope is that he provides a boost via Champions League success. But I spotted something else. From CNBC.

Ronaldo fans can purchase children’s jerseys with his name for €84.95 ($98.90), women’s jerseys for €94.95 ($110.60), men’s jerseys for €104.95 ($122.20) and an authentic replica of the gear worn by Juventus playersfor €137.45 ($160.10).

There is a lot of poor analysis on this sort of thing as much of the money goes nowhere near Juve but my point is there must be money in Italy if Juve can charge that much for a football shirt. Of course there will be international fans buying but also plenty of Italian ones.

 

 

 

 

UK employment looks strong but wage growth less so

Today brings us a consequence of yesterday;s discussion as we analyse the latest wages numbers which are entwined with the productivity situation. These days the causality is invariably assumed to be from productivity to wages but there is this about Henry Ford from National Public Radio in the US.

 $5 a day, for eight hours of work in a bustling factory.

That was more than double the average factory wage at that time, and for U.S. workers it was one of the defining moments of the 20th century.

Which led to this.

”It was an absolute, total success,” Kreipke says. “In fact, it was better than anybody had even thought.”

The benefits were almost immediate. Productivity surged, and the Ford Motor Co. doubled its profits in less than two years. Ford ended up calling it the best cost-cutting move he ever made.

Some combination of positive and lateral thinking led Henry Ford to quite a triumph as we mull whether anyone would have that courage today. Perhaps some do but they are on a smaller scale and get missed.

Also there is the issue that some advances take us backwards in some respects as research from Princeton in the US quoted by regis told us this.

In their aggressive scenario, the world stock of robots will quadruple by 2025. This would correspond to 5.25 more robots per thousand workers in the United States, and with our estimates, it would lead to a 0.94-1.76 percentage
points lower employment to population ratio and 1.3-2.6 percent lower wage growth between 2015 and 2025.

This type of analysis is usually nose to the grindstone stuff however or if you like a type of micro economics where the measured effects are likely to look bad as robots replace people and the loss of usually skilled jobs leads to lower average wages. PWC have given a more macro style analysis a go. From the Guardian.

Artificial intelligence is set to create more than 7m new UK jobs in healthcare, science and education by 2037, more than making up for the jobs lost in manufacturing and other sectors through automation, according to a report.

A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers argued that AI would create slightly more jobs (7.2m) than it displaced (7m) by boosting economic growth. The firm estimated about 20% of jobs would be automated over the next 20 years and no sector would be unaffected.

In essence it comes down to this assumption.

as real incomes rise

Some may be wondering if “as society becomes richer” necessarily leads to that especially after a period where policies like QE have led to wealth rising via higher asset prices but real incomes have struggled in many places and real wages in the UK have fallen. The truth is that we are unsure and analysis on both sides mostly depends on the assumptions behind it. You pretty much get the answer you looked for.

What are wages doing?

Actually UK wage growth has been if we allow for the margin of error looks to have been pretty stable so far in 2018.

Between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018, in nominal terms, regular pay increased by 2.7%, slightly lower than the growth rate between February to April 2017 and February to April 2018 (2.8%).

Between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.5%, slightly lower than the growth rate between February to April 2017 and February to April 2018 (2.6%).

Whilst there is a small fall on this basis we see that from February to May total pay growth has gone 2.6%, 2.5%, 2.6% and now 2.5%. By the standards of these numbers that is remarkably stable. This poses a question for the Bank of England as there is not much of a sign of annual wage growth there.

If we move to real wages we find that most of the change we have seen has come from falling inflation.

Between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018, in real terms (that is, adjusted for consumer price inflation), regular pay for employees in Great Britain increased by 0.4% and total pay for employees in Great Britain increased by 0.2%.

Actually they are being a little disingenuous there as people might think that this refers to the CPI inflation measure whereas later they explain that it is CPIH ( H=Housing) with its fantasy imputed rents. This flatters the numbers as the latter keeps giving lower inflation readings and this is before we get to the Retail Price Index or RPI which would have real pay still falling.

The output gap

Today’s quantity numbers for the UK labour market were good again.

There were 32.40 million people in work, 137,000 more than for December 2017 to February 2018 and 388,000 more than for a year earlier…….The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years who were in work) was 75.7%, higher than for a year earlier (74.9%) and the highest since comparable records began in 1971.

Also whilst we do not have a formal measure of underemployment like the U-6 measure in the United States it looks as though it is improving too as Chris Dillow points out.

Big drop in the wider measure of joblessness in Mar-May (unemp+part-timers wanting f-t work + inactive wanting a job) – down from 4.51m to 4.35m

Yet the continuing good news does not seem to be doing much for wages. We get surveys telling us they are picking up but the official data is either missing it or it is not happening. If we go through that logically then is wage growth is taking place it must be in the ranks of the self-employed or smaller companies ( the various official surveys only go to companies with a minimum of ten or in some cases 20 employees).

Productivity

This looks to have improved because the economy was growing through this period albeit nor very fast but hours worked did this.

the number of people in employment increased by 137,000  but total hours worked fell slightly (by 0.3 million) to 1.03 billion. This small fall in total hours worked reflected a fall in average weekly hours worked by full-time workers.

An odd combination in some ways as why take on more staff whilst reducing hours? But the optimistic view is that employers were expecting a rise in demand and were getting ready for it. Whatever the reason recorded productivity looks to have risen.

Comment

There is quite a bit to consider here. If we look back to 2007 we see total pay growth fluctuating around 5% and making a heady 7.3% in February. But before that there were plenty of 4% numbers. Now we occasionally break the 3% barrier but the last time if we use the three-month average was in the summer of 2015. So much for “output gap” style analysis so beloved by the Ivory Towers and the Bank of England.

As to the possible Bank of England move in August today’s numbers are unlikely to change your mind. Those arguing for a rise will look at the strong employment situation and those against will note the slight fading of wage growth. Which will an unreliable boyfriend go for?

What we need are better data sources and let me ask for two clear changes. We need wages data which at least tries to cover the self-employed and smaller businesses. We also need to be much clearer about what full-time employment is. As we stand we are in danger of failing the Yes Minister critique.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: If local authorities don’t send us the statistics that we ask for, then government figures will be a nonsense.

James Hacker: Why?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: They will be incomplete.

James Hacker: But government figures are a nonsense anyway.

Bernard Woolley: I think Sir Humphrey want to ensure they are a complete nonsense. ( The skeleton in the cupboard via IMDb)