The Corporate Bond problem at the Bank of England

It is time to once again lift the lid on the engine of Quantitative Easing especially in the UK. As a I pointed out several weeks ago the ordinary version where sovereign bonds are purchased has reached its target of £435 billion ( to be precise £39 million below). However corporate bond purchases are continuing under this from the August 2016 MPC (Monetary Policy Committee ) Minutes.

the purchase of up to £10 billion of UK corporate bonds

This was to achieve the objectives shown below and the emphasis is mine.

Purchases of corporate bonds could provide somewhat more stimulus than the same amount of gilt purchases. In particular, given that corporate bonds are higher-yielding instruments than government bonds, investors selling corporate debt to the Bank could be more likely to invest the money received in other corporate assets than those selling gilts. In addition, by increasing demand in secondary markets, purchases by the Bank could reduce liquidity premia; and such purchases could stimulate issuance in sterling corporate bond markets.

Okay let me open with the generic issue of whether this is a better version of QE? This starts well if we look at the US Federal Reserve.

The FOMC directed the Desk to purchase $1.25 trillion of agency MBS ( Mortgage Backed Securities)……..The goal of the program was to provide support to mortgage and housing markets and to foster improved conditions in financial markets more generally.

Later it bought some more but here we see a case of a central bank buying assets from the market which was in distress which was a combination of housing and banking. We can see how this had a more direct impact than ordinary QE but applying that to the UK in 2016 has the problem of being years too late unless of course the Bank of England wanted to argue the UK economy was in distress whilst growing solidly in August 2016!

This is a clear change of course from Mark Carney as the previous Governor Baron King of Lothbury was not a fan and whilst the Bank of England had a plan for corporate bond QE in theory in practice it just kicked the ball around for a while and gave up. Why? Well as I have pointed out before the market is small because UK businesses are often international and issue in Euros and US Dollars so that the UK Pound market is reduced. This leads to the Bank of England finding itself having to purchase bonds from foreign companies and this week it is back offering to buy the bonds of the Danish shipping company Maersk.  No doubt it and Danish taxpayers are happy about this but I do hope one day we will get a Working Paper explaining how this boosts the UK economy more than ordinary QE.

The technical view

There are some suggested examples in the Financial Times today from Zoso Davies of Barclays.

Initially, this seemed to work. August and September 2016 witnessed a flurry of new deals in the sterling corporate markets despite the uncertainty created by the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Since then, however, companies’ interest in borrowing in sterling has fallen to levels similar to those seen in 2013 and 2014.

As you can see once the “new toy” effect wore off things seem to have returned to something of a status quo. The “new toy” effect was exacerbated because the borrowing was so cheap.

Borrowers have also benefited from somewhat better terms on their bonds. After the initial announcement, sterling credit spreads (the additional yield risk borrowers must pay relative to the UK government to borrow in sterling) came down sharply.

If we look back we see that not only did the UK ten-year Gilt yield drop towards 0.5% but the spread above it corporate bond issuers had to pay fell, so there was a clear incentive to borrow. The catch is that if we recall the “lost decade(s)” experience of Japan the link between that and productivity activity tends to fail. One rather revealing fact is that the article does not mention real economy benefits at all instead we get this.

Our analysis, based on the limited data available for corporate bond markets, suggests that trading activity has not picked up across the sterling market as a whole, implying that the Bank of England has been crowding out other market participants. That said, the evidence is far from convincing in either direction.

The price effect did not last either.

Since then, however, the sterling market has hardly moved, indicating that most of the market impact came from the announcement rather than their execution. And that lack of movement has been a marked underperformance versus dollar and euro credit markets, to the extent that sterling has returned to being a relatively expensive bond market in which to raise financing.

Of course we have a tangled web here because one of the factors at play is the the 208 billion Euro corporate bond purchases of the ECB have allowed some companies to be paid to borrow, or if you prefer issue at negative yields. This is from Bloomberg in January.

Henkel AG’s two-year note issued at a negative yield

Also its activities make us again wonder who benefits? From Credit Market Daily.

A big theme in 2015-16 was the amount US domiciled corporates funded in the euro-denominated debt markets. As shown in the chart above, it was a record 26% of the total volume in 2015 and 22% in 2016. Low rates everywhere, but lower in Europe along with low spreads made it attractive for US corporates to borrow in euros (even when swapped back to dollars)

So the Bank of England is supporting European corporates and the ECB US ones? Time for Kylie.

I’m spinning around
Move out of my way

The article ends with some points that pose all sorts of moral hazards.

If sterling corporate bond issuance collapses and secondary market volumes plummet, it will be clear that the Bank’s newest tool has been propping up this small corner of the fixed-income universe over the past six months. Conversely, the more graceful the exit from corporate bond buying, the less clear it will be that the CBPS has been much more than a placebo for markets.

So if borrowers want to borrow cheaply just go on an issuers strike? Also what if the lower yields have sent other buyers away and crowded them out? That would have created quite a mess.


There are a lot of issues here. Lets us look at the real economy where are the arguments that it has benefited? Whereas on the other side of the coin we can see that subsidising larger companies both ossifies the economy and would help stop what is called “creative destruction”. Whilst the productivity problem began before this program started is it yet another brick in the wall for it via the routes just described? As the Bank Underground blog puts it.

Since 2008, aggregate productivity performance in the UK has been substantially worse than in the preceding eight years.

Also whilst the Federal Reserve purchases of MBSs seems to have been a relatively successful version of QE we have to add “so far”. This is in the gap between the word “stop” and “end” as whilst it stopped new purchases it maintains its holdings at US $1.75 trillion. How can it sell these and what if there are losses which could easily be large? Will the Bank of England end up in the same quicksand? Frankly I think it is already in it.

Yes equity markets are higher but the one area in the UK that has surged in response to this extra monetary easing has been unsecured rather than business credit.




The unemployment rate in France continues to signal trouble

It is time for us to nip across the Channel or perhaps I should say La Manche and take a look at what is going on in the French economy. This morning has brought news which reminds us of a clear difference between the UK and French economy so let us get straight to the French statistics office.

In Q4 2016, the average ILO unemployment rate in metropolitan France and overseas departments stood at 10.0% of active population, after 10.1% in Q3 2016.

Thus we note immediately that the unemployment rate is still in double-digits albeit only just. Here is some more detail.

In metropolitan France only, the number of unemployed decreased by 31,000 to 2.8 million people unemployed; thus, the unemployment rate decreased by 0.1 percentage points q-o-q, standing at 9.7% of active population. It decreased among youths and persons aged 50 and over, whereas it increased for those aged 25 to 49. Over a year, the unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percentage points.

So unemployment is falling but very slowly and it is higher in the overseas departments. It is also rising in what you might call the peak working group of 25 to 49 year olds. It was only yesterday we noted that the UK unemployment rate was much lower and in fact less than half of that above.

the unemployment rate for people was 4.8%; it has not been lower since July to September 2005

Thus if we were looking for the key to French economic problems it is the continuing high level of unemployment. If we look back to pre credit crunch times we see that it was a little over 7% it then rose to 9.5% but later got pushed as high as 10.5% by the consequences of the Euro area crisis and has only fallen since to 10% if we use the overall rate. Thus we see that there has only been a small recovery which means that another factor is at play here which is time. A lot of people will have been unemployed for long periods with it would appear not a lot of hope of relief or ch-ch-changes for the better.

Among unemployed, 1.2 million were seeking a job for at least one year. The long-term unemployed rate stood at 4.2% of active population in Q4 2016. It decreased by 0.1 percentage points compared to Q3 2016 and Q4 2015.

The long-term unemployment rate is not far off what the total UK unemployment rate was for December (4.6%) which provides a clear difference between the two economies. Here is the UK rate for comparison.

404,000 people who had been unemployed for over 12 months, 86,000 fewer than for a year earlier

It is not so easy to get wages data but the non-farm private-sector rise was 1.2% in the year to the third quarter. So there was some real wage growth but I also note the rate of growth was slowing gently since the peak of 2.3% at the end of 2011 and of course inflation is picking up pretty much everywhere as the US “surprise” yesterday reminded pretty much everyone, well apart from us. Unless French wage growth picks up it like the UK will be facing real wage falls in 2017.


There is an obvious consequence of the UK producing a broadly similar output to France with a lower unemployment rate if we note that productivity these days is in fact labour productivity. There are always caveats in the numbers but the UK Office for National Statistics took a look a year ago.

below that of Italy and France by 14 and 15 percentage points respectively ( Final estimates for 2014 show that UK output per worker was:)

My worry about these numbers has always been Japan which for its faults is a strong exporter and yet its productivity is even worse than the already poor UK.

above that of Japan by 14 percentage points

Economic growth

This remains poor albeit with a flicker of hope at the end of 2016.

In Q4 2016, GDP in volume terms* accelerated: +0.4%, after +0.2% in Q3. On average over the year, GDP kept rising, practically at the same pace: +1.1% after +1.2% in 2015. Without working day adjustment, GDP growth amounts to +1.2 % in 2016, after +1.3 % in 2015.

However the pattern is for these flickers of hope but unlike the UK where economic growth has been fairly steady France sees quite wide swings. For example GDP rose by 0.6% in Q1 so the economy pretty much flatlined in Q2 and Q3 combined. Whether this is a measurement issue or the way it is unclear. We do know however that it seems to come to a fair extent from foreign trade.

All in all, foreign trade balance contributed slightly to GDP growth: +0.1 points after −0.7 points. ( in the last quarter of 2016).

But as we look for perspective we do see an issue as for example 2016 should have seen two major benefits which is the impact of the lower oil price continuing and the extraordinary stimulus of the ECB ( European Central Bank). Yet economic growth in 2015 and 2016 were both weak and show little signs of any great impact. If we switch to the Euro then its trade weighted value peaked at 113.6 in November 2009 and has fallen since with ebbs and flows to 93.5 now so that should have helped overall. In the shorter term the Euro has rotated around its current level.


With its more dirigiste approach you might expect the French economy to have done better here but as I have pointed out before that is not really so. If we look at manufacturing France saw growth in 2016 but we see a hint of trouble in the index for it being 103 at the end of 2016 on an index based at 100 in 2010. So overall rather weak and poor growth. Well it is all rather British as we note the previous peak was 118.5 in April 2008. Actually with its 13% decline that is a lot worse than the UK.

manufacturing (was) 4.7% lower when compared with the pre-downturn peak in February 2008.

Of course there are also links as the proposed purchase of Opel ( Vauxhall in the UK) by Peugeot reminds us.

Oh and those mulling the de-industrialisation of the West might want to note that the French manufacturing index was 120.9 back in December 2000.

Debt and deficits

This has received some publicity as Presidential candidate Fillon said this only yesterday. From Bloomberg.

Reviving a statement he made after becoming prime minister in 2007, Fillon said France is essentially bankrupt and warned that it can face situations comparable to those of Greece, Portugal and Italy. “You think it can’t happen here but it can,” he said.

As to the figures the fiscal deficit at 3.5% of GDP is better than the UK but of course does fall foul of the Euro area 3% limit. The national debt to GDP ratio is 97.5% and has been rising. On the 7th of this month I pointed out that France could still borrow very cheaply due to the ECB QE program but that relative to its peers it was slipping. That has been reinforced this week as for the first time for quite a while the Irish ten-year yield fell to French levels.  It may seem odd to point this out on a day when France has been paid to issue some short-tern debt but the situation has gone from ultra cheap to very cheap overall and there is a cost there.


I pointed out back on the 2nd of November last year that there were more similarities between the UK and French economies than we are often told but that there are some clear differences. We have looked at the labour market today in detail but there is also this.

There is much to consider here as we note that for France the new economic growth norm seems to be 1% rather than the 2% we somewhat disappointedly recognise for ourselves. Over time if that persists the power of compounding will make it a big deal.

Oh and of course house prices if we look at the UK boom which began in the middle of 2013 we see that France has in fact seen house prices stagnate since then as the index was 103.03 ( Q2 2013) back then compared to 102.82 in the third quarter of 2016

The big problem that is little productivity growth in the western world

It was only yesterday that we found ourselves looking at an apparent productivity miracle in China, or perhaps if official statistics are true! Yet in the western world we find ourselves wondering what has happened to it? I recall the Bank of England publishing a paper looking at an 18% productivity gap. Some care ( as ever ) is needed with their work as it assumed that we could carry on as we did before the credit crunch whereas some industries like banking were clearly misleading us. But the truth is that it does look like there has been a change even if we discount the projection of past performance forwards.

In some places it exists

This caught my eye as I was doing some research on the subject.

Welcome to 2017! The future is here. Workers at Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance are being replaced with an artificial intelligence system. ( @izzyroberts )

So we can see changes in service industries as well where 34 employees are to be replaced by an AI ( artificial intelligence) system . This of course will boost productivity especially the labour measure but may end up with us worrying about unemployment. The more conventional view is the use of robots and automation in the manufacturing and industrial sector.

The apparent problem

This has been highlighted by John Fernald of the US Federal Reserve and here is a summary from the Wall Street Journal.

His research found that the information technology boom of the 1990s helped businesses become more efficient until about 2003. But that boost began fading by 2004, and now the benefits of tech innovation flow more to leisure activities, such as social media and smartphone apps……..Total factor productivity grew an average 1.8% a year from the end of 1995 through 2004, but growth has slowed since then to an average 0.5% annually.

This type of view changes things and is a critique of the Bank of England projecting the past forwards work but the immediate impact is to move productivity falls from a consequence of the credit crunch to one of the causes of it. Also as we look forwards it has its own consequence which is something we have discussed many times here.

He puts the new normal for U.S. economic growth at 1.5% to 1.75% a year—roughly half the typical range of 3% to 4% from the end of World War II to 2005.

Again care is needed as a clear challenge here is how we measure productivity. There is clearly a large amount of technical innovation going on right now but it has shifted into areas that do not feature in conventional productivity analysis. These days most of the gains come for leisure rather than business.

Today’s UK data

Firstly let is have some good news which is that we have some productivity growth.

UK labour productivity, as measured by output per hour, is estimated to have grown by 0.4% from Quarter 2 (Apr to June) 2016 to Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2016;

Although it has been driven not by what might be expected.

Productivity grew in the services industries but not in the manufacturing industries; services productivity is estimated to have grown by 0.3% on the previous quarter, while manufacturing productivity is estimated to have fallen by 0.2% on the previous quarter.

So heartening in itself although an old problem may be resurfacing as you see this from an accompanying release.

Tower Hamlets (79% above the UK average) was the local area with the highest labour productivity in 2015

Welcome back the City of London, let us hope the gains are genuine and not just an illusion this time around.

As to the overall issue the UK ONS seems as keen as the Bank of England to try to assume that the credit crunch was some form of blip.

Productivity in Quarter 3 2016, as measured by output per hour, stood 15.5% below its pre-downturn trend – or, equivalently, productivity would have been 18.4% higher had it followed this pre-downturn trend.

This is what is called the “productivity puzzle” but a bit like the Bitcoin price moves over the past 24 hours or so we can again consider the genius of the simple “It’s Gone” from South Park on the banking crisis. For those who have not followed it the bull market surge in Bitcoin was followed by a plunge in an hour which put it in a bear market, then a rebound then another drop. Of course I need to add so far to that……

Does the type of innovation in these alternative electronic currencies show up anywhere in the productivity data?

Andy Haldane

The Bank of England’s Chief Economist had some thoughts on productivity yesterday. Of course he has his own issues as he confessed to past mistakes – although not yet about his “Sledgehammer” which will hit many people in 2017 – yet again. If we measured his own productivity it would be very negative but let us move onto his analysis.

He blamed decades of education policies – that had left numeracy levels in England only just above Albania – for holding back improvements in productivity. He said the lack of numeracy skills was stark in comparison with other countries, which placed more emphasis on workers having more than a basic level of maths……….He added that the UK’s lack of numeracy skills across more than half the working population was a key reason for its lack of productivity growth since the financial crisis.

This raises a wry smile with me because I feature fairly regularly in the business live section of the Guardian and the original contact point was my pointing out that an article was innumerate. Perhaps it made a change from people pointing our spelling errors! In broad terms I welcome this issue although we need to decide in this technological era what level of numeracy people actually need. I remember reading a report from the 1860s where we were unhappy with our education system though and we did not do too bad back then.

Sadly the Bank of England has not provided a speech but we do have his past views which in their bi-modal, bifurcated day are a sort of tale of two cities. From 2014.

The upper peak of the labour market is clearly thriving in both employment and wage terms. The mid-tier is languishing in both employment and real wage terms. And for the lower skilled, employment is up at the cost of lower real wages for the group as a whole. This has been a jobs-rich, but pay-poor, recovery.

Productivity as well? It is hard to avoid that thought.

A feature of our times

I will simply ask you to look at the time period here and will leave you to draw your own conclusions.



There is much to consider here. But it is clear to me that the problem for us in what we like to call the first world began well before the credit crunch. Secondly as so often we find ourselves with data simply unfit for the task. We can look at that several ways of which the technical one is that if we do not bother to put the earnings of the self-employed into the average earnings numbers then we are likely to be clueless about their productivity. More hopefully we need to include the technological changes in the area of leisure in some form as other wise we are likely in the future to get another “surprise” when a big move happens in the business world as a result.

Meanwhile if we return to Andy Haldane the media have failed to point out that he has been directly responsible for a fall in productivity. I do not mean the reduction in annual Bank of England meetings from 12 to 8 as that was the “improvement” driven by its dedicated follower of fashion Mark Carney. What I mean is the way that zombie companies have been propped up by his Sledgehammer QE and even worse corporate bond QE which also props up foreign companies. This contributes to situations like this having a particular dark side.

Despite having fallen by almost 10% since the crisis, real wages among the top 10% are still over 20% higher than in 1997. But wages for the bottom 20% have fallen by almost 20% since 2007 and are essentially back to where they were in 1997.

What about the 0.1%?





Of UK wages, robotics and the gig economy

Today we advance on the UK wages data knowing that the pick-up in inflation we have been expecting is now coming to fruition. Albeit that today’s wages numbers only bring us up to date of the 3 months to October so we will be experiencing lagged data. Yesterday also reminded us of two things. Firstly how poor the economics profession has become at predicting inflation and that there is invariably an “Early Wire” of them in currency markets as some find themselves being more equal than others. Interestingly the economist Douglas McWilliams has put up a defence this morning.

….and most people think Cebr forecasts are usually right!

Our Doug seems to be a passionate supporter of one of the new forms of measuring GDP or Gross Domestic Product if this from Business Insider in March 2015 is any guide.

Douglas McWilliams, one of the world’s leading economists and a former advisor to UK Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson, was allegedly filmed smoking crack in a drugs den in Britain’s capital city.

He is also is facing trial for allegedly assaulting a prostitute on New Year’s Eve after she refused to take crack with him.

Sometimes you really could not make it up.

Meanwhile we see two things from the world of football. Firstly that price inflation is rampant and secondly that capital controls in China may not being doing so well. From BBC Sport.

Chelsea have reportedly accepted a bid of £60m for Oscar – he’ll leave for China in January.

The war on cash

This seems to have developed a new front in what might be called the South China Territories but has been immortalised in song as a land down under. From

Speaking to ABC radio on Wednesday, Revenue and Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer flagged a review of the $100 note and cash payments over certain limits as the government looks to recoup billions in unpaid tax……“The whole point of this crackdown on the black economy is to make sure we close down any potential loopholes,” she said. Despite the broad use of electronic forms of payment, Ms O’Dwyer warned there are three times as many $100 notes in circulation than $5 notes.

What could go wrong? Well there are echoes of the disaster that demonetisation has become in India here.

There are currently 300 million $100 notes in circulation, and 92 per cent of all currency by value is in $50 and $100 notes.

Also there is the issue that this is also presented as a boost to banks and savers will then have to put more money with them as another move favours the “precious”. Oh and I would wager that the unofficial economy in Australia is a lot more than 1.5% of GDP.


As we look to the future of wages growth it is hard not to wonder about the effect of improved robots on the situation. Just over a year ago Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane offered this view.

For the UK, that would suggest up to 15 million jobs could be at risk of automation.  In the US, the corresponding figure would be 80 million jobs.

For some jobs this will depress wages although of course it may well boost others. There is a cautionary note which is that Andy has a very poor forecasting record which I am sure any respectable AI style robot could improve. The Resolution Foundation has also considered possible benefits from this general trend and theme.

Given high employment, terrible productivity performance and low investment, the UK arguably needs more automation, not less.

Today’s UK numbers

There was in fact some good news from the wages series.

Between August to October 2015 and August to October 2016, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.5%, slightly higher than the growth rate between July to September 2015 and July to September 2016 (2.4%).

So both a higher number and an upwards past revision. This was driven by the fact that wages rose by 2.8% in the month of October alone driven by an 8.6% rise in construction wages and a 4.4% rise in the wholesale sector ( retail and hotels). This meant that real pay would have risen in October as inflation also dipped slightly but the more general pattern is stationary.

Over the same 3-month period, real AWE (regular pay) grew by 1.7%, the same as the growth seen in the 3 months to September

Of course the wages numbers look much worse if we use the RPI or Retail Price Index as our inflation measure where we find ourselves knocking around 1% off the numbers above.

The next number can be seen in two ways.

Total hours worked per week were 1.01 billion for August to October 2016. This was 5.0 million fewer than for May to July 2016 but 7.3 million more than for a year earlier.

Some are reporting this as a post EU vote hiring freeze. It does show a possible change in our previously booming employment position but of course with GDP growing does in fact show a rise in likely productivity.

Whilst the unemployment rate remained at 4.8% there was in fact a small but welcome fall in unemployment.

There were 1.62 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work), 16,000 fewer than for May to July 2016 and 103,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

However the claimant count or registered unemployment did rise by 2400 in November which may be a sign of something but this number is not only experimental it comes from a series which no-one has any great faith in.


There is much to consider in all of this and the undercut to another pretty good set of UK labour market is those who are excluded such as the self-employed who do not appear in the average earnings numbers. Some insight into conditions in the gig industry have been provided by Izzy from FT Alphaville as shown below.

The interviewer stressed I would be earning a standard rate of £7 per hour plus a £1 per delivery bonus for every order completed, but frequently emphasised that I would probably be taking home as much as £12 per hour because of surge incentives. …………In total I did five shifts, and earned an average of £8.10 per hour. The London living wage is supposed to be £9.75, according to London authorities. The national required living wage is £7.20 but goes to £7.50 in April next year.

There were various other issues such as compulsory weekend shifts and Izzy’s view that to get surge wages you had to be available 24/7. As to efficiency the app drained her phone battery quickly and there was also this.

Outside of the office lay heaps of bikes atop of each other, most of them cast loosely aside the building. There appeared to be absolutely nowhere to secure a bike properly — which I thought strange for a cycling courier service.

Actually this resonated with me but from a different industry as my brother has worked as a driving instructor on as franchise basis where companies produce earnings forecasts which are somewhere between misleading and outright fantasy in practice. Both have a type of fixed cost as Deliveroo requires the rider to but branded corporate clothing and driving instructors have a period to which they must commit to pay the weekly franchise fee.

If we return to the official picture then the Resolution Foundation has provided some perspective with this.






Of Bond Yields and Productivity without forgetting Brexit day songs

Hello and welcome to the day the UK finally votes on European Union membership or Brexit. In London the weather was on the case as we have had what Freddie Mercury called “thunder and lightning, very very frightening” overnight and more of the same is expected later. Please do not be put off by what has been a nasty campaign – the kinder campaign promised last week seemed to have a shorter life than a Mayfly – and vote whatever your leaning as it is a right people have fought and died for.  The currency markets with the UK Pound £ at US $1.48 and Euro 1.30 have placed some one-way bets but of course if markets were always right life would be a lot easier than it is! Anyway let us move onto today’s subject except as you might expect there will be a song list for Brexit referendum day.

Bond yields and productivity

This is an issue raised by the former IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard at the Pieterson Institute. But first we are reminded of something important which is that the rules that apply to us plebs do not apply to the establishment. Monsieur Blanchard was responsible for the policies applied to Greece on his watch as I note this from his Ten Commandments in June 2010.

Fiscal adjustment is key to high private investment and long-term growth.

Of course the fantasies about a Greek economic recovery were produced on his watch too. Then there is this.

You shall target a long-term decline in the public debt-to-GDP ratio, not just its stabilization at post-crisis levels.

As well as Greece which also needed a default ( PSI ) in 2012 we have Portugal to consider here. Of course Olivier had a mea culpa later on which is welcome but if an airplane designer had seen the results of his work crash and burn like what happened to Greece who would fly on his/her next plane? Anyway Olivier has carried on pretty much regardless.

The Economics

Olivier opens with something of a strawman argument.

Long-run productivity growth appears likely to be low, and productivity growth and interest rates move largely together, so one should expect long rates to be low as well.

We have very little idea of where interest-rates as in bond yields would be without all the intervention as I note that today we have learned that the Bank of Japan now owns 34% of the Japanese Government Bond Market. Olivier is not keen on that argument for different reasons though.

Yes, measured productivity growth has decreased, and seemingly not due to measurement error (Byrne et al. 2016, Syverson 2016).

I have highlighted the bit with which I can only disagree completely. As I look ever more deeply into the UK data on the subject I realise that we know much less than we think and that we could and probably are making large mistakes. Actually Olivier behaves like a stereotypical economist here.

Expect lower productivity growth, but be ready to be surprised.

The bit that I note is like my “something wonderful” ( 2001 A Space Odyssey ) thought.

But when one listens to Silicon Valley, one cannot help but expect a substantial probability of a much larger role for robots and artificial intelligence in general, and by implication, much higher productivity gains.

That seems a likely future but missed by Olivier is the implication of that. Will it be a science fiction Star Trek style world where the benefits of capitalism are shared around? A  time of leisure and ease for all. Or will it be a type of Marxist world where capitalists overlords amass great wealth paid for by their robots whilst the ordinary person sees harder times. In science fiction terms that makes me think of the Harkonnen’s in the novel Dune. It makes me shudder a bit.

We move onto an area where Olivier appears for a while to be influenced by the early work of Oasis.

that people live forever, or act as if they lived forever, and that people are willing to defer consumption if the interest rate is higher.

The latter part of that has seemed to be true in the past but we know in our new world of negative interest-rates that people are willing to defer consumption as well if the interest-rate is not only lower but pretty much zero. I have written recently about the Swedish propensity to save continuing well the Germans seem rather keen on it as well.

I am not so sure that the Germans are that peculiar as I note that the Euro area without them has not seen that much of a fall in savings once we allow for the fact that some of it has hard a very hard credit crunch. Only yesterday the Swedes took some time off from the football and cheering the last international for the Zlatan to let us know this.

Households’ net deposits were at a record level of SEK 35 billion, mainly in regular savings accounts in banks and at the Swedish Tax Agency during the first quarter of 2016.

What is the conclusion?

Well we are told this.

Forecasts of long-term growth, and the general commentary in newspapers, are gloomy. I believe that this bad news about the future largely explains the relative weakness of demand today. Put in more academic terms, bad news about the future supply side is leading to a Keynesian slowdown, or at least a weaker recovery today.

Olivier skirts over the disaster that has been official “Forward Guidance” so his first factor is an ever weakening influence as people listen less and less to people like him. However he misses important points which explain why we are where we are and again sometimes he is simply wrong.

Banks are no longer deleveraging, and credit supply is abundant and cheap.

As to banks no longer deleveraging that is not what I have been hearing and seeing. We see a regular flow of job losses on the news wires and occasional large retrenchments such as Barclays announcing plans to pull out of Africa. That is before we get to the share prices of banks around the world. If we move to credit supply it is abundant and cheap in many places for consumer borrowing but if the UK is any guide much less so for companies and businesses.


There are things to consider here and deeper issues that Olivier’s it might stay depressed or it might improve analysis. Let me remind you again of another issue he has dodged which is that one of his variables interest-rates ( I am including bond yields here) has been driven by what he might call “people like us”. This has changed the world as the idea of a market driven interest-rate seems an anachronism from a distant past and investors spend their time trying to front-run central banks. What could go wrong? Tucked in there might be an explanation of why people are saving for no apparent return at these levels of interest-rates.

Also our world has seen apparent expansionary policy have contractionary influences. The impact of QE in the UK helped reduce real wages in 2011/12 for example from which they have yet to fully recover. Also there is the issue of long-term saving and pensions how does that work in our supposedly brave new world? People may think they need to save more whilst around the world we see businesses being told they need to put more into pension funds which is another contractionary effect of our QE world. Oh and all the can-kicking has left people afraid not unreasonably in my view that it could all happen again. In fact it seems more likely and not less in more than a few places.

Songs for Brexit Day

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now by The Clash

The Final Countdown by Europe

Making Your Mind Up by Bucks Fizz

For Remain

Stay by Jackson Browne

Stay by Eternal

Don’t Leave Me This Way by The Communards

Please Don’t Go by KC and the Sunshine Band

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It by REM

Come Together by The Beatles

For Leave

D-I-V-O-R-C-E by Tammy Winette

Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover by Paul Simon

Go Now by The Moody Blues

Another Brick In The Wall by Pink Floyd

Burning Down The House by Talking Heads

I Want To Break Free by Queen

Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac

Should we get another vote

Coming Around Again by Carly Simon

Europe Endless by Kraftwerk

Complete Control by The Clash


Thanks for the suggestions I have already received.





Explaining the problem that is UK productivity growth

A regular feature of economic analysis in the credit crunch era has been where has the productivity growth gone? The knee-jerk reaction from establishment economists was as usual to assume that reality was wrong and their models correct and so they assumed that it would rise even faster in the future to make up the gap. For example back in June 2010 the hapless UK Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that UK productivity growth would have recovered such that wage growth would have been  be running at above 4% since 2013/14. Problem solved! Except that only in their Ivory Towers did such a solution work as below the clouds the situation changed little if at all.

To my mind it is the last 3 years or so that have really illustrated the issue as we have seen the official measure of economic growth rise on a sustained basis. On that measure the recovery has become mature and one would therefore have hoped that productivity growth would have picked up and risen noticeably. So it is especially troubling that we find ourselves wondering what happened to it right now. Even worse if this week’s Markit business surveys indicate a new trend of slowing economic growth.

The establishment could not ignore it for ever

Half way through 2014 someone at the Bank of England must have decided that enough was enough and that maybe something had changed.

Since the onset of the 2007–08 financial crisis, labour productivity in the United Kingdom has been exceptionally weak. Despite some modest improvements in 2013, whole-economy output per hour remains around 16% below the level implied by its pre-crisis trend………This shortfall is sometimes referred to as the ‘UK productivity puzzle’,

Indeed the comparison with past recessions was stark.

Even six years after the initial downturn, the level of productivity lies around 4% below its pre-crisis peak, in contrast to the level of output, which has broadly recovered to its pre-crisis level.

However the response of the establishment followed a disappointing theme as another hapless body gave us Forward Guidance on productivity.

A key judgement in the May 2014 Inflation Report is for productivity growth to pick up.

We can skip the cyclical arguments presented back then as we have cycled on so to speak but there were issues raised then partially dismissed which do apply.

Growth rates in output per hour  have been persistently weaker than GDP, reflecting strong employment growth over the past few years.

This reflects two factors in my view. Firstly ( and the Bank of England either forgot or redacted this) is that for years and indeed decades economists in the UK had wanted us to be more like Germany and keep more workers employed when a recession hits. The other has been an increase in supply of labour as more people have moved to the UK to find work. This is a politicaly charged issue and the Bank of England tip-toed around it.

In addition, it may be that the financial crisis led to an increase in labour supply in the United Kingdom.

But they have to face up to some of the consequences.

The crisis is likely to have reduced both current real incomes and expected future labour incomes, which may have encouraged more people to seek work and participate in the labour market.

In other words the labour supply curve shifted downwards as labour became cheaper and more of it was used. On that road there was less pressure to improve productivity as wages were lower. You may also note that right up to now we have been discussing weak wage growth and the establishment continues to expect a turn higher at every turn.

Output per individual

The Bank of England tried to shuffle past this issue but I think it matters a lot because there are strong hints of an issue from the GDP per head numbers.

GDP is now 7.3% above its pre-downturn peak and has been growing for 13 consecutive quarters.

We know that the population has grown however so that GDP per head is lower. If we look at the boom phase since 2013 then this has continued with GDP growth being 8.3% but per head only 5.2%.

Sectoral Issues

The Office for National Statistics has been listening to this debate and offered some views on Wednesday and today.

Administrative and support service activities has grown by the largest amount, with a growth rate of 22.3% for the 4 year period, closely followed by professional, scientific and technical activities at 19.1%.

Okay so they have been the leaders so who are the laggards?

production industries made up 3 of the 5 slowest growing industries. One production industry – electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply – was one of only two industries to experience negative growth across the four-year period.

I think that the recent mild winter may be a factor in the energy supply industry as it has high fixed costs but it is revealing that it is another area where production has been struggling. Shakespeare was ahead of the game with his point that troubles like this come in “battalions” rather than “single spies”.

Oh and I wonder if those calculating the numbers have overrepresented their own productivity!

However, administration and support service activities features toward the top end of both distributions,

It has had another go this morning and confined itself to the market-sector of the economy.

These estimates also suggest that lower capital service per hour worked and weaker than normal improvements in labour quality held back productivity growth in 2014.

So 2014 was a bit better but still below past experience. I was pleased that such numbers exclude matters such as imputed rent and see that as a success for my arguments and campaigns.

The Services Problem

This is the issue of how we measure this and it is twofold. Firstly there is the problem that many services are intangible and thus output measures are problematic. The other is that some gains here are from products which are in effect free but GDP measurements need a price (that is not zero). For example it is only anecdotal but a friend told me last week that Linkedin and Facebook were very useful for his business but he only used the free versions. So his productivity was in his opinion higher but our national accounts cannot measure it.

Back in 2014 an effort was made but it was vague. At least Price Waterhouse had a go.

Total revenues for the five most prominent sharing economy sectors – peer-to-peer (P2P) finance, online staffing, P2P accommodation, car sharing and music/video streaming – could rise to around £9 billion in the UK by 2025, up from just £0.5 billion today, according to new analysis by PwC.

Professor Diane Coyle has been looking into this and suggested some numbers to give us an idea of scale.

it is highly likely that more than a million people are providing services via these platforms. This is equivalent to about 3% of the workforce, although many or most of them probably do not regard this as employment in the conventional sense.

We wonder what is employment quite regularly on here of course. But it is missed also by the productivity numbers.

The debate about the UK’s productivity performance should take account of the fact that the sharing economy acts as a kind of technological progress, equivalent to increasing the amount of capital available in the economy. But this effect is not recorded in the measured statistics and productivity.

Actually as she points out it may even reduce it as things which are measured are replaced by things which are not measured.


At times of large structural change there are always going to be issues for official statistics. We have seen and indeed are seeing three large moves at one. The credit crunch blitzed some sectors and sent the whole economy into reverse. The official response has been to try to pump up sectors such as housing and banking. Meanwhile there has been enormous change in technology and the virtual world which we are often missed by the old ways of measurement.

Thus we need ch-ch-changes but the initial problem is the way that we have become wedded to GDP as a measure. Or to be more precise it would as a beginning be helpful if the UK returned to publishing more openly the three different GDP measures adding Income and Expenditure to Output. Why? Well the income figures from the US have added value but when I tried to get similar data for the UK I was told that Nigel Lawson scrapped much of it as I guess it “frightened the horses” to coin a phrase. Yet as Diane Coyle points out something seems to be happening.

In the past, the statistical discrepancy was of the order of £1bn, and more recently £2-3bn.. In 2014 it reached an extraordinary £9bn.

We can do much more to get data from the online world using so-called big data and web scraping. This will not give us a complete answer but it will be better and I believe there will be more cheer in it than the official data we get now. As the sun is out let’s have a little optimism and hope it will wean our establishment off pumping up the housing market.

Turn and face the strange
Oh, look out you rock ‘n’ rollers
Turn and face the strange (David Bowie)




Is the UK just another victim of Industrial Disease?

It was only yesterday that I pointed out that the latest business surveys for the UK were suggesting a slowing of the rate of economic growth. Tucked away on the website of the UK Office for National Statistics there was also this.

UK labour productivity as measured by output per hour fell by 1.2% from the third to the fourth calendar quarter of 2015 and was some 14% below an extrapolation based on its pre-downturn trend.

This should not have been a complete shock as hours worked were up 1.7% in the labour market report whereas GDP had risen by only 0.6% but it was very disappointing. After all we were hoping that productivity would improve as the boom continues.

There are differing ways of measuring productivity and the full set is shown below.

By contrast, output per worker and output per job were both broadly unchanged between the third and fourth quarters. On all 3 measures, labour productivity was about half a per cent higher in Quarter 4 2015 than in the same quarter of 2014.

As you can see they disagree over the latest quarter but if we look at the previous year we then get another disappointing result as productivity growth of 0.5% compares with GDP growth of 1.9% and is even below the GDP growth per head of 1.1%. Indeed if we move to the wages figures we see this in the period to the end of December.

Between October to December 2014 and October to December 2015, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 1.9%

So wage growth exceeded productivity growth too as we wonder what is really going on. If we look back we see that the productivity issue has been one which has bedevilled the credit crunch era.

Output per hour across the service sector has grown in each year since 2009 (albeit only marginally so in 2010 and 2012). By contrast, manufacturing output per hour has fallen in 3 of the 6 years since 2009 and was lower in 2015 than in 2010.

The services sector

There is a real problem here measuring output and hence even worse problems with one of its derivatives productivity. This is highlighted by the debate over the sharing or collaborative economy which the ONS defines thus.

While there is no agreed definition of the sharing economy, it is generally regarded as being activity that is facilitated by digital platforms which enable people or businesses to share property, resources, time, or skills, allowing them to ‘unlock’ previously unused or under-used assets.

The problem for measurement is that money is not always exchanged which is a clear issue for GDP which is based on market prices but nonetheless there does seem to be economic activity there.

The sharing economy is a growing market within the UK; in 2014 it was estimated to be worth £0.5 billion and is forecasted to grow to over £9 billion by 2025.

I guess AirBnB,Uber and ZipCar are the most well-known examples of this and other estimates of the economic impact are even larger.

In 2014, Nesta3 estimated that 25% of the UK adult population are sharing online in some way and Professor Diane Coyle4 estimated that 3% of the UK workforce is already providing a service through the sharing economy.

There are various issues with this but my point is ( and this is one that I made to the Bean Review of UK Economic Statistics) is that we know much less than we should about services activity. There is an obvious flaw in it being some 80% by now of our economic activity and it means that derivatives such as productivity as even less reliable. Of course when the products are intangible as most services are there are problems to begin with.

Let me remind everyone that the UK trade figures are based on quarterly and annual surveys for services. So how do they produce monthly trade and hence output figures? Well exactly…..

Manufacturing problems

This morning’s output data is not exactly in line with the season and is not especially cheerful either.

The largest contribution to the fall (in the year to February) came from manufacturing, which decreased by 1.8%. This was the largest fall since July 2013, when it fell by an equal amount.


This was driven by a monthly fall as shown below.

manufacturing (the largest component of production) having the largest contribution to the decrease, falling by 1.1%.

If we look back for a greater perspective we see this.

In the 3 months to February 2016, production and manufacturing were 10.6% and 6.8% respectively below their figures reached in the pre-downturn GDP peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008.

Back in October last year I expressed my fears about UK manufacturing as shown in the link below.

What about manufacturing productivity?

There is an issue here and we should be better at measuring it than in the service sector for the obvious reason that something and hopefully lots of products are physically produced. But yesterday’s productivity update was particularly troubling in this area.

Output per hour in manufacturing fell by 2.0% on the previous quarter and was 3.4% lower than a year earlier.

A long way from the “march of the makers” isn’t it? Well it gets worse.

By contrast, manufacturing output per hour has fallen in 3 of the 6 years since 2009 and was lower in 2015 than in 2010.

Or as the ONS summarises it.

The weakness of manufacturing productivity since 2011 has been a defining feature of the UK productivity puzzle, notwithstanding a ‘false dawn’ in 2014.

We seem to have stopped trying to increase productivity and have instead employed more people to increase output. This is good for employment levels but does help explain why there has been so little wage growth and in fact why real wages are still lower now than pre credit crunch.


It has not been a good phase for UK Production either.

Total production output is estimated to have decreased by 0.5% in February 2016 compared with the same month a year ago, the largest fall since August 2013.

We already know from the numbers above that it is some 10.6% below the pre-credit crunch peak. In essence there were two factors driving the most recent fall. I have already covered manufacturing and the other was the consequence of a mild winter for electricity and gas output. You may be surprised to learn that mining and quarrying was up by 4.7% and thereby was a 0.6% upwards influence in the last year.

It is hard to see how productivity here could be rising.

The trade problem

There is an element of same as it ever was here in today’s release.

Between the 3 months to November 2015 and the 3 months to February 2016, the total trade deficit (goods and services) widened by £3.8 billion to £13.7 billion. This is the largest 3 monthly deficit since the 3 months to March 2008, when the deficit was £14.4 billion.

On and on we go month after month,year after year,decade after decade and my friend Frances Coppola has referred to this in the Financial Times. She makes a fair point here.

There is a structural trade deficit of around 2 per cent of GDP, mostly with the EU. This widened slightly in Q4 of 2015, but only back to the 2014 position.

The rest of the current account problem is mostly investment flows and returns. But I do not agree about this bit. It shpuld be true but in practice rarely is.

Since we don’t have freely floating exchange rates, the world has persistent trade imbalances. But that’s also fine, as long as capital can move freely.

Also the latest productivity figures are rather eloquent in response to this.

There is zero evidence that the economy is undergoing a terminal decline in competitiveness.

Oh and if Frances will forgive me articles in the Financial Times telling us everything is okay are one of my warning signals.


There is here an eloquent explanation of why the UK Pound £ has been falling in 2016 and we no doubt need the boost that a move equivalent yo a 1.75% cut in Bank Rate will provide. The catch is that the 2007/08 devaluation and depreciation disappointed in terms of economic impact and the poor productivity figures are unlikely to help in that so we find ourselves singing along to and in Dire Straits.

He wrote me a prescription he said ‘you are depressed
But I’m glad you came to see me to get this off your chest
Come back and see me later – next patient please
Send in another victim of Industrial Disease’

The counterpoint is that the productivity figures are almost certainly wrong as indeed are the trade figures. The catch to this is that both series and the trade figures in particular have a long time series of problems and that is much harder to argue away. Oh and whilst I am on statistical issues things like this keep happening in a world where the official numbers says that there is no inflation. From Joe Sarling.

I feel the need to vent about England rugby tickets. Cheapest tickets available for Eng v Arg on general sale? £82 per person