UK Retail Sales are booming again and are being driven by lower inflation

The beat of UK economic data goes on as our official statisticians do their best to flood us with it on certain days which sadly has the effect that some matters get missed. It is sadly to report that those at the top of the Office for National Statistics have rather lost the plot and if the evidence they gave to the recent parliamentary enquiry is any guide are prioritising chasing clicks rather than providing information. The labour market release which used to be fairly clear is now something of a shambles of separate releases.

Let us however buck the trend by looking at the numbers which give us an international comparison for our national debt and deficit. Regular readers will be aware that the UK ONS has its own methodology which is neither international nor understood much as I recall Stephanie Flanders when she was BBC economics editor suddenly realising some of the reality. Let me illustrate with the numbers.

At the end of December 2018, UK general government gross debt was £1,837.5 billion, equivalent to 86.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) . This represents an increase of £51.4 billion since the end of December 2017, although debt as a percentage of GDP fell by 0.4 percentage points from 87.1% over the same period. This fall in the ratio of debt to GDP implies that GDP is currently growing at a greater rate than government debt.

That quote does a fair job of explaining how the debt is now rising at a slower rate than economic output meaning it is rising in absolute terms but falling in real ones.

If we move to the annual deficit we see this.

In 2018, UK general government deficit was £32.3 billion, equivalent to 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) ; the lowest annual deficit since 2001. This represents a decrease of £5.8 billion compared with borrowing in 2017.

In the financial year ending March 2018, the UK government deficit was £43.3 billion (or 2.1% of GDP), a decrease of £3.0 billion compared with the previous financial year.

As you can see the pattern is familiar of a falling deficit and if we start with the deficit there is something of an irony as we note this.

This is the second consecutive year in which government deficit has been below the 3.0% Maastricht reference value.

Although in debt terms we are way over.

General government gross debt first exceeded the 60% Maastricht reference value at the end of 2009, when it was 63.7% of GDP.

Rather confusingly the ONS points us towards the January so let us look at the deficit in tax year terms.

Borrowing in the financial year ending (FYE) March 2018 was £41.9 billion, £3.0 billion less than in FYE March 2017; the lowest financial year for 11 years (since FYE 2007).

So only a small difference here but the debt figures show a much wider one in absolute terms.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks) at the end of January 2019 was £1,782.1 billion (or 82.6% of gross domestic product (GDP))

The two main differences are the switch from net to gross debt and the switch from public finances to central government which means a difference of around 4% of GDP.

But we see that the numbers still show a considerable improvement.

Retail Sales

The present upbeat springlike mood got an extra boost this morning from this.

The monthly growth rate in the quantity bought in March 2019 increased by 1.1%, with food stores and non-store retailing providing the largest contributions to this growth. Year-on-year growth in the quantity bought increased by 6.7% in March 2019, the highest since October 2016, with a range of stores noting that the milder weather this year helped boost sales in comparison with the “Beast from the East” impacting sales in March 2018.

The weather probably helped as noted and in case you were wondering the numbers are seasonally adjusted for Easter. But as I noted value growth of 7.3% that meant that a rough guide to inflation is 0.6% or my January 2015 theme has worked one more time.

 However if we look at the retail-sectors in the UK,Spain and Ireland we see that price falls are so far being accompanied by volume gains and as it happens by strong volume gains. This could not contradict conventional economic theory much more clearly. If the history of the credit crunch is any guide many will try to ignore reality and instead cling to their prized and pet theories but I prefer reality ever time. ( January 29th 2015)

This poses quite a problem for central bankers as they want to push inflation back to and in some cases ( as we have recently analysed) above 2% per annum. This would weaken retail sales and other measures as the reduce real wages by doing so. Or if you prefer they would be ignoring the reality of “sticky wages” and preferring Ivory Tower theory. Maybe that is why they seem keener on targeting climate change than inflation these days as we are deflected away from their main job.

As this series is erratic on a monthly basis we need to run a check looking further back but when we do so the answer changes little.

In the three months to March 2019 (Quarter 1), the quantity bought in retail sales increased by 1.6% when compared with Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2018, following sustained growth throughout the first three months of the year. All store types except department stores and household goods stores increased in the quantity bought in the three months to March 2019, when compared with the previous three months.

It seems that the UK consumer has not waited to spend the benefits of higher real wages. At least for once we may not be observing a debt financed splurge although this does on the downside pose a worry about the trade figures, especially if this morning’s PMI survey suggesting economic growth has slowed again in the Euro area is accurate.

Putting this into song it is time for the Spencer Davis Group.

So keep on running
Keep on running,

Comment

As we approach Easter on Maundy Thursday we see that much of the UK economic data is in tune with the spring and the warm sunny weather that has arrived in London. This week has seen mostly steady inflation with continuing wage and employment growth and now has retail sales on a bit of an apparent tear. This is reinforced by the delayed debt and deficit data that matches international standards. Of course the economic output or GDP data is much more sanguine as we wait to see which will be right.

All of these numbers have their flaws. If we take an even-handed view we see that the omission of the self-employed from the wages numbers is a handicap but on the other side the omission of frankly a fair bit of modern life with things like Whatsapp being free and not being in GDP is a rising problem there.

Let me wish you a happy Easter as the UK takes a long weekend and add something else. Next month Japan will take a long break due to the accession of a new Emperor as what is called Golden Week becomes more like a Golden Fortnight. Some seem to approach this with trepidation, has the control freakery become so high, it has come to this?

Taken to dizzy new heights
Blinding with the lights, blinding with the lights
Dizzy new heights
Has it come to this?
Original pirate material
Your listening to the streets  ( The Streets)

Me on The Investing Channel

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Good to see UK wages rising much faster than house prices at last

Today feels like spring has sprung and I hope it is doing the same for you, or at least those of you also in the Northern Hemisphere. The economic situation looks that way too at least initially as China has reported annual GDP growth of 6.4% for the first quarter of 2019. However the industrial production data has gone in terms of annual rates 5.8%,5.9%,5.4%,5.7%, 5.3% and now 8.7% in March which is the highest rate for four and a half years. Or as C+C Music Factory put it.

Things that make you go, hmm
Things that make you go, hmm
Things that make you go, hmm, hey
Things that make you go, hmm, hmm, hmm

In the UK we await the latest inflation data and we do so after another in a sequence of better wage growth figures. In its Minutes from the 20th of March the Bank of England looked at prospects like this.

Twelve-month CPI inflation had risen slightly in February to 1.9%, in line with Bank staff’s expectations
immediately prior to the release, and slightly above the February Inflation Report forecast. The near-term path
for CPI inflation was expected to be a touch higher than at the time of the Committee’s previous meeting,
though remaining close to the 2% target over the coming months. This partly reflected a 6% increase in sterling
spot oil prices, and the announcement by Ofgem on 7 February of an increase in the caps for standard variable
and pre-payment tariffs, from April, which had been somewhat larger than expected.

I do like the idea of claiming you got things right just before the release, oh dear! Also it is not their fault but the price cap for domestic energy rather backfired and frankly looks a bit of a mess. It will impact on the figures we will get in a month.

Prospects

Let us open with the oil prices mentioned by the Bank of England as the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil has reached US $72 this morning. So a higher oil price has arrived although we need context as it was here this time last year. The rise has been taking place since it nearly touched US $50 pre-Christmas. Putting this into context we see that petrol prices rose by around 2 pence per litre in March and diesel by around 1.5. So this will be compared with this from last year.

When considering the price of petrol between February and March 2019, it may be useful to note that the average price of petrol fell by 1.6 pence per litre between February and March 2018, to stand at 119.2 pence per litre as measured in the CPIH.

Just for context the price now is a penny or so higher but the monthly picture is of past falls now being replaced by a rise. Also just in case you had wondered about the impact here it is.

A 1 pence change on average in the cost of a litre of motor fuel contributes approximately 0.02 percentage points to the 1-month change in the CPIH.

If we now switch to the US Dollar exchange rate ( as the vast majority of commodities are priced in dollars) we see several different patterns. Recently not much has changed as I think traders just yawn at Brexit news although we have seen a rise since it dipped below US $1.25 in the middle of December. Although if we look back we are around 9% lower than a year ago because if I recall correctly that was the period when Bank of England Governor Mark Carney was busy U-Turning and talking down the pound.

So in summary we can expect some upwards nudges on producer prices which will in subsequent months feed onto the consumer price data. Added to that is if we look East a potential impact from what has been happening in China to pig farming.

Chinese pork prices are expected to jump more than 70 percent from the previous year in the second half of 2019, an agriculture ministry official said on Wednesday………China, which accounts for about half of global pork output, is struggling to contain an outbreak of deadly African swine fever, which has spread rapidly through the country’s hog herd.

That is likely to have an impact here as China offers higher prices for alternative sources of supply. So bad news for us in inflation terms but good news for pig farmers.

Today’s Data

I would like to start with something very welcome and indeed something we have been waiting for on here for ages.

Average house prices in the UK increased by 0.6% in the year to February 2019, down from 1.7% in January 2019 . This is the lowest annual rate since September 2012 when it was 0.4%. Over the past two years, there has been a slowdown in UK house price growth, driven mainly by a slowdown in the south and east of England.

This means that if we look at yesterday’s wage growth data then any continuation of this will mean that real wages in housing terms are rising at around 3% per annum. There is a very long way to go but at least we are on our way.

The driving force is this and on behalf of three of my friends in particular let me welcome it.

The lowest annual growth was in London, where prices fell by 3.8% over the year to February 2019, down from a decrease of 2.2% in January 2019. This was followed by the South East where prices fell 1.8% over the year.

As they try to make their way in the Battersea area prices are way out of reach of even what would be regarded as good salaries such that they are looking at a 25% shared appreciation deal as the peak. Hopefully if we get some more falls they will be able to average down by raising  to 50% and so on but that is as Paul Simon would say.

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance
Everybody thinks it’s true

One development which raises a wry smile is that house price inflation is now below rental inflation.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.2% in the 12 months to March 2019, up from 1.1% in February 2019……..London private rental prices rose by 0.5% in the 12 months to March 2019, up from 0.2% in February 2019.

What that tells us is not as clear as you might think because the numbers are lagged. Our statisticians keep the exact lag a secret but I believe it to be around nine months. So whilst we would expect rents to be pulled higher by the better nominal and real wage data the official rental series will not be showing that until the end of the year

Comment

The development of real wages in housing terms is very welcome. Of course the Bank of England will be in a tizzy about wealth effects but like so often they are mostly for the few who actually sell or look to add to their mortgage as opposed to the many who might like to buy but are presently priced out. Also existing owners have in general had a long good run. Those who can think back as far as last Thursday might like to mull how house price targeting would be going right now?

Moving to consumer inflation then not a lot happened with the only move of note being RPI inflation nudging down to 2.4%. The effects I described above were in there but an erratic item popped up and the emphasis is mine.

Within this group, the largest downward effect came from games, toys and hobbies, particularly computer games

If a new game or two comes in we will swing the other way.

Looking further up the line I have to confess this was a surprise with the higher oil price in play.

The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process was 3.7% on the year to March 2019, down from 4.0% in February 2019.

So again a swing the other way seems likely to be in play for this month.

Meanwhile,what does the ordinary person think? It is not the best of news for either the Bank of England or our official statisticians.

Question 1: Asked to give the current rate of inflation, respondents gave a median answer of 2.9%, compared to 3.1% in November.

Question 2a: Median expectations of the rate of inflation over the coming year were 3.2%, remaining the same as in November.

Will the UK labour market data prove to be a better guide than GDP again?

It was a week or so ago that we took an in-depth view on UK productivity and yesterday the Financial Times was on the case. As ever they open with what is their priority.

Britain is the only large advanced economy likely to see a decline in productivity growth this year, according to new research, a development the Bank of England governor has blamed on Brexit.

There are a few begged questions here as for example the particularly weak period for UK productivity was in 2013/14 well before Brexit and in fact late 2017 or so was a relatively good period for it. The next part is more soundly based I think.

The figures from the Conference Board, a US non-profit research group, highlight the productivity crisis that has struck the UK since the financial crash of 2008-09, with the slowdown worse than in any other comparable country.

Indeed we have had a problem here but I am afraid that the Conference Board then gets a little carried away as it veers towards Fake News territory.

Britain is now in its tenth year of feeble labour productivity growth, Bart van Ark, chief economist of the Conference Board, said. “The UK is a consistent story of slow output growth, slow employment growth and slow productivity growth,” he warned. “Not even employment is growing quickly any more.”

The UK employment performance is something we follow month by month and has been really good since about 2012 so I am afraid that Bart is barking up the wrong tree. If we look at matters from the perspective of the UK employment rate it has risen from 70.1% at the end of 2011 to 76.1% now. On a chart going back to 1971 there is only one period where it rose faster ( 87-89) and that sadly then led to a bust.

Here are the numbers from the Conference Board and you may spot the holes in this yourselves.

The Conference Board figures show that the UK’s annual growth in output for every hour worked fell from 2.2 per cent between 2000 and 2007 to 0.5 per cent between 2010 and 2017. Last year, productivity growth achieved that figure again but with a buoyant jobs market and weak output growth, it is likely to fall to only 0.2 per cent in 2019.

So the “Not even employment is growing quickly any more” is also a “buoyant jobs market”! I note that rather than being hit by Brexit as originally claimed productivity last year was in line with the post credit crunch average, We end up with an expected weak 2019 leading to low productivity growth. If that makes you fear for Italy and Germany which at the moment have worse output prospects than us well apparently not.

The average equivalent growth rate in several dozen other mature economies is expected to be 1.1 per cent, said the Conference Board.

If we use the OECD and compare ourselves in 2018 we did better than Italy ( -0.2%) Spain ( -0.3%) and Germany (0%) but worse than France (0.6%) albeit only slightly.

Investment

This has been a troubled area recently for the UK economy as the Brexit uncertainty has seen a drop in business investment. But it would seem that if we ever get over that hill money will be arriving from different quarters.

The United Kingdom has snatched the top spot in a survey that ranks how attractive countries are as investment destinations over the coming year.

Despite “continued uncertainty stemming from its intention to leave the European Union”, the UK knocked the United States off its perch, which it had held since 2014, according to the data conducted by accountancy firm EY. ( Daily Telegraph)

Of course that is a different definition of investment usually focusing more on the financial sector.

Today’s Data

Unfortunately for the rhetoric of the Conference Board above but fortunately for UK workers our official statisticians have released this.

Estimates for December 2018 to February 2019 show 32.72 million people aged 16 years and over in employment, 457,000 more than for a year earlier. This annual increase of 457,000 was due entirely to more people working full-time (up 473,000 on the year to reach 24.15 million)……The UK employment rate was estimated at 76.1%, higher than for a year earlier (75.4%) and the joint-highest figure on record.

If we compare the annual rate above to the latest three-monthly one we see that job growth may even have sped up.

The level of employment in the UK increased by 179,000 to a record high of 32.72 million people in the three months to February 2019.

Considering the level of employment we are now at then this are pretty impressive numbers. If we switch to hours worked they are up by 2.1% on a year ago which again is strong. As GDP growth seems lower there may well be an issue here again for productivity growth but not for the opposite to the reason given by the Conference Board.

Wages

In the period since the quantity numbers for the UK economy turned for the better we have waited quite a long time for the quality or wages numbers to also do so. But more recently we have seen better news.

Excluding bonuses, average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain were estimated to have increased by 3.4%, before adjusting for inflation, and by 1.5%, after adjusting for inflation, compared with a year earlier. Including bonuses, average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain were estimated to have increased by 3.5%, before adjusting for inflation, and by 1.6%, after adjusting for inflation, compared with a year earlier.

If we look at the more comprehensive category we note that bonuses are pulling up the numbers which may be a hopeful sign. As to the real wage figures whilst I believe we now have some growth sadly it is not as high as claimed due to the flaws in the inflation number used. For some perspective the Retail Prices Index grew by 2.5% in the year to February as opposed to the 1.8% recorded by the Imputed Rent influenced CPIH. So real wage growth is more like 1% I would argue.

If we look at the month of February alone then we see that at 3.2% the number is lower but the monthly numbers are erratic. The growth has been pulled higher by the construction sector which has seen wages rise by 4.6% over the year to February and pulled lower by manufacturing which saw growth of a mere 1.9%. Although it was not an especially good February for them a factor in the overall rise in UK wage growth has come from the public-sector where the circa 1% of a couple of years ago has been replaced by 2.6% over the three months to February.

Comment

As ever there is much to consider here. The picture presented by our official statisticians is as good as it has been for quite some time. With employment at these high levels in some ways it is a surprise it continues to rise at all. For wages the picture is different but is now brighter than it has been for some time. Although if we look for perspective there is still if not a mountain quite a hill to climb.

For February 2019, average regular pay, before tax and other deductions, for employees in Great Britain was estimated at: £465 per week in real terms (constant 2015 prices), higher than the estimate for a year earlier (£459 per week), but £8 lower than the pre-recession peak of £473 per week for March 2008.

Using a more realistic inflation measure than the officially approved CPIH only makes the perspective darken along the lines sung about by Paul Simon.

Slip slidin’ away
Slip slidin’ away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away

Moving to productivity I would remind readers of my analysis of the subject from the 5th of this month. As to the Conference Board analysis well the idea of UK employment growth being weak has had a bad 7 years and there is an irony as of course it has been that pushing productivity growth lower. Looking ahead will the labour market numbers prove to be a better guide to the economic situation than the output or GDP ones like in 2012? Only time will tell…….

Less welcome is the new way of presenting the numbers which frankly is something of a mess.

Could the UK target house price inflation and should we?

Yesterday brought news of a policy initiative from the Labour party on a subject close to my heart and was a subject which occupied much of my afternoon and evening. It also reminded me of the way that social media can have more than a few different but similar strands ongoing at the same time. So if I missed anyone out apologies but I did my best and did better at least that the respondent who seemed to think my name was Tom.

Here from The Guardian is the basis of the proposal.

The Bank of England could be set a target for house price inflation under plans being explored by the Labour party, with tougher powers to restrict mortgage lending to close the gap between property prices and average incomes.

The shadow housing secretary, John Healey, is considering whether, under a Labour government, the Bank should be set an explicit target following a decade of runaway growth in the property market, with the aim of tackling the housing crisis.

The author of the idea is Grace Blakeley and I replied to her that there are various problems with this but let us set out her idea properly from her paper for the think tank the IPPR.

This would be equivalent to the remit the Monetary Policy
Committee has to control consumer price inflation. Under such a target the Bank of England should aim to keep nominal house price inflation at (say) zero per cent for an initial period – perhaps five years – to reset expectations,
and allow affordability to improve.

As I replied to Grace I am a fan of that in spirit but there are issues including one from the next sentence which I have just spotted.

It should then be increased to the same
rate as the consumer price inflation target of 2 per cent per year, meaning zero real-terms house price growth.

Er no that is not zero in real terms because if you are aiming for “affordability to improve” your objective must be for wage growth to exceed house price growth yet it does not apparently merit a mention there. If for example both consumer and house price inflation were on this target at 2% per annum you would be losing ground if wage growth was below that level.

How would this be enacted?

The target should be implemented using
macroprudential tools such as capital requirements, loan-to-value, and debt to-income ratios.

The first question is whether you could do this? Mostly a new policy regime could as we already have some moves in this direction from the Bank of England as pointed out in the paper.

The FPC recently implemented a
loan-to-income ratio of 4.5 per cent for 15 per cent of new mortgages,

The two catches as that this area is one where the truth can be and sometimes is hidden as those who recall the  “liar loans” era will know. Next is the concept of shadow banking or if I may be permitted a long word the concept of disintermediation where you restrict the banks so people borrow form elsewhere such as offshore or overseas.

These problems would be especially evident if you tried to implement this.

Since house price inflation is different in parts of the country, the FPC’s guidance should be regionally specific.

That recognition is welcome but the scale of the issue troubles me. Let me give you some examples from right now where house prices are rising in much of the Midlands and Yorkshire as well as Northern Ireland whilst falling in and around London. Also as @HenryPryor pointed what the situation in Northern Ireland is very different to elsewhere.

Confirmation from that despite enjoying robust inflation in recent months, house prices in Northern Ireland remain some 41% 𝐥𝐨𝐰𝐞𝐫 than they were just prior to the start of the financial crisis in 2007.

Perhaps you could define Northern Ireland but is even it homogenous? A clear danger is that you end up with a bureaucratic nightmare with loads of different definitions and all sorts of border issues as well as increasing the likelihood of another form of disintermediation.

The relationship between the Bank of England and the government

A clear issue is that whilst the Bank of England can influence house prices it does not control them and the paper sets out areas where it is not in control.

House prices are also determined by other factors, not least the supply of housing, and therefore adoption of the target would need to be accompanied by a much more active housing policy. This might include public housebuilding, changes to planning policy, and curbs on overseas purchases of UK homes (Ryan-Collins et al 2017). The FPC should be able to request that the government do more with housing policy if it judges that it will be unable to meet its target through macroprudential tools alone.

The supply of housing is something we have discussed on here pretty much since I began writing articles and the theme has been that government’s of many hues have serially disappointed. The Ebbsfleet saga has been the headline in this respect. Also I have to say that the idea of the Financial Planning Committee needing to “request” help from government policy is welcome in one way but problematic in another. First it is a confession that macroprudential policies are far from a holy grail in this area. Second I can see many scenarios of which the main one would be an upcoming election when the government would simply pay lip service or worse ignore the “request”. Thus we would likely find ourselves singing along to Taylor Swift.

I knew you were trouble when you walked in
So shame on me now
Flew me to places I’d never been
Now I’m lying on the cold hard ground
Oh, oh, trouble, trouble, trouble
Oh, oh, trouble, trouble, trouble

I do mostly agree with this part though and so does the Bank of England as otherwise it would not have introduced the Funding for Lending Scheme back in the summer of 2012.

It is also worth noting, however, that recent research has shown that the level of mortgage lending is the primary determinant of house prices (Ryan-Collins et
al 2017).

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and let me again say that as regular readers will be aware I think that economic policy does need to take account of asset price booms and busts. The catch is in the latter part though because the very same Bank of England that you would be asking to reduce house price growth has been explicitly ramping it since the summer of 2012 and implicitly before then with the Bank Rate cuts and QE bond purchases that preceded it. So the current poachers would have to turn into gamekeepers. Would they? I have my doubts because as we look around the world central banks seem to fold like deck chairs when asset prices fall.

Next comes the issue of could this be done? To which the answer is definitely maybe as you could start on this road and at first your theories would apply. But if we look back to the past history of macroprudential policies there was a reason why they were abandoned and it is because they themselves lead to a boom and bust cycle and bringing things up to date I have doubts on these lines as well as I tweeted to Grace.

One of the problems of central banks in the modern era is that they have often ended up operating in a pro-cyclical fashion. How can you be sure with their poor Forward Guidance record that they can be counter cyclical?

It is easy to spot cycles in hindsight but looking ahead it is far harder as otherwise the aphorism that central banks have never predicted a recession would not keep doing the rounds.

Can we fix it? Yes we can make a start as I hinted at here.

Whilst I support the spirit of this in terms of including house prices. I would point out that the UK could change things by simply going back to the Retail Prices Index as an inflation target because it includes house prices.

Personally I would update the RPI ( using the RPIX version to exclude mortgage costs) so that it explicitly has house prices rather than reply on them implicitly via depreciation and as a stop-gap we could drop out fashion clothing to trim the formula effect. So in effect we would be reversing the changes made by Gordon Brown in the early part of the 2000s. Then off we go although something else would have to be changed as well as basically a clear out of current Bank of England policy makers.

you have the issue of it these days also supporting the economy as defined by GDP

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Manufacturing and Production help to drive UK GDP growth

Today brings us up to date with the latest monthly data on the UK economy. the problem with this is as I feared that the numbers are in practice rather erratic.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) growth was 0.5% in January 2019, as the economy rebounded from the negative growth seen in December 2018.

Actually December recorded a -0.4% GDP growth rate so if you take the figures literally there was quite a wild swing. More likely is that some industries do not conform to a regular monthly pattern in the way we have seen the UK pharmaceutical industry grow overall but with a boom and bust pattern on a monthly basis.

There are areas where we see two patterns at once in the UK economy. For example Tesco has produced good figures already this morning.

Tesco has reported a 28.8% rise in full-year pre-tax profits to £1.67bn with revenue at the supermarket rising 11.2% to £63.9bn ( Sky News)

On the other hand this week has already seen this.

Ailing department store chain Debenhams has been rescued by its lenders after falling into administration.

Three years ago, the 166-strong chain was worth £900m, compared with £20m as of this week. ( BBC News)

Sadly the BBC analysis seems to avoid this issue highlighted by the Financial Times.

Debenhams troubles stem partly from a period of private equity ownership at the start of the millennium, when CVC, Merrill Lynch and TPG sold off freehold property, added debts and paid themselves large dividends.

It looks a case of asset-stripping and greed followed by over expansion which was then hit by nimbler retailers and the switch to online sales. Without the asset-stripping it would be still with us. Meanwhile the BBC analysis concentrates on Mike Ashley who put up £150 million and offered an alternative. I am no great fan of his business model with its low wages and pressure on staff but he does at least have one.

Wages

Speaking of wages there are several strands in the news so let us start with the rather aptly named Mr. Conn.

The chief executive of Centrica, the owner of British Gas, received a 44% pay rise for 2018, despite a difficult year in which the company imposed two bill increases, warned on profits and announced thousands of job cuts.

Iain Conn received a total pay package worth £2.4m last year, up from £1.7m in 2017, according to Centrica’s annual report. His 2018 packet was bolstered by two bonuses, each worth £388,000.  ( The Guardian )

Yet on the other side of the ledger we see things like this. From The Guardian.

Waterstones staff told how they have had to back on food in order to afford rent as they travelled across the country to deliver a 9,300-signature petition to the chain’s London headquarters, calling for the introduction of a living wage.

Mind you we seem to be making progress in one area at least.

Golden goodbyes for public sector workers will be capped at £95,000 in a clamp down on excessive exit payments, the government has confirmed. ( City-AM)

Although I note that it is something planned rather than already done, so the modern-day version of Sir Humphrey Appleby will be doing his or her best to thwart this. Here is his description of the 7 point plan to deal with such matters.

This strategy has never failed us yet. Since our colleagues in the Treasury have already persuaded the Chancellor to spin the process out until 2008, we can be sure that, by then, there will be a new chancellor, a new prime minister and, quite possibly, a new government. At that point, the whole squalid business can be swept under the carpet. Until next time.

As for payoffs it is the ones for those at the top who are quite often switching jobs which need to stop as often it is merely a name change of their employer.

Today’s GDP data

This was good in the circumstances.

Monthly GDP growth was 0.2% in February 2019, after contracting by 0.3% in December 2018 and growing by 0.5% in January 2019. January growths for production, manufacturing, and construction have all been upwardly revised due to late survey returns.

As you can see December was revised up as was January although not enough in January to raise it by 0.1%. But it is an erratic series so let us step back for some perspective.

UK gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 0.3% in the three months to February 2019

Whilst we do not yet have the March data regular readers may recall that the first quarter in the UK ( and in the US at times) can be weak so this is better than it may first appear.

As ever services were in the van as we continue to rebalance in exactly the opposite direction to that proclaimed by the former Bank of England Governor Baron King of Lothbury.

The services sector was the largest contributor to rolling three-month growth, expanding by 0.4% in the three months to February 2019. The production sector had a small positive contribution, growing by 0.2%. However, the construction sector contracted by 0.6%, resulting in a small negative contribution to GDP growth.

Inside its structure this has been in the van.

The largest contributor to growth was computer programming, which has performed strongly in recent months.

Production

Thanks to the business live section of the Guardian for reproducing this from my twitter feed.

One possible hint is that production numbers for Italy and France earlier have been strongish, will the UK be the same?

It turned out that this was so.

Production output rose by 0.6% between January 2019 and February 2019; the manufacturing sector provided the largest upward contribution, rising by 0.9%, its second consecutive monthly rise……In February 2019, the monthly increase in manufacturing output was due to rises in 11 of the 13 subsectors and follows a 1.1% rise in January 2019; the largest upward contribution came from basic metals, which rose by 1.6%.

In the detail was something I noted earlier as pharmaceutical production was up by 2.5% in the last 3 months which put it 4.3% higher than a year ago in spite of a 0.1% fall in February.

But whilst this was a welcome development for February the overall picture has not been of cheer in the credit crunch era.

Production and manufacturing output have risen since then but remain 6.1% and 1.9% lower respectively for the three months to February 2019 than the pre-downturn gross domestic product (GDP) peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008.

Things have been singing along with The Beatles since late 2012.

I have to admit it’s getting better (Better)
It’s getting better

but overall we are left mulling the John Lennon counter at the end of this line.

A little better all the time (It can’t get no worse)

Comment

This morning’s numbers were strong in the circumstances and confirm again my theme that we are growing at around 0.3/4% per quarter. Yet again the prediction in the Sunday Times that there would be no growth turned out to be a reliable reverse indicator. Of course there are fears for March after the Markit PMI business survey so as ever we await more detail.

As to stockpiling this has become an awkward beast because I see it being put as the reason for the growth, although if so why did those claiming this not predict it. Anyway I have done a small online survey of what people have been stockpiling.

Okay inspired by and her stockpiling of Scottish water we have from paracetamol for her dad for scare stories and dog has been burying treats

Meanwhile one area which has been troubled for many years continues to rumble on.

The total trade deficit (goods and services) widened £5.5 billion in the three months to February 2019, as the trade in goods deficit widened £6.5 billion, partially offset by a £0.9 billion widening of the trade in services surplus.

Perhaps there was some stockpiling going on there although as any departure from the European Union seems to be at Northern Rail speed those stockpiling may now be wondering why they did it?

 

 

The UK productivity puzzle is mostly a result of outdated economics and statistics

Today has brought us two flashes of indirect insight on the issue of productivity and what has become called the productivity puzzle. In case you are wondered what that is here is the OECD from August last year.

Since the start of the Great Recession, labour productivity growth has been weak in the United Kingdom, weaker than in many other OECD countries. The productivity shortfall, defined as the gap between actual productivity and the level implied by its pre-crisis trend growth rate, was nearly 20% for output per hour at the end of 2016.

I am dubious about measures which use the bubbilicious boom for their trend but Ivory Towers love that. Also there is clearly an issue to consider and the OECD had a go at a breakdown.

Most of the UK productivity underperformance is structural rather than cyclical. Half of the productivity shortfall is explained by non-financial services (with information and communication being the largest contributor), a fourth by financial services, and another fourth by manufacturing, other production and construction.

Clearly the 5% productivity shortfall explained by the financial sector needs a much more thorough investigation as the ongoing weak state of the banks is due to the fact that their position was over reported on the pre crisis boom and thus so was productivity. Or as the OECD put it.

its steep increases in the run-up to the crisis.

But they do at least manage a minor swipe at the Zombie business era that has been supported by central bank QE.

weak corporate restructuring have both held back productivity improvements in the manufacturing sector.

Output Gap

Economic theory has had a real problem with this and let me give an example from Japan this morning. The Ivory Towers will tell you that wages should be soaring due to a tight labour market with unemployment at 2.3% and a number of jobs to applicants at a more than forty-year high. Meanwhile back on Earth.

Labour cash earnings dropped 0.8 per cent from a year ago, the ministry reported on Friday, compared with projections for them to advance 0.9 per cent. The reading for January was revised down to -0.6 per cent from 1.2 per cent………..

Real wages, which are adjusted for inflation, fell 1.1 per cent, compared with economists’ median forecast of 0.8 per cent.

The real wages figure for January was revised down to -0.7 per cent from 1.1 per cent. ( Business Times)

As you can see the output gap theory has had another complete failure as wages have failed to increase. This makes us mull productivity which is supposed to be strongly linked to wage growth and real wage growth especially. Also I am afraid we have another problem with official statistics as there has been a major revision after clear flaws were discovered such as only a third of the businesses in Tokyo with over 500 employees that were claimed to be sampled actually were. That adds to the problems seen elsewhere with official Japanese data such as the GDP numbers which is completely the opposite of stereotypes.

UK House Prices

These are beginning to offer a more hopeful perspective. The reason why I argue this is that in my opinion way too much economic effort in the UK has gone towards the housing sector where in many areas substantial capital gains have been available via owning a house. This led for quite some time to the boom in the buy-to-let sector and took both investment, attention and effort from other parts of the economy. This was fed by the various “Help To Buy” policies of the government and the multitude of efforts by the Bank of England to reduce mortgage rates and raise mortgage lending to get house prices higher.

Thus the numbers from the Halifax this morning are welcome as they show that things have slowed down.

The average UK house price is now £233,181 following a 1.6% monthly fall in March…….The more stable measure of annual house price growth rose slightly to 3.2% and is still within our expectation for the year.

You need to go through their numbers carefully to get to that as the monthly UK house prices series of the Halifax has become very erratic and has now gone 2.5%, -3% ,6% and now -1.6%. We thought the 5.9% rise in February was extraordinary at the time yet we now discover it was 6%! If we look at March compared to a year ago we see that there has been a 2.4% rise which seems to reflect better the numbers we get from elsewhere.

As to the overall reliability of the Halifax data well let me quote anteos who commented on the last set of numbers from them as follows.

So, just as the annual indicie was heading towards negative territory, up comes a 5.9% increase.
Very similar to Decembers figures which were then reversed the following month. If I was a betting man, a big negative value will pop up next month.

Chapeau.

Productivity Data

There was something of an irony as I searched for the update here.

404 – The webpage you are requesting does not exist on the site

That was not entirely hopeful for productivity as the UK Office for National Statistics and leads into the official enquiry into out data which is ongoing. Sadly the leadership seem lost in a world of click bait and telling us that tractor production is rising. When we got the numbers they posed another problem.

Labour productivity for Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2018, as measured by output per hour, decreased by 0.1% compared with the same quarter a year ago; this is the second successive quarterly fall following the decrease of 0.2% seen for the previous quarter.

If we look back it is the fall in the third quarter which is the most concerning as GDP growth was particularly strong at 0.7%. For the year just gone we had some growth but not much.

In 2018, labour productivity measured as output per hour grew by 0.5% compared with the previous year, with increases in both services and manufacturing of 0.8% and 0.3% respectively.

This meant that the overall picture in the credit crunch era is this.

Labour productivity increased by 0.3% in Quarter 4 2018 compared with the previous quarter. This increase left productivity 2.0% above its pre-downturn peak in Quarter 4 2007,

So not much allowing us to update the OECD style analysis above.

Productivity in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2018, as measured by output per hour, was 18.3% below its pre-downturn trend – or, equivalently, productivity would have been 22.5% higher had it followed this pre-downturn trend.

Comment

The first problem with the productivity puzzle is whether we can measure it with any degree of accuracy. As we have seen from the Japanese wages and UK house price data above both official and private-sector data have serious issues. This spreads wider and in my opinion is highlighted by this.

In Q4, public service productivity increased by 0.8% on the previous quarter, driven by unusually strong growth in output (1.3%)

It is my opinion that we have very little idea about public sector output and therefore even less about its productivity. Also there are areas we might not always be keen on higher productivity. Returning to the numbers I helped Pete Comley with some technical advice when he wrote his book on inflation and here is what he discovered about the government sector.

The upshot of that review is that estimates inflation on government expenditure no longer use real cost inflation (like wage increases, rises in raw materials costs, etc.) but instead use measures of quality (such as the number of GCSE grades A-C) to calculate the deflator.

So that is a mess.

Also there is a clear problem with the concept of productivity in the services sector. This is because we are often measuring intangible things rather than the tangible of manufacturing. The extraordinary changes for example in the world of information and communications are mostly only captured if there is a price change. I note the paper from Diane Coyle and others that suggested even these were wrong and the situation was much better ( lower prices and higher output). Also I have pointed out before as well as giving evidence to the Sir Charles Bean enquiry, that the UK trade release has at most a couple of pages on services out of the 30 or so with no geographical or sectoral breakdown. This matters even more as we rebalance towards services with growth in the index of services some 21% over the past decade.

Also there has been a shift towards self-employment which makes the numbers less reliable as we know even less about that area.

Finally it would be nice for us to get some capital productivity figures to compare with the labour ones.

Me on The Investing Channel

 

 

 

The UK see higher real and nominal GDP growth as house price growth slows

Today has already brought some good economic news for the UK so let us get straight to it. From the chief economist of the Nationwide Building Society.

“UK house price growth remained subdued in March, with
prices just 0.7% higher than the same month last year”

As you can see he is not keen, but I am pleased that if we look at the trend for wage growth we are now seeing annual wage growth of over 2% with respect to house prices. So there will be some welcome relief for those wishing to trade up and especially for first-time buyers. Of course it will take a long time to offset the long hard haul that led to this being reported by out official statisticians only yesterday.

On average, full-time workers could expect to pay an estimated 7.8 times their annual workplace-based earnings on purchasing a home in England and Wales in 2018. Housing affordability in England and Wales stayed at similar levels in 2018, following five years of decreasing affordability.

If you want the equivalent of earnings ratio porn then there was this from an area I will be cycling through later.

Kensington and Chelsea remained the least affordable local authority in 2018, with average house prices being 44.5 times workplace-based average annual earnings.

However returning to the Nationwide there are ch-ch-changes going on.

London was the weakest performing region in Q1, with
prices 3.8% lower than the same period of 2018 – the fastest
pace of decline since 2009 and the seventh consecutive
quarter in which prices have declined in the capital.

Indeed as there have been discussions about the Midlands in the comments section I took a look at the quarterly data which showed them growing at 2.6% in the West and 2.5% in the East. So as ever the picture is complex although even there we are seeing real wage gains albeit only small ones.

Also we need to remind ourselves that this covers Nationwide customers only although the numbers do fit the patterns we have been observing through other sources. Also whilst I welcome the change it seems clear that The Guardian does not.

Slide driven by London and south-east slowdown as Brexit chaos seems to put off buyers.

The economy

This mornings economic growth or Gross Domestic Product release brought some further good news. Not from the last quarter of 2018 which remained at 0.2% but from this.

There has been an upward revision of 0.1 percentage points to GDP growth in Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2018 to 0.7%, due to revisions to estimates of government services;  In comparison with the same quarter a year ago, UK GDP increased by a revised 1.4%.

So we did a little better on 2018 and in particular had a really spectacular third quarter. It does look out of kilter with the rest of the year but let me point out that something which regularly gets the blame for once gets a little credit.

 where some of this activity is likely to have reflected one-off effects of the warm weather and the World Cup.

There are two catches in the series however. The first is the issue of investment which has been having a troubled period.

There have been some upward revisions to business investment in Quarter 3 and Quarter 4 2018 because of later survey returns, but business investment still fell in every quarter of 2018.

So not as bad as previously reported but even so there has been an issue here.

Business investment has now fallen for four consecutive quarters – the first such instance since 2009 –driven mainly by declines in transport equipment as well as IT equipment and other machinery. The latest estimates show that there have been some upward revisions in the second half of 2018, with business investment now estimated to have fallen by 0.9% in Quarter 4.

These revisions to the quarterly path have resulted in an upward revision to the annual figure with business investment falling 0.4% in 2018.

This is a bit of a ying and yang factor as the issue over future trade relationships and a possible Brexit are factors here. The optimistic view is that once there is more certainty it will not only pick up it will regain much of the lost ground. Maybe we will find out more later although of course today was supposed to be the day we got certainty!

Also there is this hardy perennial.

The UK current account deficit widened by £0.7 billion to £23.7 billion in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2018, or 4.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), the largest deficit recorded since Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2016 in both value and percentage of GDP terms….Annually, the UK current account deficit widened to 3.9% of GDP in 2018, compared with 3.3% in 2017.

Regular readers will be aware I have major doubts about the accuracy of these numbers, specifically about the lack of detail we get about the important services sector. However the trend was worse last year probably driven by the weakening trade outlook generally. Here is how we paid for it.

The UK mainly financed its current account deficit through portfolio investment, where UK investors disinvested in foreign equity and debt securities, while overseas investors increased their holdings of UK debt securities.

Even more care is needed with those numbers as when you start looking into them they are built on what are often in my opinion dubious assumptions.

Unsecured Credit

With house price growth slowing Bank of England Governor Mark Carney will have a an even deeper frown today as he reads this.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit has continued to slow, though more gradually than during the second half of 2018. At 6.3% in February , it was well below its peak of 10.9% in November 2016. Within this, the growth rate of both credit card lending and other loans and advances fell slightly.

The rest of us will have another sigh of relief although there are two problems. The first is that an annual rate of growth of 6.3% is far higher than anything else in the economy. It is around double the rate of wage growth and more than quadruple the annual economic growth we have seen. The other is that the latest two monthly numbers at £1.2 and now £1.1 billion show signs of a rebound so it is a case of “watch this space” for subsequent months.

Money Supply

We saw some broad money growth in February.

The total amount of money held by UK households, private non-financial corporations (PNFCs) and non-intermediary other financial corporations (NIOFCs) (broad money or M4ex) increased by £3.6 billion in February.

The waters were muddied by a large Gilt maturity in February and the Operation Twist QE bond buying we have seen in March so far. Meaning we may see a pick up in the March data although it is unclear how much will be recorded as being the financial sector and hence ignored. The annual rate of growth at 2% in February is little to write home about but was a rise.

Comment

The UK data releases have been pretty solid today. Economic growth has been revised higher and there is a hint of better money supply growth. This comes with the usual caveats of high unsecured credit growth and a balance of payments deficit. Let me move onto the numbers which illustrate my point via something which gets widely ignored in the UK data which is inventories or stocks. I was struggling to get my head around this.

There was a £4.2 billion increase in inventories in Quarter 4 2018, including alignment adjustments and balancing adjustments. However, excluding these adjustments the estimates show a slight decrease of £1.2 billion in stocks being held by UK companies.

If you are going Eh? “You are not alone” as Olive sang but let me help out by pointing out there was a £3 billion balancing adjustment in the numbers which is quite a bit more than the economic growth reported so let us hope they were right.

Let me end on some better news as there was this also.

Nominal gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 0.7% in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2018, revised up from 0.6% in the first quarterly estimate.