UK Real Wages took quite a dip in April

As we looked at the inflation data yesterday it was hard not to think of the implications for real or inflation adjusted wages from the further rise in inflation. There were quite a few such stories in the media about a fall in real wages although they were a little ahead of events because the inflation data was for May and even today we will only get wages data up to April. However there is an issue here that has been building in the credit crunch era where real wages fell heavily as the Bank of England looked the other way as inflation went above 5% in the autumn of 2011. Sadly they relied in their Ivory Tower models which told them that wages would rise in response. Not only did that not happen but the recovery since has been weak and was in fact driven much more by low inflation than wage growth. This is different to past recessions as this from the Resolution Foundation shows.

As you can see the pattern has been very different from past recessions. Real pay rebounded very strongly after 1979 and did well after 1990 but on the same timescale in remains in negative territory this time around. A lot of care is required with long term data like this but this is a performance that looks the worst for some time.

The Napoleonic war period seems especially grim for real wages. If I recall correctly we were imposing a blockade on much of Europe which seems to have our economy hard as well.

Today’s data

We see that wage growth has faded a bit in the latest numbers.

Between February to April 2016 and February to April 2017, in nominal terms, regular pay increased by 1.7%, slightly lower than the growth rate between January to March 2016 and January to March 2017 (1.8%)……..Between February to April 2016 and February to April 2017, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.1%, lower than the growth rate between January to March 2016 and January to March 2017 (2.3%). The annual growth rate for total pay, in nominal terms, has not been lower than 2.1% since October to December 2015.

This is of course happening at the same time that inflation is rising and leads to this situation.

The rate of wage growth slowed in the 3 months to April 2017; adjusted for inflation, annual growth in total average weekly earnings turned negative for the first time since 2014.

That is rather ominous when we consider the first chart above as it means that we are getting further away from regaining where we were in 2008 rather than nearer so let us look deeper. The emphasis is mine.

Average weekly earnings, including bonuses, grew by 2.1% in the same period and are the weakest since the December to February 2016 period. Taking into account recent increases in inflation, real average weekly earnings decreased by 0.4% including bonuses and by 0.6% excluding bonuses in the 3 months to April 2017 compared with the same period a year earlier. This is the first annual decline in total real average weekly earnings since 2014.

Of course they are using the new lower headline measure of inflation called CPIH which uses Imputed Rents to estimate owner-occupied housing costs. So the goal posts have been moved a little and this happens so often these days that we should be grateful that so many goal posts now come with wheels.

Where does this leave us overall?

The situation is as follows according to our official statisticians. They are using constant 2015 prices so they are real numbers.

average total pay (including bonuses) for employees in Great Britain was £487 per week before tax and other deductions from pay, £35 lower than the pre-downturn peak of £522 per week recorded for February 2008.

Number Crunching

We can go deeper because there are numbers for the month of April on its own. In that month total pay only rose at an annual rate of 1.2% because whilst regular pay rose by 1.8% bonuses fell by 5.8%. Care is needed as if we look back April has been an erratic month for bonuses but we see that real wages were falling at an annual rate of 1.5% if we use CPI inflation. 1.4% if we use CPIH and 2.3% if we use RPI. Even if we ignore the bonus numbers we see -0.9% for CPI, -0.8% for CPIH and -1.5% for RPI.

The sectors which seem to have impacted in April are the finance and construction ones which both saw total pay fall at an annual rate of 0.5%.

Is the UK labour market tight

Conventional analysis based on such theories as the Phillips Curve will be telling us that the UK labour market is “tight”. An example of this is below from Andy Verity of the BBC.

Unemployment: a 42-year low (1.53m, 4.6%); work force: another record high (31.95m people). But tight labour market isn’t pushing up pay.

If we put some more meat on those bones there are things heading in that direction as this shows below.

The number of people in work increased by 109,000 in the 3 months to April 2017 compared with the previous 3 months, to 31.95 million, with an increase in full-time employment (162,000) partly offset by a fall in part-time employment (53,000) . The employment rate reached a joint record high of 74.8%.

This looks good and indeed is but questions remain. For example having checked I know that there is not a clear definition of full-time work it is something that responders to the survey decide for themselves. Added to this is the issue of self-employment and how much work they are actually doing.

self-employed people increased by 103,000 to 4.80 million (15.0% of all people in work).

Just as a reminder the self-employed are excluded from the official wages data. There is more reinforcement for the labour market being tight here.

Total hours worked per week were 1.03 billion for February to April 2017. This was 0.7 million more than for November 2016 to January 2017 and 15.4 million more than for a year earlier.

We are left with the concept of underemployment here I think which measures the gap between the work that people are doing and what they would like to do. Sadly the UK does not have an official measure of this unlike the US with its U-6 data. We only have flickers of insight via the growth of self-employment which needs to be sub-divided into positive and negative and the rise of zero hours contracts. In terms of influencing pay there seems to have been an associated rise in job insecurity but we have no clear measure of this.

Comment

The real wage squeeze we feared for this year is now upon us and we face the grim reality that it has been more than a lost decade for them.

Looking at longer term movements, average total pay for employees in Great Britain in nominal terms increased from £376 a week in January 2005 to £502 a week in April 2017; an increase of 33.5%. Over the same period the Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) increased by 31.8%.

The cross-over was in early 2006. This poses all sorts of problems for the Ivory Towers who will look at the employment numbers and forecast much stronger wage growth. Of course they were usually responsible for the increasingly inadequate employment data as we note that one thing they are certainly very poor at is adapting to ch-ch-changes.

Grenfell Tower

Let me express my deepest sympathies for anyone involved in the dreadful fire there which started this morning.

 

 

Abenomics does not address the economic problems facing Japan

At the moment Japan must be looking at the UK with some bemusement. That is because it has been a country with political instability with a merry-go-round of Prime Ministers and yet an axis has shifted. We are now in a type of flux whereas Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been in power since November 2012. This means that his economics policy of Abenomics has had a decent run in terms of time and yet again we see someone who has taken the Matrix style blue pill and declared it a success. Let me hand you over to Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post.

Its unemployment rate has fallen to a 22-year low of 2.8 percent — yes, you read that right — due in large part to all the yen it has created the past four years.

The former which we have looked at before is a success and it is the flip side of this.

Maybe the best way to tell isn’t its super-low unemployment rate, but rather its super-high employment rate. That, as you can see below, has shot up since the start of Abenomics to an all-time high of 83.5 percent, making our own 78.3  ( He means the US ) percent rate look downright measly in comparison.

Again a success in itself as the quantity measures in the labour market are as strong as anywhere. But then we get an enormous leap of what I can only call faith.

It can’t be the fiscal or structural parts of Abenomics, because they’ve barely been tried……..All their money-printing seems to have given businesses the confidence — and the cheaper currency — they needed to expand a little more.

Thus we see a conclusion that the money printing has led to higher employment. Some would argue that with a fiscal deficit of 4.8% of GDP in 2015 and 4.5% last year with a debt to GDP ratio that fiscal stimulus had been tried rather a lot. Also there seems to be any lack of a causal relationship as the phrase “seems to have” suggests. Let us finish with some hyperbole.

And all it would have taken was printing a few trillion yen, which actually isn’t that high a price to pay.

Numbers may not be a strength for Matt as we remind ourselves of this from the 6th of this month.

At the end of May 31 2017, the Bank of Japan held a total of 500.8 trillion yen in assets,

Taking the red pill

Dissent in Japan is mostly considered to be non-Japanese so this from the Nikkei Asian Review ( NAR ) is interesting. First the ground is described.

“In order for Japan’s economy to achieve more than a recovery and continue stable, long-term growth after that, it is essential to strengthen Japan’s growth potential,” proclaimed a key economic and fiscal policy plan finalized in June 2013,

Okay so what has happened since then?

But the country’s potential growth rate now stands at 0.69%, according to the Bank of Japan, compared with 0.84% in the second half of fiscal 2014 — a sobering take on what Abenomics has actually accomplished.

If we return to the case made by Matt O’Brien above the fact that estimates of the potential growth rate have fallen seems to be missing doesn’t it? That is awkward for business supposedly being more confident in response to a promise to print money to infinity and maybe beyond. The tectonic plates on which supporters of QE stand would be on their own Ring of Fire if there are further suggestions that it reduces potential economic growth. I have been a critic of QE style policies and note that this below suggests yet another problem with the claimed transmission mechanism.

But while tax cuts helped boost businesses, many are merely hoarding their cash. Total internal reserves held by Japanese corporations have grown some 40% under Abe to 390 trillion yen. No solutions are in sight.

The NAR seems to agree with me about the trajectory of fiscal policy as well.

In terms of fiscal policy, Japan has passed seven supplementary budgets in just five years, spending about 25 trillion yen in the process.

“Extreme fiscal spending and other measures have led to a distorted allocation of resources in the economy and reduced productivity,” said Ryutaro Kono, chief Japan economist at BNP Paribas.

Also the NAR fires a lot of criticism at the so-called third arrow of Abenomics which is reform in Japan.

The debate on compensation for unfairly dismissed employees has stalled. While Tokyo opened the door for foreign workers with exceptional skills or those in certain sectors such as cleaning, it has shied away from a comprehensive discussion on immigration. Momentum to tackle regulatory barriers is fading.

It points out that if Abe wished to reform the labour market politically he is in what might be called a “strong and stable” position due to the way his party the LDP controls both the upper and lower houses in parliament.

The economy

There was some disappointment last week as the economic growth figures for the first quarter took a downwards revision.

The expansion in real gross domestic product, the total value of goods and services produced in the country adjusted for inflation, was revised to an annualized 1.0 percent growth from the previously estimated 2.2 percent expansion, the Cabinet Office said. ( The Japan Times ).

The good part of that was that it meant that Japan had grown for five quarters in a row which it had not done for over a decade. There were two bad parts though in that as well as being in the economic growth dog kennel with the UK there was an implication for the Abenomics plan of boosting inflation to 2% per annum.

In  nominal terms, or unadjusted for price changes, the economy shrank an annualized 1.2 percent, the biggest contraction since 2.2 percent registered in the July-September period of 2012.

Also the period of Abenomics was supposed to see a rise in inflation and more particularly a rise in wages. As the Japan Times reminds us the labour market is tight.

Moreover, there were 148 job positions open for every 100 people looking for work, the highest ratio in 43 years.

But wage growth is at best anemic.

But the labor ministry reported that in 2016, wages across the board — regardless of whether we’re talking full-time or part-time employment, regular or nonregular employees — only rose by 0.4 percent

Why? Well as we observe in some many countries official definitions of being in a job miss changes in the real world.

a larger portion of the workforce is in part-time and non regular jobs, which traditionally pay less.

Comment

There have been some extraordinary claims made for the success of monetary easing and QE. In my opinion we see a clear divorce between the financial and real economy. If we look at the financial economy in the era of Abenomics we see booming equity markets ( the Nikkei 225 has risen from 9000 or so to ~20,000), a lower currency ( versus the US Dollar it has gone from 80 to 110) and booming bond markets with a ten-year yield of 0%. But the real economy has not seen the boom in wages promised nor any great turn in the rate of GDP growth. Ironically it has been the recent fall in inflation that seems to have given GDP an upwards push rather than the claimed surge to 2% per annum.

Meanwhile the real challenge is adapting to this.

The annual number of babies born in Japan slipped below 1 million in 2016 for the first time since records began, with the estimated figure for the year coming in at 981,000, according to government figures. ( Japan Times)

The reminds us of the demographic changes underway highlighted by the fact that the figures for the 6 months to May showed the population falling by another 245,000. Exactly how will QE fix those?

 

 

 

 

Are we measuring the wrong type of productivity?

Today gives us an opportunity to look at the latest data on what is the key economic number these days which is wages growth. After yesterday’s inflation data we will be able to look at both nominal and real or inflation adjusted wages growth. The reason it has become a key number is that in countries like the UK ( and US and Japan..) is that the employment situation is strong and recorded unemployment has improved considerably but wages growth has been weak. In the extreme case of Japan there has so often been no wages growth.

An associated influence on this has been problems with productivity as of course it has helped drive wages growth in the past. Whereas according to Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane that happy situation has been replaced by this.

Productivity growth has consistently underperformed relative to expectations, since at least the global financial crisis. This tale of productivity disappointment, in forecasting and in performance, has been extensively debated and analysed over recent years. Some have called it the “productivity puzzle”.

Indeed we have been on something of a road to nowhere.

For the past decade, average productivity growth has been negative. This is unusual, if not unique, historically. You would have to go right back to the 18th century to see a similarly lengthy period of stagnant productivity.

In case you were wondering it compares to this.

there has been a near-monotonic rise in UK productivity. UK TFP growth since 1750 has averaged 0.8% per year. Since the Industrial Revolution, GDP per capita has doubled roughly every 65 years and productivity roughly every 85 years.

Actually some of Andy’s numbers are a little contradictory as he suddenly agrees with the theme on here that things were deteriorating even before the credit crunch.

From 1950 to 1970, median global productivity growth averaged 1.9% per year. Since 1980, it has averaged 0.3% per year.

I find that fascinating because is not that the same period where we saw the influence of increasing globalisation and internationalisation which were badged as bring significant economic benefits?

The United States

The international scale of the issue has been highlighted by the Financial Times today.

US productivity is set to grow this year at around a third of the pace prevailing before the financial crash………..
US labour productivity — a driver of the economy’s fortunes — is forecast to expand 1 per cent this year, an improvement on the 0.5 per cent recorded for 2016 but far shy of the 2.9 per cent growth seen from 1999 to 2006, according to Conference Board projections shared with the Financial Times.

This is true of others as well.

The EU will see 1 per cent growth in GDP per hour, an improvement on last year’s 0.8 per cent but short of the 1.9 per cent seen in 1999-2006.  Japan is on course for 1.1 per cent productivity growth, up sharply from 0.5 per cent in 2016 but still well shy of the 2.2 per cent pace seen before the crisis.

I cannot move on without pointing out that the pre credit crunch figures were inflated in many places by booming housing and banking sectors which then went bust.

the figures lag far behind the 4.9 per cent pace in 1999-2006.

Is it the service sector?

To my mind a large factor in the productivity puzzle has been the switch from actual things being produced to more intangible types of economic growth. If we look at it in a stereotypical sense we see output of cars replaced by output of haircuts or teaching or nursing. The latter is much harder to measure in productivity terms as who wants teachers to be more productive via larger class sizes? It is even worse for nurses as who would want to be in a hospital ward with fewer nurses? The problem here is we need a measure of quality of the output and we struggle to define and measure that. Even worse some areas of production face a future of possible enormous gains in labour productivity by the use of robotics and artificial intelligence but where does that leave the labour? Can we have too much of something that is usually considered to be good.

Looking forwards as Sarah O’Connor points out we are likely to see more growth in the service sector.

The undramatic truth is that many of the jobs of the future are also those of the present. Prime among them are jobs that involve humans looking after other humans. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted the top 30 fastest-growing occupations for the next 10 years; more than half are some variety of nurse, therapist, healthcare worker or carer. This feels like a safe bet — and not just in the US.

She also points out that this growth will be in jobs that we tend to not value.

Social care jobs, for example, are defined by economists everywhere as low-skilled or unskilled…….Personal care and home health aides in the US make roughly $23,000 a year on average. In Britain, a prolonged squeeze on public spending has had knock-on effects on care workers, many of whom work for private companies that rely on public sector contracts. In England last year, 43 per cent of care workers earned less than £7.50 an hour.

There are plenty of thought-provoking issues here as raising productivity here would involve paying them more as that is the only measure of output we have here. Indeed both GDP and productivity fail us when we cannot measure economic output. On this road no wonder both metrics have problems. If a service sector producer gets more efficient and reduces its price then as money is often the only measure we record lower productivity when in fact things have improved. In other words we are in a something of a mess of our own making.

Today’s data

Not the cheeriest I am afraid to say.

Output per hour – our main measure of labour productivity – fell by 0.5% in Quarter 1 (January to March) 2017. This compares with growth of 0.4% in Quarter 4 (October to December) 2016.

My explanation given above may well work though.

was a result of hours worked growing faster than output;

What about wages?

Growth has been pretty consistent at what seems to be something of a new normal.

Between January to March 2016 and January to March 2017, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.4%

It is in fact marginally higher but as we look for real wage growth and note that nominal growth in March was 2.4% we see that it was a mere 0.1% and should it remain the same in April then wage growth will be negative. Of course if we use the RPI then annual wage growth was negative again in March at -0.7%. Sadly such numbers come on the back of a credit crunch era decline.

The Resolution Foundation has a somewhat enduring if increasingly lonely faith in officialdom so it still takes the forecasts of the OBR seriously and has switched to the CPIH inflation measure. I think though like so many places today it was so revved up to say real wages were falling again that it has used the regular rather than total pay data.

Comment

There is much to consider here as we find yet another set of statistics that are failing us in the credit crunch era. Our outdated concept of productivity needs to change and it is being challenged at both ends of the spectrum. At one extreme we have the sort of situation covered by Skynet in the Terminator series of firms where robots rule and at the other we have what we might call 100% human occupations. Do we really want to say that one provides a sort of 100% productivity and the other 0% because that is where we are heading right now?

Let me add in another sector which is the self-employed which these days is 15% of our workforce or 4.78 million people. For those in the service sector our main measure of output and hence productivity will be their pay. The very pay numbers that are ignored by the official average earnings data. What could go wrong?

Number Crunching

Regular readers will be aware of my love for football. The numbers game at The Emirates where Arsenal were playing Sunderland had me intrigued. You see pictures of a ground that was a long way from full were all over social media and BBC 5 live reported it was at least a third empty, and yet.

the official number for Tuesday’s game was 59,510. ( ESPN)

Actually Arsene Wenger claimed it was “sold out” but of course he has a long history of eyesight problems and myopia so let’s pass on that. But could we one day see the first empty ground that is counted as sold out?

What is the problem with wage growth?

The problem with wages growth has been a long running theme of this website, also if we look back it is something which even preceded the credit crunch. Although of course the credit crunch has made it worse. The world of economics has been wrong-footed by this as the Ivory Towers as usual projected that it would be “the same old song” as the Four Tops told us. For example the UK Office for Budget Responsibility projected that wages growth in the UK would be 4.5% now, and if they had known how far that unemployment would fall would presumably have projected it even higher.

A contributor to this has been the concept of full employment. From Investopeadia.

Full employment is an economic situation in which all available labor resources are being used in the most efficient way possible. Full employment embodies the highest amount of skilled and unskilled labor that can be employed within an economy at any given time. Any remaining unemployment is considered to be frictional, structural or voluntary.

There were and amazingly still are concepts such as the “natural rate of unemployment” below which inflation was supposed to rise. The catch has been that as we have seen unemployment rates fall post credit crunch we have seen wages either rise weakly or stagnate. At best wage growth has been lower than expected and at worst we have seen it actually fall. Something has changed.

One factor in this is clearly that the old Ivory Tower way of looking at the labour market through the lens of official unemployment rates is flawed. The concept of “underemployment” has been developed whereby people work fewer hours than they would like or take a lower skilled job. This has become entwined with quite a few issues around the concept of self-employment which is often counted as a type of “full” employment when it is not. Indeed being fully employed is in fact in the UK something you think you are rather than being something properly defined. On this road we start to understand that the clouds have yet again gathered between the elevated heights of the Ivory Towers and the ground zero where the rest of us live and work.

Japan’s problem

Weak wages growth has been one of the features of the “lost decade(s)” for the Japanese economy and accordingly it was one of the objectives of the policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reverse this. So let us examine today’s data as reported by Reuters.

Japan’s March real wages fell at the fastest pace in almost two years, pressured by meagre nominal pay hikes and a slight rise in consumer prices,

The detail is not good.

Inflation-adjusted real wages dropped 0.8 per cent in March from a year earlier to mark their biggest rate of decline since June 2015, labour ministry data showed on Tuesday (May 9)….In nominal terms, wage earners’ cash earnings fell 0.4 per cent year-on-year in March, also notching the biggest rate of decrease since June 2015.

If we continue the themes expressed above then if we imagined that we were inhabitants of an Ivory Tower we would be projecting fast wage growth. From Japan Macro Advisers.

The demand/supply balance in the Japanese labor market continues to remain tight. The unemployment rate remained steady at 2.8% in March 2017, matching the lowest rate since June 1994. Japan is likely to be at its full employment status, with only frictional unemployment remaining in the labor market.

Full employment with no wage growth and maybe even falls in real wages? Actually this is perhaps even worse for the concept of a natural rate of unemployment.

NAIRU, the Non-Accelerating-Inflation-Rate of Unemployment rate, was considered to lie between 3.5% and 4.5% in Japan.

So wages should be rising and doing so quite quickly whereas in reality they are not rising at all. Indeed contrary to the hype and media reporting they have been falling in the period of Abenomics  as the 103.9 of 2013 has been replaced by the 100.7 of 2016 where 2015 =100. The slight nudge up in 2016 has been replaced by falls so far in 2017.

This from Morgan Stanly only last month already seems like it is from a parallel universe.

Record low unemployment rates are pushing up salaries,

The Bank of Japan regularly tells us that wages will rise next year and Governor Kuroda stated this again only on Friday, but so far next year has never arrived.

Is Japan are forerunner for us and should we be singing along with The Vapors one more time?

I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so
Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so

The United States

A month ago US News reported this from US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

“With an unemployment rate that stands at 4.5 percent, that’s even a little bit below what most of my colleagues and I would take as a marker of where full employment is,” Yellen said. “I’d say we’re doing pretty well.”

Yet on Friday the Bureau of Labor Statistics told us this.

In April, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 7 cents to $26.19. Over the year, average hourly earnings have risen by 65 cents,
or 2.5 percent.

So we are at what we are told is pretty much full employment and we are below the natural rate of employment ( 5.6% according to the Congressional Budget Office) and yet pay growth is still rather weak. It has been so for a while.

http://www.epi.org?p=117112&view=embed&embed_template=charts_v2013_08_21&embed_date=20170509&onp=75850&utm_source=epi_press&utm_medium=chart_embed&utm_campaign=charts_v2

The other issue is that in spite of us apparently being at full employment the level of wage growth is not a lot above inflation with the US CPI being at 2.4% and the Personal Consumption Expenditure being at 1.8%. Something is not right here and we do perhaps get some more perspective by looking at both the underemployment rate in the US ( 8.6%) and the way that the participation rate has fallen.

The UK

The situation here as I have been pointing out pretty much each time the data is released is very good in terms of the quantity measures as we see falling unemployment and rising employment but poor on the price or wages measure. This has been illustrated somewhat ironically by one of the failures of the Bank of England. Remember when it made an issue of the unemployment rate falling below 7%?

In particular, the MPC intends not to raise Bank Rate from its current level of 0.5% at least until the Labour Force Survey headline measure of the unemployment rate has fallen to a threshold of 7%,

There was a clear implication there that it expected economic changes as we moved below that threshold such as higher wage growth. Of course this was abandoned very quickly as unemployment fell sharply leaving the Bank of England’s spinners and PR people with plenty of work. But with the unemployment rate now well below 7% and indeed being 4.7% then wages should be rising quickly as we are well below the rate at which it was expected by our central banking overlords and masters. Er no, as you see wage growth for total pay was 2.3% back then and is 2.3% now. In terms of exact numbers that is happenstance but in terms of theme and principle it is yet another sign that the economic world has seen ch-ch-changes.

Comment

We are seeing something of a shift in the economic tectonic plates. Some of this is welcome as we see a strong recovery in levels of employment and falls in unemployment. However the other side of this coin is that wage growth is weak and in my home country the UK real wages have in spite of the economic recovery are still short of where they were a decade ago. It was only yesterday when I noted the German housing market getting like us well today it is our labour market which has mimicked theirs! Weak wage growth with low unemployment is rather Germanic and in fact is something we aimed at, well until we got it anyway.

Until now I have left out productivity which is an important factor in real wage growth as we wonder if the switch to a mainly service based  economy has neutered it? But there have been issued here as this morning’s working paper from the ECB indicates and its analysis applies much wider than just in the Euro area.

Higher labour productivity growth is a key factor in raising living standards in advanced economies……..Recent labour productivity growth in the euro area has, however, been low – by both historical and international standards – albeit against the backdrop of a generalised slowdown in global labour productivity growth…………..Over the period 2008-16, annual growth in euro area labour productivity per person employed slowed to an average of around 0.5% (based on a three-year moving average), from an average of around 1.1% over the course of the decade to 2007

 

The 0% problem of Japan’s economy

Today I intend to look east to the land of the rising sun or Nihon where the ongoing economic struggles have been a forerunner to what is now happening to western economies. Also of course Japan is intimately tied up with the ongoing issue and indeed problem that is North Korea. And its navy or rather maritime self-defence force is being reinforced as this from Reuters only last month points out.

Japan’s second big helicopter carrier, the Kaga, entered service on Wednesday, giving the nation’s military greater ability to deploy beyond its shores………..Japan’s two biggest warships since World War Two are potent symbols of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to give the military a bigger international role. They are designated as helicopter destroyers to keep within the bounds of a war-renouncing constitution that forbids possession of offensive weapons.

We cannot be to critical of the name misrepresentation as of course the Royal Navy badged its previous aircraft carriers as through deck cruisers! There are of course issues though with Japan possessing such ships as the name alone indicates as the last one was involved in the attack on Pearl Habour before being sunk at Midway.

Demographics

This is a crucial issue as this from Bloomberg today indicates.

Japan Needs More People

The crux of the problem will be familiar to regular readers of my work.

Japanese companies already report they can’t find people to hire, and the future isn’t likely to get better — government researchers expect the country’s population to fall by nearly a third by 2065, at which point nearly 40 percent will be senior citizens. There’ll be 1.3 workers for every person over the age of 65, compared to 2.3 in 2015.

So the population is both ageing and shrinking which of course are interrelated issues. The solution proposed by Bloomberg is rather familiar.

It’s plain, however, that he needs to try harder still, especially when it comes to immigration……..Researchers say that to maintain the current population, Japan would have to let in more than half a million immigrants a year. (It took in 72,000 in 2015.)……..He now needs to persuade Japan that substantially higher immigration is a vital necessity.

There are various issues here as for example the Bloomberg theme that the policies of  Prime Minister Abe are working seems not to be applying to population. But as they admit below such a change is the equivalent of asking fans of Arsenal football club to support Tottenham Hotspur.

In a society as insular and homogeneous as Japan, any such increase would be a very tall order.

The question always begged in this is if the new immigrants boost the Japanese economy surely there must be a negative effect on the countries they leave?

The 0% Problem in Japan

I thought today I would look at the economy in different ways and partly as a reflection of the culture and partly due to the effect above a lot of economic and financial market indicators are near to 0%. This is something which upsets both establishments and central bankers.

Real Wages

Let me start with an issue I have been writing about for some years from Japan Macro Advisers.

The real wage growth, after offsetting the inflation in the consumer price, was 0% YoY in February.

The official real wage data has gone 0%,0%,0.1%, -0.1% and now 0% so in essence 0% and is appears on a road to nowhere. This is very different to what you may have read in places like Bloomberg and the Financial Times which have regularly trumpeted real wage growth in their headlines. There is a reason why this is even more significant than you might think because let me skip to a genuine example of economic success in Japan.

Given the prevalent labor shortage situation in Japan, there should be an economic force encouraging wages to rise. At 2.8%, the current unemployment rate is the lowest since 1993. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Actually in another rebuttal to Ivory Tower economics we see that unemployment is above what was “full employment”.

One could argue it is a matter of time, but it has already been 2.5 years since the unemployment rate reached 3.5%, the level economists considered as full-employment equivalent. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Inflation

The latest official data hammers out an increasingly familiar beat.

The consumer price index for Japan in February 2017 was 99.8 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.1% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

If you compare 99.8 now with 100 in 2015 you see that inflation has been in essence 0%. This is quite a reverse for the policy of Abenomics where the “Three Arrows” were supposed to lead to inflation rising at 2% per annum. An enormous amount of financial market Quantitative Easing has achieved what exactly? Here is an idea of the scale comparing Japan to the US and Euro area.

As we stand this has been a colossal failure in achieving its objective as for example inflation is effectively 0% and the Japanese Yen has been reinforcing this by strengthening recently into the 108s versus the US Dollar. it has however achieved something according to The Japan Times.

Tokyo’s skyline is set to welcome 45 new skyscrapers by the time the city hosts the Olympics in 2020, as a surge of buildings planned in the early years of Abenomics near completion.

Although in something of an irony this seems to cut inflation prospects.

“This could heat up competition for tenants in other areas of the city”

A cultural issue

From The Japan Times.

Naruhito Nogami, a 37-year-old systems engineer in Tokyo, drives to discount stores on weekends to buy cheap groceries in bulk, even though he earns enough to make ends meet and the prospects for Japan’s economic recovery are brighter.

“I do have money, but I’m frugal anyway. Everyone is like that. That’s just the way it is,” he says.

Jaoanese businesses have responded in a way that will be sending shudders through the office of Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda.

Top retailer Aeon Co. is cutting prices for over 250 grocery items this month to lure cost-savvy shoppers, and Seiyu, operated by Wal-Mart Stores, cut prices on more than 200 products in February.

More of the same?

It would seem that some doubling down is about to take place.

The Abe government on Tuesday nominated banker Hitoshi Suzuki and economist Goshi Kataoka to the Bank of Japan Policy Board to replace two members who have frequently dissented against the direction set by Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda. ( Bloomberg)

Also Japan seems ever more committed to a type of centrally planned economic culture.

Japanese government-backed fund eyes Toshiba’s chip unit (Financial Times )

With the Bank of Japan buying so many Japanese shares it has been named the Tokyo Whale there more questions than answers here.

Comment

There is much to consider here but let me propose something regularly ignored. Why does Japan simply not embrace its strengths of for example full employment and relatively good economic growth per capita figures and abandon the collective growth and inflation chasing? After all lower prices can provide better living-standards and as  wages seem unable to rise even with very low unemployment may be a road forwards.

The catch is the fact that Japan continues to not only have a high national debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio of 231% according to Bank of Japan data but is borrowing ever more each year. It is in effect reflating but not getting inflation and on a collective level not getting much economic growth either. Let is hope that Japan follows the lead of many of its citizens and avoids what happened last time after a period of economic troubles.

For us however we are left to mull the words of the band The Vapors.

Turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so

Let me finish with one clear difference we in the UK have much more of an inflation culture than Japan.

UK employment improves and so does underemployment

As we look at the UK labour market today let us start with something which in one way is good news and in another poses questions. From Reuters last week.

Manchester United winger Jesse Lingard has signed a new contract that will keep him at Old Trafford until 2021, the Premier League club said in a statement on Thursday.

Lingard, who will earn up to 100,000 pounds a week according to British media reports, has an option to extend the deal by a further year.

Firstly congratulations to Jesse and for once it is nice to see an English player benefit from the largesse of the Premier League these days. There is invariably hype in the exact numbers but he seems to have approximately trebled his wages which will do there bit for the average wages series in the future. However those who watched an outstanding display by Juventus last night in the Champions League as they put Barcelona to the sword have been mulling the concept of relativity. From @Football_Tweet

– Paulo Dybala earns €3M a season at Juventus. – Jesse Lingard earns €6M a season at Man Utd.

we return to a familiar question which is how much of the wages growth is in effect a type of inflation?

The impact of Robots

If we look ahead on a more general level then we can expect to see not only more robots in our economy but more advanced ones appear. Not quite as advanced as the ones in the Foundation saga of Isaac Asimov that I am currently reading again but considerable advances are being made. According to Bloomberg such improvements are likely to have an impact on labour markets and wages especially.

Robots have long been maligned for job-snatching. Now you can add depressing wages and promoting inequality to your list of automation-related grievances.

Industrial robots cut into employment and pay for workers, based on an new analysis of local data stretching from 1990 and 2007. The change had the biggest impact on the lower half of the wage distribution, so it probably worsened America’s wage gap.

The exact results are as follows.

One additional robot per thousand workers reduces the employment-to-population ratio by 0.18 percentage points to 0.34 percentage points and slashes wages by 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent, based on their analysis.

Food for thought as we look forwards in years and decades and of course ground which many of the best science fiction writing has warned about.

Today’s data

The quantity data remains pretty strong as you can see.

There were 31.84 million people in work, 39,000 more than for September to November 2016 and 312,000 more than for a year earlier.

There was an additional kicker to this as we got a glimpse into a potentially improving situation regarding underemployment as well.

with an increase in full-time employment (positive 146,000) partly offset by a fall in part-time employment (negative 107,000)………….strong demand for labour is translating into a shift from part-time to full-time employment, and an increase in the average hours worked per week by both full time and part-time employees.

Here is the analysis of hours worked.

Average hours worked per week increased from 32.0 to 32.4 in the 3 months to February 2017, the highest since July to September 2002, largely due to more hours being worked over the Christmas and New Year period compared with recent years.

Fewer part-time workers are looking for full-time work.

Data released today (12 April 2017) show that this measure continued to contract with the proportion falling to 12.6%, down from 14.2% a year ago (and down from a peak of 18.4% in 2013). This proportion is now at its lowest since March to May 2009, but still well above its pre-crisis average of 8.3%.

So it looks as though the situation regarding underemployment has improved as well although the data is only partial and let us finish this section with the unemployment numbers.

There were 1.56 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work), 45,000 fewer than for September to November 2016 and 141,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

What about wages?

These were the same as last month in terms of growth.

Between the three months to February 2016 and the three months to February 2017, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.3%, the same as between the three months to January 2016 and the three months to January 2017.

Actually there was a rise in the month of February by 2.9% on the year before so maybe a hopeful hint of a pick-up! We will find out as we go through the bonus months of March and April. One thing we do know is that both Sky News and the Financial Times ( “UK wages have grown at their weakest pace in seven months,”) have not checked this.

The official numbers on real wages are below.

adjusted for inflation, average weekly earnings grew by 0.2% including bonuses and by 0.1% excluding bonuses, over the year, the slowest rate of growth since 2014.

So we have something of a discontinuity as we had some real wage growth in February it would appear. Let us cross our fingers that it continues but sadly it seems unlikely ( the comparison is flattered by bonuses falling last year). Of course even if we use the figures for February alone then real wage growth was negative if we compare it to the Retail Price Index.

Also the exclusion of the self-employed from the wages data gets ever more shameful.

self-employed people increased by 114,000 to 4.78 million (15.0% of all people in work).

Can we increase tax on income from wages?

After the debacle of the U-Turn on higher National Insurance contributions from the self-employed there have been arguments that the UK is unable to ever raise more taxes from income. It was interesting therefore to see some international comparisons from the OECD today.

The average single worker in Belgium faced a tax wedge of 54.0% in 2016 compared with the OECD average of 36.0%…..Belgium had the 4th highest tax wedge in the OECD for an average married worker with two children at 38.6% in 2016, which compares with the OECD average of 26.6%.

Not the best place to be single and childless it would appear! But now the UK.

The average single worker in the United Kingdom faced a tax wedge of 30.8% in 2016……..The United Kingdom had the 22nd lowest tax wedge in the OECD for an average married worker with two children at 25.8% in 2016,

So in theory we could if we wished to reach the peak that is Belgium. The Anglosphere ( US, Australia and Canada) if I can put it like that has similar numbers to the UK although the Kiwis stand out at only 17.9% for a single person. The lowest is Chile at 7%.

Interestingly with its debt and deficit problems income in Japan is slightly more taxed than here.

Comment

I would like to take a step back and consider the last couple of years. Remember the number of economists and media analysts who warned about what they called “deflation” and sometimes they shouted it so loud it was “DEFLATION”? Well it morphed into this.

By late-2014, an increase in nominal wage growth and low CPIH inflation, led to average real earnings increasing by 1.7% in the 18 months to mid-2016. ( Office for National Statistics).

This of course boosted the economy mostly via the retail sales boom but also in other ways as I pointed out on the 29th of January 2015.

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.

If there was a musical theme to the deflation paranoia then it was “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” from Stealers Wheel. Please do not misunderstand me I am talking about the so-called experts here not those influenced by them. Sadly we seem to be heading into a period where something they wanted ( higher inflation) will slow the economy down. I wonder how the inflationistas will spin that?

 

 

 

 

 

The Bank of England may consider yet more easing going forwards

Today the Bank of England announces its policy decision although care is needed because it actually voted yesterday. This was one of the “improvements” announced a while ago by Governor Mark Carney and it is something I have criticised. My views have only been strengthened by this development. From the Financial Times today.

Andrew Tyrie wrote to the Financial Conduct Authority on Wednesday to ask the regulator to scrutinise unusual patterns of trading behaviour ahead of market-moving data releases. “It would be appalling, were people found to be exploiting privileged pre-release access to ONS data for financial benefit,” said Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the select committee, referring to the Office for National Statistics. “The FCA is responsible for market integrity. So I have written to them today to ask them to get to the bottom of this.”

Whilst this is not directly related to the Bank of England the UK ship of state looks increasingly to be a leaky vessel. As ever Yes Prime Minister was on the case 30 years ago.

James Hacker: I occasionally have confidential press briefings, but I have never leaked.
Bernard Woolley: Oh, that’s another of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I give confidential press briefings; you leak; he’s been charged under Section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.

These are important matters where things should be above reproach. Speaking of that it is another clear error of judgement by Governor Carney to allow Charlotte Hogg to vote on UK monetary policy this week. The official releases about her resignation have skirted over the fact that she demonstrated a disturbing lack of knowledge about monetary policy when quizzed by the Treasury Select Committee leading to the thought that her actual qualification was to say ” I agree with Mark”.

Other central banks

The Swiss National Bank has joined the groupthink parade ( if you recall something Charlotte Hogg denied existed) this morning. Whilst busy threatening even more foreign exchange intervention and keeping its main interest-rate at 0.75% it confessed to this.

economic growth in the UK was once again surprisingly strong.

US Federal Reserve and GDP

There was something to shake the Ivory Towers to their foundations in the comments of US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen yesterday evening. From the Wall Street Journal.

The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model today lowered its forecast for first-quarter GDP growth to a 0.9% pace. But Ms. Yellen shrugged off signs of weakness in the gauge of overall U.S. economic activity.

 

“GDP is a pretty noisy indicator,” she said, and officials haven’t changed their view of the outlook. The Fed expects continued improvement in the labor market and broader economy, though she also cautioned that policy isn’t set in stone.

Central banks have adjusted policy time and time again in response to GDP data and for quite some time Bank of England moves looked like they were predicated on it. Now it is apparently “noisy” which provides quite a critique of past policy. Also what must she think of durable goods and retail sales numbers?! Also this is like putting the one ring in the fires of Mordor to the Ivory Towers who support nominal GDP targeting. Oh and as we have observed more than a few times in the past the first quarter number for US GDP has been consistently weak for a while now leading to the issue of “seasonal adjustment squared”.

Things to make Mark Carney smile

Central bankers love high asset prices so let us take a look. From the BBC.

The UK’s FTSE 100 share index has broken through 7,400 points to hit a record intra-day high. The blue chip index is currently trading at 7,421 points.

The official data on house prices is a little behind but will raise a particular smile as of course it helps the mortgage books of the banks.

Average house prices in the UK have increased by 7.2% in the year to December 2016 (up from 6.1% in the year to November 2016), continuing the strong growth seen since the end of 2013.

Maybe even a buyer or two in central London.

Just faced a sealed bid stuation for a client buying a house in Knightsbridge. Life in the London property market is back. ( @joeccles )

Also with the ten-year Gilt yield at 1.22% then UK bonds are at an extremely high level in price terms albeit not as high as when Mark surged into the market last summer.

Maybe even the Bank of England’s investments in the corporate bonds of the Danish shipping company Maersk can be claimed to be having a beneficial effect.

Maersk Oil has managed to cut operating expenditure by about 40% in the last two years, and analysts at Wood Mackenzie predict the company will be the third biggest investor in the UK continental shelf (UKCS) by 2020. (h/t @chigrl )

Although Maersk put it down to a change in taxation policy and there is little benefit now for the UK from this bit.

He was speaking to Energy Voice at the yard in Singapore where the floating storage and offloading (FSO) unit for the £3.3billion North Sea Culzean project is being built.

In terms of good economic news there was this announcement today. From the BBC.

Toyota is to invest £240m in upgrading its UK factory that makes the Auris and Avensis models.

The Japanese carmaker’s investment in the Burnaston plant near Derby will allow production of vehicles using its new global manufacturing system.

Things to make the Bank of England frown

Ordinarily one might expect to be discussing the way that UK inflation will go above target this year and maybe even next week. But we know that the majority of the Monetary Policy Committee plan to “look through” this and thus will only pay lip service to it. However yesterday’s news will give them pause.

If we look into the single month detail it is worrying as you see December was 1.9% and January 1.7% giving a clear downwards trend. If we look further we see that those months saw much lower bonus payments than a year before and in fact falls as for example -3.9% and -2.7% was reported respectively. Putting it another way UK average earnings reached £509 in November but were £507 in both December and January.

They will now be worried about wages growth and should this continue much of the MPC will concentrate on this.

Comment

Today seems to be set to be an “I agree with Mark” fest unless Kristin Forbes feels like a bit of rebellion before she departs the Bank of England in the summer. However should there be any other signs of weakness in the UK economy then we will see some of the MPC shift towards more easing I think in spite of the inflation trajectory. That means that it will be out of sync with the US Federal Reserve and the People’s Bank of China ( which raised some interest-rates by either 0.1% or 0.2% this morning).

It may cheer this as an example of strength for the UK property market and indeed banks. From the Financial Times.

BNP Paribas is in talks to acquire Strutt & Parker, the UK estate agents, in what would be a Brexit-defying vote of confidence in the British property market by France’s biggest bank.

Can anybody recall what happened last time banks piled into UK estate-agents?

Correction

On Monday I suggested that we would see more Operation Twist style QE from the Bank of England today. Apologies but I misread the list and that will not be so. Off to the opticians for me.