Economic growth and Boris Johnson inequality debacle

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After returning from an unpaid internship in Austria for the last three months, I was very interested to see Boris Johnson’s latest comments on inequality. After reading a number of articles focusing specifically on his comments relating to IQ, I  believe many had not picked up upon another important part of his argument – the implied justification that the current level of income inequality is acceptable because it a key and necessary driver of economic growth.

The argument that inequality drives economic growth goes back to the roots of economic theory itself. The theory argues that inequality generates incentives for individuals to work hard, compete and innovate within a market economy. A level of inequality allows for there to be winners and losers from this process and drives economic progress as individuals strive to reach the top. The theory therefore predicts that more unequal countries should grow at a faster rate. However, despite the strengths of this argument there are a number of reasons why an unequal distribution of income and assets within an economy may do precisely the opposite.

Many economists argue that highly unequal income distributions can lead to a number of economic efficiencies. Firstly, when the vast majority of wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, it means that a smaller fraction of the population qualifies for credit because they lack the necessary collateral to obtain loans. As a result they may not be able to invest in the education of their children or gain sufficient funds to start a business. Productive investments within an economy, which stimulate growth, are therefore foregone.

Secondly, a higher level of inequality may lower the overall level of consumption within an economy. This is because people with lower incomes tend to spend a higher proportion of their income than those at the top. Consequently, if most of the national income is concentrated at the top, it is argued that overall consumption may fall. Moreover, the wealthy tend to spend a higher proportion of their incomes on luxury import and foreign travel whilst they may also seek tax havens for their saving abroad. This affects the economy through a process known as capital flight, such investments do not contribute to a country’s productive resources and can therefore hinder the prospects for economic growth.

Other authors have looked at the political economy implications of high levels of inequality for economic growth. For instance, when wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, these individuals may take measures to safeguard their assets or capture more wealth instead of increasing their own productivity. Individuals may partake in disruptive rent seeking activities such as excessive lobbyingprovide large political donations or engage in bribery. In turn, all of this leads to inefficient use of resources as they are diverted away from productive activites which could stimulate economic growth.

A more recent argument is that high levels of income inequality may precipitate credit bubbles and financial crises. Here the argument is that when incomes grow at the top and those at the bottom stagnate, the demand for cheap credit increases. At the same time there is a push by those at the top for policies that sustain and build upon their wealth, such as lobbying for looser financial regulations. As explained by an influential study by the IMF, the end result is a viscious cycle of inequality whereby more and more individuals at the bottom have to borrow to keep afloat thus increasing the risk of a financial crisis.

This point I find particularly relevant as I believe it builds upon the Marxist theory that rising inequality would lead to the ultimate collapse of an economy. The basic argument here is that as business owners become richer by applying downward pressure on wages, the economy will come to a point where no one can afford to buy what the business owners are selling. At this point the economy will stagnate and reach the point of collapse. From this viewpoint, credit is just merely just a mechanism that allows individuals to spend above their means thus postponing the inevitable credit crisis.

But what about the empirical evidence.  Take the much cited case study of the Philippines and South Korea for example. In the early 1960s, both of the countries were similar on a number of macroeconomic indicators. They had comparable levels of GDP per capita, urbanisation, population size and primary and secondary education. However, over the period 1960-1988, the per capita income in the Philippines grew, on average, by only 1.8% a year. In contrast, per capita income in South Korea grew, on average, by 6.2% a year over the same time period. However, what is most interesting about this story is that, compared to South Korea, the Philippines exhibited a significantly more unequal distribution of income over the period measured. In 1965 the Philippines’ gini coefficient was nearly 17 points higher than that of South Korea. This clearly contradicts the argument that more unequal economies grow at a faster rate.

A number of more rigorous empirical studies have also found that high levels of income inequality have a negative impact upon growth. For instance, a frequently cited study by Alesina and Rodrik (1994) finds that the gini coefficient has a consistently negative effect upon economic growth. Likewise, Deininger and Squire (1997) investigate whether initial income inequality has a strong impact upon long term growth rates. They find that link between income inequality and economic growth is not strong however they do find that inequality in the distribution of assets (in this case land) exerts a strong negative effect upon growth.

On the whole the empirical evidence on the relationship between income inequality and economic growth is inconclusive at best. The studies conducted suffer from numerous data issues. For instance, inequality is measured in many different ways across countries making comparisons difficult. Conclusions made from many of the studies available are therefore tentative at best. As a result there is no clear evidence that income inequality has any impact on growth whatsoever.

The debate has still not been won by either side. While many accept (and I do too) that a level of inequality is necessary to drive economic development, it is not justification for the significant increases in income inequality we have seen over the past few decades. Furthermore, high levels of income inequality can have far more widespread ramifications for a country besides economic growth. As this interesting lecture by Richard Wilkinson shows, high levels of income inequality can have negative impacts upon a number of socio-economic factors such as health, life expectancy and levels of trust within society. Furthermore, a number of a studies have found a negative relationship between inequality and levels of overall happiness.

Nonetheless these are issues which will not be regularly mentioned within the political sphere. There is still a strong focus on crude indicators such as economic growth to gauge the success of our economy. Unfortunately politicians such as Boris Johnson are still very focused on this narrow gauge of development and therefore fail to see the negative socio-economic impacts that the forces of greed, envy and ultimately, inequality, can lead to.

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How the economic machine works

This video by Ray Dalio is probably one of the most informative I have seen for a long time and it gives those without a background in economics a very simple and easy to understand model of what has been driving the recent financial crisis. It should be noted however that the model is very simplistic and doesn’t take into account a number of other factors such as international trade.

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Are Hungary’s Unorthodox Economic Policies working?

In 2010, Hungary elected the Fidesz party and its leader Viktor Orban into power. Since then the government has implemented a range of unorthodox economic reforms which have drawn criticism from economists and financial analysts alike. However recent reports indicate that the Hungarian economy may have finally exited a year long period of negative growth. The Hungarian Central Statistics Office estimates that the gross domestic product of Hungary ‘increased by 0.5% in the second quarter of 2013 compared to the corresponding period of the previous year’.  In addition the budget deficit now sits at 1.9% of GDP, well under EU mandated target of 3%. This means that Hungary now displays one of the lowest deficits among the EU 27 and is free from the EU’s Excessive Deficit Procedure monitoring procedures.

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Inflation has also dropped to a record low. The Hungarian Consumer Price Index now sits at the lowest level since Hungary’s transition to a market economy. In July it fell unexpectedly to a new low of 1.8% (year on year) compared to 1.9% in June.  When this drop is decomposed we can see that food prices declined by 1.4 percent from the previous month in July, whilst household energy costs fell by 0.4 percent.

Naturally the Fidesz government has claimed that its unorthodox policies are at the heart of this change. What I find interesting about such policies is that they could prove very popular in many European countries, such as my own, where there is a feeling that many banks ‘got let off the hook’.

Since coming to power Orban has introduced biggest tax in Europe on banks and financial companies and imposed large levies upon energy, retail and telecommunications companies. In addition Orban has announced plans to fix the exchange rate for loans taken by individuals in Swiss Francs. In particular, this attempt to lessen the debt burden for such individuals could lead to losses in the banking sector of up to 4.1 billion. In another popular move the government forced energy firms in January to slash their prices by 10% with the promise of another imposed 10% cut in October. Further unorthodox policies include interfering with central bank independence, nationalizing $14 billion in assets from private pensions and a steep 18% hike in the minimum wage.

However there are many who question whether such policies are sustainable in the long run.  Many economists are concerned that such policies will threaten foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country. The general argument is that the current regulatory unpredictability (i.e. high taxes on banks) may damage investor’s confidence and lead to large outflows of capital. This is significant because Hungary’s economy is heavily dependent upon foreign direct investment. For instance UNCTAD’s new inward FDI contribution index, which measures the importance of FDI to a country’s economy, ranks Hungary first among the 79 nations studied.

As discussed by the IMF, the large levies placed upon banks may place an additional drag upon growth. Hungary’s financial sector is heavily dependent upon foreign funding which is worth around €35–40 billion annually. To put this into perspective, foreign firms account for 90% and 70% of the insurance sector and investment banking sectors respectively. The deleveraging process now present in many financial institutions has meant that Hungary has experienced negative credit growth for the last several years and the IMF predicts this could further hinder economic growth.

In addition to this some economists are concerned that the new central bank chief Gyorgy Matolcsy (regarded as Orban’s ‘right hand man’) will opt for a plan of quantitative easing in order to stimulate the economy. This could be problematic because injecting money into the economy may increase imports and the debt burden whilst, at the same time, foreign capital is leaving the country. This could significantly affect Hungary’s ability to finance itself.

Despite these concerns there are still some positive signs for the economy. Germany, which accounts for 24.7% of Hungarian exports, has registered strong growth in the last quarter and now many expect the economy to return to a steady rate. The Hungarian economy will also receive a boost from the opening of a new Audi plant in Gyor which equates to €900 million in additional investment. Other investors have also expressed their desire to keep operating in the country despite regulatory pressures. In a recent interview with FDI Intelligience magazine,  Rhydian Pountney of the UK based engineering company Renishaw PLC stated that,

We are acutely aware of the political issues of the regime but we take the long view and we are not likely to be scared off by the ups and downs of politics,”

Could economists be wrong about the impending crash in FDI? Data from the OECD also suggests otherwise. According to preliminary estimates FDI inflows are now above pre-crisis levels at $13.5 billion. Conjointly the data shows that FDI outflows have also increased in 2012, to $10.6 billion – however this figure is still $2.9 billion below inflows.

Although I do not agree with many of the Fidesz party’s other policies, I believe it will be interesting to observe whether its economic policies will pay off in the long run. If so, it would be interesting to see how the economic community accounts for the success of a number of policies which have aimed to boost consumption at the expense of inward investment.

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Scroungers and immigrants, a British obsession

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In recent times the UK has begun suffering with a what seems to be a social benefits and immigration neurosis. It seems that since 2009 any group seen to be taking from the state undeservedly is now a target. What started as a media fueled obsession has now been set ablaze by the government. Wide ranging reforms have been made to the welfare state and immigration, all due to the fear that someone might be getting something for nothing. However as always the situation is blown up to proportions which scarcely resemble the reality. To show this lets start with the issue of benefits.

Britain’s ‘scroungers’ and the Dependency Culture

Recently the word ‘scrounger’ has been creeping evermore into the media. The Sun for example launched its campaign to ‘Stop the £1.5 billion benefits scroungers‘ whilst the daily mail is never hesitant to remind us that there is a family with 10 kids living nearby claiming your hard earned tax money. Dealing with the general public I hear the complaints day in day out; anyone who diverges from this attitude is also generally targeted as I found out in a recent debate with a customer in my store.  In a joint report by Elizabeth Finncare and the University of Kent, the paper found that attitudes have charged in the last 20 years with more people viewing claimants as undeserving – this is backed up by the British Social Attitudes survey which find that 62% of people believe that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work. In addition the paper found that the usage of negative vocabulary in media articles, such as the word ‘scrounger’, has increased since the recession.

So what is the reality. Well firstly, as the Prime Minister is all too happy to remind us, we are spending more than ever on welfare. As the graph below, from the guardian, shows the welfare bill has increased in nearly all areas in period 2011-12 compared to 2001-02.

Graph 1. Total Welfare Spending by type

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Source: The Guardian

This is a fact a lot of the media would like to cling to. The Sun for instance has taken pleasure in proclaiming ‘benefits have increased 20% in the last 5 years’ whilst the daily mail has cried out that benefit spending has rose by 60% since 1997/98. With such exclamations one could not be forgiven for believing that the increase in spending on welfare is the result of a long term upward trend.

Graph 2

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However as the graph above shows, when welfare spending is viewed as a proportion of GDP, the story changes. For instance in the late 1980s and early 1990s the proportion of GDP spent on welfare was over 10%. Since then it has come down to a more manageable level, with a recent increase from 2008 on wards. Why? Well recessions are a underlying cause of unemployment and unemployment means more claimants! So much for the usual George Osborne mantra of a ‘welfare state we cannot afford’.

In addition, when we measure the share of welfare paid out as unemployment benefit (% GDP) we find that the UK ranks the third lowest in Europe at 1.13% - only Italy and Slovakia rank lower.

Even more so, when we look at the rising cost of welfare in nominal terms (see graph 1) we see that it is the rising number of pensioners which has added the most to the welfare bill not the unemployed. But hang on what about all those families who feed off the state with up to 5 or more dependent children? What about Mick Philpott and his 17 children, doesn’t this bring into question the welfare state? Isn’t the welfare state encouraging those receiving benefits to have more children and become ever dependent? The data says otherwise.

In truth this is a very small problem, as the Economist explains in 2011 there were only 130 families with over ten children claiming at least one form of out-of-work benefit. Similarly only 8% of claimants had 3 children or more. The Economist then goes on to declare that current evidence shows that on average unemployed people have similar numbers of children compared to those who are employed – dispelling the myth that benefits encourage large families! In addition to this the Joseph Rowntree foundation has found that benefits do not encourage inter generational claimants.

If more evidence is needed that Britain’s ‘dependency culture’ is overstated, then take a look at a recent study by the government department for work and pensions. In a sample of 32-33 year olds who had claimed job seekers allowance (JSA) in 2010-11, over 40% had not made a claim in the previous four years. Furthermore 63% of the sample had not claimed JSA for a period of more than 6 months in those previous 4 years. This again challenges the common perception that many claimants are ultimately dependent on JSA and are part of a ‘dependency culture’.

Britain and the soft touch myth on immigration

This brings me onto the next issue of immigration and the common perception that most immigrants flock to the UK for its generous welfare system whilst giving nothing in return. In a number of key speeches David Cameron has vowed to crack down on the problem and shed the UK’s image as being a soft touch. But how serious is the problem and what would happen is we cut net immigration to zero (A recent YouGov poll found 64% of UK participants in the study wanted net immigration reduced to 0%).

Firstly it should be noted that economically, a majority of studies agree that immigrants are a benefit to the UK. For instance a recent OECD report found that immigrants make a net contribution equivalent to 1.02% of GDP or £16.3 billion. This is because the majority tend to be of working age and are therefore more economically active.  Moreover the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts that if net immigration was reduced to zero, public sector debt would rise by £18 billion in the next five years. Increase this time span to 50 years and by 2062-63 the OBR predicts that net debt to GDP ratio could increase to 174%. To put this in perspective Greece’s current level of national debt is 161% .*

Okay, but what about the benefits these immigrants claim I hear you ask. Isn’t Britain turning into a prime location for welfare tourism? A commonly cited report by the government Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims that there are 371,000 immigrants claiming benefits from the state. Chris Grayling, the employment minister, has also used this statistic to highlight the issue of benefit tourism, arguing that the past Labour government opened the doors to such problems. Naturally before the study was properly analysed, the media pounced on the story with papers such as the daily telegraph proclaiming that there are, ’370,000 migrants on the dole’.

In fact due to the statistical method used, the actual number is closer to half the cited figure*. As the DWP explicitly points out, the study shows;

These statistics do not provide a measure of non-UK nationals currently claiming benefits based on their current nationality. The statistics do provide an estimate of the number of  people currently claiming benefit who, when they first registered for a NINo (that is, first entered the labour market), were non-UK nationals. (pg. 4)

This means that the number includes migrants who may have emigrated to the UK decades ago, worked, subsequently claimed UK citizenship and unfortunately now find themselves claiming benefits. In fact the DWP estimates that 54% of the ’370,000 migrants on the dole’ are actually UK citizens! Furthermore the report shows that the number of migrants claiming benefits unlawfully or fiddling the system is as low as 2%.  Not quite the wide scale problem that some would like us to believe.

A more useful overview of the situation is provided by economist Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. In his post, Portes uses the data compiled by the DWP and the ONS Labour Force Survey to summarize the extent of migrant claimants in the UK. He shows that:

  • migrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of out-of-work claimants;
  • migrants from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) represent about 9-10% of all workers, but about 5% of out-of-work claimants
  • foreign nationals from outside the EEA represent about 4.5% of all workers, but a little over 2% of out-of-work benefit claimants.

When these claimant figures are compared to those from the native population the story changes. It turns out that migrants are much less likely to claim benefits than us Brits. This again is explicitly highlighted in DWP study which explains;

As at February 2011, 16.6% of working age UK nationals were claiming a DWP working  age benefit compared to 6.6% of working age non-UK nationals.

Yet again this challenges the misconceptions held about immigrants who come to the UK. More importantly, it should be questioned why some of our most read newspapers and senior ministers failed to highlight this.

Two closely linked issues

So what does it all mean then. To me it seems like these two issues are closely interlinked. Morally many individuals never like to see others getting something for nothing. Such feelings may also be at their strongest when nominal wages are stagnant and the cost of living is increasing – the recent YouGov polls are a testament to this. Naturally it is those at the margins who are targeted; in this case those who have lost their jobs or have recently migrated to the UK.

It seems the government has done its utmost to capitalize on this national sense of insecurity. After all reducing the size of the state is a principle goal of the conservative right. Despite this the other main political parties have also pandered to public opinion with Ed Miliband declaring his intention to tackle low skilled immigration. Overall this brings into question the idea of an informed electorate, if people were aware of the true extent of these issues would the opinion be so in favor of targeting those on the margins. Just one example of this can be seen from a revised YouGov poll (Yes I know YouGov again!) which shows when individuals are informed of the benefits of immigration their opposition to it drops. It would be interesting to see if same was true for those claiming unemployment benefits.

*It should be noted however that the OBR research makes some key assumptions. For instance it assumes immigrants tend to arrive at working age and therefore don’t require state funded education in early life. As a result they tend to make a net tax contribution until old age where they may be more inclined to return home. There is also some disagreement on whether the children of such migrants should be classified as natives – read the study for further details.

*The statistics used in the study were compiled by matching data from those who had applied for a National Insurance number with data from individuals currently claiming working age benefits. The study, as the DWP declares, therefore shows;

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Removing the World Bank Blinkers – Income Categories and Foreign Aid

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In one of my very first posts I looked at the recent decision by the UK government to cut foreign aid to India. One of the main justifications used by policy makers was that India had now reached a level of development which enabled it to fight poverty on its own. Arguably the main driving force behind this opinion was India’s graduation to middle income country status (MIC) in 2007. However these average income based measures adopted by the World Bank and OECD have rarely come under close scrutiny. Whilst income has always been highly correlated with many other development indicators, such measures can still mask many important macro level issues.

In a 2011 publication by the ODI, Jonathan Glennie highlights some of the main problems which can evolve from using such measures. Firstly, although low income countries (LICs) tend to have larger proportions of people living in poverty, the bulk of the world’s poor live in MICs. For instance in 1990 94.4% of those living on less than $1 a day were situated in LICs, however by 2008 this number had diminished to just 23.3%. This shift has been mainly attributed to the five major countries known as the PICNIs who recently graduated from LIC to MIC status. The group includes China (which reached MIC status in 1999), Indonesia (1999), India (2007), Nigeria (2008) and Pakistan (2008); all which combined account for 70% of the world’s poorest individuals.

Next Glennie explains that such measures have been criticized for being arbitrarily set with bandwidths that exhibit little rationale. For instance in table 1 we can see that the MIC category has an extremely large bandwidth.

Table 1. World Bank Income Categories

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This means that for at country at one end of the spectrum can be up to 12 times more richer than those at the the lower end. Unfortunately, as highlighted by Glennie, such categorizations can lead to countries receiving less in aid once they cross over into the MIC category. Prominent examples include Japan which has reduced the proportion of its total aid dedicated to MICs from 66% to around 34% over a ten year period. Similarly countries such as Canada and the Netherlands have cut theirs by around a third.

This highlights a worrying trend whereby aid is being shifted away from MICs despite the fact that they contain the highest number of poor individuals. The Economist also stresses this issue by stating that policymakers may soon face a dilemma where global poverty is mostly focused in countries which may be seen as rich enough to not require aid. Naturally, with the current economic difficulties,  policymakers and the media in the west will look to these arbitrary categories to justify cuts in aid.  In contrast, if more multidimensional indicators of development were accounted for such cuts would be more difficult to justify.

For instance former international secretary Andrew Mitchell has recently proposed for aid to be withdrawn from Ghana, Uganda and Zambia by stating,

“The aim of aid is to do itself out of business so it should not be needed any more. Ghana, Uganda and Zambia are countries making significant progress and are candidates.”

Both Ghana and Zambia achieved middle income country status in 2011 and Uganda is expected to reach the threshold by 2017. On this basis alone it would be easy to accept Mr Mitchell’s claim. After all the word ‘middle’ conjures up connotations of faring okay or not doing too bad. Its the center ground, not too poor but still striving for top. However look at a multidimensional indicator of development such as the UN’s Human Development Index, which takes into account statistics such as life expectancy and education, and the picture changes dramatically.

In the latest 2012 rankings all three countries rank outside of the top 100 countries, Ghana ranks 135th, Uganda 161st and Zambia 165th. With a total of 186 countries included in the measure these countries no longer reflect the middle ground. Likewise it is hard to justify that these countries are making ‘significant progress’ in relation to the rest of the world. If you click on the graph below you can also see that the countries also exhibit high levels of poverty (Y Axis),  in Zambia for instance 68.5% of the population live on less than $1.25, and score among the highest for gender inequality (X Axis) – I also added India’s position on the graph to further highlight how misleading the MIC classification can be.

Graph 1. HDI Data showing headcount poverty and gender inequality measures.

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Source: UN HDI Website

After observing these statistics it is extremely hard to accept that these countries are prime candidates for the immediate withdrawal of aid. Although they may be exhibiting high levels of economic growth and a middle income status these countries still have a long way to go when we look at a broader definition of development.

A new focus is therefore needed, policymakers must shrug their dated view that most poor people live in poor countries, this is no longer the case. Aid allocation models should no longer be modeled upon World Bank income categories. Instead they should take into account absolute levels of poverty and other social indicators of deprivation. In this sense aid should be focused on the poorest and most deprived individuals not the poorest sovereign states. After all this is the key principle for giving aid in the first place.

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When Economists Get It Wrong! The Worst Economic Predictions Of All Time

Economics is often described as the ‘dismal science’. Unlike other traditional sciences, economics rarely provides a simple solution to present day issues. Furthermore economists have a poor record of predicting the future. Even notable economists such as Joe Stiglitz agree that economists only get it right at best around 3 or 4 times out of ten. However it should be acknowledged that economic forecasting is a difficult art at best – human behavior is forever changing and the economy is a complex mechanism with many working parts. Nevertheless I thought it would be entertaining to highlight some of the most wildly inaccurate forecasts in recent times. Here are some of the best…

1. The Great Depression

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Almost every economist failed to predict the great crash of 1929. Most famously the economist Irvine Fisher (who Milton Friedman regarded as “the greatest economist the United States has ever produced”) predicted that stock market prices had reached “what looked like a permanently high plateau”. A week later the stock market crashed and didn’t bottom out until 1932, with the Dow Jones recording a 88% total loss in value.

Even the great John Maynard Keynes failed to see the fore-coming shock allegedly stating in 1927 that “We will not have any more crashes in our time.” 

2. The Japanese Automobile Industry

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In 1968 the BusinessWeek magazine stated that, “With over 15 types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself.” Fast forward to the present day and Japanese car manufactures now account for around 36% of the total US car market. Add in other Asian car makers and this figure jumps spectacularly to around 49.9%

3. The Soviet Economy

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In 1989 nobel winning economist Paul Samuelson asserted in his best selling textbook Economics that, “The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” Two years later the Soviet economy collapsed.

4. Dot Com Bubble

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Numerous predictions failed to foresee the dot com bubble. For instance in 1999 Smart Money magazine highlighted AOL, Yahoo and MCI WorldCom as some of its top picks for the forthcoming year. By 2001 AOL had lost 70% of its stock value after its merger with Time Warner. Later in 2002, MCI WorldCom became involved in one of the largest bankruptcy cases the US had ever seen.

However no prediction about the Dot Com boom was as profound as that made by James Glassman and Kevin Hassett in 1999. In their book, “Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market”  Glassman and Hassett argued that the Dow Jones Industrial Average may rise to 36,000 within just a few years.  After reaching an initial high of 1,750.28 in January 2000, the Dow Jones fell to a low of low of 7,286.27 in October 2002. Even today the average remains still below 15,000. Glassman and Hassett’s book can now be found on Amazon for $0.01.

5. The Credit Crunch and Financial Crisis.

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In 2008 the sub prime mortgage crisis led to the collapse of a number of financial institutions and a global economic recession. However before 2008 many economists had an optimistic outlook for oncoming years, growth had been steady and inflation was finally under control. Despite the impending financial crisis many economists and policymakers were contend with the health of the banking sector. 

For instance in 2005 Alan Greenspan declared, “The use of a growing array of derivatives and … more-sophisticated approaches to measuring and managing risk are key factors underpinning the greater resilience of our largest financial institutions … Derivatives have permitted the unbundling of financial risks”.  

Similar optimism was forwarded by individuals such as David Lereah, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, who in February 2006 published “Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust,” which was essentially a guide for homeowners on how to profit from the expanding real estate market!

However these predictions fall short in comparison to the statement made by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke  in 2007 who famously declared that, “The impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.”

 

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Opening Pandora’s box – the G8 turns to Nestle and Monsanto to combat hunger

So the London Hunger Summit has culminated in a doubling of funds devoted to tackling hunger. The summit has promised to increase annual funding from rich countries to $900 million (currently $418 million) by 2020, equating to a total of $4.15 billion to tackle malnutrition. Eradicating extreme hunger by 2015 is one of the key Millennium Development Goals set out by the developed world. As of present, malnutrition accounts for 3.1 million child deaths per year, furthermore it is a major cause of stunted growth which has been shown to have implications for both a child’s future education and health prospects.

Although this agreement is being hailed as a ‘historic moment’ in the battle against hunger, the new commitment still falls short of the mark whilst creating a smokescreen for more damaging projects which have already been initiated. Firstly, the respected medical journal The Lancet claims that an extra $9.6 billion is needed to effectively reduce the level of malnutrition by 1 million. Clearly again when it comes to aid, we are falling short. For instance, in 1970 rich countries promised to give 0.7% of their total income as aid. However only 5 countries have met this target, known as the G07 these countries include Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg.

Secondly despite this lack of apparent aid there is another more worrying trend at work, governments are turning to the market to solve problems of agricultural underdevelopment. Whilst David Cameron would like us to focus on this new deal, the announcement overshadows other talks which may in fact worsen the problem of hunger in Africa.

In 2012 the G8 launched its new so called alliance for food security and nutrition. This alliance involves new deals between some of the largest multinational companies in the world and African governments. In a nutshell this initiative is designed to loosen up regulatory constraints on international capital flows and thus stimulate investment into African agriculture. The aim is to stimulate a so-called second ‘Green Revolution’ whereby African farmers benefit from improved access to inputs and regional markets.

African agriculture in general is described as inefficient by many economists. The continent has an abundance of fertile land however the sector is mainly dominated by many small farmers who produce for themselves and sell their surpluses mainly at the local markets. Consequently productivity remains stubbornly low due to a lack of capital, and the necessary infrastructure. Many multinational companies therefore see Africa as new frontier to make profits. So far companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Yara International, Cargill, DuPont, and PepsiCo have pledged to invest $3.5 billion in the African agriculture sector.

But hang on a second haven’t we been here before. In the past Western governments have dictated the terms of many aid agreements and promoted the freeing up of markets with disastrous results – just observe the results of previous IMF and World Bank led structural adjustment programs. Furthermore such past programs left many African governments cash strapped therefore making them more willing to accept any new influxes of investment. This means that the new alliance has undermined and bypassed democratically agreed initiatives such as Maputo declaration. This is particularly evident from the recent letter  addressed to the African Union by 15 African Farmer Federations against the new initiative. 

Likewise the takeover of thousands of hectares of land by multinational companies could have a significant impact upon farming communities. These commonly named ‘land grabs’ have been criticized for their negative impacts upon small scale farmers. In many African countries there is a lack of enforced private land ownership, a world bank study for instance found that only between 2 and 10% of the land is held under formal land tenure. As a result large land acquisitions by MNCs in the past have tended to displace small local farmers to less fertile lands or destroy their livelihoods completely. A special UN report further argues that large scale land acquisitions can heighten the problem of rural to urban migration forcing many into urban slums in search of work.

For me this new paradigm shift to the private sector represents a serious threat to international development. As argued by Sophia Murphy’s blog, companies are not charities, they are there to make a profit. Furthermore although they are bound by law they are not as Sophia argues bound by public interest. This is most pertinently shown by the one of the cooperation frameworks in Mozambique which requires the Mozambique government to,

1) Systematically cease distribution of free and unimproved seeds except for pre-identified staple crops in emergency situations.

This, as argued by a recent guardian article, condition will no doubt serve to lock farmers into buying expensive seeds from the private sector and corporate monopolies.

The proposals therefore reflect to me the burgeoning influence of large cooperations in every aspect of our policy making today. More importantly it reflects an attempt by the G8 to offload the burden of global food security and mask its failure to meet the targets it set in the past.

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What do all those numbers mean? Stock markets and their importance

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They feature in nearly every news bulletin, paper and website. Their ups and downs, bubbles and crashes are reported on a daily basis. Yesterday for instance saw a dramatic plunge in the values of stock markets across the world. However the reality is that for many people unfamiliar with the world of finance, ‘a one point increase in the NASDAQ’ remains an alien phrase. This post will attempt to provide a basic understanding of what stock markets are and what the indices mean for you and me.

Stock markets fulfill two main roles. Firstly they allow companies to raise extra funds by issuing shares without the need for commercial loans. The stock market brings together companies wishing to expand their operations and potential investors looking to gain a return on their savings. Stock markets are therefore an important source of investment for firms. Historically they have allowed for the expansion of today’s largest corporations such as Coca Cola, Microsoft and ExxonMobil.

Secondly stock markets act as a platform for individuals to buy and sell shares through the use of stock brokers. The ease at which shares can be brought and sold is one of the main attractions of the market. This is in contrast to other less liquid forms of investment such as real estate – which can not always be as rapidly sold without loss of value.

Stock markets therefore have a positive effect on the economy in a number of ways:

  • Firstly they allow companies to expand, creating jobs and new products for the real economy.
  • They mobilize savings by allowing private individuals to invest their idle cash or bank deposits into profitable enterprises.
  • Stock exchanges facilitate improved corporate governance. This is because public limited companies have to meet the demands of a more diverse range of shareholders and the regulations set out by the stock exchanges themselves to remain listed.
  • Stock markets allow for governments to raise capital by issuing government bonds (government loans in the form of an IOU) to fund different economic development programs such as infrastructure building.

An economy with a growing and sophisticated stock market is therefore generally associated with a highly developed industrial and service sector.

So what do those numbers in the news mean?

Generally in the news you will see a list of the differing indices which are used to gauge trends within the stock markets. Instead of looking at the value of just one company, indices attempt capture the value of a number of companies or a sector listed at the stock exchange. It therefore allows us to see any movements in the combined aggregate value of these companies. The value of such companies or sectors is measured in two ways.

The first most common method measures total market capitalization (the total market values  of all the shares of the companies e.g. price of share x number of shares) and then uses a mathematical transformation to bring the number into a more manageable range. This is because many companies have market capitalization values listed in the range of tens of billions of dollars. The impact of the change in a companies share price on the index is therefore proportional the companies overall market value.

The second less common method only takes into account the price of the shares. In this type of index each company makes up a fraction of the index proportional to the price of its stock. This type of measure however ignores the size of each company and has therefore been subject to criticism. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is an example of this type of index.

Now I am not going to become bogged down explaining how these indices are mathematically calculated as many methods exist and all are subject to their different critiques. The main point to take from this is that an index reflects an transformed aggregate value for a number of companies within the stock market with reference to a base year.

A rise in a stock market index therefore reflects a increase in the total market value of the companies in the index. Similarly a fall in the index reflects a decline of a the total market value of the companies in the index.

Indices also differ in their coverage. Some attempt to capture the trends of the global market such as the S & P Global index. Other measures attempt to capture the performance of national stock markets. For example, in the UK the main index used is the FTSE100. This index measures and weights the values of the countries top 100 companies. Inaugurated in 1984 at the base level of 1000, the graph below shows the various progression in the value of the UK’s top 100 companies since the index began.

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 Some indexes go further and attempt to capture the whole market. The Wiltshire 5000 index represents the market value of all publicly traded stocks in the US. Such an index is known as a total market index. Lastly, some indexes measure specific sectors such as biotechnology or real estate.

Interpreting the indices for the wider economy

Generally stock market indices are regarded as a barometer of economic development. When the economy is strong and growing, the stock market is assumed to be flourishing. Similarly when the economy shrinks, it is assumed the stock markets will be struggling.

However although this makes sense logically for many reasons this is not always the case and it should be remembered that the stock market and the economy are not the same thing.

For these reasons it is entirely possible that you may have a booming stock market within a struggling economy. This has been the case recently in the UK where the stock market has seen an upward trend whilst the economy has been sluggish. Consequently we must be very careful when interpreting the stock market and utilizing it as a barometer for the economy.

Instead the stock market indices reflect the views of investors and these views are hard to interpret. As Adam Davison of the NY Times rightly states a stock purchase form does not come with a ‘reason’ field. This problem is further compounded by the existence of ‘herd’ behavior in markets which can lead to market bubbles. Investors may purchase stocks just because they see others doing so thereby increasing the price of the stock. This in turn inflates the index of the market and if investors find they have invested in an bad asset (such as with the sub-prime mortgage crisis) it can lead to crash.

In summary, stock markets are an important mechanism for facilitating investment in the growth of firms. Stock indices commonly reflect the performance of a specific sector, a whole market or a number of influential companies. However due to the nature of trading and the narrow scope of many indices caution must be taken when relating such markets to the wider economy.

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The next financial crisis

An intriguing and thought provoking video showing how we may not have learnt from the lessons of the last financial crisis and how the same tools adopted to fix this crisis were also the tools responsible for its cause.

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We don’t make anything any more…..

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One of the most common complaints which I hear working in a machinery retail outlet is that the UK doesn’t make anything any more. Looking around the store this is an easy argument to accept, indeed most of the machinery I sell including lathes, welders and circular saws all come with a ‘Made in China’ tag. Furthermore most of the media reverts to this constant rhetoric, I have seen numerous articles posted in the media over the years foretelling the final demise of the UK manufacturing sector. So what is happening? Are we in a perpetual decline where we no longer have the ability to make anything? Such statements could be no further from the truth.

To begin with here are some interesting facts from a 2009 Price Waterhouse Coopers report that might surprise you. Firstly as of 2009 the UK was the 6th largest manufacturer in world (Some more recent measures vary between 5th and 10th)this includes large global shares within individual markets – the UK holds a 15% global share in the Aerospace sector. Secondly, UK manufacturing output had reached an all time high just before the 2008 global crisis took hold. Lastly, UK manufacturing achieved a 50% increase in labour productivity over the period 1997-2007. Although struggling due to the global downturn in the recent years, the facts show that the UK manufacturing sector is far from dead.

It can be argued that this idea that the UK manufacturing sector is in terminal decline emanates from a number of relative not absolute comparisons. When the relative figures are observed one could be forgiven for believing the above statement. For instance the graph below shows how manufacturing has contributed less and less to the national economy in recent years relative to other sectors.

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Service sector growth has far outpaced growth in the manufacturing sector in recent times. This has further led to a decline in the relative number of manufacturing jobs. In 1980 manufacturing accounted for 25% of all UK jobs, by 2008 this number had fallen to 10%. Combine these figures with the fact that the UK’s share of global manufacturing has dropped significantly in the last few decades and you are left with a national sense of pessimism regarding the manufacturing sector. Yet as the paper argues the UK has been punching well above its weight for the last century in terms of size and population. It is therefore inevitable that we are to be caught up or overtaken in relative terms by countries with more abundant natural resources and supplies of labour as the Solow growth model predicts (the theory of diminishing returns states that the introduction of one more unit of capital into a capital scarce country will lead to a greater increase in output than in a country which is in comparison capital rich).

Despite the relative decline of the manufacturing sector as a component of total GDP, it is a rather unheralded fact that UK productivity in the sector has grown by 48% over the period 1987-2007.  The gradual decline of manufacturing jobs is arguably attributable to such productivity increases and more broadly our natural progression to a knowledge economy. Better technologies and workplace practices have meant that we can now produce much more per individual worker. In an similar process which was seen in the agricultural revolution, these technologies and processes mean we require less manpower to produce the same amount of output compared to say, 1950. This fact should be celebrated, not frowned upon as it often is due to its impact upon jobs.

The manufacturing jobs of the future will not be based as much upon an assembly line but instead in the R & D departments where companies attempt to find a niche markets and thereby gain competitive advantages. This is where the knowledge economy comes in, although the UK is not gifted with large surpluses of labour as in China, it does retain a high level of human capital (the level of knowledge and know how an individual possesses) and this will be the driving force of growth in the long term as new innovations are made. So in this sense it is we should not be pessimistically stating we don’t make anything any more, we should be looking with optimism at what we will be making in the years to come.

Some additional facts of note.

  • The UK has the 3rd largest automotive industry in Europe.
  • The UK is home to the 2nd largest maker of aircraft engines in the world (Rolls-Royce).
  • The UK has the 3rd largest pharmaceutical company in the world (Glaxo-Smith Kline)
  • The UK has the 4th largest oil refining capacity in Europe.
  • The UK manufacturing sector attracted £30 billion of net foreign direct investment in 2010.

This is quite a short post as I have only just returned after from the Philippines after a 3 week trip to see my girlfriend. I have intentionally omitted some of the more crucial challenges that the sector faces to focus on what it has achieved contrary to popular belief. Furthermore it should be acknowledged that the transition to a knowledge economy requires a strong manufacturing base and the current economic crisis may threaten this.

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