Economic Developments for 2019

This is a good summary of economic developments to watch in 2019 – from Al Jazeera. Some of the key points are:

  1. Protectionist policies will remain and any truce between the US and China will be short-lived.
  2. The US is in an unsustainable boom – the fiscal stimulus will fade and this will be followed by two larger deficits – budget and external. The US is consuming far more that it is producing and it mirrors the 1980’s – Reaganomics.
  3. China is slowing down – as well as the protectionist issues as a result of the US trade policy there are tensions between the economic system of capitalism and the political system of communism. This combination is referred to as ‘Market Socialism’. The problems are associated with: economic growth v environmental problems, rural areas v urban areas, rich v poor. China’s movement away from oil to gas which benefits Qatar but to the detriment of the Saudi economy.
  4. The Gulf economies are taking a hit from the fall in oil prices and government budgets may have to be cut. Diversification from the dependence on oil is necessary to avoid the resource curse and with a growing youth population job creating is needed. Movement to a more knowledge-based economy and large infrastructure projects are becoming focus areas as a necessity.

Why Ireland wants a Brexit with a hard border?

Below is a funny clip by Seamus O’Rouke that was on RTE Radio 1 (Irish National Broadcaster). He has his own unique reflections on the benefits of having a hard border for the people of Leitrim.

The introduction of a hard border would have massive implications for business and personal travel between Northern Ireland. There has been an understanding between Britain and Ireland for decades that has led to this de facto agreement which has served both countries well for years. The other option is for the current situation to endure soft border, whereby vehicles, goods and people can freely pass through a porous border.

A hard border would see the reintroduction of cameras at checkpoints, and all vehicles being stopped as they approach the numerous crossing points. As it stands, there is complete freedom of movement between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The border is barely recognised, with minor road markings being the only sign that you are moving between nation states.

Seamus O’Rouke tends to disagree with the soft border.

Aussie kick the resource curse

I have mentioned the ‘resource curse’ in many postings since starting this blog. It affects economies like in sub-Sahara Africa and Australia which have a lot of natural resources – energy and minerals. The curse comes in two forms:

  • With high revenues from the sale of a resource, governments try and seek to control the assets and use the money to maintain a political monopoly.
  • This is where you find that from the sale of your important natural resource there is greater demand for your currency which in turn pushes up its value. This makes other exports less competitive so that when the natural resource runs out the economy has no other good/service to fall back on.

The Australian economy did well at the height of the commodity boom in 2013 with iron ore, copper etc earning companies and the economy significant amounts of money. Investment in this area amounted to 9% of GDP in the same year with new mines, gas fields and infrastructure to cope with the increasing demand. But the collapse in commodity prices didn’t have the effect that suggest the resource curse. Countries like Venezuela – oil, Chile – copper, Nigeria – oil etc. have gone through turbulent times as commodity prices fall. Australia though has come through this period quite well for the following reasons:

  • falling investment in the mining sector has allowed the central bank to lower interest rates allowing other sectors, previously shut out, cheaper access to investment funds
  • the falling exchange rate – AUS$ lost 40% in value against US$ between 2011 – 2015 – made other elastic exports more competitive and this was particularly apparent in the tourism, education and construction sectors.
  • Tourism – spending by tourists increased by 43% from 2012 and amounted to AUS$21bn in the year ending March 2018.
  • Education – overseas student numbers increased from 300,000 in 2013 to 540,000 in 2018. Each year they contribute AUS$40bn.
  • Construction – firms have completed projects worth AUS$29bn in the 4th quarter of 2017 which compares with AUS$20bn in the 1st quarter of 2012. The Foreign Investment Board approved AUS$72bn worth of residential-property purchases in 2016, up from AUS$20bn in 2011.

Australia GDP Annual Growth Rate – 2010-2018

Source: Trading Economics

So despite the end of the resources boom the Australian economy’s GDP per annum hasn’t fallen below 2.4% – see GDP graph. Furthermore, Australia ranks as the 14th largest economy on the globe but ranks 7th regarding the volume of foreign investment and this ranking has risen despite the end of the resources boom. Prudent fiscal measures and a sound monetary policy have also played their part in a resilient Aussie economy.

Auckland house prices 73.8% overvalued against income.

Whilst there has been a lot of talk about Auckland’s flattening house prices the city is ranked only behind Hong Kong (94.1%) as the most unaffordable city in the Economist’s ‘cities house price index’ – house prices in Auckland are 73.8% overvalued compared to the average income. This figure is ahead of Sydney, Amsterdam, London, New York, Paris and Vancouver – see graph from The Economist – showing how housing is basically unaffordable in proportion to earnings.

There are 3 reasons why house prices globally have been accelerating at such a high rate – Demand, Supply and the cost of borrowing.

Demand
Regional population growth in Auckland has been significant and although is slowing it still has the fastest population growth in NZ. With the influx of people and the housing construction more jobs become available which in turn attracts workers from other areas. Furthermore foreign investors have played their part in increasing demand although this has reduced over the last year with the government putting in place regulations with home ownership.

Supply
Housing has become particularly scarce with supply unable to keep up with demand. But recent consent figures for 2018 show that 13,000 were issued in Auckland compared to 10,000 in 2017. Auckland was previously building too few houses relative to population growth, leading to a worsening housing shortage as indicated by a rise in the estimated number of people per dwelling.

Low interest rates
Since the GFC economics has been dominated by fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate aggregate demand. Tax cuts have added to consumers bank balances but it is monetary policy that has been particularly prevalent with record low interest rates encouraging consumers to borrow money and buy property. Furthermore with the stock market becoming a fickle location for investment investors sought the so-called safety of the housing market and in many cities did particularly well.

But prices are starting to level off and in some cities falling in a response to variety of reasons – rising  yield on treasury bonds – tighter regulations on overseas buyers – uncertainty about Brexit – China tightening up on capital outflows of the super-rich.

Source: The Economist – Buttonwood – November 10th 2018

Capitalism with accountability

HT to my learned colleague David Parr for this piece from vox.com. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) rolled out a big idea to challenge how we think about inequality and the fundamental structure of the economy. She has been concerned with the current structure of capitalism which since the 1980’s has really focused on the interests of shareholders and executives at the expense of employees further down a company’s ‘pecking order’. Reagan and Thatcher started the recent privatisation trend in the 1980’s and, with great success, a lot of the commanding heights of the economy were up for sale. This put any left wing political opposition in a quandary. Do they renationalise these industries and payout shareholders or just start to move their ideology further right on the continuum. The latter was the only real option with the expense of buying back the industries and also upsetting their maybe voters who had bought shares for saving purposes.

Warren with other Democrats is proposing the Accountable Capitalism Act in order to alter the balance of interests in corporate decision-making and giving voices to workers in corporate boardrooms. The legislation would:

  • reduce the huge financial incentives that entice CEOs to lush cash out of shareholders rather than reinvest in businesses
  • curb political activities – using lobbying funds
  • ensure workers and not just shareholders get a voice on big strategic decisions.
    bring about more meaningful career ladders for workers and higher pay
  • ensure that Corporations act like decent citizens who uphold their fair share of the social contract and not like sociopaths whose sole obligation is profitability — as is currently conventional in American business thinking.
  • limit corporate executives’ ability to sell shares of stock that they receive as pay — requiring that such shares be held for at least five years after they were received, and at least three years after a share buyback.

Business executives, like everyone else, want to have good reputations and be regarded as good people but, when pressed about topics of social concern, frequently fall back on the idea that their first obligation is to do what’s right for shareholders. A new charter would remove that crutch, and leave executives accountable as human beings for the rights and wrongs of their decisions.

More concretely, US corporations would be required to allow their workers to elect 40 percent of the membership of their board of directors. Since 80 percent of the value of the stock market is owned by about 10 percent of the population and half of Americans own no stock at all, this has been a huge triumph for the rich – see graph.

Meanwhile, CEO pay has soared as executive compensation has been redesigned to incentivize shareholder gains, and the CEOs have delivered. Gains for shareholders and greater inequality in pay has led to a generation of median compensation lagging far behind economy-wide productivity, with higher pay mostly captured by a relatively small number of people rather than being broadly shared. The graph below show the share of wealth with the top 1% owning 38% of the country’s wealth and the bottom 90% holding only 19% of wealth.

This kind of huge transfer of economic power from rich shareholders to middle- and working-class employees would provoke fierce resistance. But reform of corporate governance also has some powerful political tailwinds behind it.

I am on holiday now and out of internet range – back on the 8th January. Have a good xmas and new year.

Source: Top House Democrats join Elizabeth Warren’s push to fundamentally change American capitalism. Vox

Brexit and New Zealand’s trade with the UK and the EU

The impact of Brexit on New Zealand depends on what kind of exit agreements are reached between the UK and the European Union. The published provisional deal includes a transition period which runs until the end of 2020. During this time, existing trade conditions for third parties (such as New Zealand) will continue. Below are tables showing the trade relationship between New Zealand and both the EU and the UK. The benefits of two way trade with the EU outweigh those of the UK – US$23,273m against that of the US$5,640m

March 2018 – New Zealand’s total trade balance was a surplus of $4.0 billion in the year – this surplus is up $1.3 billion from the trade surplus in the year ended March 2017.
Total exports of goods and services were $78.0 billion, while total imports were $73.9 billion.

China ($15.3 billion) and Australia ($13.9 billion) were the top export destinations.
The European Union ($13.4 billion) and Australia ($12.1 billion) were the top import sources.

Dairy products and logs to China were New Zealand’s top two export commodities by destination, earning $4.0 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively. This was followed closely by spending by visitors from the European Union ($2.2 billion) and Australia ($2.1 billion).

New Zealand’s negotiations

New Zealand is in negotiations with the UK over a FTA. According to New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade NZ wants the following from a FTA:

  • Removing tariffs and other barriers that restrict the free flow of goods between our two countries
  • Making it easier for traders of all sizes to do business in the UK, including services exporters
    Strengthening  cooperation and dialogue with the UK in a variety of trade and economic fields
  • Reflecting our goals including progress on gender equality,  indigenous rights,  climate change, and improved environmental outcomes.
  • Some key areas in which we will be seeking even closer cooperation with the UK under the FTA include:
  • High quality primary sector and goods access to the UK’s market, such as for meat, mechanical machinery and equipment, fruit, pharmaceuticals, forestry, dairy and wine
  • Helpful conditions for investment and services providers who operate between the two countries
  • Commitments on progressive trade issues including environmental and labour protections, indigenous rights and gender equality.

Sources:

  • Parliamentary Library Monthly Economic Review – December 2018.
  • New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

https://www.mfat.govt.nz/en/about-us/work-with-us/vacancies/

 

 

Turkey’s economy – stuffed

Inflation at 25%, Central Bank interest rates at 24%, Lira down 30% in value since the start of the year. What hope is there for the Turkish economy?

Wages and salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation and the reduction in demand has led to higher unemployment. There is pressure on the central bank to keep interest rates to avoid the lira collapsing. However this makes it expensive for businesses to borrow money and thereby reducing investment and ultimately growth.

No pain no gain – there is no alternative for Turkey other than undertaking painful and unpopular economic reforms. Remember what Reagan said in the 1980’s “If not now, when? If not us, who?”  He was referring to the stagflation conditions in the US economy at the time and how spending your way out of a recession, which had been the previous administration’s policy, didn’t work.

In order to the economy back on track things will need to get worse but President Erdogan has the time on his hands as there is neither parliamentary nor presidential elections in the next five years. This longer period should allow him the time to make painful adjustments without the pressure of elections which usually mean more short-term policies for political gain. Beyond stabilising the lira, which helped to ease the dollar-debt burden weighing on the country’s banks and corporate sectors, the 24 per cent interest rate level the central bank imposed also brought about a long-overdue economic adjustment. A cut in interest rates discourage net inflows of investment from foreigners and the resulting depreciation would accelerate the concerns about financial stability and deteriorating business and consumer confidence. Below is a mind map as to why a rise in the exchange rate maybe useful in reducing inflation.

A2 Economics – the need to move to more contestable markets.

The Economist had as its main Leader an article on the lack of competition in the global market place. Too many companies have  monopoly power and earn, what the economics textbooks call,  significant ‘abnormal profits’. In 2016 a survey found that more than half of young Americans no longer support capitalism. In the past governments have made it a more level playing field.

  • US – at the start of the 20th century they broke up monopolies in railways and the energy industry. Ronald Reagan also unleashed the power of the market
  • West Germany – created competitive markets to rebuild their post-war economy
  • Britain – Margaret Thatcher exposed state-owned inefficient domestic industries to the dynamic foreign competition. She also privatised the Commanding Heights of the economy.

There are 3 tests that The Economist use to examine the market structure:

Concentration Ratios
A lot of firms have experienced inertia and become very comfortable whilst the tech firms are building significant amounts of market power. In the US Concentration ratios between 1997 and 2012 have risen in approximately 600 census industries, with the weighted average market share of the top 4 firms growing from 26% to 32%. 10% of the US economy is made up of industries where 4 firms have more than 66% of the market share. The concentration ratio is the percentage of market share taken up by the largest firms. It could be a 3 firm concentration ratio (market share of 3 biggest) or 5 firms concentration ratio.

Abnormal Profits
In a healthy economy you would expect profits to be competed down, but the free cashflow of companies is 76% above its 50-year average, relative to GDP. In Europe the trend is similar, if less extreme. The average market share of the biggest four firms in each industry has risen by three percentage points since 2000. On both continents, dominant firms have become harder to dislodge.

Openness
Of US firms that made very high profits in 1997, 50% still did in 2017. There is a reduction in new firms and with a lowdown in globalisation industries that are less exposed to trade have become more dominant in the market place – the domestic market. The current protectionist policies of the Trump Administration don’t help to breakdown the barriers to entry and as the high stock values of profitable firms show, investors believe their advantages will continue. Powerful firms tend to stay and of the total capital spending and R&D done by America’s leading 500 companies the top 20 firms account of 38% of this spending.

The Contestable Market – A2 Economics – Theory

The degree of contestability of a market is measured by the extent to which the gains from market entry for a firm exceed the cost of entering (i.e. the cost of overcoming barriers to entry), with the risks associated with failure taken into account (the cost associated with any barriers to exit). Accordingly, the levels of barriers to entry and exit are crucial in determining the level of a market’s contestability. Barriers to exit consist of sunk costs, that is to say costs that cannot be recovered when leaving the market. The contestable markets approach suggests that potential entrants consider post‑entry profit levels, rather than the pre-entry levels suggested by neo‑classical theory.

Obviously no market is perfectly contestable, i.e. with zero sunk costs. In modern economies it is the degree of contestability which is relevant, some markets are more contestable than others. Also just because there have been no new entrants to a market over a given period of time does not mean that this market is not contestable. The threat of entry will be enough to make the existing (incumbent) firms behave in such a way as to recognise this, i.e. by setting a price which doesn’t attract entry and which only makes normal profits.

Markets which are highly contestable are likely to be vulnerable to ‘hit and run competition’. Consider a situation where existing firms are pricing at above the entry‑limit level. Even in the event that existing firms react in a predatory style, new entry will be profitable as long as there is a time lag between entry and the implementation of such action. Having made a profit in the intervening period, the new entrant can then leave the market at very little cost.

In a contestable market there are no structural barriers to the entry of firms in the long-run. If existing businesses are enjoying high economic profits, there is an incentive for new firms to enter the industry. This increases market competition and dilutes monopoly profits for the incumbent firms.
Market contestability requires there are few sunk costs. A sunk cost is committed by a producer when entering an industry but cannot be recovered if a firm decides to leave a market.

The video below on the Airline Industry in the US from Commanding Heights series is a good example of breaking down monopoly power.

Sources:

The Economist – The Next Capitalist Revolution – November 17th 2018

Anforme – A2 Level Economics Revision Booklet

Top 20 Country GDP (PPP) Ranking History (1980-2023) – Dynamic Graphic

HT to colleague Paul Chapman for this graphic from ‘Dynamic Graphics’. The Dynamic Graph (Data Visualization) Shows the Top 20 Countries with the Highest GDP PPP from 1980 to 2023. The Ranking includes superpowers, such as United States, China, Japan, India, and Germany. It also compares the total GDP (PPP) of different continents from the Top 20 countries, mostly North America, Europe, and Asia. Interesting to see the rise of China and the changes in top continent by GDP (PPP).

Glossy projects vs Maintenance – Governments need to get the basics right.

Since the GFC economics has been dominated by fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate aggregate demand. Monetary policy has in particular been reinventing itself with low interest rates not being enough to stimulate demand and the introduction of numerous rounds of QE.

Other policy areas might lack the excitement of delving into the unknown but are just as important to an economy. Maintenance of a country’s infrastructure, assets and government accounts are essential to the long-term development but government’s tend to avoid them as they are not creating anything new and therefore not recognisable by voters. A new hospital, school or major road grab the headlines and inform the electorate that they have been busy putting tax payer money to good use. Maintenance lacks the glamour of innovation.

The US after the GFC did spend a lot of money on new vanity infrastructure projects but these were in sparsely populated areas. However, it was busy cities that really needed their transport infrastructure upgraded and you would think this would be a priority for governments. In the US the fraction of existing road surfaces that are too bumpy has risen from 10% in 1997 to 21% in 2018. Invariably if infrastructure is not maintained it causes significant costs for an economy and in some cases fatalities – the recent bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy. One of the issues for economists is that the typically used measure of an economy, GDP, doesn’t take into consideration the cost of wear and tear. In order to do this they must work out the lifespan of each asset and decide on its depreciation. Some are similar to light bulbs which means they work until they blow – economists refer to this as the “one hoss shay” case. This is based on a poem where it imagines a horse-drawn cart built so well that it never broke down until it eventually fell apart. victim of a “general flavour of mild decay”. Other assets are more linear in how they depreciate in that they lose the same amount each year. Japan assumes that houses lose 4% in value each year and that is why Japan’s consumption of fixed capital is high – 22% of GDP – see graph from The Economist.

Too often governments, and organisations for that matter, preserves day-to-day spending by cutting maintenance and investment. Finance ministers might invest more in maintenance if the resulting boost to public wealth became more transparent. Furthermore if all government departments had to account for all the capital tied up in their operations, they might feel obliged to be more productive with it. New Zealand seems to be the only country to update its public-sector balance-sheet every month, allowing for timely assessment of public-sector worth. So instead of impressing voters with ideas and glossy projects, being boring might actually do some good. Economists tend to be good at this.

Source: The Economist – October 20th 2018