Tag Archives: consumer debt

Economics of the precipice

There seems to be a lemming like instinct among politicians, in that if the economy is in trouble they seem to do exactly the thing that is designed to push it off the economic cliff. A behaviour that mirrors that of the lemmings who are popularly supposed to commit mass suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea.The current situation in the United Kingdom (UK) provides a good example of this lemming instinct within the political classes.

The economic auguries are not good for the UK. One obvious problem is the record trade deficit, the highest for any country in the developed world. Then there are the record levels of consumer debt again some of the highest in the developed world. Finally there is the combined deficits of the banking sector which are in excess of 400% of GDP.  There are also a host of other problems such as some of the lowest levels of productivity in Europe and the continuing decline of the manufacturing sector make for a troubled economy. The decline in the manufacturing skills base is is so marked that the Ministry of Defence can no longer find within the British economy sufficient native engineers to design and build our warships. In desperation the Ministry of Defence had to borrow warship designers and engineers from the USA for this task. In such a situation what is least needed is a political shock that could send the UK economy into a dangerous downward spiral. Yet our political classes did just that with Brexit.

One of the leading campaigners even said that the warnings of economists should be ignored as there could always be found self interested experts to support any political campaign. Ignoring the facts is the criteria of all lemming politicians.

To be fair the vote leave politicians they did recognise that there might be an economic downturn, in the event of a vote to leave the EU. However they assumed that it would be a small and temporary economic downturn one from which the economy would bounce back. History shows that when politicians plan what they think will be a temporary economic downturn, it proves to be anything but, as these downturns can easily spiral out of control.

The greatest threat to the UK prosperity is its massive private sector indebtedness. The level of debt is so great that it vies with Japan for the unwanted title most indebted of developed nations. Unfortunately it is in a much weaker position than Japan in that much of that debt is debt owned by foreigners. This foreign owned debt consists largely of money lent at short notice (that is the debt that the owners can demand repayment of immediately or within a very short time period), which is then lent long to property companies etc. Meaning that in the event of a large withdrawal of funds the banks will have trouble meeting the demand for cash. Only if the banks and the Bank of England have sufficient reserves of foreign currency can they meet the demand.

This is a very volatile situation as demonstrated by the fact that soon after the Brexit decision, many property funds had to stop customers withdrawing funds as they did not have sufficient funds to meet the demand for cash. This proved to be only a temporary crisis as the Brexit panic was short lived and the funds could return to normal operating practices, when the panic ended. However what is forgotten is that on Black Wednesday  speculators forced the Bank of England a state of near bankruptcy, when it ran out of foreign currency reserves to meet the demand for foreign currency. Whatever might happen in the future, the UK remains as vulnerable as it was in 1992 to an adverse movement in the foreign exchange markets. Only the most foolish of politicians would want to create a scenario in which that becomes more likely.

What every politician should know is that to deliberately provoke an economic crisis or downturn no matter how small to achieve some political end, is the most foolish of all actions as such downturns always prove hard to control. All too often a small economic crisis turns into a major crisis that has difficult and unforeseen consequences. Politicians need to learn that they cannot turn the economy on and off as they please.

This is not the way to manage an economy

Sometimes I think economic policy making can be best explained through stories, with ogres, giants and other mythical figures from folk tales wreaking havoc on the economy.  Contemporary policy makers are obsessed with the ogre of inflation, although that particular ogre was slain years ago.

The events of the 1970s traumatised the political classes in the West. There are two explanations of the inflation of the 1970s, one is that the world economic system became increasingly dysfunctional in response to political crises such as the Vietnam war and the actions of OPEC in raising oil prices to cripplingly high levels. However that explanation became disregarded and instead policy makers focused on what they termed cost push inflation. Workers by pushing for above inflation pay increases were causing inflation to spiral out of control. This inflationary spiral was given further impetus by excessive government spending, this spending increased faster than the capacity of the economy to increase output of goods and services and in consequence prices rose (demand pull inflation).

Rather than accepting the inflation of the 1970s was due to a series of one off events, they believed that the cause was a malfunctioning economic system. Inflation had to be squeezed out of the system through controlling wages and reducing government spending.  This caused in Britain the recession of 1981 in which it lost 20% of it’s manufacturing capacity and a massive increase in unemployment. This policy was counted a success as inflation was reduced to historically low levels. The policy of limiting the increase in incomes has been so successful that in the USA the incomes of the majority have remained unchanged since 2003 and in Britain since 2008.

However the economic is a dynamic creature and cannot be constrained within  policy straight jacket. Businesses that have successfully limited the incomes of their employees to keep down costs are now faced a new problem. People on low or stagnant incomes don’t buy lots of goods and there was a danger than stocks on unsaid manufacturing goods would build up. Mountains of unsold goods would diminish the profitability of these businesses.This certainly seemed to be true of the motor industry, where for year on year output of cars exceeded demand for them. There was some reduction in capacity, the closure of much British owned car manufacturing. However a dynamic economy will soon go into reverse if demand for goods is not maintained.

If rising demand could not be financed from ever increasing incomes, an alternative had to be found. The alternative was to be consumer credit. At first the credit came from the ever increasing use of credit cards and from loans raised on the security of ever increasing house prices. Growth was driven by the ever greater use of credit. Banks cooperated by making increasing amounts of money available on ever more generous terms to finance house purchases. All this extra money in the housing market pushed up house prices, which in term increased the value of assets (houses)  on which loans could be raised. Any economy whose growth is dependent on ever increasing levels of consumer debt is inherently unstable. Debt financed trade is particularly vulnerable to adverse changes in the economy. A rise in interest rates can lead to a crash in demand as people can no longer afford to borrow at the new higher rates. This happened in 1990, 1999 and 2008.

The unvirtuous circle

When economic growth is dependent on ever increasing levels of consumer credit, extraordinary steps have to be taken to keep consumer credit growing. In the years immediately preceding 2008 banks and other financial providers took increasingly less prudential steps to keep the level of consumer credit growing. Applicants for mortgages if self employed could self certify their income, mortgages were increased to 125% of the value of a property and to make possible the purchase of increasingly expensive properties the time over which a mortgage could be repaid was extended from twenty five to forty years. The whole financial sector was gambling that house prices would increase at an ever increasing into for the indefinite future. This could not continue forever and inevitably the whole system came tumbling down in 2008, resulting in the greatest recession since the great recession of the 1930s.

Rather than taking the difficult step of rebuilding the economy on sounder lines, the government took extraordinary steps to stoke up the credit bubble. Interest rates were reduced to record lows, so people could continue in their risky habits of funding expenditure from credit. The government poured record amounts of money into the banking sector to keep rates low and to ensure that the banks had plenty of cash to lend for the various speculative activities that would fund the demand for goods and services that would keep economic growth going. Strangely enough they were abetted in this by the employers who would keep wages low as possible, but who would instead give those same employees whose income they froze, access to the most generous of terms for credit. Since the crash there has been a rapid growth in what is called shadow banking, a system where the manufacturers rather than the banks provide credit. One such example is the credit hire or leasing system for the purchase of cars. A system whereby the buyer leases a car for a period of say three years and then returns the car to the dealer and then takes out another car on a lease. While car leasing is not unsound, it becomes unsound when it becomes part of an ever increasing credit bubl. Leasing as with another system of credit is particularly vulnerable to any adverse change in the economy.

One such event was last Friday when the result of the referendum was announced. A debt driven economy will be easily upset by such an event. There has been since Friday a rapid collapse in the share prices of banks and other financial institutions, as any adverse change in the economy makes it more likely that there will be an increase in the rate of default and the profits of the banks will be particularly badly hit.

The great mystery is why conservative businessmen who will use any method to keep down or reduce the wages of their employee’s down and yet will throw increasing amounts of cash to enable the same employees and those of other businesses to buy goods on credit. To this particular economist this is the riskiest of economic strategies, yet governments encourage such practices. The only conclusion that I can arrive at is that rather than these businessmen being the great leaders they are lemmings that follow the worst instincts of the herd.

Is Apple responsible for its own woes – a sceptical economist’s observation on falling IPhone sales

As an enthusiastic purchaser of all Apple products, my attention was caught by an article in my paper, in which it was stated that Apple was having problems selling it latest Iphone. It’s stores are apparently stockpiling unsold IPhones. Today as if in confirmation of this I received an email from Apple offering me generous terms for upgrading my IPhone 5s to the latest model. What I am going to suggest is that Apple itself is in part responsible for its own woes.
Reading this article reminded me of a story about Henry Ford. It might be apocryphal but Henry Ford was considering automating the production line at his Detroit car assembly plant. He spoke to one of his most trusted advisers, who said it is claimed, ‘that if you lay all these men off, who will buy your cars’. Henry Ford considered his friends advice and continued with his labour intensive methods of production and so the story goes sales of his cars remained high. 
Apple and all the major manufacturing companies in the US and Western Europe have done the opposite of Henry Ford. They have by outsourcing production to foreign countries where labour is cheap, impoverished many of their potential customers. When the Rover car plant was being closed in Oxford, a study was produced that showed the replacement jobs for those car workers would be in the service sector, where wages were 30% lower than in manufacturing. Similarly in those former mining areas in England, high income mining jobs have been replaced by low income jobs in call centres or warehouses. The same trend is evident in the USA where increasingly the new jobs that there are created are relatively low income jobs in the service sector. If they are in manufacturing they are again likely to be relatively low income low skill jobs. A recent study showed that incomes for men in the USA with no more than a high school diploma showed a decline in incomes since 2007. 
Checking with Amazon I note that the price of the most basic IPhone 6s is £524 in UK and the similar model in the US is over $800. In the new age of capitalism when increasing numbers of workers are in low wage economy, they are effectively priced out of the market for expensive smart phones. The wisdom of Henry Ford seemed to have been forgotten by the current generation of business leaders.
What is common to all large corporations is the tax strike, as these businesses use a variety of tax avoidance schemes to avoid to paying their taxes. Usually this involves locating the head office in a low tax location, so corporation tax due on profits on the profits earned from sales in high countries . Ireland is the low tax headquarters for Apple in Europe and Luxembourg is that for Amazon. The scale of corporate tax avoidance is subject to varying calculations, in Britain even the conservative tax authorities estimate the scale of tax avoidance at being a sum in excess of £30 billion, other sources such the sum is much higher. The consequence is that the government’s of Western Europe and have less cash than is normal for the government of a developed country. The consequence is that government’s lack tax revenues to fund those activities undertaken by government and are over dependent on borrowing to finance their activities. This has had a knock effect in that in times of financial stress governments are forced to cut their borrowings and spending, resulting in an age of austerity. This austerity further reduces the incomes of the low paid through benefit cuts and job losses. These newly poor Europeans are unlikely to be customers for new expensive IPhones. 
I believe businesses such as Apple face a problem in that by minimising their costs of production in by outsourcing production and by minimising their tax payments they maximise short term profits, at the expense of long term sales revenue. It is the latter which generates real profits for the company and actions which damage revenue streams threaten the long term viability of the business. Car manufacturers have long faced this problem and have overcome that by boosting the income of potential buyers by offering low cost loans for car purchase. Perhaps Apple to maintain sales will have to look to alternate ways of boosting their potential customers income. 
This particular economist doubts the wisdom of replacing earned income with cheap loans as an the main means of increasing household incomes. Already consumer debt in the UK is reaching 180% of GDP, a sum which becomes unviable if there is a collapse of the banks, as happened in 2008/9. Borrowed income is more volatile and less reliable than earned income and is a source of financial instability and economic meltdown.