Friday, March 28, 2014

The Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee has sounded a warning about conditions in the housing market. It notes a rise in mortgage approvals of some 40% over the last year, and a record level of mortgages for which the loan is more than four times the borrower’s annual income. This warning reflects more widespread concern about the emergence of a housing market bubble.

The latest data on house prices do indeed show a rapid acceleration, with average house prices across the country growing by some 6.8% over the year January (with the Bank’s data suggesting a further sharp rise since). But this figure conceals some very substantial variations across the regions. In London, house prices are growing at a rate of 13.2%, surely unsustainable. In the South East, the increase is 7.1%. In other regions the rate of growth is much more modest – in the North East, house prices have grown by just 0.6%, and in Scotland by just 1.4%.

Regional unemployment disparities remain wide, with rates varying from 5.2% in the South East to 9.5% in the North East. Moreover, while unemployment is falling quite rapidly in the South East, the latest data record a rise in the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside, the East of England, and the East Midlands.

The latest available data on regional growth rates of gross value added – though somewhat out of date - likewise indicate a very uneven recovery. These show the South East growing at 2.5%, but most other regions growing at less than 1% per year, and with the East Midlands actually contracting.

In sum, these data indicate a considerable measure of spatial disparity. Recovery is proceeding apace in the South East, but has barely begun in some other regions. Past experience suggests that the improvement in the state of the economy will transmit across regions eventually – though it appears to be doing so more slowly this time than it has done in the past.

The extent of the disparities at this juncture is, however, a little worrying. The boom in the South East needs to be checked, but without stalling growth elsewhere. Monetary tools represent the mainstay of macroeconomic stabilisation policy, but a hike in the interest rate could not check growth in one region without causing profound damage in others. Different conditions across space call for policies that have different impacts across space. The solution to the South East housing bubble is not, therefore, to be found in macroeconomic policies – rather it is to address the supply side constraints. That means, quite simply, building more homes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The latest report of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), released to coincide with today's Budget Statement, raises the forecast for GDP growth to 2.7% for the current year. Since no forecaster has performed well in recent times, this news, in itself, is not terribly interesting. What is more interesting is the fact that the OBR forecast remains so far below that of the Bank of England - 3.4% - though the Bank does expect a somewhat more severe downward adjustment in the growth rate in 2015 than does the OBR. The discrepancy between the short term forecasts that drive judgements about fiscal and monetary policies is somewhat disconcerting; one might hope that, over time, each forecaster should learn from the other. And as things stand, the Bank of England appears to be closer in forecasting the growth spike than does the OBR.

The OBR report also provides a measure of the output gap, and this is now, at 1.4% of GDP in 2014, much closer to being in line with the Bank's assessment of the extent of spare capacity in the economy. Both measures remain low in comparison with most independent estimates, and hence support the view that a considerable portion of the government's budget deficit remains structural.

This last observation, of course, explains the continued caution of the government in producing a Budget that takes with one hand as much as it gives with the other. Work remains to be done to bring the public finances back into balance - views may differ about how much needs to be done, but it is clear that there is still some way to go. In any event, an expansionary Budget would, of course, have been inappropriate at a stage of the cycle at which growth appears to be surging ahead of trend.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The latest data from EEF (formerly the Engineering Employers' Federation) provide some very encouraging news. Much of the current recovery in the UK economy has come from increased consumer spending, and this has raised doubts about the sustainability of the upturn. But the new EEF data suggest that manufacturers are experiencing a substantial increase in orders for export - and that this increase is expected to accelerate into the next quarter. While the forecasts necessarily have an element of guesswork about them, if the export picture turns out to be close to the mark then it provides real cause for optimism.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

There has, for some months, been some concern that the full cost of the new regime of tuition fees for undergraduate education in the UK was underestimated by the government at the time that it was introduced. The new regime raised the cap on tuition fees from a little over £3000 per year to £9000, and was designed to compensate universities for a severe fall in public funding - hence reducing the government's budget deficit.

On the surface, it seems obvious that such a change in policy would indeed reduce the deficit. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and things are not so clear. This is because student loans are repaid through the income tax system as a proportion of graduates' incomes. And if, 30 years after graduation, a graduate has not paid off the loan in full, the remainder gets written off. This means that some proportion of the total value of the loan book will never get repaid, and the burden of financing this will fall back onto the taxpayer.

This proportion has come to be known as the Resource Account and Budgeting (or RAB) charge. The RAB is an important figure, partly because it tells us how much of a discount needs to be offered when the government sells parts of the loan book off to the private sector. Estimates of the RAB have risen over time - in 2011, the government estimated a RAB charge of 30%, but the most recent official estimate is 40%.

The most recent estimates are uncomfortably high. The Higher Education Policy Institute has estimated that, if the RAB were to reach 47%, the new fees regime would be no more favourable to the government's finances than was the old. More recent research, published this month by London Economics, suggests a similar figure - between 48 and 49%.

If the RAB turns out to be in the high forties, then clearly the new fees regime will have missed in terms of its goal of bringing down the budget deficit. Even if turns out to be slightly lower, doubts must be raised about whether the current model of undergraduate financing is sustainable beyond the short term. Sadly we are a long way from realising Vince Cable's hope that the 'imaginary black hole will very soon disappear'.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has put forward a set of proposals to strengthen the skills base in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. It notes that the UK is facing a skills shortage in these areas. One of its proposals is to reduce university tuition fees on some courses in STEM subjects.

Clearly it is important that players in the market for education should be aware of impending skills shortages, and that they should respond to them. Typically this is achieved through the market by employers raising wages for jobs where they face a shortage of labour - thereby attracting more workers into those jobs. Such a market mechanism bypasses the problems that might arise under a system of 'manpower planning' - where government tries to play the role of an omniscient planner, but often seems to lack the requisite information.

The proposal to reduce university tuition fees is problematic for a number of reasons. Not least, the current funding system for undergraduate education in the UK is one where loans are repaid out of future income streams - and crucially involves the writing off of any part of the loan that remains unpaid after 30 years. This means that students do not know how much of their loan they will end up repaying, and are therefore likely to be insensitive even to quite large fee discounts. There is evidence that students are responsive to the award of bursaries, but that is quite a different thing.

The devil is in the detail, and, while the aim of the CBI's proposal is worthy enough, the detail would frustrate that aim if it were ever to be put into practice.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Spring is in the air, and the economy is recovering. How far it will recover after the major shock it has suffered is still open to question. A generation ago, many economists spoke of 'hysteresis' - the tendency for blips in unemployment to become long-lasting owing to the depreciation of skills and the increased potential therefore for unemployed workers' attributes not to match well with those required by firms.

Alfonso Arpaia and Alessandro Turrini have evaluated a measure of such mismatch for some 22 European countries. These results show that the efficiency with which unemployed workers are matched with jobs fell in most of these countries quite soon after the economic crisis hit.

There are some interesting exceptions - efficiency has risen inexorably in Denmark. This may be the result of the 'flexicurity' of the labour market in that country - a system where extremely high degrees of job mobility are accompanied by a robust system of social security and active labour market policies. In Romania, too, matching efficiency has risen with just a bit of a flattening out in recent years. In many countries - especially those in Eastern Europe - the fall in matching efficiency followed a sharp peak, itself probably the result of introducing more liberal labour market policies following transition.

In the UK, the efficiency of matching fell sharply with the recession, and has not recovered since. Arpaia and Turrini's findings suggest that a high incidence of long term unemployment is one of the major factors underpinning this fall in efficiency. And in the UK, long term unemployment has risen markedly since the recession. At the end of 2007, there were 383000 workers who had been unemployed for over a year; although the number fell markedly in the last quarter of last year, there are now some 845000.

It would be easy, but facile, to contend that, with the unemployment rate falling rapidly, the labour market is functioning well. (It is in some respects, and is not in others.) For the market to maintain the flexibility that is needed, the matching of workers to jobs should be as efficient as possible. While long term unemployment rates remain high, this will not happen. Just as in the 1980s - when Richard Layard and others argued in favour of helping the long term unemployed back to work because doing so would not add to inflationary pressure - helping these workers now is an imperative. There is more to Denmark than good TV.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The size of the output gap is critical for determining the appropriate stance of fiscal policy, yet it has been the subject of considerable debate amongst economists. Some new data from the Office for National Statistics provide some instructive information.

On most measures the extent of spare capacity in the UK economy has narrowed over the last year. Measures based on qualitative survey data from firms tend to suggest a narrower gap than do quantitative measures such as employment data. The qualitative data are, by their very nature, harder to interpret; while they likely reflect practitioner perceptions quite accurately, it is difficult to explain why they should differ so much from the quantitative indicators.

Of the latter, it is particularly noticeable that the proportion of part-time workers who are unable to find full-time work remains high - as does youth unemployment. To the extent that such indicators reflect spare capacity in the labour market, the constraints (such as they are) appear more likely to be related to capital. Given the low levels of investment in the UK economy in recent years, this should hardly be surprising. As, with the recovery, investment picks up, so should capacity - this means that the potential level of output that is used in calculating the output gap is something of a movable feast.

In a nutshell, the capacity constraints faced by the UK economy are much softer than some observers would have us believe.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Redistributive government policies are widely assumed to be costly in terms of their effect on growth. The argument is that redistribution blunts incentives, so that most innovative and diligent people become less so.

That might well be the case, but it is far from being obviously true. The taxes and benefits that are used to redistribute income have both substitution and income effects - they change the return to each hour of work, thus tending to make work less attractive; but they also change the length of time that people need to work in order to achieve a given income, thus tending to make work more attractive. This means that their impact on how hard people work can go either way. While some economists hold doctrinal positions on this matter, in reality it is an empirical issue.

Recent work by Jonathan Ostry, Andrew Berg and Charalambos Tsangarides provides the empirical evidence. They find that, while in extreme cases, redistribution can be harmful (unsurprisingly enough), for the most part 'redistribution appears generally benign in terms of its impact on growth'. In statistical terms, they struggle pretty hard to get any significant results at all on their redistribution variable.

Incentives are no doubt extremely important. But to imagine that they work in only one direction is to ignore some pretty basic lessons from introductory economics courses. Oh, and the evidence.