Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been widely lauded for pulling rabbits out of a hat in his Autumn Statement. For sure, the familiar conjuring trick requires admirable sleight of hand, and the Statement has evidence aplenty of that.

The headlines in today's newspapers suggest that austerity has ended. The figures do not quite align with that view, but the extent of cutbacks at least appears to have moderated somewhat. The Chancellor's largesse, or what some have termed 'less awfulness', has been enabled by four things.

First, he has been helped by a forecast boost to the public finances. The £27 billion windfall is spread over a 5 year period and therefore represents a relatively small proportion of the gap that the Chancellor wishes to close. In any event, economic developments over the coming period may make the saving somewhat softer than it at first appears.

Secondly, the implementation of the welfare cap - part of the Chancellor's famous and ill-conceived fiscal charter - has been delayed in order to reverse the decision to cut tax credits.

Thirdly, several charges best interpreted as stealth taxes have been introduced. This includes a levy on businesses to pay for apprenticeships and the introduction of a scheme that will allow local councils to raise their taxes by 2% to pay for costs of social care. These things are certainly desirable, and the changes are welcome inasmuch as they secure continued services - but the Chancellor has nonetheless shifted the cost from central government to other payers. As far as the public is concerned, this takes with one hand what is given with the other.

Fourthly, the Chancellor has coonverted several grants schemes - in the areas of business support, health training, and further and higher education - into loans schemes. Again this may allow central government taxes to stay low, but the costs must nevertheless be paid.

In sum, therefore, this was a very clever Autumn Statment. The Chancellor certainly did succeed in pulling rabbits out of hats. But a wise audience knows that - just as is typically the case with magicians - he has made liberal use of smoke and mirrors.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The latest labour market statisitcs paint something of a puzzling picture. There has, over the last quarter, been a substantial fall in unemployment - the figure for July through September is 103000 lower than in the previous three months. That is clearly good news.

But when we come to look at where the gains have come, the picture is distinctly mixed. There has been a huge increase of 177000 in employment. Most of this, however, some 145000, is in part-time jobs. The age distribution of the gains in employment is also a feature of the data - all the gain is observed in the older age group, 50 years of age and above. Consistent with the employment gains being concentrated in part-time work, average hours worked have continued to fall.

The news on pay is also indicative of a market that has started to slow. Comparing weekly earnings in September 2015 with those a year earlier, pay growth slowed to 2.0% (from 3.2% last month). It is difficult to attribute this to any sector-specific factors - the slowdown appears to be fairly even across industries.

In sum, the news on the unemployment rate is, at first blush, something that should offer good cheer, but the underlying figures offer very little comfort.

Friday, November 06, 2015

The latest statistics on industrial production have been released, and confirm that output in the production industries has continued to grow in the year to September. The forecasts of my neural network model for this series continues, however, to suggest that caution is warranted in interpreting recent growth as a harbinger of continued expansion. A dip is due. That may not carry over into the (much larger) part of the economy that is based in services, but, particularly at a time when global demand appears to be weakening, we should be wary of overoptimism.