As usual it doesn’t take long for the OBR employment forecast to look too low. Labour market data covering the three months to March out today:
Employment has hit the OBR’s estimate of trend employment. I’m not sure if this is a first, due to the ONS revision to population estimates last year, the current labour market data is not comparable with old OBR forecasts. Another upward revision to the OBR’s trend seems not unlikely.
Hours worked are slightly weaker than forecast. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to average hours. The OBR thinks the rise in average hours since 2010 is a cyclical blip in a structural downward trend. We’ll see. If welfare reform is driving up average hours, and is one of the reasons that average productivity is not growing (due to a composition effect), let’s hope the OBR is wrong on this too.
Or, the guv’nor at least. The Guardian on Mervyn King circa early 2010 on the Tories circa 2015:
“I saw the governor of the Bank of England [Mervyn King] last week when I was in London and he told me whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be,” Hale said in an interview on Australian TV reported by Reuters.
A little indifferent to the headline result here, but sad to see so many true liberal voices leaving Parliament. You’ll be missed, Vince.
Carney has stuck by his line that the falling oil price is “unambiguously positive” for the UK economy, repeating it in the Inflation Report last week The oil price collapse started in September 2014. I’ve charted here the latest three median forecasts produced by the Bank in each Inflation Report, for both CPI inflation and real GDP growth:
What do we see? A huge downgrade to the expected path of inflation concentrated on 2015. You do not see revisions like that very often. At the same time we have a very slight downgrade to real GDP growth over the year to 2015 Q1, and a rather small upgrade, mostly in 2016. So, the “unambiguously positive” effect seems a bit ambiguous to me, less a Draghi-esque “with low inflation, you can buy more stuff“, but something more like: “with low inflation, a year later you can buy more stuff.”
Here’s a crazy theory – let’s call it the Bernanke, Gertler, Watson theory. The effect of the falling oil price has little to do with oil, or even the relative price of oil, but is mostly a reflection of the central bank’s reaction to the effect of the oil price on headline inflation. Though interest rates are definitely ambiguous, in September 2014 the Bank was expected be raising rates from early 2015. Today, the MPC is not expected to be raising rates until late 2016. The Bank’s CPI/RGDP forecasts are based on the market curve, and the forecast model will have “lower rates for longer” cause faster growth.
Alternatively we could look at the “unambiguously negative” effect of the rising price of oil in 2011 on the Eurozone: similarly, very little to do with oil, and everything to do with the ECB’s reaction to the rising oil price: two rate hikes aimed at slowing AD growth and inflation. They declared that policy a success!
Really, no big surprises here. An honest Governor could confess: “The falling oil price is a good thing because it means the MPC is less likely to screw up like it did in 2008 and 2011” – although he might look a little foolish.
I didn’t expect to be writing this post so soon! The Governor of the Bank of England announced yesterday that interest rates are no longer at the Zero Lower Bound. This was a rather under-the-breath “Oh, and by the way” announcement, which is kind of funny given how much some economists have staked on the significance of the ZLB. From Carney’s letter to Osborne, my emphasis:
There are risks to the outlook in both directions. To the downside, the fall in near-term inflation could be more persistent than the Committee currently expects. Global activity could continue to disappoint, or if low inflation were to depress inflation expectations, it could become self-reinforcing. In that case, the MPC would need to provide more support to return inflation to the target over the appropriate horizon.
Were these downside risks to materialise, market expectations of the future path of interest rates could adjust to reflect an even more gradual and limited path for Bank Rate increases than is currently priced. The Committee could also decide to expand the Asset Purchase Facility or to cut Bank Rate further towards zero from its current level of 0.5%. The scope for prospective downward adjustments in Bank Rate reflects, in part, the fact that the UK’s banking sector is operating with substantially more capital now than it did in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. Reductions in Bank Rate are therefore less likely to have undesirable effects on the supply of credit to the UK economy than previously judged by the MPC.
In choosing to hold rates at 0.5%, the MPC is choosing to set rates above the new, lower, actual ZLB. The Bank of England is no longer at the ZLB.
The good news is that now the Bank is off the ZLB, reality-based Keynesians will return to talking about UK macro policy in terms of conventional monetary policy and will go quiet about the need to use fiscal policy to control AD. Right? No more talk of building schools to create jobs. We are seeing today the Bank’s preferred path for output and inflation. It leads to 2% inflation and zero output gap. We know, that if the Bank wanted a different path for output and inflation they can use the conventional tools of policy. If you think that path is not optimal, it is either because the Bank has the wrong target, or that you believe they are making a conventional policy error. Either way, no need to talk about fiscal policy.
Economist writer H.C. has an interesting Free Exchange post discussing Scott’s “musical chairs” model and British unemployment. Scott also comments. Here is my curve-fitting exercise:
One of the difficulties in working with the UK macro data is that the ONS don’t produce a good quality high frequency time series for hourly wages. Of the available data we have low frequency, high accuracy data in the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) based on very large sample of employers’ payroll data held by HMRC. At the other end we have high frequency, low accuracy data in the Average Weekly Earnings (AWE) data, produced from a small survey which deliberately excludes a number of workers (notably, I believe, high earners and small employers). I compared the range of various sources at the beginning of last year.
In this post I’ll use the lower quality AWE data, from which we have time series for both regular (ex bonuses) and total weekly pay, and also for average actual hours worked. I’ll also assume that bonus pay is not very sticky. From either pay series we can then calculate average hourly wages by simple division.
The musical chairs model says there is a strong positive correlation between the unemployment rate and the ratio of hourly wages to nominal GDP. I’ll cheat slightly (I did warn you this was a curve-fitting exercise) and use nominal GVA at basic prices instead of NGDP. An increase in nominal GDP which is accounted for entirely by an increase in indirect taxes would not be expected to increase the resources available to hire workers; since we’ve had big VAT shocks in the UK I think this is a reasonable “cheat”.
Here’s the first version of the musical chairs graph, using regular wages to derive hourly wages:
I would say this has done quite well since 2008: though the recovery is predicted slightly too fast, and the correlation is absent for the period prior to 2008.
A second interpretation is to use aggregate employee income instead of nominal GDP/GVA, so changes in the labour share of GDP don’t affect the results:
This is a better fit.
One thing that either of these models will struggle with, if only because of data limitations, is the shift between employment and self-employment. There have been two very large swings in UK self-employment in the period covered above: a 9% rise in 2003 and a 10% rise in 2013/4. We cannot really measure the wages of the self-employed, and as far as I know those workers are entirely excluded from the AWE data – I would not find it surprising that the musical chairs model appears to breaks down for that kind of shock. If there are studies on self-employment and wage stickiness I’d be interested to hear in the comments.
Back in 2013 I described a (crude) supply-side counterfactual for UK real GDP using the OBR’s 2011 Forecast as the baseline. Here is an update which uses the data from the OBR’s June 2010 Budget forecast and extends to 2014. (I am not sure why I did not find the forecast for hours worked in the 2010 forecast before.)
The exercise is again simple (or if you want, much too simple): I take the OBR’s June 2010 forecast of output per hour, the observed data for total hours worked, and calculate a supply-side counterfactual path for real GDP. That path is compared against both the OBR’s June 2010 forecast of real GDP, and the actual data we have for for real GDP – I’ve rebased this time to highlight the difference since the pre-recession peak.
It remains true that a purely demand-side view of the UK recovery seems to prove too much. At least, it is hard to see that the weakness of RGDP relative to expectations circa June 2010 can be explained by a demand-side view; the shortfall in output is simply not a reflection of a shortfall in employment.
IFS chief Paul Johnson laments the absence of political debate about productivity:
What happens next to productivity will define our economic performance over the next five years. In the end growing productivity is the key to our economic wellbeing. As the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman once put it, productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. Strong productivity growth will lead to higher earnings, higher living standards, and an easier job reducing the deficit. If productivity growth is weak, then we are in for some more tough years.
So why don’t we hear more about this from the politicians? Whatever they may say, they really can’t just legislate for higher earnings and lower prices. Those will come only as a result of a more productive and efficient economy.
It’s funny really. Some will attribute the stagnation of living standards since 2010 (or 2008) to mostly demand-side causes (e.g. Coalition austerity), and get extremely cross that politicians don’t take the AD policy seriously… and others get extremely cross that politicians don’t take supply-side policy seriously enough. The spectrum of views between the two extremes is also available.
I get more frustrated that we lack a common methodology or understanding of how to interpret the macro data. How do we decide the extent to which each view is true? Without that, I’m not sure why we should expect politicians and policymakers do much better than pick some position. (To be fair, many fail even that test.) Crazy models like the “paradox of toil” – which are taken seriously by some academics – make a mockery of the idea we can or even should separate the supply-side from the demand-side.
Unemployment towards the end of 2014 was 0.3% higher than in early 2007. Is it unreasonable based on figures like that, to say sure, the stagnation in UK living standards has been “clearly” supply-side? I could pick other data: low inflation or wage growth maybe, low (forecast) nominal GDP growth, and say, yes, demand-side problems remain.
But it’s complicated. If productivity growth has fallen to around 0% (god forbid) then nominal wage growth at around 2% is consistent with something like “full employment”. The argument goes back and forth… it only appears satisfying if you have strongly held prior beliefs and find a data point to confirm them.
Congratulations to the Ralph G. Hawtrey Chair of Monetary Policy! Making my way through some of the references from George Selgin’s monograph “Less than Zero” recently, I ended up reading a transcript of a Chatham House discussion from 1929 on “The International Gold Problem”. The transcript is a bit rough in places, but whole thing is a fascinating read; here’s a contribution from Hawtrey to add to Scott’s collection:
Mr R. G. HAWTREY: In my view one of the most serious evils arising from fluctuations in the value of the currency is the trade. Whatever the causes of the trade cycle may be, one thing is common ground to every one, and that is that the trade cycle include the fluctuation of the price level combined with a fluctuation of productive activity. The two go together. Fall in price were due to increased production and the rise in scarcity, no further explanation would have to be looked for. But in fact the fall coincides with diminished production and the rise with increased production. The total value in money of the output of the world is increased both by the percentage by which prices rise and by the percentage by which the physical volume of production rises. Likewise, the subsequent fall in the price level is superimposed on the shrinkage of production. These wide fluctuations in money value of output are clearly a monetary phenomenon. A fall in the price level due to monetary causes brings about business depression and unemployment. The depression of the ’eighties, following the general adoption of the gold standard and the heavy fall in prices from 1873 onwards, supplies a well-known example.
More than eight decades later and it is now a minority view that the “wide fluctuations in the money value of output” … i.e. nominal GDP since 2008… are “clearly a monetary phenomenon”!