Category Archives: economics

What is the main solution to the UK’s weak productivity growth?

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Chris Giles (FT) is examining why Britain is suffering from weak productivity growth. As part of his series, he wants to hear what readers think is the main solution to the UK’s weak productivity growth since the financial crisis of 2008. Share thoughts directly with him at ask@ft.com. Some may be published in a follow-up piece.

Prem Sikka, Professor of Accounting at University of Sheffield and Emeritus Professor of Accounting at University of Essex, who tweets here, has already published thoughts on the subject. Briefly:

UK company dividends are high & investment low

This lack of investment and innovation means that the country’s productivity is low. The output per hour worked in the UK is about 16% below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies. The UK productivity is around 27% below that of Germany – despite the UK labour force working almost the longest hours in the western world and the country is neither rebuilding its manufacturing base, nor developing new technologies.

He itemises the boardroom dominance of accountants:

Sikka then argues that short-termism, leading to the neglect of the long-term prosperity of companies and the economy, has been accelerated by the boardroom dominance of accountants.

Compared with other developed countries, UK companies are paying out the highest proportion of their earnings in dividends.

According to the Bank of England’s chief economist, in 1970 major UK companies paid £10 in dividends out of each £100 of profits – but by 2015 the amount was between £60 and £70. 

And at the same time as paying this large percentage in dividends many companies were downsizing labour and reducing investment, lagging behind the EU average:

Sikka asserts that the most effective way to disrupt the accounting-think prevalent in boardrooms is by appointing directors who are focused on the long-term – appointing employees and consumers so that they can challenge the obsession with short-term returns and promote investment in productive assets.

Giles quotes Lord Andrew Tyrie, new chair of the Competition and Markets Authority, who told companies in July to stop “ripping people off” or face the full force of the watchdog’s sanctions. His focus is mostly on regulated markets such as banking and energy, where companies are accused of exploiting vulnerable households by extracting a “loyalty penalty” if they do not switch suppliers.

Lord Tyrie told MPs during his confirmation hearing for the CMA in April that retail banking and auditing were parts of the economy that did not work in the interests of the public or productivity.

Scott Corfe, chief economist at the Social Market Foundation, a think-tank, claimed that pro-competition moves had some potential for raising productivity growth rates. He suggested that consumers should be switched between energy suppliers automatically after several years to stop companies exploiting customer inertia.

See this video: https://www.ft.com/content/ae25a5bc-9405-11e8-b747-fb1e803ee64e (possible paywall)

After noting that since the mid-2000s, British industries have become more concentrated, with fewer companies enjoying larger market shares, Giles focusses on this ‘one key question’:

Is inadequate competition contributing to Britain’s feeble growth in output per hour worked? 

 

We look forward to the next article in the series.

 

 

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“Money-manager capitalism has ‘fed political revolt’ in America and Europe: Philip Collins

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In the Times, Philip Collins* writes that western “money-manager capitalism,” (term coined by Hyman Minsky), has changed the patterns of incentives and rewards in the economy, leading to stagnation in productivity and wages by reducing the capital investment that supports their growth.

He cites Erikson & Weigel: “A decade has passed since banks and financial houses began to crumble and took Western economies to the brink of collapse, but economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic remains weak. It is still determined more by governments and central banks than the animal spirits of entrepreneurial capitalism.

Economic developments before and after the crisis that started in 2007 have fed political revolt. In both America and Europe, people are angry about their poor income growth, and they indict the “one percent” or “the establishment” for pursuing policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the middle class. They feel that the age of cost-cutting McKinsey consultants, cheap capital, and Wall Street financial engineers brought prosperity to the professional classes, but that, as a result, everyone else’s expectations were revised permanently downward: “The revolt comes from both the Left and the Right, but the underlying premise is shared: capitalism hasn’t been working for me!”

Collins then adds that business investment has been falling as a proportion of GDP since the 1970s.

”Money that ought to be invested is instead flowing to shareholders in the form of dividends and buybacks. Too rapid a recourse to mergers is generating payments for unworthy executives and creating giant companies which do their best to evade fair taxation. All the while they buttress their position with expensive and effective lobbying to keep regulators sweet”.

He cites two sets of linked consequences

  • Unemployment among the young and low-skilled has increased and wages for those in work have stagnated.
  • The vast majority of the returns from the last decade of capitalist activity have accrued to those who are already rich in assets.

This trend within capitalism itself accelerated after the 2008 crash by central banks whose incontinent monetary policy had inflated asset prices.

Under capitalism it seemed, on the whole, that things could only get better. Growth made us more prosperous tomorrow than we are today. When that promise broke, the response was a growth in radical movements to the left and right.

The obvious answer, according to Collins includes:

  • shifting the burden of taxation away from income and towards wealth;
  • imposing a higher inheritance tax, to prevent large transfers of privilege;
  • taxing the capital gain on the residential home;
  • taxing land, of all the assets the least easy to hide;
  • cutting income tax for people who take home the average wage or less;
  • and earmarking some of the proceeds for the social care system which is a disgrace in a rich country.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, considers the deeper causes of populism. He believes that the British have seen so much of what they value which is beyond economics — whether love of place and landscape or the integrity of their cultural attachments — overlooked or ignored. He advocates:

  • reform of corporate governance,
  • better pricing of environmental costs,
  • changes to investment incentives and procurement rules,
  • “smarter” regulation
  • and no access for not corporate lobbyists.

But, Collins reflects: “Conservatives often give bold speeches which herald no action.

“After the expenses scandal David Cameron diagnosed all that was wrong with politics and proclaimed a radical plan to put it right, not a word of which ever materialised.

“In her first address as prime minister, Theresa May set out the array of social issues which would define her premiership. Mired in Brexit, we are still waiting.

“There is every chance that Mr Gove’s speech on capitalism will fall into the same category”.

Collins ends, ”The reason why the Conservative Party will not act . . . (is that) it is going to have to upset some natural-voting Conservatives. A state intervention to break up successful companies, an expansive set of welfare schemes and a government dedicated to imposing taxes on wealth. It doesn’t sound very likely from this government”.

 

 

Phillip Collins is the leader writer and columnist for The Times, chairman of Demos, Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics, associate editor of Prospect magazine journalist, academic, banker and speechwriter

 

 

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Climate change should be placed “front and centre” of the central bank’s mandate to boost green investment

A Green Bank of England, Central Banking for a Low-Carbon Economy

Delphine Strauss (Financial Times) summarises advice in this report (link to pdf above) from the campaign group Positive Money.

It recommends that climate change be placed “front and centre” of the Bank of England’s mandate so that the central bank can boost green investment.

The report has won backing from Lord Deben, who chairs the independent Committee on Climate Change which was set up by the government to monitor the UK’s progress in meeting its statutory targets for cutting emissions:

“They are right to seek some radical measures, because the issues are radical. I think that monetary policy does need to reflect these risks”, he said, adding that central banks should do more to ensure the availability of green finance and divest from fossil fuel companies that showed no inclination to change their business.

The BoE has been reviewing UK insurers and banks’ exposure to climate-related risks and supports efforts to develop international standards for voluntary disclosure.

Mark Carney, the BoE’s governor, has repeatedly warned of the physical damage climate change could wreak on the economy and the risks to financial stability that might result from a sudden revaluation of carbon-intensive assets.

Positive Money argued that this concern for financial stability will look “incoherent” unless the BoE does more to boost investment in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Its report urged the government to rewrite the mandate of the Monetary Policy Committee to include green objectives explicitly and called on the BoE to look at ways to build climate-related risks into its macroeconomic models.

The Positive Money report urges the BoE to set an example:

  • by disclosing the carbon risks of assets on its own balance sheet
  • by ending the practice of buying bonds issued by fossil fuel companies
  • and by financing green projects via quantitative easing during any recession.

It argued that the BoE has unintentionally promoted high-carbon sectors because its criteria for asset purchases favoured the bonds of large fossil fuel companies.

 

 

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Japan: a model of capitalism that manages to balance income growth and income distribution

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Jesper Koll, one of the top Japan strategists and economists, observes that Japan’s economy is performing well and deserves more attention as a model of capitalism that manages to balance income growth and income distribution. Some points made in his article, which may be read in full here, follow. 

The goal of an economy is to create and sustain a stable society. To do so, an economy must produce growth and must distribute the spoils of that growth in a fair and equitable way.

At the end of last year, the median net financial wealth for households in Japan stood at $96,000. In the United States, the same number was $50,000. The average Japanese is de facto twice as wealthy as the average American.

At the bottom end in Japan, approximately 9% of households own less than $10,000 worth of net financial assets. In America, that’s true for 28% of all households. Japan certainly does have an ‘underbelly of poor’, but relatively few are truly left behind financially.

When U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talked about “deplorables” during the 2016 campaign she missed the point: What is truly deplorable is the fact that the U.S. ruling elite, of which Clinton is a leading member, allowed this gravely destabilizing financial inequality to happen in the first place.

According to the OECD database American median incomes rose by approximately $24,000, from $36,000 to $60,000 between 2016 and 2017. Over the same period, Japanese median incomes rose from $27,000 to $51,000, i.e. a similar increase of $24,000, prospering at about the same pace.

So much for the myth that Japan has been stagnating.

The bottom 10% of income earners in Japan strongly outperformed their American counterparts: Between 2000 and 2017, the bottom 10% of income earners saw a $15,000 rise in earnings in Japan, from $17,000 to $32,000. Their U.S. counterparts got only $10,000 more income, from $18,000 to $28,000.

If you are among the bottom 10% of income earners, you are now better off in Japan than in America ($32,000 versus $28,000)

How did Japan successfully bring up the poor? The growing scarcity of labor is forcing steadfast improvement in employment offered — not part time or contracts, but full time — as well as steadfast pay increases for particular jobs at the bottom end of the employment attractiveness spectrum. General white collar sales or management jobs have seen relatively pedestrian pay increases, but truck drivers, construction workers and shipbuilders have seen their pay almost double in recent years.

(Ed) A Tokyo contact agrees that the rapidly declining working age population helps a lot. As automation is coming on a scale not imagined, a lot of countries will struggle with unemployment and that may well put Japan in a very strong position over the next 20yrs or so.

Koll comments that the government deserves credit for actively encouraging positive changes in employers attitudes. This year’s tax code changes should make it easier for spouses to seek higher incomes — not by taxing the rich but by removing a tax ceiling for the poor. The overall impact of rising female participation is already very positive in general for society as a whole, for closing the gap between the rich and the poor in particular.

The overall outcome produced by the Japanese economic system is extremely positive. Japan manages to balance income growth and income distribution unlike many other advanced economies.

Japan’s economy is working well and deserves more attention as a model for “capitalism that works.” The system is very good at bringing up the bottom of the income pyramid and generating exceptional inclusion for all in financial wealth creation.

Japan deserves the Nobel Prize for applied economics.

 

 

 

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March visitors

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People from 6 countries visited the site in March.

There were twelve times more visitors from the USA than the next largest group from the UK.

 Top posts  

Brexit: moving away from globalisation towards self-reliance.

In this post, Colin Hines draws attention to Green MEP Molly Scott Cato’s publication and launch of a report by Victor Anderson and Rupert Read: ‘Brexit and Trade Moving from Globalisation to Self-reliance’. Read more here.

Prem Sikka: a critic of the Pin-Stripe Mafia

Accounting professor Prem Sikka received the Abraham Briloff award from The Accountant and International Accounting Bulletin.

The award was presented at a conference and awards dinner in London on 4 October – The Digital Accountancy Forum & Awards 2017. Read more here.

 

 

 

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Money Week editor: ‘horrible’ side effects of quantitative easing and record-low interest rates

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Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek, is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK recently wrote in the Financial Times:

It has been a good week for billionaires.

The UBS/PwC Billionaires Report 2017 claimed the combined wealth of the world’s 1,542 billionaires rose by almost a fifth last year to $6tn: more than double the UK’s gross domestic product.

It has not been a particularly good week for governments.

They have to deal with the fallout from rising wealth inequality, and that fallout is getting increasingly nasty.

This kind of report does not do much for central bankers, either.

The rise of the billionaires is as much about financial globalisation as it is easy money, but every time a report lands on their desks, central bankers must stop to think about the economic, social and political havoc their policies have caused over the past 10 years.

The desperate attempt to avoid deflation via quantitative easing and record-low interest rates has had horrible side effects . . .

  • The rich have become much richer;
  • corporate wealth has become more concentrated;
  • soaring house prices have created intergenerational strife;
  • low yields have made all but the super-rich paranoid that they will be entirely unable to finance their futures.
  • Most markets have ended up overvalued (overvalued stock has a price not justified by its earningsoutlook or price/earnings ratio) – later, this will really matter.

This, while pension fund deficits and a constant sense of crisis have discouraged capital investment — and have possibly held down wages in the UK.

 

 

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Green quantitative easing – good sense

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Richard Murphy and Colin Hines published the Green QE report, which is summarised below.

In March 2009 the Bank of England began a programme of quantitative easing in the UK – in effect, the Bank of England granted the Treasury an overdraft but to keep the European Union happy had to do so by buying Government gilts issued by the Treasury from UK commercial banks, pension funds and other financial institutions.

There were three reasons for doing this:

  1. To keep interest rates low;
  2. To provide banks with the money they needed to lend to business and others to keep the economy going.
  3. To make sure there was enough money in the economy to prevent deflation happening

No one was sure whether quantitative easing would work, and as we note, no one is sure for certain whether it has worked.

We do however suggest in this report that several things did happen:

  • The banks profited enormously from the programme, which is why they bounced back into profit so soon after the crash– and bankers’ bonuses never went away;
  • The entire government deficit in 2009/10 of £155 billion was basically paid for by the quantitative easing programme. If you wanted to know how the government met its costs, now you do; There was a shortage of gilts available for investment purposes as a result of the Bank of England buying so many in the market. Large quantities of funds were invested instead in other financial assets including the stock market and commodities such as food stuffs and metals.
  • The USA also undertook quantitative easing at the same time as the UK, which meant that despite near recessionary conditions commodity prices for coffee and basic metals such as copper have risen enormously. This has impacted on inflation, which has stayed above the Bank of England target rate;
  • Deflation has been avoided, although the relative role of quantitative easing in this versus the previous government’s reflation policies is unclear;
  • Interest rates have remained low.

However, one thing has not happened, and that is that the funds made available have not resulted in new bank lending. In fact bank lending has declined almost steadily since the quantitative easing programme began.

there is an urgent need for action to stimulate the economy by investing in the new jobs, infrastructure, products and services we need in this country and there is no sign that this will happen without government intervention.

For that reason we propose a new round of quantitative easing –or Green QE2 as we call it.

Green QE2 would do three things. First it would deliver the Green New Deal – the innovative programme for investment in the new economy the UK needs as outlined by the Green New Deal group in its reports for the New Economics Foundation. This would require three actions:

  1. The government would need to invest directly in new infrastructure for the UK.
  2. The government needs to invest in the UK economy, in conjunction with the private sector, working through a new National Investment Bank;
  3. The government must liberate local authorities to partner with the private sector to green their local economies for the benefit of their own communities, and it can do this by providing a capital fund for them to use in the form of equity that bears the residual risks in such projects.

A second round of quantitative easing should involve direct expenditure on new infrastructure projects in the UK.

For example there is a desperate need for new energy efficient social housing in this country, for adequate investment in railways, not to mention a reinstatement of the schools rebuilding programme. Undertaking these activities would give the economy and immediate shot in the arm as well as providing infrastructure of lasting use which would more than repay any debt incurred in the course of its creation.

This is the result of the ‘Keynesian multiplier’ effect. This is the phenomenon that occurs when government borrowing to fund investment takes place during a time of unemployment.

That borrowing directly funds employment.

That new employment does four things.

First it reduces the obligation to pay benefits.

Second, it means that the person in that new employment pays tax.

Third, it means their employer pays tax on profits they make.

And finally the person in employment can then save, which means that they help fund the government borrowing which has created their own employment.

As Martin Wolf, the eminent Financial Times columnist has said in this FT video: “Borrowing is no sin, provided we use the funds to ensure that we bequeath a better infrastructure to the future”.

This is what we believe the programme we recommend would do and this is precisely why it is appropriate to do it now when the cost of government borrowing is so low, a point Wolf and Skidelsky also make.

Borrowing now to spend into the economy is the basis for the first stage of Green QE2 – and of the Green New Deal.

Read the whole report here: http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/16569/1/GreenQuEasing.pdf

 

 

 

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