Sunday, 24 April 2016

Immigration, inequality and conceptual art

The Tate has a new exhibition called 'Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979' if you're interested.  A BBC Radio 4 reviewer explained carefully that conceptual art is all about the concept! One of the exhibits is of a glass of water that the artist explains has been changed into an Oak Tree.

Economics is about concepts  - notions, ideas, some of them rather abstract - and the economics of inequality is one of the most important ones. Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st Century" captured the mood and helped spur a huge debate about its causes and the remedies that policy-makers should or shouldn't adopt. But at 700 pages long, it wasn't an easy read. Branko Milanovic's new book "Global Inequality, A New Approach for the Age of Globalization" comes in at 299 pages and the last 34 of those are the references and the index. It's also a book with great charts, so that the first time I opened it, I just skimmed through the picture with a cup of coffee.  For those two reasons alone, anyone interested in the economics of inequality should buy it (and read it).

There is a third, rather more serious reason,to be interested in the book. Thomas Piketty's focus was on how wealth inequality in particular grew in developed economies over time, and what policy-makers should do about it. The market, in his opinion, has and will feed widening inequality. Mr Milanovic's focus is on income not wealth and on global not national trends and is far more relevant to the world we find ourselves in. Martin Wolf reviewed the book more seriously here and talked about in a speech he gave for the Toynbee Foundation a couple of weeks ago.

The chart that Mr Milanovic is most famous for makes an appearance on the second page of the first chapter. It shows changes in income over 20 years plotted against income levels and can be loosely divided into four segments. On the left, the very poor are mostly in Africa (though you can reasonably throw Yemen, Afghanistan, even Pakistan and by now, Syria into this pot as well).  The middle of the chart shows income growth for average/below-average income groups many of whom are in newly-developed economies, notably in Asia. The group in the the 70-90th percentiles of global income levels are the poor/median income groups in developed western economies (they're  being left behind)  and the far right grouping is the top 5%, or the 1%.

The second chart shows the distribution of incomes in 1998 and 2011. Average incomes have gone up, but are still low by the standards of developed western economies. And the lack of growth in incomes in the 20-40,000 (2005) dollars per annum range is very apparent.

Apart from suggesting this is a book worth reading, I'll make a couple of observations. The first is that the reduction in global inequality levels isn't evenly-distributed; a lot of people, a lot of whom live on the other side of the Mediterranean, have been left behind. And secondly,  the political debate in developed economies is going to be shaped by how the lack of growth in median/below-median incomes is tackled.

My generation has grown up with the effects of booming trade - imported goods are cheaper and industries which can't compete in the global market-place have withered. The Philips Curve has creaked and groaned in the face of a global labour market and the profit share of GDP has boomed on the back of lower labour costs. As the UK debates how (or even, whether) to keep the last bits of its steel industry alive, the issue hasn't gone away but now the main talking point is immigration, almost everywhere. It's the single biggest political issue in both Europe and the US. It fuels the 'Brexit' voters' ranks, it holds up support for Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen  and of course, Donald Trump. Meanwhile, those 1988-2008 charts don't even try to capture earnings gap that years of QE have opened up.

The failure of developed economies to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Syria (or Libya) before mass migration took over is miserably depressing. The response to the tide of refugees arriving on our shores over the last year, equally so. But even beyond the conflict zone, migration is  globalisation's response to global economic inequality. The poor and oppressed of the world are going to go on moving and between them, the advance of technology and the aftermath of the global commodity boom, they'll go on fuelling inequality within developed economies and all the political baggage that comes with that. Maybe that won't result in Trump becoming President, or the UK voting to leave the EU, or Marine Le Pen making a serious push for power. But without structural reform aimed at boosting the earning power of median income earners in developed economies, major victory for an anti-immigration, anti-free trade, anti-liberal party in a developed economy near you and me, is inevitable within the next 5 years or so.

Branko Milanovic doesn't make friends with all his opinions. But then, nor does Thomas Piketty and that hasn't stopped him from becoming an economics superstar. Income inequality is more important than wealth inequality and global inequality is more interesting in a global economy than only looking at national trends. Meanwhile, as for forecasts of median wage growth in high-income economies, well that's going to be a function of political choices, rather than Phillips Curves, isn't it! 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

25 multinationals and a big fat deficit

Awful balance of payments data fuel all sorts of responses - the UK doesn't make or export enough, or consumes too much. Is reliant on the kindness of strangers to finance the deficit, (Mark Carney) and is need of foreign direct investment that in turn probably depends on staying in the EU (David Smith). All fine arguments. But the surge in the  deficit in recent years is largely a result of the falling foreign income of a handful of huge multinational companies, whose incomes have fallen step by step with falling commodity prices. They finance themselves in international markets and are owned by international shareholders: Does that make a difference?

Heading for £100 per annum.... an awfully big hole 
The UK’s current account deficit reached £32.7bn in Q4 2015, which equates to 7% GDP and is the biggest deficit since records began. It takes the annual deficit to £96.2bn, 5.2% GDP. The £12.6bn deterioration from Q3 to Q4 was due to a £3.3bn increase in the deficit in goods and services to £12.2bn, a £2bn increase in the deficit in secondary income to £5.4bn and a £7.3bn increase in the deficit on primary income, to £13.1bn. It’s worth noting in passing that the UK’s net investment position now is in liability to the tune of £65,9bn, In other words, foreigners own £65.9bn-worth of UK assets more than UK investors own of foreign assets. All other things being equal over time, the bigger the net liability, the bigger the net investment income deficit will be.

The ONS’ chart of the overall make-up of the current account balance is below.

The trade account includes goods (a deficit) and services (a surplus). It's been pretty steady in recent years, though still significantly in deficit. The secondary income balance includes transfers provided with no expectation of payment, so things like bilateral aid and of course, payments to or from the EU. This series is volatile on a quarterly basis but not so much over a longer period. The primary income balance includes compensation of staff, rents, taxes and most of all, investment income.  Here’s a chart of that, and its constituent parts:

The primary income balance was in surplus as recently as mid-2013 and just glancing at the chart you can see that its deterioration coincides with a dramatic shift in the balance of direct investment income. The ONS took the trouble to publish an article to  explain what’s going on and the link is here:

If reading it all is too much bother on a sunny Sunday morning, the main points are as follows:

More than 80% of the deterioration in the current account since 2011is attributable to falls in net foreign direct investment (FDI) earnings.

Falling FDI credits over this period explain just under 80% of the decline in net FDI earnings, and the majority of that is attributable to the largest 25 multinational companies. This partly reflects the fact that UK FDI assets are exposed to movements in global commodity prices – most notably crude oil.

In my day job, I mostly ignore these niceties. The current account deficit is huge and leaves the UK dependent on foreign investors’ confidence in and appetite for UK assets. In the middle of a toxic debate about whether or not to remain in the EU, that’s bad for confidence and particularly bad for the pound. I’ve written extensively on that and the pound has indeed, fallen sharply in recent months and since the latest data were released.

But two questions are posed by the data. The first is whether we will see the current account deficit recover as an when oil and other commodity prices stabilize (or bounce)? The second is whether what 25 big multinationals do matters at a national level?

The UK still had a current account deficit, albeit a smaller one, when the commodity boom was in full flight. So in 2011 when the deficit was 1.7% GDP and commodity prices were at their peak, the headline figure masked the poor underlying  situation. Q4’s 7% deficit may overstate how bad things are, but I could average between the 1.7% of 2011 and the 5.2% of 2015 and conclude that 3 ½% GDP is a truer reflection of the underlying position. And that’s only small comfort. It’s still, in today’s money, an annualized international borrowing need of GBP 65bn.

I might be tempted to say that the UK’s £65bn underlying deficit is just the other side of the coin with regard to the Eurozone's near-£200bn current account surplus.

I might also conclude that the commodity cycle is far more volatile than FX trends, and so the idea that a weaker pound will magically solve the UK’s balance of payments problems is absurd. It would improve them a bit, but the parts that have caused the deterioration are not terrible senstivie to sterling exchange rates.

But are big global companies different? 
The second question is more difficult. Imagine a large UK-domiciled multi-national that used to earn huge amounts on its foreigh investments, but is now no longer doing so as a result of falling oil prices. So, instead of repatriating income and paying a dividend to its (global) shareholders, it will borrow money or run down cash reserves until prices recover. ,It may well also save money by reducing employment overseas, which helps improve the situation on the balance of payments without having much impact on the UK economy. If it borrows by issuing debt, does that really have much impact on the UK? Once upon a time a large UK multinational issuing sterling bonds might have been considered to squeeze out other buyers of gilts, say, but I’m not even sure that’s a relevant factor anymore.

I’m not going to argue this doesn’t affect the national accounts – it does.  A multinational that earns money abroad is bringing pounds back home and one that issues debt is adding to the demand the rest of the UK makes on the global investor community. But to what degree does a multinational borrowing money really squeeze out the UK Government? To what extent does paying dividends to global shareholders boost the UK? And while huge changes in commodity prices have clearly been a driver of the direct investment income balance, it’s also true that whether a company reinvests in its foreign businesses, or brings cash home, is a decision determined by all sorts of factors, with international tax regulations  often at the top of the pile.

All this is framed as a question and that’s why this is a blog rather than an investment bank's sell-side research note. I’m not sure I’m aloud to write ‘I don’t know’ this often in the day job!  The UK’s 7% GDP current account deficit is frankly, embarrassingly huge. There are no positives in the data but if someone asks just how hard it will be to find foreign financing for the defiit, and whether it will go on growing in the years ahead, all I can really say is that I don’t know, because that depends on the decisions of the management of a couple of dozen huge global  companies who may think that this is a good time to be borrowing at super low rates, even if that does drive the UK’s current account deficit up.