Give working people more money because they will spend it

It's not about fairness, it's about the economy, stupid.

To date, the history of our current financial crisis has concentrated minds on the distribution of wealth in a way that we haven’t really seen for a generation. Filled with materialistic expectations, the withdrawal of credit and government subsidies from society has brought home some harsh realities. We can’t afford the lifestyle we have come to think we are entitled to. Wealthy people, once seen as social leaders, are increasingly treated as though they somehow stole what they earned.

Most of the time the redistribution of wealth is put in political terms – it ignores who had the original idea for a company or product or who put the money up in the first place to fund it. Instead, agitators argue that workers, because it is their toil that creates the goods and services, should get an equal participation in profits. Ironically, this is probably the right answer but the wrong reason – people should be given more money so that they can spend it.

The World Bank recently released numbers on the distribution of Corrado Gini’s index of income and wealth distribution. The Gini Index ranges from 1 to 100 and seeks to measure financial inequality in a society; a value of 100 means that a single person has all the money whilst as it declines money is more and more equally distributed.

Some interesting trends are showing up. For instance, in Latin America wealth inequality, although at a high level, is declining as a phenomenon. Crises like that seen in Argentina are working to redistribute wealth whilst in Brazil the new-found economic prosperity is becoming shared by a greater and greater proportion of society.  Africa, notably South Africa, displays disturbingly high levels of wealth concentration in the hands of a few.

Although we have a tendency to pillory ourselves here the UK, we actually come out quite well with a score of just under 26 – you would have to go to parts of Eastern Europe to find other countries with the kinds of equality that we possess. In fact, equality of wealth distribution has improved markedly between 1995 and 2010 when the latest data is available and embraces the financial crisis.

What is most disturbing though is the United States. The Gini index for the US has shown a marked and continuous increase of inequality, an effect that has been occurring since the 1970’s, and a phenomenon that has accelerated as the recovery from the financial crisis has gathered pace.

Economic commentators often talk about "the wealth effect", the confidence-boosting mental state that allows ordinary people to look at their total assets and give themselves the psychological comfort to stop hoarding money and start spending it. To this end the Federal Reserve in the US and western central banks have been complicit in propping up the stock and housing markets through ultra-accommodative monetary policies that placate the electorate through the illusion of financial affluence.  They will go about their day without necessarily calling for higher levels of taxation or the forced redistribution of wealth in the face of obvious inequalities. This has by and large worked to date but we are now entering a phase of prolonged sub-potential growth combined with rising wealth inequality in the US that will have long-range effects economically, socially and politically.

The problem arises from the fact that if you give wealthy people more money they don’t necessarily spend it – it becomes dormant and redundant. Give a poor person an extra £10 and they will spend it on food or new clothes, propelling consumption, but give an ultra-high net worth person another million pounds and more than likely it will lie in the bank largely unnoticed and more importantly unused. So in many respects the inequality of the distribution of wealth is not so much about "fairness" or venality, but more that the concentration of too much money into too few hands leads to economic stagnation adding to an already sub-par economic atmosphere.

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Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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The global shipping slowdown hints at a recession around the corner

Instability in China and tumbling commodity prices have devastated the world’s freight providers – a strong indicator of trouble to come.

This is beginning to have the feel of 2008 all over again. Policy makers around the world are in denial once again as global stock markets dive. In 2008, the slowing of the world's biggest economy – the US – sent the global economy into a tailspin. The concern now is that the slowing of the second-largest economy, China, may well have similar global effects. Chinese growth, which averaged 10 per cent for three decades through to 2010, has decelerated for five straight years and in 2015 slowed to 6.9 per cent, its lowest rate in a quarter of a century. The IMF is forecasting that Chinese growth will slow further to 6.3 per cent in 2016 and 6 per cent in 2017, which may well be overly optimistic. There is already speculation that China’s banking system may see losses even larger than those suffered by US banks during the last crisis.

The bad news from China appears to have already spread to the US, which has seen GDP growth slowing sharply in the last quarter of 2015. US industrial production and core retail sales are both falling, and there have been marked contractions in core capital goods shipments and private non-residential construction. Business fixed investment declined nearly 2 per cent last quarter. Despite the bad news, last week Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen astonishingly claimed that “the US economy is in many ways close to normal”. By contrast, Ruslan Bikbov from Bank of America Merrill Lynch calculates that there is a 64 per cent probability the US is already in recession. My expectation is the next move by the Fed will be to cut rates.

Company profits are tumbling as commodity and oil prices decline. BP reported a $3.3bn fourth-quarter loss last year while Exxon Mobil reported a 58 per cent fall in its quarterly profit. It isn’t just oil companies. Last week, Rio Tinto – the world's second biggest mining company – reported profits down 51 per cent after commodity prices collapsed amid slowing growth from China. Company profits are also suffering due to a big decline in the amount of freight being moved, especially to and from China. Moeller-Maersk, the Danish conglomerate and the world’s biggest container-ship operator by capacity, last week reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $2.51bn.  

DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, also says that global volume has slowed sharply. It reported that volumes at its ports rose by 2.4 per cent last year, compared with 8 per cent growth in 2014. Data provider Container Trades Statistics said this week that Asia-to-Europe trade fell nearly 4 per cent last year. Freight rates in 2015 averaged $620 per container on the Asia-to-Europe trade route. Typically, ship operators need more than $1,000 to break even. In February, the cost of moving a container from Shanghai to Rotterdam fell to $431, barely covering fuel costs. Figures released by the Shanghai Shipping Exchange show that the country’s 20 largest container ports grew by 3.7 per cent over 2014, compared to 5.5 per cent the previous year. The Hong Kong Port Development Council reported that throughput at the port of Hong Kong fell by 9.5 per cent in 2015.  

The Baltic Dry Index (BDIY) – an index of the price for shipping dry goods such as iron ore and coal (oil is wet) as shown in the chart below – is at a record low of 290. It is down 75 per cent since its recent peak in 2015 and down 98 per cent from its peak of 11,793 points in May 2008. The collapse to 772 by 5 September 2008 (a week before Lehman Brothers failed) presaged the global recession and it is falling again. Capesize vessels, which are too big to get through the Suez or Panama canals, had an average daily hire last week of $1,484, compared with a peak of $233,988 in June 2008. Even though there is an oversupply of ships, global demand is collapsing.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released figures for global air freight, showing cargo volumes expanded 2.2 per cent in 2015 compared to 2014. This was a slower pace of growth than the 5 per cent recorded in 2014. This weakness apparently reflects sluggish trade growth in Europe and Asia-Pacific. “2015 was another very difficult year for air cargo,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “Growth has slowed and revenue is falling. In 2011 air cargo revenue peaked at $67bn. In 2016 we are not expecting revenue to exceed $51bn.”

The current contraction in rail freight is apparently reminiscent of the drop that started at the end of 2008 and carried on into 2009. China's rail freight volumes fell by a significant amount last year. According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), volumes fell by 11.9 per cent, a further increase on the 2014 slowdown, when traffic declined by 3.9 per cent.

In the western US farm belt, grain trains are so abundant you can’t give one away. Since the middle of last March, carloads of agricultural products, chemicals, coal, metals, autos and other goods have declined every week. Shipments of US coal, the biggest commodity moved by rail, declined 12 per cent in 2015, according to the Association of American Railroads. The cost of carrying spring wheat from North Dakota to the Pacific coast has dropped by a third in the past two years. In early 2014, grain companies with a train to spare could command $6,000 per car above the official railway tariff, traders say. Today, to avoid hefty contract cancellation fees, they are paying others to use their unwanted trains.

Manufacturing output in the UK fell for each of the last three months and is down 1.7 per cent over the year. The overly optimistic Monetary Policy Committee is forecasting GDP growth of 2.2 per cent (2.4 per cent) in 2016; 2.4 per cent (2.5 per cent) in 2017 and 2.5 per cent (2.4 per cent) in 2018 (the latest, broadly similar, OBR forecasts in parentheses).

So all is well then? Probably not. Mark Carney has run out of ammunition with the Bank Rate at 0.5 per cent, compared with 5.5 per cent in 2008, and has little room to manoeuvre. Negative rates and more quantitative easing, here we come. George Osborne has never explained what he would have done differently in 2008 – his plans for a budget surplus are already in disarray as the economy slows. I am not saying a recession is going to happen any time soon, but it well might.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire