Household finances at their least worst for 53 months

A good news/bad news moment.

How's this for a good news/bad news data release: the Markit Household Finance index is at its highest level since February 2010 (that's good); its highest level since 2010 is just 40.8, where anything below 50 is worsening (that's bad).

The HFI is the consumer-centric brother to Markit's more famous PMIs, which measure business activity across the construction, manufacturing and services sectors. The HFI questionnaire asks individuals about the state of their household finances, their expectations for their finances, and their expectations for the country's finances. It's then all compiled into a index where 50 is equal to "no change". With that in mind, it's easy to see that the state of Britain's households are both equal to the highest they've been since February 2009, when the index began; and far, far below par:

Markit's Chief Economist adds:

 

Improving household finance trends are an early indication that the UK economy has continued to strengthen in June. Households’ perceptions of financial stability are now at a level unsurpassed over the past four-and-a-half years. Better labour market conditions helped reinforce the upturn in households’ financial expectations during June, as rising levels of workplace activity translated into diminishing job insecurities. However, income from employment dipped at the fastest pace for five months, highlighting that pay restraint remains the order of the day. With households receiving little in the way of wage rises over recent months, a fall in inflation perceptions to their lowest since mid-2010 was an important factor in alleviating some of the strain on finances during June.

Some other tidbits from the release:

  • Around 26% of survey respondents signalled that their finances worsened in June, while almost 8% noted an improvement.
  • Of the main housing categories, people that own their property outright were the least downbeat (43.4). This was followed by mortgage holders (41.9).
  • Reduced job insecurities and higher workplace activity nonetheless failed to translate into rising income from employment in June. At 48.4, down from 51.1 in May, the index reached its lowest level for five months.

The index has the quirk of measuring perceptions, rather than concrete values. So there's some – for instance, employment income – where the data gives some interesting insights. In nominal terms, wages have been rising, but in real terms they've been shrinking for years. What the index suggests is that workers don't take either of those data points as the canonical description of their income, instead using some mixture of the two.

It also highlights the problems with an index like this, though. Regardless of inflation, it is probably untrue to say your income is falling if in nominal terms it's not. Self-reported datasets, in the end, say more about how people feel than how they actually are. And people feel less bad now than they have been for quite some time – but they still aren't exactly happy.

Doing the maths… Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why is it called Storm Doris? The psychological impact of naming a storm

“Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person.”

“Oh, piss off Doris,” cried the nation in unison this morning. No, it wasn't that everyone's local cantankerous old lady had thwacked our ankles with her stick. This is a different, more aggressive Doris. Less Werther’s, more extreme weathers. Less bridge club, more bridge collapse.

This is Storm Doris.

A storm that has brought snow, rain, and furious winds up to 94mph to parts of the UK. There are severe weather warnings of wind, snow and ice across the entire country.

But the real question here is: why is it called that? And what impact does the new Met Office policy of naming storms have on us?

Why do we name storms?

Storm Doris is the latest protagonist in the Met Office’s decision to name storms, a pilot scheme introduced in winter 2015/16 now in its second year.

The scheme was introduced to draw attention to severe weather conditions in Britain, and raise awareness of how to prepare for them.

How do we name storms?

The Name our Storms initiative invites the public to suggest names for storms. You can do this by tweeting the @metoffice using the #nameourstorms hashtag and your suggestion, through its Facebook page, or by emailing them.

These names are collated along with suggestions from Met Éireann and compiled into a list. These are whittled down into 21 names, according to which were most suggested – in alphabetical order and alternating between male and female names. This is done according to the US National Hurricane Naming convention, which excludes the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z because there are thought to be too few common names beginning with these letters.

They have to be human names, which is why suggestions in this list revealed by Wired – including Apocalypse, Gnasher, Megatron, In A Teacup (or Ena Tee Cup) – were rejected. The Met Office received 10,000 submissions for the 2016/17 season. According to a spokesperson, a lot of people submit their own names.

Only storms that could have a “medium” or “high” wind impact in the UK and Ireland are named. If there are more than 21 storms in a year, then the naming system starts from Alpha and goes through the Greek alphabet.

The names for this year are: Angus (19-20 Nov ’16), Barbara (23-24 Dec 2016), Conor (25-26 Dec 2016), Doris (now), Ewan, Fleur, Gabriel, Holly, Ivor, Jacqui, Kamil, Louise, Malcolm, Natalie, Oisín, Penelope, Robert, Susan, Thomas, Valerie and Wilbert.

Why does this violent storm have the name of an elderly lady?

Doris is an incongruous name for this storm, so why was it chosen? A Met Office spokesperson says they were just at that stage in their list of names, and there’s no link between the nature of the storm and its name.

But do people send cosy names for violent weather conditions on purpose? “There’s all sorts in there,” a spokesperson tells me. “People don’t try and use cosy names as such.”

What psychological impact does naming storms have on us?

We know that giving names to objects and animals immediately gives us a human connection with them. That’s why we name things we feel close to: a pet owner names their cat, a sailor names their boat, a bore names their car. We even name our virtual assistants –from Microsoft’s Clippy to Amazon’s Alexa.

This gives us a connection beyond practicality with the thing we’ve named.

Remember the response of Walter Palmer, the guy who killed Cecil the Lion? “If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study, obviously I wouldn’t have taken it,” he said. “Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”

So how does giving a storm a name change our attitude towards it?

Evidence suggests that we take it more seriously – or at least pay closer attention. A YouGov survey following the first seven named storms in the Met Office’s scheme shows that 55 per cent of the people polled took measures to prepare for wild weather after hearing that the oncoming storm had been named.

“There was an immediate acceptance of the storm names through all media,” said Gerald Fleming, Head of Forecasting at Met Éireann, the Irish metereological service. “The severe weather messages were more clearly communicated.”

But personalising a storm can backfire. A controversial US study in 2014 by PNAC (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) claimed that hurricanes with female names lead to higher death tolls – the more “feminine” the name, like Belle or Cindy, the higher the death toll. This is not because female names are attached to more severe storms; it is reportedly because people take fewer steps to prepare for storms with names they perceive to be unintimidating or weak.

“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the study, told the FT at the time. “This makes a female-named hurricane . . . seem gentler and less violent.”

Names have social connotations, and affect our subconscious. Naming a storm can raise awareness of it, but it can also affect our behaviour towards it.

What’s it like sharing a name with a deadly storm?

We should also spare a thought for the impact sharing a name with a notorious weather event can have on a person. Katrina Nicholson, a nurse who lives in Glasgow, says it was “horrible” when the 2005 hurricane – one of the fifth deadliest ever in the US – was given her name.

“It was horrible having something so destructive associated with my name. Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person,” she tells me over email. “I actually remember at the time meeting an American tourist on a boat trip in Skye and when he heard my name he immediately linked it to the storm – although he quickly felt guilty and then said it was a lovely name! I think to this day there will be many Americans who hate my name because of it.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.