Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen with the IMF's Christine Lagarde. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Don't be mislead by the poor data, the US economy is still in rude health

While current storms will weigh upon February’s statistics, Q2 growth could now hit 4 per cent and US rates could move significantly higher along the curve.

Economists have been tearing their hair out trying to deconstruct the recent string of negative data surprises, which have undermined confidence in growth, to eliminate the weather effect. The first significant tainted release in this series was probably the ostensibly weak employment report for December, which we received on 10 January. The consensus had been for a 197,000 increase in non-farm payrolls, but the data showed only 74,000. Weekly earnings and hours worked also ticked down and failed to match expectations, and the headline unemployment rate apparently only fell due to a further fall in the participation rate to a new low for the cycle of 62.8.

Further disappointments followed for building permits and pending home sales, the Manufacturing ISM survey, and vehicle sales. Finally the icing on the cake was the January employment report, released on 7 February. As in the previous month, non-farm payroll growth disappointed, at 113,000, as against a consensus for 180,000. However, perhaps we have seen the first signs of Spring, as the household survey revealed a contrasting picture, with a 638,000 increase in employment, an increase in hourly earnings, a fall in the broader, U6, measure of unemployment to 12.7 per cent (the lowest since the Fall of 2008, just after the Lehman bankruptcy, when U6 was sky-rocketing). Last but not least, the participation rate ticked up to 63.0 per cent.

All of the above conspired to force the yield on 10-year US T-Notes down from just over 3.0 per cent at the turn of the year, to a low of 2.58 per cent on 3 February, as investors dashed for cover.

As we stand, the new Fed Chair Janet Yellen has made it clear that continuity will be the watch-word, and that she feels the output gap is still considerable, implying a huge swathe of avoidable and unnecessary human misery. In support of this view, she would point to the employment-to-population ratio, which has improved negligibly since the recession, when it fell through the floor, as a good indicator of huge slack in the labour market. However, New York Fed researchers Samuel Kapon and Joseph Tracy recently published a paper highlighting the potential for the employment-to-population ratio to mislead us, unless we take account of "baby-boomer" demographics:

The E/P ratio is a misleading indicator for the degree of the labor market recovery. Adjusting for changing demographics has an important impact on the picture that emerges about the degree of the labor market recovery. The actual E/P ratio suggests that the labor market has made relatively no progress since the end of the recession in recovering from the 4.1 percentage point decline in this measure. In contrast, the gap between the demographically adjusted E/P ratio using our normalization and the actual E/P ratio is a much smaller 0.7 percentage points.

In other words, permanent drop-outs from the labour force (retirees, for example) of course mean that the participation rate has fallen and therefore the fall in headline unemployment rates is "for real" and has the potential to lead to an inflation problem quite quickly. The last Fed meeting minutes highlighted that, "much of the downward trend in the labour force participation rate since the start of the recession … as the result of shifts in the demographic composition of the workforce and the retirement of older workers."

The US economy also faces much less fiscal drag this year, with the expected change in cyclically adjusted budget balance being +0.5 per cent in 2014, after +2.7 per cent last year.

Turning to the markets, they already seem to be correcting for the weather effect. Treasury yields actually rose last week, even in the face of several weak-ish data releases. Fed fund futures are still priced well to the dovish side of the FOMC’s December Summary of Economic Projections (SEP), and don’t forget the FOMC’s membership changed in January, becoming significantly more hawkish. Taking all of this into account, although the current storms may well weigh upon February’s statistics, Q2 growth could now hit 4 per cent and US rates could move significantly higher along the curve. Of course this may have dramatic effects upon the equity markets and on EM currencies.

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.