Economics

Keith Fray

US President Barack Obama (L) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) following the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012 (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Two sets of impending economic data are likely to hit the headlines in the last days of the US presidential campaign: the first estimate of GDP for the third quarter of the year, out on Friday October 26, and the employment situation report for October, published on Friday November 2, four days before the election.

After the release of labour market data for September, President Obama’s camp made much of strong growth in hiring, up 114,000 compared with August, and a fall in the unemployment rate from 8.1 per cent to 7.8 per cent, taking the rate back to where it was when the president took office in 2009. Mitt Romney’s campaign countered that, if not for people exiting the labour market, the rate would be in double figures. Read more

No one should be under any doubt. Jill Matheson, the national statistician, is consulting on changing the mathematical formula underpinning the venerable retail price index because the Office for National Statistics wants it changed. Consultations are not launched when experts think the status quo is fine.

At the heart of the issue is the realisation that the RPI formula is deficient and out-of-date. Continuing with the current method is the equivalent of Britain still thinking a 1970s Austin Allegro is cool, while the rest of the world is driving the latest Mini.

Keith Fray

For market traders, economists, and data geeks alike, Friday is one of the highlights of the month – non-farm payrolls day.

For the uninitiated this is the release of data on US jobs growth over the previous month – more properly called the Employment Situation report - published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, usually on the first Friday of the month following the data (i.e Friday’s new data will be for August).

It is undoubtedly the most eagerly awaited monthly data by world markets and has attained a totemic status, perhaps beyond its real importance. Morning trading volumes are slim in European markets on the day of release as they await the afternoon release time (8.30am Eastern Time in the US).

Why do non-US markets care so much? Well if China continues to grow at current levels then the US will surrender its status as the world’s largest economy in the next decade (and probably in the current decade if measured in purchasing power parity terms). For now though, the US remains the bellwether of the world economy, accounting for a fifth of global output.

Should we care as much as the markets seem to? How important are these numbers? What should we be looking for? Read more

Martin Stabe

Iran's weightlifters Behdad Salimikordasiabi and Sajjad Anoushiravani took gold and silver in the men's +105kg

As expected, the US and China topped the conventional Olympic medal tables (however you chose to sort them). But by merely achieving the expected, the sporting superpowers appear much farther down the FT’s weighted medal table, which ranks countries by how much they exceeded pre-Games expectations.

Our table benchmarked nations performance against macroeconomic factors known to affect Olympic performance, such as GDP and population.

Great Britain’s 29 gold medals and 65 overall was enough for third place on the FT table as well as the conventional table – an impressive feat given the handicap our methodology imposed on it by taking into account the host-nation advantage.  Here’s a look at some of the other nations that can leave London extremely happy, having greatly exceeded expectations. Some of them may surprise you. Read more

Britain’s traditional measure of inflation, the retail price index, is broken and needs fixing. The error goes back decades, has cost taxpayers billions, is still costing the exchequer about £1bn a year and has resulted in the rise in living standards being underestimated. Few errors in statistical compilation are quite this serious.

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By guest contributor Paul Hodges

I suggested in an earlier post that chemical prices were an excellent leading indicator for the health of the global economy. The data highlighted that firms were finding it difficult to pass through crude oil related price increases. In turn, this was a warning that both the global and Chinese economies might be slowing faster than generally supposed. This caution since seems to have been amply justified.

Thus a new initiative by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) deserves watching. The ACC is the trade body for the US chemical industry, and it has developed a new Chemicals Activity Barometer which aims to provide early warning of changes in the wider US economy.

 Read more

Martin Stabe

We launched the FT’s economically-weighted medal table on Sunday night.

Rather than ranking the table in the conventional format – gold medals followed, where equal, by silver medals and finally bronze medals – we are ranking counties by their performance against a benchmark developed from four economic models. These predict success on the basis of socioeconomic factors that have been shown to contribute to Olympic performance historically.

Even on our weighted measure, China leads with its 12 medals, representing 4.6 more than would be expected at this stage of the games. Italy’s seven medals place its over-achievement to date hundredths of a percentage point behind. Great Britain, by contrast, is near the foot of our table, underachieving by 2.8 medals so far. Read more

Martin Stabe

Over the next two weeks, the Olympic “medal table”, ranking nations according to the number of gold, silver and bronze medals their athletes have collected in London will be widely reported.

But there will be few surprises: The United States, China and Russia will almost certainly top the table, followed by the smaller wealthy countries. Great Britain will most likely fare better than usual, because the host nation usually does.

Population, GDP per capita, past performance and “home advantage” appear to have a strong relationship to nations’ Olympic success, a common-sense observation that has long been demonstrated by social science.

Substantial academic literature, stretching back to the 1950s, has been produced by economists, sociologists and political scientists using statistical techniques to relate nations’ macroeconomic conditions to their Olympic performance, and forecasting upcoming games.

Typically, these take the form of regression analyses that use historical macroeconomic data as independent variables to account for participating countries’ medal share at the Olympics.

During the London games, the FT will use three four such models as a benchmark to rank our medal table according to teams’ ability to outperform models that account for their size, wealth and other socioeconomic factors: Read more

It’s EUROPE’S SCARIEST CHART (against some pretty stiff competition): Spanish youth unemployment above 50 per cent! One in two young Spaniards on the scrapheap! Packs of ravening wolves roaming the streets of Madrid!

Prepare to be terrified:

Actually, a bit misleading.

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Sally Gainsbury

There has been speculation recently that the government is planning to divert millions of pounds in NHS funds from deprived urban areas in the north, to leafy, Conservative voting constituencies in the south.

This stems from health secretary Andrew Lansley’s recent comment that “age is the principal determinant of health need” and that distribution of the £100bn budget for the NHS in England should “get progressively to a greater focus on what are the actual determinants of health need.”

Somewhere along the line, those comments were interpreted by a generally cheesed-off medical profession that Mr Lansley intends to introduce an “age-only” NHS allocation formula, switching substantial NHS funds from, generally younger, Labour-voting constituencies in north to the octogenarians who thrive in the Conservative-voting villages of the south.

It’s a good story, which might even contain elements of the truth, but the reality, as ever, is a little more complicated.

At present, five separate allocation formulae are used to divvy up different bits of the £100bn NHS pot to different areas of England. The largest share – the hospital care budget – is divided up using one formula, while four others – mental health, GP prescribing, health inequalities (more on that in a later post) and maternity – are each allocated using their own separate formula. (Think for a second about the demographics driving the demand for maternity services as opposed to, say, hip replacements, and you will grasp why this makes sense.)

Health economists and statisticians frequently tweak and argue over these formula in order to move, hopefully, ever closer to the Holy Grail: a distribution of health resources which is fairly distributed on the basis of health need. Read more

by guest contributor Paul Hodges

Shale gas developments in the US have sparked a wave of euphoria about the opportunity for a renaissance of its domestic manufacturing base.  Petrochemicals should be one of the main beneficiaries, as the ethane produced from shale gas discoveries now provides the US with some of the cheapest feedstock in the world.

Major producers including Dow Chemicals, Shell and Chevron Phillips have already announced plans to build new ethane-based capacity.  Others are likely to join them.  Current estimates suggest total US ethylene capacity could therefore increase by 25 to 30 percent from today’s 27 million tonnes.

However, one key factor has the potential to spoil the story – much of this new capacity will need to be exported in the form of polyethylene (PE) and other major plastics.  Yet as the chart shows, based on data from Global Trade Information Services, US net PE exports have actually been declining since 2010, even though its cost advantage from shale gas was increasing. Read more

Emily Cadman

Today’s EU foreign ministers meeting to discuss the possible relaxing of sanctions against Myanmar is the latest sign of diplomatic relations easing between the desperately poor south east Asian state and the west.

As relations improve, and investors and businesses eye up opportunities, its worth remembering just how poor Myanmar is compared to its neighbours. Read more

The global economic recovery “remains on life support”, according to Tracking Indices for the Global Economic Recovery, the Brookings Institution-Financial Times index of the world economy.

The Tiger index, which is designed to track the global recovery on a set of macroeconomic, financial and confidence variables, shows a weakening of growth momentum in the emerging markets as well as an anaemic recovery in advanced economies. Read more

Valentina Romei

Markets promptly react to flash releases of economic indicators and large sums of money are lost or made based on zero-point-something percentage points of GDP growth. But, in the excitement of new economic data, it is worth remembering how data is subject to frequent and quite substantial revisions.

Notoriously, in 2010 Japan’s most watched economic indicator was drastically revised downwards, slicing off a full 3.5 percentage points from the annualised growth rate first reported for the third quarter of 2009, prompting soul searching about the quality of Japanese economic data. But revisions occur across many countries and not only after the flash releases.

An OECD database of the various edition of the monthly publication of the Main Economic Indicators (MEI) shows how widespread the issue is. Read more

By Paul Hodges

Chemical prices might not be the first forecasting indicator that springs to mind, but over the recent economic crisis benzene in particular has highlighted economic shifts well before more traditional metrics.

Benzene’s 40 million tonnes of global sales are a key raw material for a very diverse group of end-products, including polystyrene cups, nylon clothing and carpets, pesticides and dyes. Equally, as it is produced from crude oil, benzene provides a highly-sensitive barometer of consumer reactions to changing energy prices.

A key metric is its price premium to naphtha (its oil-based feedstock). The chart above shows this metric since the crisis began in (using ICIS pricing data).

• Typically, the premium has found a floor at $150/tonne
• But it collapsed during October 2008, remaining very weak until February 2009
• The depth of the downturn was also demonstrated by the premium becoming a discount
• It then staged a sharp recovery, which took it back above the $150/t level
Therefore, benzene highlighted, well ahead of other indicators, both the downturn in the wider economy and the equally sudden upturn. Its recent performance therefore merits close attention. Read more

Chris Giles

Find out how your living standard compares.

Select the range of years that contains your date of birth and watch as the graphic draws the spread of UK household incomes for people of your generation.

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Keith Fray

The popular and oft-quoted definition of a recession is two successive quarters or more of falling output, usually referred to as the ‘technical’ definition.

It is of course not really very ‘technical’ – and surprisingly is entirely unofficial. It is an easily measurable and easily understood rule of thumb that suits headlines rather than analysis. Read more