Spend less? Spend more? Save more?

How much did an average American retail consumer spend in 2015? Less than 2014? Or more? Spending is a habit. But saving is a good habit. However, the consumers in America are being asked to relinquish their desire to save more.

The reasons cited are many: dipping exports, lesser investments by the oil and gas firms – in line with decreasing oil prices, and reduced consumer spending. Consumer spending worsened with little or no growth at the end of 2015, and now in the beginning of 2016.

An economy’s GDP depends essentially on the purchasing power or in other words ‘spending power’ of its dwellers. The more the consumers are willing to spend, the more the production will be, of retail as well as industrial goods and services. It is all about matching supply and demand. American consumers seem adamant on spending much these days.

The best reasons that one can come up with are behavioural. When a consumer has surplus cash, he splurges on necessities and luxuries, almost equally on luxuries. And when the same consumer is strapped for cash, he uses what he already possesses and purchases only necessities. There is a significant point here – his purchasing power has decreased, because of reasons like loss of employment, rising prices, etc. But in the existing case of the US, purchasing power seems intact, and the habit of saving seems to have taken over. A person whose job is intact and whose earnings are just the same, will save only if he has learnt some lessons from splurging in the past, or if he is saving for something really big in the future (education and real estate/property come into mind). This behavioural reason seems most appropriate at this juncture.

 

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The path to a self-fulfilling economy and the existing scenario

A self-fulfilling economy is a fairly basic concept in economics. Demand generates production- which generates employment and therefore wages – and wages generate consumption – which again generates demand. Lets keep this aside for a minute.

Secular Stagnation has been the phenomenon since 2008, and the only solution seems to be in the root of this cycle – Demand. Increasing the level of aggregate demand and therefore providing an inducement to the system, may be a solution for the short-term and medium-term. Then, what about the actual part where the economy must become self-fulfilling at some point?

The starting point to the explanation is probably in a paper by Krugman (1979, 1996)[i]. The paper talks of models (and changes in models) describing the then existing currency crisis – essentially from two perspectives; the need to monetize and maintain a fixed exchange (to run away from the then existing crisis, to be exact), and the need to contemplate the crisis from solutions to it and thereby maintenance of objectives (for the long run).

When just one fundamental factor like interest rate is considered, rising interest rates were predicted to create major credit crunch starting in economies like China, Brazil, Chile and others, seemed inevitable, back in September 2015. There is bound to be some spillover effect, particularly in the emerging markets like India, China (yet again) and some more countries that are particularly labour-intensive. More on this kind of effect is detailed in this study.

[i] Krugman’s paper: http://www.nber.org/chapters/c11032.pdf

Will India ever have a Housing Index?

The Housing Index in India is perhaps the most debated issue till date. While there are two indices in India, that cover house prices – The National Housing Bank’s Residex and the RBI’s House Price Index (HPI) index, both are updated quite infrequently. The Residex is updated on a quarterly basis, the latest index values being available up till January-March 2015, for 26 cities.  RBI’s house price index is also updated on a quarterly basis, the latest values being available up till the last quarter of 2014, for 10 cities. The index values of both these indices are different.

A house price index can possibly eliminate price risk, and give an insight into future prices. When Indian house prices and house price indices are compared to those of other economies like the UK, Australia and US, several aspects are to be considered even before deciding on constructing a housing index for India. The first of them is the source of volatile house prices. The source of  volatile prices seems to be constant shortage of supply of land that has been zoned and/or approved. One may wonder why this shortage exists; there is something called ‘hoarding’ of land that has been happening in India. Either zoned land has been rationed, or ‘approval’ of lands has been delayed. But remember, there is no shortage of demand whatsoever, considering ever increasing urbanization, population and literacy levels in India. People desperately want to own a home but are afraid of two factors – prices of homes, and the illiquidity in the market.

Will house prices ever shrink? Will the supply ever match the rising demand for houses? The answer is perhaps a blatant “no”, the reason being that real estate has been the source of political money. Selling hoarded land pieces, and making huge return on them, and in turn investing them in other land and expecting an even greater return has artificially hiked real estate prices. The circle of transactions continues with other investors with black money looking to reap from the opportunity costs, speculators who want to take advantage of arbitrage of land prices, and brokers and developers. Therefore, the prices of residential properties will tend to rise in the near future, no matter how much the demand rises.

So, in this scenario, does India qualify for a housing index at all?