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Posts Tagged ‘RPI’

A cap on rail fares

Over the past few decades, numerous areas within the British economy have been partly or fully privatized and one such case is British Rail. Why is this relevant now? We’re once again looking at the potential increase in rail fares across the country and the impact this will have on commuters and households. So, have the promises of privatisation – namely lower fares – actually materialised?

Comparing the increase in rail fares with that of the RPI makes for interesting reading. Data obtained back in January 2013 shows that since 1995, when the last set of British Rail fares were published, the RPI has been 66%, according to data from Barry Doe and this compares unfavourably with the increase in a single ticket from London to Manchester which had increased by over 200%. However, it compares favourably with a season ticket, which had only increased by 65%. In the last couple of years, increased in rail fares have been capped by the government to increase by no more than the rate of inflation. As such, customers are likely to be somewhat insulated from the increases that were expected, which could have ranged between 3 and 5%.

This announcement has been met with mixed reviews, with many in support of such caps and the benefit this will bring to working households, including Passenger Focus, the rail customer watchdog. Its Passenger Director, David Sidebottom said:

The capping of rail fare rises by inflation will be welcome news to passengers in England, especially those who rely on the train for work, as will the ban on train companies increasing some fares by more than the average. It is something we have been pushing for, for several years now and we are pleased that the Government has recognised the need to act to relieve the burden on passengers.

However, others have criticised the increases in rail fares, given the cost of living crisis and the potential 9% pay rise for MPs. The acting General Secretary of the RMT transport union commented:

The announcement from George Osborne does not stack up to a freeze for millions of people whose incomes are stagnant due to years of austerity. To try and dress this up as benefiting working people is pure fraud on the part of the Government … Tomorrow, RMT will be out at stations across the north where some off-peak fares will double overnight.

Commuters in different parts of the country do face different prices and with some changes in peak travel times in the Northern part of the country, it is expected that some customers will see significant hikes in prices. Peak travel prices being higher is no surprise and there are justifiable reasons for this, but would such changes in peak times in the North have occurred had we still been under British Rail? Privatisation should bring more competition, lower prices and government revenue at the point of sale. Perhaps you might want to look in more detail at the actual to see whether or not you think the benefits of privatisation have actually emerged. The following articles consider the latest announcement regarding rail fares.

Rail fares to increase by 2.5% in January after Osborne caps price rises at no more than inflation Mail Online, Tom McTague (7/9/14)
Have train fares gone up or down since British Rail? BBC News, Tom Castella (22/1/13)
Rail fares to match inflation rate for another 12 months The Guardian (7/9/14)
Britain caps rail fares at inflation Reuters (7/9/14)
Regulated rail fares to increase by 3.5% in 2015 BBC News (19/8/14)
Northern commuters face big rise in fares for evening travel The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (7/9/14)
Commuter rail fares frozen again, says George Osborne BBC News (7/8/14)
Rail fares, the third payroll tax Financial Times, Jonathan Eley (22/8/14)

Questions

  1. What are the general advantages and disadvantages of privatisation, whether it is of British Rail or British Gas?
  2. Why is it that season tickets have increased by less than the RPI, but single tickets have increased by more?
  3. What are the conditions needed to allow train companies to charge a higher price at peak travel times?
  4. Are higher prices at peak times an example of price discrimination? Explain why or why not.
  5. In the Financial Times article, it is suggested that rail fares are like a payroll tax. What is a payroll tax and why are rail fares related to this? Does it suggest that the current method of setting rail fares is equitable?
  6. Based on the arguments contained in the articles, do you think the cap on rail fares is sufficient?
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Making economic sense of politicians’ statements

Politicians often make use of economic statistics to promote their point of view. A good example is a claim made by the UK Prime Minister on 23 January 2014. According to the latest statistics, he said, most British workers have seen their take-home pay rise in real terms. The Labour party countered this by arguing that incomes are not keeping up with prices.

So who is right? Studying economics and being familiar with analysing economic data should help you answer this question. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on just how you define the issue and what datasets you use.

The Prime Minister was referring to National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). This shows that in April 2013 median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £517.5, up 2.25% from £506.10 in 2012, and mean gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £620.30, up 2.06% from £607.80 in 2012 (see Table 1.1a in the dataset). CPI inflation over this period was 2.4%, representing a real fall in median gross weekly earnings of 0.15% and mean gross weekly earnings of 0.34%.

But when adjustments are made for increases in personal income tax allowances, then, according to the government, except for the richest 10% of the working population, people had an average increase in real take-home pay of 1.1%.

But does this paint the complete picture? Critics of the government’s claim that people are ‘better off’, make the following points.

First, the ASHE dataset is for the year ending April 2013. The ONS publishes other datasets that show that real wages have fallen faster since then. The Earnings and Working Hours datasets, published monthly, currently go up to November 2013. The chart shows real wages from January 2005 to November 2013 (with CPI = 100 in December 2013). You can see that the downward trend resumed after mid 2013. In the year to November 2013, nominal average weekly earnings rose by 0.9%, while CPI inflation was 2.1%. Thus real weekly earnings fell by 1.2% over the period (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).

Second, there is the question of whether CPI or RPI inflation should be used in calculating real wages. RPI inflation was 2.9% (compared to CPI inflation of 2.4%) in the year to April 2013. The chart shows weekly earnings adjusted for both CPI and RPI.

Third, if, instead of looking at gross real wages, the effect of income tax and national insurance changes are taken into account, then benefit changes ought also to be taken into account. Some benefits, such as tax credits and child benefit were cut in the year to April 2013.

Fourth, looking at just one year (and not even the latest 12 months) gives a very partial picture. It is better to look at a longer period and see what the trends are. The chart shows the period from 2005. Real wages (CPI adjusted) are 8.0% lower than at the peak (at the beginning of 2009) and 5.0% lower than at the time of the election in 2010. The differences are even greater if RPI-adjusted wages are used.

But even if the claim that real incomes are rising is open to a number of objections, it may be that as the recovery begins to gather pace, real incomes will indeed begin to rise. But to assess whether this is so will require a careful analysis of the statistics when they become available.

Articles
UK pay rising in real terms, says coalition BBC News (24/1/14)
Are we really any better off than we were? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/1/14)
Government take-home pay figures ‘perfectly sensible’ BBC Today Programme, Paul Johnson (24/1/14)
Take-Home Pay ‘Rising Faster Than Prices’ Sky News, Darren McCaffrey (25/1/14)
David Cameron hails the start of ‘recovery for all’ The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (23/1/14)
Is take-home pay improving? The answer is anything but simple The Guardian, Phillip Inman and Katie Allen (24/1/14)
Cameron’s ‘good news’ about rising incomes is misleading says Labour The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/1/14)
The Tories’ claim that living standards have risen is nonsense on stilts New Statesman, George Eaton (24/1/14)
FactCheck: Conservative claims on rising living standards Channel 4 News, Patrick Worrall (25/1/14)
Living standards squeeze continues in UK, says IFS BBC News (31/1/14)
Richest have seen biggest cash income squeeze but poorest have faced higher inflation IFS Press Release (31/1/14)

Data
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS (22/1/14)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results ONS (12/12/13)
Consumer Price Inflation, December 2013 ONS (14/1/14)
Inequality and Poverty Spreadsheet Institute for Fiscal Studies
An Examination of Falling Real Wages, 2010 to 2013 ONS (31/1/14)

Questions

  1. Why are mean weekly earnings higher than median weekly earnings?
  2. Explain the difference between RPI and CPI. Which is the more appropriate index for determining changes in real incomes?
  3. Find out what benefit changes have taken place over the past two years and how they have affected household incomes.
  4. How have gross weekly earnings changed for the different income groups? (The ASHE gives figures for decile groups.)
  5. Which is better for assessing changes in incomes: weekly earnings or hourly earnings?
  6. How would you define a change in living standards? What data would you need to be able to assess whether living standards have increased or decreased?
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Inflation back down to 2%

A recession is typically characterised by high unemployment, low or negative growth and low inflation, due to a lack of aggregate demand. However, since 2009, inflation levels in the UK have only added to the pressures facing the government and the Bank of England. Not only had there been a problem of lack of demand, but the inflation target was no longer being met.

Inflation had increased to above 5% – a figure we had not been accustomed to for many years. With interest rates at record lows with the aim of boosting aggregate demand, demand-pull inflation only added to cost-push pressures. However, data released by the ONS shows that inflation, as measured by the CPI, has now fallen back to its 2% target. Having been at 2.1% in November 2013, the figure for December 2013 fell by 0.1 percentage points.

The data for December include some of the energy price rises from the big six, but do not include the full extent of price decreases and discounting initiated by retailers in the lead up to Christmas. The key factors that have helped to keep prices down include some of the discounting throughout December and falling food prices, in particular bananas, grapes and meat.

With inflation back on target, pressures have been removed from the Bank of England to push up interest rates. Mark Carney has said that interest rates will remain at 0.5% until unemployment falls to 7%. With unemployment fast approaching this target, there has been speculation that interest rates would rise, but with inflation falling back on target, these pressures have been reduced. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Referring to this, Jeremy Cook, the chief economist at World First said:

The lack of inflation will help stay their hand especially if the pace of job creation seen in the second half of last year also shows.

These thoughts were echoed by Rob Wood, the chief UK economist at Berenberg Bank:

Inflation is the BoE’s ‘get out of jail free’ card for this year … The lack of inflation pressure gives them room to delay a first hike until next year.

Many economists now believe that the CPI rate of inflation is likely to remain at or below the target, in particular if productivity growth improves. This belief is further enhanced by the fact that tax rates are stable, the pound is relatively strong and the previous upward pressure on commodity prices from China is now declining. Some economists believe that CPI inflation could fall to 1.5% this year and the Treasury has said that it is ‘another sign that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working’. The following articles consider this latest macroeconomic data.

UK inflation falls to Bank of England’s 2pc target in December The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (14/1/14)
UK inflation falls to 2% target rate in December BBC News (14/1/14)
Carney’s lucky streak continues as UK inflation slows to 2% Financial Times, Claire Jones (14/1/14)
UK inflation fall gives Bank of England a lift Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley(14/1/14)
Inflation falls to Bank of England target Reuters, William Schomberg and Ana Nicolaci da Costa (14/1/14)
Inflation hits Bank of England’s target of 2% in December Independent, John Paul Ford Rojas (14/1/14)

Questions

  1. What is the relationship between interest rates and aggregate demand?
  2. Which factors have led to the reduction in the rate of inflation?
  3. Why have the latest data on inflation rates reduced the pressure on the Bank of England to increase interest rates?
  4. Why do stable tax rates, a strong pound and reduced pressure from China on commodity prices suggest that the CPI measures of inflation is likely to remain at similarly low levels?
  5. Why has the RPI increased while the CPI has fallen?
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Back to the target (almost)

The Consumer Prices index (CPI) measures the rate of inflation and in October, this rate fell to 2.2%, bringing inflation to its lowest level since September 2012. For many, this drop in inflation came as a surprise, but it brings the rate much closer to the Bank of England’s target and thus reduces the pressure on changing interest rates.

The CPI is calculated by calculating the weighted average price of a basket of goods and comparing how this price level changes from one month to the next. Between September and October prices across a range of markets fell, thus bringing inflation to its lowest level in many months. Transport prices fell by their largest amount since mid-2009, in part driven by fuel price cuts at the big supermarkets and this was also accompanied by falls in education costs and food. The Mail Online article linked below gives a breakdown of the sectors where the largest price falls have taken place. One thing that has not yet been included in the data is the impact of the price rises by the energy companies. The impact of his will obviously be to raise energy costs and hence we can expect to see an impact on the CPI in the coming months, once the price rises take effect.

With inflation coming back on target, pressures on the Bank of England to raise interest rates have been reduced. When inflation was above the target rate, there were concerns that the Bank of England would need to raise interest rates to cut aggregate demand and thus bring inflation down.

However, the adverse effect of this would be a potential decline in growth. With inflation falling to 2.2%, this pressure has been removed and hence interest rates can continue to remain at the record low, with the objective of stimulating the economy. Chris Williamson from Markit said:

The easing in the rate of inflation and underlying price pressures will provide greater scope for monetary policy to be kept looser for longer and thereby helping ensure a sustainable upturn in the economy … Lower inflation reduces the risk of the Bank of England having to hike rates earlier than it may otherwise prefer to, allowing policy to focus on stimulating growth rather than warding off rising inflationary pressures.

The lower rate of inflation also has good news for consumers and businesses. Wages remain flat and thus the reduction in the CPI is crucial for consumers, as it improves their purchasing power. As for businesses, a low inflation environment creates more certainty, as inflation tends to be more stable. Businesses are more able to invest with confidence, again benefiting the economy. Any further falls in the CPI would bring inflation back to its target level of 2% and then undoubtedly concerns will turn back to the spectre of deflation, though with the recent announcements in energy price rises, perhaps we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves! Though we only need to look to countries such as Spain and Sweden where prices are falling to realise that it is certainly a possibility. The following articles consider the data and the impact.

UK inflation falls in October: what the economists say The Guardian, Katie Allen (12/11/13)
British inflation hits 13-month low, easing pressure on central bank Reuters, David Milliken and William Schomberg (12/11/13)
UK inflation falls to 2.2% in October BBC News (1211/13)
UK inflation falls to 13-month low: reaction The Telegraph (12/11/13)
Fall in inflation to 2.2% welcome by government The Guardian, Katie Allen (12/11/13)
Inflation falls to lowest level for a year as supermarket petrol price war helps ease the squeeze on family finances Mail Online, Matt Chorley (12/11/13)
Inflation falls to its lowest level for more than a year as consumers benefit from petrol pump price war Independent, John-Paul Ford Rojas (12/11/13)
UK inflation slows to 2.2%, lowest level in a year Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton and Jennifer Ryan (12/11/13)
Are we facing deflation? Let’s not get carried away The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (12/11/13)

Questions

  1. How is the CPI calculated?
  2. Use an AD/AS diagram to illustrate how prices have been brought back down. Is the reduction in inflation due to demand-side or supply-side factors?
  3. What are the benefits of low inflation?
  4. The Telegraph article mentions the possibility of deflation. What is deflation and why does it cause such concern?
  5. Explain why a fall in the rate of inflation eases pressure on the Bank of England.
  6. How does the rate of inflation affect the cost of living?
  7. Is a target rate of inflation a good idea?
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Who controls the airports?

No matter the product or service, price is always a key factor and never more so than in tough economic times. In most cases, prices are allowed to be determined by the forces of demand and supply, which gives the equilibrium price. However, in some cases, the government may choose to intervene with a price control, for example rent controls and the national minimum wage. Another market where there is also regulation is the airline industry and the Civil Aviation Authority have recently been criticized by Heathrow Airport for its price control plan.

Whenever we go on holiday, the price we pay for an airline ticket will depend in part on the airport we are taking off from and landing at, as they will charge the airline for landing fees, security, terminals etc. Heathrow airport had proposed that annual rises to its tariffs charged to airlines would increase by 4.6% above RPI inflation. However, this plan has been rejected by the CAA, which has said that the annual tariff rise between 2014 and 2018 should not be above the RPI. Though Heathrow are criticizing the CAA about this restriction, it is an improvement from the initial proposal which would have capped price rises at the RPI minus 1.3%.

Controversy has naturally been created, with the CAA arguing that such price controls are needed to keep prices down and thus benefit consumers and retain the competitiveness of Heathrow airport. But, in contrast, Heathrow has argued that such a cap will put its competitive position under pressure and will risk future investment in the UK. But this isn’t the only criticism of the CAA. Airlines aren’t happy with the ruling either, arguing that the CAA has bowed to the pressure of Heathrow. The contrasting positions of the CAA, Heathrow and airlines are evident in the following quotes, firstly from the Chairwoman of the CAA:

The proposals will put an end to over a decade of prices rising faster than inflation at Heathrow. Tackling the upward drift in Heathrow’s prices is essential to safeguard its globally competitive position. The challenge for Heathrow is to maintain high levels of customer service while reducing costs. We are confident this is possible and that our proposals create a positive climate for further capital investment, in the passenger interest.

Secondly, from Heathrow’s Chief Executive:

This proposal is the toughest Heathrow has ever faced. The CAA’s settlement could have serious and far-reaching consequences for passengers and airlines at Heathrow … We want to continue to improve Heathrow for passengers. Instead, the CAA’s proposals risk not only Heathrow’s competitive position but the attractiveness of the UK as a centre for international investment. We will now carefully consider our investment plans before responding fully to the CAA.

And finally from the IAG Chief Executive, who said:

[The CAA] neglected its new primary statutory duty to further the interests of passengers by endorsing a settlement that allows the UK’s monopoly hub to ignore its inefficiencies and over-reward investors by imposing excessive charges … It is a bad day for customers who have been let down by the CAA.

Any price rise from the airports will be passed on to airlines and these in turn will translate into higher prices for customers. However, is there any truth to Heathrow’s claims that investment will be adversely impacted? As costs rise, profit margins and profit will fall, unless the revenue generated can increase. Price controls restrict the amount that prices can rise and thus unless demand increases by a significant margin, profits will decline. With lower profits, there will be less money for investment and arguably the service that customers face will also decline. However, the CAA suggests that Heathrow will be able to cut its costs and thus protect investment into the future, while retaining its competitive position globally by charging lower prices to airlines. This is unlikely to be the end of the journey, but for the moment, the CAA appears to have put its foot down. The following articles consider the battleground between the CAA and Heathrow.

Regulation in the passenger’s interest, support investment and driving competition The Civil Aviation Authority (3/10/13)
Passengers at Heathrow ‘face £1bn fares hike’ Independent, Matthew Beard (4/10/13)
Heathrow airport attacks regulator’s price control plan BBC News (3/10/13)
CAA proposed Heathrow charges rise in line with inflation The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (13/10/13)
Passengers face fare increases as Heathrow and Gatwick are allowed to up landing fees Mail Online (3/10/13)
Heathrow and airlines enraged by CAA price proposals The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (3/10/13)
Heathrow attacks Civil Aviation Authority over airport charges Financial Times, Andrew Parker (3/10/13)
BAA considers life outside Heathrow as CAA backtracks on charges The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (3/10/13)
Heathrow charge plan disappoints all round Wall Street Journal, Peter Evans (3/10/13)

Questions

  1. What is the role of a regulator?
  2. Explain how the price control outlined by the CAA will affect Heathrow.
  3. If Heathrow is unable to cut costs, what is the likely effect? Using a diagram illustrate the impact on profitability if costs (a) can be reduced and (b) cannot be reduced.
  4. Why are the CAA being criticised by airlines and airports?
  5. How will customers be affected by Heathrow’s planned price rises and the CAA’s proposal?
  6. ‘Regulation in the airlines industry is essential to retain competitiveness.’ Evaluate the validity of this statement.
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How the RPI might change…

Inflation is a key macroeconomic variable and governments typically aim for both low and stable rates of inflation. In the UK there are two main measures of the rate of inflation in the UK – the CPI and the RPI. Over the past few years there has been a growing gap between the two measures and this has led to consultations about how the RPI could be adapted to allow it to rise more slowly in the future. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The RPI and CPI measure inflation in different ways – they don’t measure the same basket of goods. The RPI measure includes the costs of housing, whereas the CPI does not include this. Furthermore, the RPI is an arithmetic mean and the CPI is a geometric mean, which will be lower than the arithmetic mean. The ONS says that a key advantage of using the geometric mean (i.e. the CPI) is that:

…it can better reflect changes in consumer spending patterns relative to changes in the price of goods and services.

Typically the RPI has been about 1% higher than the CPI and governments can benefit from this by linking state benefits to the CPI (the lower rate) and payments they receive to the RPI, thus maximising the difference between earnings and expenditure.

However, the gap between these two measures of inflation has been growing and this has been causing concern for the ONS and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). This has led to the consultative process regarding making changes to the RPI. However, any change made to the RPI would put certain groups at a disadvantage. One such group is pensioners – many pensioners in the private sector have their pensions linked to the RPI and if a change were made to bring it more in line with the CPI (i.e. lower it) they would suffer. Ros Altman, director general of SAGA said:

After 30 years of retirement, someone who receives 0.6% lower inflation uprating will end up with a pension nearly 20% lower…Therefore, over time, pensioners will be able to afford less and less and pensioner poverty will increase once again.

There would be some beneficiaries of any change to the RPI – the government would benefit in some areas; company pension schemes might also see gains made; some students might benefit and even rail travellers.

An announcement was made by the National Statistician, Jil Matheson, on the 10 January. Much to the surprise of most experts, she has decided to keep the RPI measure unchanged. She did recommend, however, that a new index be introduced that would be published alongside RPI and CPI. The new index would better meet international standards.

The following articles look at the arguments for and against changing the RPI measure.

Articles prior to announcement
Pensioner backlash expected over pension reform The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (9/1/13)
Inflation: Changes to the calculation of RPI expected BBC News (9/1/13)
RPI review ‘may hit pensioners’ Express and Star (9/1/13)
Q&A: Inflation changes BBC News (9/1/13)
Pension holders and savers: beware of an RPI inflation change The Economic Voice (9/1/13)
Pensioners and savers face ‘stealth attack’ on their income from change to the inflation index Mail Online (9/1/13)

Articles following announcement
Relief for pensions as ONS says leave RPI unchanged The Telegraph (10/1/13)
RPI review recommends new inflation index The Guardian (10/1/13)
Inflation: No change to RPI calculation BBC News, 10/1/13)
The ONS puts consistency first BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (10/1/13)
Q&A: Inflation changes BBC News (10/1/13)

Announcement by National Statistician
National Statistician announces outcome of consultation on RPI ONS (10/1/13)

Questions

  1. How are the RPI and CPI measured?
  2. Why is the RPI typically higher than the CPI?
  3. What changes to the RPI were suggested? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
  4. Who would have benefited from each of the proposed changes to the RPI?
  5. Who would have suffered from each of the proposed changes to the RPI?
  6. Why has there been a growing divergence between the two measures of inflation?
  7. Do interest rates affect the RPI and CPI measures of inflation to the same extent?
  8. Which measure of inflation is used for the Bank of England’s inflation target? Has it always been the measure used?
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What’s in and What’s out?

The rate of inflation in the UK is measured using the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). This is made up of a basket of goods and the ONS updates this ‘basket’ each year to ensure it is representative of what the average UK household buys. The basket contains 700 items, with 180,000 individual prices collected each month.

In recent years, items such as lip gloss have been added to the basket of goods and in the latest adjustment, the ONS has added tablet computers, amongst other things. This is a market that has seen enormous growth. It has been added to the basket as a means of giving a more accurate representation of the price changes faced by the average consumer. The ONS has made it clear that items are not added simply because they are new or removed simply because spending on them has fallen.

‘In each of these cases, the item has not been added because spending has increased or because the product is new on the market … It is purely as part of the rebalancing of the basket to improve its representation of overall price change.’

It is essential that these changes are made each year, as consumer buying habits do fluctuate considerably. One area in particular has been consumer responses to changes in technology. For example, developing and printing colour film has been removed as, with the development of digital cameras, this is no longer reflective of what a representative household spends its money on. Further to this, some items that have previously been used in calculating the RPI have now been added to the CPI, again to give a clearer picture of household spending in the UK. The following articles consider what’s in and what’s out.

Teenage fiction and iPads now in official UK shopping basket Guardian, Julia Kollewe (13/3/12)
Tablet computers added to UK inflation basket BBC News (13/3/12)
New items used to calculate inflation BBC News, Emma Simpson (23/3/12)
Tablet Computers Enter ‘Inflation Basket’ Sky News, Darren Morgan (ONS) (13/3/12)
Inflation basket of goods 2012: full list of what’s out and what’s in Guardian, Simon Rogers (13/3/12)
Tablet computers added to inflation basket of goods Telegraph (13/3/12)
How has the UK’s ‘inflation’ basket has changed? Metro, Ross McGuinness (27/3/12)
iPad and Galaxy added to inflation index Financial Times, Norma Cohen (13/3/12)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between the CPI and RPI? Which is usually higher? Explain your answer.
  2. How is the CPI calculated and hence how is inflation measured?
  3. What impact has technological progress had on the basket of goods that the representative household purchases? Do you think that technological progress make it more or less important for the basket of goods to be reviewed annually?
  4. Do you think products such as the iPad should be included in the CPI? Are they truly representative?
  5. In the second Guardian article, you can access a list of the products that are ‘in and out’. Is there anything on there that you think should be in or that should be out? Be sure to justify your answer!
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‘Black Wednesday’

As the new tax year begins, many changes are taking place. In order to cut the large budget deficit, sacrifices have to be made by all. The tax and benefit changes could make households worse off by some £2bn this year – definitely not good news for those households already feeling the squeeze. However, the Coalition say that the poorest households will be made better off relative to the rich.

Personal allowance is increasing by £1,000, which is expected to benefit £800,000 people who will no longer pay any tax. At the same time, the 40% tax bracket is being reduced from £43,875 to £42,475, which will bring another 750,000 people into this higher tax bracket, bringing in much needed revenue for the government. Employee’s national insurance contributions will rise by 1% and according to Credit Action, this will leave households £200 worse off per year. Benefits do rise with inflation, but they are to be indexed against the CPI rather than the RPI. The RPI is usually higher and hence benefits will not increase by as much, again leaving some people worse off. Child benefit will be frozen for all and will then be removed for higher rate tax payers from 2013. According to the Treasury, it is the top 10% of households who will lose the most from these needed changes. However, as Justine Greening, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said:

‘Labour left behind a complete mess with no plan to deal with it, apart from to run up more debts for the next generation to pay off.’

In order to cut the deficit, which stands at an estimated £146bn, spending must fall and tax revenue for the government must rise. The government argues that if cuts are not made today, even higher cuts will be necessary in the future and this will harm the poorest even more. Whilst the Treasury have accepted that there was a ‘marginal loss’ across the population, it is the highest earning households that will suffer the most.

Wednesday of woe as the taxman bites: Changes could leave you £600 worse off Daily Mail, Becky Barrow (6/4/11)
Benefit cuts: Labour warns of ‘Black Wednesday’ BBC News (6/4/11)
Tax and benefit changes: row over financial impact BBC News (6/4/11)
Black Wednesday will hig millions in tax changes and cuts Metro, John Higginson (5/4/11)
Taxman to take extra £750 from families this year Scotsman, Tom Peterkin and Jeff Salway (6/4/11)
Tax and welfare changes will hit women and children hardest, says Ed Balls Guardian, Helene Mullholland, Polly Curtis and Larry Elliott (6/4/11)
Black Wednesday for millions of British families Telegraph (6/4/11)
Majority of households ‘better off’ The Press Association (6/4/11)

Questions

  1. Where does the term ‘Black Wednesday’ come from?
  2. What is the likely impact of the 1% rise in NICs? Think about the income and substitution effects. Can you illustrate the effect using indifference analysis?
  3. Why are Labour arguing that women and children will be hit the hardest and the coalition arguing that it is the highest income households who will lose the most? Can both parties be right?
  4. What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against bringing in tax and benefit changes today rather than in a few years?
  5. How might these changes affect the economic recovery?
  6. Is it equitable that child benefit should eventually be removed from those paying the higher rates of income tax?
  7. Why has the government indexed benefit payments to rise in line with the CPI rather than the RPI?
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An age-old problem

This week, we have seen some major potential changes in the UK’s welfare state. One key change involves child benefit. (see Who won’t benefit from child benefit?) However, a more recent development stems from a problem that has built up over a number of years and is not just peculiar to the UK: Pensions.

As technology advances and medical procedures improve, there has been a general increase in life expectancy for both men and women across the world. People are living for longer and longer and hence pensioners can be in retirement for over 30 years. This is over double the retirement time we used to see decades ago. Therefore, pensioners are eligible to receive their state pension or their private pension for much longer and hence the cost is becoming unsustainable.

Lord Hutton has led a review into public sector pension schemes and has concluded that public sector workers should be paying higher contributions. Lord Hutton has said that employees should be working for longer and hence retiring later. This would increase their contributions throughout their lives and also reduce the time period over which they receive a pension, hence cutting costs. There was also a recommendation that ‘final-salary pension schemes should be scrapped and changed to so-called ‘career-average’ schemes. The final-salary scheme benefits high earners and not those who make gradual progression up the career ladder. This possible change should certainly reduce the pension you are eligible to receive and hence should positively affect the sustainability of pension provision in the UK.

However, public sector workers who may face higher contributions and have already, in some cases, faced pay cuts or pay freezes, are unsurprisingly upset. They argue that accepting work in the public sector means accepting a lower wage than they could achieve in the private sector. The compensation, they argue, is the reward of a higher pension, which could be about to change. However, the independent review has found that the contributions made by the public sector do not reflect the true cost of the benefit they receive in their pension. This is likely to be a contentious issue for some time to come. Below are some articles considering this, but keep a look out for further developments.

Articles
Public sector pensions report explained BBC News (7/10/10)
Public sector pensions review: Q&A Telegraph (9/10/10)
Pensions reforms to focus on high earners Independent, Simon Read (9/10/10)
Why Lord Hutton could make public pensions bills bigger … not smaller Financial News, Mark Cobley and William Hutchings (8/10/10)
Lord Hutton: I busted the myth that public sector pensions are gold-plated Telegraph, Lord Hutton (8/10/10)
Key points of UK public sector pension review Reuters (8/10/10)
Public pensions review recommends higher contributions BBC News (7/10/10)
Public sector workers paying ‘less tax’ due to generous pension rules Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (8/10/10)
Asda closes final salary pension scheme Telegraph, Jamie Dunkley (9/10/10)
Hutton report: he’s no friend of gold-plated pensioners Guardian, Patrick Collinson (9/10/10)
Asda to close final salary pension scheme BBC News (8/10/10)
Lord Hutton: what the pension revolution means for public servants Telegraph, Emma Simon (8/10/10)

Report
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission: Interim Report Pensions Commission, Lord Hutton October 2010

Questions

  1. What is the purpose of a pension? Think about the idea of redistribution.
  2. Why should average-career pension schemes be less costly than final-salary pension schemes? Which is the most equitable arrangement?
  3. What are the key problems that have led to the pensions problem in the UK?
  4. What are the main recommendations of the independent pension review?
  5. How is opportunity cost relevant to problem of pensions provision?
  6. Is it fair that public sector workers should pay higher contributions towards their pensions?
  7. The BBC News article, Public sector review recommends higher contributions states that: “The recent decision to uprate pensions in line with the consumer prices index (CPI) rather than the retail prices index (RPI) has shaved 15% from the cost of the schemes.” Explain why this is the case?
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Does letter-writing time approach?

CPI inflation in the 12 months to September 2009 fell to 1.1% (from 1.6% in the 12 months to August). RPI inflation for the same period was -1.3%. In other words, retail prices actually fell by 1.3% in the 12 months to September. According to the ONS, “By far the largest downward pressure affecting the change in the CPI annual rate came from housing and household services. This was principally due to average gas and electricity bills, which were unchanged between August and September this year but rose a year ago when some of the major suppliers increased their tariffs.” (See below for link.)

If the CPI inflation rate falls below 1% (or rises above 3%), the Governor of the Bank of England is required to write a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer explaining why and also what the Bank of England intends to do about this. The Bank of England targets the forecast CPI inflation 24 months’ hence and attempts to achieve a rate of 2%. Normally, if the forecast rate is below 2%, the Monetary Policy Committee will decide to cut the rate of interest. The last Bank of England Inflation Report (August 2009) forecast CPI inflation of around 1.5% in 24 months’ time. If the November Inflation Report forecasts a similar figure, or even below, what can be done? Bank Rate is already at a historic low of just 0.5% and a further cut is unlikely to have much effect. Should the Bank of England, then, engage in another dose of quantitative easing? Perhaps the letter, if it has soon to be written, will make it clear.

UK consumer price inflation at 5-year low BusinessWeek (13/10/09)
Recession helps push inflation to five-year low Independent (14/10/09)
Inflation falls to lowest in five years Guardian (13/10/09)
Inflation dip likely to be short-lived Guardian (13/10/09)
Deflation, not inflation would be the bigger threat if the Conservatives do what they say Jeremy Warner blog, Telegraph (13/10/09)
Pound hit by falling UK inflation BBC News (13/10/09)
Pound hit by falling UK inflation (video) BBC News (13/10/09)
Pound pays price as inflation slides to five-year low Times Online (14/10/09)
Investors weigh risks of inflation and deflation Financial Times (12/10/09)
Wage ‘catch up’ for public sector BBC Today Programme (14/10/09)

Current data on UK Inflation (National Statistics)
Time series data (annual, quarterly and monthly) on UK prices and inflation Economic and labour Market Review (National Statistics)

Questions

  1. Why did the annual rate of CPI inflation fall so much in September 2009?
  2. Is the Bank of England Governor likely to have to write a letter (or letters) to the Chancellor in the coming months? Explain why or why not. What is likely to be the role of expectations in determining whether a letter has to be written?
  3. Why did the sterling exchange rate fall on the announcement of the inflation figure? What are likely to be the effects of this? What will determine the size of these effects?
  4. Why may additional amounts of quantitative easing be necessary in the coming months? How would a contractionary fiscal policy affect the desirability of additional quantitative easing?
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