Author: Catherine Youds

As we saw in Part 1, households are seeing a rise in the cost of living, which is set to accelerate. Inflation in the year to January 2022, as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), was 5.5%, the highest rate for over 30 years, and it is expected to reach more than 7 per cent by April. This has put great pressure on household budgets, with wage rises for most people being below the rate of price inflation. The poor especially have been hard hit, with many struggling to meet soaring energy, food and transport prices and higher rents.

In Part 2 we look at the UK government’s response to the situation, a similar response to that in many other countries.

Effects on government finances

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has stated that the government understands the pressures families are facing with the cost of living. However, rising interest rates mean that it will cost the Treasury considerably more to service the UK’s national debt of more than £2tn.

Interest payments on index-linked debt are calculated using an alternative measure of inflation, the retail prices index (RPI), which is running at 7.8%, considerably higher than anticipated in last October’s Budget. It is now projected that central government spending on debt interest this financial year will come in at around £69bn, some £11bn higher than the £58bn forecast in the October 2021 Budget and £27bn above the £42bn forecast in the March 2021 Budget.

In addition, it is expected that the latest rise in CPI will increase the chances of the Bank of England raising interest rates and thereby further increasing the costs of servicing national debt. If this is the outcome when its Monetary Policy Committee meets next month, then it would be the third successive time interest rates have been raised.

There is also concern that this, in addition to the direct effects of higher costs, will push more firms towards insolvency. It is argued that if government wanted to prevent this, it would need to cut business taxes in order to boost investment and productivity and to allow businesses to provide annual wage rises that are affordable.

Monetary policy

The Bank of England’s traditional response to rising inflation is to raise interest rates, which it has done this twice in the past few months. This means that people who have borrowed money could see their monthly payments go up, especially on mortgages tied to Bank Rate.

An aim of this policy is to make borrowing more expensive resulting in people spending less. As a result, they will buy fewer things, and prices will stop rising as fast. However, when inflation is caused by external forces, this might have a limited effect on prices and would put a further squeeze on household budgets.

Fiscal policy

Alternatively, the government might choose to cut taxes for consumers on items whose prices are rising quickly. It is taking some measures to reduce the impact of energy price rises. For example, the Treasury has announced that it would provide millions of households with up to £350 to help with their rising energy bills and in April the lowest-paid will see the National Living Wage rise by 6.6%, which is higher than the current inflation rate.

The chief economist of the British Chambers of Commerce has said that tightening monetary policy too quickly risks undermining confidence and the wider recovery, arguing that more needs to be done to limit the unprecedented rise in costs facing businesses, including financial support for those struggling with soaring energy bills and delaying April’s national insurance rise.

Conclusion

Rising inflation affects all our living standards. It a global issue with causes beyond government control.

Rising prices together with planned tax increases mean that real average take-home pay is likely to fall over the coming year. The extra energy costs and tax rises will force families to make savings elsewhere, meaning business revenues may fall, and the economic recovery could be negatively impacted.

However, it is those on low incomes that tend to find it hardest to cope with the rising cost of living. Those impacted the most will be faced with difficult decisions over the coming months as they try to cope with falling real incomes. With food price inflation expected to rise further, a likely rise in interest rates and a further increase in the energy price cap in October, these tough decisions are set to get harder for poorest households in the economy.

Articles

See articles in Part 1

Podcast

Questions

    These questions are based on the podcast.

  1. What elements are there in household energy prices? Which element has gone up most?
  2. What are the arguments for and against the government delaying the rise in the rate of national insurance by 1.25 percentage points?
  3. What can be done to help people on modest earnings who earn just too much to receive benefits?
  4. Are government loans to help people with higher bills a good idea?
  5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of removing VAT on domestic energy?

Households are expected to see further rises in the cost of living after the annual inflation rate climbed for a 13th month to its highest point in almost 30 years. This will put further pressure on already stretched household budgets. The increase reflects a bounceback in demand for goods and services after lockdowns, when prices fell sharply. It also reflects the impact of supply-chain disruptions as Covid-19 hit factory production and global trade.

The biggest concern, however, is the impact it will have on those already hard-pressed families across the UK. According to official figures, prices are rising at similar rates for richer and poorer households. However, household income levels will determine personal experiences of inflation. Poorer households find it harder to cope than richer families as essentials, such as energy and food, form a larger proportion of their shopping basket than discretionary items. On average the lowest-income families spend twice as much proportionately on food and housing bills as the richest. So low-income households, if they are already spending mainly on essentials, will struggle to find where to cut back as prices rise.

Latest Inflation figures

Latest figures from the ONS show that the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose by 5.5% in the year to January 2022, with further increases in the rate expected over the next couple of months. In measuring inflation, the ONS takes a so-called ‘basket of goods, which is frequently updated to reflect changes in spending patterns. For example, in 2021, hand sanitiser and men’s loungewear bottoms were added, but sandwiches bought at work were removed.

Annual CPI inflation is announced each month, showing how much the weighted average of these prices has risen since the same date last year. The weighted average is expressed as an index, with the index set at 100 in the base year, which is currently 2015.

Consumers would not normally notice price rises from month to month. However, prices are now rising so quickly that it is clear for everyone to see. What is more, average pay is not keeping up. There are workers in a few sectors, such as lorry drivers, who are in high demand, and therefore their wages are rising faster than prices. But the majority of workers won’t see such increases in pay. In the 12 months to January, prices rose by 5.5% on average, but regular pay, excluding bonuses, on average rose by only 4.7%, meaning that they fell by 0.8% in real terms.

The Bank of England has warned that CPI inflation could rise to 7% this year and some economists are forecasting that it could be almost 8% in April.

Why are costs rising?

From the weekly food shop, to filling up cars, to heating our homes, the cost of living is rising sharply around the world. Global inflation is at its highest since 2008. Some of the reasons why include:

  • Rising energy and petrol prices
    Oil prices slumped at the start of the pandemic, but demand has rocketed back since, and oil prices have hit a seven-year high. The price of gas has also shot up, leaving people around the world with eye-watering central heating bills. Home energy bills in the UK are set to rise by 54% in April when Ofgem, the energy regulator, raises the price cap.
  • Goods shortages
    During the pandemic, prices of everyday consumer goods increased. Consumers spent more on household goods and home improvements because they were stuck at home, couldn’t go out to eat or go on holiday. Manufacturers in places such as Asia have struggled to keep up with the demand. This has led to shortages of materials such as plastic, concrete and steel, driving up prices. Timber cost as much as 80% more than usual in 2021 in the UK.
  • Shipping costs
    Global shipping companies have been overwhelmed by surging demand after the pandemic and have responded by raising shipping charges. Retailers are now having to pay a lot more to get goods into stores. These prices are now being passed on to consumers. Air freight fees have also increased, having been made worse by a lorry driver shortage in Europe.
  • Rising wages
    During the pandemic many people changed jobs, or even quit the workforce – a problem exacerbated in the UK by Brexit as many European workers returned to their home countries. Firms are now having problems recruiting staff such as drivers, food processors and restaurant waiters. This has resulted in companies putting up wages to attract and retain staff. Those extra costs to employers are again being passed on to consumers.
  • Extreme weather impact
    Extreme weather in many parts of the world has contributed to inflation. Global oil supplies took a hit from hurricanes which damaged US oil infrastructure. Fierce storms in Texas also worsened the problems in meeting the demand for microchips. The cost of coffee has also jumped after Brazil had a poor harvest following its most severe drought in almost a century.
  • Trade barriers
    More costly imports are also contributing to higher prices. New post-Brexit trading rules are estimated to have reduced imports from the EU to the UK by about a quarter in the first half of 2021. In the USA, import tariffs on Chinese goods have almost entirely been passed on to US customers in the form of higher prices. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei said last year that sanctions imposed on the company by the USA in 2019 were affecting US suppliers and global customers.
  • The end of pandemic support
    Governments are ending the support given to businesses during the pandemic. Public spending and borrowing increased across the world leading to tax rises. This has contributed to rises in the cost-of-living, while most people’s wages have lagged behind.

Main concerns for the UK inflation

With rapidly rising prices, the economic decisions people will have to make are much harder. The main concerns for UK households include increases in energy costs, food prices, rent and interest rates on borrowing. All of these concerns come at a time when the government prepares to increase national insurance contributions for workers in April. There has been some pressure from MPs to scrap the tax rise so as to ease the pressure on living costs. It can be argued that there are fairer ways to increase taxes than through national insurance. However, the plan is relatively progressive, and scrapping the rise could be a badly targeted way of helping the poorest households with their energy bills.

Energy Bills
Electricity and gas bills for a typical household are expected to increase on average by £693 a year in April, which, as we have seen, is a 54% increase. Around 18 million households on standard tariffs will see an average increase from £1277 to £1971 per year. And around 4.5 million prepayment customers will see an average increase of £708 – from £1309 to £2017. Energy bills won’t rise immediately for customers on fixed rates, but many are likely to see a significant increase when their deal ends.

Bills are going up because the energy price cap is being raised. The energy price cap is an example of a maximum price being imposed on the market; it is the maximum price suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge households for their energy. Energy firms can increase bills by 54% when the new cap is introduced in April. The price cap is currently reviewed every 6 months and it is expected that that prices will rise again in October.

Energy price rises are likely to hit Britain’s poorest households the hardest as they spend proportionately more of their income on energy, a problem exacerbated by many living in poorly insulated homes. More people are thus expected to find themselves facing fuel poverty. This means that they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy and cannot afford to heat their homes adequately. According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest will see their energy spend rise from 8.5% to 12% of their total household budget, three times the percentage for the richest.

The way fuel poverty is measured varies around the UK. In Scotland, a household is in fuel poverty if more than 10% of its income is spent on fuel and its remaining income isn’t enough to maintain an adequate standard of living. It is expected that the number of homes facing ‘fuel stress’ across the UK will treble to 6.3 million after April. It will, however, have the greatest impact on pensioners, people in local authority housing and low-income single-adult households who on average could be forced to spend over 50% of their income on gas and electricity. The Resolution Foundation thinktank has warned that UK households are facing a ‘cost of living catastrophe’.

Food
Low-income households also spend a larger proportion than average on food and will therefore be relatively more affected by increases in food prices. Food and non-alcoholic drink prices were up by 4.2% in the year to December 2021. The Monetary Policy Committee has stated that food price inflation is expected to increase in coming months, given higher input costs. It has been estimated by the thinktank, Food Foundation, that 4.7m Britons, equivalent to 8.8% of the population, are struggling to feed themselves and are regularly going a day without eating.

Supermarkets have also raised their concerns about future increases. Tesco’s chairman John Allan has predicted that the worst is yet to come, pointing to 5% as a likely figure for food price inflation by the spring. He cited high energy prices, both for Tesco and its suppliers, as a key factor behind the expected rise.

It has been observed that the Smart Price, Basics and Value range products offered by supermarkets as lower-cost alternatives are stealthily being extinguished from the shelves. This is leaving shoppers with no choice but to ‘level up’ to the supermarkets’ own better-quality branded goods – usually in smaller quantities at larger prices. The managing director of Iceland, Richard Walker, has stated that his stores are not losing customers to other competitors or to better offers, but to food banks and to hunger. This is a highly concerning statement given that 2.5m citizens were forced by an array of desperate circumstances to use food banks over the past year.

Rent
Private rents are also rising at their fastest rate in five years, intensifying the increase in the cost of living for millions of households. Data from the ONS reveal that the average cost of renting in the UK rose by 2% in 2021. This was the largest annual increase since 2017. The East Midlands had the biggest increase in average rental prices, with tenants paying 3.6% more than a year earlier. However, due to falling demand for city flats during lockdown, as people favoured working from home, London had the smallest increase at 0.1%. Nevertheless, as Covid restrictions are removed, renters, including office workers and students, are now returning back to cities. This is now pushing up rental prices with demand outpacing supply.

The property website Zoopla found newly advertised rental prices were rising much faster across the UK. It said the average rent jumped 8.3% in the final three months of 2021 to £969 a month. This increase in rental prices, combined with the general rise in prices will place additional pressure on the government to increase support for vulnerable families. The housing charity, Shelter, has reported an increase in people who are struggling to pay their rent and even pay their electricity. With Covid-era protections having ended, if people struggle to pay, they are faced with eviction or even homelessness. There are calls for the government to support such people by reversing welfare cuts.

Insurer, Legal & General, has announced an additional investment over the next 5 years of £2.5bn on its ‘build to rent’ schemes. The aim is to provide more than 7000 purpose-built rental homes in UK towns and cities. L&G claims that the additional homes are part of the solution to the rental problem, with rent increases being capped at 5% for five years. However, sceptics claim the company is simply trying to cash in on the booming market and there are calls for further government action. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation claim that renters will struggle as rents in some areas have risen as much as 8%. Despite this, housing benefit has been frozen for two years and therefore there are calls for government to urgently relink housing benefit to the real cost of renting.

Articles

Questions

  1. What other measures of inflation are used beside CPI inflation? How do they differ?
  2. If all consumers are facing approximately the same price increases for any given good or service, why are poor people being disproportionately hit by rising prices?
  3. For what reasons might the rate of inflation (a) rise further; (b) begin to fall?
  4. Examine a developed country other than the UK and find out how inflation is affecting its population. Is its experience similar to that in the UK? Does it differ in any way?

During the pandemic, millions of people’s wages in the UK were paid by the government to prevent the closure of businesses and a surge in unemployment. The furlough scheme officially came to an end in September 2021. However, with the spread of the Omicron variant and the fear of further restrictions being put in place, there has been a call by many to re-introduce the furlough scheme.

The furlough scheme

The furlough scheme began when the government brought in, what was officially called the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in early 2020. This was when the pandemic first forced businesses across the country to close. The scheme worked by paying part of employees’ wages, preventing the need for businesses to make their staff redundant, therefore avoiding a rapid rise in unemployment along with the associated costs. It also avoided the financial and emotional costs of firing and then rehiring workers post pandemic. Under the scheme, furloughed workers received 80% of their wages, up to £2500 a month, if they couldn’t work because of the impact of coronavirus. Employees were able to maintain the security of employment and the payments helped furloughed workers pay their bills.

The scheme saw billions of pounds spent paying the wages of employees whose firms were forced to close temporarily. It could be argued that the expense of the scheme was a huge disadvantage. However, the alternative would have been for the government to pay unemployment-related benefits. Despite the furlough scheme being deemed necessary, it was not without its drawbacks for the structure of businesses. Rather than businesses adapting to changes in the economy and consumer demands, they could decide to claim the money and avoid the need to restructure. There was also concern about the length of the furlough scheme and the ability of businesses to bounce back post-pandemic.

Since the start of the scheme, the specifics of what was paid and who received it changed over time, especially once the economy started opening again. Initial steps were made to allow part-time return to work and the scheme started to wind down over the summer of 2021, with the government covering less of the wages and businesses covering more. From July, employers had to provide 10% of the wages of their furloughed staff, with the government paying the rest. This then increased to 20% in August with the CJRS coming to a complete end on 30 September 2021. At this point, there were around 1.6 million employees still receiving payment from the scheme.

Impact on Employment

With the end to the furlough scheme in September 2021, there were concerns that this would lead to a large number of redundancies. However, data indicate that has not happened and there is a record number of job vacancies. Official figures show that UK employment rose in October, confirming the strength of the labour market. The Office for National Statistics stated that the employment rate rose to 75.5% in the three months to October, up 0.2 percentage points on the previous quarter. This is believed to be driven by a rise in part-time work, which had dropped sharply during the pandemic. However, it is important to note that the strength in these numbers was prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Omicron

In November, the government had ruled out once again bankrolling people’s wages at enormous expense. However, the Chancellor is now under pressure to respond to the latest announcements around the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. The fast-spreading mutation of the Covid-19 virus, Omicron, is posing a fresh threat to the economy.

On the 8 December, the Prime Minister announced new ‘Plan B’ Covid rules for England. As part of these new rules to limit the spread of Omicron, people are being asked to work from home again if possible and face masks are compulsory in most public places. Covid passes or a negative Covid test result are also needed to get into nightclubs and large venues.

Scotland and Wales have brought in further restrictions. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has asked people to limit socialising to three households at a time in the run-up to Christmas. Shops and hospitality venues in Scotland must bring back physical distancing and screens. In Wales, nightclubs will close after 26 December and social distancing will be reintroduced in shops.

Although the hospitality industry and retail sector remain open, they are facing a slump in trade thanks to the new restrictions and worries among the general public. With the work-from-home guidance and advice from health officials that people should limit their social interactions, pubs and restaurants have seen widespread cancellations in the run-up to Christmas. Trade is suffering and these mass cancellations come at a time when these sectors were hoping for bumper trade after a dismal last couple of years.

In light of these concerns, ministers are now being urged to guarantee support in case businesses have to shut. Despite the indication that it would be highly unlikely that the UK would experience a full return to the restrictions seen at previous stages of the crisis, the International Monetary Fund has stated that the UK government should be drawing up contingency plans. The IMF has called for a mini-furlough scheme in the event that the Omicron variant forces the government to close parts of the economy. The idea is that the mini-furlough scheme would see a limited version of the multi-billion-pound job subsidy scheme being rolled out if firms are forced to close.

There are strong calls for there to be targeted support, which this mini-furlough scheme could offer. The Resolution Foundation argued in mid-December that a furlough scheme tied solely to the hospitality industry would help prevent job loses in an industry that is currently suffering once again. It calculated that the cost of a hospitality-only furlough scheme would be £1.4 billion a month if it were pitched at the original level of 80% of wage support. If a January to March sector-specific scheme were to be introduced it is estimated to cost around £5 billion, a small cost in comparison to £46 billion spent on furlough so far.

Inflation

Any reintroduction of a furlough scheme would be a jolt for the government. This would mean a return to the 2020-style arguments around protecting livelihoods and businesses, a contrast to the recent messaging from the Treasury of restoring public finances. There is also concern about how this will all impact on current growth predictions and inflation concerns. The IMF expects the growth of the UK economy to be 6.8% in 2021 and 5% in 2022. However, the drawback from this is that the recovery would also be accompanied by rising inflation. It has been suggested, therefore, that interest rate increases from the Bank of England would be needed to keep inflation under control, while at the same time being not so great as to kill off growth.

It was widely expected that the Bank of England would again put off a rate hike in order to wait to see the economic impact of Plan B restrictions. However, on Thursday 16 December, interest rates were raised for the first time in more than three years. Despite the fears that Omicron could slow the economy by causing people to spend less, Bank Rate was raised from 0.1% to 0.25% . This came in the wake of data showing prices climbing at the fastest pace for 10 years.

Next Steps?

Government finances would take another huge hit if the furlough scheme were revived. But a version of such a scheme is likely to be necessary to avert an unemployment crisis and the attendant costs.

However, in resisting further measures, the government has argued that it has already acted early to help control the virus’s spread by rapidly rolling out booster jabs, while avoiding unduly damaging economic and social restrictions.

The government also argues that some of the measures from the total £400 billion Covid support package since the start of the pandemic will continue to help businesses into Spring 2022. Such measures include government-backed loans for small- and medium-sized businesses until June 2022, a reduction in VAT from 20% to 12.5% until March 2022 and business rates relief for eligible retail, hospitality, and leisure businesses until March 2022. Talks are ongoing with hospitality and and other business organisations directly affected by Covid restrictions.

The British Chambers of Commerce has argued that current measures are not enough and has called for VAT on hospitality and tourism to be cut back to its emergency rate of 5% and for the 100% business rates relief for retailers to return. The CBI has also called for any unspent local authority grants to be spent now to help affected firms and that further help, including business rates relief, should be on the table if restrictions continue after the government’s 5 January review date. The IMF said that with strong policy support, the economy had proved resilient, but it stressed that a return of some of the measures that prevented mass unemployment and large-scale business failures might soon be needed.

Conclusion

Infections caused by the new Omicron variant are rising rapidly, doubling every two to three days. It is expected to become the dominant variant in the UK soon with health officials warning it may be the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic. However, it is not yet known what the full extent of the impact of this new variant on the NHS will be, leaving the severity of future restrictions uncertain.

But what is evident is that the course of the pandemic has changed and there is a growing case for the government to start planning for new support packages. Although a reintroduction of the furlough scheme was hoped not to be needed on the path out of the pandemic, a short detour may be required in the form of a mini-furlough scheme. The size and reach of any support put in place will depend upon any further restrictions on economic activity.

Articles

Questions

  1. Should the level of support for business return to the levels in place earlier in 2021?
  2. What measures could a government put in place to curtail the spread of the Omicron variant that have only a minimal impact on business and employment?
  3. Compare the UK measures to curtail the spread of the virus with those used in some other European countries.
  4. What are the arguments for and against (a) re-introducing the furlough scheme as it was earlier in 2021; (b) introducing a version restricted to the hospitality sector?

Inflation has surged worldwide as countries have come out of their COVID-19 lockdowns. The increases in prices combined with supply-chain problems has raised questions of what will happen to future prices and whether it will feed further inflation cycles.

Inflation targeting

Inflation is a key contributor to instability in an economy. It measures the rate of increases in prices over a given period of time and indicates what will happen to the cost of living for households. Because of its importance, many central banks aim to keep inflation low and steady by setting a target. The Bank of England, the Federal Reserve, and the European Central Bank all aim to keep inflation low at a target rate of 2 per cent.

Inflation-rate targeting has been successfully practised in a growing number of countries over the past few decades. However, measures to combat rising inflation typically contract the economy through reducing real aggregate demand (or at least its rate of growth). This is a concern when the economy is not experiencing a strong economic performance.

Current outlook

Globally, rising inflation is causing concern as a surge in demand has been confronted by supply bottlenecks and rising prices of energy and raw materials. As the world emerges from the COVID-19 lockdowns, global financial markets have been affected in recent months by concerns around inflation. They have also been affected by the prospect of major central banks around the world being forced into the early removal of pandemic support measures, such as quantitative easing, before the economic recovery from the coronavirus is complete.

The Chief Economist at the Bank of England has warned that UK inflation is likely to rise ‘close to or even slightly above 5 per cent’ early next year, as he said the central bank would have a ‘live’ decision on whether to raise interest rates at its November meeting. Although consumer price inflation dipped to 3.1 per cent in September, the Bank of England has forecast it to exceed 4 per cent by the end of the year, 2 percentage points higher than its target. UK banks and building societies have already started to increase mortgage rates in response to rising inflation, signalling an end to the era of ultra-low borrowing costs and piling further pressure on household finances.

In the USA, shortages throughout the supply chains on which corporate America depends are also causing concern. These issues are translating into widespread inflationary pressure, disrupting operations and forcing companies to raise prices for customers. Pressure on every link in the supply chain, from factory closures triggered by COVID-19 outbreaks to trouble finding enough staff to unload trucks, is rippling across sectors, intensifying questions about the threat that inflation poses to robust consumer spending and rebounding corporate earnings. Reflecting concern over weaker levels of global economic growth despite rising inflationary pressures, US figures published at the end of October showed the world’s largest economy added just 194 000 jobs in September, far fewer than expected.

There are also fears raised over high levels of corporate debt, including in China at the embattled property developer Evergrande, where worries over its ability to keep up with debt payments have rippled through global markets. There are major concerns that Evergrande could pose risks to the wider property sector, with potential spill-overs internationally. However, it is argued that the British banking system has been shown in stress tests to be resilient to a severe economic downturn in China and Hong Kong.

Central bank responses

The sharpest consumer-price increases in years have evoked different responses from central banks. Many have raised interest rates, but two that haven’t are the most prominent in the global economy: the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. These differences in responses reflect differing opinions as to whether current price increases will feed further inflation cycles or simply peter out. For those large central banks, they are somewhat relying on households keeping faith in their track record of keeping inflation low. There is also an expectation that there are enough underutilised workers to ensure that wage inflation is kept low.

However, other monetary authorities worry that they have not yet earned the record of keeping inflation low and are concerned about the risk of wage inflation. In addition, in poorer countries there is a larger share of spending that goes on essentials such as food and energy. These have seen some of the highest price increases, so policy makers are going to be keen to stamp down on the inflation.

The Federal Reserve is expected to announce that it will start phasing out its $120bn monthly bond-buying programme (quantitative easing) as it confronts more pronounced price pressures and predictions that interest rates will be lifted next year. However, no adjustments are expected to be made to the Fed’s main policy rate, which is tethered near zero. Whilst financial markets are betting on an rise in Bank Rate by the Bank of England as early as next month, spurred by comments from Governor Andrew Bailey in mid-October that the central bank would ‘have to act’ to keep a lid on inflation.

Outlook for the UK

The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Huw Pill, has warned that high rates of inflation could last longer than expected, due to severe supply shortages and rising household energy bills. He said inflationary pressures were still likely to prove temporary and would fall back over time as the economy adjusted after disruption caused by COVID and Brexit. However, he warned there were growing risks that elevated levels of inflation could persist next year.

The looming rise in borrowing costs for homeowners will add further pressure to family finances already stretched by higher energy bills and surging inflation. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is expected that households will face years of stagnating living standards, with predictions showing that households would on average be paying £3000 more each year in taxes by 2024/25, with the biggest impact felt by higher earners.

Investors are also reacting to concerns and have pulled $9.4bn out of UK-focused equity funds this year after hopes that a COVID-19 vaccination drive will fuel a vigorous economic recovery were overshadowed by questions about slow growth and high inflation. It is suggested that there is a general sense of caution about the UK when it comes to investing globally, driven by monetary, fiscal and trade uncertainties.

Given all the elements contributing to this outlook, The IMF has forecast that the UK will recover more slowly from the shocks of coronavirus than other G7 nations, with economic output in 2024 still 3 per cent below its pre-pandemic levels. Financial markets are predicting the Bank of England will lift interest rates as soon as the next MPC meeting. And while supply-chain bottlenecks and rising commodity prices are a global trend, the Bank’s hawkish stance has increased the possibility of a sharper slowdown in Britain than other developed markets, some analysts have said.

What next?

Some of the major central banks are poised to take centre stage when announcing their next monetary action, as it will reveal if they share the alarm about surging inflation that has gripped investors. Markets are betting that the Bank of England will begin raising interest rates, with Bank Rate expected to rise to around 1.25 per cent by the end of next year (from the current 0.1 per cent).

It is thought that the Fed will not raise interest rates just yet but will do so in the near future. Markets, businesses, and households globally will be waiting on the monetary decisions of all countries, as these decisions will shape the trajectory of the global economy over the next few years.

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Forecasts and commentary

Questions

  1. What is the definition of inflation?
  2. How is inflation measured?
  3. Using a diagram to aid your answers, discuss the difference between cost-push and demand-pull inflation.
  4. What are the demand-side and cost-side causes of the current rising inflation?
  5. Explain the impact an increase in interest rates has on the economy.

The global battle for fuel is expected to peak this winter. The combination of rising demand and a tightening of supply has sparked concerns of shortages in the market. Some people are worried about another ‘winter of discontent’. Gas prices have risen fivefold in Europe as a whole.

In the UK, consumers are likely to find that the natural gas needed to heat their homes this October will cost at least five times more than it did a year ago. This surge in wholesale gas prices has seen several UK energy suppliers stop trading as they are unable to make a profit. This is because of an energy price cap for some consumers and various fixed price deals they had signed with their customers.

There are thus fears of an energy crisis in the UK, especially if there is a cold winter. There are even warnings that during a cold snap, gas supply to various energy-intensive firms may be cut off. This comes at a time when some of these industries are struggling to make a profit.

Demand and supply

The current situation is a combination of long- and short-term factors. In spring 2020, the demand for gas actually decreased due to the pandemic. This resulted in low gas prices, reduced UK production and delayed maintenance work and investment along global supply chains. However, since early 2021, consumer demand for gas has soared. First, there was an increased demand due to the Artic weather conditions last winter. This was then followed by heatwaves in the USA and Europe over the summer, which saw an increase in the use of air conditioning units. With the increased demand combined with calm weather conditions, wind turbines couldn’t supply enough power to meet demand.

There has also been a longer-term impact on demand throughout the industry due to the move to cleaner energy. The transitioning to wind and solar has seen a medium-term increase in the demand for gas. There is also a long-term impact of the target for net zero economies in the UK and Europe. This has hindered investors’ willingness to invest in developing supplies of fossil fuels due the fact they could become obsolete over the next few decades.

Nations have also been unable to build up enough supplies for winter. This is partly due to Europe’s domestic gas stocks having declined by 30% per cent in the past decade. This heightened situation is leading to concerns that there will be black-outs or cut-offs in gas this winter.

Importation of gas

A concern for the UK is that it has scant storage facilities with no long-term storage. The UK currently has very modest amounts of storage – less than 6% of annual demand and some five times less than the average in the rest of Europe. It has been increasingly operating a ‘just-in-time model’, which is more affected by short-term price fluctuations in the wholesale gas market. With wind power generation remaining lower than average during summer 2021, more gas than usual has been used to generate electricity, leaving less gas to go into storage.

However, some argue that the problem is not just the UK’s physical supply of gas but demand for gas from elsewhere. Around half of the UK’s supply comes from its own production sites, while the rest is piped in from Europe or shipped in as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA, Qatar and Russia. In 2019, the UK imported almost 20% of its gas through LNG shipments. However, Asian gas demand has grown rapidly, expanding by 50% over the past decade. This has meant that LNG has now become much harder to secure.

The issue is the price the UK has to pay to continue receiving these supplies. Some in the gas industry believe the price surge is only temporary, caused by economic disruptions, while many others say it highlights a structural weakness in a continent that has become too reliant on imported gas. It can be argued that the gas crisis has highlighted the lack of a coherent strategy to manage the gas industry as the UK transitions to a net zero economy. The lack of any industry investment in new capacity suggests that there is currently no business case for new long-term storage in the UK, especially as gas demand is expected to continue falling over the longer term.

Impact on consumers and industry

Gas prices for suppliers have increased fivefold over the past year. Therefore, many companies face a considerable rise in their bills. MSome may need to reduce or pause production – or even cease trading – which could cause job losses. Alternatively, they could pass on their increased costs to customers by charging them higher prices. Although energy-intensive industries are particularly exposed, every company that has to pay energy bills will be affected. Due to the growing concerns about the security of winter gas supplies those industries reliant on gas, such as the fertiliser industry, are restricting production, threatening various supply chains.

Most big domestic gas suppliers buy their gas months in advance, meaning they will most likely pass on the higher price rises they have experienced in the past few months. The increased demand and decreased supply has already meant meant that customers have faced higher prices for their energy. The UK has been badly hit because it’s one of Europe’s biggest users of natural gas – 85% of homes use gas central heating – and it also generates a third of the country’s electricity.

The rising bills are particularly an issue for those customers on a variable tariff. About 15 million households have seen their energy bills rise by 12% since the beginning of October due to the rise in the government’s energy price cap calculated by the regulator, Ofgem. A major concern is that this increase in bills comes at a time when the need to use more heating and lighting is approaching. It also coincides with other price rises hitting family budgets and the withdrawal of COVID support schemes.

Government intervention – maximum pricing

If the government feels that the equilibrium price in a particular market is too high, it can intervene in the market and set a maximum price. When the government intervenes in this way, it sets a price ceiling on certain basic goods or services and does not permit the price to go above that set limit. A maximum price is normally set for reasons of fairness and to benefit consumers on low incomes. Examples include energy price caps to order to control fuel bills, rent controls in order to improve affordability of housing, a cap on mobile roaming charges within the EU and price capping for regional monopoly water companies.

The energy price cap

Even without the prospect of a colder than normal winter, bills are still increasing. October’s increase in the fuel cap means that many annual household fuel bills will rise by £135 or more. The price cap sets the maximum price that suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge domestic customers on a standard, or default tariff. The cap has come under the spotlight owing to the crisis among suppliers, which has seen eleven firms fold, with more expected.

The regulator Ofgem sets a price cap for domestic energy twice a year. The latest level came into place on 1 October. It is a cap on the price of energy that suppliers can charge. The price cap is based on a broad estimate of how much it costs a supplier to provide gas and electricity services to a customer. The calculation is mainly made up of wholesale energy costs, network costs such as maintaining pipes and wires, policy costs including Government social and environmental schemes, operating costs such as billing and metering services and VAT. Therefore, suppliers can only pass on legitimate costs of supplying energy and cannot charge more than the level of the price cap, although they can charge less. A household’s total bill is still determined by how much gas and electricity is used.

  • Those on standard tariffs, with typical household levels of energy use, will see an increase of £139.
  • People with prepayment meters, with average energy use, will see an annual increase of £153.
  • Households on fixed tariffs will be unaffected. However, those coming to the end of a contract are automatically moved to a default tariff set at the new level.

Ordinarily, customers are able to shop around for cheaper deals, but currently, the high wholesale prices of gas means that cheaper deals are not available.

Despite the cap limiting how much providers can raise prices, the current increase is the biggest (and to the highest amount) since the cap was introduced in January 2019. As providers are scarcely making a profit on gas, there are concerns that a further increase in wholesale prices will cause more suppliers to be forced out of business. Ofgem said that the cap is likely to go up again in April, the next time it is reviewed.

Conclusion

The record prices being paid by suppliers and deficits in gas supply across the world have stoked fears that the energy crisis will get worse. It comes at a time when households are already facing rising bills, while some energy-intensive industries have started to slow production. This has started to dent optimism around the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Historically, UK governments have trusted market mechanisms to deliver UK gas security. However, consumers are having to pay the cost of such an approach. The price cap has meant the UK’s gas bills have until now been typically lower than the EU average. However, the rise in prices comes on top of other economic problems such as labour shortages and increasing food prices, adding up to an unwelcome rise in the cost of living.

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UK government/Ofgem

Questions

  1. Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate what has happened in the energy market over the past year.
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention in a free market?
  3. Explain why it is necessary for the regulator to intervene in the energy market.
  4. Using the concept of maximum pricing, illustrate how the price cap works.