Category: Economics for Business: Ch 23

It’s two years since Russia invaded Ukraine. Western countries responded by imposing large-scale sanctions. These targeted a range of businesses, banks and other financial institutions, payments systems and Russian exports and imports. Some $1 trillion of Russian assets were frozen. Many Western businesses withdrew from Russia or cut off commercial ties. In addition, oil and gas imports from Russia have been banned by most developed countries and some developing countries, and a price cap of $60 per barrel has been imposed on Russian oil. What is more, sanctions have been progressively tightened over the past two years. For example, on the second anniversary of the invasion, President Biden announced more than 500 new sanctions against individuals and companies involved in military production and supply chains and in financing Russia’s war effort.

The economy in Russia has also been affected by large-scale emigration of skilled workers, the diversion of workers to the armed forces and the diversion of capital and workers to the armaments industry.

So has the economy of Russia been badly affected by sanctions and these other factors? The IMF in its World Economic Forecast of April 2022 predicted that the Russian economy would experience a steep, two-year recession. But, the Russian economy has fared much better than first predicted and the steep recession never materialised.

In this blog we look at Russia’s economic performance. First, we examine why the Russian economy seems stronger today than forecast two years ago. Then we look at its economic weaknesses directly attributable to the war.

Apparent resilience of the Russian economy

GDP forecasts have proved wrong. In April 2022, just after the start of the war, the IMF was forecasting that the Russian economy would decline by 8.5% in 2022 and by 2.3% in 2023 and grow by just 1.5% in 2024. In practice, the economy declined by only 1.2% in 2022 and grew by 3.0% in 2023. It is forecast by the IMF to grow by 2.6% in 2024. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

Similarly, inflation forecasts have proved wrong. In April 2022, Russian consumer price inflation was forecast to be 21.3% in 2022 and 14.3% in 2023. In practice, inflation was 13.8% in 2022 and 7.4% in 2023. What is more, consumer spending in Russia has remained buoyant. In 2023, retail sales rose by 10.2% in nominal terms – a real rise of 2.8%. Wage growth has been strong and unemployment has remained low, falling from just over 4% in February 2022 to just under 3% today.

So why has the Russian economy seemingly weathered the war so successfully?

The first reason is that, unlike Ukraine, very little of its infrastructure has been destroyed. Even though it has lost a lot of its military capital, including 1120 main battle tanks and some 2000 other armoured vehicles, virtually all of its production capacity remains intact. What is more, military production is replacing much of the destroyed vehicles and equipment.

The second is that its economy started the war in a strong position economically. In 2021, it had a surplus on the current account of its balance of payments of 6.7% of GDP, reflecting large revenues from oil, gas and mineral exports. This compares with a G7 average deficit of 0.7%. It had fiscal surplus (net general government lending) of 0.8% of GDP. The G7 countries had an average deficit of 9.1% of GDP. Its gross general government debt was 16% of GDP. The G7’s was an average of 134%. This put Russia in a position to finance the war and gave it a considerable buffer against economic sanctions.

The third reason is that Russia has been effective in switching the destinations of exports and sources of imports. Trade with the West, Japan and South Korea has declined, but trade with China and various neutral countries, such as India have rapidly increased. Take the case of oil: in 2021, Russia exported 4.4 billion barrels of oil per day to the USA, the EU, the UK, Japan and South Korea. By 2023, this had fallen to just 0.6 billion barrels. By contrast, in 2021, it exported 1.9 billion barrels per day to China, India and Turkey. By 2023, this had risen to 4.9 billion. Although exports of natural gas have fallen by around 42% since 2021, Russian oil exports have remained much the same at around 7.4 million barrels per day (until a voluntary cut of 0.5 billion barrels per day in 2024 Q1 as part of an OPEC+ agreement to prop up the price of oil).

China is now a major supplier to Russia of components (some with military uses), commercial vehicles and consumer products (such as cars and electrical goods). Total trade with China (both imports and exports) was worth $147 billion in 2021. By 2023, this had risen to $240 billion.

The use of both the Chinese yuan and the Russian rouble (or ruble) has risen dramatically as a means of payment for Russian imports. Their share has risen from around 5% in 2021 (mainly roubles) to nearly 75% in 2023 (just over 37% in each currency). Switching trade and payment methods has helped Russia to circumvent many of the sanctions.

The fourth reason is that Russia has a strong and effective central bank. It has successfully used interest rates to control inflation, which is expected to fall from 7.4% in 2023 to under 5% this year and then to its target of 4% in subsequent years. The central bank policy rate was raised from 8.5% to 20% in February 2022. It then fell in steps to 7.5% in September 2022, where it remained until August 2023. It was then raised in steps to peak at 16% in December 2023, where it remains. There is a high level of confidence that the Russian central bank will succeed in bringing inflation back to target.

The fifth reason is that the war has provided a Keynesian stimulus to the economy. Military expenditure has doubled as a share of GDP – from 3.7% of GDP in 2021 to 7.5% in 2024. It now accounts for around 40% of government expenditure. The boost that this has given to production and employment has helped achieve the 3% growth rate in 2023, despite the dampening effect of a tight monetary policy.

Longer-term weaknesses

Despite the apparent resilience of the economy, there are serious weaknesses that are likely to have serious long-term effects.

There has been a huge decline in the labour supply as many skilled and professional workers have move abroad to escape the draft and as many people have been killed in battle. The shortage of workers has led to a rise in wages. This has been accompanied by a decline in labour productivity, which is estimated to have been around 3.6% in 2023.

Higher wages and lower productivity is putting a squeeze on firms’ profits. This is being exacerbated by higher taxes on firms to help fund the war. Lower profit reduces investment and is likely to have further detrimental effects on labour productivity.

Although Russia has managed to circumvent many of the sanctions, they have still had a significant effect on the supply of goods and components from the West. As sanctions are tightened further, so this is likely to have a direct effect on production and living standards. Although GDP is growing, non-military production is declining.

The public finances at the start of the war, as we saw above, were strong. But the war effort has turned a budget surplus of 0.8% of GDP in 2021 to a deficit of 3.7% in 2023 – a deficit that will be difficult to fund with limited access to foreign finance and with domestic interest rates at 16%. As public expenditure on the military has increased, civilian expenditure has decreased. Benefits and expenditure on infrastructure are being squeezed. For example, public utilities and apartment blocks are deteriorating badly. This has a direct on living standards.

In terms of exports, although by diverting oil exports to China, India and other neutral countries Russia has manage to maintain the volume of its oil exports, revenue from them is declining. Oil prices have fallen from a peak of $125 per barrel in June 2022 to around $80 today. Production from the Arabian Gulf is likely to increase over the coming months, which will further depress oil prices.

Conclusions

With the war sustaining the Russian economy, it would be a problem for Russia if the war ended. If Russia won by taking more territory in Ukraine and forcing Ukraine to accept Russia’s terms for peace, the cost to Russia of rebuilding the occupied territories would be huge. If Russia lost territory and negotiated a settlement on Ukraine’s terms, the political cost would be huge, with a disillusioned Russian people facing reduced living standards that could lead to the overthrow of Putin. As The Conversation article linked below states:

A protracted stalemate might be the only solution for Russia to avoid total economic collapse. Having transformed the little industry it had to focus on the war effort, and with a labour shortage problem worsened by hundreds of thousands of war casualties and a massive brain drain, the country would struggle to find a new direction.

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Questions

  1. Argue the case for and against including military production in GDP.
  2. How successful has the freezing of Russian assets been?
  3. How could Western sanctions against Russia be made more effective?
  4. What are the dangers to Western economies of further tightening financial sanctions against Russia?
  5. Would it be a desirable policy for a Western economy to divert large amounts of resources to building public infrastructure?
  6. Has the Ukraine war hastened the rise of the Chinese yuan as a reserve currency?
  7. How would you summarise Russia’s current public finances?
  8. How would you set about estimating the cost to Russia of its war with Ukraine?

According to the IMF, Chinese GDP grew by 5.2% in 2023 and is predicted to grow by 4.6% this year. Such growth rates would be extremely welcome to most developed countries. UK growth in 2023 was a mere 0.5% and is forecast to be only 0.6% in 2024. Advanced economies as a whole only grew by 1.6% in 2023 and are forecast to grow by only 1.5% this year. Also, with the exception of India, the Philippines and Indonesia, which grew by 6.7%, 5.3% and 5.0% respectively in 2023 and are forecast to grow by 6.5%, 6.0% and 5.0% this year, Chinese growth also compares very favourably with other developing countries, which as a weighted average grew by 4.1% last year and are forecast to grow at the same rate this year.

But in the past, Chinese growth was much higher and was a major driver of global growth. Over the period 1980 to 2018, Chinese economic growth averaged 9.5% – more than twice the average rate of developing countries (4.5%) and nearly four times the average rate of advanced countries (2.4%) (see chart – click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).

Not only is Chinese growth now much lower, but it is set to decline further. The IMF forecasts that in 2025, Chinese growth will have fallen to 4.1% – below the forecast developing-country average of 4.2% and well below that of India (6.5%).

Causes of slowing Chinese growth

There are a number of factors that have come together to contribute to falling economic growth rates – growth rates that otherwise would have been expected to be considerably higher as the Chinese economy reopened after severe Covid lockdowns.

Property market
China has experienced a property boom over the past 20 years years as the government has encouraged construction in residential blocks and in factories and offices. The sector has accounted for some 20% of economic activity. But for many years, demand outstripped supply as consumers chose to invest in property, partly because of a lack of attractive alternatives for their considerable savings and partly because property prices were expected to go on rising. This lead to speculation on the part of both buyers and property developers. Consumers rushed to buy property before prices rose further and property developers borrowed considerably to buy land, which local authorities encouraged, as it provided a valuable source of revenue.

But now there is considerable overcapacity in the sector and new building has declined over the past three years. According to the IMF:

Housing starts have fallen by more than 60 per cent relative to pre-pandemic levels, a historically rapid pace only seen in the largest housing busts in cross-country experience in the last three decades. Sales have fallen amid homebuyer concerns that developers lack sufficient financing to complete projects and that prices will decline in the future.

As a result, many property developers have become unviable. At the end of January, the Chinese property giant, Evergrande, was ordered to liquidate by a Hong Kong court, after the judge ruled that the company did not have a workable plan to restructure around $300bn of debt. Over 50 Chinese property developers have defaulted or missed payments since 2020. The liquidation of Evergrande and worries about the viability of other Chinese property developers is likely to send shockwaves around the Chinese property market and more widely around Chinese investment markets.

Overcapacity
Rapid investment over many years has led to a large rise in industrial capacity. This has outstripped demand. The problem could get worse as investment, including state investment, is diverted from the property sector to manufacturing, especially electric vehicles. But with domestic demand dampened, this could lead to increased dumping on international markets – something that could spark trade wars with the USA and other trading partners (see below). Worries about this in China are increasing as the possibility of a second Trump presidency looks more possible. The Chinese authorities are keen to expand aggregate demand to tackle this overcapacity.

Uncertainty
Consumer and investor confidence are low. This is leading to severe deflationary pressures. If consumers face a decline in the value of their property, this wealth effect could further constrain their spending. This will, in turn, dampen industrial investment.

Uncertainty is beginning to affect foreign companies based in China. Many foreign companies are now making a loss in China or are at best breaking even. This could lead to disinvestment and add to deflationary pressures.

The Chinese stock market and policy responses
Lack of confidence in the Chinese economy is reflected in falling share prices. The Shanghai SSE Composite Index (an index of all stocks traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange) has fallen dramatically in recent months. From a high of 3703 in September 2021, it had fallen to 2702 on 5 Feb 2024 – a fall of 27%. It is now below the level at the beginning of 2010 (see chart: click here for a PowerPoint). On 5 February alone, some 1800 stocks fell by over 10% in Shanghai and Shenzhen. People were sensing a rout and investors expressed their frustration and anger on social media, including the social media account of the US Embassy. The next day, the authorities intervened and bought large quantities of key stocks. China’s sovereign wealth fund announced that it would increase its purchase of shares to support the country’s stock markets. The SSE Composite rose 4.1% on 6 February and the Shenzhen Component Index rose 6.2%.

However, the rally eased as investors waited to see what more fundamental measures the authorities would take to support the stock markets and the economy more generally. Policies are needed to boost the wider economy and encourage a growth in consumer and business confidence.

Interest rates have been cut four times since the beginning of 2022, when the prime loan rate was cut from 3.85% to 3.7%. The last cut was from 3.55% to 3.45% in August 2023. But this has been insufficient to provide the necessary boost to aggregate demand. Further cuts in interest rates are possible and the government has said that it will use proactive fiscal and effective monetary policy in response to the languishing economy. However, government debt is already high, which limits the room for expansionary fiscal policy, and consumers are highly risk averse and have a high propensity to save.

Graduate unemployment
China has seen investment in education as an important means of increasing human capital and growth. But with a slowing economy, there are are more young people graduating each year than there are graduate jobs available. Official data show that for the group aged 16–24, the unemployment rate was 14.9% in December. This compares with an overall urban unemployment rate of 5.1%. Many graduates are forced to take non-graduate jobs and graduate jobs are being offered at reduced salaries. This will have a further dampening effect on aggregate demand.

Demographics
China’s one-child policy, which it pursued from 1980 to 2016, plus improved health and social care leading to greater longevity, has led to an ageing population and a shrinking workforce. This is despite recent increases in unemployment in the 16–24 age group. The greater the ratio of dependants to workers, the greater the brake on growth as taxes and savings are increasingly used to provide various forms of support.

Effects on the rest of the world

China has been a major driver of world economic growth. With a slowing Chinese economy, this will provide less stimulus to growth in other countries. Many multinational companies, including chip makers, cosmetics companies and chemical companies, earn considerable revenue from China. For example, the USA exports over $190 billion of goods and services to China and these support over 1 million jobs in the USA. A slowdown in China will have repercussions for many companies around the world.

There is also the concern that Chinese manufacturers may dump products on world markets at less than average (total) cost to shift stock and keep production up. This could undermine industry in many countries and could initiate a protectionist response. Already Donald Trump is talking about imposing a 10% tariff on most imported goods if he is elected again in November. Such tariffs could be considerably higher on imports from China. If Joe Biden is re-elected, he too may impose tariffs on Chinese goods if they are thought to be unfairly subsidised. US (and possibly EU) tariffs on Chinese goods could lead to a similar response from China, resulting in a trade war – a negative sum game.

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Questions

  1. Why is China experiencing slowing growth and is growth likely to pick up over the next five years?
  2. How does the situation in China today compare with that in Japan 30 years ago?
  3. What policies could the Chinese government pursue to stimulate economic growth?
  4. What policies were enacted towards China during the Trump presidency from 2017 to 2020?
  5. Would you advise the Chinese central bank to cut interest rates further? Explain.
  6. Should China introduce generous child support for families, no matter the number of children?

Artificial intelligence is having a profound effect on economies and society. From production, to services, to healthcare, to pharmaceuticals; to education, to research, to data analysis; to software, to search engines; to planning, to communication, to legal services, to social media – to our everyday lives, AI is transforming the way humans interact. And that transformation is likely to accelerate. But what will be the effects on GDP, on consumption, on jobs, on the distribution of income, and human welfare in general? These are profound questions and ones that economists and other social scientists are pondering. Here we look at some of the issues and possible scenarios.

According to the Merrill/Bank of America article linked below, when asked about the potential for AI, ChatGPT replied:

AI holds immense potential to drive innovation, improve decision-making processes and tackle complex problems across various fields, positively impacting society.

But the magnitude and distribution of the effects on society and economic activity are hard to predict. Perhaps the easiest is the effect on GDP. AI can analyse and interpret data to meet economic goals. It can do this much more extensively and much quicker than using pre-AI software. This will enable higher productivity across a range of manufacturing and service industries. According to the Merrill/Bank of America article, ‘global revenue associated with AI software, hardware, service and sales will likely grow at 19% per year’. With productivity languishing in many countries as they struggle to recover from the pandemic, high inflation and high debt, this massive boost to productivity will be welcome.

But whilst AI may lead to productivity growth, its magnitude is very hard to predict. Both the ‘low-productivity future’ and the ‘high-productivity future’ described in the IMF article linked below are plausible. Productivity growth from AI may be confined to a few sectors, with many workers displaced into jobs where they are less productive. Or, the growth in productivity may affect many sectors, with ‘AI applied to a substantial share of the tasks done by most workers’.

Growing inequality?

Even if AI does massively boost the growth in world GDP, the distribution is likely to be highly uneven, both between countries and within countries. This could widen the gap between rich and poor and create a range of social tensions.

In terms of countries, the main beneficiaries will be developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia and rapidly developing countries, largely in Asia, such as China and India. Poorer developing countries’ access to the fruits of AI will be more limited and they could lose competitive advantage in a number of labour-intensive industries.

Then there is growing inequality between the companies controlling AI systems and other economic actors. Just as companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Meta grew rich as computing, the Internet and social media grew and developed, so these and other companies at the forefront of AI development and supply will grow rich, along with their senior executives. The question then is how much will other companies and individuals benefit. Partly, it will depend on how much production can be adapted and developed in light of the possibilities that AI presents. Partly, it will depend on competition within the AI software market. There is, and will continue to be, a rush to develop and patent software so as to deliver and maintain monopoly profits. It is likely that only a few companies will emerge dominant – a natural oligopoly.

Then there is the likely growth of inequality between individuals. The reason is that AI will have different effects in different parts of the labour market.

The labour market

In some industries, AI will enhance labour productivity. It will be a tool that will be used by workers to improve the service they offer or the items they produce. In other cases, it will replace labour. It will not simply be a tool used by labour, but will do the job itself. Workers will be displaced and structural unemployment is likely to rise. The quicker the displacement process, the more will such unemployment rise. People may be forced to take more menial jobs in the service sector. This, in turn, will drive down the wages in such jobs and employers may find it more convenient to use gig workers than employ workers on full- or part-time contracts with holidays and other rights and benefits.

But the development of AI may also lead to the creation of other high-productivity jobs. As the Goldman Sachs article linked below states:

Jobs displaced by automation have historically been offset by the creation of new jobs, and the emergence of new occupations following technological innovations accounts for the vast majority of long-run employment growth… For example, information-technology innovations introduced new occupations such as webpage designers, software developers and digital marketing professionals. There were also follow-on effects of that job creation, as the boost to aggregate income indirectly drove demand for service sector workers in industries like healthcare, education and food services.

Nevertheless, people could still lose their jobs before being re-employed elsewhere.

The possible rise in structural unemployment raises the question of retraining provision and its funding and whether workers would be required to undertake such retraining. It also raises the question of whether there should be a universal basic income so that the additional income from AI can be spread more widely. This income would be paid in addition to any wages that people earn. But a universal basic income would require finance. How could AI be taxed? What would be the effects on incentives and investment in the AI industry? The Guardian article, linked below, explores some of these issues.

The increased GDP from AI will lead to higher levels of consumption. The resulting increase in demand for labour will go some way to offsetting the effects of workers being displaced by AI. There may be new employment opportunities in the service sector in areas such as sport and recreation, where there is an emphasis on human interaction and where, therefore, humans have an advantage over AI.

Another issue raised is whether people need to work so many hours. Is there an argument for a four-day or even three-day week? We explored these issues in a recent blog in the context of low productivity growth. The arguments become more compelling when productivity growth is high.

Other issues

AI users are not all benign. As we are beginning to see, AI opens the possibility for sophisticated crime, including cyberattacks, fraud and extortion as the technology makes the acquisition and misuse of data, and the development of malware and phishing much easier.

Another set of issues arises in education. What knowledge should students be expected to acquire? Should the focus of education continue to shift towards analytical skills and understanding away from the simple acquisition of knowledge and techniques. This has been a development in recent years and could accelerate. Then there is the question of assessment. Generative AI creates a range of possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of cheating. How should modes of assessment change to reflect this problem? Should there be a greater shift towards exams or towards project work that encourages the use of AI?

Finally, there is the issue of the sort of society we want to achieve. Work is not just about producing goods and services for us as consumers – work is an important part of life. To the extent that AI can enhance working life and take away a lot of routine and boring tasks, then society gains. To the extent, however, that it replaces work that involved judgement and human interaction, then society might lose. More might be produced, but we might be less fulfilled.

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Questions

  1. Which industries are most likely to benefit from the development of AI?
  2. Distinguish between labour-replacing and labour-augmenting technological progress in the context of AI.
  3. How could AI reduce the amount of labour per unit of output and yet result in an increase in employment?
  4. What people are most likely to (a) gain, (b) lose from the increasing use of AI?
  5. Is the distribution of income likely to become more equal or less equal with the development and adoption of AI? Explain.
  6. What policies could governments adopt to spread the gains from AI more equally?

China has been an economic powerhouse in recent decades – a powerhouse that has helped to drive the world economy through trade and both inward and outward investment. At the same time, its low-priced exports have helped to dampen world inflation. But is all this changing? Is China, to use President Biden’s words, a ‘ticking time bomb’?

China’s economic growth rate is slowing, with the quarterly growth in GDP falling from 2.2% in Q1 this year to 0.8% in Q2. Even though public-sector investment rose by 8.1% in the first six months of this year, private-sector investment fell by 0.2%, reflecting waning business confidence. And manufacturing output declined in August. But, despite slowing growth, the Chinese government is unlikely to use expansionary fiscal policy because of worries about growing public-sector debt.

The property market

One of the biggest worries for the Chinese economy is the property market. The annual rate of property investment fell by 20.6% in June this year and new home prices fell by 0.2% in July (compared with June). The annual rate of price increase for new homes was negative throughout 2022, being as low as minus 1.6% in November 2022; it was minus 0.1% in the year to July 2023, putting new-home prices at 2.4% below their August 2021 level. However, these are official statistics. According to the Japan Times article linked below, which reports Bloomberg evidence, property agents and private data providers report much bigger falls, with existing home prices falling by at least 15% in many cities.

Falling home prices have made home-owners poorer and this wealth effect acts as a brake on spending. The result is that, unlike in many Western countries, there has been no post-pandemic bounce back in spending. There has also been a dampening effect on local authority spending. During the property boom they financed a proportion of their spending by selling land to property developers. That source of revenue has now largely dried up. And as public-sector revenues have been constrained, so this has constrained infrastructure spending – a major source of growth in China.

The government, however, has been unwilling to compensate for this by encouraging private investment and has tightened regulation of the financial sector. The result has been a decline in new jobs and a rise in unemployment, especially among graduates, where new white collar jobs in urban areas are declining. According to the BBC News article linked below, “In July, figures showed a record 21.3% of jobseekers between the ages of 16 and 25 were out of work”.

Deflation

The fall in demand has caused consumer prices to fall. In the year to July 2023, they fell by 0.3%. Even though core inflation is still positive (0.8%), the likelihood of price reductions in the near future discourages spending as people hold back, waiting for prices to fall further. This further dampens the economy. This is a problem that was experienced in Japan over many years.

Despite slowing economic growth, Chinese annual growth in GDP for 2023 is still expected to be around 4.5% – much lower than the average rate for 9.5% from 1991 to 2019, but considerably higher than the average of 1.1% forecast for 2023 for the G7 countries. Nevertheless, China’s exports fell by 14.5% in the year to July 2023 and imports fell by 12.5%. The fall in imports represents a fall in exports to China from the rest of the world and hence a fall in injections to the rest-of-the-world economy. Currently China’s role as a powerhouse of the world has gone into reverse.

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Questions

  1. Using PowerPoint or Excel, plot the growth rate of Chinese real GDP, real exports and real imports from 1990 to 2024 (using forecasts for 2023 and 2024). Use data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database. Comment on the figures.
  2. Explain the wealth effect from falling home prices.
  3. Why may official figures understate the magnitude of home price deflation?
  4. Explain the foreign trade multiplier and its relevance to other countries when the volume of Chinese imports changes. What determines the size of this multiplier for a specific country?
  5. How does the nature of the political system in China affect the likely policy response to the problems identified in this blog?
  6. Is there any good news for the rest of the world from the slowdown in the Chinese economy?

Last year was far from the picture of economic stability that all governments would hope for. Instead, the overarching theme of 2022 was uncertainty, which overshadowed many economic predictions throughout the year. The Collins English Dictionary announced that their word of the year for 2022 is ‘permacrisis’, which is defined as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’.

For the UK, 2022 was an eventful year, seeing two changes in prime minister, economic stagnation, financial turmoil, rampant inflation and a cost of living crisis. However, the UK was not alone in its economic struggles. Many believe that it is a minor miracle that the world did not experience a systemic financial crisis in 2022.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the biggest land war in Europe since 1945, the most serious risk of nuclear escalation since the Cuban missile crisis and the most far-reaching sanctions regime since the 1930s. Soaring food and energy costs have fuelled the highest rates of inflation since the 1980s and the biggest macroeconomic challenge in the modern era of central banking (with the possible exception of the financial crisis of 2007–8 and its aftermath). For decades we have lived with the assumptions that nuclear war was never going to happen, inflation will be kept low and rich countries will not experience an energy crisis. In 2022 all of these assumptions and more have been shaken.

With the combination of rising interest rates and a massive increase in geopolitical risk, the world economy did well to survive as robustly as it did. However, with public and private debt having risen to record levels during the now-bygone era of ultra-low interest rates and with recession risks high, the global financial system faces a huge stress test.

Government pledges

Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, started 2023 by setting out five pledges: to halve inflation, boost economic growth, cut national debt as a percentage of GDP, and to address NHS waiting lists and the issue of immigrants arriving in small boats. Whilst most would agree that meeting these pledges is desirable, a reduction in inflation is forecast to happen anyway, given the monetary policy being pursued by the Bank of England and an easing of commodity prices; and public-sector debt as a percentage of GDP is forecast to fall from 2024/25.

Success in meeting the first four pledges will partly depend on the effects of the current industrial action by workers across the UK. How soon will the various disputes be settled and on what terms? What will be the implications for service levels and for inflation?

A weak global economy

Success will also depend on the state of the global economy, which is currently very fragile. In fact, it is predicted that a third of the global economy will be hit by recession this year. The head of the IMF has warned that the world faces a ‘tougher’ year in 2023 than in the previous 12 months. Such comments suggest the IMF is likely soon to cut its economic forecasts for 2023 again. The IMF already cut its 2023 outlook for global economic growth in October, citing the continuing drag from the war in Ukraine, as well as inflationary pressures and interest rate rises by major central banks.

The World Bank has also described the global economy as being ‘on a razor’s edge’ and warns that it risks falling into recession this year. The organisation expects the world economy to grow by just 1.7% this year, which is a sharp fall from an estimated 2.9% in 2022 according to the Global Economic Prospects report (see link below). It has warned that if financial conditions tighten, then the world’s economy could easily fall into a recession. If this becomes a reality, then the current decade would become the first since the 1930s to include two global recessions. Growth forecasts have been lowered for 95% of advanced economies and for more than 70% of emerging market and developing economies compared with six months ago. Given the global outlook, it is no surprise that the UK economy is expected to face a prolonged recession with declining growth and increased unemployment.

The current state of the UK economy

Despite all the concerns, official figures show that, even though households have been squeezed by rising prices, UK real GDP unexpectedly grew in November, by 0.1%. This has been explained by a boost to bars and restaurants from the World Cup as people went out to watch the football and also by demand for services in the tech sector.

At first sight, the UK’s cost of living crisis might look fairly mild compared to other countries. Its inflation rate was 10.7% in November 2022, compared to 12.6% in Italy, 16% in Poland and over 20% in Hungary and Estonia. But UK inflation is still way above the Bank of England’s 2% target. The Bank went on to tighten monetary policy further, by increasing interest rates to 3.5% in December. Further rate rises are expected in 2023. In fact, the markets and the Bank both expect the main rate to reach 5.2% by the end of this year. With the consequent squeeze on real incomes, the Bank of England expects a recession in the UK this year – possibly lasting until mid-2024.

The UK is also affected by global interest rates, which affect global growth. Global interest rates average 5%. A 1 percentage point increase would reduce global growth this year from 1.7% to 0.6%, with per capita output contracting by 0.3%, once changes in population are taken into account. This would then meet the technical definition of a global recession. This means that the Bank’s November economic forecast, which was based on a Bank Rate of 3%, may worsen due to an even larger contraction than previously expected. The resulting drop in spending and investment by people and businesses could then cause inflation to come down faster than the Bank had predicted when rates were at 3%.

There could be some positive news however, that may help bring down inflation in addition to rate rises. There has been some appreciation in the pound since the huge drop caused by the September mini-budget that had brought its value to a nearly 40-year low. This will help to reduce inflation by reducing the price of imports.

As far as workers are concerned, pay increases have been broadly contained, with 2022 being one of the worst years in decades for UK real wage growth. Limiting pay rises can have a deflationary effect because people have less to spend, but it also weighs on economic growth and productivity. Despite the impact on inflation, there is a lot of unrest across the UK, with strike action continuing to be at the forefront of the news. Strikes over pay and conditions continue in various sectors in 2023, including transport, health, education and the postal service. Strikes and industrial action have a negative effect on the wider economy. If wages are stagnating and the economy is not performing well, productivity will suffer as workers are less motivated and less investment in new equipment takes place.

Financial stresses

The UK economy is also under threat of a prolonged recession due to the proportion of households that lack insulation against financial setbacks. This proportion is unusually large for a wealthy economy. A survey conducted prior to the pandemic, found that 3 million people in the UK would fall into poverty if they missed one pay cheque, with the country’s high housing costs being a key source of vulnerability. Another survey recently suggested that one-third of UK adults would struggle if their costs rose by just £20 a month.

The pandemic itself meant that over 4 million households have taken on additional debt, with many now falling behind on repaying it. This, combined with recent jumps in energy and food bills, could push many over the edge, especially if heating costs remain high when the present government cap on energy prices ends in April.

However, there could be some better news for households with the easing of COVID restrictions in China. This could have a positive impact on the UK economy if it helps ease supply-chain disruptions occurring since the height of the global pandemic. It could reduce inflationary pressure in the UK and other countries that trade with China by making it easier – and therefore less costly – for people to get hold of goods.

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Questions

  1. Define the term ‘deflation’.
  2. Explain how an appreciation of the pound is good for inflation.
  3. Discuss the wider economic impacts of industrial strike action.
  4. Why is it important for the government to keep wages contained?