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.
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.
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate what has happened in the energy market over the past year.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention in a free market?
- Explain why it is necessary for the regulator to intervene in the energy market.
- Using the concept of maximum pricing, illustrate how the price cap works.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a stark effect on countries’ public finances. Governments had to make difficult fiscal choices around spending and taxation to safeguard public health, and the protection of jobs and incomes both in the present and in the future. The fiscal choices were to have historically large effects on the size of public spending and on the size of public borrowing. Here we briefly summarise the magnitude of these effects on public spending, receipts and borrowing in the UK.
The public sector comprises both national government and local or regional government. In financial year 2019/20 public spending in the UK was £886 billion. This would rise to £1.045 trillion in 2020/21. To understand better the magnitude of these figures we can express them as a share of national income (Gross Domestic Product). In 2019/20 public spending was 39.8 per cent of national income. This rose to 52.1 per cent in 2020/21. Meanwhile, public-sector receipts, largely taxation, fell from £829.1 billion in 2019/20 to £796.5 billion in 2020/21, though, because of the fall in national income, the share of receipts in national income rose very slightly from 37.3 to 37.9 per cent of national income.
The chart shows both public spending and public receipts as a share of national income since 1900. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) What this chart shows is the extraordinary impact of the two World Wars on the relative size of public spending. We can also see an uptick in public spending following the global financial crisis and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The chart also shows that spending is typically larger than receipts meaning that the public sector typically runs a budget deficit. .
If we focus on public spending as a share of national income and its level following the two world wars, we can see that it did not fall back to pre-war levels. This is what Peacock and Wiseman (1961) famously referred to as a displacement effect. They attributed this to, among other things, an increase in the public’s tolerance to pay higher taxation because of the higher taxes levied during the war as well as to a desire for greater public intervention. The latter arose from an inspection effect. This can be thought of as a public consciousness effect, with the war helping to shine a light on a range of economic and social issues, such as health, housing and social security. These two effects, it is argued, reinforced each other, allowing the burden of taxation to rise and, hence, public spending to increase relative to national income.
If we forward to the global financial crisis, we can again see public spending rise as a share of national income. However, this time the ratio did not remain above pre-crisis levels. Rather, the UK government was fearful of unsustainable borrowing levels and the crowding out of private-sector activity by the public sector, with higher interest rates making public debt an attractive proposition for investors. It thus sought to reduce the public-sector deficit by engaging in what became known as ‘austerity’ measures.
If we move forward further to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see an even more significant spike in public spending as a share of national income. It is of course rather early to make predictions about whether the pandemic will have enduring effects on public spending and taxation. Nonetheless the pandemic, in a similar way to the two world wars, has sparked public debates on many economic and social issues. Whilst debates around the funding of health and social care are longstanding, it could be argued that the pandemic has provided the government with the opportunity to introduce the 1.25 percentage point levy from April 2022 on the earned incomes of workers (both employees and the self-employed) and on employers. (See John’s blog Fair care? for a fuller discussion on the tax changes to pay for increased health and social care expenditure).
The extent to which there may be a pandemic displacement effect will depend on the fiscal choices made in the months and years ahead. The key question is how powerful will be the effect of social issues like income and wealth inequality, regional and inter-generational disparities, discrimination, poor infrastructure and educational opportunities in shaping these fiscal choices? Will these considerations carry more weight than the push to consolidate the public finances and tighten the public purse? These fiscal choices will determine the extent of any displacement effect in public spending and taxation.
Alan Peacock and Jack Wiseman, The Growth in Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom, Princeton University Press (1961).
- What do you understand by the term ‘public finances’?
- Why might you wish to express the size of public spending relative to national income rather than simply as an absolute amount?
- Undertake research to identify key pieces of social policy in the UK that were enacted at or around the times of the two World Wars.
- What do you understand by the terms ‘tolerable tax burden’ and ‘inspection effect’?
- Identify those social issues that you think have come into the spotlight as a result of the pandemic. Undertake research on any one of these and write a briefing note exploring the issue and the possible policy choices available to government.
- What is the concept of crowding out? How might it affect fiscal choices?
- How would you explain the distinction between public-sector borrowing and public-sector debt? Why could the former fall and the latter rise at the same time?
In a post at the end of 2019, we looked at moves around the world to introduce a four-day working week, with no increase in hours on the days worked and no reduction in weekly pay. Firms would gain if increased worker energy and motivation resulted in a gain in output. They would also gain if fewer hours resulted in lower costs.
Workers would be likely to gain from less stress and burnout and a better work–life balance. What is more, firms’ and workers’ carbon footprint could be reduced.
In New Zealand, Unilever has begun a one-year experiment to allow all 81 of its employees to work one day less each week and no more hours per day. This, it argues, might boost productivity and improve employees’ work-life balance.
The biggest experiment so far has been in Iceland. From 2015 to 2019 more than 2500 people took part in a pilot programme (about 1 per cent of Iceland’s working population). This involved reducing the working week to four days and reducing hours worked from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours with no reduction in weekly pay.
Analysis of the results of the trial, published in July 2021, showed that output remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces.
As a result of agreements struck with unions since the end of the pilot programme, 86% of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or will gain the right to do so.
Many companies and public-sector employers around the world are considering reducing hours or days worked. With working patterns having changed for many employees during the pandemic, employers may now be more open to rethinking ways of deploying their workforce more productively. And this may involve rethinking worker motivation and welfare.
- Distinguish between different ways of measuring labour productivity.
- Summarise the results of the Iceland pilot.
- In what ways may reducing working hours reduce a firm’s total costs?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the government imposing (at some point in the future) a maximum working week or a four-day week?
- What types of firm might struggle in introducing a four-day week or a substantially reduced number of hours for full-time employees?
- What external benefits and costs might arise from a shorter working week?
House prices are soaring throughout the world, making them unaffordable for many first-time buyers. In the UK, for example, according to the Nationwide, the annual house price increase was 13.4% in 2021 Q2. In the USA, house prices are rising by over 23% per annum.
The reason for this rampant house price inflation is that demand is rising much faster than supply. What is more, with inelastic supply in the short term, a given percentage rise in demand leads to a larger percentage increase in prices.
Reasons for rapidly rising house prices
But why has demand risen so rapidly? One major reason is that central banks have engaged in massive quantitative easing. This has driven down interest rates to historic lows and has led to huge asset purchases. Mortgage lenders, awash with money, have been able to increase the ratio of lending to income. Borrowing by house purchasers, encouraged by low interest rates and easy access to mortgages, has thus increased rapidly.
Another reason for the increased demand is that economies are beginning to recover from the COVID-induced recessions. This makes people more confident about their future financial positions and more willing to take on increased mortgage debt. Another reason is that, with increased working from home, people are looking for larger houses where rooms can be used as studies. Another is that, with less spending during the lockdowns, people have built up savings, which can be used to buy larger homes.
Some countries have deliberately boosted demand by fiscal measures. In the UK, the government introduced a stamp duty ‘holiday’. Previously a 3% ‘stamp duty’ tax was applied to purchases over £125 000. Under the holiday scheme, the rate would only apply to purchases over £500 000 until 30 June 2021 and then to purchases over £250 000 until 30 September 2021. This massively boosted demand, especially as the deadlines approached. In the USA, there are various schemes at federal and state level to support first-time buyers, including low-interest loans and vouchers. Supporting demand is counterproductive if it merely leads to higher prices and thus does not make it easier for people to buy.
Speculation has played a major part too, with many potential purchasers keen to buy before prices rise further. On the supply side, some vendors have held back hoping to get a higher price by waiting. Gazumping has returned. This is where vendors accept a new higher offer even though they have already accepted a previous lower one.
Effects of higher house prices
Higher house prices have had a knock-on effect on rents, which have also soared. This has encouraged house purchases for rent both by individuals and by property investment companies. The effect of rapidly rising house prices and rents has been to increase the divide in society between property owners and those unable to afford to buy and forced to rent.
Increased housing wealth is likely to lead to greater housing equity withdrawal. This is where people draw on some of their equity in order to finance increased consumer spending, thereby boosting aggregate demand and possibly inflation.
Will the house price boom end soon?
One scenario is that there will be a gradual slowdown in house price increases as quantitative easing is tapered off and as support measures, such as the UK’s stamp duty holiday, are unwound.
There is a real possibility, however, that there will be a more severe correction, with house prices actually falling. This could be triggered by central banks raising interest rates in response to higher inflation caused by the recovery and by higher commodity prices. In the UK, labour shortages brought about by Brexit could make the inflationary problem worse. With high levels of mortgage debt, even a half percentage point rise in mortgage interest rates could have a severe effect on demand. Falling house prices will then be compounded by speculation, with buyers holding off and sellers rushing to sell.
- “UK Boom the Biggest in 50 years” thanks to House Prices, but Oxford Economics Warn of Risks
PoundSterling Live, Gary Howes (18/6/21)
- US house prices see biggest rise in 30 YEARS and are outstripping Britain’s pandemic-fuelled boom: Is a global housing market bubble emerging?
This is Money, Helen Crane (1/7/21)
- House prices: urban exodus of upsizers shifts property demand
Business Telegraph (18/4/21)
- House prices rise at fastest pace in 17 years
BBC News (30/6/21)
- Runaway house prices: the ‘winners and losers’ from the pandemic
Financial Times, Delphine Strauss and Colby Smith (25/6/21)
- World’s Bubbliest Housing Markets Flash 2008 Style Warnings
Bloomberg, Enda Curran (15/6/21)
- House prices climb to record levels in US and Europe
Financial Times, Martin Arnold, Colby Smith and Matthew Rocco (22/6/21)
- With house prices through the roof, young buyers’ hopes go out the window
The Observer, Phillip Inman (3/7/21)
- Is the UK housing bubble about to burst? These are the best and worst scenarios
The Guardian, Josh Ryan-Collins (2/7/21)
- House prices: the risks of a fall are higher than most people think
The Conversation, Geoff Meen (28/6/21)
- Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate what has been happening to house prices. Illustrate the importance of the price elasticity of supply in the process.
- Under what circumstances might tax relief help or not help first-time buyers?
- Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate the effect of speculation on house prices? Under what circumstances might speculation (a) make the market less stable; (b) help to stabilise the market?
- Explain what is meant by housing equity withdrawal. Using the Bank of England website, find out what has happened to housing equity withdrawal in the UK over the past 15 years. Explain.
- Under what circumstances would a sudden house price correction be more likely?
- Write a critique of housing policy in the light of growing inter-generational inequality of wealth.
One of the major economic concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic has been the likely long-term scarring effects on economies from bankruptcies, a decline in investment, lower spending on research and development, a loss of skills, discouragement of workers, disruption to education, etc. The result would be a decline in potential output or, at best, a slower growth. These persistent effects are known as ‘hysteresis’ – an effect that persists after the original cause has disappeared.
In a speech by Dave Ramsden, the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor for Markets & Banking, he argued that, according to MPC estimates, the pandemic will have caused a loss of potential output of 1.75%. This shortfall may seem small at first sight, so does it matter? According to Ramsden:
The answer is definitely yes for two reasons. First, a 1¾% shortfall as a share of annual GDP for the UK … represents roughly £39 billion – for context, that’s about half of the education budget. And second, that 1¾% represents a permanent shortfall, or at least a very persistent one, on top of the impact of the immediate downturn. If you lose 1¾% of GDP every year for ten years, then in total you have lost 17.5% of one year’s GDP, or around £390bn in 2019 terms
However, as the IMF blog linked below argues, there may be positive supply-side effects which outweigh these scarring effects, causing a net rise in potential GDP growth. There are two possible reasons for this.
The first is that the pandemic may have hastened the process of digitalisation and automation. Examples include ‘video conferencing and file sharing applications to drones and data-mining technologies’. According to evidence from a sample of 15 countries cited in the blog, a 10% rise in such intangible capital investment is associated with about a 4½% rise in labour productivity. ‘As COVID-19 recedes, the firms which invested in intangible assets, such as digital technologies and patents may see higher productivity as a result.’
The second is a reallocation of workers and capital to more productive sectors. Firms in some sectors, such as leisure, hospitality and retail, have relatively low labour productivity. Many parts of these industries have declined during the pandemic, especially those with high labour intensity. At the same time, there has been a rise in employment in firms where output per worker is higher. Such sectors include e-commerce and those where remote working is possible. The greater the reallocation from low labour-productivity to high labour-productivity sectors, the more will overall labour productivity rise and hence the more will potential output increase.
The size of these two effects will depend to a large extent on expectations, incentives and government policy. The blog cites four types of policy that can help investment and reallocation.
- Improved insolvency and restructuring procedures to enable capital in failed firms to be reallocated to sectors with potential for growth.
- Promoting competition to enable the exit and entry of firms into expanding sectors and to prevent powerful firms from blocking the process.
- Refocusing policy from retaining labour in existing jobs to reskilling workers for new jobs, thereby improving labour mobility from declining to expanding sectors.
- Addressing financial bottlenecks, so as to ensure adequate access to financing for viable firms.
Whether there will be a net increase or decrease in productivity from the pandemic very much depends on the extent to which firms and workers are able and willing to take advantage of new opportunities and the extent to which government supports investment in and reallocation to high-productivity sectors.
Blogs, articles and speeches
- Can actual economic growth be greater than potential economic growth (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
- Give some example of scarring effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
- What effects might short-term policies to tackle the recession caused by the pandemic have on longer-term potential economic growth?
- What practical policies could governments adopt to encourage the positive supply-side effects of the pandemic? To what extent would these policies have negative short-term effects?
- Why might (endogenous) financial crises result in larger and more persistent reductions in potential output than exogenous crises, such as a pandemic or a war?
- Distinguish between interventionist and market-orientated supply-side policies to encourage the reallocation of labour and capital to higher-productivity sectors.