The distinction between nominal and real values in one of the ‘threshold concepts’ in economics. These are concepts that are fundamental to a discipline and which occur again and again. The distinction between nominal and real values is particularly important when interpreting and analysing data. We show its importance here when analysing the latest retail sales data from the Office for National Statistics.
Retail sales relate to spending on items such as food, clothing, footwear, and household goods (see). They involve sales by retailers directly to end consumers whether in store or online. The retail sales index for Great Britain is based on a monthly survey of around 5000 retailers across England, Scotland and Wales and is thought to capture around 93 per cent of turnover in the sector.
Estimates of retail sales are published in index form. There are two indices published by the ONS: a value and volume measure. The value index reflects the total turnover of business, while the volume index adjusts the value index for price changes. Hence, the value estimates are nominal, while the volume estimates are real. The key point here is that the nominal estimates reflect both price and volume changes, whereas the real estimates adjust for price movements to capture only volume changes.
The headline ONS figures for September 2023 showed a 0.9 per cent volume fall in the volume of retail sales, following a 0.4 per cent rise in August. In value terms, September saw a 0.2 per cent fall in retail sales following a 0.9 per cent rise in August. Monthly changes can be quite volatile, even after seasonal adjustment, and sensitive to peculiar factors. For example, the unusually warm weather this September helped to depress expenditure on clothes. It is, therefore, sensible to take a longer-term view when looking for clearer patterns in spending behaviour.
Chart 1 plots the value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain since 1996. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this and the other two charts). In value terms, retail sales spending increased by 165 per cent, whereas in volume terms, spending increased by 73 per cent. This difference is expected in the presence of rising prices, since nominal growth, as we have just noted, reflects both price and volume changes. The chart is notable for capturing two periods where the volume of retail spending ceased to grow. The first of these is following the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. The period from 2008 to 2013 saw the volume of retail sales stagnate and flatline with a recovery in volumes only really starting to take hold in 2014. Yet in nominal terms retail sales grew by around 16 per cent.
The second of the two periods is the decline in the volume of retail sales from 2021. To help illustrate this more clearly, Chart 2 zooms in on retail sales over the past five years or so. We can see a significant divergence between the volume and value of retail sales. Between April 2021 and September 2023, the volume of retail sales fell by 11%. In contrast, the value of retail sales increased by 8.4%. The impact of the inflationary shock and the consequent cost-of-living crisis that emerged from 2021 is therefore demonstrated starkly by the chart, not least the severe drag that it has had on the volume of retail spending. This has meant that the aggregate volume of retail sales in September 2023 was only back to the levels of mid-2018.
Finally, Chart 3 shows the patterns in the volumes of retailing by four categories since 2018: specifically, food stores, predominantly non-food stores, non-store retail, and automotive fuel. The largest fall in the volume of retail sales has been experienced by non-store retailing – largely online retailing. From its peak in December 2021, non-store retail sales decreased by 18% up to September 2023. While this needs to be set in the context of the volume of non-store retail purchases being 15% higher than in February 2020 before the pandemic lockdowns were introduced, it is nonetheless indicative of the pressures facing online retailers.
Importantly, the final chart shows that the pressures in retailing are widespread. Spending volumes on automotive fuels, and in food and non-food stores are all below 2019 levels. The likelihood is that these pressures will persist for some time to come. This inevitably has potential implications for retailers and, of course, for those that work in the sector.
- Why does an increase in the value of retail sales not necessarily mean that their volume has increased?
- In the presence of deflation, which will be higher: nominal or real growth rates?
- Discuss the factors that could explain the patterns in the volume of spending observed in the different categories of retail sales in Chart 3.
- Discuss what types of retail products might be more or less sensitive to the macroeconomic environment.
- Conduct a survey of recent media reports to prepare a briefing discussing examples of retailers who have struggled or thrived in the recent economic environment.
- What do you understand by the concepts of ‘consumer confidence’ and ‘economic uncertainty’? How might these affect the volume of retail spending?
- Discuss the proposition that the retail sales data cast doubt on whether people are ‘forward-looking consumption smoothers’.
The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.
In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.
The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.
In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.
These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.
New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.
New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.
Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.
A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.
- What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
- What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
- How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
- Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
- How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
- How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
- What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?
For those of you embarking on a course in economics, one of the first things you’ll come across is the distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics. The news is full of both microeconomic and macroeconomic issues and you’ll quickly see how relevant both branches of economics are to analysing real-world events, problems and policies.
As we state in Economics (updated 10th edition), ‘microeconomics is concerned with the individual parts of the economy. It is concerned with the demand and supply of particular goods, services and resources such as cars, butter, clothes, haircuts, plumbers, accountants, blast furnaces, computers and oil.’ In particular, it is concerned with the buying, selling, production and employment decisions of individuals and firms. When you go shopping and make choices of what to buy you are making microeconomic decisions. When firms choose how much of particular products to produce, what techniques of production to use and how many people to employ, these choices are microeconomic ones.
Microeconomics examines people’s behaviour when they make choices. In fact many of the recent developments in microeconomics involve analysing the behaviour of individuals and firms and the factors that influence this behaviour.
Open any newspaper, turn on the TV news or access any news site and you will see various microeconomic issues covered. Why are rents soaring? How is AI affecting various businesses’ productivity? How rapidly is the switch taking place to green energy? How do supermarkets influence spending patterns? Why are wages so low in the social care sector? Why are private PCR tests so expensive for holidaymakers retuning from abroad?
Many of the blogs on this news site will examine microeconomic issues. We hope that they provide useful case studies for your course.
- Look through news sites and identify five current microeconomic issues. What makes them ‘micro’ issues?
- If world oil and gas prices rise, why is this a microeconomic issue?
- What do you understand by ‘scarcity’? How is microeconomics related to scarcity?
- Are all goods scarce?
- What is meant by ‘opportunity cost’? Give some examples of how opportunity cost has affected recent decisions you have made.
With waiting lists in the NHS at record highs and with the social care system in crisis, there have been growing calls for increased funding for both health and social care. The UK government has just announced tax rises to raise more revenue for both services and has specified new limits on the amounts people must pay towards their care.
In this blog we look at the new tax rises and whether they are fair. We also look at whether the allocation of social care is fair. Clearly, the question of fairness is a contentious one, with people having very different views on what constitutes fairness between different groups in terms of incomes, assets and needs.
In terms of funding, the government has, in effect, introduced a new tax – the ‘health and social care levy’ to come into effect from April 2022. This will see a tax of 1.25% on the earned incomes of workers (both employees and the self-employed) and 1.25% on employers, making a total of 2.5% on employment income. It will initially be added to workers’ and employers’ national insurance (NI) payments. Currently national insurance is only paid by those below pension age (66). From 2023, the 1.25% levy will be separated from NI and will apply to pensioners’ earned income too.
The starting point for workers will be the same as for the rest of national insurance, currently £9568. Above this, the additional marginal rate of 1.25% will apply to all earned income. This will mean that a person earning £20 000 would pay a levy of £130.40, while someone earning £100 000 would pay £1130.40.
There will also be an additional 1.25% tax on share dividends. However, there will be no additional tax on rental income and capital gains, and on private or state pensions.
It is estimated that the levy will raise around £14 billion per year (0.7% of GDP or 1.6% of total tax revenue), of which £11.2 billion will go to the Department of Health and Social Care in 2022/23 and £9 billion in 2023/24. This follows a rise in income tax of £8 billion and corporation tax of £17 billion announced in the March 2021 Budget. As a result, tax revenues from 2022/23 will be a higher proportion of GDP (just over 34%) than at any time over the past 70 years, except for a short period in 1969/70.
Is the tax fair?
In a narrow sense, it can be argued that the levy is fair, as it is applied at the same percentage rate on all earned income. Thus, the higher a person’s earnings, the greater the amount they will pay. Also, it is mildly progressive. This is because, with a levy-free allowance of just under £10 000, the levy as a proportion of income earned rises gently as income rises: in other words, the average levy rate is higher on higher earners than on lower earners.
But national insurance as a whole is regressive as the rate currently drops from 12% to 2%, and with the levy will drop from 13.25% to 3.25%, once the upper threshold is reached. Currently the threshold is £50 270. As incomes rise above that level, so the proportion paid in national insurance falls. Politically, therefore, it makes sense to decouple the levy from NI, if it is being promoted as being fair as an additional tax on income earners.
Is it fair between the generations? Pensioners who earn income will pay the levy on that income at the same rate as everyone else (but no NI). But most pensioners’ main or sole source of income is their pensions and some, in addition, earn rent on property they own. Indeed, some pensioners have considerable private pensions or rental income. These sources of income will not be subject to the levy. Many younger people whose sole source of income is their wages will see this as unfair between the generations.
Allocation of funds
For the next few years, most of the additional funding will go to the NHS to help reduced waiting lists, which rocketed with the diversion of resources to treating COVID patients. Of the additional £11.2 billion for health and social care in 2022/23, some £9.4 billion will go to the NHS; and of the £9 billion in 2023/24, some £7.2 billion will go to the NHS. This leaves only an additional £1.8 billion each year for social care.
The funding should certainly help reduce NHS waiting lists, but the government refused to say by how much. Also there is a major staff shortage in the NHS, with many employees having returned to the EU following Brexit and fewer new employees coming from the EU. It may be that the staff shortage will push up wages, which will absorb some of the increase in funding.
The additional money from the levy going to social care would be wholly insufficient on its own to tackle the crisis. As with the NHS, the social care sector is facing an acute staff shortage, again aggravated by Brexit. Wages are low, and when travel time between home visits is taken into account, many workers receive well below the minimum wage. Staff in care homes often find themselves voluntarily working extra hours for no additional pay so as to provide continuity of care. Often levels of care are well below what carers feel is necessary.
Paying for social care
The government also announced new rules for the level of contributions by individuals towards their care costs. The measures in England are as follows. The other devolved nations have yet to announce their measures.
- Those with assets of less than £20 000 will not have to contribute towards their care costs from their assets, but may have to contribute from their income.
- Those with assets between £20 000 and £100 000 will get means-tested help towards their care costs.
- Those with assets over £100 000 will initially get no help towards their care costs. This is increasing from the current limit of £23 250
- There will be a limit of £86 000 to the amount people will have to contribute towards their care costs over their lifetime (from October 2023). These costs include both care in a care home and care at home.
- These amounts will apply only to care costs and not to the board and lodging costs in care homes. The government has not said how much people could be expected to contribute towards these living costs. A problem is that care homes generally do not itemise costs and hence it may be hard to distinguish care costs from living costs.
- Where people’s care costs are fully or partly covered, these will be paid by their local authority.
- A house will only count as a person’s asset if the person is going into a care home and it is not occupied by a spouse or partner. All financial assets, by contrast, will count.
- Many people in care homes will not be judged to be frail enough to be in receipt of support from their local authority. These people’s expenditure would not count towards the cap.
Setting the cap to the amount people must pay at the relatively high figure of £86 000 may ease the pressure on local authorities, as many people in care homes will die before the cap is reached. However, those who live longer and who get their care paid for above the cap, will pay no more no matter what their level of assets, even though they may be very rich. This could be seen to be unfair. A fairer system would be one where a proportion of a person’s assets had to be used to pay for care with no upper limit.
Also, the £1.8 billion is likely to fall well short of what local authorities will need to bring social care back to the levels considered acceptable, especially as the asset limit to support is being raised from £23 250 to £100 000. Local authority expenditure on social care fell by 7.5% per person in real terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20. This means that local authorities may have to increase council tax to top up the amount provided by the government from the levy.
- An initial response to the Prime Minister’s announcement on health, social care and National Insurance
Institute for Fiscal Studies Press Release, Paul Johnson, Carl Emmerson, Helen Miller, David Phillips, George Stoye, Isaac Delestre, Isabel Stockton, Kate Ogden, Robert Joyce, Stuart Adam, Tom Waters, Max Warner and Ben Zaranko (7/9/21)
- National Insurance rates to rise to fund social care crisis – how much more will you pay?
Which? News, Danielle Richardson (7/9/21)
- Social care tax rise: Boris Johnson wins Commons vote
BBC News (8/9/21)
- Will the cap really fix the social care system?
BBC News, Nick Triggle (8/9/21)
- National Insurance contributions to rise by 1.25% from April 2022 to fund social care costs
Money Saving Expert, James Flanders (7/9/21)
- Boris Johnson plan to fund health and social care lifts UK tax burden to 70-year high
Financial Times, George Parker, Laura Hughes and Chris Giles (7/9/21)
- Boris Johnson has created a ‘social care plan’ without any plan for social care
The Guardian, Frances Ryan (7/9/21)
- Analysis: The Government’s plans for health and social care
Reform, William Mills (8/9/21)
- Analysis: What does Boris Johnson’s health and social care tax mean for Scotland?
The Scotsman, Martyn McLaughlin (7/9/21)
- Social care tax rise is austerity by another name – economist Q&A
The Conversation, Alex de Ruyter (8/9/21)
- National insurance: a UK tax which is complex and vulnerable to political intervention
The Conversation, Gavin Midgley (8/9/21)
- How would you define a ‘fair’ way of funding social care?
- Distinguish between a proportional, progressive and regressive tax. How would you categorise (a) the new health and social care levy; (b) national insurance; (c) income tax; (d) VAT?
- Argue the case for providing social care free at the point of use to all those who require it.
- Argue the case for charging a person for some or all of their social care, with the amount charged being based on (a) the person’s income; (b) the person’s wealth; (c) both income and wealth.
- Argue the case for and against capping the amount a person should pay towards their social care.
- When a tax is used to raise revenue for a specific purpose it is known as a ‘hypothecated tax’. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a hypothecated tax for funding health and social care?
The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.
Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.
The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.
The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.
At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.
An evolving capitalism
So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?
Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.
But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.
If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.
Articles and videos
- Why the next stage of capitalism is coming
BBC Future, Matthew Wilburn King (27/5/21)
- During the pandemic, a new variant of capitalism has emerged
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/7/21)
- When it comes to social and environmental justice, words don’t cut it
GreenBiz, C J Clouse (28/4/21)
- Introducing the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican
Inclusive Capitalism (7/12/20)
- The State and Direction of Inclusive Capitalism
Saïd Business School, Ford Foundation and Deloitte Social Impact practice, Richard Barker, Mary Johnstone-Louis, Colin Mayer, Pradeep Prabhala, Noah Rimland Flower, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, Tony Siesfeld and Peter Tufano (2018)
- Rising Market Power—A Threat to the Recovery?
IMF Blog, Kristalina Georgieva, Federico J Díez, Romain Duval and Daniel Schwarz (15/3/21)
- The Pandemic Alone Can’t Transform Capitalism
Jacobin, Ramaa Vasudevan (30/7/21)
- Down to earth: How entrepreneurs can collaborate to rejuvenate capitalism
EU-Startups, Luca Sabia (4/8/21)
- How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
- What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
- What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
- How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
- What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
- Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?