Looming stagflation

Aggregate demand has been booming as the world bounces back from the pandemic. At the same time, aggregate supply is severely constrained. These supply constraints are making potential national income smaller – at least temporarily. The result is that many countries are heading for recession.

At the same time, supply constraints are causing prices to rise, especially energy and food prices. This cost-push inflation is made worse by the rises in aggregate demand.

The result is ‘stagflation’ – a recession, or stagnation, accompanied by high inflation. In the UK, the latest Bank of England Monetary Policy Report forecast that by the end of 2022, CPI inflation would be 13.1% and that in 2023, real GDP would fall by 1.5%.

This effect of an adverse supply shock accompanied by relatively buoyant aggregate demand (at least initially) can be illustrated with an aggregate demand and supply diagram. The supply shock is illustrated by an upward shift to the left of the short-run aggregate supply curve (SRAS). (If the shock is a direct rise in prices, then it can be seen as a vertical upward shift. If it is a fall in the total amount supplied, then it can be seen as a horizontal leftward shift.) In the diagram, aggregate supply shifts from SRAS1 to SRAS2. The price level rises from P1 to P2. If costs go on rising or supply goes on falling then the curve will go on shifting upwards to the left.

If the government responds by increasing benefits or reducing taxes, then, other things being
equal, aggregate demand will rise. In the diagram, the AD curve will shift to the right, e.g. from AD1 to AD2. Real GDP only falls to Y3 not Y2. However, the price level rises further: from P2 to P3.

Why has aggregate supply fallen?

There are several factors that have contributed to the fall in aggregate supply/rise in costs.

  • Stretched supply chains, which had been adversely affected by Covid. Congestion at container ports has led to delays, with warehouses and shops being short of stock.
  • Labour shortages, with many people not returning to the labour force after being laid off or furloughed, or only returning part time, leaving firms needing more people. The problem has been particularly acute in the UK, with many EU citizens having returned to the EU after Brexit and the UK having to rely increasingly on staff from outside the EU.
  • The war in Ukraine. This has had a major impact on the supply of natural gas and oil. The war has also led to a fall in grain and other food supplies from Ukraine, as ports have been blockaded and there have been disruptions to planting and harvesting.
  • Climate change is causing more severe weather events, such as droughts in Europe and western USA. The droughts of 2022 will compound the problem of food shortages and food price inflation.
  • In the UK, Brexit costs, such as increased administrative burdens and difficulties in both exporting and importing, have dampened production and hence adversely impacted on aggregate supply.
  • Increased industrial action. As the cost of living soars, unions are demanding pay increases to match the rise in the cost of living. Pay rises further increase firms’ costs – and the bigger the pay rises, the bigger the rise in costs.

The problem with a fall in aggregate supply is that it reduces real GDP. People as a whole are poorer. To use a common analogy, the national ‘pie’ has shrunk. Giving everyone a bigger knife and fork (i.e. a rise in nominal aggregate demand) will not make people better off. It just compounds the problem of rising prices, as the diagram shows.

In the short term, with GDP shrinking, there is a major issue of distribution. If the poor are to be given help so that they are not made even poorer, then other people will have been made worse off. In other words, their nominal incomes must rise more slowly than prices.

Monetary policy

Central banks generally have a mandate of keeping inflation close to 2% over the medium term. Their levers are changes in interest rates, underpinned by changes in the money supply – in extreme times by quantitative easing (creating money by buying assets with newly created money) or quantitative tightening (withdrawing money from the economy by selling assets). Central banks, faced by soaring inflation, have been raising interest rates. The Fed has recently raised the Federal Funds rate by 0.75 percentage points (75 basis points) and the Bank of England and the European Central Bank by 0.5 percentage points (50 basis points).

Raising interest rates reduces inflation by dampening aggregate demand. In the diagram, the AD curve shifts to the left (or shifts to the right less quickly). This will dampen inflation, as falling real demand will force firms to cut prices. But it will also force them to cut output and employment, thereby worsening the recession.

Central banks recognise this dilemma, but also recognise that if inflation is not brought rapidly under control, it could spiral upwards, with wages and prices chasing each other in a wage–price spiral, which only gets worse as inflationary expectations rise. The short-term pain of falling real income is a price worth paying for getting inflation under control.

Fiscal policy

In the short term, there is little that fiscal policy can do to raise real GDP. The focus, as it was during the pandemic, must therefore be in providing relief to those most in need.

In the UK, the energy price cap set by Ofgem will see likely energy bills for the typical household quadruple in just a year, from a little over £1000 per annum at January 2021 prices to over £4200 in predicted January 2023 prices. These higher prices partly reflect rising wholesale energy costs and partly the need for energy companies, in a process known as ‘backwardation’, to recoup hedging costs they have incurred so as not to be forced out of business.

Relief for consumers can be in various forms. For example, the government could pay subsidies to energy suppliers to cap prices at a lower level, perhaps just for the poorest households. Or it could pay grants to help people with their bills. Again, these could be targeted to the poorest families, or paid on a sliding scale according to income. Or VAT on gas and electricity could be scrapped.

Generally the more people are entitled to help, the more expensive it is for the government and hence the less generous the help per family is likely to be.

Then there is the question of whether such measures should be accompanied by a rise in broadly-based tax, such as income tax, or whether the government should borrow more, which would be likely to push up interest rates and increase the cost of servicing government debt.

One topic of debate in the Conservative leadership contest is whether taxes should be cut to help people struggling with the cost of living. Whilst such a policy, if carefully targeted to investment, might increase aggregate supply over the longer term, in the short term it will increase aggregate demand and will add to inflationary pressures.

Targeting tax cuts to the poor is difficult. Cutting income tax rates has the opposite effect. The rich pay more income tax than the poor and will benefit most from a cut in rates. An alternative is to raise personal allowances. This will provide a bigger percentage help to income taxpayers on lower incomes, but provides no help at all for the poorest people who currently pay no income tax.


The supply shocks are making countries poorer. The focus in the short term, therefore, needs to be on income distribution and how to help those suffering the most.

To end on a note of optimism: the energy shocks are causing governments to invest in alternative sources, such as wind, solar and nuclear. When these come on line, it is expected that energy prices will fall.

As far as overall inflation is concerned, although the Bank of England is forecasting CPI inflation of 13.1% by Q4 2022, it is also forecasting that this will have fallen to 5.5% by Q4 2023 and to just 0.8% by Q3 2024. Fingers crossed.


Reports etc.


  1. What are the most efficient policies for helping those in energy poverty?
  2. Why is inflation forecast to fall later in 2023?
  3. What determines the shape of the short-run aggregate supply curve?
  4. What government policies would support (a) labour productivity; (b) investment?
  5. How might the market solve the problem of supply shortages?