Tag: cost-of-living crisis

We have examined inflation in several blogs in recent months. With inflation at levels not seen for 40 years, this is hardly surprising. One question we’ve examined is whether the policy response has been correct. For example, in July, we asked whether the Bank of England had raised interest rates too much, too late. In judging policy, one useful distinction is between demand-pull inflation and cost-push inflation. Do they require the same policy response? Is raising interest rates to get inflation down to the target rate equally applicable to inflation caused by excessive demand and inflation caused by rising costs, where those rising costs are not caused by rising demand?

In terms of aggregate demand and supply, demand-pull inflation is shown by continuing rightward shifts in aggregate demand (AD); cost-push inflation is shown by continuing leftward/upward shifts in short-run aggregate supply (SRAS). This is illustrated in the following diagram, which shows a single shift in aggregate demand or short-run aggregate supply. For inflation to continue, rather than being a single rise in prices, the curves must continue to shift.

As you can see, the effects on real GDP (Y) are quite different. A rise in aggregate demand will tend to increase GDP (as long as capacity constraints allow). A rise in costs, and hence an upward shift in short-run aggregate supply, will lead to a fall in GDP as firms cut output in the face of rising costs and as consumers consume less as the cost of living rises.

The inflation experienced by the UK and other countries in recent months has been largely of the cost-push variety. Causes include: supply-chain bottlenecks as economies opened up after COVID-19; the war in Ukraine and its effects on oil and gas supplies and various grains; and avian flu and poor harvests from droughts and floods associated with global warming resulting in a fall in food supplies. These all led to a rise in prices. In the UK’s case, this was compounded by Brexit, which added to firms’ administrative costs and, according to the Bank of England, was estimated to cause a long-term fall in productivity of around 3 to 4 per cent.

The rise in costs had the effect of shifting short-run aggregate supply upwards to the left. As well as leading to a rise in prices and a cost-of-living squeeze, the rising costs dampened expenditure.

This was compounded by a tightening of fiscal policy as governments attempted to tackle public-sector deficits and debt, which had soared with the support measures during the pandemic. It was also compounded by rising interest rates as central banks attempted to bring inflation back to target.

Monetary policy response

Central banks are generally charged with keeping inflation in the medium term at a target rate set by the government or the central bank itself. For most developed countries, this is 2% (see table in the blog, Should central bank targets be changed?). So is raising interest rates the correct policy response to cost-push inflation?

One argument is that monetary policy is inappropriate in the face of supply shocks. The supply shocks themselves have the effect of dampening demand. Raising interest rates will compound this effect, resulting in lower growth or even a recession. If the supply shocks are temporary, such as supply-chain disruptions caused by lockdowns during the pandemic, then it might be better to ride out the problem and not raise interest rates or raise them by only a small amount. Already cost pressures are easing in some areas as supplies have risen.

If, however, the fall in aggregate supply is more persistent, such as from climate-related declines in harvests or the Ukraine war dragging on, or new disruptions to supply associated with the Israel–Gaza war, or, in the UK’s case, with Brexit, then real aggregate demand may need to be reduced in order to match the lower aggregate supply. Or, at the very least, the growth in aggregate demand may need to be slowed to match the slower growth in aggregate supply.

Huw Pill, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, in a podcast from the Columbia Law School (see links below), argued that people should recognise that the rise in costs has made them poorer. If they respond to the rising costs by seeking higher wages, or in the case of businesses, by putting up prices, this will simply stoke inflation. In these circumstances, raising interest rates to cool aggregate demand may reduce people’s ability to gain higher wages or put up prices.

Another argument for raising interest rates in the face of cost-push inflation is when those cost increases are felt more than in other countries. The USA has suffered less from cost pressures than the UK. On the other hand, its growth rate is higher, suggesting that its inflation, albeit lower than in the UK, is more of the demand-pull variety. Despite its inflation rate being lower than in the UK, the problem of excess demand has led the Fed to adopt an aggressive interest rate policy. Its target rate is 5.25% to 5.50%, while the Bank of England’s is 5.25%. In order to prevent short-term capital outflows and a resulting depreciation in the pound, further stoking inflation, the Bank of England has been under pressure to mirror interest rate rises in the USA, the eurozone and elsewhere.

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  1. How may monetary policy affect inflationary expectations?
  2. If cost-push inflation makes people generally poorer, what role does the government have in making the distribution of a cut in real income a fair one?
  3. In the context of cost-push inflation, how might the authorities prevent a wage–price spiral?
  4. With reference to the second article above, explain the ‘monetary policy conundrum’ faced by the Bank of Japan.
  5. If central banks have a single policy instrument, namely changes in interest rates, how may conflicts arise when there is more than one macroeconomic objective?
  6. Is Russia’s rise in inflation the result of cost or demand pressures, or a mixture of the two (see articles above)?

UK house prices have been falling in recent months. According to the Nationwide Building Society, average UK house prices in September 2023 were 5.3% lower than in September 2022. This fall reflects the increasing cost of owning a home as mortgage rates have risen. The average standard variable rate mortgage was 3.61% in August 2021, 4.88% in August 2022 and 7.85% in August 2023. A two-year fixed rate mortgage with a 10% deposit had an interest rate of 2.48% in August 2021, 3.93% in August 2022 and 6.59% in August 2023. Thus over two years, mortgage rates have more than doubled. This has made house purchase less affordable and has dampened demand.

But do house prices simply reflect current affordability? Given the large increase in mortgage costs and the cost-of-living crisis, it might seem surprising that house prices have fallen so little. After all, from September 2019 to August 2023, the average UK house price rose by 27.1% (from £215 352 to £273 751). Since then it has fallen by only 5.8% (to £257 808 in September 2023). However, there are various factors that help to explain why house prices have not fallen considerably more.

The first is that 74% of borrowers are on fixed-rate mortgages and 96% of new mortgages since 2019 have been at fixed rates. More than half of people with fixed rates have not yet had to renew their mortgage since interest rates began rising in December 2021. These people, therefore, have not yet been affected by the rise in mortgage interest rates.

The second is that interest rates are expected to peak and then fall. Even though by December 2024 another 2 million households will have had to renew their mortgage, those taking out new longer-term fixed rates may find that rates are lower than those on offer today. This could help to reduce the downward effect on house prices.

The third is that rents continue to rise, partly in response to the higher mortgage rates paid by landlords. With the price of this substitute product rising, this acts as an incentive for existing homeowners not to sell and existing renters to buy, even though they are facing higher mortgage payments.

The fourth is that house prices do not necessarily reflect the overall market equilibrium. People selling may hold out for a better price, hoping that they will eventually attract a buyer. Houses thus are taking longer to sell. This creates a glut of houses at above-equilibrium prices, with fewer sales taking place. At the same time, these higher prices depress demand. People would rather wait for a fall in house prices than pay the current asking price. This creates more of a ‘buyers’ market’, with some sellers being forced to sell well below the asking price. According to Zoopla (see linked article below), the average selling price is 4.2% below the asking price – the highest since 2019. Nevertheless, with sellers holding out and with reduced sales, actual sale prices have fallen less than if markets cleared.

So will house prices continue to fall and will the rate of decline accelerate? This depends on confidence and affordability. With interest rates falling, confidence and affordability are likely to rise. This will help to arrest further price falls.

However, with large numbers of people still on low fixed rates but with these fixed terms ending over the coming months, for them interest rates will be higher and this could continue to have a dampening effect on demand. What is more, affordability is likely to rise only slowly and in the short term could fall further. Petrol and diesel prices remain high and home energy costs and food prices are still well above the levels of two years ago. Inflation generally is coming down only slowly. The higher prices plus a rising tax burden from fiscal drag1 will continue to squeeze household budgets. This will reduce the size of deposits and the monthly payments that house purchasers can afford.

Over the longer term, house prices are set to rise again. Lower interest rates, rising real incomes again and a failure of house building to keep up with the growth in the number of people seeking to buy houses will all contribute to this. However, over the next few months, house prices are likely to continue falling. But just how much is difficult to predict. A lot will depend on expectations about house prices and incomes, how quickly inflation falls and how quickly the Bank of England reduces interest rates.

1 With tax thresholds frozen, as people’s wages rise, so a higher proportion of their income is taxed and, for higher earners, a higher proportion is taxed at a higher rate. This automatically increases income tax as a proportion of income.

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  1. Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate the situation where house prices are above the equilibrium.
  2. Why does house price inflation/deflation differ (a) from one type of house (or flat) to another; (b) from one region of the economy/locality to another?
  3. Find out why house prices rose so much (a) in the early 2000s; (b) from 2020 to 2022.
  4. Find out why house prices fell so much from 2008 to 2010. Why was this fall so much greater than in recent months?
  5. Find out what is happening to house prices in two other developed countries of your choice. How does the current housing market in these countries differ from that in the UK?
  6. Paint possible scenarios (a) where UK house prices continue to fall by several percentage points; (b) begin to rise again very soon.

A recent report published by the High Pay Centre shows that the median annual CEO pay of the FTSE 100 companies rose by 15.7% in 2022, from £3.38 million in 2021 to £3.91 million – double the UK CPIH inflation rate of 7.9%. Average total pay across the whole economy grew by just 6.0%, representing a real pay cut of nearly 2%.

The pay of top US CEOs is higher still. The median annual pay of S&P 500 CEOs in 2022 was a massive $14.8 million (£11.7 million). However, UK top CEOs earn a little more than those in France and Germany. The median pay of France’s CAC40 CEOs was €4.9 million (£4.2 million). This compares with a median of £4.6 million for the CEOs of the top 40 UK companies. The mean pay of Germany’s DAX30 CEOs was €6.1 million (£5.2 million) – lower than a mean of £6.0 million for the CEOs of the top 30 UK companies.

The gap between top CEO pay and that of average full-time workers narrowed somewhat after 2019 as the pandemic hit company performance. However, it has now started widening again. The ratio of the median UK CEO pay to the median pay of a UK full-time worker stood at 123.1 in 2018. This fell to 79.1 in 2020, but then grew to 108.1 in 2021 and 118.1 in 2022.

The TUC has argued that workers should be given seats on company boards and remuneration committees that decide executive pay. Otherwise, the gap is likely to continue rising, especially as remuneration committees in specific companies seek to benchmark pay against other large companies, both at home and abroad. This creates a competitive upward push on remuneration. What is more, members of remuneration committees have the incentive to be generous as they themselves might benefit from the process in the future.

Although the incomes of top CEOs is huge and growing, even if they are excluded, there is still a large gap in incomes between high and low earners generally in the UK. In March 2023, the top 1 per cent of earners had an average gross annual income of just over £200 000; the bottom 10 per cent had an average gross annual income of a little over £8500 – just 4.24% of the top 1 per cent (down from 4.36% in March 2020).

What is more, in recent months, the share of profits in GDP has been rising. In 2022 Q3, gross profits accounted for 21.2% of GDP. By 2023 Q2, this had risen to 23.4%. As costs have risen, so firms have tended to pass a greater percentage increase on to consumers, blaming these price increases on the rise in their costs.

Life at the bottom

The poor spend a larger proportion of their income on food, electricity and gas than people on average income; these essential items have a low income elasticity of demand. But food and energy inflation has been above that of CPIH inflation.

In 2022, the price of bread rose by 20.5%, eggs by 28.9%, pasta by 29.1%, butter by 29.4%, cheese by 32.6% and milk by 38.5%; the overall rise in food and non-alcoholic beverages was 16.9% – the highest rise in any of the different components of consumer price inflation. In the past two years there has been a large increase in the number of people relying on food banks. In the six months to September 2022, there was a 40% increase in new food bank users when compared to 2021.

As far as energy prices are concerned, from April 2022 to April 2023, under Ofgem’s price cap, which is based on wholesale energy prices, gas and electricity prices would have risen by 157%, from £1277 to £3286 for the typical household. The government, however, through the Energy Price Guarantee restricted the rise to an average of £2500 (a 96% rise). Also, further help was given in the form of £400 per household, paid in six monthly instalments from October 2022 to March 2023, effectively reducing the rise to £2100 (64%). Nevertheless, for the poorest of households, such a rise meant a huge percentage increase in their outgoings. Many were forced to ‘eat less and heat less’.

Many people have got into rent arrears and have been evicted or are at risk of being so. As the ITV News article and videos linked below state: 242 000 households are experiencing homelessness including rough sleeping, sofa-surfing and B&B stays; 85% of English councils have reported an increase in the number of homeless families needing support; 97% of councils are struggling to find rental properties for homeless families.

Financial strains have serious effects on people’s wellbeing and can adversely affect their physical and mental health. In a policy research paper, ‘From Drained and Desperate to Affluent and Apathetic’ (see link below), the consumer organisation, Which?, looked at the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on different groups. It found that in January 2023, the crisis had made just over half of UK adults feel more anxious or stressed. It divided the population into six groups (with numbers of UK adults in each category in brackets): Drained and Desperate (9.2m), Anxious and At Risk (7.9m), Cut off by Cutbacks (8.8m), Fretting about the Future (7.7m), Looking out for Loved Ones (8.9m), Affluent and Apathetic (8.8m).

The majority of the poorest households are in the first group. As the report describes this group: ‘Severely impacted by the crisis, this segment has faced significant physical and mental challenges. Having already made severe cutbacks, there are few options left for them.’ In this group, 75% do not turn the heating on when cold, 63% skip one or more meals and 94% state that ‘It feels like I’m existing instead of living’.

Many of those on slightly higher incomes fall into the second group (Anxious and At Risk). ‘Driven by a large family and mortgage pressure, this segment has not been particularly financially stable and experienced mental health impacts. They have relied more on borrowing to ease financial pressure.’

Although inflation is now coming down, prices are still rising, interest rates have probably not yet peaked and real incomes for many have fallen significantly. Life at the bottom has got a lot harder.

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  1. What are the arguments for and against giving huge pay awards to CEOs?
  2. What are the arguments for and against raising the top rate of income tax to provide extra revenue to distribute to the poor? Distinguish between income and substitution effects.
  3. What policies could be adopted to alleviate poverty? Why are such policies not adopted?
  4. Using the ONS publication, the Effects of taxes and benefits on UK household income, find out how the distribution of income between the various decile groups of household income has changed over time? Comment on your findings.

On 3 November, the Bank of England announced the highest interest rate rise in 33 years. It warned that the UK is facing the longest recession since records began. With the downturn starting earlier than expected and predicted to last for longer, households, businesses and the government are braced for a challenging few years ahead.

Interest rates

The Monetary Policy Committee increased Bank Rate to 3% from the previous rate of 2.25%. This 75-basis point increase is the largest since 1989 and is the eighth rise since December. What is more, the Bank has warned that it will not stop there. These increases in interest rates are there to try to tackle inflation, which rose to 10.1% in September and is expected to be 11% for the final quarter of this year. Soaring prices are a growing concern for UK households, with the cost of living rising at the fastest rate for 40 years. It is feared that such increases in the Bank’s base rate will only worsen household circumstances.

There are various causes of the current cost-of-living crisis. These include the pandemic’s effect on production, the aftermath in terms of supply-chain problems and labour shortages, the war in Ukraine and its effect on energy and food prices, and poor harvests in many parts of the world, including many European countries. It has been reported that grocery prices in October were 4.7% higher than in October 2021. This is the highest rate of food price inflation on record and means shoppers could face paying an extra £682 per year on average.

There is real concern about the impact of the interest rates rise on the overall economy but, in particular, on peoples’ mortgages. Bank of England Governor, Andrew Bailey, warned of a ‘tough road ahead’ for UK households, but said that the MPC had to act forcefully now or things ‘will be worse later on’.

However, it could be argued that there was a silver lining in Thursday’s announcement. The future rises in interest rates are predicted to peak at a lower rate than previously thought. Amongst all the mini-budget chaos, there was concern that rates could surpass the 6% mark. Now the Bank of England has given the assurance that future rate rises will be limited and that Bank Rate should not increase beyond 5% by next autumn. The Bank was keen to reassure markets of this by making clear the thinking behind the decision in the published minutes of MPC meeting.

Recession

With the Bank warning of the longest recession since records began, what does this actually mean? Economies experience periods of growth and periods of slowdown or even decline in real GDP. However, a recession is defined as when a country’s economy shrinks for two three-month periods (quarters) in a row. The last time the UK experienced a recession was in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. During a recession, businesses typically make less profits, pay falls, some people may lose their jobs and unemployment rises. This means that the government receives less money in taxation to use on public services such as health and education. Graduates and school leavers could find it harder to get their first job, while others may find it harder to be promoted or to get big enough pay rises to keep pace with price increases. However, the pain of a recession is typically not felt equally across society, and inequality can increase.

The Bank had previously expected the UK to fall into recession at the end of this year but the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that GDP fell by 0.3% in the three months to August. The Bank is predicting that GDP will shrink by 0.5% between May and August 2023, followed by a further fall of 0.3% between September and December. The Bank then expects the UK economy to remain in recession throughout 2023 and the first half of 2024.

With the higher interest rates, borrowing costs are now at their highest since 2008, when the UK banking system faced collapse in the wake of the global financial crisis. The Bank believes that by raising interest rates it will make it more expensive to borrow and encourage people not to spend money, easing the pressure on prices in the process. It does, however, mean that savers will start to benefit from higher rates (but still negative real rates), but it will have a knock-on effect on those with mortgages, credit card debt and bank loans.

The recession in 2020 only lasted for six months, although the 20.4% reduction in the UK economy between April and June that year was the largest on record. The one before that started in 2008 with the global financial crisis and went on for five quarters. Whilst it will not be the UK’s deepest downturn, the Bank stressed that it will be the longest since records began in the 1920s.

Mortgages

Those with mortgages are rightly feeling nervous about the impact that further increases in mortgage interest rates will have on their budgets. Variable mortgage rates and new fixed rates have been rising for several months because of this year’s run of rate rises but they shot up after the mini-Budget. The Bank forecasts that if interest rates continue to rise, those whose fixed rate deals are coming to an end could see their annual payments soar by an average of £3000.

Homebuyers with tracker or variable rate mortgages will feel the pain of the rate rise immediately, while the estimated 300 000 people who must re-mortgage this month will find that two-year and five-year fixed rates remain at levels not seen since the 2008 financial crisis. However, the Bank said that the cost of fixed-rate mortgages had already come down from the levels seen at the height of the panic in the wake of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, which sent them soaring above 6%.

There is a fear of the devastating impact on those who simply cannot afford further increases in payments. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said an extra 120 000 households in the UK, the equivalent of 400 000 people, will be plunged into poverty when their current mortgage deal ends. The analysis assumes that mortgage rates remain high, with homeowners forced to move to an interest rate of around 5.5%. For people currently on fixed rates typically of around of 2% which are due to expire, this change would mean a huge increase. Such people, on average, would find the proportion of their monthly income going on housing costs rising from 38% to 54%. In cash terms this equates to an average increase of £250, from £610 a month to £860 a month.

In addition to these higher monthly home-loan costs threatening to pull another 400 000 people into poverty, such turmoil in the mortgage market would increase competition for rental properties and could result in rents for new lets rising sharply as the extra demand allows buy-to-let landlords to pass on their higher loan costs (or more).

Unemployment

Since the mini-Budget, the level of the pound and government borrowing costs have somewhat recovered. However, mortgage markets and business loans are still showing signs of stress, adding to the prolonged hit to the economy. The Bank now forecasts that the unemployment rate will rise, while household incomes will come down too. The unemployment rate is currently at its lowest for 50 years, but it is expected to rise to nearly 6.5%.

Looking to the future

It is the case that the lasting effects of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the energy shock have all played their part in the current economic climate. However, it could be argued that the Bank and the government are now making decisions that will inflict further pain and sacrifice for millions of households, who are already facing multi-thousand-pound increases in mortgage, energy and food bills.

There have been further concerns raised about the possible tax rises planned by the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. If large tax rises and spending cuts are set out in the Autumn Statement of 17 November, the Bank of England’s chief economist has warned that Britain risks a deeper than expected economic slowdown. This could weigh on the British economy by more than the central bank currently anticipates, in a development that would force it to rethink its approach to setting interest rates.

There is no doubt that the future economic picture looks painful, with the UK performing worse than the USA and the eurozone. The Bank Governor, Andrew Bailey, believes that the mini-Budget had damaged the UK’s reputation internationally, stating, ‘it was very apparent to me that the UK’s position and the UK’s standing had been damaged’. However, both the Governor and the Chancellor or the Exchequer agree that action needs to be taken now in order for the economy to stabilise long term.

Jeremey Hunt, the Chancellor, explained that the most important thing the British government can do right now is to restore stability, sort out the public finances and get debt falling so that interest rate rises are kept as low as possible. This echoes the Bank’s belief in the importance of acting forcefully now in order to prevent things being much worse later on. With the recession predicted to last into 2024, the same year as a possible general election, the Conservatives face campaigning to remain in government at the tail end of a prolonged slump.

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  1. Define the term ‘recession’ and how is it measured.
  2. Explain what happens to the key macroeconomic indicators during this period of the business cycle.
  3. Which policies would governments normally implement to get a economy into the
  4. expansionary/recovery phase of the business cycle and how do they work?
  5. What is the issue of raising interest rates during a downturn or recession?
  6. With unemployment expected to rise, explain what type of unemployment this is. What policies could be introduced to reduce this type of unemployment?