Households are expected to see further rises in the cost of living after the annual inflation rate climbed for a 13th month to its highest point in almost 30 years. This will put further pressure on already stretched household budgets. The increase reflects a bounceback in demand for goods and services after lockdowns, when prices fell sharply. It also reflects the impact of supply-chain disruptions as Covid-19 hit factory production and global trade.
The biggest concern, however, is the impact it will have on those already hard-pressed families across the UK. According to official figures, prices are rising at similar rates for richer and poorer households. However, household income levels will determine personal experiences of inflation. Poorer households find it harder to cope than richer families as essentials, such as energy and food, form a larger proportion of their shopping basket than discretionary items. On average the lowest-income families spend twice as much proportionately on food and housing bills as the richest. So low-income households, if they are already spending mainly on essentials, will struggle to find where to cut back as prices rise.
Latest Inflation figures
Latest figures from the ONS show that the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose by 5.5% in the year to January 2022, with further increases in the rate expected over the next couple of months. In measuring inflation, the ONS takes a so-called ‘basket of goods, which is frequently updated to reflect changes in spending patterns. For example, in 2021, hand sanitiser and men’s loungewear bottoms were added, but sandwiches bought at work were removed.
Annual CPI inflation is announced each month, showing how much the weighted average of these prices has risen since the same date last year. The weighted average is expressed as an index, with the index set at 100 in the base year, which is currently 2015.
Consumers would not normally notice price rises from month to month. However, prices are now rising so quickly that it is clear for everyone to see. What is more, average pay is not keeping up. There are workers in a few sectors, such as lorry drivers, who are in high demand, and therefore their wages are rising faster than prices. But the majority of workers won’t see such increases in pay. In the 12 months to January, prices rose by 5.5% on average, but regular pay, excluding bonuses, on average rose by only 4.7%, meaning that they fell by 0.8% in real terms.
The Bank of England has warned that CPI inflation could rise to 7% this year and some economists are forecasting that it could be almost 8% in April.
Why are costs rising?
From the weekly food shop, to filling up cars, to heating our homes, the cost of living is rising sharply around the world. Global inflation is at its highest since 2008. Some of the reasons why include:
- Rising energy and petrol prices
Oil prices slumped at the start of the pandemic, but demand has rocketed back since, and oil prices have hit a seven-year high. The price of gas has also shot up, leaving people around the world with eye-watering central heating bills. Home energy bills in the UK are set to rise by 54% in April when Ofgem, the energy regulator, raises the price cap.
- Goods shortages
During the pandemic, prices of everyday consumer goods increased. Consumers spent more on household goods and home improvements because they were stuck at home, couldn’t go out to eat or go on holiday. Manufacturers in places such as Asia have struggled to keep up with the demand. This has led to shortages of materials such as plastic, concrete and steel, driving up prices. Timber cost as much as 80% more than usual in 2021 in the UK.
- Shipping costs
Global shipping companies have been overwhelmed by surging demand after the pandemic and have responded by raising shipping charges. Retailers are now having to pay a lot more to get goods into stores. These prices are now being passed on to consumers. Air freight fees have also increased, having been made worse by a lorry driver shortage in Europe.
- Rising wages
During the pandemic many people changed jobs, or even quit the workforce – a problem exacerbated in the UK by Brexit as many European workers returned to their home countries. Firms are now having problems recruiting staff such as drivers, food processors and restaurant waiters. This has resulted in companies putting up wages to attract and retain staff. Those extra costs to employers are again being passed on to consumers.
- Extreme weather impact
Extreme weather in many parts of the world has contributed to inflation. Global oil supplies took a hit from hurricanes which damaged US oil infrastructure. Fierce storms in Texas also worsened the problems in meeting the demand for microchips. The cost of coffee has also jumped after Brazil had a poor harvest following its most severe drought in almost a century.
- Trade barriers
More costly imports are also contributing to higher prices. New post-Brexit trading rules are estimated to have reduced imports from the EU to the UK by about a quarter in the first half of 2021. In the USA, import tariffs on Chinese goods have almost entirely been passed on to US customers in the form of higher prices. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei said last year that sanctions imposed on the company by the USA in 2019 were affecting US suppliers and global customers.
- The end of pandemic support
Governments are ending the support given to businesses during the pandemic. Public spending and borrowing increased across the world leading to tax rises. This has contributed to rises in the cost-of-living, while most people’s wages have lagged behind.
Main concerns for the UK inflation
With rapidly rising prices, the economic decisions people will have to make are much harder. The main concerns for UK households include increases in energy costs, food prices, rent and interest rates on borrowing. All of these concerns come at a time when the government prepares to increase national insurance contributions for workers in April. There has been some pressure from MPs to scrap the tax rise so as to ease the pressure on living costs. It can be argued that there are fairer ways to increase taxes than through national insurance. However, the plan is relatively progressive, and scrapping the rise could be a badly targeted way of helping the poorest households with their energy bills.
Electricity and gas bills for a typical household are expected to increase on average by £693 a year in April, which, as we have seen, is a 54% increase. Around 18 million households on standard tariffs will see an average increase from £1277 to £1971 per year. And around 4.5 million prepayment customers will see an average increase of £708 – from £1309 to £2017. Energy bills won’t rise immediately for customers on fixed rates, but many are likely to see a significant increase when their deal ends.
Bills are going up because the energy price cap is being raised. The energy price cap is an example of a maximum price being imposed on the market; it is the maximum price suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge households for their energy. Energy firms can increase bills by 54% when the new cap is introduced in April. The price cap is currently reviewed every 6 months and it is expected that that prices will rise again in October.
Energy price rises are likely to hit Britain’s poorest households the hardest as they spend proportionately more of their income on energy, a problem exacerbated by many living in poorly insulated homes. More people are thus expected to find themselves facing fuel poverty. This means that they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy and cannot afford to heat their homes adequately. According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest will see their energy spend rise from 8.5% to 12% of their total household budget, three times the percentage for the richest.
The way fuel poverty is measured varies around the UK. In Scotland, a household is in fuel poverty if more than 10% of its income is spent on fuel and its remaining income isn’t enough to maintain an adequate standard of living. It is expected that the number of homes facing ‘fuel stress’ across the UK will treble to 6.3 million after April. It will, however, have the greatest impact on pensioners, people in local authority housing and low-income single-adult households who on average could be forced to spend over 50% of their income on gas and electricity. The Resolution Foundation thinktank has warned that UK households are facing a ‘cost of living catastrophe’.
Low-income households also spend a larger proportion than average on food and will therefore be relatively more affected by increases in food prices. Food and non-alcoholic drink prices were up by 4.2% in the year to December 2021. The Monetary Policy Committee has stated that food price inflation is expected to increase in coming months, given higher input costs. It has been estimated by the thinktank, Food Foundation, that 4.7m Britons, equivalent to 8.8% of the population, are struggling to feed themselves and are regularly going a day without eating.
Supermarkets have also raised their concerns about future increases. Tesco’s chairman John Allan has predicted that the worst is yet to come, pointing to 5% as a likely figure for food price inflation by the spring. He cited high energy prices, both for Tesco and its suppliers, as a key factor behind the expected rise.
It has been observed that the Smart Price, Basics and Value range products offered by supermarkets as lower-cost alternatives are stealthily being extinguished from the shelves. This is leaving shoppers with no choice but to ‘level up’ to the supermarkets’ own better-quality branded goods – usually in smaller quantities at larger prices. The managing director of Iceland, Richard Walker, has stated that his stores are not losing customers to other competitors or to better offers, but to food banks and to hunger. This is a highly concerning statement given that 2.5m citizens were forced by an array of desperate circumstances to use food banks over the past year.
Private rents are also rising at their fastest rate in five years, intensifying the increase in the cost of living for millions of households. Data from the ONS reveal that the average cost of renting in the UK rose by 2% in 2021. This was the largest annual increase since 2017. The East Midlands had the biggest increase in average rental prices, with tenants paying 3.6% more than a year earlier. However, due to falling demand for city flats during lockdown, as people favoured working from home, London had the smallest increase at 0.1%. Nevertheless, as Covid restrictions are removed, renters, including office workers and students, are now returning back to cities. This is now pushing up rental prices with demand outpacing supply.
The property website Zoopla found newly advertised rental prices were rising much faster across the UK. It said the average rent jumped 8.3% in the final three months of 2021 to £969 a month. This increase in rental prices, combined with the general rise in prices will place additional pressure on the government to increase support for vulnerable families. The housing charity, Shelter, has reported an increase in people who are struggling to pay their rent and even pay their electricity. With Covid-era protections having ended, if people struggle to pay, they are faced with eviction or even homelessness. There are calls for the government to support such people by reversing welfare cuts.
Insurer, Legal & General, has announced an additional investment over the next 5 years of £2.5bn on its ‘build to rent’ schemes. The aim is to provide more than 7000 purpose-built rental homes in UK towns and cities. L&G claims that the additional homes are part of the solution to the rental problem, with rent increases being capped at 5% for five years. However, sceptics claim the company is simply trying to cash in on the booming market and there are calls for further government action. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation claim that renters will struggle as rents in some areas have risen as much as 8%. Despite this, housing benefit has been frozen for two years and therefore there are calls for government to urgently relink housing benefit to the real cost of renting.
- UK inflation forecast to hit 8% in April amid cost of living crisis
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (16/2/22)
- Inflation: Seven reasons the cost of living is going up around the world
BBC News, Beth Timmins and Daniel Thomas (20/1/22)
- Why are gas bills so high and what’s the energy price cap?
BBC News (4/2/22)
- What is the UK’s inflation rate and why is the cost of living going up?
BBC News (16/2/22)
- In numbers: what is fuelling Britain’s cost of living crisis?
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Ashley Kirk (3/2/22)
- Rising cost of living in the UK
House of Commons Library, Research Briefing, Brigid Francis-Devine, Daniel Harari, Matthew Keep and Paul Bolton (8/2/22)
- Rising cost of living leaves 4.7mn Britons struggling to feed themselves
Financial Times, Bethan Staton (6/2/22)
- UK cost of living crisis merits a full response
Financial Times, The editorial board (3/2/22)
- UK cost of living crisis intensifies
Financial Times, Darren Dodd (19/1/22)
- The cost of living crisis – who is hit by recent price increases?
IFS, Peter Levell and Heidi Karjalainen (17/11/21)
- The cost of living crunch
IFS, Robert Joyce, Heidi Karjalainen, Peter Levell and Tom Waters (12/1/22)
- Fastest rent rise in five years adds to concerns over UK cost of living crisis
The Guardian, Georgina Quach (16/2/22)
- What other measures of inflation are used beside CPI inflation? How do they differ?
- If all consumers are facing approximately the same price increases for any given good or service, why are poor people being disproportionately hit by rising prices?
- For what reasons might the rate of inflation (a) rise further; (b) begin to fall?
- Examine a developed country other than the UK and find out how inflation is affecting its population. Is its experience similar to that in the UK? Does it differ in any way?
The UK benefits system is complex and this is just one reason why some people fall through the safety net. There are criticisms that it doesn’t reward work and doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to move off benefits and into work. One rather radical policy that has been discussed in numerous countries is the idea of a ‘Basic Income’.
The Basic Income or Citizen’s Income is a policy where individuals receive a regular payment from the government, essentially for doing nothing. The income is paid and aims to cover basic living costs and on top of this, individuals can then work, earn income and pay tax on it. Experiments of this policy are already in place and over the next few years, we may see many more being trialled and much discussion of the possibility of implementing this in the UK. We tend to be fairly risk averse when it comes to radical policies and so while we may see discussion of it in the UK, I imagine we’ll want to see the relative success of the policy in other countries first!
There are many variations of the scheme and lots of questions that need addressing. Will it encourage people to work more or less? Might it reduce the stigma of claiming benefits, if this is a basic income that everyone receives? Does it simplify the system and hence provide more people with a basic income thus targeting poverty?
Some proposals have this payment as a universal one – non means tested and not conditional on anything. Other proposals, including one in Finland, sees just the unemployed receive the benefit and appears to be a social experiment to see if such a policy discourages the unemployed from taking jobs. Traditionally individuals receive a benefit if they are out of work, but this benefit can be cut (in some cases quite substantially) if they begin to work. This creates a disincentive to supply labour. However, under the basic income scheme, those who moved into work would continue to receive the basic income payment and hence the disincentive effect is removed. The policy thus creates a basic level of economic security. As Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley argue, it would offer:
“…financial independence and freedom of choice for individuals between work and leisure, education and caring, while recognising the huge value of unpaid work”.
There isn’t universal support for this type of scheme and many remain very cautious about such a radical policy and how the incentives will work. Key questions focus around the marginal rate of income tax that might be needed to finance such a policy. Furthermore, there is discussion about the equity of the policy if it is universal and hence non means-tested.
In Switzerland, the policy was put to a public referendum and it was rejected, with 75% of voters voting against such a policy. However, with changes in the structure of economies and, in many countries, technological change increasingly leading to automation, some argue that such a system will help to protect people. Lord Skidelsky, Professor of Political Economy at Warwick University said:
“Credible estimates suggest it will be technically possible to automate between a quarter and a third of all current jobs in the western world within 20 years … It [Basic Income] would ensure the benefits of automation were shared by the many, not just the few.”
Basic Income or Citizen’s Income is certainly something we are likely to hear a lot about during 2017. Whether or not the time has come for implementation is another matter, but it’s a good idea now to look into both sides and the relative success of the upcoming trials around the world.
8 basic income experiments to watch out for in 2017 Business Insider, Chris Weller (24/1/17)
What is basic income? Basic Income Earth Network (January 2017)
Finland trials basic income for unemployed The Guardian, Jon Henley (3/1/17)
Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Universal Basic Income: An idea whose time has come? Citizen’s Income Trust (14/6/16)
Is the world ready for a guaranteed basic income? Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner (13/4/16)
France’s Benoit Hamon rouses Socialists with basic income plan BBC News, Lucy Williamson (24/1/17)
Universal basic income trials being considered in Scotland The Guardian, Libby Brooks (1/1/17)
- What is basic income?
- What are three advantages of this policy? If you can, try to use a diagram to explain why this is an advantage.
- What are three disadvantages of moving towards this type of policy?
- Why does the provision of benefits affect an individual’s labour supply decision?
- Do you think that income tax would have to rise in order to finance this policy? Do you think high income earners would be prepared to pay a higher rate of tax in order to receive the basic income?
- If the trials showed that the policy did create an incentive to work in countries like Finland, do you think the results would also occur in the UK?
Insolvencies in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest level since 2005, official records show. The Insolvency Service indicates that bankruptcy, individual voluntary arrangements and debt relief orders have fallen, with the largest and worst form of bankruptcy falling by 22.5 per cent compared to the same period in 2014. There has also been a fall in corporate insolvencies back to pre-crisis levels.
The British economy is recovering and despite an increase in consumer borrowing of £1.2 billion from February to March, which is the biggest since the onset of the credit crunch, the number of people in financial difficulty and living beyond their means has fallen. However, there are also suggestions that the number could begin to creep up in the future and we are still seeing a divide between the north and south of England in terms of the number of insolvencies.
There are many factors that could explain such a decline in insolvencies. Perhaps it is the growth in wages, in part due the recovery of the economy, which has enabled more people to forgo borrowing or enabled them to repay any loan more comfortably. Lower inflation has helped to reduce the cost of living, thereby increasing the available income to repay any loans. Interest rates have also remained low, thus cutting the cost of borrowing and the repayments due.
But, another factor may simply be that lending is now more closely regulated. Prior to the financial crisis, huge amounts of money were being lent out, often to those who had no chance of making the repayments. More stringent affordability checks by lenders may have a large part to play in reducing the number of insolvencies. President of R3, the insolvency practitioner body, Phillip Sykes said:
“It may be too early to draw conclusions but demand could be falling as a result of low interest rates, low inflation and tighter regulation. This trend is worth watching.”
Mark Sands, from Baker Tilly added to this, noting that fewer people were now in financial difficulty.
“As well as this, we are seeing lower levels of personal debt and fewer people borrowing outside of their means due to more stringent affordability checks by creditors.”
Whatever the main reason behind the data, it is certainly a positive indicator, perhaps of economic recovery, or that at least some have learned the lessons of the financial crisis. The following articles consider this topic.
Personal insolvencies fall to 10-year low Financial Times, James Pickford (1/5/15)
Personal insolvencies at lowest level since 2005 BBC News (29/4/15)
Personal insolvencies drop to lowest level in a decade The Guardian, Press Association (29/4/15)
Corporate insolvencies at lowest level since 2007 The Telegraph, Elizabeth Anderson (30/4/15)
Interview: R3 President Phillip Sykes Accountancy Age, Richard Crump (1/5/15)
North-South gap widens in personal insolvencies Independent, Ben Chu (27/4/15)
Insolvency rates show ‘stark’ north-south divide Financial Times, James Pickford (27/4/15)
- What is meant by insolvency?
- There are many factors that might explain why the number of insolvencies has fallen. Explain the economic theory behind a lower inflation rate and why this might have contributed to fewer insolvencies.
- How might lower interest rates affect both the number of personal and corporate insolvencies?
- Why has there been a growth in the north-south divide in terms of the number of insolvencies?
- Do you think this data does suggest that lessons have been learned from the Credit Crunch?
We have had a minimum wage in the UK for well over a decade and one its key purposes was to boost the pay of the lowest paid workers and in doing so reduce the inequality gap. Rising inequality has been a concern for many countries across the world and not even the nations with the most comprehensive welfare states have been immune.
Switzerland, known for its banking sector, has been very democratic in its approach to pay, holding three referenda in recent years to give the Swiss public the chance to decide on pay. Imposing restrictions on the bonuses available to the bosses of the largest companies was backed in the first referendum, but in this latest vote, the world’s highest minimum wage has been rejected. The proposed wage is the equivalent of £15 per hour and it is the hourly wage which proponents argue is the wage needed to ensure workers can afford to ‘live a decent life’. However, prices in Switzerland are considerably higher than those in the UK and this wage translates to around £8.33 per hour in purchasing power parity terms, according to the OECD. In the UK, much debate has surrounded the question of a living wage and the impact that a significant increase in the NMW would have on firms. The concern in Switzerland has been of a similar nature.
With a higher wage, costs of production will inevitably rise and this is likely to lead to firms taking on fewer workers and perhaps moving towards a different mix of factors of production. With less workers being employed, unemployment would be likely to increase and it may be that the higher costs of production are passed onto consumers in the form of a higher price. One problem is that as prices rise, the real wage falls. Therefore, while advocates of this high minimum wage suggest that it would help to reduce the gap between rich and poor, the critics suggest that it may lead to higher unemployment and would actually harm the lowest paid workers. It appears that the Swiss population agreed with the critics, when 76% voted against the proposal. Cristina Gaggini, who is the Director of the Geneva Office of the Swiss Business Association said:
I think [it would have been] an own goal, for workers as well as for small companies in Switzerland … Studies show that a minimum wage can lead to much more unemployment and poverty than it helps people … And for very small companies it would be very problematic to afford such a high salary.
The proposal was made by Swiss Unions, given the high cost of living in Switzerland’s suggest cities. It was rejected by the Swiss Business Federation and government and this was then echoed by the overwhelming majority in the referendum. Switzerland has been found to be the most expensive place to live in the world and the wages paid are insufficient to provide a decent life, with many claiming benefits to support their earnings. The debate over the minimum wage and the living wage will continue in countries across the world, but for now the Swiss people have had their say. The following articles consider this issue.
Switzerland rejects world’s highest minimum wage BBC News (18/5/14)
Swiss voters reject plan to establish world’s highest minimum wage The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (18/5/14)
Swiss voters reject setting world’s highest minimum wage Wall Street Journal, Neil Maclucas (18/5/14)
Swiss voters reject world’s highest minimum wage, block fighter jets Reuters, Caroline Copley (18/5/14)
Switzerland votes on world’s highest minimum wage at £15 per hour Independent, Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith (18/5/14)
Swiss reject highest minimum wage in world Financial Times, James Shotter (18/5/14)
Swiss reject world’s highest minimum wage, jet purchase Bloomberg, Catherine Bosley (18/5/14)
- Using a demand and supply diagram, illustrate the impact of a national minimum wage being imposed.
- Using the diagram above, explain the impact on unemployment and evaluate the factors that determine the amount of unemployment created.
- Given what you know about the proposed Swiss minimum wage, how much of an impact on unemployment do you think there would be?
- Draw a diagram to show the effect on a firm’s costs of production of the national minimum wage. Explain how such costs may affect the prices consumers pay for goods and services.
- How is it possible that a higher minimum wage could actually lead to more inequality within a country?
- Is there a chance that a minimum wage could lead to inflation? What type would it be?
The Consumer Prices index (CPI) measures the rate of inflation and in October, this rate fell to 2.2%, bringing inflation to its lowest level since September 2012. For many, this drop in inflation came as a surprise, but it brings the rate much closer to the Bank of England’s target and thus reduces the pressure on changing interest rates.
The CPI is calculated by calculating the weighted average price of a basket of goods and comparing how this price level changes from one month to the next. Between September and October prices across a range of markets fell, thus bringing inflation to its lowest level in many months. Transport prices fell by their largest amount since mid-2009, in part driven by fuel price cuts at the big supermarkets and this was also accompanied by falls in education costs and food. The Mail Online article linked below gives a breakdown of the sectors where the largest price falls have taken place. One thing that has not yet been included in the data is the impact of the price rises by the energy companies. The impact of his will obviously be to raise energy costs and hence we can expect to see an impact on the CPI in the coming months, once the price rises take effect.
With inflation coming back on target, pressures on the Bank of England to raise interest rates have been reduced. When inflation was above the target rate, there were concerns that the Bank of England would need to raise interest rates to cut aggregate demand and thus bring inflation down.
However, the adverse effect of this would be a potential decline in growth. With inflation falling to 2.2%, this pressure has been removed and hence interest rates can continue to remain at the record low, with the objective of stimulating the economy. Chris Williamson from Markit said:
The easing in the rate of inflation and underlying price pressures will provide greater scope for monetary policy to be kept looser for longer and thereby helping ensure a sustainable upturn in the economy … Lower inflation reduces the risk of the Bank of England having to hike rates earlier than it may otherwise prefer to, allowing policy to focus on stimulating growth rather than warding off rising inflationary pressures.
The lower rate of inflation also has good news for consumers and businesses. Wages remain flat and thus the reduction in the CPI is crucial for consumers, as it improves their purchasing power. As for businesses, a low inflation environment creates more certainty, as inflation tends to be more stable. Businesses are more able to invest with confidence, again benefiting the economy. Any further falls in the CPI would bring inflation back to its target level of 2% and then undoubtedly concerns will turn back to the spectre of deflation, though with the recent announcements in energy price rises, perhaps we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves! Though we only need to look to countries such as Spain and Sweden where prices are falling to realise that it is certainly a possibility. The following articles consider the data and the impact.
UK inflation falls in October: what the economists say The Guardian, Katie Allen (12/11/13)
British inflation hits 13-month low, easing pressure on central bank Reuters, David Milliken and William Schomberg (12/11/13)
UK inflation falls to 2.2% in October BBC News (1211/13)
UK inflation falls to 13-month low: reaction The Telegraph (12/11/13)
Fall in inflation to 2.2% welcome by government The Guardian, Katie Allen (12/11/13)
Inflation falls to lowest level for a year as supermarket petrol price war helps ease the squeeze on family finances Mail Online, Matt Chorley (12/11/13)
Inflation falls to its lowest level for more than a year as consumers benefit from petrol pump price war Independent, John-Paul Ford Rojas (12/11/13)
UK inflation slows to 2.2%, lowest level in a year Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton and Jennifer Ryan (12/11/13)
Are we facing deflation? Let’s not get carried away The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (12/11/13)
- How is the CPI calculated?
- Use an AD/AS diagram to illustrate how prices have been brought back down. Is the reduction in inflation due to demand-side or supply-side factors?
- What are the benefits of low inflation?
- The Telegraph article mentions the possibility of deflation. What is deflation and why does it cause such concern?
- Explain why a fall in the rate of inflation eases pressure on the Bank of England.
- How does the rate of inflation affect the cost of living?
- Is a target rate of inflation a good idea?