In the blog Effects of raising the minimum
wage, the policy of an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage was discussed, as this had been advocated by political leaders. Over the past 5 years, the minimum wage has fallen in real terms, but from October 2014, the national minimum wage will increase 19p per hour and this rise will be the first time since 2008 when the increase will be higher than inflation.
The National Minimum Wage is a rate applied to most workers in the UK and is their minimum hourly entitlement. For adults over the age of 21, it will be increased by just over 3% to £6.50. Rises will also occur for 18-20 year olds, though their increase will be lower at 10p and will take the hourly wage to £5.13 an hour, representing a 2% rise. Those aged 16 and 17 will also see a 2% rise, taking their wage up by 7p to £3.79. With inflation currently at 1.9% (as measured by the CPI), these rises outstrip inflation, representing a real increase in the minimum wage. Undoubtedly this is good news for workers receiving the minimum wage, and it is thought that millions of workers will benefit.
Vince Cable said:
The recommendations I have accepted today mean that low-paid workers will enjoy the biggest cash increase in their take home pay since 2008…This will benefit over one million workers on national minimum wage and marks the start of a welcome new phase in minimum wage policy.
While this rise has been praised, there are still suggestions that this minimum wage is too low and does not represent a ‘living wage’. The General Secretary of Unison said:
Across the country people are struggling to make ends meet. The sooner we move to a Living Wage the better. The real winners today will again be payday loan sharks who prey on working people, unable to bridge the financial gap between what they earn and what their families need to survive.
(Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.)
The Chancellor eventually wants to increase the minimum wage to £7 per hour, but there will undoubtedly be an impact on businesses of such a rise. Is it also possible that with the national minimum wage being pushed up, unemployment may become a problem once more?
Market wages are determined by the interaction of the demand and supply of labour and when they are in equilibrium, the only unemployment in the economy will be equilibrium unemployment, namely frictional or structural. However, when the wage rate is forced above the equilibrium wage rate, disequilibrium unemployment may develop. At a wage above the equilibrium the supply of labour will exceed the demand for labour and the excess is unemployment.
By increasing the national minimum wage, firms will face higher labour costs and this may discourage them from taking on new workers, but may also force them into laying off existing workers. The impact of the minimum wage on unemployment doesn’t seem to be as pronounced as labour market models suggest, so perhaps the increase in the minimum wage will help the lowest paid families and we won’t observe any adverse effect on businesses and employment. The following articles consider this story.
National minimum wage to rise to £6.50 The Guardian, Rowena Mason (12/3/14)
Minimum wage up to £6.50 an hour BBC News (12/3/14)
Minium wage to increase by 3% to £6.50 an hour Independent, Maria Tadeo (12/3/14)
Minimum wage rise confirmed Fresh Business Thinking, Daniel Hunter (12/3/14)
Ministers approve minimum wage rise London Evening Standard (12/3/14)
Government to accept proposed 3% minimum wage rise The Guardian, Rowena Mason (4/3/14)
Londoners do not believe minimum wage is enough to live on in the capital The Guardian, Press Association (9/3/14)
Minimum wage: The Low Pay Commission backs a 3% increase BBC News (26/2/14)
- Using a diagram, illustrate the impact of raising the national minimum wage in an otherwise perfectly competitive labour market.
- How does your answer to question 1 change, if the market is now a monopsony?
- To what extent is elasticity relevant when analysing the effects of the national minimum wage on unemployment?
- How might an increase in the national minimum wage affect public finances?
- Why is an above-inflation increase in the national minimum wage so important?
- What is meant by a Living Wage?
- What do you think the impact on business and the macroeconomy would be if the minimum wage were raised to a ‘Living Wage’?
Politicians often make use of economic statistics to promote their point of view. A good example is a claim made by the UK Prime Minister on 23 January 2014. According to the latest statistics, he said, most British workers have seen their take-home pay rise in real terms. The Labour party countered this by arguing that incomes are not keeping up with prices.
So who is right? Studying economics and being familiar with analysing economic data should help you answer this question. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on just how you define the issue and what datasets you use.
The Prime Minister was referring to National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). This shows that in April 2013 median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £517.5, up 2.25% from £506.10 in 2012, and mean gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £620.30, up 2.06% from £607.80 in 2012 (see Table 1.1a in the dataset). CPI inflation over this period was 2.4%, representing a real fall in median gross weekly earnings of 0.15% and mean gross weekly earnings of 0.34%.
But when adjustments are made for increases in personal income tax allowances, then, according to the government, except for the richest 10% of the working population, people had an average increase in real take-home pay of 1.1%.
But does this paint the complete picture? Critics of the government’s claim that people are ‘better off’, make the following points.
First, the ASHE dataset is for the year ending April 2013. The ONS publishes other datasets that show that real wages have fallen faster since then. The Earnings and Working Hours datasets, published monthly, currently go up to November 2013. The chart shows real wages from January 2005 to November 2013 (with CPI = 100 in December 2013). You can see that the downward trend resumed after mid 2013. In the year to November 2013, nominal average weekly earnings rose by 0.9%, while CPI inflation was 2.1%. Thus real weekly earnings fell by 1.2% over the period (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
Second, there is the question of whether CPI or RPI inflation should be used in calculating real wages. RPI inflation was 2.9% (compared to CPI inflation of 2.4%) in the year to April 2013. The chart shows weekly earnings adjusted for both CPI and RPI.
Third, if, instead of looking at gross real wages, the effect of income tax and national insurance changes are taken into account, then benefit changes ought also to be taken into account. Some benefits, such as tax credits and child benefit were cut in the year to April 2013.
Fourth, looking at just one year (and not even the latest 12 months) gives a very partial picture. It is better to look at a longer period and see what the trends are. The chart shows the period from 2005. Real wages (CPI adjusted) are 8.0% lower than at the peak (at the beginning of 2009) and 5.0% lower than at the time of the election in 2010. The differences are even greater if RPI-adjusted wages are used.
But even if the claim that real incomes are rising is open to a number of objections, it may be that as the recovery begins to gather pace, real incomes will indeed begin to rise. But to assess whether this is so will require a careful analysis of the statistics when they become available.
UK pay rising in real terms, says coalition BBC News (24/1/14)
Are we really any better off than we were? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/1/14)
Government take-home pay figures ‘perfectly sensible’ BBC Today Programme, Paul Johnson (24/1/14)
Take-Home Pay ‘Rising Faster Than Prices’ Sky News, Darren McCaffrey (25/1/14)
David Cameron hails the start of ‘recovery for all’ The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (23/1/14)
Is take-home pay improving? The answer is anything but simple The Guardian, Phillip Inman and Katie Allen (24/1/14)
Cameron’s ‘good news’ about rising incomes is misleading says Labour The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/1/14)
The Tories’ claim that living standards have risen is nonsense on stilts New Statesman, George Eaton (24/1/14)
FactCheck: Conservative claims on rising living standards Channel 4 News, Patrick Worrall (25/1/14)
Living standards squeeze continues in UK, says IFS BBC News (31/1/14)
Richest have seen biggest cash income squeeze but poorest have faced higher inflation IFS Press Release (31/1/14)
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS (22/1/14)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results ONS (12/12/13)
Consumer Price Inflation, December 2013 ONS (14/1/14)
Inequality and Poverty Spreadsheet Institute for Fiscal Studies
An Examination of Falling Real Wages, 2010 to 2013 ONS (31/1/14)
- Why are mean weekly earnings higher than median weekly earnings?
- Explain the difference between RPI and CPI. Which is the more appropriate index for determining changes in real incomes?
- Find out what benefit changes have taken place over the past two years and how they have affected household incomes.
- How have gross weekly earnings changed for the different income groups? (The ASHE gives figures for decile groups.)
- Which is better for assessing changes in incomes: weekly earnings or hourly earnings?
- How would you define a change in living standards? What data would you need to be able to assess whether living standards have increased or decreased?
A recession is typically characterised by high unemployment, low or negative growth and low inflation, due to a lack of aggregate demand. However, since 2009, inflation levels in the UK have only added to the pressures facing the government and the Bank of England. Not only had there been a problem of lack of demand, but the inflation target was no longer being met.
Inflation had increased to above 5% – a figure we had not been accustomed to for many years. With interest rates at record lows with the aim of boosting aggregate demand, demand-pull inflation only added to cost-push pressures. However, data released by the ONS shows that inflation, as measured by the CPI, has now fallen back to its 2% target. Having been at 2.1% in November 2013, the figure for December 2013 fell by 0.1 percentage points.
The data for December include some of the energy price rises from the big six, but do not include the full extent of price decreases and discounting initiated by retailers in the lead up to Christmas. The key factors that have helped to keep prices down include some of the discounting throughout December and falling food prices, in particular bananas, grapes and meat.
With inflation back on target, pressures have been removed from the Bank of England to push up interest rates. Mark Carney has said that interest rates will remain at 0.5% until unemployment falls to 7%. With unemployment fast approaching this target, there has been speculation that interest rates would rise, but with inflation falling back on target, these pressures have been reduced. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Referring to this, Jeremy Cook, the chief economist at World First said:
The lack of inflation will help stay their hand especially if the pace of job creation seen in the second half of last year also shows.
These thoughts were echoed by Rob Wood, the chief UK economist at Berenberg Bank:
Inflation is the BoE’s ‘get out of jail free’ card for this year … The lack of inflation pressure gives them room to delay a first hike until next year.
Many economists now believe that the CPI rate of inflation is likely to remain at or below the target, in particular if productivity growth improves. This belief is further enhanced by the fact that tax rates are stable, the pound is relatively strong and the previous upward pressure on commodity prices from China is now declining. Some economists believe that CPI inflation could fall to 1.5% this year and the Treasury has said that it is ‘another sign that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working’. The following articles consider this latest macroeconomic data.
UK inflation falls to Bank of England’s 2pc target in December The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (14/1/14)
UK inflation falls to 2% target rate in December BBC News (14/1/14)
Carney’s lucky streak continues as UK inflation slows to 2% Financial Times, Claire Jones (14/1/14)
UK inflation fall gives Bank of England a lift Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley(14/1/14)
Inflation falls to Bank of England target Reuters, William Schomberg and Ana Nicolaci da Costa (14/1/14)
Inflation hits Bank of England’s target of 2% in December Independent, John Paul Ford Rojas (14/1/14)
- What is the relationship between interest rates and aggregate demand?
- Which factors have led to the reduction in the rate of inflation?
- Why have the latest data on inflation rates reduced the pressure on the Bank of England to increase interest rates?
- Why do stable tax rates, a strong pound and reduced pressure from China on commodity prices suggest that the CPI measures of inflation is likely to remain at similarly low levels?
- Why has the RPI increased while the CPI has fallen?
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?
Inflation is measured as the percentage increase in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) over the previous 12 months. The index is constructed from a basket of goods that is supposed to represent the buying habits of an average UK household. This basket is updated each year as tastes change and as technology moves forward. The basket contains approximately 700 items, with 180,000 individual prices collected each month.
As certain goods become more popular and trends change, the ONS have the responsibility of identifying these changes and updating the basket of goods. The CPI then looks at how the weighted average price of this basket of goods changes from one month to the next. As the CPI gives us the main measure of UK inflation, it is essential that the basket of goods used does represent current consumer demands. If the basket of goods used 20 years ago was still in place, we wouldn’t see thing like mobile phones and ipads being included. This is one sector that has seen significant growth in recent years and the basket of goods has been adapted in response. A new addition to the measure is e-books, which have seen a significant growth in popularity.
However, just as new products have been added to the CPI measure, other goods have been removed. In the most recent update, we’ve seen the removal of champagne and Freeview boxes from the basket of goods. With rapid changes in technological products, such as the ipad, kindle and e-books, products that were new additions only a few years ago are now old news, being replaced by the latest gadgets. Other changes to the basket of goods are less about reflecting consumer trends and more about making certain categories more representative, such as fruits and hot drinks.
So, can the changes in the basket of goods tell us anything about the impact of the recession on buying habits? One notable exclusion from the basket of goods is champagne sold in restaurants and bars. In an economic downturn, you’d expect luxury products to see a decline in consumption and the trend in champagne consumption certainly seems to support the theory. The trends suggest that consumers have instead switched to cheaper alternatives, with things like white rum bought from shops increasing.
Many people may look at the basket of goods and think that it doesn’t reflect what you buy in your average shop. But, the purpose of the CPI is to try to reflect the average consumer and the different items in the basket are given different weightings to give some indication of the amount spent on each good. The articles below look at the changes in the CPI basket of goods and what, if anything, we can take from it.
Inflation basket: E-books added by ONS BBC News (12/3/13)
Inflation basket – what does it say about you? Channel 4 News (12/3/13)
The fizz has fallen flat – champagne cut from inflation basket Independent, Martin Hickman (13/3/13)
E-books added to inflation basket, as champagne dropped The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (13/3/13)
UK inflation basket: e-books in, champagne out The Guardian, Marking King (13/3/13)
Champagne tipped out of inflation basket Financial Times, Hannah Kuchler (13/3/13)
Champagne out, ebooks in as inflation basket updated Reuters (13/3/13)
- What is inflation and why is it such an important variable?
- How is the CPI calculated? Is it different from the RPI?
- What impact has technological change had on the basket of goods used to calculate the CPI?
- Can you identify any other economic or business trends from the products that are in and out of the CPI basket of goods?
- Given the importance of technology and the speed of change, do you think the review of the basket of goods should become more or less frequent?
- Has the economic downturn had any effect on the basket of goods used to calculate the CPI?