In the last blog post, As UK inflation rises, so real wages begin to fall, we showed how the rise in inflation following the Brexit vote is causing real wages in the UK to fall once more, after a few months of modest rises, which were largely due to very low price inflation. But how does this compare with other OECD countries?
In an article by Rui Costa and Stephen Machin from the LSE, the authors show how, from the start of the financial crisis in 2007 to 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available), real hourly wages fell further in the UK than in all the other 27 OECD countries, except Greece (see the chart below, which is Figure 5 from their article). Indeed, only in Greece, the UK and Portugal were real wages lower in 2015 than in 2007.
The authors examine a number of aspects of real wages in the UK, including the rise in self employment, differences by age and sex, and for different percentiles in the income distribution. They also look at how family incomes have suffered less than real wages, thanks to the tax and benefit system.
The authors also look at what the different political parties have been saying about the issues during their election campaigns and what they plan to do to address the problem of falling, or only slowly rising, real wages.
Real Wages and Living Standards in the UK LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The Return of Falling Real Wages LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, David Blanchflower, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The chart that shows UK workers have had the worst wage performance in the OECD except Greece Independent, Ben Chu (5/6/17)
Earnings and working hours ONS
International comparisons of productivity ONS
- Why have real wages fallen more in the UK than in all OECD countries except Greece?
- Which groups have seen the biggest fall in real wages? Explain why.
- What policies are proposed by the different parties for raising real wages (a) generally; (b) for the poorest workers?
- How has UK productivity growth compared with that in other developed countries? What explanations can you offer?
- What is the relationship between productivity growth and the growth in real wages?
According to the theory of the political business cycle, governments call elections at the point in the business cycle that gives them the greatest likelihood of winning. This is normally near the peak of the cycle, when the economic news is currently good but likely to get worse in the medium term. With fixed-term governments, this makes it harder for governments as, unless they are lucky, they have to use demand management policies to engineer a boom as an election approaches. It is much easier if they can choose when to call an election.
In the UK, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, the next election must be five years after the previous one. This means that the next election in the UK must be the first Thursday in May 2020. The only exception is if at least two-thirds of all MPs vote for a motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ or ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.’
The former motion was put in the House of Commons on 19 April and was carried by 522 votes to 13 – considerably more than two-thirds of the 650 seats in Parliament. The next election will therefore take place on the government’s chosen date of 8 June 2017.
Part of the reason for the government calling an election is to give it a stronger mandate for its Brexit negotiations. Part is to take advantage of its currently strong opinion poll ratings, which, if correct, will mean that it will gain a substantially larger majority. But part could be to take advantage of the current state of the business cycle.
Although the economy is currently growing quite strongly (1.9% in 2016) and although forecasts for economic growth this year are around 2%, buoyed partly by a strongly growing world economy, beyond that things look less good. Indeed, there are a number of headwinds facing the economy.
First there are the Brexit negotiations, which are likely to prove long and difficult and could damage confidence in the economy. There may be adverse effects on both inward and domestic investment and possible increased capital outflows. At the press conference to the Bank of England’s February 2017 Inflation Report, the governor stated that “investment is expected to be around a quarter lower in three years’ time than projected prior to the referendum, with material consequences for productivity, wages and incomes”.
Second, the fall in the sterling exchange rate is putting upward pressure on inflation. The Bank of England forecasts that CPI inflation will peak at around 2.8% in early 2018. With nominal real wages lagging behind prices, real wages are falling and will continue to do so. As well as from putting downward pressure on living standards, it will tend to reduce consumption and the rate of economic growth.
Consumer debt has been rising rapidly in recent months, with credit-card debt reaching an 11-year high in February. This has helped to support growth. However, with falling real incomes, a lack of confidence may encourage people to cut back on new borrowing and hence on spending. What is more, concerns about the unsustainability of some consumer debt has encouraged the FCA (the financial sector regulator) to review the whole consumer credit industry. In addition, many banks are tightening up on their criteria for granting credit.
Retail spending, although rising in February itself, fell in the three months to February – the largest fall for nearly seven years. Such falls are likely to continue.
So if the current boom in the economy will soon end, then, according to political business cycle theory, the government is right to have called a snap election.
Gloomy economic outlook is why Theresa May was forced to call a snap election The Conversation, Richard Murphy (18/4/17)
What does Theresa May’s general election U-turn mean for the economy? Independent, Ben Chu (18/4/17)
It’s not the economy, stupid – is it? BBC News Scotland, Douglas Fraser (18/4/17)
Biggest fall in UK retail sales in seven years BBC News (21/4/17)
Sharp drop in UK retail sales blamed on higher prices Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (21/4/17)
Shoppers cut back as inflation kicks in – and top Bank of England official says it will get worse The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (21/4/17)
Retail sales volumes fall at fastest quarterly rate in seven years Independent, Ben Chu (21/4/17)
Retail sales in Great Britain: Mar 2017 ONS (21/4/17)
- For what reasons might economic growth in the UK slow over the next two to three years?
- For what reasons might economic growth increase over the next two to three years?
- Why is forecasting UK economic growth particularly difficult at the present time?
- What does political business cycle theory predict about the behaviour of governments (a) with fixed terms between elections; (b) if they can choose when to call an election?
- How well timed is the government’s decision to call an election?
- If retail sales are falling, what other element(s) of aggregate demand may support economic growth in the coming months?
- How does UK productivity compare with that in other developed countries? Explain why.
- What possible trading arrangements with the EU could the UK have in a post-Brexit deal? Discuss their likelihood and their impact on economic growth?
With an election approaching in the UK, uncertainty is a term we will hear frequently over the next few weeks. Until we know which party or parties will be in power and hence which policies will be implemented, planning anything is difficult. This is just one of the factors that has caused the British pound sterling to fall last week by 2% to an almost five year low against the dollar.
In the last election, uncertainty also prevailed and continued even after the election before the Coalition was formed. Given how close this election appears to be at present, another Coalition may have to be formed and this is adding to the current election uncertainty. A currency strategist at Standard Bank said:
“A $1.40 level for sterling/dollar is certainly not out of reach if the election aftermath turns ugly”
With such uncertainty, investors are refraining from putting their money into the UK and this has contributed towards the deprecation of the British pound against the dollar.
Another factor adding to this downward pressure on the pound is the latest data on industrial output. Although economic growth figures for the UK in 2014 were very positive, there are some suggestions that 2015 will not be as good as expected, though still a strong performance. The first quarter data will not be available until just before the election, but data from the ONS on industrial output shows very minimal growth at just 0.1% from January to February. Chris Williams at Markit said:
“Clearly this all bodes ill for economic growth in the opening quarter of the year. It’s now looking like the economy slowed, and possibly quite markedly, compared to the 0.6% expansion seen in the closing quarter of 2014 … The trend should improve in March, however, according to survey data.”
These two factors have combined to push the pound down, with investors preferring to hold their money in dollars, despite the weak US unemployment data. However, it is not only against the dollar that we must consider sterling’s performance. Against the euro, it has performed better, rising by 1.5%. Whether this is positive for the UK or very negative for the Eurozone is another question. The following articles consider the performance of the British pound.
Sterling falls to five-year low Financial Times, Neil Dennis (10/4/15)
Sterling plummets to five year low as economic slowdown looms The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (10/4/15)
Pound at five-year low against dollar on weak output BBC News (10/4/15)
Sterling falls after Bank of England’s Haldane says even chances of rate cut or rise Reuters (10/4/15)
Pound falls to five-year low as volatility jumps before election Bloomberg, Anooja Debnath and David Goodman (11/4/15)
Pound falls to a five-year low against the dollar as polls suggest election will create economic uncertainty Mail Online, Matt Chorley (10/4/15)
- Draw a diagram illustrating the way in which the $/£ exchange rate is determined.
- Explain why the election is causing economic uncertainty in the UK.
- How would uncertainty affect the demand and supply of sterling and hence the exchange rate?
- US job data is worse than expected. Shouldn’t this have caused the dollar to depreciate against the pound and not appreciate?
- Industrial output data for the UK economy is lower than expected. What has caused this?
- Why does slower growth in industrial output cause the exchange rate to depreciate?
- In order to keep the UK’s inflation rate on target, Haldane has said that we could expect a cut or rise in interest rates and policy should be prepared for both. How has this affected the exchange rate?
- Are there any advantages of having a lower pound?
The final debate between the three party leaders was mainly on the economy. A key issue under debate was how each party would cut the huge budget deficit and how households and businesses would be affected. Something that we may see in the future is a banking levy and possibly new powers given to the Bank of England to ‘ration credit in boom years’. Spending cuts and tax rises are inevitable, but there were differences between the parties as to the extent of these changes and when they are likely to occur. The articles below consider these important issues, as the election entered the final 72 hours.
The broadcast debate
Prime Ministerial Debate: The Economy BBC Election 2010
Articles and podcasts
Economic debate: Banks and a balanced economy BBC News, Peston’s Picks (29/4/10)
General Election 2010: a fact checker for the leaders’ debate on the economy Telegraph (29/4/10)
Tim Harford on the truth behind leaders’ claims BBC Today Programme (30/4/10)
- It is not unusual for countries to have a budget deficit, so why is the UK’s receiving so much attention in the election?
- What is the difference between retail and investment banking?
- What do you think David Cameron meant by giving the Bank of England power ‘to call time on debt in the economy’?
- What is the difference between the budget deficit and national debt?
- What are the arguments for and against cutting the budget deficit now, as the Conservatives want to do and cutting it in the next financial year, as Labour is suggesting?
Well no-one can say that Gordon Brown has had an easy ride: the war in Iraq, MPs’ expenses, flooding, strikes, unemployment, and of course a recession. Will the banking crisis and its knock-on effects prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Only time will tell.
The UK economy will be voting within the next few months and the elected party will play a crucial role in our economic recovery. Public debt reached £829.7 billion at the end of October (59.2% of GDP) and with falling tax revenue and rising government spending, it could get considerably higher. “State borrowing grew by £16.1 billion last month (August) – almost twice the entire budget for the 2012 Olympics.”
The outcome of the election will not only play a role in determining how the UK fares over the next few years in terms of our economic recovery, but it will also indicate the likely direction that policy will take towards areas such as education, healthcare, poverty, pensions, etc. The housing market is also likely to be significantly affected and not just by the election. With the end of the stamp duty holiday approaching, demand for housing may begin to fall in the new year, which could spell a fall in house prices.
No matter what happens, it will be interesting to see the direction of government policy over the next few years, given the spending cuts we are likely to experience.
Public debt hits £800 billion – the highest on record Times Online, Patrick Hosking (19/9/09)
Labour polls fuel talk of early election date Mirror News, James Lyons (14/12/09)
Pre-election politics dictate the Bank of England’s economic policy The Independent, Stephen King (14/12/09)
David Cameron and Labour ready for ‘snap election’ BBC News (13/12/09)
So who said what to whom? The truth about the cuts debate Independent, Steve Richards (15/12/09)
Is UK government debt really that high? BBC News, Richard Anderson (22/12/09)
For data on public-sector finances, see:
Public Sector National Statistics Office for National Statistics
For a lighthearted look at the relationship between elections and the economy (in the context of the Philippines), see:
Election and other economic boosters Manilla Bulletin Publishing Corporation, Fred Lobo (14/12/09)
- How are economics and politics related? Think about how the up-coming election is likely to affect government policy and why.
- What are the main economic policies proposed by the Labour government? How do these aim to help the UK economy recover?
- What are the main economic policies proposed by the Conservative government? Will these policies be any more effective than Labour’s?
- The Conservative party is ahead in the polls at the moment: why do you think this is? To what extent has Labour’s popularity been affected by the way the government has dealt with the banking crisis?