When UK unemployment was 7.7% in July 2013, Mark Carney, the newly arrived governor of the Bank of England, said that the Bank would probably have to rise interest rates when the unemployment rate dropped below 7%. Below that rate, it was expected that inflation would rise. In other words, 7% was the NAIRU – the non-accelerating rate of inflation. The most recent figure for the unemployment rate is 4.8% and yet the Bank of England has not raised interest rates. In fact, in response to the Brexit vote, it cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% in August last year. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below.)
The NAIRU is a similar, although not identical, concept to the natural rate of unemployment. The natural rate is the equilibrium rate consistent with an overall long-term balance of aggregate labour demand and supply: i.e. the rate after short-term cyclical movements in unemployment have been discounted. It is thus a long-term concept.
The NAIRU, although similar, focuses on the relationship between inflation and unemployment. With inflation caused solely by demand-side factors, the natural rate and the NAIRU will be similar if not identical. However, if cost-push factors change – say there is a poor harvest, which pushes up food prices and inflation (temporarily), or a substantial depreciation of the exchange rate caused by political factors (such as Brexit) – the NAIRU would increase, at least in the short term, as a higher rate of unemployment would be necessary to stop inflation rising. In the long term, although being defined differently, the NAIRU and the natural rate will be the same.
In practice, because the Bank of England is targeting inflation at a 24-month time horizon, the NAIRU for the UK at that point could also be seen as the natural rate.
So with the Bank of England not raising interest rates despite the considerable fall in the unemployment rate, does this imply a fall in the natural rate of unemployment? The answer is yes. The reason has to do with changes in the structure of the labour market.
The proportion of young people and women with children returning to the labour market has fallen. Such people have a higher-than-average rate of unemployment since they typically spend a period of time searching for a job.
Tax and benefit reforms over the years have increased the incentive for the unemployed to take work.
Perhaps the biggest factor is a greater flexibility in the labour market. As union power has waned and as people are increasingly working on flexible contracts, including zero-hour contracts, so this has moderated wage increases. At the same time, many firms are facing increased competition both from abroad and domestically via the Internet. This has put downward pressure on prices and hence on the wages firms are willing to pay.
The effect has been a fall in the NAIRU and probably the natural rate. Frictions in the labour market have reduced and people losing their jobs because of changes in industrial structure find it easier to get jobs in low-skilled service industries, where employers’ risks of taking on such workers have fallen because of the loss of rights for such workers.
So what is the natural rate of unemployment today? It is certainly much lower than 7%; the consensus is that it is probably below 5%. As Kristin Forbes, External MPC Member of the Bank of England stated in a recent speech:
[Unemployment] is forecast to increase gradually from its current 4.8% to a high of 5.0% in the second half of 2017, before falling back to its current rate by the end of 2019. To put this in context, 5.0% was previously believed to be around the UK’s natural rate of unemployment – the rate below which unemployment could not fall without wages picking up to levels inconsistent with sustaining inflation around the 2% target. Unemployment at 5.0% is also below the average unemployment rate for the UK over the pre-crisis period from 1997 to 2007 (when it was 5.5%).
She went on to discuss just what the figure is for the natural, or ‘equilibrium’, rate of unemployment (U*). One problem here is that there is considerable uncertainty over the figure in the current forecast made by the Bank.
[An] assumption in the forecast about which there is substantial uncertainty is of the equilibrium unemployment rate – or U* for short. Since I have been on the MPC, the Committee has assumed that U* was around 5%. This implied that the more by which unemployment exceeded 5%, the more slack existed in the economy, and the less upward momentum would be expected in wages (controlling for other factors, such as productivity growth).
As part of our annual assessment of regular supply-side conditions this January, Bank staff presented several pieces of analysis that suggested U* may be lower than 5% today [see, for example]. The majority of the MPC voted to lower our estimate of U* to 4.5%, based partly on the persistent weakness of wage growth over the past few years after accounting for other factors in our models. [See page 20 of the February 2017 Inflation Report.]
My own assessment, however, suggested that although U* was likely lower than 5% today, it is likely not as low as 4.5%. If true, this would suggest that there is less slack in the economy than in the MPC’s central forecast, and wage growth and inflation could pick up faster than expected.
Against that, however, uncertainty related to Brexit negotiations could make firms more cautious about raising wages, thereby dampening wage growth no matter where unemployment is relative to its equilibrium. Moreover, even if we could accurately measure the level of U* in the economy today, it could easily change over the next few years as the labour force adjusts to any changes in the movement of labour between the UK and European Union.
Determining the precise figure of the current natural rate of unemployment, and predicting it for the medium term, is very difficult. It involves separating out demand-side factors, which are heavily dependent on expectations. It also involves understanding the wage elasticity of labour supply in various markets and how this has been affected by the increased flexibility of these markets.
When will Britons get a pay rise? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/2/17)
BoE decision, Inflation Report – Analysts react DigitalLook, Alexander Bueso (2/2/17)
Bank of England hikes UK economic growth forecasts but warns of rising inflation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/2/17)
Bank of England publications
Inflation Report Bank of England (February 2017)
A MONIAC (not manic) economy Bank of England Speeches, Kristin Forbes (8/2/17)
The labour market Bank of England Speeches, Michael Saunders (31/1/17)
- Distinguish between the following terms: natural rate of unemployment, NAIRU, equilibrium rate of unemployment, disequilibrium rate of unemployment.
- For what reasons did the Monetary Policy Committee members feel that the equilibrium rate of unemployment might be as low as 4.25%?
- Why might it be as high as 5%?
- How are changes in migration trends likely to affect (a) wage growth and (b) unemployment?
- How is the amount of slack in an economy measured? What impact does the degree of slack have on wage growth and inflation?
- What is meant by the ‘gig’ economy? How has the development of the gig economy impacted on unemployment and wages?
- Why has there been a considerable rise in self employment?
- How may questions of life style choice and control over the hours people wish to work impact on the labour market?
- If people are moving jobs less frequently, does this imply that the labour market is becoming less flexible?
- Why may firms in the current climate be cautious about raising wages even if aggregate demand picks up?
Unemployment and employment are concepts that are often talked about in the media. Indeed, the 7% unemployment target referred to by the Governor of the Bank of England has been a constant feature of recent headlines. However, rather than targeting an unemployment rate of 7%, George Osborne has now called for ‘full employment’ and believes that tax and welfare changes are key to meeting this objective.
Reducing the unemployment rate is a key macroeconomic objective and the costs of unemployment are well-documented. There are obviously big costs to the individual and his/her family, including lower income, dependency, stress and potential health effects. There are also costs to the government: lower income tax revenues, potentially lower revenues from VAT through reduced consumer expenditure and the possibility of higher benefit payments. There are other more ‘economic’ costs, namely an inefficient use of resources. Unemployment represents a cost to the economy, as we are operating below full capacity and we therefore see a waste of resources. It is for this reason that ‘full employment’ is being targeted.
Traditional economic theory suggests that there is a trade-off between unemployment and inflation, illustrated by the well-known Phillips curve. In the past, governments have been willing to sacrifice unemployment for the purpose of reducing inflation. There have also been attempts to boost the economy and create jobs through increased borrowing. However, George Osborne has said:
Unemployment is never a price worth paying, but artificial jobs paid for with borrowed money doesn’t work either.
A figure representing full employment hasn’t been mentioned, so it remains unclear what level of unemployment would be acceptable, as despite the name ‘full employment’, this doesn’t mean that everyone has a job. There are several definitions of full employment, in both an economic and political context. In the period of reconstruction after the Second World War, William Beveridge, architect of the welfare state, defined full employment as where 3% of people would be unemployed.
In more recent times, other definitions have been given. In the era of monetarism in the 1970s, the term ‘natural rate of unemployment’ was used to define the unemployment rate to which economies tend in the long run – after inflationary expectations have adjusted. Keynesians use the term the ‘non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU)’, where unemployment is confined to equilibrium unemployment and where there is no excess or deficiency of aggregate demand. Both the natural rate and the NAIRU relate to the rate of unemployment at which the long-run Phillips curve is vertical.
In its Economic and Fiscal Outlook of March 2013, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated the UK’s NAIRU to be 5.4%. George Osborne has not specified a particular rate. Rather, his speech refers to creating the ‘highest employment rate of any of the world’s leading economies’. He said the ambition was to make the UK:
…the best place in the world to create a job; to get a job; to keep a job; to be helped to look for another job if you lose one…A modern approach to full employment means backing business. It means cutting the tax on jobs and reforming welfare.
Therefore, while it appears that there is no target figure for unemployment, it seems that a new Conservative objective will be to focus on sustainable job creation and eliminate disequilibrium unemployment. This represents a move very much into Labour territory. Meeting the objective will be no easy task, given the past few years and such high levels of youth unemployment, as Labour were quick to point out, but the unemployment figures are certainly moving in the right direction. The following articles consider the objective of full employment.
Britain’s Osborne changes tone on economy with “full employment” target Reuters, William James (31/3/14)
George Osborne commits to ‘fight for full employment’ BBC News (including video) (1/4/14)
What does full employment mean? The Guardian (1/4/14)
What is full employment? The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (31/3/14)
’Jobs matter’, says George Osborne as he aims for full employment Independent, Andrew Grice (31/3/14)
Liam Bynre: Labour would aim for ‘full employment’ BBC News (17/5/13)
Osborne pledges full employment for UK Sky News (31/3/14)
Osborne commits to full employment as election looms Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (31/3/14)
Whatever happened to full employment? BBC News, Tom de Castella and Caroline McClatchey (13/10/11)
- What is meant by full employment?
- Is it a good idea to target zero unemployment?
- Using a diagram, illustrate the difference between disequilibrium and equilibrium unemployment?
- How can full employment be achieved?
- What are the costs of unemployment?
- Use a diagram to illustrate the natural rate of unemployment and explain what it means in terms of the relationship between unemployment and 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 has recently been increased to £6.08 – 15p rise. Rises have also been seen for 18-20 year olds, 16 and 17 year olds and apprentices. Undoubtedly this is good news for workers receiving the minimum wage, but what does it mean for firms and national unemployment data?
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. Furthermore, firms are already facing difficult times with the economic climate: sales remain relatively low, but costs are still high. 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.
It is hoped that the size of the increases will help low paid workers, as costs of living continue to rise, but won’t cause firms to reduce their labour force. This is one reason, in particular, why the increase in the minimum wage for young workers is smaller than that for adults. Youth unemployment is relatively high and so it is essential that firms keep these workers on, despite their increased costs.
Although the TUC has welcomed the increases in the National Minimum Wage, saying they will benefit some 900,000 workers, the General Secretary of Unison has said that it isn’t high enough.
“The rise to £6.08 is a welcome cushion, but with the price of everyday essentials such as food, gas and electricity going up massively, it won’t lift enough working people out of the poverty trap.”
The following articles consider this issue.
Minimum wage rises by 15p to £6.08 an hour Telegraph (3/10/11)
Minimum wage up by 15p to £6.08 BBC News (1/10/11)
150,000 social care workers paid below legal minimum wage, research reveals Guardian, Shiv Malik (3/10/11)
Unions want £8 an hour minimum wage Press Association (1/10/11)
Hunderds of thousands of women to benefit as minimum wage hits the £6-an-hour mark for the first time Mail Online, Emma Reynolds (29/9/11)
Unions demand minimum wage of £8 an hour Telegraph (30/9/11)
Changes will benefit workers Sky News (2/10/11)
- Is the minimum wage an example of a price ceiling or a price floor?
- If the National Minimum Wage was imposed below the market equilibrium, what would be the effect?
- If imposed above the market wage rate, the National Minimum Wage may create unemployment. On which factors does the extent of unemployment depend?
- Why is it expected that female workers are likely to be the main ones to benefit? What does this say about gender inequality?
- Why does the General Secretary of Unison not believe the higher National Minimum Wage will help people out of the poverty trap?
- How will the National Minimum Wage affect a firm’s costs of production. Illustrate the likely impact on a diagram.