Global oil prices (Brent crude) reached $128 per barrel on 9 March, a level not seen for 10 years and surpassed only in the run up to the financial crisis in 2008. Oil prices are determined by global demand and supply, and the current surge in prices is no exception.
A rise in demand and/or a fall in supply will lead to a rise in the price. Given that both demand and supply are relatively price inelastic, such shifts can cause large rises in oil prices. Similarly, a fall in demand or rise in supply can lead to a large fall in oil prices.
These changes are then amplified by speculation. Traders try to get ahead of price changes. If people anticipate that oil prices will rise, they will buy now, or make a contract to buy more in the future at prices quoted today by buying on the oil futures market. This then pushes up both spot (current) prices and futures prices. If demand or supply conditions change, speculation will amplify the reaction to such a change.
What has happened since 2019?
In 2019, oil was typically trading at around $60 to $70 per barrel. It then fell dramatically in early 2020 as the onset of COVID-19 led to a collapse in demand, for both transport and industry. The price fell below $20 in late April (see charts: click here for a PowerPoint).
Oil prices then rose rapidly as demand recovered somewhat but supply chains, especially shipping, were suffering disruptions. By mid-2021, oil was once more trading at around $60 to $70 per barrel. But then demand grew more strongly as economic recovery from COVID accelerated. But supply could not grow so quickly. By January 2022, Brent crude had risen above $80 per barrel.
Then worries began to grow about Russian intentions over Ukraine as Russia embarked on large-scale military exercises close to the border with Ukraine. People increasingly disbelieved Russia’s declarations that it had no intention to invade. Russia is the world’s second biggest producer of oil and people feared that deliberate disruptions to supply by Russia or other countries banning imports of Russian oil would cause supply shortages. Speculation thus drove up the oil price. By 23 February, the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brent crude had risen to $95.
With the Russian invasion, moves were made by the EU the USA and other countries to ban or limit the purchase of Russian oil. This increased the demand for non-Russian oil.
On 8 March, the USA announced that it was banning the import of Russian oil with immediate effect. The same day, the UK announced that it would phase out the import of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022.
The EU is much more dependent on Russian oil imports, which account for around 27% of EU oil consumption and 2/3 of extra-EU oil imports. Nevertheless, it announced that it would accelerate the move away from Russian oil and gas and towards green alternatives. By 8 March, Brent crude had risen to $128 per barrel.
The question was then whether other sources of supply would help to fill the gap. Initially it seemed that OPEC+ (excluding Russia) would not increase production beyond the quotas previously agreed by the cartel to meet recovery in world demand. But then, on 9 March, the UAE Ambassador to Washington announced that the county favoured production increases and would encourage other OPEC members to follow suit. With the announcement, the oil price fell by 11% to £111. But the next day, it rose again somewhat as the UAE seemed to backtrack, but then fell back slightly as OPEC said there was no shortage of oil.
This is obviously an unfolding story with the suffering of the Ukrainian people at its heart. But the concepts of supply and demand and their price elasticity and the role of speculation are central to understanding what will happen to oil prices in the coming months with all the consequences for poverty and economic hardship.
- Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate what has happened to oil prices over the past two years. How has the size of the effects been dependent on the price elasticity of demand for oil and the price elasticity of supply of oil?
- Use a demand and supply diagram to show what has been happening to the price of natural gas over the past two years. Are the determinants similar to those in the oil market? How do they differ (if at all)?
- What policy options are open to governments to deal with soaring energy prices?
- What are the distributional consequences of the rise in energy prices? (see the blog: Rise in the cost of living.)
- Under what circumstances are oil prices over the next six months likely (a) fall; (b) continue rising?
The suffering inflicted on the Ukrainian people by the Russian invasion is immense. But, at a much lower level, the war will also inflict costs on people in countries around the world. There will be significant costs to households in the form of even higher energy and food price inflation and a possible economic slowdown. The reactions of governments and central banks could put a further squeeze on living standards. Stock markets could fall further and investment could decline as firms lose confidence.
Russia is the world’s second largest oil supplier and any disruption to supplies will drive up the price of oil significantly. Ahead of the invasion, oil prices were rising. At the beginning of February, Brent crude was around $90 per barrel. With the invasion, it rose above $100 per barrel.
Russia is also a major producer of natural gas. The EU is particularly dependent on Russia, which supplies 40% of its natural gas. With Germany halting approval of the major new gas pipeline under the Baltic from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 2, the price of gas has rocketed. On the day of the invasion, European gas prices rose by over 50%.
Nevertheless, with the USA deciding not to extend sanctions to Russia’s energy sector, the price of gas fell back by 32% the next day. It remains to be seen just how much the supplies of oil and gas from Russia will be disrupted over the coming weeks.
Both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of wheat and maize, between them responsible for 14% of global wheat production and 30% of global wheat exports. A significant rise in the price of wheat and other grains will exacerbate the current rise in food price inflation.
Russia is also a significant supplier of metals, such as copper, platinum, aluminium and nickel, which are used in a wide variety of products. A rise in their price has begun and will further add to inflationary pressures and supply-chain problems which have followed the pandemic.
The effect of these supply shocks can be illustrated in a simple aggregate demand and supply diagram (see Figure 1), which shows a representative economy that imports energy, grain and other resources. Aggregate demand and short-run aggregate supply are initially given by AD0 and SRAS0. Equilibrium is at point a, with real national income (real GDP) of Y0 and a price index of P0.
The supply shock shifts short-run aggregate supply to SRAS1. Equilibrium moves to point b. The price index rises to P1 and real national income falls to Y1. If it is a ‘one-off’ cost increase, then the price index will settle at the new higher level and GDP at the new lower level provided that real aggregate demand remains the same. Inflation will be temporary. If, however, the SRAS curve continues to shift upwards to the left, then cost-push inflation will continue.
These supply-side shocks make the resulting inflation hard for policymakers to deal with. When the problem lies on the demand side, where the inflation is accompanied by an unsustainable boom, a contractionary fiscal and monetary policy can stabilise the economy and reduce inflation. But the inflationary problem today is not demand-pull inflation; it’s cost-push inflation. Disruptions to supply are both driving up prices and causing an economic slowdown – a situation of ‘stagflation’, or even an inflationary recession.
An expansionary policy, such as increasing bond purchases (quantitative easing) or increasing government spending, may help to avoid recession (at least temporarily), but will only exacerbate inflation. In Figure 2, aggregate demand shifts to AD2. Equilibrium moves to point c. Real GDP returns to Y0 (at least temporarily) but the price level rises further, to P2. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram.)
A contractionary policy, such as raising interest rates or taxes, may help to reduce inflation but will make the slowdown worse and could lead to recession. In the diagram, aggregate demand shifts to AD3. Equilibrium moves to point d. The price level returns to P0 (at least temporarily) but real income falls further, to Y3.
In other words, you cannot tackle both the slowdown/recession and the inflation simultaneously by the use of demand-side policy. One requires an expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policy; the other requires fiscal and/or monetary tightening.
Then there are other likely economic stresses. If NATO countries respond by increasing defence expenditure, this will put further strain on public finances.
Sentiment is a key driver of the economy and prices. Expectations tend to be self-fulfilling. So if the war in Ukraine undermines confidence in stock markets and the real economy and further raises inflationary expectations, this pessimistic mood will tend in itself to drive down share prices, drive up inflation and drive down investment and economic growth.
- How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hit the global economy?
Financial Times, Chris Giles, Jonathan Wheatley and Valentina Romei (25/2/22)
- Ukraine conflict raises the possibility of stagflation
Financial Times, The Editorial Board (25/2/22)
- Five ways the Ukraine war could push up prices
BBC News, Laura Jones (5/3/22)
- Jason Furman cautions against reading too much into the initial market reactions to Russia’s invasion
interest.co.nz, Jason Furman (26/2/22)
- Putin’s war promises to crush the global economy with inflation and much slower growth
Market Watch, Nouriel Roubini (25/2/22)
- Roubini: 6 Financial, Economic Risks of Russia-Ukraine War
ThinkAdvisor, Janet Levaux (25/2/22)
- Fed tightening plans now contending with war, possible oil shock
Reuters, Howard Schneider and Jonnelle Marte (24/2/22)
- The invasion of Ukraine changed everything for Wall Street
CNN, Julia Horowitz (27/2/22)
- Why the Russian invasion will have huge economic consequences for American families
CNN, Matt Egan (24/2/22)
- European gas prices soar and oil tops $105 after Russia attacks Ukraine
Financial Times, Neil Hume, Emiko Terazono and Tom Wilson (24/2/22)
- Five essential commodities that will be hit by war in Ukraine
The Conversation, Sarah Schiffling and Nikolaos Valantasis Kanellos (24/2/22)
- Ukraine: ‘I’m surprised the oil price hasn’t hit US$130 a barrel yet’ – energy trading expert Q&A
The Conversation, Adi Imsirovic (25/2/22)
- Ukraine crisis: Warning UK energy bills could top £3,000 a year
BBC News, Michael Race (25/2/22)
- Putin’s energy shock: The economic realities of invasion
BBC News, Faisal Islam (25/2/22)
- Fears of UK food and fuel prices rising due to war
BBC News, Oliver Smith & Michael Race (26/2/22)
- Ukraine conflict: What is Swift and why is banning Russia so significant?
BBC News, Russell Hotten (27/2/22)
- Ukraine conflict: How reliant is Europe on Russia for oil and gas?
BBC News, Jake Horton & Daniele Palumbo (25/2/22)
- Ukraine crisis complicates ECB’s path to higher rates
Reuters, Francesco Canepa and Balazs Koranyi (24/2/22)
- Russia and the West are moving towards all out economic war
Al Jazeera, Maximilian Hess (24/2/22)
- If there is a negative supply shock, what will determine the size of the resulting increase in the price level and the rate of inflation over the next one or two years?
- How may expectations affect (a) the size of the increase in the price level; (b) future prices of gas and oil?
- Why did stock markets rise on the day after the invasion of Ukraine?
- Argue the case for and against relaxing monetary policy and delaying tax rises in the light of the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine.
Inflation across the world has been rising. This has been caused by a rise in aggregate demand as the global economy has ‘bounced back’ from the pandemic, while supply-chain disruptions and tight labour markets constrain the ability of aggregate supply to respond to the rise in demand.
But what of the coming months? Will supply become more able to respond to demand as supply-chain issues ease, allowing further economic growth and an easing of inflationary pressures?
Or will higher inflation and higher taxes dampen real demand and cause growth, or even output, to fall? Are we about to enter an era of ‘stagflation’, where economies experience rising inflation and economic stagnation? And will stagnation be made worse by central banks which raise interest rates to dampen the inflation but, in the process, dampen spending.
Despite the worries of central banks, with inflation being higher than forecast a few months ago, forecasts (e.g. the OECD’s) are still for inflation to peak fairly soon and then to fall back to around 2 to 3 per cent by the beginning of 2023 – close to central bank target rates.
In the UK, annual CPI inflation reached 5.4% in December 2021. The UK Treasury’s January 2022 new monthly forecasts for the UK economy by 15 independent institutions give an average forecast of 4.0% for CPI inflation for 2022. In the USA, annual consumer price inflation reached 7 per cent in December 2021, but is forecast to fall to just over the target rate of 2% by the end of 2022.
If central banks respond to the current high inflation by raising interest rates more than very slightly and by stopping quantitative easing (QE), or even engaging in quantitative tightening (selling assets purchased under previous QE schemes), there is a severe risk of a sharp slowdown in economic activity. Household budgets are already being squeezed by the higher prices, especially energy and food prices. And people will face higher taxes as governments seek to reduce their debts, which soared with the Covid support packages during the pandemic.
The Fed has signalled that it will end its bond buying (QE) programme in March 2022 and may well raise interest rates at the same time. Quantitative tightening may then follow. But although GDP growth is still strong in the USA, Fed policy and stretched household budgets could well see spending slow and growth fall. Stagflation is less likely in the USA than in the UK and many other countries, but there is still the danger of over-reaction by the Fed given the predicted fall in inflation.
But there are reasons to be confident that stagflation can be avoided. Supply-chain bottlenecks are likely to ease and are already showing signs of doing so, with manufacturing production recovering and hold-ups at docks easing. The danger may increasingly become one of demand being excessively dampened rather than supply being constrained. Under these circumstances, inflation could rapidly fall, as is being forecast.
Nevertheless, as Covid restrictions ease, the hospitality and leisure sector is likely to see a resurgence in demand, despite stagnant or falling real disposable incomes, and here there are supply constraints in the form of staffing shortages. This could well lead to higher wages and prices in the sector, but probably not enough to prevent the fall in inflation.
- Inflation will probably melt away in 2022 – central banks will do far more harm trying to tackle it
The Conversation, Brigitte Granville (14/1/22)
- Stagflation and why it matters
The Week, Chas Newkey-Burden (1/10/21)
- Surging inflation could dwarf other issues in the political landscape as households feel the strain
Sky News, Ed Conway (19/1/22)
- Inflation is back, and there’s plenty more in the pipeline
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (19/1/22)
- UK inflation jumps to highest level in 30 years
Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/1/22)
- UK workers’ pay rises fall behind inflation amid cost-of-living crisis
The Guardian, Richard Partington (18/1/22)
- UK faces a pay squeeze – and higher interest rates look likely
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (18/1/22)
- Inflation: why it’s temporary and raising interest rates will do more harm than good
The Conversation, Muhammad Ali Nasir (22/11/21)
- Inflation: why it is the biggest test yet for central bank independence
The Conversation, Anton Muscatelli (14/12/21)
- Three more interest rate rises loom after Bank’s borrowing cost shock
The Telegraph, Russell Lynch and Tim Wallace (16/12/21)
- US Stagflation: The Global Risk Of 2022 – OpEd
Eurasia Review, Dan Steinbock (17/1/22)
- If prices keep rising, a nightmare scenario for the US economy is a real possibility
CNN, Paul R La Monica (12/1/22)
- Will inflation in the UK keep rising?
Bank of England (10/12/21)
- Under what circumstances would stagflation be (a) more likely; (b) less likely?
- Find out the causes of stagflation in the early/mid-1970s.
- Argue the case for and against the Fed raising interest rates and ending its asset buying programme.
- Why are labour shortages likely to be higher in the UK than in many other countries?
- Research what is likely to happen to fuel prices over the next two years. How is this likely to impact on inflation and economic growth?
- Is the rise in prices likely to increase or decrease real wage inequality? Explain.
- Distinguish between cost-push and demand-pull inflation. Which of the two is more likely to result in stagflation?
- Why are inflationary expectations a major determinant of actual inflation? What influences inflationary expectations?
Inflation has surged worldwide as countries have come out of their COVID-19 lockdowns. The increases in prices combined with supply-chain problems has raised questions of what will happen to future prices and whether it will feed further inflation cycles.
Inflation is a key contributor to instability in an economy. It measures the rate of increases in prices over a given period of time and indicates what will happen to the cost of living for households. Because of its importance, many central banks aim to keep inflation low and steady by setting a target. The Bank of England, the Federal Reserve, and the European Central Bank all aim to keep inflation low at a target rate of 2 per cent.
Inflation-rate targeting has been successfully practised in a growing number of countries over the past few decades. However, measures to combat rising inflation typically contract the economy through reducing real aggregate demand (or at least its rate of growth). This is a concern when the economy is not experiencing a strong economic performance.
Globally, rising inflation is causing concern as a surge in demand has been confronted by supply bottlenecks and rising prices of energy and raw materials. As the world emerges from the COVID-19 lockdowns, global financial markets have been affected in recent months by concerns around inflation. They have also been affected by the prospect of major central banks around the world being forced into the early removal of pandemic support measures, such as quantitative easing, before the economic recovery from the coronavirus is complete.
The Chief Economist at the Bank of England has warned that UK inflation is likely to rise ‘close to or even slightly above 5 per cent’ early next year, as he said the central bank would have a ‘live’ decision on whether to raise interest rates at its November meeting. Although consumer price inflation dipped to 3.1 per cent in September, the Bank of England has forecast it to exceed 4 per cent by the end of the year, 2 percentage points higher than its target. UK banks and building societies have already started to increase mortgage rates in response to rising inflation, signalling an end to the era of ultra-low borrowing costs and piling further pressure on household finances.
In the USA, shortages throughout the supply chains on which corporate America depends are also causing concern. These issues are translating into widespread inflationary pressure, disrupting operations and forcing companies to raise prices for customers. Pressure on every link in the supply chain, from factory closures triggered by COVID-19 outbreaks to trouble finding enough staff to unload trucks, is rippling across sectors, intensifying questions about the threat that inflation poses to robust consumer spending and rebounding corporate earnings. Reflecting concern over weaker levels of global economic growth despite rising inflationary pressures, US figures published at the end of October showed the world’s largest economy added just 194 000 jobs in September, far fewer than expected.
There are also fears raised over high levels of corporate debt, including in China at the embattled property developer Evergrande, where worries over its ability to keep up with debt payments have rippled through global markets. There are major concerns that Evergrande could pose risks to the wider property sector, with potential spill-overs internationally. However, it is argued that the British banking system has been shown in stress tests to be resilient to a severe economic downturn in China and Hong Kong.
Central bank responses
The sharpest consumer-price increases in years have evoked different responses from central banks. Many have raised interest rates, but two that haven’t are the most prominent in the global economy: the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. These differences in responses reflect differing opinions as to whether current price increases will feed further inflation cycles or simply peter out. For those large central banks, they are somewhat relying on households keeping faith in their track record of keeping inflation low. There is also an expectation that there are enough underutilised workers to ensure that wage inflation is kept low.
However, other monetary authorities worry that they have not yet earned the record of keeping inflation low and are concerned about the risk of wage inflation. In addition, in poorer countries there is a larger share of spending that goes on essentials such as food and energy. These have seen some of the highest price increases, so policy makers are going to be keen to stamp down on the inflation.
The Federal Reserve is expected to announce that it will start phasing out its $120bn monthly bond-buying programme (quantitative easing) as it confronts more pronounced price pressures and predictions that interest rates will be lifted next year. However, no adjustments are expected to be made to the Fed’s main policy rate, which is tethered near zero. Whilst financial markets are betting on an rise in Bank Rate by the Bank of England as early as next month, spurred by comments from Governor Andrew Bailey in mid-October that the central bank would ‘have to act’ to keep a lid on inflation.
Outlook for the UK
The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Huw Pill, has warned that high rates of inflation could last longer than expected, due to severe supply shortages and rising household energy bills. He said inflationary pressures were still likely to prove temporary and would fall back over time as the economy adjusted after disruption caused by COVID and Brexit. However, he warned there were growing risks that elevated levels of inflation could persist next year.
The looming rise in borrowing costs for homeowners will add further pressure to family finances already stretched by higher energy bills and surging inflation. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is expected that households will face years of stagnating living standards, with predictions showing that households would on average be paying £3000 more each year in taxes by 2024/25, with the biggest impact felt by higher earners.
Investors are also reacting to concerns and have pulled $9.4bn out of UK-focused equity funds this year after hopes that a COVID-19 vaccination drive will fuel a vigorous economic recovery were overshadowed by questions about slow growth and high inflation. It is suggested that there is a general sense of caution about the UK when it comes to investing globally, driven by monetary, fiscal and trade uncertainties.
Given all the elements contributing to this outlook, The IMF has forecast that the UK will recover more slowly from the shocks of coronavirus than other G7 nations, with economic output in 2024 still 3 per cent below its pre-pandemic levels. Financial markets are predicting the Bank of England will lift interest rates as soon as the next MPC meeting. And while supply-chain bottlenecks and rising commodity prices are a global trend, the Bank’s hawkish stance has increased the possibility of a sharper slowdown in Britain than other developed markets, some analysts have said.
Some of the major central banks are poised to take centre stage when announcing their next monetary action, as it will reveal if they share the alarm about surging inflation that has gripped investors. Markets are betting that the Bank of England will begin raising interest rates, with Bank Rate expected to rise to around 1.25 per cent by the end of next year (from the current 0.1 per cent).
It is thought that the Fed will not raise interest rates just yet but will do so in the near future. Markets, businesses, and households globally will be waiting on the monetary decisions of all countries, as these decisions will shape the trajectory of the global economy over the next few years.
- Three Days Will Reveal Global Alert Level on Inflation: Eco Week
Bloomberg, Molly Smith and Craig Stirling (31/10/21)
- Inflation watch: Global food prices hit 10-year high
Al Jazeera (4/11/21)
- Fed sings the ‘transitory’ inflation refrain, unveils bond-buying ‘taper’
ReutersHoward Schneider and Ann Saphir (3/11/21)
- BoE chief economist warns UK inflation likely to hit 5%
Financial Times, Chris Giles (21/10/21)
- Inflation pressure now ‘brutal’ because of supply squeeze, US companies say
Financial Times, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, Matthew Rocco, Obey Manayiti and Claire Bushey (23/10/21)
- Rising inflation could trigger global sell-off that would harm UK, says Bank
The Guardian, Richard Partington (8/10/21)
- Bank of England chief economist warns high inflation rates may persist in 2022
The Guardian, Richard Partington (7/10/21)
- Bank of England surprises markets by holding rates at record lows
CNBC, Elliot Smith (4/11/21)
- Bank of England resists pressure to raise interest rates as inflation spike looms
Sky News, Ed Conway (4/11/21)
Forecasts and commentary
- What is the definition of inflation?
- How is inflation measured?
- Using a diagram to aid your answers, discuss the difference between cost-push and demand-pull inflation.
- What are the demand-side and cost-side causes of the current rising inflation?
- Explain the impact an increase in interest rates has on the economy.
Long queues at petrol pumps, with many filling stations running out of fuel; fears of shortages of food and various other items in supermarkets; orders by shops and warehouses unfilled or delayed. These have been some of the headlines in the UK in recent days.
The immediate problem is a shortage of over 100 000 lorry drivers, with thousands of drivers from EU countries, who were previously living and working in the UK, having returned to their home countries. Their numbers have not been replaced by British drivers, a problem exacerbated by a decline in HGV tests during the pandemic. Thus the supply of lorry drivers has fallen.
At the same time, as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, aggregate demand has risen and with it the demand for lorry drivers.
The shortage is pushing up wages somewhat, but not enough to eliminate the shortage. What is more, the supply of lorry drivers is relatively wage inelastic: a higher wage does not attract many more drivers into the market. Also the demand is also relatively wage inelastic: a higher wage does not do much to dampen the demand for drivers.
But why has this happened? Why has the supply of drivers fallen and why is it inelastic? And what will happen in the coming months? The three main causes are Brexit, COVID-19 and working conditions.
With Brexit, many EU workers left the UK, finding life and working conditions more conducive in the EU. Many EU drivers had faced discrimination and felt that they were not welcome in the UK. It has been difficult finding replacement drivers from the EU as the UK’s immigration system, which now applies to the EU as well as other countries, prioritises workers who are classified as high-skilled, and these do not include lorry drivers.
Those EU drivers who do want to stay as UK residents are finding that settled status or visas are not easy to achieve and involve filling in various documents, which can be an onerous and time-consuming process. As the writer of the first linked bog below, who is a Polish worker in the transport industry, states, ‘Would you rather come to Britain and jump through all the hoops, or choose any of the well-paying EU countries, for example, Germany that, if you live in Western Poland, is just a short drive across (virtually non-existent thanks to Schengen) border?’ Another problem is that with EU driving licences: it is harder for potential employers to check on their status and thus they may prefer to employ UK drivers. This, again, puts off EU drivers from seeking to stay in the UK.
Even in the case of EU drivers living in the EU but delivering to the UK there are problems. First there are the dangers for drivers of boarding ferries in France, where people from migrant camps seek to board lorries to get passage to the UK, often threatening drivers. If illegal migrants do succeed in boarding a trailer unseen by the driver, the driver can then be arrested in the UK. According to the Polish blogger, it’s ‘no surprise that I hear more and more drivers who, when taking on new jobs, demand guarantees from their employers that they won’t be sent to the UK’.
Then there is a decline in the system known as ‘cabotage’. This is where an EU driver delivers from the EU to destination A in the UK and takes back a load to the EU from destination B in the UK. To avoid having to travel empty between the two UK destinations, the driver could pick up a load to take from A to B. With a fall in imports and exports from and to the EU following Brexit, there are fewer EU lorries on UK roads. This means that there is now less capacity for transporting loads within the UK.
There has also been a large rise in ‘red tape’ associated with post-Brexit customs checks and border controls. This means that lorries can be held up at ports. This makes it much less attractive for EU haulage companies to export to the UK rather than to other EU countries, where paperwork is minimal. In addition, m many drivers are paid by the length of the journey rather than by the time spent, so delays result in them earning less per hour. Full checks have not been introduced yet. When they are, in January and July next year, the problem will be worse.
Tax changes make it more difficult for drivers to avoid taxes by claiming that they are self employed when they are in reality employees. This too is discouraging drivers from the EU from moving to or staying in the UK since many would now (since April 2021) be paying more tax.
Another contributing factor to the shortage of drivers has been COVID-19 and the government’s response to it. COVID rates are considerably higher in the UK than in most EU countries and, not surprisingly, many EU drivers are afraid to come to the UK.
The pandemic led to fewer HGV driver tests, with 25 000 fewer candidates passing their test in 2020 than in 2019. It takes time to train new drivers and then to test them. However, even if there had been no reduction in HGV drivers passing their tests, there would still be a significant shortage of qualified drivers.
A further problem with the effects of COVID-19 on the economy has been the initial recession and then the bounce back. The sheer size of the bounce back has exacerbated the problem of driver shortages, which otherwise would have been slower to develop, giving the market more time to respond. Real GDP grew by 5.5% from 2021 Q1 to 2021 Q2, giving an annual growth rate of 23.6%. Nevertheless, GDP was still some 3.3% below its 2019 Q3 level.
Pay and working conditions
Working conditions are very poor for many drivers. The following are common complaints:
- Driving jobs are often very tightly controlled, with computer monitoring and little freedom for the driver. Some cabs have cameras aimed at the drivers so that they can be constantly monitored.
- Drivers are subject to very stringent health and safety regulations, such as not being allowed to drive longer than a certain time, even when they are queuing in congested traffic. Whilst many of these regulations are desirable to protect both the public’s and the driver’s safety, they can discourage drivers from entering or staying in the industry. And some regulations are hard to justify on safety grounds (see second linked article below, point 13).
- Just-in-time deliveries at supermarkets, regional distribution centres (warehouses) or factories make timing very important and add considerable stress to drivers who may face abuse if they are late, even though it was not their fault, with their employer perhaps facing a fine. And yet on other occasions they might have to wait a long time to offload if drivers before them have been delayed, and often the conditions in waiting areas are poor with few if any facilities.
- Drivers often feel a lack of respect from employers, trainers and the general public.
- Rest and refreshment facilities are often very poor in the UK and generally much worse than in the EU. In the EU, motorway service areas have better parking, toilets, showers and shops. Restaurants are better and cheaper. Dedicated truck stops have supermarkets, laundrettes, showers or even open-air gyms dedicated to making drivers’ lives easier and more pleasant. The UK by contrast often has very poor facilities. Unlike in most EU motorway services, drivers have to pay to park and are faced with poor toilet and eating facilities. ‘Meanwhile, a typical British truck stop is some dusty yard full of potholes on the side of some industrial estate with a portaloo and a “greasy spoon” burger van parked next to it.’
- Hours are long. Even though driving hours are restricted to 10 hours per day (recently extended to 11 hours), the average working day may be much longer as drivers have to wait at distribution centres, fill in increasing amounts of paperwork and help load or unload their vehicle. Also drivers may have to work variable shifts, which leads to disturbed sleeping patterns.
- The work is often physically demanding, especially when a large part of the job involves loading and unloading and moving items from the lorry to where the customer wants them.
- Many vehicles are hard and unpleasant to drive, with leased vehicles often low-spec, dirty, uncomfortable and poorly maintained.
- Many of the jobs are agency jobs that do not offer stable employment.
Although pay is higher than in some parts of the labour market where there are shortages, such as social care and hospitality, pay per hour is still relatively poor when compared with many industries which have better conditions of employment.
The government is allowing more foreign workers into the UK from this month (October); more training places will be offered for potential drivers and the number of driving tests will increase; the government is also encouraging retired drivers or those who have left driving for other jobs to return to the industry.
However, there are shortages of drivers in other EU countries and so it will be difficult to attract additional drivers to the UK from the EU. What is more, with wages and working conditions remaining poor and the labour market remaining tight in other sectors, it might be hard to fill new training places and encourage workers to return to driving. Also, with the average age of drivers being 55, it is likely that the outflow of workers from driving jobs could be large in the coming years.
- Twenty reasons why there is an HGV driver shortage – part one: 1-10
West Country Bylines, Tomasz Oryński (21/9/21)
- Twenty reasons why there is an HGV driver shortage – part 2: reasons 11-20
West Country Bylines, Tomasz Oryński (23/9/21)
- Gas Shortages Awaken Britain to Some Crucial Workers: Truck Drivers
New York Times, Eshe Nelson and Megan Specia (29/9/21)
- Time running out to save UK industry from worker shortages, say business leaders
CNN, Walé Azeez (1/10/21)
- Boris Johnson’s Brexit choices are making Britain’s fuel and food shortages worse
CNN, Hanna Ziady (29/9/21)
- How serious is the shortage of lorry drivers?
BBC News, Reality Check Team (28/9/21)
- Petrol shortage: Is the fuel crisis improving?
BBC News (1/10/21)
- UK visa plan will not fix lorry driver shortage, says boss
BBC News (28/9/21)
- The empty shelves crisis isn’t just down to Covid and Brexit – it’s been decades in the making
The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (17/9/21)
- Emergency visa scheme extended in major U-turn by Boris Johnson
The Guardian, Rajeev Syal (1/10/21)
- Truck driver shortage won’t be solved by quick fix visas – here are three ways forward
The Conversation, Temidayo Akenroye (27/9/21)
- UK lorry driver shortage a stark example of a wider European problem
Euronews, Luke Hurst and Shona Murray (29/9/21)
- Emergency visas won’t tempt European lorry drivers to UK, say haulage chiefs
The Observer, Jon Henley, Michael Savage and James Tapper (25/9/21)
- Labour shortage threatens to cancel out any Brexit dividend
British Meat Processors Association, Industry News, Peter Hardwick (28/9/21)
- How to control a consumer panic
BBC News. Faisal Islam (28/9/21)
- Why are the supply of and demand for lorry drivers relatively wage inelastic?
- Use a marginal productivity diagram to explain the current situation in the market for lorry drivers.
- What policy measures could be adopted to increase the supply of lorry drivers? How successful would these be?
- Is it ‘rational’ for consumers to ‘panic buy’ fuel and other products in short supply?
- Find out why there is a shortage of lorry drivers in the EU. Are any of the explanations similar to those in the UK?
- What are the macroeconomic implications of a shortage of lorry drivers and other key workers?