World politicians, business leaders, charities and pressure groups are meeting in Davos at the 2022 World Economic Forum. Normally this event takes place in January each year, but it was postponed to this May because of Covid-19 and is the first face-to-face meeting since January 2020.
The meeting takes place amid a series of crises facing the world economy. The IMF’s Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, described the current situation as a ‘confluence of calamities’. Problems include:
- Continuing hangovers from Covid have caused economic difficulties in many countries.
- The bounceback from Covid has led to demand outpacing supply. The world is suffering from a range of supply-chain problems and shortages of key materials and components, such as computer chips.
- The war in Ukraine has not only caused suffering in Ukraine itself, but has led to huge energy and food price increases as a result of sanctions and the difficulties in exporting wheat, sunflower oil and other foodstuffs.
- Supply shocks have led to rising global inflation. This will feed into higher inflationary expectations, which will compound the problem if they result in higher prices and wages in response to higher costs.
- Central banks have responded by raising interest rates. These dampen an already weakened global economy and could push the world into recession.
- Global inequality is rising rapidly, both within countries and between countries, as Covid disruptions and higher food and energy prices hit the poor disproportionately. Poor people and countries also have a higher proportion of debt and are thus hit especially hard by higher interest rates.
- Global warming is having increasing effects, with a growing incidence of floods, droughts and hurricanes. These lead to crop failures and the displacement of people.
- Countries are increasingly resorting to trade restrictions as they seek to protect their own economies. These slow economic growth.
World leaders at Davos will be debating what can be done. One approach is to use fiscal policy. Indeed, Kristalina Georgieva said that her ‘main message is to recognise that the world must spend the billions necessary to contain Covid in order to gain trillions in output as a result’. But unless the increased expenditure is aimed specifically at tackling supply shortages and bottlenecks, it could simply add to rising inflation. Increasing aggregate demand in the context of supply shortages is not the solution.
In the long run, supply bottlenecks can be overcome with appropriate investment. This may require both greater globalisation and greater localisation, with investment in supply chains that use both local and international sources.
International sources can be widened with greater investment in manufacturing in some of the poorer developing countries. This would also help to tackle global inequality. Greater localisation for some inputs, especially heavier or more bulky ones, would help to reduce transport costs and the consumption of fuel.
With severe supply shocks, there are no simple solutions. With less supply, the world produces less and becomes poorer – at least temporarily until supply can increase again.
- Draw an aggregate demand and supply diagram (AD/AS or DAD/DAS) to illustrate the effect of a supply shock on output and prices.
- Give some examples of supply-side policies that could help in the current situation.
- What are the arguments for and against countries using protectionist policies at the current time?
- What policies could countries adopt to alleviate rapid rises in the cost of living for people on low incomes? What problems do these policies pose?
- What are the arguments for and against imposing a windfall tax on energy companies and using the money to support poor people?
- If the world slips into recession, should central banks and governments use expansionary monetary and fiscal policies?
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?
With droughts and poor harvests in both North America and in Russia and the Ukraine, there are worries that food prices are likely to see sharp rises in the coming months. This is clearly bad news for consumers, especially the poor for whom food accounts for a large proportion of expenditure.
But it’s also bad news more generally, as higher food prices are likely to have a dampening effect on the global economy, struggling to recover from five years of low or negative growth. And it’s not just food prices. Oil prices are rising again. Since mid June, they have risen by nearly 25%. This too is likely to have a dampening effect.
Another contributing factor to rising food prices is a response, in part, to rising oil prices. This is the diversion of land from growing food to growing crops for biofuels.
G20 countries held a conference call on 28 August to discuss food prices. Although representatives decided against an emergency meeting, they agreed to reassess the situation in a few weeks when the size of the US harvest would be clearer. If the situation proved as bad as feared, then the G20 would call an emergency meeting of the Rapid Response Forum, to consider what could be done.
But is the sole cause of rising food prices a lack of production? Are there other problems on the supply side, such as poor distribution systems and waste? And what about the role of demand? How is this contributing to long-term increases in food prices? The articles consider these various factors and what can be done to dampen food prices.
G20 points to ‘worrying’ food prices Financial Times, Javier Blas (28/8/12)
US food prices to surge on drought Gulf News(30/8/12)
Best to get used to high food and energy prices – they’re here to stay The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (29/8/12)
Feeling a drought The Economist (14/8/12)
Q&A: World food and fuel prices BBC News (14/8/12)
G20 considers global meeting as food prices rise BBC News (28/8/12)
Biofuels and Food Prices (direct link) BBC ‘In the Balance’ programme (25/8/12)
U.N. body urges G20 action on food prices, waste Reuters, Patrick Lannin (27/8/12)
Ethanol industry hits back over food price claims EurActiv (28/8/12)
The era of cheap food may be over Guardian, Larry Elliott (2/9/12)
Food Price Index Index Mundi
- Why have food prices been rising in recent weeks?
- Use a demand and supply diagram to demonstrate what has been happening to food prices.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for wheat? What might this elasticity vary over time?
- What is the role of speculation in determining food prices?
- Illustrate on an aggregate demand and supply diagram the effect of a commodity price shock. What is likely to be the policy response from central banks?
- What determines the price elasticity of supply of food in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
- What determines the cross price elasticity of supply of food to the price of oil? Is the cross price elasticity of supply positive or negative?
- What can governments do to reduce food prices, or at least reduce food price inflation?
- What benefits may come from higher food and fuel prices over the longer term?
While inflation is a concern in the UK and is making the Bank of England think twice about keeping interest rates at their all time low of 0.5%, inflation in Japan is being celebrated. The Japanese economy has been plagued by deflation for over a decade and for the past 2 years inflation has never been above 0%. However, in April the consumer price index (CPI) rose to 0.6% from the previous year, fuelled by petrol prices. Strangely it might be the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that helped this situation, as Japan was unable to generate sufficient electricity and hence had to import fuel from abroad.
A typical question from non-economists is always about why deflation and hence falling prices is such a bad thing. Surely, it’s great for consumers? For those shopping for bargains, perhaps it is helpful – after all, if prices fall, a consumer’s real income will be higher. However, the problem with falling prices is that people start to hold off buying. If you want to buy a car, but expect prices to be lower next month, then it’s a rational decision to delay your purchase until next month when prices are lower. However, next month, you still expect prices to be lower in the following month and so delay purchasing again. And so the process continues. When people expect prices to fall they put off their purchases, this reduces demand and so prices do indeed fall. There are also costs for businesses: as consumers delay buying, sales begin to fall. And businesses are also consumers, and so they start delaying their purchases of inputs.
While many central banks across the world have begun to tighten monetary policy, the Japanese central bank seems inclined to keep monetary policy loose and has even considered expanding the emergency lending programme. As Azusa Kato, an economist at BNP Paribas, said:
“The bank will probably add stimulus if it sees more signs of weakening demand”. “If you strip out energy and food costs, consumer prices are basically flat now.”
Despite this inflationary pressure, many believe that it is unlikely to continue and deflationary pressures may appear once again in the near future. The following articles consider the Japanese deflationary situation.
Japan ends 25 months of deflation Bloomberg, Mayumi Otsuma (27/5/11)
Japan consumer prices log first rise in 28 months Associated Press (27/5/11)
Japan beats deflation for the first time in two years BBC News (275/11)
Japan overcomes deflation for first time in two years Guardian, Julia Kollewe (27/5/11)
Japanese consumer price rise (including video) BBC News (27/5/11)
Japan April core CPI rises 0.6 pct yr/yr Reuters (26/5/11)
Japan experiences inflation for first time in over two years Telegraph (27/5/11)
Japan Inflation Rate Trading Economics
Consumer Price Index (Japan) Japanese Statistics Bureau
Inflation Rate and Consumer Price Index (CPI) (for USA, Canada, Australia, UK and Japan) Rate Inflation
Statistical Annex, Preliminary Version OECD
- What are the main costs of deflation? Think about the wider effects on consumers, businesses and the government.
- What has caused the increase in inflation to 0.6% in Japan and why was there an expectation that inflation would re-appear?
- What explanation can be given for the belief that deflation will soon re-emerge?
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain the process by which consumers delaying their consumption will lead to prices falling continuously.
- What is the best policy for the Japanese central bank to pursue in light of the new data?
The world’s population is set to go on rising – at least to 2050. And as population rises, so will the demand for food. But here we come up against a potentially catastrophic illustration of the law of diminishing returns. Population is set to grow, but the world supply of land is pretty well fixed. And with global warming, some land may become unusable.
According to Sir John Beddington, an expert in population biology and lead author of a government-commissioned report, The Future of Food and Farming, there could be serious consequences of this population rise, including rapid rises in the demand for food, rising food prices, rising land prices, the degradation of land, growing food poverty in many developing countries, growing political unrest and serious environmental damage. As the report’s Executive Summary states:
The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050; many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative. Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.
Any one of these pressures (‘drivers of change’) would present substantial challenges to food security; together they constitute a major threat that requires a strategic reappraisal of how the world is fed.
The report specifically looks at five key challenges for the future:
A. Balancing future demand and supply sustainably – to ensure that food supplies are affordable.
B. Ensuring that there is adequate stability in food prices – and protecting the most vulnerable from the volatility that does occur.
C. Achieving global access to food and ending hunger – this recognises that producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food security for all.
D. Managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change.
E. Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world.
So what can be done and how realistic are the policy solutions? The following broadcasts and articles examine the arguments
Webcasts and podcasts
- Summarise the main findings of the report.
- Does increasing the output of food per agricultural worker contradict the law of diminishing returns? Explain.
- What are the current failings of the system of global food supply?
- Why are problems of food supply likely to intensify?
- What externalities are involved in global food production? What impact do these have?
- In what ways might the externalities be internalised?
- What are the benefits and dangers of new technologies as means of increasing food supply?
- To what extent do the goals of increasing food supply and environmental sustainability conflict with each other?
- Explain the main drivers of change that affect food supply and demand? In what ways do these drivers interact with each other?
- “Although the challenges are enormous there are real grounds for optimism.” Explain the report’s authors’ thinking here.