As we saw in Part 1, households are seeing a rise in the cost of living, which is set to accelerate. Inflation in the year to January 2022, as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), was 5.5%, the highest rate for over 30 years, and it is expected to reach more than 7 per cent by April. This has put great pressure on household budgets, with wage rises for most people being below the rate of price inflation. The poor especially have been hard hit, with many struggling to meet soaring energy, food and transport prices and higher rents.
In Part 2 we look at the UK government’s response to the situation, a similar response to that in many other countries.
Effects on government finances
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has stated that the government understands the pressures families are facing with the cost of living. However, rising interest rates mean that it will cost the Treasury considerably more to service the UK’s national debt of more than £2tn.
Interest payments on index-linked debt are calculated using an alternative measure of inflation, the retail prices index (RPI), which is running at 7.8%, considerably higher than anticipated in last October’s Budget. It is now projected that central government spending on debt interest this financial year will come in at around £69bn, some £11bn higher than the £58bn forecast in the October 2021 Budget and £27bn above the £42bn forecast in the March 2021 Budget.
In addition, it is expected that the latest rise in CPI will increase the chances of the Bank of England raising interest rates and thereby further increasing the costs of servicing national debt. If this is the outcome when its Monetary Policy Committee meets next month, then it would be the third successive time interest rates have been raised.
There is also concern that this, in addition to the direct effects of higher costs, will push more firms towards insolvency. It is argued that if government wanted to prevent this, it would need to cut business taxes in order to boost investment and productivity and to allow businesses to provide annual wage rises that are affordable.
The Bank of England’s traditional response to rising inflation is to raise interest rates, which it has done this twice in the past few months. This means that people who have borrowed money could see their monthly payments go up, especially on mortgages tied to Bank Rate.
An aim of this policy is to make borrowing more expensive resulting in people spending less. As a result, they will buy fewer things, and prices will stop rising as fast. However, when inflation is caused by external forces, this might have a limited effect on prices and would put a further squeeze on household budgets.
Alternatively, the government might choose to cut taxes for consumers on items whose prices are rising quickly. It is taking some measures to reduce the impact of energy price rises. For example, the Treasury has announced that it would provide millions of households with up to £350 to help with their rising energy bills and in April the lowest-paid will see the National Living Wage rise by 6.6%, which is higher than the current inflation rate.
The chief economist of the British Chambers of Commerce has said that tightening monetary policy too quickly risks undermining confidence and the wider recovery, arguing that more needs to be done to limit the unprecedented rise in costs facing businesses, including financial support for those struggling with soaring energy bills and delaying April’s national insurance rise.
Rising inflation affects all our living standards. It a global issue with causes beyond government control.
Rising prices together with planned tax increases mean that real average take-home pay is likely to fall over the coming year. The extra energy costs and tax rises will force families to make savings elsewhere, meaning business revenues may fall, and the economic recovery could be negatively impacted.
However, it is those on low incomes that tend to find it hardest to cope with the rising cost of living. Those impacted the most will be faced with difficult decisions over the coming months as they try to cope with falling real incomes. With food price inflation expected to rise further, a likely rise in interest rates and a further increase in the energy price cap in October, these tough decisions are set to get harder for poorest households in the economy.
See articles in Part 1
These questions are based on the podcast.
- What elements are there in household energy prices? Which element has gone up most?
- What are the arguments for and against the government delaying the rise in the rate of national insurance by 1.25 percentage points?
- What can be done to help people on modest earnings who earn just too much to receive benefits?
- Are government loans to help people with higher bills a good idea?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of removing VAT on domestic energy?
In a News Item of 1 October, Over the Cliff, we looked at the passing of the deadline that same day for Congress to agree a budget. We also looked at the looming deadline for Congress to agree a new higher ceiling for Federal Government debt, currently standing at $16.699 trillion. Without an agreement to raise the limit, the government will start becoming unable to pay some of its bills from around 17 October.
One week on and no agreement has been reached on either a budget or a higher debt ceiling.
Failure to agree on a budget has led to the ‘shut-down’ of government. Only essential services are being maintained; the rest are no longer functioning and workers have been sent home on ‘unpaid leave’. This has led to considerable hardship for many in the USA. It has had little effect, however, on the rest of the world, except for tourists to the USA being unable to visit various national parks and monuments.
Failure to raise the debt ceiling, however, could have profound consequences for the rest of the world. It could have large and adverse effects of global growth, global trade, global investment and global financial markets. The articles below explore some of these consequences.
U.S. Congress enters crucial week in budget, debt limit battles Reuters, Richard Cowan (7/10/13)
Debt ceiling: Understanding what’s at stake CBS Moneywatch, Alain Sherter (7/10/13)
Q&A: What is the US debt ceiling? BBC News, Ben Morris (3/10/13)
Five Reasons to Fear the Debt Ceiling Bloomberg (6/10/13)
A U.S. Default Seen as Catastrophe Dwarfing Lehma Bloomberg Businessweek, Yalman Onaran (6/10/13)
China tells US to avoid debt crisis for sake of global economy BBC News (7/10/13)
US shutdown is starting to hit business, says Commerce Secretary BBC News (6/10/13)
Why Australia should fear a US government default The Guardian, Greg Jericho (7/10/13)
Could the US default over just $6bn? BBC News, Linda Yueh (11/10/13)
IMF piles pressure on US to reconcile differences and prevent debt default The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (10/10/13)
Republicans offer to raise US debt ceiling for six weeks The Telegraph, Peter Foster and Raf Sanchez (11/10/13)
- If a debt ceiling is reached, what does this imply for the budget deficit?
- How serious are the two current fiscal cliffs?
- How would a continuation of the partial government shut-down impact on the US private sector?
- What multiplier effects on the rest of the world are likely to arise from a cut in US government expenditure or a rise in taxes? What determines the size of these multiplier effects?
- Explain the likely effect of the current crisis on the exchange rate of the dollar into other currencies.
- Why might the looming problem of reaching the debt ceiling drive up long-term interest rates in the USA and beyond?
As the prospects for the global recovery become more and more gloomy, so the need for a boost to aggregate demand becomes more pressing. But the scope for expansionary fiscal policy is very limited, given governments’ commitments around the world to deficit reduction.
This leaves monetary policy. In the USA, the Federal Reserve has announced a policy known as ‘Operation Twist’. This is a way of altering the funding of national debt, rather than directly altering the monetary base. It involves buying long-term government bonds in the market and selling shorter-dated ones (of less than three years) of exactly the same amount ($400bn). The idea is to drive up the price of long-term bonds and hence drive down their yield and thereby drive down long-term interest rates. The hope is to stimulate investment and longer-term borrowing generally.
Meanwhile in Britain it looks as if the Bank of England is about to turn to another round of quantitative easing (QE2). The first round saw £200bn of asset purchases by the Bank between March 2009 and February 2010. Up to now, it has resisted calls to extend the programme. However, it is now facing increased pressure to change its mind, not only from commentators, but from members of the government too.
But will expansionary monetary policy work, given the gloom engulfing the world economy? Is there a problem of a liquidity trap, whereby extra money will not actually create extra borrowing and spending? Many firms, after all, are not short of cash; they are simply unwilling to invest in a climate of falling sales and falling confidence.
Articles on Operation Twist
Fed takes new tack to avoid U.S. economic slump Reuters, Mark Felsenthal and Pedro da Costa (21/9/11)
How the Fed Can Act When Washington Cannot Associated Press on YouTube (20/9/11)
Analysis: Fed’s twist moves hurts company pension plans Reuters, Aaron Pressman (21/9/11)
What is Operation Twist? Guardian, Phillip Inman (21/9/11)
Operation Twist in the Wind Asia Times, Peter Morici (23/9/11)
Operation Twist won’t kickstart the US economy Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/9/11)
Stock markets tumble after Operation Twist … and doubt Guardian, Julia Kollewe (22/9/11)
‘Twist’ is a sign of the Fed’s resolve Financial Times, Robin Harding (22/9/11)
All twist, no shout, from the Fed Financial Times blogs, Gavyn Davies (21/9/11)
Twisting in the wind? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (21/9/11)
Restraint or stimulus? Markets and governments swap roles BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/9/11)
FOMC Statement: Much Ado, Little Impact Seeking Alpha, Cullen Roche (21/9/11)
Why the Fed’s Operation Twist Will Hurt Banks International Business Times, Hao Li (21/9/11)
The Federal Reserve: Take that, Congress The Economist (21/9/11)
Articles on QE2
Bank of England’s MPC indicates QE2 is a case of if not when The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (21/9/11)
Bank of England quantitative easing ‘boosted GDP’ BBC News (19/9/11)
Bank of England minutes indicate more quantitative easing on the cards Guardian, Julia Kollewe (21/9/11)
Fed and Bank of England publications
Press Release [on Operation Twist] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (21/9/11) (Also follow links at the bottom of the Press Release for more details.)
Minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee Meeting, 7 and 8 September 2011 Bank of England (21/9/11) (See particularly paragraphs 29 to 32.)
- Explain what is meant by Operation Twist.
- What determines the extent to which it will stimulate the US economy?
- Why would quantitative easing increase the monetary base while Operation Twist would not? Would they both increase broad money? Explain.
- What is meant by the liquidity trap? Are central banks in such a trap at present?
- To what extent would a further round of quantitative easing in the UK drive up inflation?
- Why are monetary and fiscal policy as much about affecting expectations as ‘pulling the right levers’?