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
- What should the government do about rising energy prices?
IFS podcast, Paul Johnson with guests Giles Wilkes and Stuart Adam (26/1/22)
- 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?
These questions are based on the podcast.