Last year was far from the picture of economic stability that all governments would hope for. Instead, the overarching theme of 2022 was uncertainty, which overshadowed many economic predictions throughout the year. The Collins English Dictionary announced that their word of the year for 2022 is ‘permacrisis’, which is defined as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’.
For the UK, 2022 was an eventful year, seeing two changes in prime minister, economic stagnation, financial turmoil, rampant inflation and a cost of living crisis. However, the UK was not alone in its economic struggles. Many believe that it is a minor miracle that the world did not experience a systemic financial crisis in 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the biggest land war in Europe since 1945, the most serious risk of nuclear escalation since the Cuban missile crisis and the most far-reaching sanctions regime since the 1930s. Soaring food and energy costs have fuelled the highest rates of inflation since the 1980s and the biggest macroeconomic challenge in the modern era of central banking (with the possible exception of the financial crisis of 2007–8 and its aftermath). For decades we have lived with the assumptions that nuclear war was never going to happen, inflation will be kept low and rich countries will not experience an energy crisis. In 2022 all of these assumptions and more have been shaken.
With the combination of rising interest rates and a massive increase in geopolitical risk, the world economy did well to survive as robustly as it did. However, with public and private debt having risen to record levels during the now-bygone era of ultra-low interest rates and with recession risks high, the global financial system faces a huge stress test.
Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, started 2023 by setting out five pledges: to halve inflation, boost economic growth, cut national debt as a percentage of GDP, and to address NHS waiting lists and the issue of immigrants arriving in small boats. Whilst most would agree that meeting these pledges is desirable, a reduction in inflation is forecast to happen anyway, given the monetary policy being pursued by the Bank of England and an easing of commodity prices; and public-sector debt as a percentage of GDP is forecast to fall from 2024/25.
Success in meeting the first four pledges will partly depend on the effects of the current industrial action by workers across the UK. How soon will the various disputes be settled and on what terms? What will be the implications for service levels and for inflation?
A weak global economy
Success will also depend on the state of the global economy, which is currently very fragile. In fact, it is predicted that a third of the global economy will be hit by recession this year. The head of the IMF has warned that the world faces a ‘tougher’ year in 2023 than in the previous 12 months. Such comments suggest the IMF is likely soon to cut its economic forecasts for 2023 again. The IMF already cut its 2023 outlook for global economic growth in October, citing the continuing drag from the war in Ukraine, as well as inflationary pressures and interest rate rises by major central banks.
The World Bank has also described the global economy as being ‘on a razor’s edge’ and warns that it risks falling into recession this year. The organisation expects the world economy to grow by just 1.7% this year, which is a sharp fall from an estimated 2.9% in 2022 according to the Global Economic Prospects report (see link below). It has warned that if financial conditions tighten, then the world’s economy could easily fall into a recession. If this becomes a reality, then the current decade would become the first since the 1930s to include two global recessions. Growth forecasts have been lowered for 95% of advanced economies and for more than 70% of emerging market and developing economies compared with six months ago. Given the global outlook, it is no surprise that the UK economy is expected to face a prolonged recession with declining growth and increased unemployment.
The current state of the UK economy
Despite all the concerns, official figures show that, even though households have been squeezed by rising prices, UK real GDP unexpectedly grew in November, by 0.1%. This has been explained by a boost to bars and restaurants from the World Cup as people went out to watch the football and also by demand for services in the tech sector.
At first sight, the UK’s cost of living crisis might look fairly mild compared to other countries. Its inflation rate was 10.7% in November 2022, compared to 12.6% in Italy, 16% in Poland and over 20% in Hungary and Estonia. But UK inflation is still way above the Bank of England’s 2% target. The Bank went on to tighten monetary policy further, by increasing interest rates to 3.5% in December. Further rate rises are expected in 2023. In fact, the markets and the Bank both expect the main rate to reach 5.2% by the end of this year. With the consequent squeeze on real incomes, the Bank of England expects a recession in the UK this year – possibly lasting until mid-2024.
The UK is also affected by global interest rates, which affect global growth. Global interest rates average 5%. A 1 percentage point increase would reduce global growth this year from 1.7% to 0.6%, with per capita output contracting by 0.3%, once changes in population are taken into account. This would then meet the technical definition of a global recession. This means that the Bank’s November economic forecast, which was based on a Bank Rate of 3%, may worsen due to an even larger contraction than previously expected. The resulting drop in spending and investment by people and businesses could then cause inflation to come down faster than the Bank had predicted when rates were at 3%.
There could be some positive news however, that may help bring down inflation in addition to rate rises. There has been some appreciation in the pound since the huge drop caused by the September mini-budget that had brought its value to a nearly 40-year low. This will help to reduce inflation by reducing the price of imports.
As far as workers are concerned, pay increases have been broadly contained, with 2022 being one of the worst years in decades for UK real wage growth. Limiting pay rises can have a deflationary effect because people have less to spend, but it also weighs on economic growth and productivity. Despite the impact on inflation, there is a lot of unrest across the UK, with strike action continuing to be at the forefront of the news. Strikes over pay and conditions continue in various sectors in 2023, including transport, health, education and the postal service. Strikes and industrial action have a negative effect on the wider economy. If wages are stagnating and the economy is not performing well, productivity will suffer as workers are less motivated and less investment in new equipment takes place.
The UK economy is also under threat of a prolonged recession due to the proportion of households that lack insulation against financial setbacks. This proportion is unusually large for a wealthy economy. A survey conducted prior to the pandemic, found that 3 million people in the UK would fall into poverty if they missed one pay cheque, with the country’s high housing costs being a key source of vulnerability. Another survey recently suggested that one-third of UK adults would struggle if their costs rose by just £20 a month.
The pandemic itself meant that over 4 million households have taken on additional debt, with many now falling behind on repaying it. This, combined with recent jumps in energy and food bills, could push many over the edge, especially if heating costs remain high when the present government cap on energy prices ends in April.
However, there could be some better news for households with the easing of COVID restrictions in China. This could have a positive impact on the UK economy if it helps ease supply-chain disruptions occurring since the height of the global pandemic. It could reduce inflationary pressure in the UK and other countries that trade with China by making it easier – and therefore less costly – for people to get hold of goods.
- Define the term ‘deflation’.
- Explain how an appreciation of the pound is good for inflation.
- Discuss the wider economic impacts of industrial strike action.
- Why is it important for the government to keep wages contained?
On 23 September, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced his mini-Budget. It revealed big tax-cutting plans with the aim of stimulating economic growth. See the blog From Reaganomics to Trussonomics for details. However, the announcement triggered a crisis of confidence in the markets. The government says the measures will kickstart economic growth, but with the tax cuts funded through extra government borrowing, markets have raised alarm over the plans, sending the pound plunging.
On Monday 26 September, traders in the UK awoke to see that the pound had fallen to the new lowest level on record against the dollar of $1.03. Although it came at a time when the markets expected the pound to weaken, the announcement pushed a fall in the pound beyond previous expectations. Concerns about where the extra money would come from to pay for the tax cuts were reflected in market movements. A weaker currency suggests investors’ faith in a country’s economic prospects is wavering.
What does a falling pound mean?
The pound’s value affects everyone – from shoppers to business owners and investors. The main impacts of the falling pound include:
- Higher prices. A fall in the value of the pound will increase the price of goods and services imported into the UK from overseas. When the pound is weak against the dollar, it costs more for companies in the UK to buy things such as food, raw materials or parts from abroad. Firms are likely then to pass on some or all those higher costs to their customers.
- Higher mortgage repayments. By increasing inflation, a falling pound is likely to push the Bank of England to raise interest rates to counter this. With two million people in the UK on a tracker or variable rate mortgage, monthly costs could increase substantially. Lenders are also likely to increase the rates charged on credit cards, bank loans or car loans.
- Further pressure on energy costs. The price of all of the gas that the UK uses is based on the dollar – even if the gas is produced in the UK. As oil prices are based on the dollar, petrol and diesel could also be more expensive for UK drivers as it costs more to be imported by fuel companies. Although the dollar price of oil has been falling in recent weeks, consumers are not likely to see the benefit at the pump due to the slide in the value of the pound.
- Stronger sales for UK firms who sell goods abroad. Some businesses in the UK could get a boost from a fall in the value of the pound. A cheaper pound makes it less expensive for people from around the globe to buy goods and services from British firms, making them more competitive.
- More expensive trips abroad. The plunge in the pound means that people’s holiday money won’t stretch as far, particularly for anyone planning a trip to the USA. The depreciation of the pound could also see airlines face sharply increased costs, with fuel and aircraft leases often denominated in dollars.
Threat to confidence
The Bank of England said a weaker outlook for the UK economy as well as a stronger dollar were putting pressure on sterling. However, market responses were clear that Kwarteng’s mini-Budget was threatening to undermine confidence in the UK. The pound plunged to its lowest since Britain went decimal in 1971, as belief in the UK’s economic management and assets evaporated.
By Tuesday 27 September, there were expectations that the Bank of England would have to raise interest rates to counter the extra spending in the mini-Budget. Economists from the City suggested the slump in the pound would not just force the Bank of England into raising rates at the next MPC announcement in November, but to intervene now by announcing an emergency interest rate rise to support the currency. This sent mortgage activity into a frenzy as brokers worked around the clock to help clients secure deals before lenders pulled their products or replaced them with more expensive ones. By the end of the week there were 40% fewer products available than before the mini-Budget.
The Bank of England
In August, the Bank predicted that the UK would go into recession, lasting some 15 months. It did so as it raised interest rates by the highest margin in 27 years (0.5 percentage points) in a bid to keep soaring prices under control. Higher interest rates can make borrowing more expensive, meaning people have less money to spend and prices will stop rising as quickly. The Bank of England is expected to raise interest rates by an even larger amount to combat the inflationary impact of the mini-Budget, as a weakening pound drives up costs of imports. The money markets are pricing a doubling of UK interest rates to more than 5% by next summer.
On Thursday 29 September the cost of government borrowing was rising to levels many economists thought were concerning. After the mini-Budget, the UK Debt Management Office, which borrows on behalf of the government by issuing new government bonds (‘gilts’), plans to raise an additional £72bn before next April, raising the financing remit in 2022/23 to £234bn. The investors in bonds are mainly large institutions, such as pension funds.
New bonds are issued at a fixed payment per annum based on the face value. If interest rates rise, then new bonds must pay a higher amount per annum to attract purchasers. Old bonds with a relatively low payment per year will fall in value. For example, if a £100 bond issued a while back paid £2 per annum (a nominal 2%) and interest rates on equivalent assets rose to 4%, the market price of the bond would fall to £50, as £2 per annum is 4% of £50. This percentage of the market price (as opposed to the face value) is known as the ‘yield’. With worries about the rise in government borrowing, bond prices fell and yields correspondingly rose. Investors were demanding much higher interest rates to lend to the UK government.
The Investment Director at JM Finn compared investing in government bonds to sloths, they’re low risk and typically don’t move. This is because lending to the UK is usually considered as an ultra-safe bet. However, some bonds fell in price by 20% in two days (26–28 September).
There was concern that the mini-Budget threatened the financial health of Britain’s biggest pensions and insurance companies, which together manage trillions of pounds of people’s cash. These companies hold large amounts of UK government bonds and the fall in their price was significantly reducing the value of their assets.
The Bank of England thus announced that it would step in to calm markets, warning that continued volatility would be a ‘material risk to UK financial stability’. The Bank would start buying government bonds at an ‘urgent pace’ to help push their price back up and restore orderly market conditions. It would set aside £65bn to buy bonds over 13 working days. It is hoped that the Bank’s action will now ease the pressure on pension funds and insurance companies.
But the purchase of bonds increases money supply. This was the process by which money supply was increased during periods of quantitative easing (QE). Increasing money supply, while helping to dampen the rise in interest rates and stabilise the financial markets, is likely to lead to higher inflation. The Bank of England had previously planned to do the opposite: to engage in quantitative tightening (QT), which involves selling some of the stock of (old) bonds which the Bank had accumulated during the various rounds of QE.
Despite the Bank of England’s action which helped to curb the fall in the sterling exchange rate, some analysts warned it could fall further and could even reach parity with the dollar. There are concerns that the Bank is simply firefighting, rather than being able to solve the wider problems. There is now growing pressure on the government to make clear the financial cost of its tax cuts and spending plans.
Criticism from the IMF
There has been widespread criticism of the government’s plan, with the International Monetary Fund warning on Tuesday 27 September that the measures were likely to fuel the cost-of-living crisis and increase inequality. The stinging rebuke from the IMF arrived at the worst moment for the UK government. The IMF works to stabilise the global economy and one of its key roles is to act as an early economic warning system. It said it understood the package aimed to boost growth, but it warned that the cuts could speed up the pace of price rises, which the UK’s central bank is trying to bring down. In an unusually outspoken statement, the IMF said the proposal was likely to increase inequality and add to pressures pushing up prices.
Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England also criticised the government, accusing them of ‘undercutting’ the UK’s key economic institutions. Mr Carney said that while the government was right to want to boost economic growth, ‘There is a lag between today and when that growth might come.’ He also criticised the government for undercutting various institutions that underpin the overall approach, including not having an OBR forecast.
What is next for the economy?
Before the announcement, the Bank had expected the economy to shrink in the last three months of 2022 and keep shrinking until the end of 2023. However, some economists believe the UK could already be in recession. The impacts of the mini-Budget have so far not alleviated fears of the UK diving into recession. However, the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, also warned that little could be done to stop the UK falling into a recession this year as the war in Ukraine continued. He added that it would ‘overwhelmingly be caused by the actions of Russia and the impact on energy prices’.
Despite the external pressures on the economy, it is clear that recent market activity has damaged confidence. The Bank has already said it will ‘not hesitate’ to hike interest rates to try to protect the pound and stem surging prices. Some economists have predicted the Bank of England will raise the interest rate from the current 2.25% to 5.75% by next spring.
The Bank’s action of emergency bond purchases helped provide Kwarteng with some respite from the financial markets after three days of turmoil, which included strong criticism of the mini-Budget from the International Monetary Fund, about 1000 mortgage products pulled and interest rates on UK government bonds hitting their highest level since 2008.
On 3 October, at the start of the Conservative Party annual conference, Kwarteng announced that the planned cut in the top rate of income tax from 45% to 40% would not go ahead. This showed that the government would change course if pressure was strong enough. That day, the sterling exchange rate against the dollar appreciated by around 0.5% to around $1.12.
But this was not enough. The pressure was still on the government. There were urgent calls from the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee to bring forward the government’s financial statement, which was not due until 23 November, by at least a month. The government was urged to publish growth forecasts as soon as possible to help calm the markets. In response, on 4 October the government agreed to bring the financial statement forward to late October along with the forecasts of its impacts from the OBR.
However, Truss and Kwarteng have so far resisted this pressure to bring analysis of their tax plans forward. They have refused independent analysis of their plans until more than six weeks after receiving them, despite more calls from Tory MPs for Downing Street to reassure the markets. The Prime Minister and Chancellor said they would only publish the independent forecasts on 23 November alongside a fiscal statement, despite them being ready on 7 October.
Longer term impacts
Amongst all the activity in the week following the mini-Budget, there are real concerns of the longer-term impacts the budget will have on the economy. Some experts predict that the lasting effects of the ‘mini’ Budget will be felt far beyond the trading floors. Large tax cuts the government claimed would boost growth have instead convinced markets the UK’s entire macroeconomic framework is under threat. Although this turmoil has been the short-term result, it’s important to step back and think about how the effects of this abrupt shift in economic policy will be felt far beyond the trading floors.
Sterling’s partial recovery a few days after the mini-Budget reflects an increased confidence that there will be a large interest rate rise coming on November 3. However, the bleak economic outlook has removed any fiscal headroom the government may have had. The largest tax cuts in five decades need funding, while spooking the markets means another £12.5bn a year added to the debt interest bill. However, Kwarteng remains committed to debt falling eventually.
It is estimated that there needs to be a fiscal tightening of around £37–£47bn by 2026/27. Even more could be required to ensure that tax revenues cover day-to-day spending or for even a small margin for error. Many have therefore called for a U-turn on the measures announced in the mini-Budget beyond abolishing the cut to the top rate of income tax. Performing a U-turn on some of the tax cuts would make the fiscal tightening much more achievable. However, it could be politically detrimental. Much lower taxes will mean less public spending. Some suggest that this trade-off was ignored when those tax cuts were announced, but market pressure has now put it centre stage.
The Prime Minister has since admitted that mistakes were made in the controversial ‘mini’ Budget that sparked market turmoil in the last week of September. However, a day before reversing the cut in the top rate of income tax, she said she would not retreat on her plan to deliver £45bn of unfunded tax cuts, insisting it would help deliver growth, but admitted: ‘We should have laid the ground better and I have learned from that.’
- Pound hits all-time low against dollar after mini-budget rocks markets
The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (26/9/22)
- The pound: Why is it falling?
BBC News, Tom Edgington (27/9/22)
- Falling pound: What does it mean for me and my finances?
BBC News, Lora Jones (28/9/22)
- Bank of England steps in to calm markets
BBC News, Daniel Thomas and Noor Nanji (29/9/22)
- Government is undercutting UK institutions, says former Bank governor
BBC News, Dearbail Jordan (30/9/22)
- Bank of England in £65bn scramble to avert financial crisis
The Guardian, Larry Elliott, Pippa Crerar and Richard Partington (28/9/22)
- From mini-budget to market turmoil: Kwasi Kwarteng’s week – video timeline
The Guardian, Elena Morresi and Monika Cvorak plus sources as credited (30/9/22)
- Truss and Kwarteng resist pressure to bring analysis of their tax plans forward
The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Aubrey Allegretti (30/9/22)
- Mark Carney accuses Truss government of undermining Bank of England
The Guardian, Kalyeena Makortoff (29/9/22)
- Lasting effects of ‘mini’ Budget will be felt far beyond the trading floors
The Times, Torsten Bell (1/10/22)
- ‘Big impact’: UK economic chaos, pound plunge hit businesses
ABC News, Sylvia Hui and Kelvin Chan (30/9/22)
- Bank of England bonds rescue has two ugly implications: more inflation and an even weaker pound
The Conversation, Costas Milas (30/9/22)
- Sterling hits all-time low: two things can turn this around but neither is straightforward
The Conversation, Jean-Philippe Serbera (26/9/22)
- Explain how the announced tax cut will stimulate economic growth.
- What is the impact of the weakened pound on UK households and businesses?
- Draw a diagram illustrating the way in which the $/£ exchange rate is determined.
- How is UK inflation likely to be affected by a depreciation of sterling?
- Are there any advantages of having a lower pound?
In her bid to become Conservative party leader, Liz Truss promised to make achieving faster economic growth her number-one policy objective. This would involve pursuing market-orientated supply-side policies.
These policies would include lower taxes on individuals to encourage people to work harder and more efficiently, and lower taxes on business to encourage investment. The policy would also involve deregulation, which would again encourage investment, both domestic and inward investment from overseas. These proposals echoed the policies pursued in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in the UK.
On September 23, the new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, presented a ‘mini-Budget’ – although the size of the changes made it far from ‘mini’. This, as anticipated, included policies intended to boost growth, including scrapping the 45% top rate of income tax, which is currently paid by people earning over £150 000 (a policy withdrawn on 3 October after massive objections), cutting the basic rate of income tax from 20% to 19%, scrapping the planned rise in corporation tax from 19% to 25%, scrapping the planned rise in national insurance by 1.25 percentage points, a cut in the stamp duty on house purchase and scrapping the limit placed on bankers’ bonuses. In addition, he announced the introduction of an unlimited number of ‘investment zones’ which would have lower business taxes, streamlined planning rules and lower regulation. The policies would be funded largely from extra government borrowing.
Theoretically, the argument is simple. If people do work harder and firms do invest more, then potential GDP will rise – a rise in aggregate supply. This can be shown on an aggregate demand and supply diagram. If the policy works, the aggregate supply curve will shift to the right. Real GDP will rise and there will be downward pressure on prices. In Figure 1, real GDP will rise from Y0 to Y1 and the price level will fall from P0 to P1. However, things are not as simple as this. Indeed, there are two major problems.
The first concerns whether tax cuts will incentivise people to work harder. The second concerns what happens to aggregate demand. I addition to this, the policies are likely to have a profound effect on income distribution.
Tax cuts and incentives
Cutting the top rate of income tax would have immediately given people at the top of the income scale a rise in post-tax income. This would have created a substitution effect and an income effect. Each extra pound that such people earn would be worth more in post-tax income – 60p rather than 55p. This would provide an incentive for people to substitute work for leisure as work is now more rewarding. This is the substitution effect. On the other hand, with the windfall of extra income, they now would have needed to work less in order to maintain their post-tax income at its previous level. They may well indeed, therefore, have decided to work less and enjoy more leisure. This is the income effect.
With the diminishing marginal utility of income, generally the richer people are, the bigger will be the income effect and the smaller the substitution effect. Thus, cutting the top rate of income tax may well have led to richer people working less. There is no evidence that the substitution effect would be bigger.
If top rates of income tax are already at a very high level, then cutting then may well encourage more work. After all, there is little incentive to work more if the current rate of tax is over 90%, say. Cutting them to 80% could have a big effect. This was the point made by Art Laffer, one of Ronald Reagan’s advisors. He presented his arguments in terms of the now famous ‘Laffer curve’, shown in Figure 2. This shows the total tax revenue raised at different tax rates.
If the average tax rate were zero, no revenue would be raised. As the tax rate is raised above zero, tax revenues will increase. The curve will be upward sloping. Eventually, however, the curve will peak (at tax rate t1). Thereafter, tax rates become so high that the resulting fall in output more than offsets the rise in tax rate. When the tax rate reaches 100 per cent, the revenue will once more fall to zero, since no one will bother to work.
If the economy were currently to the right of t1, then cutting taxes would increase revenue as there would be a major substitution effect. However, most commentators argue that the UK economy is to the left of t1 and that cutting the top rate would reduce tax revenues. Analysis by the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2012 suggested that t1 for the top rate of income tax was at around 48% and that cutting the rate below that would reduce tax revenue. Clearly according to this analysis, 40% is considerably below t1.
As far as corporation tax is concerned, the 19% rate is the lowest in the G20 and yet the UK suffers from low rates of both domestic investment and inward direct investment. There is no evidence that raising it somewhat, as previously planned, will cut investment. And as far as individual entrepreneurs are concerned, cutting taxes is likely to have little effect on the desire to invest and expand businesses. The motivation of entrepreneurs is only partly to do with the money. A major motivation is the sense of achievement in building a successful business.
Creating investment zones with lower taxes, no business rates and lower regulations may encourage firms to set up there. But much of this could simply be diverted investment from elsewhere in the country, leaving overall investment little changed.
To assess these questions, the government needs to model the outcomes and draw on evidence from elsewhere. So far this does not seem to have happened. They government did not even present a forecast of the effects of its policies on the public finances, something that the OBR normally presents at Budget time. This was one of the reasons for the collapse in confidence of sterling and gilts (government bonds) in the days following the mini-Budget.
Effects on aggregate demand
Cutting taxes and financing them from borrowing will expand aggregate demand. In Figure 1, the AD curve will also shift to the right and this will push up prices. Inflation is already a serious problem in the economy and unfunded tax cuts will make it worse. Higher inflation will result in the Bank of England raising interest rates further to curb aggregate demand. But higher interest rates, by raising borrowing costs, are likely to reduce investment, which will have a negative supply-side effect.
The problem here is one of timing. Market-orientated supply-side policies, if they work to increase potential GDP, will take time – measured in years rather than months. The rise in aggregate demand will be much quicker and will thus precede the rise in supply. This could therefore effectively kill off the rise in supply as interest rates rise, the exchange rate falls and the economy is pushed towards recession. Indeed, the mini-Budget immediately sparked a run on the pound and the exchange rate fell.
The rising government debt may force the government to make cuts in public expenditure. Rather than cutting current expenditure on things such as nurses, teachers and benefits, it is easier to cut capital expenditure on things such as roads and other infrastructure. But this will have adverse supply-side effects.
Effects on income distribution
Those advocating market-orientated supply-side policies argue that, by making GDP bigger, everyone can gain. They prefer to focus on the size of the national ‘pie’ rather than its distribution. If the rich initially gain, the benefits will trickle down to the poorest in society. This trickle-down theory was popular in the 1980s with politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and, more recently, with Republican presidents, such as Goerge W Bush and Donald Trump. There are two problems with this, however.
The first, which we have already seen, is whether such policies actually do increase the size of the ‘pie’.
The second is how much does trickle down. During the Thatcher years, income inequality in the UK grew, as it did in the USA under Ronald Reagan. According to an IMF study in 2015 (see the link to the IMF analysis below), policies that increase the income share of the poor and the middle class do increase growth, while those that raise the income share of the top 20 per cent result in lower growth.
After the mini-Budget was presented, the IMF criticised it for giving large untargeted tax cuts that would heighten inequality. The poor would gain little from the tax cuts. The changes to income tax and national insurance mean that someone earning £20 000 per year will gain just £167 per year, while someone earning £200 000 will gain £5220. What is more, the higher interest rates and higher prices resulting from the lower exchange rate are likely to wipe out the modest gains to the poor.
- At a glance: What’s in the mini-budget?
BBC News (23/9/22)
- Mini-budget: What it means for you and your finances
BBC News, Kevin Peachey (23/8/22)
- Will this huge tax cutting gamble pay off?
BBC News, Faisal Islam (23/9/22)
- Kwasi Kwarteng faces U-turn on tax or spending cuts
BBC News, Faisal Islam (28/9/22)
- Nearly 300 UK mortgage deals pulled in a day as pound’s fall heralds rate rise
The Guardian, Zoe Wood (27/9/23)
- Rationale behind abolition of 45p tax rate reflects failed ideology
The Guardian, Arun Advani, David Burgherr and Andy Summers (29/9/23)
- The UK’s ‘Trussonomics’ crashes the pound and leaves investors shaking their heads
CNN, Allison Morrow (26/9/23)
- Mini budget: will Kwasi Kwarteng’s plan deliver growth?
The Conversation, Steve Schifferes (23/9/23)
- Only a U-turn by the government or the Bank of England will calm UK financial markets
The Conversation, Campbell Leith (28/9/22)
- IMF gives damning verdict on Britain’s tax cuts
CNBC, Hannah Ward-Glenton (28/9/23)
- Lasting effects of ‘mini’ Budget will be felt far beyond the trading floors
Today News, Torsten Bell (1/10/23)
- Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective
IMF Staff Discussion Notes, Era Dabla-Norris, Kalpana Kochhar, Nujin Suphaphiphat, Franto Ricka and Evridiki Tsounta (15/6/15)
- Mini-Budget response
Institute for Fiscal Studies, Stuart Adam, Isaac Delestre, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Isabel Stockton, Tom Waters, Xiaowei Xu and Ben Zaranko (23/9/22)
- Distinguish between market-orientated supply-side policies and interventionist ones. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Explain why bond prices fell after the mini-Budget. What was the Bank of England’s response and why did this run counter to its plan for quantitative tightening?
- How might a tax-cutting Budget be designed to help the poor rather than the rich? Would this have beneficial supply-side effects?
- Find out about the 1972 tax-cutting Budget of Anthony Barber, the Chancellor in Ted Heath’s government, that led to the ‘Barber boom’ and then rampant inflation. Are there any similarities between the 1972 Budget and the recent mini-Budget?
Many developing countries are facing a renewed debt crisis. This is directly related to Covid-19, which is now sweeping across many poor countries in a new wave.
Between 2016 and 2020, debt service as a percentage of GDP rose from an average of 7.1% to 27.1% for South Asian countries, from 8.1% to 14.1% for Sub-Saharan African countries, from 13.1% to 42.3% for North African and Middle Eastern countries, and from 5.6% to 14.7% for East Asian and Pacific countries. These percentages are expected to climb again in 2021 by around 10% of GDP.
Incomes have fallen in developing countries with illness, lockdowns and business failures. This has been compounded by a fall in their exports as the world economy has contracted and by a 19% fall in aid in 2020. The fall in incomes has led to a decline in tax revenues and demands for increased government expenditure on healthcare and social support. Public-sector deficits have thus risen steeply.
And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Vaccination roll-outs in most developing countries are slow, with only a tiny fraction of the population having received just one jab. With the economic damage already caused, growth is likely to be subdued for some time.
This has put developing countries in a ‘trilemma’, as the IMF calls it. Governments must balance the objectives of:
- meeting increased spending needs from the emergency and its aftermath;
- limiting the substantial increase in public debt;
- trying to contain rises in taxes.
Developing countries are faced with a difficult trade-off between these objectives, as addressing one objective is likely to come at the expense of the other two. For example, higher spending would require higher deficits and debt or higher taxes.
The poorest countries have little scope for increased domestic borrowing and have been forced to borrow on international markets. But such debt is costly. Although international interest rates are generally low, many developing countries have had to take on increasing levels of borrowing from private lenders at much higher rates of interest, substantially adding to the servicing costs of their debt.
International agencies and groups, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations and the G20, have all advocated increased help to tackle this debt crisis. The IMF has allocated $100bn in lending through the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI) and the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) and nearly $500m in debt service relief grants through the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT). The World Bank is increasing operations to $160bn.
The IMF is also considering an increase in special drawing rights (SDRs) from the current level of 204.2bn ($293.3bn) to 452.6bn ($650bn) – a rise of 121.6%. This would be the first such expansion since 2009. It has received the support of both the G7 and the G20. SDRs are reserves created by the IMF whose value is a weighted average of five currencies – the US dollar (41.73%), the euro (30.93%), the Chinese yuan (10.92%), the Japanese yen (8.33%) and the pound sterling (8.09%).
Normally an increase in SDRs would be allocated to countries according their IMF quotas, which largely depend on the size of their GDP and their openness. Any new allocation under this formula would therefore go mainly to developed countries, with developing economies getting only around $60bn of the extra $357bn. It has thus been proposed that developed countries give much of their allocation to developing countries. These could then be used to cancel debts. This proposal has been backed by Janet Yellen, the US Secretary of the Treasury, who said she would “strongly encourage G20 members to channel excess SDRs in support of recovery efforts in low-income countries, alongside continued bilateral financing”.
The G20 countries, with the support of the IMF and World Bank, have committed to suspend debt service payments by eligible countries which request to participate in its Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). There are 73 eligible countries. The scheme, now extended to 31 December 2021, provides a suspension of debt-service payments owed to official bilateral creditors. In return, borrowers commit to use freed-up resources to increase social, health or economic spending in response to the crisis. As of April 2021, 45 countries had requested to participate, with savings totalling more than $10bn. The G20 has also called on private creditors to join the DSSI, but so far without success.
Despite these initiatives, the scale of debt relief (as opposed to extra or deferred lending) remains small in comparison to earlier initiatives. Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC, launched 1996) and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI, launched 2005) more than $100bn of debt was cancelled.
Since the start of the pandemic, major developed countries have spent between $10 000 and $20 000 per head in stimulus and social support programmes. Sub-Saharan African countries on average are seeking only $365 per head in support.
Articles and blogs
- Imagine you are an economic advisor to a developing country attempting to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. How would you advise it to proceed, given the ‘trilemma’ described above?
- How does the News24 article define ‘smart debt relief’. Do you agree with the definition and the means of achieving smart debt relief?
- To what extent is it in the interests of the developed world to provide additional debt relief to poor countries whose economies have been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
- Research ‘debt-for-nature swaps’. To what extent can debt relief for countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic be linked to tackling climate change?
With the coronavirus pandemic having reached almost every country in the world, the impact on the global economy has been catastrophic. Governments have struggled balancing the spread of the virus and keeping the economy afloat. This has left businesses counting the costs of various control measures and numerous lockdowns. The crisis has particularly affected small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), causing massive job losses and longer-term economic scars. Among these is an increase in the market power held by dominant firms as they emerge even stronger while smaller rivals fall away.
It is feared that with the full effects of the pandemic not yet realised, there may well be a wave of bankruptcies that will hit SMEs harder than larger firms, particularly in the most affected industries. Larger firms are most likely to be more profitable in general and more likely to have access to finance. Firm-level analysis using Orbis data, which includes listed and private firms, suggests that the pandemic-driven wave of bankruptcies will lead to increases in industry concentration and market power.
What is market power?
A firm holds a dominant position if its power enables it to operate within the market without taking account of the reaction of its competitors or of intermediate or final consumers. The key role of competition authorities around the world is to protect the public interest, particularly against firms abusing their dominant positions.
The UK’s competition authority, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) states:
Market power arises where an undertaking does not face effective competitive pressure. …Market power is not absolute but is a matter of degree; the degree of power will depend on the circumstances of each case. Market power can be thought of as the ability profitably to sustain prices above competitive levels or restrict output or quality below competitive levels. An undertaking with market power might also have the ability and incentive to harm the process of competition in other ways; for example, by weakening existing competition, raising entry barriers, or slowing innovation.
It can be hard to distinguish between a rapidly growing business and growing concentration of market power. In a pandemic, these distinctions can become even more difficult to discern, since there really is a deep need for a rapid deployment of capital, often in distressed situations. It is also not always evident whether the attempt to grow is driven by the need for more productive capacity, or by the desire to engage in financial engineering or to acquire market power.
It may be the case that, as consumers, we simply have no choice but to depend on various monopolies in a crisis, hoping that they operate in the public interest or that the competition authorities will ensure that they do so. With Covid-19 for example, economies will have entered the pandemic with their existing institutions, and therefore the only way to operate may be through channels controlled by concentrated power. Market dominance can occur for what seem to be good, or least necessary, reasons.
Why is market power a problem?
Why is it necessarily a problem if a successful company grows bigger than its competitors through hard work, smart strategies, and better technology adoption? It is important to recognise that increases in market power do not always mean an abuse of that market power. Just because a company may dominate the market, it does not mean there is a guaranteed negative impact on the consumer or industry. There are many advantages to a monopoly firm and, therefore, it can be argued that the existence of a market monopoly in itself should not be a cause of concern for the regulator. Unless there is evidence of past misconduct of dominance, which is abusive for the market and its stakeholders, some would argue that there is no justification for any involvement by regulators at all.
However, research by the International Monetary Fund concluded that excessive market power in the hands of a few firms can be a drag on medium-term growth, stifling innovation and holding back investment. Given the severity of the economic impact of the pandemic, such an outcome could undermine the recovery efforts by governments. It could also prevent new and emerging firms entering the market at a time when dynamism is desperately needed.
The ONS defines business dynamism as follows:
Business dynamism relates to measures of birth, growth and decline of businesses and its impact on employment. A steady rate of business creation and closure is necessary for an economy to grow in the long-run because it allows new ideas to flourish.
A lack of business dynamism could lead to a stagnation in productivity and wage growth. It also affects employment through changes in job creation and destruction. In this context, the UK’s most recent unemployment rate was 5%. This is the highest figure for five years and is predicted to rise to 6.5% by the end of 2021. Across multiple industries, there is now a trend of falling business dynamism with small businesses failing to break out of their local markets and start-up companies whose prices are undercut by a big rival. This creates missed opportunities in terms of growth, job creation, and rising incomes.
There has been a rise in mergers and acquisitions, especially amongst dominant firms, which is contributing to these trends. Again, it is important to recognise that mergers and acquisitions are not in themselves a problem; they can yield cost savings and produce better products. However, they can also weaken incentives for innovation and strengthen a firm’s ability to charge higher prices. Analysis shows that mergers and acquisitions by dominant firms contribute to an industry-wide decline in business dynamism.
Changes in market power due to the pandemic
The IMF identifies key indicators for market power, such as the percentage mark-up of prices over marginal cost, and the concentration of revenues among the four biggest players in a sector. New research shows that these key indicators of market power are on the rise. It is estimated that due to the pandemic, this increase in market dominance could now increase in advanced economies by at least as much as it did in the fifteen years to the end of 2015.
Global price mark-ups have risen by more than 30%, on average, across listed firms in advanced economies since 1980. And in the past 20 years, mark-up increases in the digital sector have been twice as steep as economy-wide increases. Increases in market power across multiple industries caused by the pandemic would exacerbate a trend that goes back over four decades.
It could be argued that firms enjoying this increase in market share and strong profits is just the reward for their growth. Such success if often a result of innovation, efficiency, and improved services. However, there are growing signs in many industries that market power is becoming entrenched amid an absence of strong competitors for dominant firms. It is estimated that companies with the highest mark-ups in a given year, have an almost 85 percent chance of remaining a high mark-up firm the following year. According to experts, some of these businesses have created entry barriers – regulatory or technology driven – which are incredibly high.
Professor Jayant R. Varma, a member of the MPC of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), observed that in several sectors characterised by an oligopolistic core and a competitive periphery, the oligopolistic core has weathered the pandemic and it is the competitive periphery that has been debilitated. Rising profits and profit margins, improving capacity utilisation and lack of new capacity additions create ripe conditions for the oligopolistic core to start exercising pricing power.
The drivers and macroeconomic implications of such rises in market power are likely to differ across economies and individual industries. Even in those industries that benefited from the crisis, such as the digital sector, dominant players are among the biggest winners. The technology industry has been under the microscope in recent years, and increasingly the big tech firms are under scrutiny from regulators around the world. The market disruptors that displaced incumbents two decades ago have become increasingly dominant players that do not face the same competitive pressures from today’s would-be disruptors. The pandemic is adding to powerful underlying forces such as network effects and economies of scale and scope.
A new regulator that aims to curb this increasing dominance of the tech giants has been established in the UK. The Digital Markets Unit (DMU) will be based inside the Competition and Markets Authority. The DMU will first look to create new codes of conduct for companies such as Facebook and Google and their relationship with content providers and advertisers. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the regime will be ‘unashamedly pro-competition’.
The additions in regulation in the UK fall in line with the guidance from the IMF. It recommends that adjustments to competition-policy frameworks need to be made in order to minimise the adverse effects of market dominance. Such adjustments must, however, be tailored to national circumstances, both in general and to address the specific challenges raised by the surge of the digital economy.
It recommends the following five actions:
- Competition authorities should be increasingly vigilant when enforcing merger control. The criteria for competition authorities to review a deal should cover all relevant cases – including acquisitions of small players that may grow to compete with dominant firms.
- Second, competition authorities should more actively enforce prohibitions on the abuse of dominant positions and make greater use of market investigations to uncover harmful behaviour without any reported breach of the law.
- Greater efforts are needed to ensure competition in input markets, including labour markets.
- Competition authorities should be empowered to keep pace with the digital economy, where the rise of big data and artificial intelligence is multiplying incumbent firms’ advantage. Facilitating data portability and interoperability of systems can make it easier for new firms to compete with established players.
- Investments may be needed to further boost sector-specific expertise amid rapid technological change.
The crisis has had a significant impact on all businesses, with many shutting their doors for good. However, there has been a greater negative impact on SMEs. Even in industries that have flourished from the pandemic, it is the dominant firms that have emerged the biggest winners. There is concern that the increasing market power will remain embedded in many economies, stifling future competition and economic growth. While the negative effects of increased market power have been moderate so far, the findings suggest that competition authorities should be increasingly vigilant to ensure that these effects do not become more harmful in the future.
Reviews of competition policy frameworks have already begun in some major economies. Young, high-growth firms that innovate and create high-quality jobs deserve a level playing field and a fair chance to succeed. Support directed to SMEs is important, as many small firms have been unable to benefit from government programmes designed to help firms access financing during the pandemic. Policymakers should act now to prevent a further, sharp rise in market power that could hold back the post-pandemic recovery.
- What are the arguments for and against the assistance of a monopoly?
- What barriers to entry may exist that prevent small firms from entering an industry?
- What policies can be implemented to limit market power?
- Define and explain market dynamism.