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?
With Christmas approaching, sales will once again begin to rise and cards will be written. Mail services will be at their busiest as we post millions of cards and parcels every day. But, the question is: will they arrive? Workers in the supply chain at Royal Mail have voted to strike over pay.
Since the part privatisation of Royal Mail, many criticisms have emerged, ranging from the price at which shares were sold, the efficiency of the Royal Mail, suggestions of varying prices for delivery depending on location, and now over pay. As with any labour market, there is a demand and a supply of workers and the intersection of these curves creates our equilibrium wage. If the wage is forced up above the equilibrium wage by the actions of trade unions, then there is the potential for unemployment to be created.
The Communications Workers Union (CWU) feels that their pay is insufficient. Dave Ward, Deputy General Secretary of CWU said:
“Thanks entirely to the unreasonable attitude of Post Office management, a pre-Christmas national strike is looking inevitable…The workforce has made a major contribution to the company’s success and have every right to their fair share.”
However, the head of the supply chain at Royal Mail has responded to the threats of strike, referring to the 5% pay rise promised to its workers over the next three years, saying:
“We are undertaking the biggest modernisation programme in UK retail history to ensure we become commercially viable and reduce our reliance on public money…We urge the CWU to reconsider their unrealistic demands and discuss an affordable pay deal rather than call strike action which can only cost our people money.”
The row over pay is not the only way that job losses could emerge. A major criticism levelled at the Royal Mail is its lack of efficiency, especially in terms of cost reductions and work flexibility. The Royal Mail has become increasingly concerned by competition, especially as its low-cost competitors can choose to whom they deliver. Those living in built up areas receive mail, but for those living in more rural areas, some of Royal Mail’s competitors will not deliver there, because of the higher costs. Royal Mail does not have this luxury and hence must deliver to loss-making places. Royal Mail says that this is creating unfair pressure to its business and is calling for these competitors to be forced to deliver to rural areas and small businesses. However, one such company, Whistl, has said that the figures from Royal Mail suggest that ‘productivity is not a sufficiently high enough management priority.
If the strike does go ahead in the build up to Christmas, then the management priorities of Royal Mail will certainly be under scrutiny. The following articles consider the current situation.
- If there is strike action in a labour market, what can we conclude about the market in question in terms of how competitive it is?
- Is strike action completely pointless?
- What actions could workers take, other than strike action, to achieve a resolution of their grievances? Discuss what employers could offer in an attempt to resolve the situation?
- What are the arguments for making Royal Mail’s competitors deliver to all places, just as the Royal Mail must do?
- The efficiency of the Royal Mail has been called into question. If efficiency improved, would this mean that pay rises were more or less feasible?
Getting around London is pretty easy to do. Transport, though often criticized, is very effective in and around London – at least when the Underground is running uninterrupted. However, since 9pm on Tuesday 4th February until the morning of 7th February, the underground will be operating well below full capacity, as strike action affects many workers.
Transport for London has plans to cut many jobs, in particular through the closure of ticket office at all stations. Modernisation to the network is said to be essential, not just to improve the existing system, but also as it is predicted to save £50 million per year. Data suggests that only 3% of transactions involve people using ticket offices and thus the argument is that having offices manned is a waste of money and these workers would be better allocated to manning stations. David Cameron said:
I unreservedly condemn this strike. There is absolutely no justification for a strike. We need a modernised tube line working for the millions of Londoners who use it every day.
Workers on London Underground are naturally concerned about the impact this will have, in particular on their jobs, despite assurances that there will be no compulsory redundancies.
The impact of these strikes on workers in London is clearly evident by any pictures you look at. Buses were over-crowded, despite more than 100 extra being provided, pavements were packed with pedestrians and the roads were full of cyclists. At least the strike action has led to a little more exercise for many people! The disruption to business in London is likely to be relatively large and the loss in revenue due to the action will also be high, estimated by Business leaders to be tens of millions of pounds. It is perhaps for this reason that there is discussion as to whether the underground should be declared an ‘essential service’ as a means of minimising future disruptions.
Discussions have been ongoing between both sides to try to prevent this action and talks are likely to continue in the future. Boris Johnson has declared the strikes as ‘completely pointless’ and both sides have argued that the other has been unwilling to negotiate and discuss the ticket office closures. Boris Johnson said:
A deal is there to be done. I am more than happy to talk to Bob Crow if he calls off the pointless and unnecessary strike.
The impact on London and the economy will only be fully known after the strike action is over, but there are plans for further strikes next week. The greater the disruption the bigger the calls for further strikes on key services, such as the tube, to be prevented. In particular, this may mean new powers to curtail the rights of unions in these types of areas, which will require a minimum service to be provided. The following articles consider the strike action on the London Underground.
- If there is strike action in a labour market, what can we conclude about the market in question in terms of how competitive it is?
- If only 3% of transactions take place via ticket offices, is it an efficient use of resources to maintain the presence of ticket offices at every station?
- Is industrial action ‘completely pointless’?
- What other solutions are there besides strike action to problems of industrial dispute?
- What is the role of ACAS in negotiations?
- What is the economic impact of the strike on the London Underground? Think about the impact on businesses, revenues, sales and both micro and macro consequences.
- Should the tube be seen as an essential service such that strike action by its workers would be restricted?
Trade union action has been a feature of the British labour market over the past few years, as discussed in this first and second blog. With the government’s austerity measures still in place and ongoing issues over pension provision, there are many explosive issues that will undoubtedly be discussed at this year’s TUC Conference in Brighton.
We have already heard from numerous unions that strike action over the coming year is ‘inevitable’. With rising prices, static or even falling wages, reduced pension provision and increased contributions, the cost of living has become increasingly unaffordable for many members of the trade unions. Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of Unison said:
‘I think people have been pushed into a corner. They are moving into poverty … The threat is that if we can’t move forward in negotiations to find a way through it then we will move to industrial action. There is no doubt whatsoever that we can create disputes throughout next year.’
Although few would argue against the notion that the government’s finances are in a dire state and spending cuts together with tax rises are needed, the controversy seems to lie in exactly when these cuts should take place and how severe they should be. For many, cutting government spending and raising taxes whilst the economy is still in recession is asking for trouble. For others, it’s the right thing to do and everyone should play a part in helping to return government finances to a semblance of balance. The Labour government has traditionally supported trade unions, but even their leadership backed the government’s plan for pay restraint for public sector workers. This, together with the continuing debates over public sector pensions has clearly angered many public sector workers, thus creating this ‘inevitable’ industrial action over the coming year.
Unison and GMB have said that they will be working together in order to try to better pay and conditions for its members, by co-ordinating public-sector strikes around Spring next year. Co-ordinated strikes across a variety of sectors could create havoc for the economy. Not just disruption for the everyday person, but losses for businesses and the economy. A general strike has not taken place since 1926, but it is thought that TUC delegates will be voting on whether or not one should be planned. So, when faced with these inevitable strikes, should the government back down and cut back on austerity or stand up to them and suffer the disruption of a strike, whilst continuing on with bringing its budget back on track? The following articles look at the TUC Congress and the proposed strike action.
Public sector unions plan Spring strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (9/9/12)
Trade union warns of further strikes Financial Times, Brian Groom (7/9/12)
Trade union officials gather for TUC Congress in Brighton BBC News, John Moylan (9/9/12)
Unite union leader warns of wave of public sector strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (7/9/12)
Unison and GMB unions planning co-ordinated strikes over pay BBC News, Justin Parkinson (9/9/12)
TUC Conference 2012: a mixture of new and old Channel 4 News (9/9/12)
Government must stand up to these TUC bully tactics Express, Leo McKinstry (9/9/12)
- What is the purpose of a trade union?
- What is the difference between individual and collective bargaining? Why is collective bargaining likely to be more successful in achieving certain aims?
- If there is co-ordinated strike action, what are the likely costs for (a) the workers on strike (b) the non-striking workers (c) businesses and (d) the economy?
- What are the main issues being debated between unions and the government?
- Explain the economic reasoning behind Dave Prentis’ statement that people are being moved into poverty.
- Do you agree with strike action? Do you think it has any effect?
- When do you think is the right time to implement austerity measures? Has the government got it right? As always, make sure you explain your answer!!
No, bonfire night hasn’t been moved, but the 30th November could certainly be a day to remember. This day has been ‘selected’ by Unions for a nationwide day of action in response to government plans to increase workers’ pension contribution. The action would undoubtedly lead to massive disruption to public services across the UK and if an agreement is not reached with Ministers, we are likely to see further days of industrial action. In the words of the TUC boss, Brendan Barber, if no agreement is forthcoming, there will be ‘the biggest trade union mobilisation for a generation’.
The so-called pensions crisis has been an ongoing saga with seemingly no end in sight. As the UK population gets older, the strain on the state pension will continue to grow. The dependency ratio has increased – there are more and more pensioners being supported by fewer and fewer adults of working age. If the level of benefits is to be maintained, workers must either work for longer or make larger contributions to make up the deficit.
Plans are already in motion to increase the retirement age, but this in itself will not be sufficient. If pension contributions do increase, workers will undoubtedly find themselves worse off – a larger proportion of their gross income will be taken and hence net incomes will be lower. With less disposable income, consumer expenditure will fall, and given that consumption is the largest component of aggregate demand, the economy will take a hit. This is even more of a concern given the pay freezes we have already seen, together with rising inflation. People’s purses will get squeezed more and more, So, while raising pension contributions may help plug the pensions deficit, it could spell trouble for the economic prospects of the UK economy.
In addition to the potential longer term effects, there will also be a significant short term effect, namely, the loss of output on the day of the strike action. If workers are absent, the company will produce less than their potential and in some cases, the lost output can never be regained. If the postal workers go on strike, businesses may find packages go undelivered, customers experience delays, bills are not paid and so on. In all, strike action on the scale that is planned will have an impact on everyone, so it is in the interests of the economy for some sort of agreement to be reached. As Mr. Barber said:
‘If there’s no progress, then potentially we will see very widespread industrial action across the public services’
The following articles look at this conflict.
Unions plan ‘day of action’ over pensions Financial Times, Brian Groom (14/9/11)
TUC: ‘Strikes will be the biggest for a generation’ says Brendan Barber Telegraph (14/9/11)
Unions call for ‘national day of action’ over pensions BBC News (14/9/11)
Unions call collective day of strike action in November Guardian, Helene Mulholland and Dan Milmo (14/9/11)
Ed Miliband to warn trade unions that they must modernise Independent, Andrew Grice (13/9/11)
Trade unions plan day of action over pensions on Nov 30 Associated Press (14/9/11)
Are the trade unions about to save Britain? Telegraph, Mary Riddell (12/9/11)
Pension row unions in day of action The Press Association (14/9/11)
Unions set date for pensions strike as ‘unprecedented ballot begins’ Telegraph, Christopher Hope (14/9/11)
TUC to attack ministers over public sector pensions BBC News(14/9.11)
Secret plan for union strikes to cripple the country Telegraph, Christopher Hope(14/9/11)
- What are the main costs of strike action to (a) the individual going on strike (b) the firms which lose their workers (c) small businesses (d) the economy?
- What is meant by the dependency ratio? What action could be taken to reduce it? For each type of action, think about the costs and benefits.
- If pension contributions do increase, explain how workers will be affected. How will this affect each of the components of aggregate demand?
- Based on your answer to the above questions, what is likely to be the impact on the government’s macroeconomic objectives?
- What other action, besides striking, could unions take? Is it likely to be as effective? Do you think strikes are a good thing?
- Illustrate on a diagram the effect of a trade union entering an industry. How does it normally affect equilibrium wages and employment?