Tag: inequality

On March 23, Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered his Spring Statement, in which he announced changes to various taxes and grants. These measures were made against the background of rising inflation and falling living standards.

CPI inflation, currently at 6.2%, is still rising and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that inflation will average 7.4% this year. The poor spend a larger proportion of their income on energy and food than the rich. With inflation rates especially high for gas, electricity and basic foodstuffs, the poor have been seen their cost of living rise by considerably more than the overall inflation rate.

According to the OBR, the higher inflation, by reducing real income and consumption, is expected to reduce the growth in real GDP this year from the previously forecast 6% to 3.8% – a much smaller bounce back from the fall in output during the early stages of the pandemic. Despite this growth in GDP, real disposable incomes will fall by an average of £488 per person this year. As the OBR states:

With inflation outpacing growth in nominal earnings and net taxes due to rise in April, real living standards are set to fall by 2.2 per cent in 2022/23 – their largest financial year fall on record – and not recover their pre-pandemic level until 2024/25.

Fiscal measures

The Chancellor announced a number of measures, which, he argued, would provide relief from rises in the cost of living.

  • Previously, the Chancellor had announced that national insurance (NI) would rise by 1.25 percentage points this April. In the Statement he announced that the starting point for paying NI would rise from a previously planned £9880 to £12 570 (the same as the starting point for income tax). This will more than offset the rise in the NI rate for those earning below £32 000. This makes the NI system slightly more progressive than before. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
  • A cut in fuel duty of 5p per litre. The main beneficiaries will be those who drive more and those with bigger cars – generally the better off. Those who cannot afford a car will not benefit at all, other than from lower transport costs being passed on in lower prices.
  • The 5% VAT on energy-saving household measures such as solar panels, insulation and heat pumps will be reduced to zero.
  • The government’s Household Support Fund will be doubled to £1bn. This provides money to local authorities to help vulnerable households with rising living costs.
  • Research and development tax credits for businesses will increase and small businesses will each get another £1000 per year in the form of employment allowances, which reduce their NI payments. He announced that taxes on business investment will be further cut in the Autumn Budget.
  • The main rate of income tax will be cut from 20% to 19% in two years’ time. Unlike the rise in NI, which only affects employment and self-employment income, the cut in income tax will apply to all incomes, including rental and savings income.

Fiscal drag

The Chancellor announced that public finances are stronger than previously forecast. The rapid growth in tax receipts has reduced public-sector borrowing from £322 billion (15.0 per cent of GDP) in 2020/21 to an expected £128 billion (5.4 per cent of GDP) in 2021/22, £55 billion less than the OBR forecast in October 2021. This reflects not only the growth in the economy, but also inflation, which results in fiscal drag.

Fiscal drag is where rises in nominal incomes mean that the average rate of income tax rises. As tax thresholds for 2022/23 are frozen at 2021/22 levels, a greater proportion of incomes will be taxed at higher rates and tax-free allowances will account for a smaller proportion of incomes. The higher the rate of increase in nominal incomes, the greater fiscal drag becomes. The higher average rate of tax drags on real incomes and spending. On the other hand, the extra tax revenue reduces government borrowing and gives the government more room for extra spending or tax cuts.

The growth in poverty

With incomes of the poor not keeping pace with inflation, many people are facing real hardship. While the Spring Statement will provide a small degree of support to the poor through cuts in fuel duty and the rise in the NI threshold, the measures are poorly targeted. Rather than cutting fuel duty by 5p, a move that is regressive, removing or reducing the 5% VAT on gas and electricity would have been a progressive move.

Benefits, such as Universal Credit and the State Pension, are uprated each April in line with inflation the previous September. When inflation is rising, this means that benefits will go up by less than the current rate of inflation. This April, benefits will rise by last September’s annual inflation rate of 3.1% – considerably below the current inflation rate of 6.2% and the forecast rate for this year of 7.4%. This will push many benefit recipients deeper into poverty.

One measure rejected by Rishi Sunak is to impose a temporary windfall tax on oil companies, which have profited from the higher global oil prices. Such taxes are used in Norway and are currently being considered by the EU. Tax revenues from such a windfall tax could be used to fund benefit increases or tax reductions elsewhere and these measures could be targeted on the poor.

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OBR data and analysis

Questions

  1. Are the changes made to national insurance by the Chancellor progressive or regressive? Could they have been made more progressive and, if so, how?
  2. What are the arguments for and against cutting income tax from 20% to 19% in two years’ time rather than reversing the current increases in national insurance at that point?
  3. What will determine how rapidly (if at all) public-sector borrowing decreases over the next few years?
  4. What are automatic fiscal stabilisers? How does their effect vary with the rate of inflation?
  5. Examine the public finances of another country. Are the issues similar to those in the UK? Recommend fiscal policy measures for your chosen country and provide a justification.

Households are expected to see further rises in the cost of living after the annual inflation rate climbed for a 13th month to its highest point in almost 30 years. This will put further pressure on already stretched household budgets. The increase reflects a bounceback in demand for goods and services after lockdowns, when prices fell sharply. It also reflects the impact of supply-chain disruptions as Covid-19 hit factory production and global trade.

The biggest concern, however, is the impact it will have on those already hard-pressed families across the UK. According to official figures, prices are rising at similar rates for richer and poorer households. However, household income levels will determine personal experiences of inflation. Poorer households find it harder to cope than richer families as essentials, such as energy and food, form a larger proportion of their shopping basket than discretionary items. On average the lowest-income families spend twice as much proportionately on food and housing bills as the richest. So low-income households, if they are already spending mainly on essentials, will struggle to find where to cut back as prices rise.

Latest Inflation figures

Latest figures from the ONS show that the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose by 5.5% in the year to January 2022, with further increases in the rate expected over the next couple of months. In measuring inflation, the ONS takes a so-called ‘basket of goods, which is frequently updated to reflect changes in spending patterns. For example, in 2021, hand sanitiser and men’s loungewear bottoms were added, but sandwiches bought at work were removed.

Annual CPI inflation is announced each month, showing how much the weighted average of these prices has risen since the same date last year. The weighted average is expressed as an index, with the index set at 100 in the base year, which is currently 2015.

Consumers would not normally notice price rises from month to month. However, prices are now rising so quickly that it is clear for everyone to see. What is more, average pay is not keeping up. There are workers in a few sectors, such as lorry drivers, who are in high demand, and therefore their wages are rising faster than prices. But the majority of workers won’t see such increases in pay. In the 12 months to January, prices rose by 5.5% on average, but regular pay, excluding bonuses, on average rose by only 4.7%, meaning that they fell by 0.8% in real terms.

The Bank of England has warned that CPI inflation could rise to 7% this year and some economists are forecasting that it could be almost 8% in April.

Why are costs rising?

From the weekly food shop, to filling up cars, to heating our homes, the cost of living is rising sharply around the world. Global inflation is at its highest since 2008. Some of the reasons why include:

  • Rising energy and petrol prices
    Oil prices slumped at the start of the pandemic, but demand has rocketed back since, and oil prices have hit a seven-year high. The price of gas has also shot up, leaving people around the world with eye-watering central heating bills. Home energy bills in the UK are set to rise by 54% in April when Ofgem, the energy regulator, raises the price cap.
  • Goods shortages
    During the pandemic, prices of everyday consumer goods increased. Consumers spent more on household goods and home improvements because they were stuck at home, couldn’t go out to eat or go on holiday. Manufacturers in places such as Asia have struggled to keep up with the demand. This has led to shortages of materials such as plastic, concrete and steel, driving up prices. Timber cost as much as 80% more than usual in 2021 in the UK.
  • Shipping costs
    Global shipping companies have been overwhelmed by surging demand after the pandemic and have responded by raising shipping charges. Retailers are now having to pay a lot more to get goods into stores. These prices are now being passed on to consumers. Air freight fees have also increased, having been made worse by a lorry driver shortage in Europe.
  • Rising wages
    During the pandemic many people changed jobs, or even quit the workforce – a problem exacerbated in the UK by Brexit as many European workers returned to their home countries. Firms are now having problems recruiting staff such as drivers, food processors and restaurant waiters. This has resulted in companies putting up wages to attract and retain staff. Those extra costs to employers are again being passed on to consumers.
  • Extreme weather impact
    Extreme weather in many parts of the world has contributed to inflation. Global oil supplies took a hit from hurricanes which damaged US oil infrastructure. Fierce storms in Texas also worsened the problems in meeting the demand for microchips. The cost of coffee has also jumped after Brazil had a poor harvest following its most severe drought in almost a century.
  • Trade barriers
    More costly imports are also contributing to higher prices. New post-Brexit trading rules are estimated to have reduced imports from the EU to the UK by about a quarter in the first half of 2021. In the USA, import tariffs on Chinese goods have almost entirely been passed on to US customers in the form of higher prices. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei said last year that sanctions imposed on the company by the USA in 2019 were affecting US suppliers and global customers.
  • The end of pandemic support
    Governments are ending the support given to businesses during the pandemic. Public spending and borrowing increased across the world leading to tax rises. This has contributed to rises in the cost-of-living, while most people’s wages have lagged behind.

Main concerns for the UK inflation

With rapidly rising prices, the economic decisions people will have to make are much harder. The main concerns for UK households include increases in energy costs, food prices, rent and interest rates on borrowing. All of these concerns come at a time when the government prepares to increase national insurance contributions for workers in April. There has been some pressure from MPs to scrap the tax rise so as to ease the pressure on living costs. It can be argued that there are fairer ways to increase taxes than through national insurance. However, the plan is relatively progressive, and scrapping the rise could be a badly targeted way of helping the poorest households with their energy bills.

Energy Bills
Electricity and gas bills for a typical household are expected to increase on average by £693 a year in April, which, as we have seen, is a 54% increase. Around 18 million households on standard tariffs will see an average increase from £1277 to £1971 per year. And around 4.5 million prepayment customers will see an average increase of £708 – from £1309 to £2017. Energy bills won’t rise immediately for customers on fixed rates, but many are likely to see a significant increase when their deal ends.

Bills are going up because the energy price cap is being raised. The energy price cap is an example of a maximum price being imposed on the market; it is the maximum price suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge households for their energy. Energy firms can increase bills by 54% when the new cap is introduced in April. The price cap is currently reviewed every 6 months and it is expected that that prices will rise again in October.

Energy price rises are likely to hit Britain’s poorest households the hardest as they spend proportionately more of their income on energy, a problem exacerbated by many living in poorly insulated homes. More people are thus expected to find themselves facing fuel poverty. This means that they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy and cannot afford to heat their homes adequately. According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest will see their energy spend rise from 8.5% to 12% of their total household budget, three times the percentage for the richest.

The way fuel poverty is measured varies around the UK. In Scotland, a household is in fuel poverty if more than 10% of its income is spent on fuel and its remaining income isn’t enough to maintain an adequate standard of living. It is expected that the number of homes facing ‘fuel stress’ across the UK will treble to 6.3 million after April. It will, however, have the greatest impact on pensioners, people in local authority housing and low-income single-adult households who on average could be forced to spend over 50% of their income on gas and electricity. The Resolution Foundation thinktank has warned that UK households are facing a ‘cost of living catastrophe’.

Food
Low-income households also spend a larger proportion than average on food and will therefore be relatively more affected by increases in food prices. Food and non-alcoholic drink prices were up by 4.2% in the year to December 2021. The Monetary Policy Committee has stated that food price inflation is expected to increase in coming months, given higher input costs. It has been estimated by the thinktank, Food Foundation, that 4.7m Britons, equivalent to 8.8% of the population, are struggling to feed themselves and are regularly going a day without eating.

Supermarkets have also raised their concerns about future increases. Tesco’s chairman John Allan has predicted that the worst is yet to come, pointing to 5% as a likely figure for food price inflation by the spring. He cited high energy prices, both for Tesco and its suppliers, as a key factor behind the expected rise.

It has been observed that the Smart Price, Basics and Value range products offered by supermarkets as lower-cost alternatives are stealthily being extinguished from the shelves. This is leaving shoppers with no choice but to ‘level up’ to the supermarkets’ own better-quality branded goods – usually in smaller quantities at larger prices. The managing director of Iceland, Richard Walker, has stated that his stores are not losing customers to other competitors or to better offers, but to food banks and to hunger. This is a highly concerning statement given that 2.5m citizens were forced by an array of desperate circumstances to use food banks over the past year.

Rent
Private rents are also rising at their fastest rate in five years, intensifying the increase in the cost of living for millions of households. Data from the ONS reveal that the average cost of renting in the UK rose by 2% in 2021. This was the largest annual increase since 2017. The East Midlands had the biggest increase in average rental prices, with tenants paying 3.6% more than a year earlier. However, due to falling demand for city flats during lockdown, as people favoured working from home, London had the smallest increase at 0.1%. Nevertheless, as Covid restrictions are removed, renters, including office workers and students, are now returning back to cities. This is now pushing up rental prices with demand outpacing supply.

The property website Zoopla found newly advertised rental prices were rising much faster across the UK. It said the average rent jumped 8.3% in the final three months of 2021 to £969 a month. This increase in rental prices, combined with the general rise in prices will place additional pressure on the government to increase support for vulnerable families. The housing charity, Shelter, has reported an increase in people who are struggling to pay their rent and even pay their electricity. With Covid-era protections having ended, if people struggle to pay, they are faced with eviction or even homelessness. There are calls for the government to support such people by reversing welfare cuts.

Insurer, Legal & General, has announced an additional investment over the next 5 years of £2.5bn on its ‘build to rent’ schemes. The aim is to provide more than 7000 purpose-built rental homes in UK towns and cities. L&G claims that the additional homes are part of the solution to the rental problem, with rent increases being capped at 5% for five years. However, sceptics claim the company is simply trying to cash in on the booming market and there are calls for further government action. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation claim that renters will struggle as rents in some areas have risen as much as 8%. Despite this, housing benefit has been frozen for two years and therefore there are calls for government to urgently relink housing benefit to the real cost of renting.

Articles

Questions

  1. What other measures of inflation are used beside CPI inflation? How do they differ?
  2. If all consumers are facing approximately the same price increases for any given good or service, why are poor people being disproportionately hit by rising prices?
  3. For what reasons might the rate of inflation (a) rise further; (b) begin to fall?
  4. Examine a developed country other than the UK and find out how inflation is affecting its population. Is its experience similar to that in the UK? Does it differ in any way?

Inflation across the world has been rising. This has been caused by a rise in aggregate demand as the global economy has ‘bounced back’ from the pandemic, while supply-chain disruptions and tight labour markets constrain the ability of aggregate supply to respond to the rise in demand.

But what of the coming months? Will supply become more able to respond to demand as supply-chain issues ease, allowing further economic growth and an easing of inflationary pressures?

Or will higher inflation and higher taxes dampen real demand and cause growth, or even output, to fall? Are we about to enter an era of ‘stagflation’, where economies experience rising inflation and economic stagnation? And will stagnation be made worse by central banks which raise interest rates to dampen the inflation but, in the process, dampen spending.

Despite the worries of central banks, with inflation being higher than forecast a few months ago, forecasts (e.g. the OECD’s) are still for inflation to peak fairly soon and then to fall back to around 2 to 3 per cent by the beginning of 2023 – close to central bank target rates.

In the UK, annual CPI inflation reached 5.4% in December 2021. The UK Treasury’s January 2022 new monthly forecasts for the UK economy by 15 independent institutions give an average forecast of 4.0% for CPI inflation for 2022. In the USA, annual consumer price inflation reached 7 per cent in December 2021, but is forecast to fall to just over the target rate of 2% by the end of 2022.

If central banks respond to the current high inflation by raising interest rates more than very slightly and by stopping quantitative easing (QE), or even engaging in quantitative tightening (selling assets purchased under previous QE schemes), there is a severe risk of a sharp slowdown in economic activity. Household budgets are already being squeezed by the higher prices, especially energy and food prices. And people will face higher taxes as governments seek to reduce their debts, which soared with the Covid support packages during the pandemic.

The Fed has signalled that it will end its bond buying (QE) programme in March 2022 and may well raise interest rates at the same time. Quantitative tightening may then follow. But although GDP growth is still strong in the USA, Fed policy and stretched household budgets could well see spending slow and growth fall. Stagflation is less likely in the USA than in the UK and many other countries, but there is still the danger of over-reaction by the Fed given the predicted fall in inflation.

But there are reasons to be confident that stagflation can be avoided. Supply-chain bottlenecks are likely to ease and are already showing signs of doing so, with manufacturing production recovering and hold-ups at docks easing. The danger may increasingly become one of demand being excessively dampened rather than supply being constrained. Under these circumstances, inflation could rapidly fall, as is being forecast.

Nevertheless, as Covid restrictions ease, the hospitality and leisure sector is likely to see a resurgence in demand, despite stagnant or falling real disposable incomes, and here there are supply constraints in the form of staffing shortages. This could well lead to higher wages and prices in the sector, but probably not enough to prevent the fall in inflation.

Articles

Data

Questions

  1. Under what circumstances would stagflation be (a) more likely; (b) less likely?
  2. Find out the causes of stagflation in the early/mid-1970s.
  3. Argue the case for and against the Fed raising interest rates and ending its asset buying programme.
  4. Why are labour shortages likely to be higher in the UK than in many other countries?
  5. Research what is likely to happen to fuel prices over the next two years. How is this likely to impact on inflation and economic growth?
  6. Is the rise in prices likely to increase or decrease real wage inequality? Explain.
  7. Distinguish between cost-push and demand-pull inflation. Which of the two is more likely to result in stagflation?
  8. Why are inflationary expectations a major determinant of actual inflation? What influences inflationary expectations?

The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.

In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.

The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.

In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.

These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.

New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.

New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.

Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.

A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.

Podcast

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
  2. What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
  3. How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
  4. Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
  5. How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
  6. How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
  7. What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?

The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.

Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.

The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.

The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.

At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.

An evolving capitalism

So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?

Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.

But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.

If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.

Articles and videos

Questions

  1. How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
  2. What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
  3. What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
  4. How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
  5. What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
  6. Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?