Artificial intelligence is having a profound effect on economies and society. From production, to services, to healthcare, to pharmaceuticals; to education, to research, to data analysis; to software, to search engines; to planning, to communication, to legal services, to social media – to our everyday lives, AI is transforming the way humans interact. And that transformation is likely to accelerate. But what will be the effects on GDP, on consumption, on jobs, on the distribution of income, and human welfare in general? These are profound questions and ones that economists and other social scientists are pondering. Here we look at some of the issues and possible scenarios.
According to the Merrill/Bank of America article linked below, when asked about the potential for AI, ChatGPT replied:
AI holds immense potential to drive innovation, improve decision-making processes and tackle complex problems across various fields, positively impacting society.
But the magnitude and distribution of the effects on society and economic activity are hard to predict. Perhaps the easiest is the effect on GDP. AI can analyse and interpret data to meet economic goals. It can do this much more extensively and much quicker than using pre-AI software. This will enable higher productivity across a range of manufacturing and service industries. According to the Merrill/Bank of America article, ‘global revenue associated with AI software, hardware, service and sales will likely grow at 19% per year’. With productivity languishing in many countries as they struggle to recover from the pandemic, high inflation and high debt, this massive boost to productivity will be welcome.
But whilst AI may lead to productivity growth, its magnitude is very hard to predict. Both the ‘low-productivity future’ and the ‘high-productivity future’ described in the IMF article linked below are plausible. Productivity growth from AI may be confined to a few sectors, with many workers displaced into jobs where they are less productive. Or, the growth in productivity may affect many sectors, with ‘AI applied to a substantial share of the tasks done by most workers’.
Even if AI does massively boost the growth in world GDP, the distribution is likely to be highly uneven, both between countries and within countries. This could widen the gap between rich and poor and create a range of social tensions.
In terms of countries, the main beneficiaries will be developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia and rapidly developing countries, largely in Asia, such as China and India. Poorer developing countries’ access to the fruits of AI will be more limited and they could lose competitive advantage in a number of labour-intensive industries.
Then there is growing inequality between the companies controlling AI systems and other economic actors. Just as companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Meta grew rich as computing, the Internet and social media grew and developed, so these and other companies at the forefront of AI development and supply will grow rich, along with their senior executives. The question then is how much will other companies and individuals benefit. Partly, it will depend on how much production can be adapted and developed in light of the possibilities that AI presents. Partly, it will depend on competition within the AI software market. There is, and will continue to be, a rush to develop and patent software so as to deliver and maintain monopoly profits. It is likely that only a few companies will emerge dominant – a natural oligopoly.
Then there is the likely growth of inequality between individuals. The reason is that AI will have different effects in different parts of the labour market.
The labour market
In some industries, AI will enhance labour productivity. It will be a tool that will be used by workers to improve the service they offer or the items they produce. In other cases, it will replace labour. It will not simply be a tool used by labour, but will do the job itself. Workers will be displaced and structural unemployment is likely to rise. The quicker the displacement process, the more will such unemployment rise. People may be forced to take more menial jobs in the service sector. This, in turn, will drive down the wages in such jobs and employers may find it more convenient to use gig workers than employ workers on full- or part-time contracts with holidays and other rights and benefits.
But the development of AI may also lead to the creation of other high-productivity jobs. As the Goldman Sachs article linked below states:
Jobs displaced by automation have historically been offset by the creation of new jobs, and the emergence of new occupations following technological innovations accounts for the vast majority of long-run employment growth… For example, information-technology innovations introduced new occupations such as webpage designers, software developers and digital marketing professionals. There were also follow-on effects of that job creation, as the boost to aggregate income indirectly drove demand for service sector workers in industries like healthcare, education and food services.
Nevertheless, people could still lose their jobs before being re-employed elsewhere.
The possible rise in structural unemployment raises the question of retraining provision and its funding and whether workers would be required to undertake such retraining. It also raises the question of whether there should be a universal basic income so that the additional income from AI can be spread more widely. This income would be paid in addition to any wages that people earn. But a universal basic income would require finance. How could AI be taxed? What would be the effects on incentives and investment in the AI industry? The Guardian article, linked below, explores some of these issues.
The increased GDP from AI will lead to higher levels of consumption. The resulting increase in demand for labour will go some way to offsetting the effects of workers being displaced by AI. There may be new employment opportunities in the service sector in areas such as sport and recreation, where there is an emphasis on human interaction and where, therefore, humans have an advantage over AI.
Another issue raised is whether people need to work so many hours. Is there an argument for a four-day or even three-day week? We explored these issues in a recent blog in the context of low productivity growth. The arguments become more compelling when productivity growth is high.
AI users are not all benign. As we are beginning to see, AI opens the possibility for sophisticated crime, including cyberattacks, fraud and extortion as the technology makes the acquisition and misuse of data, and the development of malware and phishing much easier.
Another set of issues arises in education. What knowledge should students be expected to acquire? Should the focus of education continue to shift towards analytical skills and understanding away from the simple acquisition of knowledge and techniques. This has been a development in recent years and could accelerate. Then there is the question of assessment. Generative AI creates a range of possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of cheating. How should modes of assessment change to reflect this problem? Should there be a greater shift towards exams or towards project work that encourages the use of AI?
Finally, there is the issue of the sort of society we want to achieve. Work is not just about producing goods and services for us as consumers – work is an important part of life. To the extent that AI can enhance working life and take away a lot of routine and boring tasks, then society gains. To the extent, however, that it replaces work that involved judgement and human interaction, then society might lose. More might be produced, but we might be less fulfilled.
- The Macroeconomics of Artificial Intelligence
IMF publications, Erik Brynjolfsson and Gabriel Unger (December 2023)
- Economic impacts of artificial intelligence (AI)
European Parliamentary Research Service, Marcin Szczepański (July 2019)
- Artificial intelligence: A real game changer
Chief Investment Office, Merrill/Bank of America (July 2023)
- Generative AI could raise global GDP by 7%
Goldman Sachs, Joseph Briggs (5/4/23)
- The macroeconomic impact of artificial intelligence
PwC, Jonathan Gillham, Lucy Rimmington, Hugh Dance, Gerard Verweij, Anand Rao, Kate Barnard Roberts and Mark Paich (February 2018)
- How genAI is revolutionizing the field of economics
CNN, Bryan Mena and Samantha Delouya (12/10/23)
- AI-powered digital colleagues are here. Some ‘safe’ jobs could be vulnerable.
BBC Worklife, Sam Becker (30/11/23)
- Generative AI and Its Economic Impact: What You Need to Know
Investopedia, Jim Probasco (1/12/23)
- AI is coming for our jobs! Could universal basic income be the solution?
The Guardian Philippa Kelly (16/11/23)
- CFPB chief’s warning: AI is a ‘natural oligopoly’ in the making
Politico, Sam Sutton (21/11/23)
- Which industries are most likely to benefit from the development of AI?
- Distinguish between labour-replacing and labour-augmenting technological progress in the context of AI.
- How could AI reduce the amount of labour per unit of output and yet result in an increase in employment?
- What people are most likely to (a) gain, (b) lose from the increasing use of AI?
- Is the distribution of income likely to become more equal or less equal with the development and adoption of AI? Explain.
- What policies could governments adopt to spread the gains from AI more equally?
A recent report published by the High Pay Centre shows that the median annual CEO pay of the FTSE 100 companies rose by 15.7% in 2022, from £3.38 million in 2021 to £3.91 million – double the UK CPIH inflation rate of 7.9%. Average total pay across the whole economy grew by just 6.0%, representing a real pay cut of nearly 2%.
The pay of top US CEOs is higher still. The median annual pay of S&P 500 CEOs in 2022 was a massive $14.8 million (£11.7 million). However, UK top CEOs earn a little more than those in France and Germany. The median pay of France’s CAC40 CEOs was €4.9 million (£4.2 million). This compares with a median of £4.6 million for the CEOs of the top 40 UK companies. The mean pay of Germany’s DAX30 CEOs was €6.1 million (£5.2 million) – lower than a mean of £6.0 million for the CEOs of the top 30 UK companies.
The gap between top CEO pay and that of average full-time workers narrowed somewhat after 2019 as the pandemic hit company performance. However, it has now started widening again. The ratio of the median UK CEO pay to the median pay of a UK full-time worker stood at 123.1 in 2018. This fell to 79.1 in 2020, but then grew to 108.1 in 2021 and 118.1 in 2022.
The TUC has argued that workers should be given seats on company boards and remuneration committees that decide executive pay. Otherwise, the gap is likely to continue rising, especially as remuneration committees in specific companies seek to benchmark pay against other large companies, both at home and abroad. This creates a competitive upward push on remuneration. What is more, members of remuneration committees have the incentive to be generous as they themselves might benefit from the process in the future.
Although the incomes of top CEOs is huge and growing, even if they are excluded, there is still a large gap in incomes between high and low earners generally in the UK. In March 2023, the top 1 per cent of earners had an average gross annual income of just over £200 000; the bottom 10 per cent had an average gross annual income of a little over £8500 – just 4.24% of the top 1 per cent (down from 4.36% in March 2020).
What is more, in recent months, the share of profits in GDP has been rising. In 2022 Q3, gross profits accounted for 21.2% of GDP. By 2023 Q2, this had risen to 23.4%. As costs have risen, so firms have tended to pass a greater percentage increase on to consumers, blaming these price increases on the rise in their costs.
Life at the bottom
The poor spend a larger proportion of their income on food, electricity and gas than people on average income; these essential items have a low income elasticity of demand. But food and energy inflation has been above that of CPIH inflation.
In 2022, the price of bread rose by 20.5%, eggs by 28.9%, pasta by 29.1%, butter by 29.4%, cheese by 32.6% and milk by 38.5%; the overall rise in food and non-alcoholic beverages was 16.9% – the highest rise in any of the different components of consumer price inflation. In the past two years there has been a large increase in the number of people relying on food banks. In the six months to September 2022, there was a 40% increase in new food bank users when compared to 2021.
As far as energy prices are concerned, from April 2022 to April 2023, under Ofgem’s price cap, which is based on wholesale energy prices, gas and electricity prices would have risen by 157%, from £1277 to £3286 for the typical household. The government, however, through the Energy Price Guarantee restricted the rise to an average of £2500 (a 96% rise). Also, further help was given in the form of £400 per household, paid in six monthly instalments from October 2022 to March 2023, effectively reducing the rise to £2100 (64%). Nevertheless, for the poorest of households, such a rise meant a huge percentage increase in their outgoings. Many were forced to ‘eat less and heat less’.
Many people have got into rent arrears and have been evicted or are at risk of being so. As the ITV News article and videos linked below state: 242 000 households are experiencing homelessness including rough sleeping, sofa-surfing and B&B stays; 85% of English councils have reported an increase in the number of homeless families needing support; 97% of councils are struggling to find rental properties for homeless families.
Financial strains have serious effects on people’s wellbeing and can adversely affect their physical and mental health. In a policy research paper, ‘From Drained and Desperate to Affluent and Apathetic’ (see link below), the consumer organisation, Which?, looked at the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on different groups. It found that in January 2023, the crisis had made just over half of UK adults feel more anxious or stressed. It divided the population into six groups (with numbers of UK adults in each category in brackets): Drained and Desperate (9.2m), Anxious and At Risk (7.9m), Cut off by Cutbacks (8.8m), Fretting about the Future (7.7m), Looking out for Loved Ones (8.9m), Affluent and Apathetic (8.8m).
The majority of the poorest households are in the first group. As the report describes this group: ‘Severely impacted by the crisis, this segment has faced significant physical and mental challenges. Having already made severe cutbacks, there are few options left for them.’ In this group, 75% do not turn the heating on when cold, 63% skip one or more meals and 94% state that ‘It feels like I’m existing instead of living’.
Many of those on slightly higher incomes fall into the second group (Anxious and At Risk). ‘Driven by a large family and mortgage pressure, this segment has not been particularly financially stable and experienced mental health impacts. They have relied more on borrowing to ease financial pressure.’
Although inflation is now coming down, prices are still rising, interest rates have probably not yet peaked and real incomes for many have fallen significantly. Life at the bottom has got a lot harder.
- FTSE 100 CEOs get half a million pound pay rise
High Pay Centre (21/8/23)
- Call for reforms as median FTSE 100 chief executive pay topped £3.91m in 2022
Sky News, Sarah Taaffe-Maguire (22/8/23)
- FTSE 100 bosses given average 16% pay rises
Financial Times, Michael O’Dwyer, George Parker and Jim Pickard (21/8/23)
- Median pay for a FTSE 100 CEO increased from £3.38 million in 2021 to £3.91 million in 2022, the High Pay Centre said
Morningstar, Alliance News (22/8/23)
- FTSE 100 bosses ‘given average pay rise of £500,000 in 2022’
The Guardian, Rupert Neate (22/8/23)
- Big firm bosses’ pay rose 16% as workers squeezed
BBC News, Michael Race (22/8/23)
- Anxious and at risk? Britons fall into six cost of living groups, report finds
The Guardian, Robert Booth (29/7/23)
- From Drained and Desperate to Affluent and Apathetic
Which?, Nicole Chan, Katie Alpin and Ash Strange (29/7/23)
- To grasp the extent of inequality, look at the relatively well-off
LSE blog, Gerry Mitchell and Marcos González Hernando (17/7/23)
- Growing inequality across Britain has left millions of families exposed to the cost-of-living crisis
Resolution Foundation, Lalitha Try (25/1/23)
- Earned income taxed twice as heavily as capital gains for some in UK, study finds
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (20/8/23)
- Reducing inequality benefits everyone — so why isn’t it happening?
Nature, Editorial (16/8/23)
- Homeless families forced to live in tents and hotels as temporary accommodation runs out
ITV News, Daniel Hewitt (22/8/23)
- What are the arguments for and against giving huge pay awards to CEOs?
- What are the arguments for and against raising the top rate of income tax to provide extra revenue to distribute to the poor? Distinguish between income and substitution effects.
- What policies could be adopted to alleviate poverty? Why are such policies not adopted?
- Using the ONS publication, the Effects of taxes and benefits on UK household income, find out how the distribution of income between the various decile groups of household income has changed over time? Comment on your findings.
The global average temperature for July 2023 was the highest ever recorded and July 3rd was the world’s hottest day on record. We’ve seen scenes of wildfires raging across much of southern Europe, people suffering searing temperatures in south-west USA, southern India and western China, flash floods in South Korea, Japan and eastern USA. These are all directly related to global warming, which is causing weather systems to become more extreme. And as the planet continues to warm, so these problems will intensify.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, in a press conference on 27 July warned that:
Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived. The air is unbreathable. The heat is unbearable. And the level of fossil-fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable. Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy. No more excuses. No more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.
The environmental, human, social and economic impact of global warming is huge, but concentrated on just part of the world’s population. For many, a more variable climate is at worst an inconvenience – at least in the short term. But it is the short term that politicians are most concerned about when seeking to win the next election.
Tackling climate change requires action to reduce carbon emissions now, even though the effects take many years. But one person’s emissions make only a minuscule contribution to global warming. So why not be selfish and carry on driving, flying off on holiday, using a gas boiler and eating large amounts of red meat? This is what many people want to do and governments know it. Many people do not like green policies as they involve sacrifice. Examples include higher fuel prices and restrictions on what you can do. So, despite the visions of fires, floods and destruction, governments are wary about raising fuel taxes, airport duties and charges to use old high-emission cars in cities; wary about raising taxes generally to provide subsidies for sustainable power generation; wary about banning new oil and gas fields that would reduce reliance on imported fuel.
Because the external costs of carbon emissions are so high and global, government action is required to change behaviour. Education can help and scenes of devastation from around the world may change the hearts and minds or some people. Also, the prospect of profits from cleaner and more fuel-efficient technology can help to spur innovation and investment. But to meet net zero targets still requires policies that are unpopular with many people who might be inconvenienced or have to pay higher petrol, energy and food prices, especially at a time when budgets are being squeezed by inflation.
Part of the problem is a distributional one. The people most affected by the cost-of-living crisis and higher interest rates are those on lower incomes and with higher debts. Politicians know that it will be hard to win the votes of such people if they are faced with higher green taxes. As elections approach, politicians are likely to backtrack on many environmental commitments to appeal to such people.
This is beginning to happen in the UK, with the government declaring that it is on the side of the motorist. Indeed, Rishi Sunak has just announced that the government will authorise more than 100 new licenses for new oil and gas wells in the North Sea. This is despite the United Nations, various other international bodies, climate scientists and charities calling for a halt to all licensing and funding of new oil and gas development from new and existing fields. The government argues that increased North Sea production would reduce the reliance on imported oil.
- July 2023 the Hottest Ever Month on Record, Likely Warmest in ‘Tens of Thousands of Years’
The Wire, Aathira Perinchery (28/7/23)
- Climate threat ‘existential’ says Biden, as world faces hottest July
BBC News, Heather Sharp and Emma Owen (27/7/23)
- UN chief says Earth in ‘era of global boiling’, calls for radical action
- Why it’s time to prepare for the worst on climate change
Financial Times, Robert Pindyck (6/7/23)
- The planet heats, the world economy cools – the real global recession is ecological
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/7/23)
- Climate change will reshape global supply chains — it can reduce welfare on Earth by 20%: Ivan Rudick
The Economic Times (India), Srijana Mitra Das (30/6/23)
- Rishi Sunak defends granting new North Sea oil and gas licences
BBC News (31/7/23)
- The oil industry has succumbed to a dangerous new climate denialism
The Conversation, Adi Imsirovic (31/7/23)
- Dismay as Rishi Sunak vows to ‘max out’ UK fossil fuel reserves
The Guardian, Severin Carrell, Peter Walker and Helena Horton (31/7/23)
- What are the Conservatives’ green policies – and what could be scrapped
Sky News, Jennifer Scott (31/7/23)
- Rishi Sunak signals he is ready to soften UK green policies
Financial Times, George Parker and Lucy Fisher (24/7/23)
- Green campaigners fear UK policy backlash after ULEZ keeps Uxbridge Tory
Politico, Charlie Cooper and Bethany Dawson (23/7/23)
- Climate policy and economic inequality
VoxEU, Diego Känzig (25/6/23)
- The untapped potential of education in the battle against climate change
VoxEU, Noam Angrist, Kevin Winseck, Harry Anthony Patrinos and Joshua Graff Zivin (14/7/23)
- In what sense is the environment a ‘public good’? How is the concept of externalities relevant in analysing the private decisions made about the use of a public good?
- How may game theory be used to help understand the difficulties in reaching international agreement about climate change policies?
- What is meant by ‘net zero’? Is carbon capture and storage an acceptable alternative to cutting carbon emissions?
- In what ways could policies to tackle climate change be designed to reduce income inequality rather than increase it?
- What are the arguments for and against banning (a) petrol and diesel cars; (b) gas boilers; (c) fossil-fuel power stations? How much notice should be given if such bans are to be introduced?
- What is meant by ‘nudge theory’? In what ways could people be nudged into making greener decisions?
- What are the arguments for and against granting new licences for North Sea oil and gas drilling? Explain where you feel the balance of the arguments lies.
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.’
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- 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.
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- 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?