When UK unemployment was 7.7% in July 2013, Mark Carney, the newly arrived governor of the Bank of England, said that the Bank would probably have to rise interest rates when the unemployment rate dropped below 7%. Below that rate, it was expected that inflation would rise. In other words, 7% was the NAIRU – the non-accelerating rate of inflation. The most recent figure for the unemployment rate is 4.8% and yet the Bank of England has not raised interest rates. In fact, in response to the Brexit vote, it cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% in August last year. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below.)
The NAIRU is a similar, although not identical, concept to the natural rate of unemployment. The natural rate is the equilibrium rate consistent with an overall long-term balance of aggregate labour demand and supply: i.e. the rate after short-term cyclical movements in unemployment have been discounted. It is thus a long-term concept.
The NAIRU, although similar, focuses on the relationship between inflation and unemployment. With inflation caused solely by demand-side factors, the natural rate and the NAIRU will be similar if not identical. However, if cost-push factors change – say there is a poor harvest, which pushes up food prices and inflation (temporarily), or a substantial depreciation of the exchange rate caused by political factors (such as Brexit) – the NAIRU would increase, at least in the short term, as a higher rate of unemployment would be necessary to stop inflation rising. In the long term, although being defined differently, the NAIRU and the natural rate will be the same.
In practice, because the Bank of England is targeting inflation at a 24-month time horizon, the NAIRU for the UK at that point could also be seen as the natural rate.
So with the Bank of England not raising interest rates despite the considerable fall in the unemployment rate, does this imply a fall in the natural rate of unemployment? The answer is yes. The reason has to do with changes in the structure of the labour market.
The proportion of young people and women with children returning to the labour market has fallen. Such people have a higher-than-average rate of unemployment since they typically spend a period of time searching for a job.
Tax and benefit reforms over the years have increased the incentive for the unemployed to take work.
Perhaps the biggest factor is a greater flexibility in the labour market. As union power has waned and as people are increasingly working on flexible contracts, including zero-hour contracts, so this has moderated wage increases. At the same time, many firms are facing increased competition both from abroad and domestically via the Internet. This has put downward pressure on prices and hence on the wages firms are willing to pay.
The effect has been a fall in the NAIRU and probably the natural rate. Frictions in the labour market have reduced and people losing their jobs because of changes in industrial structure find it easier to get jobs in low-skilled service industries, where employers’ risks of taking on such workers have fallen because of the loss of rights for such workers.
So what is the natural rate of unemployment today? It is certainly much lower than 7%; the consensus is that it is probably below 5%. As Kristin Forbes, External MPC Member of the Bank of England stated in a recent speech:
[Unemployment] is forecast to increase gradually from its current 4.8% to a high of 5.0% in the second half of 2017, before falling back to its current rate by the end of 2019. To put this in context, 5.0% was previously believed to be around the UK’s natural rate of unemployment – the rate below which unemployment could not fall without wages picking up to levels inconsistent with sustaining inflation around the 2% target. Unemployment at 5.0% is also below the average unemployment rate for the UK over the pre-crisis period from 1997 to 2007 (when it was 5.5%).
She went on to discuss just what the figure is for the natural, or ‘equilibrium’, rate of unemployment (U*). One problem here is that there is considerable uncertainty over the figure in the current forecast made by the Bank.
[An] assumption in the forecast about which there is substantial uncertainty is of the equilibrium unemployment rate – or U* for short. Since I have been on the MPC, the Committee has assumed that U* was around 5%. This implied that the more by which unemployment exceeded 5%, the more slack existed in the economy, and the less upward momentum would be expected in wages (controlling for other factors, such as productivity growth).
As part of our annual assessment of regular supply-side conditions this January, Bank staff presented several pieces of analysis that suggested U* may be lower than 5% today [see, for example]. The majority of the MPC voted to lower our estimate of U* to 4.5%, based partly on the persistent weakness of wage growth over the past few years after accounting for other factors in our models. [See page 20 of the February 2017 Inflation Report.]
My own assessment, however, suggested that although U* was likely lower than 5% today, it is likely not as low as 4.5%. If true, this would suggest that there is less slack in the economy than in the MPC’s central forecast, and wage growth and inflation could pick up faster than expected.
Against that, however, uncertainty related to Brexit negotiations could make firms more cautious about raising wages, thereby dampening wage growth no matter where unemployment is relative to its equilibrium. Moreover, even if we could accurately measure the level of U* in the economy today, it could easily change over the next few years as the labour force adjusts to any changes in the movement of labour between the UK and European Union.
Determining the precise figure of the current natural rate of unemployment, and predicting it for the medium term, is very difficult. It involves separating out demand-side factors, which are heavily dependent on expectations. It also involves understanding the wage elasticity of labour supply in various markets and how this has been affected by the increased flexibility of these markets.
When will Britons get a pay rise? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/2/17)
BoE decision, Inflation Report – Analysts react DigitalLook, Alexander Bueso (2/2/17)
Bank of England hikes UK economic growth forecasts but warns of rising inflation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/2/17)
Bank of England publications
Inflation Report Bank of England (February 2017)
A MONIAC (not manic) economy Bank of England Speeches, Kristin Forbes (8/2/17)
The labour market Bank of England Speeches, Michael Saunders (31/1/17)
- Distinguish between the following terms: natural rate of unemployment, NAIRU, equilibrium rate of unemployment, disequilibrium rate of unemployment.
- For what reasons did the Monetary Policy Committee members feel that the equilibrium rate of unemployment might be as low as 4.25%?
- Why might it be as high as 5%?
- How are changes in migration trends likely to affect (a) wage growth and (b) unemployment?
- How is the amount of slack in an economy measured? What impact does the degree of slack have on wage growth and inflation?
- What is meant by the ‘gig’ economy? How has the development of the gig economy impacted on unemployment and wages?
- Why has there been a considerable rise in self employment?
- How may questions of life style choice and control over the hours people wish to work impact on the labour market?
- If people are moving jobs less frequently, does this imply that the labour market is becoming less flexible?
- Why may firms in the current climate be cautious about raising wages even if aggregate demand picks up?
Every three months, the Bank of England produces its Inflation Report. This includes forecasts for inflation and economic growth for the next three years. The forecasts are presented as fan charts. These depict the probability of various outcomes for inflation or growth in the future. “In any particular quarter of the forecast period, GDP is expected to lie somewhere within the fan on 90 out of 100 occasions.” Each coloured band represents a 10% probability of occurrence. “Although not every member will agree with every assumption on which our projections are based, the fan charts represent the MPC’s best collective judgement about the most likely paths for inflation and output, and the uncertainties surrounding those central projections.” The broader the fan the less confident are the forecasts. The fans have tended to get broader in recent Reports, reflecting the greater uncertainties in the UK and global economies since the credit crunch.
Since the last Report, the forecast for economic growth in 2011 has been adjusted downwards from 3.4% to 2.5%. Inflation, while still being forecast to be below the target of 2% in two years’ time, is forecast to rise in the short term, thanks to higher commodity prices and the rise in VAT from 17.5% to 20% in January 2011.
So what impact, according to the Report, will various factors such as the Coalition’s emergency Budget in June, rising commodity prices, falling consumer confidence and improving export performance have on the economy? And how much credence should be put on the forecasts? The following articles address these questions
Bank chief warns of ‘choppy recovery’ Independent, Russell Lynch (11/8/10)
King warns of ‘choppy recovery’ for economy Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (11/8/10)
Bank of England warns UK recovery will be weaker than hoped Telegraph (11/8/10)
Bank of England lowers UK growth forecast Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (11/8/10)
Bank of England cuts UK economic growth forecasts Guardian, Katie Allen (11/8/10)
Bank of England forecasts ‘choppy’ economic recovery BBC News, Katie Allen (11/8/10)
Bank of England Cuts Outlook for Economic Growth Bloomberg, Jennifer Ryan (11/8/10)
Why is the UK heading into choppy waters? BBC News Analysis, Hugh Pym (11/8/10)
Bank of England overhauls forecast model after errors Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (11/8/10)
The Bank’s impossible balancing act Independent, David Prosser (11/8/10)
How uncertain exactly is the uncertain BoE? Reuters Blogs, MacroScope (11/8/10)
‘Slowflation’ – the combination the Bank of England fears most Independent, Sean O’Grady (11/8/10)
The Bank is right to paint a mixed picture Independent, Hamish McRae (11/8/10)
Sterling falls, gilts rally after Bank of England cuts growth forecasts Guardian Blogs, Elena Moya (11/8/10)
Inflation Report Press Conference
- Do the Bank of England’s forecasts suggest that the UK economy is on track for meeting the inflation target in 24 months’ time?
- How much reliance should be put on Bank of England inflation and growth forecasts? You might want to check out the forecasts made one and two years ago for current (2010) rates of inflation and growth (see Inflation Reports (by date)).
- What are the factors that have persuaded the Bank of England to reduce its forecast for the rate of economic growth in 2011? Are these factors all on the demand side?
- According to the fan chart for economic growth, what is the probability that the UK economy will move back into recession in 2011?
- Will the rise in VAT in January 2011 cause inflation to be higher in 2012 than in 2010 (other things being equal)? Explain.
- Why did the FTSE fall by 2.4% on the day the Report was released?
- If commodity price inflation increases (see Food prices: a question of supply and demand), what impact is this likely to have (a) on the rate of economic growth; (b) on the rate of interest chosen by the MPC?
- What policy should the Bank of England adopt to tackle ‘slowflation’?
The incoming coalition government in the UK has been spelling out its fiscal policy. It is sticking to the Conservative pledge of cutting £6bn from government spending this fiscal year (6 April 2010 to 5 April 2011). It hopes to make most of these by ‘efficiency savings’ – in other words, providing the same level of service for less money. It has, however, said that it will take advice from the Treasury and the Bank of England as to whether the cuts need to be delayed if the economy weakens substantially.
But the Bank of England is forecasting a continuation of the recovery (see its latest Inflation Report below), even assuming no further quantitative easing beyond the £200bn of assets purchased by the Bank. The Governor, Mervyn King, feels that the economy can indeed bear the proposed £6bn cut in government spending and that this will also send an important signal to the market that the government is committed to reducing the deficit.
The new government has also said that it will honour the Liberal Democrat pledge to raise the personal tax free allowance on income tax to £10,000. It has also backtracked somewhat on the Conservative pledge not to raise national insurance. Only employers will be spared the rise; employees will have to pay it.
So has there been a major change in fiscal policy? Has the focus moved from one of maintaining aggregate demand in order to avoid falling back into recession to one of making a start on tackling the deficit straight away? Or is the change in emphasis more one of presentation than substance? The following webcasts looks at the new fiscal policy emerging from number 11 and at the latest forecasts for growth and inflation.
What kind of medicine is the economy going to be fed? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (13/5/10)
Policy breakdown for Lib Dem-Conservative coalition BBC News, James Landale (12/5/10)
Savings cuts to ‘hit middle class families’ BBC News, Keith Doyle (15/5/10)
Inflation Report, May 2010 Bank of England (click on Watch Webcast) (12/5/10)
Documents and data
Coalition Agreement published (see here for text of agreement) Conservative Party (11/5/10)
Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition negotiations agreements Liberal Democrats (11/5/10)
Inflation Report, May 2010 (portal) Bank of England, see in particular:
Department by department, what the new Government plans to do Independent (13/5/10)
VAT rise looms as coalition deal adds estimated £10bn to debt Guardian, Katie Allen and Julia Kollewe (13/5/10)
Some initial reaction to the Tory / Lib Dem coalition agreement Institute for Fiscal Studies Press Release, Robert Chote and Mike Brewery (12/5/10)
Tax rises likely under coalition government, says Institute for Fiscal Studies Telegraph, Edmund Conway (13/5/10)
Give and take BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (12/5/10)
- What ground has been given by (a) the Conservatives; (b) the Liberal Democrats in terms of their proposed economic policies (see Looking at the manifestos for details of their proposed policies).
- What will be the implications of a £6bn cut in government spending on aggregate demand? What other determinants of aggregate demand need to be taken into account in order to assess the likely growth in GDP over the coming months?
- What are the distributional consequences of (a) a rise in the personal income tax allowance to £10,000; (b) a rise in VAT?
- Has there been a major change in fiscal policy?
The Bank of England’s latest quarterly Inflation Report was published on November 11. With all the gloomy news over the past few months the report is pleasantly up-beat – certainly for the longer term. As Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, states in his opening remarks to the publication of the report, “The considerable stimulus from the past easing of monetary and fiscal policy and the depreciation of sterling should lead to a recovery in economic activity.”
Nevertheless, recovery will be slow, especially at first. This means that it will be some time before output returns to pre-recession levels. “Despite a recovery in economic growth, output is unlikely, at least for a considerable period, to return to a level consistent with a continuation of its pre-crisis trend. That is in large part because the impact of the downturn on the supply capacity of the economy is expected to persist. But it is also because there is likely to be sustained weakness of demand relative to that capacity.”
There is surprisingly good news too on employment and unemployment. Although unemployment has risen sharply in recent months, the rate of increase is slowing and “There was a small increase of 6000 in the number of people in employment to 28.93 million, the first quarterly increase since May–July 2008 (see Labour market statistics, November 2009).
So should we be putting out the flags? Can the Bank of England ease off on quantitative easing (see Easing up on quantitative easing)? Or does it still need to keep on increasing money supply, especially as fiscal policy will have to get a lot tighter? The following articles consider the issues.
Mervyn King: economy remains ‘uncertain’ (video) Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (11/11/09)
Bank of England governor dampens hopes of swift UK recovery Guardian, Graeme Wearden (11/11/09)
Recovery has only just started, warns sombre King Guardian, Heather Stewart (11/11/09)
Cautious good cheer BBC News, Stephanomics (11/11/09)
Bank of England’s Mervyn King says UK only just started on recovery road Telegraph (11/11/09)
The Bank of England’s Inflation Report is useless. Here’s why. Telegraph, Edmund Conway (11/11/09)
Bank of England raises growth and inflation forecasts: economists react (includes video) Telegraph (11/11/09)
Bank of England talks up hopes of strong recovery Times Online, Robert Lindsay (11/11/09)
Bank of England cautions on economic recovery BusinessWeek, Jane Wardell(11/11/09)
Just who benefits from quantitative easing? WalesOnline (11/11/09)
Inflation Report: Forget the fan charts, what we need is a clear economic policy Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (11/11/09)
We’ve no choice but to keep inflating Independent, Hamish McRae (11/11/09)
Is there a break in the economic gloom? (video) BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (12/11/09)
The Bank of England Inflation Report can be found at the following site, which contains links to the full report, the Governor’s opening remarks, charts, a podcast and a webcast:
Inflation Report November 2009 Bank of England
- Explain what the three fan charts, Charts 1, 2 and 3 on pages 6, 7 and 8 of the Inflation Report, show.
- Why is the Bank of England more optimistic than in its previous report (August 2009)?
- Why did the sterling exchange rate fall on the publication of the report?
- Has the policy of expansionary monetary policy proved to be beneficial and should the Bank of England continue to pursue an expansionary monetary policy?
- What determines the balance of effects of an expansionary monetary policy on (a) asset prices; (b) real output; and (c) inflation?
- How have relatively flexible labour markets affected the impact of recession on (a) wage rates; (b) unemployment?