Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the UK was in recession at the end of 2023. The normal definition of recession is two quarters of falling real GDP. This is what happened to the UK in the last two quarters of 2023, with GDP falling by 0.1% in Q3 and 0.3% in Q4. In Q4, output of the service industries fell by 0.2%, production industries by 1.0% and construction by 1.3%.
But how bad is this? What are the implications for living standards? In some respects, the news is not as bad as the term ‘recession’ might suggest. In other respects, it’s worse than the headline figures might imply.
The good news (or not such bad news)
The first thing to note is that other countries too experienced a recession or slowdown in the second half of 2023. So, relative to these countries, the UK is not performing that badly. Japan, for example, also experienced a mild recession; Germany just missed one. These poor economic growth rates were caused largely by higher global energy and food prices and by higher central bank interest rates in response. The good news is that such cost pressures are already easing.
The second piece of good news is that GDP is expected to start growing again (modestly) in 2024. This will be helped by the Bank of England cutting interest rates. The Monetary Policy Committee is expected to do this at its May, June or August meetings provided that inflation falls. Annual CPI inflation was 4% in January – the same as in December. But it is expected to fall quite rapidly over the coming months provided that there are no serious supply-side shocks (e.g. from world political factors).
The third is that the recession is relatively modest compared with ones in the past. In the recession following the financial crisis, real GDP fell by 5.3% in 2009; during the pandemic, GDP fell by 10.7% in 2020. For this reason, some commentators have said that the last two quarters of 2023 represent a mere ‘technical recession’, with the economy expected to grow again in 2024.
Why things may be worse than the headline figures suggest
Real GDP per head
So far we have considered real GDP (i.e. GDP adjusted for inflation). But if changes in GDP are to reflect changes in living standards, we need to consider real GDP per head. Population is rising. This means that the rate of growth in real GDP per head is lower than the rate of growth in real GDP
For 2023 as a whole, while real GDP rose by 0.20%, real GDP per head fell by 0.67%. In the last two quarters of 2023, while real GDP fell by 0.1% and 0.3% respectively, real GDP per head fell by 0.4% and 0.6%, respectively, having already fallen in each of the previous five quarters. Chart 1 shows real GDP growth and real GDP growth per head from 2007 to 2023 (click here for a PowerPoint). As you can see, given population growth, real GDP per head has consistently grown slower than real GDP.
If we are assessing the UK’s potential for growth in GDP, rather than the immediate past, it is useful to look at GDP growth over a longer period. Looking at past trend growth rates and explaining them can give us an indication of the likely future path of the growth in GDP – at least in the absence of a significant change in underlying economic factors. Since 2007, the average annual rate of growth of real GDP has been only 1.1% and that of real GDP per head a mere 0.4%.
This compares unfavourably with the period from 1994 to 2007, when the average annual rate of growth of real GDP was 3.0% and that of real GDP per head was 2.5%.
This is illustrated in Chart 2 (click here for a PowerPoint). The chart also projects the growth rate in GDP per head of 2.5% forward from 2007 to 2023. Had this growth rate been achieved since 2007, GDP per head in 2023 would have been 41.4% higher than it actually was.
It is not only the UK that has seen low growth over the past 15 years compared to previous years. It has achieved a similar average annual growth rate over the period to Germany (1.1%), lower rates than the USA (1.8%) and Canada (1.6%), but higher than France (0.9%) and Japan (0.4%).
A key determinant of economic growth is investment. Since 2008, the UK has invested an average of 17.3% of GDP. This is the lowest of the G7 countries and compares with 24.9% in Japan, 23.7% in Canada, 23.5% in France, 21.3% in Germany, 20.4% in the USA and 19.1% in Italy. If UK growth is to recover strongly over the longer term, the rate of investment needs to increase, both private and public. Of course, investment has to be productive, as the key underlying determinant of economic growth is the growth in productivity.
Low productivity growth
This is a key issue for the government – how to encourage a growth in productivity. The UK’s record of productivity growth has been poor since 2008. The period from 1996 to 2006 saw an average annual growth in labour productivity of 6.4%. Since then, however, labour productivity has grown by an average annual rate of only 0.3%. This is illustrated in Chart 3 (click here for a PowerPoint). If the pre-2007 rate had continued to the end of 2023, labour productivity would be 189% higher. This would have made GDP per head today substantially higher. If GDP per head is to grow faster, then the underlying issue of a poor growth in labour productivity will need to be addressed.
Inequality and poverty
Then there is the issue of the distribution of national income. The UK has a high level of income inequality. In 2022 (the latest data available), the disposable income of the poorest 20% of households was £13 218; that for the richest 20% was £83 687. The top 1% of income earners’ share of disposable income is just under 9.0%. (Note that disposable income is after income taxes have been deducted and includes cash benefits and is thus more equally distributed than original income.)
The poorest 20% have been hit badly by the cost-of-living crisis, with many having to turn to food banks and not being able to afford to heat their homes adequately. They are also particularly badly affected by the housing crisis, with soaring and increasingly unaffordable rents. Many are facing eviction and others live in poor quality accommodation. Simple growth rates in real GDP do not capture such issues.
Limited scope for growth policies
Fiscal policy has an important role in stimulating growth. Conservatives stress tax cuts as a means of incentivising entrepreneurs and workers. Labour stresses the importance of public investment in infrastructure, health, education and training. Either way, such stimulus policy requires financing.
But, public finances have been under pressure in recent years, especially from COVID support measures. General government gross debt has risen from 27.7% of GDP in 1990/91 to 99.4% in 2022/23. This is illustrated in Chart 4 (click here for a PowerPoint). Although it has fallen from the peak of 107.6% of GDP in 2020/21 (during the COVID pandemic), according to the Office for Budget Responsibility it is set to rise again, peaking at 103.8% in 2026/27. There is thus pressure on the government to reduce public-sector borrowing, not increase it. This makes it difficult to finance public investment or tax cuts.
Measuring living standards
Questions about real GDP have huge political significance. Is the economy in recession? What will happen to growth in GDP over the coming months. Why has growth been sluggish in recent years? The implication is that if GDP rises, living standards will rise; if GDP falls, living standards will fall. But changes in GDP, even if expressed in terms of real GDP and even if the distribution of GDP is taken into account, are only a proxy for living standards. GDP measures the market value of the output of goods and services and, as such, may not necessarily be a good indicator of living standards, let alone well-being.
Produced goods and services that are not part of GDP
The output of some goods and services goes unrecorded. As we note in Economics, 11e (section 15.2), “If you employ a decorator to paint your living room, this will be recorded in the GDP statistics. If, however, you paint the room yourself, it will not. Similarly, if a childminder is employed by parents to look after their children, this childcare will form part of GDP. If, however, a parent stays at home to look after the children, it will not.
The exclusion of these ‘do-it-yourself’ and other home-based activities means that the GDP statistics understate the true level of production in the economy. If over time there is an increase in the amount of do-it-yourself activities that people perform, the figures will also understate the rate of growth of national output.” With many people struggling with the cost of living, such a scenario is quite likely.
There are also activities that go unrecorded in the ‘underground’ or ‘shadow’ economy: unemployed people doing casual jobs for cash in hand that they do not declare to avoid losing benefits; people doing extra work outside their normal job and not declaring the income to evade taxes; builders doing work for cash to save the customer paying VAT.
Large amounts of production and consumption involve external costs to the environment and to other people. These externalities are not included in the calculation of GDP.
If external costs increase faster than GDP, then GDP growth will overstate the rise in living standards. If external costs rise more slowly than GDP (or even fall), then GDP growth will understate the rise in living standards. We assume here that living standards include social and environmental benefits and are reduced by social and environmental costs.
Human costs of production
If production increases as a result of people having to work harder or longer hours, its net benefit will be less. Leisure is a desirable good, and so too are pleasant working conditions, but these items are not included in the GDP figures.
The production of certain ‘bads’ leads to an increase in GDP
Some of the undesirable effects of growth may in fact increase GDP! Take the examples of crime, stress-related illness and environmental damage. Faster growth may lead to more of all three. But increased crime leads to more expenditure on security; increased stress leads to more expenditure on health care; and increased environmental damage leads to more expenditure on environmental clean-up. These expenditures add to GDP. Thus, rather than reducing GDP, crime, stress and environmental damage actually increase it.
Alternative approaches to measuring production and income
There have been various attempts to adjust GDP (actual or potential) to make it a better indicator of total production or income or, more generally, of living standards.
Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW)
As Case Study 9.20 in the Essentials of Economics (9e) website explains, ISEW starts with consumption, as measured in GDP, and then makes various adjustments to account for factors that GDP ignores. These include:
- Inequality: the greater the inequality, the more the figure for consumption is reduced. This is based on the assumption of a diminishing marginal utility of income, such that an additional pound is worth less to a rich person than to a poor person.
- Household production (such as childcare, care for the elderly or infirm, housework and various do-it-yourself activities). These ‘services of household labour’ add to welfare and are thus entered as a positive figure.
- Defensive expenditures. This is spending to offset the adverse environmental effects of economic growth (e.g. asthma treatment for sufferers whose condition arises from air pollution). Such expenditures are taken out of the calculations.
- ‘Bads’ (such as commuting costs). The monetary expense entailed is entered as a negative figure (to cancel out its measurement in GDP as a positive figure) and then an additional negative element is included for the stress incurred.
- Environmental costs. Pollution is entered as a negative figure.
- Resource depletion and damage. This too is given a negative figure, in just the same way that depreciation of capital is given a negative figure when working out net national income.
Productive Capacities Index (PCI)
In 2023, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) launched a new index to provide a better measure of countries’ economic potential. What the index focuses on is not actual GDP but potential output: in other words, ‘countries’ abilities to produce goods and deliver services’.
The PCI comprises 42 indicators under eight headings: human capital, natural capital, information and communication technology (ICT), structural change (the movement of labour and other productive resources from low-productivity to high-productivity economic activities), transport infrastructure, institutions (political, legal and financial) and the private sector (ease of starting businesses, availability of credit, ease of cross-border trade, etc.). It covers 194 economies since 2000 (currently to 2022). As UNCTAD states, ‘The PCI can help diagnose the areas where countries may be leading or falling behind, spotlighting where policies are working and where corrective efforts are needed.’ Chart 5 shows the PCI for various economies from 2000 to 2022 (click here for a PowerPoint).
The UK, with a PCI of 65.8 in 2022, compares relatively favourably with other developed countries. The USA’s PCI is somewhat higher (69.2), as is The Netherlands’ (69.8); Germany’s is the same (65.8); France’s is somewhat lower (62.8). The world average is 46.8. For developing countries, China is relatively high (60.7); India’s (45.3) is close to the developing country average of 43.4.
Looked at over a longer time period, the UK’s performance is relatively weak. The PCI in 2022 (65.8) was below that in 2006 (66.9) and below the peak of 67.6 in 2018.
GDP and well-being
GDP is often used as a proxy for well-being. If real GDP per head increases, then it is assumed that well-being will increase. In practice, people’s well-being depends on many factors, not just their income, although income is one important element.
The UK Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme
The MNW programme was established in 2010. This has resulted in Office for National Statistics developing new measures of national well-being. The ONS produces statistical bulletins and datasets with its latest results.
The aim of the programme is to provide a ‘fuller picture’ of how society is doing beyond traditional economic indicators. There are currently 44 indicators. These are designed to describe ‘how we are doing as individuals, as communities and as a nation, and how sustainable this is for the future’. The measures fall within a number of categories, including: personal well-being, relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, the economy, education and skills, governance and the natural environment.
In the light of the limitations of GDP as a measure of living standards, what can we make of the news that the UK entered recession in the last half of 2023? It does show that the economy is sluggish and that the production of goods and services that are included in the GDP measure declined.
But to get a fuller assessment of the economy, it is important to take a number of other factors into account. If we are to go further and ask what has happened to living standards or to well-being, then we have to look at a range of other factors. If we are to ask what the latest figures tell us about what is likely to happen in the future to production, living standards and well-being, then we will need to look further still.
- Britain falls into recession, with worst GDP performance in 2023 in years
CNN, Hanna Ziady (15/2/24)
- UK economy slipped into recession in 2023
Financial Times, Valentina Romei and George Parker (15/2/24)
- UK economy fell into recession after people cut spending
BBC News, Dearbail Jordan & Faisal Islam (15/2/24)
- Should we care that the UK is in recession?
BBC News, Faisal Islam (15/2/24)
- UK tips into recession in blow to Rishi Sunak
The Guardian, Richard Partington (15/2/24)
- Britain is in recession… and huge immigration has been masking how much poorer we’re getting
MSN, James Tapsfield (15/2/24)
- This isn’t a “mild” recession
The New Statesman, Duncan Weldon (15/2/24)
- UK middle classes ‘struggling despite incomes of up to £60,000 a year’
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (20/2/24)
- What is GDP and how is it measured?
BBC News (15/2/24)
- World at One (from 7’00” to 25’14”)
BBC Sounds, Torsten Bell and Norman Lamont (15/2/24)
- Does High GDP Mean Economic Prosperity?
Investopedia, Lisa Smith (29/9/23)
- A critical assessment of GDP as a measure of economic performance and social progress
Carnegie UK, Cressida Gaukroger (June 2023)
- When it comes to measuring economic welfare, GDP doesn’t cut it
Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst (1/9/23)
- UNCTAD launches new index for countries to better measure economic potential
UNCTAD News (20/6/23)
- Redefining Economic Growth for a Climate-Conscious World
Forbes, Judah Taub (28/9/23)
- Bobby Kennedy on GDP: ‘measures everything except that which is worthwhile’
The Guardian, Simon Rogers (24/5/12)
- A guide to the UK National Accounts: Satellite Accounts
Data and Analysis
- GDP first quarterly estimate, UK: October to December 2023
- GDP (Average) per head, q-on-q4 growth rate CVM SA % (series N3Y8)
- Gross domestic product (Average) per head, CVM market prices: SA (series IHXW)
- GDP per capita, current prices (UK)
- Productive capacities index, annual, 2000-2022
- The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK
The Equality Trust (2023)
- Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2023
IFS, Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, Tom Waters, Thomas Wernham and Xiaowei Xu (July 2023)
- Quarterly personal well-being estimates – seasonally adjusted
- Using GDP and other data, summarise the outlook for the UK economy.
- Why is GDP so widely used as an indicator of living standards?
- Explain the three methods of measuring GDP?
- What key contributors to living standards are omitted from GDP?
- What are the ONS Satellite Accounts? Are they useful for measuring living standards?
- Assess the UK’s economic potential against each of the eight category indices in the Productive Capacities Index.
- What is the difference between ‘living standards’ and ‘well-being’?
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.
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.
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.
- Overview of the March 2022 Economic and fiscal outlook
Office for Budget Responsibility (23/3/22)
- Spring Statement: Key points at a glance
BBC News (23/3/22)
- Spring statement 2022: key points at a glance
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Jessica Elgot (23/3/22)
- People face biggest drop in living standards since 1956
BBC News (23/3/22)
- Spring Statement: Rishi Sunak accused of not doing enough for poorest households
BBC News (24/3/22)
- Chancellor provides minimal help to households on cost of living crisis
Financial Times, Chris Giles (23/3/22)
- Britain’s poorest left to bear brunt of squeeze on cost of living
Financial Times, Delphine Strauss (23/3/22)
- Spring statement: How does Rishi Sunak’s national insurance change affect you?
Sky News, Daniel Dunford and Ganesh Rao (24/3/22)
- Spring Statement 2022 – An initial response from IFS researchers
Institute for Fiscal Studies Press Release, Stuart Adam, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Helen Miller, Isabel Stockton, Tom Waters and Ben Zaranko (23/3/22)
- Chancellor prioritises his tax cutting credentials over low-and-middle income households with £2 in every £3 of new support going to the top half
Resolution Foundation press release (23/3/22)
- Richest handed £480 boost in Spring Statement, say researchers
- UK’s most vulnerable face crunch as Rishi Sunak helps better-off
The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart (23/3/22)
- Rishi Sunak tackled over failure to help poorest families
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Aubrey Allegretti (24/3/22)
- A Spring Statement for White Wealth Drivers
Byline Times, Stan Norris (23/3/22)
- Rishi Sunak’s Fiscal Drag Race
Evening Standard, Jack Kessler (23/3/22)
- Rishi Sunak fails to address the hit to living standards
Financial Times, Martin Wolf (23/3/22)
- Why Rishi Sunak refused a windfall tax on oil and gas companies
The New Statesman, Philippa Nuttall (23/3/22)
OBR data and analysis
- Are the changes made to national insurance by the Chancellor progressive or regressive? Could they have been made more progressive and, if so, how?
- 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?
- What will determine how rapidly (if at all) public-sector borrowing decreases over the next few years?
- What are automatic fiscal stabilisers? How does their effect vary with the rate of inflation?
- 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.
Policymakers around the world have used Gross Domestic Product as the main gauge of economic performance – and have often adopted policies that aim to maximise its rate of growth. Generation after generation of economists have committed significant time and effort to thinking about the factors that influence GDP growth, on the premise that an expanding and healthy economy is one that sees its GDP increasing every year at a sufficient rate.
But is economic output a good enough indicator of national economic wellbeing? Costanza et al (2014) (see link below) argue that, despite its merits, GDP can be a ‘misleading measure of national success’:
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country. Meanwhile, researchers have become much better at measuring what actually does make life worthwhile. The environmental and social effects of GDP growth is a misleading measure of national success. Countries should act now to embrace new metrics.
The limitations of GDP growth as a measure of economic wellbeing and national strength are becoming increasingly clear in today’s world. Some of the world’s wealthiest countries are plagued by discontent, with a growth in populism and social discontent – attitudes which are often fuelled by high rates of poverty and economic hardship. In a recent report titled ‘The Living Standards Audit 2018’ published by the Resolution Foundation, a UK economic thinktank (see link below), the authors found that child poverty rose in 2016–17 as a result of declining incomes of the poorest third of UK households:
While the economic profile of UK households has changed, living standards – with the exception of pensioner households – have mostly stagnated since the mid-2000s. Typical household incomes are not much higher than they were in 2003–04. This stagnation in living standards for many has brought with it a rise in poverty rates for low to middle income families. Over a third of low to middle income families with children are in poverty, up from a quarter in the mid-2000s, and nearly two-fifths say that they can’t afford a holiday away for their children once a year. On the other hand, the share of non-working families in poverty has fallen, though not by enough to prevent an overall rise in poverty since 2010.
Their projections also show that this rise in poverty was likely to have continued in 2017–18:
Although the increase in broad measures of inequality were relatively muted last year, our nowcast suggests that there was a pronounced rise in poverty (measured after housing costs[…]. The increase in overall poverty (from 22.1 to 23.2 per cent) was the largest since 1988. But this was dwarfed by the increase in child poverty, which rose from 30.3 per cent to 33.4 per cent. […]The fortunes of middle-income households diverged from those towards the bottom of the distribution and so a greater share of households, and children, found themselves below the poverty threshold.
A simple literature search on Scope (or even Google Scholar) shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of journal articles and reports in the last 10 years on this topic. We do talk more about the limitations of GDP, but we are still using it as the main measure of national economic performance.
Is it then time to stop focusing our attention on GDP growth exclusively and start considering broader metrics of social development? And what would such metrics look like? Both interesting questions that we will try to address in coming blogs.
- What are the main strengths and weakness of using GDP as measure of economic performance?
- Is high GDP growth alone enough to foster economic and social wellbeing? Explain your answer using examples.
- Write a list of alternative measures that could be used alongside GDP-based metrics to measure economic and social progress. Explain your answer.
According to the theory of the political business cycle, governments call elections at the point in the business cycle that gives them the greatest likelihood of winning. This is normally near the peak of the cycle, when the economic news is currently good but likely to get worse in the medium term. With fixed-term governments, this makes it harder for governments as, unless they are lucky, they have to use demand management policies to engineer a boom as an election approaches. It is much easier if they can choose when to call an election.
In the UK, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, the next election must be five years after the previous one. This means that the next election in the UK must be the first Thursday in May 2020. The only exception is if at least two-thirds of all MPs vote for a motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ or ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.’
The former motion was put in the House of Commons on 19 April and was carried by 522 votes to 13 – considerably more than two-thirds of the 650 seats in Parliament. The next election will therefore take place on the government’s chosen date of 8 June 2017.
Part of the reason for the government calling an election is to give it a stronger mandate for its Brexit negotiations. Part is to take advantage of its currently strong opinion poll ratings, which, if correct, will mean that it will gain a substantially larger majority. But part could be to take advantage of the current state of the business cycle.
Although the economy is currently growing quite strongly (1.9% in 2016) and although forecasts for economic growth this year are around 2%, buoyed partly by a strongly growing world economy, beyond that things look less good. Indeed, there are a number of headwinds facing the economy.
First there are the Brexit negotiations, which are likely to prove long and difficult and could damage confidence in the economy. There may be adverse effects on both inward and domestic investment and possible increased capital outflows. At the press conference to the Bank of England’s February 2017 Inflation Report, the governor stated that “investment is expected to be around a quarter lower in three years’ time than projected prior to the referendum, with material consequences for productivity, wages and incomes”.
Second, the fall in the sterling exchange rate is putting upward pressure on inflation. The Bank of England forecasts that CPI inflation will peak at around 2.8% in early 2018. With nominal real wages lagging behind prices, real wages are falling and will continue to do so. As well as from putting downward pressure on living standards, it will tend to reduce consumption and the rate of economic growth.
Consumer debt has been rising rapidly in recent months, with credit-card debt reaching an 11-year high in February. This has helped to support growth. However, with falling real incomes, a lack of confidence may encourage people to cut back on new borrowing and hence on spending. What is more, concerns about the unsustainability of some consumer debt has encouraged the FCA (the financial sector regulator) to review the whole consumer credit industry. In addition, many banks are tightening up on their criteria for granting credit.
Retail spending, although rising in February itself, fell in the three months to February – the largest fall for nearly seven years. Such falls are likely to continue.
So if the current boom in the economy will soon end, then, according to political business cycle theory, the government is right to have called a snap election.
Gloomy economic outlook is why Theresa May was forced to call a snap election The Conversation, Richard Murphy (18/4/17)
What does Theresa May’s general election U-turn mean for the economy? Independent, Ben Chu (18/4/17)
It’s not the economy, stupid – is it? BBC News Scotland, Douglas Fraser (18/4/17)
Biggest fall in UK retail sales in seven years BBC News (21/4/17)
Sharp drop in UK retail sales blamed on higher prices Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (21/4/17)
Shoppers cut back as inflation kicks in – and top Bank of England official says it will get worse The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (21/4/17)
Retail sales volumes fall at fastest quarterly rate in seven years Independent, Ben Chu (21/4/17)
Retail sales in Great Britain: Mar 2017 ONS (21/4/17)
- For what reasons might economic growth in the UK slow over the next two to three years?
- For what reasons might economic growth increase over the next two to three years?
- Why is forecasting UK economic growth particularly difficult at the present time?
- What does political business cycle theory predict about the behaviour of governments (a) with fixed terms between elections; (b) if they can choose when to call an election?
- How well timed is the government’s decision to call an election?
- If retail sales are falling, what other element(s) of aggregate demand may support economic growth in the coming months?
- How does UK productivity compare with that in other developed countries? Explain why.
- What possible trading arrangements with the EU could the UK have in a post-Brexit deal? Discuss their likelihood and their impact on economic growth?
Productivity has been a bit of a problem for the UK economy for a number of years. Earlier posts from 2015 have discussed the trend in Tackling the UK’s poor productivity and The UK’s poor productivity record. Although the so-called ‘productivity gap’ has been targeted by the government, with George Osborne promising to take steps to encourage more long-term investment in infrastructure and create better incentives for businesses to improve productivity, the latest data suggest that the problem remains.
The ONS has found that the UK continues to lag behind the other members of the G7, but perhaps more concerning is that the gap has grown to its biggest since 1991. The data showed that output per hour worked was 20 percentage points lower in the UK than the average for the other G7 countries. The economic downturn did cause falls in productivity, but the UK has not recovered as much as other advanced nations. One of the reasons, according to the Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight is that it ‘had been held back since the financial crisis by the creation of lots of low-skilled, low-paid jobs’. These are the jobs where productivity is lowest and this may be causing the productivity gap to expand. Other cited reasons include the lack of investment which Osborne is attempting to address, fewer innovations and problems of finance.
Despite these rather dis-heartening data, there are some signs that things have begun to turn around. In the first quarter of 2015, output per hour worked did increase at the fastest annual growth rate in 3 years and Howard Archer confirmed that this did show ‘clear sign that UK productivity is now seeing much-needed improvement.’ There are other signs that we should be optimistic, delivered by the Bank of England. Sir John Cunliffe, Deputy Governor for financial stability said:
“firms have a greater incentive to find efficiency gains and to switch away from more labour-intensive forms of production. This should boost productivity.”
The reason given for this optimism is the increase in the real cost of labour relative to the cost of investment. So, a bit of a mixed picture here. UK productivity remains a cause for concern and given its importance in improving living standards, the Conservative government will be keen to demonstrate that its policies are closing the productivity gap. The latest data is more promising, but that still leaves a long way to go. The following articles consider this data and news.
UK productivity shortfall at record high Financial Times, Emily Cadman (18/9/15)
UK productivity lags behind rest of 7 BBC News (17/9/15)
UK’s poor productivity figures show challenge for the government The Guardian, Katie Allen (18/9/15)
UK productivity lags G7 peers in 2014-ONS Reuters (18/9/15)
UK productivity second lowest in G7 Fresh Business Thinking, Jonathan Davies (18/9/15)
UK is 33% less productive than Germany Economia (18/9/15)
UK productivity is in the G7 ‘slow lane’ Sky News (18/9/15)
AMECO Database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs
Labour Productivity, Q1 2015 ONS (1/7/15)
International Comparisons of Productivity, 2014 – First Estimates ONS (18/9/15)
- How could we measure productivity?
- Why should we be optimistic about productivity if the real cost of labour is rising?
- If jobs are being created at slower rate and the economy is still expanding, why does this suggest that productivity is rising? What does it suggest about pay?
- Why is a rise in productivity needed to improve living standards?