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?
The past decade or so has seen large-scale economic turbulence. As we saw in the blog Fiscal impulses, governments have responded with large fiscal interventions. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, led to a positive fiscal impulse in the UK in 2020, as measured by the change in the structural primary balance, of over 12 per cent of national income.
The scale of these interventions has led to a significant increase in the public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio in many countries. The recent interest rates hikes arising from central banks responding to inflationary pressures have put additional pressure on the financial well-being of governments, not least on the financing of their debt. Here we discuss these pressures in the context of the ‘r – g’ rule of sustainable public debt.
Public-sector debt and borrowing
Chart 1 shows the path of UK public-sector net debt and net borrowing, as percentages of GDP, since 1990. Debt is a stock concept and is the result of accumulated flows of past borrowing. Net debt is simply gross debt less liquid financial assets, which mainly consist of foreign exchange reserves and cash deposits. Net borrowing is the headline measure of the sector’s deficit and is based on when expenditures and receipts (largely taxation) are recorded rather than when cash is actually paid or received. (Click here for a PowerPoint of Chart 1)
Chart 1 shows the impact of the fiscal interventions associated with the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, when net borrowing rose to 10 per cent and 15 per cent of GDP respectively. The former contributed to the debt-to-GDP ratio rising from 35.6 per cent in 2007/8 to 81.6 per cent in 2014/15, while the pandemic and subsequent cost-of-living interventions contributed to the ratio rising from 85.2 per cent in 2019/20 to around 98 per cent in 2023/24.
Sustainability of the public finances
The ratcheting up of debt levels affects debt servicing costs and hence the budgetary position of government. Yet the recent increases in interest rates also raise the costs faced by governments in financing future deficits or refinancing existing debts that are due to mature. In addition, a continuation of the low economic growth that has beset the UK economy since the global financial crisis also has implications for the burden imposed on the public sector by its debts, and hence the sustainability of the public finances. After all, low growth has implications for spending commitments, and, of course, the flow of receipts.
The analysis therefore implies that the sustainability of public-sector debt is dependent on at least three factors: existing debt levels, the implied average interest rate facing the public sector on its debts, and the rate of economic growth. These three factors turn out to underpin a well-known rule relating to the fiscal arithmetic of public-sector debt. The rule is sometimes known as the ‘r – g’ rule (i.e. the interest rate minus the growth rate).
Underpinning the fiscal arithmetic that determines the path of public-sector debt is the concept of the ‘primary balance’. This is the difference between the sector’s receipts and its expenditures less its debt interest payments. A primary surplus (a positive primary balance) means that receipts exceed expenditures less debt interest payments, whereas a primary deficit (a negative primary balance) means that receipts fall short. The fiscal arithmetic necessary to prevent the debt-to-GDP ratio rising produces the following stable debt equation or ‘r – g’ rule:
On the left-hand side of the stable debt equation is the required primary surplus (PS) to GDP (Y) ratio. Moving to the right-hand side, the first term is the existing debt-to-GDP ratio (D/Y). The second term ‘r – g’, is the differential between the average implied interest rate the government pays on its debt and the growth rate of the economy. These terms can be expressed in either nominal or real terms as this does not affect the differential.
To illustrate the rule consider a country whose existing debt-to-GDP ratio is 1 (i.e. 100 per cent) and the ‘r – g’ differential is 0.02 (2 percentage points). In this scenario they would need to run a primary surplus to GDP ratio of 0.02 (i.e. 2 percent of GDP).
The ‘r – g‘ differential
The ‘r – g’ differential reflects macroeconomic and financial conditions. The fiscal arithmetic shows that these are important for the dynamics of public-sector debt. The fiscal arithmetic is straightforward when r = g as any primary deficit will cause the debt-to-GDP ratio to rise, while a primary surplus will cause the ratio to fall. The larger is g relative to r the more favourable are the conditions for the path of debt. Importantly, if the differential is negative (r < g), it is possible for the public sector to run a primary deficit, up to the amount that the stable debt equation permits.
Consider Charts 2 and 3 to understand how the ‘r – g’ differential has affected debt sustainability in the UK since 1990. Chart 2 plots the implied yield on 10-year government bonds, alongside the annual rate of nominal growth (click here for a PowerPoint). As John explains in his blog The bond roller coaster, the yield is calculated as the coupon rate that would have to be paid for the market price of a bond to equal its face value. Over the period, the average annual nominal growth rate was 4.5 per cent, while the implied interest rate was almost identical at 4.6 per cent. The average annual rate of CPI inflation over this period was 2.8 per cent.
Chart 3 plots the ‘r – g’ differential which is simply the difference between the two series in Chart 2, along with a 12-month rolling average of the differential to help show better the direction of the differential by smoothing out some of the short-term volatility (click here for a PowerPoint). The differential across the period is a mere 0.1 percentage points implying that macroeconomic and financial conditions have typically been neutral in supporting debt sustainability. However, this does mask some significant changes across the period.
We observe a general downward trend in the ‘r – g’ differential from 1990 up to the time of the global financial crisis. Indeed between 2003 and 2007 we observe a favourable negative differential which helps to support the sustainability of public debt and therefore the well-being of the public finances. This downward trend of the ‘r – g’ differential was interrupted by the financial crisis, driven by a significant contraction in economic activity. This led to a positive spike in the differential of over 7 percentage points.
Yet the negative differential resumed in 2010 and continued up to the pandemic. Again, this is indicative of the macroeconomic and financial environments being supportive of the public finances. It was, however, largely driven by low interest rates rather than by economic growth.
Consequently, the negative ‘r – g’ differential meant that the public sector could continue to run primary deficits during the 2010s, despite the now much higher debt-to-GDP ratio. Yet, weak growth was placing limits on this. Chart 4 indeed shows that primary deficits fell across the decade (click here for a PowerPoint).
The pandemic and beyond
The pandemic saw the ‘r – g’ differential again turn markedly positive, averaging 7 percentage points in the four quarters from Q2 of 2020. While the differential again turned negative, the debt-to-GDP ratio had also increased substantially because of large-scale fiscal interventions. This made the negative differential even more important for the sustainability of the public finances. The question is how long the negative differential can last.
Looking forward, the fiscal arithmetic is indeed uncertain and worryingly is likely to be less favourable. Interest rates have risen and, although inflationary pressures may be easing somewhat, interest rates are likely to remain much higher than during the past decade. Geopolitical tensions and global fragmentation pose future inflationary concerns and a further drag on growth.
As well as the short-term concerns over growth, there remain long-standing issues of low productivity which must be tackled if the growth of the UK economy’s potential output is to be raised. These concerns all point to the important ‘r – g’ differential become increasingly less negative, if not positive. If so the fiscal arithmetic could mean increasingly hard maths for policymakers.
- The budget deficit: a short guide
House of Commons Library (8/6/23)
- If markets are right about long real rates, public debt ratios will increase for some time. We must make sure that they do not explode.
Peterson Institute for International Economics, Olivier Blanchard (6/11/23)
- The UK government’s debt nightmare
ITV News, Robert Peston (13/7/23)
- National debt could hit 300% of GDP by 2070s, independent watchdog the OBR warns
Sky News, James Sillars (13/7/23)
- How much money is the UK government borrowing, and does it matter?
BBC News (20/10/23)
- Cost of national debt hits 20-year high
BBC News, Vishala Sri-Pathma & Faisal Islam (4/10/23)
- Bond markets could see ‘mini boom-bust cycles’ as global government debt to soar by $5 trillion a yea
Markets Insider, Filip De Mott (16/11/23)
- The counterintuitive truth about deficits for bond investors
Financial Times, Matt King (17/11/23)
- UK government borrowing almost £20bn lower than expected
The Guardian, Richard Partington (20/10/23)
- Controlling debt is just a means — it is not a government’s end
Financial Times, Martin Wolf (13/11/23)
- What is meant by each of the following terms: (a) net borrowing; (b) primary deficit; (c) net debt?
- Explain how the following affect the path of the public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio: (a) interest rates; (b) economic growth; (c) the existing debt-to-GDP ratio.
- Which factors during the 2010s were affecting the fiscal arithmetic of public debt positively, and which negatively?
- Discuss the prospects for the fiscal arithmetic of public debt in the coming years.
- Assume that a country has an existing public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 percent.
(a) Using the ‘rule of thumb’ for public debt dynamics, calculate the approximate primary balance it would need to run in the coming year if the expected average real interest rate on the debt were 3 per cent and real economic growth were 2 per cent?
(b) Repeat (a) but now assume that real economic growth is expected to be 4 per cent.
(c) Repeat (a) but now assume that the existing public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio is 120 per cent.
(d) Using your results from (a) to (c) discuss the factors that affect the fiscal arithmetic of the growth of public-sector debt.
In its latest World Economic Outlook update, the IMF forecasts that the UK in 2023 will be the worst performing economy in the G7. Unlike all the other countries and regions in the report, only the UK economy is set to shrink. UK real GDP is forecast to fall by 0.6% in 2023 (see Figure 1: click here for a PowerPoint). In the USA it is forecast to rise by 1.4%, in Germany by 0.1%, in France by 0.7% and in Japan by 1.8%. GDP in advanced countries as a whole is forecast to grow by 1.2%, while world output is forecast to grow by 2.9%. Developing countries are forecast to grow by 4.0%, with China and India forecast to grow by 5.2% and 6.1%, respectively. And things are not forecast to be a lot better for the UK in 2024, with growth of 0.9% – bottom equal with Japan and Italy.
Low projected growth in the UK in part reflects the tighter fiscal and monetary policies being implemented to curb inflation, which is slow to fall thanks to tight labour markets and persistently higher energy prices. The UK is particularly exposed to high wholesale gas prices, with a larger share of its energy coming from natural gas than most countries.
But the UK’s lower forecast growth relative to other countries reflects a longer-term problem in the UK and that is the slow rate of productivity growth. This is illustrated in Figure 2, which shows output (GDP) per hour worked in major economies, indexed at 100 in 2008 (click here for a PowerPoint). As you can see, the growth in productivity in the UK has lagged behind that of the other economies. The average annual percentage growth in productivity is shown next to each country. The UK’s growth in productivity since 2008 has been a mere 0.3% per annum.
Causes of low productivity/low productivity growth
A major cause of low productivity growth is low levels of investment in physical capital. Figure 3 shows investment (gross capital formation) as a percentage of GDP for the G7 countries from the 2007–8 financial crisis to the year before the pandemic (click here for a PowerPoint). As you can see, the UK performs the worst of the seven countries.
Part of the reason for the low level of private investment is uncertainty. Firms have been discouraged from investing because of a lack of economic growth and fears that this was likely to remain subdued. The problem was compounded by Brexit, with many firms uncertain about their future markets, especially in the EU. COVID affected investment, as it did in all countries, but supply chain problems in the aftermath of COVID have been worse for the UK than many countries. Also, the UK has been particularly exposed to the effects of higher gas prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as a large proportion of electricity is generated from natural gas and natural gas is the major fuel for home heating.
Part of the reason is an environment that is unconducive for investment. Access to finance for investment is more difficult in the UK and more costly than in many countries. The financial system tends to have a short-term focus, with an emphasises on dividends and short-term returns rather than on the long-term gains from investment. This is compounded by physical infrastructure problems with a lack of investment in energy, road and rail and a slow roll out of advances in telecoms.
To help fund investment and drive economic growth, in 2021 the UK government established a government-owned UK Infrastructure Bank. This has access to £22 billion of funds. However, as The Conversation article below points out:
According to a January 2023 report from Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee, 18 months after its launch the bank had only deployed ‘£1 billion of its £22 billion capital to 10 deals’, and had employed just 16 permanent staff ‘against a target of 320’. The committee also said it was ‘not convinced the bank has a strategic view of where it best needs to target its investments’.
Short-termism is dominant in politics, with ministers keen on short-term results in time for the next election, rather than focusing on the long term when they may no longer be in office. When the government is keen to cut taxes and find ways of cutting government expenditure, it is often easier politically to cut capital expenditure rather than current expenditure. The Treasury oversees fiscal policy and its focus tends to be short term. What is needed is a government department where the focus is on the long term.
One problem that has impacted on productivity is the relatively large number of people working for minimum wages or a little above. Low wages discourage firms from making labour-saving investment and thereby increasing labour productivity. It will be interesting to see whether the labour shortages in the UK, resulting from people retiring early post-COVID and EU workers leaving, will encourage firms to make labour-saving investment.
Another issue is company taxation. Until recently, countries have tended to compete corporate taxes down in order to attract inward investment. This was stemmed somewhat by the international agreement at the OECD that Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) will be subject to a minimum 15% corporate tax rate from 2023. The UK is increasing corporation tax from 19% to 25% from April 2023. It remains to be seen what disincentive effect this will have on inward investment. Although the new rate is similar to, or slightly lower, than other major economies, there are some exceptions. Ireland will have a rate of just 15% and is seen as a major alternative to the UK for inward investment, especially with its focus on cheaper green energy. AstraZeneca has just announced that instead of building its new ‘state-of-the-art’ manufacturing plant in England close to its two existing plats in NW England, it will build it in Ireland instead, quoting the UK’s ‘discouraging’ tax rates and price capping for drugs by the NHS.
And it is not just physical investment that affects productivity, it is the quality of labour. Although a higher proportion of young people go to university (close to 50%) than in many other countries, the nature of the skills sets acquired may not be particularly relevant to employers.
What is more, relatively few participate in vocational education and training. Only 32% of 18-year olds have had any vocational training. This compares with other countries, such as Austria, Denmark and Switzerland where the figure is over 65%. Also a greater percentage of firms in other countries, such as Germany, employ people on vocational training schemes.
Another aspect of labour quality is the quality of management. Poor management practices in the UK and inadequate management training and incentives have resulted in a productivity gap with other countries. According to research by Bloom, Sadun & Van Reenen (see linked article below, in particular Figure A5) the UK has an especially large productivity gap with the USA compared with other countries and the highest percentage of this gap of any country accounted for by poor management.
Increasing productivity requires a long-term approach by both business and government. Policy should be consistent, with no ‘chopping and changing’. The more that policy is changed, the less certain will business be and the more cautious about investing.
As far a government investment is concerned, capital investment needs to be maintained at a high level if significant improvements are to be made in the infrastructure necessary to support increased growth rates. As far as private investment is concerned, there needs to be a focus on incentives and finance. If education and training are to drive productivity improvements, then there needs to be a focus on the acquisition of transferable skills.
Such policies are not difficult to identify. Carrying them out in a political environment focused on the short term is much more difficult.
- UK to perform worst of major economies in 2023, says IMF – here’s how to achieve long-term growth
The Conversation, Michael Kitson (2/2/23)
- The UK economy has recovered from doom and recession before – and it can do so again: the Economy 2030 Inquiry
Resolution Foundation, Centre for Economic Performance and Nuffield Foundation, Krishan Shah (7/2/23)
- Minding the (productivity and income) gaps: the Economy 2030 Inquiry
Resolution Foundation, Centre for Economic Performance and Nuffield Foundation, Krishan Shah and Gregory Thwaites (3/2/23)
- How to fix the British economy
Financial Times, Tim Harford (3/2/23)
- Is the IMF right about the UK economy?
Financial Times, Chris Giles (31/1/23)
- Why is UK Productivity Low and How Can It Improve?
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), Issam Samiri and Stephen Millard (26/9/22)
- Britain’s productivity puzzle
LSE British Politics and Policy, Ben Clift and Sean McDaniel (7/9/22)
- Why is the UK So Unproductive Compared to Germany?
Agency Central (26/8/20)
- Smarter taxes could ease UK productivity crisis
Reuters, Francesco Guerrera (9/1/23)
- Diagnosing the UK productivity slowdown: which sectors matter and why?
The Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, Lucy Hampton (20/1/23)
- Management as a Technology?
National Bureau of Economic Research, Nicholas Bloom, Raffaella Sadun & John Van Reenen (October 2017)
- Take AstraZeneca’s warning seriously. The UK is missing out in life sciences
The Guardian, Nils Pratley (9/2/23)
- What features of the UK economic and political environment help to explain its poor productivity growth record?
- What are the arguments for and against making higher education more vocational?
- Find out what policies have been adopted in a country of your choice to improve productivity. Are there any lessons that the UK could learn from this experience?
- How could the UK attract more inward foreign direct investment? Would the outcome be wholly desirable?
- What is the relationship between inequality and labour productivity?
- What are the arguments for and against encouraging more immigration in the current economic environment?
- Could smarter taxes ease the UK’s productivity crisis?
Last year was far from the picture of economic stability that all governments would hope for. Instead, the overarching theme of 2022 was uncertainty, which overshadowed many economic predictions throughout the year. The Collins English Dictionary announced that their word of the year for 2022 is ‘permacrisis’, which is defined as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’.
For the UK, 2022 was an eventful year, seeing two changes in prime minister, economic stagnation, financial turmoil, rampant inflation and a cost of living crisis. However, the UK was not alone in its economic struggles. Many believe that it is a minor miracle that the world did not experience a systemic financial crisis in 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the biggest land war in Europe since 1945, the most serious risk of nuclear escalation since the Cuban missile crisis and the most far-reaching sanctions regime since the 1930s. Soaring food and energy costs have fuelled the highest rates of inflation since the 1980s and the biggest macroeconomic challenge in the modern era of central banking (with the possible exception of the financial crisis of 2007–8 and its aftermath). For decades we have lived with the assumptions that nuclear war was never going to happen, inflation will be kept low and rich countries will not experience an energy crisis. In 2022 all of these assumptions and more have been shaken.
With the combination of rising interest rates and a massive increase in geopolitical risk, the world economy did well to survive as robustly as it did. However, with public and private debt having risen to record levels during the now-bygone era of ultra-low interest rates and with recession risks high, the global financial system faces a huge stress test.
Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, started 2023 by setting out five pledges: to halve inflation, boost economic growth, cut national debt as a percentage of GDP, and to address NHS waiting lists and the issue of immigrants arriving in small boats. Whilst most would agree that meeting these pledges is desirable, a reduction in inflation is forecast to happen anyway, given the monetary policy being pursued by the Bank of England and an easing of commodity prices; and public-sector debt as a percentage of GDP is forecast to fall from 2024/25.
Success in meeting the first four pledges will partly depend on the effects of the current industrial action by workers across the UK. How soon will the various disputes be settled and on what terms? What will be the implications for service levels and for inflation?
A weak global economy
Success will also depend on the state of the global economy, which is currently very fragile. In fact, it is predicted that a third of the global economy will be hit by recession this year. The head of the IMF has warned that the world faces a ‘tougher’ year in 2023 than in the previous 12 months. Such comments suggest the IMF is likely soon to cut its economic forecasts for 2023 again. The IMF already cut its 2023 outlook for global economic growth in October, citing the continuing drag from the war in Ukraine, as well as inflationary pressures and interest rate rises by major central banks.
The World Bank has also described the global economy as being ‘on a razor’s edge’ and warns that it risks falling into recession this year. The organisation expects the world economy to grow by just 1.7% this year, which is a sharp fall from an estimated 2.9% in 2022 according to the Global Economic Prospects report (see link below). It has warned that if financial conditions tighten, then the world’s economy could easily fall into a recession. If this becomes a reality, then the current decade would become the first since the 1930s to include two global recessions. Growth forecasts have been lowered for 95% of advanced economies and for more than 70% of emerging market and developing economies compared with six months ago. Given the global outlook, it is no surprise that the UK economy is expected to face a prolonged recession with declining growth and increased unemployment.
The current state of the UK economy
Despite all the concerns, official figures show that, even though households have been squeezed by rising prices, UK real GDP unexpectedly grew in November, by 0.1%. This has been explained by a boost to bars and restaurants from the World Cup as people went out to watch the football and also by demand for services in the tech sector.
At first sight, the UK’s cost of living crisis might look fairly mild compared to other countries. Its inflation rate was 10.7% in November 2022, compared to 12.6% in Italy, 16% in Poland and over 20% in Hungary and Estonia. But UK inflation is still way above the Bank of England’s 2% target. The Bank went on to tighten monetary policy further, by increasing interest rates to 3.5% in December. Further rate rises are expected in 2023. In fact, the markets and the Bank both expect the main rate to reach 5.2% by the end of this year. With the consequent squeeze on real incomes, the Bank of England expects a recession in the UK this year – possibly lasting until mid-2024.
The UK is also affected by global interest rates, which affect global growth. Global interest rates average 5%. A 1 percentage point increase would reduce global growth this year from 1.7% to 0.6%, with per capita output contracting by 0.3%, once changes in population are taken into account. This would then meet the technical definition of a global recession. This means that the Bank’s November economic forecast, which was based on a Bank Rate of 3%, may worsen due to an even larger contraction than previously expected. The resulting drop in spending and investment by people and businesses could then cause inflation to come down faster than the Bank had predicted when rates were at 3%.
There could be some positive news however, that may help bring down inflation in addition to rate rises. There has been some appreciation in the pound since the huge drop caused by the September mini-budget that had brought its value to a nearly 40-year low. This will help to reduce inflation by reducing the price of imports.
As far as workers are concerned, pay increases have been broadly contained, with 2022 being one of the worst years in decades for UK real wage growth. Limiting pay rises can have a deflationary effect because people have less to spend, but it also weighs on economic growth and productivity. Despite the impact on inflation, there is a lot of unrest across the UK, with strike action continuing to be at the forefront of the news. Strikes over pay and conditions continue in various sectors in 2023, including transport, health, education and the postal service. Strikes and industrial action have a negative effect on the wider economy. If wages are stagnating and the economy is not performing well, productivity will suffer as workers are less motivated and less investment in new equipment takes place.
The UK economy is also under threat of a prolonged recession due to the proportion of households that lack insulation against financial setbacks. This proportion is unusually large for a wealthy economy. A survey conducted prior to the pandemic, found that 3 million people in the UK would fall into poverty if they missed one pay cheque, with the country’s high housing costs being a key source of vulnerability. Another survey recently suggested that one-third of UK adults would struggle if their costs rose by just £20 a month.
The pandemic itself meant that over 4 million households have taken on additional debt, with many now falling behind on repaying it. This, combined with recent jumps in energy and food bills, could push many over the edge, especially if heating costs remain high when the present government cap on energy prices ends in April.
However, there could be some better news for households with the easing of COVID restrictions in China. This could have a positive impact on the UK economy if it helps ease supply-chain disruptions occurring since the height of the global pandemic. It could reduce inflationary pressure in the UK and other countries that trade with China by making it easier – and therefore less costly – for people to get hold of goods.
- Define the term ‘deflation’.
- Explain how an appreciation of the pound is good for inflation.
- Discuss the wider economic impacts of industrial strike action.
- Why is it important for the government to keep wages contained?
At the time of the 2016 referendum, the clear consensus among economists was that Brexit would impose net economic costs on the UK economy. The size of these costs would depend on the nature of post-Brexit trading relations with the EU. The fewer the new barriers to trade and the closer the alignment with the EU single market, the lower these costs would be.
The Brexit deal in the form of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (see also) applied provisionally from January 2021, after the end of the transition period, and came into force in May 2021. Although this is a free-trade deal in the sense that goods made largely in the UK or EU can be traded tariff-free between the two, the deal does not apply to services (e.g. financial services) or to goods where components made outside the UK or EU account for more than a certain percentage (the ‘rules of origin‘ condition). Also there has been a huge increase in documentation that must be completed to export to or import from the EU.
Even though the nature of the Brexit deal has been clear since it was signed in December 2020, assessing the impact of the extra barriers to trade it has created has been hard given the various shocks that have had a severe impact on the UK (and global) economy. First COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns had a direct effect on output and trade; second the longer-term international supply-chain disruptions have extended the COVID costs beyond the initial lockdowns and acted as a brake on recovery and growth; third the Russian invasion of Ukraine imposed a severe shock to energy and food markets; fourth these factors have created not just a supply shock but also an inflationary shock, which has resulted in central banks seeking to dampen demand by significantly raising interest rates. One worry among analysts was that the negative effects of such shocks might be greater on the UK economy than on other countries.
However, the negative effects of Brexit are now becoming clearer and various institutions have attempted to quantify the costs. These costs are largely in terms of lower GDP than otherwise. This results from:
- reduced levels of trade with the EU, thereby reducing the gains from exploiting comparative advantage;
- increased costs of trade with the EU;
- disruptions to supply chains;
- reduced competition from European firms, with many no longer exporting to the UK because of the costs;
- reduced inward investment;
- labour market shortages, particularly in certain areas such a hospitality, construction, social care and agriculture as many European workers have left the UK and fewer come;
- a reduction in productivity.
Here is a summary of the findings of different organisations.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)
The OBR has argued that Brexit as negotiated in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement:
will reduce long-run productivity by 4 per cent relative to remaining in the EU. This largely reflects our view that the increase in non-tariff barriers on UK-EU trade acts as an additional impediment to the exploitation of comparative advantage.21
In addition the OBR estimates that:
Both exports and imports will be around 15 per cent lower in the long run than if the UK had remained in the EU.21
Recent evidence supports this. According to the OBR:
UK and aggregate advanced economy goods export volumes fell by around 20 per cent during the initial wave of the pandemic in 2020. But by the fourth quarter of 2021 total advanced economy trade volumes had rebounded to 3 per cent above their pre-pandemic levels while UK exports remain around 12 per cent below.22
This assumption was repeated in the November 2022 Economic and Fiscal Outlook (p.26) 23. What is more, new trade deals will make little difference, either because they are a roll-over from previous EU trade deals with the respective country or have only a very small effect (e.g. the trade deal with Australia).
The Bank of England
The Bank of England, ever since the referendum in 2016, has forecast that Brexit would damage trade, productivity and GDP growth. In recent evidence to the House of Commons Treasury Committee5, Andrew Bailey, the Governor, stated that previous work by the Bank concluded that Brexit would reduce productivity by a bit over 3% and that this was still the Bank’s view.
His colleague, Dr Swati Dhingra, stated that, because of Brexit, there was a ‘much bigger slowdown in trade in the UK compared to the rest of the world’. She continued:
The simple way of thinking about what Brexit has done to the economy is that in the period after the referendum, the biggest depreciation that any of the world’s four major economies have seen overnight contributed to increasing prices [and] reduced wages. …We think that number is about 2.6% below the trend that real wages would have been on. Soon afterwards and before the TCA happened came the effects of the uncertainty that was unleashed, which basically translates into reduced business investment and less certainty of the FDI effects. Those tend to be very long-pay things.
She continued that now we are seeing significantly reduced trade directly as a result of the Brexit trade agreement (TCA).
Her colleague, Dr Catherine Mann, argued that ‘the small firms are the ones that are the most damaged, because the cost of the paperwork and so forth is a barrier’. This does not only affect UK firms exporting to the EU but also EU firms exporting to the UK. Reduced imports from EU firms reduces competition in the UK, which tends to lead to higher prices.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies
The IFS has consistently argued that Brexit, because of increased trade barriers with the EU, has reduced UK trade, productivity and GDP. In a recent interview6, its Director, Paul Johnson, stated that ‘Brexit, without doubt, has made us poorer than we would otherwise have been’. That, plus other convulsions, such as the mini-Budget of October 2022, have reduced foreigners’ confidence in the UK, with the result that investment in the UK and trade with the rest of the world have fallen.
In a major Resolution Foundation report24, the authors argued that the effects of Brexit will take time to materialise fully and will occur in three distinct phases. First, in anticipation of permanent effects, the referendum caused sterling to depreciate and this adversely affected household incomes. What is more, the uncertainty about the future caused business investment to fall (but not inward FDI). Second, the Trade and Cooperation Act, by introducing trade barriers, reduced UK trade with the EU. But trade with the rest of the world also fell suggesting that Brexit is impacting UK trade openness and competitiveness more broadly. Third, there will be structural changes to the UK economy over the long-term which will adversely affect economic growth:
A less-open UK will mean a poorer and less productive one by the end of the decade, with real wages expected to fall by 1.8 per cent, a loss of £470 per worker a year, and labour productivity by 1.3 per cent, as a result of the long-run changes to trade under the TCA. This would be equivalent to losing more than a quarter of the last decade’s productivity growth.
One of the key effects of Brexit has been on the labour market and especially on sectors, such as hospitality, agriculture, construction, health and social care. These sectors are experiencing labour shortages, in part due to EU nationals leaving the UK. In 2021, the Nuffield Trust looked at the supply of workers in health and social care25 and found that, as a result of increased bureaucratic hurdles, the number of EU/EFTA-trained nurses had declined since 2016. In social care, new immigration rules have made it virtually impossible to recruit from the EU. A more recent report looked at the recruitment of doctors in four specific specialties.26 In each case, although the number recruited from the EU/EFTA was still increasing, the rate of increase had slowed significantly. The reason appeared to be Brexit not COVID-19.
Research by Coleman Parkes for Ivalua18 shows that 80% of firms found Brexit to have been the biggest cause of supply-chain disruptions in the 12 months to August 2022, with 83% fearing the biggest disruptions from Brexit are yet to come. Brexit was found to have had a bigger effect on supply chains than the war in Ukraine, rising energy costs and COVID-19.
Centre for European Reform
Modelling conducted by John Springford27 used a ‘doppelgängers’ method to show the effects of Brexit on the UK economy. Each doppelgänger is ‘a basket of countries whose economic performance closely matches the UK’s before the Brexit referendum and the end of the transition period’. Comparing the UK’s performance with the doppelgänger can show the difference between leaving and not leaving the UK. Doppelgängers were estimated for GDP, investment (gross fixed capital formation), total services trade (exports plus imports) and total goods trade (ditto).
The results are sobering. In the final quarter of 2021, UK GDP is 5.2 per cent smaller than the modelled, doppelgänger UK; investment is 13.7 per cent lower; and goods trade, 13.6 per cent lower.
Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) (Ireland)
Similar results for UK trade have been obtained by Janez Kren and Martina Lawless in research conducted for the ESRI.28 They used product-level trade flows between the EU and all other countries in the world as a comparison group. This showed a 16% reduction in UK exports to the EU and a 20% reduction in UK imports from the EU relative to the scenario in which Brexit had not occurred.
British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) survey
According to a BCC survey of 1168 businesses33, 92% of which are SMEs, more than three quarters (77%) for which the Brexit deal is applicable say it is not helping them increase sales or grow their business and 56% say they have difficulties in adapting to the new rules for trading goods. The survey shows that UK firms are facing significant challenges in trying to trade with EU countries under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. What is more, 80% of firms had seen the cost of importing increase; 53% had seen their sales margins decrease; and almost 70% of manufacturers had experienced shortages of goods and services from the EU.
Research at the Centre for Business Prosperity, Aston University, by Jun Du, Emine Beyza Satoglu and Oleksandr Shepotylo20, 29 found that UK exports to the EU ‘fell by an average of 22.9% in the first 15 months after the introduction of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement’. The negative effect on UK exports persisted and deepened from January 2021 to March 2022. The research involved comparing actual trade with an ‘alternative UK economy’ model based on the UK having remained in the EU. What is more, the researchers found that there had been a reduction of 42% in the number of product varieties exported to the EU, with a large number of exporters simply ceasing to export to the EU and with many of the remaining exporters streamlining their product ranges.
Research at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance by Jan David Bakker, Nikhil Datta, Richard Davies and Josh De Lyon31 found that leaving the EU added an average of £210 to UK household food bills over the two years to the end of 2021. This amounted to a total cost to consumers of £5.8 billion. This confirmed the findings of previous research30 that the increase in UK-EU trade barriers led to food prices in the UK being 6% higher than they would have been.
Finally, a report from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford32 examined the effects of the ending of the free movement of labour from the EU to the UK. Visas are now required, but ‘low-wage occupations that used to rely heavily on EU workers are now ineligible for work visas, with some limited exceptions for social care and seasonal workers’. Many industries are facing labour shortages. Reasons include other factors, such as low pay and unattractive working conditions, and workers leaving the workforce during the pandemic and afterwards. But the end of free movement appears to have exacerbated these existing problems.
- The Brexit effect: how leaving the EU hit the UK
Financial Times film (18/10/22)
- What impact is Brexit having on the UK economy?
Brexit and the UK economy, Ros Atkins (29/10/22)
- Why Brexit is damaging the UK economy both now and in the future
Economics Help on YouTube, Tejvan Pettinger (5/12/22)
- Why the Costs of Brexit keep growing for the UK economy
Economics Help on YouTube, Tejvan Pettinger (17/10/22)
- Treasury Committee (see also)
Parliament TV (25/11/22) (see 15:03:00 to 15:08:12) (Click here for a transcript: see Q637 to Q641)
- UK economy made worse by ‘own goals’ like Brexit and Truss mini-budget, IFS economist says
Sky News, Paul Johnson (IFS) (18/11/22)
- Brexit and the economy: the hit has been ‘substantially negative’
Financial Times, Chris Giles (30/11/22)
- ‘What have we done?’: six years on, UK counts the cost of Brexit
The Observer, Toby Helm, Robin McKie, James Tapper & Phillip Inman (25/6/22)
- Brexit did hurt the City’s exports – the numbers don’t lie
Financial News, David Wighton (9/11/22)
- Brits are starting to think again about Brexit as the economy slides into recession
CNBC, Elliot Smith (23/11/22)
- Brexit has cracked Britain’s economic foundations
CNN, Hanna Ziady (24/12/22)
- Mark Carney: ‘Doubling down on inequality was a surprising choice’
Financial Times, Edward Luce (14/10/22)
- Brexit: Progress on trade deals slower than promised
BBC News, Ione Wells & Brian Wheeler (2/12/22)
- How Brexit costs this retailer £1m a month in sales
BusinessLive, Tom Pegden (22/11/22)
- Brexit Is Hurting The UK Economy, Bank Of England Official Says
HuffPost, Graeme Demianyk (16/11/22)
- Brexit and drop in workforce harming economic recovery, says Bank governor
The Guardian, Richard Partington (16/11/22)
- Brexit a major cause of UK’s return to austerity, says senior economist
The Guardian, Anna Isaac (14/11/22)
- 80% of UK businesses say Brexit caused the biggest supply chain disruption in the last 12 months
- Brexit added £210 to household food bills, new research finds
Sky News, Faye Brown (1/12/22)
- Brexit changes caused 22.9% slump in UK-EU exports into Q1 2022 – research
Research and analysis
- Brexit analysis
- The latest evidence on the impact of Brexit on UK trade
OBR (March 2022)
- Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2022 (PDF)
- The Big Brexit (PDF)
Resolution Foundation, Swati Dhingra, Emily Fry, Sophie Hale & Ningyuan Jia (June 2022)
- Going it alone: health and Brexit in the UK
Nuffield Trust, Mark Dayan, Martha McCarey, Tamara Hervey, Nick Fahy, Scott L Greer, Holly Jarman, Ellen Stewart and Dan Bristow (20/12/21)
- Has Brexit affected the UK’s medical workforce?
Nuffield Trust, Martha McCarey and Mark Dayan (27/11/22)
- What can we know about the cost of Brexit so far?
Centre for European Reform, John Springford (9/6/22)
- Brexit reduced overall EU-UK goods trade flows by almost one-fifth
Economic and Social Research Institute (Ireland), Janez Kren and Martina Lawless (19/10/22)
- Post-Brexit UK Trade – An Update (PDF)
Centre for Business Prosperity, Aston University, Jun Du, Emine Beyza Satoglu and Oleksandr Shepotylo (November 2022)
- Post-Brexit imports, supply chains, and the effect on consumer prices (PDF)
UK in a Changing Europe, Jan David Bakker, Nikhil Datta, Josh De Lyon, Luisa Opitz and Dilan Yang (25/4/22)
- Non-tariff barriers and consumer prices: evidence from Brexit
Centre for Economic Performance, LSE, Jan David Bakker, Nikhil Datta, Richard Davies and Josh De Lyon (December 2022)
- How is the End of Free Movement Affecting the Low-wage Labour Force in the UK?
Migration Observatory, University of Oxford, Madeleine Sumption, Chris Forde, Gabriella Alberti and Peter William Walsh (15/8/22)
- The Trade and Cooperation Agreement: Two Years On – Proposals For Reform by UK Business
British Chambers of Commerce (21/12/22)
- The Detriments of Brexit
Yorkshire Bylines (June 2022) (see also)
- Summarise the negative effects of Brexit on the UK economy.
- Why is it difficult to quantify these effects?
- Explain the ‘doppelgängers’ method of estimating the costs of Brexit? How reliable is this method likely to be?
- How have UK firms attempted to reduce the costs of exporting to the EU?
- Is Brexit the sole cause of a shortage of labour in many sectors in the UK?