Since 2019, UK personal taxes (income tax and national insurance) have been increasing as a proportion of incomes and total tax revenues have been increasing as a proportion of GDP. However, in his Autumn Statement of 22 November, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced a 2 percentage point cut in the national insurance rate for employees from 12% to 10%. The government hailed this as a significant tax cut. But, despite this, taxes are set to continue increasing. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), from 2019/20 to 2028/29, taxes will have increased by 4.5 per cent of GDP (see chart below), raising an extra £44.6 billion per year by 2028/29. One third of this is the result of ‘fiscal drag’ from the freezing of tax thresholds.
According to the OBR
Fiscal drag is the process by which faster growth in earnings than in income tax thresholds results in more people being subject to income tax and more of their income being subject to higher tax rates, both of which raise the average tax rate on total incomes.
Income tax thresholds have been unchanged for the past three years and the current plan is that they will remain frozen until at least 2027/28. This is illustrated in the following table.
If there were no inflation, fiscal drag would still apply if real incomes rose. In other words, people would be paying a higher average rate of tax. Part of the reason is that some people on low incomes would be dragged into paying tax for the first time and more people would be paying taxes at higher rates. Even in the case of people whose income rise did not pull them into a higher tax bracket (i.e. they were paying the same marginal rate of tax), they would still be paying a higher average rate of tax as the personal allowance would account for a smaller proportion of their income.
Inflation compounds this effect. Tax bands are in nominal not real terms. Assume that real incomes stay the same and that tax bands are frozen. Nominal incomes will rise by the rate of inflation and thus fiscal drag will occur: the real value of the personal allowance will fall and a higher proportion of incomes will be paid at higher rates. Since 2021, some 2.2 million workers, who previously paid no income taxes as their incomes were below the personal allowance, are now paying tax on some of their wages at the 20% rate. A further 1.6 million workers have moved to the higher tax bracket with a marginal rate of 40%.
The net effect is that, although national insurance rates have been cut by 2 percentage points, the tax burden will continue rising. The OBR estimates that by 2027/28, tax revenues will be 37.4% of GDP; they were 33.1% in 2019/20. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).
Much of this rise will be the result of fiscal drag. According to the OBR, fiscal drag from freezing personal allowances, even after the cut in national insurance rates, will raise an extra £42.9 billion per year by 2027/28. This would be equivalent of the amount raised by a rise in national insurance rates of 10 percentage points. By comparison, the total cost to the government of the furlough scheme during the pandemic was £70 billion. For further analysis by the OBR of the magnitude of fiscal drag, see Box 3.1 (p 69) in the November 2023 edition of its Economic and fiscal outlook.
Support measures during the pandemic and its aftermath and subsidies for energy bills have led to a rise in government debt. This has put a burden on public finances, compounded by sluggish growth and higher interest rates increasing the cost of servicing government debt. This leaves the government (and future governments) in a dilemma. It must either allow fiscal drag to take place by not raising allowances or even raise tax rates, cut government expenditure or increase borrowing; or it must try to stimulate economic growth to provide a larger tax base; or it must do some combination of all of these. These are not easy choices. Higher economic growth would be the best solution for the government, but it is difficult for governments to achieve. Spending on infrastructure, which would support growth, is planned to be cut in an attempt to reduce borrowing. According to the OBR, under current government plans, public-sector net investment is set to decline from 2.6% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.8% by 2028/29.
The government is attempting to achieve growth by market-orientated supply-side measures, such as making permanent the current 100% corporation tax allowance for investment. Other measures include streamlining the planning system for commercial projects, a business rates support package for small businesses and targeted government support for specific sectors, such as digital technology. Critics argue that this will not be sufficient to offset the decline in public investment and renew crumbling infrastructure.
To support public finances, the government is using a combination of higher taxation, largely through fiscal drag, and cuts in government expenditure (from 44.8% of GDP in 2023/24 to a planned 42.7% by 2028/29). If the government succeeds in doing this, the OBR forecasts that public-sector net borrowing will fall from 4.5% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.1% by 2028/29. But higher taxes and squeezed public expenditure will make many people feel worse off, especially those that rely on public services.
- Fiscal drag
Sky News Politics Hub on X, Sophy Ridge (22/11/23)
- Fiscal drag
Sky News Politics Hub on X, Beth Rigby (22/11/23)
- Autumn Statement 2023 response
IFS, Stuart Adam, Bee Boileau, Isaac Delestre, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Martin Mikloš, Helen Miller, David Phillips, Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, Isabel Stockton Tom Waters, Tom Wernham and Ben Zaranko (22/11/23)
- Autumn Statement: Jeremy Hunt cuts National Insurance but tax burden still rises
BBC News, Brian Wheeler (23/11/23)
- The hidden tax rise in the Autumn Statement
BBC News, Michael Race (23/11/23)
- How is National Insurance changing and what is income tax?
BBC News (23/11/23)
- UK income tax: how fiscal drag leads to people falling into higher rates
The Guardian, Antonio Voce and Ashley Kirk (22/11/23)
- Will I be pulled into a higher tax band? How ‘fiscal drag’ affects your pay
i News, Alex Dakers (23/11/23)
- Fiscal drag could cost high earners £4,000 by 2027
MoneyWeek, Marc Shoffman (16/11/23)
- Why the UK government’s tax cuts still leave workers worse off
CNBC, Elliot Smith (23/11/23)
- National insurance cuts swamped by stealth tax rise, says fiscal watchdog
Financial Times, Emma Agyemang (22/11/23)
- Frozen income tax bands eat into benefits of NI cut, say experts
FT Adviser, Tara O’Connor (23/11/23)
- Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal fudge
Financial Times editorial (22/11/23)
Report and data from the OBR
- Would fiscal drag occur with frozen nominal tax bands if there were zero real growth in incomes? Explain.
- Examine the arguments for continuing to borrow to fund a Budget deficit over a number of years.
- When interest rates rise, how much does this affect the cost of servicing public-sector debt? Why is the effect likely to be greater in the long run than in the short run?
- If the government decides that it wishes to increase tax revenues as a proportion of GDP (for example, to fund increased government expenditure on infrastructure and socially desirable projects and benefits), examine the arguments for increasing personal allowances and tax bands in line with inflation but raising the rates of income tax in order to raise sufficient revenue?
- Distinguish between market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies? Why do political parties differ in their approaches to supply-side policy?
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.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a stark effect on countries’ public finances. Governments had to make difficult fiscal choices around spending and taxation to safeguard public health, and the protection of jobs and incomes both in the present and in the future. The fiscal choices were to have historically large effects on the size of public spending and on the size of public borrowing.
Here we briefly summarise the magnitude of these effects on public spending, receipts and borrowing in the UK.
The public sector comprises both national government and local or regional government. In financial year 2019/20 public spending in the UK was £886 billion. This would rise to £1.045 trillion in 2020/21. To understand better the magnitude of these figures we can express them as a share of national income (Gross Domestic Product). In 2019/20 public spending was 39.8 per cent of national income. This rose to 52.1 per cent in 2020/21. Meanwhile, public-sector receipts, largely taxation, fell from £829.1 billion in 2019/20 to £796.5 billion in 2020/21, though, because of the fall in national income, the share of receipts in national income rose very slightly from 37.3 to 37.9 per cent of national income.
The chart shows both public spending and public receipts as a share of national income since 1900. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) What this chart shows is the extraordinary impact of the two World Wars on the relative size of public spending. We can also see an uptick in public spending following the global financial crisis and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The chart also shows that spending is typically larger than receipts meaning that the public sector typically runs a budget deficit. .
If we focus on public spending as a share of national income and its level following the two world wars, we can see that it did not fall back to pre-war levels. This is what Peacock and Wiseman (1961) famously referred to as a displacement effect. They attributed this to, among other things, an increase in the public’s tolerance to pay higher taxation because of the higher taxes levied during the war as well as to a desire for greater public intervention. The latter arose from an inspection effect. This can be thought of as a public consciousness effect, with the war helping to shine a light on a range of economic and social issues, such as health, housing and social security. These two effects, it is argued, reinforced each other, allowing the burden of taxation to rise and, hence, public spending to increase relative to national income.
If we forward to the global financial crisis, we can again see public spending rise as a share of national income. However, this time the ratio did not remain above pre-crisis levels. Rather, the UK government was fearful of unsustainable borrowing levels and the crowding out of private-sector activity by the public sector, with higher interest rates making public debt an attractive proposition for investors. It thus sought to reduce the public-sector deficit by engaging in what became known as ‘austerity’ measures.
If we move forward further to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see an even more significant spike in public spending as a share of national income. It is of course rather early to make predictions about whether the pandemic will have enduring effects on public spending and taxation. Nonetheless the pandemic, in a similar way to the two world wars, has sparked public debates on many economic and social issues. Whilst debates around the funding of health and social care are longstanding, it could be argued that the pandemic has provided the government with the opportunity to introduce the 1.25 percentage point levy from April 2022 on the earned incomes of workers (both employees and the self-employed) and on employers. (See John’s blog Fair care? for a fuller discussion on the tax changes to pay for increased health and social care expenditure).
The extent to which there may be a pandemic displacement effect will depend on the fiscal choices made in the months and years ahead. The key question is how powerful will be the effect of social issues like income and wealth inequality, regional and inter-generational disparities, discrimination, poor infrastructure and educational opportunities in shaping these fiscal choices? Will these considerations carry more weight than the push to consolidate the public finances and tighten the public purse? These fiscal choices will determine the extent of any displacement effect in public spending and taxation.
Alan Peacock and Jack Wiseman, The Growth in Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom, Princeton University Press (1961).
- What do you understand by the term ‘public finances’?
- Why might you wish to express the size of public spending relative to national income rather than simply as an absolute amount?
- Undertake research to identify key pieces of social policy in the UK that were enacted at or around the times of the two World Wars.
- What do you understand by the terms ‘tolerable tax burden’ and ‘inspection effect’?
- Identify those social issues that you think have come into the spotlight as a result of the pandemic. Undertake research on any one of these and write a briefing note exploring the issue and the possible policy choices available to government.
- What is the concept of crowding out? How might it affect fiscal choices?
- How would you explain the distinction between public-sector borrowing and public-sector debt? Why could the former fall and the latter rise at the same time?
Rishi Sunak delivered his 2021 UK Budget on 3 March. It illustrates the delicate balancing act that governments in many countries face as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic persist and public-sector debt soars. He announced that he would continue supporting the economy through various forms of government expenditure and tax relief, but also announced tax rises over the medium term to begin addressing the massively increased public-sector debt.
Key measures of support for people and businesses include:
- An extension of the furlough scheme until the end of September, with employees continuing to be paid 80% of their wages for hours they cannot work, but with employers having to contribute 10% in July and 20% in August and September.
- Support for the self-employed also extended until September, with the scheme being widened to make 600 000 more self-employed people eligible.
- The temporary £20 increase to Universal Credit, introduced in April last year and due to end on 31 March this year, to be extended to the end of September.
- Stamp duty holiday on house purchases in England and Northern Ireland, under which there is no tax liability on sales of less than £500 000, extended from the end of March to the end of June.
- An additional £1.65bn to support the UK’s vaccination rollout.
- VAT rate for hospitality firms to be maintained at the reduced 5% rate until the end of September and then raised to 12.5% (rather than 20%) for a further six months.
- A range of grants for the arts, sport, shops , other businesses and apprenticeships.
- Business rates holiday for hospitality firms in England extended from the end of March to the end of June and then with a discount of 66% until April 2022.
- 130% of investment costs can be offset against tax – a new tax ‘super-deduction’.
- No tax rises on alcohol, tobacco or fuel.
- New UK Infrastructure Bank to be set up in Leeds with £12bn in capital to support £40bn worth of public and private projects.
- Increased grants for devolved nations and grants for 45 English towns.
It has surprised many commentators that there was no announcement of greater investment in the NHS or more money for social care beyond the £3bn for the NHS and £1bn for social care announced in the November Spending Review. The NHS England budget will fall from £148bn in 2020/21 to £139bn in 2021/22.
Effects on borrowing and GDP
The net effect of these measures for the two financial years 2020 to 2022 is forecast by the Treasury to be an additional £37.5bn of government expenditure and a £27.3bn reduction in tax revenue (see Table 2.1 in Budget 2021). This takes the total support since the start of the pandemic to £352bn across the two years.
According to the OBR, this will result in public-sector borrowing being 16.9% of GDP in 2020/21 (the highest since the Second World War) and 10.3% of GDP in 2021/22. Public-sector debt will be 107.4% of GDP in 2021/22, rising to 109.7% in 2023/24 and then falling to 103.8% in 2025/26.
Faced with this big increase in borrowing, the Chancellor also announced some measures to raise tax revenue beginning in two years’ time when, hopefully, the economy will have grown. Indeed, the OBR forecasts that GDP will grow by 4.0% in 2021 and 7.3% in 2022, with the growth rate then settling at around 1.7% from 2023 onwards. He announced that:
- Corporation tax on company profits over £250 000 will rise from 19% to 25% in April 2023. Rates for profits under £50 000 will remain at the current rate of 19%, with the rate rising in stages as profits rise above £50 000.
- Personal income tax thresholds will be frozen from 2022/23 to 2025/26 at £12 570 for the basic 20% marginal rate and at £50 270 for the 40% marginal rate. This will increase the average tax rate as people’s nominal incomes rise.
The policy of a fiscal boost now and a fiscal tightening later might pose political difficulties for the government as this does not fit with the electoral cycle. Normally, politicians like to pursue tighter policies in the early years of the government only to loosen policy with various giveaways as the next election approaches. With Rishi Sunak’s policies, the opposite is the case, with fiscal policy being tightened as the 2024 election approaches.
Another issue is the high degree of uncertainty in the forecasts on which he is basing his policies. If there is another wave of the coronavirus with a new strain resistant to the vaccines or if the scarring effects of the lockdowns are greater, then growth could stall. Or if inflation begins to rise and the Bank of England feels it must raise interest rates, then this would suppress growth. With lower growth, the public-sector deficit would be higher and the government would be faced with the dilemma of whether it should raise taxes, cut government expenditure or accept higher borrowing.
What is more, there are likely to be huge pressures on the government to increase public spending, not cut it by £4bn per year in the medium term as he plans. As Paul Johnson of the IFS states:
In reality, there will be pressures from all sorts of directions. The NHS is perhaps the most obvious. Further top-ups seem near-inevitable. Catching up on lost learning in schools, dealing with the backlog in our courts system, supporting public transport providers, and fixing our system for social care funding would all require additional spending. The Chancellor’s medium-term spending plans simply look implausibly low.
Articles and Briefings
- Budget 2021: Key points at-a-glance
BBC News (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021: Full round-up of what Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced
MoneySavingExpert, Callum Mason (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021 at a glance: The key points from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech
This is Money, Alex Sebastian (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021
- Rishi Sunak delivers spend now, tax later Budget to kickstart UK economy
Financial Times, Jim Pickard, Chris Giles and George Parker (3/3/21)
- Swifter and more sustained? What did we learn about the UK’s economic outlook from Rishi Sunak’s Budget?
Independent. Ben Chu (3/3/21)
- Spending fast, taxing slow: Briefing Note
Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell, Mike Brewer, Nye Cominetti, Karl Handscomb, Kathleen Henehan, Lindsay Judge, Jack Leslie, Charlie McCurdy, Cara Pacitti, Hannah Slaughter, James Smith, Gregory Thwaites & Daniel Tomlinson (4/3/21)
- JRF Spring Budget 2021 analysis and briefing
Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Dave Innes and Katie Schmuecker (4/3/21)
- NHS, social care and most vulnerable ‘betrayed’ by Sunak’s budget
The Guardian, Robert Booth ,Patrick Butler and Denis Campbell (3/3/21)
- Spend now, pay later: Sunak flags major tax rises as Covid bill tops £400bn
The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (3/3/21)
- Rishi Sunak digs in for battle against financial cost of Covid
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (3/3/21)
- Tax and spending experts say Sunak’s budget doesn’t add up
The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart (4/3/21)
- Budget 2021: Prepare for a dramatic rollercoaster ride after chancellor’s give-then-take budget
Sky News, Ed Conway (3/3/21)
Official documents and data
- Assess the wisdom of the timing of the changes in tax and government expenditure announced in the Budget.
- Universal credit was increased by £20 per week in April 2020 and is now due to fall back to its previous level in October 2021. Have the needs of people on Universal Credit increased during the pandemic and, if so, are they likely to return to their previous level in October?
- In the past, the government argued that reductions in the rate of corporation tax would increase tax revenue. The Chancellor now argues that increasing it from 19% to 25% will increase tax revenue. Examine the justification for this increase and the significance of relative profit tax rates between countries.
- Investigate the effects on the public finances of the pandemic and government fiscal policy in two other countries. How do the effects compare with those in the UK?
- The Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks at poverty in the UK and policies to tackle it. It set five tests for the Budget. Examine its Budget Analysis and consider whether these tests have been met.
In delivering his Budget on 22 November, Philip Hammond reported that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility had revised down its forecasts of growth in productivity and real GDP, and hence of earnings growth.
Today, median earnings are £23,000 per annum. This is £1500 less than the £24,500 that the median worker earned in 2008 in today’s prices. The OBR forecasts a growth in real household disposable income of just 0.35% per annum for the next four years.
With lower growth in earnings would come a lower growth in tax revenues. With his desire to cut the budget deficit and start eventually reducing government debt, this would give the government less scope for spending on infrastructure, training and other public-sector investment; less scope to support public services, such as health and education; less scope for increasing benefits and public-sector wages.
The normal measure of productivity, and the one used by the OBR, is the value of output produced per hour worked. This has hardly increased at all since the financial crisis of 2008. It now takes an average worker in the UK approximately five days to produce the same amount as it takes an average worker in Germany four days. Although other countries’ productivity growth has also slowed since the financial crisis, it has slowed more in the UK and from a lower base – and is now forecast to rebound less quickly.
For the past few years the OBR has been forecasting that productivity growth would return to the trend rate of just over 2% that the UK achieved prior to 2008. For example, the forecasts it made in June 2010 are shown by the grey line in the chart, which were based on the pre-crash trend rate of growth in productivity (click on chart to enlarge). And the forecasts it made in November 2016 are shown by the pale green line. Yet each year productivity has hardly changed at all. Today output per hour is less than 1% above its level in 2008.
Now the OBR believes that poorer productivity growth will persist. It is still forecasting an increase (the blue line in the chart) – but by 0.7 of a percentage point less than it was forecasting a year ago (the pale green line): click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.
We have assumed that productivity growth will pick up a little, but remain significantly lower than its pre-crisis trend rate throughout the next five years. On average, we have revised trend productivity growth down by 0.7 percentage points a year. It now rises from 0.9 per cent this year to 1.2 per cent in 2022. This reduces potential output in 2021-22 by 3.0 per cent. The ONS estimates that output per hour is currently 21 per cent below an extrapolation of its pre-crisis trend. By the beginning of 2023 we expect this to have risen to 27 per cent.
Why has there been such weak productivity growth?
Weak productivity growth has been caused by a mixture of factors.
Perhaps the most important is that investment as a percentage of GDP has been lower than before the financial crisis and lower than in other countries. Partly this has been caused by a lack of funding for investment as banks have sought to rebuild their capital and have cut down on riskier loans. Partly it has been caused by a lack of demand for investment, given sluggish rates of economic growth and the belief that austerity will continue.
And it is not just private investment. Public-sector investment in transport infrastructure, housing and education and training has been lower than in other countries. Indeed, the poor training record and low skill levels in the UK are main contributors to low productivity.
The fall in the pound since the Brexit vote has raised business costs and further dampened demand as incomes have been squeezed.
Another reason for low productivity growth has been that employers have responded to weak demand, not by laying off workers and thereby raising unemployment, but by retaining low-productivity workers on low wages. Another has been the survival of ‘zombie’ firms, which, by paying low wages and facing ultra-low interest rates, are able to survive competition from firms that do invest.
Why is weak productivity growth forecast to continue?
Looking forward, the nature of the Brexit deal will impact on confidence, investment, wages and growth. If the deal is bad for the UK, the OBR’s forecasts are likely to be too optimistic. As it is, uncertainty over the nature of the post-Brexit world is weighing heavily on investment as some businesses choose to wait before committing to new investment.
On the other hand, exports may rise faster as firms respond to the depreciation of the pound and this may stimulate investment, thereby boosting productivity.
Another factor is the effect of continuing tight Budgets. There was some easing of austerity in this Budget, as the Chancellor accepted a slower reduction in the deficit, but government spending will remain tight and this is likely to weigh on growth and investment and hence productivity.
But this may all be too gloomy. It is very difficult to forecast productivity growth, especially as it is hard to measure output in much of the service sector. It may be that the productivity growth forecasts will be revised up before too long. For example, the benefits from new technologies, such as AI, may flow through more quickly than anticipated. But they may flow through more slowly and the productivity forecasts may have to be revised down even further!
The OBR’s productivity “forecast” Financial Times, Kadhim Shubber
U.K. Faces Longest Fall in Living Standards on Record Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy and Thomas Penny (23/11/17)
Britain’s Productivity Pain Costs Hammond $120 Billion Bloomberg, Fergal O’Brien (22/11/17)
OBR slashes Britain’s growth forecast on sluggish productivity and miserly pay The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (22/11/17)
Budget 2017: Stagnant earnings forecast ‘astonishing’ BBC News (23/11/17)
Economists warn Budget measures to lift productivity fall short Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Gill Plimmer (22/11/17)
Why the economic forecasts for Britain are so apocalyptic – and how much Brexit is to blame Independent, Ben Chu (24/11/17)
Growth holds steady as economists doubt OBR’s gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (23/11/17)
Britain’s debt will not fall to 2008 levels until 2060s, IFS says in startling warning Independent, Lizzy Buchan (23/11/17)
Philip Hammond’s budget spots Britain’s problems but fails to fix them The Economist (22/11/17)
Debunking the UK’s productivity problem The Conversation, Paul Lewis (24/11/17)
Budget 2017: experts respond The Conversation (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Forecasts Mean ‘Longest Ever Fall In Living Standards’, Says Resolution Foundation Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (23/11/17)
It May Just Sound Like A Statistic, But Productivity Growth Matters For All Of Us Huffington Post, Thomas Pope (24/11/17) (see also)
UK prospects for growth far weaker than first predicted, says OBR The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (22/11/17)
UK faces two decades of no earnings growth and more austerity, says IFS The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/11/17)
Age of austerity isn’t over yet, says IFS budget analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/11/17)
Summary of Budget measures
Budget 2017: FT experts look at what it means for you Financial Times (24/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 HM Treasury (22/11/17)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2017 Office for Budget Responsibility (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Institute for Fiscal Studies (23/11/17)
- What measures of productivity are there other than output per hour? Why is output per hour normally the preferred measure of productivity?
- What factors determine output per hour?
- Why have forecasts of productivity growth rates been revised downwards?
- What are the implications of lower productivity growth for government finances?
- What could cause an increase in output per hour? Would there be any negative effects from these causes?
- What policies could the government pursue to increase productivity? How feasible are these policies? Explain.
- Would it matter if the government increased borrowing substantially to fund a large programme of public investment?