Inflation is a key macroeconomic variable and governments typically aim for both low and stable rates of inflation. In the UK there are two main measures of the rate of inflation in the UK – the CPI and the RPI. Over the past few years there has been a growing gap between the two measures and this has led to consultations about how the RPI could be adapted to allow it to rise more slowly in the future. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The RPI and CPI measure inflation in different ways – they don’t measure the same basket of goods. The RPI measure includes the costs of housing, whereas the CPI does not include this. Furthermore, the RPI is an arithmetic mean and the CPI is a geometric mean, which will be lower than the arithmetic mean. The ONS says that a key advantage of using the geometric mean (i.e. the CPI) is that:
…it can better reflect changes in consumer spending patterns relative to changes in the price of goods and services.
Typically the RPI has been about 1% higher than the CPI and governments can benefit from this by linking state benefits to the CPI (the lower rate) and payments they receive to the RPI, thus maximising the difference between earnings and expenditure.
However, the gap between these two measures of inflation has been growing and this has been causing concern for the ONS and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). This has led to the consultative process regarding making changes to the RPI. However, any change made to the RPI would put certain groups at a disadvantage. One such group is pensioners – many pensioners in the private sector have their pensions linked to the RPI and if a change were made to bring it more in line with the CPI (i.e. lower it) they would suffer. Ros Altman, director general of SAGA said:
After 30 years of retirement, someone who receives 0.6% lower inflation uprating will end up with a pension nearly 20% lower…Therefore, over time, pensioners will be able to afford less and less and pensioner poverty will increase once again.
There would be some beneficiaries of any change to the RPI – the government would benefit in some areas; company pension schemes might also see gains made; some students might benefit and even rail travellers.
An announcement was made by the National Statistician, Jil Matheson, on the 10 January. Much to the surprise of most experts, she has decided to keep the RPI measure unchanged. She did recommend, however, that a new index be introduced that would be published alongside RPI and CPI. The new index would better meet international standards.
The following articles look at the arguments for and against changing the RPI measure.
Articles prior to announcement
Pensioner backlash expected over pension reform The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (9/1/13)
Inflation: Changes to the calculation of RPI expected BBC News (9/1/13)
RPI review ‘may hit pensioners’ Express and Star (9/1/13)
Q&A: Inflation changes BBC News (9/1/13)
Pension holders and savers: beware of an RPI inflation change The Economic Voice (9/1/13)
Pensioners and savers face ‘stealth attack’ on their income from change to the inflation index Mail Online (9/1/13)
Articles following announcement
Relief for pensions as ONS says leave RPI unchanged The Telegraph (10/1/13)
RPI review recommends new inflation index The Guardian (10/1/13)
Inflation: No change to RPI calculation BBC News, 10/1/13)
The ONS puts consistency first BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (10/1/13)
Q&A: Inflation changes BBC News (10/1/13)
Announcement by National Statistician
National Statistician announces outcome of consultation on RPI ONS (10/1/13)
- How are the RPI and CPI measured?
- Why is the RPI typically higher than the CPI?
- What changes to the RPI were suggested? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
- Who would have benefited from each of the proposed changes to the RPI?
- Who would have suffered from each of the proposed changes to the RPI?
- Why has there been a growing divergence between the two measures of inflation?
- Do interest rates affect the RPI and CPI measures of inflation to the same extent?
- Which measure of inflation is used for the Bank of England’s inflation target? Has it always been the measure used?
The rate of inflation in the UK is measured using the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). This is made up of a basket of goods and the ONS updates this ‘basket’ each year to ensure it is representative of what the average UK household buys. The basket contains 700 items, with 180,000 individual prices collected each month.
In recent years, items such as lip gloss have been added to the basket of goods and in the latest adjustment, the ONS has added tablet computers, amongst other things. This is a market that has seen enormous growth. It has been added to the basket as a means of giving a more accurate representation of the price changes faced by the average consumer. The ONS has made it clear that items are not added simply because they are new or removed simply because spending on them has fallen.
‘In each of these cases, the item has not been added because spending has increased or because the product is new on the market … It is purely as part of the rebalancing of the basket to improve its representation of overall price change.’
It is essential that these changes are made each year, as consumer buying habits do fluctuate considerably. One area in particular has been consumer responses to changes in technology. For example, developing and printing colour film has been removed as, with the development of digital cameras, this is no longer reflective of what a representative household spends its money on. Further to this, some items that have previously been used in calculating the RPI have now been added to the CPI, again to give a clearer picture of household spending in the UK. The following articles consider what’s in and what’s out.
Teenage fiction and iPads now in official UK shopping basket Guardian, Julia Kollewe (13/3/12)
Tablet computers added to UK inflation basket BBC News (13/3/12)
New items used to calculate inflation BBC News, Emma Simpson (23/3/12)
Tablet Computers Enter ‘Inflation Basket’ Sky News, Darren Morgan (ONS) (13/3/12)
Inflation basket of goods 2012: full list of what’s out and what’s in Guardian, Simon Rogers (13/3/12)
Tablet computers added to inflation basket of goods Telegraph (13/3/12)
How has the UK’s ‘inflation’ basket has changed? Metro, Ross McGuinness (27/3/12)
iPad and Galaxy added to inflation index Financial Times, Norma Cohen (13/3/12)
- What is the difference between the CPI and RPI? Which is usually higher? Explain your answer.
- How is the CPI calculated and hence how is inflation measured?
- What impact has technological progress had on the basket of goods that the representative household purchases? Do you think that technological progress make it more or less important for the basket of goods to be reviewed annually?
- Do you think products such as the iPad should be included in the CPI? Are they truly representative?
- In the second Guardian article, you can access a list of the products that are ‘in and out’. Is there anything on there that you think should be in or that should be out? Be sure to justify your answer!
As the new tax year begins, many changes are taking place. In order to cut the large budget deficit, sacrifices have to be made by all. The tax and benefit changes could make households worse off by some £2bn this year – definitely not good news for those households already feeling the squeeze. However, the Coalition say that the poorest households will be made better off relative to the rich.
Personal allowance is increasing by £1,000, which is expected to benefit £800,000 people who will no longer pay any tax. At the same time, the 40% tax bracket is being reduced from £43,875 to £42,475, which will bring another 750,000 people into this higher tax bracket, bringing in much needed revenue for the government. Employee’s national insurance contributions will rise by 1% and according to Credit Action, this will leave households £200 worse off per year. Benefits do rise with inflation, but they are to be indexed against the CPI rather than the RPI. The RPI is usually higher and hence benefits will not increase by as much, again leaving some people worse off. Child benefit will be frozen for all and will then be removed for higher rate tax payers from 2013. According to the Treasury, it is the top 10% of households who will lose the most from these needed changes. However, as Justine Greening, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said:
‘Labour left behind a complete mess with no plan to deal with it, apart from to run up more debts for the next generation to pay off.’
In order to cut the deficit, which stands at an estimated £146bn, spending must fall and tax revenue for the government must rise. The government argues that if cuts are not made today, even higher cuts will be necessary in the future and this will harm the poorest even more. Whilst the Treasury have accepted that there was a ‘marginal loss’ across the population, it is the highest earning households that will suffer the most.
Wednesday of woe as the taxman bites: Changes could leave you £600 worse off Daily Mail, Becky Barrow (6/4/11)
Benefit cuts: Labour warns of ‘Black Wednesday’ BBC News (6/4/11)
Tax and benefit changes: row over financial impact BBC News (6/4/11)
Black Wednesday will hig millions in tax changes and cuts Metro, John Higginson (5/4/11)
Taxman to take extra £750 from families this year Scotsman, Tom Peterkin and Jeff Salway (6/4/11)
Tax and welfare changes will hit women and children hardest, says Ed Balls Guardian, Helene Mullholland, Polly Curtis and Larry Elliott (6/4/11)
Black Wednesday for millions of British families Telegraph (6/4/11)
Majority of households ‘better off’ The Press Association (6/4/11)
- Where does the term ‘Black Wednesday’ come from?
- What is the likely impact of the 1% rise in NICs? Think about the income and substitution effects. Can you illustrate the effect using indifference analysis?
- Why are Labour arguing that women and children will be hit the hardest and the coalition arguing that it is the highest income households who will lose the most? Can both parties be right?
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against bringing in tax and benefit changes today rather than in a few years?
- How might these changes affect the economic recovery?
- Is it equitable that child benefit should eventually be removed from those paying the higher rates of income tax?
- Why has the government indexed benefit payments to rise in line with the CPI rather than the RPI?
This week, we have seen some major potential changes in the UK’s welfare state. One key change involves child benefit. (see Who won’t benefit from child benefit?) However, a more recent development stems from a problem that has built up over a number of years and is not just peculiar to the UK: Pensions.
As technology advances and medical procedures improve, there has been a general increase in life expectancy for both men and women across the world. People are living for longer and longer and hence pensioners can be in retirement for over 30 years. This is over double the retirement time we used to see decades ago. Therefore, pensioners are eligible to receive their state pension or their private pension for much longer and hence the cost is becoming unsustainable.
Lord Hutton has led a review into public sector pension schemes and has concluded that public sector workers should be paying higher contributions. Lord Hutton has said that employees should be working for longer and hence retiring later. This would increase their contributions throughout their lives and also reduce the time period over which they receive a pension, hence cutting costs. There was also a recommendation that ‘final-salary pension schemes should be scrapped and changed to so-called ‘career-average’ schemes. The final-salary scheme benefits high earners and not those who make gradual progression up the career ladder. This possible change should certainly reduce the pension you are eligible to receive and hence should positively affect the sustainability of pension provision in the UK.
However, public sector workers who may face higher contributions and have already, in some cases, faced pay cuts or pay freezes, are unsurprisingly upset. They argue that accepting work in the public sector means accepting a lower wage than they could achieve in the private sector. The compensation, they argue, is the reward of a higher pension, which could be about to change. However, the independent review has found that the contributions made by the public sector do not reflect the true cost of the benefit they receive in their pension. This is likely to be a contentious issue for some time to come. Below are some articles considering this, but keep a look out for further developments.
Public sector pensions report explained BBC News (7/10/10)
Public sector pensions review: Q&A Telegraph (9/10/10)
Pensions reforms to focus on high earners Independent, Simon Read (9/10/10)
Why Lord Hutton could make public pensions bills bigger … not smaller Financial News, Mark Cobley and William Hutchings (8/10/10)
Lord Hutton: I busted the myth that public sector pensions are gold-plated Telegraph, Lord Hutton (8/10/10)
Key points of UK public sector pension review Reuters (8/10/10)
Public pensions review recommends higher contributions BBC News (7/10/10)
Public sector workers paying ‘less tax’ due to generous pension rules Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (8/10/10)
Asda closes final salary pension scheme Telegraph, Jamie Dunkley (9/10/10)
Hutton report: he’s no friend of gold-plated pensioners Guardian, Patrick Collinson (9/10/10)
Asda to close final salary pension scheme BBC News (8/10/10)
Lord Hutton: what the pension revolution means for public servants Telegraph, Emma Simon (8/10/10)
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission: Interim Report Pensions Commission, Lord Hutton October 2010
- What is the purpose of a pension? Think about the idea of redistribution.
- Why should average-career pension schemes be less costly than final-salary pension schemes? Which is the most equitable arrangement?
- What are the key problems that have led to the pensions problem in the UK?
- What are the main recommendations of the independent pension review?
- How is opportunity cost relevant to problem of pensions provision?
- Is it fair that public sector workers should pay higher contributions towards their pensions?
- The BBC News article, Public sector review recommends higher contributions states that: “The recent decision to uprate pensions in line with the consumer prices index (CPI) rather than the retail prices index (RPI) has shaved 15% from the cost of the schemes.” Explain why this is the case?
CPI inflation in the 12 months to September 2009 fell to 1.1% (from 1.6% in the 12 months to August). RPI inflation for the same period was -1.3%. In other words, retail prices actually fell by 1.3% in the 12 months to September. According to the ONS, “By far the largest downward pressure affecting the change in the CPI annual rate came from housing and household services. This was principally due to average gas and electricity bills, which were unchanged between August and September this year but rose a year ago when some of the major suppliers increased their tariffs.” (See below for link.)
If the CPI inflation rate falls below 1% (or rises above 3%), the Governor of the Bank of England is required to write a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer explaining why and also what the Bank of England intends to do about this. The Bank of England targets the forecast CPI inflation 24 months’ hence and attempts to achieve a rate of 2%. Normally, if the forecast rate is below 2%, the Monetary Policy Committee will decide to cut the rate of interest. The last Bank of England Inflation Report (August 2009) forecast CPI inflation of around 1.5% in 24 months’ time. If the November Inflation Report forecasts a similar figure, or even below, what can be done? Bank Rate is already at a historic low of just 0.5% and a further cut is unlikely to have much effect. Should the Bank of England, then, engage in another dose of quantitative easing? Perhaps the letter, if it has soon to be written, will make it clear.
UK consumer price inflation at 5-year low BusinessWeek (13/10/09)
Recession helps push inflation to five-year low Independent (14/10/09)
Inflation falls to lowest in five years Guardian (13/10/09)
Inflation dip likely to be short-lived Guardian (13/10/09)
Deflation, not inflation would be the bigger threat if the Conservatives do what they say Jeremy Warner blog, Telegraph (13/10/09)
Pound hit by falling UK inflation BBC News (13/10/09)
Pound hit by falling UK inflation (video) BBC News (13/10/09)
Pound pays price as inflation slides to five-year low Times Online (14/10/09)
Investors weigh risks of inflation and deflation Financial Times (12/10/09)
Wage ‘catch up’ for public sector BBC Today Programme (14/10/09)
Current data on UK Inflation (National Statistics)
Time series data (annual, quarterly and monthly) on UK prices and inflation Economic and labour Market Review (National Statistics)
- Why did the annual rate of CPI inflation fall so much in September 2009?
- Is the Bank of England Governor likely to have to write a letter (or letters) to the Chancellor in the coming months? Explain why or why not. What is likely to be the role of expectations in determining whether a letter has to be written?
- Why did the sterling exchange rate fall on the announcement of the inflation figure? What are likely to be the effects of this? What will determine the size of these effects?
- Why may additional amounts of quantitative easing be necessary in the coming months? How would a contractionary fiscal policy affect the desirability of additional quantitative easing?