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?
National debt has increased rapidly over the past few years. In 2006/7 general government debt was £577.8bn or 42.9% of GDP. In 2009/10 it was £1000.4bn or 71.3% of GDP. It is set to go higher, with government debt forecast to be around 87% of GDP in 2011. This compares with forecasts of 82% for Germany, 87% for France, 103% for the USA, 134% for Greece and 195% for Japan.
Getting the deficit and debt down has, not surprisingly, become an issue in many countries. In the UK it has become the major current pre-occupation of the Coalition government and on 20 October it is set to announce major public spending cuts as a means of achieving this.
To get a flavour of the government’s thinking and the message that ministers are putting out to the electorate, the following are quotes from the Prime Minister’s and then the Chancellor’s speeches to the Conservative Party Conference:
This year, we’re going to spend £43 billion pounds on debt interest payments alone. £43 billion – not to pay off the debt – just to stand still. Do you know what we could do with that sort of money? We could take eleven million people out of paying income tax altogether. We could take every business in the country out of corporation tax. That’s why we have acted decisively – to stop pouring so much of your hard-earned money down the drain. We are already paying £120m of interest every single day thanks to the last Labour government. (David Cameron)
It’s the borrowing that doesn’t go away as the economy grows, and we have £109bn of it. It’s like with a credit card. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets. You pay more interest. You pay interest on the interest. You pay interest on the interest on the interest. We are already paying £120m of interest every single day thanks to the last Labour government. Millions of pounds every day that goes to the foreign governments we owe so they can build the schools and hospitals for their own citizens that we aren’t able to afford for ours. How dare Labour call that protecting the poor? (George Osborne)
Let’s unpick this a bit. Who earns the interest? The answer is that it is paid to holders of government debt in the form of government bonds (gilts), national savings certificates, premium bonds, etc. In other words it is paid to savers, whether individuals or pension funds or companies.
Does it all go abroad? In fact 29% of gilts are held abroad. The rest are held by British residents. Thus some 70% of the interest rate paid on government debt goes to British residents and supports pensions and savers. It can thus be seen as a transfer from taxpayers to savers.
Because of the record low interest rates many pensioners who rely on savings interest have seen their incomes fall dramatically. Others draw income from a ‘self-invested personal pension’. The amount that can be drawn each year is based on tables according to a person’s age and the current 15-year Treasury gilt yield (currently 3.45%). Thus the lower the rate of interest, and the less the yield, the less that can be drawn.
So who are the gainers and losers from high general government debt and attempts to get it down? Read the following articles and look at the data and then try answering the questions.
Britons have donated £7m to help pay off the national debt (but that’s a drop in the ocean) Mail Online, Daniel Martin (9/10/10)
A trillion and rising: Britain’s £1,000,000,000,000 debt means it is now paying as much in interest as it does for defence Mail Online, Hugo Duncan (1/10/10)
Spending cuts “not enough”, say small firms Telegraph, James Hurley (8/10/10)
UK public finances post record August deficit Guardian, Julia Kollewe (21/9/10)
Another paradox of thrift The Economist, Buttonwood (16/9/10)
The gilt market UK Debt Management Office
Gilt market data UK Debt Management Office
Overseas gilt holdings UK Debt Management Office
Public sector: current position ONS (30/9/10)
Public sector finances ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/9/10)
Government deficit and debt under the Maastricht Treaty ONS Statistical Bulletin (30/9/10)
Contributions to the government deficit and debt ONS Statistical Bulletin (31/3/10)
- Explain the difference between central government, general government and public-sector deficits and debt.
- Who loses from a rising public-sector debt? Who gains?
- Conduct an international comparison of (a) the level of the government deficit and debt and (b) their rate of growth over the past few years.
- What is meant by the ‘yield’ on a particular gilt?
- If gilt yields fall, does this mean that the government pays less on existing gilts? Is it likely to pay less on new gilt issues? Explain.
- How do cuts affect the distribution between savers and borrowers?
Northern Rock seems to have had a fixed place in the news for the past year or so. Unfortunately, the advertising it’s been getting hasn’t been positive. The usual picture was one of a Northern Rock branch and a few hundred people queuing outside, ready to withdraw their savings.
In the financial crisis, the banking sector has been at the forefront of economic policy and billions of pounds of public money have been invested in banks simply to keep them afloat and encourage them to keep lending. But now the government, in a measure approved by the European Commission, is considering selliing part of Northern Rock, by splitting it into a ‘good bank’, which will be returned to the private sector, and a ‘bad bank’, which will have to remain nationalised. This bad bank would gradually run down its assets and eventually be liquidated. Similar plans are being considered for the part-nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group.
Northern Rock’s loan book will be cut from £100bn pre-crisis to just £20bn to ensure that a bank which enjoyed state support should not have “an unfair competitive advantage”. Savers with Northern Rock will find themselves in the ‘good’ bank, while mortgage customers with arrears and those who are regarded as risky, will be seen as ‘bad’ bank clients.
The buyers of these banks remain unknown. Tesco was considered to be a possible buyer of Northern Rock but has pulled out, with plans to build a new full-service bank itself. Established banks, such as Barclays, will not be allowed to make a purchase and the FSA has stated that standards will not be dropped to allow new competitors to enter the market, especially given that much of the banking crisis is due to poor standards and insufficient regulation. National Australia Bank, the owners of Yorkshire and Clydesdale, is a possible buyer, as too is Virgin Money, even though it would require new finance and possibly new partners. Some potential bidders may be ruled out by competition considerations. So let the games begin!
The following articles look at the banking situation and the possible developments.
Where Gordon Brown feared to tread, Kroes is ready to trample Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (28/10/09)
Lloyds eyes capital raising plans BBC News (29/10/09)
Tesco rules out Northern Rock takeover Guardian, Julia Finch (28/10/09)
EU approves Northern Rock split BBC News (28/10/09)
The Business Podcast: The break-up of Northern Rock Guardian (28/10/09)
Lloyds Banking share price could scupper offer SME Web, Roberta Murray (29/10/09)
Roll up, roll up, for the great bank sell off Independent, Richard Northedge (8/11/09)
Treasury says Northern Rock may lose savers as Government pulls out The Times, Francis Elliott and Suzy Jagger (5/11/09)
Union fears for 25,000 jobs as EU insists Lloyds and RBS must shed branches Guardian, Jill Treanor (3/11/09)
Decision time for Lloyds shareholders BBC News, Money Talk, Justin Urquhart Stewart (11/11/09)
The Business podcast: The break-up of Northern Rock Guardian (28/10/09)
Details of the European Commission ruling on the restructuring of Northern Rock can be found at:
State aid: Commission approves restructuring package for Northern Rock
- What started all the trouble at Northern Rock?
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against the break up of Northern Rock and the other banks that received state aid? Do you think the right decision has been made?
- The BBC News article ‘Lloyds eyes capital raising plans’ refers to 43% of Lloyds being owned by the tax payer. What does this mean and how has it happened?
- Why do you think Tesco has decided not to put in a bid to take over Northern Rock?
- Consider the potential bidders for these new ‘good’ and ‘bad’ banks. In each case, consider the (a) advantages and (b) disadvantages. Then, explain the type of take-over or merger this would be and whether there could be any competition considerations.
- One of the aims of recent developments in the banking sector is to increase competition. Why is this so important and how will it affect consumers and businesses?