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?
Over the decades, economies have become increasingly interdependent. This process of globalisation has involved a growth in international trade, the spread of technology, integrated financial markets and international migration.
When the global economy is growing, globalisation spreads the benefits around the world. However, when there are economic problems in one part of the world, this can spread like a contagion to other parts. This was clearly illustrated by the credit crunch of 2007–8. A crisis that started in the sub-prime market in the USA soon snowballed into a worldwide recession. More recently, the impact of Covid-19 on international supply chains has highlighted the dangers of relying on a highly globalised system of production and distribution. And more recently still, the war in Ukraine has shown the dangers of food and fuel dependency, with rapid rises in prices of basic essentials having a disproportionate effect on low-income countries and people on low incomes in richer countries.
Moves towards autarky
So is the answer for countries to become more self-sufficient – to adopt a policy of greater autarky? Several countries have moved in this direction. The USA under President Trump pursued a much more protectionist agenda than his predecessors. The UK, although seeking new post-Brexit trade relationships, has seen a reduction in trade as new barriers with the EU have reduced UK exports and imports as a percentage of GDP. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s November 2022 Economic and Fiscal Outlook, Brexit will result in the UK’s trade intensity being 15 per cent lower in the long run than if it had remained in the EU.
Many European countries are seeking to achieve greater energy self-sufficiency, both as a means of reducing reliance on Russian oil and gas, but also in pursuit of a green agenda, where a greater proportion of energy is generated from renewables. More generally, countries and companies are considering how to reduce the risks of relying on complex international supply chains.
Limits to the gains from trade
The gains from international trade stem partly from the law of comparative advantage, which states that greater levels of production can be achieved by countries specialising in and exporting those goods that can be produced at a lower opportunity cost and importing those in which they have a comparative disadvantage. Trade can also lead to the transfer of technology and a downward pressure on costs and prices through greater competition.
But trade can increase dependence on unreliable supply sources. For example, at present, some companies are seeking to reduce their reliance on Taiwanese parts, given worries about possible Chinese actions against Taiwan.
Also, governments have been increasingly willing to support domestic industries with various non-tariff barriers to imports, especially since the 2007–8 financial crisis. Such measures include subsidies, favouring domestic firms in awarding government contracts and using regulations to restrict imports. These protectionist measures are often justified in terms of achieving security of supply. The arguments apply particularly starkly in the case of food. In the light of large price increases in the wake of the Ukraine war, many countries are considering how to increase food self-sufficiency, despite it being more costly.
Also, trade in goods involves negative environmental externalities, as freight transport, whether by sea, air or land, involves emissions and can add to global warming. In 2021, shipping emitted over 830m tonnes of CO2, which represents some 3% of world total CO2 emissions. In 2019 (pre-pandemic), the figure was 800m tonnes. The closer geographically the trading partner, the lower these environmental costs are likely to be.
The problems with a globally interdependent world have led to world trade growing more slowly than world GDP in recent years after decades of trade growth considerably outstripping GDP growth. Trade (imports plus exports) as a percentage of GDP peaked at just over 60% in 2008. In 2019 and 2021 it was just over 56%. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint). Although trade as a percentage of GDP rose slightly from 2020 to 2021 as economies recovered from the pandemic, it is expected to have fallen back again in 2022 and possibly further in 2023.
But despite this reduction in trade as a percentage of GDP, with de-globalisation likely to continue for some time, the world remains much more interdependent than in the more distant past (as the chart shows). Greater autarky may be seen as desirable by many countries as a response to the greater economic and political risks of the current world, but greater autarky is a long way from complete self-sufficiency. The world is likely to remain highly interdependent for the foreseeable future. Reports of the ‘death of globalisation’ are premature!
- Explain the law of comparative advantage and demonstrate how trade between two countries can lead to both countries gaining.
- What are the main economic problems arising from globalisation?
- Is the answer to the problems of globalisation to move towards greater autarky?
- Would the expansion/further integration of trading blocs be a means of exploiting the benefits of globalisation while reducing the risks?
- Is the role of the US dollar likely to decline over time and, if so, why?
- Summarise Karl Polanyi’s arguments in The Great Transformation (see the Daniel W. Drezner article linked below). How well do they apply to the current world situation?
Aggregate demand has been booming as the world bounces back from the pandemic. At the same time, aggregate supply is severely constrained. These supply constraints are making potential national income smaller – at least temporarily. The result is that many countries are heading for recession.
At the same time, supply constraints are causing prices to rise, especially energy and food prices. This cost-push inflation is made worse by the rises in aggregate demand.
The result is ‘stagflation’ – a recession, or stagnation, accompanied by high inflation. In the UK, the latest Bank of England Monetary Policy Report forecast that by the end of 2022, CPI inflation would be 13.1% and that in 2023, real GDP would fall by 1.5%.
This effect of an adverse supply shock accompanied by relatively buoyant aggregate demand (at least initially) can be illustrated with an aggregate demand and supply diagram. The supply shock is illustrated by an upward shift to the left of the short-run aggregate supply curve (SRAS). (If the shock is a direct rise in prices, then it can be seen as a vertical upward shift. If it is a fall in the total amount supplied, then it can be seen as a horizontal leftward shift.) In the diagram, aggregate supply shifts from SRAS1 to SRAS2. The price level rises from P1 to P2. If costs go on rising or supply goes on falling then the curve will go on shifting upwards to the left.
If the government responds by increasing benefits or reducing taxes, then, other things being
equal, aggregate demand will rise. In the diagram, the AD curve will shift to the right, e.g. from AD1 to AD2. Real GDP only falls to Y3 not Y2. However, the price level rises further: from P2 to P3.
Why has aggregate supply fallen?
There are several factors that have contributed to the fall in aggregate supply/rise in costs.
- Stretched supply chains, which had been adversely affected by Covid. Congestion at container ports has led to delays, with warehouses and shops being short of stock.
- Labour shortages, with many people not returning to the labour force after being laid off or furloughed, or only returning part time, leaving firms needing more people. The problem has been particularly acute in the UK, with many EU citizens having returned to the EU after Brexit and the UK having to rely increasingly on staff from outside the EU.
- The war in Ukraine. This has had a major impact on the supply of natural gas and oil. The war has also led to a fall in grain and other food supplies from Ukraine, as ports have been blockaded and there have been disruptions to planting and harvesting.
- Climate change is causing more severe weather events, such as droughts in Europe and western USA. The droughts of 2022 will compound the problem of food shortages and food price inflation.
- In the UK, Brexit costs, such as increased administrative burdens and difficulties in both exporting and importing, have dampened production and hence adversely impacted on aggregate supply.
- Increased industrial action. As the cost of living soars, unions are demanding pay increases to match the rise in the cost of living. Pay rises further increase firms’ costs – and the bigger the pay rises, the bigger the rise in costs.
The problem with a fall in aggregate supply is that it reduces real GDP. People as a whole are poorer. To use a common analogy, the national ‘pie’ has shrunk. Giving everyone a bigger knife and fork (i.e. a rise in nominal aggregate demand) will not make people better off. It just compounds the problem of rising prices, as the diagram shows.
In the short term, with GDP shrinking, there is a major issue of distribution. If the poor are to be given help so that they are not made even poorer, then other people will have been made worse off. In other words, their nominal incomes must rise more slowly than prices.
Central banks generally have a mandate of keeping inflation close to 2% over the medium term. Their levers are changes in interest rates, underpinned by changes in the money supply – in extreme times by quantitative easing (creating money by buying assets with newly created money) or quantitative tightening (withdrawing money from the economy by selling assets). Central banks, faced by soaring inflation, have been raising interest rates. The Fed has recently raised the Federal Funds rate by 0.75 percentage points (75 basis points) and the Bank of England and the European Central Bank by 0.5 percentage points (50 basis points).
Raising interest rates reduces inflation by dampening aggregate demand. In the diagram, the AD curve shifts to the left (or shifts to the right less quickly). This will dampen inflation, as falling real demand will force firms to cut prices. But it will also force them to cut output and employment, thereby worsening the recession.
Central banks recognise this dilemma, but also recognise that if inflation is not brought rapidly under control, it could spiral upwards, with wages and prices chasing each other in a wage–price spiral, which only gets worse as inflationary expectations rise. The short-term pain of falling real income is a price worth paying for getting inflation under control.
In the short term, there is little that fiscal policy can do to raise real GDP. The focus, as it was during the pandemic, must therefore be in providing relief to those most in need.
In the UK, the energy price cap set by Ofgem will see likely energy bills for the typical household quadruple in just a year, from a little over £1000 per annum at January 2021 prices to over £4200 in predicted January 2023 prices. These higher prices partly reflect rising wholesale energy costs and partly the need for energy companies, in a process known as ‘backwardation’, to recoup hedging costs they have incurred so as not to be forced out of business.
Relief for consumers can be in various forms. For example, the government could pay subsidies to energy suppliers to cap prices at a lower level, perhaps just for the poorest households. Or it could pay grants to help people with their bills. Again, these could be targeted to the poorest families, or paid on a sliding scale according to income. Or VAT on gas and electricity could be scrapped.
Generally the more people are entitled to help, the more expensive it is for the government and hence the less generous the help per family is likely to be.
Then there is the question of whether such measures should be accompanied by a rise in broadly-based tax, such as income tax, or whether the government should borrow more, which would be likely to push up interest rates and increase the cost of servicing government debt.
One topic of debate in the Conservative leadership contest is whether taxes should be cut to help people struggling with the cost of living. Whilst such a policy, if carefully targeted to investment, might increase aggregate supply over the longer term, in the short term it will increase aggregate demand and will add to inflationary pressures.
Targeting tax cuts to the poor is difficult. Cutting income tax rates has the opposite effect. The rich pay more income tax than the poor and will benefit most from a cut in rates. An alternative is to raise personal allowances. This will provide a bigger percentage help to income taxpayers on lower incomes, but provides no help at all for the poorest people who currently pay no income tax.
The supply shocks are making countries poorer. The focus in the short term, therefore, needs to be on income distribution and how to help those suffering the most.
To end on a note of optimism: the energy shocks are causing governments to invest in alternative sources, such as wind, solar and nuclear. When these come on line, it is expected that energy prices will fall.
As far as overall inflation is concerned, although the Bank of England is forecasting CPI inflation of 13.1% by Q4 2022, it is also forecasting that this will have fallen to 5.5% by Q4 2023 and to just 0.8% by Q3 2024. Fingers crossed.
Inflation across the world has been rising. This has been caused by a rise in aggregate demand as the global economy has ‘bounced back’ from the pandemic, while supply-chain disruptions and tight labour markets constrain the ability of aggregate supply to respond to the rise in demand.
But what of the coming months? Will supply become more able to respond to demand as supply-chain issues ease, allowing further economic growth and an easing of inflationary pressures?
Or will higher inflation and higher taxes dampen real demand and cause growth, or even output, to fall? Are we about to enter an era of ‘stagflation’, where economies experience rising inflation and economic stagnation? And will stagnation be made worse by central banks which raise interest rates to dampen the inflation but, in the process, dampen spending.
Despite the worries of central banks, with inflation being higher than forecast a few months ago, forecasts (e.g. the OECD’s) are still for inflation to peak fairly soon and then to fall back to around 2 to 3 per cent by the beginning of 2023 – close to central bank target rates.
In the UK, annual CPI inflation reached 5.4% in December 2021. The UK Treasury’s January 2022 new monthly forecasts for the UK economy by 15 independent institutions give an average forecast of 4.0% for CPI inflation for 2022. In the USA, annual consumer price inflation reached 7 per cent in December 2021, but is forecast to fall to just over the target rate of 2% by the end of 2022.
If central banks respond to the current high inflation by raising interest rates more than very slightly and by stopping quantitative easing (QE), or even engaging in quantitative tightening (selling assets purchased under previous QE schemes), there is a severe risk of a sharp slowdown in economic activity. Household budgets are already being squeezed by the higher prices, especially energy and food prices. And people will face higher taxes as governments seek to reduce their debts, which soared with the Covid support packages during the pandemic.
The Fed has signalled that it will end its bond buying (QE) programme in March 2022 and may well raise interest rates at the same time. Quantitative tightening may then follow. But although GDP growth is still strong in the USA, Fed policy and stretched household budgets could well see spending slow and growth fall. Stagflation is less likely in the USA than in the UK and many other countries, but there is still the danger of over-reaction by the Fed given the predicted fall in inflation.
But there are reasons to be confident that stagflation can be avoided. Supply-chain bottlenecks are likely to ease and are already showing signs of doing so, with manufacturing production recovering and hold-ups at docks easing. The danger may increasingly become one of demand being excessively dampened rather than supply being constrained. Under these circumstances, inflation could rapidly fall, as is being forecast.
Nevertheless, as Covid restrictions ease, the hospitality and leisure sector is likely to see a resurgence in demand, despite stagnant or falling real disposable incomes, and here there are supply constraints in the form of staffing shortages. This could well lead to higher wages and prices in the sector, but probably not enough to prevent the fall in inflation.
- Inflation will probably melt away in 2022 – central banks will do far more harm trying to tackle it
The Conversation, Brigitte Granville (14/1/22)
- Stagflation and why it matters
The Week, Chas Newkey-Burden (1/10/21)
- Surging inflation could dwarf other issues in the political landscape as households feel the strain
Sky News, Ed Conway (19/1/22)
- Inflation is back, and there’s plenty more in the pipeline
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (19/1/22)
- UK inflation jumps to highest level in 30 years
Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/1/22)
- UK workers’ pay rises fall behind inflation amid cost-of-living crisis
The Guardian, Richard Partington (18/1/22)
- UK faces a pay squeeze – and higher interest rates look likely
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (18/1/22)
- Inflation: why it’s temporary and raising interest rates will do more harm than good
The Conversation, Muhammad Ali Nasir (22/11/21)
- Inflation: why it is the biggest test yet for central bank independence
The Conversation, Anton Muscatelli (14/12/21)
- Three more interest rate rises loom after Bank’s borrowing cost shock
The Telegraph, Russell Lynch and Tim Wallace (16/12/21)
- US Stagflation: The Global Risk Of 2022 – OpEd
Eurasia Review, Dan Steinbock (17/1/22)
- If prices keep rising, a nightmare scenario for the US economy is a real possibility
CNN, Paul R La Monica (12/1/22)
- Will inflation in the UK keep rising?
Bank of England (10/12/21)
- Under what circumstances would stagflation be (a) more likely; (b) less likely?
- Find out the causes of stagflation in the early/mid-1970s.
- Argue the case for and against the Fed raising interest rates and ending its asset buying programme.
- Why are labour shortages likely to be higher in the UK than in many other countries?
- Research what is likely to happen to fuel prices over the next two years. How is this likely to impact on inflation and economic growth?
- Is the rise in prices likely to increase or decrease real wage inequality? Explain.
- Distinguish between cost-push and demand-pull inflation. Which of the two is more likely to result in stagflation?
- Why are inflationary expectations a major determinant of actual inflation? What influences inflationary expectations?
Shipping and supply chains generally have experienced major problems in 2021. The global pandemic disrupted the flow of trade, and the bounce-back in the summer of 2021 saw supply chains stretched as staff shortages and physical capacity limits hit the transport of freight. Ships were held up at ports waiting for unloading and onward transportation. The just-in-time methods of delivery and stock holding were put under considerable strain.
The problems were compounded by the blockage of the Suez canal in March 2021. As the blog, JIT or Illegit stated “When the large container ship, the Ever Given, en route from Malaysia to Felixtowe, was wedged in the Suez canal for six days in March this year, the blockage caused shipping to be backed up. By day six, 367 container ships were waiting to transit the canal. The disruption to supply cost some £730m.”
Another major event in 2021 was the Glasgow COP26 climate conference and the growing willingness of countries to commit to decarbonising their economies. But whereas electricity can be generated from renewable sources, and factories and land transport, such as cars, vans and trains, can run on electricity, it is not so easy to decarbonise shipping, especially for long journeys. They cannot plug in to the grid or draw down from overhead cables. They have to carry their own fuel sources with them.
So, have the pandemic and the Ever Given incident exposed weaknesses in the global supply chain and in shipping in particular? And, if so, in what ways is shipping likely to adapt? And will the pressure to decarbonise lead to a radical rethinking of shipping and long-distance trade?
These are some of the issues considered in the podcast linked below. In it, “Shipping strategist Mark Williams tells Helen Lewis how examining the challenge of decarbonising shipping reveals a future which looks radically different to today, in a world where population, oil extraction and economic growth have all peaked, and trade is transformed”.
Listen to the podcast and have a go at the questions below which are based directly on it.
- Why should we care about the shipping industry?
- What lessons can be drawn from the Ever Given incident?
- What structural changes are needed to make shipping an industry fit for the long-term demands of the global economy?
- Distinguish between just-in-time supply chains and just-in-case supply chains.
- What are ‘reshoring’ and ‘nearshoring’? How have they been driven by a growth in trade barriers?
- What are the implications of reshoring and nearshoring for (a) globalisation and (b) the UK’s trading position post-Brexit?
- What is the contribution of shipping to global greenhouse gas emissions? What other pollutants are emitted from the burning of heavy fuel oil (or ‘bunker fuel’)?
- What levers exist to persuade shipping companies to decarbonise their vessels?
- What alternative ‘green’ fuels are available to power ships?
- What are the difficulties in switching to such fuels?
- What economies of scale are there in shipping?
- How do the ownership patterns in shipping benefit decision making and change in the industry?
- Are ammonia or nuclear power the answer to the decarbonisation of shipping? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
- Why are President Xi’s views on the future of shipping so important?
- How will the decarbonisation of economies affect the demand for shipping?
- What is likely to happen to Chinese demand for iron ore and coking coal over the coming years? What effect will it have on shipping?
- How and by how much is the European Emissions Trading System likely to contribute to the decarbonisation of shipping?
- What is the Sea Cargo Charter? What difference is it likely to make to the decarbonisation of shipping?
- In what ways do cargo ships optimise productivity?
- What impact is slowing population growth, or even no population growth, likely to have on shipping?