Dr Gerard Lyons is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was Chief Economic Adviser to Boris Johnson during his second term as Mayor of London.
Crisis? What crisis? The good news is that the economic rebound continues, and the jobs market has returned to broad health. We may also be over the worst of the pandemic, although possible new variants mean that learning to live with Covid and avoiding further restrictions may be a key priority this year.
Yet it is not this recovery but two other economic matters that look set to dominate policy this year: the immediate cost of living crisis and, less talked about, where growth will settle post-pandemic. Views on the latter may influence how policy responds to the former.
While the consensus expects growth around 4.5 per cent this year, after seven per cent last, there is still much pessimism about the future trend rate of growth.
It decelerated following the 2008 global financial crisis. If future growth is low, more of the budget deficit is structural, not cyclical, and needs to be addressed through fiscal restraint – a squeeze on spending or higher taxes. That thinking, which seems to dominate at the Treasury, will be resistant to reversing planned tax hikes for this spring.
Moreover, the economic consensus is that Brexit will exacerbate this challenge. However, despite this common refrain, tax rises are not inevitable. It is not leaving the EU but what you choose to do after you have left that helps determine future growth. In this respect, the Government still needs to articulate a market-friendly pro-growth economic strategy.
It also has bearings for now. There is no easy way to stop a cost-of-living crisis, but the first thing you should do is not implement policies that will make it worse.
The present crisis has multiple components. Inflation that is set to peak at over seven per cent in the spring. Higher energy prices though global in origin, are exacerbated here by decades of poor energy policies, including price caps that are now being lifted.
Furthermore, there have been two separate decisions taken to raise taxes this spring: higher national insurance, and a stealth tax in the form of a freeze on income tax allowances. And then there is a postponement of the triple lock on pensions, which means that they will rise by less than the increase in inflation this year.
Often at times of economic shocks, the search is for a timely, targeted and temporary response – that is, one that addresses the immediate problem but does not change longer-term policy.
Currently, policy is looking at how to support those most in need, which raises questions of how it can be funded.
Temporary financial help as offered during the pandemic would be one approach. It could be paid for by a windfall tax on energy firms. Such a measure would not be ideal, but it has been tried before, for example on North Sea oil producers and banks.
The argument against a windfall tax is the message that it sends. Firms across all sectors may need to factor in that high future profits could be seen as a cash cow by future governments, and this might deter planned investment in the UK by attaching a risk premium to it. Corporate tax rates have already risen, adding to the anti-business perception.
Another option is to cut the five per cent VAT on fuel. The saving, while small, will help those on low incomes. That measure alone, however, would not be enough in itself. And the Prime Minister seems to have ruled the move out as a blunt measure that disproportionately benefits higher earners.
It also appears that the planned tax increases will not be reversed – particularly as the hike in national insurance was effectively presented as a hypothecated tax for health and social care. Reversing this would reopen questions about how to fund the latter.
However, reversing the tax increases makes more economic sense. Not just because it would alleviate the cost-of-living challenge, but because the fiscal numbers, while poor, are improving and mean that such tightening is a choice, not a necessity.
These decisions are not easy. There is no right or wrong answer. They are about judgement calls – to address the immediate challenge as well as to position for the future.
A current economic debate is about how much fiscal space governments have, despite public debt levels being at an all-time high globally. The debate is less concerned with providing a case for rampant state spending, and more with avoiding being pushed into tightening fiscal policy unnecessarily.
A high level of debt adds to problems, but if the rate of interest is less than the rate of economic growth it creates fiscal space, and improves the chances of debt sustainability. Debt to GDP can be reduced steadily, provided growth is solid and inflation does not let rip. The latter forces rates and yields up, hampering growth.
However, the Bank of England has been asleep at the wheel over the last year. The risk is that the inflation genie is already out of the bottle, as inflation expectations rise and firms increase prices.
In all likelihood, inflation will peak in the second quarter – since some of the initial supply shocks are now over and imported inflation may have peaked already – and, after staying elevated for a short while, will decelerate.
But chances cannot be taken and inflationary risks will force the Bank to raise policy rates this year, and reverse its printing of money by implementing Quantitative Tightening (QT).
We witnessed a short-lived cost-of-living crisis in the wake of 2008, when a weaker pound triggered a temporary rise in inflation. But the last such major crisis was in the mid-1970s.
There is a need not to be taken in too much with current comparisons being made with that decade, since the economy and environment are so different.
While there are not many economic lessons to heed from that period, one springs to mind. In a battle against a rising cost of living, it is vital to have the public on side. Not only so that they can understand the tough policy context, but also in the case of inflation to avoid what are called second-round effects – or put more bluntly, a wage-price spiral.
In June 1975, the annual rate of inflation hit 26 per cent. The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, decided that every household needed to receive by post a pamphlet about his policy to fight inflation. I still have a copy.
Entitled Attack on inflation: A Policy for Survival – a Guide to the Government’s programme, its 16 pages made clear why inflation needed to be brought under control. One telling message, in bold capitals was: “the battle (against inflation) cannot be won in one year…but the battle could be lost in one year.”
In the event, the Labour Government lost the battle. Policy focused on a wages and income policy, culminating in the “winter of discontent” in 1978-79. The annual rate of inflation did not fall back into single digits until 1982, after Mrs Thatcher was in power, and also following a deep recession.
I am not advocating such a booklet now, but rather stressing the importance of ensuring that people understand the context of what is happening, especially when here is so much uncertainty and the pain may be severe but short-lived.
The best that can be done is to control the controllables. Provide assistance, ease the pain, reverse the tax hikes, explain why – and focus on a pro-growth strategy.