Jobs and pay cut: it’s grim out there

Allister Heath
FOR the British economy, yesterday was another Black Wednesday. We learnt that employment – ultimately, the central measure of an economy’s ability to deliver for the public – fell by 109,000 over the past year, with a worried and battered private sector failing to create enough jobs to compensate for necessary public sector job losses. Unemployment is up, especially among young people; the tragedy that is joblessness is once again a reality for millions of Britons. Proper action by the government to deregulate the supply-side of the economy and tap private sector financing for infrastructure projects is more urgently needed than ever; so far, the proposals announced have been mealy-mouthed and insufficient. The present ultra-regulated labour market is good for some of those who have a job (the insiders) – but it is terrible for those who don’t have one (the outsiders). Let us hope that George Osborne addresses this properly when he unveils his growth strategy on 29 November; as a starting point, he should embrace Dominic Raab MP’s proposals for ten regulatory reforms published yesterday by the Centre for Policy Studies.

It was not just unemployment that is dire. Real take-home pay after tax and inflation continues to fall sharply. Total pay (including bonuses) rose just 2.3 per cent on a year earlier; regular pay (excluding bonuses) rose by 1.7 per cent. In real terms, after adjusting for the retail price index, total average earnings are now down by eight per cent from their February 2008 peak. Real earnings before bonuses are down 7.4 per cent in real terms from their January 2009 peak, according to an analysis of the official figures by Europe Economics. The UK remains a poorer place than it was several years ago in terms of how much output it produces – and this is being reflected in the lower take-home pay of its workers. The reason why the drop in real wages is greater than the 3-4 per cent remaining drop in GDP is because Britain’s terms of trade have deteriorated sharply, and sterling is down by between a quarter and a fifth.

The Bank of England was also extraordinarily gloomy on growth yesterday. It now thinks GDP will expand by about one per cent next year, with risks to the downside; I’m afraid that its pessimism sounds warranted, especially given that the Eurozone continues to deteriorate by the day. Its inflation forecast is far less plausible, however: the Bank is right that price rises have peaked for the time being and will fall back – but it goes too far in believing that inflation will collapse to under its target.

The current gradual reduction in price pressures will continue into next year: the consumer price index (CPI) measure of annual inflation – the government’s target – was 5.0 per cent in October, down from 5.2 per cent in September. The retail price index (RPI) was up 5.4 per cent in October, down from 5.6 per cent in September. But as Milton Friedman famously said, the impact of monetary action is always tough to assess because of the long and variable lags between the change in policy and its effect. The latest £75bn in quantitative easing is bound to have an impact on consumer prices at some stage, as will all the extra quantitative easing on top of this implied by the Bank’s forecasts yesterday. For the chancellor, there is just one ray of light. He won’t have to worry too much about selling his gilts: the Bank will be buying up even more than he can print.
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath