Is pay going up or down? Both, or neither, depending on the measure you use. Photo: Getty
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Pay set is to go up, or down, or stay the same – it all depends on how you measure it

We are heading into a so-called “living standards election” – without accurate data on living standards. Different sides will be able to tell whatever story they want.

We can expect to hear an awful lot about the closing gap between pay and inflation over the next few months as, inevitably and thankfully, on some measure we close in on a “cross-over point” where wages overtake price rises.  

But this poses the question: which measure of inflation and, indeed, which measure of pay?

Confusion abounds on this – and this provides the space for different political parties to choose numbers which stand up the story they want to tell about the recovery and living standards. Get ready for a war of competing statistics.

When it comes to pay, average wages (that is, mean pay across the economy or, more accurately, across employees) regularly get reported as if they relate to the experience of a typical worker in the economy. They don’t – they are skewed by whatever is going on at the top of the distribution. For this reason we need to look at median pay – that of the typical worker. While the period since the financial crisis have been marked by relatively even movements in pay across the earnings distribution, the typical experience in recent decades has been for the mean to significantly outpace the median, reflecting growing wage inequality. No one knows for sure how this will pan out during economic recovery, but few would be surprised if the historic relationship resumes.

The trickier issue is the measure of inflation that should be used to deflate trends in wages. And here there is a bit of disarray. This debate may sound nerdy – indeed, it is quite nerdy – but it matters and we are going to hear a lot about all this, so it’s worth reflecting on.

The Retail Price Index (RPI), introduced after WWII,  was traditionally considered the best measure for gauging what was happening to living standards, covering a wider suite of prices (and generally being higher) than the CPI which was introduced in the 1990s to meet the need for international harmonisation. Recently RPI has fallen out of favour. The formula it uses for aggregating prices (the Carli index, if you are into this sort of thing) has been fairly widely criticised and is thought to overstate inflation, leading the ONS to deem that it no longer qualifies as a National Statistic (though that hasn’t stopped the government from continuing to use it in relation to index-linked gilts and bonds).

This has left CPI as the main reported measure for inflation and it is used for uprating benefits, tax credits, pensions and tax thresholds (the government switched from RPI to CPI for uprating benefits from April 2011 and in doing so made a massive saving). But unlike RPI, CPI takes no account of a range of housing costs, such as mortgage interest payments. Arguably, it tells us quite a lot less about living standards.

The controversy about how to measure inflation is such that the UK Statistics Authority has established two reviews including one by the IFS’s Paul Johnson looking specifically at the arguments for using ‘cost of living’ or ‘cost of goods’ concepts in defining inflation. The former concept is likely to have more relevance for households and for the purposes of deflating pay and incomes; the latter is likely to be more useful from a macroeconomic perspective. As things stand, the various measures used in the UK tend to fall somewhere between these two camps.

Just to complicate matters further, two new measures have been already introduced: CPI-H (which adds an owner occupied housing element to CPI) and RPI-J (which maintains the RPI coverage but uses a more reliable formula similar to CPI). But neither of these measures is used by the government in policy formulation so when it comes to official wage projections we are left with the traditional choice between CPI and RPI.

To see how important – and politically relevant – these different measures can be consider this chart.

Source: OBR, Economic and Fiscal Outllook; and Resolution Foundation modelling

The CPI-deflated mean (average) wage projection is taken directly from the OBR’s latest Economic and Fiscal Outlook. It looks pretty rosy in the years ahead – at least compared to the recent past – and has caught the eye of many economic commentators. But it only tells part of the story.

If we want to get a sense of what this might mean for median pay we can adjust the average (assuming, as discussed above, that the relationship between the mean and median over the next few years is the same as that in the decade prior to the financial crisis).

What the chart shows is that if we then adjust this median wage figure for RPI inflation then pay looks set to fall in the years ahead. But if we use CPI it’s set to rise. And if we try and find some middle ground that avoids the narrowness of CPI or the unreliability of RPI, then we could use an imputed projection for RPI-J. (This assumes – imperfectly, but defensibly – that past relationships hold: holding constant the ratio between annual growth in the RPI and RPI-J in the years ahead, reflecting the relative stability of this ratio over the course of the history of the RPI-J). And under this RPI-J measure, pay is set to flat-line. So according to which measure of inflation you use wages are set to rise. Or flat-line. Or fall. Take your pick.

For now, at least, this leaves us in no man’s land. We are heading into a so-called ‘living standards election’ in which different sides will be able to tell whatever story they want about the prospects for wages depending on the measures used (with no official ‘best measure’). Add to this the fact that when it comes to what is happening to household incomes – a far superior measure of living standards – the only accurate data will be more than two years out of date by polling day. Given that some of our key economic measures are misleading and others are out of date, the electorate should stand ready to be bamboozled. Is this really the best we can do?

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.