Good morning from New Economy Brief.

Recent changes in inflation and average earnings figures have subtly changed the politics of social security uprating this year, intensifying scrutiny of the state pension ‘triple lock’. 

This week we explore how those changes feed through the uprating system and ask whether working age social security payments should have a ‘triple lock’ of their own - a policy which new polling shows has broad political support. 

Falling inflation, rising wages? Last week, media headlines celebrated the biggest six-month fall in inflation in over three decades, proclaiming we’d reached a turning point as monthly CPI showed ‘record pay growth’ outpacing inflation for the first time since the cost of living crisis entered the political lexicon. 

  • It's not all good news, though. The Resolution Foundation’s James Smith reminds us that the UK still faces the worst inflation in the G7 (at 6.8%). The Trades Union Congress’s Alex Collinson criticises the ‘misleading’ positive headlines about this month's pay growth and inflation figures, noting that real pay is still falling and remains £22 per week lower than in 2008. As Collinson notes, headline pay growth is mainly being driven by the finance sector, and most people who work elsewhere in the economy are still not receiving pay rises that outstrip inflation. (Real public sector wages are particularly bad - down £51 per week since 2008).

Pensions will be uprated by (misleading) rising pay growth figures. One consequence of rising headline earnings and falling inflation is that the state pension may be uprated by a higher percentage than working age benefits later this year, because of how the uprating mechanism works. Essentially, under the triple lock, pensions rise each April by whichever is highest: the rate of pay growth (measured in July the previous year), inflation (September figures), or 2.5%. This has protected pensioners’ incomes from inflation since being introduced by the Coalition government in 2010. 

  • But social security will (probably) be uprated by lower headline inflation figures. Yet there is no similar legal mechanism that pegs social security (or indeed the minimum wage) to inflation, meaning civil society has to repeat the same battle to pressure the government to protect the real value of social security benefits from being eroded by inflation. The absence of a triple lock for working age benefits means that for the first time in this cost of living crisis, the state pension will almost certainly increase more than working age social security payments.
  • Already inadequate. The gap between income received from working age benefits and the cost of living continues to grow. In 2013, social security covered 39% of the cost of living for a single person over 25 after housing costs. This has now fallen to just 28%. Universal credit is now falling £890 a month short of paying for essentials, despite its inflation-linked uprating. This is because “rates are not benchmarked to a meaningful assessment of need,” explains the New Economics Foundation’s Sam Tims.
  • Reverse ferret? Interestingly, earlier in the summer when inflation was higher than earnings growth, government sources were briefing that this year the government would save money by starting to use the former as the basis for uprating social security payments. Now the situation is reversed, and though the government has not indicated which metric they will use, it’s still unlikely to be the higher one.

Triple lock for social security? The government should seek to recreate the success of the triple lock policy by applying it to working-age social security payments, as well as the state pension, argues Paul Waugh in the i. Waugh says the policy’s costs over time would be modest, and that it could “cut child poverty as effectively as it has cut pensioner poverty in recent years”. 

  • Politics of the triple lock. Waugh argues that the triple lock should be a driver of social solidarity between generations - rather than used to drive a wedge between them. He cites new polling research from the Stop the Squeeze campaign finding that extending the triple lock to working age benefits would be popular with voters across the political spectrum. (59% back the policy, with only 21% opposed, and twice as many Conservative voters (61%) support the move as oppose it (31%).) 
  • The triple lock on pensions comes under pressure. The Office for Budget Responsibility has warned about the soaring cost of the triple lock on pensions as inflation increases its price tag, but last week Rishi Sunak pledged to protect it despite it costing an extra ~£10bn next year. The Conservatives will be reluctant to drop the triple lock due to their need for ‘the grey vote’, as Onward’s Adam Hawksbee explains: “People of pensionable age make up a sizable portion of the Conservative vote, and those who have shifted towards “don’t know” since 2019 are disproportionately of that demographic.”
Weekly Updates

Paradigm shift

Influential thinkers. In the first instalment of a new regular column for LabourList, IPPR’s George Dibb examines the economic thinkers shaping Labour’s economic agenda. Citing Marianna Mazzucato, Dani Rodrik, Janet Yellen and Heather Boushey, Dibb notes that many of these thinkers are also shaping Bidenomics in the USA.

Energy and inflation

National Energy Guarantee. Labour MP Clive Lewis has tabled an amendment to the forthcoming Energy Bill calling for the introduction of a National Energy Guarantee scheme, which would ensure that everyone can access a basic amount of energy. The scheme is based on a proposal from the New Economics Foundation.

Profits rising. UK firms continue to boost their profit margins amid claims of price gouging during a cost of living crisis, according to the Guardian’s Philip Inman. Inman argues that continuing strong profit data will put pressure on the Bank of England and make their dismissal of warnings over profiteering “increasingly contentious”.

Public services

Sick man of Europe. The UK lags behind peer countries on almost every healthcare measure, argues Professor Dame Sally Davies in the Guardian. Davies, a former chief medical officer for England and chair of the IPPR Commission on Health and Prosperity, makes the point that “sickness is not only a matter of life and death, but of livelihood and opportunity too.”

Climate change and finance

Pension risk. Pension funds could be putting the savings of millions at risk by not properly pricing in risks associated with climate change, according to a new report from Carbon Tracker. The report finds that many funds rely on models that predict few adverse economic effects even with 5 or 7 degrees centigrade of warming - even though climate scientists warn that this would be an existential threat to humanity.

Fiscal policy and tax

Does debt slow growth? The evidence for a threshold above which high public debt starts to harm economic growth is “extremely weak” according to a new analysis from Philipp Heimberger from the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies. The study finds that “the econometric literature has so far not provided robust evidence for consistently negative growth effects of higher public debt levels.”

Unearned income tax. Someone who earns £60,000 a year in capital gains pays less tax than someone with an income of £35,000 from employment, according to new research from the Intergenerational Foundation. The report argues that taxation of unearned income in the UK is a major source of unfairness and is out of step with other similar countries. The IF says that the revenue form equalisation could be used to increase the income tax personal allowance to £13,800 and reduce income tax by 1.25% in every bracket.