4 minute read 12 May 2022
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How the UK economy can endure inflation and geopolitical uncertainty

Authors
Hywel Ball

EY UK Chair and UK&I Managing Partner, Ernst & Young LLP

UK Chair and UK&I Managing Partner. Leading our 17,000 people in the UK. FTSE 100 audit partner. Father of three and Welsh rugby fan.

Peter Arnold

EY UK Chief Economist

A passionate leader and trusted advisor. Over 20 years of experience in economic policy, regulation and competition. Optimising client strategies through the use of analytics and economic analysis.

Contributors
4 minute read 12 May 2022
Related topics Growth COVID-19 Finance Workforce

EY ITEM Club lowers its UK GDP projection in the face of cost-of-living pressures and inflation predicted to be higher for longer.

In brief
  • EY ITEM Club predicts GDP growth of 4.1% for the UK in 2022 — down from our previous forecast of 4.9% and well below the 7.4% GDP increase in 2021.
  • UK’s GDP growth is expected to slow further to 1.9% in 2023, as higher energy prices and the rising cost of other essentials bear down on consumer spending.
  • The headwinds to growth will be cushioned to a degree by a buoyant jobs market and large household savings built up during the pandemic.

The surge in inflation triggered by the economy reopening after the pandemic and geopolitical uncertainty continues to dominate the economic outlook. Cost-of-living pressures on households are intensifying following April 2022’s increase in energy bills, a rise in personal taxes and a big real-terms cut in many state benefits. Against this sombre background, the EY ITEM Club’s Spring 2022 forecast sees economic growth weaker and inflation higher for longer than projected in our previous forecast in February.

The challenges to growth are being offset by economic momentum and household savings

But even with inflation at a multi-decade high and a historic shock to real incomes underway, a recession for the UK is not inevitable. We expect gross domestic product (GDP) to grow by 4.1% in 2022 — well below the 4.9% we forecast three months ago — before slowing to 1.9% in 2023 as inflation curbs households’ spending power. The continued growth reflects the economy’s positive momentum in late 2021 and early 2022, with output having expanded by an unexpectedly fast 1.3% in Q4 2021, followed by an estimated 1% in Q1 2022.

A further positive factor is that some — though by no means all — consumers can draw on ‘excess’ savings built up during the pandemic — now reckoned to total almost £180bn, or 8% of the GDP. These reserves may supplement incomes and cushion the inflationary squeeze on spending. Furthermore, with unsecured debt as a share of incomes at a near 25-year low, households have headroom to borrow more. As these factors play out, we expect the household saving ratio to decrease well below its long-run average(7.1% between 2000-2019). Meanwhile, if energy prices remain high, the Chancellor may announce more fiscal aid in the Budget later this year.

Expected UK GDP growth for 2022

4.1%

Decrease from our Winter forecast of 4.9% in February 2022.

Consumer spending is subject to conflicting forces

There is no guarantee that households will come to the aid of the economy by spending their savings. Fears of a long-term squeeze from expensive energy and higher prices for other essentials may see many consumers continue with more frugal habits learned during the pandemic. Some households lack access to credit and the option of smoothing their spending in the face of real-income falls. Conversely, near-record low unemployment (3.8%) and continued strong demand for workers could encourage some consumers to spend more. Therefore, the prospects for household spending are mixed.

Concerns around inflation, supply chains and geopolitics weigh down on business investment

Turning to business investment, the outlook is rockier. Following an underwhelming recovery in 2021, the temporary super-deduction tax incentive should support a modest pickup in business investment this year. But any rebound will be held back by geopolitical uncertainty, new supply chain issues and rising capital-goods prices. We do not expect business investment to return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2022.

The challenging blend of soaring oil prices, supply-chain bottlenecks and surging inflation has drawn some comparisons with the ‘Great Inflation’ of the 1970s, but these might be overexaggerated. Inflation was already high and rising before the 1973 oil shock, and the UK economy is now much less energy-intensive. Also, employers’ relatively greater power reduces the risk of a wage-price spiral and today’s transformed monetary policy should help to maintain persistently high inflation. Whilst there is still a risk of a longer-term structural shift towards higher inflation, it is fairly remote.

The Monetary Policy Committee will take a cautious approach in raising interest rate

The unexpectedly rapid rise in inflation and concerns about the effect of a tight jobs market on wages mean the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) will probably continue to raise interest rates. But the pressure on demand from the surging costs of energy and other essentials mean that it is likely to approach this cautiously. We now expect one further 25bps (basis points) rise this year, taking Bank Rate to 1.25% by the end of 2022 — less hawkish than the 2%-plus that investors were expecting as of mid-April.

This more dovish approach has been foreshadowed recently by more cautious language from the MPC and downbeat growth forecasts from the Bank of England (BoE) even before the war in Ukraine. Monetary policymakers will not want to trigger a recession by overreacting to the supply shock. Additionally, with the MPC intending to start selling gilts purchased under the Quantitative easing (QE) programme now that the Bank Rate has reached 1%, the Committee may be wary about raising rates too fast — given the uncertainty over the effect ‘quantitative tightening’ may have on the economy. 

Summary

At the start of 2022, rising inflation was already intensifying the cost-of-living pressures facing UK households and pushing down expectations for GDP growth. With current geopolitical uncertainties, the inflationary squeeze has tightened further. Whilst savings amassed during the pandemic may bolster spending by some consumers, the combination of inflation, supply disruptions and geopolitical worries is likely to keep business investment below pre-pandemic levels until the end of this year. But with the MPC taking a measured approach to interest rate rises, the UK should avoid slipping into recession.

About this article

Authors
Hywel Ball

EY UK Chair and UK&I Managing Partner, Ernst & Young LLP

UK Chair and UK&I Managing Partner. Leading our 17,000 people in the UK. FTSE 100 audit partner. Father of three and Welsh rugby fan.

Peter Arnold

EY UK Chief Economist

A passionate leader and trusted advisor. Over 20 years of experience in economic policy, regulation and competition. Optimising client strategies through the use of analytics and economic analysis.

Contributors
Related topics Growth COVID-19 Finance Workforce