UK risks deepening recession, warns think-tank

The UK economy is sliding into recession, with no let-up in sight in a cost of living crisis that will leave more than 5mn households with their savings exhausted by 2024, according to new forecasts by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

The think-tank expects GDP to fall “slightly” over the second half of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023 but said on Wednesday that the risks of a deeper recession were growing. It saw an “even chance” that GDP would be lower at the end of 2022 than a year earlier.

It also said that regional disparities were widening, with London powering ahead of the rest of the country.

Niesr called on the next prime minister to step up direct support for the poorest households, rather than prioritizing tax cuts, arguing that even if inflation slowed next year, food and energy prices were set to remain at levels that would cause ongoing hardship for many people into 2024.

“Political uncertainty in Westminster is untimely and will delay fiscal support to millions,” Niesr said. It urged the government to increase its energy grant to low-income households and boost benefit payments for at least six months when regulated gas and electricity prices rise again in October.

The £200bn of savings some households had accumulated during the pandemic could help prop up consumer spending in the second half of the year, Niesr said. But these were distributed “highly unequally”, with demand for foreign holidays “surging as millions are reported to be struggling with shopping for household essentials”.

The think-tank predicts that the number of households with no savings at all to fall back on will double to 5.3mn by 2024, with almost 7mn households living from one pay check to the next with savings worth less than two months of disposable income.

More than 1mn households could experience severe destitution, Niesr added, with food and energy bills exceeding their disposable income and forcing them “to choose between eating and heating” or to turn to loan sharks.

“There is no substitute for continued targeted welfare,” Niesr said, noting that the race for the Conservative party leadership had focused on tax cuts rather than the “urgent necessity to continue support for the most vulnerable”.

It also said that the government should use some of its fiscal room to raise public sector pay according to the needs of individual sectors, rather than “with an eye to inflation”, arguing that public services were generally provided without a price, so did not directly feed consumer price inflation.

The think-tank blamed both the Bank of England and the government for allowing high inflation to take hold, arguing that a premature tightening of fiscal policy had left monetary policymakers “reluctant to raise rates with demand still fragile”.

Stephen Millard, Niesr’s deputy director for macroeconomics, said it was now “up to the monetary policy committee to make sure inflation does come down next year and the new chancellor to support those households most affected”.

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