On Wednesday, the Chancellor announced a £159 billion package to tackle the challenges arising from the Covid-19 crisis. In this blog, I will discuss three of the Chancellor’s announcements: the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) phase-out plan, the series of policies under ‘Supporting Jobs’, and the VAT reduction for the hospitality sector.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has conducted a survey on the impact of Covid-19 on UK businesses which sheds some light on their state as we move from a phase of acute disruption due to the crisis to one of initial recovery, and shows which policies have been used most. The latest results, for the first half of June 2020, show that 95% of respondents (in both ‘SME’ and ‘large’ categories) used the furlough scheme, and more than half the respondents benefited from VAT payment deferrals. The response in relation to the furlough scheme is in line with evidence from Norway: Alstadsaeter et al. (2020) find that the most important schemes during the initial phases of the Covid-19 crisis have been those that relate to employer-employee relationships and in general, support the labour force.
A paper I co-authored with colleagues at the CBT, as well as Michael Devereux’s earlier blog, argues that the transition out of the furlough scheme should come partially in the form of employment subsidies, in combination with a partial furlough applying to workers on reduced hours. Return to work on reduced hours is now supported within the furlough scheme, a welcome adjustment in line with the idea of a gradual phase-out rather than an abrupt termination of the scheme. The £1,000 Job Retention Bonus for retaining workers from October through to January is broadly in line with the employment subsidy that we proposed. However, it is not clear that the size of the subsidy is high enough to induce businesses to re-employ furloughed workers. And the fact that it is a lump-sum also means that it will be more effective in helping the re-employment of lower paid workers.
For a worker employed full-time at the minimum wage, the three-monthly salary cost amounts to around £4,200, in which case the employment subsidy is below 25% – which may be too low to have a significant impact. But the rate of support falls further as pay increases, making it less likely that businesses will retain higher-skilled employees and employees in more skill-intensive jobs. Overall, the employment subsidy is a welcome development, but at the current rates of support, some businesses will inevitably lay off workers with job-specific skills from October onwards. Facilitating matches between the newly-unemployed skilled workforce and vacancies may entail substantial costs. After the layoffs, re-training will be very important for these workers to return to employment.
As these workers are laid off, the demand for such workers may not pick up quickly, given the uncertainty that still prevails in the economic environment. The package allocates £2.1 billion to the Kickstart scheme, targeted at 16-24-year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, and another £1.6 billion to apprenticeships, other youth programmes and to expanding the Jobcentre Plus support for the unemployed.
Another major announcement is the temporary VAT rate cut for the hospitality sector from 20% to 5%. In his blog last week, Eddy Tam argued that VAT rate cuts may lead to higher demand by UK consumers, pointing to evidence from an earlier VAT rate cut during the 2008-09 recession. But this crisis is like no other. The Chancellor’s announcements on the VAT reduction and Eat Out to Help Out are very specific and may have arrived too soon.
They may have arrived too soon because the hospitality sector is still facing significant capacity constraints due to the requirement to be socially-distanced environments. That is a supply-side constraint, not a demand-side constraint. Increasing demand may then have little impact on the total size of business of the sector. Targeting the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to weekdays that are normally quiet seems like a small attempt to address this issue.
However the effects of the VAT rate cuts may also help businesses more directly. Studying a VAT rate cut for restaurants in France, Benzarti and Carloni (2019) find that 55% of the proceeds from the rate cut is absorbed by business owners, rather than the customers or the employees. In the current environment, that represents additional support for troubled businesses – even if the stated aim of the policy is to stimulate demand and employment. Second, experience shows that prices are more likely to respond to VAT increases, but they are found to be less respondent to VAT reductions in the same way (Benzarti et al., 2020). If this is the case, a temporary VAT cut might even result in higher prices after the policy ends.
The policies announced by the Chancellor announced on Wednesday are a welcome step in the direction of supporting a speedy recovery, to maintain otherwise viable UK businesses, and to protect and create jobs. But the Job Retention Bonus may not be of sufficient scale. And targeting very specific activities too soon may generate distortions and tighten government finances without improving the society’s overall welfare, especially if the current constraints are on the supply side rather than on the demand side.
Alstadsaeter, A., Bjorkheim, J.B., Kopczuk, W., Okland, A. (2020) “Norwegian and US policies alleviate business vulnerability due to the Covid-19 shock equally well”, mimeo.
Benzarti, Y. and Carloni, D. (2019) “Who Really Benefits from Consumption Tax Cuts?
Evidence from a Large VAT Reform in France” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, February 2019.
Benzarti, Y., Carloni, D., Harju, J, and Kosonen, T. (2020) “What Goes Up May Not Come Down: Asymmetric Incidence of Value-Added Taxes”, Journal of Political Economy, December 2020.
Recent relevant research from the Centre for Business Taxation:
Discretionary Fiscal Responses to the Covid-19 Pandemic, Michael P. Devereux, İrem Güçeri, Martin Simmler and Eddy Tam, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, June 2020.
Tax Policy and the COVID-19 Crisis, Richard Collier, Alice Pirlot, John Vella, Intertax, forthcoming.
COVID-19 Challenges for the Arm’s-Length Principle, Matt Andrew and Richard Collier, Tax Notes, Volume 98, Number 12, June 22, 2020.
 See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-plan-for-jobs-documents/a-plan-for-jobs-2020.
 The caveat of this survey is its modest response rate, which remained at around 30% for its first 7 waves so far. Importantly, the responses come from ‘surviving’ businesses, and not from those who had to permanently stop trading.Back to top of article