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Bank rate

In March 2009, the Bank of England’s base rate was slashed to 0.5% in a bid to boost aggregate demand and stimulate the UK economy. And there it has remained for almost 2 years and as yet, no change is in sight. In the February 2011 meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee (who are responsible for setting interest rates to keep inflation on target), the decision was to keep interest rates at 0.5% rather than raise them to tackle high and rising UK inflation. Those in favour of keeping interest rates at this record low argue that any increase could damage the UK’s ability to recover and may lead to the dreaded double-dip recession. This is of particular concern given the economy’s performance in the last quarter of 2010.

However, one group that will certainly not be happy is the savers. With instant-access savings accounts paying on average just 0.84% before tax and with inflation at 3.7%, savers aren’t just not gaining much interest, but are actually seeing the value of their money in real terms fall. Howard Archer of HIS Global Insight said:

“For now, we retain our view that the Bank of England will hold off from raising interest rates until the latter months of the year. Even if interest rates do rise in the near term, the likelihood is still that they will rise only gradually and remain very low compared to past norms.

Monetary policy will need to stay loose for an extended period to offset the impact of the major, sustained fiscal squeeze. Consequently, we retain the view that interest rates will only rise to 2pc by the end of 2012.”

Following some speculation that the Bank of England may succumb to the pressure of inflation and hike up interest rates (markets had priced in a 20% chance of a rate rise), sterling did take a hit, but after the decision to keep rates at 0.5%, sterling recovered against the dollar. There is a belief amongst some traders that rates will rise in May, but others believe rates may remain at 0.5% until much later in 2011, as the country aims to avoid plunging back into recession. Of 49 economists that responsed to a poll by Reuters, three quarters of them said that rates would rise by the end of 2011, with median forecasts predicting a rise around November. This is certainly a space to watch, as it has implications for everyone in the UK and for many in countries around the world.

BOE leaves bank rate unchanged at 0.5% at Feb meeting Automated Trader (10/2/11)
Economists predict interest rates will rise in November Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (11/2/11)
UK May rate hike view holds firm after BOE Reuters, Kirsten Donovan (10/2/11)
Interest rates: What the economists say Guardian (10/2/11)
Fixed rate mortgages becoming more expensive BBC News (10/2/11)
Bank rate: savers’ celebrations on hold Telegraph, Richard Evans (10/2/11)
Inflation fears turn up heat ahead of bank rate decision City AM, Julian Harris (10/2/11)
Sterling takes BOE in its stride, higher rate talk aids Reuters, Anirban Nag (10/2/11)
Bank of England holds interest rates of 0.5% Telegraph, Emma Rowley (10/2/11)

Questions

  1. Why are interest rates such an important tool of monetary policy? Think about which variables of aggregate demand will be affected by the Bank of England’s decision.
  2. What is the relationship between interest rates and inflation?
  3. What explanation is there for the fall in the value of sterling following speculation that interest rates may rise? Why did sterling recover after the Bank of England’s decision?
  4. How has the recent speculation affected fixed rate mortgages?
  5. What does the Telegraph article about “savers’ celebrations on hold” mean about the ‘real value’ of money and savings?
  6. What are (a) the arguments for keeping interest rates at 0.5% and (b) the arguments for raising interest rates? Who wins and loses in each case?
  7. Are there any other government policies that could be used to combat inflation, without creating the possibility of a double-dip recession? Why haven’t they been used?
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