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Mixed messages on interest rates

What will happen to interest rates over the next two or three years? There is considerable disagreement between economists on this question at the moment.

There are those who argue that recovery in the UK, the USA and Europe is faltering. With much tighter fiscal policy being adopted as countries attempt to claw down their deficits, there is a growing fear of a double-dip recession. In these circumstances central banks are likely to keep interest rates at their historically low levels for the foreseeable future and could well embark on a further round of quantitative easing (see Easy money from the Fed?). But what about inflation? With demand still expanding in developing countries and commodity prices rising, won’t cost pressures on inflation continue? Those who forecast that interest rates will stay low, argue that the pressure on commodity prices will ease as global demand slows. Also, in the UK, now that sterling is no longer depreciating, this will remove a key ingredient of higher inflation.

These views are not shared by other economists. They argue that interest rates could soar over the next two years. In fact, one economist, Andrew Lilico, the Chief Economist at Policy Exchange argues that interest rates in the UK will reach 8% by 2012. Central to their argument is the role of the money supply. The monetary base has been expanded enormously through programmes of quantitative easing. And yet, consumer credit has fallen. When the economy does eventually start to recover strongly, Lilico and others argue that there is a danger that consumer credit and broad money will expand rapidly, thereby fuelling inflation. But won’t the spare capacity that has built up during the recession allow the increase in aggregate demand to be met by a corresponding increase in output, thereby keeping inflation low. No, say these economists. A lot of capacity has been lost and output cannot easily expand to meet a rise in demand.

It’s not uncommon for economists to disagree! See, by reading the articles below, if you can unpick the arguments and establish where the disagreements lie and whose case is the strongest.

Articles
America’s century is over, but it will fight on Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/8/10)
Rates to remain low for foreseeable future Interactive Investor, Rhian Nicholson (18/8/10)
BoE gets benefit of doubt on inflation – for now Reuters, Christina Fincher (19/8/10)
BGilts reflect continued uncertainty AXA Elevate, Tomas Hirst (23/8/10)
A bull market in pessimism The Economist (19/8/10)
Interest rates ‘may hit 8%’ by 2012 says think tank BBC News (22/8/10)
Interest rates ‘may hit 8pc’ in two years Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (21/8/10)
Bernanke Must Raise Benchmark Rate 2 Points, Rajan Says Bloomberg, Scott Lanman and Simon Kennedy (23/8/10)
Inflation, not deflation, Mr. Bernanke Market Watch, Andy Xie (22/8/10)
Inflation comes through the door and wisdom flies out of the window Telegraph, Liam Halligan (21/8/10)

Data
British Government Securities, Yields Bank of England
Bankstats: Data on UK money and lending Bank of England

Questions

  1. Summarise the arguments of those who believe that interest rates will stay low for the foreseeable future.
  2. Summarise the arguments of those who believe that interest rates will be significantly higher by 2010.
  3. What factors will be the most significant in determining which of the two positions is correct?
  4. Why are the yields on long-term bonds a good indicator of people’s expectations about future inflation and monetary policy?
  5. Why has consumer credit fallen? Why might it rise again?
  6. Why may unemployment not fall rapidly as the economy recovers? Is this an example of hysteresis?
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