Category: Economics: Ch 21

We have examined inflation in several blogs in recent months. With inflation at levels not seen for 40 years, this is hardly surprising. One question we’ve examined is whether the policy response has been correct. For example, in July, we asked whether the Bank of England had raised interest rates too much, too late. In judging policy, one useful distinction is between demand-pull inflation and cost-push inflation. Do they require the same policy response? Is raising interest rates to get inflation down to the target rate equally applicable to inflation caused by excessive demand and inflation caused by rising costs, where those rising costs are not caused by rising demand?

In terms of aggregate demand and supply, demand-pull inflation is shown by continuing rightward shifts in aggregate demand (AD); cost-push inflation is shown by continuing leftward/upward shifts in short-run aggregate supply (SRAS). This is illustrated in the following diagram, which shows a single shift in aggregate demand or short-run aggregate supply. For inflation to continue, rather than being a single rise in prices, the curves must continue to shift.

As you can see, the effects on real GDP (Y) are quite different. A rise in aggregate demand will tend to increase GDP (as long as capacity constraints allow). A rise in costs, and hence an upward shift in short-run aggregate supply, will lead to a fall in GDP as firms cut output in the face of rising costs and as consumers consume less as the cost of living rises.

The inflation experienced by the UK and other countries in recent months has been largely of the cost-push variety. Causes include: supply-chain bottlenecks as economies opened up after COVID-19; the war in Ukraine and its effects on oil and gas supplies and various grains; and avian flu and poor harvests from droughts and floods associated with global warming resulting in a fall in food supplies. These all led to a rise in prices. In the UK’s case, this was compounded by Brexit, which added to firms’ administrative costs and, according to the Bank of England, was estimated to cause a long-term fall in productivity of around 3 to 4 per cent.

The rise in costs had the effect of shifting short-run aggregate supply upwards to the left. As well as leading to a rise in prices and a cost-of-living squeeze, the rising costs dampened expenditure.

This was compounded by a tightening of fiscal policy as governments attempted to tackle public-sector deficits and debt, which had soared with the support measures during the pandemic. It was also compounded by rising interest rates as central banks attempted to bring inflation back to target.

Monetary policy response

Central banks are generally charged with keeping inflation in the medium term at a target rate set by the government or the central bank itself. For most developed countries, this is 2% (see table in the blog, Should central bank targets be changed?). So is raising interest rates the correct policy response to cost-push inflation?

One argument is that monetary policy is inappropriate in the face of supply shocks. The supply shocks themselves have the effect of dampening demand. Raising interest rates will compound this effect, resulting in lower growth or even a recession. If the supply shocks are temporary, such as supply-chain disruptions caused by lockdowns during the pandemic, then it might be better to ride out the problem and not raise interest rates or raise them by only a small amount. Already cost pressures are easing in some areas as supplies have risen.

If, however, the fall in aggregate supply is more persistent, such as from climate-related declines in harvests or the Ukraine war dragging on, or new disruptions to supply associated with the Israel–Gaza war, or, in the UK’s case, with Brexit, then real aggregate demand may need to be reduced in order to match the lower aggregate supply. Or, at the very least, the growth in aggregate demand may need to be slowed to match the slower growth in aggregate supply.

Huw Pill, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, in a podcast from the Columbia Law School (see links below), argued that people should recognise that the rise in costs has made them poorer. If they respond to the rising costs by seeking higher wages, or in the case of businesses, by putting up prices, this will simply stoke inflation. In these circumstances, raising interest rates to cool aggregate demand may reduce people’s ability to gain higher wages or put up prices.

Another argument for raising interest rates in the face of cost-push inflation is when those cost increases are felt more than in other countries. The USA has suffered less from cost pressures than the UK. On the other hand, its growth rate is higher, suggesting that its inflation, albeit lower than in the UK, is more of the demand-pull variety. Despite its inflation rate being lower than in the UK, the problem of excess demand has led the Fed to adopt an aggressive interest rate policy. Its target rate is 5.25% to 5.50%, while the Bank of England’s is 5.25%. In order to prevent short-term capital outflows and a resulting depreciation in the pound, further stoking inflation, the Bank of England has been under pressure to mirror interest rate rises in the USA, the eurozone and elsewhere.

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Questions

  1. How may monetary policy affect inflationary expectations?
  2. If cost-push inflation makes people generally poorer, what role does the government have in making the distribution of a cut in real income a fair one?
  3. In the context of cost-push inflation, how might the authorities prevent a wage–price spiral?
  4. With reference to the second article above, explain the ‘monetary policy conundrum’ faced by the Bank of Japan.
  5. If central banks have a single policy instrument, namely changes in interest rates, how may conflicts arise when there is more than one macroeconomic objective?
  6. Is Russia’s rise in inflation the result of cost or demand pressures, or a mixture of the two (see articles above)?

Central bankers, policymakers, academics and economists met at the Economic Symposium at Jackson Hole, Wyoming from August 24–26. This annual conference, hosted by Kansas City Fed, gives them a chance to discuss current economic issues and the best policy responses. The theme this year was ‘Structural Shifts in the Global Economy’ and one of the issues discussed was whether, in the light of such shifts, central banks’ 2 per cent inflation targets are still appropriate.

Inflation has been slowing in most countries, but is still above the 2 peer cent target. In the USA, CPI inflation came down from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022 to 3.2% in July 2023. Core inflation, however, which excludes food and energy was 4.7%. At the symposium, in his keynote address the Fed Chair, Jay Powell, warned that despite 11 rises in interest rates since April 2022 (from 0%–0.25% to 5%–5.25%) having helped to bring inflation down, inflation was still too high and that further rises in interest rates could not be ruled out.

We are prepared to raise rates further if appropriate, and intend to hold policy at a restrictive level until we are confident that inflation is moving sustainably down toward our objective.

However, he did recognise the need to move cautiously in terms of any further rises in interest rates as “Doing too much could also do unnecessary harm to the economy.” But, despite the rises in interest rates, growth has remained strong in the USA. The annual growth rate in real GDP was 2.4% in the second quarter of 2023. Unemployment, at 3.5%, is low by historical standards and similar to the rate before the Fed began raising interest rates.

Raising the target rate of inflation?

Some economists and politicians have advocated raising the target rate of inflation from 2 per cent to, perhaps, 3 per cent. Jason Furman, an economic policy professor at Harvard and formerly chief economic advisor to President Barack Obama, argues that a higher target has the benefit of helping cushion the economy against severe recessions, especially important when such there have been adverse supply shocks, such as the supply-chain issues following the COVID lockdowns and then the war in Ukraine. A higher inflation rate may encourage more borrowing for investment as the real capital sum will be eroded more quickly. Some countries do indeed have higher inflation targets, as the table shows.

Powell emphatically ruled out any adjustment to the target rate. His views were expanded upon by Christine Lagarde, the head of the European Central Bank. She argued that in a world of greater supply shocks (such as from climate change), greater frictions in markets and greater inelasticity in supply, and hence greater price fluctuations, it is important for wage increases not to chase price increases. Increasing the target rate of inflation would anchor inflationary expectations at a higher level and hence would be self-defeating. Inflation in the eurozone, as in the USA, is falling – it halved from a peak of 10.6% in 2022 to 5.3% in July this year. Given this and worries about recession, the ECB may not raise interest rates at its September meeting. However, Lagarde argued that interest rates needed to remain high enough to bring inflation back to target.

The UK position

The Bank of England, too, is committed to a 2 per cent inflation target, even though the inflationary problems for the UK economy are greater that for many other countries. Greater shortfalls in wage growth have been more concentrated amongst lower-paid workers and especially in the public health, safety and transport sectors. Making up these shortfalls will slow the rate of inflationary decline; resisting doing so could lead to protracted industrial action with adverse effects on aggregate supply.

Then there is Brexit, which has added costs and bureaucratic procedures to many businesses. As Adam Posen (former member of the MPC) points out in the article linked below:

Even if this government continues to move towards more pragmatic relations with the EU, divergences in standards and regulation will increase costs and decrease availability of various imports, as will the end of various temporary exemptions. The base run rate of inflation will remain higher for some time as a result.

Then there is a persistent problem of low investment and productivity growth in the UK. This restriction on the supply side will make it difficult to bring inflation down, especially if workers attempt to achieve pay increases that match cost-of-living increases.

Sticking to the status quo

There seems little appetite among central bankers to adjust inflation targets. Squeezing inflation out of their respective economies is painful when inflation originates largely on the supply side and hence the problem is how to reduce demand and real incomes below what they would otherwise have been.

Raising inflation targets, they argue, would not address this fundamental problem and would probably simply anchor inflationary expectations at the higher level, leaving real incomes unchanged. Only if such policies led to a rise in investment would a higher target be justified and central bankers do not believe that it would.

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Questions

  1. Use an aggregate demand and supply diagram (AD/AS or DAD/DAS) to illustrate inflation since the opening up of economies after the COVID lockdowns. Use another one to illustrate the the effects of central banks raising interest rates?
  2. Why is the world likely to continue experiencing bigger supply shocks and greater price volatility than before the pandemic?
  3. With hindsight, was increasing narrow money after the financial crisis and then during the pandemic excessive? Would it have been better to have used the extra money to fund government spending on infrastructure rather than purchasing assets such as bonds in the secondary market?
  4. What are the arguments for and against increasing the target rate of inflation?
  5. How do inflationary expectations influence the actual rate of inflation?
  6. Consider the arguments for and against the government matching pay increases for public-sector workers to the cost of living.

In this third blog about inflation, we focus on monetary policy to deal with the problem and bring inflation back to the target rate, which is typically 2 per cent around the world (including the eurozone, the USA and the UK). We ask the questions: was the response of central banks too timid initially, meaning that harsher measures had to be taken later; and will these harsher measures turn out to be excessive? In other words, has the eventual response been ‘too much, too late’, given that the initial measures were too little?

Inflation rates began rising in the second half of 2021 as economies began to open up as the pandemic subsided. Supply-chain problems drove the initial rise in prices. Then, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the adverse effects on oil, gas and grain prices, inflation rose further. In the UK, CPI inflation peaked at 11.1% in October 2022 (see chart 1 in the first of these three blogs). Across the whole EU-27, it peaked at 11.5% in October 2022; US inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022; Japanese inflation peaked at 4.3% in January 2023.

This raises the questions of why interest rates were not raised by a greater amount earlier (was it too little, too late?) and why they have continued to be raised once inflation rates have peaked (is it too much, too late?).

The problem of time lags

Both inflation and monetary policy involve time lags. Rising costs take a time to work their way through the supply chain. Firms may use old stocks for a time which are at the original price. If it is anticipated that costs will rise, central banks will need to take action early and not wait until all cost increases have worked their way through to retail prices.

In terms of monetary policy, the lags tend to be long.

If central bank interest rates are raised, it may take some time for banks to raise savings rates – a common complaint by savers.

As far as borrowing rates are concerned, as we saw in the previous blog, loans secured on dwellings (mortgages) account for the majority of households’ financial liabilities (76.4% in 2021) and here the time lags between central bank interest rate changes and changes in people’s mortgage interest rates can be very long. Only around 14 of UK mortgages are at variable rates; the rest are fixed, typically for between 2 to 5 years. So, when Bank Rate changes, people on fixed rates will be unaffected until their mortgage comes up for renewal, when they can be faced with a huge increase in payments.

Only around 21% of mortgages in England were/are due for renewal in 2023, and with 57% of these the old fixed rates were below 2%. Currently (July 2023), the average two-year fixed-rate mortgage rate in the UK is 6.81% (based on 75% loan to value (LTV)); the average five-year rate is 6.31% (based on 75% LTV). This represents a massive increase in interest rates, but for a relatively small proportion of homeowners and an even smaller proportion of total households.

But as more and more fixed-rate mortgages come up for renewal, so the number of people affected will grow, as will the dampening effect on aggregate demand as such people are forced to cut back on spending. This dampening effect will build up for many months.

And there is another time lag – that between prices and wages. Wages are negotiated periodically, normally annually or sometimes less frequently. Employees will typically seek a cost-of-living element in wage rises that covers price rises over the past 12 months, not inflation in the past month. If inflation is rising (or falling), such negotiations will not reflect the current situation. There is thus a time lag built in to such negotiations. Even if higher interest rates reduce inflation, the full effect can take some time because of this wages time lag.

Other time lags include those involving ongoing capital projects. If construction is taking place, it will take some time to complete and in the meantime is unlikely to be stopped. Higher interest rates will affect capital investment decisions now, but existing projects are likely to continue to completion. As more projects are completed over time, so the effect of higher interest rates is likely to accumulate.

Then there is the question of savings. During the pandemic, many people increased their savings as their opportunities for spending were more limited. Since then, many people have drawn on these savings to fund holidays, eating out and other leisure activities. Such spending is likely to taper off as savings are reduced. Again, the interest rises may prove to have been excessive as a means of reducing aggregate demand.

These time lags suggest that after some months the economy will have been excessively dampened and that the policy will have ‘overshot’ the mark. Had interest rates been raised more rapidly earlier and by larger amounts, the peak level of rates may not have needed to be so high.

Perhaps one of the biggest worries about raising interest rates excessively because of time lags is the effect on corporate and government debt. Highly indebted companies and countries will find that a large increase in interest rates makes servicing their debt much harder. For example, Thames Water, the UK’s biggest water and sewerage company accumulated some £14 billion in debt during the era of low interest rates. It has now declared that it cannot service these debts and is on the brink of insolvency. In the case of governments, as increasing amounts have to be spent on servicing their debt, so they may be forced to cut expenditure elsewhere. This will have a dampening effect on the economy – but with a time lag.

The distribution of pain

Those with large credit-card debt and large mortgages coming up for renewal or at variable rates will have borne the brunt of interest rate rises. These people, such as young people with families, are often those most affected by inflation, with a larger proportion of their expenditure on energy and food. Other people adversely affected are tenants where landlords raise rents to cover their higher mortgage payments.

Those with no debts will have been little affected by the hike in interest rates, unless the curbing of aggregate demand affects their chances of overtime or reduces available shifts or, worse still, leads to redundancy.

Excessive rises in interest rates exacerbate these distributional effects.

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Questions

  1. For what reasons might a central bank be unwilling to raise interest rates by more than 0.25 or 0.5 percentage points per month?
  2. What instruments other than changing interest rates does a central bank have for influencing aggregate demand?
  3. Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation.
  4. Why might using interest rates to curb inflation be problematic when inflation is caused by adverse supply shocks?
  5. How are expectations of consumers and firms relevant in determining (a) the appropriate monetary policy measures and (b) their effectiveness?
  6. How could a careful use of a combination of monetary and fiscal policies reduce the redistributive effects of monetary policy?
  7. How might the use of ‘forward guidance’ by central banks reduce the need for such large rises in interest rates?

This is the second of three blogs looking at high inflation and its implications. Here we look at changes in the housing market and its effects on households. Another way of analysing the financial importance of the housing and mortgage markets is through the balance sheets and associated flow accounts of the household sector.

We used the concept of balance sheets in our blog Bank failures and the importance of balance sheets. In the blog we referred to the balance-sheet effects from interest rate hikes on the financial well-being of financial institutions.

The analysis is analogous for households. Again, we can identify two general effects: rising borrowing and debt-servicing costs, and easing asset prices.

The following table shows the summary balance sheet of the UK household sector in 1995 and 2021.

Source: National balance sheet estimates for the UK: 1995 to 2021 (January 2023) and series RPHA, ONS

The total value of the sector’s net wealth (or ‘worth’) is the sum of its net financial wealth and its non-financial assets. The former is affected by the value of the stock of outstanding mortgages, which we can see from row 3 in the table (‘loans secured on dwellings’) has increased from £390 billion in 1995 to £1.56 trillion in 2021. This is equivalent to an increase from 70 to 107 per cent of the sector’s annual disposable income. This increase helps to understand the sensitivity of the sector’s financial position to interest rate increases and the sizeable cash flow effects. These effects then have implications for the sector’s spending.

Housing is also an important asset on household balance sheets. The price of housing reflects both the value of dwellings and the land on which they sit, and these are recorded separately on the balance sheets. Their combined balance sheet value increased from £1.09 trillion (£467.69bn + £621.49bn) in 1995 to £6.38 trillion (£1529.87bn + £4853.16bn) in 2021 or from 128% of GDP to 281%.

The era of low inflation and low interest rates that had characterised the previous two decades or so had helped to boost house price growth and thus the value of non-financial assets on the balance sheets. In turn, this had helped to boost net worth, which increased from £2.78 trillion in 1995 to £12.29 trillion in 2021 or from 319% of GDP to 541%.

Higher interest rates and wealth

The advent of higher interest rates was expected not only to impact on the debt servicing costs of households but the value of assets, including, in the context of this blog, housing. As Chart 3 in the previous blog helped to show, higher interest rates and higher mortgage repayments contributed to an easing of house price growth as housing demand eased. On the other hand, the impact on mortgaged landlords helped fuel the growth of rental prices as they passed on their increased mortgage repayment costs to tenants.

Higher interest rates not only affect the value of housing but financial assets such as corporate and government bonds whose prices are inversely related to interest rates. Research published by the Resolution Foundation in July 2023 estimates that these effects are likely to have contributed to a fall in the household wealth from early 2021 to early 2023 by as much as £2.1 trillion.

The important point here is that further downward pressure on asset prices is expected as they adjust to higher interest rates. This and the impact of higher debt servicing costs will therefore continue to impact adversely on general financial well-being with negative implications for the wider macroeconomic environment.

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Questions

  1. What possible indicators could be used to assess the affordability of residential house prices?
  2. What do you understand by the concept of the monetary policy transmission mechanism? How do the housing and mortgage markets relate to this concept?
  3. What factors might affect the proportion of people taking out fixed-rate mortgages rather than variable-rate mortgages?
  4. What is captured by the concept of net worth? Discuss how the housing and mortgage markets affect the household sector’s net worth.
  5. What are cash-flow effects? How do rising interest rates effect savers and borrowers?
  6. How might wealth effects from rising interest rates impact younger and older people differently?
  7. Discuss the ways by which house price changes could affect household consumption.

This is the first of three blogs looking at inflation, at its effect on household budgets and at monetary policy to bring inflation back to the target rate. This first one takes an overview.

The housing and mortgage markets are vitally important to the financial well-being of many households. We have seen this vividly in recent times through the impact of rising inflation rates on interest rates and, in turn, on mortgage repayments. Some people on variable rate mortgages, or whose fixed rate deals are coming to the end of their term, have struggled to pay the new higher rates. In this blog we explore the reasons behind these events and the extent to which the financial well-being of UK households has been affected.

Chart 1 shows the path of inflation in the UK since 1997 when the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) was first charged with meeting an inflation rate target (click here for a PowerPoint). It captures the impact of the inflation shock that began to emerge in 2021 and saw the CPI inflation rate peak at 11.1 per cent in October 2022 – considerably above the Bank’s 2 per cent target.

Despite easing somewhat, the CPI inflation rate is showing signs of persistence – meaning that it is taking time for it to return to target. One way of understanding this persistence is to look at a measure of inflation known as core inflation. This inflation rate measure excludes energy, food, alcoholic beverages and tobacco prices, all of which are notoriously volatile. Core inflation thus captures underlying inflationary pressures.

To address the inflationary pressures, the Bank of England began raising Bank Rate in December 2021 from a low of just 0.1 per cent. By June 2023 the Bank Rate had risen to 5 per cent with the prospect of further hikes. As the Bank Rate rises, the cost of borrowing from the Bank of England by commercial banks rises too. Therefore increases in the Bank Rate ripple through to other interest rates. However, the passthrough effect can be uneven affecting spreads between Bank Rate and other interest rates.

The increase in the Bank Rate is reflected in the increases in mortgage rates shown in Chart 2 (click here for a PowerPoint). As we have seen, this affects most immediately those with variable rate mortgages, and then those with fixed-rate mortgages as they come up for renewal. Analysis from the Resolution Foundation (2023) estimates that 4.2 million households saw their mortgage rates change between December 2021 and June 2023 – the equivalent of 56 per cent of mortgaged households.

The persistence of inflation means that mortgage rates may not have yet peaked and are likely to stay higher for longer than originally thought. With fixes normally between two to five years, the problem of higher rates for those renewing will continue. The Resolution Foundation projects that by the end of 2026, almost all households with a mortgage would have moved to a higher rate since December 2021. At this point, the typical annual repayment cost for mortgaged households is forecast to be £2000 per annum higher, leading to an increase in annual repayments for the UK household sector of £15.8 billion.

Chart 3 provides a visual picture of the typical annual repayment costs facing first-time buyers as a percentage of earnings after tax and national insurance (click here for a PowerPoint). The Nationwide Building Society figures are based on an 80% loan on the typical first-time buyer house price. It shows that repayment costs have been rising sharply on the back of rising interest rates and are now higher than at any time since the global financial crisis of 2007–8.

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Questions

  1. What possible indicators could be used to assess the affordability of residential house prices?
  2. What is captured by the rate of core inflation? Discuss the arguments for using this as the target inflation rate measure.
  3. What factors might affect the proportion of people taking out fixed-rate mortgages rather than variable-rate mortgages?
  4. Discuss the ways by which house price changes could impact on household consumption.
  5. Investigate the proportion of mortgages that are fixed rate and the typical length of the fixed rate term in two European countries, the USA and Japan. How does each differ from the UK?