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.
- UK homeowners face huge rise in payments when fixed-rate mortgages expire
The Guardian, Richard Partington (17/6/23)
- Economic ‘Bazball’ will have replaced UK’s safety-first approach to inflation and growth by 2025
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/7/23)
- The Bank of Canada just hiked interest rates for the sixth time — is it too late?
The Conversation, Alexander David (27/10/22)
- Monetary Policy Report Press Conference Opening Statement
Bank of Canada, Tiff Macklem (12/7/23)
- Some reflections on Monetary Policy past, present and future
Bank of England, Speech, Michael Saunders (18/6/22)
- Expectations, lags, and the transmission of monetary policy
Bank of England, Speech, Catherine L. Mann (23/2/23)
- Europe’s monetary policy shift comes (too) late
DW, Henrik Böhme (6/9/22)
- Nobel Prize-winning economist says there’s no need for the Fed to keep hiking interest rates
CNBC, Sam Meredith (14/7/23)
- Three Uncomfortable Truths For Monetary Policy
IMF, Speech, Gita Gopinath (26/6/23)
- Inflation’s return changes the world
Financial Times, Martin Wolf (4/7/23)
- The next revolution in monetary policy is underway
Reuters, Felix Martin (30/6/23)
- Inflation may be coming down but its unequal effects can still have a big impact on wellbeing
The Conversation, Alberto Prati (19/7/23)
- Why central banks should stop raising interest rates
The Conversation, Muhammad Ali Nasir (27/9/23)
- Bank of England’s ‘regrettable’ mistakes fuelled inflation, its former top economist says
Sky News, Daniel Binns (5/9/23)
- 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?
- What instruments other than changing interest rates does a central bank have for influencing aggregate demand?
- Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation.
- Why might using interest rates to curb inflation be problematic when inflation is caused by adverse supply shocks?
- How are expectations of consumers and firms relevant in determining (a) the appropriate monetary policy measures and (b) their effectiveness?
- How could a careful use of a combination of monetary and fiscal policies reduce the redistributive effects of monetary policy?
- How might the use of ‘forward guidance’ by central banks reduce the need for such large rises in interest rates?
Last year was far from the picture of economic stability that all governments would hope for. Instead, the overarching theme of 2022 was uncertainty, which overshadowed many economic predictions throughout the year. The Collins English Dictionary announced that their word of the year for 2022 is ‘permacrisis’, which is defined as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’.
For the UK, 2022 was an eventful year, seeing two changes in prime minister, economic stagnation, financial turmoil, rampant inflation and a cost of living crisis. However, the UK was not alone in its economic struggles. Many believe that it is a minor miracle that the world did not experience a systemic financial crisis in 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the biggest land war in Europe since 1945, the most serious risk of nuclear escalation since the Cuban missile crisis and the most far-reaching sanctions regime since the 1930s. Soaring food and energy costs have fuelled the highest rates of inflation since the 1980s and the biggest macroeconomic challenge in the modern era of central banking (with the possible exception of the financial crisis of 2007–8 and its aftermath). For decades we have lived with the assumptions that nuclear war was never going to happen, inflation will be kept low and rich countries will not experience an energy crisis. In 2022 all of these assumptions and more have been shaken.
With the combination of rising interest rates and a massive increase in geopolitical risk, the world economy did well to survive as robustly as it did. However, with public and private debt having risen to record levels during the now-bygone era of ultra-low interest rates and with recession risks high, the global financial system faces a huge stress test.
Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, started 2023 by setting out five pledges: to halve inflation, boost economic growth, cut national debt as a percentage of GDP, and to address NHS waiting lists and the issue of immigrants arriving in small boats. Whilst most would agree that meeting these pledges is desirable, a reduction in inflation is forecast to happen anyway, given the monetary policy being pursued by the Bank of England and an easing of commodity prices; and public-sector debt as a percentage of GDP is forecast to fall from 2024/25.
Success in meeting the first four pledges will partly depend on the effects of the current industrial action by workers across the UK. How soon will the various disputes be settled and on what terms? What will be the implications for service levels and for inflation?
A weak global economy
Success will also depend on the state of the global economy, which is currently very fragile. In fact, it is predicted that a third of the global economy will be hit by recession this year. The head of the IMF has warned that the world faces a ‘tougher’ year in 2023 than in the previous 12 months. Such comments suggest the IMF is likely soon to cut its economic forecasts for 2023 again. The IMF already cut its 2023 outlook for global economic growth in October, citing the continuing drag from the war in Ukraine, as well as inflationary pressures and interest rate rises by major central banks.
The World Bank has also described the global economy as being ‘on a razor’s edge’ and warns that it risks falling into recession this year. The organisation expects the world economy to grow by just 1.7% this year, which is a sharp fall from an estimated 2.9% in 2022 according to the Global Economic Prospects report (see link below). It has warned that if financial conditions tighten, then the world’s economy could easily fall into a recession. If this becomes a reality, then the current decade would become the first since the 1930s to include two global recessions. Growth forecasts have been lowered for 95% of advanced economies and for more than 70% of emerging market and developing economies compared with six months ago. Given the global outlook, it is no surprise that the UK economy is expected to face a prolonged recession with declining growth and increased unemployment.
The current state of the UK economy
Despite all the concerns, official figures show that, even though households have been squeezed by rising prices, UK real GDP unexpectedly grew in November, by 0.1%. This has been explained by a boost to bars and restaurants from the World Cup as people went out to watch the football and also by demand for services in the tech sector.
At first sight, the UK’s cost of living crisis might look fairly mild compared to other countries. Its inflation rate was 10.7% in November 2022, compared to 12.6% in Italy, 16% in Poland and over 20% in Hungary and Estonia. But UK inflation is still way above the Bank of England’s 2% target. The Bank went on to tighten monetary policy further, by increasing interest rates to 3.5% in December. Further rate rises are expected in 2023. In fact, the markets and the Bank both expect the main rate to reach 5.2% by the end of this year. With the consequent squeeze on real incomes, the Bank of England expects a recession in the UK this year – possibly lasting until mid-2024.
The UK is also affected by global interest rates, which affect global growth. Global interest rates average 5%. A 1 percentage point increase would reduce global growth this year from 1.7% to 0.6%, with per capita output contracting by 0.3%, once changes in population are taken into account. This would then meet the technical definition of a global recession. This means that the Bank’s November economic forecast, which was based on a Bank Rate of 3%, may worsen due to an even larger contraction than previously expected. The resulting drop in spending and investment by people and businesses could then cause inflation to come down faster than the Bank had predicted when rates were at 3%.
There could be some positive news however, that may help bring down inflation in addition to rate rises. There has been some appreciation in the pound since the huge drop caused by the September mini-budget that had brought its value to a nearly 40-year low. This will help to reduce inflation by reducing the price of imports.
As far as workers are concerned, pay increases have been broadly contained, with 2022 being one of the worst years in decades for UK real wage growth. Limiting pay rises can have a deflationary effect because people have less to spend, but it also weighs on economic growth and productivity. Despite the impact on inflation, there is a lot of unrest across the UK, with strike action continuing to be at the forefront of the news. Strikes over pay and conditions continue in various sectors in 2023, including transport, health, education and the postal service. Strikes and industrial action have a negative effect on the wider economy. If wages are stagnating and the economy is not performing well, productivity will suffer as workers are less motivated and less investment in new equipment takes place.
The UK economy is also under threat of a prolonged recession due to the proportion of households that lack insulation against financial setbacks. This proportion is unusually large for a wealthy economy. A survey conducted prior to the pandemic, found that 3 million people in the UK would fall into poverty if they missed one pay cheque, with the country’s high housing costs being a key source of vulnerability. Another survey recently suggested that one-third of UK adults would struggle if their costs rose by just £20 a month.
The pandemic itself meant that over 4 million households have taken on additional debt, with many now falling behind on repaying it. This, combined with recent jumps in energy and food bills, could push many over the edge, especially if heating costs remain high when the present government cap on energy prices ends in April.
However, there could be some better news for households with the easing of COVID restrictions in China. This could have a positive impact on the UK economy if it helps ease supply-chain disruptions occurring since the height of the global pandemic. It could reduce inflationary pressure in the UK and other countries that trade with China by making it easier – and therefore less costly – for people to get hold of goods.
- Define the term ‘deflation’.
- Explain how an appreciation of the pound is good for inflation.
- Discuss the wider economic impacts of industrial strike action.
- Why is it important for the government to keep wages contained?
On 3 November, the Bank of England announced the highest interest rate rise in 33 years. It warned that the UK is facing the longest recession since records began. With the downturn starting earlier than expected and predicted to last for longer, households, businesses and the government are braced for a challenging few years ahead.
The Monetary Policy Committee increased Bank Rate to 3% from the previous rate of 2.25%. This 75-basis point increase is the largest since 1989 and is the eighth rise since December. What is more, the Bank has warned that it will not stop there. These increases in interest rates are there to try to tackle inflation, which rose to 10.1% in September and is expected to be 11% for the final quarter of this year. Soaring prices are a growing concern for UK households, with the cost of living rising at the fastest rate for 40 years. It is feared that such increases in the Bank’s base rate will only worsen household circumstances.
There are various causes of the current cost-of-living crisis. These include the pandemic’s effect on production, the aftermath in terms of supply-chain problems and labour shortages, the war in Ukraine and its effect on energy and food prices, and poor harvests in many parts of the world, including many European countries. It has been reported that grocery prices in October were 4.7% higher than in October 2021. This is the highest rate of food price inflation on record and means shoppers could face paying an extra £682 per year on average.
There is real concern about the impact of the interest rates rise on the overall economy but, in particular, on peoples’ mortgages. Bank of England Governor, Andrew Bailey, warned of a ‘tough road ahead’ for UK households, but said that the MPC had to act forcefully now or things ‘will be worse later on’.
However, it could be argued that there was a silver lining in Thursday’s announcement. The future rises in interest rates are predicted to peak at a lower rate than previously thought. Amongst all the mini-budget chaos, there was concern that rates could surpass the 6% mark. Now the Bank of England has given the assurance that future rate rises will be limited and that Bank Rate should not increase beyond 5% by next autumn. The Bank was keen to reassure markets of this by making clear the thinking behind the decision in the published minutes of MPC meeting.
With the Bank warning of the longest recession since records began, what does this actually mean? Economies experience periods of growth and periods of slowdown or even decline in real GDP. However, a recession is defined as when a country’s economy shrinks for two three-month periods (quarters) in a row. The last time the UK experienced a recession was in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. During a recession, businesses typically make less profits, pay falls, some people may lose their jobs and unemployment rises. This means that the government receives less money in taxation to use on public services such as health and education. Graduates and school leavers could find it harder to get their first job, while others may find it harder to be promoted or to get big enough pay rises to keep pace with price increases. However, the pain of a recession is typically not felt equally across society, and inequality can increase.
The Bank had previously expected the UK to fall into recession at the end of this year but the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that GDP fell by 0.3% in the three months to August. The Bank is predicting that GDP will shrink by 0.5% between May and August 2023, followed by a further fall of 0.3% between September and December. The Bank then expects the UK economy to remain in recession throughout 2023 and the first half of 2024.
With the higher interest rates, borrowing costs are now at their highest since 2008, when the UK banking system faced collapse in the wake of the global financial crisis. The Bank believes that by raising interest rates it will make it more expensive to borrow and encourage people not to spend money, easing the pressure on prices in the process. It does, however, mean that savers will start to benefit from higher rates (but still negative real rates), but it will have a knock-on effect on those with mortgages, credit card debt and bank loans.
The recession in 2020 only lasted for six months, although the 20.4% reduction in the UK economy between April and June that year was the largest on record. The one before that started in 2008 with the global financial crisis and went on for five quarters. Whilst it will not be the UK’s deepest downturn, the Bank stressed that it will be the longest since records began in the 1920s.
Those with mortgages are rightly feeling nervous about the impact that further increases in mortgage interest rates will have on their budgets. Variable mortgage rates and new fixed rates have been rising for several months because of this year’s run of rate rises but they shot up after the mini-Budget. The Bank forecasts that if interest rates continue to rise, those whose fixed rate deals are coming to an end could see their annual payments soar by an average of £3000.
Homebuyers with tracker or variable rate mortgages will feel the pain of the rate rise immediately, while the estimated 300 000 people who must re-mortgage this month will find that two-year and five-year fixed rates remain at levels not seen since the 2008 financial crisis. However, the Bank said that the cost of fixed-rate mortgages had already come down from the levels seen at the height of the panic in the wake of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, which sent them soaring above 6%.
There is a fear of the devastating impact on those who simply cannot afford further increases in payments. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said an extra 120 000 households in the UK, the equivalent of 400 000 people, will be plunged into poverty when their current mortgage deal ends. The analysis assumes that mortgage rates remain high, with homeowners forced to move to an interest rate of around 5.5%. For people currently on fixed rates typically of around of 2% which are due to expire, this change would mean a huge increase. Such people, on average, would find the proportion of their monthly income going on housing costs rising from 38% to 54%. In cash terms this equates to an average increase of £250, from £610 a month to £860 a month.
In addition to these higher monthly home-loan costs threatening to pull another 400 000 people into poverty, such turmoil in the mortgage market would increase competition for rental properties and could result in rents for new lets rising sharply as the extra demand allows buy-to-let landlords to pass on their higher loan costs (or more).
Since the mini-Budget, the level of the pound and government borrowing costs have somewhat recovered. However, mortgage markets and business loans are still showing signs of stress, adding to the prolonged hit to the economy. The Bank now forecasts that the unemployment rate will rise, while household incomes will come down too. The unemployment rate is currently at its lowest for 50 years, but it is expected to rise to nearly 6.5%.
Looking to the future
It is the case that the lasting effects of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the energy shock have all played their part in the current economic climate. However, it could be argued that the Bank and the government are now making decisions that will inflict further pain and sacrifice for millions of households, who are already facing multi-thousand-pound increases in mortgage, energy and food bills.
There have been further concerns raised about the possible tax rises planned by the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. If large tax rises and spending cuts are set out in the Autumn Statement of 17 November, the Bank of England’s chief economist has warned that Britain risks a deeper than expected economic slowdown. This could weigh on the British economy by more than the central bank currently anticipates, in a development that would force it to rethink its approach to setting interest rates.
There is no doubt that the future economic picture looks painful, with the UK performing worse than the USA and the eurozone. The Bank Governor, Andrew Bailey, believes that the mini-Budget had damaged the UK’s reputation internationally, stating, ‘it was very apparent to me that the UK’s position and the UK’s standing had been damaged’. However, both the Governor and the Chancellor or the Exchequer agree that action needs to be taken now in order for the economy to stabilise long term.
Jeremey Hunt, the Chancellor, explained that the most important thing the British government can do right now is to restore stability, sort out the public finances and get debt falling so that interest rate rises are kept as low as possible. This echoes the Bank’s belief in the importance of acting forcefully now in order to prevent things being much worse later on. With the recession predicted to last into 2024, the same year as a possible general election, the Conservatives face campaigning to remain in government at the tail end of a prolonged slump.
- Bank of England expects UK to fall into longest ever recession
BBC News, Dearbail Jordan & Daniel Thomas (4/11/22)
- What is a recession and how could it affect me?
BBC News (3/11/22)
- Is it right to raise interest rates in a recession?
BBC News, Faisal Islam (4/11/22)
- Rising interest rates: why the Bank of England has increased rates again and what to expect next
The Conversation, Francesc Rodriguez-Tous (7/11/22)
- Bank of England raises interest rates by 0.75 percentage points
Financial Times, Chris Giles and Delphine Strauss (3/11/22)
- Bank of England raises its benchmark rate by 75 basis points, its biggest hike in 33 years
CNBC, Elliot Smith (3/11/22)
- Interest rate rises to 3% as Bank of England imposes biggest hike for three decades
Sky News, Ed Conway (3/11/22)
- Interest Rates: What’s behind the rise?
Sky News on YouTube, Paul Kelso (3/11/22)
- Falls in UK mortgage rates predicted as BoE signals dovish outlook
Financial Times, James Pickford and Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan (3/11/22)
- BoE outlines two bleak scenarios for taming inflation
Financial Times, Chris Giles (3/11/22)
- Bank of England warns of longest recession in 100 years as it raises rates to 3%
The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Phillip Inman (3/11/22)
- UK mortgage rate rises ‘will put extra 400,000 people in poverty’
The Guardian, Zoe Wood (4/11/22)
- Large tax rises from Jeremy Hunt ‘could put UK at risk of deeper slowdown’
The Guardian, Richard Partington (7/11/22)
- Bank of England will raise interest rates again, says chief economist
The Guardian, Richard Partington (8/11/22)
- Define the term ‘recession’ and how is it measured.
- Explain what happens to the key macroeconomic indicators during this period of the business cycle.
- Which policies would governments normally implement to get a economy into the
- expansionary/recovery phase of the business cycle and how do they work?
- What is the issue of raising interest rates during a downturn or recession?
- With unemployment expected to rise, explain what type of unemployment this is. What policies could be introduced to reduce this type of unemployment?
Inflation has surged worldwide as countries have come out of their COVID-19 lockdowns. The increases in prices combined with supply-chain problems has raised questions of what will happen to future prices and whether it will feed further inflation cycles.
Inflation is a key contributor to instability in an economy. It measures the rate of increases in prices over a given period of time and indicates what will happen to the cost of living for households. Because of its importance, many central banks aim to keep inflation low and steady by setting a target. The Bank of England, the Federal Reserve, and the European Central Bank all aim to keep inflation low at a target rate of 2 per cent.
Inflation-rate targeting has been successfully practised in a growing number of countries over the past few decades. However, measures to combat rising inflation typically contract the economy through reducing real aggregate demand (or at least its rate of growth). This is a concern when the economy is not experiencing a strong economic performance.
Globally, rising inflation is causing concern as a surge in demand has been confronted by supply bottlenecks and rising prices of energy and raw materials. As the world emerges from the COVID-19 lockdowns, global financial markets have been affected in recent months by concerns around inflation. They have also been affected by the prospect of major central banks around the world being forced into the early removal of pandemic support measures, such as quantitative easing, before the economic recovery from the coronavirus is complete.
The Chief Economist at the Bank of England has warned that UK inflation is likely to rise ‘close to or even slightly above 5 per cent’ early next year, as he said the central bank would have a ‘live’ decision on whether to raise interest rates at its November meeting. Although consumer price inflation dipped to 3.1 per cent in September, the Bank of England has forecast it to exceed 4 per cent by the end of the year, 2 percentage points higher than its target. UK banks and building societies have already started to increase mortgage rates in response to rising inflation, signalling an end to the era of ultra-low borrowing costs and piling further pressure on household finances.
In the USA, shortages throughout the supply chains on which corporate America depends are also causing concern. These issues are translating into widespread inflationary pressure, disrupting operations and forcing companies to raise prices for customers. Pressure on every link in the supply chain, from factory closures triggered by COVID-19 outbreaks to trouble finding enough staff to unload trucks, is rippling across sectors, intensifying questions about the threat that inflation poses to robust consumer spending and rebounding corporate earnings. Reflecting concern over weaker levels of global economic growth despite rising inflationary pressures, US figures published at the end of October showed the world’s largest economy added just 194 000 jobs in September, far fewer than expected.
There are also fears raised over high levels of corporate debt, including in China at the embattled property developer Evergrande, where worries over its ability to keep up with debt payments have rippled through global markets. There are major concerns that Evergrande could pose risks to the wider property sector, with potential spill-overs internationally. However, it is argued that the British banking system has been shown in stress tests to be resilient to a severe economic downturn in China and Hong Kong.
Central bank responses
The sharpest consumer-price increases in years have evoked different responses from central banks. Many have raised interest rates, but two that haven’t are the most prominent in the global economy: the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. These differences in responses reflect differing opinions as to whether current price increases will feed further inflation cycles or simply peter out. For those large central banks, they are somewhat relying on households keeping faith in their track record of keeping inflation low. There is also an expectation that there are enough underutilised workers to ensure that wage inflation is kept low.
However, other monetary authorities worry that they have not yet earned the record of keeping inflation low and are concerned about the risk of wage inflation. In addition, in poorer countries there is a larger share of spending that goes on essentials such as food and energy. These have seen some of the highest price increases, so policy makers are going to be keen to stamp down on the inflation.
The Federal Reserve is expected to announce that it will start phasing out its $120bn monthly bond-buying programme (quantitative easing) as it confronts more pronounced price pressures and predictions that interest rates will be lifted next year. However, no adjustments are expected to be made to the Fed’s main policy rate, which is tethered near zero. Whilst financial markets are betting on an rise in Bank Rate by the Bank of England as early as next month, spurred by comments from Governor Andrew Bailey in mid-October that the central bank would ‘have to act’ to keep a lid on inflation.
Outlook for the UK
The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Huw Pill, has warned that high rates of inflation could last longer than expected, due to severe supply shortages and rising household energy bills. He said inflationary pressures were still likely to prove temporary and would fall back over time as the economy adjusted after disruption caused by COVID and Brexit. However, he warned there were growing risks that elevated levels of inflation could persist next year.
The looming rise in borrowing costs for homeowners will add further pressure to family finances already stretched by higher energy bills and surging inflation. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is expected that households will face years of stagnating living standards, with predictions showing that households would on average be paying £3000 more each year in taxes by 2024/25, with the biggest impact felt by higher earners.
Investors are also reacting to concerns and have pulled $9.4bn out of UK-focused equity funds this year after hopes that a COVID-19 vaccination drive will fuel a vigorous economic recovery were overshadowed by questions about slow growth and high inflation. It is suggested that there is a general sense of caution about the UK when it comes to investing globally, driven by monetary, fiscal and trade uncertainties.
Given all the elements contributing to this outlook, The IMF has forecast that the UK will recover more slowly from the shocks of coronavirus than other G7 nations, with economic output in 2024 still 3 per cent below its pre-pandemic levels. Financial markets are predicting the Bank of England will lift interest rates as soon as the next MPC meeting. And while supply-chain bottlenecks and rising commodity prices are a global trend, the Bank’s hawkish stance has increased the possibility of a sharper slowdown in Britain than other developed markets, some analysts have said.
Some of the major central banks are poised to take centre stage when announcing their next monetary action, as it will reveal if they share the alarm about surging inflation that has gripped investors. Markets are betting that the Bank of England will begin raising interest rates, with Bank Rate expected to rise to around 1.25 per cent by the end of next year (from the current 0.1 per cent).
It is thought that the Fed will not raise interest rates just yet but will do so in the near future. Markets, businesses, and households globally will be waiting on the monetary decisions of all countries, as these decisions will shape the trajectory of the global economy over the next few years.
- Three Days Will Reveal Global Alert Level on Inflation: Eco Week
Bloomberg, Molly Smith and Craig Stirling (31/10/21)
- Inflation watch: Global food prices hit 10-year high
Al Jazeera (4/11/21)
- Fed sings the ‘transitory’ inflation refrain, unveils bond-buying ‘taper’
ReutersHoward Schneider and Ann Saphir (3/11/21)
- BoE chief economist warns UK inflation likely to hit 5%
Financial Times, Chris Giles (21/10/21)
- Inflation pressure now ‘brutal’ because of supply squeeze, US companies say
Financial Times, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, Matthew Rocco, Obey Manayiti and Claire Bushey (23/10/21)
- Rising inflation could trigger global sell-off that would harm UK, says Bank
The Guardian, Richard Partington (8/10/21)
- Bank of England chief economist warns high inflation rates may persist in 2022
The Guardian, Richard Partington (7/10/21)
- Bank of England surprises markets by holding rates at record lows
CNBC, Elliot Smith (4/11/21)
- Bank of England resists pressure to raise interest rates as inflation spike looms
Sky News, Ed Conway (4/11/21)
Forecasts and commentary
- What is the definition of inflation?
- How is inflation measured?
- Using a diagram to aid your answers, discuss the difference between cost-push and demand-pull inflation.
- What are the demand-side and cost-side causes of the current rising inflation?
- Explain the impact an increase in interest rates has on the economy.
At its meeting on 6 May, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee decided to keep Bank Rate at 0.1%. Due to the significant impact of COVID-19 and the measures put in place to try to contain the virus, the MPC voted unanimously to keep Bank Rate the same.
However, it decided not to launch a new stimulus programme, with the committee voting by a majority of 7-2 for the Bank to continue with the current programme of quantitative easing. This involves the purchase of £200 billion of government and sterling non-financial investment-grade corporate bonds, bringing the total stock of bonds held by the Bank to £645 billion.
The Bank forecast that the crisis will put the economy into its deepest recession in 300 years, with output plunging 30 per cent in the first half of the year.
Monetary policy and MPC
Monetary policy is the tool used by the UK’s central bank to influence how much money is in the economy and how much it costs to borrow. The Bank of England’s main monetary policy tools include setting the Bank Rate and quantitative easing (QE). Bank Rate is the interest rate charged to banks when they borrow money from the BoE. QE is the process of creating money digitally to buy corporate and government bonds.
The BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) sets monetary policy to meet the 2% inflation target. Maintaining a low and stable inflation rate is good for the economy and it is the main monetary policy aim. However, the Bank also has to balance this target with the government’s other economic aims of sustaining growth and employment in the economy.
Actions taken by the MPC
It is challenging to respond to severe economic and financial disruption, with the UK economy looking unusually uncertain. Activity has fallen sharply since the beginning of the year and unemployment has risen markedly. The current rate of inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), declined to 1.5% in March and is likely to fall below 1% in the next few months. Household consumption has fallen by around 30% as consumer confidence has declined. Companies’ sales are expected to be around 45% lower than normal and business investment 50% lower.
In the current circumstances, and consistent with the MPC’s remit, monetary policy is aimed at supporting businesses and households through the crisis and limiting any lasting damage to the economy. The Bank has used both main monetary tools to fulfil its mandate and attempt to boost the economy amid the current lockdown. The Bank Rate was reduced to 0.1% in March, the lowest level in the Bank’s 325-year history and the current programme of QE was introduced in March.
What is next?
This extraordinary time has seen the outlook for the all global economies become uncertain. The long-term outcome will depend critically on the evolution of the pandemic, and how governments, households and businesses respond to it. The Bank of England has stated that businesses and households will need to borrow to get through this period and is encouraging banks and building societies to increase their lending. Britain’s banks are warned that if they try to stem losses by restricting lending, they will make the situation worse. The Bank believes that the banks are strong enough to keep lending, which will support the economy and limit losses to themselves.
In the short term, a bleak picture of the UK economy is suggested, with a halving in business investment, a near halving in business sales, a sharp rise in unemployment and households cutting their spending by a third. Despite its forecast that GDP could shrink by 14% for 2020, the Bank of England is forecasting a ‘V’ shaped recovery. In this scenario, the recovery in economic activity, once measures are softened, is predicted to be relatively rapid and inflation rises to around the 2 per cent target. However, this would be after a dip to 0.5% in 2021, before returning to the 2 per cent target the following year.
However, there are some suggestions that the Bank’s forecast for the long-term recovery is too optimistic. Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK, fears the UK economy could shrink even more sharply than the Bank of England has forecast.
Despite the stark numbers issued by the Bank of England today, additional pressure on the economy is likely. Some social distancing measures are likely to remain in place until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus, with people also remaining reluctant to socialise and spend. That means recovery is unlikely to start in earnest before sometime next year.
There are also additional factors that could dampen future productivity, such as the impact on supply chains, with ‘just-in-time’ operations potentially being a thing of the past.
There is also the ongoing issue of Brexit. This is a significant downside risk as the probability of a smooth transition to a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU in January is relatively small. This will only increase uncertainty for businesses along with the prospect of increased trade frictions next year.
The predictions from the Bank of England are based on many assumptions, one of which is that the economy will only be gradually released from lockdown. Its numbers contain the expectations that consumer and worker behaviour will change significantly, and continue for some time, with forms of voluntary social distancing. On the other hand, Mr Bailey expects the recovery to be much faster than seen with the financial crisis a decade ago. However, again this is based on the assumption that measures put in place from the public health side prevent a second wave of the virus.
It also assumes that the supply-side effects on the economy will be limited in the long run. Many economists disagree, arguing that the ‘scarring effects’ of the lockdown may be substantial. These include lower rates of investment, innovation and start ups and the deskilling effects on labour. They also include the businesses that have gone bankrupt and the dampening effect on consumer and business confidence. Finally, with a large increase in lending to tide firms over the crisis, many will face problems of debt, which will dampen investment.
The Bank of England does recognise these possible scarring effects. Specifically, it warns of the danger of a rise in equilibrium unemployment:
It is possible that the rise in unemployment could prove more persistent than embodied in the scenario, for example if companies are reluctant to hire until they are sure about the robustness of the recovery in demand. It is also possible that any rise in unemployment could lead to an increase in the long‑term equilibrium rate of unemployment. That might happen if the skills of the unemployed do not increase to the same extent as they would if they were working, for example, or even erode over time.
What is certain, however, is that the long-term picture will only become clearer when we start to come out of the crisis. Bailey implied that the Bank is taking a wait-and-see approach for now, waiting on the UK government to shed some light about easing of lockdown measures before taking any further action with regards to QE. The MPC will continue to monitor the situation closely and, consistent with its remit, stands ready to take further action as necessary to support the economy and ensure a sustained return of inflation to the 2% target. Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, suggested that the central bank is signalling that ‘more QE is coming, if not in June, then in August’.
Bank of England publication
- How could the BoE use monetary policy to boost the economy?
- Explain how changes in interest rates affect aggregate demand.
- Define and explain quantitative easing (QE).
- How might QE help to stimulate economic growth?
- How is the pursuit of QE likely to affect the price of government bonds? Explain.
- Evaluate the extent to which monetary policy is able to stimulate the economy and achieve price stability.