On the 15th June, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee decided to keep Bank Rate on hold at its record low of 0.25%. This was not a surprise – it was what commentators had expected. What was surprising, however, was the split in the MPC. Three of its current eight members voted to raise the rate.
At first sight, raising the rate might seem the obvious thing to do. CPI inflation is currently 2.9% – up from 2.7% in April and well above the target of 2% – and is forecast to go higher later this year. According to the Bank of England’s own forecasts, even at the 24-month horizon inflation is still likely to be a little above the 2% target.
Those who voted for an increase of 0.25 percentage points to 0.5% saw it as modest, signalling only a very gradual return to more ‘normal’ interest rates. However, the five who voted to keep the rate at 0.25% felt that it could dampen demand too much.
The key argument is that inflation is not of the demand-pull variety. Aggregate demand is subdued. Real wages are falling and hence consumer demand is likely to fall too. Thus many firms are cautious about investing, especially given the considerable uncertainties surrounding the nature of Brexit. The prime cause of the rise in inflation is the fall in sterling since the Brexit vote and the effect of higher import costs feeding through into retail prices. In other words, the inflation is of the cost-push variety. In such cirsumstances dampening demand further by raising interest rates would be seen by most economists as the wrong response. As the minutes of the MPC meeting state:
Attempting to offset fully the effect of weaker sterling on inflation would be achievable only at the cost of higher unemployment and, in all likelihood, even weaker income growth. For this reason, the MPC’s remit specifies that, in such exceptional circumstances, the Committee must balance any trade-off between the speed at which it intends to return inflation sustainably to the target and the support that monetary policy provides to jobs and activity.
The MPC recognises that the outlook is uncertain. It states that it stands ready to respond to circumstances as they change. If demand proves to be more resilient that it currently expects, it will raise Bank Rate. If not, it is likely to keep it on hold to continue providing a modest stimulus to the economy. However, it is unlikely to engage in further quantitative easing unless the economic outlook deteriorates markedly.
The Bank of England is moving closer to killing the most boring chart in UK finance right now Business Insider, Will Martin (16/6/17)
UK inflation hits four-year high of 2.9% Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Chloe Cornish (13/6/17)
Surprise for markets as trio of Bank of England gurus call for interest rates to rise The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan Tim Wallace (15/6/17)
Bank of England rate setters show worries over rising inflation Financial TImes, Chris Giles (15/6/17)
Three Bank of England policymakers in shock vote for interest rate rise Independent, Ben Chu (15/6/17)
Bank of England edges closer to increasing UK interest rates The Guardian, Katie Allen (15/6/17)
Bank of England doves right to thwart hawks seeking interest rate rise The Guardian, Larry Elliott (15/6/17)
Haldane expects to vote for rate rise this year BBC News (21/6/17)
Bank of England documents
Monetary policy summary Bank of England (15/6/17)
Monetary Policy Summary and minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee meeting ending on 14 June 2017 Bank of England (15/6/17)
Inflation Report, May 2017 Bank of England (11/5/16)
- What is the mechanism whereby a change in Bank Rate affects other interest artes?
- Use an aggregate demand and supply diagram to illustrate the difference between demand-pull and cost-push inflation.
- If the exchange rate remains at around 10–15% below the level before the Brexit vote, will inflation continue to remain above the Bank of England’s target, or will it reach a peak relatively soon and then fall back? Explain.
- For what reason might aggregate demand prove more buoyant that the MPC predicts?
- Would a rise in Bank Rate from 0.25% to 0.5% have a significant effect on aggregate demand? What role could expectations play in determining the nature and size of the effect?
- Why are real wage rates falling at a time when unemployment is historically very low?
- What determines the amount that higher prices paid by importers of products are passed on to consumers?
The latest figures from the ONS show that UK inflation rose to 2.3% for the 12 months to February 2017 – up from 1.9% for the 12 months to January. The rate is the highest since September 2013 and has steadily increased since late 2015.
The main price index used to measure inflation is now CPIH, as opposed to CPI. CPIH is the consumer prices index (CPI) adjusted for housing costs and is thus a more realsitic measure of the cost pressures facing households. As the ONS states:
CPIH extends the consumer prices index (CPI) to include a measure of the costs associated with owning, maintaining and living in one’s own home, known as owner occupiers’ housing costs (OOH), along with Council Tax. Both of these are significant expenses for many households and are not included in the CPI.
But why has inflation risen so significantly? There are a number of reasons.
The first is a rise in transport costs (contributing 0.15 percentage points to the overall inflation rate increase of 0.4 percentage points). Fuel prices rose especially rapidly, reflecting both the rise in the dollar price of oil and the depreciation of the pound. In February 2016 the oil price was $32.18; in February 2017 it was $54.87 – a rise of 70.5%. In February 2016 the exchange rate was £1 = $1.43; in February 2017 it was £1 = $1.25 – a depreciation of 12.6%.
The second biggest contributor to the rise in inflation was recreation and culture (contributing 0.08 percentage points). A wide range of items in this sector, including both goods and services, rose in price. ‘Notably, the price of personal computers (including laptops and tablets) increased by 2.3% between January 2017 and February 2017.’ Again, a large contributing factor has been the fall in the value of the pound. Apple, for example, raised its UK app store prices by a quarter in January, having raised prices for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers significantly last autumn. Microsoft has raised its prices by more than 20% this year for software services such as Office and Azure. Dell, HP and Tesla have also significantly raised their prices.
The third biggest was food and non-alcoholic beverages (contributing 0.06 percentage points). ‘Food prices, overall, rose by 0.8% between January 2017 and February 2017, compared with a smaller rise of 0.1% a year earlier.’ Part of the reason has been the fall in the pound, but part has been poor harvests in southern Europe putting up euro prices. This is the first time that overall food prices have risen for more than two-and-a-half years.
It is expected that inflation will continue to rise over the coming months as the effect of the weaker pound and higher raw material and food prices filter though. The current set of pressures could see inflation peaking at around 3%. If there is a futher fall in the pound or further international price increases, inflation could be pushed higher still – well above the Bank of England’s 2% target. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The higher inflation means that firms are facing a squeeze on their profits from two directions.
First, wage rises have been slowing and are now on a level with consumer price rises. It is likely that wage rises will soon drop below price rises, meaning that real wages will fall, putting downward pressure on spending and squeezing firms’ revenue.
Second, input prices are rising faster than consumer prices. In the 12 months to February 2017, input prices (materials and fuels) rose by 19.1%, putting a squeeze on producers. Producer prices (‘factory gate prices’), by contrast, rose by 3.7%. Even though input prices are only part of the costs of production, the much smaller rise of 3.7% reflects the fact that producer’s margins have been squeezed. Retailers too are facing upward pressure on costs from this 3.7% rise in the prices of products they buy from producers.
One of the worries about the squeeze on real wages and the squeeze on profits is that this could dampen investment and slow both actual and potential growth.
So will the Bank of England respond by raising interest rates? The answer is probably no – at least not for a few months. The reason is that the higher inflation is not the result of excess demand and the economy ‘overheating’. In other words, the higher inflation is not from demand-pull pressures. Instead, it is from higher costs, which are in themselves likely to dampen demand and contribute to a slowdown. Raising interest rates would cause the economy to slow further.
UK inflation shoots above two percent, adding to Bank of England conundrum Reuters, William Schomberg, David Milliken and Richard Hunter (21/3/17)
Bank target exceeded as inflation rate rises to 2.3% ITV News, Chris Choi (21/3/17)
Steep rise in inflation Channel 4 News, Siobhan Kennedy (21/3/17)
U.K. Inflation Gains More Than Forecast, Breaching BOE Goal Bloomberg, Dan Hanson and Fergal O’Brien (21/3/17)
Inflation leaps in February raising prospect of interest rate rise The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (21/3/17)
Brexit latest: Inflation jumps to 2.3 per cent in February Independent, Ben Chu (21/3/17)
UK inflation rate leaps to 2.3% BBC News (21/3/17)
UK inflation: does it matter for your income, debts and savings? Financial Times, Chris Giles (21/3/17)
Rising food and fuel prices hoist UK inflation rate to 2.3% The Guardian, Katie Allen (21/3/17)
Reality Check: What’s this new measure of inflation? BBC News (21/3/17)
UK consumer price inflation: Feb 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/3/17)
UK producer price inflation: Feb 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/3/17)
Inflation and price indices ONS datasets
Consumer Price Inflation time series dataset ONS datasets
Producer Price Index time series dataset ONS datasets
European Brent Spot Price US Energy Information Administration
Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England
- If pries rise by 10% and then stay at the higher level, what will happen to inflation (a) over the next 12 months; (b) in 13 months’ time?
- Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation. Why are they associated with different effects on output?
- If producers face rising costs, what determines their ability to pass them on to retailers?
- Why is the rate of real-wage increase falling, and why may it beome negative over the coming months?
- What categories of people are likely to lose the most from inflation?
- What is the Bank of England’s remit in terms of setting interest rates?
- What is likely to affect the sterling exchange rate over the coming months?
The Bank of England’s monetary policy is aimed at achieving an inflation rate of 2% CPI inflation ‘within a reasonable time period’, typically within 24 months. But speaking in Nottingham in one of the ‘Future Forum‘ events on 14 October, the Bank’s Governor, Mark Carney, said that the Bank would be willing to accept inflation above the target in order to protect growth in the economy.
“We’re willing to tolerate a bit of an overshoot in inflation over the course of the next few years in order to avoid rising unemployment, to cushion the blow and make sure the economy can adjust as well as possible.”
But why should the Bank be willing to relax its target – a target set by the government? In practice, a temporary rise above 2% can still be consistent with the target if inflation is predicted to return to 2% within ‘a reasonable time period’.
But if even if the forecast rate of inflation were above 2% in two years’ time, there would still be some logic in the Bank not tightening monetary policy – by raising Bank Rate or ending, or even reversing, quantitative easing. This would be the case when there was, or forecast to be, stagflation, whether actual or as a result of monetary policy.
The aim of an inflation target of 2% is to help create a growth in aggregate demand consistent with the economy operating with a zero output gap: i.e. with no excess or deficient demand. But when inflation is caused by rising costs, such as that caused by a depreciation in the exchange rate, inflation could still rise even though the output gap were negative.
A rise in interest rates in these circumstances could cause the negative output gap to widen. The economy could slip into stagflation: rising prices and falling output. Hopefully, if the exchange rate stopped falling, inflation would fall back once the effects of the lower exchange rate had fed through. But that might take longer than 24 months or a ‘reasonable period of time’.
So even if not raising interest rates in a situation of stagflation where the inflation rate is forecast to be above 2% in 24 months’ time is not in the ‘letter’ of the policy, it is within the ‘spirit’.
But what of exchange rates? Mark Carney also said that “Our job is not to target the exchange rate, our job is to target inflation. But that doesn’t mean we’re indifferent to the level of sterling. It does matter, ultimately, for inflation and over the course of two to three years out. So it matters to the conduct of monetary policy.”
But not tightening monetary policy if inflation is forecast to go above 2% could cause the exchange rate to fall further. It seems as if trying to arrest the fall in sterling and prevent a fall into recession are conflicting aims when the policy instrument for both is the rate of interest.
BoE’s Carney says not indifferent to sterling level, boosts pound Reuters, Andy Bruce and Peter Hobson (14/10/16)
Bank governor Mark Carney says inflation will rise BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (14/10/16)
Stagflation Risk May Mean Carney Has Little Love for Marmite Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy (14/10/16)
Bank can ‘let inflation go a bit’ to protect economy from Brexit, says Carney – but sterling will be a factor for interest rates This is Money, Adrian Lowery (14/10/16)
UK gilt yields soar on ‘hard Brexit’ and inflation fears Financial Times, Michael Mackenzie and Mehreen Khan (14/10/16)
Brexit latest: Life will ‘get difficult’ for the poor due to inflation says Mark Carney Independent, Ben Chu (14/10/16)
Prices to continue rising, warns Bank of England governor The Guardian, Katie Allen (14/10/16)
Bank of England
Monetary Policy Bank of England
Monetary Policy Framework Bank of England
How does monetary policy work? Bank of England
Future Forum 2016 Bank of England
- Explain the difference between cost-push and demand-pull inflation.
- If inflation rises as a result of rising costs, what can we say about the rate of increase in these costs? Is it likely that cost-push inflation would persist beyond the effects of a supply-side shock working through the economy?
- Can interest rates be used to control both inflation and the exchange rate? Explain why or why not.
- What is the possible role of fiscal policy in the current situation of a falling exchange rate and rising inflation?
- Why does the Bank of England target the rate of inflation in 24 months’ time and not the rate today? (After all, the Governor has to write a letter to the Chancellor explaining why inflation in any month is more than 1 percentage point above or below the target of 2%.)
- What is meant by a zero output gap? Is this the same as a situation of (a) full employment, (b) operating at full capacity? Explain.
- Why have UK gilt yields soared in the light of a possible ‘hard Brexit’, a falling exchange rate and rising inflation?
The CPI index fell by 0.1% in the 12 months to April 2015. This is partly the result of lower air and sea fares, as the upward ‘blip’ in these fares at Easter last year was not present in mid-April this year as Easter fell outside the period when the statistics are collected. What is more significant is that fuel, commodity and retail food prices have fallen over the past 12 months, and the exchange rate has risen, especially against the euro.
But how do we define what’s happened and how significant is it? It might seem highly significant as it’s the first time in 55 years that the CPI has fallen over a 12-month period. In fact, the effect is likely to be temporary, as fuel prices are now rising again and commodity prices generally are beginning to rise too. What is more, the pound seems to have peaked against the euro. Thus although aggregate demand remains relatively dampened, the main causes of falling prices and potential rises in the coming months are largely to be found on the cost side. This then brings us on to the definition of a falling CPI.
A falling CPI over a 12-month period can be defined as negative inflation. This is unambiguous. But is this ‘deflation’? The problem with the term ‘deflation’ is that it is ambiguous. On the one hand it can be defined simply as negative inflation. In that case, by definition, the UK has experienced deflation. But on the other, it is used to describe a situation of persistent falling prices as a result of declining aggregate demand.
If an economy suffers from deflation in this second sense, the problem can be very serious. Persistent falling prices are likely to discourage consumers from spending on durables (such as fridges, TVs, cars and furniture) and firms from buying capital equipment. After all, why buy an item now if, by waiting, you can get it cheaper later on? This mentality of waiting to spend leads to falling aggregate demand and hence falling output. It also leads to even lower prices. In other words deflation can get worse: a deflationary spiral.
If we define deflation in this second, much more serious sense, then the UK is not suffering deflation – merely temporary negative inflation. In fact, with prices now falling (slightly) and wages rising at around 2% per year, there should be an increase in aggregate demand, which will help to drive the recovery.
Should Britain Panic Over Negative Inflation? Sky News, Ed Conway (20/5/15)
UK inflation negative for first time since 1960; BoE says temporary Reuters, Andy Bruce and William Schomberg (19/5/15)
UK inflation negative for the first time since 1960 CNBC, Dhara Ranasinghe (19/5/15)
UK inflation rate turns negative BBC News (19/5/15)
Why there’s little to fear as the spectre of deflation descends on UK The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/5/15)
UK inflation turns negative The Guardian, Katie Allen (19/5/15)
Is the UK in the early stages of deflation? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (19/5/15)
Is the UK in deflation or negative inflation? Q&A The Guardian, Katie Allen and Patrick Collinson (19/5/15)
Market View: Economists unconcerned on temporary deflation FT Adviser, Peter Walker (19/5/15)
- Is negative inflation ever a ‘bad thing’?
- Explain the movement in UK inflation rates over the past five years.
- How do changes in exchange rates impact on (a) inflation; (b) aggregate demand? Does it depend on what caused the changes in exchange rates in the first place?
- Why is the current period of negative inflation likely to be short-lived?
- Would you describe the negative inflation as negative cost-push inflation?
- What factors could change that might make negative inflation more persistent and raise the spectre of deflation (in its bad sense)?
- If inflation remains persistently below 2%, what can the Bank of England do, given current interest rates, to bring inflation back to the 2% target?
- What is meant by ‘core inflation’ and what has been happening to it in recent months?
- What global factors are likely to have (a) an upward; (b) a downward effect on UK inflation?
Oil prices have been plummeting in recent months. Indeed, many commentators are saying that this is the major economics news story of 2014. In June 2014 Brent crude was around $112 per barrel. By December the price has fallen to around $60 – a fall of 46%. But what are the implications for fuel prices?
Just because the crude oil price has fallen by 46%, this does not mean that prices at the pump should do the same. Oil is priced in dollars and the pound has depreciated against the dollar by just over 7% since June, from around £1 = $1.69 to around £1 = $1.57. Thus in sterling terms, crude oil has fallen by only 42%.
More significantly, the cost of crude is a relatively small percentage of the price of a litre of petrol. At a price of 132p per litre (the July average price), crude accounted for around 27% of the price, or around 36p per litre. At a price of 114p per litre, the price in late December, crude accounts for around 19% of the price, or around 21.5p per litre. The largest element of price is fuel duty, which is charged at a flat rate of 57.95p per litre. In addition there is VAT at 20% of the pre-VAT price (or 16.67% of the retail price). Finally there are the refining, distribution and retail costs and margins, but these together account for only around 16p per litre.
What this means is that the 46% cut in oil prices has led to a cut in petrol prices of only around 14%. If petrol prices were to reach £1 per litre, as some commentators have forecast, crude oil prices would have to fall to under $40 per barrel.
Although petrol and diesel prices have fallen by a smaller percentage than oil prices, this still represents a significant cut in motoring and transport costs. It also represents a significant cut in costs for the petrochemical industry and other industries using large amounts of oil.
For oil-importing countries this is good news as the fall in the oil price represents an increase in real incomes. For oil importing countries, and especially those such as Russia and some OPEC countries where oil constitutes a large proportion of their exports, it is bad news. We explore these effects in Part 2.
UK petrol prices hit four-year low BBC News, John Moyland (10/12/14)
Petrol prices plunge ahead of Christmas holidays Belfast Telegraph (19/12/14)
Petrol price plummet – could fuel drop to below a pound a litre in the New Year? Channel 5 News on YouTube (17/12/14)
UK motorists benefit from petrol price drop Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (23/12/14)
Petrol to drop to £1 a litre, says Goldman Sachs The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (9/12/14)
Oil prices: How low will they go in 2015? International Business Times, Shane Croucher (22/12/14)
Plummeting oil price may lead to petrol falling below £1 a litre RAC news (17/12/14)
Pump Prices: Cheap Petrol Comes With A Warning Sky News (19/12/14)
Data and information
Fuel prices in Europe Drive Alive (20/12/14)
Weekly road fuel prices Department of Energy & Climate Change (23/12/14)
Prices at the pump – why are they falling and will this continue? ONS (18/12/14)
Fuel Prices Explained RAC
UKPIA Statistical Review 2014 United Kingdom Petroleum Industry Association
- Why does the price of petrol fluctuate less in percentage terms than the price of crude oil?
- What factors will affect whether UK petrol prices fall to £1 per litre?
- If crude oil prices fell by 20%, in which of these two cases would there be a bigger percentage fall in petrol prices: (a) petrol price currently 140p; (b) petrol price currently 110p? Explain.
- Distinguish between a specific tax and an ad valorem tax. Which of these is (a) fuel duty; (b) VAT? Illustrate your answer with a supply and demand diagram.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for petrol and diesel? Is the long-run elasticity likely to be higher or lower than the short-run elasticity? Explain.
- Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation. Given that oil price changes are correlated to inflation, would you characterise recent falls in inflation as reductions in demand-pull or cost-push pressures, or both: (a) in a specific oil-importing country; (b) globally?