Interest rates in the UK have been at a record low since 2009, recorded at just 0.5%. In July, the forward guidance from Mark Carney seemed to indicate that a rate rise would be likely towards the start of 2016. However, with the recovery of the British economy slowing, together with continuing problems in Europe and slowdowns in China, a rate rise has become less likely. Forward guidance hasn’t been particularly ‘guiding’, as a rate rise now seems most likely well into 2016 or even in 2017 and this is still very speculative.
Interest rates are a key tool of monetary policy and one of the government’s demand management policies. Low interest rates have remained in the UK as a means of stimulating economic growth, via influencing aggregate demand. Interest rates affect many of the components of aggregate demand, such as consumption – through affecting the incentive to save and spend and by affecting mortgage rates and disposable income. They affect investment by influencing the cost of borrowing and net exports through changing the exchange rate and hence the competitiveness of exports.
Low interest rates therefore help to boost all components of aggregate demand and this then should stimulate economic growth. While they have helped to do their job, circumstances across the global economy have acted in the opposite direction and so their effectiveness has been reduced.
Although the latest news on interest rates may suggest some worrying times for the UK, the information contained in the Bank of England’s Inflation Report isn’t all bad. Despite its predictions that the growth rate of the world economy will slow and inflation will remain weak, the predictions from August remain largely the same. The suggestion that interest rates will remain at 0.5% and that any increases are likely to be at a slow pace will flatten the yield curve, and, with predictions that inflation will remain weak, there will be few concerns that continuing low rates will cause inflationary pressures in the coming months. Mark Carney said:
“The lower path for Bank Rate implied by market yields would provide more than adequate support to domestic demand to bring inflation to target even in the face of global weakness.”
However, there are many critics of keeping interest rates down, both in the UK and the USA, in particular because of the implications for asset prices, in particular the housing market and for the growth in borrowing and hence credit debt. The Institute of Directors Chief Economist, James Sproute said:
“There is genuine apprehension over asset prices, the misallocation of capital and consumer debt…Borrowing is comfortably below the unsustainable pre-crisis levels, but with debt once against rising there is a need for vigilance…The question is, will the Bank look back on this unprecedented period of extraordinary monetary policy and wish they had acted sooner? The path of inaction may seem easier today, but maintaining rates this low, for this long, could prove a much riskier decision tomorrow.”
hanges in the strength of the global economy will certainly have a role to play in forming the opinions of the Monetary Policy Committee and it will also be a key event when the Federal Reserve pushes up its interest rates. This is certainly an area to keep watching, as it’s not a question of if rates will rise, but when.
Bank of England dampens prospects of early UK rate rise BBC News (5/11/15)
Bank of England Governor gets his forward guidance on interest rates wrong Independent, Ben Chu (6/11/15)
Interest rates set to remain at rock-bottom right through 2016 as Bank of England cuts UK growth and inflation forecasts This is Money, Adrian Lowery (5/11/15)
Pound slides as Bank of England suggests interest rates will stay low for longer – as it happened 5 November 2015 The Telegraph, Peter Spence (5/11/15)
UK’s record low interest rates should be raised next Februrary says NIESE The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (4/11/15)
Fresh signs of slowdown will force interest rates rise to be put on hold The Guardian, Katie Allen (2/11/15)
The perils of keeping interest rates so low The Telegraph, Andrew Sentence (6/11/15)
Time to ask why we are still in the era of ultra-low rates Financial Times, Chris Giles (4/11/15)
No interest rate rise until 2017: Joy for homeowners as Bank of England delays hike in mortgage costs again Mail Online, Matt Chorley (5/11/15)
Pound tumbles after Carney warns its strength threatens recovery Bloomberg, Lucy Meakin (5/11/15)
Is Carney hurt by wrong rate steer? BBC News, Robert Peston (5/11/15)
Data and Reports
Inflation Report Bank of England (August 2015)
Inflation Report Bank of England (November 2015)
Historical Fan Chart Data Bank of England (2015)
- Use and AD/AS diagram, explain how low interest rates affect the key components of aggregate demand and in turn how this will affect economic growth.
- What is meant by the ‘yield curve’? How has it been affected by the latest release from the Monetary Policy Committee?
- Why has the value of the pound been affected following the decision to keep interest rates at 0.5%?
- How has the sterling exchange rate changed and how might this affect UK exports?
- What are the main concerns expressed by those who think that there is a danger from keeping interest rates low for too long?
- Why is the outlook of the global economy so important for the direction of interest rate changes?
China has a key role in the global economy. Recording double digit growth for a number of years and posting impressive export figures, China’s has been an economy on an upward trajectory. But its growth has been slowing and this might spell trouble for the global economy, as was discussed in the following blog. For many, China is the pendulum and the direction it moves in will have a big influence on many other countries.
There are some suggestions that China’s rapid growth has been somewhat artificial, in particular following the financial crisis, where we saw massive investment by state-owner enterprises, banks and local government. This has led to a severe imbalance within the Chinese economy, with high levels of debt. One of the key factors that has enabled China to grow so quickly has been strong exports. China has typically had a large current account surplus, often balanced by large current account deficits in many Western countries.
The exchange rate is a key component in keeping strong export growth and the devaluation of the Chinese currency in August (see What a devalued yuan means to the rest of the world) is perhaps a suggestion that export growth in China is lower than desired. Devaluing the currency will boost the competitiveness of Chinese exports and this in turn may lead to a growth in the current account surplus, which had fallen quite significantly from around 10% to 2%.
The problem is that China is currently imbalanced and this is likely to create problems around the world. With globalisation, the free movement of capital and people, deflation in the West and falling world asset prices, the situation in China is crucial. Although you will find many articles about China and blogs on this site about its devaluation, its growth and policy, the BBC News article below considers the conflicts that exist between three key economic objectives:
1. currency stability
2. the free movement of capital
3. independent monetary policy
and the need for some international co-operation and co-ordination to enable China’s economy to return to internal and external balance.
China’s impossible trinity BBC News, Duncan Weldon (8/9/15)
- What is meant by internal balance?
- What is external balance?
- Would you suggest that China is suffering from an imbalanced economy? If so, which type of imbalance and why is this a problem for China and for the world economy?
- The article refers to the trilemma. Why can an country not achieve all 3 parts of the trilemma? You should explain why each combination of 2 aspects is possible, but why the third is problematic.
- Use a diagram to explain why a fall in the exchange rate will boost the competitiveness of exports and why this can create economic growth.
- Why is a devalued Chinese currency bad news for the rest of the world?
- How could international co-operation and co-ordination help China?
The eurozone has been suffering from deflation: that is, negative inflation. But, the latest data show an increase in the rate of inflation in April from 0% to 0.3%. This is still a very low rate, with a return to deflation remaining a possibility (though perhaps unlikely); but certainly an improvement.
The eurozone economy has been stagnant for some time but the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally appear to be working. Prices across the eurozone have risen, including services up by 1.3%, food and drink up by 1.2% and energy prices, albeit still falling, but at a slower rate. All of this has helped to push the annual inflation rate above 0%. For many, this increase was bigger than expected. Howard Archer, Chief European Economist at HIS Global Insight said:
“Renewed dips into deflation for the eurozone are looking increasingly unlikely with the risks diluted by a firming in oil prices from their January lows, the weakness of the euro and improved eurozone economic activity.”
Economic policy in the eurozone has focused on stimulating the economy, with interest rates remaining low and a €1.1 trillion bond-buying programme by the ECB. But, why is deflation such a concern? We know that one of the main macroeconomic objectives of a nation is low and stable inflation. If prices are low (or even falling) is it really as bad as economists and policy-makers suggest?
The problem of deflation occurs when people expect prices to continue falling and thus delay spending on durables, hoping to get the products cheaper later on. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. This decision by consumers to put off spending will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment and adding to problems of economic stagnation. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. In the eurozone, this has been a key problem, but it now appears that aggregate demand has stopped falling and is now slowly recovering, together with the economy.
It is important to note how interdependent all aspects of an economy are. The euro responded as news of better inflation data emerged, together with expectations of a Greek deal being reached. Enrique Diaz-Alvarez, chief risk officer at Ebury said:
“The move [rise in euro] got going with the big upside surprise in eurozone inflation data — especially core inflation, which bounced up from 0.6 per cent to 0.9 per cent. This is exactly what the ECB wants to see, as it is proof that QE is having the desired effect and removes the threat of deflation in the eurozone from the foreseeable future.”
One of the key factors that has kept inflation down in the eurozone (and also the UK) is falling oil prices. It is for this reason that many have been suggesting that this type of deflation is not bad deflation. With oil prices recovering, the general price level will also recover and so economies will follow suit. The following articles consider the fortunes of the eurozone.
Eurozone inflation shouldn’t shift ECB’s QE focus Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley (2/6/15)
Eurozone deflation threat recedes Financial Times, Claire Jones (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation rate rises to 0.3% in May BBC News (2/6/15)
Eurozone back to inflation as May prices beat forecast Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (2/6/15)
Boost for ECB as Eurozone prices turn positive in May Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation higher than expected due to quantitative easing International Business Times, Bauke Schram (2/6/15)
Euro lifted by Greek deal hopes and firmer inflation data Financial Times, Roger Blitz and Michael Hunter (2/6/15)
- What is the difference between the 0.3% and 0.9% figures quoted for inflation in the eurozone?
- What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
- Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
- How has the ECB’s QE policy helped to tackle the problem of deflation? Do you think that this programme needs to continue or now the economy has begun to improve, should the programme end?
- To what extent is the economic stagnation in the eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and USA? Explain your answer.
- Why has the euro risen, following news of this positive inflation data?
A new group of economies, known as MINT, are seen as strong current and future emerging markets. We’ve had the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and now we have the MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey).
In 2014, Nigeria became Africa’s fastest growing nation. A large part of Nigeria’s success has to do with growth in some of its key industries.
Nigerian’s reliance on the oil and gas industry created an attractive economy for further development and it now has high growth in a diverse range of sectors, including mobile phones, champagne, private jets and ‘Nollywood’. Despite the uncertainty and political unrest caused by Boko Haram, Nigeria is attracting a significant amount of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in a range of sectors, indicating its growing diversity and attractiveness to some of the world’s largest multinational companies.
Boko Haram has certainly had a dampening effect on Nigeria’s growth, as has the lower oil price, but this may create opportunities for further diversification. Furthermore there are concerns about how the wealth of the nation is concentrated, given that poverty is still prevalent across the country. However, Nigeria is certainly emerging as a success story of Africa and surely the question that will be asked is will other African nations follow suit?
The following article from BBC News considers the Nigerian economy.
Nigeria’s ‘champagne’ economy bucks Boko Haram effect BBC News, Vishala Sri-Pathma (27/3/15)
- Is a falling oil price necessarily bad for the Nigerian economy?
- Explain why Boko Haram is likely to have a dampening effect on economic growth in Nigeria.
- Do you think other African nations will be able to replicate the success of Nigeria? Which factors may prevent this?
- If the number of millionaires is increasing significantly, but poverty is persisting, does this tell us anything about what is happening to inequality in Nigeria?
- Is is possible to reduce inequality in Nigeria while maintaining economic growth? Might it even be posible for greater equality to be a driver of economic growth?
- The Nigerian currency is weakening. What has caused this and why may this be a cause for concern?
With an election approaching in the UK, uncertainty is a term we will hear frequently over the next few weeks. Until we know which party or parties will be in power and hence which policies will be implemented, planning anything is difficult. This is just one of the factors that has caused the British pound sterling to fall last week by 2% to an almost five year low against the dollar.
In the last election, uncertainty also prevailed and continued even after the election before the Coalition was formed. Given how close this election appears to be at present, another Coalition may have to be formed and this is adding to the current election uncertainty. A currency strategist at Standard Bank said:
“A $1.40 level for sterling/dollar is certainly not out of reach if the election aftermath turns ugly”
With such uncertainty, investors are refraining from putting their money into the UK and this has contributed towards the deprecation of the British pound against the dollar.
Another factor adding to this downward pressure on the pound is the latest data on industrial output. Although economic growth figures for the UK in 2014 were very positive, there are some suggestions that 2015 will not be as good as expected, though still a strong performance. The first quarter data will not be available until just before the election, but data from the ONS on industrial output shows very minimal growth at just 0.1% from January to February. Chris Williams at Markit said:
“Clearly this all bodes ill for economic growth in the opening quarter of the year. It’s now looking like the economy slowed, and possibly quite markedly, compared to the 0.6% expansion seen in the closing quarter of 2014 … The trend should improve in March, however, according to survey data.”
These two factors have combined to push the pound down, with investors preferring to hold their money in dollars, despite the weak US unemployment data. However, it is not only against the dollar that we must consider sterling’s performance. Against the euro, it has performed better, rising by 1.5%. Whether this is positive for the UK or very negative for the Eurozone is another question. The following articles consider the performance of the British pound.
Sterling falls to five-year low Financial Times, Neil Dennis (10/4/15)
Sterling plummets to five year low as economic slowdown looms The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (10/4/15)
Pound at five-year low against dollar on weak output BBC News (10/4/15)
Sterling falls after Bank of England’s Haldane says even chances of rate cut or rise Reuters (10/4/15)
Pound falls to five-year low as volatility jumps before election Bloomberg, Anooja Debnath and David Goodman (11/4/15)
Pound falls to a five-year low against the dollar as polls suggest election will create economic uncertainty Mail Online, Matt Chorley (10/4/15)
- Draw a diagram illustrating the way in which the $/£ exchange rate is determined.
- Explain why the election is causing economic uncertainty in the UK.
- How would uncertainty affect the demand and supply of sterling and hence the exchange rate?
- US job data is worse than expected. Shouldn’t this have caused the dollar to depreciate against the pound and not appreciate?
- Industrial output data for the UK economy is lower than expected. What has caused this?
- Why does slower growth in industrial output cause the exchange rate to depreciate?
- In order to keep the UK’s inflation rate on target, Haldane has said that we could expect a cut or rise in interest rates and policy should be prepared for both. How has this affected the exchange rate?
- Are there any advantages of having a lower pound?