To finance budget deficits, governments have to borrow. They can borrow short-term by issuing Treasury bills, typically for 1, 3 or 6 months. These do not earn interest and hence are sold at a discount below the face value. The rate of discount depends on supply and demand and will reflect short-term market rates of interest. Alternatively, governments can borrow long-term by issuing bonds. In the UK, these government securities are known as ‘gilts’ or ‘gilt-edged securities’. In the USA they are known as ‘treasury bonds’, ‘T-bonds’ or simply ‘treasuries’. In the EU, countries separately issue bonds but the European Commission also issues bonds.
In the UK, gilts are issued by the Debt Management Office on behalf of the Treasury. Although there are index-linked gilts, the largest proportion of gilts are conventional gilts. These pay a fixed sum of money per annum per £100 of face value. This is known as the ‘coupon payment’ and the rate is set at the time of issue. The ‘coupon rate’ is the payment per annum as a percentage of the bond’s face value:
Payments are made six-monthly. Each issue also has a maturity date, at which point the bonds will be redeemed at face value. For example, a 4½% Treasury Gilt 2028 bond has a coupon rate of 4½% and thus pays £4.50 per annum (£2.25 every six months) for each £100 of face value. The issue will be redeemed in June 2028 at face value. The issue was made in June 2023 and thus represented a 5-year bond. Gilts are issued for varying lengths of time from 2 to 55 years. At present, there are 61 different conventional issues of bonds, with maturity dates varying from January 2024 to October 2073.
Bonds can be sold on the secondary market (i.e. the stock market) before maturity. The market price, however, is unlikely to be the coupon price (i.e. the face value). The lower the coupon rate relative to current interest rates, the less valuable the bond will be. For example, if interest rates rise, and hence new bonds pay a higher coupon rate, the market price of existing bonds paying a lower coupon rate must fall. Thus bond prices vary inversely with interest rates.
The market price also depends on how close the bonds are to maturity. The closer the maturity date, the closer the market price of the bond will be to the face value.
Bond yields: current yield
A bond’s yield is the percentage return that a person buying the bond receives. If a newly issued bond is bought at the coupon price, its yield is the coupon rate.
However, if an existing bond is bought on the secondary market (the stock market), the yield must reflect the coupon payments relative to the purchase price, not the coupon price. We can distinguish between the ‘current yield’ and the ‘yield to maturity’.
The current yield is the coupon payment as a percentage of the current market price of the bond:
Assume a bond were originally issued at 2% (its coupon rate) and thus pays £2 per annum. In the meantime, however, assume that interest rates have risen and new bonds now have a coupon rate of 4%, paying £4 per annum for each £100 invested. To persuade people to buy old bonds with a coupon rate of 2%, their market prices must fall below their face value (their coupon price). If their price halved, then they would pay £2 for every £50 of their market price and hence their current yield would be 4% (£2/£50 × 100).
Bond yields: yield to maturity (YTM)
But the current yield does not give the true yield – it is only an approximation. The true yield must take into account not just the market price but also the maturity value and the length of time to maturity (and the frequency of payments too, which we will ignore here). The closer a bond is to its maturity date, the higher/lower will be the true yield if the price is below/above the coupon price: in other words, the closer will the market price be to the coupon price for any given market rate of interest.
A more accurate measure of a bond’s yield is thus the ‘yield to maturity’ (YTM). This is the interest rate which makes the present value of all a bond’s future cash flows equal to its current price. These cash flows include all coupon payments and the payment of the face value on maturity. But future cash flows must be discounted to take into account the fact that money received in the future is worth less than money received now, since money received now could then earn interest.
The yield to maturity is the internal rate of return (IRR) of the bond. This is the discount rate which makes the present value (PV) of all the bond’s future cash flows (including the maturity payment of the coupon price) equal to its current market price. For simplicity, we assume that coupon payments are made annually. The formula is the one where the bond’s current market price is given by:
Where: t is the year; n is the number of years to maturity; YTM is the yield to maturity.
Thus if a bond paid £5 each year and had a maturity value of £100 and if current interest rates were higher than 5%, giving a yield to maturity of 8%, then the bond price would be:
In other words, with a coupon rate of 5% and a higher YTM of 8%, the bond with a face value of £100 and five years to maturity would be worth only £88.02 today.
If you know the market price of a given bond, you can work out its YTM by substituting in the above formula. The following table gives examples.
The higher the YTM, the lower the market price of a bond. Since the YTM reflects in part current rates of interest, so the higher the rate of interest, the lower the market price of any given bond. Thus bond yields vary directly with interest rates and bond prices vary inversely. You can see this clearly from the table. You can also see that market bond prices converge on the face value as the maturity date approaches.
Recent activity in bond markets
Investing in government bonds is regarded as very safe. Coupon payments are guaranteed, as is repayment of the face value on the maturity date. For this reason, many pension funds hold a lot of government bonds issued by financially trustworthy governments. But in recent months, bond prices in the secondary market have fallen substantially as interest rates have risen. For those holding existing bonds, this means that their value has fallen. For governments wishing to borrow by issuing new bonds, the cost has risen as they have to offer a higher coupon rate to attract buyers. This make it more expensive to finance government debt.
The chart shows the yield on 10-year government bonds. It is calculated using the ‘par value’ approach. This gives the coupon rate that would have to be paid for the market price of a bond to equal its face value. Clearly, as interest rates rise, a bond would have to pay a higher coupon rate for this to happen. (This, of course, is only hypothetical to give an estimate of market rates, as coupon rates are fixed at the time of a bond’s issue.)
Par values reflect both yield to maturity and also expectations of future interest rates. The higher people expect future interest rates to be, the higher must par values be to reflect this.
In the years following the financial crisis of 2007–8 and the subsequent recession, and again during the COVID pandemic, central banks cut interest rates and supported this by quantitative easing. This involved central banks buying existing bonds on the secondary market and paying for them with newly created (electronic) money. This drove up bond prices and drove down yields (as the chart shows). This helped support the policy of low interest rates. This was a boon to governments, which were able to borrow cheaply.
This has all changed. With quantitative tightening replacing quantitative easing, central banks have been engaging in asset sales, thereby driving down bond prices and driving up yields. Again, this can be seen in the chart. This has helped to support a policy of higher interest rates.
Problems of higher bond yields/lower bond prices
Although lower bond prices and higher yields have supported a tighter monetary policy, which has been used to fight inflation, this has created problems.
First, it has increased the cost of financing government debt. In 2007/8, UK public-sector net debt was £567bn (35.6% of GDP). The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that it will be £2702bn (103.1% of GDP in the current financial year – 2023/24). Not only, therefore, are coupon rates higher for new government borrowing, but the level of borrowing is now a much higher proportion of GDP. In 2020/21, central government debt interest payments were 1.2% of GDP; by 2022/23, they were 4.4% (excluding interest on gilts held in the Bank of England, under the Asset Purchase Facility (quantitative easing)).
In the USA, there have been similar increases in government debt and debt interest payments. Debt has increased from $9tn in 2007 to $33.6tn today. Again, with higher interest rates, debt interest as a percentage of GDP has risen: from 1.5% of GDP in 2021 to a forecast 2.5% in 2023 and 3% in 2024. What is more, 31 per cent of US government bonds will mature next year and will need refinancing – at higher coupon rates.
There is a similar picture in other developed countries. Clearly, higher interest payments leave less government revenue for other purposes, such as health and education.
Second, many pension funds, banks and other investment companies hold large quantities of bonds. As their price falls, so this reduces the value of these companies’ assets and makes it harder to finance new purchases, or payments or loans to customers. However, the fact that new bonds pay higher interest rates means that when existing bond holdings mature, the money can be reinvested at higher rates.
Third, bonds are often used by companies as collateral against which to borrow and invest in new capital. As bond prices fall, this can hamper companies’ ability to invest, which will lead to lower economic growth.
Fourth, higher bond yields divert demand away from equities (shares). With equity markets falling back or at best ceasing to rise, this erodes the value of savings in equities and may make it harder for firms to finance investment through new issues.
At the core of all these problems is inflation and budget deficits. Central banks have responded by raising interest rates. This drives up bond yields and drives down bond prices. But bond prices and yields depend not just on current interest rates, but also on expectations about future interest rates. Expectations currently are that budget deficits will be slow to fall as governments seek to support their economies post-COVID. Also expectations are that inflation, even though it is falling, is not falling as fast as originally expected – a problem that could be exacerbated if global tensions increase as a result of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Israel/Gaza war and possible increased tensions with China concerning disputes in the China Sea and over Taiwan. Greater risks drive up bond yields as investors demand a higher interest premium.
Information and data
- Why do bond prices and bond yields vary inversely?
- How are bond yields and prices affected by expectations?
- Why are ‘current yield’ and ‘yield to maturity’ different?
- What is likely to happen to bond prices and yields in the coming months? Explain your reasoning.
- What constraints do bond markets place on fiscal policy?
- Would it be desirable for central banks to pause their policy of quantitative tightening?
UK house prices have been falling in recent months. According to the Nationwide Building Society, average UK house prices in September 2023 were 5.3% lower than in September 2022. This fall reflects the increasing cost of owning a home as mortgage rates have risen. The average standard variable rate mortgage was 3.61% in August 2021, 4.88% in August 2022 and 7.85% in August 2023. A two-year fixed rate mortgage with a 10% deposit had an interest rate of 2.48% in August 2021, 3.93% in August 2022 and 6.59% in August 2023. Thus over two years, mortgage rates have more than doubled. This has made house purchase less affordable and has dampened demand.
But do house prices simply reflect current affordability? Given the large increase in mortgage costs and the cost-of-living crisis, it might seem surprising that house prices have fallen so little. After all, from September 2019 to August 2023, the average UK house price rose by 27.1% (from £215 352 to £273 751). Since then it has fallen by only 5.8% (to £257 808 in September 2023). However, there are various factors that help to explain why house prices have not fallen considerably more.
The first is that 74% of borrowers are on fixed-rate mortgages and 96% of new mortgages since 2019 have been at fixed rates. More than half of people with fixed rates have not yet had to renew their mortgage since interest rates began rising in December 2021. These people, therefore, have not yet been affected by the rise in mortgage interest rates.
The second is that interest rates are expected to peak and then fall. Even though by December 2024 another 2 million households will have had to renew their mortgage, those taking out new longer-term fixed rates may find that rates are lower than those on offer today. This could help to reduce the downward effect on house prices.
The third is that rents continue to rise, partly in response to the higher mortgage rates paid by landlords. With the price of this substitute product rising, this acts as an incentive for existing homeowners not to sell and existing renters to buy, even though they are facing higher mortgage payments.
The fourth is that house prices do not necessarily reflect the overall market equilibrium. People selling may hold out for a better price, hoping that they will eventually attract a buyer. Houses thus are taking longer to sell. This creates a glut of houses at above-equilibrium prices, with fewer sales taking place. At the same time, these higher prices depress demand. People would rather wait for a fall in house prices than pay the current asking price. This creates more of a ‘buyers’ market’, with some sellers being forced to sell well below the asking price. According to Zoopla (see linked article below), the average selling price is 4.2% below the asking price – the highest since 2019. Nevertheless, with sellers holding out and with reduced sales, actual sale prices have fallen less than if markets cleared.
So will house prices continue to fall and will the rate of decline accelerate? This depends on confidence and affordability. With interest rates falling, confidence and affordability are likely to rise. This will help to arrest further price falls.
However, with large numbers of people still on low fixed rates but with these fixed terms ending over the coming months, for them interest rates will be higher and this could continue to have a dampening effect on demand. What is more, affordability is likely to rise only slowly and in the short term could fall further. Petrol and diesel prices remain high and home energy costs and food prices are still well above the levels of two years ago. Inflation generally is coming down only slowly. The higher prices plus a rising tax burden from fiscal drag1 will continue to squeeze household budgets. This will reduce the size of deposits and the monthly payments that house purchasers can afford.
Over the longer term, house prices are set to rise again. Lower interest rates, rising real incomes again and a failure of house building to keep up with the growth in the number of people seeking to buy houses will all contribute to this. However, over the next few months, house prices are likely to continue falling. But just how much is difficult to predict. A lot will depend on expectations about house prices and incomes, how quickly inflation falls and how quickly the Bank of England reduces interest rates.
1 With tax thresholds frozen, as people’s wages rise, so a higher proportion of their income is taxed and, for higher earners, a higher proportion is taxed at a higher rate. This automatically increases income tax as a proportion of income.
- House Price Index – September 2023
Zoopla, Richard Donnell (28/9/23)
- UK home sellers increase discounts to secure deals, Zoopla data shows
Financial Times, Joshua Oliver (28/9/23)
- Buyer’s market! House hunters bag £12k off average asking price, says Zoopla
This is Money, Jane Denton (28/9/23)
- House price growth remained weak in September
Nationwide HPI Reports (2/10/23)
- UK mortgage approvals hit six-month low as interest rates cool market
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/9/23)
- UK house prices are plummeting at the most rapid pace in over a decade
Euronews, Daniel Harper (2/10/23)
- House prices fall across all UK regions for first time since 2009
Financial Times, Valentina Romei (2/10/23)
- Will house prices fall in 2023?
The Times, Hannah Smith and Georgie Frost (4/10/23)
- First-time buyers in UK drop by a fifth as higher mortgage costs bite
The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (27/9/23)
- England worst place in developed world to find housing, says report
The Guardian, Robert Booth (5/10/23)
- UK homeowners face huge rise in payments when fixed-rate mortgages expire
The Guardian, Richard Partington (17/6/23)
- UK house prices: Where the cheapest areas to buy are, and how far prices could fall
i News, Zesha Saleem (29/9/23)
- Why are house prices falling?
Independent, Vicky Shaw (7/9/23)
- Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate the situation where house prices are above the equilibrium.
- Why does house price inflation/deflation differ (a) from one type of house (or flat) to another; (b) from one region of the economy/locality to another?
- Find out why house prices rose so much (a) in the early 2000s; (b) from 2020 to 2022.
- Find out why house prices fell so much from 2008 to 2010. Why was this fall so much greater than in recent months?
- Find out what is happening to house prices in two other developed countries of your choice. How does the current housing market in these countries differ from that in the UK?
- Paint possible scenarios (a) where UK house prices continue to fall by several percentage points; (b) begin to rise again very soon.
China has been an economic powerhouse in recent decades – a powerhouse that has helped to drive the world economy through trade and both inward and outward investment. At the same time, its low-priced exports have helped to dampen world inflation. But is all this changing? Is China, to use President Biden’s words, a ‘ticking time bomb’?
China’s economic growth rate is slowing, with the quarterly growth in GDP falling from 2.2% in Q1 this year to 0.8% in Q2. Even though public-sector investment rose by 8.1% in the first six months of this year, private-sector investment fell by 0.2%, reflecting waning business confidence. And manufacturing output declined in August. But, despite slowing growth, the Chinese government is unlikely to use expansionary fiscal policy because of worries about growing public-sector debt.
The property market
One of the biggest worries for the Chinese economy is the property market. The annual rate of property investment fell by 20.6% in June this year and new home prices fell by 0.2% in July (compared with June). The annual rate of price increase for new homes was negative throughout 2022, being as low as minus 1.6% in November 2022; it was minus 0.1% in the year to July 2023, putting new-home prices at 2.4% below their August 2021 level. However, these are official statistics. According to the Japan Times article linked below, which reports Bloomberg evidence, property agents and private data providers report much bigger falls, with existing home prices falling by at least 15% in many cities.
Falling home prices have made home-owners poorer and this wealth effect acts as a brake on spending. The result is that, unlike in many Western countries, there has been no post-pandemic bounce back in spending. There has also been a dampening effect on local authority spending. During the property boom they financed a proportion of their spending by selling land to property developers. That source of revenue has now largely dried up. And as public-sector revenues have been constrained, so this has constrained infrastructure spending – a major source of growth in China.
The government, however, has been unwilling to compensate for this by encouraging private investment and has tightened regulation of the financial sector. The result has been a decline in new jobs and a rise in unemployment, especially among graduates, where new white collar jobs in urban areas are declining. According to the BBC News article linked below, “In July, figures showed a record 21.3% of jobseekers between the ages of 16 and 25 were out of work”.
The fall in demand has caused consumer prices to fall. In the year to July 2023, they fell by 0.3%. Even though core inflation is still positive (0.8%), the likelihood of price reductions in the near future discourages spending as people hold back, waiting for prices to fall further. This further dampens the economy. This is a problem that was experienced in Japan over many years.
Despite slowing economic growth, Chinese annual growth in GDP for 2023 is still expected to be around 4.5% – much lower than the average rate for 9.5% from 1991 to 2019, but considerably higher than the average of 1.1% forecast for 2023 for the G7 countries. Nevertheless, China’s exports fell by 14.5% in the year to July 2023 and imports fell by 12.5%. The fall in imports represents a fall in exports to China from the rest of the world and hence a fall in injections to the rest-of-the-world economy. Currently China’s role as a powerhouse of the world has gone into reverse.
- Using PowerPoint or Excel, plot the growth rate of Chinese real GDP, real exports and real imports from 1990 to 2024 (using forecasts for 2023 and 2024). Use data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database. Comment on the figures.
- Explain the wealth effect from falling home prices.
- Why may official figures understate the magnitude of home price deflation?
- Explain the foreign trade multiplier and its relevance to other countries when the volume of Chinese imports changes. What determines the size of this multiplier for a specific country?
- How does the nature of the political system in China affect the likely policy response to the problems identified in this blog?
- Is there any good news for the rest of the world from the slowdown in the Chinese economy?
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.
- What happens in Jackson Hole doesn’t stay in Jackson Hole
CNN, Elisabeth Buchwald (26/8/23)
- Fed Chair Powell calls inflation ‘too high’ and warns that ‘we are prepared to raise rates further’
CNBC, Jeff Cox (25/8/23)
- Inflation? This man holds the key
Politico, Geoffrey Smith and Carlo Boffa (24/8/23)
- Global inflation pressures could become harder to manage in coming years, research suggests
Independent, Christopher Rugaber (27/8/23)
- Christine Lagarde warns of long-term inflation risks after global economic upheaval
Financial Times, Martin Arnold and Colby Smith (25/8/23)
- No appetite at Fed, ECB for changing inflation goal
Reuters, Ann Saphir, Howard Schneider and Balazs Koryani (25/8/23)
- Is it time for Fed to raise interest rate target to 3%? Experts weigh in
mint, Nishant Kumar (22/8/23)
- What is the UK inflation rate and why is it so high?
BBC News (16/8/23)
- If you think the UK’s high-inflation cycle has run its course, think again
The Observer, Adam Posen (26/8/23)
- 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?
- Why is the world likely to continue experiencing bigger supply shocks and greater price volatility than before the pandemic?
- 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?
- What are the arguments for and against increasing the target rate of inflation?
- How do inflationary expectations influence the actual rate of inflation?
- 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.
- 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?