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?
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.
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?
In 2009, interest rates in the UK were cut to a record low of 0.5%. Since that point, there has been almost unanimous agreement amongst the members of the Monetary Policy Committee to keep rates at this low. It is only in the last couple of months when some have even voted to raise rates. However, this month, interest rates were once again held at 0.5%.
The low interest rates have played a key part in creating an economic stimulus for the UK economy. With low interest rates, some of the key components of aggregate demand are stimulated and this in turn is crucial in creating a growth environment. However, with the recovery of the UK economy, there are now expectations that interest rates may soon begin to rise. Perhaps adding to this expectation is the fact that the bank’s stimulus programme has remained unchanged at £375bn. As more data is released that continues to show the positive progress of the UK economy, it becomes increasingly likely that interest rates will soon rise.
Despite the fact that interest rates will inevitably increase, Mark Carney has said that any increase will be slow and gradual to minimise the effect on consumers, especially home-owners. Mortgage payments are typically the biggest expenditure for a household and so any increase in interest rates will certainly put added pressure on home-owners and with wage growth still remaining slow, there are concerns of the impact this may have. Perhaps this may continue to deter some of the Committee for voting in favour of interest rate rises. There does appear to be some conflict between economists as to what the next step is likely to be. Yael Selfin is the economics director at KPMG and said:
With inflationary pressures still subdued, it is no surprise that rates have been held … Despite recent revisions to GDP and productivity, there is still room for further improvements in productivity, to mop up some of the rise in demand over the coming months. Steady falls in unemployment and strong economic growth are likely to see rates rising in February next year.
However, Andrew Goodwin, who is the senior economic adviser to the EY ITEM Club commented that:
On one hand, the stronger performance might convince some members that the economy is sufficiently robust to withstand the steady tightening of policy, although it should be noted that the Bank routinely builds into its forecasts the expectation of some upward revisions to the recent historical data … On the flip side, the revisions also provide some ammunition for those of a dovish persuasion, with evidence that a stronger productivity performance has had little feed through into inflationary pressures.
The key question therefore appears to be not whether interest rates will increase, but when. The MPC certainly considers inflation when making its decisions, but over the past few years, it is economic growth which has probably been the biggest influence. The data for the UK economy over the coming months, as well as the fast-approaching General Election, will prove crucial in determining exactly when interest rates increase. The following articles consider this monetary policy change.
UK interest rates held at record low of 0.5% BBC News (4/9/14)
Bank of England holds interest rates at 0.5pc for 66th month The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (4/9/14)
Timing of UK interest rate hike mired in UK services sector conundrum International Business Times, Lianna Brinded (3/9/14)
Interest rates expected to hold Mail Online, Press Association (31/8/14)
Bank of England holds rates despite robust recovery Reuters, Andy Bruce (4/9/14)
Bank of England keeps record-low rate on weak inflation Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton (4/9/14)
- By outlining the key components of aggregate demand, explain the mechanisms by which interest rates will affect each component.
- How can inflation rates be affected by interest rates?
- Why is there a debate between economists and the MPC as to when interest rates should be increased?
- If interest rates do increase, how is this likely to affect home-owners?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a slow and gradual rise as opposed to one big rise?
Although the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England is independent in setting interest rates, until recently it still had to follow a precise remit set by the government. This was to target inflation of 2% (±1%), with interest rates set to meet this target in 24 months’ time. But things have changed since the new Governor, Mark Carney, took up office in July 2013. And now things are not so clear cut.
The Bank announced that it would keep Bank Rate at the current historically low level of 0.5% at least until unemployment had fallen to 7%, subject to various conditions. More generally, the Bank stated that:
The MPC intends at a minimum to maintain the present highly stimulative stance of monetary policy until economic slack has been substantially reduced, provided this does not entail material risks to price stability or financial stability.
This ‘forward guidance’ was designed to provide more information about future policy and thereby more certainty for businesses and households to plan.
But unemployment has fallen rapidly in recent months. It fell from a 7.7% average for the three months May to July 2013 to 7.1% for the latest available three months (September to November 2013). And yet there is still considerable slack in the economy.
It now, therefore, looks highly unlikely that the MPC will raise Bank Rate as soon as unemployment falls below 7%. This then raises the question of how useful the 7% target has been and whether, if anything, it has created further uncertainty about future MPC decisions.
The following still appears on the Bank of England website:
The MPC intends at a minimum to maintain the present highly stimulative stance of monetary policy until economic slack has been substantially reduced, provided this does not entail material risks to price stability or financial stability.
But this raises two questions: (a) how do you measure ‘economic slack’ and (b) what constitutes a substantial reduction?
So what should the Bank do now? What, if any, forward guidance should it offer to the markets? Will that forward guidance be credible? After all, credibility among businesses and households is an important condition for any policy stance. According to Larry Elliott in the first article below, there are five options.
Bank of England’s method of setting interest rates needs reviewing The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/2/14)
Mark Carney set to adjust Bank interest rate policy BBC News (12/2/14)
Forward guidance: dead and alive BBC News, Robert Peston (11/2/14)
What “forward guidance” is, and how it (theoretically) works The Economist (11/2/14)
BOE’s forward guidance 2.0: Cheap talk, or big change? Market Watch (11/2/14)
Bank of England pages
Monetary Policy Bank of England
MPC Remit Letters Bank of England
Forward Guidance Bank of England
- What data would you need to have in order to identify the degree of economic slack in the economy?
- Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
- Why might the issuing of the forward guidance last July have itself contributed to the fall in unemployment?
- Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
- Why is credibility an important requirement for policy?
- Why may LFS unemployment be a poor guide to the degree of slack in the economy?
- Discuss the relative merits of each of the five policy options identified by Larry Elliott.