Between December 2007 and March 2009, the Bank of England reduced Bank Rate on several occasions in order to stimulate the economy and combat recession. By March 2009, the rate stood at a record low of 0.5%. Each month the Monetary Policy Committee meets to decide on interest rates and since March 2009, the members’ decision has consistently been that Bank Rate needs to remain at 0.5%.
Although the UK economy has been making tentative steps towards recovery, it is still in a very vulnerable state. Last month, the Bank of England extended its programme of quantitative easing to a total £325bn stimulus. This, together with the decision to keep interest rates down and with the shock fall in manufacturing output contributing towards first quarter growth of just 0.1%, is a key indication that the UK economy is still struggling, even though the central bank thinks it unlikely that the UK will re-enter recession this year.
Monetary policy in the UK has been very much geared towards stimulating economic growth, despite interest rates typically being the main tool to keep inflation on target at 2%. The problem facing the central bank is that economic growth and inflation are in something of a conflict. Low interest rates to stimulate economic growth also create a higher inflation environment and that is the trade-off the economy has faced. Inflation has been well above its target for some months (a high of 5.2% in September 2011), and the low interest rate environment has done little to deflate the figure. After all, low interest rates are a monetary instrument that can be used to boost aggregate demand, which can then create demand-pull inflation. However, inflation is now slowly beginning to fall, but this downward trend could be reversed with the sky high oil prices we are recently experiencing. If inflation does begin to creep back up, the Monetary Policy Committee will once again face a decision: keep Bank Rate low and continue with quantitative easing to stimulate the economy or increase Bank Rate to counter the higher rate of inflation.
The data over recent months has been truly inconsistent. Some indicators suggest improvements in the economy and the financial environment, whereas others indicate an economic situation that is moving very quickly in the wrong direction. A key factor is that the direction the UK economy takes is very much dependent on the world economy and, in particular, on how events in the eurozone unfold. The following articles consider some of the latest economic developments.
UK economy grew 0.1% to avoid recession, says NIESR Guardian, Katie Allen (5/4/12)
UK interest rates held at 0.5% BBC News (5/4/12)
UK just about avoided recession in Q1, NIESR says Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (5/4/12)
Bank of England keeps interest rates on hold at 0.5pc Telegraph (5/4/12)
UK economy ‘weak but showing signs of improvement’ BBC News (3/4/12)
Bank of England holds on quantitative easing and interest rates Guardian, Katie Allen (5/4/12)
Faith on Tories on economy hits new low Financial Times, Helen Warrell (6/4/12)
- Which factors will the Monetary Policy Committee consider when setting interest rates?
- Using a diagram to help your answer, illustrate and explain the trade-off that the MPC faces when choosing to keep interest rates low or raise them.
- What is quantitative easing? How is it expected to boost economic growth in the UK?
- Which factors are likely to have contributed towards the low growth rate the UK economy experienced in the first quarter of 2012?
- Explain the trends that we have seen in UK inflation over the past year. What factors have caused the figure to increase to a high in September and then fall back down?
- What do you expect to happen to inflation over the next few months? To what extent is your answer dependent on the MPC’s interest rate decisions?
- Although the official figures suggest that the UK avoided a double-dip recession, do you agree with this assessment? Explain your answer.
The Brazilian economy is an emerging superpower (see A tale of two cities), but even its growth slowed in the second quarter of the year, although the economy still appears to be growing above capacity. In reaction to that latest economic data, the central bank slashed interest rates by 50 basis points to 12%. The Central Bank said:
‘Reviewing the international scenario, the monetary policy committee considers that there has been a substantial deterioration, backed up, for example, by large and widespread reductions to the growth forecasts of the main economic regions.’
Rates had previously been hiked up 5 times in the year to tackle rising inflation, which has been some way above its inflation target. Such tightening policies have become commonplace in many emerging economies to prevent overheating. However, following this reversal of policy, questions have been raised about the independence of the central bank, as some politicians have recently been calling for a cut in rates, including President Rousseff himself. As Tony Volpon at Nomura Securities said:
‘They gave in to political pressure. The costs will likely be much higher inflation and a deterioration of central bank credibility…It has damaged the inflation-targeting regime.’
Many believe the rate cut is premature and the last thing the economy needs given the inflationary pressures it’s been facing. Huge spending cuts have been announced to bring inflation back under control, together with the previous rate rises, so this cut in interest rates to stimulate growth is likely to put more pressure on costs and prices. Only time will tell exactly how effective or problematic this new direction of monetary policy will be.
Brazil’s growth slows despite resilient consumers Reuters, Brian Ellsworth and Brad Haynes (2/9/11)
Brail in surprise interest rate cut to 12% BBC News (1/9/11)
Rousseffl’s ‘Risky’ rate cut means boosting Brazil GDP outweighs inflation Bloomberg, Arnaldo Galvao and Alexander Ragir (2/9/11)
Brazil makes unexpected interest rate cut Financial Times, Samantha Pearson (1/9/11)
Brazil rate cut stirs inflation, political concerns Reuters (1/9/11)
- What is the relationship between the macroeconomic objectives of inflation and economic growth?
- Why are there concerns that the recent reduction in the interest rate may worsen inflation? Do you think that a decision has been made to sacrifice Brazil’s inflation-targeting regime to protect its economic growth?
- Why are there questions over the independence of the central bank and how will this affect its credibility? What are the arguments for central bank independence?
- Growth in Brazil, although lower this year, still remains very strong. Why has the Brazilian economy been able to continue its strong growth, despite worsening economic conditions worldwide?
- What type of inflation are emerging economies experiencing? Explain how continuous hikes in interest rates have aimed to bring it back under control.
- What is meant by overheating? How will the central bank’s past and current policies contribute towards it?
Each month the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England meets to set Bank Rate – the Bank’s repo rate, which has a direct impact on short-term interest rates and an indirect effect on other interest rates, such as mortgage rates and bond yields. Ever since March 2009, Bank Rate has been 0.5%. So each month the MPC has met and decided to do nothing! The latest meeting on 4 and 5 May was no exception.
And it is not just the Bank of England. The Fed in the USA has kept interest rates at between 0 and 0.25% ever since December 2008. The ECB had maintained its main interest rate at 1% for two years from May 2009. Then last month (April) it raised the rate to 1.25%, only to keep it unchanged at that level at its meeting on 5 May.
So is all this ‘doing nothing’ on interest rates (or very little in the case of the ECB) a sign that the economies of the UK, the USA and the eurozone are all ticking along nicely? Are they in the ‘goldilocks’ state of being neither too hot (i.e. too much demand and excessive inflation) or too cold (i.e. too little demand and low growth, or even recession)? Or does the apparent inaction on interest rates mask deep concerns and divisions within the decision-making bodies?
The three central banks’ prime concern may be inflation, but they are also concerned about the rate of economic growth. If inflation is forecast to be above target and growth to be unsustainably high, then central banks will clearly want to raise interest rates. If inflation is forecast to be below target and economic growth is forecast to be low or negative, then central banks will clearly want to reduce interest rates.
But what if inflation is above target and will probably remain so and, at the same time, growth is low and perhaps falling? What should the central bank do then? Should it raise interest rates or lower them? This is the dilemma facing central banks today. With soaring commodity prices (albeit with a temporary fall in early May) and the economic recovery stalling or proceeding painfully slowly, perhaps keeping interest rates where they are is the best option – an ‘active’ decision, but not an easy one!
Central Banks Leave Rates Unchanged News on News (8/5/11)
European Central Bank set for a bumpy ride City A.M., Guy Johnson (9/5/11)
Euro Tumbles Most Against Dollar Since January on Rate Signal; Yen Climbs Bloomberg, Allison Bennett and Catarina Saraiva (7/5/11)
Rates outlook Financial Times, Elaine Moore (6/5/11)
Interest rates on hold amid fears economy is stalling Independent, Sean Farrell (6/5/11)
The decision to hold back on increasing interest rates may turn out to be wrong Independent, Hamish McRae (6/5/11)
Bank of England: Inflation threat from fuel bills BBC News. Hugh Pym (11/5/11)
Andrew Sentance loses last battle over interest rates Guardian, Heather Stewart (5/5/11)
Interest rates: what the experts say Guardian (5/5/11)
King’s Defense of Record-Low Rates in U.K. Is Bolstered by Economic Data Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (5/5/11)
BoE holds rates: reaction The Telegraph, Joost Beaumont, Abn Amro (5/5/11)
UK interest rates kept on hold at 0.5% BBC News (5/5/11)
Bank of England Signals Rate Increase This Year as Inflation Accelerates Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnel (11/5/11)
ECB: Clearing the way for an Italian hawk? BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (5/5/11)
Ben and the Fed’s excellent adventure BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (27/4/11)
Inflation up. Growth down. Uncertainty everywhere BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (11/5/11)
Inflation report: analysts expecting a rate rise are wide of the mark Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/5/11)
May’s Inflation Report – three key graphs The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico (11/5/11)
The Errors Of The Inflation Hawks, Part I Business Insider, John Carney (9/5/11)
Errors of Inflation Hawks, Part II CNBC, John Carney (9/5/11)
Data and information
Inflation Report Bank of England
Inflation Report Press Conference Webcast Bank of England (11/5/11)
Monetary Policy ECB
ECB Interest Rates ECB
Monetary Policy Federal Reserve
US interest rates Federal Reserve
- Why is it exceptionally difficult at the current time for central banks to “get it right” in setting interest rates?
- What are the arguments for (a) raising interest rates; (b) keeping interest rates the same and also embarking on another round of quantitative easing?
- Should central banks respond to rapidly rising commodity prices by raising interest rates?
- Why is inflation in the UK currently around 2 percentage points above the target?
- What is likely to happen to inflation in the coming months and why?
- Explain the following comment by John Carney in the final article above: “To put it differently, the textbook money multiplier doesn’t exist anymore. This means that Fed attempts to juice the economy by raising the quantity of reserves—the basic effect of quantitative easing—are bound to fail.”.
- What has been the recent relationship in the UK between (a) growth in the monetary base and growth in broad money; (b) growth in the monetary base and inflation and economic growth?
Every quarter, the Bank of England publishes its Inflation Report. This analyses developments in the macroeconomy and gives forecasts for inflation and GDP growth over the following 12 quarters. It is on the forecast for inflation in 8 quarters’ time that the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee primarily bases its interest rate decision.
According to the February 2011 Inflation Report forecast, CPI inflation is expected to be at or slightly below its 2% target in two year’s time, but there is considerable uncertainty about this, as shown in the fan diagram in Chart 3 of the Overview. What is more, inflation is likely to rise considerably before it falls back. As the Report states:
CPI inflation is likely to pick up to between 4% and 5% in the near term and to remain well above the 2% target over the next year or so, reflecting in part the recent increase in VAT. The near-term profile is markedly higher than in November, largely reflecting further rises in commodity and import prices since then. Further ahead, inflation is likely to fall back, as those effects diminish and downward pressure from spare capacity persists. But both the timing and extent of that decline in inflation are uncertain.
It is interesting to look back at the Inflation Reports of a year ago and two years ago to see what was being forecast then and to compare them with what has actually happened. It’s not too difficult to explain why the forecasts have turned out to be wrong. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, foresight is less wonderful.
BoE forecasts pave way to rate rise, but King cautious Reuters, Matt Falloon and Fiona Shaikh (16/2/11)
Inflation report: what the economists say Guardian (16/2/11)
Inflation will rise sharply, says Mervyn King BBC News (16/2/11)
The unrepentant governor BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (16/2/11)
Inflation: Mervyn and me BBC News blogs: Idle Scrawl, Paul Mason (16/2/11)
What would Milton do? The Economist, Buttonwood (16/2/11)
Why inflation hawks are still grounded Fortune, Colin Barr (16/2/11)
Podcast and Webcast
Bank of England Press conference: Podcast (16/2/11)
Bank of England Press conference: Webcast (16/2/11)
Inflation Report, portal page for latest report and sections, Bank of England
Inflation Report, February 2011: full report, Bank of England
Forecasts for the UK economy: a comparison of independent forecasts, HM Treasury
Prospects for the UK economy, National Institute of Economic and Social Research press release (1/2/11)
Output, Prices and Jobs, The Economist (10/2/11)
- Examine the forecasts for UK inflation and GDP for 2010 made in the February 2009 and February 2010 Bank of England Inflation Reports. How accurate were they?
- Explain the difference between the forecasts and the outturn.
- Why is it particularly difficult to forecast inflation and GDP growth at the present time for two years hence?
- What are the advantages of the Bank of England using a forward-looking rule as opposed to basing interest rate decisions solely on current circumstances?
- Explain whether or not it is desirable for interest rates to be adjusted in response to external shocks, such as commodity price increases?
- What do you understand by the term ‘core’ inflation? Is this the same thing as demand-pull inflation?
- How is the Bank of England’s policy on interest rates likely to affect expectations? What expectations are particularly important here?
- Explain whether or not it is desirable for interest rates to be adjusted in response to external shocks, such as commodity price increases?
In March 2009, the Bank of England’s base rate was slashed to 0.5% in a bid to boost aggregate demand and stimulate the UK economy. And there it has remained for almost 2 years and as yet, no change is in sight. In the February 2011 meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee (who are responsible for setting interest rates to keep inflation on target), the decision was to keep interest rates at 0.5% rather than raise them to tackle high and rising UK inflation. Those in favour of keeping interest rates at this record low argue that any increase could damage the UK’s ability to recover and may lead to the dreaded double-dip recession. This is of particular concern given the economy’s performance in the last quarter of 2010.
However, one group that will certainly not be happy is the savers. With instant-access savings accounts paying on average just 0.84% before tax and with inflation at 3.7%, savers aren’t just not gaining much interest, but are actually seeing the value of their money in real terms fall. Howard Archer of HIS Global Insight said:
“For now, we retain our view that the Bank of England will hold off from raising interest rates until the latter months of the year. Even if interest rates do rise in the near term, the likelihood is still that they will rise only gradually and remain very low compared to past norms.
Monetary policy will need to stay loose for an extended period to offset the impact of the major, sustained fiscal squeeze. Consequently, we retain the view that interest rates will only rise to 2pc by the end of 2012.”
Following some speculation that the Bank of England may succumb to the pressure of inflation and hike up interest rates (markets had priced in a 20% chance of a rate rise), sterling did take a hit, but after the decision to keep rates at 0.5%, sterling recovered against the dollar. There is a belief amongst some traders that rates will rise in May, but others believe rates may remain at 0.5% until much later in 2011, as the country aims to avoid plunging back into recession. Of 49 economists that responsed to a poll by Reuters, three quarters of them said that rates would rise by the end of 2011, with median forecasts predicting a rise around November. This is certainly a space to watch, as it has implications for everyone in the UK and for many in countries around the world.
BOE leaves bank rate unchanged at 0.5% at Feb meeting Automated Trader (10/2/11)
Economists predict interest rates will rise in November Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (11/2/11)
UK May rate hike view holds firm after BOE Reuters, Kirsten Donovan (10/2/11)
Interest rates: What the economists say Guardian (10/2/11)
Fixed rate mortgages becoming more expensive BBC News (10/2/11)
Bank rate: savers’ celebrations on hold Telegraph, Richard Evans (10/2/11)
Inflation fears turn up heat ahead of bank rate decision City AM, Julian Harris (10/2/11)
Sterling takes BOE in its stride, higher rate talk aids Reuters, Anirban Nag (10/2/11)
Bank of England holds interest rates of 0.5% Telegraph, Emma Rowley (10/2/11)
- Why are interest rates such an important tool of monetary policy? Think about which variables of aggregate demand will be affected by the Bank of England’s decision.
- What is the relationship between interest rates and inflation?
- What explanation is there for the fall in the value of sterling following speculation that interest rates may rise? Why did sterling recover after the Bank of England’s decision?
- How has the recent speculation affected fixed rate mortgages?
- What does the Telegraph article about “savers’ celebrations on hold” mean about the ‘real value’ of money and savings?
- What are (a) the arguments for keeping interest rates at 0.5% and (b) the arguments for raising interest rates? Who wins and loses in each case?
- Are there any other government policies that could be used to combat inflation, without creating the possibility of a double-dip recession? Why haven’t they been used?