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. Since then it has remained at the same level. Interest rates are used by the Bank of England, which aims to keep inflation at the 2% target within a 1% gap either side. However, inflation has been above 3% for some 15 months and the latest figures for February 2011 show that inflation is rising. In January, it was 4%, but data for February calculates an inflation rate of 4.4% – significantly above the Bank of England’s target rate of 2% and above the forecast rate for the month.
One of the causes of such high inflation is the price of fuel, food and clothing. No-one can have failed to notice that petrol prices are higher than ever and this is one of the factors contributing to an increase in the level of prices throughout the economy. Clothing and footwear costs, which rose by 3.6% after the January sales have also contributed to this rising figure and will put increasing pressure on the MPC to raise interest rates in the not so distant future.
In the February 2011 meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee, interest rates were kept at 0.5%, despite markets pricing the chance of a rate rise at 20%. The negative growth experienced in the final quarter of 2010 is likely to have influenced this decision, but will the inflation data we’re now seeing influence the next meeting of the MPC. This undoubtedly puts pressure on the central bank to increase interest rates to try to get inflation back on target. The cost? It could put the recovery in jeopardy and create the possibility of a double-dip recession. There is a conflict here and whatever happens to interest rates, some groups will say it’s the wrong decision. As David Kern said:
“The MPC must be careful before it takes action that may threaten the fragile recovery, particularly in the face of a tough austerity plan.”
Perhaps the Budget will provide us with some more information about how the government intends to cut the hole in public finances, ensure that the economy does not fall back into recession and keep inflation under control.
UK inflation revives talk of early interest rate rise Reuters, David Milliken and Christina Fincher (22/3/11)
How to inflation-proof your savings Telegraph, Emma Simon (22/3/11)
UK inflation rate rises to 4.4% in February BBC News (22/3/11)
Interest rates: What the economists say Guardian (10/2/11)
Q&A: Impact of rising inflation Guardian, Phillip Inman (22/3/11)
Inflation soars to over double target rate Sky News, Hazel Baker (22/3/11)
Inflation and public borrowing add to budget 2011 headaches Guardian, Larry Elliott (22/3/11)
Inflation cutting savers’ options BBC News, Kevin Peachey (22/3/11)
Inflation: What the economists say Guardian (22/3/11)
- Is inflation likely to continue going up? What might stop the rise?
- Why are interest rates such an important tool of monetary policy?
- What is the relationship between interest rates and inflation?
- What are the costs of high inflation? Does anyone benefit?
- Who would gain and who would lose if interest rates are increased in the next MPC meeting?
- Which factors have contributed towards rising inflation in the UK? Is it cost-push or demand-pull inflation?
- Why does this pose a dilemma for the government in terms of public finances and the recession?
In the UK, we have an inflation target of 2% and it’s the Bank of England’s job to use monetary policy, in particular interest rates, to keep inflation within 1 percentage point of its target. However, with rising commodity prices and the onset of recession back in 2008, interest rates had another objective: to prevent or at least lessen the recession. Bank Rate fell to 0.5% and there it has remained in a bid to encourage investment, discourage saving and increase consumption, as a means of stimulating the economy.
However, at such a low rate, interest rates are not acting as a brake on inflation, which is now well above target. This rise in inflation, has been largely brought about by cost-push factors, such as the restoration of the 17.5% VAT (up from the temporary 15%), higher oil and commodity prices, and a fall in the exchange rate. But part of the reason might be found in the increase in money supply that resulted from quantitative easing.
There are concerns that the UK may lose its credibility on inflation if action isn’t taken. The OECD has advised the Bank of England to raise Bank Rate to 3.5% by the end of 2011. The following articles consider this issue.
Time to worry about inflation? BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (28/5/10)
UK must not fall for the false promise of higher inflation Telegraph, Charles Bean, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England (4/6/10)
Reports and documents
General Assessment of the Macroeconomic Situation OECD Economic Outlook, No. 87 Chapter 1 (see especially pages 53–4) (May 2010)
United Kingdom – Country Summary OECD Economic Outlook, No. 87 (May 2010)
Statistical Annex OECD Economic Outlook, No. 87 (available 10/6/10)
Inflation Report portal Bank of England (see May 2010)
- Explain the relationship between interest rates and inflation. Why have such low interest rates caused inflation to increase?
- In 2008, the UK moved into recession, but was also suffering from inflation. This was unusual, as AD/AS analysis suggests that when aggregate demand falls, growth will fall, but so will prices. What can explain the low growth and inflation we saw in 2008?
- What is the difference between real and nominal GDP?
- What are the causes of the current high inflation and what solutions are available and viable?
- Why are expectations of inflation so important and how might they influence the Bank of England’s plans for interest rates?
- Do you think the OECD should have advised the Bank of England? Will there be any adverse effects internationally if the UK doesn’t heed the OECD’s advice?
- Is the OECD’s assessment of the UK in the above Country Summary consistent with its view on UK interest rates contained in pages 53 and 54 in the first OECD link?
Since March 2009, the Bank of England has engaged in a process of quantitative easing (QE). Over the period to January 2010 the Bank of England injected £200 billion of new money into the economy by purchasing assets from the private sector, mainly government bonds. The assets were purchased with new money, which enters the economy as credits to the accounts of those selling the assets to the Bank of England. This increase in narrow money (the monetary base) is then able to form the basis of credit creation, allowing broad money (M4) to increase by a multiple of the increased monetary base. In other words, injecting £200 billion allows M4 to increase by considerably more.
But just how much more will M4 rise? How big is the money multiplier? This depends on the demand for loans from banks, which in turn depends on the confidence of business and households. With the recovery only just beginning, demand is still very dampened. Credit creation also depends on the willingess of banks to lend. But this too has been dampened by banks’ desire to increase liquidity and expand their capital base in the wake of the credit crunch.
Not surprisingly, the growth in M4 has been sluggish. Between March and Decmber 2009, narrow money (notes, coin and banks’ reserve balances in the Bank of England) grew from £91bn to £203bn (an increase of 123%). M4, however, grew from £2011bn to £2048bn: an increase of only 1.8%. In fact, in December it fell back from £2069bn in November.
Despite the continued sluggishness of the economy, at its February meeting the Bank of England announced an end to further quantitiative easing – at least for the time being. Although Bank Rate would be kept on hold at 0.5%, there would be no further injections of money. Part of the reason for this is that there is still considerable scope for a growth in broad money on the basis of the narrow money already created. If QE were to continue, there could be excessive broad money in a few months’ time and that could push inflation well above target. As it is, rising costs have already pushed inflation above the 2% target (see Too much of a push from costs but no pull from demand).
So will this be an end to quantitative easing? The following articles explore the question.
Bank of England halts quantitative easing Guardian, Ashley Seager (4/2/10)
Bank calls time on quantitative easing (including video) Telegraph, Edmund Conway (5/2/10)
Bank of England’s time-out for quantitative easing plan BBC News (4/2/10)
Shifting goalposts keep final score in question Financial Times, Chris Giles and Jessica Winch (5/2/10)
Bank halts QE at £200bn despite ‘sluggish’ recovery Independent, Sean O’Grady (5/2/10)
Easy does it: No further QE BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (4/2/10)
Leading article: Easing off – but only for now Independent (5/2/10)
Not easy Times Online (5/2/10)
Quantitative easing: What the economists say Guardian (4/2/10)
- Explain how quantitative easing works?
- What determines the rate of growth of M4?
- Why has the Bank of England decided to call a halt to quantiative easing – at least for the time being?
- What is the transmission mechanism whereby an increase in the monetary base affects real GDP?
- What role does the exchange rate play in the transmission mechanism?
- Why is it difficult to predict the effect of an increase in the monetary base on real GDP?
- What will determine whether or not the Bank of England will raise interest rates in a few months’ time?
After the November 2009 meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee, the Bank of England announced that it would keep Bank Rate on hold at 0.5%, at which rate it has been since March. It also said that it would spend a further £25 billion over the next three months on asset purchases, primarily government bonds, thereby pumping additional money into the economy: the process known as “quantitative easing“. This would bring total asset purchases under the scheme to £200bn.
But although this represents a further increase in money supply, the rate of increase is slowing down. In the previous three months, £50 billion of assets had been purchased. So does this imply that the Bank of England sees a recovery around the corner? Will money supply have been expanded enough to finance the desired increase in spending – on both consumption and investment?
A problem so far is that most of the extra money has not been spent on goods and services. Banks have been building up their reserves, with much of the money simply being re-deposited in the Bank of England as reserve balances (see Table A1.1.1 in “Bankstats). At the same time, households have been taking on very little extra debt – indeed, In July, total household debt actually fell (see “Payback time) and consumer debt (i.e. excluding mortgages) has continued to fall. If quantitative easing is to work, the money must be spent!
But with the monetary base having expanded so much, is there a danger that, once the recovery gathers pace, spending growth will return with a vengeance? Will inflation rapidly become a problem again with an overheating economy? The following articles examine the issues.
Interest rates held at 0.5 per cent (includes video) Channel 4 News (5/11/09)
Bank of England extends quantitative easing to £200bn Guardian, Larry Elliott (5/11/09)
What the economists say: Quantitative easing £25bn boost Guardian (5/11/09)
Bank of England faced with its biggest split on policy in a decade Independent, Sean O’Grady (4/11/09)
Bank of England expands money-printing programme to £200bn to fight downturn (includes video) Telegraph (5/11/09)
The one thing worse than quantitative easing would be no QE at all Telegraph, Edmund Conway (5/11/09)
BoE: It ain’t over till it’s over Telegraph, Edmund Conway blog (5/11/09)
Bank raises stimulus to £200bn to end recession Times Online, Grainne Gilmore (5/11/09)
Bank of England to inject another £25bn of stimulus money Management Today (5/11/09)
Extra £25bn to stimulate economy BBC News (5/11/09)
Quantitative easing ‘not working’ (video of DeAnne Julius: former MPC member) BBC News (5/11/09)
Boxed in BBC Stephanomics (5/11/09)
The BoE’s £25bn gambit Financial Times, Chris Giles blog (5/11/09)
US to reduce Quantitative Easing as rates kept low Telegraph, James Quinn (4/11/09)
Quantitative easing ‘unpleasant’ BBC Today Programme, Stephen Bell and Wilem Buiter (7/11/09)
Experts debate whether quantitative easing is working (video) BBC Newsnight (6/11/09)
- What has been happening to the velocity of circulation of (narrow) money in the past few months? Explain the significance of this.
- What is likely to happen to the velocity of circulation in the coming months if (a) the economy recovers quite strongly; (b) recovery is modest?
- What is the relationship between quantitative easing and the growth in broad money (i.e. M4 in the UK)? How will banks’ desire to build up their reserves affect this relationship?
- Is the UK economy in a liquidity trap? Explain.
- Why is it likely that the Bank of England may well engage in more quantitative easing next March and beyond? How is the fiscal situation likely to affect Bank of England decisions?
- Examine the argument for the Bank of England buying more private-sector debt (virtually all of the asset purchases have been of public-sector debt)?
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