In March 2009, interest rates in the UK fell to a record low of 0.5%. At the time, it is unlikely that anyone expected that we would still be talking about such low interest rates 6 years later. There has been no movement in the UK rate of interest over the past 6 years and many believe that we are unlikely to see an increase before 2016 or late 2015 at the earliest. With inflation at 0.3%, there is ‘little reason to raise the cost of borrowing’.
The cut in interest rates back in 2009 was in response to the financial crisis and recession. A key instrument of monetary policy, interest rates affect many of the components of aggregate demand. Lower interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing, reduce the return on savings and hence encourage consumption. They can also reduce mortgage repayments and have a role in reducing the exchange rate. All of these factors are crucial for any economic stimulus. As the recovery in the UK took hold, discussions started to focus on when (and not if) interest rates would increase. As the 6 year anniversary occurs, with the MPC keeping rates at 0.5% for March, this question has once again been raised.
Interest rates are used to target inflation and the target in the UK is 2% +/- 1%. With inflation at 0.3% and some predicting that it will turn negative, thanks to such a large fall in oil prices, perhaps the most likely change in interest rates is that they will fall further. A senior Economic Adviser to the EY Item Club commented:
“While the risks of an earlier rate rise have probably increased lately, we still think it most likely that the Bank will wait until February 2016, by which time inflation will be back above 1% and heading towards the 2% target.”
This was echoed by the Chief Economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, who said:
“The strengthening pound against the euro is already posing challenges for many UK exporters and higher interest rates would only make matters worse…Given this background, business confidence will be strengthened if the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) clearly states that interest rates are likely to stay on hold until at least early 2016.”
Some might question the logic of keeping interest rates so low, given that unemployment is falling and the economy is growing. In such cases, we would normally expect interest rates to increase, especially given how low they are and the fact that it has been 6 years since they went down. However, with oil prices down, inflation has fallen and wage growth does remain relatively weak. Furthermore, there are still some areas within the UK that are still in the recovery process.
The strength of the economy relative to Europe is also putting upward pressure on the pound, which will adversely affect the competitiveness of UK exports. These factors together mean that retaining interest rates at 0.5% received unanimous support amongst the MPC. The only disagreement was on the future direction of interest rates. It is this disagreement that is perhaps what is causing problems, as confirmation of what will happen to interest rates over the rest of 2015 would give greater certainty to an economy. The following articles consider this anniversary.
UK interest rates mark six-year anniversary at record low The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (5/3/15)
UK interest rates mark six years at record low of 0.5% BBC News (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps interest rates on hold Financial Times, Emily Cadman (5/3/15)
Carney facing seven-year itch as BOE holds rates Bloomberg, Jennifer Ryan (5/3/15)
Bank of England rates have now been on hold six years. Here’s how it has affected you The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps rates on hold, six years after crisis cut Reuters (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps key rate at record low Wall Street Journal, Jason Douglas (5/3/15)
- 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 amongst the MPC as to the future direction of interest rates?
- The Chief Economist at the British Chambers of Commerce has said that the strengthening pound is creating problems in the UK and higher interest rates would make matters worse. Why is this?
- Who would be helped and harmed by a rate rise?
- Consider the main macroeconomic objectives and in each case explain whether economic theory would suggest that interest rates should (a) fall , (b) remain at 0.5% or (c) rise.