The end of the era of low interest rates?

On Thursday 2nd November, the Bank of England increased interest rates. Although the increase was not large (from 0.25% to 0.5%), possibly it marks the end of an era. It was the first increase since 2007 and follows the cut in rates in 2009 from 4.5% to 0.5% after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The rate was further cut in 2016 to 0.5% following the Brexit vote.

Traditionally the rate rise should benefit savers and make it more expensive for borrowers, particularly those with mortgages. However the UK economy has changed in the ten years since rates were last increased. Banks have been far slower to reward savers  than to punish borrowers when rates rise so savers should not get too excited by the rise in interest rates. More importantly, the number of homeowners with variable rate mortgages has fallen significantly, with The Times estimating that only 10% of households will be affected by the rate rise. This is partly because of the shift to fixed rate mortgages, which now account for 60% of mortgages, the increase in renting and the repayment of mortgages among older households.

Secondly, although in percentage terms the rise is large, in absolute terms it is relatively small and, for a family with a £250,000 variable rate mortgage, they will currently be paying approximately £1,125 per month and their payments will rise about 2.25% or £25 per month. This will reduce discretionary income and consequently consumption is likely to be slightly reduced. There are however two more significant effects. Those borrowing via  credit cards or taking out loans for large purchases such as cars or furniture, will see borrowing costs rise and this could deter future consumption. Another issue is that people currently with very high borrowing, particularly those on low incomes, might find it increasingly difficult to repay the interest on their existing borrowing, with an impact on bankruptcies. Most important is likely to be the psychological impact of the rate increase since a signal has been sent out that the era of ultra-low interest rates is coming to an end.

The rate increase is not unexpected, having been forecast in the press for some time. The recent rise in inflation to 3% made it more likely. However it is worth assessing the decision  in more detail. Normally interest rates increase as inflation rises in order to reduce inflationary pressures in the economy and keep inflation within the 1% – 3% band set for the Bank of England by the Government. According to the traditional Phillips Curve idea, rises in inflation are likely to occur simultaneously with falls in unemployment as increases in aggregate demand in an economy work simultaneously to increase prices and reduce unemployment as firms attempt to hire more workers to increase output, thereby putting an upward pressure on wages which then feeds into higher inflation. One could therefore easily argue that, at many times, an increase in interest rates is a sign of a strong economy experiencing rapid growth.

The current situation is slightly different. The increase in UK inflation can be partly explained by the fall in the value of sterling following the Brexit vote and this will drop out of the CPI index over the next few months. Secondly, although unemployment is at a record low at 4.3%, there has not been the rise in earnings which, in the past, we would have expected to accompany the strength of the labour market, thirdly there has been a slow-down in the UK’s rate of growth and finally there is still considerable uncertainty in the economy about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations which is affecting confidence among businesses. So why the rise in rates?

One explanation for the rise in interest rates comes from Ed Conway, the Economics Editor of Sky News who suggests that the UK’s ability to grow without inflation has fallen in recent years because of our poor productivity growth. Whereas in the past we might have been able to sustain growth of 2 – 2.5% without inflation, he thinks the maximum figure for non-inflationary growth might now be 1.5%. Therefore, without compensating action, inflation is likely to increase.

 

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