It’s amazing to think that the Bank of England has not raised interest rates for more than a decade, but then nobody expected the credit crunch, quantitative easing, or indeed the “age of austerity” that George Osborne introduced during his time as chancellor.
That’s a lot of jargon to digest, but digest it we have, with the result that most of us have tightened the purse strings and tried to take a more frugal approach to our finances.
The big question now is, how much longer will we have to endure this financial stasis?
Interest rates are at an all-time low of 0.25%, whilst inflation is well above the 2% target set by the BoE, at 2.6%. It doesn’t make sense to save, but we can’t spend either.
Isn’t it time for a change of approach?
Some members of the BoE’s monetary policy agree – the so-called “hawks”- and have voted for a rate rise, but the majority are still against, which means when the members vote on whether to hike rates at today’s quarterly Monetary Policy Committee meeting, the hawks will almost certainly be defeated.
Many commentators are arguing that the MPC have become too used to voting against rate rises. There are always justifications to keep a rise on hold; sluggish economic growth, bad quarterly manufacturing, industry or consumer credit data, or the “wait and see”, or “maybe next time” approach.
Are we being too cautious? After all, Mark Carney, the BoE’s governor, promised a rate rise when unemployment levels dropped below 7%. That has already happened, but apparently, it wasn’t, in the end, enough to sway the MPC.
Perhaps it’s time to start listening to the public, who, after all, are bearing the brunt of austerity. Higher interest rates might stimulate more investment, help families to save, and encourage us to stop being so frugal with our money. We may not be able to spend our way out of trouble, but heightened levels of consumer confidence, so long as it doesn’t become over-confidence, can only have a positive effect on our economy.
It feels like we have become trapped in a cycle of citing slow economic growth as a reason not to raise rates, only to discover that not raising rates causes slow economic growth.
Einstein once said that madness was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and this feels like a good time to bring up the views of somebody who brought about dramatic and lasting change in his field by challenging conventional wisdom.
Has failure to raise rates contributed to Brexit woes?
We could even go so far as to ask if the vote for Brexit would have happened if the nation hadn’t been so desperate for something to change, and determined to create some for themselves, even if the consequences proved to be dire.
If rates had gone up earlier, it’s possible that Britain might have felt a little more in control of its own destiny and less inclined to take the hard-line stance that it did against the EU. Could it have been that some people felt trapped in a negative cycle – fed up of having to be blindly obedient – so used the in / out referendum as an opportunity to voice their anger?
Only a select few economists were in agreement with austerity in the first place – and besides, economists are often the first to admit that their calculations can fall well wide of the mark.
Before we get into Michael Gove “we’re tired of experts” territory, it is worth asking if enduring a few quarters more pain for long term gain may be the best way forward – as our appointed representatives at the Bank of England seem to think.
But after the plethora of unexpectedly seismic political and economic events we have endured over the past couple of years, perhaps it is time for a rethink?
A perfect time to make a change?
Could it be time to give the British public the ability to be freer with their finances and take a few more risks with their domestic budgets? By holding off for so long, the BoE is in danger of making a rod for its own back. When rates are increased, as they must be at some stage, if left too long it may feel like opening Pandora’s box.
A surprise decision tomorrow would solve the problem of creating an over-excited and therefore vulnerable public. It would put the ball back in the consumer’s court, but at the same time the element of surprise might deny the usual financial predators the time to cobble together the kind of disastrous short-term financial products that got us into this mess in the first place.
It would be, quite literally, a vote of confidence, and today could be as good at time as any to make it.