Today looks as if it may be something of an epoch-making day for the UK as there is finally a decent chance that the 0.5% emergency Bank Rate will be consigned into history. Actually one way or another the decision has already been made as the Monetary Policy Committee voted last night. This was a rather unwise change made by Governor Carney as it raises the risk of leaks or what is called the early wire as the official announcement is not made until midday. As you can see from the chart below the BBC seems to think that the decision is a done deal or knows it is ( h/t @Old_Grumpy_Dave ).
This provides us scope for a little reflection as any move hardly fulfils this from back in June 2014.
This has implications for the timing, pace and degree of Bank Rate increases.
There’s already great speculation about the exact timing of the first rate hike and this decision is becoming
It could happen sooner than markets currently expect.
This was taken at the time as a promise and markets responded accordingly as interest-rate futures surged and the UK Pound £ rallied. From time to time people challenge me on this and say it was not a promise. What that misses is that central bankers speak in a coded language and in that language this was a clear “Tally Ho”. Of course the “sooner than markets currently expect” never happened and whilst you may or may not have sympathy for professional investors and traders it was also true that ordinary people and businesses switched to fixed-rate borrowing in response to this. The reality was that the Bank of England via its credit easing policies and then Bank Rate cut of August 2016 pushed mortgage and borrowing rates lower affecting them adversely. Such has been the record of Forward Guidance.
What about now?
There was something else in that speech which was revealing as a sentence or two later we were told this.
The ultimate decision will be data-driven
Okay so let us take the advice of Kylie and step back in time. If we do so we see that the UK economy was on a bit of a tear which of course was another reason for those who took Governor Carney at his word. In terms of GDP growth the UK economy had gone 0.6%,0.5%,0.9% and 0.5% in 2013 which was then followed by 0.9% in the first quarter of 2014. It did the same in the second quarter which he would not have known exactly but he should have known things were going well.
Let us do the same comparison for now and look at 2017 where GDP growth went 0.3%,0.2%,0.5% and 0.4% followed by 0.1% in the first quarter of this year. If you were “data driven” which sequence would have you pressing the interest-rate trigger? I think it would be a landslide victory. The MPC may not have known these exact numbers due to revisions but a 0.1% here or there changes little in the broad sweep of things.
Some might respond with the pint that he is supposed to achieve an inflation target of 2% per annum. That is true but that has not bothered the MPC much in the credit crunch era as we have just been through a phase of above target inflation which of course they not only cut Bank Rate into but promised a further cut before even they came to the realisation that their Forward Guidance had been very wrong. Also before Governor Carney took office the MPC turned a blind eye to inflation going above 5%. Whereas post the EU leave vote they rushed to ease policy in something of a panic in response to expectations of a weaker economy.
The Speed Limit
The Bank of England Ivory Tower has had a very poor credit crunch. It has clung to outdated theories rather than respected the evidence. Perhaps the most woeful effort has been around the output gap which if you recall led to it highlighting an unemployment rate of 7% which the economy blasted through ( which you might consider was yet another case for an interest-rate rise in 2014). It has clung to equilibrium unemployment rates of 6.5%,6% 5.5% and 4.5% which of course have all been by-passed by reality. Such outdated thinking has led it to all sorts of over optimism on wage growth. Yet is seems to have learned little as this illustrates.
We think our economy can only grow at a new, lower speed limit of around one-and-a-half per cent a year. We also currently think actual demand is growing close to this speed limit. This means demand can’t grow faster than at its current pace without causing prices to start rising too quickly.
This is the MPC rationale for a Bank Rate rise and the problem is that they simply do not know that. They keep trying to build theoretical scaffolding around the reality of the UK economy but seem to learn little from the way the scaffolding regularly collapses.After all we grew much faster in 2014.
As ever the precious will be at the forefront of the Bank of England’s mind. I cannot help thinking that having noted the apparent improvement shown below maybe the real reason for a change is that the banks can now take it. First Lloyds Banking Group.
Since taking over the reins in 2011, Horta-Osório has presided over a bank which has swung from an annual loss of £260mln to a profit of £3.5bn. ( Hargreaves Landsdown).
Barclays reported pretax profit of 1.9 billion pounds ($2.49 billion) for the three months from April-June, up from 659 million pounds a year ago and higher than the 1.46 billion average of analysts’ estimates compiled by the bank. ( Reuters)
A Martian observing monetary policy in the UK might reasonably be rather confused by the course of events. He or she might wonder why now rather than in 2014? Furthermore they might wonder why a mere 0.25% change is being treated as such a big deal? After all it is only a small change and the impact of such a move on those with mortgages will be both lower and slower than in the past.
Nationwide: The vast majority of new mortgages have been extended on fixed interest rates. The share of outstanding mortgages on variable interest rates has fallen to its lowest level on record, at c.35% from a peak of 70% in 2001. ( h/t @moved_average )
So if they do move the impact will be lower than in the past which makes you wonder why they have vacillated so much and been so unreliable?
The MPC have got themselves on a road where all the indecision means that the timing is likely to be off. What I mean by that is that whilst I expect economic growth to pick-up from the first quarter this year will merely be an okay year and currently the threats seem to the downside in terms of trade for example. We do not yet know where the Trump trade tariffs will lead but we do know that the Euro area has seen economic growth fall such that the first half of 2018 was required to reach what so recently was the quarterly growth rate. Also the ongoing rhetoric of the Bank of England about Brexit prospects hardly makes a case for a Bank Rate rise now either as it would be impacting as we leave ( assuming we do leave next March).
The next issue is money supply growth which in 2018 so far has been weak and now (hopefully) has stabilised. That does not make much of a case for raising now and would lead to the MPC operating in the reverse way to monetary trends as it cut into strength in August 2016 and now would be raising into relative weakness.
So there you have it on what is an odd day all round. I think UK interest-rates should be higher but also think that timing matters and that a boat or two has sailed already without us on it. Accordingly my view would be to wait for the next one. For the reasons explained above whilst the MPC has managed to verbally box itself into a corner I still think that there is a chance ( 1/3rd) of an unchanged vote today. It is always the same when logic points in a different direction to hints of direction.
There is also the issue of QE which rarely gets a mention. If we skip the embarrassment all round of the Corporate Bond purchases we could also have taken the chance to trim the QE package when money supply growth was strong. I remember making that case nearly five years ago in City-AM.
Me on Core Finance TV