Good morning from New Economy Brief.
On Thursday the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) will decide whether to continue raising interest rates or hit the pause button. Central banks have been increasing interest rates around the world in reaction to record inflation, but this blunt tool has consequences for other parts of the economy, perhaps most notable in contributing to the instability of financial institutions.
In todays’ Digest we look at the debate around the MPC decision, the interaction between interest rates and other economic issues, and examine other tools which could be used to combat inflation that avoid such harmful effects.
Have interest rates peaked? This Thursday the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) will vote on whether to increase, maintain or reduce interest rates. Many economists have debated about whether the MPC should keep interest rates at their current level of 4% after a particularly turbulent week in financial markets. The last few weeks have also seen a remarkable public debate between MPC members about the course they should take.
Are rate rises harming the economy? The debate has shone a light on the effect of contractionary monetary policy on the wider economy. Economists have long argued that using interest rates to combat inflation is an imprecise tool, particularly when price rises are mostly driven by external supply shocks rather than domestic demand. Increasing the cost of borrowing and voluntarily slowing down demand in the economy on the brink of recession has a variety of adverse impacts on public debt, mortgages and the housing market, international debt repayments, business lending, unemployment and financial instability.
…and have triggered a banking crisis. A new factor has been added to the mix in recent weeks as turbulence in global financial institutions has been traced back to rising rates, prompting calls for a pause. As debt gets increasingly expensive, companies and industries that flourished in the era of super-low interest rates are more likely to default, which can lead to bank collapses. Last week Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) collapsed as higher interest rates in the US left the bank increasingly exposed and eroded the value of its long-term bond portfolio, triggering a sell-off of stocks and an international banking crisis. Commenting on the failure of SVB, a timely peer reviewed article explains how rising interest rates erode the value of bank assets and have put “almost 190 banks at potential risk of impairment to insured depositors, with potentially $300 billion of insured deposits at risk” in the US. Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s Shadow City Minister, wrote to the Chancellor earlier this week to call for a “systemic review of the impact of interest rate rises and the wider uncertainty in the global banking system on our financial sector and economy.”
Are other central banks still increasing interest rates? The Guardian’s Richard Partington reports that the SVB collapse ‘could force central banks to stop interest rate rises’. Market expectations for where the US’ Federal Reserve will peak interest rates have also dramatically reduced since SVB’s collapse (Look out for their decision at 6pm tonight). Expectations for the European Central Bank (ECB) peak interest rate have also reduced, although their Governing Council still increased rates by 0.5% last week as “macroeconomic projections were finalised in early March before the recent emergence of financial market tensions”. The FT’s Delphine Strauss reviews the views of former central bankers in light of recent financial turmoil.
Reviewing the UK’s macroeconomic institutions. This is the first major inflation crisis since the Bank of England became independent in 1997, and it is reasonable to ask what lessons we can learn about the policy response to the inflation shock. Arguably, the whole episode has exposed the danger of relying almost exclusively on interest rate rises to combat inflation which is driven by external supply shocks. As economist James Meadway notes, “The primary function of a central bank… is to preserve financial stability. If this primary task conflicts with the demand that they must also try and keep inflation low, central banks should be focused on their primary function. This means, in practical terms, that the fairly useless programme of interest rate rises must be halted and support given to banks as needed.” But if we accept that aggressive rate rises have limited ability to control certain kinds of inflation, and have damaging consequences elsewhere, then what other options exist?
Alternative ways of reducing inflation. The government can also reduce inflation through use of targeted fiscal policy and more active competition policy.
The retrofit workforce. The North of England is a fertile area for mass retrofit roll outs, with many workers with the necessary skills clustered in this area as well as in the Midlands and South West, according to a new report by Autonomy. The report draws on a dataset developed by Autonomy that maps international databases onto ONS occupation codes.
Stalling wage growth. Workers are on average £11,000 worse off a year due to fifteen years of wage stagnation, according to new research by the Resolution Foundation. The think tank stressed that despite the current focus on the cost of living crisis and inflation, wages have been stagnant or falling in real terms for many years, not just months.
IPCC report. Leading climate scientists have issued a “final warning” on the climate crisis in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report. The “sober” report warns that current policies are not enough to reach the target of keeping temperatures within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and that more political action is necessary.
Fuel duty freeze. The policy of freezing fuel duty is not as popular as politicians may assume and is “widely regarded as economically inefficient and environmentally damaging”, according to Alex Chapman at the New Economics Foundation (NEF). Following the Spring Budget in which the Chancellor froze the rate of fuel duty for the 13th year running, NEF has found that the likely increase in fuel consumption over the next year will result in “3.4 to 3.9m additional tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere”.
Net zero targets. The UK is in danger of not meeting its net-zero targets according to new analysis by Green Alliance. Green Alliance’s policy tracker assesses government progress against its own commitments, and finds policy gaps across a number of areas including transport, industry and agriculture and land use.
The morality of wealth taxes. Campaigners from the JustMoney Movement and the Good Ancestor Movement spoke on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live programme last week, making the moral case for increasing taxes on wealth. The BBC debate aired following a letter to the Prime Minister and Sir Keir Starmer which was signed by 41 faith leaders including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams calling for higher wealth taxes and bolder solutions to the cost of living crisis in the Spring Budget.
WBG Budget response. Childcare was a central focus of last week’s Spring Budget, but announcements of new funding and the extension to younger children “will not be enough to ensure a high-quality and well-functioning system”, argues the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) as part of its response to the Spring Budget. The response also argues that the measures announced in the Budget will have a disproportionately negative impact on women: “low-income individuals (mostly women) will experience tighter work eligibility criteria and sanctions, while rich individuals (mostly men) will benefit from tax relief”, they argued.