Friday, 8 August 2014

Interest Rate Hike – not expecting the worst

People tend to fear the worst but higher interest rates may not mean interest rates that are actually that high

Some things that people normally dread as not so bad in reality – such may be the outcome with the upcoming hikes in interest rates.  Interest rates are set to levels which relate to the strength of the underlying economy (as reflected in the level of inflation).  But the pressure to push up interest rates is likely to be limited considering that the long-term prospects for the economy are a bit grim.  On top of this, there is a growing range of policy tools that central banks can use instead of interest rates to manage the economy.  So when higher interest rates do come, like a visit from the in-laws, it may not be as painful as had been expected.

Inflation not so scary

One of the main jobs of central banks is to set interest rates so as to keep inflation low.  This is because inflation in itself is seen as having a negative influence as well as being a sign that an economy might be overheating.  Inflation comes about as firms increase prices typically when their costs are rising or when demand is strong.  Yet, neither is the case at the moment.  Stagnating wages, which is the largest expense for many firms, mean that higher costs are not likely to translate into higher prices. Sluggish consumer spending is prompting some firms to cut prices so as not to lose customers.

This is more than just the result of a sluggish economic recovery as shown by growing concerns about the long-term prospects for the economy.  Investment by businesses continues to remain weak despite record low interest rates.  The expanding operations of companies would help to fuel gains in productivity which further feed into higher wages.  But, with firms not wanting to spend and consumers not likely to get their hands on much extra cash, economic activity is expected to remain subdued.  Austerity measures are a further damper on the economy as governments rush to sort out their finances.

The most glaring reason to not expect any trouble from inflation is prices have barely budged despite everything that has happened over the past decade.  Inflation has remained subdued (mostly 5% or (much) lower) despite a surge in bank lending in the lead up to the crisis or central banks printing billions in new cash in more recent times.  The only time inflation popped up on the radar of policy makers during the depth of economic recession in 2011 due to high commodity prices (more on that later).

This time is different

Not only is inflation expected to remain low but influences over monetary policy are also likely to act to keep interest rates low.  For starters, the potential for a slower pace of economic growth will make it difficult to justify central banks raising interest rates.  Calls for a hike to interest rates at the Bank of England (which is likely to go first among the larger central banks) may be premature considering low inflation and the stuttering economic recovery. 

Monetary policy is also developing so that central banks have more options available to them to deal with inflation and other negative aspects of a buoyant economy.  The most promising of these are macroprudential measures such as caps on mortgage lending and other controls on banks.  These will enable central banks to rein in overheating parts of the economy without having to increase interest rates.

There have also been changes to inflation itself.  As mentioned above, any inflation recently has tended to come from outside sources such as commodity prices rising in global markets in line with growing demand in emerging markets.  Higher interest rates can only have an effect when a rise in prices is due to factors within the economy itself.  So if inflation is due to external causes, central banks will likely hold off increasing interest rates.

Hope for the best

So, there is likely to be no rush to increase interest rates, and when the inevitable does happen, interest rates are not actually going to rise by that much.  This is welcome news for places where buoyant property prices have push new home owners to take on large mortgages relative to their income.  Higher interest rates still have the potential to stall an economic recovery that is still fragile.  But if central banks wait for the right timing, the eventual interest rate hikes may be like going to the dentist expecting to have some teeth pulled but instead just getting a clean and a lollipop.  

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