It’s now more than ten years since interest rates were last increased (5th July 2007, since you ask). Somehow, while we’ve all been grappling with coalition, and austerity, and a slim majority, and an EU referendum, and Brexit, and Corbyn, and then a lost majority, a whole decade has gone by in which falling and then very low interest rates became the norm.
All the talk, now, is that that will soon change. Theresa May criticised the way that “monetary policy in the form of super-low interest rates and quantitative easing has helped those on the property ladder at the expense of those who can’t afford to own their own home” in her leadership campaign launch speech. Last month, Mark Carney told the markets to expect a rate rise “in the relatively near term”. Low unemployment, and speculation that inflation might have hit three per cent in September, raises the pressure on the Monetary Policy Committee.
Will there be a rate rise in November? After Carney’s rather rash decision to pre-trail a rise, it could be hard to do anything else – though saving face after a poor PR call would be a bad reason on its own to pull a fundamental economic lever. Not every voice is united in favour of a rise, largely because while other indicators might indicate it, the overall growth numbers still aren’t wild. The EY Item Club warned yesterday that the economy might not bear the negative impact, and its chief economist argues that inflation is set to fall back to two per cent while wages are due to rise.
The ultimate decision will, of course, take place in the hallowed halls of the Bank of England, and there’s no certain way to predict the MPC’s conclusion.
A rise might well be justified, and given that it’s a distinct possibility – sooner or later – it’s worth considering the political implications if and when it does come.
The immediate impact of a rise will be annoyance among most mortgage-payers, and outright alarm among some. There are plenty of people for whom paying the bills is still touch-and-go, and an increase in the cost of servicing their biggest debt would likely drive some over the edge. Banks may be able to offer payment holidays, or a switch to interest-only from repayment, but you can bet there will be some for whom that is insufficient to keep their heads above water. So within the first month there’d be newspaper and TV features on people who fear they are at risk of losing their homes due to the rise – a stark story and a tough one for any politician to answer.
The second effect will be on people who don’t yet have a mortgage, but hope to buy soon. With a rise in the cost of borrowing, they would instantly find that their buying power has suddenly fallen as the mortgage they were aiming for would cost more to repay. So add to the headlines and news clips a raft of would-be homebuyers angry that their dream just slipped further away from them, often despite years of hard saving – another painful tale and another awkward topic for the Government.
The third impact will be on those who live on their credit cards, or who have sizeable credit card debts already. Those in a more secure position will feel the need to rein in their spending somewhat to take into account the higher cost of borrowing. Those who are already burdened by large debts will worry at best, or be overwhelmed at worst. The high street and online retailers would take a hit, though discounters would benefit. There’s an obvious risk that we will soon hear and read stories of personal bankruptcy and retail chains closing stores.
There will be other, more beneficial, results, of course. Savers – long hard-done-by – will find that their responsible decision to put money aside for a rainy day starts to pay off a bit better, which would undoubtedly be a good thing. And in the longer term, the above effects on people’s ability to pay their mortgages or to buy property in the first place might reduce prices, which plenty would welcome – at least on paper.
But neither of these effects will be as instant, or as eye-catching, as the damage. As Daniel Hannan wrote last week, we are disproportionately loss-averse as a species, which is why you tend to hear far more from those who lose out than those who gain from any given phenomenon.
A rate rise would, therefore, be a rough ride politically, compounded by the fact that many of those negatively affected – existing mortgage-payers and hopeful first-time buyers – fall into the same 30-40 age range in which the Conservative Party suffered particularly damaging losses in the election.
But that’s not the end of it.
A decade is a habit-forming, mindset-moulding period of time. We have all got used to low rates as a fact of life – be they helpful, in terms of lower mortgage and other borrowing costs, or harmful, in terms of undermining the value of saving. When that supposed norm comes to an end, there’ll be a pyschological as well as financial readjustment for a lot of people, just as there will be when the Bank of Mum and Dad goes bust.
It’s not only ten years since rates last rose, it’s 20 years since the Bank of England gained its independence. How often does anyone talk about the reason for that independence, or even what it means in practice? I’d be willing to bet only a fairly small proportion of the electorate takes the slightest interest in it, or could tell you anything about it if asked. That’s understandable – not only is it an issue of monetary technicality, but it hasn’t bothered many people for a very long time, and they’ve had other things to worry about.
But if the day comes when rates rise and the resulting negative and intensely personal headlines begin, then people will start to ask why this is happening. They will want to know who is inflicting this pain on them, and – more importantly – some will demand that the Government do something to stop it.
That could be a demand which is difficult to successfully reject. For a start, questions of Bank architecture are pretty dry at the best of times, and the current Chancellor is somewhat unlikely to make the topic sound much more exciting. Furthermore, the reasons are historical – and we know all too well that summoning up the dire experiences of decades ago is not very compelling for today’s voters.
There’s no solid guarantee that the Opposition wouldn’t give in to the temptation to give the Government a kicking on the issue by backing calls for an interest rate rise to be cancelled by the Treasury, either. Back in 2012, John McDonnell wrote that: “In the first week of a Labour government, democratic control of the major economic decisions would be restored by ending the Bank of England’s control over interest rates”. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn advocated “People’s Quantitative Easing”, which would involve the Government directly ordering the Bank of England to print money.
Since then, Corbyn has ditched PQE, and McDonnell has described the independence of the Bank as “sacrosanct”. But consider the two men’s shifting stances on the EU – they were lifelong Eurosceptics, buried that position during the referendum (at least publicly), rediscovered it in committing to leave the Single Market in their manifesto, then went back on that pledge in the cause of political opportunism over the summer.
We know what the Shadow Chancellor truly thinks about who should control rates, because he said it openly when he wasn’t under the spotlight of a Shadow Cabinet role. We know that Corbyn’s experience since taking over the leadership of the Labour Party has taught him to be willing to disavow and then readopt even some of his most deeply-held opinions based on a developing sense of opportunism.
A rate rise would offer them the chance to land punches on the Government, and to pose next to those losing out while demanding action on their behalf, simply by returning to their original views. We can’t be certain that they would turn down such a chance. The Chancellor must have a good answer ready in case they do.