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EDITOR’S BLOG: Rate expectations

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The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) at the Bank of England has left interest rates on hold again, much to the relief of hard-pressed mortgage borrowers who have had to suffer three 0.25% rises since last August.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that most of the mortgage lenders will put up the cost of their products pretty well straightaway if there is a rate rise, just like the extra duty on fuel, alcohol and cigarettes is applied almost instantly to those products after a Budget. Never mind that the tax or National Insurance cuts will come in after 2010 or whenever, the extra costs have to be paid for now.

The main reason for rate rises is to control inflation, which is basically the amount things go up by with the passing of time. If things go up too quickly then people demand more money in their wages and salaries to keep up with the increases and the whole thing soon gets out of hand.

Some people may say this is a good thing – but it isn’t really. Look at house prices in Northern Ireland over the past year. According to Nationwide Building Society they have risen almost 50% in the past year alone, which may have a lot to do with the peace that has broken out politically in the province and the fact that it is in many parts a stunningly beautiful place to live.

So just imagine the situation if, say, common foodstuffs like bread, fruit and meat shot up like housing in Northern Ireland. You would need wheelbarrows full of cash just to do your weekly shopping. In places and at times where this has in the past, or is still happening – Germany in the 1930s, for example, or Zimbabwe now – the social and political effects are all too distressing to contemplate.

Raising interest rates, then, is like damping down a tinder-dry field so that any economic sparks do not cause an almighty conflagration that burns the whole crop.

One of the aims of the MPC at the moment is to do exactly this to the possibly overheated housing market. However, looking at Northern Ireland, and the real possibility that house prices will rise by more than 10% over the year nationally, it may be that the inherent drivers of property price inflation (supply shortage being the most powerful) need to be submerged in an ocean rather than lightly drizzled on by the MPC with dribs and drabs of 0.25% rate hikes.

Away from the housing market, and into the commercial bear pit of world trade, interest rate rises are about as welcome as bubonic plague to our manufacturers here in the UK, as the cost of their financing goes up and makes them less competitive in the modern global sweatshop where many people seem to work as little better than slaves. Note how all the trade confederations and associations in the country take arms against a sea of interest rate rise troubles whenever the MPC has the temerity to announce them, prophesying the end of manufacturing as we know it and mass unemployment on a Greatly Depressive scale. This never seems to happen in fact – just as savings account providers are hardly seen to be rushing out with their megaphones to announce savings rate rises in the same eventuality.

Every financial media commentator I know always concludes an article on an interest rate rise with the words: ‘Well, at least it’s good news for savers’. But is it? How many account providers immediately announce to an expectant population that the rates payable on their accounts will rise that very afternoon and hurrah for us for being jolly decent chaps? No, what we do get are a few muted murmurs and much fluttering of fans as per a coy Jane Austen character, but no bloody action on our savings. I may be being unfair here, so if any providers are the Mr Darcys of the savings world drop me a line about what’s really in those treasury breeches of yours when rates are stiffening.

As for me: roll on May and a 0.25% rate rise. You know it makes sense.







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