BLOG: The Bank of England faces a catch-22 situation
Since the referendum result the pound has fallen sharply, which means more expensive imports. This raises the very real prospect of inflation returning.
Now, traditional monetary policy dictates that when inflation increases, the central bank pushes up interest rates to keep a lid on price rises.
But with uncertainty casting a cloud over the outlook for the UK economy, the central bank is likely to do the very opposite: cut interest rates even while inflation is rising.
Yesterday, Bank of England governor Mark Carney gave a major policy speech, spelling out that while the result of the referendum is clear, the implications are not and may not be for some time.
Given this uncertainty the Bank of England is gearing up to follow the financial crisis template: making liquidity readily available, easing monetary policy and ignoring the risk of inflation rising from a weaker currency.
Carney made this explicitly clear when he said: “In my view, the economic outlook has deteriorated and some monetary policy easing will be required over the summer.”
The Bank of England governor said that the range of possible easing measures does not only include “what we did last time” – meaning you could see an increase in Quantitative Easing, but perhaps also a credit easing policy while a Bank Rate cut as soon as mid-July or August remains on the table.
For investors and savers this news means two things: the prospect of even lower, for even longer interest rates coupled with the very real risk that inflation may rear its ugly head once again.
1) Lower for even longer interest rates
With the increasing possibility that the Bank of England will cut interest rates from their 300-year low of 0.5% to 0.25%, those lucky enough to own a property could look forward to the prospect of cheaper monthly mortgage payments (provided you’re on a variable interest rate).
While no-one is going to sniff at any saving on repaying their property, it won’t be substantial enough to make a very big difference to your monthly outgoings. A 0.5% fall in the base rate is estimated to subtract about £25 a month on a typical £100,000 mortgage.
The uncomfortable truth is that there are limitations to what the Bank of England can do with rates already down at bedrock.
While some have speculated about the prospect of interest rates moving below zero, Carney notably stated yesterday that as has been witnessed elsewhere, if interest rates are too low, the hit to bank profitability could perversely reduce credit availability or even increase its overall price.
While lower interest rates will be good news for borrowers, it means more of a headache for anyone in search of an income from their savings and investments.
If you’re looking for a decent return on your investments or pension pot, you may need to move money further up the risk spectrum, investing in the slightly riskier bonds issued by companies rather than governments or into equities.
High-yielding shares continue to offer one of the best ways for investors to access an income while also maintaining the real inflation-linked value of their capital. For that reason, equity income funds such as the Fidelity Global Dividend fund, Henderson UK Equity Income & Growth fund, and Liontrust Macro Equity Income fund are likely to remain in favour.
Inflation, as one writer aptly put it, is ‘a Jekyll and Hyde character’. It diminishes the value of money – bad news for investors – but for borrowers, inflation erodes the value of their debts. In the case of the government, the biggest borrower of all, inflation reduces the burden of public debt.
However, rising prices are the income investor’s worst enemy as it erodes the spending power of future interest and dividend payments. This is bad news for investments offering a fixed income, like bonds, chipping away at the real value of interest payments and the fixed sum investors get back when a bond matures.
It’s also not great news for equities, particularly if companies are forced to absorb higher costs for raw materials and labour.
One way of shielding against inflation is by investing in real assets which have the ability to retain their purchasing power even when prices are rising. Gold is a firm favourite to protect against the risk of inflation given its ability to preserve its worth over time and you can tap into these via funds like the BlackRock Gold & General fund or the Investec Global Gold fund.
However, the problem with gold is that it pays no income. If you’re looking for an investment that both shields against inflation by offering exposure to real assets and provides an attractive income, have a look at infrastructure funds.
These funds spread the cash of a number of investors across a pool of infrastructure projects, each with different maturity dates.
Investment trusts, HICL Infrastructure and GCP Infrastructure Investments are two recent additions to our investment platform which boast attractive yields.
On the open-ended side, there’s the First State Global Listed Infrastructure fund which invests in high-quality, infrastructure companies across the globe with defensive characteristics such as toll roads.
As the fund’s manager, Peter Meany puts it: “People still need to get to work regardless of whether there is a recession or not.”
Maike Currie is the investment director for personal investing at Fidelity International