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Rates are rising faster, but slowly

Image source: Getty Images.

Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, has been called the financial equivalent of an “unreliable boyfriend”, on account of his mixed signals on future interest rate movements.
 
But some may now feel he’s got a mean streak, too.
 
Only last November the Bank of England raised interest rates from 0.25% to 0.5% – the first rise since 2007.

This increase was touted as undoing the emergency interest rate cut deployed as an airbag in the wake of the Brexit vote. The fear then, of course, was that uncertainty would slow the economy, so the Bank took pre-emptive action.
 
While our economy has decelerated, it wasn’t by as much as expected – not least because the rest of the global economy has taken off like a rocket.
 
Indeed, fears that central bankers around the world might suddenly bring the decade of cheap money to a screeching halt was blamed for the rout in share prices last week.
 
If rates rise, the theory goes, global shares will look even more expensive than they already do after the ten-year long bull market. This may have prompted more nervous investors to rush for the exit, as we saw the wildest market swings for a few years.

Treat ’em mean to keep ’em keen

Still, here in the UK, we might believe we have less reason for alarm.

Hadn’t the Bank hinted it was in no rush to raise rates back in November?
 
Isn’t it true that our economic growth has been slowing even as the rest of the world has been booming? And while inflation has spiked up here compared to the US and Europe, everyone puts that down to the weak pound, and the Bank seemed happy to let this effect pass rather than rushing to raise rates to counter it.
 
But not any longer. The Bank now says that, in fact, more interest rate rises might be needed “somewhat earlier and by a somewhat greater extent” to rein in the inflation it sees growing due to wage growth.
 
The pound immediately jumped in response to this shift in tone as, all things being equal, a currency gets more attractive with higher interest rates.

Three’s company

No doubt some savvy savers hanging on Carney’s every word also took to the streets in celebration.
 
Interest rates have been so low for so long, it’s easy to forget that you could once grow your cash by using a savings account, rather than just keep your money safe from burglars.
 
Okay, so a few cynics may have wondered if this was anything more than mischievous mutterings from the unreliable Governor. However, other members of the Monetary Policy Committee have since said the same thing, too.
 
Deputy Governor Ben Broadbent also told the BBC that it was indeed likely that the path of interest rates would be higher than the markets – and the Bank had – previously expected.
 
And while chief economist Andy Haldane came out over the weekend to tell local media in the North East of England that there was “no rush” to raise rates, he also stressed keeping inflation under control was the best thing the Bank could do for hard-pressed consumers – and with inflation looking perkier, that probably meant a faster path of rate rises.
 
A Governor alone might be unreliable, but here we have three Bank of England insiders singing from the same hymn sheet.

Still crazy after all these years  

So, not only is the stock market wobbling, the Bank of England is putting the boot in, too. Rates are headed higher, so it’s time for investors to batten down the hatches, right?
 
You know – more expensive mortgages, dearer loans, skittish investors selling out while they can, financial Armageddon and all that?
 
Let’s not get carried away!
 
Interest rate expectations have suddenly risen – but not by a lot.
 
Last November, the Bank expected a couple of interest rate rises over the next three years to keep inflation under control. Now it seems three or four rises might be on the cards.
 
Let’s remember that even four quarter-point raises would only amount to a one percentage point rise in total – potentially leaving us with a Bank Rate of 1.5% in three years’ time. That’s at the bottom end of the range for UK interest rates over the last 300 years or so.
 
In other words, money will still be very cheap, and savers will still be squeezed in real terms.
 
As for UK shares, in my view Brexit is having more of an impact – by boosting the attractiveness of foreign currency earners who’ve seen their profits rise with the weak pound. It also seems to be turning some investors off domestic players that could be hit if things go badly.
 
UK homebuilders did fall a bit in the wake of higher rate expectations, and banks looked a bit stronger. But given the wider turmoil in the markets, it was hard to be sure they were acting on anything Mr Carney said.
 
And yes, at the end of the day, this is Mr Unreliable we’re talking about.
 
Perhaps he’ll soon be hinting at cutting rates again by 2019!

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