UK inflation is rising
The Bank of England cut rates by 25bp and increased asset purchases in August in anticipation of a loss of confidence after the Brexit vote on June 24. The objective was stated to be to “provide additional support to growth and to achieve a sustainable return of inflation to the target.” Subsequently, growth was substantially stronger than expected through the remainder of 2016, mainly due to strong consumer spending, funded by increased borrowing. Now, many (including myself) thought the cut was a mistake at the time. But we all make mistakes. The Bank’s assessment of the impact on confidence appears to have been incorrect. Of course, some might argue that growth was stronger because the Bank eased policy, and no-one can prove that is wrong, but I think it is far-fetched. The fact is that the majority of the population (or at least half) are in favour of Brexit, so there is no good reason why the vote should have undermined consumer confidence. Business confidence might have been damaged in the longer run, but very few investment decisions are changed in a short time frame, so if there is a negative impact, it is yet to be felt. In practice, the relative resilience of spending may convince businesses to hold their nerve until the new trade arrangements become clearer, which may well take some time, as long as growth doesn’t start to slip back.
So it certainly seems as if the Bank of England made a policy error. While there is still very likely to be a longer term supply side shock from Brexit, that may not happen for quite some time, and the demand side shock the Bank initially expected has not materialised thus far. So what should they do? Should they reverse their easing and admit their error? The latest Inflation Report certainly shows inflation is expected to move above target soon and stay above target for the whole forecast horizon, which would suggest there is a pretty good prima facie case to raise rates or at least halt the increase in asset purchases. But the best way to fix an error is not always to simply reverse policy. Unless the reversal is done very quickly, the environment faced is different from the one faced initially. Things have changed.
In this case, the most notable change has been the decline in the pound. This has been good in some ways, as it has helped sustain manufacturing an export confidence in the face of uncertain future trade relationships, but it will lead to substantially higher inflation going forward, starting quite soon, as higher import prices feed through to CPI. It has also already led to higher inflation expectations. The key question as to whether this is sufficient reason to reverse the policy easing is whether the coming rise in inflation leads to an increase in wages and other factors generating domestically generated inflation. At this stage this is not clear, and is important. If wages don’t respond, we will see a sharp decline in real income growth as inflation rises, and if we also see a rise in rates from the Bank, there is a danger this will lead to a sharp decline in consumer confidence, potentially at the same time as sterling rises in response to a rise in rates. This could make the current optimism about the UK economy evaporate quite quickly.
So at this stage it seems sensible to wait. Inflation is coming, and it would be as well to see how this impacts spending and confidence before acting to reverse the move made in August. There has been a lot of British bravado since the Brexit vote, but high levels of debt and declining real incomes, plus the uncertainty surrounding the trade relationship with the EU and elsewhere, suggest that confidence is likely to be fragile. After making a policy mistake it is important not to compound it. The Bank mustn’t act looking in the rear view mirror.