Interest rates rise could derail recovery, Bank of England economist warns

Andy Haldane will use a speech on Tuesday to caution his fellow rate-setters at the Bank against rushing to tighten borrowing costs

Raising interest rates too soon from their record low to head off inflation could be a self-defeating move that tips the UK back into recession, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane is to warn.

Haldane will use a speech on Tuesday to caution his fellow rate-setters at the Bank against rushing to tighten borrowing costs after some policymakers in recent months have expressed fears that the return to wage growth will push up inflation.

“A policy of early lift-off could be self-defeating. It would risk generating the very recession today it was seeking to insure against tomorrow,” Haldane will tell the Open University, according to a text of his speech released by the Bank.

“Trying too hard to unstick interest rates, or doing so too quickly ... runs the risk of making a difficult situation worse.”

With inflation currently low and confidence fragile, the next move in rates is as likely to be a cut as a rise, according to Haldane.

The Bank’s chief economist will highlight the cautiousness of consumers hurt by the downturn and the potential drag on growth from the strength of the pound, which has hurt UK exports..

“The current level of interest rates remains, in my view, appropriate to assure the ongoing recovery and to insure against potential downside risks to demand and inflation. Looking ahead, I have no bias on either the size or direction of future interest rate moves,” Haldane will say.

That view puts Haldane at odds with Bank governor Mark Carney who said earlier this year it would be “extremely foolish” to cut rates now. The governor has instead sought to guide markets that when interest rates do rise they will do so only gradually, having been at a historic low of 0.5% for more than six years.

With inflation well below the Bank’s 2% target, at just 0.1%, and the economic outlook clouded by the eurozone’s renewed crisis over Greece’s debts, traders are not expecting policymakers to raise interest rates for another 10 months or so.

Haldane is to emphasise in his speech the balancing act the Bank’s nine-strong policy committee faces.

“There is clearly a tightrope to walk here: lean too much in an expansionary direction and the inflationary cat is let out of the bag ... lean too much in a contractionary direction and the recessionary gorilla is unleashed”.

Haldane warns that the downward effects from a stronger pound could outweigh the effects of pay growth on inflation. This month, sterling hit a seven month high against the dollar.

He also needs more evidence of pay growth picking up before worrying about inflation in the wider economy. “One swallow does not a summer make ... Wage growth is causing some fluttering, but not in this dovecote,” he says.

Referring to the latest figures showing average pay was up 2.7% on an annual basis, he says: “This pick-up in wage growth is welcome. Indeed, this rise is a necessary ingredient for getting inflation back to target in the period ahead.

“It is important also, however, to place this wage news in context. This most recent upside surprise comes against a backdrop of wage growth having surprised to the downside for much of the past two years. Up until last month, wages had surprised to the downside in 11 of the past 18 months.”

Haldane’s speech, entitled Stuck, after a book about a kite lodged in a tree by children’s illustrator and writer Oliver Jeffers, explores the wider phenomenon of interest rates in the major economies. He turns to US history to emphasise his fears about moves to tighten policy too soon only to then be forced to correct course.

“The most celebrated (if that is the right word) was the Fed’s tightening in 1937. This is felt by many to have sent the US economy back into recession. Almost 80 years on, the scars from that experience have yet to fade,” he will say.


Katie Allen

The GuardianTramp

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