You never know when rates will rise

October 8, 2009

David Kuo-David Kuo, Director at the financial website The Motley Fool. The opinions expressed are his own.-

Go on. Admit it. You didn’t see it coming, did you? You never thought a member of the G20 nations would dare to break ranks and raise interest rates this soon.

But Australia has done just that. The Central Bank of Australia has increased the cost of borrowing by 0.25 percent to 3.25 percent. It is doing what it thinks is right for the country regardless of what the rest may think. Now, Asian countries, keen to avert another bubble, may follow Australia’s lead and ratchet up interest rates before long.

Of course, Australia’s economy is vastly different to the UK’s. It has huge deposits of iron, aluminium and nickel that are in demand by mineral-hungry China. That said, Australia did briefly flirt with a downturn, which it successfully corrected with 21 billion pounds of fiscal stimulus.

But the UK is not Australia. We do not have huge deposits of mineral, and we are not near fasting-growing Asian countries either. What we do have are consumers saddled with over a trillion pounds of debt following a decade of binge borrowing, and a national debt burden of similar magnitude.
Therefore, it is unlikely that we will experience demand-led inflation. In fact, consumers are saving more of their household income than they have done for eight years.

The most recent Office for National Statistics report shows that between March and June British households saved 5.60 pounds out of every 100 pounds of household income. That is very different from the first three months of 2008 when we not only failed to save any money, but we even borrowed 50 pence for every 100 pounds of household income.

That said, we are still some way off getting our overstretched household finances back on an even keel. So, the savings ratio could go higher. In fact, it is still some way short of the long-run savings-ratio average of 8 percent of household income.

And herein lies the problem for the Bank of England.

According to the paradox of thrift, high levels of savings in a recession can prolong the economic downturn. That is because two-thirds of economic growth comes from consumer spending. So the less we spend, the longer it will take the UK economy to recover from the slump.
So what is the Monetary Policy Committee to do?

It has already slashed interest rates to historic lows. But that has failed to stimulate consumer spending. It has pumped 158 billion pounds of fresh money into the coffers of lenders through quantitative easing. But the money has, as yet, failed to invigorate the ailing economy.

However, both those measures will, in time, achieve their goals. The risk is not whether they will work, but instead, whether they will work too well and stoke inflation. Just as no one expected Australia to hike rates this soon, our days of enjoying low interest rates may end just as abruptly, and without warning. So save and invest what you can now.

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