9 August 2016
- Monetary policy is not helping ordinary people and low rates may be doing more harm than good
- Ordinary savers are being hung out to dry and pension problems have worsened
- Government should issue more high interest 65+ guaranteed growth bonds – but for all age groups
The latest decision by the Bank of England to cut base rate from 0.5% to 0.25%, as well as expanding Quantitative Easing by £60billion, is supposedly designed to boost the economy. But millions of savers and pensioners are suffering serious potential income shortfalls as a result of this policy.
I believe the damaging side-effects of low interest rates have been under-estimated. Not only are significant sections of the population being hit near-term, the consequences for the medium and longer term are also negative.
Bring back special savers’ bonds: As the banks no longer want or need ordinary savers’ money, the Government could offer better interest rates directly. Bringing back the special savings bonds that were issued from January to May 2015 for the over 65s, but this time for all age groups, would prove popular. They had market-beating interest rates of 2.5% or 4% and were the most successful financial product for years. A new issue of such bonds, but not just limited to older savers would reward savers for setting money aside. This is vital if we are to sustain a savings culture in this country. Until a few weeks ago, the Bank of England had been suggesting the next move in rates would be upwards – signalling some relief for savers after years of misery. Now that rates have fallen even further instead, the authorities need to consider the impact on prudent people who want to provide for their own future. The Government also needs to consider how to help companies that are struggling with rising pension deficits. Issuing special bonds for pension funds, offering to underpin investments in infrastructure and housing, would be direct ways of helping alleviate the damage of monetary measures. The Government needs to find ways to offset the negative side-effects of the Bank of England’s latest moves.
What is the damage to savers? With interest rates staying so low for so long, and rates continually falling further, savings incentives and savers’ incomes across the economy are being destroyed. This has two damaging consequences which could actually weaken economic growth.
Lower savings income means savers save less and spend less: Firstly, many people who have saved over the years for their future are facing further income falls. This may cause them to cut spending, especially if they are in retirement and cannot see a way for their income to increase in future. Indeed, many savings account interest rates are being reduced by more than the 0.25% rate cut. Banks and building societies do not need to attract savers now, as the Bank of England’s decision to introduce its new Term Funding Scheme gives the banks cheap money directly from the Bank of England instead.
Destroying saving incentives for younger generations: Secondly, many people are deciding it is not worth bothering to save as the returns are so tiny. People who might have saved but decide not to bother will be poorer in future. Young people are losing the savings culture that the current older generations often grew up with. Modern societies still need savers, especially as life expectancy increases and the population is aging rapidly. This lack of savings, and potentially higher borrowing risks damaging growth in future.
What is the damage to pensions? Again there are two damaging consequences for pensions, both of which are likely to weaken growth.
Rising annuity costs means less pension for life: Firstly, as interest rates are pushed lower, the costs of buying an annuity have soared. People looking to lock into a guaranteed lifetime income will be offered much less pension than ever before. Even if the value of their pension fund has increase a bit, the cost of annuities has usually risen by much more. And, of course, once they lock into an annuity for life their income will never recover, even if rates rise in future. So pensioners will have less money to spend, which is hardly an expansionary policy.
Pension deficits weaken company growth prospects and reduce pension contributions for younger workers: Secondly, employers who are running final salary-type Defined Benefit pension schemes are facing much higher deficits as a result of the expansion of QE. As gilt yields fall further, employer pension liabilities have soared. Just today, the Pension Protection Fund PPF7800 index announced that its measure of pension deficits rose last month to around £400billion. It will rise further this month as a result of the extra QE. This will weaken the employers sponsoring such pension schemes, damaging their business prospects, potentially preventing them from investing or borrowing to fund growth and sapping corporate resources away from both their business and employment expansion. As most private sector final salary-type schemes are now closed, the rising deficits are likely to mean employers have less money to spend on providing good pension contributions for those workers who do not belong to these schemes, – usually younger employees.
Monetary policy is too focussed on financial institutions and borrowing: Monetary policy seems to be overlooking the negative consequences on households (and parts of the corporate sector).
Low rates do not necessarily help mortgage holders and QE has led to rising rental costs: Typically, if short-term interest rates fall, borrowers’ incomes increase, and they are expected to spend more (or even borrow more to finance extra spending). However, falling base rates may not help borrowers as much as expected. Mortgage payments are a major element of household borrowing, but around half of mortgages are on fixed rates, so they do not benefit from the base rate cut to 0.25%. Indeed, the other element of monetary policy – QE – has damaged especially younger people because it has caused rising property prices. Ordinary people have to either take out a much larger mortgage to get on the housing ladder, or must pay much more in rent. So monetary policy has made them worse off.
The Government could help offset damaging impacts of monetary measures: Because these changes in Bank of England policy have many potentially harmful side-effects, the latest loosening of monetary policy may need to be offset by fiscal measures. Certainly, the transmission mechanisms of lower interest rates are very indirect – relying on sellers of bonds to boost asset prices or stimulate extra borrowing. More direct help is likely to have a better outcome. The indirect stimulus cannot be relied upon to prevent an economic slowdown, while direct measures to increase household incomes and spending, as well as helping offset the effects of rising pension deficits, will be more beneficial to the British people.