As the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has now held the base rate at 0.5% for over six and half years (the last vote was the 79th month in succession), we take a look at if there is any chance of a rise in sight and what the current outlook might mean for savers.
When will interest rates rise?
One committee member, Ian McCafferty, once again dissented from the other 8 members of the MPC and argued that the base rate should climb by 25 basis points (a quarter of a percent) to counteract any potential risk of inflation leaping beyond the 2% target in the medium term. However, despite Mr McCafferty’s dissension, most economists are still predicting that any rise in the base rate will not occur until early next year, a consensus predominantly based on beliefs that the UK’s growth will improve in its third quarter seeing price inflation rise gradually from the end of 2015.
Rather bleakly Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane last month stated that “the case for raising UK interest rates in the current environment is, for me, some way from being made. One reason not to do so is that, were the downside risks I have previously discussed materialise, there could be a need to loosen rather than tighten the monetary reins as a next step to support UK growth and return inflation to target.”
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also warned at the end of its recent meeting in Lima that central banks risk another crash in the global economy if they do not continue to support growth with low interest rates. The future therefore remains uncertain although any interest rate rise, let alone a rise by more than 0.25 percent, seems very unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Latest inflation figures
The headline rate of UK inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) had been expected to remain at zero when official figures for September were released today (13/10/2015) however, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics revealed a return to negative inflation as the rate fell to -0.1% today, the main contributors being a smaller than usual rise in the clothing prices and falling motor fuel prices. This will have a direct impact on the annual uprating of some benefits, of particular note the state second pension, which is linked to the September CPI rate.
The unemployment rate in the UK decreased to 5.5% from 5.6% in the previous period. Over the last 12 months employment levels are considerably higher with over 350,000 more in work than in the same time last year, signaling further strength of the labour market. The private sector’s annual pay growth has also risen and now exceeds 3%, however the Bank of England stated “Encouraging improvements in productivity growth have so far limited the impact of that pickup in pay growth on businesses’ overall costs, and therefore inflation.”
Short term view
In their latest report, the MPC stated the UK’s economic growth is experiencing a ‘gentle deceleration’ after peaking in 2014 and that it will ease back if the global economy weakens. However the central bank also reports that pressures in the UK’s labour market have been rising too slowly for inflation to return back to the 2% target, meaning it will likely stay below 1% until at least spring of next year.
Worst case scenario?
Against this economic backdrop, savers must consider that even when interest rates do begin to rise, will this in itself affect savings rates for the good? Certainly the traditional relationship between the Bank of England base rate and savings rates has been severed for some time and there is nothing in the economic outlook that suggests this will restored any time soon.
Savings rates in dire straits
Interest rates fell dramatically from when the Government’s Funding for Lending Scheme came into effect back in August 2012. This gave banks and building societies a cheap source of finance so they are not so reliant on savers to lend them money. Since then, banks and building societies have held a series of cuts to new savers and often, once they find themselves at the top of the best buy tables, they lower their rates to new savers as well.
Despite the introduction of so called ‘challenger banks’ into the hunt for our hard earned cash, whilst the Bank of England base rate has remained unchanged at 0.5%, interest rates remain at shockingly low levels by historical standards, which continues to pose difficult questions for savers.
Headline returns on fixed rate bonds, the traditional mainstay for many savers’ portfolios, remain poor. Leading one year fixed rate bonds currently offer around 2.10%, two year fixed rates around 2.35%, three year fixed rates around 2.70% and around 3.10% if you can fix for five years. This means that many maturing bond holders are still looking at sizeable falls in income when considering taking out another bond of similar duration.
Savers in trouble
The result is that many have moved away from longer term fixed rates in favour of instant access or short term fixes on the basis that something will happen relatively soon which will then spur them on to take further action. Although understandable, the above economic snapshot highlights this could be a very dangerous strategy indeed.
There are a number of alternatives available to traditional fixed rate savings plans. Since the returns are not always guaranteed, these are not for everyone and are unlikely to be the home for your entire savings pot. However, they do offer the potential for higher returns and with the current outlook for savers looking set to create further challenges, could be a worthwhile and timely consideration. Like fixed rate bonds, your initial capital is protected and is eligible for FSCS compensation up to the normal savings limits.
Diversifying savings portfolios to include a wider range of options offers the potential to provide the level of returns savers may need over the longer term. Indeed, with the current spread of low savings rates on offer, this is the only way to attempt to mirror the yields of yester-year, previously offered by the more traditional savings plans.
Weigh up the options
Ultimately, which option or blend of options will depend entirely on your individual circumstances however, these remain unusual and challenging times and traditional savings accounts are currently falling short of meeting the pressures put on saver’s capital by the continuing economic situation. As a minimum we should make sure that all of the options available are weighed up very carefully indeed.
No news, feature article or comment should be seen as a personal recommendation to invest. Prior to making any decision to invest, you should ensure that you are familiar with the risks associated with a particular plan. If you are at all unsure of the suitability of a particular product, both in respect of its objectives and its risk profile, you should seek independent financial advice.