The Bank of England's big mistake

The Bank of England may have decided to keep interest rates on hold at the start of this month. But Mervyn King and his chums at the Monetary Policy Committee might be kicking themselves this morning.

This feature is part of our FREE daily Money Morning email. If you'd like to sign up, please click here: sign up for Money Morning.

The Bank of England decided to keep interest rates on hold at the start of this month - perhaps an early Christmas gift for mortgage holders and the over-indebted.

But Mervyn King and his chums at the Monetary Policy Committee might be kicking themselves this morning. The Bank's target inflation rate - the consumer price index (CPI) - grew at an annual rate of 2.7% in November, the highest since records began in November 1995.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Perhaps it would have been better for the Bank to play Scrooge ahead of the usual Christmas spending spree - because come January and February, an interest rate rise will be the last thing those struggling with post-Christmas spending hangovers need.

But unfortunately, it may well be exactly what they get

Consumer price inflation stands at 2.7%, the highest since records began 11 years ago. But that's not all. RPIX (which is the retail price index, excluding mortgage payments), is now at 3.4%, the highest level since March 1993.

RPIX was the Bank of England's old inflation target. It included things the CPI doesn't, like council tax, for example. Now these days, if CPI goes above 3%, or below 1%, the Bank has to write an open letter to the Chancellor explaining why. But back then, the letter-writing was triggered if RPIX moved beyond 1% of a central target of 2.5% - in other words, if we were still using the old inflation measure, Mervyn King would be very close to having to get his pencil sharpener out.

Arguably, he would have wanted to avoid this. So it seems pretty fair to suggest that if we were still measuring official inflation using RPIX, interest rates would already be higher.

Now you can argue about which measure is more effective - but it does show just how important seemingly small tweaks in statistics can be. Use the old measure, and you'd have interest rates at 5.25% or more already - and perhaps the irrational exuberance in the UK property market wouldnt be quite so pronounced.

But regardless of statistical mucking about, you can't avoid reality forever. There are plenty of things for the Bank to worry about in the latest inflation data. For a start, there are the reasons behind the jump in the CPI. Up until recently, rising inflation was mainly driven by rising energy prices. But now, it's being driven by - well, everything.

Food prices are now 5% higher than they were a year ago. Clothing and furniture prices, which have been falling for years, are now almost flat year-on-year. Utility bills are still rising, despite falling wholesale gas prices. And of course, there are the usual suspects, such as hairdressing, school fees (up a massive 14% on last year), and all the other things you can't outsource to China, which continue to soar as they have been doing for a very long time now.

There wasn't even any relief from falling oil prices. Even though petrol prices fell last month, they didn't fall by even half as much as they did at the same time last year (when oil prices were easing off after surging in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) - so that contributed to the upward effect on CPI. And Gordon Brown's Pre-Budget Report tax top-up on petrol won't help December's CPI reading either.

But the biggest worry - for both employers and the bank - will be the Retail Price Index (RPI). This stood at 3.9%, the highest since 1998. Graeme Leach, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, told The Telegraph: "Today's figures make us even more convinced that interest rates will go up in February. Inflation needs to be squeezed out of the system but this is made difficult by the strength of money supply growth and the lack of spare capacity in the economy. What we don't want to see is the 3.9% headline RPI form the basis for inflationary pay awards in the New Year."

But to be fair to employees, it's perfectly understandable that they expect to get pay rises in line with RPI. After all, rises in pension and most benefit payments are calculated in line with RPI, because it's generally seen as a better measure of the cost of living. What would you prefer your next pay rise to be based on? CPI at 2.7% - or RPI at 3.9%? We know which one we'll be opting for.

And if non-militant private sector employees like ourselves can see the wisdom in looking for a genuinely inflation-matching pay rise, we imagine our unionised public sector peers will be thinking along the same lines.

MPs are talking tough about 2% pay increases this year (while asking for around a 66% rise themselves - but of course, we should remember that the rules we mere mortals have to live by don't apply to them). But as plenty of unions have already pointed out, that's a pay cut in real terms - even using the inflation-lite' CPI figure.

We await the outcome of the January pay round with great interest. Maybe we're wrong, and after years of above-inflation pay hikes, public sector staff will be happy to take a cut. But we have a feeling that by playing it safe' on interest rates this month, the Bank has missed its last opportunity to deliver the short sharp shock that would have convinced us all that it's serious about tackling inflation.

And that almost certainly means that, just as happened this year, interest rates will have to go higher in 2007 than anyone currently expects.

Turning to the wider markets

Enjoying this article? Why not sign up to receive Money Morning FREE every weekday? Just click here: FREE daily Money Morning email.

In London, the FTSE 100 closed just 3 points higher yesterday, at 6,156, as weakness on Wall Street and inflation concerns were offset by strength from ICI. The chemicals company climbed nearly 3% on M&A speculation. For a full market report, see: London market close.

On the Continent, another chemicals company, Bayer, led German stocks higher. The DAX-30 closed 6 points higher, at 6,476. In Paris, the CAC-40 ended the day a fraction of a point lower, at 5,426.

Across the Atlantic, the Fed kept interest rates unchanged, noting a 'substantial cooling' in the housing market but sticking with its emphasis on fighting inflation. Stocks closed down, but off earlier lows. The Dow Jones closed 12 points lower, at 12,315, the S&P 500 ended the day at 1,411, a fall of just one point, and the Nasdaq ended the day 11 points lower, at 2,431.

In Asia, strength amongst technology and mining stocks saw the Nikkei gain 55 points to close at 16,692 yesterday.

Crude oil was trading at $61.13 a barrel this morning, whilst Brent spot was at $61.57 in London.

Spot gold last traded at $628.50 this morning, down from $629.40 in New York late last night.

And in London this morning, energy utility Drax announced that it is to return £33.7m to shareholders. Earnings for the owner of Britain's biggest coal-fired power station were in line with expectations, allowing the company to reblade turbines and pay out the cash. Shares in Drax were up as much as 0.7% this morning.

And our two recommended articles for today...

A potential threat to the gold price?

- Unsurprisingly, gold has risen during recent dollar falls. Yet, says Paul van Eeden, forthcoming events risk dulling the yellow metal's shine somewhat. To find out the one thing that could cause the price of gold to drop, read: A potential threat to the gold price?

Water: a very valuable commodity

- Rather than worrying about the planet heating up or the oil running out, we should concentrate on a more pressing matter, says Brian Durrant: water shortages. For more on why clean water is in such short supply, and what the looming water crisis means for investors, see: Water: a very valuable commodity

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.