What to do as inflation returns

Inflation is back. And that’s bad news for savers and borrowers alike, says Merryn Somerset Webb.


Inflation will hit savers and borrowers alike
(Image credit: © 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP)

And it's back. Numbers out from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) today show that consumer price inflation (CPI) has jumped to 2.3%* with retail price inflation (RPI the measure we all used to pay attention to) hitting a slightly scary 3.2%.

Food, clothing, housing, culture, recreational goods (particularly personal computers) and furniture prices are all up. Core inflation (the number that strips out food and energy) showed a particularly large jump (1.6% to 2%).

And there's probably more to come. Lots of retailers will have been hedged against the fall in the pound so will be late to the price-rise party. Some of the recent utility price rises might also not yet be in the numbers.

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We'd also point out that with the liquidity created by quantitative easing (QE) still knocking around in the markets; the Bank of England's oft-repeated plan to ignore inflation overshoots (to somehow make up for missing the 2% target on the downside in the past); the possibility of a renewed round of global protectionism; and the political muttering about fiscal stimulus all still out there, the risks are very much on the upside for inflation.

The official forecast has CPI at 2.8% by Christmas. That is unlikely to be the end of it. There are upsides to the fall in the pound (the latest CBI Industrial Trends Survey shows rising strength in manufacturing). But while not all the price rises can be put at sterling's door, this sharp rise in inflation is clearly something of a downside, particularly give that it once again suggests that average real wages are static. In the first three months of the year wages rose 2.2% take inflation off that and no one's going to be feeling much richer.

That's a feeling that's going to hit savers too whether they know it or not. A recent survey from OnePoll/Abundance asked people what effect inflation running at3% a year would have on the value of their cash savings after a decade. 11% thought it would have no effect at all. 43% just didn't know. 20% guessed it might reduce the value of their savings by 3% over the full period. And a mere 25% figured out the full horrific answer: that an innocuous sounding 3% inflation rate will remove over 25% of your purchasing power within a decade.

CPI at these levels is also unlikely to make borrowers happy. We already know that some members of the MPC are ready to change their stance on rates (ie to vote to raise them) if there is much more in the way of positive economic surprises (one member wants to raise rates now). These kinds of numbers have to start making them feel a tad uncomfortable with having interest rates set at 0.25%. We wouldn't expect any immediate action (see the point above about the BoE being OK with inflation above target for a bit). But a rise in rates is definitely closer than it was perhaps inside 2017 rather than 2018.

It's worth noting that pre crisis and pre our newly bonkers monetary policy system there was a rule of thumb that assumed that the base rate would be about 2% above inflation and that mortgage rates would be 2% higher again. That would make the base rate not far off 4.5% and mortgage rates more 6% than the 2% we are all used to.

That isn't going to happen in a hurry in today's UK, but it is still worth thinking about the following: UK interest rates have fallen non-stop for ten years (and were pretty low for seven years before that). That means there is a generation of borrowers out there (mortgage holders in particular) who have no experience of rising rates. They could find the turn tricky.

So what should you do in response to the inflation numbers? Savers should make sure they are getting all they can from their providers. There are very few accounts that will give you a real return with inflation at 2.3% (not even the new NS&I savings bonds announced in the budget they pay 2.2%). So get the best you can and make sure you pay as little tax as possible by using your Isa allowance to the extent you can.

Borrowers should lock in low rates where they can. Salaried workers should remind their employers that they should not have to suffer real wage falls. And finally anyone looking for a quote for a final salary pension transfer might like to get on with it: valuations are generally inversely related to gilt yields, and these drifted up on two- and ten-year gilts after the inflation data was released.

*The ONS also published its new measure of inflation CPIH for the first time. This includes additional housing costs and also came in at 2.3

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.