Economic News: December 2015/January 2016

ECONOMIC NEWS: December 2015/January 2016

At its December 2015 meeting, the Bank of England’s nine-member Monetary Policy Committee again voted by eight to one to hold the UK interest rate at 0.5 per cent amid expectations that inflation will remain low after a sharp fall in the oil price and a levelling off in wage growth. The Bank maintained its view from November that inflation would not exceed one per cent until the second half of 2016. Meanwhile, interest rates for millions of UK savers have sunk to a new low with the average rate on Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs), for example, falling from 0.99 per cent in November to 0.85 per cent in December.

Later in December, the US Federal Reserve voted unanimously to raise interest rates by 25 basis points to between 0.25 per cent and 0.5 per cent – the first rate increase there since 2006. However, it is widely believed that the Bank of England will not follow suit when it meets again in mid-January. 

The Bank of England’s annual survey of 6,000 households compiled by NMG Consulting and published in December 2015, suggests that households ‘appear a little better placed to cope with an increase in interest rates than a year ago’; it also found that the share of mortgagors with high debt servicing ratios had fallen close to an historic low. However, it warned that some households, whose finances were especially vulnerable to a rate hike, might suffer from continued cuts in state spending. The Bank also released figures showing that unsecured debt in November 2015 had reached £2,759 per household, excluding student loans; one reason for this high figure is believed to be the current popularity of car loans – car sales reached a record level in 2015, when, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, some 2.63 million new vehicles were registered.

According to a Trade Union Congress (TUC) survey, published in early January, the proportion of household debt is at its highest for five years. Based on data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which includes student loans but excludes mortgages, the average UK home owed 26.5 per cent of its annual income on loans and credit cards in the third quarter of 2015, the highest proportion since 2008. The average amount owed by households is £11,800, the highest level yet. However, debt was proportionately greater in 2008 at more than 30 per cent of household income. 

In addition to low inflation, another factor that keeps the lid on UK interest rates is the current strength of the pound, particularly against the euro, which makes imported goods cheap. However, in early January, the ONS reported that the UK’s trade deficit in goods and services had narrowed in November 2015 after the value of oil imports fell; the three-month figures also showed a narrowing in the trade deficit, down £1.0bn from the previous quarter. 

In a speech early in the New Year, Chancellor George Osborne warned that 2016 is likely to be one of the toughest since the financial crisis; this assertion contrasts with the positive tone of his Autumn Statement, when he said that the UK was ‘growing fast’