Thursday, February 24, 2011

Resist the oily logic on interest rates

It doesn't seem so long ago that petrol was under 90 cents a litre in Spain and the international oil price had slid below 40$ from its peak of over 140$ Actually that oil price low was around 2 years ago and prices have climbed steadily since until, with the crisis in the Arab world, crude went close to 120$ yesterday - Oil prices hit fresh high on Libya fears

Nomura are warning of oil prices above 220$ I am not in the oil price guessing game - who knows? All sorts of things, good and bad, could come out of the crisis in North Africa and the Middle East. Who can predict what discoveries will be made on the supply side.

But one thing I would take odds on is that many commentators and policymakers will use the oil price spike to justify interest rate cuts or, in the case of most countries, to justify delay raising them from near zero.

I have long argued that the deeply negative real interest rates (the UK rate is 0.5% versus inflation of 4-5% depending on the inflation measure you use) is a weapon to be used in extreme circumstances only and for only short periods to get through a crisis. Holding rates too low for too long is extremely dangerous and asking for bubbles and bad lending which store up future crashes and disaster - just ask Spain and Ireland.

The oil price rise will strengthen the hand of the oil price doves on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England who have been under pressure of late. They will be able to blame high inflation on this "one off, temporary" factor and will point to the danger of raising interest rates when the economy is struggling to deal with an oil price shock. Rising oil prices drain demand from the rest of the economy and higher rates risk doubling the demand shock - households get hit at the pumps and the monthly mortgage statement.

There will be a lot of this kind of talk in coming weeks and no doubt many will refer back to 2008 when many Central Banks raised rates during the last oil spike which some blame for precipitating the economic crisis.

There are several reasons to resist this pernicious logic. One is technical: if monetary policy is to be used at all to control inflation it should be aimed at a general level of prices across the range of sectors which make up our cost of living. Specific rises in one area - energy for example - are not should not be inflationary in general terms. They are a signal that we should use less energy and find more sources of energy to reduce its price. In the meantime we will reduce our spending on other things which should then fall in price. IE a rising oil price should be neutral overall but be a powerful incentive to do the right things to correct the problem (e.g. invest in energy saving ideas).

If we constantly "fight" oil price rises which owe more to long term issues of supply and demand (particularly from the developing economies) with low interest rates we will stop this natural market process from occurring and risk a very serious bout of stagflation like we saw in the 1970s when the biggest ever oil price shock occurred.

Think of the main cause of oil price rises - China. That country's incredible growth (e.g. doubling of car sales in 5 years) is driven by loose money both at home - negative real interest rates while growing at 10%! - and in its main markets in the West. That wild and unsustainable growth in turn causes oil price inflation which causes, um you guessed it, more calls for loose money policies. And it goes on.

We need to recognise that low interest rates are not a panacea. If anything is going to get the Western economies in particular through the economic and energy problems it faces it is more saving and investment, less consumption and debt. Ludicrously low rates are not the answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment

OctoFinder Blog and ping Spanish Insight - Blogged