Britons await Carney's guidance on interest rates

BURNHAM-ON-SEA, England Wed Jul 10, 2013 11:51am BST

Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, attends a monetary policy committee (MPC) briefing on his first day at the central bank's headquarters in London July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Alden/pool

Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, attends a monetary policy committee (MPC) briefing on his first day at the central bank's headquarters in London July 1, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Alden/pool

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BURNHAM-ON-SEA, England (Reuters) - Jack Horwood, from his quiet seaside town, has a message the new governor of the Bank of England will want to hear.

Horwood says he will spend more money if Mark Carney can get his trademark economic policy right.

The 23-year-old trade union worker and his girlfriend are saving diligently so they can afford higher mortgage payments on their house when Britain's record-low interest rates go up.

But Horwood says he would probably store away 200 pounds less each month if he was convinced that rates will remain pegged at their rock-bottom level for a while yet.

More spending by consumers and businesses is exactly what Britain's new Canadian central bank chief hopes will happen if he spells out how long, or under what circumstances, the Bank of England's main interest rate will stay super-low.

"If he said 'we can fix this for the next two years' ... that two-year safety net would probably provide us with enough confidence to spend the money now," said Horwood, from Burnham-on-Sea in England's south-west.

Despite some recent signs of a pick-up, Britain's economy is still around 4 percent below its peak before a 2008-2009 recession, one of the worst performances among the world's big developed economies. Consumer spending is picking up but below-inflation wage growth could yet choke off a recovery.

Carney has been expected to act decisively to try to kick growth into a higher gear. Hailed by Britain's Chancellor as "the outstanding central banker of his generation", he is credited with helping the Canadian economy weather the global financial storm better than its U.S. and European peers.

On July 4, only four days into his governorship, the Bank took the unusual step of making clear to markets that it was in no rush to raise rates given the weakness of the economy.

Short-term interest rates duly fell, including those that feed through to mortgages and other loans.

It was the first taste of more detailed forward guidance that the Bank has signalled it will consider, and possibly introduce, at its July 31-August 1 policy meeting.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has used guidance for several years and last week the European Central Bank broke with tradition by saying rates would remain ultra-low for "an extended period".

Central banks generally resort to providing a steer on interest rates when they cannot cut them any further.

LOOSEN YOUR PURSE STRINGS

Carney is a leading advocate of the policy.

In April 2009, as head of the Bank of Canada, he cut the benchmark rate to 0.25 percent and signalled it would stay there for over a year. Falls in short-term interest rates followed.

Carney has said his 2009 pledge underpinned a rebound in Canada's overall growth and stressed the simplicity of its message: "It reached beyond central bank watchers to make a clear, simple statement directly to Canadians."

Whether Britons will be given such a clear commitment remains to be seen. And, clear or not, there is debate as to whether it will help or harm the economy.

One idea is that assuring homeowners that they won't face rising mortgage bills in the near future could be a powerful way to encourage consumption in Britain, where around 40 percent of people pay a loan on their homes.

Horwood and his partner would use some of the freed-up cash to see more comedy shows in the nearby city of Bristol, or buy a dishwasher.

Forward guidance could reassure many Britons who either think interest rates will rise in the next 12 months or have no idea where rates are headed. In a Bank survey in May, almost half of households polled expressed these views.

"Households can probably be encouraged to save less and less if Carney manages to talk down rates," said Rob Wood, economist at Berenberg Bank. "(Guidance) can convince Joe Public that rates will stay low."

Not everyone in Britain is a fan of forward guidance.

That includes some members of the Bank of England's top policy team who have publicly expressed worries that it could amount to a policy straightjacket and voiced doubts over whether it would make much difference in practice.

Some economists say it could raise questions about the central bank's commitment to controlling inflation and lead to faster price rises.

Brian Hilliard of Societe Generale thinks Britain is in danger of such an outcome because inflation has been above the central bank's 2 percent target since the end of 2009.

By contrast, when the Bank of Canada started using forward guidance in 2009, the country's inflation had been within the target range for most of the previous five years, he noted.

A commitment to low interest rates for what could be a long time would probably further weaken the British currency and possibly add to inflation pressures.

BIGGER FEARS

Some business owners have their doubts too. While they do not want interest rates to rise, they have other more pressing concerns such as fast-rising taxes on commercial property.

"The fear of interest rates is far outweighed by the fear of business rates," said Colin Barrell, a co-owner of two cafes in the town of Taunton, about 25 miles (40 km) from Burnham-on-Sea.

Barrell heads the local chamber of commerce and says many of its members are reluctant to meet tough demands for collateral for bank loans to fund expansion, even if interest rates are low.

"We are taking on all the risk, we are putting our houses on the line, our families' futures on the line," he said, sporting cufflinks in the shape of a teacup on a saucer and a teapot.

Nonetheless, the British Chambers of Commerce welcomed Carney to Britain with a call to give firms "as much certainty as possible on low interest rates" among other confidence-boosting measures.

For forward guidance to work, it must be understood, especially by its target audience of ordinary Britons.

Here, Carney faces a choice: to offer the prospect of low interest rates for a specific time period, or until a certain economic threshold - such as a lower unemployment rate or stronger growth - is reached. Both promises would probably come with a get-out clause if the inflation outlook worsened.

Many economists say a time-based promise is simpler and clearer but note it could make it harder for the Bank of England's rate setters to respond to changes in the economy. Most expect a threshold-based policy to be announced in August.

For Horwood in Burnham-on-Sea, a timetable would be much clearer than a set of economic goalposts to track, even though he spent two years studying business and economics at school. A threshold-based promise on interest rates would not be convincing enough for him to change his spending plans, he said.

"It relies on me having to keep an eye on things and I don't think that would work."

(Editing by William Schomberg/Mike Peacock)

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