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1.3.3 Drivers of returns: what determines the level of interest rates?

Earlier you started to look at the income and capital returns from investing. You will look more closely at these now, starting with the key issue of what determines the level of interest rates on savings and investment products.

To understand what determines the level of interest rates received when you invest money, you first need to understand how ‘official’ interest rates are set.

The video, which features Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England at the time of writing this course, sets the scene by looking at the factors taken into consideration when setting official interest rates.

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Before 1997, ‘official’ interest rates in the UK were determined by the UK government, usually after consultation with the Bank of England. Arrangements changed in May 1997 when the incoming Labour government passed responsibility for monetary policy and the setting of interest rates to the Bank of England to make the bank independent of political influence. This matches the arrangement in the USA and in the eurozone, where the official rates are set by the Federal Reserve Bank and the European Central Bank respectively.

The rate set by the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) known as the ‘Bank Rate’ is the rate at which the Bank of England will lend to the financial institutions. This, in turn, determines the level of bank ‘base rates’ – the minimum level at which the banks will normally lend money. Consequently, Bank Rate (also known as the ‘official rate’) effectively sets the general level of interest rates for the economy as a whole. Bank Rate is therefore hugely influential in the determination of the rate that will be paid on savings and interest-bearing investment products.

The MPC meets eight times a year to determine the level of Bank Rate with the decision normally being announced at 12 noon on the day that their two-day meeting ends (which is normally a Thursday).

The prime objective is for the MPC to set interest rates at a level consistent with inflation of 2% p.a. For example, if the MPC believes inflation will go above 2% p.a., it might increase interest rates in order to discourage people from taking on debt – because if people spend less, it could reduce the upward pressure on prices. Conversely, if the MPC believes inflation will be much below 2% p.a. it might lower interest rates (also known as ‘easing monetary policy’) – people might then borrow and spend more.

However, in 2013 and 2014 the policy on the setting of official rates was modified to take greater account of the level of unemployment in the economy. First it was announced that official rates would not be raised while the rate of unemployment was above 7% of the labour force. Subsequently, following a sharp fall in unemployment towards 7%, this stance was modified to one where the MPC would take account of the extent of spare capacity in the economy rather than just the rate of unemployment. The video explores this change of emphasis to the setting of official interest rates in the UK.

Official rates of interest tend to be cyclical, rising to peaks and then falling to troughs. Since 1989, the trend in the UK has been for nominal interest rates to peak at successively lower levels. Bank Rate fell to 3.5% in 2003. In 2009 it was set at a then historic low of 0.5% as the Bank of England attempted to stimulate the economy during the period of economic recession that followed the 2007/08 financial crisis. Bank Rate stayed below 1% for the next decade only to fall to a new historic low of 0.1% in 2020 as the Bank responded to the economic problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

From late 2021 Bank Rate was raised in stages to reach 5.25% in September 2023. This tightening of monetary policy stemmed from the need to combat the high prevailing rate of price inflation in the UK.