The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. Photo: Getty
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To avoid squeezed households struggling, we must beware of premature interest rate rises

Households may struggle unnecessarily from premature interest rate rises if we continue to rely on the current key indicator of income growth.

Thursday’s interest rate announcement from the Monetary Policy Committee is unlikely to generate many headlines. “Bank does nothing for 65th month straight” is hardly a circulation-booster, even during silly season. But we can expect plenty of speculation alongside the announcement that the consensus among MPC members on holding rates will have been broken for the first time since the summer of 2011.

We won’t know for certain until the minutes are published in a couple of weeks, but it is surely only a matter of time before such divisions become apparent. At some point rates must rise, but getting the timing and pace of change right will be an extremely difficult task. Differences of opinion are natural. After all, on the one hand the UK economy is expected to be the pace-setter among advanced economies over the course of 2014; yet on the other, average wages continue to fall in real terms.

Making the right call is made both more difficult and more important by the continued presence of a debt overhang built up during the pre-crisis years. This legacy means that, even with rates at an all-time low, almost one-in-five mortgagors say they’re struggling to meet their repayments. Small initial movements in the base rate might not have a material effect on these households, but if the trajectory is such that borrowing costs normalise before incomes do, then the potential for repayment difficulties is significant.

The MPC is of course alive to this danger: Mark Carney has stated that rates won’t rise until “jobs, incomes and spending [are] growing at sustainable rates”. Yet, in relation to the key indicator of income growth, the committee is let down by the statistics it relies on.

Our best measures of what is happening to household incomes are derived from large-scale government studies. Both the Family Resources Survey and the Living Costs and Food Survey provide directly-reported information and allow us to understand patterns across the income distribution – an important distinction given that problem debt is particularly concentrated among those with low and modest incomes. Yet these surveys are annual and take time to report, thereby lacking the timeliness required to inform the MPC’s real-time decision making.

Unfortunately, the timely measure that the Bank instead relies on – Real Household Disposable Income – is not fit for purpose. It doesn’t just measure household income, but universities, charities and trade unions too. And it is deflated using a national accounts measure that has little to do with the actual spending patterns of households. As a result, the chart shows that RHDI per capita has consistently overstated income growth over the past 15 years or so: rising more sharply than the survey data in the pre-crisis years and falling less starkly in the subsequent period.

The cumulative difference in income growth between 1998 and 2013 as measured by the FRS median and the RHDI per capita is almost 9 percentage points. That’s equivalent to around £1,700. In debt terms, that’s the same as the extra annual repayment cost on a £150,000 mortgage following a 1.7 percentage point increase in the interest rate.

(Click on the graph to enlarge)

The difficult path that the MPC must steer means that such differences matter. That’s why, alongside a range of recommendations for how we can better prepare for the interest rate rise when it comes, we’ve called on the Bank to work with the ONS to fix its malfunctioning dashboard.

Debates within the MPC in the coming months will be a welcome sign that at least some aspects of the economy are improving. But those discussions must be informed by data that provides the best sense possible of what is really happening in our economy. Pushing too hard on interest rates as a result of misleading data risks generating headlines of the wrong sort.

Matthew Whittaker is chief economist at the Resolution Foundation

Matthew Whittaker is senior economist at the Resolution Foundation

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad