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17 October 2011updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

Could interest rates go even lower?

A reduction in the base rate from 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent is no longer unthinkable.

By George Eaton

With just a month to go until his autumn statement, the latest set of growth forecasts make grim reading for George Osborne. Ernst and Young’s Item club predicts that the economy will grow by just 0.9 per cent this year, well below the 1.4 per cent it predicted three months ago. It has also downgraded its 2012 growth forecast from 2.2 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

Peter Spencer, the body’s chief economic adviser explains:

It’s worse than we thought. The bright spots in our forecast three months ago – business investment and exports – have dimmed to a flicker as uncertainty around Greece and the stability of the eurozone increases.

Significantly, the club uses the same forecasting methods as the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), offering us a preview of the downward revisions the OBR will have to make when it publishes its new estimates on 29 November, the day of Osborne’s statement. Lower growth, of course, means higher borrowing, so the OBR is also likely to revise its deficit forecasts upwards. The club predicts that unemployment will rise from 2.57m to 2.7m over the next 18 months, resulting in lower tax revenues and higher welfare payments.

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In response, it calls for a cut in stamp duty for first-time buyers and a reduction in interest rates from their current record low of 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent. The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has held the base rate at 0.5 per cent since March 2009 but it’s worth noting that the possibility of reducing it even further was discussed at the last Bank of England meeting. The most recent BoE minutes (from 7-8 September) noted that the MPC “revisited the earlier decision not to lower Bank Rate below 0.5 per cent”.

A reduction to 0.25 per cent still seems unlikely but, given the parlous state of the British economy, I’d expect that the MPC is ruling nothing out. As Mervyn King said when he announced another round of quantitative easing, “When the world changes, we change our policy response”.

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