The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) kept interest rates at the record low of 0.5% at its meeting in February. It also left the £375bn quantitative easing stimulus programme unchanged.
But the continued fall in the UK unemployment rate, now at 7.1% has sparked a debate about when interest rates may need to rise.
In August last year Bank governor Mark Carney said that interest rates were unlikely to be raised before the jobless rate falls to 7%.
But in mid-February he adjusted that stance, saying a wider range of indicators would be taken into account, meaning interest rates could remain at low levels for some time even as unemployment falls further.Understanding monetary policy:
- The Monetary Policy Committee meets every month and its main task, set by the government, is to keep inflation at 2%
- It is looking at what it expects inflation to be in about two years' time, as it assumes changes in rates will take that long to work
- It sets Bank rate, which is the percentage it charges on loans it makes to banks and other financial institutions. That influences what the banks and building societies charge for loans and mortgages and the returns they pay to savers
- If it thinks inflation is likely to undershoot the 2% target, the Bank will cut interest rates, stimulating borrowing, spending and job creation
- If it thinks inflation is likely to be higher than 2%, it will raise interest rates, suppressing consumer demand and business investment
- Recently it has brought in another policy measure, quantitative easing (QE), which it calls its Asset Purchase Facility
- The bank creates new money and injects it into the economy to try to boost spending. It does this by buying assets from financial firms, including High Street banks, insurance companies and pension funds
- One way QE might stimulate demand is if these companies spend the money they receive for their assets. If they buy shares, for example, the companies they invest in could decide to buy new equipment, helping them grow and even take on new staff
- Under QE, the Bank of England usually buys gilts. These are bonds, a form of IOU issued by governments to borrow money. The extra demand for these could have the eventual effect of bringing down the cost of borrowing more widely - helping businesses and households
- In order to change Bank rate or the amount of QE, a majority of the MPC's nine members needs to vote for it. The minutes of each meeting are published two weeks later
- Since taking over as Bank governor in July, Mark Carney has introduced a third element to monetary policy: forward guidance
- Forward guidance is designed to give lenders an indication of how long they can expect interest rates to remain at their current level, potentially giving them more confidence to lend
- 8 October 2008: 4.5%
- 6 November 2008: 3.0%
- 4 December 2008: 2.0%
- 8 January 2009: 1.5%
- 5 February 2009: 1.0%
- 5 March 2009: 0.5%
When the global financial crisis broke in 2008, interest rates were at 5%.
The Bank of England made its first cut just a few weeks after the bankruptcy of US bank Lehman Brothers. More cuts were made as the financial system came close to collapse and a global recession took hold.
At the beginning of 2009 in the UK, unemployment was rising sharply, business and consumer confidence was severely depressed and banks were holding onto their funds.
The succession of cuts in the cost of borrowing had brought rates down to a historic low, but, with the economy still in recession, more still needed to be done to try to kick-start the recovery.Continue reading the main story
So in March 2009, along with a last cut in rates to 0.5%, the Bank also introduced a programme of quantitative easing.
It initially injected £75bn of new money into the economy, but this has since been expanded in steps up to the current level of £375bn.
When it made its most recent increase in July 2012, the Bank explained this was due to continued weakness in the UK's economic recovery, which it feared would lead to inflation falling below 2%, which it now has.
While the economic recovery has actually strengthened significantly in recent months, the Bank remains concerned about the sustainability of the recovery and the implications this would have on inflation in the longer term.
It is therefore reluctant to wind down quantitative easing or raise rates until it is more certain that the UK is on a secure path of economic growth.
Figures used in chart above: Bank Rate 1694-1972, Min Lending Rate 1972-1981, Min Band 1 Dealing Rate 1981-1996, Repo Rate 1997-2005, Official Bank Rate, 2006 onwards