The UK economic outlook and monetary policy - speech by Michael Saunders

Given at the University of East Anglia
Published on 01 March 2022
Michael Saunders talks about the outlook for the UK economy and inflation. He then sets out his views on interest rates.


In this speech, I want to discuss recent developments and the outlook for the UK economy and monetary policy. I intend to make four main points.

  • Recent strength in energy prices is likely to lift CPI inflation further in coming months. This effect is likely to be temporary. But there are also clear signs of pressures – in terms of capacity use, inflation expectations, firms’ pricing strategies and pay growth – that threaten to keep CPI inflation above the 2% target even once energy effects fade, unless restrained by monetary policy.
  • Guided by our remit, the MPC has the tools to return inflation to the 2% target on a sustainable basis. The MPC has already raised Bank Rate to 0.5%. And, as the MPC has noted, if the economy develops roughly in line with the central forecast in the February Monetary Policy Report (MPR), some further modest tightening in monetary policy is likely to be appropriate in the coming months to return inflation to target.
  • I suspect that risks are on the side of stronger and more persistent inflation pressures than implied by the February MPR forecast. As a result, at the February meeting, I favoured a 50bp rate hike, in order to move more rapidly to a more neutral monetary policy stance.
  • My preference for a 50bp hike at the February meeting does not necessarily imply that I will vote for 50bp steps in the event that rates have to rise further. Nor does it necessarily imply a higher peak in rates than the yield curve used for the February MPR forecasts. All else equal, prompt tightening now could, in my view, help limit the total scale of tightening that will be needed to return inflation to target.


Let’s start with the background for the recent increases in Bank Rate in December and February.

Before the pandemic, in late 2019, the economy was in reasonable balance. Unemployment was just below 4% (the lowest for decades), underlying pay growth was 3-3½% YoY, and CPI inflation was close to our 2% target. Economic activity was restrained by Brexit uncertainties, given that the UK’s trading relations with the EU had not been agreed. Against this backdrop, our policy rate, Bank Rate, was at 0.75%, having risen a little in 2017 and 2018. Estimates of the neutral rate are inherently uncertain, but that 0.75% level was still what I would regard as an accommodative policy stance, with Bank Rate below the trend in the neutral rate.footnote [1]

In early 2020, when the pandemic hit and the first lockdown was introduced, activity fell sharply. CPI inflation fell well below the 2% target and indeed was close to zero in Q4 2020. Credit spreads widened markedly for both mortgages and business loans. The MPC loosened monetary policy significantly in order to support the economy and prevent a persistent inflation undershoot, and to limit the extent of lasting damage to the economy through high long-term unemployment and business failures. The Bank’s FPC also eased macro-prudential policy, while the government put in place substantial fiscal support.footnote [2]

That policy support could not, of course, prevent GDP from falling sharply in 2020. But it did help to limit the second-round damage. Despite a large drop in GDP, unemployment rose less than expected during 2020 and has since fallen back, the initial spike in credit spreads was reversed and the flow of credit to households and businesses has been maintained. Aggregate household and corporate balance sheets have improved, with substantial increases in holdings of liquid assets.

With the vaccination program expanding, restrictions were eased during last year. As a result, and also reflecting the fiscal and monetary policy support that was in place, the economy recovered. The level of hours worked had regained most of the lost ground in Q4 last year and GDP in that quarter was similar to Q4-19.

Figure 1. UK – Percentage Changes in GDP, Employment and Hours Worked Since Q4-19


  • Note: Data are 3-month averages. Sources: ONS and BoE.

It appears that the Omicron wave has caused modest weakness in activity in December and January. Much of the effect on activity came through reduced labour supply, and as a result the BoE Agents’ measure of capacity use in firms was unchanged in January. The adverse effects on activity of the Omicron wave seem to have been much less than the prior waves. And these adverse effects are likely to be fairly temporary, given that the various restrictions introduced against Omicron have been largely removed since mid-January.

The recent recovery in output to roughly the same level as Q4-19 does not mean the economy is in the same shape as it was then. Since Q4-19, the economy has been hit by a series of adverse shocks – Brexit, Covid and an energy price surge – which have worsened the relationship between the level of activity and inflation. The energy price surge is directly lifting inflation and reducing real wages. Brexit and Covid have reduced both demand and supply. Initially, Covid’s adverse effects on demand exceeded the impact on supply, and hence capacity use in the economy fell. Over time, policy support has helped offset the adverse effects on demand, but has not (and probably cannot) eliminate the adverse effects on potential output through lower investment and lower workforce growth. It is also possible that Brexit may have steepened the wage and price Phillips curves in the UK, such that wages and prices respond more to any given level of excess demand (or excess supply).footnote [3] This is because Brexit has reduced the economy’s openness (in trade and labour mobility) and thereby lowered the extent to which capacity pressures can be eased by imports and inward migration.footnote [4]

As a result of these developments, the recovery in output has generated widespread capacity pressures, and gone alongside a marked rise in inflation. These effects are now being reflected in higher inflation expectations and domestic inflation pressures, including pay growth. I will discuss these in turn.

Capacity pressures. In the period before the pandemic, the economy’s potential output grew by around 1½% per year. If potential output had continued to grow at that pace, then a return to the pre-pandemic level of GDP would still leave the economy with considerable spare capacity. However, since Q4-19, the pandemic and Brexit have reduced the economy’s potential output significantly relative to that rising trend. The workforce has fallen by over 1% since Q4-19 and is about 2¾% (0.9-1.0 million people) below the pre-pandemic trend, because of the outflow of foreign workers and lower participation among those in the UK – especially the over 50s.footnote [5] This is the first significant drop in the UK workforce for around 30 years.footnote [6] Potential output may have been further reduced by mismatch – lifting the medium-term equilibrium rate of unemployment (otherwise known as the NAIRU) – caused by shifts in the composition of demand and labour supply in terms of skills, sectors and geography.

Figure 2. UK – Workforce (Millions of People)


  • Sources: ONS and BoE.

With lower potential output, the return to the pre-pandemic levels of activity has pushed the economy into excess demand, with severe capacity pressures. Unemployment has fallen faster than the MPC had expected and is now similar to pre-pandemic levels, and job vacancies are at a record high. Under-employment also has fallen markedly.footnote [7] The BoE Agents’ index for capacity use in firms, and their index for firms’ recruitment difficulties, are both the highest since those series began about 25 years ago.footnote [8] Capacity pressures are widespread: not just in sectors where global demand has been strong (e.g. manufacturing), but also in sectors (including consumer services) for which activity has not fully recovered the lost ground.

Figure 3. UK – Measures of Capacity Pressures in Firms and Labour Market


  • Note: The V/U ratio is the ratio of vacancies to unemployment. In October 2017, the Agents’ score for capacity utilisation was changed to reflect companies’ current level of capacity utilisation relative to normal. Prior to that, the score reflected expectations for capacity utilisation for the coming six months. Sources: ONS and BoE.

Inflation has continued to rise faster than expected. The YoY rates of headline and core CPI inflation (5.5% and 4.4% respectively) are both the highest for several decades. The QoQ annualised gains in both measures are even higher, at about 8% for the headline CPI and about 6% for the core measure. Recent inflation outturns have generally exceeded Bank of England and external forecasts.

Energy prices continue to play a major role in lifting inflation. Non-energy consumer goods prices also are still rising rapidly, reflecting the ongoing strength of global spending on goods coupled with Covid-related disruptions to supply chains for manufacturing output around the world. But part of the inflation pickup, especially since around mid-2021, reflects higher services inflation, which probably stems from the build-up of domestic cost and capacity pressures.

Figure 4. UK – Guides to Service Sector Inflation


  • Note: The latest figures are January 2022 for the CPI series, Q4 2021 for services producer prices, and early 2022 for the Agents’ scores. Sources: ONS and BoE.

The trend in inflation expectations is uncomfortable. Longer-term inflation expectations (measured from financial markets and household surveys) have risen to around the top end of the ranges of the last 15-20 years. The strength of firms’ expectations for their selling prices evident in the DMP and other surveys suggests that – across a wide range of sectors – firms believe they can pass on rapid cost increases to prices, and do not appear to be constrained by the 2% inflation target.footnote [9]

Figure 5. UK – Measures of Longer-Term Inflation Expectations


  • Note: The measure of household inflation expectations is the YouGov/Citigroup survey of inflation expectations for the next 5-10 years. The financial markets measure is the 5x5 RPI breakeven until end-2019, 5x3 breakeven since then. The February 2022 data point represents the average of the daily 5x3 RPI breakevens until 23 February. Sources: ONS, YouGov/Citigroup and BoE.

Figure 6. UK – DMP Survey of Firms’ Realised and Expected Price Changes


  • Note: Expectations for price growth are for the next 12 months. Source: BoE.

Underlying pay growth has picked up notably, and is likely to rise further. Pay growth for new hires was very strong during last year. Moreover, the BoE Agents report that a substantial number of firms made an unusual mid-year “top-up” to pay of existing staff during last year, so that the average of pay deals in 2021 was around 3½%, significantly above firms’ expectations at the start of last year (which was for pay growth of around 2¼%). Bank staff estimate that underlying AWE growth was around 4-4½% YoY in late 2021, above the pre-pandemic pace and higher than one would expect given the usual inverse relation between unemployment and pay growth.footnote [10] Underlying pay growth is in line with models that include inflation expectations as a driver of pay, which suggests that the pickup in inflation expectations may be contributing to the pickup in pay.

There are signs of a significant further step up in pay settlements for this year. The BoE Agents report that on average, firms expect pay growth of 4.8% this year (weighted by firm size), an increase well above recent years.footnote [11] The pickup in pay growth is widespread across industry sectors. The key factors that firms cite in pushing up pay deals relate to the tight labour market, rising headline inflation and the upcoming further rise in the National Living Wage.

Figure 7. UK – BoE Agents’ Surveys of Pay Settlements


  • Source: BoE.

A norm for pay deals of 4½%-5%, given trend productivity growth of roughly 1% YoY, would imply unit labour cost growth that is well above the pace consistent with the inflation target. In theory, one might take the view that this pickup in pay would be self-correcting. If firms cannot pass increases in labour costs on to prices, then margins will fall and eventually firms will cut back on hiring such that unemployment rises and pay growth slows again. But there is little sign of this restraining effect at present. As noted, many firms believe they can pass on these cost increases to their selling prices. Indeed, the BoE Agents report that around 70% of firms have passed on (or expect to pass on in the next year) some or all of the increase in pay to their selling prices.

So, in my view, the big picture is that, while the surge in energy prices accounts for quite a lot of the inflation overshoot, it is also the case that the economy is in significant excess demand and inflation expectations are not as well anchored as I would like.

What can Monetary Policy do?

In setting monetary policy, our focus is usually mainly on the inflation outlook roughly two years ahead, because it typically takes more than a year for changes in monetary policy to have their main impact upon economic activity and thus on prices. As our remit recognises, there is little monetary policy can do to address factors that have only temporary effects on inflation – affecting the near-term outlook, but not the outlook for inflation at the policy-relevant horizon.

The energy price surge is an example of such a temporary shock. It will lift inflation (and lower real wage growth) for a period. But, unless energy prices go on rising or inflation expectations are destabilised, it is unlikely to generate a sustained inflation overshoot. It would not make sense (and would not be consistent with our remit) to tighten policy so much as to try to return inflation to the 2% target in the next few months, when the temporary effect of energy prices is at its peak. This does not mean the MPC has abandoned its commitment to low inflation. It is a recognition of the fact that 2% inflation could only be achieved in the next few months by tightening policy very sharply in order to weaken the economy enough to quickly push non-energy inflation well below a target-consistent pace. This would cause undesirable volatility in output and jobs. And, given that the full effect of those monetary policy changes would occur after the energy effect fades, it would leave inflation well below the 2% target further ahead.

So the MPC’s focus is on factors that affect the medium-term inflation outlook, especially domestic capacity and cost pressures, and inflation expectations. With signs that these are building, the MPC has raised Bank Rate (in two steps) to 0.5%, withdrawing part of the support implemented during 2020. But even after these moves, monetary policy remains relatively loose. Interest rates are still below neutral, and lower than directly before the pandemic, even though capacity strains and domestic inflation pressures are significantly stronger than then.

The Economic Outlook

Let me turn to the outlook.

The MPC’s latest forecast was published in early February.footnote [12] In that forecast the rise in the Ofgem price cap, plus continued strength in core inflation, lift CPI inflation to around 7¼% YoY in April. With high inflation eroding real incomes, consumer spending is weaker than the November forecast. Household energy prices stop rising next year, and hence stop adding directly to CPI inflation. But the level of energy prices remains high two and three years out, and therefore continues to depress the level of household real incomes and spending.

Table 1. UK – February 2022 MPR Projections


2022 Q1

2023 Q1

2024 Q1

2025 Q1






CPI inflation





LFS unemployment rate





Excess supply/Excess demand


Bank Rate (market path)






  • Note: modal projections for GDP, CPI inflation, LFS unemployment and excess supply/excess demand. GDP projection and AWE growth are four quarter growth. CPI inflation projection is the four-quarter inflation rate. Excess supply/Excess demand is measured as a per cent of potential GDP - a negative figure implies output is below potential and a positive figure that it is above. The path for Bank Rate is the market path at the time, which is the usual conditioning assumption for the MPC’s forecasts. Source: BoE.

This softer path for demand is reinforced by tighter monetary policy (reflecting the market rate curve prevailing at the time) and fiscal policy (in line with the government’s stated plans). At the same time, potential output recovers somewhat through higher labour supply as participation reverses some of the recent decline (although most of the decline in potential output versus its trend before Covid and Brexit persists). Hence, the jobless rate rises slightly in Q2 this year and continues to rise thereafter, exceeding 5% three years ahead, with a widening margin of excess supply two and three years ahead.

In the MPR forecast, underlying pay growth picks up to around 4¾% in Q4 this year, consistent with the BoE Agents’ survey and, as in 2021, higher than one would normally expect given the jobless rate. But, this is offset by the unwind of composition effects in the mix of employment, such that AWE growth this year is roughly stable at 3¾%, similar to the average for the 2019 calendar year. Unit wage cost growth this year (3%) is projected to be slightly below the 2018-19 pace (3¼% YoY).footnote [13] AWE growth slows to around 3% in Q4 next year and 2¼% in Q4 2024. This slowdown in pay growth is partly because of the gradual rise in unemployment. But, in the MPR forecast, a key factor is a decline in inflation expectations, such that the relation between unemployment and wage growth returns to something like that seen in 2010-19. CPI inflation is still a little above the 2% target two years ahead but falls below the 2% target three years ahead.

Figure 8. UK – Scatter Plot of Unemployment Rate and Pay Growth, 2010-2024F