Bank of England fires up the QE bazooka to help protect the economy

Britain faces another slump as the second lockdown begins, prompting another £150bn of money-printing

Lockdown is upon us, the economy is flagging and the Bank of England is stepping up to help.

Here is what they have done, why they have done it, and what it means for you.

What is happening to the economy?

A second lockdown means a repeated fall in GDP in the final months of the year. The economy is shrinking again.

Jobs are in peril, although the extension of the furlough scheme means that as many as 5.5m people can expect to be paid by the Government to stay off work.

The impact will last for a lot longer than just a few months.

Over the summer, the Bank of England hoped for a ‘V-shaped’ recovery, a rapid rebound in GDP back to its pre-Covid size. That is not now going to happen.

Instead, unemployment will rise over the next six months, peaking between April and June of next year at just shy of 8pc.

This is not quite as bad as the financial crisis - in the aftermath of the credit crunch, joblessness peaked at 8.4pc in 2011. But it is still very tough, equating to 2.6m or more out of work, more than doubling the number unemployed a year ago.

The Bank expects the jobs market to recover reasonably quickly, but it will still take years to undo the damage.

Even at the end of its forecast, in the closing months of 2023, it still predicts unemployment will be up at 4.7pc, compared to 3.8pc before Covid appeared.

In terms of raw GDP, the recovery will be a little quicker.

The Bank thinks the economy’s output should return to its pre-pandemic level in the first quarter of 2022.

That is a more optimistic forecast than many others, but still leaves the economy well short of where it would otherwise have been.

At the start of the year, when Covid was barely making ripples outside China, the Bank forecast the economy was on track to grow by 3pc over the same period.

Instead it will merely have been a monumental struggle to get back to the starting point.

Once it has recovered in size, the economy may take a very different shape.

For instance, spending on goods has surged as families cut back on services, avoiding face-to-face contact but still spending money.

The way they spend has also changed, with online shopping surging.

If these trends continue, either because of lingering fears of the virus or because people like the new way of doing things, then businesses will have to adapt and workers change jobs.

In part, that accounts for the extended period of unemployment as the economy adapts.

This adjustment might also be slow. For instance, if large numbers of people keep working from home, it could take time to shift the businesses serving them from city centres to the suburbs.

If travel is slow to recover, for instance, businesses such as airlines could have to take the hit from scrapping planes long before they usually would.

The combination of prolonged uncertainty with hits to existing businesses could mean low investment levels and thus a slow recovery.

On the other hand, there may be some room for optimism. More flexible working could boost the number of people able to take jobs, lifting the economy and their household finances, while increased digital and online working may be more efficient.

What is the Bank of England doing about it?

The big move is another £150bn of quantitative easing. Under this policy, the Bank effectively creates new money and uses it to buy government bonds.

It is not the same as simply printing money and giving it to the Government to spend it. Instead, the Bank of England buys government bonds in the market from financial institutions, letting them choose what to do next with the money.

It can go back to the Government - the Treasury is borrowing heavily to fund its record-breaking budget deficit.

But they can lend it out elsewhere, or find other investments to back. The overall effect is to lower interest rates in financial markets.

The aim is to encourage more investment, pushing lenders and investors who want a higher interest rate to take more risk and so boost the economy.

At a time of lockdown, it should also help borrowers survive the crunch.

On its current path, the Bank will be steadily buying government bonds through the whole of 2021.

It chose not to cut interest rates from the current level of 0.1pc, but negative interest rates remain a possibility.

One clue comes in the "fan charts" - the forecasts for the future that show the spread of probabilities for various economic metrics.

This includes inflation, which is crucial as the Monetary Policy Committee’s main target is to get consumer price inflation to 2pc.

The charts show two variants: what the Bank thinks will happen to inflation with the measures already announced, and what would happen if the Bank follows the path of interest rates anticipated by markets.

With measures so far announced, inflation gets close to the 2pc target by the end of 2023, but falls just short at 1.95pc.

With the path predicted by markets, which includes interest rates going negative next year, inflation gets to the target at the start of 2023 and exceeds it at 2.05pc by the end of that year.

As the minutes of the MPC’s meeting state: “If the outlook for inflation weakened, the Committee stood ready to take whatever additional action was necessary to achieve its remit.”

It appears to be on the brink of needing extra action already.

What does that mean for me?

The answer to that question depends on who you are and your financial position.

Overall, the Bank typically argues that QE is good for economic growth so ultimately will benefit us all by boosting the recovery and reducing unemployment.

But on the way there, different people will feel the effects in a variety of ways.

Mortgage borrowers might notice the difference if this policy holds down interest rates.

By pushing down longer-term rates in the market, it should help cut the cost of fixed rate loans.

It is not the same as a base rate cut, however, so borrowers on variable rate mortgages will not get an instant cut to their monthly bills.

Businesses, too, should benefit from lower borrowing costs, with small companies potentially seeing downward pressure on the cost of bank loans, and big businesses able to borrow more cheaply in financial markets.

For savers, the picture is mixed. Those keeping their money in cash can expect to suffer for longer with years of ultra-low rates are ahead.

The MPC said it will not raise rates or reverse QE “at least until there was clear evidence that significant progress was being made in eliminating spare capacity and achieving the 2pc inflation target sustainably”. That is not likely to happen any time soon.

It will be painful for those who want a steady return on their cash, but this is part of the Bank’s policy - to push savers into either spending their money or investing it in something riskier.

Those who have built up assets instead should benefit.

Low rates and QE support the stock market, push up bond prices, and tend to helpo the housing market too.

It means lower returns for those investing in the future, since this is another form in which low interest rates are felt, but is an encouragement to buy such assets.

Anyone in receipt of government aid can cheer, too, whether it is furlough money, benefits payments, tax reliefs or even NHS care.

Extra QE will help keep a lid on government borrowing costs.

A lower burden from vast debts means the Treasury can keep running bumper deficits for longer, putting extra borrowing on the never-never without cutting back spending or hiking taxes to pay the bills.