Low interest rates act 'like a tax increase', former pensions minister argues

Former pensions minister Ros Altmann has called for a national inquiry into the impact of ultra-low interest rates.

Baroness Altmann argued that in some ways, monetary policy is "acting like a tax increase", reducing people's spending power.

Savers have seen their returns eroded further by the recent cut in the Bank of England base rate to 0.25%, while some home owners have seen the benefits of low borrowing rates offset by surging house prices.

Lady Altmann said the groups that have been damaged by monetary policy include people trying to get on the property ladder and savers relying on interest on their cash pots for an income.

She suggested it might be possible that monetary policy could have contributed to dissatisfaction among voters who have felt "left behind" in recent years.

She said: "The rise of anti-establishment nationalist movements, epitomised by the Brexit result, may reflect anger at the financial difficulties facing some parts of the population, which policymakers have failed to recognise.

"Politicians might like to consider how this balance of winners and losers fits with a desire to help the many, rather than the privileged few."

Lady Altmann said the Government "should launch an inquiry into the effects of lower interest rates".

She said the full impact of the Bank of England's quantitative easing (QE) "experiment" will not be known or understood for many years, while its negative side-effects may have been underestimated.

Lady Altmann said: "It is worrying that this massive monetary experiment of printing money to artificially distort long-term interest rates may now be considered 'normal' - it is certainly not normal at all. Indeed its effectiveness is unclear. It may do more harm than good."

She continued: "The combined impact of low interest rates and more QE reduces the disposable incomes of savers and pensioners.

"In some respects, monetary policy is acting like a tax increase... soaring house prices and rising rents have reduced younger people's spending power, while savings and pension income for older groups have been cut."

Lady Altmann said lower savings incomes may hit the economy by making savers to spend less.

She continued: "Ordinary households have not really felt as much benefit from the ultra-low interest rate environment as might be expected.

"And even though fixed-rate mortgage costs have fallen, the rise in house prices means the size of a mortgage required for house purchase has increased. For many people the costs are so high relative to their income that they cannot get a mortgage at all."

Lady Altmann said the high cost of housing relative to salaries prevents younger generations getting on the housing ladder and forces up rental costs.

She said: "Rather than supporting house prices, policy needs to address the shortage of housing by building more homes."

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