The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) sets monetary policy to meet the 2% inflation target, and thereby helps to sustain growth and employment. In that context, its challenge over recent weeks has been to respond to the severe economic and financial disruption caused by the spread of Covid-19.
The spread of the disease and the measures that are likely to be needed to contain it have evolved significantly. The economic consequences of these developments are becoming more apparent and a very sharp reduction in activity is likely. Given the severity of that disruption, there is a risk of longer-term damage to the economy, especially if there are business failures on a large scale or significant increases in unemployment.
In the near term, many people will be unable to work for a period and others are adjusting their working arrangements. Many consumer-facing companies are now required to cease operations for a time, while other businesses have also needed to cease or scale back their activities. Household spending on social activities and other delayable forms of consumption is likely to decline materially. In an environment of heightened uncertainty, businesses are likely to postpone investment decisions. Exports are likely to weaken. These effects on economic activity will be offset partly by temporarily higher spending on essential goods and services. Nonetheless, business cashflows will be severely affected in a way that, without support measures, would threaten material numbers of businesses failing, and large and persistent rises in unemployment.
There is little evidence as yet to assess the precise magnitude of the economic shock from Covid-19. It is probable that global GDP will fall sharply during the first half of this year. Unemployment is likely to rise rapidly across a range of economies, as suggested by early indicators.
In the United Kingdom, even before the introduction of the most recent social distancing measures, the composite flash output and expectation PMIs fell sharply in March to their all-time lowest levels, consistent with a material contraction in GDP. Other timely indicators of activity, such as footfall in shops and the number of flights, have also declined sharply.
There have been very significant moves in a range of financial market prices and implied volatilities have risen to historically elevated levels, with evidence of widespread disruption to market functioning. Risky asset prices have fallen and, in the period leading up to the MPC’s special meeting on 19 March, yields on longer-term government debt rose. Additional demand for US dollar liquidity contributed to disruption in dollar funding markets, and in other usually liquid markets. The sterling exchange rate has depreciated sharply.
Overall, UK and global financial conditions have tightened materially. All major central banks have set out wide-ranging policy responses that have helped to stabilise markets and improve liquidity in government bond markets.