Are we there yet? A journey into monetary policy and medium-term factors

November modal forecast of MPC of the Bank of England predicts a soft landing: inflation returns to 2% in 2025, growth stagnates for the next year and a half and unemployment rises to just over 5% by the end of 2025

Ms Megan Greene, Member of MPC of the Bank of England

Mumbai, December 2, 2023: Ms Megan Greene was appointed to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England on 5 July 2023 for a three-year term. In her first speech as an MPC member, published on 30 November 2023, Megan sets out her approach to interest rate decisions. She weighs the risks of inflation persistence, in particular services inflation and wage growth, with weakening activity. Megan then considers how the UK’s medium-term outlook may have shifted and what this could mean for monetary policy:

I’m delighted to be speaking at Leeds Business School, and to be visiting Leeds for the first time. I’ll keep my initial remarks short to save time for a fireside chat and then, most importantly, your questions. I’d like to explain how I approach interest rate decisions, how the UK’s medium-term outlook may have shifted over the past year and what this all means for monetary policy.

Interest rate considerations

The task for the MPC is to return inflation to our 2% target in the medium-term. This can be tricky in the face of supply shocks like a pandemic and jump in energy prices. These shocks can cause a trade-off between bringing inflation down and avoiding a significant slowdown in growth and jump in unemployment.

Monetary policy feeds through into the economy with a lag, so I have to make interest rate decisions based on where I expect the economy to be in the medium-term. Conditioned on a series of assumptions, the MPC’s November modal forecast predicts a soft landing: inflation returns to 2% in 2025, growth stagnates for the next year and a half and unemployment rises to just over 5% by the end of 2025. Because I come from the Dismal Science, I’d like to discuss my main concerns for how this might go wrong.

One risk is that inflation is more persistent than expected. I’m looking at a number of indicators to gauge this. One is services inflation, which is driven largely by sticky wages. Services inflation has fallen since the beginning of the year. But if we strip out energy-intensive services to remove the impact of lower energy costs, inflation in the remaining services has been broadly flat since April 2023.

The labour market also shows signs of inflation persistence. Vacancies have dropped and unemployment has ticked up, but the labour market is still tight. As you can see in Chart 2, private sector average weekly earnings growth, or AWE, is high at just below 8%, while other measures of wage growth are just under 7%. Considering productivity growth of around 1% in the UK, these are all well above levels consistent with 2% inflation.

Inflation persistence is a concern, but so is weaker than expected activity. There are indications the economy is slowing, though the data is mixed. Retail sales have been surprisingly weak recently and the ONS’ UK House Price IndexOpens in a new window fell in September (year-on-year). But consumer confidence has been broadly flat over the past six months, smoothing out recent volatility. And the latest PMI output surveys show manufacturing in contraction but services expanding. Monetary policy is weighing on activity as you’d expect.

As policymakers we must balance the risks of inflation persistence with those of exacerbating the weakness in activity we’re already seeing. This is more finely balanced now than when I joined the MPC in July. The data on activity remains mixed though, so I continue to worry more about the risk of inflation persistence.

Medium-term outlook

For the remainder of my remarks, I’d like to look at two factors that could influence the appropriate setting of policy now. I will focus on the medium-term equilibrium unemployment rate (called u*) and interest rate (called r*).

Why are these variables important? The difference between unemployment and u* tells us how tight the labour market is, which impacts wage growth and inflation. The difference between real rates and r* tells us how restrictive policy is. I’m focused on medium-term u* and r* because that is the time horizon over which I’m making policy decisions. There are also longer-term estimates for these variables.

We can’t observe u* or r* in real-time; we can only use a variety of different approaches to estimate them with a high degree of uncertainty. With humility, I think there’s reason to believe both have risen recently.

I’ll start with unemployment. u*, also called NAIRU, is the level of unemployment you get when inflation is at 2% and growth is at potential. It’s a medium-term concept and can fluctuate over the course of a business cycle.

After falling following the global financial crisis, the swathe for u* has risen since the pandemic and has been higher than headline unemployment since 2021Q3. A higher u* is consistent with continued high wage growth despite a loosening labour market. The MPC’s best collective judgement is that u* has risen by around half a percentage point relative to pre-pandemic levels, to 4.5%.

But the models don’t explain why u* has risen. One explanation is lower matching efficiency--the effectiveness with which job openings are matched to people seeking work (Key, 2023Opens in a new window). Lower matching efficiency reduces the rate at which unemployed workers find a job, which tends to increase u* (Haskel, 2023). Matching efficiency may have fallen as workers have become more specialised and are less able to switch sectors (Carrilo-Tudela et al, 2022Opens in a new window).

Real wage rigidities could be pushing u* up as well. As the cost of living has risen, driven largely by a rise in imported energy and food costs (Martin and Reynolds, 2023Opens in a new window), workers have demanded higher wages to mitigate any fall in living standards. To the extent this represents a labour supply shock, it implies u* is higher (Broadbent, 2023). These dynamics may diminish as the cost-of-living crisis subsides and inflation expectations fall. But real wage resistance could also be reinforced by any additional terms of trade or energy shocks.

I believe the medium-term real neutral interest rate, r*, may have risen as well. r* is the real interest rate that would neither stimulate nor contract the economy. It fluctuates with the business cycle.

r* helps us determine how restrictive monetary policy is. If r* has risen, then—all else equal—monetary policy is not as restrictive as we’d thought. Given how difficult it is to estimate r*, we’ve used a number of different approaches.

One is a single-equation model focused on the relationship between savings and investment in the economy. Estimates for r* are shown in Chart 4 in the blue swathe. It is a wide band, but the swathe has moved upwards since late 2022. It’s worth highlighting that the estimates during Covid are difficult to explain and should be taken with a grain of salt. This serves as a reminder that there are huge bands of uncertainty around all r* estimates. There is significant uncertainty around all these estimates for r*, but they consistently suggest medium-term real neutral rates have risen recently.

Why might this be? First, government debt levels in the UK—as elsewhere--have increased since the start of the pandemic. Government debt-to-GDP has risen from 84% in 2019 to 98% in 2023. This reduces the supply of national savings available for productive investments, which could increase r*.

Second, investment has recently risen above pre-Covid levels, possibly driven by the green transition and automation. This may have modestly whittled down the glut of UK savings over investment, pushing up r*. So far, this investment has yet to boost productivity growth, but future productivity gains could also have a material impact on r*.


In conclusion, in order to return inflation sustainably to the target, the MPC must balance the risk of doing too little with that of doing too much. These risks are more finely balanced since earlier this summer in part as activity has weakened. But the data on output remains mixed, and I continue to worry more about inflation persistence.

These risks should be considered in the context of the medium-term outlook, which is contingent on u* and r*. We must have humility when it comes to estimating these variables, but multiple methodological approaches suggest they have risen recently. u* may have been pushed up by lower matching efficiency and higher real wage rigidity. Higher u* suggests the labour market could remain tight even as unemployment rises. r* may have drifted upwards thanks to higher government debt and a modest uptick in investment. For a given level of interest rates, this would indicate policy is less restrictive than we’d thought. These shifts in the star variables suggest policy may have to be restrictive for an extended period of time in order return inflation to 2% over the medium-term.

I am grateful to Waris Panjwani and Julian Reynolds for their help preparing this speech.

Thanks also to Andrew Bailey, Natalie Burr, Fabrizio Cadamagnani, Alan Castle, Ambrogio Cesa-Bianchi, Harvey Daniell, Chris Duffy, Gosia Goralczyk, Richard Harrison, Jonathan Haskel, Lydia Henning, Tom Jennings, Tomas Key, Neil Kisserli, Simon Lloyd, Olga Maizels, Josh Martin, Jack Page, Huw Pill, Kate Reinold, Lindsey Rice-Jones, Rana Sajedi, Martin Seneca, Fergal Shortall, Bradley Speigner and Carleton Webb for their insightful contributions and comments.

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