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Should we really fear a rise in interest rates from rock-bottom?

Before the financial crisis got going in earnest in 2008, it was inconceivable that UK base rates could ever fall anywhere near as low as 0.5 per cent.

Since March 2009, benchmark interest rates of 0.5 per cent have become a fact of life.

And, with the economic recovery turning out to be the slowest since the 1930s, we have now had more than five years during which it has been a foregone conclusion that members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee would vote every month to hold rates at their record low.

Never, since the MPC was formed in 1997, has there been such a long run of boring rate calls.

That is not to say boring has been bad. It has not. Amid the economic shambles, compounded to a significant degree by the Coalition Government's ill-judged and badly-targeted austerity measures, MPC members have had no choice but to sit on their hands.

Sure, there has been talk about when rates might eventually have to rise but, until last week, this seemed a pretty distant prospect, with most economists believing it would be comfortably into next year before the MPC moved on rates.

However, this interest-rate torpor was always going to end sometime.

And Bank of England Governor Mark Carney certainly raised the temperature last week, telling the Mansion House dinner in London the first rate rise "could happen sooner than markets currently expect". He also warned the housing market was showing the potential to overheat.

The temperature in the great rates debate has been rising ever since.

British Chambers of Commerce last Friday warned the MPC not to "jump the gun", citing potential for higher rates to choke off extremely-belated growth in business investment.

In the wake of official figures on Tuesday, showing annual UK consumer prices index inflation had fallen from 1.8 per cent in April to 1.5 per cent in May, the lowest rate since October 2009, Scottish Chambers of Commerce chief executive Liz Cameron declared: "Inflation remains well within the Bank of England's [ two per cent] target and this ought to ease the pressure for an early rise in interest rates. The priority for the Scottish economy is to nurture the signs of increasing business investment that will help to put Scotland back on the road to sustainable levels of growth."

On Wednesday, Strathclyde University's Fraser of Allander Institute cited the housing market as potentially the biggest threat to economic recovery in Scotland and the UK as a whole, and urged the Bank of England not to use interest rates to cool residential property prices.

Fraser of Allander's Professor Brian Ashcroft said: "We don't want interest rates to be used to dampen the housing market because it dampens the whole of the economy. It also discriminates against those people who are highly indebted, those relatively less well-off people, and they are going to cut back on their spending as a result."

Mr Ashcroft and Ms Cameron pointed out the major heat in the housing market was in London.

Figures this week from the Office for National Statistics show Scottish house prices rose 4.8 per cent in the year to April. It is worth noting the market in Scotland might be building up a head of steam. After all, the ONS figures show Scottish house prices in the year to March were up just 0.8 per cent. But the rise in Scottish house prices in the year to April looks tepid compared with respective increases of 18.7 per cent and nearly 10 per cent in London and the UK as a whole.

While Scottish Chambers and Fraser of Allander have been urging the MPC to hold off on rates, and use targeted measures to cool house prices, particularly in London, policy-makers have continued to turn up the heat. Speeches from MPC members Andy Haldane and Martin Weale on Wednesday signalled a possibility of a rate rise by the year-end. And incoming MPC member Kristin Forbes warned interest rates might eventually have to rise more abruptly if policy-makers were to wait too long before acting.

Minutes of the MPC's June meeting, published this week, revealed that members were surprised that financial market players had been attaching a probability of only about 15% to the first rise in rates coming this year.

And Standard Life Investments yesterday signalled a belief that rates should rise sooner rather than later.

There is little doubt the MPC is in a difficult place. The surge in house prices is a worry. The heat is centred on London but could well spread out given growing confidence and rock-bottom interest rates, making the recovery even more unbalanced.

But there is a danger even a small rate rise could do significant damage.

So it is a dilemma for Mr Carney and his MPC colleagues. Murphy's law may apply as well. With so many risks, relating not just to the housing market and unbalanced recovery but also to eurozone woes and high UK consumer debt, there is a danger that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

And here is the big question: if we are seriously worried about a quarter-point rise in rates from a rock-bottom level inconceivable before the crisis, what shape is the economy in? It is deeply concerning we still need to be fearful about a quarter-point rise in rates so many years after the financial crisis blew up. But we probably do.

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