LONDON — The Bank of England has kept the door open to another interest rate hike in May to keep a lid on inflation pressures stemming from rising wages rather than from a Brexit-related fall in the pound.
While maintaining its benchmark rate at 0.5 percent Thursday, the bank said rate increases are likely this year. The minutes to the meeting showed that two of the nine members on the Monetary Policy Committee backed an immediate quarter-point increase to 0.75 percent.
Ian McCafferty and Michael Saunders argued that a “modest tightening … could mitigate the risks from a more sustained period of above-target inflation that might necessitate a more abrupt change in policy and hence a greater adjustment in growth and employment.”
Despite resisting an immediate hike, a majority in the committee is ready to back another interest rate increase soon, the minutes indicated. In November, the bank raised rates for the first time in a decade to clamp down on high inflation even though higher borrowing costs have the potential to weigh on the economy, which had already slowed in the face of uncertainty related to the exit from the European Union.
As in February, the minutes showed that the “best collective judgment” of the rate-setting panel was that “an ongoing tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period would be appropriate to return inflation sustainably to its target at a more conventional horizon.”
Rate-setters also said future increases were likely to be “gradual” and “limited.”
In financial markets, investors think there’s an 80 percent likelihood of another rate rise and Thursday’s minutes did nothing to alter that view. The recently resurgent pound remained firm, but traded 0.2 percent lower at $1.41.
“In short, a May rate rise remains all but certain, but the market had largely priced it before Thursday,” said Ken Odeluga, market analyst at City Index.
It was in February that investors started in to price in a May hike. When the bank published quarterly economic projections showing inflation above the 2 percent target for a year or two, Carney indicated that a hike in May was likely. Economic figures since then, according to Thursday’s minutes, were “broadly consistent” with those views.
Figures this week have been mixed. Though annual inflation in February fell to an annual rate of 2.7 percent, wage growth is picking up and that should support spending and inflation.
Britain’s vote in June 2016 stoked inflation as the ensuing drop in the value of the pound raised the price of imported goods. But while that pound-driven increase in prices is expected to ebb, the Bank of England believes the pick-up in wages will continue to support inflation.
There was little new insight in the minutes regarding the bank’s views on the impact of Brexit, bar a reference to the fact the British government secured the outlines of a transition deal after Brexit day on March 29, 2019. Carney has been one of the more vocal advocates calling for a quick deal on a transition deal so that businesses can plan ahead.
The transition deal, which is expected to be confirmed Thursday at a meeting of EU leaders, has, according to many economists, made it even more likely that rates will be raised in May, alongside the next set of quarterly economic projections from the Bank.
“The transition deal extends the period of uncertainty, but also pushes any significant economic hit into 2019 and beyond,” said Professor Peter Urwin of Westminster Business School, who is one of the few Bank of England watchers who sees a chance of three rate rises this year.