Finance

Bank of England set to hold rates, but falling inflation brings cuts into view

The Bank of England in the City of London, after figures showed Britain’s economy slipped into a recession at the end of 2023.
Yui Mok | Pa Images | Getty Images

LONDON — The Bank of England is widely expected to keep interest rates unchanged at 5.25% on Thursday, but economists are divided on when the first cut will come.

Headline inflation slid by more than expected to an annual 3.4% in February, hitting its lowest level since September 2021, data showed Wednesday. The central bank expects the consumer price index to return to its 2% target in the second quarter, as the household energy price cap is once again lowered in April.

The larger-than-expected fall in both the headline and core figures was welcome news for policymakers ahead of this week’s interest rate decision, though the Monetary Policy Committee has so far been reluctant to offer strong guidance on the timing of its first reduction.

The U.K. economy slid into a technical recession in the final quarter of 2023 and has endured two years of stagnation, following a huge gas supply shock in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Berenberg Senior Economist Kallum Pickering said that the Bank will likely hope to loosen policy soon in order to support a burgeoning economic recovery.

Pickering suggested that, in light of the inflation data of Wednesday, the MPC may “give a nod to current market expectations for a first cut in June,” which it can then cement in the updated economic projections of May.

“A further dovish tweak at the March meeting would be in line with the trend in recent meetings of policymakers gradually losing their hawkish bias and turning instead towards the question of when to cut rates,” he added.

At the February meeting, two of the nine MPC decision-makers still voted to hike the main Bank rate by another 25 basis points to 5.5%, while another voted to cut by 25 basis points. Pickering suggested both hawks may opt to hold rates this week, or that one more member may favor a cut, and noted that “the early moves of dissenters have often signalled upcoming turning points” in the Bank’s rate cycles.

Berenberg expects headline annual inflation to fall to 2% in the spring and remain close to that level for the remainder of the year. It is anticipating five 25 basis point cuts from the Bank to take its main rate to 4% by the end of the year, before a further 50 basis points of cuts to 3.5% in early 2025. This would still mean interest rates would exceed inflation through at least the next two years.

“The risks to our call are tilted towards fewer cuts in 2025 – especially if the economic recovery builds a head of steam and policymakers begin to worry that strong growth could reignite wage pressures in already tight labour markets,” Pickering added.

Heading the right way, but not ‘home and dry’

A key focus for the MPC has been the U.K.’s tight labor market, which it feared risked entrenching inflationary risks in the economy.

January data published last week showed a weaker picture across all labor market metrics, with wage growth slowing, unemployment rising and vacancy numbers slipping for the 20th consecutive month.

Victoria Clarke, U.K. chief economist at Santander CIB, said that, after last week’s softer labor market figures, the inflation reading of Wednesday was a further indication that embedded risks have reduced and that inflation is on a path towards a sustainable return to target.

“Nevertheless, services inflation is largely tracking the BoE forecast since February, and remains elevated. As such, we do not expect the BoE to conclude it is ‘home and dry’, especially with April being a critical point for U.K. inflation, with the near 10% National Living Wage rise and many firms already having announced, and some implemented, their living wage-linked pay increases,” Clarke said by email.

“The BoE needs data on how broad an uplift this delivers to pay-setting, and hard information on how much is passed through to price-setting over the months that follow.”

Santander judges that the Bank could decide it has seen enough data to cut rates in June, but Clarke argued that an August trim would be “more prudent” given the “month-to-month noise” in labor market figures.

This sentiment was echoed by Moody’s Analytics on Wednesday, with Senior Economist David Muir also suggesting that the MPC will need more evidence to be satisfied that inflationary pressures are contained.

“In particular, services inflation, and wage growth, need to moderate further. We expect this necessary easing to unfold through the first half of the year, allowing a cut in interest rates to be announced in August. That said, uncertainty is high around the timing and the extent of rate cuts this year,” Muir added.

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