LONDON – The Bank of England signaled Thursday that officials are preparing to raise interest rates within months to restrain accelerating inflation, a fresh sign that a decadelong era of ultraloose central-bank policy is slowly drawing to a close.
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The BOE's step toward tighter monetary policy comes as the Federal Reserve is poised to start the process of reducing its $4.5 trillion in securities holdings, while the European Central Bank is likely to announce plans next month for phasing out its bond-buying program amid a buoyant eurozone economy.
If all three deliver, it would be the first time since before the financial crisis that they have moved together to withdraw stimulus measures.
The BOE held its benchmark interest rate steady at 0.25% following its September policy meeting, but the rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee said in a statement that a majority of officials on the nine-member panel believe borrowing costs soon will need to rise to bring annual inflation back to its 2% goal.
Such a move, which would mark the first interest-rate increase in the U.K. in almost a decade, is likely "over the coming months," the panel said, if the economy performs broadly in line with officials' expectations.
Sterling rallied 1.2% against both the dollar and euro, climbing to $1.336 and EUR1.124, respectively.
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U.K. 10-year gilt yields gained too, rising to 1.2% after the announcement from around 1.13% before.
Those movements suggest traders and investors were surprised by the BOE's statement, and now think a first rise in the key rate since 2007 is a much more likely prospect in the near future.
"The first hike could come somewhat earlier than we had previously envisaged, possibly as soon as the next meeting in November alongside the Inflation Report," said Paul Hollingsworth, an analyst at Capital Economics, referring to the next set of economic and growth forecasts due from the central bank.
Though the three major central banks are moving in a similar direction, they are doing so for different reasons.
The eurozone economy has grown more strongly than expected this year, shrugging off the uncertainty created by a series of elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany that threatened but failed to yield gains for anti-euro nationalists. The ECB's economists now believe the eurozone economy is on course for its best year since 2007, reducing the need for support from policy makers. But it isn't all plain sailing, since inflation has yet to show signs of a sustained rise toward the central bank's target of just below 2%.
Fed officials, similarly, are looking out over an economy growing healthily but where inflation remains puzzlingly low.
The BOE's challenge is the opposite: Growth in the U.K. has slowed but inflation is accelerating, twin consequences of voters' decision last year to exit from the European Union.
Though it has made gains since the start of the year, the British pound remains down some 13% against the currencies of its main trading partners from where it was before the Brexit referendum. Sterling's slide has fueled a surge in consumer prices in Britain's import-dependent economy; annual inflation hit 2.9% in August, well in excess of the BOE's 2% target.
Officials had believed the inflation gains would fade, allowing them to hold borrowing costs low to support an economy slowing as consumers cut back spending and businesses hold off investment. But in recent months they have become increasingly concerned that subdued investment and feeble productivity growth are hurting the economy's capacity to produce goods and services without causing inflation.
BOE Gov. Mark Carney warned last month that this supply-side squeeze means interest rates may have to rise sooner than investors then expected. At the time, investors doubted the BOE would raise interest rates this year or next.
Officials repeated that warning Thursday -- even though market expectations now place a rate increase around the middle of 2018.
Officials said growth in the U.K., though modest, has been slightly better than forecast, and that any remaining slack in the labor market that would normally keep a lid on inflationary pressure is diminishing more rapidly than they anticipated as recently as last month.
Minutes of officials' deliberations showed the panel was split 7-2 on holding its benchmark rate steady. The two dissenters, Ian McCafferty and Michael Saunders, pushed for an immediate rise in interest rates.
While the BOE appears to be closer to a rate rise than previously thought, the central bank has a recent history of seeing its plans derailed by surprise developments, including last year's vote to leave the EU. In response to the pound's sharp fall in the wake of that decision, the BOE cut its key interest rate to a record low in August 2016, and restarted a paused program of bond purchases.
With the U.K.'s departure from the bloc scheduled to take place in 2019, economists doubt the BOE will raise its key interest rate sharply if it does move soon. Indeed, the MPC noted that "there remain considerable risks to the outlook, which include the response of households, businesses and financial markets to developments related to the process of EU withdrawal," and pledged to "respond to these developments as they occur."
As a result, some economists believe it will limit itself to a reversal of the 2016 rate cut.
"Economic uncertainty relating to Brexit and the risks this poses for activity means that such action wouldn't be the start of a new tightening cycle," said James Knightley, an economist at ING Bank.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 14, 2017 11:29 ET (15:29 GMT)