Bank of England set to stay on hold as Brexit risks loom

Bank of England FBN

The Bank of England looks set to keep interest rates at a record low once again on Thursday with investors looking for signs that, faced with Brexit, it is getting nearer to raising rates for the first time in a decade.

When they last met in June, Governor Mark Carney and his fellow rate-setters voted by a narrow 5-3 margin to keep Bank Rate at 0.25 percent.

The surprisingly close decision pushed up sterling and British government bond yields as investors pulled forward their expectations of a rate hike.

Chief Economist Andy Haldane said soon after that he was close to voting for a hike too, adding to speculation that the BoE might soon be ready to follow the lead of the U.S. Federal Reserve and raise borrowing costs.

With unemployment at a four-decade low and inflation above the Bank's target, the case had seemed to be growing for the BoE to at least reverse the emergency rate cut it made after last year's shock decision by voters to leave the European Union.

But since June, data has shown the economy had its slowest growth since 2012 in the first half of this year, that inflation has dipped and that growth in wages remains weak.

Furthermore, divorce talks between Britain and the rest of the EU had a stumbling start, leaving many firms nervous about the risk of a damaging Brexit in 2019.

"Given it looks like the economy might be slowing now, it seems like an odd time" to raise interest rates, former BoE deputy governor Charlie Bean said, speaking at a monetary policy conference held by Fathom Consulting on Wednesday.

He challenged the view of the MPC's rate-hike supporters that a pick-up in investment and exports was likely to offset the impact of weaker spending by consumers.

"At the current juncture it is not plausible to think that investment is going to, given the uncertainty about trade relationships in the future," Bean said. Any meaningful rise in exports was likely to be more than two years away, he added.


After the weak start to the year for economy, the BoE is likely to lower its growth forecast for 2017 while edging up its inflation projections only slightly.

Further diminishing the chance of a vote for a rate hike on Thursday, one of June's three dissenters has left the BoE. Most economists expect a 6-2 vote, unless Haldane changes his vote to give another 5-3 result.

Rather than raise rates, the BoE might take a smaller step by not renewing the bank lending incentives that were part of its big stimulus after the Brexit vote shock.

Carney and his top officials are likely to want to keep the prospect of a rate hike on the radar, as a further fall in sterling would add to inflation which already looks set to hit 3 percent this year, above the Bank's 2 percent target.

Low unemployment also increases the chance that wages might soon rise faster, creating an upward spiral of domestically generated inflation.

John Gieve, another former BoE deputy governor, said the Bank risked moving too late to stop the recent sharp rise inflation from becoming entrenched, especially as Britain's government might succumb to pressure to raise public-sector pay.

"I think fiscal policy has changed," Gieve said. "The risk that the Bank will start tightening too late has changed."

(Reporting by William Schomberg Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)