By William Schomberg
LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England is expected to take a tentative first step towards cutting interest rates from their highest level in nearly 16 years next week after signs that the inflation crisis is abating.
Governor Andrew Bailey and other top officials spent much of late 2023 dismissing speculation about rate cuts as premature and warning about the risks from strong wage growth.
But economists say the time is approaching for the BoE to relax its tough line on borrowing costs – something the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have already done – after recent data on headline inflation, wages and economic growth all came in weaker than the central bank had expected.
A Reuters poll showed economists saw no chance of a rate cut on Feb. 1, but a slim majority expected one before mid-2024.
Investors have rushed further ahead and are betting that the BoE will start cutting Bank Rate as early as May, with three more cuts over 2024 taking it to 4.25% from 5.25% now.
“For that expectation to be realised, we think the BoE needs to at least seem open to the idea in February,” economists at HSBC said in a note to clients.
For the first time since September 2021, it was likely that none of the Monetary Policy Committee’s (MPC) nine members votes for a rate hike next week and one might back a cut, HSBC said.
The MPC was also seen as likely to drop its message that borrowing costs might need to go up if inflation pressures intensify, and could tone down its view that rates will probably have to stay “restrictive for an extended period of time”.
The BoE and other central banks were criticised for not acting quickly enough when inflation began to climb, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 caused gas prices to soar.
Britain’s consumer price inflation touched a 41-year high of 11.1% in October 2022 – more than five times the BoE’s 2% target – and then fell only slightly in following months, squeezing the finances of households and raising fears of a price-wage spiral.
But despite a slight rise to 4% in December inflation is now expected to fall to 2% in the next few months, after a dramatic slump in gas prices in recent weeks.
As recently as November, the BoE was forecasting that inflation would not return to its target until the end of 2025.
The BoE could send a message next week to investors that they are getting ahead of themselves with their bets on rate cuts, by pushing up its forecasts for inflation in two and three years’ time, which are based on current market pricing.
BOE TO TREAD CAUTIOUSLY
There are other factors that are likely to keep the BoE cautious about cutting borrowing costs.
Britain’s stagnant economy has recently shown signs of a slight pickup. Energy tariffs paid by consumers are due to drop in April and mortgage costs are also falling, leaving people with more money to spend.
Ahead of an election expected in late 2024, finance minister Jeremy Hunt is expected to cut taxes in a March 6 budget.
“All else equal, even a modest lift to activity at this stage will likely delay the start of the BoE’s shift away from its restrictive policy setting and slow the pace of cuts delivered,” Kim Crawford, global rates portfolio manager at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, said.
The BoE typically would not consider any fiscal boost to the economy until it has been announced by the government.
Sanjay Raja, a Deutsche Bank economist, said the BoE would be looking for a series of other factors to give it confidence about cutting rates in the coming months, including a rise in unemployment and lower wage settlements.
“Big picture, we think lots will need to go right to give the MPC enough confidence to adjust Bank Rate lower from Q2 24 onwards,” Raja said.
“But given downside misses to GDP growth, private-sector pay momentum and services CPI in recent months, we continue to think that rate cuts remain firmly in play from May.”
(Additional reporting by Harry Robertson; Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Catherine Evans)