August 1, 2018 / 11:10 PM / 3 months ago

Bank of England poised to raise rates despite Brexit risk

LONDON (Reuters) - The Bank of England looks set to raise interest rates on Thursday to their highest level since the financial crisis almost a decade ago, defying warnings that it is taking a gamble while the terms of Brexit remain unclear.

People walk past the Bank of England, in London, Britain August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Growth in the world’s fifth-biggest economy has slowed since the referendum vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union.

And with less than eight months until it leaves the bloc, London and Brussels — as well as key members of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party — remain far apart on what the future trading relationship should look like.

But BoE Governor Mark Carney says that even if the economy is growing only modestly, it risks overheating unless borrowing costs rise from their crisis-era emergency lows, something the central bank began in November with its first rate increase in more than 10 years.

The BoE is due to announce its interest rate decision at 1100 GMT, and Carney will chair a news conference at 1130 GMT.

All bets on where BoE rates are headed will be off, however, if Britain fails to get a Brexit deal with the EU, Carney has said.

Several economists have challenged the need for a rise now, given not only the Brexit risks but also the potential damper on global growth from U.S. President Donald Trump’s import tariffs and counter-moves by other countries.

Wage growth — the main domestic driver of inflation — has been slow to pick up, too.

“We continue to view even the tentative tightening embarked on since late 2017 as an unnecessary risk, and see several reasons why a hike is not justified at this point in time,” John Wraith, a strategist with UBS, told clients in a note.

John McDonnell, finance spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said on Thursday there was concern that a pattern of rate increases could push more families into higher levels of debt.

Nevertheless, investors have put an almost 90 percent chance on a rise in Bank Rate to 0.75 percent from 0.50 percent on Thursday, according to market prices. BOEWATCH

The BoE has struggled before to follow through on its signals about when it might raise rates. It had looked set to move in May before Carney stepped in to steer markets towards no change in policy.

This time there has been no last-minute change of message. Instead, the BoE has said it is now convinced that an early 2018 slump in the economy was a one-off caused by extreme winter conditions.

With unemployment at its lowest rate in more than 40 years, it thinks pay increases will continue to pick up, creating inflation pressure.

A survey published by the British Chambers of Commerce on Thursday showed half of firms planned to increase pay by more than 2 percent over the next year, reflecting other signs of a slow improvement in wage growth.

Also, growth in Britain’s construction industry unexpectedly shot to a 14-month high in July, according to another survey on Thursday that will further hearten rate-setters.

MESSAGES

With expectations of higher rates almost entirely priced into the market, investors are mostly focused on what message the Monetary Policy Committee sends on Thursday about its intentions for further increases.

Economists polled by Reuters mostly expect a 7-2 vote by the MPC for a rise on Thursday. A bigger or smaller majority could be seen as signaling the committee is more or less likely to move again soon on rates.

Similarly, the BoE’s new inflation forecasts will be watched as a sign of whether it thinks investors are being too relaxed by betting on no follow-up rate rise until late 2019 and only one more almost at the end of its three-year forecast period.

In May, the BoE said inflation in two years’ time would fall to its 2 percent target, based on expectations in the markets of three 25 basis-point rate increases over just over two years.

Since then, the worries about Brexit and a global trade war have prompted investors to cut their bets on future BoE hikes.

BoE-watchers will also keep a close eye on a new estimate by the central bank of what it considers the neutral interest rate for the British economy which could act as a guide to how far its future rate rises are likely to go.

Additional reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Hugh Lawson and David Stamp

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