LONDON—The Bank of England raised its key interest rate for the fourth time in as many meetings of its policy makers, but signaled that it is likely to move cautiously in coming months as worries grow over a slide into recession, triggering a sharp selloff in the pound.
As in the U.S., the U.K. has seen a surge in consumer prices since early 2021, driven by higher energy costs and supply-chain bottlenecks. In response, the U.K.’s central bank first raised its key interest rate in December, while the Federal Reserve announced its first move in March.
The BOE’s cautious tone prompted a selloff in the pound. The U.K. currency was trading 2% lower on the day against the dollar.
In a statement Thursday, the BOE raised its key rate to 1% from 0.75%. That means the central bank has increased borrowing costs at four straight meetings of its Monetary Policy Committee, a sequence unmatched since the late 1990s.
Six MPC members voted for the rate rise to 1%, while three voted for a larger rise to 1.25%.
The central bank also said it has asked its staff to prepare a plan for selling some of the bonds it bought as part of its past stimulus programs. That plan is set to be outlined in August, but bond sales would start later.
However, the central bank indicated that it is likely to raise rates more slowly, if at all, in coming months, with the very high energy prices that have followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine set to squeeze household spending power and weaken economic growth.
In its statement, the BOE said further rises in its key rate “may still be appropriate” in coming months, but added that two of its policy makers didn’t support that guidance and instead thought it likely the key rate would stay at 1%.
“There were risks on both sides of that judgement,” the BOE said.
That greater caution is a contrast with the Fed, which Wednesday approved a rare half-percentage-point interest-rate increase to a target range between 0.75% and 1%. Fed Chairman
said at a news conference that officials broadly agreed that additional half-point increases could be warranted in June and July given current economic conditions.
One reason for the BOE’s caution is that there are already signs of a slowdown in consumer spending as larger shares of household income are eaten up by higher energy costs.
U.K. consumers were last month hit with a 54% increase in home energy prices. The BOE said it expects energy bills to rise by a further 40% when the ceiling on prices is reviewed again in October.
If that increase happens, the BOE expects the annual rate of inflation to average 10% over the final three months of the year, reaching highs not seen since 1982. Because the energy price rises caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will only reach households in October, U.K. inflation is set to peak later than in other countries.
But as well as pushing inflation higher, that rise in home energy prices is expected by the BOE to weaken household spending further, leading to a decline in gross domestic product of around 1% in the final quarter of the year. The BOE said it expects real household disposable income after tax to fall 1.75% in 2022. That would be the largest fall since 2011, and the second-largest since the series began in 1964.
Stores are already seeing the squeeze on household incomes. Retail sales fell 1.4% in March, having declined 0.5% in February. Surveys have also recorded a big decline in consumer confidence, with one leading measure finding that households are more pessimistic about the economic outlook over the coming 12 months than they were during the 2008 global financial crisis.
The BOE doesn’t expect two straight quarters of economic contraction, a widely accepted definition of recession. Instead, it expects the economy to stagnate in 2023, with GDP declining 0.25%. The BOE had previously forecast growth of 1.25%.
The BOE pushed back against the expectations of participants in financial markets, who see the key interest rate rising to 2.5% by mid-2023. If that were to happen, the BOE said inflation would be well below its 2% target in three years’ time at 1.3%. Leaving rates at 1% would see inflation slightly above 2% in mid-2025, the BOE said, an indication that it sees more modest rate increases than financial markets have priced in.
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