UK interest rates likely to be held at 0.5%

The Bank of England is set to hold interest rates at 0.5% on Thursday as a sharp slowdown in economic growth is expected to put plans for a rise on the back burner. Economists have pushed back their expectations for another rate increase to at least August after recent official figures showed the economy grew at its slowest pace in five years in the first quarter.

Gross domestic product (GDP) slowed sharply to 0.1%, down from 0.4% in the previous three months, as the impact of the Beast from the East compounded woes in consumer-facing and construction sectors. And there are fears that the first-quarter slowdown may not just be a weather-related blip, with official data revealing more widespread weakness and survey data for April showing little sign of a bounce-back. The Bank is expected to cut its 2018 growth forecast in Thursday’s accompanying inflation report, down from the 1.8% predicted in its quarterly report in February, while also trimming inflation predictions. Most experts believe policymakers would not be able to justify increasing rates until August at the earliest, which could well be the last rise until 2019.

Howard Archer, chief economic adviser at the EY Item Club, said: “Recent events have made an interest rate hike on Thursday seem progressively less likely – to the extent that it now looks a very long shot.” Investec Economics experts predict the Monetary Policy Committee will vote 7-2 to hold rates, with Ian McCafferty and Michael Saunders likely to be the only dissenters following their call for a rise to 0.75% in March. Investec said: “With a rate hike now seemingly off the table, the market will be focused on the rationale for the BoE’s abrupt U-turn having signalled a rate hike in March.

“Softer data looks to have played a part, but with the first quarter seemingly impacted by poor weather, investors will be keenly waiting to see it the BoE believes there is a more fundamental slowdown afoot and what the chances are for a rate hike later this year.”

Bank Governor Mark Carney had already weakened expectations for a May rate rise when he signalled last month that “mixed” economic data could delay the increase. Financial markets had priced in a 90% chance of a rise in May at one stage following the bank’s last set of economic forecasts, but this has dropped to around 10% after the GDP data shock. Pressure on the MPC to raise rates again after November’s quarter-point increase has also eased after inflation fell back by more than expected, to a one-year low of 2.5% in March, as the impact of the Brexit-hit pound continues to fall away. But wages – which the Bank is also closely-watching – are beginning to outstrip inflation, with average weekly earnings up 2.8% in the year to February in a sign that other inflationary pressures may be building.

Mr Archer believes an August rise may be the only one now due this year, against previous expectations for two in 2018, but said the Bank will still look to tighten rates to more normal levels with two hikes possible over the course of 2019. “If the Bank of England does cut the near-term GDP growth and inflation forecasts, but leave the longer-term projections unchanged, it would point to the gradual tightening of monetary policy being delayed rather than abandoned,” he said.