March 22, 2018 / 12:09 PM / 8 months ago

Bank of England splits on rates, paving way for May rise

LONDON (Reuters) - The Bank of England kept interest rates steady on Thursday but two policymakers unexpectedly voted for a hike, reinforcing the view among economists that borrowing costs will rise in May for only the second time since the 2008 financial crisis.

Ian McCafferty and Michael Saunders - the first BoE officials to call for rates to rise before November’s increase - said it was now time to push them above the emergency level at which they have sat for most of the past decade.

The world economy is growing at its fastest rate since the financial crisis, helping Britain offset Brexit uncertainty.

The U.S. Federal Reserve raised rates for the sixth time since the financial crisis on Wednesday. Even the European Central Bank - which is still struggling with anemic price growth - has its eye on phasing out its massive bond purchases.

The BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee voted 7-2 to keep rates at 0.5 percent but said “ongoing tightening” was likely to be needed to return inflation, which stood at 2.7 percent in February, back to its 2 percent target.

“The message from the Bank of England to borrowers couldn’t really be clearer: get ready for higher rates now,” said Ed Monk of fund managers Fidelity International.

Some investors were more equivocal. Sterling slipped after initial gains, rate-sensitive two-year gilt yields shed a couple of basis points, and longer-dated bonds yields fell to a 2018 low after the decision.

One gauge of market interest rate expectations priced in a 60 percent chance of a May rate rise, down from 70 percent before the decision, and the probability of a further rise during 2018 fell to less than 50 percent.

However, sharp falls in share prices and a global bond rally due to concerns about a trade war between the United States and China muddied the market signal.

The BoE said there could be significant economic damage if tensions over tariffs mooted by U.S. President Donald Trump developed into widespread protectionism.

FILE PHOTO: A statue is silhouetted against the Bank of England in the City of London, Britain, December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

But there was nothing to suggest policymakers are looking any less closely at raising rates in May.

Last month BoE Governor Mark Carney and his colleagues said rates might need to rise faster than expected. On Thursday, the BoE said developments since then broadly backed up their view.

“Given the prospect of excess demand over the forecast period, an ongoing tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period would be appropriate to return inflation sustainably to its target,” the BoE said.

RBC economist Sam Hill said Thursday’s bond yield falls should be weighed against strong gains on Wednesday, when the two-year yield ended close to its highest since 2011.

“It is very difficult to read into these minutes any clues that the MPC is trying to downplay a May rate hike,” he said.

TIGHTENING CYCLE STARTING?

The BoE raised rates for the first time in over a decade in November, reversing an emergency cut when the economy briefly appeared to be going into shock after the June 2016 Brexit vote.

No economist polled by Reuters had expected another 25-basis-point rate rise on Thursday.

One major stumbling block to a May rate rise was removed this week when Prime Minister Theresa May agreed a 21-month transition deal with the European Union.

On Wednesday data showed pay growth at its highest since 2015. The BoE said that underscored how domestic cost pressures were building.

FILE PHOTO: The Bank of England is seen through the columns of the Royal Exchange in the City of London, Britain, November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

However, Britain’s growth outlook remains muted. The BoE expects growth of 1.8 percent this year and next, well below the historic average.

Some economists said the BoE was overlooking signs of a steeper slowdown - as forecast last week by government economists - and the wage pick-up would prove a false dawn.

“We expect no further change after May,” HSBC economists Liz Martins and Simon Wells said. “Despite the hawkishness of today’s communications - and even if the tone in May is hawkish too - we think the Bank’s intentions to tighten will be thwarted by the data.”

Editing by Larry King and Hugh Lawson

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