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The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) sets monetary policy to meet the 2% inflation target, and in a way that helps to sustain growth and employment. At its meeting ending on 15 March 2017, the Committee voted by a majority of 8-1 to maintain Bank Rate at 0.25%. The Committee voted unanimously to continue with the programme of sterling non-financial investment-grade corporate bond purchases, financed by the issuance of central bank reserves, totalling up to £10 billion. The Committee also voted unanimously to maintain the stock of UK government bond purchases, financed by the issuance of central bank reserves, at £435 billion.
As the MPC had observed at the time of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, the appropriate path for monetary policy depends on the evolution of demand, potential supply, the exchange rate, and therefore inflation. The Committee expects a slowdown in aggregate demand over the course of this year, as household demand growth declines in reaction to lower real income growth. Official estimates of retail sales have weakened notably, consistent with this expectation, although other indicators of consumer demand such as consumer confidence have been steadier. Measures of overall activity growth have been resilient, with official estimates indicating a fairly steady pace of expansion around historical average rates and business surveys suggesting little change in the near term. It is possible that slowing consumption may be offset to some degree by other components of demand, such as a more supportive net trade position following last year’s fall in sterling and the recent pickup in global momentum.
Consistent with prospects for stronger global growth, equity prices have generally risen internationally, and short and long-term interest rates have increased in some economies. The evolution of asset prices has been different in the United Kingdom, however, where market interest rates have fallen and the equity prices of companies with significant domestic exposure – most notably to consumers – have underperformed. Those developments seem somewhat difficult to reconcile with the ongoing resilience of most macroeconomic indicators. In addition, for some time, financial markets and households appear to have had different perspectives on UK economic prospects. This difference cannot persist indefinitely, and the nature and timing of its resolution are likely to be key factors in the MPC’s policy assessment.
CPI inflation increased to 1.8% in January, and the MPC expects it to rise above the 2% target over the next few months, before peaking at around 2¾% in early 2018 and drifting gradually back down towards the target thereafter. The projected overshoot entirely reflects the expected effects of the drop in sterling. Pay growth has remained subdued, while measures of inflation expectations remain at levels broadly consistent with the achievement of the inflation target.
Monetary policy cannot prevent either the real adjustment that is necessary as the UK moves towards its new international trading arrangements or the weaker real income growth that is likely to accompany it over the next few years. Attempting to offset fully the effect of weaker sterling on inflation would be achievable only at the cost of higher unemployment and, in all likelihood, even weaker income growth. For this reason, the MPC’s remit specifies that, in such exceptional circumstances, the Committee must balance the trade-off between the speed with which it intends to return inflation to the target and the support that monetary policy provides to jobs and activity. At its March meeting, the MPC continued to judge that it remained appropriate to seek to return inflation to the target over a somewhat longer period than usual. Eight members thought that the current stance of monetary policy remained appropriate to balance the demands of the Committee’s remit. Kristin Forbes considered it appropriate to increase Bank Rate by 25 basis points.
As the Committee has previously noted, there are limits to the extent that above-target inflation can be tolerated. The continuing suitability of the current policy stance depends on the trade-off between above-target inflation and slack in the economy. The projections described in the February Inflation Report depend in good part on three main judgements: that the lower level of sterling continues to boost consumer prices broadly as expected, and without adverse consequences for expectations of inflation further ahead; that regular pay growth does indeed remain modest, consistent with the Committee’s updated assessment of the remaining degree of slack in the labour market; and that the hitherto resilient rates of household spending growth slow as real income gains weaken, without a sufficient offset by other components of demand.
In judging the appropriate policy stance, the Committee will be monitoring closely the incoming evidence regarding these and other factors. At present, the Committee’s best collective view is that the central judgements underpinning the February projections remain broadly on track, and so the conditioning assumption underpinning the February projections – that there will be some modest withdrawal of monetary stimulus over the course of the forecast period – remains appropriate. There are risks in both directions. For example, if aggregate demand growth remains resilient, monetary policy may need to be tightened sooner and to a greater degree than that implied path. A more marked slowdown in activity than currently anticipated by the Committee, by contrast, could warrant additional policy support relative to that implied path. Monetary policy can respond, in either direction, to changes to the economic outlook as they unfold to ensure a sustainable return of inflation to the 2% target.