UK interest rate decision looms

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The Bank of England will deliver one of the most closely watched interest rate decisions since the financial crisis later on Thursday.

Economists and investors are expecting the first increase in a decade.

In September, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) laid the groundwork for an increase “over the coming months” if economic growth remained stable.

If the Bank raises rates from the current 0.25%, it would represent the first increase since July 2007.

Commercial banks use the Bank of England’s base rate as a reference point for their accounts and loans.

Higher rates are expected to hit the 3.7 million households with a standard variable rate (SVR) or tracker mortgage. They will also benefit a large share of the 45 million savers who will enjoy higher returns from accounts that pay variable interest rates.

Charities and business groups have warned the Bank against raising rates, which they claim will put a strain on homeowners and companies struggling to make ends meet.

However, mortgage lender Nationwide has described the impact of a small rise in interest rates as “modest” for borrowers whose repayments are linked to the base rate.

Official data show more homeowners are fixing the interest rate charged on their mortgage than a decade ago.

The total share of new mortgages taken out on a fixed rate was just under 88% in the second quarter of 2017, according to the Bank of England. This compares with 46% at the start of 2008.

In terms of outstanding mortgages, 57% are tied to fixed rates, compared with less than 30% a few years ago.

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Media captionWhere were you when interest rates last went up?

Financial markets believe there is more than a 90% chance that the Bank will increase rates to 0.5%, just over a year after reducing them to a new low of 0.25% in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Solid growth

Official economic growth figures showed the UK economy expanded by 0.4% in the three months to the end of September compared with the previous quarter.

This is stronger than the 0.3% expansion expected by the Bank.

In September, the MPC said that a “majority” of members believed that some withdrawal of stimulus would be appropriate if the economy continues to grow at a steady pace.

A 0.4% increase in gross domestic product (GDP) may sound unspectacular. The average quarterly growth rate since 1993 has been about 0.6%.

But weaker investment and productivity means the economy and living standards may never grow at the same pace as seen before the financial crisis.

This means the Bank may have to raise rates to keep a lid on inflation, even if growth remains subdued.

As Bank of England governor Mark Carney put it: “The speed limit, if you will, of the economy has slowed.”

In other words, this may be as good as it gets.

Other data have been mixed. A survey of manufacturing activity on Wednesday suggests the sector remains robust.

However, figures from the business lobby group the CBI revealed the sharpest fall in September retail sales since 2009.

The Bank will publish a quarterly inflation report alongside its rate decision, including fresh projections for growth, pay and prices.

Efforts to curb credit growth by the Bank’s financial stability division are estimated to weigh on economic growth.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs believe tighter lending conditions could reduce annual growth in consumer spending by about 0.5 percentage points over the coming year.

Prices surging

Prices have been rising faster than pay in recent months, and this has put pressure on UK households.

Inflation, as measured by the consumer prices index (CPI), stood at a five-year high of 3% in September.

This is also above the Bank’s estimate of 2.8%. Policymakers believe inflation will peak just above 3% in the coming months.

Pay growth low

The UK’s jobs-rich recovery continues, with unemployment falling to a four-decade low of 4.3% in recent months.

This is lower than the 4.4% rate forecast by the Bank in August, and the Bank’s estimate of the so-called natural rate of unemployment, where further falls are meant to start pushing up pay packets as employers are forced to pay higher salaries to recruit and retain staff.

But pay growth has remained weak.

Average total weekly earnings grew by 2.2% in the three months to August compared with the same period a year earlier, while the Bank’s Agents noted in September that pay deals had “clustered around 2% to 3%”.

In the decade before the financial crisis, earnings growth averaged 4.25%.

There are tentative signs that pay could be picking up, particularly for the 82% of workers in the private sector.

Jan Vlieghe, an external member of the MPC, noted that annualised private sector pay growth over the past five months had averaged just over 3%.

George Buckley, chief UK economist at Nomura, notes that after October’s jobs report, this reading stands at 3.7%.

With three-month and six-month annualised rates running at 2.6% and 3.5% respectively, he believes the trend “looks to be moving towards a strengthening of earnings growth, which would not be a surprise given the tightening that we have seen in the labour market”.

Minutes of the Bank of England’s September meeting also highlight that temporary factors have depressed the annual growth rate of weekly earnings by about 0.7 percentage points, which will unwind over the coming months.

Whatever the Bank of England decides on Thursday, one thing is clear. Any rate rises will be “limited and gradual”.

Uncertainties remain on the horizon.

The Bank’s current forecasts are predicated on a smooth Brexit, and it is likely to stress that future changes to monetary policy are not on a pre-determined course and will be data dependent.

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