A passageway near the Bank of England (BOE) in the City of London, U.K., on Thursday, March 18, 2021.

Hollie Adams | Bloomberg | Getty Images

LONDON — The Bank of England on Thursday hiked interest rates by 50 basis points and dialed back some of its previous bleak economic forecasts.

The Monetary Policy Committee voted 7-2 in favor of a second consecutive half-point rate hike, taking the main Bank rate to 4%, but indicated in its decision statement that smaller hikes and an eventual end to the hiking cycle may be in the cards in coming meetings. The two dissenting members voted to leave rates unchanged at this meeting.

Crucially, the Bank also dropped the word “forcefully” from its rhetoric around continuing to raise rates as necessary to rein in inflation. It sees a forthcoming easing in the annual Consumer Price Index:

“Annual CPI inflation is expected to fall to around 4% towards the end of this year, alongside a much shallower projected decline in output than in the November Report forecast,” the Bank said.

“In the latest modal forecast, conditioned on a market-implied path for Bank Rate that rises to around 4½% in mid-2023 and falls back to just over 3¼% in three years’ time, an increasing degree of economic slack, alongside falling external pressures, leads CPI inflation to decline to below the 2% target in the medium term.”

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However, the MPC noted that the labor market remains tight and domestic price and wage pressures have been stickier than expected, suggesting risks of “greater persistence in underlying inflation.”

U.K. inflation came in at 10.5% in December, down slightly from the 10.7% of November, as easing fuel prices helped to ease price pressures. However, high food and energy prices continue to squeeze U.K. households and drive widespread industrial action across the country.

Improved economic outlook

The Bank on Thursday revised its economic outlook to forecast a shorter and shallower recession than previously set out in the November projections.

The economy is now expected to contract slightly throughout 2023 and the first quarter of 2024 as energy prices remain high and rising market interest rates restrict spending. Four-quarter GDP is expected to have fallen by 0.3% up to the first quarter of 2023, and is projected to contract by 0.7% by the first quarter of 2024, compared to the 2% forecast in November.

The Bank previously forecast that the U.K. economy was entering its longest recession on record, but GDP unexpectedly grew by 0.1% in November after also exceeding expectations in October, suggesting that the impending recession may not be as long or as deep as previously feared.

However, the International Monetary Fund on Monday downgraded its projection for U.K. GDP growth in 2023 to -0.6%, making it the world’s worst performing major economy, behind even Russia.

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Rates nearing a peak

Sterling fell 0.7% against the dollar, and gilt yields tumbled, as the central bank signaled that rates were nearing a peak, while leaving the door open for further tightening if needed.

“With the labour market softening and inflation beyond its peak, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to tighten rate policy further, and don’t forget that quantitative tightening is still happening in the background,” said Boris Glass, senior economist at S&P Global Ratings.

“The BoE went from virtually zero to 4% in quick succession. These much higher rates have yet to show their full effect on the economy and, specifically, inflation.”

Glass also flagged the potential impact on the housing market, with British mortgage holders now facing the “double squeeze” of high inflation and much higher mortgage costs. S&P Global believes the Bank will now pause to monitor the knock-on effects that its tightening to date has had on inflation and on the wider economy.

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“Wage inflation has been stubbornly high, albeit well behind inflation, but it’s what makes higher inflation stick around in the future, and that’s a main concern for the BoE, so it will be closely watching the labour market and pay growth in the next few months,” Glass added.

Hussain Mehdi, macro and investment strategist at HSBC Global Asset Management, also suggested that the main Bank rate is now “near its peak,” with the growth outlook “still soggy” despite the upward forecast revisions.

“The big question is now the speed in which the MPC can reverse course on rates. A downside risk for markets and the economy is a long period of restrictive policy to deal with persistent underlying inflation,” Mehdi said.

“We retain a cautious view on U.K. and European stocks in the face of downside risks to GDP and corporate earnings growth relative to consensus expectations, and believe the recent rally to be unsustainable.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct figure for the U.K.’s December inflation rate.

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