The Bank of England continued its recent trend of raising interest rates by a quarter-point on Thursday, but signaled that larger increases may be coming as it showed growing concern about persistent inflation.
Central banks around the world have recently been opting for larger jumps in interest rates in an effort to send a firm message that they will bring down inflation, which in some countries is at levels unseen in decades.
As the Bank of England raised its benchmark rate to 1.25 percent, the highest since 2009, it highlighted signs that price increases were extending deeper into the economy, as businesses react to higher costs by raising their own prices and workers demand higher wages. The bank, which has now raised rates for five consecutive meetings, said it would “act forcefully” against inflationary pressures if necessary.
The inflation rate rose to 9 percent in April, the highest in four decades, and is expected to climb above 11 percent in October, higher than previously forecast, when household electricity and gas bills are expected to rise again, the bank said on Thursday. That would be the highest rate since the early 1980s and more than five times the bank’s 2 percent inflation target.
Three members of the bank’s nine-person rate-setting committee wanted the bank to take stronger action this week and voted for a half-point increase. But the majority voted for a quarter-point, amid concerns about a weakening economic outlook in Britain.
Officials “added text to the statement talking about their resolve” but a half-point increase “would have been a much clearer demonstration that they were serious about tackling inflation,” said Hugh Gimber, a strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management in London. The bank needed to show they wanted to re-anchor inflation expectations at lower levels by “really walking the walk as well as talking the talk,” he said.
Other central banks have taken a more aggressive approach. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates by three-quarters of a point, its largest jump since 1994. Earlier on Thursday, the Swiss National Bank surprised markets by raising rates by a half a point.
Last week, the European Central Bank said it would raise rates in July for the first time in more than a decade by a quarter-point, and that it would likely double the size of the rate increase at a meeting in September.
In Britain, policymakers are also contending with an economy that is at risk of entering a recession. Earlier this week, data showed that economic growth contracted in April for a second month in a row. The bank now forecasts that the economy will contract 0.3 percent in the second quarter, instead of growing slightly. The squeeze on household incomes from rising prices is weighing on consumer confidence, leaving businesses to worry that spending will dry up. Average pay in Britain is experiencing the biggest decline, once adjusted for inflation, in more than a decade.
Andrew Bailey, the governor of the central bank, had previously described his colleagues as being on a “narrow path” trying to tackle inflation without cooling the economy too much. This was especially challenging as much of the inflation was being essentially imported into the country through higher energy prices and globally traded goods that were caught up in international supply chain disruptions. It was a problem for many countries as supply bottlenecks after pandemic lockdowns collided with trade disruptions from the war in Ukraine. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, oil and gas prices have risen and the prices of essential commodities, including fertilizer and wheat, have pushed up global food prices. This was inflation the bank could do little about.
But on Thursday, the focus shifted to concern about domestically generated inflation — for example, inflation in consumer services, which is influenced by costs at home, rather than international goods prices. “Not all of the excess inflation can be attributed to global events,” the bank said.
Inflationary pressures also stem from the country’s tight labor market. With a record number of job vacancies, companies competing for staff are increasing wages and bonuses, and at the same time raising prices as their own costs increase. Core inflation, which strips out volatile energy and food prices, is expected to climb to 7 percent in September, from about 6 percent in April.
And so, in a shift in tone from the Bank of England’s meeting in May, policymakers didn’t rule out the possibility of a larger increase in interest rates in the future. The committee would be “particularly alert to indications of more persistent inflationary pressures, and will if necessary act forcefully in response,” according to minutes of the bank’s meeting.