By By, David, Milliken, and and Andy
LONDON, May 2 (Reuters) – The Bank of England lifted its growth forecasts on Thursday but warned Brexit continued to cloud the outlook for monetary policy and said there was little immediate downside to waiting for a clearer view ahead.
Policymakers voted unanimously to keep interest rates steady at 0.75 percent, as expected in a Reuters poll, but stuck to their view tighter policy would be needed in future – a more hawkish stance than either the U.S. Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank.
The BoE upgraded its forecast for growth in the world’s fifth-largest economy to 1.5 percent, up from the decade-low 1.2 percent it predicted in February, largely reflecting better global prospects and little changed from 2018’s growth rate.
“The underlying path of GDP growth appears to be slightly stronger than previously anticipated, but marginally below potential,” the BoE said.
During the first quarter the economy probably grew by 0.5 percent due to businesses building up stocks ahead of Brexit, the BoE said – a faster rate than the 0.2 percent growth it forecast in February. However, the central bank expects growth to slow to 0.2 percent during the current quarter.
Britain’s departure from the EU, long due for March 29, was delayed last month until Oct. 31, unless parliament approves a deal sooner.
This removes the immediate risk of a disruptive, no-deal Brexit which hung over the BoE at its last meeting in March, but extends a period of economic uncertainty.
The BoE said this made some economic data, such as business surveys, harder than normal to interpret.
“More generally, there remained mixed signals from indicators of domestically generated inflation and the cost of waiting for further information was relatively low,” the BoE said, adding it continued to assume Brexit would go smoothly.
Before Thursday’s decision, economists polled by Reuters on average expected rates to stay on hold until early next year – when Governor Mark Carney hands over to a new successor – and financial markets saw only a 35 percent chance of a rise this year.
The BoE has raised interest rates only twice since the 2008 financial crisis, in November 2017 and August last year.
“The Committee continues to judge that … an ongoing tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period, at a gradual pace and to a limited extent, would be appropriate,” the BoE said, echoing earlier language.
The BoE’s tightening stance contrasts with the position of the U.S. Federal Reserve, which on Wednesday said it saw no case for moving rates in either direction, and faces pressure to lower interest rates from President Donald Trump.
Carney will say more about the BoE’s thinking in a news conference at 1130 GMT.
Updated BoE forecasts show the central bank expects inflation – currently 1.9 percent – to exceed its 2 percent target in two and three years’ time, by a similar margin to what it predicted in February.
The forecasts are based on financial market pricing which assumed BoE interest rates would not reach 1 percent until late 2021 – around 15 basis points less in tightening than was priced in just before February’s BoE meeting.
The BoE said that after three years, the economy would be overheating to a greater extent than it forecast in February if interest rates only rose to 1 percent, and that inflation would be higher if sterling had not recently strengthened.
It also cut its forecast for unemployment sharply to 3.7 percent in two years’ time, down from 4.1 percent in February, reflecting businesses’ preference to hire staff, rather than invest, at a time of economic uncertainty.