LONDON, UK — Britain’s central bank is under pressure to make another big interest rate hike Thursday, with inflation outpacing other major economies but the U.S. Federal Reserve and other banks acting more aggressively to get prices under control.
The Bank of England hiked its benchmark rate last month by half a percentage point to 1.75%, the biggest increase in 27 years, and it's expected to at least match that in its latest decision, which was delayed a week as the United Kingdom mourned Queen Elizabeth II.
Faced with a slumping currency, tight labor market and inflation near its highest in four decades, officials may feel the need to act more aggressively as rising food and energy prices fuel a cost-of-living crisis that is considered the worst in a generation.
But giving pause could be economic relief measures from new Prime Minister Liz Truss’ government that are expected to ease inflation short term.
The meeting will “tell us not only how worried policymakers are about the slide in sterling and other UK markets, but also how the government’s decision to cap household/business energy prices will translate into monetary policy," said James Smith, developed markets economist with ING bank.
Some economists think a bigger three-quarter-point increase is on the cards. The bank hasn’t made such a big move since 1989.
“But we’d caution against assuming UK policymakers will ramp up the pace of rate hikes simply because that’s what everyone else is doing — or indeed because that’s what markets are pricing," Smith said.
Surging inflation is a worry for the bank because it eats away at consumers' purchasing power. The traditional tool to combat inflation is raising interest rates, which reduces demand and therefore prices, by making it more expensive to borrow money.
Inflation in the United Kingdom is running at 9.9%, close to it's highest level since 1982 and five times higher than the Bank of England's 2% target. The British pound is at its weakest against the dollar in 37 years, contributing to imported inflation.
The central bank warned last month that U.K. inflation would peak at 13.1% by the end of this year and trigger a prolonged recession.
Since then, Truss’ government has unveiled a massive relief program that caps spiraling energy bills for households and businesses. Economists say the measures mean inflation will peak at a lower level and then fall faster next year.
While U.K. policymakers have raised rates six consecutive times, they face pressure to match moves by their counterparts in other major economies, which have moved at a faster pace.
In a busy week for central bank action, the U.S. Federal Reserve hiked rates by three-quarters of a point Wednesday for the third consecutive time and forecast that more large increases were ahead. As borrowing costs get more expensive, Fed Chair Jerome Powell acknowledged that there was no painless way to get inflation under control.
Also Thursday, the Swiss central bank enacted its biggest-ever hike to its key interest rate, exiting years of negative interest rates that gave Switzerland appeal as a safe haven for assets. Norway also raised rates by a smaller quarter-point.
This month, Sweden's central bank raised its key interest rate by a full percentage point, while the European Central Bank delivered its largest-ever rate increase with a three-quarter point hike for the 19 countries that use the euro currency.