Bank holds interest rates as 'intensified' Brexit uncertainty hits growth
THE Bank of England has kept interest rates on hold at 0.75 per cent as it cautioned "intensified" Brexit uncertainties were slamming the brakes on UK growth.
Policymakers on the Bank's nine-strong Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) voted unanimously to keep rates unchanged in its last decision of 2018.
The Bank said no-deal Brexit fears had "intensified considerably" since its last meeting and these were hitting financial markets, bank funding costs and the pound, as well as the wider economy.
The Bank warned that internal estimates suggested UK growth was set to slow by more than previously expected to 0.2 per cent in the final three months of the year, down sharply on 0.6 per cent seen in the heatwave-boosted third quarter.
It added growth was likely to remain around that level in the first three months of 2019.
This was worse than first feared by the Bank, which said in November that growth was likely to slow to 0.3 per cent in the fourth quarter and recover to around 0.4 per cent thereafter.
In minutes of the rates meeting, the Bank said: "The further intensification of Brexit uncertainties, coupled with the slowing global economy has also weighed on the outlook for UK growth.
"Business investment has fallen for each of the past three quarters and is likely to remain weak in the near term."
The housing market has remained subdued and retail spending was showing signs of slowing, the Bank said.
But the Bank said it had looked to separate the "shorter-term developments" from the dynamics of the economy.
It reiterated that, assuming the economy grew in line with forecasts and assuming an orderly Brexit, rates would likely need to rise by a "gradual pace and to a limited extent" to bring inflation - currently running at 2.3 per cent - back to target.
It also stands ready to respond to the fallout from Brexit, warning once more than rates could go "in either direction" even in a cliff-edge withdrawal.
Just weeks ago, the Bank warned in its Brexit scenario analysis that Britain could be tipped into a recession worse than the financial crisis in the event of a no-deal disorderly Brexit.
Governor Mark Carney has insisted that rates could go up or down after a cliff-edge Brexit, with the Bank's analysis warning they might be hiked to 5.5 per cent if a further fall in the pound sends inflation soaring.
In the controversial documents requested by the Treasury Select Committee, the Bank predicted that the worst-case scenario could see GDP fall by 8 per cent, the pound plunge by 25 per cent, and house prices tumble 30 per cent.
The minutes of the latest MPC meeting also flagged up slowing global growth, particularly in the euro area where it said the slowdown had been marked.
But it said Chancellor Philip Hammond's recent Budget announcements would offer a boost to GDP, forecasting these would add around 0.3 per cent over the next three years.
The Bank also offered some cheer to households as it said current internal estimates saw inflation, which eased back to 2.3 per cent in November, dropping further to around 1.75 per cent in January thanks to lower fuel prices and Budget measures.
Inflation would also remain below the 2 per cent target for the following three months before picking up later in 2019.
On the outlook for rates, Andrew Goodwin, an economist at Oxford Economics, said: "It is virtually inconceivable that the committee will move this side of March 29."
He added: "We expect the acceleration in wage growth to peter out in the new year and, with inflation set to drop some way below target, we think that the Committee will struggle to sustain its hawkish rhetoric.
"We continue to forecast one 25 basis point rate hike in 2019, with the risks skewed towards policy remaining on hold all year."
But Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said if a deal is agreed, the Bank "won't waste any time to raise interest rates".
"We continue to think that the MPC won't wait for signs of a recovery to emerge in the data and will raise Bank Rate to 1 per cent in May, once MPs have signed off a Brexit deal late in the first quarter," he said.