Bank of England holds fire before guidance announcement

LONDON Thu Aug 1, 2013 1:28pm BST

1 of 2. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, smiles during a television interview after a presentation for the concept design for the Bank of England's new ten pound banknote, at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, southern England July 24, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Chris Ratcliffe/Pool

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LONDON (Reuters) - The Bank of England kept its powder dry at a policy meeting on Thursday, leaving investors to wait for the expected announcement next week of a new strategy to get Britain's economy back to strength.

At its second meeting under new governor Mark Carney, the central bank maintained interest rates at 0.5 percent and opted not to revive its bond-buying programme, as expected.

It also said nothing about discussions among policymakers on how it could start giving a clearer steer to households, businesses and markets on how long interest rates are likely to stay at their current record low.

That was something Carney did while in charge of the central bank in his native Canada to offset the impact of the global financial crisis and it has been deployed by the U.S. Federal Reserve and, since last month, by the European Central Bank.

Sterling rose while British government bond and share prices fell after the announcement.

"Even though the BoE did what people were expecting today, there has been a sharp reaction in rates and sterling," said Philip Rush, UK economist at Nomura. "Whatever they do next week, it will be a big market-moving event."

Chancellor George Osborne has asked Carney and the rest of the BoE's policymakers to report to him on Wednesday - at the same time as the bank's quarterly economic update - on the merits of bringing so-called forward guidance to Britain.

Carney will make his first public comments on Britain's economy since taking charge of the central bank at a news conference also scheduled for Wednesday.

Having kept borrowing costs at rock-bottom since 2009 and spent the equivalent of a quarter of British gross domestic product buying government bonds, the central bank is turning to guidance as a new way to help the economy back to health.

But unlike in Canada, where he needed consensus only from his deputies at the central bank, Carney has to win over the BoE's nine-strong MPC, including its independent external policymakers.

Some of them have previously expressed concerns about making commitments on monetary policy which could hamper their ability to respond to changes in the economy.

Signs of a turnaround have begun to appear in recent months.

A reading of the manufacturing sector in July was stronger than even the most optimistic forecast in a Reuters poll.

But the economy remains more than 3 percent smaller than before the financial crisis and is vulnerable to interest rates creeping back up in financial markets, especially if the U.S. economy picks up and exerts pressure on British debt prices.

Some economists had warned of the chance of policy surprises on Thursday, such as an interest rate cut or more measures to try to get banks to boost lending to businesses.

"With the monetary stance unchanged, and no new policy measures announced, there is a sense that normal business has probably been resumed and that dramatic shifts in the monetary stance are unlikely," said Simon Hayes, a Barclays economist.

The MPC's decision came shortly before the conclusion of the European Central Bank's monthly policy meeting, which could provide more detail on its own plans to persuade markets that an interest rate hike is not on the cards.

The U.S. Federal Reserve offered no hint after its latest policy meeting ended on Wednesday that it plans to trim its stimulus programme soon, saying the U.S. economy is recovering but still needs support.

Details of the BoE's discussions and the breakdown of votes on Thursday are due to be released on August 14.

At its previous July 3-4 meeting, the MPC voted 9-0 against buying more bonds. Two members who previously supported more asset purchases held off from calling for more quantitative easing, pending the discussions on the new strategy.

(Additional reporting by Christina Fincher; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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