LONDON The Bank of England said it expects only a slight drag on inflation from the renewed plunge in global oil prices as policymakers voted overwhelmingly again on Thursday to keep interest rates at a record low.
The Bank also said British economic growth around the turn of the year would probably be a bit slower than it previously forecast, judging from a recent downbeat tone among businesses, but that the fall in oil prices could boost growth in future.
The BoE, which has been wrong-footed by inflation's fall below zero, appeared to be keeping its options open ahead of a new set of forecasts due next month. These will set out more clearly its views on how Britain's economy will fare in 2016, nearly a decade after the start of the global financial crisis.
Before then, BoE Governor Mark Carney is expected to give fresh guidance on the Bank's outlook for rates when he makes his first speech of the year on Jan. 19.
He has said previously that a decision on when to raise rates was likely to come into "sharper relief" around now.
Sterling strengthened against the dollar and the euro after the Bank's announcement, which surprised some investors who had expected a clearer hint that it was pushing back the likely timing of its first rate hike since before the crisis.
The Bank's nine rate-setters voted 8-1 to keep interest rates at a record-low 0.5 percent at their January meeting this week, the same voting pattern as in the previous five months.
"Although the most recent declines in oil prices will depress global inflation in the near term ... these conditions should in time provide net support to spending in the United Kingdom and its major trading partners," the Bank said in minutes summing up the discussion at the rate-setting meeting.
"Whether the more restrained outlook for activity growth in the near term implied a weakening of inflationary pressure was unclear," the minutes said.
RELIEF OVER REACTION TO FED MOVE
The Bank, in its minutes, sounded unconcerned about recent market volatility and welcomed the smooth reaction of U.S. stock markets to the decision by the U.S. Federal Reserve to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade last month.
The BoE was once seen as likely to follow soon after the Fed with a rate hike of its own.
But those expectations were knocked off course by signs of weakness in Britain's economy and early 2016's sharp falls in global stock markets driven by fresh financial turmoil in China, whose economy, long the world's growth engine, is slowing.
"The Fed's rate rise was premature -- something the Bank of England will be keen to avoid with its own monetary policy tightening," said Scott Corfe, a director at economics consultancy CEBR.
Investors have pushed their expectations for a first BoE rate hike further back into 2017, and sterling was trading near a 5 1/2-year low against the dollar and hit a 11-month trough against the euro earlier on Thursday.
"While the chances of a later hike are clearly building, we continue to think that the Monetary Policy Committee will hike rates this year, much sooner than the market expects," Capital Economics economist Paul Hollingsworth said.
Ian McCafferty, one of four external members on the nine-person MPC, voted once again to increase rates to 0.75 percent.
A majority of economists polled by Reuters over the past week expected the central bank will start to raise interest rates in the third quarter of 2016, later than the previous poll which saw a rate hike in the second quarter.
British inflation is only just above zero -- far below the BoE's 2 percent target -- and the prospect of a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union could weigh on growth in 2016.
The BoE noted in its minutes on Thursday that some of its contacts in foreign exchange markets had said the referendum, promised before the end of 2017 but increasingly expected to be held this year, could explain the recent weakness of sterling.
(Editing by Catherine Evans)