April 15, 2008 / 12:07 PM / 12 years ago

UK inflation steadies in Mar, boosts rate cut chances

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s main inflation rate unexpectedly held steady in March, official data showed on Tuesday, suggesting strong price pressures further up the economic pipeline have yet to be passed on to consumers.

The Office for National Statistics said consumer prices rose by 0.4 percent on the month, leaving the annual rate unchanged at 2.5 percent. Analysts had expected a monthly rise of 0.6 percent for an annual rate of 2.6 percent.

Retail price inflation, often used as a benchmark for wage bargaining, also undershot expectations. On the month, retail prices rose 0.3 percent to give an annual rate of 3.8 percent, the weakest since July 2007.

Sterling fell to a record low against the euro EURGBP= and interest rate futures rose as the weaker than expected figures suggested the Bank of England has room to further cut interest rates this year to shore up the economy in the wake of the credit crunch.

Policymakers, who had access to the inflation data prior to cutting rates to 5 percent last week, have voiced concern over inflationary pressures building up in the economy and have said they expect inflation to rise to around 3 percent this year.

But a steady reading in March may alleviate some of the concerns stoked by data on Tuesday showing record input price inflation and the strongest factory gate inflation in nearly 17 years in March.

“It’s good news for the Bank of England although it’s worth bearing in mind that they would have seen these figures before last week’s rate decision,” said George Buckley, an economist at Deutsche Bank.

“The weak core inflation number suggests firms are having difficulty passing higher costs to consumers.”

The core annual inflation rate held steady at 1.2 percent in March.

The ONS said the largest downward effect on the CPI figures came from furniture, household equipment and maintenance and recreation and culture components.

However, transport costs soared at their fastest annual rate since records began in 1997, up 7 percent, as air fares to other European countries rose this year, having fallen a year ago.

Retail price inflation was also driven lower by mortgage lenders passing on to customers February’s 25 basis point interest rate cut from the Bank of England.

Excluding mortgage payments, retail prices rose 0.5 percent in March and were 3.5 percent higher than a year ago.

Reporting by Matt Falloon and Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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