LONDON (Reuters) - The Bank of England will raise interest rates for the first time in a decade at its next meeting, a Reuters poll of economists showed on Wednesday, with a large majority saying such a move would be a mistake.
A swathe of economists in the polls completely changed tack from a survey earlier this month after surprisingly hawkish rhetoric from the central bank, which has been giving its strongest signals to date that a hike is on the way.
But 35 of 47 economists polled said now was not the time to be increasing borrowing costs.
“If we are right on wage growth and domestic inflation pressures it might start to look as though tightening measures may have been a little premature,” said Liz Martins at HSBC, explaining that the recent, modest pickup in wages could be fleeting.
Sonali Punhani at Credit Suisse was more emphatic in a client note: “We think a rate hike in November in the backdrop of weak growth, high-currency-generated inflation but weak wage pressures and uncertainty is likely to be a policy mistake.”
Britain’s inflation rate has accelerated, mainly because of the fall in sterling’s value since a narrow referendum decision in June 2016 to leave the European Union. But growth has slowed sharply and is running at half the rate of the euro zone.
Inflation hit 2.9 percent in August, much quicker than the 2 percent the Bank targets
A majority of those polled — 31 of 50 economists — now forecast the first BoE rate hike in over a decade on Nov. 2, to 0.50 percent from 0.25 percent.
That is in stark contrast to a Reuters poll taken ahead of the Sept. 14 Monetary Policy Committee meeting, in which only three of 59 economists predicted an increase before the end of this year. Even by end-2018 only around a dozen expected one or more rate rises in that survey.
“This change is not based on a revised macro outlook as ‘no-change’ remains the only policy action consistent with our growth and inflation forecast,” wrote Fabrice Montagne at Barclays, explaining their sudden forecast change.
Last week, the Bank surprised markets by saying most of its policymakers said it likely rates would need to rise in coming months, thoughts repeated by Governor Mark Carney in a speech on Monday.
There is no consensus on when the BoE will raise rates again. Only half the respondents expect a 25 basis point follow-up hike at some point next year to what would be a reversal of an emergency cut in the months after the European Union referendum.
Robert Wood at BofA-ML compared the current situation with the European Central Bank’s fateful decision, then led by President Jean-Claude Trichet, to launch two early hikes against inflation that are now widely agreed as a major policy error.
“Aside from the BoE’s history of flip-flopping on guidance that leads us to take any words with a bucket of salt, the BoE seem to us to be panicking as inflation hits a peak just as the ECB did back in 2011,” he said.
Credit Suisse’s Punhani echoed that view: “It is by no means our central view but raising rates from the zero lower bound against a backdrop of economic weakness and uncertainty is extremely risky. Ask the ECB.”
Wood said “the MPC is probably trying to talk up the currency.” At least for now, that is paying off.
Sterling hit its highest rate against the U.S. dollar since the Brexit vote on Friday after MPC member Gertjan Vlieghe, who was considered the BoE’s strongest opponent of a rate hike, also said borrowing costs might rise soon.
The turnaround in views comes despite an economy growing at half its usual pace and coincides with a BoE survey that showed no sign wages were likely to grow much more quickly. Retail sales, however, unexpectedly surged in August.
Huge uncertainties still surround the country’s scheduled March 2019 departure from the EU. But economists were mostly convinced the Bank wouldn’t need to ease policy before then. Only four of 37 said it would.
Other major central banks, such as the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of Canada, have already embarked on a tightening path while the ECB is expected in October to announce plans to reduce its quantitative easing program.
Polling by Rahul Karunakar and Shrutee Sarkar; Editing by Ross Finley/Jeremy Gaunt