The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) sets monetary policy to meet the 2% inflation target and in a way that helps to sustain growth and employment. At its meeting ending on 3 February 2016, the MPC voted unanimously to maintain Bank Rate at 0.5%. The Committee also voted unanimously to maintain the stock of purchased assets financed by the issuance of central bank reserves at £375 billion.
In December, twelve-month CPI inflation stood at 0.2%, almost 2 percentage points below the inflation target. Oil prices were more than a third lower, in sterling terms, than a year earlier. Together with muted growth in world prices, the appreciation of sterling since early 2013 has pulled down on import prices more broadly. Overall, these factors can explain the vast majority of the deviation of inflation from the target in December, and to an even greater extent than at the time of the November Inflation Report. The remainder of the undershoot reflects subdued domestic cost growth, particularly unit labour costs.
Returning inflation to the 2% target requires balancing the protracted drags from sterling’s past appreciation and low growth in world export prices against increases in domestic cost growth. Fully offsetting the drag on inflation from external factors over the short run would, in the MPC’s judgement, involve too rapid an acceleration in domestic costs, one that would risk being unsustainable and would lead to undesirable volatility in output and employment. Given these considerations, the MPC intends to set monetary policy to ensure that growth is sufficient to absorb remaining spare capacity in a manner that returns inflation to the target in around two years and keeps it there in the absence of further shocks.
Global growth has fallen back further over the past three months, as emerging economies have generally continued to slow and as the US economy has grown by less than expected. There have also been considerable falls in the prices of risky assets and another significant fall in oil prices. The latter appears largely to reflect news about the supply of oil. Developments in financial markets seem in part to reflect greater weight being placed on the risks to the global outlook stemming from China and other emerging economies. Looking ahead, growth in the United Kingdom’s main trading partners should continue to be supported by the boost to real incomes from low commodity prices, and to some degree by monetary and fiscal policy. But emerging market economies are likely to grow more slowly than in recent years and the risks to the MPC’s central projections of only modest global growth lie to the downside.
Although activity growth in the United Kingdom has slowed to slightly below average rates, the domestic private sector remains resilient. Consumer confidence is robust, supported by a pickup in real income growth, and overall investment intentions continue to be firm, although a sharp retrenchment in capital spending in the oil and gas sector is under way. GDP is expected to grow at around average rates over the forecast period as a tighter labour market and rising productivity support real incomes and consumption.
The MPC has revised down its estimate of the level of potential supply broadly in line with the lower level of demand. Resilient private domestic demand growth is expected to produce sufficient momentum to eliminate the limited margin of spare capacity during the course of this year. However, wage growth has been weaker than anticipated and labour costs are expected to rise a little less quickly than thought at the time of the November Inflation Report, contributing to a slower recovery in inflation. In part that reflects the MPC’s expectation that low realised inflation will continue to moderate the increase in wage pressure in the near term. The mechanical return to higher rates of inflation as past falls in energy prices drop from the annual comparison, supported by the recent fall in the sterling exchange rate and some additional stimulus from lower market interest rates, should in time reverse this effect and support wage gains. The MPC judges that inflation expectations remain well anchored, though it remains watchful for signs that low inflation is having more persistent second-round effects on wages.
The scale of recent commodity price falls means that CPI inflation is likely to remain below 1% until the end of the year. As the drags from energy and other imported goods unwind, however, domestic cost pressures are projected to build up sufficiently such that, conditioned on the path for Bank Rate implied by market interest rates, CPI inflation is likely to exceed the 2% target slightly at the two-year point and then rise further above it. This central projection for inflation is modestly below that of three months ago for much of the forecast period but broadly similar by the end. The MPC judges the risks to the central projection to be skewed a little to the downside in the near term, reflecting the possibility of greater persistence of low inflation.
There are significant judgements underlying these projections and a range of views among MPC members about the balance of risks to inflation relative to the best collective judgement presented in the February Inflation Report. At its meeting ending on 3 February, the MPC judged it appropriate to leave the stance of monetary policy unchanged. The MPC judges it more likely than not that Bank Rate will need to increase over the forecast period to ensure inflation remains likely to return to the target in a sustainable fashion.
All members agree that, given the likely persistence of the headwinds weighing on the economy, when Bank Rate does begin to rise, it is expected to do so more gradually and to a lower level than in recent cycles. This guidance is an expectation, not a promise. The actual path Bank Rate will follow over the next few years will depend on the economic circumstances.