No fireworks: Bank of England and Federal Reserve set to hold interest rates next week

 
Jasper Jolly
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Mark Carney and Janet Yellen (from left) will both be in the spotlight next week (Source: Getty)

With both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve set to meet it’s a big week for monetary policy, but don’t expect fireworks, economists say.

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers sparked the financial crisis, the top 50 central banks have cut rates over 700 times, according to JP Morgan.

While Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President have had huge implications for interest rate decisions, that trend is unlikely to continue next week, with policymakers on both sides of the channel widely expected to hold fire.

With that in mind, investors’ attention will turn to the language used in press conferences after the announcements to glean insights into where rates are likely to go next.

The Bank of England: decision at 12:00 GMT on Thursday 2 February

The Bank’s last rate cut came at the height of the post-referendum turbulence in world markets. Governor Mark Carney was widely lauded for boosting investors through periods of massive uncertainty.

Now the Bank has a slightly confusing “neutral bias”, with an apparently equal likelihood of the next rate movement being up or downwards. Any slight change to that bias would be seized on by investors.

Kallum Pickering, senior UK economist at Berenberg, says the surprising strength of the UK economy could change the guidance.

“If there was no Brexit the Bank would probably have hiked by now,” he says. “Maybe the Bank laces in some risks to the upside.”

The almost inevitable pick-up in headline and core inflation after the devaluation of sterling will put some pressure on the Bank to hike at some point, but Carney et al. will try to “look through” to supply and demand fundamentals in an economy pretty much at full employment.

Howard Archer, chief UK and Europe economist at IHS Markit, says: “We expect the ultimate next move by the Bank of England will be to raise interest rates but not before 2019 at the earliest. And it could well be delayed beyond then.”

Tolerance of higher inflation will be prompted by the process of leaving the EU, he says, with uncertainty and a dip in consumer spending expected by some to hit UK growth.

This could lead to the possibility of a cut in the bank rate at some point as a further stimulus, although with an aversion to negative rates there would be little room for manoeuvre.

The Federal Reserve: decision at 19:00 GMT on Wednesday 1 February

Across the pond the thinking will be altogether different. The US economy is showing all the signs of faster growth and inflation, even before the effect of Trump’s proposed (but as yet not detailed) economic policies.

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised its target range to 0.5-0.75 per cent at its December meeting. Markets don’t expect consecutive rates rises: investors have priced in a 96 per cent chance of no change at the February meeting.

However, the last meeting’s dot plot (an important measure of consensus expectations for rates) showed FOMC members pencilling in three hikes over the course of 2017. Investors will look for changes in the language used.

“The Fed might want to do some warming up for a rate rise,” says Chris Hare, an economist at Investec.

The interaction with Trump will be critical. He has promised $1 trillion in infrastructure spending but, the massive concrete wall on the Mexico apart, he has so far given no details of how he will go about it.

There’s also his promise of achieving four per cent growth at a time when the economy is at full employment, which would likely lead to significant rises in inflation.

Alex Dryden, global market strategist at JP Morgan Asset Management, says: “Question marks remain over the size, impact and timing of fiscal support making it difficult to judge the path for Fed rate hikes going forward.”

The FOMC’s response to Trump’s fiscal policies probably won’t be “anything more than a fairly vanilla statement,” says Hare – barring an onslaught of policy by Twitter.

Veteran Fed watchers will also eye the newly adjusted board after a standard rotation of members with interest.

“Some of the members coming on board are perhaps slightly more dovish,” says Hare.

Meanwhile, the European Central Bank (ECB) has been keen to give the impression it will sit tight on its accommodative monetary policy for the long run, after urging hawks (especially in Germany) to be “patient”. Its next meeting will take place on 9 March.

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