Differences among Bank of England rate-setters

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Signs of division among Bank of England policymakers re-emerged this month about the outlook for interest rates, although they voted unanimously for the second month running to keep policy on hold.

Wednesday’s minutes of the BoE Monetary Policy Committee’s February 4-5 meeting showed they thought the very weak short-term outlook for inflation warranted keeping interest rates on hold at a record low 0.5 per cent.

But two members said the decision was “finely balanced”.

“Given the outlook for inflation beyond the short term, there could well be a case for an increase in Bank Rate later in the year,” they said.

However, one member said the next change to monetary policy was “roughly as likely” to be a loosening as a tightening.

Last week the Bank of England raised the possibility for the first time that it could cut interest rates below 0.5 per cent if inflation turns out weaker than expected, although BoE Governor Mark Carney said it was more likely that rates would rise.

The minutes showed all members of the MPC thought it was likely that rates would rise over the next three years.

British inflation fell last month to 0.3 per cent, its lowest level since records began in 1989 and far below the BoE’s 2 per cent target. The BoE has said it likely to drop below zero in the coming months.

But BoE policymakers are much less concerned about the risk of deflation - when price falls become entrenched - than their colleagues in the euro zone.

Last week the BoE published new forecasts that showed Britain’s economy will enjoy its fastest growth since 2006 this year, helped by lower oil prices, and Governor Mark Carney said it was more likely to raise rates than loosen policy.

BoE Governor Mark Carney also said inflation would probably soon fall below zero due to the lowest oil prices in nearly six years.

Although the minutes did not name the two members who thought the decision to hold rates was finely balanced, Martin Weale and Ian McCafferty voted to increase rates from August through to December.

The most prominent advocate of looser monetary policy in the past has been David Miles, who steps down later this year.

The BoE has focused more on wage growth as it considers when to start raising rates. Data due to be released at the same time of the minutes on Wednesday are expected to show earnings rising faster than inflation for a fourth successive month in November.

The minutes said that wages over the past three months had increased faster than the MPC had expected, but in future they could rise either faster or slower than the central bank had forecast last week.

The BoE also said it was possible the May 7 national election could delay business investment, although there had been no sign of this so far.

Markets currently point to first BoE rate hike early next year. But BoE policymaker Martin Weale said in a newspaper interview this weekend it will need to start raising interest rates sooner than investors expect as inflation recovers from current low levels.