The mainstream view remains the cost of a near term recession in order to bring prices under control now is far less than the cost of a recession later if you support growth now and let prices continue higher.
by Gary Duncan, Grainne Gilmore
The Bank of England rebuffed mounting concerns over the rapidly weakening economy today and held interest rates at 5 per cent as it pursued its drive to quell soaring inflation.
The tough verdict from the Bank’s rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) brushed aside pleas from business leaders and trade unions for a cut in base rates to shore up Britain’s growth, amid growing fears that the country is on the brink of recession.
The Bank’s decision came after headline consumer price inflation leapt to a 10-year high of 3.8 per cent in June, well above the Bank’s 2 per cent target, and amid expectations that it could hit 5 per cent over the summer, following swingeing increases in household gas and electricity bills imposed by utility companies.
The MPC had been widely expected to spurn pressure for a rate cut today in a bid to make clear its determination to bring inflation back to the target set by the Chancellor. The committee will almost certainly have discussed raising rates this morning, as it did last month, when Professor Tim Besley, voted for an immediate increase. He is expected to have done so again today, and may have been joined by other hawkish MPC members.
The Bank will set out its thinking more clearly next week when it publishes its latest forecasts for the economy in its quarterly Inflation Report. That is expected to emphasise the dilemma that the MPC confronts, with inflation set to soar far above target in the next few months, even as the economy slides towards a severe downturn.
The quandary facing the Bank was underlined yesterday as the International Monetary Fund sharply cut its forecasts for Britain’s growth this year and next, while issuing a warning that it saw “little scope” for interest rates to fall, although it also saw no need for an immediate rate rise.
Today’s no-change verdict by the MPC came despite bleak economic news in recent days, which have produced danger signs of recession.
Concern that Britain’s growth had ground to a virtual halt last month, and could even be in the grip of recession, were inflamed this week after bleak figures revealed growing frailty in the most critical parts of the economy.
These included shrinking activity in the services sector, the economy’s engine room that account for three quarters of the UK’s output, as well as in manufacturing.
The services sector, spanning businesses from cafes and leisure centres to accountancy and law firms, shrank for a third month in succession last month, according to the latest purchasing managers’ survey, regarded by the Bank as a key gauge of economic conditions.
Although services activity edged up from a seven-year low that was plumbed in June, the survey pointed to an even sharper slowdown ahead, with levels of outstanding business for the sector’s companies falling for a tenth month in a row, and inflows of new business dropping to a record low.
At the same time, it emerged that manufacturing is suffering its first sustained run of decline since 2001, after its output fell in June for a fourth month in a row, dropping by 0.5 per cent.
The figures were among the latest data confirming the dire plight of the economy, and came after official confirmation that the pace of Britain’s overall growth slowed to just 0.2 per cent in the second quarter, its weakest rate of expansion for three years.
The falling housing market remains a key source of economic anxiety, with the Nationwide Building Society reporting that house prices tumbled by a further 1.7 per cent last month, leaving them down 8.1 per cent on last year – their sharpest annual pace of decline since 1991.
The high street is also being badly hit by the downturn, with official figures showing that retail sales plunged by 3.9 per cent in June – their biggest monthly drop for 22 years.
Yesterday, the International Monetary Fund added to the mood of pessimism as it cut its forecast for Britain’s growth this year and next to only 1.4 per cent, and 1.1 per cent, respectively. The prediction of the UK’s worst performance since the end of the last recession raised the spectre of two years of economic misery.
In May, Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank, was forced to write an explanatory letter to the Chancellor, required by law, explaining why inflation had risen more than 1 point above its 2 per cent target, after it climbed to its then-high of 3.3 per cent. Mr King has admitted that he expects to write more such letters this year.
The Bank’s inflation headache has been further aggravated by signs of further severe price pressures in the pipeline to the consumer, Manufacturers’ costs rose at a record 30 per cent annual rate in June, and prices for goods leaving factories rose by a record 10 per cent. Inflation is being stoked by a sharp slide in the pound, by about 12 per cent over the past year, which lifts Britain’s bills for imported products.
However, there has been some let up in international food and energy costs, with oil prices tumbling by 13 per cent in a month, and prices for food products are also on the slide.