As expected, the Bank of England's (BoE) Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) left its policy repo rate unchanged at 5.25% this morning. However, as we've noted before (see Daily Global Commentary, March 21: UK: Rate Hike Expectations Ease but Don't Rule Out Further Tightening), the BoE concluded in its February Inflation Report that inflation would be slightly above the 2.0% target in two years' time if the repo rate stayed at 5.25%. Given the members' concerns about underlying inflation pressures and about an increase in firms' pricing power, recent data suggest the odds still favor another rate hike in May.
Despite three rate hikes since August, the housing market remains pretty robust, although BoE Governor King noted last week that there are signs the market is starting to slow. The BoE's latest report on consumer borrowing found that mortgage lending picked up again in February, rising to £10.3 billion from £9.5 billion in January, while the number of mortgage approvals for the month remained steady at 119,000. Last week the Nationwide mortgage lender said that house price inflation was starting to slow, with average prices in March up 9.3% on the year vs. 10.2% in February. However today the largest lender, HBOS Plc, released its Halifax house price survey, showing the annual three-month rate of price increases rising to a two-year high of 11.1%. The market may be on the verge of easing, but there's still plenty of near-term life left.
Unsecured consumer credit data are unequivocal, though. Last week's BoE survey reported a lessthan- expected rise in credit, up just £919 million in the month, the smallest increase since September, and down from £1.02 billion in January and £1.5 billion a year earlier. Those rate hikes are starting to curb consumer borrowing.
And the rest of the economy? Again, the data are somewhat mixed. The CIPS/RBS service sector index, released yesterday, will be a source of ammunition to MPC hawks. The PMI nudged upward to a reading of 57.6 in March from 57.4 in February and the measure of prices charged by companies also picked up, coming in at 55.3 - up from 54.2 in February, and the highest reading since last August. The survey also noted "anecdotal evidence" that the latest round of inflation was leading to increased wage bills. On the other hand, the survey noted that employment growth eased to its lowest since August and outstanding business declined for the first time since November 2005.
Just before the MPC announcement this morning came the news that factory output fell for the second month running in February and at its sharpest rate in nearly two-and-a-half years, raising doubts about the traction of manufacturing's recent recovery. Manufacturing output fell 0.6% on the month and rose 1.2% on the year, while overall industrial production was down 0.2% from January and up just 0.3% on the year.
Earlier this week came the news that the CIPS/RBS manufacturing PMI slipped from 55.4 in February to 54.4 in March. However, the survey's new orders index, while down from the twoand- a-half year reading of 57.6 in February, remained at a relatively high level of 57.1. And, export orders rose at their fastest pace since January 2004, with the index edging up to 55.8 (55.7 in February), boosted in particular by demand from the Euro-zone. All of this suggests that the output report for March may look a little more sanguine.
All told, it is likely that the MPC remains divided over the direction of policy. Just how divided will become clear when the minutes of today's meeting are published on April 18. For now, we continue to favor a rate hike at the May 10 meeting, but much will depend on the conclusions of the BoE's May Inflation Report - not due for publication until May 16, but the MPC members will see a preliminary copy. Until then, key data to watch include March CPI on April 17; February average earnings and February-March labor market reports on April 18; and March retail sales on April 20.