When Bank of England policymakers meet on Thursday they will be under pressure to offer more clues into how they plan to reverse the emergency stimulus they adopted during the pandemic, when they cut interest rates to just above zero and began a £450 billion ($625 billion) bond-buying program.
While the British central bank isn’t expected to change its monetary policy stance on Thursday, it is likely to update its forecasts for economic growth and inflation as pandemic restrictions have been lifted and the recovery continues. The debate facing the Bank of England and other central banks, including the Federal Reserve, is how much more stimulus the economy needs to ensure that the recovery continues without overheating and losing control of inflation.
In Britain, the annual inflation rate is already above the central bank’s 2 percent target, and three months ago policymakers predicted it would temporarily exceed 3 percent. But the bond-buying program is set to run until the end of the year. Some members of the Monetary Policy Committee, such as Michael Sauders, have already suggested that the bank could start to pull back on stimulus, for example by ending the bond-buying program early.
“Assuming energy prices do not continue to rise, much of that overshoot versus the 2 percent target is likely to fade during next year,” Mr. Saunders said last month in a speech posted on the bank’s site. “But I am not confident that (with the current policy stance) all the inflation overshoot will prove temporary.”
A report by the House of Lords published last month called on the central bank to explain more clearly what it means by “transitory” inflation and to demonstrate that it has a plan to keep price gains under control. The report also said that the bond-buying program had exacerbated wealth inequalities and that the Bank of England hadn’t sufficiently engaged in the debate about the downsides of the sustained use of the asset purchases, which began in 2009.
And then there is the question of what the central bank will do once it stops buying bonds. Historically, the central bank has said it would raise interest rates to 1.5 percent before it started selling the assets from the bond-buying program, a threshold that has never been reached since then. In February, the central bank asked its staff to review the way it should tighten monetary policy, including whether the order should be reversed to sell assets before raising rates. On Thursday, analysts will be looking for updates from the review. Markets are already predicting that the central bank will begin raising interest rates next year.
The central bank is also expected to update markets on the readiness of financial institutions for negative interest rates. In February, it gave banks six months to prepare for below-zero rates so that it could make that policy change if needed. A negative interest rate would mean charging banks to store cash at the central bank, which would also lower the other interest rates in the economy, for example, on loans to businesses and households. In theory this would encourage more borrowing and investment.
Since asking the banks to prepare, the British economy has moved into an upswing, albeit an uneven one, which has diminished the case for negative interest rates. But from now on, the Bank of England would have this policy tool in its pocket.
After the departures of the bank’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, in June, there are only eight committee members voting in this meeting.