The Bank of England raised interest rates by half a percentage point on Thursday, a larger-than-expected move, as policymakers struggle to bring down Britain’s persistently high rate of inflation.
The central bank’s rate-setting committee lifted rates for a 13th consecutive time, to 5 percent, the highest since early 2008. The move is likely to intensify fears about the depth of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis, as homeowners prepare for jumps in monthly repayments while millions of households are already struggling to pay higher energy and food bills.
The bank’s decision came a day after the latest inflation data underscored the bank’s challenge: Consumer prices rose 8.7 percent in May from a year earlier, the same as the previous month, instead of falling as economists had predicted.
The Bank of England’s decisionis in sharp contrast to some of its international peers. Last week, the Federal Reserve decided to hold interest rates steady, at a range of 5 to 5.25 percent, and the European Central Bank raised rates by a quarter point.
“The economy is doing better than expected, but inflation is still too high and we’ve got to deal with it,” Andrew Bailey, the Bank of England governor, said in a statement on Thursday. “We know this is hard — many people with mortgages or loans will be understandably worried about what this means for them. But if we don’t raise rates now, it could be worse later.”
Despite the Bank of England’s efforts so far, there is accumulating evidence that inflation will be harder to stamp out than previously expected. In the past week, data has shown that pay in Britain has increased faster than expected, inflation in the services sector has accelerated and food inflation is still near the highest level in more than 45 years.
The scale of the surprises in the data, especially for wage growth and services inflation, suggested a half-point rate increase “was required,” the minutes of the committee’s meeting said.
The data “indicated more persistence in the inflation process, against the background of a tight labor market and continued resilience in demand,” the minutes said.
The Bank of England’s rate increases could end up outlasting the recent rate-raising periods of both the Fed and the European Central Bank. Fed officials paused after 10 consecutive increases and after the eurozone policymakers raised rates for an eighth consecutive time last week, analysts predicted there would only be one or two more increases.
The British central bank has pushed through a dramatic tightening of monetary policy in the last year and a half, raising interest rates from near zero since December 2021, in order to restrain the economy. But as British inflation data continues to take policymakers and other economists by surprise, traders are betting that the bank will have to raise interest rates higher and for longer to get inflation down to the 2 percent target. Before the policy decision was announced, traders were betting interest rates would reach 6 percent by early next year.
The persistent price pressures in Britain are causing turmoil in the mortgage market, because they raise expectations that the bank will need to increase rates further. Traders, betting that the Bank of England will continue raising rates, have pushed up yields on government bonds. As mortgage offers reflect those higher interest rates, homeowners are growing concerned about jumps in their monthly repayments. Recently, some lenders pulled mortgage deals, in response to the rapid changes in the market.
On Thursday, the central bank said is was monitoring closely the impact of its “significant” increases in interest rates, noting that because more people have fixed-terms on their mortgages, the full impact of higher interest rates “will not be felt for some time.”
About 1.3 million households are expected to reach the end of their fixed-rate term by the end of the year, prompting a reset in the rate that applies to their loan, the Bank of England said last month. The average mortgage holder in that group will see their monthly interest payments increase by about 200 pounds ($255) a month, or £2,400 over the course of a year, if their mortgage rate rises 3 percentage points, which is what mortgage quotes suggested last month, the bank said.
Since then, rates have risen even higher. Last weekend, the average rate for a two-year fixed-rate mortgage hit 6 percent for the first time this year.
The extra financial burden on mortgage payers compounds the stubborn cost-of-living crisis, as inflation has outpaced pay for the past year and a half. About two-thirds of adults in Britain said their cost of living had increased in June compared with a month ago, and almost all of them said it was because of the higher cost of grocery shopping, according to a survey by the Office for National Statistics.
Two members of the nine-person committee, Swati Dhingra and Silvana Tenreyro, voted to hold interest rates flat at 4.5 percent, arguing that the impact of past rate increases were still working through the economy, and so the bank was at risk of tightening policy more than necessary. They also said there were forward-looking indicators that suggested inflation and wage growth would fall significantly.
But they were outvoted by all seven of the other members who chose a half-point increase, concerned that the impact on domestic prices and wages from external shocks, such as the war in Ukraine, would take longer to fade than they did to emerge. They predicted that lower wholesale energy prices would bring down the headline rate of inflation later in the year, but services inflation, which reflect domestic price pressures, would be “broadly unchanged” in the short term.
As prices in Britain have continued to rise faster than expected, and faster than in the United States and Western Europe, the Bank of England has come under increasing scrutiny. Last month, the central bank’s governing body decided to commission a “a broad review” into the institution’s “forecasting and related processes during times of significant uncertainty.”