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CBI urges Bank not to raise rates

The likelihood of an increase in interest rates next week appeared to recede yesterday after the Confederation of British Industry reported that business confidence had fallen to a two-year low because of the strong pound, declining exports and the Asian economic crisis.

The CBI's latest quarterly industrial trends survey showed a continuing slide in export orders matched by a sharp decline in optimism among firms about business prospects

Meanwhile, the skills shortages which earlier surveys had indicated were putting inflationary wage pressures on the economy have eased with employment falling, particularly among larger companies.

Despite the gloomy outlook on the jobs and exports front, the CBI said it still expected the economy to achieve a soft landing later this year rather than enter recession.

Andrew Buxton, chairman of Barclays bank and the CBI's economic affairs committee, said: "The CBI believes that there is no pressure to raise interest rates as there is an overall slowing down of economic growth coupled with no inflationary pressure in manufacturing as a result of both weak costs and prices."

The view was shared in the City, where analysts will be watching next week's meeting of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to see whether rates are lifted from their present level of 7.25 per cent.

Adam Cole, of HSBC James Capel, said: "Taken together with the December retail sales data and the fourth-quarter GDP figures, the survey suggests the MPC is likely to leave rates unchanged." Geoffrey Dicks, an economist with NatWest Markets, said the CBI survey made the case for another rate rise "threadbare".

The survey of 994 firms showed that a balance of 11 per cent of companies were less optimistic about the business climate than they were four months ago - the lowest level of confidence since October 1995. Although the fall in export orders has levelled off, a balance of 21 per cent of firms reported a decline in the volume of orders. The growth in domestic orders is expected to ease over the next four months while export demand will fall more slowly.