David Prosser: The rate rise guessing game continues

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The Independent Online

Outlook We will have to wait for the minutes of yesterday's Monetary Policy Committee meeting to find out how the voting went this time around on whether to raise interest rates. But it is difficult to see why anyone else on the committee might have joined the trio of members who backed a rate rise in February. None of the data that has been published since then has given the MPC any reason to think that the economy is becoming more capable of coping with an increase in the cost of borrowing.

Moreover, there is no new evidence that the current level of inflation, even at twice the 2 per cent rate the MPC is supposed to target, is fuelling expectations of more price rises to come. A survey published yesterday revealed that private sector wage settlements averaged just 0.5 per cent in the first two months of the year. This is hardly the stuff of which inflationary spirals are made.

The argument is only going to get louder, however. Expect this month's inflation figures to begin showing the effects of the oil price spike caused by the tensions in the Middle East, though a rise in interest rates is hardly going to help ease the Libyan situation.

The most likely scenario is that there will be no rate rise until May at the earliest, the first meeting at which the MPC will have had the benefit of seeing GDP figures for the first quarter of the year. Assuming they do not show that the UK has slipped further backwards, the date should give reassurance to those with hawkish instincts on the MPC that a rate rise won't strangle the recovery.

In fact, the first-quarter growth numbers may be artificially high because January will have seen a bounce-back from the weather problems of December. The disappointing data of the past few weeks suggests that the recovery is soft: note that both Home Retail and Morrisons added their names yesterday to the retailers warning on consumer demand. Still, in the absence of a real setback from the GDP data, the rate rise case may be too strong to ignore by May.

There is, however, one other matter that might concentrate minds a month earlier. In three weeks' time, George Osborne will deliver his Budget. With the public finances in slightly better shape than projected, there has been speculation that Mr Osborne might be tempted to pull a rabbit out of the hat for political reasons. Were he to ease fiscal policy, the MPC might be tempted to give a monetary policy response in April.