Interest rates kept on hold

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The Independent Online

Borrowers were today spared a second rise in interest rates in as many months.

There had been fears that the Bank of England might spring another shock at its monthly meeting, following January's quarter-point hike to 5.25%.

Despite today's reprieve, economists said it was likely that the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) would increase borrowing costs in the spring.

The pressure on borrowers, following three rises since August, comes as the MPC battles to keep inflation on track to meet its long-term target of 2%.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) stood at 3% in December, just short of the level at which Governor Mervyn King has to write an open letter to Chancellor Gordon Brown explaining why inflation is so high.

Today's decision to keep interest rates on hold was the second piece of good news for households today after British Gas announced plans to cut prices.

A quarter-point rise in rates today would have resulted in a homeowner with a typical £100,000 mortgage paying £63.79 a month more than in August, prior to the first of the recent rate hikes.

Industry leaders described the Bank's decision as a sensible move.

CBI chief economic adviser Ian McCafferty said: "The Bank has decided that last month's surprise increase is enough for now and needs to assess the impact on inflation and the economy before deciding the next move.

"However, the economy is still growing rapidly and concerns remain about more ingrained inflation, with firms putting up prices in the face of a profit squeeze and a far from certain outcome in the current pay round. So, it is too early to say if interest rates have peaked."

The diminishing year-on-year impact of utility bills should mean inflation comes under less pressure in the months to come, although wage growth remains a worry after a survey showed take-home pay increased by 0.4% to 3.3% in January.

Strong retail sales figures and 1.3% growth in Halifax house prices have added to fears that interest rates may need to go up again.

Those prospects will become clearer next week when official inflation figures for January are published and the Bank of England issues its quarterly update on the state of the economy.

Investec chief economist Philip Shaw said: "Our gut feeling is still that there is probably one more rate increase left in the pipeline.

"Given the potential upside risks posed by above-trend growth, firmer wage settlements, more 'rogue' inflation numbers and a resumption of housing market strength, we are still pencilling in a rise for the second quarter of the year."

The TUC's head of economic and social affairs, Adam Lent, said: "The MPC has got it right. It surely makes sense to gauge the response to last month's rise before putting up interest rates again.

"Mortgage lenders are already reporting early signs of a slowdown in the growth in house prices and manufacturing would have been hit hard by two rate rises in a row."

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