BoE ramps up stimulus amid virus, Brexit

LONDON: A couple sit on a bench as the fog lifts over the skyline of the City of London yesterday as England enters a second novel coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown. – AFP

LONDON: The Bank of England increased its already huge bond-buying stimulus by a larger-than-expected 150 billion pounds ($195 billion) as it braced for more economic damage from new coronavirus lockdowns and damage from Brexit, too. On the day England began a four-week lockdown to curb a second wave of COVID-19, which is killing as many Britons each day as in May, the BoE said it was still looking into the pros and cons of taking interest rates negative, but gave no update on the process.

“If the outlook for inflation weakens, the Committee stands ready to take whatever additional action is necessary to achieve its remit,” the BoE said as it cut its growth forecasts. Britain’s economy was set to shrink by a record 11 percent in 2020 overall, more than the 9.5 percent it had forecast in March, and it cut its estimate for next year’s recovery.

“The outlook for the economy remains unusually uncertain,” the BoE said, pointing to the COVID-19 crisis and the still unresolved trading relationship between Britain and its closest trading partners in the European Union after Jan. 1. Britain’s economy has been supported by a surge in debt-fuelled spending by the government, and the BoE is buying up many of those bonds.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak is due to speak in parliament later yesterday. His emergency spending and tax cuts have saddled Britain with its biggest budget deficit since World War Two. The BoE kept its benchmark Bank Rate at 0.1 percent, as expected in a Reuters poll. It made little mention of negative rates while a consultation with banks over the practicalities is underway.

Sterling rose against the dollar and the euro after the announcements and bond yields fell. The increase in the size of the BoE’s asset-purchase program took it to 895 billion pounds, 50 billion pounds more than expected by most economists. The central bank said that would give it enough firepower to stretch its buying of government bonds through to the end of 2021, but the purchases could be sped up if needed.

Slower recovery, higher unemployment
The central bank now expects Britain’s economy to shrink by 2 percent during the fourth quarter and only exceed its size before the COVID-19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2022. Previously, it had predicted the end of next year. Unemployment was set to peak 7.75 percent in the second quarter of next year, much higher than its most recent reading of 4.5 percent.

Gross domestic product was likely to grow by 7.25 percent in 2021, weaker than a previous forecast of 9 percent. But its two-year inflation forecast remained unchanged at 2 percent, the central bank’s target. “Our view is that inflation will be closer to 1.5 percent by the end of 2022. That’s why we believe the Bank will still have to increase its policy support,” said Ruth Gregory, an economist at Capital Economics.

JP Morgan analyst Allan Monks said that the prospect of weak inflation next year would pressure the BoE to do more, and that the likelihood of negative rates in the second half of 2021 was growing. As well as COVID-19, Britain faces the risk of a trade shock when its post-Brexit transition with the EU expires on Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, British finance minister Rishi Sunak yesterday extended the coronavirus furlough scheme, which provides 80 percent of the pay of temporarily laid-off workers, until the end of March and would provide billions of pounds of other support for the economy. “To give people across the UK certainty over the winter, I can announce today that the furlough scheme will not be extended for one month – it will be extended until the end of March,” Sunak told parliament. – Agencies

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