Belfast Telegraph

Experts divided on when (not if) King will opt for rates rise

By Heather McGarrigle

Mervyn King's Monetary Policy Committee is not expected to raise interest rates today, but they may not stay at their record low for very much longer.

With inflation recorded at 4.4% in February, well above the 2% target, and poor GDP figures, there is a risk the Bank of England could raise rates in the coming months.

The interest rate has remained unchanged at 0.5% since March 2009 and recent PMI surveys have shown growth in the manufacturing, construction and service sectors.

Northern Ireland's economists are hopeful the cost of borrowing will remain frozen for another month but looking further ahead, rates could rise.

Northern Bank's chief economist Angela McGowan feels anything other than an unchanged rate would be "a massive surprise".

She said: "Since the March meeting, the unemployment rate has hit 8% and retail sales have undershot market expectations, while the Consumer Price index has remained on the upside and the terrible fourth quarter GDP has been revised slightly higher.

"Data has in general been fair, but most agree that no game changers have occurred over the past month that should trigger a change in rates."

Dr Esmond Birnie, chief economist at accountancy firm PriceWaterHouseCooper also feels the rate will be held, but expects it to rise in May as the economy shows signs of recovery.

"If the MPC votes for an increase it will push up retail price index (RPI) inflation and hit household and consumer confidence. Those with tracker mortgages will feel an immediate impact.

"We think the Committee will hold rates for another month, but we may see a different tune when it meets again in May."

Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey believes recent growth could trigger a rates rise next month.

"The manufacturing and construction PMIs released last Friday and Monday pointed to robust economic growth in March.

"This has been followed by a rare shock surprise to the upside with the services PMI rocketing in March. Such an outturn for the first quarter of 2011 on April 27, followed by continued momentum in the April PMIs, in our view should secure a rate hike in May.