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Bank of England surprises as two MPC members vote for rate cut

David Milliken and Andy Bruce

LONDON, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Two Bank of England officials unexpectedly voted to lower interest rates this month due to signs of a deeper economic slowdown, and others said they would consider a cut if global and Brexit headwinds did not lift. The BoE said on Thursday that its nine-member Monetary Policy Committee voted 7-2 to keep Bank Rate at 0.75%, in sharp contrast to forecasts in a Reuters poll for a unanimous decision. So far the BoE has resisted following the United States Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank in cutting its main interest rate in response to Brexit challenges and a global slowdown caused by the U.S.-China trade war. Two external members of the MPC, Michael Saunders and Jonathan Haskel, became the first to vote for lower interest rates since the BoE last cut rates in August 2016 following Britain's referendum decision to leave the European Union. More than three years on, Britain's path for leaving the EU remains far from certain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called an early election for Dec. 12 in a bid to get a large enough parliamentary majority to pass Brexit legislation before a new deadline of Jan. 31. Saunders and Haskel said their change in stance was driven by reduced job vacancies that suggested the labour market was turning, and downside risks from the world economy and Brexit. For the others, Britain's economy had not performed much differently than they had expected three months ago but they showed a new openness to cutting rates if things soured. "If global growth failed to stabilise or if Brexit uncertainties remained entrenched, monetary policy might need to reinforce the expected recovery in UK GDP growth and inflation," they said in a summary of their policy discussion. They also softened long-standing language on the medium-term need for limited and gradual interest rate increases - saying they "might" rather than "would" be necessary if global growth improved and Brexit uncertainty lifted. The BoE as a whole painted a darker picture for Britain's economy over the next three years, predicting it will grow 1% less over the period than it had forecast in August. About three quarters of this was due to a weaker global economy and strengthening in sterling since the risk of a no-deal Brexit had diminished, but part of it reflected domestic policy including Johnson's Brexit deal. The BoE now assumes that Britain will strike a Canada-style trade deal with the EU that avoids tariffs on goods but leads to new customs checks and puts up barriers to exports of financial and legal services. Growth would have been forecast to be weaker still, if the government had not announced major fiscal stimulus in September. Inflation, currently 1.7%, is forecast to drop to 1.2% in the middle of next year due to lower oil prices and regulatory caps on electricity and water bills. But over the next couple of years, the BoE's central scenario still sees growth picking up from 1.4% this year to 2.0% in 2022. The 2022 growth rate is above Britain's long-term trend and would push inflation back above the BoE's 2% goal, the central bank forecast. Saunders had already said in September that a rate cut was plausible if Brexit uncertainty continued to act as a "slow puncture" for Britain's economy, but Haskel has said little in public on monetary policy since he joined the BoE.

Other MPC members have said they are less convinced that slower growth merits a rate cut, however, and Deputy Governor Dave Ramsden has warned Brexit uncertainty also made the economy more prone to inflation. The BoE is concerned that low investment is damaging productivity, limiting the rate at which the economy can grow without generating excess inflation. (Additional reporting by Rahul Karunakar)