LONDON – The United Kingdom's central bank on Thursday became the first in a major advanced economy to raise interest rates since the coronavirus pandemic began, as banks controlling monetary policy around the globe shift their focus from stimulating the economy to combating soaring consumer prices that arrived during the recovery.
The moves come despite the threat that the new omicron variant of COVID-19 poses. The European Central Bank took a much more cautious approach than the Bank of England, but it also decided the economic recovery was strong enough for it to start carefully dialing back some of its stimulus efforts over the next year.
The U.K. bank was joined by Norway, which hiked its benchmark interest rate in the face of troublesome levels of inflation. Central banks typically raise rates to fight inflation and lower them when economies are weak, as they were during the pandemic. They have also used bond purchases to drive down market rates for borrowers during the pandemic, aiming to help businesses limit staff cutbacks or avoid bankruptcy.
The U.S. Federal Reserve also decided this week to speed up its exit from pandemic crisis support as inflation reached a 40-year high of 6.8% in November, putting it on a path to start raising interest rates as early as the first half of next year. The eurozone's inflation rate is 4.9%, highest since statistics started in 1997, though the central bank says much of that is temporary.
At first glance, the central bank moves seemed to show a disconnect from government warnings about the spread of omicron and the accompanying new travel restrictions and testing requirements. That is at least partly because central banks know their policies take months to push inflation and economic growth up or down — and may take full effect only after the omicron wave has crested and subsided.
“By the time today’s rate increase will have any noticeable impact on the inflation outlook, the potential near-term hit to economic activity from omicron will almost certainly be history,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg bank.
European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde also acknowledged what many economists have been saying: Businesses and consumers have been learning to navigate the new world of anti-virus restrictions — meaning successive waves have less overall economic impact, as miserable as they may be for the hardest-hit sectors like hotels and restaurants.
“Overall, society has become better at coping with the pandemic waves and resulting constraints," she said.
The Bank of England's increase in its main rate to 0.25% from the record low of 0.1% was a surprise given the news around omicron's rapid spread across the U.K., which is already hurting many businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector.
The country's chief medical officer urged people to limit socializing over the holidays as the U.K. on Wednesday recorded the highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began. British restaurants and pubs demanded government help.
But with consumer price inflation running at 5.1%, more than double the bank's target of 2%, the vast majority on the bank's rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee decided action was needed now. For many households struggling with rising prices, it's likely to be another hit to their incomes, at least in the short-term, with mortgages and loans set to increase, too.
Economists said the decision underlined the extent to which policymakers are worried about inflation, even before knowing the full extent of the hit to growth stemming from omicron.
“Instead of battening down the hatches and waiting for the latest COVID storm to subside, they are taking action now to prevent an even sharper spiraling upwards of prices,” said Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at stockbrokers Hargreaves Lansdown.
Britain becomes the first member of the Group of Seven economies — a group of democracies with high living standards and advanced economies — to start raising interest rate benchmarks. The other members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S. France, Germany and Italy are part of the eurozone.
The U.K. rate increase sent the pound soaring in currency markets — one sign that it hadn't been expected. Soon after the decision, the pound was trading 0.7% higher at $1.3360.
The outlier in Thursday's action was Turkey, where the central bank again cut a key interest rate despite soaring consumer prices that are making it difficult for people to buy basic goods. The decision sent the country’s currency to record lows against the U.S. dollar.
The bank's policies are in line with the views of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been pressing for low borrowing costs to boost growth, despite conventional economic policy that says raising interest rates eases high inflation.