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BOE’s Saunders Says U.K. Needs Aggressive Response to Risks

Lucy Meakin and David Goodman

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The U.K. economy needs an injection of stimulus to avoid a prolonged period of below-target inflation, according to Bank of England policy maker Michael Saunders, one of the leading officials calling for lower interest rates.

In a speech on Wednesday Saunders said that a sluggish economy and evidence of a weakening labor market will likely lead to a longer period of subdued growth. That would in turn create a disinflationary, and persistent, output gap. The risk warrants a “relatively prompt and aggressive response,” he said.

Saunders is one on two dissenting voters on the BOE’s nine-member Monetary Policy Committee. He’s been calling for an immediate 25 basis point rate cut since November, citing downside risks from a weaker global outlook and from more persistent Brexit uncertainties affecting corporate and household spending.

“If we defer easing near term and, in the event of persistent economic weakness, face the need for greater easing later on, then risks of a low inflation trap -- which would certainly not be a benign outcome -- would rise,” Saunders said in Bangor, Northern Ireland.

That view appears to have been gaining traction with his colleagues. In his first major speech of 2020, outgoing Governor Mark Carney said the MPC has plenty of firepower to aid the economy if necessary. Policy maker Silvana Tenreyro followed by saying she may support a rate cut in the next few months if sluggish global growth and Brexit uncertainty persist. Another member, Gertjan Vlieghe, said he’d need to see an improvement to justify waiting to cut.

That shift has rippled through markets, pushing the pound down almost 2% since the start of the year and seeing traders price in an almost 50% chance of cut on Jan. 30.

While the pound stayed little changed after Saunders’s remarks, U.K. two-year notes edged higher, leaving the yield down two basis points at 0.47%.

The BOE was one of the few major central banks that didn’t join the global monetary policy easing of 2019. Hemmed in by Brexit uncertainty, it held fire through the political battles and tense negotiations, keeping its benchmark at 0.75% for more than a year.

In his speech on Wednesday, Saunders said that while political uncertainty in the U.K. has receded somewhat following last year’s election, growth may still be more sluggish than forecast by the BOE in November.

Brexit Risk

He also warned that Brexit risks will persist in 2020 as the U.K. negotiates its future relationship with the European Union, and dismissed the possibility that moving too quickly to cut rates raised the possibility of a policy mistake.

“Of course, it is possible that we cut rates now and then find that the economy rebounds and renewed tightening is appropriate, say a year from now,” Saunders said. “I don’t think such a quick reversal is likely, but it is not inconceivable. I would not regard such a reversal, if it occurs, as a policy failure. It would be a benign outcome: monetary policy would have helped underpin the pickup.”

While the U.K. is not currently in a low-inflation trap, “you just have to look across other major advanced economies to appreciate that the risk of being stuck in a low inflation trap, with a self-reinforcing circle of caution, sluggish growth and depressed inflation expectations, is not just a theoretical possibility,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lucy Meakin in London at lmeakin1@bloomberg.net;David Goodman in London at dgoodman28@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Gordon at pgordon6@bloomberg.net, Alaa Shahine, Fergal O'Brien

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