By Andy Bruce and David Milliken
LONDON, March 21 – The Bank of England kept interest rates steady on Thursday and said most businesses felt as ready as they could be for a no-deal Brexit that would likely hammer economic growth and jobs.
The BoE said its nine rate-setters voted unanimously to keep interest rates on hold at 0.75 percent, just days before the world’s fifth-biggest economy could leave the European Union without a deal to smooth its way.
“The economic outlook will continue to depend significantly on the nature and timing of EU withdrawal,” the BoE said.
The central bank again said rates could move in either direction if there is a no-deal Brexit, as a sharp fall in the value of the pound could generate inflation pressure in addition to the broader economic shock.
Separately, the BoE published a survey of just under 300 companies that showed around 80 percent feel they are “ready” for a no-deal, no-transition Brexit — up from 50 percent in January.
A disorderly Brexit on March 29 remains possible as Prime Minister Theresa May waits to hear from Brussels on her request to delay Britain’s departure from the European Union by three months, to allow her to get her deal though parliament.
Many companies reported that there were “limits to the degree of readiness” that were possible in advance of a possible no-deal scenario, the BoE said.
“Indeed, the March survey also showed that respondents – even those that felt ‘ready’ – still expected output, employment and investment over the next 12 months to be significantly weaker under a ‘no deal, no transition’ Brexit,” the BoE said.
The minutes from the March meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) showed little change in tone since the central bank published its latest economic outlook in February.
Brexit uncertainty had created volatility in British asset prices and sterling, and was hurting businesses confidence and investment, the central bank said.
“The news in economic data has been mixed, but the MPC’s February … projections appear on track,” the minutes said.
“The broad-based softening in global GDP and trade growth has continued. Global financial conditions have eased, in part supported by announcements of more accommodative policies in some major economies.”
The U.S. Federal Reserve on Wednesday brought its three-year drive to tighten monetary policy to an abrupt end, abandoning projections for any interest rate hikes this year amid signs of an economic slowdown.
And earlier this month, the European Central Bank announced new stimulus measures to prop up a still-fragile economy, promising to put off raising rates and to give banks access to more multi-year loans.
Last August the BoE raised rates for only the second time since before the global financial crisis.
On Thursday it stuck to plans for a further gradual increases in borrowing costs, but only once it has a clearer idea of what Brexit will mean for the world’s fifth-biggest economy.
Some members of the Monetary Policy Committee, including Governor Mark Carney, have said they would probably vote to cut rates if Britain leaves without a deal.
Most economists polled by Reuters expect rates to rise later this year if Brexit goes smoothly.
Private-sector business surveys suggest the economy has slowed sharply in the run-up to Brexit and as the world economy lost momentum.
Inflation in Britain is running just below the BoE’s 2 percent target but pay growth is running at its highest level in more than 10 years. The BoE said signs of strength in inflation pressure in the labor market were “notable”.