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Bank of England May Pause 200 billion pound Bond Plan

The Bank of England may this week pause its 200 billion-pound ($320 billion) bond purchase plan and keep open the option of expanding it further as officials assess if the economic recovery is too anemic to last.

The bank will halt spending with newly created money for the first time since it began the so-called quantitative easing program in March last year, according to the median of 51 forecasts in a Bloomberg News survey. The central bank will release its decision on Feb. 4 at 12 p.m. in London.

Governor Mervyn King is juggling the threat of resurgent inflation against the risk of a relapse in growth after gross domestic product barely rose in the fourth quarter. Officials must also gauge if the economy may need more stimulus to weather reductions in the record budget deficit after the general election, which is due by June.

“I would be surprised if they say they’re going to stop” altogether, Patrick Minford, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and now an economics professor at Cardiff University, said in an interview. “This could be quite risky, particularly when governments are going to be taking rebalancing action on fiscal policy. The issue is whether the economy is strong enough to take withdrawal of quantitative easing.”

The economy expanded 0.1 percent in the last three months of 2009 as service and manufacturing businesses expanded just enough to end Britain’s deepest recession on record.

Recent data have also shown an uneven recovery. House prices jumped the most in five months in January, according to Nationwide Building Society, while retail sales rose 0.3 percent in December, less than a third as much as economists forecast.

Future Action

“It’s certainly possible that the economy needs more policy support in the future,” said Jonathan Loynes, an economist at Capital Economics Ltd. “When you have a big fiscal tightening coming, which is likely from either party, unless you’ve got some underlying momentum in the economy you may want to loosen monetary policy further.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party has trailed the Conservative opposition for two years in voter opinion polls as both parties wage a campaign on plans to cut the budget deficit. The Conservatives led Labour by 11 points, according to an ICM Research Ltd. poll that finished on Jan. 24.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling said on Jan. 26 that the government will take steps to trim the 15.7 billion- pound deficit once the recovery gains traction. Cameron has pledged to start budget cuts immediately after the election.

Pound Drop

While the prospect of a public spending squeeze looms, the global recovery may still buoy the economy as companies raise overseas sales and take advantage of the pound’s 17 percent drop on a trade-weighted basis since 2007. The Confederation of British Industry said today its index of export orders for small and medium-sized manufacturers rose to a two-year high in the quarter through January.

The pound’s weakness has stoked consumer prices, complicating the Bank of England’s task. The inflation rate jumped 1 percentage point in December, the most on record, to reach 2.9 percent. The central bank’s target is 2 percent.

King said last month that inflation may accelerate further, though policy makers will look through that jump as they focus on the risk that it will slow below their goal because of slack in the economy created by the recession.

The case for adding to the bond-purchase program may strengthen if a pause in the plan results in a jump in bond yields, said Kit Juckes, chief economist at ECU Group Plc in London. He said a 50 basis-point increase in 10-year bond yields to about 4.5 percent may be “inevitable but not disastrous,” though a jump to 6 percent “would scare me.’

“The end of QE will be a pretty short-lived end if it’s really damaging gilt yields,” Juckes said. “QE is working, and pausing makes some sense to let it continue to work, but you really can’t rule out them coming back with more. This is a pathetic little recovery however you look at it.”

Feb. 1 (Bloomberg)