Interest rate cut prospects threatened by pace of wage growth

The prospects for an interest rate cut next month have not been helped by the latest wage growth figures which have come in higher than expected.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed regular wage growth, excluding the effects of bonuses, was 6% higher over the three months to March compared with a year earlier.

That was no lower than the sum reported the previous month.

Money latest: The rise of Michelin starred 'fast food'

The ONS reported that total pay was also static, at an upwardly revised 5.7% for the period.

Economists had been expecting declines in both readings.

The data also showed a rise in the unemployment rate from 4.2% to 4.3%.

ONS director of economic statistics Liz McKeown said: "We continue to see tentative signs that the jobs market is cooling, with both employment from our household survey and the number of workers on payroll showing falls in the latest periods.

"At the same time, the steady decline in the number of job vacancies has continued for a twenty-second consecutive month, although numbers remain above pre-pandemic levels.

"With unemployment also increasing, the number of unemployed people per vacancy has continued to rise, approaching levels seen before the onset of COVID-19.

"Earnings growth in cash terms remains high, with the recent falls in the rate now levelling off while, with inflation falling, real pay growth remains at its highest level in well over two years."

The figures were released against a backdrop of intense speculation on the timing of a Bank of England interest rate cut.

The Bank, which last week signalled further progress in efforts to bring down inflation, has held the rate at 5.25% since last summer.

The rate-setting committee wants to see a "sustainable" return to its 2% inflation target before imposing the first cut.

Wage growth has been among the stubborn factors of concern.

Read more:
UK no longer in recession
Interest rate cut is not far off - but there are complicating factors

The Bank feels that the pace, currently around double the rate of price growth, risks fuelling a second round of inflation because more discretionary spending could result in higher prices.

Its chief economist Huw Pill later said in a speech that the pay growth rates remain "quite well above" what would be consistent for meeting the target sustainably.

Inflation figures out next week, which cover the month of April, are tipped to show a sharp easing in the main consumer prices index (CPI) measure, largely due to plunging energy bills.

A figure just above 2% is forecast by economists.

The Bank has resisted the temptation to cut borrowing costs as it believes that figure could shift back up towards 3% in the second half of the year.

Financial markets saw a 53% chance of a rate cut on 20 June - the monetary policy committee's (MPC's) next meeting.

While restrictive monetary policy was largely blamed for the UK's recession during the second half of 2023, the economy has since performed better than expected.

That complicates the picture for the MPC.

Separate ONS data last week showed a 0.6% rise in gross domestic product during the first quarter of the year.

As with the wage figures, the Bank will be anxious that a growth spurt risks fanning the flames of inflation.

Policymakers have said their decisions will be data dependent.

There is a further employment report due from the ONS ahead of 20 June and two sets of inflation figures between today and that date.

Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK, said of the rate cut prospects: "Next month will be key in terms of pay data as it will provide initial evidence of the impact of April's National Living Wage increase.

"If it comes in line with our expectations of only a modest boost, and sufficient to keep annual pay growth on a downward trajectory, this could ignite more dovish sentiment on the MPC ahead of their June vote."

Rob Wood, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, believed the Bank would back a rate cut at its next meeting.

"Much as we have concerns over the jobs data, the labour market keeps gradually easing, and they give the MPC a hook to hang a June rate cut on," he wrote.