London: For those still guessing what the Bank of England (BoE) means when it says the tightening cycle will be “limited and gradual," most economists expect just one interest-rate hike in 2018.

About three-quarters of analysts in the latest Bloomberg survey now see a rate increase in May—up from 54% last month—although the long term view is less certain. While a significant minority see more action this year, the median forecast for a subsequent hike is not until February 2019.

That outlook is also reflected in markets, where a hike on 10 May is seen as almost a sure thing, and a follow-up in November merely a toss-up. The pound has rallied, with the currency hitting $1.4377 on Tuesday, its strongest level since the day of the result of the Brexit vote.

The central bank has stressed that it would follow a “limited and gradual" path away from record-low interest rates since at least 2014, long before officials hiked rates for the first time in more than a decade in November.

It’s doubled down on the language since the move last year, even with signs that slack has been used up and wage growth is accelerating. They’re now set to hike for the second time in six months—a faster pace than markets predicted following last year’s move.

Still, doubts about the outlook for future hikes remain. Some economists are concerned that, with Brexit continuing to cloud the horizon and growth and inflation at risk of slowing faster than policy makers expect, the case for further action after May could be derailed. Recent data has fallen short of forecasts, partly as a result of bad weather. Analysts will get another snapshot of the economy this week as the Office for National Statistics reports on inflation and retail sales.

Labor market figures published on Tuesday showed that unemployment declined to 4.2%, the lowest rate since 1975. Annual pay growth remained at 2.8% in the three months through February, slower than economists had expected.

The jobless rate should “reassure the hawks on the MPC that spare capacity is being eroded," said Alan Clarke, an economist at Scotiabank. “However, we had expected a more compelling upwards message on wages and that didn’t materialize."

No pressure

The mixed picture also reflects the difficulty investors have in parsing the Bank of England’s communication about the future path of rates.

“The data aren’t pressuring them to rush ahead with a series of rate hikes," said Samuel Tombs at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “And of course you also have Brexit going on in the background."

Unlike in the US, officials tend to express their outlook in terms of its position relative to current market pricing. In minutes of the March meeting, policy makers merely noted the strong probability assigned to a May hike, without commenting on longer-term expectations for three full quarter-point increases over the three-year forecast horizon.

Last month, Monetary Policy Committee member Gertjan Vlieghe gave a more solid suggestion that the UK economy needs “one or two" rate increases per year, although he noted that was a “forecast, not a promise." Bloomberg

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