UK pay growth slows to six-month low despite record employment

LONDON (Reuters) – British workers’ pay growth has slowed to its weakest rate in six months despite record employment, adding to the Bank of England’s conundrum as it considers whether to raise interest rates for only the second time since the global financial crisis.

Average weekly earnings rose by 2.5 percent on the year in the three months to May, losing speed from the previous three month period when they grew by 2.6 percent and its weakest since the three months to November, the Office for National Statistics said.

Pay growth excluding bonuses – which the BoE says sometimes gives a better picture of the underlying trend, slowed by a similar amount, to 2.7 percent. Both readings were in line with the average forecast in a Reuters poll of economists.

Britain’s economy appears to be picking up after a slow first three months of the year, when unusually heavy snow hurt demand, and the central bank worries it is bumping up against the speed limit that would start to push up inflation.

Tuesday’s data showed the unemployment rate remained at its joint-lowest since 1975 at 4.2 percent while the proportion of people in work rose to a record high of 75.7 percent after 137,000 jobs were created over the three months to May.

But economic growth since 2016’s Brexit vote has been weak by historic standards due to high inflation and business uncertainty, and on Monday the International Monetary Fund cut Britain’s growth forecast for 2018 to 1.4 percent.

Pay growth is one of the pieces of data the Bank of England is likely to look most closely at as it mulls whether to raise interest rates next month in what would be only the second rate increase since before the 2008 global financial crisis.

BoE Governor Mark Carney said at the start of the month that both the economy as a whole and pay were growing as the central bank had forecast in May, smoothing the way for an August rate rise.

But last week one of his deputies, Jon Cunliffe, who opposed November’s rate rise, said pay growth did not seem to be breaking out of its recent 2.5-3.0 percent range and heading toward the 3 percent growth rate the BoE predicts for the end of the year.

Britain had seen numerous ‘false dawns’ for pay growth in the past, and there could be more spare capacity in the labor market than the central bank thought, he added.

“We’ve had yet another record employment rate, while the number of job vacancies is also a new record. From this it’s clear that the labor market is still growing strongly,” ONS statistician Matt Hughes said.

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