Stop worrying about inflation

It will go away but the danger of deflation remains.

It still looks a little early to me for the majority to swing and it would bring down a torrent of criticism on the Bank's head. But if not this week, then May, when the Bank will have the benefit of first-quarter GDP figures as well as other data, is beginning to look like a racing certainty.

A rate increase in May, when the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee produces its next inflation report, is looking like a given, says David Smith* in the above quote from his Sunday Times column (£).

For that to happen, there would have to be a major turnaround in the economy, which does not look likely, to say the least. The problem is that consumer and business confidence has collapsed, net trade is still negative, unemployment is rising, youth unemployment is on course to hit the million mark along with falling house prices and growth was negative in the fourth quarter.

I agree with Smith, though, that there will not be a rate increase this week.

With the economy in its current state, such a move would be a disaster and would likely have to be quickly reversed, perhaps even by the Chancellor with his powers under the Bank of England Act. Far from enhancing the MPC's inflation-fighting credibility, as the MPC members Martin Weale and Andrew Sentance have claimed, there is every possibility that such a move would be a death sentence for the MPC.

Keeping rates down as low as possible and hoping and praying and crossing all of his fingers and his toes that the MPC will do more quantative easing is Osborne's only plan B. A rate increase would mean he -- and probably the coalition -- would be finished. (May, by the way, is Sentance's last meeting and Osborne is unlikely to renew him or replace him with another hawk.)

The Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, has it right. The MPC needs to focus on the inflation that it is able to impact. Contrary to what Sentance has been foolishly claiming for months, inflation today or next week or in six months time is completely irrelevant for this week's MPC decision because it takes interest-rate adjustments about 18 months to feed their way through. The current inflation forecast of the MPC is overly optimistic and may well get revised down this month in light of the bad GDP numbers. Even with that forecast, inflation is well below target. Any rate increase would, in all likelihood, push the economy to deflation. The MPC's new inflation forecast, out next week, will show that inflation will be below target at the forecast horizon.

I have considerable sympathy with Professors Arestis and Sawyer, who argued, in a letter to the Financial Times last week, that the inflation we are experiencing has not been caused by excessive demand and that it would be nonsensical to reduce demand to "solve" it. They wrote: "It has long been recognised that, at best, interest rates by pushing down demand could address demand-push inflation and that they would be helpless in the face of cost-push inflation. At the present time, demand is still low in the UK and clearly significantly below capacity. The pressures on inflation are coming from higher world oil and food prices, value added tax and other tax increases and delayed effects of depreciated exchange rate. It is then clear that raising interest rates has no role to play in bringing down inflation." "No role" may be a bit strong but they make a good point.

I would go one step further and argue that the whole idea of targeting CPI inflation has failed. At the very least, the MPC's mandate should be extended to include growth and employment. The inflation measure should include house prices or could just simply be raised to 4 per cent. As I have said many times, happiness research shows that unemployment hurts people much more than inflation, especially now.

Inflation is going to collapse in 2012 when the impact of the one-off increase in VAT, oil and commodity prices and the exchange-rate depreciation mechanically drop out of the inflation calculations. As Mervyn noted in his recent speech, these three items alone account for 3 per cent of the current 3.7 per cent CPI inflation rate.

Inflation is going to go away because of the big output gap in the economy, simple as that. The danger of deflation, however, remains. Unemployment is rising and unless things improve quickly, any increase in rates would send the economy into a downward spiral as the effects of the VAT increase and spending cuts hit home. In all likelihood, Adam Posen is going to prevail and, by the summer, the MPC will be forced to do more QE. David Smith's racing certainty is likely to fall at the first fence.

*By the way, David, what ever happened to your building skip index? Presumably there aren't many around since the house price crash and the lack of availability of credit.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.