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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.