Small mercies at the Bank of England

Martin Weale is taking Andrew Sentance's mantle as the Monetary Policy Committee's resident clown.

The minutes of June's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meeting were published this morning. They were rather more dovish than the markets had expected and raised the prospect of a further round of quantitative easing. The relevant quote was: "It was possible that further asset purchases might become warranted if the downside risks to medium-term inflation materialised."

Once again, my good friend Adam Posen voted for a further £50bn of asset purchases. It is increasingly looking like he is on the right side of this one. The two misguided inflation hawks -- the chief economist, Spencer Dale, and Martin Weale -- voted for a 25 basis-point increase. They know not what they do, honestly.

The majority on the MPC is right to worry more about growth than inflation right now. This week, there was more evidence that George Osborne's nightmare scenario of zero or even negative growth is unfolding before our eyes. The Confederation of British Industry's Industrial Trends Survey for June, published yesterday, was not encouraging.

The drop in the output expectations index from May's 20 to 13, the lowest figure since December last year, added to other recent evidence suggesting that the previously strong manufacturing recovery is disappearing. The slowing economy is also holding back tax receipts that, according to data released this week, were up only 3 per cent in April and May together.

The monthly public-sector borrowing figure of £17.4bn was a little below last May's figure of £18.5bn. But, in the first two months of the fiscal year together, borrowing totalled £27.4bn, compared to last year's £25.9bn.

Jonathan Loynes at Capital Economics has pointed out that, although it is early days yet, at this rate, borrowing will overshoot the Office for Budget Responsibility's Budget forecast of £122bn by almost £30bn. Loynes argues: "Overall, the public finances figures provide a clear warning that the weakness of the economy could derail the government's deficit-reduction plans and will add fuel to the debate over whether it should scale back the size and speed of the fiscal tightening." Hence, the concern of the majority on the MPC that more stimulus may be needed.

This afternoon's Opposition Day Debate in the House of Commons on the anniversary of Osborne's first Budget makes the case for the government to "adopt a more balanced deficit plan which, alongside tough decisions on tax and spending cuts, puts jobs first and will be a better way to get the deficit down over the longer term and avoid long-term damage to the economy". There is a realistic alternative (Tiara).

Of particular interest was how the MPC's newest addition, Ben Broadbent, voted at his first meeting. It turns out he voted along with the majority: for no change.

While he was at Goldman Sachs, Broadbent was the co-author of an article written with Kevin Daly that advocated the macroeconomic benefits of an "expansionary fiscal contraction". This is the idea that Larry Summers dubbed as "oxymoronic". The empirical evidence suggests that such a policy has never worked without being accompanied by a big loosening of monetary policy. Given that there seems to be a contractionary fiscal contraction going on, Broadbent was always likely to vote for a stimulative monetary policy as his Plan B. Plus, I understand that he is pals with Osborne's chief economist, Rupert Harrison, who would no doubt be most unhappy if he voted for a rate rise.

I gave a speech last week at a conference in London where I said that there are few things that Osborne, Mervyn King, Alistair Darling and Blanchflower would agree on right now other than that interest rates shouldn't rise any time soon. The next speaker after me was Lord Lamont, who kindly came up to me afterwards and said that he agreed on my comments on the need to keep monetary policy loose.

I recall being told by Steve Nickell, whom I replaced on the MPC, that it was a good idea to wait for two or three meetings before doing much, so you could work out which way was up. This was great advice. I remember, though, that Andrew Sentance, in his first meeting in 2006, voted in the minority along with Tim Besley, who was attending his second meeting for a rate rise in a 7-2 decision for no change.

One of my ex-colleagues on the MPC commented to me at the time that it was interesting that the only two members of the MPC who believed the August inflation and growth forecasts were the ones who weren't there when they were being constructed.

Over the past few weeks, there were three speeches by MPC members that were of particular interest. Sir Mervyn's Mansion House speech didn't say much of note, other than that Osborne, who presumably had approved his knighthood, couldn't do anything wrong and should keep on going slashing and burning the economy. His comment on fiscal policy was interesting. "Of course, there can always be differences of judgement about the overall stance of policy but to change the broad policy mix would make little sense." Maybe Merv still doesn't realise that he is the likely fall guy when the coalition's economic ship hits the rocks.

The external MPC member Martin Weale made a speech in London, in which he argued that bank rate should be raised now, even though inflation is likely to fall sharply as the temporary factors drop out. There is no evidence of any second-round effects from wages; consumer confidence is at levels only seen previously in the depths of the great recession and growth is anaemic -- all before austerity hits. Weale argued that:

The case for a rise can be put quite simply. An early increase in bank rate makes it more likely that the inflation target can be met in two to three years time because it allows for greater subsequent flexibility. If inflationary pressures subsequently prove more severe than the central part of our forecast suggests, then it will be a help to have started to raise interest rates earlier. But if they prove less strong then subsequent increases can be slower than would otherwise be the case. Indeed, if the economy is extremely weak, interest rates can be reduced again.

What a load of tosh. An increase now would slow the economy at a time when the economy has stagnated. Raising rates now only to have to reduce them in the future would be a major policy mistake. There is no empirical support whatever for Weale's claim in the June minutes that: "A small increase in bank rate would afford the committee greater subsequent flexibility in responding to possible future developments." Weale is taking over Sentance's mantle as the MPC's resident clown.

Fortunately, there are some sane voices on the MPC. I was much encouraged to read the excellent speech by my old friend and colleague Paul Fisher at the Global Borrowers and Investors Forum in London on 21 June. Paul made it clear that he is especially worried about risks to the downside.

Over the past couple of years, the challenge has been dealing with a succession of real changes in relative prices (via negative supply side shocks) which have pushed up on prices whilst depressing demand and output. That is extremely uncomfortable for everybody. But there was, and is, no easy way for monetary policy to deal with the impact of such shocks. In our current projections there are very major risks to either side of the central case. On one side, higher inflation expectations could become entrenched making it very costly for the MPC to subsequently bring inflation back to target. On the other side, the economy could be much weaker than we expect pushing down on inflation and risking deflation. Recovering to the target from that could be even harder (at least in my personal view).

Phew, Fisher gets it but Weale and Dale sadly don't. At least Sir Mervyn continues to vote the right way (along with Posen, Broadbent Tucker, Bean, Fisher and Miles). I am grateful for small mercies.

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

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The real question about George Osborne and the Evening Standard? Why he'd even want the job

The week in the media, from Osborne’s irrelevant editorship to the unrepentant McGuinness and Vera Lynn’s stirring ballads.

The big puzzle about George Osborne’s appointment as the editor of the London Evening Standard is why he wanted the job. The Standard is now just a local freesheet, a pale shadow of its old self. In Tube carriages, discarded copies far exceed those being read. Its columnists are lightweight [Ed: as an occasional columnist myself, thanks, Peter] and its news stale, mostly written the previous day. Critics of Osborne’s appointment describe the Standard as “a major newspaper”. It is no such thing. The idea that the editorship will allow the former chancellor to propel himself towards the London mayoralty is laughable. In last year’s election for mayor, the Standard, according to University of London research, ran twice as many positive headlines about the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith as it did about Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The latter won comfortably. The paper was so supportive of Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, that it became known as “the Daily Boris”. But Johnson, with a high profile from television, hardly needed its backing to beat a tired and largely discredited Ken Livingstone.

If Osborne believes that the Standard offers him a significant political platform, it is just further proof that he belongs to an ignorant elite.

 

Violent legacy

More than anyone else, Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66, represented how the IRA-Sinn Fein combined uncompromising violence with negotiating charm to achieve its aims. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness admitted openly and proudly that he was a senior IRA commander. In Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 he carried a sub-machine gun, but apparently without using it. Later that year, he was among a delegation that held secret talks with British ministers and officials. The following year, he was arrested near a car containing prodigious quantities of explosives and ammunition.

Like many who recall the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain – three huge bombs detonated less than half a mile from me – I could never quite accept McGuinness as a government minister and man of peace. Whatever he said, he did not renounce ­violence. He just had no further use for it, a decision that was reversible.

 

A peace of sorts

When I hear politicians saying they could never contemplate talks with al-Qaeda, I smile. They said the same about the IRA. The idea of negotiation, John Major said, “turns my stomach”. A month later, news leaked of secret talks that would lead to a ceasefire. You can call it hypocrisy but politicians have no practical alternative. Significant terrorist campaigns rarely end without deals of some sort. Even then, dishonesty is necessary. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein in 1998 never admitted the true terms, perhaps even to themselves. In return for a role in government, the IRA ceased attacks on the British mainland, army, governing classes and commercial interests. It remained in control of working-class Catholic enclaves in Northern Ireland, where it continued to murder, inflict punishment beatings and run protection rackets. Not a pretty bargain, but it brought peace of a sort.

 

Real war anthems

“We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, are the songs most closely associated with the Second World War. This, when you think about it, is peculiar. Most wars are associated with stirring, patriotic anthems, not sentimental ballads. Even the First World War’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, before it mentions hearts yearning for home, stresses the noble, manly instincts that drove soldiers to fight: “They were summoned from the hillside/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men.” Lynn’s songs had only the wistful sadnesses of parting and reassurances that nothing would change.

Their “slushy” tone troubled the BBC. It feared they would weaken the troops’ fighting spirit. Despite Lynn’s high ratings among listeners at home and service personnel overseas, her radio series was dropped in favour of more virile programmes featuring marching songs. Unable to sing to her forces fans over the airwaves, Lynn bravely travelled to the army camps in Burma. A BBC centenary tribute showed veterans of the war against Japan weeping as her songs were played back.

The wartime role of this unassuming plumber’s daughter makes me – and, I suspect, millions of others – feel prouder to be British than any military anthem could.

 

Ham-fisted attempt

After his failed attempt to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, Philip Hammond, it is said, will have a £2bn hole in his budget. It will be more than that. Thanks to the publicity, tens of thousands more workers in regular employment will be aware of the tax advantages of self-employed status and hasten to rearrange their affairs. Likewise, newspaper accountants of old, after circulating memos imploring journalists to reduce lavish claims for “subsistence” while covering stories away from the office, would find a sharp rise in claims from hacks previously unaware that such a perk existed.

 

Battle of Hastings

My fellow journalist Max Hastings, attending a West End play, was once dragged on stage by the comedian James Corden, told to help move a heavy trunk and slapped on the bottom. Ever since, I have approached plays starring comedians warily. I dropped my guard, however, when I bought tickets for a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Miser starring Griff Rhys Jones, and found myself drenched when Jones spilled (deliberately) what purported to be fine wine. It was of course only water and, unlike
Hastings, I shall not demand a refund.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution