Growth must be the focus as the world economy slows

Andrew Sentance has a list of questions for Mervyn King. Here are my answers.

Andrew Sentance on his website has posed ten questions that he wants answered by Mervyn King. So I decided to answer them myself.

1. The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) resisted arguments for a rise in interest rates in the second half of 2010 and earlier this year. And yet it has moved very quickly to mobilise more quantitative easing (QE) based on short-term worries about economic growth, despite the fact that inflation is now over 5 per cent. Is this not evidence that the MPC is targeting growth, not inflation?

I guess you never did realise that monetary policy can only impact inflation 18 months to two years ahead. As it is being driven by temporary factors and they are about to drop out, inflation is going to be below target at the forecast horizon. This would be even more obvious if the CPI included falling house prices. In any case, behavioural economics shows that people care much more about unemployment than they do about inflation.

2. The Bank's analysis of the original round of QE showed that it raised inflation. How can a new round of QE be justified when inflation is at 5.2 per cent, the highest rate we have seen since the early 1990s?

The Bank's analysis showed that it raised inflation, which was a good thing, because we were headed to deflation. A new round of QE is justified, because the economic data in the UK and especially in the eurozone is slowing. Perhaps you didn't notice.

3. MPC forecasts have seriously underestimated inflation since the onset of the financial crisis. How can the committee be so confident that inflation is set to fall below target when its previous forecasts have been so inaccurate?

You mean the forecasts that you signed up to? The MPC also was too optimistic about growth. All forecasts are based upon the data that there is to hand. If another shock comes along in either direction than all bets are off. How could the MPC be expected to forecast, say, a hurricane that disrupts oil production and then pushes up both oil prices and inflation?

4. The MPC has taken a decision to reactivate QE without the support of a quarterly forecast. How can the committee then assert so confidently that inflation will fall below the 2 per cent target without a further injection of QE, when it has not carried out a forecast exercise to support this judgement?

The shock to output is so large that they had to move. Contrary to what you claimed in a number of your speeches, growth was revised downwards, not up, which meant it was obvious that inflation was going to be well below the target. The Greek referendum means that risks are even greater to the downside. Every time, you have called it wrong, so you have no credibility, sorry.

5. Some economists have argued that QE will depress sterling and add to inflation directly through that route. Given that the weakness of sterling and rising import prices have added to UK inflation in the past 2/3 years, is this not a very legitimate concern?

You know very well that depreciation of the currency helps to increase stimulus in the economy, not least because it raises the cost of imported goods and thus encourages import substitution. This has been rather slow to happen to this point, because of the mistaken austerity programme that cuts too deep and too fast. What you're not acknowledging is that the alternative was for the economy to go over the cliff, which would create very high levels of unemployment. Economists have to consider the outcome for people across society.

6. The MPC minutes suggest that the committee believes that QE will be as effective in the current environment as in 2009. Yet a key channel of influence for QE is the downward impact on long-term interest rates, which are now much lower than in 2009. Does this not suggest MPC will now be less effective?

The MPC has performed its own Operation Twist with its new form of QE, which emphasises the long end of the curve. In contrast to the stock of data, a third of the purchases will be of 25 years duration and over compared with 11 per cent of the stock. The economy needs stimulus.

7. The first round of QE in 2009 probably boosted business and consumer confidence because the Bank of England appeared to be "pulling out all the stops" to stabilise the economy. Is there any evidence that the confidence effect of this current round of QE will be so positive, particularly when there are major worries about high inflation at present?

Maybe not, but that simply is an argument for doing a lot more QE, rather than less. Hence some economists' expectations that QE will move to at least £500bn. Doing nothing, as you seem to be proposing, would push the economy over the cliff.

8. If QE is effective, it brings forward future growth into the present. But that means growth may be weaker in the future -- and the governor acknowledged this problem in his Liverpool speech. Why does the Bank/MPC think that we will be better placed to cope with weaker growth in the future than now?

There is no evidence from anywhere that more growth now means less growth later -- look at China. In the case of Japan, less growth now means less growth later. The economy is subject to severe headwinds and if action hadn't been taken, inflation would be below the target and perhaps even negative

9. A big concern for the public and business is pensions. By depressing long-term investment returns, QE makes the pension funding problem more difficult. Has the MPC taken this into account in its decision on QE and how does it respond to these criticisms?

As Mervyn King said, raising rates now to help savers is nonsensical, as it would drive up unemployment and lower growth.

10. The broader public will find it hard to understand why the MPC has not taken any steps to counter high inflation and yet seems very ready to inject more stimulus, which might add to inflation over the longer term. Surely the actions of the MPC are undermining confidence in price stability and the inflation target?

I am afraid it is you that has confused the public, by claiming that interest rates should have been raised in the depths of a recession. Just think what would have happened to the economy if you had had your way -- mortgage payments would have risen, consumer spending and house prices would have fallen and unemployment would have risen and growth fallen. It is quite clear now that what you were arguing for was totally mistaken.

You failed to call the recession and wrongly suggested that the risk to the economy was inflation. The danger remains of deflation, not inflation. Note the statement made by the MPC when it moved to doing more QE.

The pace of global expansion has slackened, especially in the United Kingdom's main export markets. Vulnerabilities associated with the indebtedness of some euro-area sovereigns and banks have resulted in severe strains in bank funding markets and financial markets more generally. These tensions in the world economy threaten the UK recovery.

Note the scary word "threaten". Growth must be the focus right now, as the world economy slows.

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

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.