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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle