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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.