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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.