The MPC has lost the plot again . . .

This time on inflation.

The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) appears to have lost the plot. It seems to have given up on targeting inflation. The likelihood is that, because of the committee's lack of action, the UK economy may well experience a bout of deflation that will be hard for the economy to recover from. This is a very big worry.

Its job is to target the CPI in the medium term. Specifically it is supposed to aim to get the CPI back to target two years ahead. Its normal policy trigger is to adjust interest rates up or down. Interest rates are at 0.5 per cent now and can't really go any lower. Hence, the MPC has been increasing the amount of money in existence by quantitative easing. Up to this point, it has injected just over £200bn of new money into the UK economy.

Today it issued its Inflation Report with its forecast for inflation and growth. The growth forecast is much more optimistic than those of other forecasters such as the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. But the inflation forecast is more interesting.

Below are two fan charts from the report which show the range of the forecast. The fan widens as time moves forward, as it is harder to forecast further into the future. For those who are technically minded, this is the 90 per cent confidence interval rather than the single line that most other forecasters produce, and suggests what the MPC sees as its range of error.

 

CPI inflation

 

The first chart (5.4) is the forecast produced today and the second (5.5) is the one produced in November 2009. It is clear that the central forecast for inflation -- the darkest part of the fans -- is lower two years out than it was in November. The vertical dotted line is the outcome that the MPC, by statute, focuses on, because its job is to target inflation a couple of years in the future. It can't do anything to influence the inflation rate next week or the week after. Changes in interest rates, and changes in quantitative easing, take some time to work through the economy.

Inflation is going to jump over the next few months, primarily because of the rise in petrol prices and the increase in VAT from 15 per cent to 17.5 per cent. Indeed, the likelihood is that the committee will have to write a letter to the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, explaining why inflation is above target. They will just say: "Don't worry, it will fall back down very quickly."

 

CPI inflation 2

 

But the big concern is that inflation is below the target two years out, according to the MPC's forecast. The implication of this is that the Bank of England either should have been cutting interest rates further by a lot, which it can't, or it should have been doing more quantitative easing. Another possibility is that the pound would have to fall further, which may be something the MPC is targeting.

And the committee's forecast for growth is incredibly optimistic. It is much more optimistic than I think is reasonable, and also more optimistic than the recent projections from the NIESR. If output turns out to be lower than the MPC forecast, then inflation will be even lower. The likelihood is that before two years are up, even based on this forecast, the committee will have to write a letter to the Chancellor explaining why inflation is below the target!

The MPC conditions its forecast on market interest rates, which have fallen since November, so that should imply more inflation, not less, as such a change is stimulative. The MPC doesn't forecast these rates in its report but just accepts what the markets predict they will be. Worryingly, even when the assumption is made that interest rates will remain at 0.5 per cent across the forecast horizon, inflation never hits the target. It did hit the target in November using this assumption. So the implication is that the future will be more disinflationary than the MPC thought in the past.

The implication of this latest inflation forecast is that the MPC needs to put more stimulus into the market. In normal times, I would be voting for a big cut in rates, perhaps as big as 150 basis points. These days I would also be voting for lots more QE -- and sensible members of the MPC such as David Miles probably did that. An alternative would be to see the exchange rate fall in the wake of this news -- which it already has this morning -- and for gilts to rise, which they also have done this morning. It is now clear that interest rates are not going to rise any time soon, and so the expectation is that the yield curve will fall further.

As each week goes by, I am becoming more and more convinced that this MPC is not fit for purpose. The Inflation Report published today was another nail in its coffin.

David ("Danny") Blanchflower is Bruce V Rauner Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and professor of economics at the University of Stirling. He is a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee. His economics column appears weekly in the New Statesman.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

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 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

0800 7318496