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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.