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

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.