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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.