What is stagflation?

We ought to fear the "Spectre of stagflation", says the <em>FT</em>.

The Financial Times' lead story today highlights the "spectre of stagflation", the economic phenomenon where inflation spikes even as growth stays flat.

David Keohane and Claire Jones write:

Inflation expectations, as measured by the difference between nominal and inflation-linked bond yields, ticked up to near 3.3 per cent on Tuesday, levels not seen since September 2008.

Investor fears that the UK could be simultaneously hit by stagnant growth and high inflation, as experienced in the 1970s, were exacerbated by poor economic data pointing to the probability of another economic contraction in the first quarter of this year.

Stagflation—a portmanteau of "stagnation" and "inflation", if that's not clear—is one of the major fears in orthodox economics, because the two phenomena are usually viewed as a trade-off. Central bankers put up with higher inflation expectations to boost low growth, and vice versa; if growth is low and inflation high, those policy levers lose their effectiveness. Ultimately, the fear is that stagflation will be locked in in the long term.

The last serious stretch of stagflation was in the 1970s, and is largely credited with leading to the current inflation-averse international monetary regime. In Britain and the US, inflation expectations had ticked steadily upwards, thanks, in part, to the over-effectiveness of centralised bargaining over pay. The common story told is that, as unions began to demand above-inflation pay rises, they were granted frequently enough that the demands themselves increased the rate of inflation. The annual rate of change in RPI peaked in August 1975 at an astonishing 26.9 per cent.

This time round, inflation expectations are being raised by the actions of the Bank of England—albeit to nowhere near the same extent. Nonetheless, the Bank, having expressed a belief that inflation oughtn't come down until after the economy picks up, is responsible for the fact that expectations have hit the pre-crisis peak.

The fears of stagflation are currently just that—fear hasn't turned into reality yet—but, as with so many economic phenomena, it has a nasty tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully, the underlying pattern of growth will turn from stagnation eventually, before inflation expectations get calcified at 3+ per cent; but if it doesn't, and the Bank of England is forced to keep inflation high in the face of the continued corrugated economy, we could see the current situation become the new normal.

Inflation. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.