Bank of England joins the "forward guidance" party

The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee has announced that they will adopt "forward guidance" - a move which could prove psychologically self-defeating, or worse financially ruinous.

A few weeks ago I wrote in this blog that I felt the adoption of "forward guidance" by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee would be a mistake. Well, as expected, they did so, in an announcement timed to coincide with the publication of the Bank’s August Inflation Report -the quarterly document which lays out the Bank’s perception of the current state of the economy and forecasts for its performance over the next few years.

In that previous blog I highlighted the danger that forward guidance could inflict self-defeating psychological damage upon people and businesses by telling them, effectively, to ignore the good economic headlines that are increasingly appearing in the newspapers - i.e. the Bank of England doesn’t believe a word of it, and therefore won’t be raising interest rates for years to come.

The other side of the coin is potentially as dangerous. The form of guidance adopted was an assurance that the Bank wouldn’t raise rates until unemployment hit 7.0 per cent, (it is currently 7.8 per cent, and the Bank’s Report expects it to fall to 7.0 per cent only in mid-2016). In a vain attempt to preserve what’s left of the MPC’s credibility as an inflation fighter, caveats, or "knock-outs", were added to this promise. There were three of these: they wouldn’t wait that long to tighten policy if they thought a) inflation was going to be above 2.5 per cent in eighteen months to two years' time, b) inflation expectations became "unanchored", or c) "the stance of monetary policy pose[d] a significant threat to financial stability".

The nightmare scenario for the Bank, and for us all, is that policy has to be tightened because one of the "knock-outs" has been triggered before unemployment has fallen meaningfully. Imagine a world, 12 or 18 months hence, where either "knock-out" a) or b) is triggered, but unemployment is stuck stubbornly at 7.2 per cent. Given what's happening in the housing market, the prospects for acceleration thereof following this guidance, and the UK economy’s propensity to exhibit high inflation, I see a real danger that knock-out b) is the problem.

On the other hand, given the "productivity puzzle", (in this recession, productivity has dropped, and unemployment has risen less than one might normally expect), the stage seems set for productivity to rise, at the expense of employment, especially as employers become more confident and commit to long-delayed capital investment in new, more efficient plants and machinery.

If either inflation "knock-out" is triggered within the 12 to 18 months time horizon I mentioned above, that is a lot sooner than the date at which the Bank of England’s own forecasts expect unemployment to hit 7 per cent, i.e. mid-2016, (and Carney assures us 7 per cent is only a "way station" anyway, not a "trigger" for higher rates), and the danger here is that individuals and businesses are now fooled into taking on more and more debt, comforted by the Bank’s prediction that rates will stay where they are for almost another 3 years at a minimum, and the UK can already hardly be characterised as a country with low private debt. If rates do have to rise much sooner than this, then loan delinquency could sky rocket.

Outside the Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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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.