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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.

Bank of England.
Outside the Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.