A big week for money

Breakthroughs worldwide.

Last week might go down as one of the most important ever for monetary policy. No paradigms have shifted, and no great new knowledge has presented itself to the world, but elites across the globe have shown an unexpected ability to actually listen.

On Wednesday, the US Federal Reserve announced that it was adopt what is being called the "Evans Rule", after the Chicago Fed President who proposed it. The American central bank has always had a dual mandate – it is charged with looking after inflation and unemployment, in contrast to the Bank of England's "price stability" mandate – but this new rule makes that mandate far more explicit.

The reserve's open market committee describes the rule:

The Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.

In other words, the interest rate is guaranteed to stay at its historic low of 0-0.25 per cent until unemployment is below 6.5 per cent or inflation is above 2.5 per cent. It replaces an earlier guarantee that rates would be kept low until 2015, although the reserve maintains that it expects the guidance to be roughly similar in practice (that is, they think it likely that one of those targets will be hit in that year).

The plan behind this sort of guidance is based on the fact that growth – the very thing which the Fed ought to be trying to encourage – frequently leads to inflation. For example, as the economy recovers, young unemployed people are going to be getting jobs and moving out of their parent's homes, some into new houses, putting pressure on the market. At the same time, they may start driving into work, increasing demand for fuel. That will, all else being equal, increase prices for those goods, and so increase inflation; but in this sort of situation, that's definitely a price worth paying.

Without the Evans rule, or something similar to it, businesses would expect that growth-led spike in inflation to be followed by a tightening of monetary policy. As a result, they may be unwilling or unable to borrow at the low rates we have now, for fear that they will rise shortly after – creating a vicious cycle. Fear of tightening policy prevents the growth which would lead to that policy getting tightened.

Under the new rules, Americans can be assured that, unless inflation exceeds its target by quite some margin, the Fed will continue its pro-growth policy even while growth is actually happening.

A similar change was suggested by future Bank of England governor Mark Carney in a speech on Tuesday night. Talking about the role guidance plays in central bank governance, Carney had good things to say about nominal GDP (NGDP) targeting. This involves the bank targeting, not a flat level of inflation, but a level of nominal GDP. The effect is that in periods of low real growth, the bank is prepared to tolerate much higher inflation than it is in periods of high growth – leading to similar outcomes to those described above.

In addition, since an NGDP level, rather than growth rate, is targeted, even higher inflation is tolerated in periods following a recession, as Carney explains (via FT Alphaville):

adopting a nominal GDP (NGDP)-level target could in many respects be more powerful than employing thresholds under flexible inflation targeting. This is because doing so would add “history dependence” to monetary policy. Under NGDP targeting, bygones are not bygones and the central bank is compelled to make up for past misses on the path of nominal GDP (chart 4)

Carney's speech was far less concrete than the Fed's actual adoption of unconventional policy guidance – and he also faces higher hurdles bringing such a change in. The Bank of England is statutorily required to target "price stability"; most commentators expect NGDP-targeting to therefore require at least a bill through parliament, although a minority argue that it could be an acceptable interpretation on Carney's part of that stability mandate.

And finally, just yesterday, Shinzo Abe won the Japanese election on a platform of forcing the Bank of Japan to do more monetary easing. He said before the election that his number one priority was to defeat deflation, with the *FT* reporting that:

He dismissed as “meaningless” recent moves by the BoJ, saying an October ¥11tn increase in the central bank’s asset purchasing programme was too limited to change market sentiment and that the central bank and government should agree on an inflation target of perhaps 2 or 3 per cent.

“The time has come for a general mobilisation of all policy measures to get rid of deflation,” said Mr Abe, a former prime minister who resigned in 2007 after a setback-strewn year in office.

The BoJ should embrace “unlimited easing” and also consider cutting the 0.1 per cent overnight interest paid on banks’ deposits at the BoJ to zero or a negative rate, in order to “strengthen pressure to lend”, he said in a speech in Tokyo.

Questions have been raised as to whether this is a genuine opinion of Mr Abe's about monetary policy, or merely an attempt to secure seignorage-driven income to fund higher government spending; but either way, the markets appear to trust the outcome, with the Yen plummeting and Nikkei surging

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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage