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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation