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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide