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 tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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