The Economist endorses NGDP targeting. Well, sort of…

The Economist endorses a bit of NGDP targeting, for a bit, in a bit.

The Economist has an editorial in this week's magazine calling for a form of nominal GDP targeting. The editorial reads:

At the moment the Bank of England’s mission, set by the chancellor of the exchequer, is to focus on an inflation target of 2%. That makes sense in normal circumstances. But with short-term interest rates at almost zero, the economy growing at barely 2% in nominal terms (and not at all if you factor in inflation) and many years of austerity ahead, it is worth temporarily reinterpreting that policy and focusing on nominal GDP. Our suggestion is that the bank, backed by the chancellor, George Osborne, should make clear that it will not tighten policy until nominal GDP, currently £1.5 trillion, gets to a level that is at least 10% higher than today.

The magazine is clearly happy to call what it's suggesting a nominal GDP target, but that's not really the case. Instead, the suggestion is more akin to the US's recent adoption of the so-called Evans Rule, which stated that:

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.

The American case is different for two key reasons: the first is that the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy, has a dual mandate, requiring it to keep both inflation and unemployment low. The FOMC had been doing a good job keeping the former down, but not such a good job with the latter. The second is that growth in the State is doing OK; again, the real concern was that, in focusing too heavily on inflation, the Fed might choke off that recovery.

But both the Evans rule and the Economist's rule — let's call it the Micklethwait rule — are more about binding the monetary policy committees' future actions. They are a way of communicating to the markets that the rates will not be raised until good things happen, and that the traditional role of the central banks (to keep inflation under control) will be put to one side in the meantime.

The fact that the Micklethwait rule is described in terms of "nominal GDP" makes it sound like a nominal GDP target, but it's not. The latter, a dreadfully trendy prospect in economics circles at the moment, involves commanding the central bank to target a specific level of nominal GDP (that is, GDP unadjusted for inflation). Its benefits are that it explicitly allows for a burst of inflation to get us out of a depression, and commands central bankers to not just restore growth after a slump, but to increase nominal GDP to the level it would be if that slump hadn't actually happened.

The Micklethwait rule would allow for the first — but only as a one time thing, since it would need to be re-enacted in a future depression — but explicitly prevents the second. It only gets half the benefits of true nominal GDP targeting, but all of the downsides, particularly the big one: before we can target NGDP, we need to be able to measure it. Given the ONS's revisions to real GDP, made over the span of three months, are still subject to enormous revisions, the thought of it having to make them three times as fast, for a new measure of the country's production, and get them right first time seems faintly ludicrous.

That's not to say that the Micklethwait rule might not be better than what we have at the moment. Just that if we're going to go to all that trouble, we may as well leap into the great unknown with both feet, rather than just stumbling off the cliff out of desperation.

The Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: whatever you hear, don't forget - there is an alternative

The goverment's programme of cuts is a choice, not a certainty, says Jolyon Maugham.

Later today you will hear George Osborne say there is no alternative to his plan to slash a further £20bn from lean public services by 2020-21. He will also say that there is no alternative to £9bn cuts to tax credits, cuts that will hit the poorest hardest, cuts of thousands of pounds per annum to the incomes of millions of households.

But there is.

As I outlined here the Conservatives plan future tax cuts which benefit, disproportionately or exclusively, the wealthy. Suspending those future tax cuts for the wealthy would say, by 2020-21, £9.3bn per annum.

I also explained here that a mere 50 of our 1,156 tax reliefs cost us over £100bn per annum. We don't know how much the other 1,106 reliefs cost us - because Government doesn't monitor them. And we don't know what public benefit they deliver - because Government doesn't check.

What we do know, as I explained here, is that they disproportionately and regressively benefit the wealthy: an average of £190,400 per annum for the wealthiest.

And we know, too, that they include (amongst the more than 1,000 uncosted reliefs) the £1bn plus “Rights for Shares Scheme” - badged by the Chancellor as for workers but identified by a leading law firm as designed for the wealthiest.

Simply by asking a question that the Chancellor chooses to ignore - do these 1,156 reliefs deliver value for money - it is entirely possible that £10bn or more extra in taxes could be collected without any loss of  public benefit

To this £19bn, we might add the indiscriminate provision - both direct and indirect - of public money to wealthy pensioners.

Those above basic state pension age enjoy a tax subsidy of up to 12% on earned income.

Moreover, this Office for National Statistics data (see Table 18) reveals that the 10% of wealthiest retired households - some 714,000 households - have gross pre-tax and pre-benefit private income of on average £43,983. Yet still they enjoy average cash benefits from government of £11,500 per annum.

Means testing benefits to exclude that top 10 per cent of retired households would save £8.2bn per annum. And why, you might wonder aloud, should means testing be thought by the government appropriate for the working age population, yet a heresy for retired households?

Add in abolition of that unprincipled tax subsidy and you'll save even more. 

So there are alternatives. Clear alternatives. Good alternatives. Alternatives that enable those with the broadest shoulders to bear some share of the pain. Don't allow yourself to be persuaded otherwise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.