With every fare rise and fee increase, the government decides to defy the inflation hawks

This year and next, a full 0.6pp of inflation will be because of direct government decisions.

New Statesman
A hawk. Photograph: Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about how inflation is worst for those who spend a large proportion of their income on essentials. The cost of essentials, defined as food, housing, energy and travel, increased by 3.7 per cent last year, well above CPI's 2.8 per cent increase. Since the recession, essentials have increased in price by more than 33 per cent, while nominal incomes have gone up by just 10 per cent.

A large driver of that increase, however, is the direct effect of government policy. For instance, council tax, road tax and almost all public transport fares are set by the state, as are most of the costs of highly-taxed goods like alcohol, tobacco, fuel and heating and power.

Now, the weekly briefing note produced by Deloitte's Chief Economist, Ian Stewart, makes clear that a similar effect is happening to the headline rate of inflation. Stewart writes:

In its latest Inflation Report, the Bank noted that one of the reasons behind persistently high inflation was higher 'administered and regulated prices', i.e., prices affected by government or regulatory decisions. Of these, a key contributor has been the rising price of education, largely reflecting rises in undergraduate tuition fees. Another contributor is higher domestic energy prices as a result of current climate change and energy policies and further investment into the UK's gas and electricity distribution networks.

According to the Bank, these two drivers have, together, amplified UK inflation by 0.4 percentage points last year and will do so by 0.6 percentage points this year and the next.

The latter reason is something you hear a lot about from inflation hawks, given the frequent coincidence of climate scepticism and fear of inflation; the former, not so much. When it comes down to it, one way to keep inflation low would be to fund essential public services through general taxation or deficit spending, neither of which tend to be routes advocated by inflation hawks.

Stewart also pokes the Bank of England about whether or not it is strictly applying its mandate. Technically, the Bank has only one role: to keep inflation as close to its 2 percentage points target as possible, and certainly within one percentage point either side. But instead, under both Mervyn King and, it is expected, Mark Carney, the bank has refused to take actions to bring down inflation if they would harm growth. Stewart writes:

This approach has led some analysts to point out that the Bank now seems to place greater emphasis on growth than on its explicit inflation target. It is not just that, in the words of the Bank's governor Sir Mervyn King "policy is exceptionally accommodative to growth". A debate is underway as to whether the Bank of England, and indeed other central banks, should run even easier monetary policy, possibly risking higher inflation in the long term, in order to bolster growth. In December, the US Fed set itself an additional target of bringing down the US unemployment rate to below 6.5%, before it considers raising interest rates.

Mark Carney, the next governor of the Bank of England, has recently said that central banks should consider radical measures, including commitments to keep interest rates on hold for extended periods of time or scrapping inflation targets, to boost growth.

Needless to say, the fact that the Bank of England is not crushing our already anaemic growth to bring inflation down from around 3 per cent to around 2 per cent is a feature, not a bug, in the system. Regardless of what the inflation target actually is, the fact that the Bank tends to be run by extraordinarily talented individuals who are working for the financial health of the country means that they are prepared to make sensible decisions even if they aren't necessarily the prescribed ones. But the choices raise further questions about whether the monolithic inflation target is the right way to run a central bank in the 21st century.