Former MPC member Posen: Forward guidance no substitute for policy

This is not the hope you're looking for.

In a piece written for the CEPR pamphlet "Is Inflation Targeting Dead? Central Banking After the Crisis", former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Adam Posen has dismissed the idea of forward guidance for monetary policy as a "gimmick".

Forward guidance is the idea that a monetary policy committee can pre-commit to a certain course of policy in order to drive outcomes in the direction they want. It's a particularly trendy idea right now, driven, Posen writes, "by the question about whether central banks should be explicitly focusing on GDP (or unemployment) as well as inflation".

If forward guidance works as it should, then a bank can boost the economy by assuaging fears amongst investors that monetary policy will be tightened shortly. Armed with that guidance, they will (ideally) go off and take actions which strengthen the economy, which they may not have taken if they were expecting an imminent rise in interest rates.

But Posen points out that that rarely happens. He cites three examples, in Canada, Sweden and the US, where forward guidance has been issued, but later statements from the central bank have served to instil doubt in the markets. For instance, in the US:

The Federal Reserve recently embraced a version of pre-commitments when the FOMC announced in November 2012 that they were switching to a ‘thresholds model’. Namely, they would not raise rates until unemployment fell unless the inflation threshold was violated.
I think that was the right stance of policy. Then we saw the next month, based on some comments in the minutes from the FOMC meeting, the market sold off.

His evidence is backed up by the fact that in the UK – where pre-commitment is explicitly foresworn – "the impact of quantitative easing was very closely comparable… to that of the US". As a result, Posen, writes, "the bottom line lesson… is that talk is cheap."

Of course, it may still be the case that in some hypothetical situation where the central bank managed to release a series of statements which were all consistent with the forward guidance in the eyes of the market that the policy would have the desired effect. But, he argues, "believing that jawboning had some effect is not the same as believing that it is an independent tool of monetary policy with a lasting and credible effect."

The intervention may come as a disappointment to incoming Bank of England governor Mark Carney. Posen explicitly calls out Carney for placing too much faith in forward guidance, and attributes it to "frustration – the lack of recovery despite massive monetary-policy shifts." It's certainly true that many of Carney's supporters are hoping that this will be the policy shift which actually works, but Posen provides a hope of his own:

The fact is we could have pursued more aggressive monetary policy, achieved better goals and been totally consistent with the current inflation target…

Forward guidance is no substitute for sufficient policy action.

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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.