Bank of England: interest rates stay low til unemployment drops

Mark Carney's Bank promises to fight the slack in the economy.

The Bank of England has released its quarterly inflation report, in which it assesses the state of inflation in the UK and lays out the risks ahead. August's release is particularly notable because it is the report in which the Bank promised to detail its plans for the role of forward guidance in British monetary policy.

Forward guidance is the practice of revealing the rules by which the Bank plans to make decisions about policy, and is important because much of the intricacy of monetary policy involves managing expectations. For instance, if investors expect interest rates to rise when growth gets high, they may be wary of making investments, which will itself keep growth low. Therefore, by promising that interest rates would stay low in the event of growth, a central bank can boost the economy without resorting to more conventional tools.

The inflation report reveals the forward guidance that the Bank has settled on. The key measure is unemployment. The Bank will not raise its base rate from 0.5 per cent "at least until the Labour Force Survey (LFS) headline measure of the unemployment rate had fallen to a ‘threshold’ of 7%". That is roughly equivalent to the Evans Rule (named after Chicago Fed President Charlie Evans) applied by the US Federal Reserve, which swears to keep the base rate under 0.25 per cent as long as unemployment remains above 6.5 per cent.

The Bank's rule contains a few conditions beyond the unemployment threshold, however. Firstly, it only holds if the MPC thinks inflation is "more likely than not" to be less than 0.5 percentage points above the 2 per cent target 18-24 months ahead; secondly, the Banks must feel that medium-term inflation expectations remain sufficiently well anchored; and thirdly, the Financial Policy Committee (FPC, a separate body, albeit one with three overlapping members) must be sure that the rule does not pose a threat to financial stability.

The MPC sums up the rationale for what will surely be known as the Carney Rule:

In essence, the MPC judges that, until the margin of slack within the economy has narrowed significantly, it will be appropriate to maintain the current exceptionally stimulative stance of monetary policy, provided that such an approach remains consistent with its primary objective of price stability and does not endanger financial stability.

The rule is extremely similar to the Evans Rule, but is a lighter touch: the unemployment threshold is higher, and the FPC oversight provides more opportunity for a "knockout" to be applied. Nonetheless, it is a radical change for UK monetary policy, since it represents the Bank of England claiming direct influence over the unemployment rate at the highest levels.

Politically, the rule takes some of the steam out of the Government's attempts to present the economy as on the mend. Setting an unemployment threshold of 7 per cent means that the Chancellor can no longer present the UK's labour market as healthy, and will hopefully draw attention to the fact that unemployment has stagnated closer to 8 than 7 per cent for the past six months. It also lessens the ability of the Government to focus on recent increases in growth; as the Bank points out, while unemployment is this high, there is almost certainly slack in the economy, meaning growth could be higher.

But accommodative monetary policy has to be accompanied by accommodative fiscal policy to be effective. There is much George Osborne could do to aid Mark Carney's attempts to fix the economy, but there is much else he could do to frustrate them. The burden is shared. Hopefully the Pushmi-pullyu can agree on what needs to be done.

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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR