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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Sadiq Khan is probably London's new mayor - what will happen in a Tooting by-election?

There will be a by-election in the new mayor's south London seat.

At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan appears to have a fairly comfortable lead over Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election. Which means (at least) two (quite) interesting things are likely to happen: 1) Sadiq Khan is going to be mayor, and 2) there is going to be a by-election in Tooting.

Unlike the two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield that Labour won at a canter last night, the south London seat of Tooting is a genuine marginal. The Conservatives have had designs on the seat since at least 2010, when the infamous ‘Tatler Tory’, Mark Clarke, was the party’s candidate. Last May, Khan narrowly increased his majority over the Tories, winning by almost 3,000 votes with a majority of 5.3 per cent. With high house prices pushing London professionals further out towards the suburbs, the seat is gentrifying, making Conservatives more positive about the prospect of taking the seat off Labour. No government has won a by-election from an opposition party since the Conservative Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden from a Labour-SDP defector in June 1982. In a nice parallel, that seat borders Tooting.

Of course, the notion of a Tooting by-election will not come as a shock to local Conservatives, however much hope they invested in a Goldsmith mayoral victory. Unusually, the party’s candidate from the general election, Dan Watkins, an entrepreneur who has lived in the area for 15 years, has continued to campaign in the seat since his defeat, styling himself as the party’s “parliamentary spokesman for Tooting”. It would be a big surprise if Watkins is not re-anointed as the candidate for the by-election.

What of the Labour side? For some months, those on the party’s centre-left have worried with varying degrees of sincerity that Ken Livingstone may see the by-election as a route back into Parliament. Having spent the past two weeks muttering conspiratorially about the relationship between early 20th-Century German Jews and Adolf Hitler before having his Labour membership suspended, that possibility no longer exists.

Other names talked about include: Rex Osborn, leader of the Labour group on Wandsworth Council; Simon Hogg, who is Osborn’s deputy; Rosena Allin-Khan, an emergency medicine doctor who also deputises for Osborn; Will Martindale, who was Labour’s defeated candidate in Battersea last year; and Jayne Lim, who was shortlisted earlier in the year for the Sheffield Brightside selection and used to practise as a doctor at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

One thing that any new Labour MP would have to contend with is the boundary review reporting in 2018, which will reduce the number of London constituencies by 5. This means that a new Tooting MP could quickly find themselves pitched in a selection fight for a new constituency with their neighbours Siobhan McDonagh, who currently holds Mitcham and Morden, and/or Chuka Umunna, who is the MP for Streatham. 

According to the Sunday Times, Labour is planning to hold the by-election as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the EU referendum on June 23rd.

It's also worth noting that, as my colleague Anoosh Chakelian reported in March, George Galloway plans to stand as well.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.