Bank of England forecasts move more than credibility demands

The Bank is still underestimating the strength of the recovery - and its latest report, puzzlingly, contained large changes to its expectations for both unemployment and inflation.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve always had a theoretical problem with forward guidance. Telling people that rates are going to stay lower for longer can have two undesirable consequences, ironically of a diametrically opposed nature. On the one hand, some people will think that if the Bank of England has such a downbeat assessment of the economy and its prospects, then they had better put off that purchase or that investment which they were planning. At the other end of the spectrum, some people will borrow far more than they should, because they believe the rate guidance, and we all know what will happen if the guidance is "wrong" and interest rates go up much sooner and faster.

But, I hear you say, surely the Bank of England has the finest brains at its disposal and its forecasts will therefore be rather accurate. Mmm, well no, not usually. In fact hardly ever, if their performance with regard to inflation forecasting is anything to go by. Mark Carney’s predecessor, Sir Mervyn King, was forced to write no fewer than 14 explanatory letters to Chancellors, starting with Gordon Brown in 2007, explaining why inflation had risen above 3 per cent, when the Bank’s target was 2 per cent. Now that refers to actual inflation outcomes, rather than forecasts, but forecasts presumably play a significant role in helping the Bank achieve its objectives, as monetary policy must usually, by definition, be set with a medium-term perspective.

The Bank’s latest Inflation Report contained really very large changes to its expectations for both unemployment and inflation. Let’s compare this report to the previous one, released in August. At that time the median prediction was that unemployment would still be 7.3 per cent in Q32015, but in the November Report, "The Committee’s latest projections, assuming that Bank Rate rises in line with the market curve, imply around a two-in-five chance that the unemployment rate will havereached the 7 per cent policy threshold (for rate rises) by the end of 2014. The corresponding figures for the end of 2015 and 2016 are around three in five and two in three respectively." This represented a shift forward in time of nine months for the time at which we might reach the 7 per cent threshold.

There is also a key phrase in that quote on which one should focus: "assuming that Bank Rate rises in line with the market curve". So, even this new optimism is based on an expectation that rates will rise above 0.5 per cent before then, as predicted by the market’s interest rate curve, but in a recent speech (in Nottingham) Carney told us that the only thing that effected the economy was the overnight rate and that it certainly wasn’t going to rise until unemployment was down to 7 per cent, so surely even this revised forecast of when we might reach the threshold is still actually pessimistic?

In the real world Carney may feel that forward guidance, and its initial implied assurance that rates were going to stay low for a long time, has managed to retain some of its credibility because the Bank also had to dramatically lower its forecasts for the near-term path for inflation-which it now projects will be 0.7 per cent lower in Q42013 than it did just in August. It also lowered from 42 per cent to 33 per cent its view of the probability that CPI will be above the 2.5 per cent "knockout" in 18-24 months time.

All-in-all, I retain my suspicion that forward guidance is a flawed policy. The Bank is still underestimating the strength of the recovery and I have even greater fears for its credibility in the light of these rapid and sizeable changes to its forecasts.

Mark Carney said recently that the only thing affecting the economy was the overnight rate. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.