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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.