Should Labour adopt the four per cent inflation policy?

Controversial ideas of the past are becoming consensus of the present.

A 1998 proposal by Paul Krugman that the western world should target inflation at four per cent rather than two per cent, has got the backing of the IMF (pdf). The intention would be to erode government debt, and to give policy makers a more flexible tool in the future, rather than resorting to quantitative easing (QE).

In our battle to combat inflation, we fought for it to be as close to zero as it can be without grinding growth out. Two per cent seemed to be that point. However, now that we’ve got that control, we don’t have to keep it so low.

In 2007, if inflation had been at four per cent instead of two per cent, then interest rates would have been seven per cent rather than five per cent, and the Bank of England would have had more room to cut when crisis struck. In other words, they wouldn’t have needed to go beyond zero to engage QE.

Some people might say that since we’ve finally beaten inflation, it’s not wise to bring it back? But it’s not inflation that causes problems, it’s unpredictable inflation that we fear. If we had a high rate of say 10 per cent, but steady, year in year out, then companies and people would be able to plan around it. But if we didn’t know whether inflation will be 5 per cent or 15 per cent, then how much should a bank charge for a loan? Can a company calculate the profit they’ll make, if they don’t know how much the money will be worth. So four per cent is fine, as long as it’s steady.

The other benefit of running a higher inflation rate is that we would erode our debt much faster. If the interest on a gilt is four per cent, then two per cent inflation would cancel it out. If your mortgage were two per cent, then four per cent inflation would leave you with a negative real interest rate of minus two per cent.

Krugman accepts that this would be rewarding debtors for their past excesses, but argues that “economics is not a morality play.” Is he right to dismiss morality so easily? Surely modern day politicians make their living from telling bankers they are not good citizens. Is it appropriate to dismiss investors with the refrain of caveat emptor, buyer beware?

It’s worth remembering that no investor complained when QE was buying up that same debt for higher than it’s real value. Besides, if investors had feared inflation, they could have bought index linked gilts. These track inflation and rise in value proportionately. They make up only about 10 per cent of gilts. So when it comes to the other 90 per cent, I contend that ethical arguments are insufficient to reject the policy.

The big question is whether policy could easily switch inflation from two to four. Much of the cause of inflation is expectation. In the '70s, inflation was high because trade unions made demands for wage rises on the expected future inflation rate. These rises then caused inflation to rise to the same level, and unions would demand a rise again. It was self-perpetuating.

Conversely, when Gordon Brown made the Bank of England independent, inflation markedly dropped off and stayed low. This wasn’t due to a policy of the bank, but due to the confidence inspired by it’s independence.

Should a policy of increased inflation be kept a secret? My experience of politics is that if you have something controversial to say, then be confident, say it forcefully, then stick around to face down your critics. The public aren’t experts on economics. They will make judgements on the confidence of the advocate and the reaction of pundits.

On the question of whether the markets will react badly to such a policy, I think that depends on the timing. Right now, with no demand in the economy, the market wouldn’t react badly because they have nowhere else to go. These days most savers keep their money on deposit with an interest rate lower than inflation. They are losing money in preference to the uncertainty elsewhere.

There are few safe havens in today’s investment world, partly due to the bad policy imposed by politicians such as David Cameron and Angela Merkel. When considering our economic policy for a future government, we must recognise that controversial ideas of the past are becoming consensus of the present, and deserve our serious consideration as policy for the future.

The Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images

Dan McCurry  is a photographer in east London and a Labour activist. He is a former chair of the Bow Labour Party.

Photo: Getty Images
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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