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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.