The MPC has lost the plot again . . .

This time on inflation.

The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) appears to have lost the plot. It seems to have given up on targeting inflation. The likelihood is that, because of the committee's lack of action, the UK economy may well experience a bout of deflation that will be hard for the economy to recover from. This is a very big worry.

Its job is to target the CPI in the medium term. Specifically it is supposed to aim to get the CPI back to target two years ahead. Its normal policy trigger is to adjust interest rates up or down. Interest rates are at 0.5 per cent now and can't really go any lower. Hence, the MPC has been increasing the amount of money in existence by quantitative easing. Up to this point, it has injected just over £200bn of new money into the UK economy.

Today it issued its Inflation Report with its forecast for inflation and growth. The growth forecast is much more optimistic than those of other forecasters such as the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. But the inflation forecast is more interesting.

Below are two fan charts from the report which show the range of the forecast. The fan widens as time moves forward, as it is harder to forecast further into the future. For those who are technically minded, this is the 90 per cent confidence interval rather than the single line that most other forecasters produce, and suggests what the MPC sees as its range of error.

 

CPI inflation

 

The first chart (5.4) is the forecast produced today and the second (5.5) is the one produced in November 2009. It is clear that the central forecast for inflation -- the darkest part of the fans -- is lower two years out than it was in November. The vertical dotted line is the outcome that the MPC, by statute, focuses on, because its job is to target inflation a couple of years in the future. It can't do anything to influence the inflation rate next week or the week after. Changes in interest rates, and changes in quantitative easing, take some time to work through the economy.

Inflation is going to jump over the next few months, primarily because of the rise in petrol prices and the increase in VAT from 15 per cent to 17.5 per cent. Indeed, the likelihood is that the committee will have to write a letter to the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, explaining why inflation is above target. They will just say: "Don't worry, it will fall back down very quickly."

 

CPI inflation 2

 

But the big concern is that inflation is below the target two years out, according to the MPC's forecast. The implication of this is that the Bank of England either should have been cutting interest rates further by a lot, which it can't, or it should have been doing more quantitative easing. Another possibility is that the pound would have to fall further, which may be something the MPC is targeting.

And the committee's forecast for growth is incredibly optimistic. It is much more optimistic than I think is reasonable, and also more optimistic than the recent projections from the NIESR. If output turns out to be lower than the MPC forecast, then inflation will be even lower. The likelihood is that before two years are up, even based on this forecast, the committee will have to write a letter to the Chancellor explaining why inflation is below the target!

The MPC conditions its forecast on market interest rates, which have fallen since November, so that should imply more inflation, not less, as such a change is stimulative. The MPC doesn't forecast these rates in its report but just accepts what the markets predict they will be. Worryingly, even when the assumption is made that interest rates will remain at 0.5 per cent across the forecast horizon, inflation never hits the target. It did hit the target in November using this assumption. So the implication is that the future will be more disinflationary than the MPC thought in the past.

The implication of this latest inflation forecast is that the MPC needs to put more stimulus into the market. In normal times, I would be voting for a big cut in rates, perhaps as big as 150 basis points. These days I would also be voting for lots more QE -- and sensible members of the MPC such as David Miles probably did that. An alternative would be to see the exchange rate fall in the wake of this news -- which it already has this morning -- and for gilts to rise, which they also have done this morning. It is now clear that interest rates are not going to rise any time soon, and so the expectation is that the yield curve will fall further.

As each week goes by, I am becoming more and more convinced that this MPC is not fit for purpose. The Inflation Report published today was another nail in its coffin.

David ("Danny") Blanchflower is Bruce V Rauner Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and professor of economics at the University of Stirling. He is a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee. His economics column appears weekly in the New Statesman.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.