Thankfully, the MPC did the right thing and kept rates on hold, in contrast to the ECB, which raised rates to 1.5 per cent. There is no evidence in either the UK or the euro area of a wage-price spiral emerging and inflation is expected to fall in the euro area, as the effects of the recent oil and commodity price increases drop out. Therefore, the ECB’s move looks to be a classic policy error, as this will exacerbate the growth problems experienced by all countries.
As background, I looked at the latest data from Eurostat and plotted data on wages, inflation and changes in producer prices, which are presented below. What stands out is that there is no evidence of substantial increases in nominal hourly wage costs in any country; the highest increase is a paltry 3.8 per cent in France. Greece has seen a fall of 6.8 per cent. For the euro area, the average is 2.6 per cent and it is 2.1 per cent in the UK. The story is similar on inflation, which did not increase at all in the euro area over the past month and fell in five countries including Germany. Producer prices fell by 0.2 per cent in the euro area and in nine of the 17 euro area countries. What inflation? As I said, the ECB has made a major policy error, just as it did in July 2008 when it raised rates. This move to raise rates is madness, as it will lower growth in the euro area. Well done, MPC.
Another piece of evidence supporting the MPC’s decision to sit tight was NIESR’s latest forecast for the UK economy, published today. Although I think it should have done more quantitative easing (QE) as the economy is slowing — but that is for another day.
Buried in the data is a potential bombshell for George “Slasher” Osborne. NIESR’s monthly estimates of GDP suggest that output grew by only 0.1 per cent in the three months ending in June after growth of 0.5 per cent in the three months ending in May. In part, this was because the effects of one-off events in April have depressed the overall quarterly growth rate. However, even accounting for these factors, the underlying rate of growth NIESR believes is still likely to be weak. This compares with the OBR’s forecast of 0.8 per cent.
Commenting on the forecast, Simon Kirby at NIESR argued that: “Economic growth in the UK continues to be subdued. In our April forecast, we expected growth to pick up in the second half of this year to around 0.5 per cent per quarter. We expect the domestic economy to contract throughout this year, leaving net exports as the major positive contributor to economic growth. There will continue to be much talk of continued economic growth over the coming months but it certainly won’t feel like it to most people. As with any forecast, there is uncertainty and risk around the outlook. At present, the risks to growth are firmly balanced on the downside.”
NIESR goes on to argue in its report that: “These figures do not provide a picture of economic growth that would support a tightening of monetary policy at this juncture.” This is a not-too-subtle dig at NIESR’s previous director Martin Weale, who left to join the MPC in August 2010 and has voted for rate increases over the past six meetings and presumably did so again today. His recent claim that raising rates now means that they won’t have to be increased as much in the future is abject nonsense with no basis in economics or common sense.
The biggest news in the NIESR forecast is contained in the attached graph. This shows for the current recession and the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, as well as the 1930s, the extent of the drop in output measured on the vertical axis and the length of time it takes for output to be restored. In the 1970s, recession output fell by 4 per cent and it took 36 months for output to get back to its starting level. In contrast, in the 1980s, output dropped 6 per cent and took 48 months to be restored. In the 1930s, output dropped by 6 per cent with a double-dip in the middle and also took 48 months to be restored.
NIESR has kindly provided me with an updated version to the one it published, which also contains estimates of when the recession will be over, measured by the point at which output will reach the level it was at the start of the recession in 2008. That is the black diamond on the right of the graph. This suggests NIESR believes that this recession will be the longest-lasting in a century and output will not be restored for at least five years. This is based on NIESR’s forecast for April but, given Simon Kirby’s view that the risks are to the downside and the Q2 2011 forecast, then recovery could well take even longer than that. NIESR is, for example, forecasting growth of 0.5 per cent in both Q3 2010 and Q4 2010, which does look overly optimistic.
If NIESR is right, Osborne’s policies will be responsible for the worst recession in a century — and maybe it should be named the “Second Great Depression”. This suggests an economic policy U-turn on the fiscal front must be in the offing. It also raises the prospect of the MPC doing more QE before the end of the year.