Interest rates

Abenomics, the term given to the reform package Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe launched to revive the country’s economy, is based on two myths. One is that the economy has performed badly and the second is that this non-existent failure has been due to deflation. Despite its lack of intellectual justification, the attempt to stop deflation has been a success as the accompanying rhetoric and monetary policy have produced yen weakness. This was an essential step towards solving Japan’s fiscal problem and, as the rhetoric has been about deflation rather than devaluation, the dramatic weakness of the currency has been achieved without international opprobrium.

Over time the devaluation should result in an improved current account. This will allow the fiscal deficit to fall while the economy moves ahead, but it is not enough on its own. The other essential is to reduce the cash flow surplus of the business sector. Having achieved success in step one, largely by accident, there is a chance that Abenomics will succeed in step two. If it does, it is again likely to be an accident. Read more

Ian McCafferty, an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, believes “Britain’s ‘productivity puzzle’ will persist as the economy recovers because much of the decline in output is structurally entrenched.” As a result, Mr McCafferty believes that the Bank of England “should not ‘hold back too long’ on interest rate rises”.

Scarcely a day passes without some reference to the UK’s “productivity puzzle” and a claim that the poor productivity is “inexplicable”. This reflects a failure to understand how and why the economy has changed. Poor productivity is so readily explicable that it should cause no surprise. It is, as I have sought to explain before, the natural result of the change in management incentives. Read more

It is widely, but by no means universally, accepted among economists that the “rate of interest” is closely related to growth. It is, however, also generally accepted that this applies to a closed economy, such as the world as a whole.

The growth rate of G5 countries has been declining steadily for years, and this trend has recently accelerated, as chart one shows. It seems likely that low growth has become endemic and this is being widely interpreted as implying that real interest rates will remain low. This view strikes me as being unjustified on theoretical grounds and is also a very dubious conclusion to draw from the past. Read more

“When will the Bank of England raise interest rates?” is the usual question. “When should it?” is the important one. The bank has a long history of “acting too little and too late”. As I explained in inflation and deflation, inflation is more dangerous than deflation and prudent central bankers would rather act too soon to raise rates than be too late and then be forced to cause a recession to get inflationary expectations back under control.

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Comments are flying around about whether inflation or deflation is the greater risk. This is almost invariably interpreted as asking which is the most likely and therefore misses the central point. Inflation is a much greater risk – not because it is more likely but because its consequences are far worse.

Deflation has been demonised. It has been harmless or even beneficial in Japan. While I think it would hurt the eurozone, its impact would be mild and easily reversed – or it would be if German economic policy was not so obstinately foolish. Inflation poses a much more serious problem, particularly in Japan, the UK and the US. Read more