Lord Jim O’Neill, formerly my colleague and chief economist at Goldman Sachs, has just delivered his maiden speech as the new commercial secretary at the UK Treasury. He said that one of the government’s “primary objectives is to deliver a step change in the nation’s productivity”. Even for him, this represents a tough challenge. After featuring barely at all in the recent election campaign, low productivity growth has rightly become public enemy No 1.
Falling productivity growth has been an increasingly serious problem for most advanced economies since the early 2000s, when the boost from IT seems to have run out of steam. But the problem has been particularly severe since the 2008 financial crash, and the collapse in the UK since then has been much greater than in other advanced economies.
Overall, UK productivity had fallen about 16 percentage points below its previous trends by 2014, about a quarter of which might be due to faulty measurement in the official data. If the UK government is to make any inroads into the problem, it first needs to solve the “puzzle” of why the rest of this huge shortfall has occurred. Read more
The generally optimistic tone at Davos last week was rudely interrupted by a melt-down in emerging markets, triggered by concerns that the major central banks in the developed economies are contemplating an exit from easy money sooner than previously expected.
The Fed will probably take its second step towards tapering next Wednesday and now seems to be on auto-pilot for the rest of the year. More surprisingly, the Bank of Japan sounded some cautious notes about the likelihood of further quantitative easing when fiscal policy tightens in April. Finally, the UK authorities, in the shape of “aides of the Chancellor”, hinted that a rise in short rates may be no bad thing this year.
A significant shift towards tighter monetary policy in the developed world as a whole still seems extremely unlikely, given the deflation risks highlighted by the IMF last week.
But the British case is now very intriguing and, after contradictory messages at Davos, also somewhat confused.
Because of low productivity, the level of UK GDP continues to lag well behind the recovery from the Great Recession achieved in many other economies. But the remarkable recent surge in UK growth rates, along with a sharp fall in unemployment, means that the Bank of England now has to reconsider its entire monetary stance. With forward guidance now in murky waters, the markets will want greater clarity in the next Inflation Report in February. Read more
Mark Carney’s announcements today about the UK housing market represent the first blast from a major country of a new policy weapon that is increasingly available to the global central banks, a weapon known as macro prudential regulation. Because this weapon is seen as an alternative to raising short rates, not as a prelude to raising them, the Carney intervention should logically under-pin the lower-for-longer path for short rates discussed in his evidence to the Treasury Select Committee earlier this week. Mr Carney has turned more hawkish today, but not more hawkish about interest rates or sterling.
The Carney announcement will represent an important restraint on the UK housing market, which was showing distinct signs of getting too ebullient in the south east of the country. By acting early, and using methods that are distinct from the short term interest rate, this action may well make the economic recovery in the UK more durable than otherwise, though it may slow down some parts of the consumer sector in the immediate future. Read more
After more than 20 years, and 82 issues, Sir Mervyn King has delivered his last Inflation Report. The transparency and rationality of this innovation has been one of Britain’s most important gifts to the world in recent times, even if the UK has not actually been very good at controlling inflation itself since 2008. As its main architect and, in his own words, the UK’s “consistent monetary referee”, Sir Mervyn deserves great credit. I hope that, in retirement, he will receive it.
The economic message of today’s report is a familiar one. Inflation has been revised down so that it is shown to hit the 2 per cent target in two years’ time, and real GDP is forecast to recover gradually. Similar forecasts have proven too optimistic in the past, but this time there are clear indications that the Bank will be introducing new forms of policy easing in the next few months, which may underpin the economic recovery.
Following the astonishing arrival of Governor Kuroda in Japan, Mr Carney must be sorely tempted to follow suit in trying to jolt UK economic expectations towards a new equilibrium. He is likely to get plenty of encouragement in this from the chancellor, who emphasised in the Budget that “monetary activism” is a core part of his overall economic strategy.
In fact, Mr Osborne has asked the Bank to focus in the August Inflation Report on how the UK might adopt forward policy guidance, with thresholds, following the example of what the Fed did (successfully) last December. This is an unusually specific request from the Treasury, and even Sir Mervyn seemed sympathetic to this approach today.
In the context of high British inflation, there are serious impediments to repeating the fireworks unleashed by the BoJ, but some progress can be made, Fed-style. What exactly can we expect? Read more
Martin Wolf’s column on Wednesday and his subsequent blogpost have once again focused attention on the importance of trade flows in the eurozone. Martin’s argument is that the German strategy of fiscal austerity and internal reform to fix the imbalances needs to change. I would like to ask a different question, which is what happens in the likely event that it does not change?
Investors, ever more optimistic that the worst of the euro crisis is over, are asking whether the German strategy might actually work. Largely unnoticed by some, eurozone trade imbalances have in fact improved dramatically in recent years. But this has happened mainly for the wrong reasons, ie recession in the south rather than any large narrowing in the competitiveness gap. The eurozone is engaged in a race between the gradual pace of internal devaluation and the mercurial nature of democratic politics. It is still not obvious how this race will end.
When the euro was launched in 1999, its supporters believed that the balance of payments crises which had plagued its weaker members for decades would become a relic of the past. The crisis revealed this view to be entirely complacent. The current account imbalances which were generated by the peripheral economies during the boom of the 2000s soon became impossible to finance after the crash. It was only the growth of so-called “Target2″ imbalances on the ECB’s balance sheet which provided the official financing which held the system together. No Target2, no euro.
However, some of the contingent credits which the Bundesbank has acquired against the rest of the ECB in the course of this process might become worthless under certain break-up scenarios, and this has become a political hot potato inside Germany. The solution, many in Germany believe, is to foster an improvement in the balance of payments positions of the troubled economies so that no further rise in the Target2 imbalances will be needed. Read more
The new Funding for Lending Scheme (FLS) announced today in the UK is a useful and sensible development. It directly attacks the important micro problem of inadequate lending to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). But it is unlikely to have large scale macro-economic effects.
The FLS was introduced last July to address the increase in the funding costs which British banks were incurring as a result of spill-overs from the eurozone crisis. This had increased lending rates on UK mortgages and corporate loans at a time when the monetary policy committee was trying very hard to ease overall monetary conditions in the UK. And the FLS was the chancellor’s main response last year to the charge that he was deaf to the needs of the real economy, and inflexible in his pursuit of austerity policies.
Almost a year later, the verdict on the FLS is that it has significantly reduced banks’ funding costs, with the benefits of that being mostly passed on to mortgage and company borrowers, but that it has had relatively little effect on overall bank lending to companies, especially to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).
Today’s extension to the FLS greatly increases the incentive for banks to skew their lending to SMEs by offering them larger overall access to subsidised funding if they do that. Every pound of SME lending in 2013 will contribute tenfold to the banks’ eligible total of subsidised FLS lending. In 2014, it will contribute fivefold.
Furthermore, today’s announcement extends the FLS by 12 months to the start of 2015, thus re-assuring banks that their access to cheap funding for new lending will not suddenly disappear early next year. The Chancellor also hopes that the new FLS will help to influence the IMF’s response to his overall economic approach when they visit the UK shortly. Read more
Predictably, the chancellor has rejected calls for a radical change in his economic strategy. Plan A has not morphed into Plan B. If anything, it has become Plan A-plus, with the underlying path for fiscal tightening left unchanged, and a little more flexibility for the Bank of England to pursue unconventional monetary stimulus.
UK real GDP is still stuck some 5 per cent below its pre-crisis level, the worst record among the major economies, apart from Italy. Some of this is certainly due to the problems which the Coalition inherited. However, about half of the shortfall in UK growth in recent years, compared to that in the US, is due to the tightening of 5 per cent of GDP in fiscal policy since 2009/10.
The dominant criticism of the government from mainstream economists is, of course, that the poor performance of UK GDP is due to a shortfall in aggregate demand, which in turn is primarily due to these fiscal measures. The Chancellor’s reply is that the UK could have faced a fiscal crisis without his budgets. The fact that public debt is now forecast to rise to 85 per cent of GDP in 2017/18 suggests that his concerns are not easy to dismiss as scare-mongering. Read more
The sterling exchange rate has now declined by about 7 per cent this year, thus eliminating all of the rise which occurred when the euro crisis was in full flood in 2011-12. Investors are asking three main questions about the drop in sterling. When will it end? Will it succeed in boosting UK economic growth? And could it, conceivably, lead to a full blown sterling crisis? Read more
Mark Carney will not take up his position as governor of the Bank of England until July 1 2013, but in the interim he will be speaking frequently about monetary policy in his current role as governor of the Bank of Canada. It is inevitable that his words will now be judged in a new light, especially when he makes generic comments about monetary policy, rather than specific remarks confined to the Canadian situation.
This is why his speech on “guidance” on Tuesday was so interesting. Although he stated that this speech did not contain any direct signals about policy in Canada or anywhere else, it did give clear indications about his general thinking on the future of unconventional monetary easing. To add, his thinking appears to be different in several important respects from that of the Bank of England’s current governor and the monetary policy committee. Mr Carney is not exactly naive, and he must surely have realised his words would be interpreted in this way. Read more
The chancellor’s Autumn Statement exactly marks the halfway point in the current UK parliament, and sets a course for the next election which will now be hard to change. When the coalition embarked on its economic strategy in 2010, it was fully expected that there would be a bleak electoral patch in mid-term, but the Treasury believed that the strategy would be seen to be successful by 2015. In point of fact, however, the mid term blues have been worse than predicted, and GDP forecasts for the remainder of the parliament have been sharply downgraded.
Mr Osborne has reacted to these developments by amending his budgetary strategy in two respects. First, he has allowed the fiscal stabilisers to operate in full, so the effects of the GDP downgrades have been reflected in extra public borrowing in 2011/12 and 2012/13. Sensibly, he has not been overly rigid and there has been no attempt stick to his original fiscal path. As a result, there has been almost no tightening in the underlying fiscal stance this year, and the planned tightening for next year is about 1 per cent of GDP, similar to the plans in other major economies.
Second, he has extended the time period over which the fiscal austerity will take effect, so that his formal fiscal objectives will be reached in 2016/17, instead of 2015/16. The fiscal stance will tighten by about 1 per cent of GDP in each of the next 5 years. The same amount of fiscal austerity, spread over a longer period, is the consequence of these changes. Read more
Canadian Central Bank governor Mark Carney has been appointed as Sir Mervyn King's successor. Getty
Congratulations and best wishes to Mark Carney. When he becomes governor of the Bank of England next June, he will assume one of the three or four most important roles in global finance.
In fact, it will be a role much broader than that of his immediate predecessors at the Bank, who have not been directly responsible either for microprudential supervision of financial entities, or for the macro-prudential supervision of the financial system as a whole. Under the new regulatory structure designed by Chancellor George Osborne, the new governor will now assume responsibility for both of these tasks, as well as for monetary policy. Read more
Today’s UK GDP figures provide a welcome ray of light after several quarters of unremitting gloom from the official statisticians. The underlying state of the economy is, of course, not as good as shown in the headline growth rate of 1 per cent in Q3 (4 per cent annualised compared with Q2). But previous quarters were wrong in the other direction, not least because of the infuriating tendency of the Office for National Statistics to understate GDP in its initial estimates for each period.
Stripping out the effects of the Jubilee Bank Holiday and the Olympics, the underlying growth rate in Q3 is probably about 0.2-0.3 per cent (0.8-1.2 per cent annualised). Kevin Daly at Goldman Sachs produces a UK activity indicator that has been growing at an annualised rate of about 1 per cent throughout 2012. This is scarcely an acceptable rate, considering how far real GDP fell during the recession in 2008/2009, but nor is it as bad as is often suggested.
The economy has not, in reality, fallen into a double dip recession this year. And because productivity growth has been so low, this low rate of GDP growth has been associated with a sharp pick-up in private sector employment. Unsatisfactory, but far from catastrophic, would seem to me the right verdict. Read more
As the IMF meetings close in Tokyo this weekend, it is obvious that governments are struggling to find the correct balance between controlling public debt, which now exceeds 110 per cent of GDP for the advanced economies, and boosting the rate of economic growth. The former objective requires more budgetary tightening, while the latter requires the opposite. Is there any way around this?
One radical option now being discussed is to cancel (or, in polite language, “restructure”) part of the government debt that has been acquired by the central banks as a consequence of quantitative easing (QE). After all, the government and the central bank are both firmly within the public sector, so a consolidated public sector balance sheet would net this debt out entirely. Read more
In recent years, UK Budget Day has become the occasion for an outbreak of hand-wringing from the economics profession. Downward revisions to GDP forecasts, and upward revisions to budget deficit projections, have become the norm. Those who have criticised the chancellor for tightening fiscal policy far too quickly have increasingly felt vindicated. Calls for a Plan B, involving less fiscal stringency in the immediate future, have become deafening.
Today may be rather different. For the first time in quite a while, there is no good reason for the Office for Budget Responsibility to downgrade its previous views on the economy. The underlying improvement in the budget deficit (adjusted for the absorption of the Royal Mail pension fund into the government accounts) will stay much the same as the OBR expected in November. If you believed it then, there is no new reason to doubt it now. That should allow the chancellor to focus on micro-economic issues, such as the tax treatment of higher earners, which will generate enormous political heat, but which will not alter the path for the economy very much in either direction.
The political and economic debate on fiscal policy has become increasingly polarised in many countries, and as a result seems to have reached a dead end. Some economists are so concerned about the present rapid rise in government debt that they favour immediate fiscal tightening. Others are so concerned about the risk of renewed recession, and are so unconcerned about the risks from extra public debt, that they demand immediate fiscal easing on a large scale.
In many economies, this debate has now reached a stand-off, in which governments are trying to reduce deficits and debt only very gradually, while hoping that a recovery in private expenditure will keep the economy out of recession. The result, which satisfies nobody, is very slow GDP growth and a continuing rise in public debt ratios. Read more
The Bank of England meets on Thursday with expectations running high that the MPC will announce a further large dose of quantitative easing. Even if they pass this month, which seems possible, this is likely to be only a temporary postponement. Whenever it comes, the next move will be another bout of “plain vanilla” QE, involving the purchase of £50-75bn of government bonds, and taking the overall Bank of England holdings to over one third of the total stock of gilts in issue.
Meanwhile, the Fed is still debating whether to increase its holdings of long dated securities, and if so whether to focus once again on government debt, or to re-open its purchases of mortgages. Any further QE would be contentious on the FOMC, but there is probably still a majority in favour.
Central bankers, unlike many others, have not lost faith in the efficacy of QE. The vast majority of them not only believe that additional asset purchases can further reduce long term bond yields at a time of zero short term interest rates, but also that this can increase real GDP growth, compared with what otherwise would have occurred. Are they right? Read more
Amid all the focus on the UK’s decision to use its veto, it is important not to miss the main economic outcome of the summit, which is that the agreement heralds a new era in European policymaking. The German approach to fiscal policy will now be writ large across the eurozone. This raises three key questions:
- How different will this prove to be in practice from the old status quo?
- Is it a good idea from an economic point of view?
- Does it allow the European Central Bank in future to play the same role in the eurozone as the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have been playing in the US and the UK?
My initial take on the deal is that it will be sufficient to dampen the acute phase of the crisis, but that the absence of a clear long-term strategy for growth means that there could still be a long period of chronic problems ahead. Read more
An overseas friend asked me last week: “How is the guinea pig doing?” He meant the UK economy, which has embarked on an extreme version of the tight fiscal/easy monetary mix which all other developed economies are trying in varying doses. The answer I gave him was that Plan A was severely fraying around the edges, but that it just about remained intact.
That has become clearer with the decision by the Bank of England to re-launch QE in much larger size than anyone expected. While this is consistent with Plan A, there do seem to be differences between the Treasury and the Bank over the nature of the quantitative easing which the Bank is pursuing. These revolve around the question of whether unconventional QE should now be on the agenda. Read more