Bank of England

©J. McHugh

The UK coalition government has reached almost exactly the halfway point in its electoral term. Quite soon, it will be too late for it to change its economic approach in time for the results to be seen before it goes to the polls on May 7 2015. Whether the prime minister recognises it or not, he is therefore facing a major strategic choice. Should the government change tack, while there is still time?

The strategy chosen by chancellor George Osborne in 2010 was based on a more rapid tightening in budgetary policy than was adopted in most other developed economies. The chancellor knew that the Bank of England would aggressively ease monetary policy in support of his plan, and hoped that this would result in a sharp depreciation of the real exchange rate, though he did not say this in public.

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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

The growth rate of the global economy is experiencing its weakest patch since the “upswing” in the cycle began in 2009. Of course, it has never been much of an “upswing”, given the depth of the recession which followed the financial crisis at the end of 2008. Still, the big picture seemed to suggest that global GDP was slowly on the mend, if not at a pace which could reduce global unemployment very rapidly. Now, even that modest recovery seems to be at risk.

Yesterday, we saw another leg of the policy response to this renewed slowdown. Monetary easing from the ECB, the Bank of China and the Bank of England followed earlier action by the Federal Reserve. As noted in this earlier blog, the central banks are back in play.

Markets have not been oblivious to this renewed round of easing: since the end of May, global equities have risen by 8 per cent and commodity prices have recently rebounded from their lows in spectacular fashion. Although ”shock and awe” from the central banks seems to have been replaced by a sense of rather tiresome routine, the impact of QE on market psychology has not entirely lost its traction.

That will only last, however, if the current global slowdown proves to be just another mid-year lull in a generally recovering world economy. So what are we to make of recent data? Read more

For the first time in quite a while, the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England has today made a knife-edge decision which genuinely might have gone either way. The outcome, which was to leave the total of quantitative easing unchanged at £325bn, tells us something about the inflation fighting credentials of the MPC, which have been widely questioned in the financial markets. And it also tells us something about the way in which other central banks, including the Fed, might react to similar, if less strained, economic circumstances in coming months. Read more

The UK GDP figures for 2012 Q1 are due to be published on Wednesday, and are likely to be followed by the usual out-pouring of angst about whether the economy is in a “technical” recession. This will clearly have important political connotations, but does not mean very much in a deeper economic context. The initial estimates for quarterly GDP are notoriously unreliable, and are no longer taken as the best estimate of UK economic activity even by the Bank of England.

No-one should read too much into the Q1 data, since the GDP outcome for the quarter is likely to be either slightly positive or slightly negative, depending on what happens in the construction sector. This volatile sector seems to have recorded a large drop in output in Q1, and since it represents 7.5 per cent of the economy, it is capable of being the swing factor which decides whether the Office for National Statistics prints a positive or negative GDP number for Q1. In the latter case, the media would probably scream “recession”, on the grounds that the economy would have experienced two back-to-back quarters of negative GDP growth.

In fact, most economists think that the figure will scrape into positive territory, but in any event no Chancellor deserves to be hanged on such flimsy grounds. 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.

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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:

  1. How different will this prove to be in practice from the old status quo?
  2. Is it a good idea from an economic point of view?
  3. 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

The debate about whether the ECB should engage in open-ended purchases of eurozone sovereign debt rages on, and the financial markets continue to follow every twist and turn with rapt attention. This debate has legal, economic and political aspects, none of which have been confronted before in exactly this form. The custom and practice of central banking, and of the relationships between central banks and fiscal policy, is being rewritten under the glare of a global spotlight, and in the harshest of circumstances. 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