These are the clearly audible words spoken by Michael Fallon, member of the Treasury Select Committee, to Andrew Tyrie, the Committee chairman at the end of the evidence given by Robert Chote, new chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Why did Mr Fallon MP call for the return of the Treasury’s chief economic adviser rather than the shiny new representative of the independent OBR?
Briefly, because Mr Chote irritated the Committee by playing with a dead straight bat, avoiding questions and talking round issues. The Committee was upset that the OBR had not performed sensitivity tests on not-so-extreme scenarios such as large exchange rate fluctuations following a crisis in the eurozone and that the scenarios tested by the Office were pretty benign.
The result was much as with Martin Weale’s appointment to the Monetary Policy Committee
There is inevitably a focus on forecast revisions when any official body produces new predictions about the future. Today the Office for Budget Responsibility, Britain’s new fiscal watchdog, raised the 2010 growth forecast to 1.8 per cent and dropped the 2011 forecast from 2.3 per cent to 2.1 per cent, as the FT reported in recent days.
Robert Chote, the OBR’s new chair, also gave his endorsement to the deficit reduction plan, saying the government had a greater than 50:50 chance of wiping out the hole in the public finances within five years. All of this was incredibly easy to predict.
The interesting decisions taken by the OBR were on its estimate of the fiscal multiplier and its view of the degree of spare capacity in the economy. The first matters because it determines the official view of the effect of budget consolidation on growth. The latter matters because the degree of spare capacity determines the OBR’s view of the size of the hole in the public finances, but has the annoying problem of being impossible to measure. On these two issues, Mr Chote is gung-ho on the multipliers, but displays wise caution on sounding too certain about spare capacity.
Today’s public finances figures show net borrowing roughly on track to reach the Budget forecast for the deficit in 2010-11, as the chart shows.
This should be good news as persistent slippage on the public finances has stopped and the very early evidence shows the consolidation is roughly on track.
But because of the dotty way the Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility have looked at the public finances in the past, this is not good enough. In fact, on plausible assumptions, we need another £5bn of tax rises or spending cuts a year to meet the fiscal mandate of eliminating the current “structural” budget deficit within five years.
Why is good news actually bad in the weird world of government forecasting?
In a nutshell because
At today’s Monetary Policy Committee meeting, Andrew Sentance goes head-to-head with Adam Posen in a bid to sway the mushy middle of the Bank of England’s MPC to his point of view. Like most analysts, the betting is that neither will succeed and the Bank will leave policy unchanged with interest rates at 0.5 per cent and a stock of £200bn of assets purchased under the programme of quantitative easing.
As a paid-up member of the mushy crowd, I share Mr Posen’s theoretical concern that deficient demand will have permanent effects, but also Mr Sentance’s observation that the evidence for these worries is lacking.
So, following Robin’s good practice and the wise words of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke from January, I wondered whether the use of a simple rule of thumb – a Taylor Rule – could help guide us where UK interest rates should be going.
The short answer is no.
Chris has an excellent post about optimists and pessimists on the UK economy and how you tell the difference.
As Chris puts it:
The Treasury, the IMF, the Office for Budget Responsibility and most in the Bank of England are the pessimists. They believe one of the two following possibilities: either that lots of capacity was lost permanently in the recession, or that the economy was fundamentally unsustainable before the downturn, as shown in this graph. I understand the IMF’s latest estimate is that the output gap is only 3 per cent.
The reporting of the International Monetary Fund’s assessment of the British economy and the important speech by Adam Posen has given the impression that the Fund is optimistic about UK prospects while Mr Posen is pessimistic. That is the inevitable consequence of news reports focus on downside risks to policy (the IMF gushed while Posen fretted). In fact, the reverse is true.
The argument, once again, hinges on the assessment of the UK’s potential for growth.
- The Treasury, the IMF, the Office for Budget Responsibility and most in the Bank of England are the pessimists. They believe one of the two following possibilities: either that lots of capacity was lost permanently in the recession, or that the economy was fundamentally unsustainable before the downturn, as shown in this graph. I understand the IMF’s latest estimate is that the output gap is only 3 per cent.
- Mr Posen and Ed Balls, shadow schools secretary, are optimistic. They believe that output is fundamentally below potential and significant spare capacity exists, at least for now. That means growth can and should be higher.
What follows from this distinction?
Everything. In monetary policy,
The IMF tends to be a bit sniffy about countries’ economic policies in its annual report on countries’ economies. That often helps finance ministries in domestic political battles to do the right thing.
But with the new government adopting Fund-friendly fiscal policy, the Bank of England insisting it is ready to act either way on monetary policy and a strengthening of financial policies on the way, the Fund has been reduced to a schoolkid’s crush in its latest assessment of the UK economy. I understand from the Treasury that the chancellor is pleased.
Here are some highlights. On the immediate economic outlook:
“This progressive strengthening of private and external demand should underpin a moderate-paced recovery, even as the public sector retrenches.”
Even though the IMF said
No surprise. It’s Robert Chote for the OBR. Subject to confirmation by the Treasury Select Committee, he will start as office for Budget Responsibility chair almost immediately.
Obviously on the agenda will be hiring the two other members of the Budget Responsibility Committee, setting up the OBR in new premises, negotiating its budget with the Treasury, recruiting staff and producing the autumn economic forecast towards the end of the year.
The new OBR chair has to restore confidence in the institution by demonstrating immediate independence from government. This must be a primary task of his confirmation hearing at the Treasury Select Committee next week.
The chancellor has certainly removed most doubts about the independence of the selection with the choice of Mr Chote, who has led the Institute for Fiscal Studies for the past eight years. The organisation has independence in its DNA and following criticism of Labour’s fiscal tricks, it recently demolished the Conservative’s silly claim to have delivered a progressive Budget.
But authority is more difficult.
There were some very good presentations at the Monetary Policy Forum, organised by Fathom Consulting this morning, all of which highlighted what a difficult job the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee has at the moment. Cogent arguments can be made both for loosening and tightening monetary policy.
Charles Goodhart, former Bank chief economist, MPC member and general guru, said that were he on the MPC now, he would wish he could do a Rip Van Winkle, go to sleep until 2012, and wake up once some of the uncertainty over the recovery is removed. Why? “Because the next year and a bit will be fairly horrific”.
The reason things look so difficult for monetary policy is that the outlook for the inflation-growth trade-off has worsened. When Fathom plug the latest data through their replica of the Bank of England’s main economic model they first find that the Bank seems to be seriously over-optimistic on growth as their chart shows.
Now, neither Fathom nor anyone else can accurately replicate the MPC forecasts because the published versions rest on judgments by the Committee members as much as the model’s outputs. But the argument put forward
No-one predicted that the UK economy would storm ahead quite so much in the second quarter. Initial estimates from the Office for National Statistics suggest the economy grew by 1.1 per cent between April and June compared with the previous quarter – far above the already pretty strong consensus of 0.6 per cent. The surprise came because services was measured to have stormed ahead in May, by 1 per cent.
There is no doubt that this is above-trend growth and it helps to explain the favourable tax revenue, labour market and survey data that have been a feature of the British economy for some time. Construction, business services, finance and government services were the biggest contributors to this growth rate. While government services cannot continue to contribute 0.2 percentage points to growth in future quarters, given the looming cuts, there is no reason to say other sectors will automatically fall back.
For the authorities, this unexpected good news really puts the cat among the pigeons. For the Bank of England, this is evidence the recovery is gathering steam and ultra-loose monetary policy is working. It also helps to explain a little why inflation has been overshooting. It will certainly make it much easier for the Monetary Policy Committee to argue that there is no need to loosen monetary policy in response to the tough Budget. And it will raise expectations of higher interest rates again, if this remarkable quarter of growth continues.