The Bank of England was granted independence to set interest rates back in 1997. In setting rates its looks to meet the government’s annual inflation rate target of 2 per cent (with a range of tolerance of up to 1 percentage point).
The economic benefits of delegating interest rate decisions to a body like the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) are often taken for granted. But, in David Blanchflower’s article in the Independent Newspaper on 14 May, the former MPC member questions whether, at least in recent years, better decisions would have been made by the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In other words, could politicians have made more appropriate monetary policy choices?
Central bank independence has become increasingly popular. Many governments have taken steps to depoliticise monetary policy choices and to hand over important powers, such as setting interest rates, to central bankers. One of the main advantages, it is argued, is that politicians are no longer able to manipulate monetary policy choices in order to try and affect their popularity and their chances of being re-elected. The policy announcements of central bankers are said to be more credible because they do not have the incentive to deviate from their announced policy. For instance, the low inflation announcements of elected policy-makers lack credibility because politicians have an incentive to inflate the economy and so boost growth and employment prior to the election.
The incentive for a pre-election dash for growth means that the general public are reluctant to bargain for low wage increases in case policy is loosened or is looser than it should be given the prevailing economic climate. In this case, it might mean that interest rates are lower than they would otherwise be in the run up to the election. In order to protect their spending power households bargain for higher wage increases than they would if the policy announcements could be trusted. In contrast, the low inflation announcements of central bankers have credibility and so inflation will be lower. In terms of economic jargon, central bank independence will reduce inflation bias as well as promoting economic stability.
Blanchflower questions whether the path of interest rates in the UK between 1997 and 2007 would have been materially different should the Treasury have been setting interest rates rather than the MPC. But, he believes that:
Interest rates would probably have been higher in 2007 as the housing boom was ranging and house price to earnings ratios approached unsustainable levels. Alistair Darling has made it clear he would have cut rates earlier in 2008, if it had been left to him….
Blanchflower argues that part of the reason that the Treasury might have made better choices in the more recent past is the narrow remit of the Bank of England to target inflation. He argues:
Now is the time to consider switching to a dual mandate that would include growth, which would give much needed flexibility.
Blanchflower calls into question the idea that targeting inflation alone can bring stability. The recent past he argues simply dispels this notion. To help form your own views try having a read of the full article and then answer the questions below.
David Blanchflower Article
The recession deniers have gone strangely quiet this month Independent, David Blanchflower (14/05/12)
- If economic growth is a good thing, why might we want to reduce the chances of policymakers manipulating policy to attempt a pre-election dash for growth?
- What do you understand by credible economic policy announcements? How might a lack of credibility affect the economy’s rate of inflation?
- What does central bank independence mean for the conduct of monetary policy in the UK? In answering this you might wish to visit the Bank of England website and read about the UK’s monetary policy framework.
- Try summarising David Blanchflower’s argument against the inflation rate remit of the Bank of England.
- What do you consider to be the possible dangers of widening the Bank of England’s remit beyond just targeting the annual rate of CPI inflation?
- Central bank independence is one way in which governments can constrain their discretion over economic policy. In what other ways can they constrain their policy choices?
- Do you think governments should have full discretion over their policy choices or do you think there should be limits?
The latest inflation release from the Office for National Statistics shows the annual rate of CPI inflation for April at 3.7%, up from 3.4% in March. In other words, the average price of a basket of consumer goods – the Consumer Price Index – was 3.7% higher in April than in the same month last year. In three of the last four months, the rate of inflation has been in letter-writing territory, i.e. more than 1 percentage point away from the government’s central inflation rate target of 2%. Of course, this time it was George Osborne, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was the recipient of the obligatory explanatory letter from Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England.
Over the past six months the average annual rate of rate of consumer price inflation in the UK has been 3.1%. It is, therefore, no surprise that there is considerable debate amongst commentators about the need for the Bank to raise interest rates. Part of the debate concerns the extent to which the Bank is right to argue that the current inflationary pressures are essentially short term and, according to May’s letter from the Governor to the Chancellor ‘are masking the downward pressure on inflation from the substantial margin of spare capacity in the economy’.
The Bank points to the impact on the inflation figures of what we might term ‘one-off effects’. These include, for instance, the restoration in January of the standard rate of VAT to 17½% and the raising in the Budget in March of certain excise duties (commodity taxes), such as those on alcoholic beverages and on petrol. The Bank also points to the effects from the weakening of Sterling, specifically on the prices of imports, and from the increase over the past year in the price of oil because of higher demand on the back of the global economic recovery. Again, the Bank continues to argue that these pressures should weaken over the next 12 months.
As you might expect of the economics profession, there are others who argue that the Bank is being somewhat complacent over the prospects for inflation. Of course, these are incredibly uncertain times. In effect, the Bank is having to assess, on the one hand, the significance of cost pressures, such as those emanating from oil and other commodity prices, and, on the other hand, the future strength of aggregate demand, particularly in response to the likely fiscal tightening, not only in the UK, but in many other parts of the world too.
While economists will always hold divergent views on the prospects for inflation and, more generally, the economy, we may see another debate reignited in the months ahead: the debate over the extent to which the government’s powers over both fiscal and monetary policy are constrained.
Since 1997, the Bank of England has had a clear mandate to target the rate of inflation. But, to what extent might this mandate cause tensions between fiscal and monetary policy in the months ahead given the government’s plans for fiscal consolidation? In particular, with a tightening of fiscal policy, so as to reduce the size of the government’s budget deficit, will the Bank of England be able to maintain low interest rates and thereby help to sustain aggregate demand? This will, of course, depend on the path of inflation and, importantly, the sources of inflation. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the clear, if limited, remit of the Bank of England places pressure on the UK’s macroeconomic policy framework in these difficult economic times.
UK inflation hits 17 month-high BBC News (18/5/10)
A tale of two zones BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (18/5/10)
Shock rise in inflation risks higher rates and unemployment Independent, Sean O’Grady (19/5/10)
Q&A: Unpleasant surprise for Threadneedle St Financial Times, Chris Giles (18/5/10)
Inflation rise see King rebuked Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/5/10)
UK inflation fears Financial Times (18/5/10)
Inflation: mercury rising Guardian (19/5/10)
The elephant in the room just got bigger Times Online, David Wighton (19/5/10)
Weak pound and tax rises lift inflation to a 17-month high (including video) Times Online, Grainne Gilmore (19/5/10)
Latest on inflation Office for National Statistics (18/5/10)
Consumer Price Indices, Statistical Bulletin, April 2010 Office for National Statistics (18/5/10)
Consumer Price Indices, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For CPI (Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices) data for EU countries, see:
HICP European Central Bank
- What do you understand by cost-push and demand-pull inflation? To what extent are each of these significant in explaining the current rise in the rate of inflation?
- Outline the potential advantages and disadvantages of granting the Bank of England independence to set interest rates in meeting an inflation rate target.
- If the Bank of England’s remit were relaxed, say to include targeting output growth too, how might this affect its response to rising cost-push inflation? What about rising demand-pull inflation?
- Distinguish between a rise in the level of consumer prices and a rise in the rate of consumer price inflation.
- Describe the likely impact of an increase in the standard rate of VAT on the average consumer price level and on the annual rate of consumer price inflation both in the short term and in the longer term.