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?
In two recent blogs we have analysed the headache facing the Monetary Policy Committee, given the persistence of inflationary pressures in the UK economy, in deciding whether to raise interest rates. In Food for thought, Elizabeth Jones describes how, despite the weakness of aggregate demand, cost pressures have fuelled inflation while John Sloman in Time for a rise in Bank Rate looks at the difficult judgement call for the MPC in risking a marked dampening of aggregate demand by raising rates while, on the other hand, failing to dampen inflationary expectations by not raising rates. In this blog Dean Garratt analyses some of the latest inflation figures as detailed in the latest Consumer Price Indices Statistical Bulletin. In particular, he focuses on the inflation rates within the overall consumer price inflation rate.
You might be wondering what we mean when we refer to inflation rates within the overall inflation rate. In answering this we need to consider how the Office for National Statistics goes about estimating the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the CPI inflation rate (further details are available in Consumer Price Indices – A Brief Guide produced by the ONS). In order to compile the Consumer Price Index (CPI), each month an organisation collects on behalf of the ONS something in the region of 110,000 prices quotations for around 560 items. But, the key point is that these goods and services fall into one of 12 broad product groups which are referred to as level 1 product groups. These include, for example, food and non-alcoholic beverages and transport.
The items included in each of the 12 product groups are reviewed once a year so that the chosen items remain representative of today’s spending patterns. Once the price information for our representative goods and services has been collected, the prices are compared with their levels in the previous January and the change recorded. These changes are then aggregated in both each product group and across all groups. The price changes are aggregated by weighting them according to the typical share of household spending that each good or service represents. This process is repeated each month in the year so as to always calculate the aggregate change in prices since January. The final step is to link the price changes with those from earlier years to form one long price index, both for each product group and for the overall shopping basket, so that at one arbitrary moment in time the index takes a value of 100.
Once we have our price indices we can calculate annual rates of price inflation. The annual rate of CPI inflation in December 2010 is recorded at 3.7%. This means that the Consumer Price Index was 3.7% higher in December 2010 than it was December 2009. Similarly, the annual rate of CPI inflation in November 2010 of 3.3% means that consumer prices rose by 3.3% between November 2009 and November 2010. Across 2010 as a whole the CPI rose by 3.3%, so in excess of the Bank of England’s inflation rate target range, and significantly up on the 2.2% across 2009. The Bank has a symmetrical inflation rate target of 2% plus or minus 1 percentage point (you may want to read more about the Bank’s Monetary Policy Framework).
Let’s look to delve deeper because price indices are also available for product groups at two lower levels known as level 2 and level 3 product groups. For example, from within the food and non-alcoholic beverages group there is a price index wholly for food and within this one for vegetables. Again annual rates of price inflation can be found for level 2 and level 3 product groups.
If we consider food and non-alcoholic beverages we find an annual rate of price inflation for December of 6.1%. This was its highest annual rate since May 2009. Across 2010 as a whole we find that prices rose by 3.4%, very much in accordance with the overall CPI inflation rate. Inflationary pressures within this category are not new with 2008 seeing prices rises by 9.1% as compared with 3.6% for the overall CPI inflation rate. Over the past 5 years, food and non-alcoholic beverage inflation has typically been running at an annual rate of 5% while overall consumer price inflation has been running at 2.8%.
If we now focus on food alone, we find an annual rate of food price inflation in December of 5.7%. While this is a little lower than with the inclusion of non-alcoholic beverages, it is nonetheless a full 2 percentage points above the overall CPI inflation rate. Across the year as a whole food price inflation comes in bang on 3% highlighting the extent of the inflationary pressures in more recent months. This, however, still falls some way short of the pressures seen in 2008 when food prices rose by 10.1%. If we drop to level 3 to focus on groups within the food category we find inflation rates for oils and fats of 11%, for fish of 9% and for fruit of 8.6%.
Within the 12 broad groups the highest annual rate of price inflation is currently to be found for transport where the annual rate of price inflation in December was 6.5%. Across 2010, transport prices rose by 8.3% which compares a tad unfavourably with the 0.8% increase seen in 2009. If we drop down to the level 3 groups within this category we can trace the source of the price pressures more readily. The cost of air passenger transport in December was up over 12 months by 13.5% and, you may not be surprised to learn, the cost of fuel and lubricants was up by 12.9%.
We finish by noting the only level 1 category to see prices fall across 2010: clothing and footwear. This product group saw prices fall by 1% in 2010. But, even here price pressures have emerged. Between April 1992 and August 2010 clothing and footwear consistently recorded annual rates of price deflation. Since September this has ceased with positive annual rates of inflation. The annual rate of inflation for clothing and footwear in December was estimated at 1.5%. Perhaps those socks in my bottom drawer really will have to last me just a little bit longer!
Inflation is a blip says Bootle BBC News (21/1/11)
Fuel prices could rise by 4p in April BBC News (22/1/11)
Paul Lewis: Why inflation is starting to buy BBC News (20/1/11)
High levels of inflation remains a worry for Beijing BBC News (20/1/11)
Inflation ‘biggest money worry for families’ BBC News (19/1/11)
UK inflation rate rises to 3.7% BBC News (18/1/11)
Inflation hysterics Financial Times (19/1/11)
Top investors raise alarm on inflation Financial Times, Richard Milne, Dan McCrum and Robert Cookson (21/1/11) )
Inflation hits 3.7% after record monthly increase Guardian UK, Graeme Wearden (18/1/11)
We knew inflation would be bad, but not this bad Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/1/11)
The mystery of clothes inflation and the formula effect The Economist (21/1/11)
Latest on inflation Office for National Statistics (18/1/11)
Consumer Price Indices, Statistical Bulletin, March 2010 Office for National Statistics (18/1/11)
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
- Describe the process of compiling the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Are we comparing the cost of the same basket of goods and services across years? What about within a given year? (Further details are available in Consumer Price Indices – A Brief Guide).
- Explain the difference between an increase in the level of prices and an increase in the rate of price inflation. Can the rate of price inflation fall even if price levels are rising? Explain your answer.
- Why do you think policy-makers, such as the Monetary Policy Committee, would be interested in the inflation rates within the overall CPI inflation rate?
- What factors do you think lie behind the pressures on; (i) food prices; (ii) clothes prices; and (iii) transport prices? How would your answers help to inform how you would vote on interest rates if you were on the Monetary Policy Committee?
- The following are the consumer price index values for all items, food and non-alcoholic beverages, clothing and footwear and transport in 1988, 2009 and 2010. Use these values to calculate the percentage change between 1988 and 2010 and those between 2009 and 2010. Comment on your findings.
All items: 1988= 63.5; 2009= 110.8; 2010= 114.5
Food and non-alcoholic beverages: 1988= 68.2; 2009= 123.2; 2010= 127.4
Clothing and footwear: 1988= 163.8; 2009= 79.6; 2010= 78.8
Transport: 1988= 55.4; 2009= 112.7; 2010= 122.1
- How serious an economic issue do you think inflation is? Illustrate your answer drawing on real-world examples of the impact of inflation.