Tempers are fraying at the highest levels of economic policy-making in the UK.
Theresa May, at the Conservative Party conference, emphasised the “bad side effects” for savers of the Bank of England’s policy of near-zero interest rates, a position reinforced by former Tory leader William Hague in the Telegraph this week. A few days ago, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank, hit back by saying he would not take instructions from politicians.
He went on to discuss inflation. The fall in sterling puts up the price of imports, and some economists predict that inflation will hit 3 per cent next year, up from its current (still low) level of 1 per cent. The Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has an official remit of maintaining inflation at 2 per cent. Carney stated that he would allow inflation to run “a bit” above this to protect growth and employment.
Just how much power does the MPC have to control inflation in such a precise way? At first glance, the work of the MPC has been brilliant. Some years the inflation rate has been higher than the 2 per cent target, like in 2011 when it was above 4 per cent, and some years lower, as last year when it was zero. But over the past 15 years, inflation in the UK has averaged 2 per cent a year, almost exactly in line with the target.
But the average inflation rate has been very close to 2 per cent averaged across the 28 member states of the European Union. And the United States also registered the same average of around 2 per cent over the past 15 years.
The fact that inflation has averaged more or less the same rate across the major economies for well over a decade – only in Japan has it been substantially different – strongly suggests that there is a common factor at work. It could be the collective skills of central bankers, or it could be the effect of plain, old fashioned competition.
Competition in markets for goods and services means that it is hard to make price rises stick, and competition for labour means it is difficult to secure substantial wage increases. Competition in the global economy is the main reason inflation has both been low and very similar across the developed world.
The MPC controls the short-term rate of interest, and the theory is that a rate increase, say, reduces demand in the economy as a whole. This in turn has a stable and predictable impact on inflation, with lower demand leading to lower inflation. The trouble is that the facts do not fit the theory. Inflation dropped to zero after peaking in 2011, but unemployment has effectively halved and the economy has grown at a decent rate.
We do owe central bankers in the UK and the US a massive vote of thanks for preventing the crisis of the late 2000s from becoming a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s. But even they do not have magic powers. Inflation is low because of competition, not central bankers.