The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, was on good form last week when he appeared at the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons.
Asked what “forward guidance” meant, he answered smoothly: “The thing about forward guidance is that it is guidance that is forward. Which is not to say it is meant to be in any way accurate. Indeed, it would be surprising if it were. The most important thing about forward guidance is that the underlying economic determinants should be correct, not that it should be helpful.” Cue collective bafflement of the assembled MPs!
But the statement actually tells us a great deal about how mainstream macroeconomists believe the economy operates.
“Forward guidance” has been the key element in policy-making by the Bank since Carney himself introduced it in the summer of 2013. It is meant to give guidance about the economic circumstances in which the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) will start to raise interest rates.
The first attempt was certainly not in any way accurate. The governor stated that the MPC would not consider raising interest rates until unemployment fell to 7 per cent, which he predicted would take about three years. It took less than six months. By January 2014, the rate of unemployment had fallen to 6.9 per cent.
This just seems to have been a piece of poor analysis by the Bank. But it does not detract from the more fundamental reason economists think that forward guidance will not usually turn out to be accurate.
The forward guidance is deliberately based on the assumption that behaviour will not change. Yet the mere fact that the central bank makes a pronouncement about the future might induce people to alter their behaviour. And if behaviour changes, the forward guidance might very well prove to be inaccurate.
It is actually a sensible addition to the Bank’s armoury of policy levers. Properly managed, it might enable the Bank to nudge behaviour in directions which it believes will give a better outcome than would otherwise be the case.
The final part of Carney’s statement appears the most gnomic: “The most important thing about forward guidance is that the underlying economic determinants should be correct, not that it should be helpful”.
The governor meant that forward guidance should be given on the basis of a model of the economy which is correct.
In each of the various different macroeconomic models which exist, the assumption is made that consumers and firms form expectations about the future as if their particular model, and no-one else’s, were correct. Yet despite many years of intensive research, macroeconomists still do not agree on what constitutes the model of how the economy works.
There is a challenging academic literature on the theory of how people go about learning the correct model of the economy. But in practice economists are unable to apply it to themselves. We might reasonably conclude that it is the theory which is wrong. Forward guidance is just the latest technocratic delusion foisted on us by mainstream macroeconomics.