At last, an interesting twist in the story of monetary policy

Philip Booth writes on the Shadow MPC and interest rates decisions in the Yorkshire Post

THE Governor of the Bank of England once famously said that monetary policy should be boring. In other words, monetary policy should be run in such a way that changes in interest rates are reasonably predictable, relatively infrequent and so that inflation and interest rates do not get out of hand.

Certainly, monetary policy is not nearly as "interesting" as it was 15 years ago when Britain was fighting to stay in the ERM, interest rates were routinely in double figures and bankruptcies were running at record levels. Nevertheless, recent rises in inflation and interest rates have led some people to worry about what lies ahead.

Although the particular measure of inflation that the Bank of England targets is three per cent, we should remember that the more general measure of inflation – targeted by the Bank of England until the Chancellor changed the target for purely political reasons – is running at 3.8 per cent. It is clear from the Bank of England's research and public pronouncements that it did not expect recent increases in inflation to happen.

So what has gone wrong?

We can get some clues by looking at the minutes of the Institute of Economic Affairs's Shadow Monetary Policy Committee. It has been well ahead of the Bank of England in being concerned about inflation and has wanted interest rates to rise for several months.

Like the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), our group is also a committee – so members do have different views. Some, such as Professor Patrick Minford, have a bias to cut rates in the near future. However, the majority have been concerned about inflation for some time. And they believe the danger signal is the growing money supply.

Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, accepts Milton Friedman's old adage that "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon", but most of the Bank of England's economists do not trust the monetary data enough to bring it into their models of future inflation.

Many of our members, on the other hand, became very worried when the growth rate of broad money rose from nine to 14 per cent in the two years to mid-2006. It is very difficult to model whether a 100mph gale will capsize a particular boat. But if there is a 100mph gale, you should react, probably by getting back to shore.

Similarly with the money supply data – we might not know exactly how it feeds through into inflation but the MPC should have known that there would be problems ahead when money supply growth was rising, and should have raised rates earlier.

A number of the members of our group have been concerned that the growth in the money supply is feeding through into asset prices – including house prices – and that it will eventually affect inflation as people raise their levels of consumption on the back of rising housing wealth.

Given that our committee has anticipated, by a few months, the actions of the Bank of England in raising interest rates, what do they think now?

By a slim majority of five to four, they voted to hold rates this month. However, many members were concerned that, should inflation rise further, the Bank of England's credibility would be seriously breached, and people would stop believing that the Bank would hit its target.

This would lead to pay settlements rising. Increases in unemployment and further increases in inflation would follow. Even more significantly, three of the four members who voted to hold rates thought that interest rates should rise further this year. Thus a clear majority of this committee of leading monetary economists believe that interest rates should rise now or in the near future.

At times such as this, it is common for business leaders in the regions to call for interest rates not to be increased. Manufacturing businesses in regions such as Yorkshire are often particularly hurt by interest rates rises.

However, we must allow the Bank of England the room to raise interest rates to get inflation back on track – even if it is painful in the short term. The Bank must target average prices across the whole of the country – it is simply not within its power to run a different monetary policy for Yorkshire or Scotland.

In the long run, economic activity and employment will suffer more if there are further rises in inflation as this would just necessitate even higher interest rates at a later time.

So, monetary policy is interesting again. Just how interesting it will become in the future will depend on how quickly the Bank of England reacts to keep the lid on inflation now. This may mean further rate rises in the near future. But we should welcome these. We surely do not want monetary policy to become as interesting as it was in the early 1990s or during the 1970s.

For details and Minutes of the SMPC and links to IEA Monetary Policy publications see
SMPC page
.

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