Mark Carney bottles it with baby steps

Mark Carney had the leeway to make radical change here but he’s bottled it with baby steps.

The ‘Carney rule’, promising low interest rates and the possibility of more quantitative easing (QE) until unemployment is low or inflation rises, is definitely an improvement on the current regime. It gives firms clearer guidance on the future stance of policy, removing some of the uncertainty in the world economy today. I expect it to deal with some of today’s demand shortage, and more importantly tomorrow’s expected demand shortage.

But unemployment and inflation come from both aggregate demand (which the bank can control) and aggregate supply (which it has essentially no control over). Since neither of these numbers distinguish between changes in supply or demand, the Bank is still fumbling in the dark with its guesses over whether a change in inflation comes from demand (which means it should react) or supply (which means it shouldn’t). This means firms are still left guessing, and it means that uncertainty still reigns.

What we really need is a truly rule-based system that takes discretion away from nine ‘wise men’ and uses market forecasts to create real stability. That system is nominal income targeting.

Welcome Mark Carney, now here’s what you need to do

Today Mark Carney becomes the new governor of the Bank of England, gaining oversight not only of UK monetary policy, but also financial regulation, as part of the Bank’s newly-expanded responsibilites. When George Osborne revealed he had managed to persuade Carney to take on the role there was great fanfare and excitement. This was firstly because the Canadian economy has performed relatively well through the recession and secondly because Carney has shown himself open to innovations in central banking, though he has not implemented any in his time at the helm of the Bank of Canada.

Carney talked up the benefits of targeting the level of demand in the economy—though only for exceptional times—in a recent speech. And one would expect that the chancellor, for the £870,000 he has agreed to pay Carney, is open to significant change, notwithstanding the insignificance of the minuscule changes he himself made to the BoE’s remit in the budget. Put together, these facts give cause for some optimism for someone like me, who supports targeting the level of demand.

So instead of speculating on what the superstar economist actually will do, I will outline the basics of what Mark Carney should—and could do:

I.  Target levels instead of rates—this means bygones are not expected to be treated as bygones, and market actors do not worry about worse-than-expected outcomes because the central bank has committed to sorting them out

II. Target NGDP (demand) instead of inflation—this means supply moves don’t lead to the wrong sorts of tightening or loosening of monetary policy, also means demand is stabilised directly, instead of an arbitrary part of the outcome of demand; stable demand means no recessions caused by nominal factors and no unsustainable booms

III. Target the forecast instead of the outcome—this is what matters for expectations, which are basically all that matters for employment contracts, loan/debt contracts, investment etc. etc. Expectations are the key, so it’s insane to ignore them

IV. Target market, not internal forecasts—set up an NGDP-linked bond, like the RPI-linked bond, and target the spread between the vanilla bond and the linked bond to get an objective idea of where to aim. Guesses where people have skin in the game are systematically better than the relatively costless estimates produced by private consultancies and the Bank’s internal team. But even if they’re wrong it doesn’t matter because expectations are all that count, and the spread between the bonds IS the market expectation. Driving that to a particular point is success, regardless of what happens.

In general the road ahead must be one of rules and discipline, not the translucent discretion of nine unelected barons.They must keep demand steady so we can focus on improving the supply capacity of the economy, and so there is no excuse for fiscal stimulus, with all its flaws. If you still need convincing, read Scott Sumner’s 2011 Adam Smith Institute monograph “The Case for NGDP Targeting”.

The national debt is rising. Who will pay the bill?

George Osborne will derive little comfort from today’s deficit figures, which show the public sector net borrowing requirement down only £0.3bn between the 2011/12 and 2012/13 financial years, after accounting for one-off effects. This puts borrowing at £120.6bn, after last year’s £121bn, and ahead of 2014/15′s projected £120bn. Total debt stands at £1.19 trillion, or 75.4 per cent of GDP, the ONS says up from £1.10 trillion, or 71.8 per cent of GDP a year before.

A tired – but apparently necessary, given public misconceptions, fuelled by confusions over the debt/deficit distinction from politicians of all strips – point, is that this shows just how much the debt is still going up despite the Treasury’s Plan A. I wouldn’t draw from this that austerity is not happening – some budgets are being cut very quickly, and overall spending is expected to fall a significant 2.7 per cent between 2010/11 and 2017/18. But debt is rising very quickly.

The revelation of the spreadsheet errors in Reinhart & Rogoff’s influential paper (which said national debts above 90 per cent of GDP could slow growth) means we may have less reason to fear high debt. But we may still have concerns about the redistributive effects of government debt, at least if we’ve read recently-departed Nobel laureate James Buchanan’s work on public finance. Governments borrow to use resources without depriving the taxpayer. But these resources have to come from somewhere (assume full employment or a central bank meeting a nominal target).

Those who buy the gilts, or T-bills, or bunds, pony up the resources now, in return for a better investment opportunity than was available elsewhere. But assuming that households do not act as infinite dynasties, valuing future generations equally to themselves and therefore assuming households do not save now to pay for the inevitable future taxes (i.e. Ricardian Equivalence does not hold) – then future generations will shoulder the burden.

On the one hand, future generations are likely to be much richer than us. This is a trend that has gone on for at least 250 years in the UK, and for shorter periods elsewhere. In some countries it has gone in reverse (spectacularly in Argentina). But on the whole, we can expect future generations to be richer than us. So why shouldn’t they shoulder the burden, given their broader shoulders?

This argument is fairly convincing, but it only goes so far. No one would suggest it would be fair to redistribute infinitely toward users of state-provided services and towards bond-buyers, away from future generations. After all, given the secular decline in growth we’ve seen since the Second World War, they may not be as much more prosperous than us than we are over our parents. As ever in numerical issues, the question may be one of finding the right balance.


Budget 2013: The good, the bad and the ugly

It’s not saying much, but this was George Osborne’s best budget yet. These tax cuts are long overdue, though they are not significant enough to solve Britain’s growth problem. Cutting taxes for businesses will stimulate investment and job creation, and reducing the tax burden for low- and middle-income earners will make life easier for them.

But government spending is still rising by £20bn this year. The government’s plans to meddle in the housing market are staggeringly misjudged, and we risk repeating exactly the same policy mistake that led to the US subprime mortgage bubble. And we’re still going to be borrowing £108bn this year – that’s £295m a day, every day, with no end in sight.

The Good

Personal allowance raised to £10,000 by 2014. Income taxes are smothering workers. The taxman takes more than 30p out of every pound earned by low- and middle-income workers above the personal allowance. Raising the personal allowance to £10,000 ahead of schedule is a significant step to reducing the tax burden for low- and middle-income workers, and creates the tantalising prospect of the personal allowance being pegged to the minimum wage rate in 2015.

Corporation tax to be cut to 20% by 2015. At last, an encouragingly bold tax cut for business. The corporation tax rate will be falling from 28% to 24% this April, then from 24% to 21% next year, and finally from 21% to 20% in 2015. Although this does indeed put Britain ahead of other ‘major economies’, small countries like Ireland (which has a corporation tax rate of just 12.5%) will still be able to outcompete Britain in attracting investment from multinational corporations.

Employers’ national insurance bills cut by £2,000 for every firm. Employers’ NICs are a direct tax on jobs, so tax relief should allow some businesses to take on extra employees. The cut will have the most pronounced impact on micro-businesses, 450,000 of which will reportedly be taken out of tax altogether.

Beer duty to be cut by 1p, and the ‘beer duty escalator’ to be scrapped. Two weeks ago the government was pushing for minimum alcohol pricing, and now it’s cutting the price of beer. It might not be cutting duty by much, but it’s a welcome change after years of miserable, anti-poor paternalism. And scrapping the outrageous ‘beer duty escalator’ is long overdue. No Chancellor should be able to pretend that a tax hike is out of their hands.

The Bad

The Bank of England’s 2% inflation target to stay in place. Inflation targeting has failed. It creates invisible excess inflation during boom periods (by keeping prices rising by 2% when prices should be falling because of productivity gains) and cannot offset changes in velocity in bust periods, leading to secondary deflations that amplify the damage caused by the initial bust. An alternative, rules-based system (such as an NGDP target based on a futures market instead of the discretion of the Monetary Policy Committee) would be a much less harmful mandate for the Bank of England. Mark Carney had indicated that he was sympathetic to this kind of reform. By giving up the chance to rethink British monetary policy, the Chancellor has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

20% tax relief on childcare vouchers up to £6,000 per child from 2015. Expensive childcare is a consequence of the costly regulations, such as mandatory maximum children-to-staff ratios (3:1 for under-5s and 1:1 for infants under one year old). If the government wants to make childcare more affordable, cutting these sorts of regulations back would be a better place to start than using taxpayers’ money to pay for childcare for parents earning up to £300,000/year.

Tax avoidance and evasion measures aimed at recouping £3bn in unpaid taxes. Tax avoidance is a legal and legitimate response to the perverse incentives of a complex tax code created by politicians trying to exempt a pet project or special interest that they favour. Tax evasion, too, is a rational response to high taxes and is only possible because of the complications in our tax code. The best way to reduce evasion is to simplify the tax code, not to persecute people taking advantages of a corrupt system.

£3bn extra for new projects every year from 2015-16 until 2020, totalling £15bn. Capital spending projects are always popular with politicians who want to leave a expensive railway line, bridge or motorway as a legacy, but there is a long history of infrastructure projects doing little help their flagging economies. Barack Obama’s $800bn stimulus package, launched in 2009, focused on ‘shovel-ready’ projects and did virtually nothing, as did successive Japanese stimulus programmes in the 1990s and 2000s. Any extra money from spending cuts should be given back to the private sector through tax cuts, where it can do the most good.

…and the Ugly

Bank guarantees to underpin £130bn of new mortgage lending for three years from 2014. Apparently the Treasury has not learned the lesson of 2008: injecting taxpayer money into the housing sector will simply inflate prices, distorting price signals and stoking the housing bubble that already seems to be growing in the housing sector. Houses are expensive because supply is restricted by the planning system. Instead of throwing money at the problem and driving prices up even more, the government should have the courage to liberalize planning to allow more development, including on green belt land.

Government ministers picking winners. Fiddling with tax breaks for specific industries is a mug’s game. There is no way the government can know which industries to promote, and these projects inevitably collapse into a mess of overcomplicated grant schemes and politics-driven bailouts of failing firms. Only consumers can pick winners.

Government spending is still rising. Despite all the talk of cuts, the government will still be spending £761bn this year, nearly £20bn more than last year. By leaving healthcare alone and failing to carry out the big structural reforms needed to reduce social security spending, the government  is not matching its rhetoric on spending with the action needed. We’re still going to be borrowing £108bn this year – that’s £295m a day, every day, with no end to the borrowing in sight.