An alternative ‘Agenda for Hope’

Owen Jones has written a nine-point ‘Agenda for Hope’ that he argues would create a fairer society. Well, maybe. I’m not convinced by many of them. Then again, it would be quite surprising if I was.

But it got me thinking about what my nine-point agenda would be — not quite my ‘perfect world’ policies, but some fairly bold steps that I could just about imagine happening in the next couple of decades. Unlike Owen’s policies, few of these are likely to win much public support. On the other hand, most of the political elite would think these are just as wacky as Owen’s too.

Nine policies to make people richer and freer (and hopefully happier):

1) The removal of political barriers to who can work and reside in the UK. Removing all barriers to trade would increase global GDP by between 0.3% and 4.1%. Completely removing barriers to migration, though, could increase global GDP by between 67% and 147.3%. Those GDP benefits would mostly accrue to the poorest people in the world. We can’t remove these barriers everywhere but we can show the rest of the world how it’s done. Any step towards this would be good – I suggest we start by dropping the net migration cap and allowing any accredited educational institution to award an unlimited number of student visas.

2) A strict rule for the Bank of England to target nominal GDP instead of inflation, replacing the discretion of the Monetary Policy Committee. Even more harmful than the primary bust in recessions is what Hayek called the ‘secondary deflation’ that comes about as people, fearing a drop in their future nominal earnings, hold on to more of their money. That reduces the total level of nominal spending in the economy which, since prices and wages are sticky in the short run, leads to unemployment and a fall in economic output. NGDP targeting prevents those ‘secondary deflations’ and would make economic busts much less common and harmful. In the long run, we should scrap the central bank altogether and replace it with competition in currencies (see point 9, below).

3) Significant planning reform that abolished the Town and Country Planning Act (which includes the legislation ‘protecting’ the Green Belt from most development) and decentralised planning decisions to individuals through tradable development rights (TDRs). This would give locals an incentive to allow new developments because they would be compensated by the developers directly, allowing for a reasonably efficient price system to emerge and making new development much, much easier. The extra economic activity from the new home building alone would probably add a couple of points to GDP growth.

4) Legalisation of most recreational drugs and the medicalisation of the most harmful ones. I think Transform’s outline is pretty good: let cannabis be sold like alcohol and tobacco to adults by licensed commercial retailers; MDMA, cocaine and amphetamines sold by pharmacies in limited quantities; and extremely dangerous drugs like heroin sold with prescriptions for use in supervised consumption areas. The sooner this happens, the sooner producers will be answerable to the law and deaths from ‘bad batches’ of drugs like ecstasy will be a thing of the past. Better yet, this would bring an end to drug wars like Mexico’s, which has killed around 100,000 people in the past ten years.

5) Reform of the welfare system along the lines of a Negative Income Tax or Basic Income Guarantee. As it is, the welfare system disincentivises work and creates dependency without doing much for the working poor. A Negative Income Tax would only look at people’s incomes (not whether they were in work or not in work), reducing perverse incentives and topping up the wages of the poorest earners. This would strengthen the bargaining position of low-skilled workers and would remove much of the risks to workers associated with employment deregulation. Of course, the first thing we should do is raise the personal allowance and National Insurance threshold to the minimum wage rate to give poor workers a de facto ‘Living Wage’.

6) A Singaporean-style healthcare system to replace the NHS. In Singapore, people have both a health savings account and optional catastrophic health insurance. They pay a portion of their earnings into the savings account (poor people receive money from the state for this), which pays for day-to-day trips to the doctor, prescriptions, and so on. The government co-pays for many expenses but the personal cost disincentivises frivolous visits to the doctor. For very expensive treatments, optional catastrophic health insurance kicks in. This is far from being a pure free market system but it is miles better (cheaper and with better health outcomes) than the NHS. (By the way, if you really like the NHS we could still call this an ‘NHS’ and still get the superior system.)

7) A school voucher system and significant reform of the state education and free schools sectors. This would include the abolition of catchement areas and proximity-based admission, simplification of the free schools application process, and expansion of the free schools programme to allow profit making firms to operate free schools. These reforms, outlined in more detail in two ASI reports, would increase the number of places available to children and increase competition among schools to drive up standards.

8) Intellectual property reform. As both Alex Tabarrok and Matt Ridley have pointed out, our IP (patent and copyright) law is too restrictive and seems to be stifling new innovation. Firms use patents as barriers to entry, suing new rivals whose products are too similar to their own. In industries where development costs are high but imitation costs are low, like pharmaceuticals, patents may be necessary to incentivise innovation, but in industries like software development where development can be cheaper than imitation, patents can be a terrible drag on progress. Tabarrok recommends that we try to tailor patent length in accordance with these differences; as a sceptic about our ability to know, well, anything, I’d prefer to leave it to private contracts and common law courts to discover.

9) Last but not least, the removal of the thicket of financial regulation and the promise of bailouts for insolvent banks. Known as ‘free banking’, this system of laissez-faire finance has an extremely strong record of stability – though bank panics still occurred in free banking systems, they were much less severe and rarely systemic. Only once the government started to intervene in the financial system to provide complete stability did things really begin to go wrong: deposit insurance, branch-banking restrictions, and other prudent-seeming regulations led to extremely bad unforeseen consequences. The financial crisis of 2008 probably owes more to asset requirements like the Basel accords, which heavily incentivised banks to hold ‘safe’ mortgage debt over ‘risky’ business debt, than anything else. Incidentally, the idea that having a large number of local banks is somehow better than having a few large banks is totally wrong: during the Great Depression, 9,000 of America’s small, local banks failed; at the same time not one of Canada’s large banks failed. The small banks were more vulnerable because, unlike the big banks, they were undiversified.

Now, if only there was a think tank to try and make these dreams a reality.

What’s the true free market monetary policy?

Let’s imagine we are in a world where central banks are given key roles in the macroeconomy, and have been for decades or even centuries in almost every country. In this imaginary world, studies into the relative efficacy of free banking regimes have been undeservedly overlooked, and the orthodoxy among major economists, even ones otherwise sympathetic to free markets is that they are a bad idea. Major policymakers, let’s imagine, are completely unaware of the free banking alternative, and most even use the term to mean something completely different. Proposals to enact free banking have not been mentioned in law making chambers for decades or centuries, if at all. It has not been in any party’s policy platform for a similar period of time, in this imaginary world.

What’s interesting about this imaginary world is that it is in fact our world. Economists like George Selgin, Larry White, Kevin Dowd (among many others) have done very convincing research about the benefits of free banking. And free banking may one day become a real prospect, perhaps in a new state or a charter city. But free banking has lost the battle for the time being, and abolishing the central bank and government intervention in money is as unlikely as abolishing the welfare state. Now one might say that if free banking is a desirable policy, it is worth continuing to wage the intellectual war for the benefit of future generations, who could benefit from the scholarship. Work done now could end up influencing and improving future monetary policy.

I do not discount the possibility this is true. At the same time, free banking is a meta-policy, not a policy—a way of choosing what monetary regime to enact, rather than a specific monetary regime. After all, it is at least possible that free banks could together target consumer prices, the GDP deflator, the money base, the money supply measured by M2, nominal income/NGDP. And for each of these different measures there are an infinite number of theoretical growth paths, and a large number of realistically plausible growth paths they could aim for. Now, free bankers say that the market will make a good decision, and I can buy that. But let’s say we’re constrained to choose a policy without the aid of the market mechanism: can we say there are better or worse central plans?

The answer is: of course we can! Old-school monetarism, targeting money supply aggregates, was a failure even according to Milton Friedman, whereas CPI targeting, for all its flaws, delivered 66 quarters of unbroken growth and a period so decent they named it the Great Moderation. The interwar gold standard brought us the stagnation of the 1920s (in the UK) and coming off us brought us our relatively pleasant experience of the Great Depression. Literally the order in which countries came off the gold standard is the order they got out of the Great Depression. And even though the classical gold standard worked pretty well, few of its benefits would obtain if we went back. Some central plans (the interwar gold standard, M2 targeting) don’t work, some work a bit (the classical gold standard, CPI) and arguably some work pretty well (NGDP targeting is one in this category, according to Friedman, Hayek and I). If we are stuck with central planning, then why not have a good central plan?

And just because I’m allowing the term “central planning” to describe NGDP targeting, we needn’t describe it as “government intervention in money”. I don’t think they are really the same thing. “Government intervention in money” brings to mind rapid inflation, wild swings in the macroeconomic environment; in short the exact circumstances that NGDP-targeting aims to avoid. Targeting aggregate demand keeps the overall macro environment stable—a truly neutral monetary policy—allowing firms and households to make long-term plans, and preventing recessions like the last one, caused as it almost certainly was by drastic monetary tightening. Indeed, as monetary policy determines the overall path of aggregate demand, we might easily call “sound money” policies aiming for zero inflation or a frozen base as dangerous government meddling—they allow the actually important measures like nominal income to fluctuate drastically.

Consider an analogy: school vouchers. Many libertarians may favour a system where parents can spend as little or as much as they want on schooling (considering distributional concerns separately), rather than having central planners decide on the voucher-set minimum. But we usually see a voucher system as an improvement on the status quo—parents may not be able to fully control how much is spent on their children’s education but at least they can pick their school. Popular and successful schools grow to accommodate demand, while unpopular and unsuccessful schools can be wound down more quickly. Libertarians may see this as a way from the ideal situation, but none would therefore denounce the policy. The analogy isn’t perfect, but I like to see NGDP targeting as similar to school vouchers, versus status quo schooling as the CPI target. Libertarians shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Low rates doesn’t mean low rates

I got called up last Wednesday to ask if anyone at the Adam Smith Institute would go on the Daily Politics to explain why the Bank of England should raise its base rate (not exactly in those words). The producer was familiar with common free market ideas that argue that artificially low interest rates are blowing up a housing bubble which will later burst. I had to try to explain to the producer why I both agree and disagree with these sentiments: low interest rates do underlie economic limbo, but raising the base rate is not a solution and may produce yet lower real interest rates where it matters—throughout the economy.

The problem comes from the dual use, in the popular economic press, and even by top economists, of the term “interest rates” to mean both the stance of monetary policy and the cost of borrowing. This is understandable because during the Great Moderation of 1992-2008 all the world’s most important macroeconomic authorities attempted to control the overall economy through adjusting one or a small number of key interest rates to achieve a consumer price inflation (CPI) target. At the same time, we are familiar with interest rates through our normal life: on loans, mortgages, savings, credit cards and so on. But acting as though the Bank of England directly controls these rates when it adjusts policy seriously obfuscates how the macroeconomy works and contributes to a lot of sloppy thinking.

Whereas the Federal Reserve has always used a form of quantitative easing (QE) to adjust a market interest rate—the Federal Funds Rate—the Bank of England has typically adjusted its base rate, which it calls Bank Rate, instead (updated). Bank Rate is the flat (nominal) interest rate it charges commercial banks for short term funding, and pays on their excess reserves. This sets a lower bound on overnight commercial lending, since it is always an option to lend or borrow money at Bank Rate, and therefore it is included in some market contracts, like tracker variable rate mortgages. The current UK base rate is 0.5%, a nominal number which translates to a negative real rate, but secured loans charge more like 3% in nominal terms, unsecured loans 8%, and credit cards 10%.

So we’ve established that the Bank of England sets a lower bound on interest rates with its Bank Rate. And we’ve also established that Bank Rate affects some other rates directly, principally tracker mortgages. We might also expect it to affect other rates in the economy—for example a cut will “ripple out” through the economy, because all other things being equal, it is now cheaper for banks to borrow from the BoE and they will thus be more willing to do so. Economists call this the liquidity effect. They will thus be more willing to lend cheaply and less willing to borrow from savers. So one effect of lowering the Bank Rate is to directly lower some rates, put a lower lower bound on others, and make others cheaper.

However there is an opposed reaction. Lowering Bank Rate doesn’t just make loans cheaper, but it increases demand. It does so by injecting extra money into the economy (from the extra loans), but more importantly by signalling to markets that it intends demand to grow faster and that it is willing to take measures (such as further lowering Bank Rate or boosting the money supply through a QE programme) to make sure this happens. This is why stock markets react so strongly to a (policy) interest rate cut—all businesses are worth a bit more because they expect higher total revenues over their future.

But if firms expect higher demand in the future they will in turn demand more investment funds to put into projects to service that demand. This means that cutting the BoE’s base rate puts pressure on effective market interest rates in both directions. It is an empirical question which direction the overall effect goes in—but this means that the simple coincidence of low real effective interest rates out in the economy and a low, by historical terms, Bank Rate, shows nothing. It could be that the best way to raise interest rates out there in the economy is to cut the Bank’s base rate, or, since it can’t go much further now, print money to raise inflation (which would ceteris paribus cut the rate in real terms). Look at the graph above for an illustration of how the Fed’s changes in their QE programme (the red line) and their Federal Funds rate (the dark blue line) don’t produce big shifts in (real) market interest rates like corporate bond returns and 30-year mortgages.

So my view on low interest rates is complicated. I think the Bank should get out of the business of setting rates altogether, and vary the size of the monetary base to control nominal income in the economy. But if the Bank is going to use rates as its key policy tool, it shouldn’t raise them when a recovery hasn’t quite taken hold—it’s uncertain whether it’ll raise market interest rates, but it will certainly choke off the demand we need for solid growth.

Rare sensible move from Mario Draghi and ECB

Nominal interest rates cannot be brought below zero, because non-cash assets can be sold for cash, which always effectively bears an interest rate of zero. Monetary policy affects the economy through changing nominal interest rates, which given somewhat sticky inflation changes real interest rates, which affects spending, saving and investment decisions—a cut in the interest rate makes saving more expensive and investment cheaper. Essentially working on these two facts (there are much more complex versions, but this is the core) New Keynesian economists argue there is a “zero lower bound” on monetary policy. The Fed cannot support demand by targeting a Fed Funds rate lower than zero, the Bank of England cannot support demand by lowering Bank Rate any further than zero, and the same for the European Central Bank. This means, they say, fiscal policy is necessary to stabilise demand when the interest rate that would be needed to do falls below zero.

Now I think this argument is false. Monetary policy does not mainly work through interest rates. Monetary policy mainly works through affecting consumers’ and firms’ expectations about future demand conditions. But even if this argument were true, the simple Keynesian story—that fiscal policy must be employed to get the Eurozone out of recession because monetary policy is ineffective at the zero lower bound—will not fly. Why? Because the ECB, headed by Mario Draghi, cut interest rates by 0.25% today, bringing them from 0.5% to 0.25%. The ECB was not yet at the zero lower bound.

Monetary policy doesn’t seem to need long and variable lags of the type typically assumed in models. As I write, the Euro is down 1.4% against the dollar 1% against the pound and 0.7% against the yen. The Bloomberg 500 measure of European stocks is up 1% and the Euro Stoxx 50 measure is up 1.3%. That means the value of the Euro has already fallen. That means that money is already slightly easier. If there were a good measure of nominal income expectations—the best definition of money easiness or tightness—I’d wager that that would be up.

It’s true that this is unlikely to be enough. Nominal GDP is not growing at pre-trend rates, never mind catching up to the pre-recession trend. The ECB is letting the euro area slip into deflation when it is barely out of its double-dip recession. Sovereign debts have grown to eye-watering levels despite very tight fiscal policies in many of the hardest-hit member nations. And none of this is to mention the excessive regulation and badly-designed tax systems that contribute to low long-run productivity growth and high rates of unemployment even in good times. But it’s both a step in the right direction, and evidence against the simplistic Keynesian arguments that get trotted out all too often in macroeconomic debate.

Inflation drivel

Labour’s economic team—led by Ed Balls—is either confused and economically ignorant, or deliberately misleading and opportunistic. After Tuesday’s inflation release, they hit out at the government for the continued above-target rate (2.7% over the year to September, the same as over the year to August), as part of their new “cost of living” strategy. Spokesperson Catherine McKinnell said:

This is yet more evidence of the cost-of-living crisis facing families across Britain after three years of this Government’s failing policies. Prices have now risen faster than wages in 39 out of 40 months under David Cameron and now we learn that we have the highest rate of inflation of any EU country.

At the same time, shadow chancellor Ed Balls has repeatedly attacked the Tories’ fiscal austerity policies, blaming them for the extremely lacklustre recovery from the recession and even suggesting they may have been self-defeating. But at the same time he has also blamed above-target inflation for squeezing living standards.

But which is it? If the Tories were wrong to cut spending, it’s because the recession was driven by nominal factors, and cutting spending will further cut aggregate demand, only worsening the pricing mismatch that is leaving resources unemployed and output below potential. But we also know from our basic AD/AS model, the same one that we use to generate the result that falling aggregate demand is bad for output and employment, that higher AD means higher inflation. So if Ed Balls really wants more government spending, any of the models he’s relying on would also tell him he’d have to have higher inflation as well. You can’t criticise austerity and inflation.

But it goes deeper than this. What Ed Balls is missing is that actually the UK’s overall economic policy wasn’t particularly austere at all. Certainly at points it could have standed to be a bit easier, especially in the crucial 2008-2009 crash. But basically Ed Balls completely ignores monetary policy, which, in the final analysis, determines demand. The monetary policy committee, which sets rates and quantitative easing (QE) can choose whatever it wants demand in the economy to be. They use a faulty indicator, the consumer prices index. But they interact with the economy by constricting or expanding demand based on their policy goals (inflation close to 2%, stable output and employment).

Imagine the government decided to cut spending by £100bn (an illustrative number). If this was going to bring inflation down to 0%, from 2%, then the Bank of England would be changing its monetary policy if it allowed inflation to fall there. The Bank, knowing this, will manipulate interest rates and asset buying policy (QE) to make sure their goals are met. This is true even though the Bank’s current framework leaves so much to be desired. In 2010 and 2011 the Bank allowed inflation to go all the way up to 5.2%, meaning that they more than counteracted the effect of austerity on overall aggregate demand.

What this means is that Ed Balls, were he to slow down the pace of fiscal contraction and nevertheless bring inflation down to 2% now, would worsen the nominal recession, and yet redistribute yet more resources to state control. He may not know this—despite his economic education—or he may be staking out a deliberately misleading and opportunistic set of policies, playing on the public’s ignorance of economics.