Friday, 20 May 2011

Walking the tightrope

Both the Government and the Bank of England are walking a tightrope in terms of economic policy at the present time. The Bank is (quite properly) a relatively secretive institution, even if much more transparent than it was in the past and I am not claiming to have any special inside knowledge.

However, there are concerns by observers of the Old Lady that inflation has got baked into the cake. Electricity prices are expected to go up by 10 per cent in the summer and gas prices by 15 per cent, the latter driven by liquified natural gas demand from Japan.

It could be argued that increasing interest rates would actually do very little to drive down inflation and would impact on consumers by pushing up mortgage rates. The Bank does consider, however, that inflation will eventually diminish because there will be no further VAT rise; no further fall in sterling; and (hopefully) no big rise in energy prices.

Exports have been largely driven by sterling depreciation. It is particularly a matter of concern that imports by businesses resoponding to Bank surveys have not been affected at all despite a 20 per cent rise in their cost. Imports are predominantly intermediate ones suggesting that no domestic substitution is occurring. However, it is possible that the rate of growth in imports may have been slowed down.

The consequences of an unprecedented fiscal contraction in the UK economy have yet to be seen. However, big corporates do have tons of cash they could spend. Employment intentions are picking up, but a lot of it is part-time and self-employed.

There have been substantial differences on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), although these will diminish with the departure of ultra inflation hawk Andrew Sentance who even seemed to question the Bank's forecasts. Sentance's argument is in essence that it is really all about global imbalances rather than UK domestic conditions and the former will persist.

More generally, the differences on the MPC reflect considerable uncertainty about risks. Some members of the MPC are concerned about the credibility gap in terms of constant overshooting of the inflation target. People are arguably more concerned about growth and employment than inflation.

At the moment there is an unprecedented monetary expansion and at some point this will have to stop. However, there is believed to be some concern in Bank circles about the fragility of the economy and downside risks.

The Bank has in effect admitted that the output gap (slack in the economy) is smaller than thought and this means that any expansion may see limited productivity gains and create inflationary pressures. It is unfortunate that the output gap is one area in which data is less reliable, but it is evident that some physical capacity has been destroyed for ever. There are also some signs of skill shortages appearing, especially in engineering.

One uncertainty is the sterling exchange rate. Bank thinking is to prefer the current rate, but a mild appreciation seems likely. In any event it cannot be managed.

Growth has been driven by larger firms, but business has never been better at the company owned by one of my children and her husband. New workers have been taken on and the order book is full. However, they were not receptive to the idea of a chat with the Bank's regional agent.

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