Monday, December 05, 2005

In August of last year, I hinted on this blog that interest rates might be reaching levels that were threatening economic growth. The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) is required to hit an inflation target, and it moves interest rates in order to hit that target as closely as possible. But it is not required to aim for any particular rate of economic growth. We are now seeing the effect that policies that are suited for one purpose can have on another key indicator of macroeconomic performance.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has slashed his growth forecast for 2005 to 1.75%, just half the rate that he forecast just a few months ago in the Budget. He blames this in part on oil prices - though oil prices have affected also the economies of mainland Europe that are now growing faster than that of the UK. The UK's own monetary policies - the responsibility for which is now of course (quite rightly) devolved to the Bank of England - have as much to do with this year's disappointing growth outturn as anything else.

Fortunately, the UK economy looks set for a soft landing, with growth remaining uninterrupted into another cycle. In the longer term, the relationship between the MPC target and other key macroeconomic variables is something that may need to be revisited if we are to avoid less fortunate economic outcomes.
Gordon Brown is at it again - he has once again changed his definition of the economic cycle. A few months ago, he redefined the start of the current cycle from 1999 to 1997, a controversial move on which I have written earlier. Now he wishes to redefine the end of the cycle to 2007.

This latest move is truly bizzare. He has described, with some justification, the current year as 'the toughest year'. If that is the case, then surely this is when the cycle ends. The move to redefine the end of the cycle to 2007 is transparently a ploy to boost the public finances with the fruits of a couple of years of above par growth. There's nothing particularly wrong about that, but the Chancellor should stop pretending that he is adhering to some sort of 'golden rule' when the truth is that he keeps moving the goalposts.

In his pre-budget statement, the Chancellor has revised growth forecasts for the current year down to 1.75 per cent. This is just half the growth rate he was predicting at the time of the Budget earlier this year. To be sure, some of the slowdown is due to rising oil prices, but they affect the relatively fast-growing economies of mainland Europe too. More pertinently, the slowdown is due in part to restrictive monetary policies. Back in August of last year, I was hinting on this blog that interest rates might have been hiked too far and too fast. We are now seeing the fruits of the Monetary Policy Committee's decisions of 15 months ago - while those decisions were arguably in line with the MPC's need to meet an inflation target, we are now seeing the consequences of their decisions on economic growth, an important variable which the MPC does not target.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Tony Blair is making last ditch attempts to secure agreement on the EU budget. He says that there is no question of the UK giving up its rebate, other than in exchange for wholesale reform of agricultural support. Yet he is willing to see the rebate reduced (as opposed to scrapped) in order to secure an agreement - and this without any corresponding cut in support to other countries through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The desire to seek a deal during the period of Britain's presidency of the EU (which ends at the end of this month) is natural enough. But Mr Blair has left it until the eleventh hour before making any strenuous efforts in this direction. The consequence is that he has had to offer up a key bargaining chip in order to secure the support of the eastern European accession countries. They may be (and it is only a maybe) willing to cut some of their calls on the EU budget for development if the UK is willing to sacrifice something too. So - since the UK has the presidency and since Mr Blair can make decisions for Britain but not for other western European countries - the UK offers up a slice of its rebate.

This is politics liberated from any economic rationale. The UK's rebate was set up to ensure that - so long as the CAP existed and distorted budgets - the UK got a fair deal in relation to other western European countries. If there is no change in budgetary arrangements for the other western European countries, the rebate should remain intact. It is doubly important that it should do so, since the rebate serves as Britain's only pressure point on other countries to reform the CAP. Mr Blair is playing dice with our ability ever to cure Europe of its most damaging institution - one that penalises consumers, hurts farmers in developing countries, and sustains inefficient agricultural practices within Europe.

Mr Blair's offer seems to be to cut the rebate by about half a billion pounds per year. At a time when his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is struggling to plug the hole in the public finances, the Prime Minister's largesse could not be more unwelcome.