Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) has warned that inflation targeting using the interest rate may, in the near future, prove insufficient to guarantee macroeconomic stability. Such targeting has served us well over the last 10 years or so, giving a long period of sustained growth with low inflation and low unemployment.

But now the macroeconomy is facing new challenges. Fuel price increases threaten to push up inflation (unless people's expectations of future price rises can be held in check). At the same time higher production costs feed through into higher prices for goods and services generally, and so the demand for real output falls, threatening employment. Meanwhile, (more controversially) the BIS contends that globalisation necessitates speedier and more drastic adjustments that could make it more difficult to achieve economic stability.

If a repeat of the 1970s stagflation is on the cards - and I'm sceptical about this, but if it is - then clearly more than one policy instrument will be needed to control the macroeconomy. As Tinbergen pointed out, we need as many controls as we have objectives. If we have an employment objective as well as an inflation objective, we must have (at least) two controls. The BIS seems to be appealing for more policy power to be given to the central banks.

Traditionally the policy controls used to pursue macroeconomic objectives were monetary and fiscal policies. Monetary policy is already typically determined by the central bank. Fiscal policy remains in the control of politicians. We have done well under a system where macroeconomic policy has been separated from political influence, but it would make no sense to delegate fiscal policy to the monetary authorities.

The policy implications of a new stagflation are not, therefore, very attractive. The best option for politicians now is to do all they can to stamp out any inflationary pressure by aggressively seeking to reduce people's expectations of inflation. Wage demands must be talked down, and union militancy resisted. Although I do not share the pessimism of the BIS, the stakes are high.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Inflation has risen to 2.2%, slightly above the Bank of England target figure of 2%. This is causing a little discomfort and uncertainty about the way interest rate policy should go in the coming months, not least because unemployment has also been rising over the most recent period.

The authorities should certainly not accommodate inflation by relaxing monetary policy in a repeat of the mistakes of the mid-70s. That said, while the smart money continues to be on an interest rate hike over the summer months, it is not altogether clear that that is the way to go either. The interest rate increases in the Eurozone and the US appear to be having an effect in dampening demand, and that - migrated into the UK through foreign trade - might be enough to take the heat out of the domestic economy.

The signals are clear enough that we can rule out an imminent cut in rates. Whether the interest rate needs to rise or not then depends on wage pressures. If expectations of wage increases build up, then the one-shot blip of inflation due to the rise in energy prices will threated to turn into sustained inflation. An interest rate hike would be needed to fix that. If the authorities can manipulate expectations successfully so that union pressure for increased wages does not mount up, then increased interest rates may not be needed after all.

Spin gets a bad press. But, now more than ever, outcomes in the real economy depend on how convincing the politicians can be in urging wage restraint.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The recent announcement of the loss of 900 jobs at the Vauxhall car production facility at Ellesmere Port has raised issues about the UK's competitiveness. For sure, much manufacturing capacity in the vehicle production industry is being transferred to countries such as the Czech Republic and the eastern part of Germany where labour costs are lower than in the UK. But this is not the only issue being debated.

Union leaders have claimed that job losses in the UK are particularly severe because labour laws in this country are less tough than elsewhere, making it relatively easy for firms to lay workers off. While doubtless this does explain in part why the 900 jobs at Ellesmere Port have gone (or, at least, why they've gone now rather than later), the claim of the union leaders tells at most only part of the story. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that tighter labour market regulation leads to firms hiring less labour. The harder it is to fire workers, the less likely firms are to hire them.

So while job losses may be due in part to slack labour market legislation, many of these jobs may not have existed in the first place if it weren't for that same slackness. Britain's recent record of employment growth compares very favourably to that of our European partners, and our institutional and legal framework has to take a good bit of the credit for that. At the level of the individual, of course any job loss is terrible news. But that doesn't mean that our labour laws aren't performing well across the piece. The evidence suggests that they are.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has been speaking out against protectionism. He is right to do so. While many interest groups see protection against foreign competition as desirable, it is in fact a thoroughly discredited policy; indeed it is as doomed to failure as Knut's efforts to hold back the tide.

Some things are better produced in some places than others. Climate, natural resources, skills are all unevenly distributed across countries. It is therefore efficient for countries to specialise, concentrating on producing the things that (relative to other countries) they are best at. This principle, known to economists as 'comparative advantage', is closely related to the division of labour; the advantages of specialisation are so strong that they constitute the strongest of market forces. While workers in heavy manufacturing industries in Britain or America may want to protect their jobs by lobbying for restrictions on the level of imports, such policies can offer only short term relief, making the inevitable outcome more sudden and unmanageable when it comes.

If producers in other countries can produce certain types of goods more cheaply than we can, then let them. Let's enjoy the cheap imports. And let's concentrate our resources on producing the things that producers elsewhere are not so efficient at producing. That way they can enjoy our cheap exports. Everyone gains. This freedom of trade is something that the European Union and other trading blocs were created to foster, and we should ensure that it is a freedom that applies not only within but also between blocs. It means we have to have a flexibile labour market, with people willing to retrain as they progress through their careers. The alternative is sclerosis.

Free trade does, of course, mean that goods need to be moved around the planet more than would be the case if we did not trade freely. But efficient movement of goods is cheap and - with the exception of a very few highly perishable goods such as cut flowers - involves a negligible environmental cost. On the flip side of the coin, the damage done by not trading freely is measured by the poverty to which rich countries - by imposing protectionist tariffs, quotas and regulations - condemn people in the developing world. That is appalling.

Good call, Mr Brown.