Amidst the din and fury of party contest at conferences, and between the personal stories, dramas and celebrity reporting of the leaders, the Governor of the Bank of England made an important speech.
He both claimed that the era of Bank “independence” had seen a much better record on inflation than we enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, and that having an inflaiton target may destabilise the economy in other ways. It was an elaborate and clever defence of what he has done, as he contemplates retirement and the verdict of history.
He was both saying it was a kind of success, and saying that because he had to concentrate on inflation it led to the banking crisis and the disruption of the eocnomy we witnessed in recent years. There are problems with both these arguments.
Let us take the success first of all. He points out that in the period 1992-2012 inflation averaged 2.1%, compared to 8.7% in the previous 20 years. He does not compare our record with international comparators. Had he done so , he would have seen that several leading countries experienced much higher inflation in the earlier period, and lower in the later period. Several countries tried new methods of controlling inflation which worked better after 1992, and deserve some credit. The UK system was also much better than the ERM which it replaced and which the Governor supported.
However, the international climate has quite an impact on the UK which is a very open economy. The period 1992-2007 was a period of great growth in cheap exports from emerging market economies which helped keep inflation low.It was also the period of the introduction of the internet, which has revolutionised productivity in many industries and lowered costs and prices. I agree that during the first part of his 20 year period UK policy was successful in keeping inflaiton under control. He admits that inflation, which was under reasonable control from 1992 to 2007, at 1.8%, leapt up to a rather high 3.2% a year in the last five years. This was a time when inflation amongst our western competitiors was much lower. That was not such a success.
If we come to the failure, the boom and bust and the banking crash, the Governor prays in excuse the need to curb inflation. He implies that if he had been set different goals and targets things might have been different. I agree with him that the prime responsibility lays with the then Chancellor.As Head of the tripartite system he held the main reponsibility, and had the power to change the aims and direct the Bank and the FSA. However, I never recall the Governor saying to the government that his target was dangerous or might cause a large boom and bust.
He also rebukes his critics by saying we did not call clearly in 2005 or 2006 that we wanted higher rates. I do recall calling for the debts to be reined in, and recall both the Conservatives and Lib Dems in opposition highlighting the dangerous levels of bank gearing that were allowed to emerge. These could have been corrected by quantitative restriction or regulation on the banks at the time. I called for more cash and capital requirements, something we now have in abundance after the crisis.
The message of the Governor’s speech is that in future the Bank will take a softer line on inflation all the time output and growth are disappointing. They need to be careful. As we have seen in recent years it is possible for inflation to reach uncomfortably high levels without overheating in the economy. It also ceases to help recovery. The recent high inflation has hit real incomes and cut consumption expenditure as a result.