The latest Inflation Report from the Bank is both a mea culpa and a muddle. They admit they got their forecasts wrong for the last year. They thought inflation would stay over 3% but it fell to 1.7%. They thought unemployment would be around 7.6% but it fell to an average of 6.8% and is now at 6.4%. Productivity grew at 0.75% less than their estimate and employment grew much more. They got the level of sterling wrong and the favourable impact of rising sterling on prices. They thought wages would go up by more than they did.
We can all make mistakes. Even expensive and well resourced forecasting outfits like the Bank can make errors. It is more worrying, however, if there is something wrong or weak in the underlying approach to the forecasts. I am afraid that is exactly what has been revealed by these errors.
At the base of all these mistakes is one simple concept that is difficult to assess and measure. The concept is that of “slack” or unused capacity. In the Bank’s world they can assess and quantify this. If the economy has a high degree of slack then there will be little inflation. If slack has gone then conditions can become inflationary as companies and individuals bid up wages to get people to leave their current job, and as they offer more to get quick delivery of goods and services.
So far so good, you might say. There must be some truth in this. There are two obvious problems. The first is it leaves out the issue of money. If the banks create too much money this can drive up wages and prices. If they lend too little and there is too little money around you can have a recession, like the one in 2008 which the Bank did not forecast before the event. The second is, how do you measure this slack precisely so you know whether we are in the inflation danger zone or not?
This second problem preoccupies current Bank thinking. It lay behind Mr Carney’s opening policy that they would need to look at raising interest rates once unemployment fell below 7%. This was a pessimistic view of the UK economy, where labour shortages would emerge in the fast growing parts, where skills shortages would emerge, and where many long term unemployed would remain out of work. When we rapidly got below 7%, the Bank changed its mind and thought maybe 6.5% unemployment could be the level where they needed to start to worry.
Over the last year we saw unemployment fall below 6.5% but still no signs of inflation in average wages, let alone more generally. As a result the Bank has now decided that maybe the UK economy can function in a non inflationary manner with unemployment above 5.5%, not 6.5%. The latest theory of the danger rate seems as little based on evidence as the previous two that have now been rejected.
As the Bank explains in its Report, all sorts of things can happen to offset the impact on wages of falling unemployment. More people can arrive from abroad and offer their services, as they have. More people can get out of long term unemployment, partly as a result of recent benefit reforms, and they have. More people who were not working, not on benefit and not even seeking work may change their minds and take a job – and they have. The Bank now accepts these changes disrupt its view that a particular unemployment rate can start to create wage pressures. The Bank should also remember the problem of averages. Average pay may not go up much if there are few pay rises. It may also not go up much if we lose too many people on very high pay, or if we create a lot of lower paid jobs. We have done both, as well as people facing little or no pay rises in various occupations.
The whole idea of slack has two parts. The first is labour availability. As the Bank knows, you can have skills shortages that drive up specific wages, and labour shortages in certain places which can drive up local wages without having a general wage inflation. It now has to recognise that the recent remarkable flexibility of the UK workforce means there is more labour around than a single unemployment figure suggests.
The second part of their idea is unused capacity in business. This probably has more meaning in the industrial sector, where a factory with machines may well have a rated output above its current production which you can measure. Even this however, is not that precise. Producing more means perhaps ordering more components and raw materials, and taking on more labour or getting agreement to new shifts and overtime. There is a variable response depending on other conditions. Can the suppliers, who may be abroad, respond quickly? Do you have the trained people to supervise the machiness and organise the extra output and orders?
It is more difficult assessing the capacity of the dominant service sector. How many more windows can existing window cleaners fit in to their schedule? How many more meals can restaurants serve if more diners turn up? How many more health club places can existing clubs sell before they are full?
Finding a general answer and expressing it as a single figure is not easy.
The Bank needs to recognise that its concept of slack has so far let it down badly. It needs both to ask is there a better way of accurately measuring it, and is it a good enough explanation of inflation in the first place? These academic issues matter, as interest rates and our future growth hinge on it. Just asserting we currently have 1% slack left is simply not good enough.