A James Alexander post
Watching Bank of England Governor Mark Carney joust again with Jacob Rees-Mogg MP at the UK’s Treasury Select Committee yesterday got me looking back to the May press conference when Carney launched his warnings about the riskiness of voting Leave, that were then repeated at the May Treasury Select Committee hearings.
There was a lot going on at the time but Carney had a secret weapon, a new monetary policy tool whose importance is still being overlooked.
Carney took sides, but …
The intensity of the debate over Brexit was terrific during May and June. The Bank of England was clear that there could be financial chaos and a technical recession. There was only downside risk from the voting Leave. In that view the BoE was amplifying, but with authority, the typical consensus expert view. It took sides with the Cameron/Osborne government, clearly and simply, loyally.
Remain supporters amongst journalists and politicians were very pleased. Leave supporters were not. Rees-Mogg was entirely right to question the independence of the bank. If Carney had talked in any remotely balanced way about the potential benefits of Leave then he would have been fair but as Rees-Mogg noted, he didn’t take up that opportunity. All serious people agreed Brexit would be a disaster, and Carney is a very serious person indeed.
However, the sub-text was also crystal clear. And FX markets, a prime window onto, and channel of, monetary policy very much got the message. If the UK voted Leave then all the monetary policy power of the Bank of England would be brought to bear immediately to offset any shock to demand, due to fears about the supply side.
Once it was clear that the UK had voted Leave then the markets immediately knew what to expect from UK monetary policy. Potential rate cuts, QE and other liquidity schemes – plus the bonus of a dramatic and statesmanlike broadcast from Carney himself. Sterling fell 10% in response to the u-turn in monetary policy, UK domestic equities fell in response to demand shock fears caused by long-run supply side fears. Political turmoil didn’t help much either. But, it wasn’t a disaster. Financial institutions sailed through unscathed, many even profitably. There was no repeat of Lehman.
With one step he was free
In the hearing yesterday Carney was not exactly smug, but he did say he was “serene” about the new stance. He also elaborated about just how profound the 180-degree u turn on monetary policy had been. He said monetary policy was on a tightening bias as late as May/June, and the next moves in rates were due to be up. That had all changed now and he clearly was a much happier man as a result. His incorrect monetary policy stance of the previous year and a half was now just a distant memory, “ancient history” as he called it.
No monetary shock here, so no demand shock either
While the vote to leave was a shock a bigger shock, a monetary shock, would have been if the Bank of England hadn’t intervened to offset the uncertainty shock.
If it had decided to defend the currency with a monetary tightening, that would have been truly disastrous. Some central bankers have made that mistake in the past and it never ends well.
If it had appeared to stand pat and just keep its tightening bias, that would still have been a shock. Some central bankers have done that too, and it didn’t end well.
The BoE had primed markets that it would respond appropriately and it did. GBP immediately fell 10%, and then rates were cut and QE was expanded. Osborne’s replacement, Philip Hammond, also made it very clear that the response to the Brexit shock was monetary, not fiscal.
The BoE even said it would also tolerate an above target inflation rate – all in order to ensure financial stability and a return of inflation to 2% in the longer term. That “even ” is subtle, but very powerful.
Overshoot of projected inflation now tolerated
Why did Carney never say during 2015 that it would tolerate a period of above target inflation in order to bring current inflation up to target. Well, the obvious answer is because the BoE took its own projections seriously, and they showed inflation returning to 2%.
Those projections always showing this happening kept monetary policy tight, with promises of more tightening to come if those projections showed an overshoot. The fact that this stance meant constant under-shooting was lost on the BoE.
Is this a new tool?
After the Brexit vote the UK central bank seems to have added this new weapon to its toolbox: Toleration of projected overshoots to its inflation target at a time when actual inflation is stubbornly below target.
The BoE tolerated current inflation above target when it was above target, but what else could it do? It was a fact, but was it a choice too? We don’t really know. We do know that it wouldn’t tolerate inflation projections going above its target until we had the vote to leave, now we do.
Perhaps this new tool could also be used by other central banks. Temporary overshoots of projected inflation in order to get current inflation up to target. Are you listening at the Fed, ECB and BoJ?