Inflation’s gonna be OK, says Merv

November 11, 2009

Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, sees a long, hard road back to the path we thought we were on before the financial crisis broke. Just how long is shown by  Chart 2 in Wednesday’s Quarterly Inflation Report. The Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee does not expect Britain’s GDP to return to its peak, 2007, level until 2011, and there’s an outside chance that even in 2012, the country’s output will be no more than it was in 2006.

This “considerable period” of “sustained weakness of demand” is why the MPC’s other fan chart, the “rivers of blood” projections of inflation, looks so benign. The best guess (sorry, “central projection”) is plumb on the 2 percent target for the CPI in 2012. We all know, said the Governor, that inflation is going to jump in January, thanks to the combination of dearer fuel and rising VAT, but after that, it should slide gracefully back, wobbling around the target for the next three years.

Key to this projection is the belief that the UK economy could produce a lot more if the demand was there, and the report shows evidence of much effort to try and support this conclusion. Unemployment is one clear indicator of spare capacity, assuming some sort of match between the demands of consumers and the abilities of those without jobs.

More worrying, though, is the dramatic cutback in business investment, as companies have had to put survival ahead of expansion. Some have lost the battle, and others are sufficiently chastened to avoid becoming beholden to their lenders, even if it means passing up attractive opportunities.  The report points out that capital spending fell 10 percent in the second quarter, and the Bank expects it to fall further. Re-stocking should boost output, but it’s hardly a sound basis for sustainable growth.

The Bank effectively assumes that whoever’s in charge at the other end of town will adminster the necessary fiscal medicine: “stabilising the ratio of public sector debt to GDP will require a combination of a reduction in government spending and a rise in taxation as a share of GDP.” This will subdue consumer spending, which will help keep inflation down, but even so, the central projection in the report looks ambitious.

Last year’s sterling weakness has probably worked through by now, but the pound does not look conspicuously cheap. Commodity prices are uncomfortably strong, and companies will surely rebuild profit margins before trying to expand sales. Looming over all this, unspoken, is the vast, chronic trade imbalance that the West has with the East. As the Governor did not say: We have not even begun down this particular long hard road.

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Tax rises and public spending cuts will take money out of the economy but the real ghoul in the cupboard is oil prices. In the midst of a recession its already nudging $80 a barrel.

As demand picks up in EU, Asia & America the UK purse is going to become trapped in a vice of fiscal measures and supply side inflation. Not only will the UK consumer have less to spend but what they can spend will cost more.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive