Bank of England (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:07 pm ar 2 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Macpherson of Earl's Court Lord Macpherson of Earl's Court Crossbench 12:07, 2 Mai 2024

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of C Hoare & Co, a bank that opposed the setting-up of the Bank of England, became reconciled to it a couple of centuries ago, and now regards it as a privilege to be regulated by the Bank.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and members of the committee on a first-rate report. Operationally independent institutions can survive and prosper only if there is proper parliamentary accountability. All too often, that accountability can descend into cheap point-scoring. I believe this House’s Economic Affairs Committee plays a crucial role in injecting serious, rigorous and impartial thought into economic policy debate.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, I was a little disappointed by the Government’s response to the report. I should confess to having drafted similar responses, with an appropriately dead hand, in the past. I am hoping the Minister will be a little more forthcoming in her response than the Chancellor was, but I am not betting on it.

It is good news that inflation is firmly heading back towards the Bank of England’s target of 2%, but we should not underestimate the impact of the recent rise in prices. Inflation is not some technical economic construct; it has a pernicious effect on people’s lives. It affects their ability to budget and to plan. It has the biggest impact on those least able to protect their incomes, and that is usually the weakest and most marginal in society.

It is therefore important that we learn the lessons of the upsurge in inflation in 2021-22. The Bernanke report is a good start but, as others have noted, his remit was quite narrow. The Bank’s forecasting model clearly has limitations, but then so do all forecasting models. That is why we should never become mesmerised by them.

Economic policymakers need to step back from mechanistic forecasts and focus on the underlying data here and now. Sometimes that data tells a clear story. Quantitative easing was necessary in 2009 and it was effective, but later rounds of QE were an imperfect response to what were, in any case, supply shocks. Ever-increasing amounts of QE were necessary to have an impact on long-term interest rates and, in my view, resulted in an excessive build-up of money and liquidity in the system. QE did not cause inflation, but it certainly enabled it to take root.

I do not want to be too harsh on the Bank. As Bernanke observes, other central banks made similar mistakes, and the build-up of excess demand was as much the Treasury’s responsibility, through an excessively loose fiscal policy, as it was the Bank’s, but I hope the Bank will pay just a little more attention to monetary and liquidity indicators in the future.

That brings me to my second point. The Bank is doing a good job in unwinding QE, and it underlined its independence in pressing on in the autumn of 2022, despite potential political pressure from the Government. But, as QE unwinds, we are going to hear a lot about the losses sustained by the Bank. We hear rather less about the gains from the early years of QE, when interest rates were falling. Of course, had the ring-fence that the late Alistair Darling wisely put in place in 2009 remained there this would have been less of a problem, but the coalition Government chose to, in effect, draw down the gains as a way of meeting their fiscal rules. We are now paying the price.

I anticipate that future Governments, faced with even more challenging public finances, will want to put a stop to the fiscal leakage caused by QE. The key thing here is that the Government should not interfere in monetary policy: the remuneration of reserves must be a matter for the Bank. In taking any tax decisions, the Treasury needs to take into account the impact on the efficiency of the banking system as a whole.

The committee’s report is right to draw attention to the ever-increasing breadth of the Bank’s remit. It is always tempting for the Government to leave it to independent institutions to take the difficult decisions, but that carries big reputational risks since it draws the Bank further into debates best left to democratically elected politicians. It also fails to recognise that the Bank has limited instruments at its disposal. I fear the Government sometimes ignore Tinbergen’s law that you need as many policy instruments as you have independent objectives.

The committee has also made some good points on appointments. Noble Lords will not be surprised that I am more relaxed than most about the Treasury’s colonisation of senior policy positions at the Bank, and I welcome the appointment of Clare Lombardelli as a new deputy governor, who has experience working at the Bank and the OECD as well as the Treasury, but I agree with the committee that the Government need to find the right balance when it comes to appointments. I would welcome more interchange with the private sector.

I wonder whether we need quite so many deputy governors as we have. I recall advertising for one vacancy and conducting a process. The Chancellor ended up appointing two candidates, simply because both were very well qualified and he and the then governor could not decide who was the best.

Recent events have underlined the importance of external members of the MPC. It has been good to see, on the one hand, Swati Dhingra ploughing her lone furrow arguing for looser policy and, on the other, Catherine Mann and Jonathan Haskel making the case for tighter policy. I was struck by a recent report from an external member of the MPC that mentioned staffing shortages constraining external engagement. I wonder whether the Bank executive should provide a liaison person at a more senior level to ensure that the externals’ needs are met. Independent thought matters, and the Bank should continue to find ways of supporting external MPC members.

Finally, I should briefly mention the vexed issue of the publication of the deed of indemnity relating to the asset purchase facility. This puts me in mind of the Schleswig-Holstein question. There were probably three people who understood it: Alistair Darling, who is, very sadly, dead; me, who cannot remember; and my noble friend Lord King, who, as luck would have it, is not mad. Fortunately, he is the sanest man I know. He is also a man to be reckoned with, not least because yesterday he was appointed president of the MCC, on which I congratulate him. That the committee—and, by implication, my noble friend Lord King—has recommended that the deed be published is good enough for me. I can conclude only that the reason the Chancellor has not published the deed is that he did not understand the question. I would therefore like to ask the Minister under what, if any, circumstances the Government would publish the deed of indemnity.

To come back to where I started, this is a good report by the Economic Affairs Committee and I support its recommendations. The guiding principles of monetary policy put in place in the 1990s, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, of an inflation target of 2%, maximum transparency and an operationally independent central bank still hold good. Bank independence works and Governments interfere with it at their peril.