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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:16 pm ar 2 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Ceidwadwyr 12:16, 2 Mai 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, on his excellent speech and this very good report. I was not a member of the committee but I am most impressed by the report and agree with all the conclusions. I will concentrate on recommendations 10 to 13, which deal with forecasting, the alleged lack of diversity, and groupthink—subjects mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. I want also to look at the Bernanke report, which we now have.

In discussing forecasting, it is important, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, suggested, to demythologise the subject. First, contrary to what many people believe, policy is not dependent on forecasts. Secondly, we do not, and should not, elevate forecasters into some priestly caste examining the entrails and telling us whether the gods will look favourably on a particular action. The gods are often deaf. Forecasting responds to a deep human need but, alas, the forecasts are often wrong.

There are several reasons why forecasts are fallible. One, which we should welcome, is that human beings are not machines or computers. They do not always react as they did last time. Another is the limits of government statistics. I do not think I should be saying this, but do we really believe that we can add up all activity in the economy month by month and measure changes to the last month within a fraction of a percentage point? Inevitably, government statistics are continually revised. Recessions that once undermined confidence and spread doom mysteriously disappear years later. Then there are exceptional events. You cannot forecast a pandemic. You may know that one is likely, but you do not know when. These are exceptional events but, unfortunately, history is exceptional events.

In his response, Dr Bernanke made some constructive suggestions for improving the Bank’s forecasting capacity to do with staff, software and hardware, but I suspect that these are all at the margin. They will always be subject to the limitations inherent in forecasting that the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, referred to, and one cannot escape the need for an element of judgment.

The governor, Mr Bailey, pointed out that the Bank has not one model but several, but that invites the aphorism: all models fail but some are useful. Dr Bernanke makes this very point: a forecast can be inaccurate and still be useful in enabling us to understand why the policy was wrong. Forecasts make a central bank more transparent and accountable, particularly if a policy has been consistently applied but the outcome is not as forecast.

Dr Bernanke’s comments on the Bank’s forecasts are, interestingly, somewhat milder than the newspaper headlines. He points out that the Bank was in the middle of the pack of central banks when it came to inflation and output. Its belief that inflation was transitory was one shared by many central banks, but that merely poses another important question: why did so many central banks get it so wrong? Was it a case of groupthink? Interestingly, Dr Bernanke defends the Bank of England against accusations of a lack of diversity in the MPC. Surprisingly, his view is that there is more diversity than in other central banks, and some of the witnesses, including Charles Goodhart, agreed, so it will be interesting to have the Minister’s comments.

Too much diversity of thought for the sake of diversity itself can push a committee towards artificial consensus in which no one believes. This is where the fan charts, so loved by the Bank of England, have been so convenient. Who can disagree with a fan chart covering so many possible outcomes? As in an oriental dance, a fan can be used to conceal as well as to reveal. For that reason, Dr Bernanke recommends getting rid of the fan charts and substituting conditional forecasts, which he terms “scenarios”. This might help to deal with the problem of exceptional events, but will it contribute at all to forward guidance?

What about groupthink between central bankers themselves? There may be value in forecasts that are wrong, but there is a difference between predicting the right trajectory with errors and predicting a completely wrong trajectory. Many central banks thought the pandemic would continue to be deflationary, hence the resort to a huge injection of quantitative easing. At the time, a number of commentators, including Paul Tucker, the former deputy governor of the Bank, questioned why central banks wanted to stimulate aggregate demand just as aggregate supply was closing down. It was almost as though there was an assumption that QE ought to be the default response to every crisis. That would surely be a mistake.

Dr Bernanke is a disciple of Milton Friedman. I was therefore surprised that he did not address the point made in conclusion 11 of the report that the MPC did not seem to have had any detailed discussions about the money supply or made any analysis of monetary aggregates and their effect on inflation. To be fair, the governor denied that this was the case, but Roger Bootle said in his evidence:

“Over the past few years … we have gone from a situation in which economic policy … was governed entirely according to … a certain definition of the broad money supply”— that was the policy in the early 1980s—

“to one in which, apparently, the Bank took no notice of monetary aggregates at all”.

I was particularly interested in this, for the very reason that the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, kindly mentioned: in 1992, when we introduced a new framework for policy, namely inflation targeting, the target was accompanied by target ranges for monetary aggregates. The regime of inflation targeting was continued and carried through to Bank of England independence by Gordon Brown, but the ranges for monetary aggregates were discontinued. Inflation targeting is not a perfect policy. It can be criticised for being backward-looking and a rear-mirror policy. But monetary policy, as Dr Bernanke reminds us, operates with time lags and therefore enables policymakers to focus on not just the current rate of inflation but what we expect inflation might be in two years’ time.

The report makes the point that the Bank has too many secondary objectives to which it is asked to have regard. Many of these objectives are not really affected by the instruments available to the Bank. This must be true of climate change. The Government ought to be clear that tackling climate change is a matter for the Government. To expect the Bank to lead on that makes no sense. I quote the governor himself, who said that climate change

“is not really an issue of monetary policy”.

In addition to the inflation target, the Bank is also charged with supporting the Government’s objectives on growth and employment. A major change was introduced in 2013, when George Osborne gave the Bank a new remit in which the MPC was tasked with setting out the trade-off when deciding how long it would be before an above-target inflation rate came back to target. As the governor said, these changes gave the Bank much more flexibility over how quickly it could bring inflation back to target. This considerable latitude, which is welcome in one sense, may be another reason why the Bank was so slow to raise interest rates and get inflation back towards target—and we are not there yet. As things have demonstrated in the United States, the last furlong may still prove difficult. Indeed, one former central banker said to me that, if we get inflation back to target without positive real rates of interest, it will be the first time this has ever happened. Let us hope that the optimists are right and that we are heading back towards target.

As my noble friend Lord Bridges said, the Bank is very different from the one made independent in 1997-98. It has expanded its discretion and the tools it uses. Its credibility matters. So it is important that it is robustly scrutinised and challenged, precisely as this report and this debate are doing.