Imagine that US non-farm payrolls were growing by 400k/month (that is how strong the UK labour market is)

My Danske Bank colleague Anders Vestergård Fischer had a fun idea today – he wanted to “translate” the latest UK labour market numbers into something an US audience could understand.

Here is the result of Anders’ back of an envelop calculations – if the US non-farm payrolls were growing as fast as the latest UK employment growth (Q3 2013) then the US economy would be adding 380-400k jobs per month! We haven’t seen job growth like that in the US since the late 1990s. Over the past three months US payrolls have growing around 190k per month.

So what are the explanations for the the UK labour market improvement? The negative spin: Horrible British productive growth. The positive spin: A very healthy combination of monetary easing and fiscal consolidation.

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Mr. Osborne: “There is a lot of innovative stuff happening around the world”

It is hard not getting just a bit excited about the discussions getting under way in the UK after the coming Bank of England governor Mark Carney basically has endorsed NGDP level targeting. So far the UK government has not given its view on the matter, but it is pretty clear that UK policy makers are aware of the issues. That is good news and today we got a “reply” from the UK government to Carney’s (near) endorsement of NGDP targeting in the form of comments from UK Chancellor George Osborne.

This is from the Daily Telegraph:

The Chancellor said he was “glad” that Mark Carney, the next Governor of the Bank, had raised the prospect of ending central banks’ inflation targets to concentrate more on gross domestic product.

Mr Osborne described the suggestion (NGDP level targeting) as “innovative” and said he was pleased Mr Carney was discussing such ideas.

“There is a debate about the future of monetary policy — not exclusively in the UK, but in many countries. There is a lot of innovative stuff happening around the world,” he said.

“There is a debate going on. I am glad that the future central bank governor of the UK is part of that debate.”

Asked if he was considering making the change suggested by Mr Carney, Mr Osborne said: “There is a debate going on. Any decisions, any future decisions are a matter for government.”

He added: “I have no plans to change the framework. There is a debate going on. I think it’s right there is a debate.”

Mr Osborne said he had had “lots of discussions” with Mr Carney about monetary policy before appointing the Canadian to the Bank of England. But he declined to confirm they had discussed the inflation target, sating the conversations were “private”.

Although he signalled he was open to changing the target, he said that the current inflation target has “served us well” and he would have to be persuaded to changing it.

…A similar debate about nominal GDP targets has been underway for some time, Mr Osborne noted, adding: “It would be a good thing for academia to lead the debate and government to follow.”

This is certainly uplifting. Osborne signals that he don’t necessarily think that NGDP level targeting is a bad idea (it is a great idea!). Obviously for those of us who think NGDP targeting is a great idea it is natural to cheer and scream on Mr. Osborne to get to work on changing the BoE’s mandate immediately. However, for once I will be cautious. I think it makes very good sense for Mr. Osborne to encourage discussion about this issue. Changing a countries monetary regime is an extremely serious matter. Yes, I strongly believe that an NGDP level targeting regime would be preferable to the UK compared to today’s regime, but I also think that the “institutional infrastructure” needs to be sorted out before completely changing the regime.

That said as far as I understand the legal framework (and I am certainly no specialist on this) the Chancellor actually can change the BoE’s mandate simply by sending a letter to the Bank of England governor. So with the stroke of his pen Mr. Osborne could make the  UK first country in the world that had an NGDP targeting regime. I would compare such a policy move to the decision in 1931 that took the UK of the gold standard. That saved the country from deflation and depression. Mr. Osborne could write himself in to the economic history books by showing the same kind of resolve as the UK government did in 1931.

Mr. Osborne deserves a lot of credit for encouraging debate

While I do not agree that the UK’s inflation targeting regime has “served the UK well” I would also say that the UK could have had much worse regimes – just think of monetary policy in the UK in the 1970s or the failed experiment with pegging the pound with with the ERM in the early 1990s.  The is no doubt that an inflation targeting regime is preferable to both alternatives – discretionary inflationary madness or a misaligned fixed exchange rate regime.

However, the inflation targeting regime in the UK likely added to fueling the UK housing bubble (sorry Scott – there was a UK housing bubble) and it has certainly made the crisis much deeper since 2008. An NGDP level targeting regime would have meant that UK monetary policy would have been tighter in the “boom year” just prior to 2008, but also easier over the past four years (but maybe with much less QE!). That would have led to more conservative fiscal policies, more prudent lending policies from the commercial banks and a small housing bubble prior to 2008 and most defiantly much stronger public finances and less unemployment after 2008. Who would seriously oppose such a monetary policy regime?

So I certainly think that an NGDP level targeting regime would have served the UK better than the inflation targeting regime. But Osborne is right – there need to be a debate about this and think the Mr. Osborne deserves a lot of credit for calling for such a debate instead of just declaring that nothing can ever be changed. That is wonderfully refreshing compared to the horrors of the (lack of) debate about monetary policy in Continental Europe (the euro zone…)



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