I have a personal form of forward guidance: that I try and wait a day between writing and publishing blog posts. So yesterday I wrote a post reacting to the previous day’s news that UK unemployment had fallen rapidly to 7.1%. That news led to some speculation that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England might change the number for their unemployment ‘knockout’ (the point at which they might start thinking about raising rates) from 7% to, say, 6.5%. There has been similar speculation about US monetary policy. I wrote that I thought this would be unlikely, but rather than let guidance wither away, they would instead prefer to change the nature of their guidance.
So today, as that post laid waiting on my hard drive, I read that Governor Carney indicated that the Bank has decided not to revise its 7 per cent unemployment threshold. “We’re trying to get across that it’s all about overall conditions in the labour market . . . We wouldn’t want to detract from that focus by unnecessarily focusing on one indicator.” So I’ve lost my opportunity of showing that I can anticipate MPC thinking. Perhaps instead I can write about why they might be thinking this way, and what they might specifically do.
The place to start is with why unemployment has been falling much faster than expected. As Chris Dillow explains, it indicates that UK productivity continues not to grow. The Bank hoped that the return of output growth might be accompanied by a resumption in productivity growth, so that unemployment would come down more slowly. They can hardly be blamed for this. Zero productivity growth for four years during a recession was puzzling, but continuing flat productivity when there is a recovery in output growth is in macroeconomic terms just weird.
So how might forward guidance change? Here we need to make one point, and then ask one question. The point is that forward guidance is all about providing information to the public about what policy might do if events deviate from forecasts. As a result, those critics of such guidance who use poor forecasting as an argument completely miss the point. It is not what I call forward commitment. This leads us to the question: what is it that makes the MPC relaxed about the unexpectedly rapid fall in unemployment?
The answer is in this chart, which shows year on year growth in private sector earnings (source:ONS).
The series can be erratic, in part because of bonuses. Indeed, to quote the Bank’s inflation report (pdf): “... growth was volatile in 2013 H1, rising from 0.1% in Q1 to 2.8% in Q2. That largely reflected some people taking advantage of the reduction in the top rate of UK income tax in April 2013, and deferring bonus payments and earnings they would have received in 2013 Q1.” So we can call this the ‘Osborne hiccup’. However smoothing this out, year on year growth has been gradually moving down towards a little above 1%, and there is no sign so far of any reaction to falling unemployment. (Public sector earnings are not growing at all.)
With earnings growth at 1%, and productivity flat, that means unit labour costs are rising well below the inflation target of 2%. If earnings growth stays at 1%, there is no reason coming from the labour market for raising interest rates. If private sector earnings do start increasing by more than 2%, then the focus will then shift to productivity growth. Only if this fails to match the increase in earnings will a rise in rates become a distinct possibility.
So the natural way to change forward guidance is to incorporate this thinking. The unemployment knockout could be replaced with one that says interest rates increases will not be considered as long as private sector earnings growth is not more than 2% above private sector productivity growth. And now I think I should post this, to avoid another rewrite.