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The new broom: Mark Carney's plans for our economy

The Treasury landed a big fish when it announced Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney would be taking over from Mervyn King at the Bank of England this summer.

Carney has been called the world’s best central banker, having steered Canada’s economy through the global recession with barely a blip.

But Canada and Britain are very different places, so what has he got planned for us? Here are the highlights of his meeting with the Treasury Select Committee.

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Times are a changing, a bit

Those hoping for widespread reform might be disappointed. Currently the Bank of England has a responsibility to control inflation and try and keep the economy moving.

It can change interest rates and print money to do that. But many have been advocating a radical re-think after a £375 billion quantitative easing programme and almost 4 years at 0.5% interest rates have not either kept prices in check or returned the UK to growth.

Carney, however, seems hesitant to rock the boat too much, although he is open to starting the debate.

“The benefits of any regime change would have to be weighed carefully not only against the potential risks but also against the effectiveness of other unconventional monetary policy measures under the proven, flexible inflation-targeting framework,” he said.

“Although the bar for change to any flexible inflation-targeting framework should be very high, it seems to me important that the framework for monetary policy - rightly set by Governments and not by central banks - is reviewed and debated periodically."

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Time to print more money?

Canada didn’t need to print any extra money to get through the crisis. So everyone was keen to know how Carney views the controversial quantitative easing programme in the UK.

"The studies by the Bank of England and Federal Reserve of their respective asset purchase programmes [quantitative easing] are broadly consistent. It is clear that the programmes have had some positive effects,” Carney said.

“They find the effects on financial markets to be material. Gilt yields were reduced. Corporate investment grade and high-yield spreads also fell markedly. The evidence is that the simulative effects then fed into equity prices.”

But he’s no cheerleader for money printing or low rates.

"The benefits of large scale asset purchases, and indeed persistently low interest rates, need to be judged against the potential costs of having a very stimulative policy for a very long time,” he warned.

“Such policies can encourage excessive risk taking, distort the functioning of sovereign debt markets, and build vulnerabilities in the financial sector. In addition, central banks need to be mindful of the potential impact of very large purchases on market functioning. The potential costs of QE and the uncertainty about the effect of QE on bank lending behaviour are solid reasons for supplementing QE with the Funding for Lending Scheme."

Getting the UK going again

The Bank of England targets prices, trying to keep inflation as close to 2% as it can, ahead of growth. But there are increasing calls to switch to looking at economic growth (GDP growth) as the main focus instead.

It’s something he’s considering.

"The exceptional nature of the situation, and the magnitude of the gaps involved, could make such a policy more credible and easier to understand," he said.

"The main drawback of an NGDP level target in this regard is that it imposes the arbitrary constraint that prices and real activity must move in equal amounts but opposite directions.

“As potential real growth changes over time, either the nominal target will have to change or else it will force an arbitrary change in inflation in the opposite direction.

“The challenge of determining the UK's potential growth rate at present highlights that this is not an academic concern. Another consideration is that statistics like nominal GDP are subject to revision, and these revisions can be large."

Exceptionally high bar

But the main barrier to change is that the current system – for all its flaws – has worked pretty well in the past, he said.

"In my view, flexible inflation targeting-as practiced in both Canada and the UK-has proven itself to be the most effective monetary policy framework implemented thus far,” Carney said.

“As a result, the bar for alteration is very high. In any possible review, it would be vital to recognise that long and varied experience demonstrates that delivering price stability is the best contribution that monetary policy can make to the economic welfare of citizens.”

[Related link: Read Mark Carney's comments in full]

[Source: Reuters]