Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Mrs Thatcher and inflation: a letter to the Spectator

Republished from 16 January 2010 (N.B. BoE M4 data from 1963 - 1981 has recently been redacted, without explanation):


Sir Peregrine Worsthorne (Letters, 16 January) may have been right to support Mrs Thatcher for confronting the unions, but I believe he is wholly mistaken when he says she tackled inflation. Thanks to the opening up of global markets, consumer prices have been lowered by cheap foreign labour, indirectly by the importation of goods, and directly by the deliberately uncontrolled immigration of low-paid workers. However, behind the scenes there has been massive long-term monetary inflation, the woeful consequences of which we are now merely beginning to suffer. Economics may seem rather dry, but its implications are correspondingly fiery and so I hope your magazine will allow room for explanation.

Comparing GDP with (M4) bank lending figures from the Bank of England’s website, which gives data from 1963 on, we see that annual increases in lending almost always outstrip increases in GDP, but sometimes far more so than others. The worst was in 1972, when M4 increased by 35% (GDP grew by only 12%); the fear of monetary inflation and its potential effect on exchange rates may have been a major factor in OPEC’s decision to hike oil prices in 1973, which triggered years of high price inflation in the UK and the humiliating IMF rescue in 1976. Lending increases dropped below GDP between 1974 and 1977, then resumed ascendancy, though not in time to rescue James Callaghan’s premiership.

But inflation did wonders for Mrs Thatcher. The average annual excess of M4 growth over GDP in 1964-79 was 2%; from 1979-1990, the “Thatcher years”, it averaged 8% (and about 4% p.a. thereafter). The results have included overspending on luxuries; the loss of jobs and industrial skills; the export of machinery and tools; and a huge exaggeration of property and stock valuations. Worse, we now have a large class of economic dependants, both home-grown and recently imported, whose support costs cannot be externalised as easily as our manufacturing capacity.

Sir Peregrine may not divine in Mr Cameron the architect of our rescue, but I fear the situation may now have developed well beyond any man’s power to amend without reform on a scale that may not be entirely possible in a democratic society.

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