The BBC Economics Editor (Robert Peston) has stated that:
“the economy is absolutely at the heart of this election campaign”. And several
other BBC Correspondents have made similar observations. But despite these
assertions BBC reporting of the election campaign has failed to challenge the
consensus amongst the main parliamentary parties in relation to economic
policy.

According to this consensus, decisions about the
appropriateness or otherwise of fiscal policy measures should be subject to the
assessment of the country’s economic prospects determined by the Office for
Budget Responsibility.

There are two unsatisfactory aspects to this.

Firstly, the technical analysis upon which the OBR relies
for its assessment is demonstrably flawed. For as long as sterling remains a
sovereign currency the exchange rate will be a significant factor affecting the
country’s economic circumstances. Robert Chote (Chairman of the OBR) states
categorically that:

“The depreciation of sterling
which began in 2007 has led to a change in the relative prices of domestic and
foreign goods which will have had two effects:

(i)
It will
provide a boost (to) export growth as the relative price of exports of UK goods
and services in foreign markets has fallen; and

(ii)
It will
reduce import growth as the relative price of imports to the UK from foreign
markets has increased (often termed import-substitution)”

(source: email from
Robert Chote received 4th April 2012)

But not only are these expectations without justification in
terms of economic theory, they are also directly contradicted by the evidence
provided by the Office for National Statistics.

The ONS figures indicate that the OBR’s expectations are
completely refuted. The devaluation of sterling in the aftermath of the Great
Financial Crisis has raised the prices of goods imported and goods exported
alike: there has been no “change in the
relative prices of domestic and foreign goods”.

And this ought to come as no surprise since you only need
seven types of product to account for more than half of UK exports and you only
need the
same seven
to account for more than half of the UK’s imports as well.
The categories are: Mechanical machinery; Electrical machinery; Cars; Medicinal
& pharmaceutical products; Refined oil; Crude oil; and Other miscellaneous
manufactures. So no wonder prices of imports and exports move together: their
prices come from the same world markets.

In fact, the ONS data is entirely consistent with the proper
economic theory. In this, the crucial price-relativity affected by the exchange
rate is that between tradables and non-tradables. Tradables being those things
that are internationally portable (e.g. motor-vehicles; feed wheat; consultancy
services etc.,). Non-tradables being those things irrevocably confined to our
shores (e.g. residential property; domestic care services; the infrastructure
of the public realm etc.,).

The impact of sterling’s devaluation has been to raise the
sterling prices of tradables across the board (i.e. both the things we buy from
overseas and the things we sell abroad) because their prices are set in
international markets (and not in sterling terms) and apply equally to
‘imports’ and ‘exports’ (translated into sterling terms by the same exchange
rate), so there is no relative price change such as the OBR expects. And
consider the significant difference that this makes: the OBR believes
devaluation is expansionary (increasing domestic output) whilst the correct
theory says it isn’t (rather the opposite, when you take’ income effects’ into
account).

A more detailed consideration of the ONS data confirms that
import and export prices within the same (tradable) product categories
habitually move together (being basically the same international price of
course), showing that the UK is well integrated into global market
determination of producer prices for tradables. The pivotal role of the exchange rate is to alter the balance of
activity in the UK economy between the tradables and the non-tradables sectors
:
this comes about because whilst prices in the latter (non-tradables) are
inherently set in sterling, prices in the former (tradables) are translated
into sterling from abroad by the exchange rate (thus changing when it changes).

The second unsatisfactory aspect of this situation is more
constitutional: the role of elected MPs is to challenge (i.e. hold to account)
the operation of unelected authority; but by agreeing to abide by the pronouncements/judgements/forecasts
of the OBR the political parties are effectively giving immunity from challenge
to the unelected authority represented by the OBR. This is inappropriate. And
since there is no professional body responsible for standards of practice by
economists, the public is excluded from any possibility that errors (such as
that relating to the exchange rate) can be exposed and eliminated.

To summarise then: all the main political parties are
explicitly committed to accepting the authority of the OBR in determining the
official assessment of the country’s economic situation and hence the scope for
adoption of varying fiscal policy measures. This is a clear political
consensus. It is equally clear that the OBR’s assessment is systematically flawed.

The BBC Editorial Guidelines are commendably clear about
what should happen in circumstances such as this: “In such cases…… …our reporting should
resist the temptation to use language and tone which appear to accept consensus
or received wisdom as fact or self-evident. … BBC output should avoid
reinforcing generalisations which lack relevant evidence, especially when
applying them to specific circumstances. …. Care should be taken to
treat areas of apparent consensus with proper rigour.”

Unfortunately, in the case which I have
identified, the BBC has completely failed to live up to these valiant
expressions of intent. By failing to challenge the political consensus about
the operation of economic policy, an issue which the BBC claims “is absolutely
at the heart of this election campaign”, the BBC is betraying its audience, the
general public and the electorate. It’s contributing to electoral fraud.