The truth about Mervyn King

A new political cult forms.

"Who would have guessed in late 2007 or early 2008 that an answer to the banking crisis would be to hand more power to Mervyn King?" asks the Guardian's Nils Pratley. King has long been admired in Tory circles and so George Osborne's decision to give the Bank of England the linchpin role in regulating the UK's financial sector came as no real surprise.

I'm no fan of Merv. I think he long ago politicised and abused his position. Remember his public objection to the Labour government's fiscal stimulus? Remember his public approval for the coalition's deficit reduction plan?

He also has rather poor judgement. My colleague Professor David Blanchflower, a former external member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee and one of the few economists to see the crash coming, outlined King's failures in a devastating piece for the NS in September 2009 ("The story from the inside").

Blanchflower wrote:

So why did the committee get it so wrong? From my perspective, it was hobbled by "group think" -- or the "tyranny of the consensus". Governor Mervyn King, the old iron fist of the Bank of England, with his hawkish views on rates, dominated the MPC. Short shrift was given to alternative, dovish views such as mine. I focused on the empirical data suggesting Britain was heading for recession; Mervyn and the rest of the committee focused on their theoretical models and the (invisible) threat of inflation. In fact, the Bank of England may more suitably be called "the Bank of Economic Theory". Unfortunately, the economic theories failed just when we needed them most.

He added:

Clever as Mervyn King may be, he missed the crash and the subsequent recession, and hence, so did the consensual MPC on which I sat. In August 2008, the MPC's quarterly Inflation Report did not even contain the word "recession"; it saw the economy standing still over the next year. I very nearly quit the committee at that point. In an interview that month with Reuters, I called the forecast "wishful thinking". Mervyn called me into his office to admonish me for that one.

Blanchflower also criticised King's obsession with so-called moral hazard:

We were not told what was happening to British banks such as Northern Rock, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, Bradford & Bingley or Alliance & Leicester. Or to US banks such as Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns. We weren't kept in the loop, but we should have been. With hindsight, Mervyn King's focus on moral hazard -- the idea that banks are encouraged to take more risks because they know they will be bailed out -- was a huge mistake.

He reminds us of King's unforgivable failure to foresee the explosion in unemployment:

In the summer of 2008, I warned the Commons Treasury select committee that "something horrible" was going to happen. I was becoming even more worried about recession, and in September I voted alone, as ever, for a cut of 50 basis points (bps) -- or 0.5 per cent -- to the Bank's base rate. At my September appearance before the select committee, King, who was sitting two seats from me at the time, was asked by the MP Andy Love: "On unemployment there have been some suggestions, and Mr Blanchflower has said -- and I think there are quite a lot of people out there who would agree with them -- that it may go up faster than the projections in the Inflation Report. Is that a worry to you?"King replied: "At least the Almighty has not vouchsafed to me the path of unemployment data over the next year. He may have done to Danny, but he has not done to me." To say the least, I was rather surprised.

Hail the King? I'd rather not.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.