Carney charms MPs (once they get over his pay)

The next BoE governor reveals his plans for expectation management, but stays firmly conventional.

Against a background of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee deciding to keep interest rates flat at 0.5 per cent for another month — meaning it has now been four full years since the last rate change — the next governor of then Bank of England, Mark Carney, appeared before the Treasury select committee and and gave some of the first hints as to how he plans to run the country's central bank.

Of course, before he could do that, he had to justify his pay to the assembled MPs. Admittedly, Carney will be payed a lot: £480,000 a year base salary, plus a £250,000 "housing allowance", well above his predecessor Mervyn King's £305,000. But he defended his salary by pointing out that "I'm moving from one of the least expensive capital cities in the world – Ottawa – to one of the most expensive capital cities in the world," and by noting that his pay was in line with the outgoing head of the FSA, whose responsibilities are being merged with the Bank of England's.

David Ruffley MP was behind him, at least:

On the question of pay, you will be paid considerably less than recent England football managers and I think you are likely to have more success than them.

Eventually, Carney was allowed to talk about monetary policy, and revealed that, while he isn't going to be the loose-cannon central banker of our dreams — NGDP targeting and helicopter drops are out of the question — he does plan to be somewhat more aggressive than King.

In Canada, where Carney was the head of the central bank before his appointment here, there are formal reviews of the inflation target on a five-yearly timeframe. Here, by contrast, the target is — and has been since it was introduced fifteen years ago — for inflation to be within a one percentage point band of two per cent annually. MPs asked whether that target should be changed or loosened, and, while Carney did not directly offer any alternatives, he did argue that there should be that debate, albeit a "short" one.

The "high bar" that Carney thinks needs to be met before change can happen means that NGDP targeting — the idea of mandating the Bank to aim for a particular level of nominal (un-adjusted for inflation) GDP — is unlikely. He remains "far from convinced" that it could work. Similarly, while the USA has a dual mandate, requiring the Fed to target both inflation and unemployment, Carney isn't necessarily aiming for that as an end-stage for Britain either. He starts "from a position of considerable monetary stimulus to take up the slack", but believes that, for the time being, there is enough flexibility under the normal target to pull that off.

Where Carney marked the most substantial break with King was in his expressed belief that communication could be used more effectively to achieve the aims of the bank.

A huge part of monetary policy is expectations management — ensuring that people believe that the future economy is going to be certain way, and act on that belief. That's because many economic prophecies are self-fulfilling. If you tell everyone the stock market will crash, and have enough credibility that they act on it, then they will pull money out of the market and cause that very crash.

As a result, there's a huge difference between a central bank having a plan to keep interest rates low for a further two years, and a central bank saying it has a plan to keep interest rates low for a further two years. Carney understands that difference, and apparently plans to make the most of it.

No matter what happens, though, he has reiterated that he is only going to stay in charge for one five-year term, due to family commitments and a desire to get out of the high stakes world of central banking while he still can. While MPs expressed disbelief that someone could let something so prosaic as a family affect their job, Carney explained that he hoped to achieve all his goals in that span, and to make an exit "that is less newsworthy than my entrance".

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.