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.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear