Ben Bernanke is caged like a hamster

...while the Japanese roam free.

The mice are taunting Clementine, our hamster. Clementine spends her whole life gripping the bars of her cage and peering out whilst waiting for the brief time she is allowed to run around in her plastic ball each day. Our free-roaming mouse invaders have taken to standing on the edge of her cage flicking two claws at her and generally behaving like they are in Newcastle on a Friday night. Their relative positions of freedom just increase Clementine’s anguish.

It’s the sort of relationship that reminds me of the caged Ben Bernanke, chair of the US Federal Reserve and the free-roaming Bank of Japan’s Haruhiko Kuroda. America has spent the last 4 years pursuing a policy of quantitative easing, essentially a support programme that involves pumping money into the economy and which has resulted in growth this year of around 2 per cent. The Japanese, by contrast, announced a QE policy in December and have already produced annualized growth of 4 per cent. The US must feel like Clementine does – mocked and helpless; 2 per cent growth seems a meagre reward given the trouble it has caused.

At a recent grilling on Capitol Hill, Bernanke was asked whether the Fed’s quantitative easing program at $3trn had gone too far. He retorted, in words to this effect, “If you think that’s big, take a look at the Japanese…” What Bernanke is talking about is that although the scale of the Japanese target, ¥270trn or $2.6trn in today’s money, is close to the Fed in absolute terms, if you put it into the context of the relative sizes of the two economies, it is truly colossal. To match the Japanese, the Americans would have to put an astonishing $7trn into the US system, which is close to 50 per cent of US nominal GDP.  It’s enough to make you spit your sushi out.

But for America the real question is about the quality of their recovery and what the next downturn looks like. America needs jobs but not any old jobs; they need to be permanent. The measure of unemployment that includes part-time workers shows that over 13 per cent of the US is under-employed because of part-time working. Compare that to unemployment and the measure of part-time work is about 7 per cent of the working population. At the same time the bonus culture that first showed up in the 1970’s is so deeply entrenched that, to this day, about 20per cent of American’s total take home pay is variable whilst the proportion that workers are taking home of company profits has dropped to below 50 per cent. Back in the late-1920’s this was 68 per cent. No wonder Jay Gatsby threw a party.

If you take these factors together then what you find is that the combination of variable pay and uncertain employment means that US growth could be subject to vicious variability. Given that about 65 per cent of the GDP in the US is consumer spending you understand that at the heart of the US economy there is now a level of uncertainty never seen before. Effectively America needs a permanent pay rise and the transfer of profits from owners to workers. But neither of these things is going to happen whilst global competition makes the west look generous on pay and people who place their capital at risk need to be rewarded. So making policy in an economy with an unstable beating heart will remain is a high-risk game.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls.

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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