Right message, wrong time

It's precisely the wrong moment for central bankers to say they’re unimpressed.

This week saw the publication of the minutes of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee’s, (MPC), last meeting, on  3/4th July. They revealed that the decision to refrain from more Quantitative Easing, (QE), was unanimous. This makes it all the more likely that the publication of next month’s Bank of England quarterly Inflation Report will be accompanied by the introduction of so-called "forward guidance" on the future path of interest rates.

There are two variants of this seemingly arcane piece of central bank armament; "threshold dependent", the variety favoured by the Fed, where increases in rates are tied to metrics of economic performance, or the "time dependent" alternative tentatively embraced by the ECB, which promises to keep rates low, "for an extended period", say. My guess would be that the MPC will also go for the latter, as it is more likely to gain unanimous support on the committee.

Personally, for the UK, I find these policies at best a flawed concept, at worst quite probably counter-productive, and almost certainly bad for central bank credibility in the long run.

It’s the right message, at the wrong time.

Four years ago, say, (when Mark Carney blazed the trail by introducing such guidance in Canada), it would have been a great idea, as we had just narrowly avoided financial Armageddon and thought it was quite possible that the economy had entered a permanent winter. Right now, however, things are very different; the green shoots of recovery are well above ground, and it’s precisely the wrong moment for central bankers to damage psychologies by telling us they’re not terribly impressed by our efforts and think they’ll have to keep rates low for years. I’d further posit that the fear of rates going higher is, across the economy as a whole, not the major pre-occupation for individuals and businesses. Nobody is afraid that rates will return to the 15 per cent we saw in the early nineties in the UK; borrowing costs of 6 or 7 per cent do not seem life-threatening compared to the present 4 or 5 per cent.

No yield curve forever also drives the bankers’ dream of a return to 3-6-3 banking even further over the horizon, (borrow at 3 per cent, lend at 6 per cent, and on the golf course with the client by 6pm). Instead, why not borrow at 0.5 per cent and use the money to buy Gilts at 2.25 per cent, with zero credit risk-wonderful for bank balance sheets, but not much help for the economy?

Meanwhile, investors with spare cash don’t find 0.1 per cent deposit rates too exciting and are happy to plunge into emerging market corporate bonds at 4 per cent - which, ironically, is just the sort of mis-pricing of risk that is spooking central bankers.

Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories