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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.