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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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.