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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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