Mark Carney: time lord?

Is the bank of England Governor messing with the very fabric of time?

Time isn’t a very interesting idea to a physicist. There is the unchangeable past and the unpredictable future. “Now” isn’t a definable concept. It’s not even fixed – you can bend it. Time is a sort of illusionary bi-product spit out as the universe goes from a state of order to one of chaos. Why politicians and central bankers would want to start messing with it is a mystery.

Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Monetary Policy Committee have been lured into the time game. They expect one of their trigger points, unemployment, to drop below 7 percent in 2016 at which point they’ll have a look at what they might - or might not do. In the world of the Bank of England this constitutes "delivering a measure of certainty". The previous governor, Sir Mervyn King, just used to say "I don’t know" when faced with demands for definiteness.

With unemployment currently at 7.8 per cent three years seems a long and unambitious timescale to set yourself such a meager target. Carney says that to achieve the 7 per cent unemployment rate a million jobs will have to be created – 750,000 new ones and 250,000 to compensate for planned reductions in public jobs and that is what will take the time.  Markets disagree and have pumped up their rate increase expectation to as early as next summer. Somebody is wrong.

Perversely, if you were Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, or a Conservative Party election campaign organizer, you might be pretty happy with the idea that unemployment wasn’t going to fall any time soon. The reason is simple – over the years the multiple of house prices to earnings has risen for about 3.5 to 6.5 for England as a whole (your main electoral battle ground) and the electorate has become twice as sensitive to interest rate movements today as they were twenty years ago (see graph). Get interest rate policy wrong and it could have electoral consequences.

By mapping where house prices are highest relative to earnings it’s easy to show that above average interest rate sensitivity lies almost exclusively in Conservative-held boundaries; the East, South East and South West (see second graph).  London is the exception but suffers the double whammy of being both the most leveraged part of the country AND dominated by Labour. You’ll get no votes from Londoners for increasing interest rates too soon.

Also the higher house price-to-earnings regions are associated with areas with higher salaries which already carry the highest level of taxation. Those earning up to £50,000 a year now have total deductions (National Insurance and Income Tax) of about 20 per cent whilst if you earn between £50,000 – 100,000 this rises to 32 per cent. In the £100,000 to 200,000 bracket your annual deductions bill averages 40 per cent of gross salary. By linking housing costs (i.e. an interest only mortgage) to where you are on the income scales it can be shown that for every 0.5 per cent interest rate increase could lead an equivalent of between 2 per cent and 4 per cent increase income tax. Increasing interest rates in that sense hits traditional Conservative voters harder than potential converts from the Liberal Democrats of even Labour.

None of this should come as a surprise to people but the extent of the apparent hyper-sensitivity of the electorate to interest movements is going to be more economically and politically important at the next general election than it has ever been before. The MPC will have to be doubly sure they have a self-sustaining economic cycle, embedded in a stable global background, before increasing interest rates. It may even be why they have set their earliest revue date to beyond the next general election. In that sense Mark Carney has been right to dampen the enthusiasm the markets have shown for marginally stronger UK data recently whilst if you were Conservative Party Chairman you would be praying that not too many jobs are created too quickly especially before the General Election in 2015.  

 

        

Source: HM Land Registry

                                 

Mark Carney. Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.