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

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.