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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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