Osborne and Carney should enjoy their day in the sun

The UK fast becoming a stand-out developed economy performer. Growth is heading into 2014 at a healthy 3 to 4 per cent, even in the face of Osborne’s austerity.

If last week’s markets were quiet and range-bound due to Thanksgiving celebrations and a paucity of frontline data, this week could hardly present a more different proposition. Monday saw a strong US Manufacturing ISM survey, and yesterday the RBA decided to sit on its hands, but the committee was once again at pains to point out that they view the AUD’s strength as "uncomfortably high", with a "lower level of exchange rate likely to be needed to achieve balanced growth in the economy". They also highlighted that "public demand is forecast to be quite weak" and "considerable uncertainty surrounds this outlook" (for a pick-up in activity). More rate cuts are coming in Australia as Asia slows. The RBA are very perceptive - they realise that the Chinese 3rd plenum, although very constructive in the medium-term (10-20 years in Chinese terms!) implies slower growth in the short-term, as the economy rebalances away from export-fest to the kind of consumer-lead growth that is all too familiar to us in the UK.

We are entering a dangerous era of change for global growth, with the onus being passed to developed markets to take over as locomotives. Really?! With an economic block the size of the Eurozone destined to flatline for years to come, or implode, and a US economy that will struggle to reach escape velocity as the Fed removes the punch bowl, this looks like a vain hope. Just look at the effect on the US housing market of even the suggestion of tapering and a 100 bp rise in mortgage rates this summer-and the housing recovery has played a very significant part in what meagre growth we have seen thus far.

Against this backdrop, Messrs. Osborne and Carney are beginning to look pretty lucky (and smart actually) with the UK fast becoming the stand-out developed economy performer. Growth is heading into 2014 at a healthy 3 to 4 per cent annualized clip, even in the face of Osborne’s austerity, which is another good story. In his 5 December Autumn Statement, I expect Chancellor Osborne to be able to announce that the OBR has made a £13bn reduction in its official forecast for the 2013/2014 government deficit, compared to its March forecast, i.e. 5.8 per cent of GDP, rather than 6.9 per cent, and also to make reductions in deficit forecasts for the future. I would also expect upward revisions to growth prognoses.

Governor Carney seems to be fully on-board in helping out the Chancellor, with repeated promises that rates will stay lower for longer than recent positive data surprises would otherwise suggest. Last week’s decision by the Bank of England to restrict its Funding for Lending Scheme to the provision of cheap liquidity to banks for business lending, rather than also for household mortgages, also implies a concrete, and rather subtle, message that the Bank will use macro-prudential tools to cool parts of the economy if it deems this necessary - and not conventional monetary tightening. This having been said, I’d say this change in policy will have negligible effect on the UK housing market, as cheap liquidity is currently plentiful anyway, and the government’s two Help to Buy schemes will be the real policy drivers of the housing market - eventually achieving the Nirvana of increased home building, as well as the feel-good factor from higher prices that British homeowners crave like the next heroin high. I would be extremely surprised if Help to Buy was altered at all before the next election in May 2015.

The real question is whether the UK can continue to thrive in the face of headwinds from Europe, Asia and possibly the US.

Mr Osborne is starting to look pretty lucky. 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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.