The Business - Patrick Hosking asks who wants to run a bank
Why should a clever and powerful man want to become governor of the Bank of England? He has to make
I can see why Sir Howard Davies has been mooted as a candidate to take over from Sir Eddie George as governor of the Bank of England. He is politically sure-footed, brainy, populist, ambitious; and he has the CV of a serial overachiever. He's already been the deputy governor in Threadneedle Street, as well as running the Audit Commission and the Confederation of British Industry. He and Mervyn King, the current deputy governor, are regarded as the favourites to take over when Steady Eddie retires in 13 months.
But why should he want the job? The bank governorship has great prestige, but compared to Davies's current post - running the Financial Services Authority - it is a narrow, Pooterish sort of position. There is only one important decision to be made, and it is the same one, month after month: should interest rates go up, go down, or stay the same?
The only intellectual challenge is to immerse oneself ever deeper in the ocean of economic data that floods each day into the bank's computers. Setting monetary policy is difficult and the bank has acquitted itself well so far, but you have to be utterly consumed by macroeconomics to find it fulfilling, and you have to be satisfied with just the one lever on your train set.
I exaggerate a bit. The governor has other tasks. He runs a big printing press, he guards a lot of bullion and he is bank manager to the government. Also under his control is the excellent financial stability unit, where officials scour the financial world to identify the next landmine likely to threaten the fragile system. Then everyone ignores their warnings.
The governor may have a modest influence on the euro debate, but the decision will really be made in Downing Street. The bank will just have the logistical headache of making it work if the decision is yes, and then the humiliation of winding itself down when interest rate policy moves to Frankfurt.
The governorship has some nice perks. The liveried servants are good for the ego, the fittings are luxurious - and who else in London EC2 can boast his own lawn? At the Financial Services Authority, the chairman sits in an open-plan office in Docklands. But for intellectual challenge, variety and (let's be honest) sheer arse-kicking power, his is a far more agreeable post.
From money-laundering to insider-dealing and market abuse, the FSA has the authority to investigate and prosecute. Financial services is one of the few areas where Britain is world class, and Davies is the undisputed head cop. He holds sway not just over British dealers, but also over the American, Swiss and Japanese investment bankers who work in London. You'd have to be a saint not to take some pleasure from regulating the "big swinging dicks" who dominate the City's dealing rooms and hearing them squeal. Davies might look unassuming, but he is bigger and more pendulous than any of them.
He is also faced with a huge challenge as he tries to keep abreast of the incredibly complex financial instruments devised by the rocket scientists (literally) who now work in the City. While George messes about with relatively straightforward ideas such as inflation, employment and exchange rates, Davies has to apply the wet towels and grapple with, for instance, credit derivatives - frighteningly complex financial instruments which he has memorably dubbed "toxic waste".
Then there is his responsibility for raising consumer understanding of financial services. The FSA is sometimes mocked for its league tables and consumer helplines. But if Davies can tackle the woeful level of public understanding of financial products, his policies would make as much difference to Britain's economic well-being as - dare I say it - whether or not we join the euro.
To ask Davies, who rather fancies himself as the renaissance man of the business/political world, to become a glorified economist at the bank is like asking Jonathan Miller to restrict himself to comedy sketch-writing. In any case, Davies is on £341,000 at the FSA. George gets £244,000 and has set an awkward precedent of capping his pay rises to the 2.5 per cent inflation target.
Branston Pickle was bought the other week by the Chicago finance house Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst. The brand, I mean, not just a jar. It adds weight to my theory that the more quintessentially British an asset is seen to be, the more certain it is to be owned by foreigners, viz Harrods, Typhoo tea, Rolls-Royce cars, the Times, HP Sauce, Kit Kat bars, Laura Ashley and the Savoy.
Yet the rule doesn't work in reverse. Our firms, though great snappers-up of overseas assets, do not seek out great national symbols abroad. When they do, they regret it. Pearson spat out Chateau Latour, Tomkins pulled the trigger on Smith & Wesson, and Marks & Spencer returned Brooks Brothers to store.
We need a new Orwell to explain it all.