The business - Patrick Hosking thinks we live beyond our means
The country is living beyond its means, but nobody makes a fuss. We have just recorded the worst mon
This month's hike in interest rates was a necessary but insufficient response to the dangerously unbalanced path of growth in the UK. The Bank of England opted for just a quarter-point rise, to 3.75 per cent, and, so as not to frighten the horses, softened things further by describing the increase as "modest".
But the horses need frightening. Better a shock now to persuade people to curb their borrowing - which was £900bn at the last count and rising by a prodigal £400 per household per month - than some far nastier medicine two or three years on. The country is living beyond its means, but no one makes a fuss. Last Tuesday saw the worst monthly trade deficit ever and the stock market barely blinked. We seem incapable of worrying about more than one economic measure at a time. Once it was the trade figures, then it was the money supply, then unemployment, now it is inflation. Inflation remains benign. Ergo, there is nothing to fear.
It doesn't help that the received wisdom is that there is no other way to tackle a borrowing boom than by yanking up interest rates. Controls on bank lending are regarded as entirely taboo. True, it would be retrograde to go back to the 1960s, when loans were rationed.
But there is no reason why the Financial Services Authority, which has taken over the job of supervising the banks from the Bank of England, should not try to dampen things down. The Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, Vincent Cable, is one of the few sensible voices urging the authority to flex its muscles a bit more.
By themselves, the banks won't stop their lending. First, they are partly protected if things go wrong because they have the cushion of huge deposits on home loans. Second, bankers get their bonuses and commissions when they make the loans, not when and if the bank gets its money back. The era when the Bank of England governor could cow banks with the wiggle of an eyebrow - "moral suasion", we used to call it - is long gone. But the FSA could surely be doing more to show its displeasure to the banks.
Short of a miracle, Rupert Murdoch will have weathered a difficult annual meeting and succeeded in installing his younger son, James, as chief executive of BSkyB by the time most of you read this. One reason for the victory is Rupert's superior use of public relations. Ever since the affair erupted a month ago, his spin-doctors have produced a drip-feed of information that gives the impression he is bending over backwards to accommodate his critics.
By contrast, all the rebelling shareholders can do is gently reiterate the same message: it's outrageous; it's nepotistic; it's a blatant conflict of interest; it's an abuse of power and could seriously disadvantage the 65 per cent of shareholders not called Murdoch.
Financial journalists get bored with reiterating that chorus. How much more interesting to trot out the latest titbit from the Murdoch camp: Rupert will absent himself from voting on his son; James won't be paid nearly as much as his predecessor; James promises to restart the paying of dividends; Rupert is appointing a new deputy chairman.
Irrelevant, irrelevant, irrelevant, a sop. Yet Rupert gives the impression that he is making significant concessions. The fact remains that a 30-year-old Harvard drop-out, a man vulnerable to pressure to favour one minority shareholder over all the others, is still being handed the most important job in commercial television.
The taxpayer-funded pension arrangements of MPs look ever more egregious. This month's pension deal between Rolls-Royce and its 21,000 UK workers underlines how gold-plated MPs' retirement finances are. Amicus has ensured that the workers will continue to get guaranteed pensions based on their final salaries. They are blessed compared with the millions of new employees at other private sector firms who are being dumped in riskier "money purchase" schemes that leave them at the mercy of financial markets. But there has been a price to pay. The rate at which they accumulate benefits has been watered down. Instead of earning benefits at the rate of 1/60th of final salary for every year of service, Rolls-Royce employees will in future be on a niggardly accrual rate of 1/80th. By contrast, MPs accumulate benefits at the rate of 1/40th.
Finally, two small harrumphs. First, if business really wants to help tackle the child obesity epidemic, why is it now impossible (at least in Woolworths, Sainsbury's or W H Smith) to buy an advent calendar without a chocolate behind every window? Second, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, wants to lift the price of a passport from £42 to £77. But wasn't Labour against poll tax?
Patrick Hosking is deputy City editor of the London Evening Standard